Poet and novelist Judy Johnson visited the University of Canberra on 30 August 2012 to conduct a seminar on her creative practice. Following is an edited interview based on that seminar between Judy Johnson and Paul Hetherington.
Paul Hetherington: You have been writing poetry for a long time and have published three poetry collections plus an award-winning verse novel, Jack, and a novel in prose. You’ve a particular interest in writing historical narratives as well as more traditional lyrics. You’ve taught creative writing at the University of Newcastle for a number of years, have received new work grants through the Literature Board of the Australia Council and have been a resident in the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland, courtesy of a Varuna Alumni exchange. Poetry has obviously been central to your life for a long time. Why does it matter to you?
Judy Johnson: When I first started writing poetry I was in my twenties and had three small children under five. A lot of people have commented that they don’t understand how, when I was physically and mentally exhausted from looking after these children, I would have the creative energy to write poetry. But I felt that it was a lifeline and that it gave me back myself. As much as I loved being a mother, it’s a paradoxical experience. You are a very important person; you’re keeping these three small people alive; but in another way, what makes you an individual is lost. For a time, particularly when your children are infants, you become a kind of a nurturing machine.
I couldn’t deal with not having an inner life. As much as I love my children, and as much as my children inhabit my poetry, that was what I reclaimed. Even though I was very tired, I reclaimed that part of myself by taking half an hour or an hour in the day and removing myself to another room when the children were asleep—and just starting to write.
Which of course was preceded by a lot of reading, because I don’t believe that you can write unless you read. And I’ve noticed, at times where I’ve been too busy to read, I seem to dry up writing-wise as well. I lose that constant flood of words that is transformed through my own ideas and emotions into new work. When I was teaching I was always a little fearful when one of my students would say to me: ‘Well, no, I don’t read other poets’ work because I don’t want it to contaminate my style.’
When you begin writing poetry—and I think this is true for everyone—you’re like a sponge soaking up everything you read and you will tend to write in the style of the things that appeal to you most. What’s happening under the surface is that your own voice is weaving its way into all of the accumulations of reading that you’ve done, and the styles that you’ve mimicked in other poets. There comes a time, not too far after you start, when someone will look at your poetry and say: ‘That’s your style’. Then other poets may read your work and the same thing happens to them. All writers are a composite of all they have read, and of their own concerns and personalities. Writers help each other in that way.
Paul: When I’m reading poetry and wanting to write I’m often looking for a touchstone. I’ll be trying to find a way back into my own voice through a phrase or an image. I remember in the 1990s it happened with Lauris Edmond—I was given a book of her poetry and it opened up a whole area of my writing. Do you still have that kind of experience?
Judy: Yes. I try to open myself to as many poets who I’m unfamiliar with as I can. What can happen is a recognition—‘Yes, that’s wonderful’—and I open up to something new. It is easy to get used to a certain way of writing (and selecting certain reading matter) and I think it can help to shake up your pre-conceived notions by reading eclectically. You don’t have to like everything you read.
A lot of my work is image-driven and if I see a particularly apt (and surprising) image I can feel a tingle up the back of my neck. I write it down. I keep books everywhere. Not that I’ll use that image, although I often think ‘Oh, I wish I’d thought of that’. But there are so many ways you can create your own unique image through reading someone else’s—simply because it opens your mind to the possibility of juxtaposing things that you would never have imagined could go together. You think, ‘Here’s this beautiful phrase that works on so many levels. Well maybe if they’ve done this, then I can do that’. Or even better, ‘What if half of that phrase was rubbing up against half of that other phrase I wrote down three weeks ago …’
When I say that writing poems saved me, I nevetheless have trouble with the Romantic notion of somebody being born a poet, with a capital P. If somebody sets themselves up as a Poet, then it’s not only that they put pressure on themselves to perform but, I think, they can struggle to get a readership, because on some level that opinion of themselves as a Poet infiltrates the work.
If you approach each poem in terms of a separate relationship to the relationship you had with a previous poem, I think it makes all the difference. It becomes a humble quest for meaning rather than a dominant personality imposing his or her will on the material. It can be a dance or a wrestling match, but the poet’s influence shouldn’t be stronger than what the poem needs to say. I’m not suggesting, of course, that a poet shouldn’t have their own style or mode of expression. But that is part of his or her personality, an unconscious thing. It doesn’t need to be applied like a coat of paint.
Paul: What about the role of daydreaming and the imagination?
Judy: I think I would be unsuited for any sort of work that involved me being efficient rather than imaginative. I worked in a couple of offices when I left school and, yes, I didn’t exactly get fired but I was told continually that my daydreaming wasn’t a very good attribute to have. I was working in a cash office handing out people’s wages. So you can possibly see the conflict? Creative people need to be in an environment where they can explore their creativity. But I don’t believe that it needs to be locked in to writing or art. I cook when I can’t write. The creative urge always finds some sort of outlet.
Paul: Can you say a little more about your creative practice? Do you find it difficult?
Judy: There are things I find confronting and frustrating. When I have an idea of what I am trying to say from the outset and the poem doesn’t want to co-operate. That results in a lot of drafts. And sometimes an abandonment of the poem, altogether. Being a pragmatist, there have been times when I couldn’t understand why I had been writing poetry for 20 years and had not reduced that drafting process. It can still sometimes take 15 or 20 drafts before I’m happy with the finished product. And then, of course, you hear about someone who writes a poem in a single draft in an afternoon and doesn’t need to change a word … that doesn’t help!
When I was in the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in 2011 I had an opportunity to talk to artists, composers and musicians who were there doing residencies related to their practice. They made me feel a lot better about what I perceived as the inefficiencies in my own practice. Most confirmed that the drafting process is more often tortuous than effortless and the final product, whether it’s a piece of art, or music, or a poem won’t be bullied into its finished form. The initial draft is almost a tentative feeler that’s put out towards meaning—even though you’re immediately tempted to think: ‘This is what I mean’. When you look at the fifteenth draft, it’s often not what you originally intended. But you know there’s a sense of completeness there and you know that on some level it is what you needed to say—even if you didn’t want to say it and even if you couldn’t have predicted it.
It’s a mysterious process but, in talking to other artists, there is a commonality of experience—so, draft after draft. One difference is that when you’re a writer you can keep all of your earlier drafts, and you’re wise to do so. If you don’t, you risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater when something that was essential to the heart of a poem disappears as a result of your editorial zeal. When visual artists paint over an earlier draft, that draft is lost to them forever. When they were explaining this and saying ‘If there’s something magical I had in the third iteration of this painting and I painted over it, it’s lost’, I was glad then that I am a writer.
My inability to keep working effectively day after day on a piece of writing is another thorn in my side. But once again, talking to other artists, it seems common to hit a brick wall, and quite regularly. The trick is not to try to break through the wall—you have to down tools; you have to go out and physically exercise. Absolutely empty your mind. Go for a walk or a swim, both of which are very rhythmic. Anchoring the consciousness in the flesh it inhabits for a while, letting tactile pleasures of the body have their turn, seems to take the pressure off. And often, after that little holiday from the mind, the words will come.
Another thing I’ve learned on the way, is that even if I’m not writing, paying attention is vital. Did you see the television special about the painter Margaret Olley just after she died?
Paul: Yes, I saw it.
Judy: Something she said resonated with me because I think it’s also true of many creative people—that when she was a child, she was less interested in playing with her siblings and friends than she was in studying the veins on the underside of a leaf, or being aware of the changing light. That made me think that even though I don’t believe somebody is born an artist or a poet, I do believe that there are certain personality types that …
Paul: Notice the world?
Judy: Yes, notice the world, and are more finely attuned to the minutiae. That artistic eye, if it persists—I think all children have it, because they’re so small and they’re at ground level; everything goes into their mouths and everything’s new; a blade of grass or a snail is fascinating to them—if that persists even when the clamour of the world starts to take over, I think it’s a sign of creativity. That’s what poets do—they are collectors of little odds and sods. They accumulate particulars until they have enough that, when it’s taken together, will point to something larger. I believe readers’ minds are more convinced by detail than they are by generalisations. There’s a wonderful Simon Armitage poem ‘Gone’ from his collection Zoom! (1995: 36). I don’t know if you’ve read it.
Paul: I have.
Judy: It exemplifies the point … the particular opening up to the general. It’s about grief, essentially. A man travelling in a hearse to the cemetery and his wife is in the back of the hearse. The attention to detail is what makes it so powerful. The poem talks about her watch on the bedside table still ticking. And a single blonde hair still left in her hairbrush. Even now just saying those things, I can feel a bodily sensation in response to them. Having read the poem dozens of times, still my body still responds in that way. That’s how powerful a device detail can be if it’s used well.
When I heard Margaret Olley talk about studying the veins on the underside of a leaf, or being aware of changing light, it reminded me that I was a very solitary child too. Children who spend a lot of time alone have to develop their imagination and I had an imaginary friend. I was reminded of it again the other day—that I had an imaginary friend for years but not many real friends. My sisters had all left home and I was like an only child. What happens is that muscle develops.
Paul: Do you think writers need to maintain a childlikeness within them? Is that necessary or not?
Judy: It’s necessary to an extent, but it’s a bit much of an ask for an adult to have that on tap at all times. At least I find it difficult. It’s that layer of self-consciousness that gets in the way, not to mention cynicism. Maybe if we just reserve a small place inside us for the child to have his or her say, to make his or her observations, to play. Maybe that’s enough.
Some of us have other reasons to feel drawn back to that child space, repeatedly. My father died when I was seven and at that age … before I’d had the chance to understand that he was just an ordinary human being with virtues and failings … because that process was arrested by his death, he has always seemed like some unreachable god to me.
In consequence, I’ve written a lot of poems about my father. Except I’ve come to realise they are not actually about him so much as the loss of my childhood. Things were never the same in our family after his death. My mother and I lived alone and she adopted a very different lifestyle after he died, with a series of unhealthy relationships with men. I felt that our roles were reversed. I became the adult, even at seven, and she reverted to the child in terms of breaking out from the marriage she had in many ways felt trapped by.
I’ve written a long poem called ‘Train town’ because it occurred to me that train tracks figured largely in my life. When I was very young, I lived opposite the tracks because my father was a train driver (he actually died of a heart attack on a train, when he was at work). Eight years ago I bought a house across the road from train lines. I find the sound of trains familiar and soothing, while other traffic noises merely irritate me.
My next-door neighbour, who sadly died of his long-standing heart condition, told me when I first moved in that he listened for the sound of the 4 am express train. When he heard it, he knew he was alive for another day. I found that incredibly moving. And there is a poem there somewhere.
In ‘Train town’ (Johnson 2007: 80-84) I attempt to retrace my father’s final journey and retrieve the caul of my children, sitting in the middle of the tracks ‘like a Smith’s chips packet, / wrinkled with rain’ (81). The simile seemed apt and quirky. Most of us can call up some sort of junk food from our childhood. Smith’s chips was mine. And bits of wrappers and things just sit there, and sit there in the middle of the tracks. No one seems to pick them up.
I have a lot of other interests in poetry, and most not so personal. In the last few years I’ve become interested in writing other peoples’ stories through dramatic monologue. Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ (1956: 49-51) is the most famous example. I love the idea of writing with the autobiographical ‘I’—but using a voice that is not my own. When you step into a character’s skin as a poet, you achieve a kind of immediacy that is not possible with third person. The tradition of storytelling interests me too. And I am never happier than when combining the two.
Though I didn’t plan for my poems to get longer and longer, when I look at my history as a poet, it seems like a logical evolution—to begin with small imagistic poems, then to develop an interest in narrative, then to write more expansive narrative poems, and then a verse novel, and then the novel in prose. But what’s interesting about that is the novel still feels as if it’s not quite my voice …
Paul: The prose novel?
Judy: The prose novel. I think it is a different space. I think the verse novel space and the novel space are much more different than I thought it would be.
Paul: What is that difference, do you think?
Judy: I think it’s to do with the size and the looser structure of the novel. And it’s to do with the lyrical density in the narrative poem. But it’s also to do with a kind of compactness of thought in poetry. The gaps in meaning that are left for the reader to fill in. Any form of poetry, even a verse novel, is different to prose. David Malouf, who writes intensely lyrical prose, is probably the exception because you can take almost any paragraph of An imaginary life (1978) and put line breaks in and it’s poetry. It is so beautiful, and so poetic. I heard him speak once about his practice and he said that he made no distinction between his prose voice and poetry voice.
Paul: It’s interesting about the difference between prose and poetry. My mind feels different when I’m writing prose of any kind—even fiction, compared to poetry.
Judy: It’s true. I find I’m not quite comfortable with prose yet. I don’t know whether that’s because I’m primarily a poet, even though I may want to write prose, or if it’s just that I haven’t practised prose enough. It feels like something that’s not intuitive and natural. But that could be just habit too. I mean whatever you do, day after day, there is an element of habit in there and your brain becomes used to working in certain ways.
I had imagined when I attempted prose that I’d be comfortable with story in whatever form. My longer narrative poems are stories in miniature, after all. I’m interested in Australian history—particularly aspects of Australian history that go unnoticed rather than the iconic tales that are trotted out in different guises over and over again. Often those poems require a lot of research.
Because of the research that goes on before I start writing these kinds of poems, it’s brought to my attention the fact that there are two different ways that I approach a poem. If I’m writing something personal, the process begins with a sense of urgency, of trying to find a way through that emotion in words. I remember reading an essay where Mark Doty talks about the very thing that I said in the beginning about how I felt that poetry saved me. He went further to say something along the lines of: having the craft of poetry—knowing how to construct a poem—can actually help you when you’re going through the worst times in your life, because … you feel as a maker you can get those tools out and go to work on the emotion. He described the creation of a poem as making a vessel to hold the emotion. If you don’t do that then what you’ve written is a cry, not a poem. It’s an error a lot of beginning poets make, I think. Mistaking their written cry for a poem. A cry can be a first draft, but it’s not a poem (Doty 2001: 46-68).
It’s the hardest thing, and counter-intuitive, that if you feel something deeply and let it all out on the page and give it to someone else—well why don’t they respond to that depth of feeling? But there’s a translation problem. The poet, Jack Gilbert, in his collection Monolithos, has a poem called ‘Poetry is a kind of lying’ that addresses this phenomenon. In the poem he quotes Degas saying that ‘he didn't paint / what he saw, but what / would enable them to see / the thing he had’ (1982: 15).
So, if I feel deeply about something—and a sense of urgency often jump-starts a poem—then I need to make a vessel to hold the emotion. But I’m also, fairly routinely, inspired by research material I happen to get hold of. If I’m drawn to certain subject matter, sometimes I want to get between and beneath the lines of what’s been said and find the emotion in what are often quite factual nonfiction accounts. I’ve focused quite a few of my dramatic monologues on women from the 1880s and I’m always on the lookout for unusual pieces of history—you know, and little quirky things you might find in second hand bookshops.
I picked up a book that was called Petticoat whalers: whaling wives at sea 1820-1920 (2001). How could anyone resist a title like that? It covered the period when whaling vessels used to go out off the West Australian coast, and also off the coasts of America, Africa and so on. The voyage could last for months and involved catching, killing and flensing whales, and all of the hideousness that’s involved with that. And though it was an all male crew, the family of the Captain sometimes went with them—there were lone women on board living through this and no other woman to talk to about it. I read that, and I thought ‘How could you do that, no matter how much you loved your husband?’
The book inspired me to do some further research and I came across the story of one woman who was pregnant when she went on one of these whaling journeys and had a miscarriage while she was on board, with no other women present, and all of these men otherwise engaged in the business of flensing a whale. I couldn’t let that go. There were a few scant diary entries from various women on board these vessels and I used them to create a composite life of how I thought this woman would have experienced the journey. The convention of the time was to give information in diary entries rather than your innermost feelings and thoughts, so the way a miscarriage would be described, like any other mishap was just so …
Judy: … matter-of-fact. I needed to give her a voice. I wrote a poem called ‘A whaler’s wife at sea’. It juxtaposes the business of killing the whale, flensing it, boiling down the blubber and so on, with her miscarriage below decks. I could come to no conclusion at the end. It wasn’t as simple as ‘how barbaric’. The family’s livelihood would have depended on the money from the whale. Poetry doesn’t answer questions, or shouldn’t; it asks them. All I could think of was the connection she might have felt with the orphan calf that was still out there in the ocean—because quite often they took the mother whales and just left the calf to die. It more than likely would have been still suckling when its mother was taken. So I ended the poem with … I’ve got it here …
Paul: Why don’t you read it?
Judy: Oh, well it’s long.
Paul: You could just read some of it …
Judy: I might just read you the end of it because I’ve just told you about the storyline. At this point she has just had her miscarriage and is recovering and the cleanup of the whale slaughter is complete. This last section is called ‘Scrimshaw’, because after the whale was flensed and everything was packed away, they used to make things out of the bone, the men, to entertain themselves. Though sometimes they also sold them.
Paul: Some of them are beautiful, some of those scrimshaw carvings.
Judy: Oh, they’re gorgeous.
Judy: And that’s the paradox of something that, through so much cruelty, has then created this beautiful thing.
Dear husband has offered a ring
to soften my loss.
He has fashioned it himself,
etched, then stained in the pattern
My finger is now the pivot
for a small circular enclosure
A flock of birds endlessly
circumnavigates its equator.
I have watched the men at this dainty craft
for days, surprised by the patience in their hands.
The cleanup is done.
Oil barrelled. Decks scraped
with jackknives, holystoned
with bricks and sand mixed with lye
from the try-work ashes.
Hauled tubs of salt water
have sluiced down the planks.
Only the faintest stink remains.
This morning Hammond, the half-wit,
read four more children
in the feathery lines of my palm.
Last night the sky exploded
with apparitions. A comet
swam between the stars,
and the Southern Lights hung
flung bolts of cloth: rubescent rose,
acidic green, bitter lemon.
All these carnival catapults
I am no longer sure
what is up and down.
Sometimes I dream the men
cut loose my headless torso
to settle on the seabed
with an icing sugar puff.
I rise from my moorings
like a dirigible, through screaming gulls.
What is constant are the final moments.
That anonymous stoic architecture
of all I have known
cast adrift on a borderless sea.
I do not shrug off dear husband’s
solicitous arm as he leads me up
from darkness into the light.
He has made a seat beneath
the riggings, so that I may knit
my unravelling edges and take the cure
of fresh air under the dappled scrimshaw
of the sun.
Birds circle endlessly.
I wish I could remove this gift
of bone, take respite
from the bleeding rash beneath,
and un-muffle my hearing
so that it is not only
deep sonar echoes
that bone-saw in the jaw
and teeth-edge metallic zizz
of the mast on a white-cap day
in my head.
But I know this is how, should
consolation find me, it will.
I will not shut down
cochlea, stirrup and anvil.
Through the inner sanctum’s
fathoms of fluid, I will listen
for the song of the orphaned calf
over all the whale-swelled horizons.
I will listen
with all the silence
this world can bear. (Johnson 2007: 39-41)
Judy: It occurred to me that silence would have been a plausible response, perhaps the only response, to what had happened to her. Miscarriage then didn’t evoke the same empathy that it does these days. It was expected that a woman just got on with things. I’ve got a little preface for the poem and it says that in 1886 Ellen Scott left her home in Albany, Western Australia, to sail with her new husband, Captain George Howland, in a whaling journey aboard his ship Canton. After that first voyage she refused ever to accompany him again.
So there’s that other thing. A lot of the women went once and never again.
To me, that was a clue as to the depth of their feelings. So that’s the kind of emotion that I try to generate through my nonfiction reading. It’s not something personal to me, but it became personal to me through my desire to empathise with that experience.
Paul: And as you imaginatively entered into the character?
Judy: Oh yes, particularly with dramatic monologue, because you start to live as that character for the duration of what you’re doing. And it’s a practice thing. Once you allow your mind the freedom to do that and you’re not frightened of losing yourself—if you can get over that fear of losing your own identity by stepping into another one—it’s incredibly freeing. When I was writing my verse novel, Jack, I was in that space probably for five or six hours every day until that was finished, over a period of a year or two years.
Paul: It would have been disturbing wouldn’t it?
Judy: It was very disturbing because the character is not a nice person at all. I had nightmares for two years afterwards. I had made him so real to myself that I even thought that I would run into him somewhere. That he would come after me for what I had made him do … and how I had controlled his destiny. Sometimes I thought he was still in my head, even though I was trying to quieten him down and say ‘It’s over now, our relationship’s over, move on’. But because I’d lived with that character for so long, it took a long time before my mind was convinced that he was gone.
When I was actually writing that book, I would go for my daily walk and I’d find myself walking like a man. And I’d get back from my walk and my shoulders would be hurting because it wasn’t the natural way that I walked; because I was in character and was thinking through his words as I was walking.
What helped me a lot with the writing of dramatic monologues was a mentorship that I did with Dorothy Porter. One of her verse novels was made into a movie, The monkey’s mask. I don’t know if you saw it, but she told me—and it was probably the most useful thing she could have said—that writing dramatic monologue is like method acting. She used to be an actress before she was a writer.
Paul: She was a very good reader of her work.
Judy: Oh, yes. Yes. And when you start to think of it that way, it gives you permission to act in a role, whether that’s on the page or whether it’s saying the words out loud. And it’s so much fun. I had fun, even though I was challenged and at times frightened when I was writing the verse novel, it was also … I’d never known that freedom. To step out of my own skin and mind and into that of a character’s that I’d created … of course it’s a mind trick. But what in this life of our perceptions isn’t illusory?
Paul: Does that mean that within us are all sorts of different people?
Judy: I absolutely believe that—particularly of myself—because I’ve never really got this idea of a solid self. I’ve never … I’m the kind of person that doesn’t recognise themselves in photographs, or sometimes even in mirrors. And that’s always been the case. It’s not because I imagine myself 20 years younger or something. Often when I have dreams, I dream I’m a man. So I’m a man having a dream. I don’t know what a psychologist would say about that. I don’t care to know, really. But it’s meant that this idea of a fluid self … somebody giving me permission to shape-change is the most incredible gift that they could give me.
Paul: There’s the ancient Greek idea of genius and the muse inhabiting the artist. Does that sort of idea resonate with you?
Judy: I don’t think … I don’t really believe in muses. I think one of the barriers to writing is that people believe that they should wait for inspiration to strike before they actually get to work preparing their mind, by paying attention … or quieting it down in some ways—and attuning it in other ways—to hear what it wants to say. What I do believe is the John Keats idea is that a poet doesn’t have their own identity, because they’re always adopting the identity of something else—whether that’s another person, or the sun or the moon. It doesn’t have to be animate.
I like the idea there’s no solid thing that is the poet. There is only this thing that is moving through all of these bodies and telling the news. So you know, that’s kind of a slant idea of a muse isn’t it? But it’s more … it’s more proactive. It’s more like being there and being prepared to move. In a way it makes me think if you had too strong a sense of who you were it might be a barrier.
Paul: Yes, that could be true. Keats also talks about waiting and the capacity for being in mysteries …
Paul: … and uncertainties, and so on, as part of being able to write and being receptive to whatever’s happening with poetry.
Judy: It’s also related to the Robert Frost idea that you don’t really know what it is you’re thinking until you see what you’ve written.
Paul: Yes, that’s often true.
Judy: Until we understand the way the brain works better than we do now, I don’t think we’ll be able to unpack that. We don’t fully understand what we’re thinking and that is a limitation. It’s a mystery to us. But I don’t want neuroscience to figure that out because once that mystery’s taken away—Dorothy used to describe it—she said you get to a point when you’re writing in dramatic monologue where there’s a whiff of sulphur about the whole thing. And that’s exactly the way she put it.
She said there’s this inexplicable place that you get to where everything’s strange and you know that a door is opened and you’re a little bit apprehensive about what’s going to come through that door.
Paul: The old idea of magic and creativity being associated …
Paul: Sometimes almost like an incantation.
Judy: Yes. You make the sacrifices and you do the incantations, and you don’t know what you’ll call up. You have to be prepared to be disturbed, I must say that.
Paul: So, how important is the imagination?
Judy: The world seems to be contracting in terms of its imagination, not getting bigger and it’s quite worrisome. I think that’s why there is a problem with poetry being marginalised. I don’t necessarily think it’s poetry’s fault. Our world is intolerant of anything that can’t be quantified—and becoming more so. People on the whole are more impatient for gratification than they’ve ever been, and poetry is at odds with that. With most poems, the reader needs to do a bit of work to get all of the juice.
I was reading something the other day, an essay by an American poet, Richard Hugo, and he was using the analogy of someone who had accidentally invented a cure for gonorrhoea I think it was—I can’t remember now—but he said that he found … this scientist found it by studying the mould spores and making interesting imaginative experiments with mould spores and he said eventually he got to the point when he discovered this cure. But if somebody had come to him and said ‘Here is your brief, find a cure for X disease’, he would have been so focused he wouldn’t have thought laterally and seen the possibilities. There might have been all sorts of diseases he could have accidentally cured by just randomly experimenting. His point, Hugo’s, was not to have a fixed idea of what you want a poem to be about when you begin writing. But it applies to readers too. If they could approach a poem without expectation, they would be more likely to be surprised and delighted, rather than just feel bewildered, or resentful that they could be watching television instead of having these words that are seemingly drawing no firm conclusion.
That living with uncertainty, resting within the mystery, is at the heart of all of this. I think if you’ve got a strong sense that you know what you’re doing when you approach writing a poem then you shouldn’t be writing poems. You should approach it with those fresh, hopeful eyes and uncertainty, and a fear that this has got so many ways to go wrong, and a sense that all you can do is just, in a very humble way, try and pay attention and work through this.
There is a downside too. If you are constantly doing this thing you are unsure of, in isolation, not only your self-esteem can suffer. I’m a solitary person, and I suffer from periods of depression—I’m not a natural extrovert—so I have to prepare myself and brace myself to be with a lot of people. But of course, human beings are not designed to be too solitary. I’ve learnt to juggle those things; to force myself out into the world because it is good for me. Having a family has helped a lot with that. Kids keep you grounded.
I guess if you have a certain personality type and you’re drawn to do something and you know that you will do that thing, it’s a desert island question—if you were marooned on a desert island and there was no reasonable expectation that anyone would ever read anything that you had written from that point on—would you still write? In times where I’ve felt really discouraged, I’ve asked myself that question and the answer that I always come back with is ‘I wouldn’t understand myself; I wouldn’t even be real if I didn’t write.’
I’ve been doing it for so long, and living in my imagination for so long, that it’s the largest part of me. Without writing I might just fall away into little bits and drift away—so I would write on my desert island to understand how I’d managed to get myself in the situation on the desert island and what it might mean. It would be a memo to myself.
Paul: Speaking of desert islands, have you ever been somewhere where you’ve got a really strong impression of the place and felt as if some sort of narrative belongs there?
Judy: Yes, Ireland. When we went to Ireland last year I was interested in the people and brought a lot of the people home with me—but the thing that really whacked me between the eyes and wouldn’t let me go was the landscape. There’s something about the Irish landscape. Everybody will say it’s melancholy, the sky’s very low and it’s almost always grey except for a little shard of sun now and then—but there was something else.
It was almost as if the landscape itself is alive—and not just because of the human history that it has endured. The poems that I’ve written about Ireland all deal with that in one way or another and it’s not so much about the people as about how landscape speaks—how do you find a way to talk about that without seeing it through a human-centric filter?
One of my favourite poets is Wislawa Szymborska, the Polish poet, and she writes about things, inanimate and animate, and she doesn’t seem to have a pecking order with humans at the top, followed by animals, followed by landscape. I love that because it’s another freeing idea. What if you can talk about landscape much as in a dramatic monologue without anthropomorphising—embracing that alienness in some way? Maybe it’s impossible but it’s the impossible things that poets and writers want to get hold of. Have you been to Ireland?
Judy: Have you been to the Burren, Paul, on the west coast?
Paul: I’ve been to the west coast. Maybe you could set the scene of the poem.
Judy: Well, it’s this incredible place, it used to be an ocean, aeons ago, and for as far as the eye can see it’s like slate and everything’s horizontal. There are cattle that walk over it and there’s tiny little weeds that grow up between the slate and the cattle will pick at them. It’s the harshest moonscape you could imagine. It’s overwhelming, and each tiny little piece of stone has some sea-going fossil in it—so it’s all there, the fossil record, all there … so much amidst so much nothingness.
When I wrote this poem I was thinking about how we deal with emptiness and that we don’t deal very well with it—the idea of nothingness. There’s no moisture there, there’s no trees, there’s no grass. All there is are slatey stones that just go on forever.
At the same time there’s a Szymborska poem called ‘View with a grain of sand’ (Szymborska 1995: 135-36). What she talks about is the way that we name things and those names become the thing itself—so we give the thing that covers three-quarters of the Earth the name ocean and then we ... every time we think of that word ocean it’s kind of filtered through our expectations and our naming and we’ve imposed that on it. What she tries to point out in her poem is that the ocean’s oceanless, and the tree is treeless. They’re just names and not indicative of some intrinsic ‘isness’.
I was trying to get to that idea of emptiness and how we hate emptiness but how there’s life there. But it’s just life as we’re incapable of understanding it:
(Galway Bay, Ireland)
I’ve brought home two shards of stone the size
of a premature baby’s fists
from the other side of the world.
And something less easy to steal:
a kind of absence
that isn’t smooth
but a crazy pave of grikes
and clints and all connected
for a planet’s sharp and broken skin.
The Burren is a brain left out in the sun.
Grown tired of yearning for
its megalithic ocean
each square inch graffitied with sea-going fossils.
In 1700 Edmund Ludlow saw nothing but wasteland.
Country with no water
to drown a man in,
no trees to hang him,
no earth to bury him.
But the places that get inside us,
those that have meaning for the long haul
are always alien. Never need us.
They exist only
out of their element.
I remember the cloven hooves of cattle clattering
over the Burren’s surface like clock ticks,
the long, pink straps of their tongues
dipping for ferns that grow between fissures
under the pewter of a west country sky.
Proving nature abhors a vacuum.
Except of course, it doesn’t.
Nor the opposite of abhorring
nor anything in between.
It’s us who hate emptiness.
So here, in these two shards of stone, can you see the miracle?
The bright brave flowers of ammonites
sprung from a barren land.
(Johnson 2012: n.p.)
Judy: I was trying to question the idea that nature abhors a vacuum. Nature itself doesn’t abhor a vacuum; it’s got no way to abhor something or not abhor it. It doesn’t hate or love, and yet that’s the only way we understand the world, through our human-centric filter. The thing about Szymborska’s poem and the delicious irony about her talking about how the ocean is oceanless and the tree treeless is that she’s using words and names to tell us that those words and names are not right. It’s impossible not to use language and naming and our appropriation because we don’t understand things otherwise.
Is it possible to nudge up towards that edge of being closer to a different way of understanding …
Paul: Through various kinds of practice, such as meditation, but ...
Judy: Not in words?
Paul: I’m not sure.
Judy: Maybe words and naming are insolvable barriers to getting beyond …
Paul: I guess that the limitations of language are also its freedoms. You work within the limitations but you can put words together in a way that suggests something beyond those limitations. Do you ever feel self-doubt as a poet?
Judy: All the time. Self doubt about whether the things I write are any good, of course. But also … nobody I know, except other poets, get why I would want to write poetry. I’ve noticed how different people’s responses are to my being a writer if I say I’ve written a novel. Everybody thinks a novel’s cool; most people just look blank when I mention poetry.
Paul: Except in Ireland?
Judy: Except in Ireland and among people who are poets or who are dedicated poetry lovers—in Ireland poets are respected. You don’t get that in Australia. If you go looking for positive reinforcement for poetry in the current environment—unless you’re very lucky and you have a high profile name and you feel that you are lauded by your peers—you won’t get the rewards that you feel you deserve. The people who do are a tiny percentage—half a per cent—of everybody that’s writing poetry.
Paul: Less than half a per cent.
Judy: Less than half a per cent. Well, if you’re one of the less than ninety-nine and a half per cent who aren’t getting that, the only thing that will sustain you is the thought that you’re writing to understand the world better and to understand yourself better.
And while it’s almost impossible not to be aware of the larger ‘poetry scene’, there comes a point, and you would probably agree with this, Paul—where you say ‘I will do what I do’. If people accept it, that’s great; that’s the best outcome. If they don’t, well, as long as it’s up to a certain standard—and it’s got to meet my own standards of good enough—you can’t change yourself to fit in with whatever happens to be fashionable.
Paul: Once you’ve written a poem and you send it out to an editor, how do you feel about editorial interventions—assuming you’re lucky enough to get them?
Judy: To be honest, I’ve rarely encountered interventions as such. Perhaps only once or twice have I been asked to change something. Mostly a poem either gets rejected or accepted on its own merits. I certainly don’t mind commentary. As you say, it is a compliment that an editor would take the time to think about your work.
Some editors like Les Murray can’t help themselves, so you send him things and he scribbles on them and it’s quite often very amusing. And I feel that it is great generosity on his part to do so. When I first started writing I sent him a poem and it had ‘nipples’ on a line on its own and he wrote a little comment next to it; a little thought bubble, and he said ‘I know nipples are important but not important enough to be on a line on their own’. That kind of light-hearted banter doesn’t hurt … you don’t take it the wrong way but you think, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll rework that’.
Paul: Do you give much thought to the layout of your poems on the page?
Judy: Usually. ‘The burren’ poem is deliberately set out the way it is typographically because that’s the way the pieces of flint looked stacked on each other. One of the things I learned from Dorothy Porter was the use of indents … if you consider that at the end of a line you have a pause that’s about equivalent to that of a full stop, whether or not you use a full stop, if you want a longer pause, one thing you can do is indent the next line.
Paul: Judy, could you start to wrap up by saying something more about reading—which is one of the issues we started with when you said how important you thought reading was to writers?
Judy: I think a shortcut into writing is to read something that you love in the area that you’re going to be writing. But any reading (even the back of the cornflakes packet if you are desperate) greases the skids of writing. Reading (particularly poems) teaches you about sonics and rhythm. Word play. It increases your vocabulary. It shows you just what is possible with language and its endless permutations. For any serious writer, a love of words has to come first, before this idea of ‘having something to say’. At least that’s what I believe.
I often think of reading and writing as being just one ocean and we’re all paddling around in it—we’re taking part in it either by reading or writing but the words are the ocean and it’s … things are being pulled out and digested and … I would go so far as to say that if you are not an avid reader, you will never become a good writer.
Paul: Would you like to do some reading?
Judy: Yes. The reason why I chose this poem ‘Walking Nobby’s breakwall’ is because, in a way, it encompasses most of the concerns that keep showing up again and again in my poems.
When I was saying that most of my poems had my father in them, or the loss of my father, it made me think that there’s a lot of mention of God and, more specifically, an abandoning God in my poems as well. I’m an atheist, and I was trying to work out what is this obsession with God. I came to the conclusion—and this was kind of shocking to me—that I’m still talking about my father and his abandonment. So it turns out I’m disobeying my own tenet of using particulars to point to something bigger. In this case I’m using something big (god) to point to something smaller (my father).
This poem also points to Buddhist philosophy which I enormously admire, even though I am not strong enough to live the Precepts.
Nobby’s breakwall is actually not far from where I live in Newcastle. It’s a long breakwall that goes all the way out and where … you may have heard of the Pasha Bulker, the big oil carrier that was beached in the big storms of a few years ago? Well, from Nobby’s Breakwall you could see that.
Walking Nobby’s Breakwall
Playing that game
of removing one sense
I close my eyes: no longer dazzled
by the glinting jewellery of seagulls
but hearing the sharp pins of their cries
scratched down the length of the sky.
Some vast mouth inhales the ocean, exhales it
with the pressure of a hose
onto the bony hips of the breakwall.
The breeze is a tide of waterless liquid
rolling up, unrolling its prayer mat
on the skin of my arms.
The smell: crabs boiling in seaweed-vinegar.
And deeper out, that sound
like the vent of a pressure cooker,
as the ocean jettisons white noise from its lungs.
Today, I would rewrite the parable of the king,
who gathered blind men around an elephant
then asked them what it resembled.
The first, feeling the tusk, exclaimed
the elephant was similar to a giant carrot.
The second’s fingertips, moving over its ear,
concluded it was like a leaf … and so on.
Instead of a lesson in limitation,
I would praise each man’s insight,
their somehow knowing that if the creature’s essence
was not in its tusk or ear, then it was nowhere.
Also their wisdom in not courting immensity.
Who could bear, for instance, to look on
the entire and terrible face of God, or else
the endless black hole of his absence.
Better to have the pachyderm in pieces.
Walk the unfinished bridge of a breakwall,
our lit fuses ablaze, burning down
the incandescent particular length
of each moment. That’s all.
And as for the shadow of the elephant’s trunk,
growing longer in the water,
let our blindness feel it as shade. (Johnson 2007: 73-74)
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