What are you currently reading?
I have a passion for chemistry – my first degree was a double major in chemistry and biochemistry – and my next poetry collection, Autobiochemistry, takes its title from a poem sequence that’s largely autobiographical, but seen through the lens of the chemical elements. I discovered recently that Theodore Gray, who wrote The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe, has written two more books, and am now reading Molecules: The Elements and the Architecture of Everything.
Sarah Rice, Fingertip of the Tongue. I went to the Sydney launch of this poetry collection because I’d really liked a poem of Sarah’s that won a competition, and am greatly enjoying the collection.
Rowing to Latitude: Journeys along the Arctic’s Edge by Jill Fredston. For some reason I am on a kick of reading women’s adventure and expedition stories – the more extreme the better.
Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton. I enjoy memoir, and have an inexplicable fondness for memoirs by chefs and actors, particularly those that go into the nitty-gritty of how it all works.
The Twenty-four Hour Wine Expert by Jancis Robinson. I like a drop of red, and Robinson writes with clarity and verve.
Barron’s Italian at a Glance. I’ve been learning Italian on and off for the last three years, and am about to leap back into it again.
And I’ve just finished Must You Go?, Antonia Fraser’s account of her years with Harold Pinter.
What are your top five quintessential books?
- The Diaries of Virginia Woolf, vols 1–5
- Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
- L. M. Montgomery, Emily of New Moon (see question 5)
- Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge
- the short stories of Alice Munro
If you could meet any writer, living or dead, who would it be?
Virginia Woolf. Her extraordinary voice was legendary, and I’d love to hear it. (From what I’ve read, I don’t think the only recording that exists, from a 1937 BBC radio broadcast, is a good representation.)
In your opinion, who are the most notable/iconic modern poets?
I wouldn’t claim to be able to identify the most notable/iconic modern poets but I can name some whose work I’ve loved (at different times) and who I feel have influenced me, in no particular order: Margaret Atwood, Tomas Tranströmer, Maggie Nelson, Dorothy Porter, Raymond Carver, Sylvia Plath, Sharon Olds, Carol Ann Duffy, Michael Chitwood, Anne Carson.
Which piece of literature has been the most influential on you? Has it affected your writing?
Emily of New Moon, by L. M. Montgomery, which I read when I was eleven, is about a girl who is a writer, a poet, who aims to become the best writer she can be and to make a name for herself in the world of literature. The work and the joy involved are both set out very clearly. I was already writing when I first read it, but I think it was a factor in my never questioning my need to write or my right to take it seriously.
When did you know that you had to write?
I can remember dictating to my mother text for a poster that I had to take to school on the first day of kindergarten. I wrote my first poem when I was seven, and at eight had a book I wrote my poems into … It’s pretty much always been a part of my life.
Do you have any creative rituals or routines?
If I’m out and about I will have in my bag copies of recently finished poems and poems in progress and a Pentel P205 automatic pencil (I have another three of these in strategic positions about the house – they’re what I use to work on printed-out drafts). I’ve kept a journal since I was eleven, which sometimes has first drafts or final versions written or stuck into it.
Where do you write?
Anywhere – poems can strike at any time and in any place, so I always have writing materials on me. I wrote the first draft of my last poem walking along Oxford Street on my way to Museum Station. I occasionally revise in the bath – if you dip the printed poem in the water it will stick very nicely to the tiles and then you can work on it in pencil. I wrote part of an award-winning poem in bed, my legs entangled with my partner’s. If you look at where I spend the bulk of my writing time, though, it’s at the long red desk in my study.
How do you begin writing a new poem? What is your writing process?
The first thing usually is the feeling of a new poem forming – it’s often phrases or lines in my head that start to accumulate and agglomerate. Although the most recent poem just started coming through holus-bolus and it took me a minute to recognise it as a poem. At this point in the process my only concern is getting it all down. I write down everything that’s there, including bits that I already know are not going to be in the final poem. After that, there comes a point where I need to get it onto the computer (if it hasn’t started there), and there begins a process of revision and addition and distillation and chopping back, until it’s done. Which for some poems may take a day or less, while others can be in progress, worked on sporadically, for years.
Pen and paper or keyboard – which is your preferred writing method?
I’m more likely to write a first draft in pencil, but do most of my revision on screen. I love both. I’m a lightning typist, which helps.
Are there any motifs, symbols or words that you always find yourself drawn to when writing?
Not consciously. Though searching for something in the manuscript of Autobiochemistry I noticed that, in addition to there being a poem specifically involving the metal silver and called ‘ Silver’ there were three other instances of ‘silver’ and a ‘silvery’. If I notice myself overusing particular words, I find ways around it – but sometimes those reused words need to be there.
What is the relationship/difference between your speaking and written voice? Do you find that reciting your poems changes them?
My ordinary speaking voice is very different to my poetry, because poetry is a different register – it’s very intense and condensed and allusive. I’m also often writing to an internal rhythm, whereas speaking in ordinary life, it all just comes out pell-mell.
I always read poems aloud when I’m writing them, once they get to a certain point. It can highlight issues particularly with rhythm, plus you get to hear how all the sounds are working together.
Of your own poems, which is your favourite?
I have an enduring affection for ‘Come in, lie down’, which inadvertently opened some doors for me. But the poem I’ve just finished, the one I’m reading obsessively and carrying around with me, tends to be the one I’m most passionately involved with at any given moment.
If readers could only read one of your poems, which one would you choose?
This one, from the ‘Autobiochemistry’ sequence and published earlier this year in Cordite Poetry Review, gives an idea of the kind of poetry I write – or one of the kinds. It has an autobiographical slant, includes science in a way that has broader resonances, and features sensory detail.
A flask is laid on the electronic scale
and tared to zero. I start with a small job lot,
topped up with smaller and smaller
increments. Index finger gently taps
the silver spatula’s side, loosing a miniature
sheet of fine unseasonable snow.
In nature this white powder begins
as millions of tiny skeletons, compressed
by their own multitudinous weight
and the roaring bulk of the sea. Now it will buffer
the pH of the medium, allow me to cultivate
many crinkled circular sheets of mould.
I don’t know why I’m growing mould.
I don’t know what I will do with my life.
But watching and measuring I accrete
habits of precision, observation; learn
the power of purposeful repetition, the thrill
when the first portion added is exact.
Do the majority of your readers have a different favourite poem to you?
The poem I’ve had the most response to over the years is probably ‘She reconsiders life on the run’ from my second book, The Ringing World (Puncher & Wattmann, 2012 – or you can read the poem on Michele Seminara’s website at https://micheleseminara.wordpress.com/2014/08/07/the-blue-stocking-poetry-jam-2/). It’s a poem about facing, rather than avoiding, grief, and people have told me it helped them through hard times. The late poet Martin Harrison also told me he wished he’d written it.
Of all your work, which piece are you most known for?
Possibly ‘Come in, lie down’, which first appeared in Southerly, and then in The Best Australian Poetry 2008 (ed. David Brooks, UQP), was featured on ABC Radio National’s Poetica, and was one of a selection of my poems included in the anthology Australian Poetry since 1788. Though a poem called ‘I text you a photo of my knitting’, published recently in the online journal Verity La, got a strong response.
What do you do in your spare time? Do your hobbies provide inspiration for writing?
I read a lot (though I don’t really think of that as a hobby). I have occasionally been inspired by things I’ve read, not necessarily poetry. I have periods of being somewhat obsessive about knitting – it’s a lovely occupation for a person who likes the process of making things. The rhythm of it is satisfying, as is the way the thing you’re working on builds up slowly, and it’s a good way of involving yourself with your hands and eyes, with colour and movement and texture, and giving your mind a rest.
In your opinion, what is the main demographic or target audience for poetry in Australia?
I think it should be everybody who can read. There are so many different kinds of poetry, it’s hard to believe most people couldn’t find a kind, or an author, they liked.
What do you think is the worst preconception or misconception about poetry?
That it’s boring, or irrelevant. Poetry has shocked me, delighted me, given me shivers, made me cry. A lot of the poetry I value is about being human, about noticing this amazing world we live in, about surviving and/or celebrating what life throws at us. As far as I’m concerned, you can’t really get much more interesting or relevant than that.
What is poetry to you?