Photo credit: Graham Warman
Emma Neale has contributed this piece as part of an occasional series (On Poetry) from New Zealand writers. Emma is a Dunedin-based poet (four collections published), novelist (The Fosterling is a terrific read), teacher, mentor and anthologist. She has a PhD in English Literature from London’s University College, received the inaugural Janet Frame Memorial Award for Literature (2008), the Kathleen Grattan Award for Poetry (2011) and was the 2012 Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago. Her poetry is steered by a deft pen, a pen that embraces family as much ideas, and music as much tropes. She writes out of empathy for the world (both universal and particular) and her poems divert the intellect and hook the heart. Her poetry to date cannot be aligned solely with family preoccupations, but her family poems are some of the best I have read. This line from ‘No Time Like the Present’ could also be a cue to her poetry writing: ‘No present like time/ to follow thought’s curving rivers.’
On writing a villanelle
When I teach a second-year poetry workshop at the University of Otago, I try to set the students at least two exercises each semester that are new to me, too, to keep my teaching fresh, and to put myself back in the hot-seat: a writer is only as experienced as the new form they’re trying, and I think it’s important to remind myself just how daunting composing-to-deadline can be – not to mention the process of having a first draft read in public.
This year, one of the classic forms I set was the villanelle. I’ve read dozens, but had never tried to write one. The students turned up some good examples, ranging from comic commentaries on poetry itself (Nicola Thorstensen) to whimsically lovelorn (David Cooper). For many of them, it seemed as if writing within these strict constraints actually altered their work for the rest of the semester: it clarified and tautened even their attempts at free verse and/or concrete and in one case, digital, form. It was a prime example of the way form and structure actually give energy to the ideas and words, rather than binding them too tightly. As we might hear the drives of the wasp trapped in the jar more clearly than if the jar weren’t there: the force of the emotion or argument pushes hard against the glass walls of form.
When I started to tackle a villanelle, I initially wanted to write about a fictional character with OCD, based on a young girl I saw in a documentary years ago. I thought the repetitive structure would be useful to capture that stuckness, that inescapable treadmill of obsession. There’s only a skerrick of that in the poem still. It very quickly took on a real world anxiety, about a specific event, rather than being about a psychiatric disorder as such. (Although I’d like to try it again for that purpose.)
Initially I found it hard not to try to work in a kind of narrative progression: but soon saw that the stasis — even in the closure — would be a much better expression of anxiety than writing in a point of release, relief, uplift, psychological shift (even worst-fears-realised) would have been.
The technicalities of finding rhyme or half-rhyme gave the process an unexpected buoyancy: it’s like a kind of verbal orienteering, a happy, almost spatial problem solving. I knew I was meant to repeat two refrains and really wanted to stick with ‘one last check, one last time’ – only to belatedly realise that ‘time’ has a very limited range of potential rhymes. It also meant I had to cheat a little, and use assonance instead of perfect end rhyme, or even half rhyme, for the first and third lines… can we call assonance quarter rhyme?!
The title was a bugbear. I’ve already published a poem called ‘Traveller Overdue’ which is about separation, fear of loss, and a loved one at risk, although it’s in open form and uses mimetic typography — rather than refrains and rhyme — as its way of trying to embed presence into the white void of the page. ‘Overdue’ kept coming back, like an unpaid fine addressed to the wrong person, and I had to keep sending it away again. I tried about 8 different options: all yuck yuck yucketty yuck. Finally, hooray, when imagination’s account is in the red, along come the rich funds of Roget’s Thesaurus – and the phrase ‘Hold the Line’ seemed to arrive with a slap to the forehead. The reference to the phone line, the life line, the poetic line, all seemed perfect: but then I realised that friend and colleague Sarah Broom’s posthumous collection Gleam contained a sparse, moving lyric called ‘Holding the Line’. The loss of Sarah to poetry, and the publication of her collection, both seemed too recent for me to have a similar title, even as a tribute to her. I needed a title that would still evoke a sense of expectation, suspense: without falling either way. Although ‘Any News?’ loses the reflexivity of the other choice, perhaps the fact that it’s also more demotic helps to get that sense of visceral dread more, once you’re into the cyclical doubts of the poem.
I think when I try the form again, I’ll work harder at getting that separate aphoristic quality into the two refrains. When they repeat so often, it would seem logical to make them rich, complex, mysterious, perhaps, so that revisiting them is endlessly compelling. (Although monotony may sometimes be the mood the poet wants, of course, if the subject matter is about endurance.) There’s a much closer relationship to song than the sestina and pantoum, the other closed forms I’ve most enjoyed writing before. Even though I knew that intellectually, from reading other villanelles and reading about the villanelle, there is nothing like moving the mind around within the architecture of a poetic form for us to really know the possibilities of its psychological space and aesthetic effects.
Emma Neale’s blog
New Zealand Book Council page
University of Otago Press page
Steele Roberts page
New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre page
Interview with Emma Neale published in The Listener, April 26-May 2 2008 Vol 213
Emma Neale’s Random House profile
Feature in Otago Daily Times