Between July 2012 and June 2014 Paul Hetherington and Petra White conducted an interview by email about making and thinking about poetry, including the ways in which Petra approached her work and her views about poetic innovation, imagination and reading others poets’ work.
Paul Hetherington: Can you tell me about the origins of your poetry—why you write, what started you, how it connects to your childhood and your experience of growing up, and what place writing now has in your life?
Petra White: I always wrote stories as a child—never poetry—and I decided to become a writer when I finished high school. It happened slowly—initially I wanted to be an actor, but I found myself writing little snippets and poems, mainly when I was stoned with friends. Acting increasingly fell off the radar and I started to write what I thought would be a novel. It was quite surrealist, with a lot of very elaborate imagery and practically no plot or structure. After three years it defeated me and I found myself becoming interested in poetry, largely through a wonderful anthology I discovered at the Brunswick Street bookshop, and went without food for, and read over and over: Poems for the millennium (1998), in two huge volumes.
I loved the European poets like Celan, Mallarme, Pessoa and Rimbaud. And the recontextualising of Blake and Dickinson in a 20th-century frame, but perhaps most important to me was Rilke. Rilke was the first poet to really get to me. From him I learned that it’s okay for a poem to take some time to write; I loved the way he described himself as a perpetual ‘beginner’. There was also something freeing about the very individual and idiosyncratic style of his imagery and argument. I felt that Rilke understood me, and that the way he wrote was something I could draw on, if not emulate. He was also instructive; I could see how his poems worked. And he showed me that it was possible to think in a poem.
However, I still didn’t manage to write any poems worth keeping. Over about two years, unemployed, spending every day in the state library, I wrote two or three hundred poems that I disposed of quickly, except for a couple that I persisted with that I couldn’t get right. But I kept reading and studying, and eventually decided to go to Melbourne University at the age of 24 to do a BA and learn German, to read Rilke and Celan, of course. I also studied English literature, and the discipline of study and writing criticism helped me to think about poetry in more objective ways, so that by the end of the first year I was finally able to put into practice what I had learnt from Rilke: that poems can be written slowly, and that one can think about them and work on them and let them grow accretively, rather than just dashing them off, as I had been, with little success.
Perhaps most importantly I had begun for the first time to read English language poetry, as well as poetry in German, having previously mainly read European poetry in translation. I began to get a sense of the sounds and textures of English, and to think more about form and the free verse line. That summer (2000–01) I wrote, or began, three poems that would eventually appear in my first book, The incoming tide. My approach to poetry keeps changing as I learn more about the art, and push more at what is possible.
Writing has a central place in my life, though I work full time as a public servant. Why I write, I don’t know—partly because I can, mainly because I want to; I wouldn’t say it was a compulsion. Poetry makes it possible to see more deeply into experience and emotion, while also making use of them and turning them into something new. Nothing is wasted, you can make a poem out of nearly anything, at least in theory; everything is interesting. I write because I’m excited by language and what can be done with it; and I write because I read and reading makes writing possible. Recently I’ve been reading two poets who really push the boundaries of comprehension—sometimes I can scarcely understand them—Marina Tsvetaeva and John Donne. This stretching of the imaginable is one thing that makes writing really exciting to me.
Paul: Could you tell me how you write. Is it with pen and paper or on a computer, and why do you work in that way?
Petra: I love my iPad. I can carry it everywhere and the writing app I use is also on my phone, so I can pull it out at work and pretend I'm texting whilst working on a poem. Since I got the iPad I haven't much used my computer for writing, and I never write by hand because my handwriting is terrible.
Paul: You’ve spoken about writing in a library, studying at university and also about the importance of reading. Can you tell me whether you ever undertake research before you write a poem and, more generally, whether you think poetry and research are connected to one another? If so, in what ways are they connected and, where your poetry is concerned, how would you define research activity?
Petra: I don’t know that I do anything systematic that could be called research in an academic sense, but I certainly read around what I’m writing. At the moment I’m writing love poems, so I’m reading all the great love poets: Petrarch, Donne, Cavafy, Sappho and many others, and gaining an understanding of the different species of love poem. The early poems in the sequence are deliberatively Petrarchan. I think that reading enables me to situate the poems within an existing tradition; and it’s important to be aware of the traditions you are entering. When I wrote the poem ‘To William Drummond at Hawthornden’ (in The simplified world), I was staying at Hawthornden Castle, which was originally his home. That was a kind of research in itself; I also read a biography of him, and I read the ‘Conversations’, which is his record of what Ben Jonson said during a visit.
Knowing facts about Drummond, and collecting some quotes gave me material for the poem, and enlarged the scope of the poem. That poem is in the genre of the country house poem, and I was also mindful of that as I was writing—I read, for example, Ben Jonson’s ‘To Penshurst’. It’s rare that I would write a poem without reading—there are usually piles of books on my desk. Often my reading is stylistically motivated—I read poets whose style is similar to the one I’m developing, or I read poets who challenge me to write in new ways. Reading something I admire makes me want to try something similar. I like, sometimes, to reference other poets—the title of my poem ‘The Ecstasy’ is a reference to John Donne. Entering the worlds of other poets is an important way of taking poetry beyond the world of the self. Whether or not you call this research, writing is irretrievably bound up with reading for me.
Paul: You talk about ‘style’ and I’d be interested to hear more about that. What is poetic style? Why does it matter? And how does a concern with poetic style fit into the contemporary tendency to accept that whatever calls itself a poem can be considered a poem?
Petra: Paul Celan said ‘Craft means handiwork, a matter of hands. And these hands must belong to one person, i.e. a unique, mortal soul searching for its way with its voice and its dumbness. Only truthful hands write true poems. I cannot see any basic difference between a handshake and a poem’ (2003: 26). I think he might have easily have been talking about style. Style is what makes a poem ‘true’—by which I mean authentic and unmistakable. A style is a way of writing; to find a style is to find a way, and every poem commands its own reinvention of style. Style is a kind of necessity: it establishes the limits and possibilities without which a poem cannot be written. It’s the decisions you make about rhythm and form and tone, but also about what the poem will do. The exigencies of its style give the poem its direction. Once a poem finds its limits, then it comes alive with possibility. I find that with different styles I say different things and have different points of view, or so it seems. That’s because I only have a vague idea, when I set out to write a poem, about what I want it to say: or rather, I may have millions of things to say, but that’s useless until I know how—style is the how. For example, a poem I am writing at the moment has taken on quite a solemn, slow style, with a kind of deliberative formality that lets in a certain meditative, teased-out way of thinking.
As to the question of ‘the tendency to accept that whatever calls itself a poem can be considered a poem’, notionally you might call it a poem, but the real question is what makes it a great poem? A poem that lacks style is likely to be very bland and full of clichés. When you read a poem by John Donne or Les Murray, it is unmistakably theirs, it is ‘a mortal soul searching for its way with its voice and its dumbness.’ Style is important because it’s what distinguishes a poem; it also distinguishes a poet. Murray and Donne have distinctive, flexible styles of their own, recognisable in any poem; yet subtly their poems are in many different styles.
It struck me when I was judging a poetry competition last year that a lot of the poems seemed as if they could have been written by the same person—there was nothing individual about them. Style is a marker of individuality and originality—it is idiosyncratic because the only way to make something original is with your own limited but ever expanding ways of thinking, seeing, feeling and saying. It’s very hard work that must be done with lightness and flair and inventiveness.
Paul: So, inventiveness is important to you as a poet?
Petra: Yes, of course. In our language, poetry plays a generative role. Of course people are inventive with language all the time, but poets are more deliberatively inventive. Shakespeare invented whole new ways of saying and seeing, you might say thinking as well. Hamlet, Macbeth and Lear are all inventions. Invention isn’t just about form, it’s about content and subject as well.
Paul: How inventive is contemporary Australian poetry? A hard question, I know, but do you have a view about whether Australian poets are very strongly engaged in thinking about and seeing our world newly?
Petra: The question of inventiveness tumbles against the question of innovation which seems to come up quite often as a self-defining term for the avant-garde. In common parlance the two words can mean much the same. But in Australia the self-professed avant-garde, or some of them, tend to posit all other kinds of poetry as conservative (to name just a few, this would include poets as various as Wallace-Crabbe, Gray, Beveridge, the late Peter Porter, Jennifer Harrison, Albiston, Murray, Emery, Polain, Yasbincek, Gorton, Lea and myself and very many more, from all generations). I suspect there is very little difference in this country between avant-garde and other kinds of poetry—the bulk of Australian poetry is lyric or narrative, or both, avant-garde or otherwise, except that some poetry happens to be written with an explicit manifesto behind it. We wouldn’t know it was especially ‘innovative’ except that we are told it is.
Consider for example, large parts of the work of John Kinsella, which are basically conventional poetry albeit with a disruptive intent. In the world of technology, to be an innovator or an inventor is to change the way that things are done. Perhaps Eliot and Pound were the only very radical innovators in the last hundred years in English: they changed the form and attitude of poetry thus far permanently—everything since has built on that, inventively. I steer towards inventiveness as a more processive word, denoting ongoing originality. Poetry is really about reworking a whole lot of traditions, reworking what already exists. All poetry is conservative—even avant-garde poetry — in that it operates within a tradition or traditions. Inventiveness is what renews and brings tradition alive; all good poetry invents and ‘makes it new’ in very subtle ways. I’ve just been reading the collected poems of Robert Gray (2012), he is a remarkable poet whose work forms a distinctive whole, a recognisable world. He writes what is to me a truly inventive poetry—he is working within modernist and Eastern traditions, but what he does with image is something only he can do. I think there are a few Australian poets who, like Gray, are world-class—I won’t make a list—and I’m also very excited by the work of some of my peers. I’d say that Australia, to use the ubiquitous phrase, punches well above its weight in delivering original poets to the English-speaking world.
Paul: If Australia punches above its weight, why is its poetry not better known internationally?
Petra: I don’t know—it should be. Australian poetry makes small inroads internationally—Gray, Wallace-Crabbe and Murray have international publishers. But I wonder how much poetry of other countries is known internationally. In Ireland, who apart from Heaney and maybe Durcan and Muldoon? I suspect there are many good poets in America, for example, who are not known internationally. Generally a poet has to win a Nobel Prize to be known internationally. Anne Carson is perhaps the exception to this.
Paul: Tell me about Anne Carson. What is it that you enjoy about her work?
Petra: It’s hard to say without being too casual here. I guess I’d say that the most immediately striking thing about Anne Carson is her wit. It’s not wit in a satirical sense, maybe more a freshness and an acute alertness—she doesn’t try to be poetic, she approaches things in exactly the way they smell and sound—she describes emotions as concrete things, having a shape and texture and sound. Sometimes she's funny, even in the context of something serious, humour is allowed. She’s very explicit. She gets close to things. I love her mixing of the long line and the short line—she makes the lines work around her sense of rhythm. And of course I admire the scope of her work, particularly the book-length poems such as Autobiography of red and The beauty of the husband. The latter succeeds in being a formal inquiry into what is beauty, whilst telling a story of three quirky and plausible characters.
Paul: There is a freshness and acuteness about much of your poetry. Is this something you aim at when you’re writing? Would you like to discuss one of your own poems and how it illustrates your approach to writing?
Petra: I think every poet would say that they aim for freshness and acuteness. Freshness in particular—all good poetry does something fresh with language. I said that all poetry is conservative, even the avant-garde. Tradition (Raymond Williams in Keywords is worth reading on this) fundamentally refers to something handed over. Language is handed to us and is the basic tradition, and the ways poets have used it likewise. We never invent a totally new language. So I will say equally that all good poetry is radical. It takes what is handed to us, changes it greatly or a little, and hands it on again. As to my own approach, I can only say that it has to change with every poem. Of course, often I think, I want to do again what I did in Poem X, but I never can—something new is always required. I can’t help being aware of the poets and thinkers that I have read, and my poetry reflects this. My poem ‘Kangaroos’ for instance has thoughts about Rilke’s eighth elegy behind it but you don’t need to know that to understand the poem. But the poem I will discuss here is ‘Ode to Coleridge’. The second half of my poem refers specifically to parts of the first and final books of Wordsworth’s ‘The Prelude'. Artists sometimes engage with other works of art at a fairly serious level—I don’t do it to put anyone off and I don't think many people who like poetry will be.
Ode to Coleridge
On the toughness of the physical soul
Feeling around in the human,
as if inside a sack, soul fends for itself,
fends off, prunes, cultivates,
makes itself up, says
‘is this right?’
(and tries to be reasonably consistent)
tending itself, lurches like Sisyphus
into forwardness, backwardness,
urges itself to form a comma,
something next, next,
please move along now, please,
same again thanks,
Those Dialogues of Soul and Body
seem bureaucratically polite.
The one complains of being chained by the other,
much like the married,
each certain of its own bounds.
What is darkness,
where does it come from?
Heavy as our fleshload,
Here comes the train in the tunnel
(a cold blasty wind comes first and stiffens us)
will you step in front of it by some
some trees, blue blue blue
a three-legged dog
running as if on four,
a pet pigeon on the windowsill,
feet planted on the tired old clay of its own shit,
or a lone goat, tethered to a field it eats tidy,
skies and delicious rain
there on brain’s doorstep.
Wordsworth climbed Mt Snowdon,
setting off at couching-time to meet
the climbing sun
‘forehead bent Earthward, as if in opposition set
against an enemy’.
grimly, grimily out of primordial self,
bearing what can’t be left,
skull’s cargo, hellbent thoughts.
What does he want?
To survive, a wandering human,
by some ‘fit converse with the spiritual world’.
Nature his accomplice.
To climb a mountain is to climb himself.
His childhood is a looming rock,
silently glided towards
by the man remembering,
the child approaching,
then one or the other or both
oaring away in terror.
He cannot know who stole the boat.
‘There was a boy’,
he mutters to himself.
Nothing much happens.
The naked moon
pleases with a tricky light, the mist
rears up and writhes
its ‘ocean’ about his shoes.
His mind, greedy,
opens its trap.
Magician, he breathes free
the soul he keeps chained
like an animal inside him.
The diction of my poem is meditative, but it moves by a series of abrupt jumps of thought. Any logic it might have is not smooth. Would it help or hinder the reader to know that the poem was originally attempted as having several parts, which are here fused, with some bits left out? Logic in a poem anyway is not the main point. But poems do develop a logic of their own. Soul in this poem is probably not too far from 'person', yet I hope that the implication throughout is that it is bodily. When it erupts at the end soul is an animal. My logic, such as it is, is opposed to the rationalising 'dialogues' separating it from the body that poets like Marvell wrote. 'Darkness' arrives in the poem abruptly and that is its nature.
This poem in one respect gave me a way of writing about depression—but at the time I wasn’t intending to write about depression, and of course, the poem is about much more than that. But the idea of depression holds it together: it gives a character to what soul might mean as it deals with the limitations—the acuteness—of its experience and its ways of conceiving itself. The title mentions Coleridge but the second half of the poem actually attends to his friend Wordsworth. I will come back to the relation later. I was drawn to Wordsworth because he experienced so much exaltation of the spirit, at least in poetry, yet despite that he is a kind of methodical, plodding figure to me—somebody who persists, who believes in the possibilities of joy and isn’t defeated by its absence.
My final stanzas are mischievous about Wordsworth's non-achievement of the sublime on his journey up Snowdon. But I hope they affectionate. I think the endurance of flatness while believing in joy is a key to Romanticism—there’s a heroism of the soul in surviving it and being able to keep going. I have Wordsworth, plodding up Mt Snowdon—which I confess is a conceit, because in fact he climbed that mountain in one of his buoyant moods at least in the fiction of his poem—heading doggedly towards the epiphany that will free his soul, needing revelation as an animal needs food. Hard work is something this poem is about. The images from ‘nature’ in the poem are of survivors—the three-legged dog, the tethered goat. This is about as far from a Romantic idea of a unifying Nature as you can get. Perhaps their affinity is with medieval beast fable. Nature, as I want to see it, offers a reflection of the soul as something that must endure, within a world—of a self that can be confining as well as expansive—there is darkness, which cannot be vanquished, it has to be experienced.
Wordsworth believed in the redemptive power of nature, whereas for ST Coleridge, Wordsworth’s friend in life and poetry, who wrote, in ‘Dejection: An Ode’, ‘I see, not feel, how beautiful they are’, nature is not enough. And this poem is written more from the perspective of Coleridge. My poem’s title is a homage, it only came to me after the poem was finished.
Paul: To what extent do your poems simply arrive—gifted, as it were—and to what extent do you ‘make’ them, carefully and with thought after the initial poetic impulse has waned? Also, how much is your poetry driven by your sensuous, bodily responses to your experiences?
Petra: I can find myself being dismissive of the idea of inspiration, and insisting on the primacy of the work aspect, but really both are important. I think the question of inspiration is an interesting one—it certainly exists but it’s very unreliable—one could not rely on it alone, any more than it is possible to write a poem solely in cold blood. Even Coleridge writing ‘Kubla Khan’ in one go under the influence of opium—it’s unlikely that he could have done that if he wasn’t already deeply immersed in writing poetry, if he hadn’t already done the work, for years, so that it was in him. Rather like a jazz musician improvises, but on the basis of extensive practice. Inspiration is crucial, but it needs skill. As a younger poet I had plenty of poetic impulse, but I could scarcely write anything worth keeping because I hadn’t developed that skill.
So I believe that both inspiration and work are required, and the great advantage to that is that if you lack inspiration, as I often do, you can still work, and something like a poetic impulse will come out of that focus. Sometimes I think rather deliberatively and without inspiration, that I would like to write a poem about a particular subject and I approach it very doggedly; at other times a poem, or the beginning or a bit of a poem, comes seemingly out of nowhere. But it’s not really out of nowhere: I’m immersed in writing and always thinking about it. However the poem comes into being, careful making is always required. An initial poetic impulse might generate a few lines very quickly, almost like magic, but then you have think hard about what kind of poem it might be, where it is going, if anywhere.
To the second part of the question. Poetry is necessarily a sensuous, bodily response to the world—poetry is about the physicality of language, writing it is a way of giving a bodily form and music to what can sometimes seem quite difficult to grasp or say in any other way. Some poetry is strongly driven by sensuous experience—the poetry of Hopkins, for example—but I’m not sure that mine is, though there are some examples, like a recent poem ‘About Desire’ which tries to capture sexual desire, or ‘Trampolining’ with its sensual imagery of the kids on the trampoline. I don’t think of my poetry as being especially driven by sensuous experience as such, though of course that may be drawn on, but it is certainly driven by the desire to create a sensuous object, a poem.
Paul: How much does the ‘sensuous, bodily response to the world’ that you refer to originate in childhood? Is the adult poet partly writing out—trying to locate or register again in language—some sense of how they apprehended the world—and how it felt in and on the body—when they were growing up?
Petra: I think so, yes. I have a few poems about childhood which centre on a physical experience of the world—‘Trampolining’, ‘Ricketts Point’, ‘Older Sister’. Sometimes I am also interested in the way the child sees the world, for example ‘Grave’ is a child’s perspective on one version Christianity. I think childhood is often very appealing for writers because it can be so vividly remembered, there is often a lot of rich imagery and remembered sensation in the memory. And it is also mysterious. Seemingly ordinary recollections carry a lot of significance. But I don’t particularly privilege childhood over any other kind of experience; it’s not something I am trying to recapture in any Proustian sense. I make use of whatever I can make a poem out of and sometimes that is childhood.
Paul: Your family background was in some respects unusual. Could you say something about that and whether it has affected your approach to poetry?
Petra: I think we all have unusual family backgrounds really. I was fortunate to be the eldest of six, so I grew up with interesting babies to look after. There was also a strong religious dimension—we belonged for many years to a fundamentalist organisation—and I have drawn on that in a number of poems, namely ‘Trampolining’ and ‘Grave’. Sometimes having an unusual personal experience can be a driving force: there is something to say, something to communicate. Certainly my new book is driven in large part by the personal, but it is nothing if it doesn’t connect with the world.
Celan, Paul 2003 ‘Letter to Hans Bendler’, in Collected Prose, trans Mary Waldrop, New York, Routledge, 25-26
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, ‘Dejection: an ode’, The Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173229 (accessed 7 July 214)
Gray, Robert 2012 Cumulus: collected poems, Melbourne, Vic: John Leonard Press
Jonson, Ben n.d., ‘To Penshurst’, The Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/181031 (accessed 7 July 2014)
Rothenberg, Jerome and Pierre Joris (eds) 1998 Poems for the millennium: the University of California book of modern and postmodern poetry, 2 vols, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press
White, Petra 2007 The incoming tide, Melbourne, Vic: John Leonard Press
White, Petra 2010 The simplified world, Melbourne, Vic: John Leonard Press