Interview with a Poet—Belinda Rule
This year, we explore poetry with some of Meanjin’s contributing poets. Our third interview in this series is with Belinda Rule. Her poem ‘Poem of a New Driver’ (Meanjin 72.7) can be found here.
Generally, where do your ideas for a piece of poetry come from? Do they arrive abruptly at your front door or do you have to go looking for them? How did ‘Poem of a New Driver’ come to be?
An awful lot of my conscious energy is spent in endless rolling fantasy, which is probably why I drop things so often—because I was busy thinking about my torrid affair with Thorin Oakenshield or what-have-you. From this voluminous stream I will pluck something shiny, that seems to have a certain energy, a certain capacity to transform itself into something I can’t quite see yet, and I will ask myself: is this a poem? A story? A novel (oh god not again)? As a multidisciplinary writer, I have always got seventeen thousand works in progress and multiple ideas queued up in my head, so I don’t tend to need to actually go looking.
‘Poem of a New Driver’ comes pretty straightforwardly from where you’d think: I got my licence for the first time in my thirties, and suddenly I could go anywhere I wanted, whenever I wanted, and it was wonderful and changed my whole relationship to space and the world. And then, as good material usually does, that idea takes a turn into something darker and spikier: I am a person with a history of depression who now has control of a deadly weapon every day.
Does one have to empathise with the idea of a poem to ‘get’ the poem? Do you have any tips for novice poetry readers? If a poem is difficult to read, should it be abandoned?
I’m a poet of the lyric-epiphanic tradition, so my work has an apparently-personal speaker with a pretty much coherent bourgeois-psychoanalytic selfhood, who is having an affectative experience that ends in some sort of transformation. The hope is certainly that the reader will empathise with it, and feel transformed themselves. But there are worlds and worlds of poetry for which this is not true—there is poetry devoted to the dismantling of that kind of selfhood, or dismantling the relationship between language and reality, or dismantling the internal logic of language itself. For that kind of poetry, you want to engage with it more like a work of philosophy.
My feeling is, for the novice reader, find something you enjoy and can mostly understand, develop a comfort zone, then branch out from there. Your tolerance for complexity and ambiguity increases as you read more. I like to start with a particular poet’s more accessible works, then move into their more difficult stuff, then start looking up who their colleagues, mentors and anthologists are. I wouldn’t bother getting bogged down in things that feel difficult early on—unless you are enjoying the feeling of difficulty (which some people do).
There is a weird thing in specialist poetry culture of lionising difficulty in poems, and even celebrating that fact that difficulty is a barrier to entry for readers. I recognise that the nature of the project of some poems inherently produces difficulty, and it is quite right that such poems exist, but I am not into unnecessary difficulty. I don’t see why the general reader should have to get hazed like it’s some sort of boot camp. Unless they are into that!
But I suppose no-one will ever agree that their own work is unnecessarily difficult—to them it is either necessarily difficult or not difficult at all. And I must confess people who are not poetry readers have sometimes complained that they find some of my own work too difficult, which bamboozles me entirely—in my mind it is perfectly transparent!
How did you first discover poetry?
I wrote some metric poems in school when prompted, but they were just these horrid little competitive performances of cleverness for the teacher as audience. Most of the poetry I’d been exposed to was some dude in tweed trousers comparing a lady to a rose. I didn’t start to get interested until I was introduced to the modernists at university, who are still quite tweedy sometimes, but have fewer ladies and roses, and seemed at last to be saying something I hadn’t heard before.
But I still didn’t have what they call in the classics a massive lady-horn for poetry until some sex-positive feminists I knew got me into Sharon Olds, an American poet who writes apparently-personal free verse about love, sex and family in a tremendous visceral and emotional way (and who won the Pulitzer last year for her best work in many years—I would recommend her first three books, and that winning one, Stag’s Leap). That was the first time I really felt I gave a shit properly about poems. My work is not that similar to Sharon Olds in the end, but I took from her a permission to commit to the apparently-personal speaker in a quite earnest way that is not always well-tolerated in Australian literary culture.
And then I got in a class with Chris Wallace-Crabbe, who made me rhyme things and learn to analyse meter, which was really hard and so, so good for me. I am never going to voluntarily write metric verse but it’s so helpful to have a toolkit to work out why your work sounds how it does, and how to make it sound different.
How do you decide on the layout of a poem on a page? Specifically, why did you decide to set ‘Poem of a New Driver’ the way you did?
Like many young free-verse poets who encounter modernism and post-modernism for the first time at university, early on I went mad for rejecting the tyranny of the flush left margin. There were indents and alignments everywhere—like a collaged ransom note from the movies. And then of course the more broadly you read—and the more you sit in writing workshops flinching to see everyone being original in the same way to you—the more you calm down and pull back to focusing on the actual words. I suspect zany formatting can be a way of hiding out from the difficulty of the actual words. If I am afraid that word lacks the gravitas I need, maybe I can add a kind of prosthetic gravitas by making it flush right, six inches down?
So at this point I am quite restrained about layout choices, and I interrogate myself fairly severely about it before I allow myself an indent or a non-left alignment. Funny formatting is like a very high-fashion dress—are you wearing the dress or is the dress wearing you? In fact, publishing lead-times being what they are, this poem was several years old before it hit print, and if I were writing it now I would probably use even less indentation. That said, I indented here because I needed a different kind of line break, softer and more agile than the usual hard return to flush left. Indentations, especially stepped indentations, to me create acceleration (as the eye travels less and less distance to the start of the next line) and a feeling of coming untethered. The poem comes untethered from the left margin, as the car comes untethered gravitationally from the earth, as the poem comes untethered from its ostensible subject (‘I like to drive’) and hurtles into a wider sky (‘I yearn to die’).
In the Meanjin edition 72.4, Jennifer Mills wrote a piece on quitting poetry. What do you make of this notion? Can a poet ‘quit’ poetry?
You’ve caught me out—I haven’t got my hands on that edition yet. There are several Meanjins in my metre-tall to-read pile, but not that one as yet.
My uninformed remarks on this general area would be that I try to remain very clear in myself that the following things are completely separate from each other: writing a poem; showing the poem to other people; seeking publication for the poem or otherwise trying to establish a public persona as a poet; taking on the writing of poems as part of your identity (i.e. calling yourself a poet). Each one of these you can freely choose to do or not to do, and there is no earthly reason you should except that you want to.
There is a pitfall in the one where you call yourself a poet. If I identify as a poet, then maybe it is a problem if I haven’t written a poem in months, so I need to tear into myself about it. Maybe it is a problem that someone else is writing poems I don’t like, so I need to go and pick a fight with them and prove they are doing poet-ness wrong.
I have to take a pragmatic view because I have to manage my propensity for mental illness, and I know the kind of catastrophising anxiety spirals I can get into if I let myself set up false dilemmas. The statement ‘I am a poet’ seems to me to contain a false dilemma. Wouldn’t it be better to say ‘I have written some poems previously and I would like to write some more in the future’? That lays bare the truth that you are free to change your mind about the future poems. Maybe you would like to go to the desert and dig for dinosaur bones instead? Maybe you feel like eating some celery? It lays bare that you are free to do that.
My answer might be different if being recognised as a poet could gain you some sort of status, or pay you a living wage, at this time in history. But the only thing it’s currently good for is its intrinsic reward.
What would you say to those Meanjin readers who skip over the poetry section? (We hear this happens!)
You are an adult and I am not the boss of you, and the grand literary tradition of Western Civilisation is not the boss of you either, so you should do whatever you want. However…
I think often people are made to read poetry at school that has been quite poorly selected in terms of having alienating diction, and really not containing anything that would be of urgent personal interest to young people. And also the situation at school is very tiresome in that the poem has been formulated as a piece of curriculum, so it is presented as a puzzle and you as the student are expected to produce a solution to the puzzle that recreates whatever arbitrary interpretation of the poem was printed in the teacher’s curriculum resource, and your answer will then be marked wrong or right on that very stupid and arbitrary basis. So the experience of poetry becomes that it is a mysterious and arcane test that is setting you up to fail. This is obviously unspeakably odious and more than enough reason for people to want to set the poetry pages of a literary journal on fire.
But! A poem is not a test. As an adult whom nobody is the boss of, you cannot fail a poem—but a poem can fail you, in which case you should just blow a raspberry at it and toss it. A poem that is the right poem for you is like being tickled on the inside of your brain—it is absolutely delightful, and nobody will have to talk you into it. Is it possible, if you feel that you don’t like poetry at all, that actually you just don’t like the poetry you have read so far? It doesn’t take long to scan the opening lines from the poetry section and see if anything grabs you.
- Alien Onion
- Ampersand Duck
- Andrew McDonald
- A Pair of Ragged Claws
- Arts Victoria
- Australia Council for the Arts
- Bookshow blog
- City of Tongues
- darkly wise, rudely great
- David Astle
- Dorothy Johnston
- Elmo Keep Does Stuff
- The Ember
- Esther Anatolitis
- Going Down Swinging
- Griffith Review
- Killings blog
- Lorraine Crescent
- Lynden Barber
- Mandy Ord
- Marcus Westbury
- Melbourne University Publishing
- Mel Campbell
- The Monthly
- Musings of an Inappropriate Woman
- Oslo Davis
- Paul Callaghan
- Read, Think, Write
- Right Now
- Sleepers Publishing
- Sorrow at Sills Bend
- The Stella Prize
- Tom Cho
- Wheeler Centre
15 May 14 at 14:56
I really enjoyed this interview and I completely agree with you about the futility of unnecessary difficulty in poems. And I loved “Poem of a New Driver” – the sewing / fabric metaphor is sublime....
16 May 14 at 17:20
Thanks Lisa! That metaphor seems to have been a winner with a few people. :)
There is a bit of an anxiety about surrendering difficulty. How will we maintain our arcane cultural authority without it? If we can be understood then presumably we can be found wanting… hides...
28 May 14 at 22:54
Cool interview! You made me laugh. I appreciated especially everything you said about the way that poetry is taught in schools (which turned me off until I was at least twenty-five years old). I also agonise over indentations – I feel your pain.
Shocking to think that there are people who skip the poetry in Meanjin – it’s the only part I read! (Sorry, political article-type writers. I have a very short attention span).