Julie Maclean, interviewed by Stuart Barnes

Our poetry editor Stuart Barnes interviewed Julie Maclean for Issue Ten of the journal. Julie’s poems ‘Abandoned Bodies on Everest.com’, ‘Being Burden’ and ‘Rough Trade On’ can also be found in the journal.

Stripes Head and shoulders

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

JM: I come from a line of independent women and very kind men who taught me the value of reading and the power of education. When it comes to language I have always been a sponge and I have to thank my father for that. He would sit for hours first reading to me, then listening to me read and taking me to the library on a Saturday morning. I could read when I was four thanks to him. I loved the way pictures of dogs and children came alive in a simple, repetitive narrative. The much maligned Janet and John graded readers gave me a super power. I loved the sound of words and the force they could wield at my core. When I wasn’t skipping and playing Hide-and-Seek, I was playing Libraries with Lesley from the council flats.

From then I loved words and building a vocabulary in competition with my dad, triggered by the stalwart of all 1950s homes, the Reader’s Digest. When I got to secondary school I adored French (and my young, cool French teacher), but to my eternal disappointment felt that Latin was pointless and fuddy-duddy. All those battles and references to Sparta and Troy bored me to death. If we’d taken a field trip to Pompeii or Rome it might have been a different story. I gave it up in Year Nine and have been too lazy or scared to take it up since.

Great teachers and beautiful literature have been my saviours. In primary school when I was nine Miss White was a strict, Quakeresque battleaxe. We had to recite poetry for end of year assessment and I chose something from the Oxford Book of Verse. It was Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘Spring’ and I have never forgotten it, or him. I still find his poetry thrilling. His love of language was visceral and I can see his influence everywhere still. That year I won the poetry prize, which was a book token. Dad took me to Blackwells in Clifton where ceiling-high bookshelves groaned under the weight of poetry. I still have that poetry book with my name carefully inscribed inside the front cover in proper ink and in a stiff attempt at italics. I went back to Blackwells last year and the bare floorboards and high shelves had been replaced by carpet and low rows of shiny new publications. I found about six poetry titles in the whole place. It was a dismal disappointment.

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

JM: My mother had a strong hand in my first poem. Left to my own devices it might have been free verse but rhyme was the order of the day. I was five and I remember how we spent ages trying to get the metre right. It was a nonsense poem after Spike Milligan about a robin sitting on a nest with treacle running down its breast. I was always more interested in reading poetry than writing it until about eight years ago. All my creative energy had gone into teaching English, which I don’t regret for a minute. I loved it. I never thought about writing until I found myself with a small child in an unhappy relationship. The upside was a surge of writing. I can’t remember exactly which journal published my first poem. I think it might have been Divan and, if so, was about a bag lady from Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, where I lived at the time. Thinking back, she might have been a cross-dresser. She wore parachute pants, a crash helmet and used to thread tea bags in her dreadlocks. She carried a shopping bag and would show me pieces of broken glass lying in the bottom. These were her ‘baby’. I’d had trouble conceiving at the time and had gone through miscarriages so her broken baby resonated with me.

SB: How and where do your poems take shape?

JM: In front of a screen on my iPad after something I’ve heard, read, seen or experienced. I never handwrite. Too slow and I can no longer read my own writing. I have a collaboration going with a close poet friend in the UK where we send reply poems to each other within a two-week window and we have to respond to some aspect of the other person’s poem. I got the idea from UK poet Judy Brown. It makes us think and write. We’re heading for a pamphlet. Once I have the opening line I work quickly using free association to see where it leads and find if I tamper too much I can lose the essence and sometimes vitality of a piece. I return to a poem after a day or a week and look at the problems, tweak, leave again, then revisit sooner or later. More and more I enjoy the research aspects of writing and where this leads. I often feel inspired to write after a few days of concentrated reading. I should kill my darlings more, I suspect. I rarely pass my work on for comment. Themes seem to change every few weeks. Recently, I could see the value in mentoring when an editor actually phoned me and asked me if I could let the last stanza go. I could see how I’d let the poem run to fat.

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?

Surrealist art has influenced my work. I have to thank Pascale Petit for that. It was her response to Frida Kahlo in What the Water Gave Me and a residential I attended in 2013 that inspired me to write in a more imaginative way. I love galleries, museums and documentaries on any art form and will gladly give over a Saturday and Sunday afternoon to SBS and ABC to indulge this passion. A recent visit to MONA had a profound effect on me: when I walked in I cried at the physical magnitude of the place inspired by art on my favourite island, Tasmania. I find the space inspirational and exciting on so many levels. To find Henry Darger in his own gallery was breathtaking. It would be difficult to find a gallery in the world that matches the scope and vision of David Walsh. I would love to visit Naoshima, the island of surreal art in Japan and I have those clay warriors in Xi’an on my bucket list.

SB: Tell me about ‘Rough Trade On’, ‘Being Burden’ and ‘Abandoned Bodies on Everest.com’, the poems of yours that are in Issue Ten of Tincture Journal.

JM: ‘Abandoned Bodies on Everest.com’ was written after a macabre look at this website and the moving stories behind the souls left on the mountain. The tone is probably a bit odd because I have mixed feelings about the tragedy of lost life versus the desperation we humans display in order to be validated or feel alive and the lengths some of us will go for recognition and a sense of meaning. This is where I have a love/hate relationship with social media, which sometimes feels so narcissistic that it becomes unbearable.

‘Being Burden’ was inspired by a radio documentary I heard about this phenomenon where horses fear abandonment when they see fellow horses moving away from them and out of sight. Of course, my poem is really about mortality and losing everything in death, which I think about quite a lot after the death of my own father who, in the face of death, and after a lifetime of being dignified and moderate, told me he was terrified. He was losing everything. This shocked me and I feel the need to get my own feelings in order quick smart. That means I do not want to fear death but go to it with equanimity, which most of us faithless souls do not. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying is by the side of my bed for those wobbly moments at Wolf Hour and I find a less socially engaged life makes me feel peaceful and happy.

‘Rough Trade On’ was written after a night in Bourke, a key country town along what used to be known as The Long Paddock, where cattle were driven from Queensland to Victoria in the days before motorised transport. We were advised not to walk the streets after dark because crack cocaine and crystal meth now seem to be the biggest business in town and visitors are vulnerable to attack. This outback place seems to distil the past and present in a toxic and tragic brew. I travel to the outback quite a bit and am constantly disturbed and ashamed by the mess we leave behind in our greed and curiosity.

SB: How has your poetry been influenced by others’? By teaching English? By moving from the UK to Australia in the Seventies and, more recently, to the coast?

JM: I would say that Shakespeare, GM Hopkins, WB Yeats, DH Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, Keats, Joni Mitchell, the Beat Poets and Plath influenced my early attempts. Now I have the time to read widely I find influences come from far and wide, mainly contemporary poets; I love the language in the King James Bible and although I’ve only dipped into it in places, it’s breathtaking.

The migrant experience affects me more and more the older I get. I’m becoming nostalgic and that has informed a lot of the poetry in my debut collection When I saw Jimi, which was my way of capturing an earlier time in a memoir. In the Seventies I was running away from early marriage and suburban life and looking for adventure and no responsibility. In moving to Australia in 1976 aged twenty-four, I eventually came to the emotional place where I belong everywhere and nowhere. This was positive in the early years, finding family duty cloying, but now that I have an ageing mother and lifelong friends approaching a vulnerable time in their lives I feel the separation keenly and I also feel guilty for leaving. This melancholy detachment gives rise to reflection and poetry, so it can’t be all bad. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t been such a bolter. Life might have been easier. These days I tend to be influenced by travel to new places, the natural world, human folly (mainly mine) and art.

SB: Tell me about Scandinavia, which inspired your pamphlet Kiss of the Viking (Poetry Salzburg, 2014).

JM: Scandinavia was a surprise and a half. I was expecting cutting edge design and fabulous-looking tall blonde Vikings and what I found was understated calm and a confidence in the architecture and the people, most of whom were of average height with brown hair. I saw very few tattoos or dyed hair, nobody wanting to be noticed above the crowd. I found a pastel gentility (except in Christiania, Copenhagen, which was all drugs and pit bulls). The contemporary and traditional rub against each other comfortably in some ways but are now challenged by the influx of refugees and an acknowledgement in some quarters that Nordic Noir has some basis in reality. It had only been a year since Breivik had set off that bomb in Oslo and murdered those beautiful young people.

As an Anglo/Australian I felt undercooked somehow and detached. As a young country, I feel we have too many qualities of the adolescent and I came away feeling that we need more self assurance, greater curiosity and a respect for the quiet and unassuming where the introverted and philosophical trump the brash and superficial. It was also embarrassing that everyone spoke fluent and sophisticated English but that we didn’t have more than one word of their language, Tac, for thank you. The weird thing was, I felt unnerved by the silence, the perceived emptiness, milky light and long, long days. I did miss the bright and brash and the rush of Aussie life. We seem polar opposites in so many ways. I loved seeing Munch’s paintings and the Millenium tour as homage to Stieg Larsson; above all, the heritage listed cemeteries; Woodland and Assistenz, where death is handled democratically, fearlessly and simply in the Lutheran tradition. No tacky plastic flowers on those graves. And I loved the other side of Copenhagen, where most people ride to work on old fashioned Malvern Star type black bikes with baskets and no crash helmets and no Lycra.

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

JM: The explosion of online journals of varying degrees of quality means that it is possible for almost anyone to see their poetry published. This is fabulous for the dilettante and it means that readers can find their preferred style, but if you want to be taken seriously you have to discriminate and be on doggerel alert. Once it’s up, it’s up forever. What I find difficult is the cost of subscribing to print journals in this country. They are wonderful to have and to hold but so few people get to see the poetry and it’s so difficult deciding where to invest. I swap around every year. And as our reach become global it gets even harder to choose. I applaud websites like Josephine Corcoran’s And Other Poems, which publishes previously published poetry. It’s been terrible to see so many excellent journals go under even in my short time in the poetry world but market forces and different levels of engagement will prevail. I think journals should charge a nominal fee for submissions or accept upon purchase of a publication. While digital will dominate in the future when they get the formatting right, there will always be a place for the lovely hard or soft cover and it’s so good to see so many pamphlet publishers, publishing to order so not suffocating under piles of dusty remainders and some producing high quality, beautifully designed books.

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

JM: In recent weeks I’ve read contemporary heartbreaking Lithuanian poets in an anthology compiled by Poetry Salzburg. I’ve recently returned to UK’s Jon Stone and Pascale Petit, US’ Sharon Olds, Tony Hoagland and Frank O’Hara and Canadian Don McKay. I tend to dip in and out of international online poetry a lot. I’ve been reading Alice Oswald’s Dart and listening to a radio broadcast of her poem ‘Tithonus’. She is one of a rare breed of poets who can read their own work impressively. I like to check out Best of UK, US, Canadian and Australian poetry to feel the zeitgeist. In the latest Poetry I found Michael Derek Hudson whose work I really like for its meaty attitude and language play. He hasn’t published a collection because I don’t think he’s bothered to try. He’s very, very good.http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/michael-hudson.

If you asked me in a month’s time I’d give you another list.

Julie Maclean  is the author of Kiss of the Viking (Poetry Salzburg), When I saw Jimi (Indigo Dreams) and the e-chapbook You Love You Leave (Kind of a Hurricane Press, US). Her poetry and short fiction appears in The Best Australian Poetry (UQP) and is forthcoming in Poetry. Julie blogs at www.juliemacleanwriter.com.

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