Does poetry offer a way to articulate ideas that otherwise cannot be explained in prose?
By murmuring and distilling ideas poetry can be disquieting. It is served by many registers of silence compared to prose through the discretions of enjambment, pauses, ellipses, line breaks. A poem can reach the interstices of thought; it can traverse spatial boundaries, gear shifting and fast-tracking by turns through tone, fragmentation, rhythm, metonymy and metaphor. This makes it a powerful language for communicating the heterogeneous and paradoxical.
There is a desire and an implicit expectation that narrative and history will emplot causality and temporal order: this goes back to Aristotle and theories of narratology. Experimental fiction might be able to bend the chronological frame, or adopt a rhizomic sequence to expose the artifice of realism, but rarely can it abandon structure entirely as a poem can. This gives poetry ontological freedom and, of course, this is alluring to poets since they are rebels at heart.
Who is the first person to read your new poems and why?
It would be nice to have a reader; I live with my daughter who is not partial to poetry, so I self-edit. The next person to read my poems is likely to be the editor of a magazine or a manuscript. However, I am extremely critical of my work. I cringe when even two or three lines are published that are not ‘there’. I value the criticism of good editors: such as Jaya Savige, Sarah Holland-Batt, James Byrne.
What advice do you have for young writers to develop their craft?
Be prepared to edit mercilessly: if a poem is not quite working, try writing it in a number of different forms until it finds the best passage. Language is a stream; you are merely the mouth through which a poem flows.
Don’t worry about rivalries or the rollercoaster ride of the poetry publishing industry. Prizes reflect short-term dynamics and as such they distort values. If your work is strong that is all that matters; it will find its own way across these barriers. Develop trust as a poetic skill because ultimately you must become confident of your poetics. Be prepared to guard your beliefs. The readership and critical appreciation of your work will steadily develop in time.
I would suggest reading widely, across national demarcations: the poets of a canon are not necessarily more inspiring than young emerging contemporary poets. Finding a mentor may be very helpful to recommend reading that might be a catalyst for your own poetics. Promising writers may need only a few tips and directions to embark on extraordinary journeys. I would also encourage taking the experience of writing poetry away from home. One of the best steps I took in the years preparing my first book was to attend a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. I sat, humbled, beside Tracey K Smith on the bus from New York to Vermont and we talked ‘all kinds of shit’ to quote one of her poems from The Body’s Question.
How do you know when a poem is ‘there’? Is it an instinct?
It’s something in the assemblage; attention and patience help. I don’t want a poem to be forced or constrained in any way. What I try to do is to create a space for readers to enter and experience a poem. For me, this is where hearing the abstract or lyrical music matters.
If a poem is too static or contrived it suffers; if it is too fragmented or heuristic it may perform but may not be memorable. These are the dimensions I work with. After reading a poem, when something is altered or something lingers, then a poem works. I think the poetic instinct is something I’ve developed by learning to trust it more than I trust other parts of my life. You cannot expect it to reveal itself, to answer to logic or fold neatly into semantic packages.
Who are the writers you’ve turned to read widely? (poets or otherwise)
Right now I’m returning to Jean Rhys; I am captivated by her letters as well as her prose. No one writes like Ondaatje; his poetry is luminous. Borges’ Ficciones and his essays on poetry and Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet are formidably inspiring as are, of course, Swithering, Ariel, Citizen, North and Foe: these books are what Jeanette Winterson* (another favourite) calls ‘talismans and love tokens’. Some contemporary poets I’ve enjoyed reading include Vahni Capildeo, James Byrne, Joshua Poteat, Robin Robertson, Peter Boyle, Ilya Kaminsky, Helen Mort, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Lucie Brock-Broido, Natasha Tretheway, Judith Beveridge, Claudia Rankine and Mona Arshi. Right now I am reading Alison Whittaker’s Lemons in the Chicken Wire and Ellen Van Neervan’s Comfort Food.
*Jeanette Winterson Art Objects, Vintage 1996, p25
Michelle Cahill has received prizes in poetry and fiction. She was a CAL/UOW Fellow at Kingston University, London. Vishvarupa was shortlisted in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards and a collection, The Herring Lass is forthcoming with Arc, UK. Giramondo are publishing her short fiction, Letter to Pessoa.