Our poetry editor Stuart Barnes interviewed Michele Seminara for Issue Nine of Tincture Journal. Michele’s poems “Epistle to My Paedophile” and “Dear Ottla” can be found in the journal.
SB: For how long have you been writing poetry, and what or who inspired you to begin?
MS: I’m a baby poet—or maybe a toddler—I’ve been writing poetry for only three years or so.
But I’ve always written—even as a kid it was my passion. When I was six I announced I was a writer and asked for a special pen and writing pad for Christmas. And I wrote my first novel at eight! I wish I knew where that was. It was called Other Worlds and involved a hole in the wall that sucked you into, well, other worlds! I had an old Olivetti typewriter that I used to bash away on. I wish I knew where that was too!
I studied English and Australian Literature at Sydney Uni, won a few writing competitions, and had a few stories published—then I got… sidetracked. As one does in one’s twenties, I suppose. I started travelling and working unfulfilling jobs to fund the travelling, and although I kept writing, it all just sat there in a mound of handwritten scrawl (which I do still have somewhere). Then I became engrossed in yoga, meditation, and Buddhism (still am), and on my last trip back from India with my then-boyfriend, I discovered I was pregnant—so suddenly family happened (three kids now) and writing (and even reading) slowed for quite some time. Suddenly I was forty and I hadn’t become the writer I knew I was meant to be, so I decided to do something about it.
I enrolled in a blogging course at the NSW Writers’ Centre. I’m not very technical, but I really liked the idea that you didn’t have to sit around for months waiting to see if something you’d written would be published—you could just publish it yourself! I was very naive and had no idea what I was going to write but felt a strong sense of purpose as soon as I began.
SB: When and where was your first poem published, and what was it about?
MS: The first few posts on my blog, TheEverydayStrangeAndSacred, were prose. Suddenly, one evening, I found myself writing a poem, which really surprised me—although I read a lot of poetry, it wasn’t something I thought I could write. My first poem was about a dream I had many years ago, after my grandfather’s death. It was a very vivid dream—my grandfather showed me (by peeling off his skin, hanging it on a hook, then proceeding to the afterlife without it) that there is in fact life after death. This dream, which I had in my early twenties, was significant—throughout his life, my grandfather was a strong atheist yet would assure me “When I die, if I find out there’s life after death, I’ll come back and let you know.” It felt like he did in this dream.
I self-published the poem on my blog (you can read it there; I don’t think it’s very good but I still like it) and got some supportive and positive responses, so wrote another, and so on. I then had a few poems published in The Blue Hour Magazine, an online journal that I still love reading and enjoy being published in. I think one was a poem about motherhood. I’m quite the domestic poet, perhaps unsurprisingly, since I lurk around at home with the family a lot—at the moment, that’s my sphere, and it’s an extraordinarily fertile one, I think. Full of high drama, my house!
Those first poems were a bit cringeworthy, but I was soon hooked. I devoured poetry, learned via osmosis, followed my gut, and kept on writing. I developed a passion for poetry that blew me away. I loved that I didn’t have to worry about plot or narrative, I could just get to the heart of the matter—literally the heart—cut through all the superficiality and deal with the big stuff. I think that’s what I love most about writing poetry.
SB: How and where do your poems take shape?
MS: Poems are slippery suckers. How do they take shape? I wish I knew, because then I could be sure to repeat the process, and would know how to create the next one! As it is, I just get a strange, diffused feeling—in body and mind—and know that a poem’s on its way. No timing to it, either. If I’m doing something else I have to dash off and get the guts of it down—the main ideas, rhythm, key words, images—before it’s gone, and if I can manage that, then I’ve captured enough to work with. Then it’s draft upon draft, but that’s OK—I enjoy working and reworking a poem; I love letting it deepen and distil, and discovering what else is inside.
I feel my poems have a very definite shape, which is set at their conception, and that I have to stay true to that shape (which is a combination of rhyme, rhythm, pace, length, theme and emotional crescendo), even if breaking it would make a better poem. If the poem’s flawed from the outset, I leave it flawed, and hope to create something with more internal harmony next time. I’m a very rhythmic writer. I think that’s why I’ve taken to poetry over prose.
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?
MS: Actually, it’s usually only other writing that influences my poetry. I’m not one to contemplate a painting or a piece of music and use that as inspiration. Although perhaps if I did I might be a better writer! I write mainly from internal impulses, but I also enjoy writing found poetry. If I really connect with a text, I like to use it as the basis of a new poem. I find that this form of constraint, where I have to work within a set collection of words, really forces me out of my writing rut. I need it. It’s also an exciting way of engaging with another writer, past or present.
SB: Tell me about “Dear Ottla” and “Epistle to My Paedophile”, the poems of yours that are in Issue Nine of Tincture Journal.
MS: “Dear Ottla” is a found poem based on the letters of Franz Kafka. I know it’s a bit of a cliché to love Kafka, but I have ever since I was an angst-ridden teenager, and I still do. His writing is so unusual, so lucid yet so opaque—you start reading a very straight sort of story, then it somehow slides into something quite bizarre and you’re never quite sure how or when that happened. I became a bit obsessed when reading Kafka’s biography and letters. He had such a rich inner life but tried so hard to restrain it, to appear normal—to his detriment. I suppose I related to this, and tried to express it through “Dear Ottla”, which was a joy to write. I feel I’m very close to the original author when I “find” a poem from within their own words.
“Epistle to My Paedophile” is a non-fiction poem. It’s very personal, but I don’t mind being open about it. My uncle sexually abused most of the girls in my family (and, I’m sure, many more outside the family as well)—including my sister and me. I’ve always known this, and thought it quite normal, until I got to a certain age and realised it wasn’t. When I was in my twenties my sister—quite bravely—told our parents what had happened to us; from then on, my family had nothing to do with my uncle. We heard, however, just a few years ago, that he’d suffered a stroke and was in a nursing home. I remember feeling a huge sense of relief, just thinking Good, now he’s immobilised, he can’t hurt anyone anymore. I’m a Buddhist, and although I certainly went through moments of feeling anger over what he’d done, my overriding sense was that he himself was suffering, as well as being caught up in a cycle of inflicting suffering on others, and so I never wished him any harm. Having said that, I thought his having a stroke was the best thing for any potential victims, and also for him, as his ability to keep creating the heavy negative karma of abusing others was—for a time at least—neutralised. He’s since died, and although I never went to visit him (as I imagine doing in the poem), I imagined that I did, and what it would have been like, and that’s where this poem began. I think it’s important to publish poems about things like this—after all, one in every third person has been sexually abused. So kudos to Tincture for getting it out there!
SB: How has your poetry been influenced by others’? By your current role as managing editor of the literary journal Verity La, by your previous role as poetry reader for Verity La? By teaching and practising yoga?
MS: I feel very lucky to have been supported and encouraged by others in my attempts at writing, and in fact am only making improvements and headway in my poetry based on others’ kindness. I know some people may feel Australia’s writing scene is cliquey or hard to break into, but mostly that hasn’t been my experience—and when it has, I simply move on and another door opens. The generous people who first read, commented on, and published my poems were a huge influence on me, as they made me feel that I could write, and gave me the motivation to keep going. I remember sending a poem to Justin Lowe, for Bluepepper, and being so excited when he accepted it. At that stage I had been writing poetry for only a few months and felt I was really punching above my weight! From having that poem published, Australian poet Phillip Ellis kindly followed a link to my blog and suggested I try submitting some poems to PASH Capsule, which I did, and consequently had the good fortune of making the acquaintance of yourself (then-editor) and many other very kind and supportive writers and editors. An online course with Les Wicks through Australian Poetry was also hugely helpful; Les has been very encouraging ever since. Other people, such as poet and event organiser Ariel Riveros Pavez, who invited me to perform at The Blue Space Poetry Jam, and poet, activist and film-maker Saba Vasefi, who asked me to read at The Women’s International Poetry Festival last year, believed I could perform my poetry publicly, which gave me the confidence to believe I could perform it publicly. I really have been very fortunate. So that is the main way others have influenced my writing—through belief and encouragement and feedback.
In terms of being a poetry reader for Verity La, and now being managing editor of the journal—both amazing experiences. At the beginning of 2014 I was completely chuffed to get a poem accepted there; by the end of the year I was moving into the position of managing editor—how did that happen? Timing, luck, bravery, naivety, and passion—and mainly, once again, the kindness of others, in this case particularly the faith and encouragement of Nigel Featherstone, former managing editor. And being entrusted to read other people’s writing as part of working with Verity La, and having to trust my gut instincts, plus learn from the experience of the other volunteers who work with the journal—that provides an invaluable education! I love it, absolutely love it, and although I’m not writing as much at the moment because there’s less time, I think in the long run it will make me a better writer.
As to the influence of yoga and meditation, they are, I feel, at the opposite end of the spectrum to writing—they are both methods for moving beyond the conceptual (the words, the labels), which we use to create our world. Having said that, the deepest parts of the mind (which we can access through yoga and meditation) are where all the best ideas and words come from, so in that sense one definitely informs the other.
SB: Tell me about the chapbook you’re working on.
MS: Well, I was (ostensibly) working on a chapbook, although what that really meant was that I was collecting poems in a drawer! Then, miraculously, late last year I was contacted (along with yourself and other poets Robbie Coburn, Rose Hunter, and Carly-Jay Metcalfe) by Nathan Hondros, editor of Regime Magazine, to contribute to an anthology that aims to re-define what’s happening in the Australian poetry scene. So I’m proud to say there’ll be a number of my poems in that collection, which will appear later this year. Even more miraculously, I was recently contacted by two publishers that expressed interest in putting out a full-length collection and a chapbook, so it seems I’ll have something of my own out this year, which is rather exciting. Stay tuned!
SB: What are your thoughts on print vs. digital poetry publication?
MS: I think they work well together. When I first started writing and getting things published I still had to type everything up, mail it off, and wait forever for a reply. These days, I love the relative immediacy of digital publishing, the amazing variety of journals it fosters, and the ease with which I can connect with writers from around the world. But in terms of poetry, which needs deep reading, I still like to hold a book in my hands and be able to return to it as a tangible object. Basically, I use the internet to scour for the writers I want to read, but when I’ve found what I love, I want to read it fully on paper.
SB: What poets are you reading, what’s your favourite poem at the moment?
MS: A favourite poem—I couldn’t choose! I love dark, insistent, passionate poetry. I love rhythm and intensity, things that are raw but still artful. I’ve been reading American poets Rachel Hadas, Sharon Olds, and Sylvia Plath, and Australian poets Fay Zwicky and Tim Heffernan. And I’m enjoying Words in Air, a collection of correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell—their letters are as good as their poetry!
Michele Seminara is a poet, yoga teacher and editor from Sydney. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Bluepepper, Tincture Journal, Regime, Seizure, Plumwood Mountain and Social Alternatives. She is also the managing editor of online creative arts journal Verity La. She blogs at http://micheleseminara.wordpress.com/ and is on Twitter @SeminaraMichele. Michele’s poem “Hoary” appeared in Issue Five of Tincture Journal.