Article by Diane Fahey
‘Poetry, Places, Stories’ – Reflections on a literary journey in Ireland.
See Tinteán, March 6, 2014: www.tintean.org.au
AUSTRALIAN POET DIANE FAHEY
Interviewed by Melissa Ashley
Thylazine No.9 (March, 2004)
MA: In many of your collections you have explored Western myths and folklore. There seems to be a quite persistent attraction to this part of our literary heritage. Can you talk a little about your interest in these narratives?
DF: I’ve written two poetry collections based on Greek myths, Metamorphoses and Listening to a Far Sea, as well as The Sixth Swan, which is based on Grimms’ fairy tales, and no one could be more surprised than me about that. My initial creative connection came about by chance when I was looking up ‘Philistine’ in the dictionary (don’t ask me why) and came upon the entry for ‘Philomela’ – her story is one of violation and transformation. I was seized by it and immediately wrote a poem – the first of Metamorphoses, a collection about women in Greek mythology. But informing that moment of connection was my past immersion in literature – all the trace elements of mythology, its compelling imagery and the deep narrative structures, threading through the works of Shakespeare and others. Also, a long-standing interest in Jungian approaches to myth and fairy tales where they are seen as both personal and transpersonal: constellating many of the issues and dilemmas a person might grapple with in the process of shaping their identity, finding their true life, while placing those individual journeys into a more universal setting. Hence the seeming paradox that the more one creates – discovers, constructs, unfolds – one own unique identity, the more one journeys towards a sense of interconnectedness with others, and with a world of spiritual and natural forces and energies. Many of the well-known fairy tales offer profound insights about negotiating one’s way through rites of passage, especially those involved in growing up – sorting out self from family, sexual maturity, and finding a place in the world: ‘Rapunzel’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘The Goose Girl’, ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Iron John’ are examples. These processes have become problematic in new ways in the Western world now because of extreme individualism, and its obverse side: the marginalisation and dependency which the overprivileged are managing to impose on so many people. Some traditional tales offer a counter-vision to this, showing the progress through difficult outer and inner challenges to win freedom and fulfilment, a balance between opposites, a place in the sun – every person’s birthright.
MA: In your recent collection, The Sixth Swan, you contemporise a series of European fairytales. What are some of the strongest resonances you see between these stories and (post)modern life?
DF: Modernism and postmodernism have problematised the story and the teller’s relationship with an audience by asking questions about underlying or internalised assumptions operating in the process of forming and imparting narratives. Many writers have responded by telling stories in new ways, fracturing and subverting them, and so on – I’ll return to this later. However, the world of traditional story is not without hints of mischief as regards the role of the teller, and no doubt many listeners in the past, while entering into the imaginative truth of a story, were capable of asking questions about why it might exist in varying versions: different tellers, origins in different regions and cultures being part of the answer, as well as aesthetic considerations. As mentioned above, some fairy stories and myths focus on separation and differentiation, on the need to venture forth or stand alone or go through some prolonged ordeal so as to reach an autonomous sense of self – this seems in tune with modern psychological understandings. Yet these stories also affirm the commonweal – the adventuring or suffering hero or heroine eventually comes home or finds a role and place in the kingdom, dwells in a human ambience. There is an optimism and resilience in many stories. While the forest is often a place of abandonment and danger, of anguish and darkness of soul – as in ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘All Fur’, ‘The Handless Maiden’ – it is also the place where helping animals can turn up to offer hope, fresh choices. These helping animals have been written about as symbolising resources hidden deep in the self, or the psyche, which can be drawn on in crisis – the fox in ‘The Golden Bird’, another fox, a raven and a fish in ‘The Mongoose’, the duck which takes Hansel and Gretel over the pond on their way home, the affluent mother toad in ‘The Three Feathers’. Life has always involved dealing with fragmentation – psychological and personal, and well as political. The growing child fits together, by trial and error, a world-picture – successive world pictures. These world-pictures are, if you like, fictions: images of self in relation to self, to human context and wider environment, the part in relation to the whole. They function as containers for the child’s growing self, but need to be modified or discarded as experiences that promise fuller life are encountered. The world of traditional story richly addresses the points in human life when, under dramatic pressure, new resources within and beyond the self need to be unlocked, new visions and fictions of the world need to be created.
MA: Are you concerned (in a creative sense) with the complex processes of gathering together these tales? Of what might be lost in the translation from one language and time to another, or of converting what was originally an oral form of storytelling into the written form?
DF:How do folk and fairy tales survive? Who gathers and selects them? How do tellers and collectors change or edit them? – yes, these are all questions of the essence. In the case of the Grimm brothers, whose Children’s and Household Tales has had such enormous influence, this is the picture I have from the reading I’ve done. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm had something of a nationalist agenda when they set out to collect tales, with notions of capturing ‘the soul of the German people’. The stereotyped image of them has been of two scholars scurrying around the German countryside, collecting stories from peasants. But their tales came from a wide variety of sources – many from middle-class German households in nearby districts, where (mainly) young women collected and wrote down stories told to them by nursemaids and older women. One household was Huguenot in origin, so many of the tales from that source were from the French tradition. But there was also an old soldier who came to tell the Grimms stories in return for their old clothes, and Dorothea Viehmann, a tailor’s wife, was the source of many significant tales. Typically, the Grimm brothers listened to the tales, then noted them down after one or several hearings. In The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World, (New York: Routledge, 1988), Jack Zipes points out that the tales originated in various European countries, with some of them widely diffused, though they were ‘stamped by changes made by German storytellers and informants’. Many tales were taken from books, especially after the 1819 edition, so that there is a mingling of oral and literary tales. On the Grimms’ treatment of the tales, it is worth quoting from Zipes:
From the very beginning the Grimms changed, adapted, and edited the tales to fit their notions of the ideal folk tale and considered their collection to be an Erziehungsbuch, an educational manual, that was edited more and more by Wilhelm Grimm over the course of approximately forty years to address children with good bourgeois upbringing. Therefore the Grimms pruned the tales of anything sexual, vulgar, and offensive to middle-class sensibility. … Among the changes made by the Grimms … were the stylistic refinement of the language and structure … emphasizing patriarchal authority and the Protestant ethic by implying the need to domesticate women and to achieve success through industry and cunning; and synthesizing variants of the same tale into their own distinct version. (p.114)
So the Grimm brothers had their agenda, and played a range of conscious beliefs and unconscious projections into the process of collecting and rewriting the stories. Many critiques – Marxist, feminist etc. – of these aspects of their work exist, and I’ve listed some in a bibliography of writings on myths and fairy tales below. But doesn’t this happen all the time? What of the practices of other collectors and tellers? Well, it seems to me that most stories inevitably change and evolve on their journey through the voices of different tellers and cultures – there is a desire to put one’s own imprint on the story, to play in other experiences and new perspectives. In a sense this helps to keep the story alive, but with the key qualification that the bones of the story, its underlying narrative structure – the archetypal dimension, if you like – must be respected and conserved. Appropriation, and distortion of a tale’s inner meaning, are the problem and danger – the Grimm brothers were sometimes guilty of these. I believe that if one honours the story – if it deserves honour, some do not – one should be free as a teller or writer or interpreter to interact with it and take it into new spaces.
MA: I am interested to know if you think there are any special connections between poetry as a spoken art form and the communal gatherings, in an age before TV maybe, around the hearth listening to a storyteller.
DF: I have always believed poetry is for the living voice, and I think that, deep down, most poets hearken for the oral tradition. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why performance poetry has been so strong in Australia. But while performance poetry gathers together certain styles of writing and delivery that accentuate immediacy, the whole question of what it means to communicate a poem to an audience is one that concerns all but the most text-bound of poets. The concept of ‘voice’ is central – we speak of the voice in the poem as it exists on the page, there is the poet’s own unique voice-print that is to do with both the way the voice originates in the depths of the body, and also the impress of the poet’s experience and personality upon the poem. So voice, being and presence are all involved in this question of first instilling experience in language, then physically communicating that poem to an audience.
MA: Many women poets in the twentieth century, for example Dorothy Hewett, Fay Zwicky, Anne Sexton and Angela Carter, have similarly written about fairytales and myths. Do you see any kind of a connection – a genealogy perhaps? – between yourself and these writers?
DF: As a poet, the most important thing to me is to be true to my own process. I share with the writers you mention a subversive spirit, and a desire to turn the tables on myths and fairy tales, or interpretations of them, that serve to buttress oppressive power. And myths can be used to reveal the shadow side, not only of patriarchy, but of the individual psyche, including the writer’s – unlocking that which is unresolved or unlived: rage, desire, envy, grief, vengefulness. Thus the emotional violence of some poems in Sexton’s famous collection of fairy tales, Transformations, and Angela Carter’s concept of ‘the Sadean woman’ given expression in the title story about Bluebeard’s wife in The Bloody Chamber. Myths and fairy tales are an invitation to venture into starkly primal territory – as all the above writers do, and I do myself. I remember being savagely angry when I wrote about ‘Polyxena’, who was sacrificed at the behest of Achilles at the end of the Trojan war, to ensure safe passage home for the Greeks. This story symbolised for me the way so much of women’s experience and value has been disregarded and rejected – ‘put to death’ – by patriarchy. ‘Polyxena’ is a bitter, defiant, sarcastic poem. However, in writing Metamorphoses, where it appears, while I wanted to give utterance to the extremes of emotion engendered by the violence done to women and children in the name of male dominance, I also wanted to find a containing shape for that anger, and to reach a point beyond it. My response to the problem of violence was to try to understand its roots, its causes; to tell the truth about the damage; and to ground myself in a non-violent position. If one does not liberate oneself from victimhood, one is trapped in, defined by, that inner damage; if one embraces counter-violence, one risks becoming part of a further cycle of violence. As I wrote at the end of ‘Hecabe’ (also in Metamorphoses):
When the violated become the violators,
what gods will hear them,
to whom do they belong?
MA: Do you consider yourself a feminist poet?
DF: Yes. I understand feminism as, in the first instance, concerned with human rights issues – that is, the right to be equal in the law with men, and to live free of fear, rape and other violence which derives from the imbalance between male and female power. Because that imbalance is so deeply institutionalised and internalised within most societies, feminism has also embraced the whole question of the cultural representation of women, of how they are perceived by men and perceive themselves. The point of that is to become conscious, or more conscious, of the many kinds of violence – emotional and spiritual, as well as physical – that women have been vulnerable to because of their diminished status, and so fund the energies for personal and political change. Writing Metamorphoses, I set out to look at the deep imprinting of that imbalance as it affects women’s bodies, imaginations and psyches. I variously unlocked stories of damage or celebrated the strength of heroic women. I wanted to understand how one finds one’s way out of ‘internalised patriarchy’ and how women who were victims of rape and violence could seek healing and empowerment. And I saw telling the hidden stories of overlooked women as part of a rebalancing process that countered the somewhat overblown myth of the male hero. But I did not want to engage in any counter-scapegoating, as it were, by engaging in a totalising rhetoric that set men up as a despised group. When I went on to write Listening to a Far Sea, I expanded the range of my responses to the male figures in Greek mythology. So I wrote about poets like Orpheus and Arion, and seers like Teiresias and Polyeidus, as well as critiquing the hero myth. (Odysseus gets the world tour, Penelope stays at home to bring up their son, protect his domain by fending off suitors, weave and unweave a shroud, endure twenty years of separation – little wonder that feminist revisionism turned into such an industry in the twentieth century!)
MA: You also explore ecological themes in your writing. Although nature writing has always existed in poetry, do you think there is a growing awareness of ecological issues in contemporary Australian poetry and literature in general?
DF: Australia’s population may be predominantly urban, but many, many people still live on the land, or in close relationship with the land. Much indigenous and non-Aboriginal writing exists evoking the different earthscapes of Australia, engaging with the great conservation issues, and claiming a place and space in this continent. In Hearts and Minds: Creative Australians and the Environment (Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 2000), Michael Pollack and Margaret MacNabb give an overview of ‘the dazzling variety of work’ across the cultural spectrum achieved during the last thirty years, when ‘attitudes towards the environment have undergone a revolution.’ Many contemporary names could be added to their discussion of Australian poetry centred on the environment, though I step back from the task of offering such a list as I am not in a position to give a comprehensive one. But the myriad landscapes and seascapes of Australia, their plant and animal life, are being written about with deep imaginative focus and confidence by many poets now. I would see an earthed particularity, a claiming of spiritual freedom, and a conscious embrace of past lives and life stored in the landscape, as essential co-ordinates of nature writing in contemporary Australia. As far as my own writing is concerned, I seem to gravitate to coastal settings, to feel more imaginatively at home in them. Apart from a sequence written in the Blue Mountains from when I stayed at ‘Varuna’ Writers’ Retreat there, and some landscape poems set in Britain, most of my nature poems are set by sea and river. When I lived in South Australia, my home was near the estuary of the Onkaparinga river, and now I live near the estuary of the Barwon river in Victoria. This is a rich, ever-changing environment. I love water and can’t bear to be too long away from river or sea – these have become my main inspiration as a nature writer.
MA: The nature writing genre in North America is well established (and has been so for many years); do you think Australia is catching up? What do Australian writers have to offer, as a consequence of our unique environmental conditions?
DF: Most nature writing arises from a desire to witness and celebrate the particularities of creaturely life, natural settings and ecosystems, the sweep of unique land forms, seas, lakes, rivers. Or to lament, draw attention to, insult and danger to them. It can be the fruit of indwelling in a certain (known and loved) place, or of seeking out landscapes of the soul through journeys. In either of these cases, writers sometimes seek, or uncover, a sense of connection to the whole – so that a mystical dimension is engaged. And perhaps one could add the word ‘global’ – which carries the idea that the dramas of growth and survival in different parts of the world are intimately connected to each other. At the present time, nature writing is very important because it recalls the locus of the imagination to the state of the earth and its life, which are wondrous in themselves while being the ground of human existence. However much the urbanised mindset might presume that we can live without consciousness of our links with nature, the fact is whatever we eat comes from the earth or creatures fed by the earth; and the weather, which also affects questions of immediate and long-term survival, is – as it’s increasingly difficult not to be aware – though subject to change through destructive human behaviours, utterly beyond our control. So nature writing returns us to awareness of the ground on which we stand, attends to the details of natural life literally under our noses, which is an essential condition of seeing the larger picture truthfully then acting constructively and hopefully. At the moment I’m reading the New and Selected Poems of Mary Oliver, the great nature poet from North America. I take heart and inspiration from these poems, some of which contain miraculous moments of affinity between poet and the plant and creaturely life found in woods or swamp or forest – as in ‘Picking Blueberries, Austerlitz, New York, 1957’, where a deer stumbles against the poet’s younger self, asleep in blueberries. She evokes the deer’s response in that moment of extraordinary intimacy:
the flower of her amazement,
and the stalled breath of her curiosity,
and even the damp touch of her solicitude
before she took flight.
This is one of the many experiences recorded in her poetry which Oliver calls ‘happiness’ – by which she means a fullness of being, a spontaneous opening into life’s mystery, through feeling connected with, enfolded within, the natural world. In Australian writing many such touchstones can be found from the past – in the great body of traditional Aboriginal songs and poetry, in the celebrations and lamentations of Judith Wright, Oodgeroo Noonuccal and others in the twentieth century. And, as mentioned above, there is agrowing diversity and confidence in nature writing by some contemporary poets.
MA: What are some of the environmental perspectives or interests driving your work at the moment?
DF: I’ve lived in many places in my life, and now I’m writing about the experience of being rooted in one place, Barwon Heads, a small town on the Victorian coast, south of Melbourne. Because my mother and father went to live in Barwon Heads over thirty years ago, I’ve long been acquainted with it, and have had sustained periods of living here. I first wrote about it when my father was gravely ill, and I returned from England to live with my parents, to do what could be done. During that difficult time I went for many walks in the area and my observations became part of ‘Poem of Thanksgiving’, written when my father recovered after a second major operation in three months. Because there was so much I felt I could not say directly, I somehow displaced many feelings and memories on to the landscape and vegetation. Some lines which bear this impress are: ‘Sunlight unrobes and bathes the river’s body…’, ‘Wings over water; / the night-flare of barium.’, ‘Water haemorrhages to whiteness. / Ocean shines with the living greenness of an eye.’ I’m now working on a book of poems about Barwon Heads, called Sea Wall and River Light. Most of it is nature writing, with a central section focused on my mother’s home and garden. In it, I’m concerned with the detail of things, close and accurate perception, and also with capturing flux and change – the different nuances of weather and season. And more than anything else I’ve written, it’s about finding roots in a particular place.
MA: I am fascinated by your depictions of insects in Mayflies in Amber. I remember something W. H. Auden said once about insects, that they are what we must strive not to become. What is it about insects that enthrals your imagination? All that armour? Magic and metamorphosis?
DF: Magic and metamorphosis, certainly – as I look back, transformation seems to be the central theme of my poetry. It is happening around us all the time in the world of nature. And it is extraordinary that beauty, along with strength and abundance, is a part of the evolutionary drama, as is so dramatically evident with butterflies. Insects are the most successful order of creatures on earth. We know – and shudder at – the famed durability of the cockroach, set to survive us. And there is also all that exquisite fragility, the elegance of design, the elusive smallness. When working on Mayflies in Amber I was compelled by the diversity and ingenuity of insects and their lives – evolution does seem to me to be informed by mind: an endlessly resourceful and ineffably creative one. And I felt insects were not ‘other’, they were intimately related to us and had certain things to teach us, could act as mirrors at times. So, as with myth, there was a sense of interaction and transaction. To the best of my knowledge, only one person in literature has become an insect – poor Grigor, the Kafkan cockroach, and Auden’s injunction is certainly relevant there. But the qualities I’ve mentioned – fertility, resilience, beauty, intricacy of design, capacity for metamorphosis – well, they certainly have something to offer us and tell us. Our lives are inextricably bound up with those of insects – locusts plagues have the power to starve us, bees to feed us – so they are a realm of nature needing to be brought more fully into consciousness.
MA: You wrote a thesis titled ‘Places and Spaces of the Writing Self’. At present you live in rural Victoria, but you have lived in many countries, can you talk a bit about writing and place?
DF: In my thesis, I took Virginia Woolf’s famous phrase, ‘a room of one’s own’, as my starting point for looking at the ways three women writers have experienced the rooms and houses in which they wrote, and the other kinds of settings they have sought out as writing places. In Journal of Solitude, May Sarton embraces her isolation as a condition of the psychic and spiritual struggles from which her writing arises, with the house in which she lives alone becoming a kind of self-symbol. Eavan Boland’s Object Lessons shows her embedded in her family life in a Dublin suburb, both earthed and inwardly questing in her life as a poet, while delving into painful questions around the tragic dislocations of the Irish past, her own early displacement at the age of five from Ireland when her family left for ten years, and the pitiably small space and acknowledgement accorded to women writers in Irish culture. So, for Boland, the exploration of what it means to have roots in Ireland is multifaceted and impacts intensely on her ‘writing self’. While Boland and Sarton (born in Belgium), have experienced exile and have a powerful desire for rootedness, Annie Dillard (in The Writing Life) is driven to seek settings outside her home which place her in testing natural environments, or situations of artificial enclosure, as in a university library carrel in the small hours – in both cases her desire is to disrupt and severely challenge diurnal certainties and so awaken new creative energies and visions. The chemistry of the creative process, the physical conditions and environments which serve it best – individual writers find many different answers to these challenges. In my own case, I certainly need solitude because much poetry writing involves delving into the inner life – either in a contemplative way, or involving ordeal – so that one needs to concentrate deeply to carry the process through. On the other hand, too much isolation can be distorting, one often needs ordinary contact with other people that will re-introduce a note of sanity when that is starting to go missing. Sometimes I write while out walking, especially because of writing a lot of nature poetry. And I think physical movement like walking or swimming helps when you’re getting stuck – as well as the fact that writers should look after their bodies. We’re not just fingers at a keyboard or whatever. That’s how it is for me now, I like being settled in one place, but having an element of mobility. In the past I’ve done a lot of travelling in Europe, and lived in Britain for a number of years. I experienced both intense isolation and the support of friends during the time I lived in England. Looking back I think it was at great cost to move around so much yet it was very important to me as a writer, and as a European Australian, to go to Europe. Some of the highlights of my writing life while abroad were: going to Arvon writing courses in England, doing residencies at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland and Hawthornden International Writers Centre in Scotland, and spending a month writing in Venice. As far as residencies go, they are mainly heaven but can have elements of hell – one enters the idyll, has the perfect circumstances for writing, then has to go through a period of anguished resistance that seems some kind of preliminary for any real breakthrough – but then the breakthrough comes… So I have a rich store of experiences from my visits to Europe, wrote a lot and learned a great deal about writing, but I have always been glad to return to Australia because, apart from personal reasons, I associate Australia with space and possibility, even while so much cultural space seems undefined – there is the burden and challenge of being constantly self-defining and self-motivating because one is so marginal.
MA: When did you begin writing?
DF: I always felt connected to poetry, and wrote poems as a schoolgirl, but only began writing with a sense of purpose and commitment in my late twenties. Those early years of writing were slow and difficult because I was in recovery from a depressive illness. But, whether the writing is hard won or comes by gift, you are in a constant learning process, claiming ground that becomes part of a map, so that as you continue you can take bearings from past lessons learnt, past dilemmas resolved. Poetry is very much learning by doing, by trial and error. The world of written poetry is out there, very enriching and inspiring, but to achieve something new you have to work with your own inner process, at your own edge, and there are always new challenges. There is both a deep psychic listening, and an engagement with language which is like walking into the sea – you are a small figure in that vast flux of possibilities, aspiring to somehow shape something from that encounter.
MA: Do you find that you experiment with different styles and forms?
DF: I feel, as a poet, in a constant dialogue with form – which might be described as giving a rhythmic shape to the eloquence and resonance of the voice. Early on, and in some of my insect poems, I experimented with the look of the poem on the page. But mostly I have moved between free verse and a more measured approach to form. In a way, free verse can give you too much choice about line endings, it too often seems arbitrary to me – both as a writer and a reader. But I dread the feeling of enclosure given by much metred verse from, say, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – there can be so much distance from the impress of lived experience with its unfolding continuities, its surprises and slippages. So my present course is a kind of middle way – with the spontaneity of the natural speaking voice in tension with a more formal, heightened quality. In Sea Wall and River Light, for instance, I’ve used unrhymed sonnets, with five beats to a line. I find these both very satisfying and very challenging – the poem is a container, but it is also open, will only work if you move into some new understanding or sense of connection in a way that is authentic and holds some element of imaginative surprise.
MA: Can you talk a little about any developments in your narrative techniques? For example, the narrative framework in your recent book the Sixth Swan is fairly consistent, a quite different approach, say, to a more personal work like The Body in Time.
DF: I am more and more fascinated by narrative, which is partly why I’ve turned to writing novels as well as poetry. When I was writing the books on myths and fairy tales, I wanted to find new ways of telling well-known stories, new points of entry, new points of view and perspectives. So I constantly experimented with techniques, using sequences which contained different voices, and so on. When I was writing the directly autobiographical poems in The Body in Time, I was prepared to be direct and self-revealing, which was at some cost, but I thought it important to confront and unlock some painful truths. So I’ve set down difficult parts of my personal story, and worked in and through poetry with the processes of consciously owning and integrating them. I would see this as soul work, which is at the heart of poetry for me, and also think of the more cathartic poems as there for whatever use they may be to others. Having done all that, I’ve felt freer to move more towards fairy tales and nature writing in poetry, and the novels. There’s something very diverting in working with narrative, even while I have a sense of constantly testing the threshold of illusion and reality, and am drawn into some disconcerting places. While the mix of choice, motivation and conditioning circumstance in one’s personal story forms a landscape that cannot be changed, (though one’s attitudes to, and understandings of it, may change), fiction in prose or poetry offers an escape from determinism even while one feels the tensions of both fate and some inner logic at work shaping the outcomes of one’s actions. Narratives are endlessly fascinating to me – twists and turns, the surprises and fresh choices that arise, the anxiety of contemplating the possibility of failure, loss or extinction looming at any moment. Like life but not like life. Encompassing death but moving on with more words, more scenes, more characters taking breath after fictional breath. A way of living through the worst at one remove and coming out the other side, of compensating for vexing dullness and wearying responsibility, of tapping into the unlived life and drawing out hopeful fantasies, of holding the tragic in consciousness and hearing a universe of stillness in the space after a full stop. Then the engine starts again – in that same story or another, the glorious blarney goes on and on.
MA: You also teach creative writing. What kind of interplay occurs between the responses of your students, the class discussions, the texts studied, and your own creative processes?
DF: The last time I taught creative writing was at the Centre for Adult Education in Melbourne, a second year Poetry class in the Writing and Editing course. The diversity of the group, and the fact that they were so attuned to a range of learning processes, made it a very rich experience. The students worked well together in small and large groupings, were self-critical, and strongly committed to writing. I felt a real exchange took place on many levels, and was interested to discover new poems and poets, as well as sharing my own enthusiasms. (My latest one at that time was the U.S. poet Billy Collins.) I think if a sharing of energy and ideas and poems can happen in these situations it advances not only one’s knowledge of poetry as an art form, but stimulates a sense of new possibilities and so feeds the creative process. Workshopping is a key part of the process, and can lead to great shifts and leaps in people’s poetry, as they gain confidence in their talents, become more resourceful in working with language and imagery, and more adept at problem solving. I’ve had similar positive experiences teaching one-off courses at the Victorian Writers’ Centre and elsewhere. The catch is, of course, that as teacher and facilitator one is responsible for the course in a basic sense, and must put a lot of energy and thought into it, and create the right kind of space for creative things to happen. That can be immensely demanding. But, as above, where there’s a sense of a learning community, the group dynamic can contribute greatly, and one receives a lot more than one puts in. Poetry is a realm of measureless possibilities: time and again I’ve taken away a renewed sense of that from the creative writing teaching I’ve done. And I’m very heartened by the quality of writing, and the courage (these are very difficult times for poets), of many new and aspiring writers.
MA: You write in many different styles – poetry, academic, fiction, mystery, articles. What new projects are you engaged with? What are some of the themes and ideas you are currently exploring?
DF: First, I want to complete Sea Wall and River Light, mentioned above, and to prepare my New and Selected Poems for publication. Revising poems and then making final choices about what to leave in or out of a collection is a subtle and demanding process. I tend to be a very diverse thinker, and write about many different subjects – with all my collections I’ve tried to balance and integrate their composition, so that the reader will have some sense of a pattern, an unfolding process. Well, that’s the intention, at any rate. I’ve done a lot of preparatory research for a mixed-genre novel called The Ghost of ‘La Fenice’, so look forward to a time when I can get the writing of it underway. This will be a successor to The Mystery of Rosa Morland, a mystery novel which blends verse novel, short stories, with a mock bibliography of the characters. This book was developed over a number of years and it is now more or less complete, though I would like to give it one more revision. Both of these works are set in the early twentieth century. There is an element of burlesque in each, a sense of intrigue (giving expression to my sense that we can really know very little – much seemingly certain knowledge turns out to be mistaken or deceptive), and also the desire to (re)fashion images of beauty and hope. As far as a future direction in poetry is concerned, I would like to write a book of poems about objects, mementos, and works of art. As I’ve got older, I’ve become more interested in the way objects come to embody memories or symbolise people and experiences from the past. This is an area that many poets have ventured upon, but it’s a subject of enormous scope, and I want to do something expressing my own ideas and vision. In the non-fiction area, I’m planning two books which will be offshoots from my PhD. One will be based on my own writing journals, another on place and creativity in the work of women writers. Poetry will remain at the heart of my commitment to writing, though I am interested in how the poetic impulse – which permeates all forms of art – can be expressed in the writing of novels. I recently read Virginia by Jens Christian Grondhal, a wonderful writer, and was deeply engaged by the poetic quality of his writing – not only his prose, but his way of subtly structuring the action through the shifting play of human awareness at different thresholds of time. Poets are in a strange position right now because the power of the mainstream publishing industry (along with other factors involved in ‘the way we live now’) has pushed poetry to the edge of things, but poetry – the image-making process and the desire to create a dance of rhythm and resonance around it – is central to human culture.
Thylazine No.9 (March, 2004)