Owen Marshall in interview: ‘Poetry in the service of something sincerely felt’

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Award-winning author and editor of 25 books, Owen Marshall is both a poet and fiction writer. He is considered one of the most significant writers of short stories in New Zealand. He received the 2013 Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, and was awarded an Honourary Doctorate of Letters from the University of Canterbury where he is an adjunct professor. Owen’s poetry reflects a deft and economical eye that catches luminous detail. His poems are steered by love as much as keen intelligence as they travel from everyday experience to an eclectic reading history to contemplative moments.

To mark the arrival of his third poetry collection, The White Clock (Otago University Press, 2014), Owen kindly agreed to be interviewed by NZ Poetry Shelf. I will review this new collection shortly.

1- Have reading and writing always been important to you?

My father was a lover of books, and he read to us as children, mainly from such authors as Kipling, Dickens, Galsworthy,  Conan Doyle and the lake poets.  He was also a devoted walker and loved the outdoors.  I was open to both enthusiasms.  Although a  keen reader I made few attempts to write until I had finished university study.

2- What poets have influenced you?

I have  enjoyed reading poetry since my teens, but began writing it comparatively recently and without systematic study.  Early haphazard reading included the usual suspects – Housman, Auden, Eliot, Dickinson,  Bishop, Yeats, Frost, Hughes and Dylan Thomas.  I  was drawn to the lyrical qualities of Laurie Lee, which are evident in his prose as well as his poetry.  I much admired Jane Austen’s epigrammatic precision which may be so effectively used in poetry.  When in my twenties I was stunned by Henry Reed’s wonderful poem, ‘The Naming of Parts,’ and it remains a favourite.  More recent influences are people like Paul Muldoon and Gary Soto.  James K Baxter is the leading New Zealand poet for me, despite the unevenness of his work. Among many others  I admire are Vincent O’Sullivan, Brian Turner, Bill Manhire, C.K. Stead, Michael Harlow, Fiona Kidman, Lauris Edmond, Frankie McMillan, and Fiona Farrell.  There are many more.

3 – In my Herald review of your collection, Sleepwalking in Antarctica, I suggested your poems were `an exquisite marriage of musicality, observation, elegance and economy.’  What are the key things for you when you write a poem?

I hope for emotional intensity.  Word play may be attractive, maybe even dazzling, but eventually it palls for me if not in the service of something sincerely felt.  When I read I want to find out more about how others find the business of living to be.   Wordsworth’s definition of poetry has become a cliché, but `emotion recollected in tranquility’ still takes some beating.  Humour and satire are attractive in poetry, and of course cadence, insight and originality.

4 – Has your writing changed over time?

I hope that my writing has become more assured, but the work always twists in the hand and never matches the artistic intention.  In the end you write as you can rather than as you wish.  No doubt an evolution is discernible in my fiction, but all the poetry I have published is comparatively recent.  I do feel however that it continues to free up, and increasingly I feel comfortable with using the vernacular.

5 – You write in both forms.  Are you attached to one more than the other, or are both necessary to you?

In reading I make little distinction.  In my writing the inclination is perhaps to the short story, which itself tends towards the associative effects of poetry because of the need for economy.   My poetry tends to be more personal than the prose, directly related to my own experience and feelings.  I can’t will poetry in the way I can prose.  The poems come in their own time, sometimes thick and fast, sometimes not at all.  I was fortunate to have the Henderson Arts Trust residency in Alexandra last year and many of the poems in The White Clock were written while I was there, and out of the stimulus of a new setting.

6 – What irks you, and delights you, in poetry?

I dislike cloying sentimentality and obfuscation parading as profundity.  I admire cadence, exactitude, sincerity and striking imagery.

7 – Do you find social media an entertaining and useful tool, or white noise?

I’m not involved with it.  It seems to me peripheral to the central concerns of reading and writing, and life generally.

8 – What activities enrich your writing life?

Nothing is more important than family.  Friends and outdoor interests help prevent too much studious self absorption.  I used to play a lot of sport, but the joints protest now.  Writing has taken me to many places – France, Italy, China, Antarctica among them.   My degree is in history and I find travel in Europe especially interesting. I always keep a journal to record impressions  and experiences.  Also as an adjunct professor at Canterbury University I have enjoyed keeping up with younger people interested in literature, being challenged in my views, reading and practice.

9 – Your writing is enlivened with acute details of place.  Is a sense of home an important factor as you write?

Our physical environment influences us in tangible and intangible ways, and we in turn mold it.  Cityscapes and landscapes are far more than just backdrops.  The latter tend to dominate in my work because most of my life has been spent in provincial centres.  I’m rather drawn to natural places that are not overwhelmed by people.

Thank you Owen Marshall.


Otago University Press page

New Zealand Book Council page

Owen Marshall web page

Christchurch City Library interview

Random House author page

2 thoughts on “Owen Marshall in interview: ‘Poetry in the service of something sincerely felt’

  1. kiwiskan

    Thanks for a very informative interview. Strangely enough, I have always enjoyed Owen’s prose but haven’t yet read any of his poetry 😦 Will have to remedy that. Look forward to your review.


  2. Michelle Elvy

    Really enjoyed this interview. I love the honesty and humility here. And the directness: his dislike for cloying sentimentality, for example. And these words will stay with me: “I hope that my writing has become more assured, but the work always twists in the hand and never matches the artistic intention. In the end you write as you can rather than as you wish.”

    Yes to that.



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