Jennifer Harrison visited the University of Canberra and presented a seminar to students and staff about her creative practice as a poet. Following are edited excerpts from the seminar, which took place on 25 August 2011, and a discussion with Paul Hetherington.
Jennifer Harrison: Thank you Paul for inviting me. I thought I’d talk initially about early influences on my writing. I’ve always admired how writers and artists speak so well about their own work and creative practice. I find it hard to articulate the sources of my own creativity and I rather agree with Wislawa Szymborska, when she said in her 1996 Nobel address, ‘The Poet and the World’, that inspiration and imagination are not the province only of artists and poets—that inspiration and creativity characterise many other professions: nursing, gardening … To quote Szymborska, poetic inspiration is born from a continuous ‘I don’t know’: ‘“I don’t know” is small but flies on mighty wings’ (Szymborska 1996). I rather like that humble element of not knowing what you’re going to find before you write a poem; of coming to poetry with an open heart and an open mind.
When thinking about my interest in poetry, I return to my mother. She had a little linen-covered book, quite tattered and old, in which she handwrote poems she loved, poems that appealed to her. One of her favourites was Henry Kendall’s ‘Bell Birds’. This is the first stanza, which I know by heart:
By channels of coolness the echoes are calling,
And down the dim gorges I hear the creek falling:
It lives in the mountain where moss and the sedges
Touch with their beauty the banks and the ledges.
I loved my mother’s voice when she read this poem, the melody and her pleasure in the sounds. Quite frequently my mother read poems from her book around the family table. We pillaged the book for poems for school assignments. What I learned from my mother’s interest in poetry—she never wrote poetry herself, to my knowledge—was poetry’s pleasure, its folk aspect, an experience shared within the community of the family or the larger community. I also learned that my mother collected poems she liked individually, and her critical approach to poetry continues to resonate with me. Some people say they like this poet or that poet; I tend to like this poem or that poem.
I began writing poetry when I was about eight, publishing in the Sydney Morning Herald children’s pages. There were several poems on spring—sweet, innocent poems. I’d sit for long hours illustrating my poems before sending them into the paper. Even if the poems weren’t published, you earned accumulative ‘points’ and pocket money. I enjoyed being an ‘industrious’ maker of poetry: shaping the words, decorating the capital letters, arranging the poems on the page, colouring in images inspired by the poems. I still enjoy playing with and shaping words. I enjoy being by myself with language.
In my final years of high school I studied German at Monte Saint Angelo College in Sydney. German wasn’t a language routinely offered at my school and there were only two of us who wanted to take it as a subject for the Higher School Certificate. I studied with Kim Grundy, Reg Grundy’s daughter,1 and because there were so few of us we attended weekly classes outside school at the Centre for Adult Education in the city. We were sometimes ferried there in Kim’s father’s limousine. Coming from a working class family, I found it rather exotic and exciting. Learning German and studying poems in German became an important building block for my own poetry, and I’d like to read you the first stanza of one of Goethe’s poems that memorably influenced me. The poem is called ‘Heidenröslein’.
Sah ein Knab’ ein Röslein stehn,
Röslein auf der Heiden,
War so jung und morgenschön,
Lief er schnell, es nah zu sehn,
Sah’s mit vielen Freuden.
Röslein, Röslein, Röslein rot,
Röslein auf der Heiden.
In the story of the poem a young boy sees a rose, a beautiful rose on the heath, and he thinks that it looks so young and beautiful in the morning light that he runs quickly to examine it more closely. He says with joy, ‘Oh beautiful rose, beautiful red rose, beautiful red rose’. He finds it so beautiful he can’t resist picking it and he takes it home and puts it in a vase where, to his distress, the rose dies. Years later Goethe wrote another version of the poem in which the young boy sees the beautiful rose on the heath, admires it, and lets it be. This poem is about evanescence, time and death. Through this poem, I understood that the poet is in for the long haul; that it is wonderful to write a poem in youth and then come to the same subject years later and write something new about what has been learned. I’ve always felt that I’m in poetry for the long haul.
After studying medicine at the University of New South Wales, I lived overseas for eleven years. I didn’t write a great deal of poetry while studying medicine, though alongside my medical studies I completed a course in creative writing at the University of New South Wales and wrote a novella. I began writing poetry again after I’d specialised in psychiatry and gained Fellowship of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatry. I was living in Boston at the time while my husband completed a Harvard fellowship in neurology. Particular influences at the time included the American poet John Ashbery and the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. When I returned to Australia one of the first poets I met in Melbourne was Kevin Pearson who, at that time, was establishing the independent Melbourne press, Black Pepper. It was a serendipitous meeting and we arranged to publish my first book, michelangelo’s prisoners, in 1994. Addressing contradictory aspects of my life, the book was divided into two sections: the first part focusing on neuroscience and medicine, and the second part preoccupied with the ocean and seaside. The latter section includes poems about Cudmirrah and Sussex Inlet, places on the south coast of New South Wales where my grandparents built one of the first houses in the area and where I spent all my childhood holidays.
I’ll read a poem from each section. ‘Neuroscience’ is a poem inspired by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. I was fascinated by the colourful scans, how colour reveals the brain and how the sciences of neurocognitive investigation and creative practice are lyrically aligned.
clung to their hair, the Schwann cells steamed and synapses
their amazing tigroid sums.
So glamorous were the words, the people grew jealous
wanting all the dark-eyed clues—the tools to prise open
the brain’s inner world of pale turquoise boats.
In vitro, they tended the genes
their dreams elbow-deep in cells. They saw memory
clinging to a ridge with rope and icepick, such wonders
that their thoughts, too, darted like birds across the lazy-lipped
breakers of the cortex—and even though
love escaped a crayoned equation and the future remained steadfastly
fatal they entered this world conversing in riddle
the imaged brain like a jewel in the hands of their children.
Here’s your inheritance: a map stained with daffodil scarlet
confusion—a fear of dark cadaverous valleys
a golem who lurks in the secrets. (Harrison 1994: 20)
The second poem is from the sea section of michelangelo’s prisoners. It’s a simple poem but one which has always seemed powerful to me. The poem is about a moment of intimacy, of intimate presence between lovers.
I recall the rented room
where you held my arm in your hand
and studied its line against light
while outside along the bay
gulls called for roe
from the first trawlers home
and the curtains
faded blue as the dawn
stirred against the terrace door.
You tested my arm, its weight
and shiver, its colour of shark
the way I imagine a soldier
tests a new weapon—its fit
across his shoulder,
its balance and curve,
the slenderness of its power. (Harrison 1994: 51)
After michelangelo’s prisoners, I published Cabramatta/Cudmirrah (Black Pepper 1996). This book, too, is divided into sections that respond to my father’s and my mother’s different family backgrounds. My father was one of eleven siblings. He was a motorcycle scrambler racer and we owned a motorcycle shop in Liverpool where I was born. His family was not wealthy and, as a child, he remembers there being little money for essentials like shoes. Most of his family resided in the western suburbs of Sydney, and the Cabramatta section of the book is a long imaginative poem dedicated to fragments of family memories and the cultural experience of the western suburbs. The Cudmirrah section continues my fascination with the south coast of NSW, the landscape of my mother’s family.
I’d like to read just one small excerpt from the ‘Cabramatta’ section. Stylistically, this long ‘travel’ poem is idiosyncratic in terms of diction and language. It was influenced by Derek Walcott’s Omeros—in so far as I wanted to speak the suburban patois of my Sydney western suburbs experience. This excerpt appears approximately three-quarters of the way into the poem.
I drive into liverpool past the pizza hut
that was my father’s motor-bike shop
they say my mother rode side-car
and that I did, too, as a baby
born with scrambler mud in her blood
and a taste of leather in her bottle-milky mouth
I’m tougher than you
you’re just a puss from pymble
a kelp-head from palm beach
it was that kind of racism
followed you along wakehurst parkway
mona vale rd to narrabeen surf club
where the rich boys used words like
what’s the matter with you, westie
at bathurst races, side-car riders
screamed their shoulders across tar
their bodies sending up sparks
I saw a man decapitated by the guard-rail
and from the corner of my eye I watched
a bikie gang called the rats, each a silver-studded
dirty-jeaned black-booted grizzly
gulping beer as they lounged over petrol tanks
like they were shiny young bulls.
you had to be over fifty to belong to the rats
my father told me
it was about then he sold the shop
sick of bikers
who took out a norton
for a test run and never came back
in the photo: sandown, 1950
a young man’s elemental mud
my father scrambling
in sepia style he lays the bike on its coccyx
it rears like a horse
Thematically, I’m interested in how we locate the body in poetry, particularly the female body. Although I had written and published poems before my first book appeared in 1994, I developed cancer in young adulthood (1990), a relapsing cancer, and this resulted in many years of medical treatment and trauma. Mortality is a difficult issue to come to terms with as a young woman; actually, at any age. It’s difficult to share personal material of this kind but, to be honest, I can’t really talk about my creative practice unless I talk about this experience. It has shaped the content and themes of much of my work.
In some poems I’ve written directly about cancer, but I’ve also been uncomfortable, I suppose, with rendering those experiences confessionally. Rather than describing what happened to me, I’ve been more interested in exploring associated emotional and psychological experiences and in how they changed my idea of self. In my last two books, Folly and grief and Colombine: new and selected poems—particularly in the Colombine sequence—one of the strategies I’ve used in dealing with these issues is to adopt masks and stereotypic personas from the Commedia dell’Arte.
I’d like to read a couple of quotes from a book that inspired me to explore my own themes using the metaphors and imagery of the Commedia dell’Arte. These are the opening lines from Kay Dick’s Pierrot, published in 1960: ‘I have been looking at him for a long time, and he has changed as I have changed, according to the mood or action of my experience …’ She is talking about a painting of Pierrot, and continues:
… yet he has remained the same watcher on the wall, this framed, unknown Pierrot, painted in the eighteen-nineties by an artist who chose to remain anonymous. This picture was found on a second-hand stall on the left bank of the river Seine in Paris by a director of a London art gallery, brought to England, cleaned, framed and given an approximate date and placed among a selection of canvases for an exhibition entitled Plaisirs de l’époch, 1900. (Dick 1960: 1)
The initial part of the sentence particularly resonated with me: ‘… he has changed as I have changed, according to the mood or action of my experience.’ Throughout my illness, I felt as though I was regarding myself from a distance (a common experience in situations of trauma). I felt as though the self I was observing was being changed by my experiences. So, I imagined, this might be a way to begin talking about the body and its vulnerabilities.
In Kay Dick’s Pierrot, I later came across some information about Colombine, the only female member of the Commedia dell’Arte:
No use for Colombine to imagine she was more than a woman. There was danger in her becoming a person as well as a woman. What happened was therefore inevitable. Colombine, throughout her history, was treated like a woman to such an extent that it became almost impossible for her to think of herself in any other way, and being a woman she was treated accordingly.
It was as a woman that Colombine suffered most. For centuries she was subjected to masculine indoctrination and, what is worse, to masculine interpretation, which limited her to a sexual role, that is, to men’s sexual activities. Then, in order to make this limitation more palatable to her, romanticism was invested in her. (Dick 1960: 117)
In the ‘Colombine’ series of 27 linked poems in the New and selected, I’m interested in giving Colombine an identity and a story beyond the stereotype that Kay Dick refers to. And in that story there’s also an account of, and an attempt to move through and get past, my own experience of trauma.
Paul Hetherington: Speaking about that series and about body, there’s a lot of imagery in those poems about people doing things, making things, performing. Is that something that appealed to you?
Jennifer: The performance aspect of the Commedia?
Paul: Yes, the whole performance aspect of it.
Jennifer: Not so much, although the performance aspect is interesting. I think when anybody has a traumatic experience, whether it’s a near-death experience, an accident, a loss of independence or a psychological trauma—especially if the trauma is ongoing over time and in my case, years—you develop a shell and there’s a sense of de-realisation or de-personalisation that develops. On the surface you’re living in the same world that everybody’s engaged with, but there’s a lot more happening behind that façade. You can’t spill that trauma out into the butcher’s shop or across the dinner party table.
I suppose in the Commedia dell’Arte poems I’m exploring those functions of ‘self performance’, and also how such ‘daily performance’ relates to the inner psyche and the inner being of the person. I know my husband said at one stage during my cancer treatment … (and I should explain that we were talking about the annual migration of the wildebeests from the Serengeti across the Grumeti River and how when the herd is pounding ahead towards the river, the strongest wildebeests are out in front. They’re first, the fastest and they’re leading the herd while the sick ones are dropping off the back—they’re limping along, falling behind … and I was saying to my husband that this was how cancer made me feel: like the weak animal falling off the back of the pack) … and my husband said, ‘Yes, but the wildebeests that reach the river first are the ones that get eaten by the crocodiles. By the time the sick ones get to the river, they’ll be able to walk across quite safely.’ Which was a lovely metaphor: macabre, but reassuring. Some of the sick people don’t make it across the river, and some of the strong don’t either.
Paul: Can I just ask you, quickly, why you weren’t particularly drawn to writing confessional poems? I’m asking because, if you look at Sharon Olds’ work, for example, and if you look at a lot of the kind of poetry that’s been coming out of America in recent decades—I know it’s a very diverse poetic culture—there’s been a strong strand of confessional writing. Some of the women writers who are writing confessional work would argue that that’s a way of claiming their territory and their voice and their experience and, in a sense, defying those who want to represent them differently. What are your thoughts about that issue?
Jennifer: Well, when I was in the United States I was living in Boston, which is where Plath and Lowell and Sexton studied together. I read a lot of their poetry at that time. And I’ve written poems in a confessional mode. So I guess it’s not that I have a bias against the style (which is rather hard to define) per se. I suppose there are two questions: one is the feminist question; and the other is more personal. When I read some confessional poems, especially about cancer, I find myself thinking: well, we all have similar experiences so what makes this poetry? Somehow it needs to be something more for me to feel the poetry. Those experiences have to be made into art in some way. And I felt, perhaps, that writing overtly about my illness wasn’t very interesting to me or to others.
There is also an element of self-protection. I didn’t want all the details of those experiences out into the world—so there’s a certain sense of privacy … I was interested in finding another way to deal with them. The feminist question is an interesting one because to document the actual is so important. We know that from the Holocaust, for example. It’s extremely important to document people’s stories and individual experiences. And that is also true of women and men’s experience, and that of any minority group subject to repression. I feel that feminism may have moved past any proscriptive imperative towards confessional writing. But then there are many repressed groups still striving to have their voices heard within the dominant culture. Perhaps I’m privileged. I just didn’t feel I wanted to go that way.
Paul: And how do you balance writing and work?
Jennifer: I work as a child psychiatrist, mainly with children with autism and intellectual disabilities and their parents. It’s an extraordinary balance to a writing life, and rewarding to work with those groups of people where there is so much of a burden of care and so much to be done, culturally, politically and emotionally. As a child psychiatrist one’s purpose is to listen, to be of service to the other, which can be a creative process in itself. But really it’s not about me—it’s about listening and being of service to them.
To balance that, in poetry, I’m exploring my own place in the world. I think I would be a little stunted if I didn’t have some way of exploring myself artistically and creatively. Poetry connects me to the feelings I associate with those early days of pleasure with my mother—and the love of language. I think it’s a very basic need for me.
Paul: What kind of things, would you say, make their way into your poetry?
Jennifer: I suppose I’m somebody who intertextualises. I like to bring words from science, medicine, from other systems and eras—from the Commedia, for example—into my poems. I am like a bowerbird in that way. I instinctively like to mix languages, to mix texts … it’s probably the scientific experimentalist in me … to see what happens when you bring disparate words and phrasings together. And I think metaphor-making is about that kind of enquiry, or play. It’s about bringing two elements together to make something powerful and original, like a science experiment. I love immersing myself in other languages, not necessarily French or German, but in the languages of other discourses and bringing them back into poetry.
Trying to find a common discourse between medicine (the body) and poetry (the lyric) is perhaps the major theme in my poems—trying to reconcile these two sides of my life. Because the discourses are so separate, I’m interested in how they interact with, and repel, each other. Also the language of science can be a mask and beneath it are hidden things that need to be understood. For example, the language of drug companies and advertising or the language of research papers can seem so persuasive, the logic so clear—but when you look under the surface, scientific techniques can be questionable, sometimes immoral. The language of science can be beautiful as well, and that of poetry can be dishonest.
This connects to the editing process. What you leave out of a poem is as meaningful and powerful as what you put in. When a word comes into my head—and sometimes it will be a technical or esoteric word from science—then there’s a decision, well, do I edit that out because it doesn’t fit with the tone of the language so far; and will people understand it? I prefer to follow the poem instinctively. It’s a private kind of metalanguage that I’m developing, and I have a resistance to leaving those words out. I’m not actually thinking about the people who might read my poems and struggle with those words. So it’s a little bit selfish.
Paul: Jennifer, you’ve talked quite a lot about science and its connection to poetry. There’s also quite a lot of reference to art and other cultural artefacts and cultural-making activities in your work. So can you talk about art and culture?
Jennifer: I think it’s a matter of being influenced by particular poets, particularly Borges. His poems frequently reference works of art, other writers, libraries … I think the tradition where artworks generate new artworks is fascinating. I feel excited when I see a wonderful painting. Or some kid skateboarding in a skate park and performing an amazing turn—that can feel like an artwork to me.
Paul: Following on from that, I think there’s an interesting question about the way in which writers and other makers draw on an existing body of work and a tradition—their sense of who’s gone before them or what they’re reading. You reference not only other poets but also other prose writers, and some of your poems incorporate explicit references to such work. How do you respond to prose as opposed to poetry? Do you see it as different? Do you see it as a symbiotic kind of relationship?
Jennifer: The relationship between prose and poetry?
Paul: And your breadth of reading.
Jennifer: In my everyday work I write a lot of clinical reports. Medical reports can be creative, I suppose, but really they’re about a different type of communication. A reasonable level of objectivity is important in writing them—making things clear for people.
In terms of my creative work, particularly the relationship between prose and poetry, I love prose poetry and poetic prose. I like tension and uncertainty, the edges between genres. A couple of years ago Melbourne poet Alex Skovron wrote a book called Autographs which is the most marvellous book of prose poetry: rich and elegant. I think he might describe those works as being on the ‘poem’ side of prose.
In terms of texture within my own poems, I’m interested in the messiness of ideas and emotions and sometimes in formal complexity. I collect quotes, I suppose—little slices of insight from other writers that I carry around in my head. And some of these ideas can be decontextualised and extended. I suppose the bowerbird image applies again. I use everything in my world including what I’m reading to excite my poems.
Paul: Do you see that bowerbird-like collecting, gathering and recontextualising as a kind of research? Would you call that a research activity?
Jennifer: Yes, I do. I think there are three types of poetry research. One is the search for information, checking for facts, getting things right. The second is immersion research, placing myself in the language of something else, experiencing the feel of that poetry world. And the third is an idiosyncratic immersion—for each book of poetry I’ve written I’ve immersed myself in the poetry of a particular writer. So, for Cabramatta/Cudmirrah, I read the work of Derek Walcott, the West Indies Nobel Prize winner—I read him for the patois of the sea. Writing Folly & grief I read Rainer Maria Rilke, particularly New Poems, which he wrote in Paris. The poems were inspired by Rodin’s sculptural practice and Rilke was deliberately trying to move away from the subjective to a more objective perspective of creativity. I was trying to do the same in Folly & grief: to move away from myself, to look elsewhere. The danger is that your own poems might begin to sound like the poets you admire. But I haven’t found that to be the case. More, I’ve researched a sense of what’s possible from these poets. It’s an attention more to energy than to phrases and lines.
Paul: There’s something very intimate about immersing yourself in the work of another. And I had the experience in the 1990s of becoming absorbed for a time in the work of the New Zealand poet, Lauris Edmond. When I couldn’t write poetry I’d read her selected poems or a couple of her other books. For a few years it helped key me into my own preoccupations.
Paul: But what do you think that intimacy is made of? I hadn’t met Lauris Edmond at the time, although I subsequently did meet her. What’s that intimacy connected to or made of, do you think?
Jennifer: Sometimes it’s just a natural affinity with an author’s mood, ethereality, pragmatism or the way they use language. It might be, as you said, that the same kinds of concerns and issues appeal—or the beauty of the poetry is attractive. Other times I find I’m struggling with something in my own poetry—it may be that I’m trying to achieve a different perspective. In the case of Rilke, for example, I deliberately wanted to explore a less subjective approach to making poetry. To escape the ‘I’ of the poem—or, in other cases, at another time, I might want to inhabit the ‘I’ in the poem more effectively. Or I might want to structure my language differently so that it’s more brittle, so that the metaphors don’t work easily … or maybe to explore a more fragmented kind of thinking.
Paul: Can you expand on the comment about metaphors not working as easily?
Jennifer: I’ll think, ‘Oh, that’s so easy, it’s kind of boring, old-fashioned’. I might want to express some sense I have of life’s fragmentation. I really love the films of Michael Haneke and he once said in an interview that life is fragmented and art needs to find some way of representing this fragmentation. I suppose the tidy poem, or metaphor, doesn’t really imagine life. Explorations of fragmentation in language actually come nearer to the reality of life.
Paul: Could you say more about how you go about making poetry?
Jennifer: There are a few answers to that question. At the South Australian Writers Festival a few years ago I attended a session where Andrew Motion and Michael Ondaatje were talking about just this issue. Andrew Motion, who was Poet Laureate in the UK at the time, said that there were only two ways of making a poem: ‘the Lego way, or the jigsaw way’. If I remember rightly he explained that the Lego way is when you build a poem incrementally; you write something and the next day you come back and attach another line, some more words. The jigsaw method is when you shuffle lines and phrases about, fitting the pieces together, experimenting with fit. Motion thought that poets tended to fall into one or the other category. And then Michael Ondaatje said, ‘Oh and then there’s the third way’. Andrew Motion asked, ‘Well what’s the third way?’ And Ondaatje said, ‘There’s always a third way’. I’ve always kept that in mind: that there’s always that third way.
But, taking Andrew Motion’s theory of writing poetry seriously, I’m definitely not the Lego type. I work more as a visual artist in that I write many versions of a poem, like studies for a painting. I’m working through the poem’s problems this way and, in the end, I often write the final poem quickly, in a single sitting—though this method doesn’t work for all poems. Some poems I destroy by reworking them. Like throwing clay on a potter’s wheel: sometimes you push the poem past its limits until it collapses. That’s why you keep your first draft—so that you can go back and start again.
Paul: On that note, do you find that there are poems that have never come into their own being and that in the end you abandon?
Jennifer: That’s a fascinating question because a few friends of mine throw out their poem if they feel it hasn’t worked.
Paul: Do they?
Jennifer: Yes. But I never do that. I always feel that the poem might work one day. Some have been sitting in my ‘waiting folder’ for 15 years, hoping for their day.
Paul: And so you actually go back to them? Because I used to keep almost every draft. But after a while I had endless boxes of paper that I never looked into. So do you actually go back and explore?
Jennifer: I do go back. I have lots of drafts which I’ll keep for while and then I’ll go back and cull them, particularly the terrible ones.
Paul: Actually throw them out at that point or …?
Jennifer: Throw certain drafts out, yes. But I suppose I’d leave a kind of story of how that poem developed. I always keep the first draft. Sometimes I’ll go back to the first draft and start again and it will become a different poem, a new direction entirely.
Paul: So that would be completely transformed in the process?
Jennifer: Yes. Another poem completely. It’s quite playful in a way.
Paul: And when a nascent idea is arriving for a poem, does that tend to be a conscious thing coming out of your reading or your thinking? Or is it something that surprises you?
Jennifer: Sometimes it’s surprise—an impulse or a sense of excitement. But sometimes I’ll go to the Princeton encyclopedia of poetry and choose a form. Some of these don’t work so well. The first item in the Princeton encyclopedia is the ‘Abecedarius’, a form in which each line or stanza begins with a different letter of the alphabet—a form that Chaucer used. I found it a difficult form to resolve, especially the X and Z lines.
Paul: It’s a kind of poetic exercise, isn’t it?
Paul: Limbering up in a way.
Jennifer: I admire poets who technically renew old forms. I particularly like Paul Muldoon’s poem ‘The Old Country’ from his collection Horse latitudes. It’s written as 13 linked sonnets, a coronet sonnet, where certain lines repeat throughout the poem. The entire poem is constructed from clichés. He’s taken a beautiful form, and he’s taken cliché and made something new and absolutely fascinating.
Paul: Could you just say a little bit more about your interest in form? Because right at the beginning of this seminar when you were talking about the linen-covered book in which your mother wrote out her favourite poems, and you read some examples of poems, they were all, from memory, poems with a strong formal and metrical shape.
Paul: That’s obviously influenced you. How do you connect those more formal poetic shapes to your own work?
Jennifer: I think it might be a good introduction to ‘The Ferris Wheel’ because this is one of my more formal poems. So maybe we could discuss that.
Paul: Will you read it?
The Ferris Wheel
Well, little wheel, spoked rose,
here we are—with a sense of memory mined
as though you’ve almost reached beyond yourself
and a fibro shack lurks always behind.
Up and over life’s highest point,
you’re moving down towards the dirt and the ground,
towards cumulus friends, their upturned faces
like beds, your mother’s eyes, strangers’ mouths
and landscapes too returning holographically
like 3-D birthday cards: a garden of thin-lipped irises;
a blown about, blousy hibiscus;
pelicans toe-walking through oestrus mist.
Simple memories—talk-faded, grainier—
answering back the long syllabic tricks
of scientists repairing the daisy-chained genes.
The fear of what we will fix.
The sensation one of falling, as though planing
down through a slick perpendicular dormitory,
as though if you believed in height,
surfaces must pass you by, this matter-of-factly,
leaving you in the wooden cradle,
the swing-boat of love. You’re thinking that you
mustn’t imagine the wheel as a circle
but as a music releasing the mind from its curfew.
You remember the produce hall
all the mini-Australias fashioned from melons and figs,
bananas arranging Queensland—a child there, too,
wondering how the farmers grew the pumpkins so big.
You recall the crushed smell of peanut-shell floors,
the flair of brumbies from Scone or Penrith.
You never wore a little white vest, nor marched
in fringe-time, flicking the air with a horse-hair whip
but you wanted the big-bear life hammered
to the top of a bell; the tom-thumb fizzer
to reach the carousel’s horses and lunge with them,
leisurely as the sea, around and around with the Winterreise.
You’ve not forgotten the nipple pinchers,
those lovers of the ghost-house without sun—
the children’s florescent screams,
mothers outside listening, chatting, thinking what fun.
Be careful now, or you’ll see only plywood,
the wheel as a vicious, ruinous form; a view
of emptiness across empty houses,
across nail-clipped streets to the far away lip of blue
where the sea gazes gauzy, white-duned Maroubra.
Were you dreaming you’d missed the summit
and were coming down the icier side of the mountain,
when the cogs skipped—that’s why you’d stopped—
just long enough to know how the runt feels
on the outskirts of the litter;
long enough to know the exact chilliness
of a prison, how cold a metallic bar feels to the fingers?
But then the cage shivers and begins again
to move, the faces below becoming huge, arriving
so fast you can see the mechanic’s greasy overalls,
his loose-limbed boredom, his flashy ruby ring.
And you remember, are remembering,
your father standing there in the dazzling sun,
laughing at the way you never want to get off, even though
the wheel has stopped to let more children on.
Jennifer: The themes and images in this poem reference much of what we’ve talked about today. You can see the German word, Winterreise, in there alongside my mother’s eyes and an image of an old birthday card; and there’s the ‘spoked rose’—perhaps connecting to Goethe’s rose on the heath. I think it’s wonderful how poetry recycles images that are important to you even though they may be quite ethereal or ephemeral in many ways. Paul Muldoon, again, has talked about the poem as an endless entity; that the often unconscious recycling and cross-referencing of images, phrases and memories—both from our own experience and also from other poetry that we’ve written or read—create richness and a porous art form, unlike any other.
As I worked on the poem it moved into those four line stanzas that you see. Even then I was unhappy with how the poem was flowing. So I introduced slant rhyme—in the first verse, for example, the end words are ‘rose’, ‘yourself’, ‘mined’ and ‘behind’. And there are similar effects in other stanzas. It’s not a dominant or formal rhyme scheme, but there was a deliberate effort on my part to bring rhyme into this poem. I think it gives ‘The Ferris Wheel’ a sense of a turning, circular rhythm.
Paul: Do you write to read aloud or do you write to have it read on the page?
Jennifer: It’s a good question and it’s not an either/or answer. I have a number of editing processes. I write on computer and that suits me better than writing freehand because I can see more of the whole of the poem somehow on a computer, and I can work with it more easily.
But when I print the poem I see different things and some elements I thought looked okay on the computer look terrible when read on the page. When I read the poem aloud I find another editing perspective again. And when I read the poem in public … today, for example, there were certain words in that that I stumbled a little over. You can then choose to keep those in the poem or lighten them for the tongue.
Paul: So how important is patience for a writer?
Jennifer: I mentioned earlier my illnesses. During treatments and for a considerable time afterwards I lost the ability to write poetry. I felt as though I’d lost the ability to think in poetry. It was devastating and (talking about patience) I thought, oh well I’ll just keep writing even if it’s terrible; and I was writing awful poems. I didn’t know what was happening. So, patiently, I kept writing terrible poems and, gradually, through that practice, I began to feel some depth coming back—perhaps I was less anxious about dying, perhaps some fog was dissipating. Maybe I retrieved some sense that there was a tomorrow to value, and a value to persistence.
Patience with a particular poem is a different thing. Sometimes I develop an antagonistic relationship to a poem. I dislike it, hate it, become sick of it, want it to go away. And I think, with some poems, I might not yet have the experience I need to finish them.
Paul: Would you say that your poetic preoccupations are at all strange or idiosyncratic?
Jennifer: I don’t experience my poetry as strange when I’m writing, but I think my poems may be seen by others as idiosyncratic. I suppose I’m attracted to the eccentric things in life, and to exploring curiosities. My new book will be based on the ideas of phrenology—with section headings that reflect the cranial landscape of the porcelain Fowler’s phrenology bust. Phrenology is a pseudoscience, now quite obsolete. I suppose I have an interest in oddities from the past. It’s actually a rather Victorian-era sensibility, a kind of cabinet de curiosité curiosity.
Paul: Phrenology connects back to science and medicine. Could you wrap up by saying a little more about the connections between science and poetry?
Jennifer: It’s fairly well known that many of the significant advances in science come from moments of inspiration and accident. Often the hard labour of research creates the environment in which happy accidents arise. Poetry is like that as well. I work to improve the mental health of children and youth and their families, and I think we can learn a great deal from poetry and literature. I’m a member of the Psychoanalysis and Poetry Reading Group in Melbourne and this year I’ve taken a research position at the Dax Centre, the national collection of mental health art, now based at the University of Melbourne. The literature section of the World Psychiatry Organisation encourages papers that explore countless insights from literature—how poetry and literature play an important role in de-stigmatising mental illness. These days medical conferences tend to have strong cultural programs: exhibitions, poetry readings, plays and films. It’s been fantastic to be part of this cross-fertilisation. Health is holistic, and if there is no art:
Who can see us here
settling out belts, brushing crumbs from jackets and trousers
tray-tables put away, the cabin becoming quiet
as we fall purled, embodied—down into the shadowlands,
the pools of bruise that hover beneath clouds ? (Harrison 2010)
- 1. Reg Grundy AC, OBE, is a key Australian media entrepreneur and TV pioneer, and producer of very successful game shows (including The Price is Right and Wheel of Fortune), and TV soap operas and dramas (including Prisoner and Neighbours).
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