Sarah Rice and Jen Webb met at the Bookplate café in the National Library of Australia, Canberra, in November 2014, as part of an ARC-funded project into poetry and creativity (DP130100402), to talk about Sarah’s own creative practice and her experience of thinking and making across several modes.
Jen Webb: So, congratulations are in order: you’ve just won the Bruce Dawe Award for your ‘body’ poem.
Sarah Rice: Yes; the poem is called ‘Last Week’. It was interesting to write because it was one of the first times I’d played with the visual side of poetry as well as the aural side. The poem is divided into two columns, like a grid, so you can read it cross-ways or down in each column, and you get lots of strange things happening, and lots of overlaps.1
Jen: Do you think it was inspired by your work with Caren Florance on visual poetry?2 I know you’re an artist yourself, but layout and typography are so important for her.
Sarah: Layout is so important! It is true that we’d been working together a lot, but I’d also been working on the Wordsmith show where I exhibited some drawings and some poetry.3 The curators had asked me to participate as one of the poets, and I said Well could I, perhaps, also include a visual work, if you don’t mind? It’s one of those issues of self-identity ...
It’s funny, how often people know you only from different areas. So for instance, at the Art School4 I’m not really known as a visual artist, because everyone else there is a visual artist; I’m known as an art theory person, as a teacher. They forget that, actually, I studied there; I did ceramics and visual art. But then, when I go into the poetry world, they see me as a workshop facilitator, a visual art person.
Jen: And in the workshop world, or the community arts world, you’re probably seen more as a philosopher or art theorist?
Sarah: Yes, that is very true. It’s strange trying to work out exactly where you sit. I think I’ve done a little cross-media thing, standing with one foot over many borderlines.
Jen: There’s a place in America where you can stand on four states at once, because they all meet at a point.5
Sarah: Oh, I definitely want to go there and write in each corner, and then just do a strange move: like at Highland dancing where you dance over the swords.
Jen: Yes. Or you could treat it like Homer’s labyrinth: that open-air dance floor where dancers moved beautifully across and through particular patterns on the floor.6
Sarah: I have been thinking a little bit about dance lately, mainly because I’m interested in how all art forms relate to the other art forms, and how one art form will define itself in terms of another. In ceramics, say, you see articles written about pottery as ‘poetry in motion’; or about ‘the poetry of form’ and ‘the poetry of clay’; or painting will describe itself as dance; or poetry will describe itself as music. There are many so ways in which each art form responds to another. And I think dance is a central one, perhaps because it’s about movement: you know Eliot’s ‘at the still point, there the dance is’:7
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; / Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, / But neither arrest nor movement. / And do not call it fixity, / Where past and future are gathered.
Jen: Or think of that Roethke poem about his drunken dad who ‘danced me off to bed’:8
The whiskey on your breath / Could make a small boy dizzy; / But I hung on like death: / Such waltzing was not easy.
Sarah: I can honestly say I don’t remember a time without poetry. My parents introduced me to it: they both quoted poetry at the table. My father was born in Australia; my mum was born in England; and they both studied poetry at school. My mum was the first woman to receive the Leicester university prize for poetry reading, and she was also an actress, so she has a commandingly beautiful voice when she recites poetry. I don’t think that’s irrelevant to why one loves poetry, because if someone speaks it in that way, you just listen.
Then, when I got sick some years ago and was bedridden for a long time, I had to give up everything, so the external world pretty well disappeared. Poetry was a way of externalising, of getting in touch with the outside world again; or perhaps it was a way of becoming more in touch with my internal world? Somehow it manages to do both, and often simultaneously. There was a point at which I could really do nothing else, so I went back to listening to poetry a lot. Also, one of the few things that I could actively do was compose poetry in my head. So I suppose poetry felt a bit like a line back to the world, a way of reconnecting with thoughts, with philosophy, with ideas, and with other people, in that double way of going inwards and outwards at the same time.
It led me back out, too, in a practical way, because Patsy Payne – who was head of print making at the Art School – saw some of my poems, and wanted to combine them with her prints. The poems and prints co-inspired each other. Caren [Florance] then used letterpress to typeset my poems and each page was handprinted to produce the limited-edition art book Those Who Travel, which was collected by the NGA.9 And from there, other people ask you to do things. So it was, also, literally, a stepping stone back into being known for something; I could no longer teach at that time, and so instead I had poems I could read and discuss, and that gave me a way back to the outside world.
Jen: This makes me think about something I’ve been very interested in, lately, and that’s the concept of proprioception. I don’t mean it in the medical sense, but rather in the idea that your body, knowing itself in the world, is like a sixth sense.
Sarah: That’s a really interesting point, because one of the things that I lost through my illness was balance — proprioception. It was absolutely the worst of all of the experiences, because you pretty much lose everything with that and many different effects happen: your proprioception and your vestibular system, essentially, are built of your inner ear and peripheral vision. Because all those systems had been tampered with by my illness, I couldn’t see properly, couldn’t walk, couldn’t sit up. It’s a horrible feeling: as though someone has cut you loose, and you’re somehow floating in space.
The thing that’s really interesting about peripheral vision is that it is not operated by the macula — that part of the body and brain that handles seeing. So, for example, imagine you’re driving along; your central visual system is looking at the road and noticing things, but if there’s a sudden movement in your peripheral vision — say it’s a bike zooming past — apparently you don’t really see it in the same way; it’s more like you sense its movement. But the two kinds of vision usually work seamlessly together, so I think there’s something about that that could be very interesting in terms of creativity, in terms of how people learn and come to things. And I wonder if there’s a metaphor that could be drawn from that — the idea that something peripheral captures your attention without your actually having seen or recognised it, or even knowing what it is, at that time. There’s a ‘something’ flickering in the corner: and poetry often has the sense that there’s a disturbance at the periphery; that idea of being pulled.
Jen: Is this something like the idea of how signification, shackled to a word or associated with that word, can afford a change of meaning? That we are metaphorically and actually moved by art?
Sarah: Maybe it’s the idea of being led. In painting, the painter moves your eye around the canvas, and your eye is caught by specific bits but then moved so that you get to circle through the work. And of course, a poet moves you through their poem, in a large part through their line breaks or through the gaps between words. There’s this sense of being moved gradually through the life or the life-cycle of the poem.
Jen: I’m interested in this idea of movement because remember how Lessing spoke about visual art as the artist’s space and hence, movement — you’ve got to walk around it — and writing, literary art, as the art of time.10 But the way you’re describing visual and literary arts as operating in space and time means both are moving.
Sarah: Oh, that’s interesting. And I think too there’s something more than space and time; I think there’s space, and there’s time, and there’s the emotional content of the movement: the ‘tending’, the being ‘moved’, such as being touched.
It reminds me of a quote — it might have been Edward Hirsch — that poetry is like a wave and it moves us from the eye to the ear to the inner eye to the inner ear.11 And I think that’s lovely because it’s those senses in which we use words to mean a whole emotional world, an internal world; that is also a very physical world. Poetry does move us, and I think it is a very deep, often forgotten tie to that fundamental world (as with the vestibular system), to something that anchors us, that roots us, in a way that we, maybe, aren’t even aware of.
Jen: So you are moved twice: once in the sense of being, and again, physically, in the sense of seeing. When I had a residency up at Hill End, in Donald Friend’s cottage, I spent a lot of time up there alone. The place is said to be haunted, and though I’m utterly sceptical, still I experienced a sense of haunting, but only at the periphery. I’d be walking down the road and there’d be something and I’d turn but there was nothing there. And that happened again and again; and so I suspect that ghosts — which I don’t believe in — ghosts call to us from our peripheral vision, from the edges of the thing.
Sarah: Oh, that’s so interesting, because that is this deeper-rooted, more fundamental, almost prehistoric connection back to some other time. I haven’t studied this but I think there’s something of interest there, and I do feel sometimes that is how ‘inspiration’, quote, unquote, comes. Emily Dickinson’s ‘truth told slant’.12 It’s that sense of being pulled sideways, being pulled off your normal track, which is exactly what the peripheral is meant to do. You’re going along in your normal track, and something flicks just out too far and it forces you to stop, change direction, re-think, re-decide, re-enact the journey; and I think that is an example of creativity.
Jen: When you’re writing, how do you decide where to start, how to sort, where to go?
Sarah: I suppose I’m selective on the basis of a core impulse because until you’ve done the whole thing, you don’t really know what exactly you’re writing or what the core thing is: especially because of that sense of movement. For one poem, I started by writing about ginger and I ended up with death; and I think how did that happen?
I think that at the end you do know what the core impulse is, and then you stay true to that. I like the idea that the poem does, in fact, move you even as you are moving it. You find yourself being led, and some of that leading is the concept, and a lot of it is the word. I’ll find that when I’m writing I get seduced by language: say a word, and then the next word sits so beautifully but its meaning wasn’t quite where you thought you were going. Meaning tends to throw, like a fisherman casting a line, so you feel like you have this lovely trajectory out into the sea and you’re going to catch some great fish with it. But then as you’re casting, you feel this little line of the word that leads you down and down, here and to the back of there, and you’ve been pulled off‑slant. Allowing yourself to do that, means that by the end of the poem there are so many meanderings, some to do with the words, some to do with the sense. At the end, maybe, the choices I make are based on the meanderings that have done both: furthering meaning and furthering this lovely line of the words.
Jen: I know you use poetry to teach art history and art theory, but it sounds as though art theory or art history come back and shape, or inflect, your poetry.
Sarah: I think so. When it’s about materiality and form, I think that the concrete, the importance of ‘matter’, comes out of visual art, and affects my poetry. You know how every poet has a perennial poem that they seem to be writing and it probably will take them the rest of their days? My perennial poem has been about words, and about the materiality and texture of words: the different ways in which words come towards you and how they approach you. This probably comes from art theory. It attends to how our hands, our fingertips, our tongue, our teeth, our mouth are so good at discerning all sorts of things. You know, you see women go up to other women and rub a little bit of the fibre of their dress or cardigan and they go oh that’s lovely ... oh that’s cashmere; and you see people doing it in the shops and saying oh the cotton’s a bit rough for my liking: we have this absolute capacity to feel textures, and of course, in art theory, and in visual arts, they use that all the time. So I feel the poet needs to do with words what artists do with their materials: exploit that ability to feel the edges of things. I really think that my interest in materiality has embedded itself in the poetry, in really wanting words not just to convey in terms of meaning, and not just convey in terms of the sound, but to have an extra element that is closer to touch or taste.
Jen: I had a discussion with a local artist just a few weeks back and she said that we ought all to be doing everything — all art forms — and so I took the contrary position and said no, you should actually focus on one. But honestly, I think it depends. You have philosophical training, so you have strength in concept and percept, and you can move that across to a maze of practice, while still sticking with that central point. Somebody else might be in a better position to focus, and their whole life will be poetry, or all their expressions will happen through painting, for example.
Sarah: At high school in Canberra there was an openness; maybe because it was a bit rough, so it didn’t feel like the whole curriculum was locked down. The English teachers would give us an essay or a project and I’d have my hand in the air and say could I do that as a poem or could I do that as a play? And there were a lot of opportunities to do that sort of thing. I think it lets you find the interesting things on each side. Of course, I can almost hear the audience screaming out: oh jack of all trades, master of none. And sometimes that is my fear; I don’t want to feel like I’m skating across too many things. But the topics I burrow down into, like metaphor, have a web that has reaches into all of the art areas. You can select something you’re interested in — say, the body — and find that the body is very useful for poetry, for art theory, for art practice, for philosophy.
And what’s interesting is how what you do can be given a few different labels. I think, for instance, of the first line of a poem; I’m constantly writing those down. Was it Billy Collins who that said the first line of a poem is the DNA of the poem, and then you unpack it?13 Often a statement comes in to my mind, and then I’m keen to analyse it; and the analysis could be done in a philosophical way, and would be exactly the same if I wrote it as a paper or as a poem. So, to me, the activity of thinking is what matters, and I choose which form I’ll use to do the working out.
Some ideas will lend themselves more to one form and some more to another. I think of the poem that I wrote about ginger, the one for the Gwen Harwood, ‘Against the Grain’.14 It starts with this first line: Many things have a grain best not to go against. / Even slicing ginger we come across it / the fibrous root close enough in this way / to its woody neighbour oak or pine. It’s as though I was cutting the ginger and then realising: even ginger works better if you cut it one way than another. And that’s when I thought this: many things have a grain, best not to go against. And, of course, from there, you write the poem about going with the grain in life; and then again, afterwards, I think: well, hold on, there are some cases where you do want to go against the grain. So I had to write a postscript to my ‘Against the Grain’, all about that, and develop those ideas. And halfway through my original poem it says: time itself is a grain we cannot go against, and that brought up other things about life, so that something as simple as slicing ginger became a treatise on life and death.
So is that philosophy, or is that poetry? It’s putting your focus and your intellect on trying to unpack those ideas. For me, with poetry, if you can find an interesting metaphor, an interesting image, then you realise so much of life is about what you hold on to, what you let go of, what to fight for, what not to. It’s like Rosemary Dobson’s ‘Divining Colander’ where she says, ‘to hold the best of all since done and let the rest slip through’.15 And thinking through such metaphors and letting them work through one’s readers is much more powerful than just telling readers what they should think about some particular issue.
Jen: John Berryman’s ‘The Ball Poem’ does much the same thing: ‘What is the boy now, who has lost his ball. / What, what is he to do?’ The ball disappears, the boy is stricken with loss, and the poet says, well, this is the burden of possessions: ‘Balls will be lost always, little boy, / And no one buys a ball back’. And so the boy ‘is learning, well behind his desperate eyes, / The epistemology of loss’.16 It’s a sad poem, and it’s beautiful, but it’s also quite funny in a way, and it forces the issue: what is one’s responsibility?
Sarah: What is your responsibility? That’s exactly it. And I think that, in a way, comes back to the idea of being more political than the overtly political. There’s something underneath which I feel we’ve lost, and maybe it’s a return to a philosophy such as: what is the good life? How should we be as a self? How should we be towards others? Those more fundamental questions are what actually gives rise, ultimately, to different political positions. I feel the more we fight on the surface about this position or that position, the less we ask those more fundamental questions. If we can consider what unites us, or what brings us together, or what are the important things that move us; what to hold onto and what not to; if we can get to those more crucial questions then we can go back to the Socratic method, ask Plato’s same set of questions again, and bypass a lot of the mess on the top, then I feel like we might get somewhere; and I think poetry can really help us do that.
1. The poem is available online at https://www.usq.edu.au/-/media/USQ/BELA/SoAC/Bruce-Dawe/Last-Week-by-Sarah-Rice2.ashx?la=en
2. Dr Caren Florance, known in the book-art world as Ampersand Duck, completed a doctorate that involved her collaborating with several poets — including Sarah — in the production of their poetry. Her graduation exhibition, Reading Spaces, can be reviewed at https://carenflorance.com/portfolio/reading-spaces/
3. Wordsmith, shown at Canberra’s M16 gallery in 2014; involved collaboration between visual artists and writers, where artists responded, in an ekphrastic mode, to the work of the writers.
4. The School of Art and Design at the Australian National University.
5. The Four Corners Monument in the USA marks the point where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet.
6. The labyrinth is usually thought of as the Minotaur’s prison, as described in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but in the Shield of Achilles section of the Iliad, Homer depicts the labyrinth as an intricate dance floor, designed for Ariadne by Daedalus (Book 18, lines 590–592).
7. From ‘Burnt Norton’ (1935).
8. Theodore Roethke, ‘My Papa’s waltz’ (1942).
9. Those who travel (2010), artist/s book, lithographs, pounced drawings, letterpress; hand-sewn, edition of 16; legacy ID 202031, National Gallery of Australia. The book is a collaboration between Sarah Rice, Patsy Payne and Ampersand Duck (Caren Florance), with binding and typography by Ampersand Duck, and printing assistance from Shellaine Godbold.
10. ‘We conclude, then, that succession of time is the department of the poet, as space is that of the painter’ (Lessing, Laocoön (1853) p. 120).
11. Hirsch quotes the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva as saying, ‘The wave always returns, and always returns as a different wave’ (p.23) and moves from that to explain: ‘The poem moves from the eye to the ear, to the inner ear, the inner eye. It drenches us in the particulars of our senses, it moves us through the articulations of touch, taste and scent’. See Hirsch, How to read a poem (1999), p. 24.
12. From The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition (2005):
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
13. In 2001 Billy Collins, being interviewed by George Plimpton for Paris Review, said: ‘Sometimes a first line will occur, and it goes nowhere; but other times—and this, I think, is a sense you develop—I can tell that the line wants to continue. If it does, I can feel a sense of momentum—the poem finds a reason for continuing. The first line is the DNA of the poem; the rest of the poem is constructed out of that first line.’
14. ‘Against the grain’ was co-winner of the 2011 Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize, and published on the Island journal website, in Theodore Ell (ed), Long glances (2013), and in Award Winning Australian Writing 2012, ed. Adolfo Aranjuez,Melbourne: Melbourne Books, 2012.
15. Rosemary Dobson, ‘Divining colander’, in Dorothy Porter (ed), Best Australian poems, (2006). The poem can be read at:
16. John Berryman, ‘The ball poem’ (1989). The poem can be read at:
Berryman, J 1989 ‘The ball poem’, in Collected poems, 1937–1971, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p. 11
Collins, B with G Plimpton 2001 ‘The art of poetry’, Paris Review 83.159 (Fall)
Dickinson, E 2005 The poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading edition (ed RW Franklin), Harvard: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
Dobson, R 2006 ‘Divining colander’, in Dorothy Porter (ed), Best Australian Poems, Melbourne: Black Inc, p. 49
Eliot, TS 1935 ‘Burnt Norton’, in Four Quartets, New York: Harcourt, 1943, p. 13
Hirsch, E 1999 How to read a poem: And fall in love with poetry, San Diego, New York & London: Harcourt
Lessing, GE 1853 Laocoön: An essay on the limits of painting and poetry (trans EC Beasley), Edinburgh: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans
Ovid 2001 [c.8CE] The metamorphoses (trans Horace Gregory), New York: Signet
Rice, S 2013 ‘Against the grain’, in Theodore Ell (ed), Long glances: A snapshot of new Australian poetry from the Inaugural Jean Cecily Drake-Brockman Poetry Prize
Roethke, T 1942 ‘My Papa’s waltz’, in Selected poems, New York: Library of America, 2005, p. 17