The Interview – Fleur Adcock

Born in New Zealand in 1934, Fleur Adcock lived in England as young child during World War Two, then repatriated to New Zealand with her family when she was thirteen. As a young woman she emigrated to England, and has lived there since 1963. Returning to New Zealand regularly to see extended family, Adcock has also revisited the question of the relationship between personal identity, place and memory from many angles in her extensive body of poetry.

She has published many collections, including Poems 1960—2000 (2000), Dragon Talk (2010), Glass Wings (2013) and most recently, Hoard (2017).  She has received multiple awards for her work; ranging from the Jessie Mackay Prize in 1968 to the Queen’s Gold Medal in Poetry in 2006.

Her extensive subject arc stretches from romantic celebrations of landscape, to familial love and sexual desire; from both witty — and unsettling — examinations of heterosexual relationships, to ecological concerns, the fine arts and politics. It travels from, say, the speculative sequence, ‘Gas’, that looks at a society where sexual reproduction is no longer necessary; to studies of women from history — such as her sequence ‘Mrs Fraser’s Frenzy’, which explores issues of nineteenth-century white settler identity and paradigms destabilised by cultural division. Her interest in significant women from history recurs in the sequence ‘You, Ellen’ (from Hoard) a poetic biography of British Labour politician Ellen Wilkinson (1891–1947), and in her recent collaboration with Dame Gillian Whitehead on Iris Dreaming (2016) a libretto based on the life of Robin Hyde.

 

Emma Neale writes:

The first time I interviewed Fleur Adcock was in the mid-1990s, in person, over a rehabilitating coffee in her East Finchley home. I was a young PhD candidate at University College, London; my research was focused on the treatment of expatriation and back-migration in the fiction and poetry of Katherine Mansfield, Robin Hyde, Janet Frame, and Fleur Adcock herself.

After weeks of compiling interview questions, before even appearing on her doorstep, I was already a mixture of excitement and hot-running fear: fear of disgracing myself with lack of scholarly sinew, uncouth manners, and naivety: the whole neurotic caboodle of an eager ingénue.

We had organised the meeting by letter. Back then, fax was the main buzzy technological communication wonder — shiny scrolls arriving like squeaky magician’s scarves pulled from the telephone’s hat — but not every household had a fax machine; so the postie was our messenger. (To get emails, still a recent development, I’d need to travel by tube to the university; then wait for a computer in the crowded student computing-consortium: tedious.)

On the interview day itself, I scrambled my way to Fleur’s house by bus, tube and foot with the London A-Z clutched like a primitive, talismanic version of Dr Who’s sonic screwdriver, as jangled as if I might encounter hostile foes in alien territory. Not only because I was navigating my way there for the first time; and not because Fleur’s poetry frequently deals in physical and internal displacement. The disorientation and nerves were intensified because only two nights beforehand, I’d escaped a serious house fire and hadn’t slept since. I’d been sheltered overnight at a friend’s place, as our five-flat building was still unsafe, and we had no electricity.  The building stunk nauseatingly of almost every burnt or melted material you can imagine; there was a gaping hole in our ground-floor flat’s ceiling, a portal through to the flat above where the fire had been started in the dead of night by a bereft alcoholic.

A minicab driver saved us; he saw a small twister of black smoke spilling from a second-storey window. Police on a regular beat noticed him pulled up at the curb and thought he must be cruising for prostitutes who worked our street. The police tried to batter down the front door before my husband managed to work the deadlock; and they got all the occupants out, even the neighbour and good friend blissfully comatose on weekend booze. We spent hours huddled on the freezing, mid-winter, midnight footpath.

Although I’d managed to stay with my friends the night after the crisis, I had to get back into the building to retrieve my laptop, my interview questions, my notated collections of Fleur Adcock’s poetry, and my tape recorder. Alongside the relief that we’d survived the fire was the almost unbelievable consolation that the papers and back-up discs of two years of PhD notes had escaped both immolation — and a drenching from the fire hoses by half a desk length.

I’d wanted to arrive for the interview cool and unflappable; in professional command of my field, but I turned up on Fleur’s doorstep with the smell of smoke in my hair again, deeply shaken, and on the brink of tears. Bizarre scenes from the night of standing shivering on the footpath still strobed in my head. (They included a prostitute soliciting one of the firemen while he was still mid-duty. I guess you couldn’t get much further away from my deskbound little life.)

My memory of that first interview is that I dominated the first minutes — as I have here —with the night’s crisis; ashamed that I wasn’t in firmer control of my emotions; yet not able to fake my way through the afternoon as if nothing had happened.

It hadn’t occurred to me that I could have phoned, and asked if we could reschedule when I’d found my wits again. Perhaps because of the wry restraint, coolness, and even occasional mordancy in Fleur’s poems; their sense of remove; the gimlet eye of irony, I thought she’d refuse another meeting, deciding I was a time-waster.

I also recalled Fleur from a visit she had made to my high school, Wellington Girls’ College (her former school), when I was 17. Poised, elegant, thoughtful, she read poems and answered questions with a combination of physical grace, verbal composure and a somehow sceptical air that, to a halting adolescent, were naturally daunting. It seemed the house fire had burnt away any nacre of sophistication I might have built up since then.  Social masks, brave faces, form as ‘the straitjacket around the wailing, hysterical self’,[1] as Adcock herself describes the technical elements of poems — initially, that day, I couldn’t wear any of them.

 

Photo credit: Jemimah Kuhfeld

 

Fleur made strong coffee; she sat me down; she let me babble my way through an explanation of why I was babbling. She asked if I was sure I felt up to it, was I sure I didn’t want to do this on another day? And she also accepted when I said, actually, having a focus might help to ground me. She was calmingly, warmly generous with her time and attention. Suddenly, the social ritual of the interview form itself wasn’t daunting, but reassuring: I knew how to do this. I didn’t know how to behave when confronted with the addiction, acute mental illness and unnerving mixture of detachment and yet underlying distress in the upstairs resident that had started the fire itself.

Poetry and art, after all, often spring from just these sorts of psychological breaks and revelations: perhaps discussing the management of style, tone, and a professional writing career would, in its own way, help to alleviate the events of two nights before.

It seems somehow apt, looking back almost 20 years later, that I’d experienced this shock that struck at the makeshift home my husband and I were learning to construct together, just before speaking to Fleur. Much of what drew me to her work was its treatment of issues of home and belonging, versus a feeling of temporary, ill-fitting residence; and the honesty, skilfully honed, about sometimes-fraught personal territory.

I was initially attracted to those of Adcock’s poems that articulated a sense of being ill-at-ease in her birthplace. It was an experience that spoke directly to me as a child who had been taken from Christchurch to California, where my family lived for three and a half formative years, and then brought back, in 1981, to what seemed to be not only a ‘meteorologically’, but also an emotionally colder, more repressed and withdrawn New Zealand; one — as the Springbok tour divisions showed — in many ways still dishonest about its colonial past and embedded racism.

The experience of being an outsider in California barely lasted a few weeks; it was a place used to immigrants and expatriates. My first friend there was an Iranian girl whose family were also new to San Diego; my parents made good friends with various other expatriate families. Moving on to Wellington, New Zealand, things didn’t go so smoothly.

Inchoate, turbulent, self-contradictory, dangerous-to-articulate emotions triggered by the expatriation then repatriation, coloured some difficult pre-teen years, and permanently transformed my sense of natal place and interior world.

As a teenager, when I discovered Adcock’s poetry, it seemed tantalisingly audacious in its confrontation of alienation. My own sense of displacement had its origins in many things: most relevant in the context of my response to her poetry are the facts that I arrived at age 11 and a half to a school where the kids had known each other since they were five; and where I was most definitely treated as a weirdo outsider. (My raincoat was slashed with scissors by one girl, for example; I was called bitch and slut for talking to a boy; there was more, but that gives you the flavour.) I also never quite felt I caught up on certain aspects of the syllabus: I had gaps in everything from maths to Māoritanga, te reo, and national history in general.

Memories of that time meant that in my twenties, when I started investigating Adcock’s poetry for my research, I was intrigued by the lines in an essay where she explained that the question of national identity had ‘influenced, infected, and to some extent distorted the course of my adult life’, and I wanted to look at the way her poetry mined this potent triad of psychological effects. [2]

Throughout her career she has drawn on the experiences of social dislocation as an outsider both in New Zealand and England; and also as a woman experiencing the marginalising effects of gender inequality. Her often sly, perceptive, layered tone of irony — sometimes self-corrective, often slippery — is a powerful articulation in itself of this sense of exile or division. It is also, as I’ve written elsewhere ‘a metaphor, even, for speaking in one place, but of another’.[3] As academic Janet Wilson says: Adcock’s work exhibits ‘a radically displaced feminized consciousness [which] can be identified as metonymic of national and cultural differences.’ [4]

Yet division and displacement aren’t particularly inviting themes to launch us into an interview; and the national question is also one that, as readers will see below, tends to weary Fleur now. They also don’t entirely fit the tenor of her most recent work, Hoard, which, after the elegiac and diligently researched The Land Ballot, has a happily disarming lightness of touch. So, in August 2017 — with no distracting personal crisis immediately beforehand — in fact, almost ludicrously comfortable, compared to the context 20 years ago — (Dunedin sky outside jig-sawed blue and white; spring song so vigorous it’s as if the birds believe in the future of the planet) I sent Fleur a batch of questions, starting with what seems a significant career milestone: Poems 1960—2000.

 

 

 

Emma Neale:

The project of compiling your Poems 1960—2000 must have been a huge undertaking, a process of filtering, discarding and arranging. How did it make you reflect on your literary career up to that point? How has it affected your subsequent writing? (Was it a kind of taking stock, clearing a fresh space, or did it bring back ghosts? Did it make you need a period of silence, or did it seed a new direction in your practice? How do you look back at your past collections now?) 

Fleur Adcock:

No, the process of filtering and arranging the contents of each individual collection had taken place over the years, but the collected volume involved no editorial process on my part: it was simply the result of OUP evicting all its living poets and my consequent flight to Bloodaxe.

Neil Astley, the editor and founder of Bloodaxe Books, had already published my translations from Medieval Latin and three of my pamphlets (Below Loughrigg, Hotspur and Meeting the Comet), and was keen to get me on his list. However, I had an agreement with OUP to offer them first refusal of all my new collections of poems (they were not interested in pamphlets or parallel-text translations). Neil had been waiting for years for OUP to do something so appalling that I finally had to break ties with them. Although I was always on the best of terms with my successive OUP editors, people in the production and distribution departments were given to infuriating mistakes, and in my later years with them I was always threatening to leave. As it turned out, in the end none of us left of our own accord: we were all pushed out when someone in the financial sector of the company decided that although their poetry list was not actually losing money it was not making enough for their greedy needs. This released us from our commitment to them, and we all trooped off to other publishers.

Once I had reclaimed the copyrights of my earlier volumes from OUP and handed them over to Bloodaxe, all Neil had to do was scan the contents of my existing collections, add a short file of new work, and do a bit of copy-editing. He was naturally anxious that Bloodaxe should be in possession of all my work up to that date, but neither he nor I saw the need for a great reorganisation of it. I was content to leave it in its chronological sequence.

I saw Poems 1960—2000 as less a milestone than a tombstone. As far as I was concerned, my career as a poet had already drawn to a natural close, coinciding neatly with the end of the millennium. I had gradually fallen out of love with poetry and almost entirely stopped writing it; the last words in the collection are “What wanted to be said is said.”  Instead my head was filled with family history, a far more compelling addiction.

Perhaps I should explain. My disenchantment began some years after I had dropped out of my respectable, pensionable civil service job as a librarian in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and taken up the risky life of a freelance writer — which, for a poet, doesn’t mean writing poems all day but piecing together a living out of readings, festivals, reviewing, broadcasting and even a certain amount of teaching, although I avoided the latter as much as I could. I had developed a distaste for the ‘poetry industry’, including the whole commercial business of creative writing departments. When I began seriously writing, in Dunedin in my twenties, there was no such thing; my friends and I snorted with superior laughter when we heard of this new American concept, introduced to us by Ian Cross, the Burns fellow at the University of Otago in 1959. For us the way you learned to write was by reading; if there were shortcuts, and everyone could learn to do it, why would we want to?

Once poetry had become the day job, instead of something I wrote romantically on riverbanks or furtively under the desk at work, it began to lose its allure. The more I talked about it, reviewed it, discussed it with students, anthologised it and judged it in competitions, the less of it I wanted to read or write. I wrote only three poems per year in 1996 and ’97, and one in 1998. The trend was clear. In 1999 I wrote one satirical squib about the demise of OUP, but then applied for a “poetry placement” in Kensington Gardens as a pleasant way of making some money and was consequently required to write poems again. They were extremely short, but enough to make up a final sequence for Poems 1960–2000. In 2000 itself I managed to grind out two poems for commissions, and one spontaneous one called ‘The Ex-poet’, published in The Guardian but never collected. In 2001–2, four poems, only one of them worth keeping. They were getting shorter and feebler, and my heart wasn’t in them. I felt I was repeating myself, and my boredom with the genre must have been obvious.

Two other things had happened during these years: I developed RSI (repetitive strain injury) from typing large quantities of prose (transferring many years of family history from typescript to computer), and in 2000 I gave up smoking. Smoking had been an essential aid to poetic composition, but now that it was no longer needed for that purpose I could begin adapting myself to life in a society that persecuted smokers. (Family history, which is its own inspiration, didn’t need cigarettes.) As a non-smoker I was even less capable of concentrating for long enough to write a poem, but as an ex-poet that didn’t bother me. I installed voice recognition software to deal with the typing problem, and happily plugged on with the family history.

Then, after this natural break, something unexpected happened: in May 2003 I found myself timidly and tentatively embarking on some short lines in verse about trees. Evidently the nicotine had finally left my bloodstream, and my concentration was returning. That November, when I was reading my father’s letters home to his parents from England in the 1940s, it occurred to me that my wartime childhood might furnish material more suited to poetry than prose. By the end of December I’d written half of what became a volume called Dragon Talk.

 

 

 

EN: Dragon Talk frequently uses the quirky, downbeat tone of a child’s observations and the slightly nonsensical or ‘telescoping’ swerves that children make in conversation, and does so to warm, comic effect.  The new collection, Hoard, often shares that sense of levity; of seeing the absurd in many of our facile assumptions and social distinctions. It includes a humorous — and lyrical — discussion of what marks out citizenship from visitor-only status, in ‘Blue Stars’. There is fun and good-natured teasing here — both of yourself and New Zealand companions; whereas in the 1960s there was still a sense of deep pain and division in many of the poems that discussed national identity. Does your early investigation of the relationship between place, milieu and personal identity still have a compulsion for you? Does the question of belonging still haunt you at all? What sense of national readerships or audiences do you have, given your long exploration of your relationship to both England and New Zealand?

FA: I don’t think there’s a lot more I want to say about this subject, after all the years of agonising over it. The minute I arrived back in England in 1963, after 16 years of absence, it was clear to me that this was where I still belong; separation and conflict of allegiance are now a fact of life that I have to accept — I can never be in two places at once, and there’s no solution, so the best thing to do is joke about it. Over the last few years I have rather unexpectedly developed an affection for New Zealand, now that no one is putting pressure on me to live there.

As for my readership, most of that has always been here in Britain, where I live, work, and have always been published and where for a long time I earned much of my living over the years from public readings, although these have fallen off recently with the general cutbacks in funding. My readers turn up at these and I meet them as human beings, not sales statistics on a royalty statement. There has been a bit of a change, however, since I had the good luck to acquire a New Zealand publisher, Victoria University Press; I now have more of a sense of another audience. It is at these people that the poems about New Zealand in the last section of Hoard are essentially directed; UK readers wouldn’t always get the point of my references.

 

EN: Several women writers I know here in New Zealand cite your work as an important influence for them; for your discussions of motherhood, women’s roles historically; for your foray into speculative or science fiction in poetry, and your scepticism of the motives and intentions in intimate relationships. So it seems only fitting that you have a clearer sense of your local readership now, through the link to VUP.

You have written many poems about your ancestors, and have undertaken what seems to be extensive and energetic archival research. What initially propelled this? Were you ever tempted to write a family history in prose, rather than poetry? What was it about poetry that made it the best conduit for these family stories?

FA: I’ve always been interested in my family history, ever since my mother told us tales about her childhood, and over the years I’ve picked out a few episodes or incidents that I thought would work in poetry. With The Land Ballot I went slightly further, and devoted an entire book to the experiences of my grandparents and teenage father trying to be dairy farmers in Te Rauamoa, and to evoking the atmosphere and what I saw as the social intricacies of that community. However, I wouldn’t call it a family history; it’s more a series of snapshots in verse. Expository prose is a completely different kettle of fish and uses a different area of the brain. It’s factual, rather than verbal. A poem is, or aims to be, a work of art, using rhythm and other musical devices and relying to some extent on the subconscious for its material. (What a pretentious statement! I’m not going to define poetry; you know what it is when you see it.)

On the other hand, I have written more than 250,000 words of detailed narrative, complete with footnotes and references, about the many branches of my family, researched it for 20 years (mostly before computers), and travelled to county record offices all over England, as well as numerous repositories and archives in London, Belfast, Dublin, and New Zealand. I’ve transcribed dozens upon dozens of wills, some of them from obscure antique handwriting or Latin, spent hundreds of pounds on birth, death and marriage certificates, and worn out my eyesight on microfilm and fiche readers. I regarded it as my life’s work, thought about it all the time, and very few other things have given me more pleasure. Ask any family historian: we’re all like that.

But finding out is the fun part. No one much wants to read the results. I was writing for my own satisfaction, not for public attention. Certain members of my family are interested in the more recent lives or the more spectacular stories, and one or two are interested in a good deal of it, but mostly the pleasure (that of solving a series of detective-story puzzles) is mine only. The brilliant biographer Ann Thwaite, who was born in England and still lives here but had eight early settler great-grandparents in New Zealand, wrote a wonderful book (Passageways) about her family history, but it was scarcely noticed or reviewed. Her life of AA Milne, by contrast, is being filmed.

 

EN: The fascination for family anecdotes and history led you to write in your father’s voice for much of The Land Ballot.  What tonal or other aesthetic challenges did this bring for you? What emotional challenges did it bring? (Was it like a kind of possession, or did you have to work quite hard to excavate and shape his voice?)

FA: My father’s voice was in my head in a very real sense, because I have a recording of a long interview with him made when my son Andrew and I sat him down and asked him about his childhood and early years (these are the ‘Opa tapes’ referred to in ‘The Archive’ — ‘Opa’ — the Dutch word for grandpa — was what his grandchildren called him). Later I transcribed much of it, sometimes in an abbreviated way, and thus his own words form the direct basis for the ten poems in The Land Ballot headed ‘(Cyril speaks)’ and contribute a good deal of content to others. Naturally I’ve made alterations and additions to his words, often incorporating titbits of knowledge acquired from elsewhere (memories, other people’s reminiscences, printed sources) and verbal contributions of my own, but trying to preserve the spirit of his voice. For example, in the short poem called ‘The Germans’ the first two quatrains are almost exactly in my father’s words, but the second two are based on an interview I did with his elderly second cousin Edith in England. I hope the result looks seamless.

I also tried to include as many other characters as possible in the book, most of them mentioned by him (the Dassler family, the Daysh family, the teacher Rudolf Honoré and his brother) but filled out with a lot of research on my part from the wonderful Papers Past newspaper archive in the National Library and all the other sources I’ve mentioned in the notes and elsewhere. And of course I have my own memories of him and his parents and his extended family. I had to preserve a certain detachment from all these people, but there were occasional moments when I felt a little guilty about treating them with disrespect.

 

EN: That’s a fascinating last comment. It raises perennial questions about the ethics of biography; it reminds me of Michael King’s phrase, ‘compassionate truth’ which I’ve just re-read in Pip Desmond’s forthcoming memoir of her mother, Song for Rosaleen. It also reminds me of your poem ‘The Archive’, which closes with the two lines ‘There were receipts and firearms licences;/ and there was a line called Trespass, not to be crossed.’ This reminds us that no matter how apparently exposing or ‘confessional’ any poem appears to be, the author has shaped, edited, concealed; exercised judgement — artistic and moral — all as part of the filtering and sculpting process. I love the darkness and reserve in those last lines; the way so much unspoken resonates behind them.

Hoard, the work that follows on from The Land Ballot, is a collection of so many different tones, topics and moods that each poem could prompt its own Matryoshka set of questions.  The element of surprise returns in this collection; there’s a vigour and linguistic freedom that, to my ear, wasn’t quite as overt in The Land Ballot, which had to adhere to the voice of character and historic record more assiduously.  In this new book, Adcock gives the ‘poetic fingers’ to 1960s convention and sexual conformity; now and then, verbal cusses suddenly give a wake-up bif to polite and deliberately crafted, restrained syntax. What we’d now call the ‘toxic masculinity’ of 60s and 70s popular culture, embodied in the figure of ex-husband Barry Crump, is revealed in all its frightening, ugly disregard for the safety and dignity of women, children, or indeed other men, if they were seen to be rivals. The collection keeps the reader alert, on their mental toes, as it darts from moments of personal courage — the carefully shaped confessional poem — to the gleeful, subversive notes of humour, where the poems borrow the structure of set-up and pay-off or punch-line from jokes or situation comedy.  ‘Tinakori Road’ for example, quips on the anxiety of literary influence, and how hard Mansfield’s precedent is to escape — not just for women writers, but perhaps for any young local woman with aspirations; while ‘The Old Government Buildings’ takes a lunge at pompousness with a punch line of deliberately grubby bathos; bringing the moment to earth with a bump, even when Adcock’s thumbing her nose at herself. There is also sometimes a macabre, even anarchic wit, as in ‘Maulden Church Meadow’, where Adcock tackles the subject of her own death not with sobriety but with the puckishness of a seven-year-old’s, cartoon-grotesque perspective:

 

As this is one of the destinations
for my ashes after I’m cremated
perhaps I could start with a trial run:
frizzle up one of my little fingers
while I’m walking here, and scatter it fresh
among the cowslips by the tadpole pond,
or lop one off among the lady’s-smocks
on the bridle path as a snack for foxes.

 

There’s such joy and mischief in some of these poems. Yet it suddenly strikes me, noticing the buoyancy of all the moments of comedy — dark or otherwise —that this might all have been a necessary foil for the tragic life story of the material you needed to call on for the libretto of Iris Dreaming (2016). What was the timeline for these two projects? Were you working on the libretto and the poems side by side, or quite separately? How did the writing processes for these two projects differ, or help each other?

FA: Once again, as in the clash between family history and poetry, it’s impossible for me to work on two creative projects side-by-side, or indeed to have two different obsessions in my head at the same time. I finished the first draft of the libretto for Iris Dreaming in January 2015, and Gillian had already begun work on some musical ideas for it before I went to New Zealand in November that year. I was able to show it to Derek Challis, Iris/Robin Hyde’s son, when I was in Auckland that December. It underwent a great deal of revision afterwards, particularly when Joanne Roughton-Arnold, who commissioned, produced and sang it, began thinking about it and discussing it with her director Sara Brodie and with the musicians, and every now and then they or Gillian would ask me for a little rewrite, but that was fine with me: it had become a collaborative project.

I wrote very few poems during the rest of 2015, and none at all during my two months in New Zealand — I can never write while I’m there — but I made a few notes, and began writing poems again once I was back in England, from February 2016 onwards. All the New Zealand poems in the final section of Hoard together with a few others on other subjects, including the two sequences about Ellen Wilkinson, were written during 2016. Most of the other poems in the collection — i.e., about half of them — date from earlier years, some going back as far as 2009. They were on assorted subjects, not compatible with the contents of my other collections, and had to hang around until I could find a place for them. As you’ll have gathered, when I’m under the spell of a powerful obsession anything else gets squeezed out.  The Land Ballot preoccupied me entirely for 22 months from March 2012 to the last day of December 2013. It was like living with characters in a novel; I felt quite wistful when I had to relinquish it to the publisher. During this time I went to New Zealand for six weeks in April and May 2013, not only visiting family but doing research in the Turnbull Library and elsewhere, and going with my son Andrew to what remained of Te Rauamoa, where my father and grandparents had lived during his teenage years. I wrote no poems there, of course, but had nourishment for the ones that later arose from these experiences.

 

 

EN: Two poems from Hoard prompt this next nested set of questions. They both have an enjoyably light approach to potentially heavy subjects. ‘Hortus’ shows how technological advances are altering our subconscious life and shaping our most ingrained reactions. ‘My Erstwhile Fans’ — initially lifting the reader with a sense of poetry’s vitality in speaking the truth to power — also shows it losing some of its revolutionary and emotional force in the face of the seductions of TV and film. The poem uses a self-deprecating, gently comic tone; and yet it’s been a long, ongoing pressure for poets, trying to be heard, understood and valued — and these two pieces make me want to ask how the digital revolution has affected your approach to your craft, or your sense of what poetry can be and achieve? And what keeps you turning to poetry as your artistic medium?

FA: This is a mammoth question, and my reply may veer slightly away from what you have asked. ‘My Erstwhile Fans’ is basically a political poem, following on from others I’ve written about Romania in the past, about the effects on a populationof having its government censorship removed — the result being that the level of popular taste declined; people who used to enjoy highbrow foreign imports (plays by Shakespeare, translations from English fiction and poetry), were permitted to enjoy less obscure entertainments. I found it mildly amusing to have been briefly ‘all the rage’, but didn’t delude myself for a moment that this was a literary judgement of my work; for that I turn to native speakers of English with a wide background of reading contemporary poetry in our language. The volume of three English poets which those factory workers enjoyed was simply a literal translation of our work, with no attempt to reproduce the rhythms or other elements that made up our poetry in English. And this, of course, leads us to the whole traddutore/traditore can of worms, which I shan’t open.

As for ‘Hortus’, the technological reference in it is the trigger for the joke, but really this is just a nostalgic yearning for a lost paradise, like the paradise of childhood, or my yearning for beautiful places I’ve lived in or visited in the past. You can’t go back. The mouse is simply another method of stopping time, freezing the frame, keeping the scene here for ever. I have occasionally made references to other forms of technology, such as Skype, but actually I have no affection at all for the technological revolution, useful though it can be. It depresses me to see young people, particularly children, living their lives at second hand, on screens.

And ‘what keeps me turning to poetry as my artistic medium?’ Come on! You don’t really expect me to answer that, do you?

 

EN: Ah, it wasn’t meant to be impertinent!! Or dim … I thought the original question might open up discussion of other genres, if you had tried these; or a discussion of how the digital revolution might have led you to the realm of ‘e-poetry’, or film poems, or changed your sense of what a poem is, or can do, and what other media it can use as a kind of vector. … But onwards to the next question. You’ve collaborated many times with Dame Gillian Whitehead. What are some of the biggest challenges — and sweetest rewards — of working alongside another artist whose first medium isn’t poetry? How has the collaborative process affected your more solitary writing projects?

FA: I love working with Gillian, but I think she must be unusually easy to write for. The basic process is that she makes a proposition, we discuss it, and then I write some text and submit it to her. She then gets on with composing the music, coming back to me with suggestions or criticisms if there’s something in the text that she has a problem with. Our first collaboration was Hotspur: a Ballad for Music in 1979/80, when we were both in Newcastle. I found it amazingly exciting to be contributing towards this thing that wasn’t exactly poetry, although it involved some poetic techniques, including rhyme, more suited to the ballad form than to my usual poems. (Words for music have to be clear and accessible, without the nuances and subtleties that might occur in poetry for the page; it is the composer who will introduce these; the libretto is merely a framework for her creativity.)

At one point Gillian suggested we needed another section in the middle of the work, so that in between the descriptions of battles and campaigns the persona, Hotspur’s wife Elizabeth Percy, could sing about her own private thoughts and feelings. This was a brilliant suggestion, and created a shift to a more thoughtful, meditative mood in the midst of all the action. I decided that we could imagine her to be pregnant at this time (it’s known that as well as her historically attested son she had a daughter, whose date of birth, as a mere female, isn’t recorded), and give her some reflections on the coming birth as well as the possible death of her husband in battle. This tied in with the moon imagery — the full moon at the battle of Otterburn, and the crescent moon, which was the heraldic cap-badge of the Percy family. Gretchen Albrecht, who designed banners for the London production of the piece at NZ House, used stylized forms of these images.

 

The Battle of Otterburn. Photo credit: Tom Moody.

 

But enjoyable collaborations like this seem to have no effect on my own solitary writing projects. I’m quite happy to keep my various activities in separate compartments; it’s refreshing to move from one to another, but they have their own separate lives.

Perhaps this is the place to mention another of those parallel activities, translation. I’m not referring to what some poets mean by this term, free versions made from a crib without any knowledge of the original language (what Robert Lowell called ‘Imitations’), but actual translation done from scratch. During my fellowship in Newcastle I spent some of the first year dwelling mentally in the 14th century, with Hotspur, and the second in the 12th century, discovering medieval Latin poets and translating their work into verse that adhered as closely as possible to the rhyme schemes of the originals. I had access to both university libraries, Newcastle itself and Durham, where there were scholarly editions of some of the works I needed. The challenges were largely technical, but I found them fascinating. The result was The Virgin and the Nightingale. Some years later, in the 1980s, as a result of three separate visits to Romania, I began teaching myself Romanian and translating Romanian poets who had become friends of mine — rather a different activity because I could discuss their poetry with them.  I think I detect traces of their influence on a few of my own poems of around that time, although their tradition is so very different from ours.

 

EN: Have the impulses that trigger and drive you to write a poem changed over your career?

FA: I like to think so, but it would take too long to go through all my past poems and analyse how they came about. The prevailing impulse, though, is nearly always verbal: a phrase echoing in my head or picked up from somewhere around me — something overheard, perhaps, or a quotation. For example, my short poem ‘Alumnae Notes’ was triggered by reading in the Old Girls’ bulletin of Wellington Girls’ College that someone I remembered from my first term there had died; her name was Ataneta Swainson, but because she had been beautiful (I had a crush on her at 13) the phrase that popped into my head was “Beautiful Ataneta Swainson is dead” — I was remembering the first line of a poem by Browning, ‘Beautiful Evelyn Hope is dead’. And then I was off.

 

EN: When you are writing a new poem, what are the aesthetic or technical problems that are most likely to make you abandon it?

FA: Quite often I can tell when a new poem isn’t working because I become bored with it, and if I’m bored the reader will certainly be. But usually I’ll put abandoned drafts away in my overstuffed filing cabinet just in case they contain something I might want to use later.

 

EN: Does the act of writing itself help to shift your perspective on the topics you are addressing?

FA: There are so many different kinds of poem, and not all can be said to be ‘about’ a topic. They are made of words, not ideas (as some well-known writer said long ago — yes, Mallarmé; I’ve just looked it up. It’s the kind of remark I would have written down in my little notebook when I was in my mid-20s, working in the University of Otago Library and reading everything. It was a wonderfully well-stocked library, I was living alone with a small child and no resident baby-sitter, and television had not yet arrived in NZ). To carry on from your earlier question about technical problems, once I’ve begun working on a poem, or got stuck halfway through one, what I prefer to do is go out and walk, and let the thing develop its own direction in my head, stopping when necessary to make notes. Later at home there will be a lot of revision, and then perhaps more walks as I do some more mental revision. I don’t sit down with a plan or intention; anything may happen. My function is partly editorial — to see what deserves to be kept and how it fits in with the rest.

 

EN: What directs your reading these days? How do you make new discoveries, or are you an avid re-reader of old favourites — or both?

FA: A very short answer: chance.

 

 

Photo credit: Matt Bialostocki

 

Emma Neale is the author of five poetry collections and five novels, including Billy Bird, a fiction finalist at the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. She was recently appointed the new editor of Landfall, New Zealand’s oldest arts journal.

 

[1] Clive Wilmer, Poets Talking (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1994, p. 30)

[2] .Andrews (ed.) Contemporary Authors: Autobiography Series Vol. 23, page 1, entry dated August 1995

[3] Emma Neale, ‘Why Can’t She Stay Home? Expatriation and Back-migration in the work of Katherine Mansfield, Robin Hyde, Janet Frame and Fleur Adcock, doctoral thesis, University College London, 1999, p. 324)

[4] Janet Wilson, Fleur Adcock, Writers and their Work series (Devon: Northcote House Publishers, 2007, back cover blurb.

'I have always felt in-between the traditional and the post-traditional, what many might describe as modern' - Billy Kahora

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