Saturday, February 11, 2012

Libby Hart - Poet Series

Libby Hart’s most recent collection of poetry, 'This Floating World' was shortlisted for a Victorian Premier's Literary Award (CJ Dennis Prize for Poetry) and 'The Age' Book of the Year Awards (Dinny O'Hearn Poetry Prize).

When did you first start writing poetry?

I started writing poetry in my early twenties. Poetry hovered around me like a longing before I began writing it. At the time I was an avid reader of poetry and still am of course, any writer is an avid reader, but I suppose it was my own insecurities that blocked me from allowing myself to say: Yes, I could do that too.

In so many ways poetry is an apprenticeship that perhaps you never graduate from. I always enjoy quoting that story by Annie Dillard about French workers. When an apprentice gets hurt or is exhausted, the experienced workers say to him or her: It is the trade entering your body. Poetry enters the body every day. It enters you and you enter it. There is mystery and joy and heartbreak and exhaustion. Sometimes all at the same time.

What do you enjoy most about it?

I think enjoy is the wrong word for me. Poetry is sanctum – it’s where I live and breathe, and find shelter when it’s most needed. And this extends to all poetry, not just my own.

Poetry is a very organic thing for me. It is about capturing what enters your body, what touches you: a place, a moment, and a ‘matter of the heart’. Words walk through me very organically. I am touched by them and I have to capture them and make them into something more than a fragment or a line of poetry. So these are the two things that go side by side: the moment of connection or response to place, event or subject; and then the action to articulate. Sometimes these can be years apart.

Tell me about the first poem you had published.

The first poem I published was titled, ‘Rebecca’s Hands, 1923’. It was published in 1995 in the Australian Multicultural Book Review (Issue 2) and it was in response to a Paul Strand photograph of his wife’s hands. The composition was very tight and composed only of Rebecca’s hands, hence the title of the photograph and the poem. This is still one of my favourite photographs. I am a very visual person and I love black and white photography. I have a profound respect for the likes of Strand and other groundbreaking US photographers of that era, including Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange and Imogen Cunningham to name but a few. The poem discussed the photograph and branched out into such things as palmistry and fate.

What is your usual writing routine? Do you write every day?

If I have a routine as such it is largely about keeping focused. I have a full time job, so it is actually really hard finding the time to write and unfortunately I never do as much as I want to. But my routine goes beyond the physical act of writing. I do a great deal of thinking and feeling my way through a poem. This entails notes, fragments of lines, a lot of reading and research, and I am also always reading other people’s work which helps keep my mind open and fresh.

I do all of this each day and wherever possible I escape at lunch time to scribble away, edit drafts of poems or go to the library to search out a research title or poet or subject matter I have been thinking about. I try to do at least an hour or two of work in the evenings and wherever possible I dedicate at least one day of the weekend to writing.

What advice would you give a would-be poet?

I often say that I didn’t choose poetry, it chose me. I’m not really sure why it decided to tap me on the shoulder. There have been moments in my life when I really wish I knew the answer to that question, but each time I ask it I come up empty-handed. What I know is this: I write poetry because I don’t have a choice. I write poetry because it is sanctuary. I write poetry because it gives me a voice. I write poetry because it allows me to unravel a situation, an event or a subject and make sense of it. Poetry is mystical and mysterious, and I honour it as best as I can.

My advice is always to read, read, read. Read other poets. Learn from them. Read non-fiction and fiction. Learn from them too. Question. Observe the world around you. Live as authentically and as fully as you possibly can. Listen to music. Listen to what a song is telling you. Go to galleries and explore the visual. Watch films. Good films. Listen to the language that is going on underneath the conversations. Use all of your senses. And get very familiar with your gut instinct because this will be your long-time companion in writing poetry. Travel as much as you can. Go to places that make you uncomfortable and make you question. Live in the world and respond to it. Know your stuff, but also remember that it takes time to grasp it. And allow yourself to keep learning. The keep learning part is the most crucial. Be patient. Have an editor’s eye. Don’t be a smart arse. Always listen to constructive criticism. Remember that you learn something from every poem you write or read. Don’t ever think poetry is an ‘elite sport’, you are only competing with yourself. Be professional and reliable. And more than anything else: ‘know thyself’ and make sure you have something to say.

What’s your opinion of self publishing? Would you recommend it?

I haven’t really given a lot of thought to self publishing, so I can’t discuss this issue in any great detail. I think if a poet is intending to self publish then I would strongly advise them to get assistance from an editor, designer and possibly an artist or photographer. What makes a book a beautiful object is good design and excellent editing. The work is fundamental of course, but it takes skilled editing and design to really make your poetry the very best that it can be.

Do you perform your poetry? What are the differences between writing for the page and writing for the stage?

I write for the page and I read my poems, but I am in no way a performer. There is a great deal of difference between the page and the stage, if you are talking about performance poetry. I can’t really discuss this in any great detail because it’s another world to me and for the many performance poets I know they feel the same way about ‘page’ poetry. Sometimes I get a strong suspicion that there is a line firmly drawn between the two, as if we’ll all break out into a dance from West Side Story, but it really doesn’t have to be like that. After all, poetry is as widely diverse as the people writing it.

Have you been inspired or influenced by a particular poet’s work? How did it affect your own work?

I don’t think I could ever pinpoint just one poet or piece of poetry. There have been many, many instances in my life where a poet has shaped my perspective. But if I had to give one example today what springs to mind is when I first discovered Michael Hartnett in an unassuming anthology of Munster poets about a year before I visited Ireland for the first time.

The first poem by Michael Hartnett I ever read was ‘Death of an Irishwoman’ and anyone that is familiar with this poem will know what a powerful introduction that must have been. What I remember most about that first experience was that I read this poem with all of me being present. That’s the one thing that struck me most – that he made me sit up and take notice from the very first line. I also knew from that moment on that he was telling me something in a way no other person could – and how attractive is that for a person such as me who, like Ruth Stone, ‘decided very early on not to write like other people’.

Michael Hartnett was my introduction into what I would describe as an un-homogenised Ireland. And he spoke of it in his own way, with his own gripes and philosophies. He also introduced me to the bards and helped me reacquaint myself with my love of the Irish language, something that had lain dormant for about fifteen years. Michael Hartnett is spectacular because he is achingly real. He wrote it (and lived it) like it was, in all of his contradictory ways. He was at times uncompromising, but always heartbreaking and authentic. My favourite Michael Hartnett poem is ‘Sibelius in Silence’, it’s an extraordinary poem of great deft and vision.

If you had to choose a favourite contemporary poet who would it be and what makes them your favourite?

I can’t choose only one and my favourites list will inevitably change again and again, but for today I would say John Burnside and Carolyn Forché. I respect them both for writing uniquely and full of spirit and intelligence. Both poets tackle very different terrain, but they do loop up somewhere in the soul department, as they are both preoccupied with existence and what it means to ‘be’. John Burnside just keeps getting better and better, and I highly recommend his latest book, Black Cat Bone. I’m sure Carolyn Forché has another book just around the corner, but her 2003 volume, Blue Hour, was breathtaking to read for the first time and I pick it up again and again and again to help me clear away the clutter of my thoughts and anxieties about writing poetry. Her poem, ‘On Earth’ is one of my very favourite pieces of poetry.

What about the masters? Who would you choose and why?

I’m not crazy about the word, ‘masters’. It makes me think of Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED lecture and her discussion around genius and its Roman roots. Each comes from the same place and each is more complicated than a label. But who do I respect? Whose legacy is it that I return to again and again? I would say Ted Hughes, Homer, Ovid, Rilke, Shelley and Shakespeare. And there are others such as William Carlos Williams, Pablo Neruda, William Stafford, TS Eliot, Rimbaud and a whole heap of others including James Joyce and Chekhov (Chekhov may have never written a poem in his life, but he had a poet’s heart).

For the first six poets I am thinking it would be self explanatory, but Ted Hughes is pitch-perfect time and time again. His vision is mind blowing, really. We are forever in debt to Homer and Ovid. Rilke’s mysticism is his finest attribute. Shelley’s authenticity and wild intelligence was my way into writing poetry thanks to the wonderful Richard Holmes and his beautifully written biography, Shelley: The Pursuit. And Shakespeare... what could I possibly say about the man that has not already been said? Hamlet is my favourite of all of his work. I reread it recently and it still blew me away after all these years.

What, of your own work, is your favourite poem?

That’s a very hard question for me to answer because I am over critical when it comes to my writing. What I will say is that ‘This Floating World’ is the poem that means the most to me.

‘This Floating World’ is a very long piece (46 pages in book form). I had parts of the poem published in a variety of journals both in Australia and overseas, but the work as one whole poem was published in my second collection of poetry, This Floating World, published last year (2011) by Five Islands Press. The songline makes up the bulk of this collection although there are four ‘overture’ poems in the first section.
What was the inspiration for, or story behind, the piece?

‘This Floating World’ is a songline or oral map of the island of Ireland. The reader is guided through the songline by an omnipotent force who listens in on the intimate soliloquies of people, ghosts, birds and animals. Even the landscape and ocean have the opportunity to speak from time to time. The work is essentially a celebration of how, in some small way, we are connected to all things.

‘This Floating World’ was born from an extensive road trip I embarked on when I first visited Ireland in 2005. The journey of the songline is largely influenced by the route undertaken at that time. I was then fortunate to receive an international residency from the Australia Council for the Arts to spend time at The Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig in County Monaghan (Ireland) in 2008 in order to write the first draft of this book.

The work is faithful to the elements and the ethereal. Water holds a strong presence in Ireland, whether it is through rain, mist, bogs, loughs, waterfalls, holy wells, seas and ocean. Wind also, particularly in the west of Ireland, is a force to be reckoned with. Because of this I shaped a poetic narrative that is dictated by the direction of the wind or rain. Fluid and transient in nature, ‘This Floating World’ is full of rushed thoughts, forgotten histories and quiet contemplations that reiterate transience and mutability.

Obviously I can’t include the whole poem here for you today, but I will give you an abridged version of it in the form of one voice from the songline. This particular voice is called ‘Dreamer – Trá Chloichir’ and it is placed about three quarters of the way into the poem.

One thing I will stress about ‘This Floating World’ is that time is elastic inside the work itself. Both the present and the past intermingle with ease. So too do both this concrete world in which we live in and the Otherworld. And although I created an Otherworld that was eclectic and full of creative license, it was still faithful to the idea that there are two worlds connected to the island. This belief system is still prevalent in everyday Ireland, most particularly in remote areas, and I do admire this side of traditional Irish culture very much.

The voice, ‘Dreamer’, chiefly concerns the legend of the selkie-folk or seal people who transform themselves from seals to human. I have loved this legend for many, many years so I was very keen to include a selkie in the work.

DreamerTrá Chloichir

Dark one are you restless to this sea inside you?
To the chill that seeps into marrow
when you circle your secrets?

Altered and sooty-eyed
you haul a billowing scent
when you come to the surface.

A wave made flesh, made of bone.
Slip of sealskin, the chuck of it,
a seaweed of your own making.

You are naked now, you are glorious.
You are a man upon the land who needs time
to find his feet.

You take back your shadow
and gaze out to sea,
drinking in the memory of it

while the shrug of your wet skin
lies loosely in your arms.
The pelt of bog will keep it moist

fostering desire
until the pull of your second life
hooks you again.

You fold its enigma
with new found fingers,
heed it like a breathing creature.

You use your hands
like they’re the centre of things,
the cusp of things.

Are they indeed your soul, those hands?

Notes: ‘Dark one are you restless’ is from Thomas Kinsella’s translation of The Táin (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1970). Reproduced with kind permission of the translator. ‘A man upon the land’ is from a traditional Irish poem (‘I am a man upon the land / I am a selkie in the sea’). ‘Are they indeed your soul, those hands’ is from, ‘Anatomy of a Cliché’ by Michael Hartnett from Selected and New Poems (The Gallery Press, Oldcastle, County Meath, 1994). Reproduced with kind permission of The Gallery Press.

This Floating World, Five Islands Press, 2011, Melbourne
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Fresh News from the Arctic, Interactive Press, 2006, Brisbane
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1 comment:

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