Looking for Links, or: On Imagining What I Would Talk About If I Met Stuart Barnes

Our poetry editor Stuart Barnes interviewed Elizabeth Allen for Issue Eight of Tincture Journal. Elizabeth’s poems “Post-mortem” and “Delicious” can be found in Issue Eight.


SB: For how long have you been writing poetry, and what or who inspired you to begin?

EA: I have been writing poetry since I was around thirteen years old. I think it was my English teacher who encouraged me to begin—she was very passionate about poetry and used to get us to write poems for class. I think I was very fortunate throughout high school actually to have English teachers who were really excited about poetry, rather than being afraid of it and avoiding teaching it. Their enthusiasm was quite contagious—they got quite beside themselves with excitement over Robert Gray and Philip Larkin and Dylan Thomas and Robert Frost. They opened up the world of poetry to me and were valuable models to have.

SB: When and where was your first poem published, and what was it about?

EA: My first poem was published in 1994, when I was in Year Eleven, in a journal for school children called Youth Writes. I think it was edited by some boys at Sydney Grammar. The poem was called “Playing Games” and it was about going to visit my father in hospital when he was really ill. It is about grief and saying goodbye to someone you love. When I read the poem now I cringe a bit at the tone, which is so earnest, and the ending, which is rather clichéd I think. Still, I suppose you have to stand by your old poems and the person you were when you were fifteen years old even if you worry a bit for her because she is so honest and exposed.

SB: How and where do your poems take shape?

EA: I find that a really hard question to answer. I am not really sure. They seem to be taking shape in the background all the time. They aren’t somehow separate from the rest of my life, but are an extension of the process of thinking, of speaking, of acting—each feeds into the other, is intertwined. I actually think of everything I do in my life as a kind of research for writing and everything I write as a kind of research for living. The things that happen in one domain help me to figure out the things that happen in the other.

I guess I think consciously about specific poems from time to time while I go about my day. A line comes to me or I think about how I might work on a poem. I have a pretty chatty inner conversation going on all the time. Then I sit down and write something to the side of, something tangential to, what I thought I was going to write. The words that make it onto the page are actually usually quite different to what I plan out in my head. As for the physical space I write in, that would be my study at home. It is a nice, quiet, private space where I can write undisturbed—a room of my own.

SB: Reading for a BBC Programme, Sylvia Plath explained: “[‘The Disquieting Muses’] borrows its title from the painting by Giorgio de Chirico—The Disquieting Muses. All through the poem I have in mind the enigmatic figures in this painting.” (Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems, edited by Ted Hughes, Faber and Faber, 1981).

What art forms influence your poetry?

EA: I am not familiar with that Plath poem, I will have to look it up. I am probably influenced most by visual art and theatre. They are the two main art forms that I love and that I have consistently sought out throughout my life. I like music too but it hasn’t been such a big influence on my writing. I am a pretty visual person and am especially interested in the use of colour at the moment.

I don’t think I have ever consciously sat down and written ekphrastic poems on specific artworks but they have still informed me. I wanted to write a series of poems on Bronwyn Oliver’s sculptures but I haven’t got there yet.

I have always been attracted to ekphrastic poems—poems written about artworks—so much so that I started a PhD on this topic. I never finished the PhD but I did a lot of reading in the process and was fortunate enough to meet with Rosemary Dobson and discuss her poetry with her. She is someone who wrote a lot about art and is one of my Australian idols. Move over Guy Sebastian!

SB: Tell me about “Post-mortem” and “Delicious”, the poems of yours that are in Issue Eight of Tincture Journal.

EA: Well the other “art form” that is a big influence on me is television. I am especially obsessed with watching crime and detective dramas. The scarier, the more suspenseful, the more gruesome, the better. I am actually pretty indiscriminate in what I will watch—everything from Law and Order SVU, Wire in the Blood, The Killing, Wallander, The Bridge, The Fall, Happy Valley, and Scott and Bailey, to Midsomer Murders and Miss Marple. You name it and I will watch it.

“Post-mortem” grew out of my appreciation for the forensic crime show Silent Witness. I started thinking about the idea of being dead and someone examining my body for evidence of my life. What they would be able to tell about how I lived and how I died just from my body. I am also interested in the relationship between the forensic pathologist and the body they are examining—cold and detached, yet also strangely intimate.

As I was saying earlier, I am also very interested in colour at the moment, its history, its symbolism, its personal associations, the memories linked to certain colours. This is something I started exploring in my poem “Derwent”, which is about the different shades of blue in a set of Derwent brand colour pencils. The poem “Delicious” is a continuation of these ideas. It is part of a series of poems I have started writing about fruit and colour, and synaesthesia between taste and sight.

I have one poem about an orange and several about apples. “Delicious” is about the golden apple that Greek mythology’s Aphrodite was awarded. To cut a long story short, three goddesses stripped off in front of Paris, who judged Aphrodite the most beautiful and the winner of the golden apple, which was inscribed with the words “for the most beautiful”. My poem is about going to one of those quite tacky nail salons that you see all over the place, salons full of women wearing masks because the fumes are all so toxic, and being overwhelmed by the exciting array of coloured nail polish to choose from; it is also about the (ultimately quite unfulfilling and endless) pursuit of beauty that we as humans can’t really help getting caught up in.

I am thinking I will change the title of this poem to “Golden Delicious” so that I can then have another apple poem about the poisonous apple in Snow White titled “Red Delicious” and so forth. I may even branch out into a poem called “Lemon Delicious” but I will have to check first if there is any reference to lemon pudding in Greek mythology or folk tales/fairy tales.

These two poems, “Post-mortem” and “Delicious”, came together for me in a way when I was having a conversation with my sister. As part of her anatomy course at university she worked with cadavers and she said that when they were studying the anatomy of the human arm the thing that was most surreal and that freaked her out the most was that the arm she was studying had long plastic fake nails still on its fingers.

SB: How has your poetry been influenced by others’? By running poetry workshops for adults and children through Number Forty Seven and The Red Room Company’s National Poetry Education Program, Papercuts? By practising yoga, by teaching children’s yoga?

EA: My poetry has been constantly influenced by others, especially by other poets who have been friends and mentors over the years. I have belonged to a poetry workshop for a long time; the people in that group have most definitely and very practically influenced and shaped my poems by suggesting ways I might edit and improve them. Even when I have disagreed with their advice the process itself has been invaluable.

Running poetry workshops (for both kids and adults) has also been a great learning experience. I saw a quote on Facebook the other day that said something along the lines of “to teach is to learn” and I really think that is true. There is nothing like having to teach something to force you to consolidate your own knowledge on the topic. I also learn a lot from the students I work with; I really don’t think teaching is about one person conveying knowledge to another person (or a class)—the teaching happens in both directions.

I think the Red Room Company are a wonderful organisation; it is quite mind boggling, the number of poetry projects they have undertaken over the years, the diversity of the poets they have worked with, the poems they have commissioned. I feel really privileged that I got to take part in their Papercuts program. I have done a degree in Primary School Teaching so to be able to combine the skills I learnt doing that with my love of poetry was a really great experience.

Through Red Room I got to run a number of workshops in conjunction with their Poetry Object project. It was really moving helping students to write poems about objects that are special to them. They had to bring their special object along to school with them; my favourite example was the boy who brought along his big fish bowl with his fish in it with some gladwrap over the top to stop the water spilling out everywhere on the bus. I thought that showed a real level of commitment. Most of the kids just brought photos of pets, but he really went the extra mile.

As for yoga, well regular practice has a huge influence on my life and my writing. Yoga becomes a kind of metaphor for everything and vice versa. I also find that yoga is very poetic in that all of my favourite yoga teachers have spoken in similes and metaphors about what we are doing in class; it almost becomes inevitable in order to convey the information. The Sanskrit names of the poses are also very poetic.

One of my yoga teachers always talks about the three different stages of a yoga asana and how they are equally important. There is going into the pose, being in the pose and then coming out of the pose. You shouldn’t just rush in and rush out but take care with all three stages. I have wanted to use that idea in a poem for a long time but I am just not quite sure how to yet.

On a very practical level, things like yoga and running are also just really good for my mood and mental health and that obviously has a flow on effect to my writing. It is pretty hard to get any writing done at all if you are feeling depressed and unmotivated.

As for teaching yoga to children, that hasn’t happened yet. I did the training to be able to teach but haven’t yet put that into practice. Maybe if I do ever end up using my Primary teaching degree I can have a class that focuses on lots of yoga and lots of poetry writing and we can just dabble in the other Key Learning Areas (like Maths and Science) every now and again. Seriously though, that is one of the things I love about Primary teaching—the subject areas don’t exist in isolation but you can help students make links between them. I guess that appeals to a poet’s brain when you are naturally always comparing things to each other and looking for links.

SB: Tell me about your role as Associate Publisher at Vagabond Press, which released your chapbook Forgetful Hands in 2005, and Body Language, your first full-length collection, in 2012. Also, what are you currently working on?

EA: I have been involved with Vagabond Press for a long time, it is a real labour of love and (let’s be honest) at times just forbearance and hard work. Mostly though I think it is about community. I really adore working with my fellow Vagabonds, Michael Brennan, Kay Orchison, Chris Edwards and our intern, Tom Waite. I am really proud to be part of something that has brought into the world so many fine poetry collections over the years. For me the most rewarding thing has probably been the friendships and relationships I have developed with other poets through working on the Press.

And obviously it has been great for my own work too, I probably wouldn’t be in print myself if it wasn’t for Michael and Vagabond Press and wouldn’t have had nearly as many opportunities to take part in readings and get my work out there (wherever “there” is, I still haven’t been able to quite figure that one out yet). I like that Michael takes a global perspective and is publishing work of Australian poets but also work by international authors alongside that. And prose as well. The community knows no bounds!

Also when it comes to books, aesthetics are really important to me. I have always been a firm believer that you can judge a book by its cover so I am glad to be working for a press that has such (to borrow a phrase from the world of film) high production values. I think we produce really fine looking books and that matters a lot to me. Sometimes I think we publish too many books, I feel quite tired when I think of the year ahead, but I think we manage to do so without compromising on quality. We are going for quality AND quantity.

I am currently working on a short story actually—“The life on water and the life beneath”. I have borrowed the title from a poem I like by J.S. Harry, I am hoping she won’t mind. I have been battling away at this short story for more than a year now and the whole process has increased my respect for fiction writers. It really is a hard game and not one that comes naturally to me. I joined a fiction writing workshop and the advice I got was that my story is well written but that I need to add some narrative drive and a plot. A plot! Goodness, what a strange new world. I had been writing sort of hybrid prose poem/flash fiction pieces so a short story seemed like the logical next thing to tackle.

While I am not trying to figure out what a narrative drive is (I think it must be like a four-wheel drive but with more slippage) I am attempting to finish enough (decent) poems to put out a second collection of poetry. For my paid job, running events at Gleebooks, I also have to write an entertaining weekly e-newsletter that goes out to 3800 people (though only a third of them open it) and that takes up a significant amount of my time and creative energy. I am sure you can imagine the cycle of stress and relief associated with a weekly writing deadline.

SB: What are your thoughts on print vs. digital poetry publication?

EA: I like both, I enjoy reading and being published myself in both forms. I like the accessibility of digital poetry, how easily it can be shared with others online, and also the scope for experimentation with image and hyperlinks and video and sound etcetera.

I do also like reading hard copy books of poetry though. And as someone who makes a living by working in a bookshop I am obviously invested in the continued success of print publications. I think there is something beautiful about the physical object of a book of poems that you can hold in your hands and physically interact with. That is something that I know we keep in mind at Vagabond Press; I don’t think we would ever go totally digital. I also like having hard copy editions of poetry journals on my bookshelves at home.

I think it is interesting though, what you are trying to do with Tincture, as obviously that only exists as an e-book. You are probably opening up a very different space for reading, a different kind of community. I would be interested in discussing these ideas with you further.

SB: What poets are you reading, what’s your favourite poem at the moment?

EA: I have been reading prose more than poetry lately: Helen Garner, Sonya Harnett and Sylvia Plath. So just the really light stuff. Before that though I was reading Emma Jones’ collection, The Striped World. A friend just lent me a book of poems by Michael Palmer so I might start reading that now. I have a massive stack of books of poetry beside my bed that I would like to get into at some point soon: Claire Gaskin, Joanne Burns, Bonny Cassidy, Fiona Hile, Kate Middleton, Jessica Wilkinson, Petra White and L K Holt. I guess, looking at that list, I am more interested in reading contemporary Australian poetry by women than men at the moment, but I should add that David Malouf is in the pile too!

I am not sure about the favourite poem question. I returned to “The Whitsun Weddings” by Philip Larkin recently because I caught the train up to the Central Coast and I was thinking about good poems about train journeys. Larkin’s poem is really fabulous—I do think it is one of my favourites at the moment. I also seem to keep thinking lately about that line from E. E. Cummings: “nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands”. The poem that line comes from, “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond”, is also an old favourite, like an old sloppy joe I pull on when I come home, partly for warmth but mostly for comfort and reassurance.

Elizabeth Allen is a poet and short story writer based in Sydney. She is the events manager at Gleebooks and associate publisher at Vagabond Press. She is the author of Forgetful Hands (Vagabond Press, 2005) and Body Language (Vagabond Press, 2012), which won the Anne Elder Award.