An Occasional Series on Poetry: Joan Fleming on poetry as a child on fire who is trying, and failing, to pronounce itself

joanfortuesdaypoem (2)  sameyes.9780864736987__33157.1347922933.140.215   sameyes.9780864736987__33157.1347922933.140.215

Photo credit: Kate van der Drift

Poetry as a child on fire who is trying, and failing, to pronounce itself.

My current relationship is so not a failure that I have to find ways to lie about it, poetically speaking. We have parallel occupations and preoccupations. We are the same age, at the same stage in our lives. And things with us are great. Really great. Things with us are gorgeous and brindled and hot and warm and lukewarm and cool, and often not perfect, and I guess I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But because I am writing a book of failed love poems, I have had to invent a set of constraints so that I can write about what is foremost in my life — this relationship, this successful love story — and still keep the project moving. So love becomes loss, pleasure becomes cruelty. I make the words switch places. I tell a lie, and I make a failed love poem.

It makes sense to lie, as what we have is not True Love, in the way I understood it when I was younger. When I was younger, I idealised love as a total, perfected, suited thrumming: two people so in tune, so in love, that any twinges of disconnection and doubt were disavowed. In my Disneyland romance-cosmos, these feelings were not okay. There was no place for them in forever. And if they ever came up so strongly that they demanded to be talked about, it meant I had failed, we had failed, the relationship had failed.

My poetry reflected this, and it was terrible. High abstraction married jumbled metaphors in a house of rigid metre, where I rhymed deep with weep and sleep and endowed the sea with an embarrassing number of abilities, including the ability to weep and to fall asleep, and none of it was ironic or subtle or interesting. I thought the poems I wrote were “true.” I thought I was being honest about how perfect and total my love-feelings were for the guy, and how utterly painful it was to be away from him. But the result could not have been more of a lie. Bad poetry on the page, no matter how sincere the intention, can never access the paradoxes and slant colourings of emotional truth.

Now, of course, I understand love to be a knottier and richer and more self-confronting thing than new relationship energy, where it seems the beloved can do no wrong. And now I wonder if my early hyperboles and my grand rhymes were another kind of lie: a way of trying to convince myself that I still felt for the guy what I had felt at first, despite the inevitable anxieties, disconnections, discomforts, and doubts.

I no longer believe in True Love. Instead, I believe in hard work, communication, and mistakes. I believe in wringing the joy out, in being giving and game. I am interested in writing about the gaps between people, the drifts, the miscommunications, the evasions, and the near-misses. At the moment, it feels more worthwhile to spend time with what is difficult, than with what works.

But now there are new problems. Some of my failed love poems are straight-up fiction. But many are based on my own experiences, or the experiences of those I am close to.When writing about my sister’s ten-year marriage, for example, or a difficult year I spent with an ex-partner, I experience crises of conscience: that I am not being fair, that my necessary selections and orchestrations will betray those who have trusted me with their stories, that a poem’s fierceness is overbalancing its tenderness, that my extreme subjectivity is a form of violence. I worry that I am not giving voice to the other. I worry that my inventions are musical but mean. I am no longer deceiving myself into a celebration of impossible perfection, but this is tricky territory. I don’t know what the rules are. Some poems have already offended people I care about, and I am heavy with the weight of that.

The kinds of poems I like are rich with ambiguity and grounded in intense situations. I like the feeling of language refracting the facts of experience and casting a spell made of itself. But even with a problematised understanding of the relationship between language and experience, there are ethical concerns in a project like this. The sign and the signified might not speak the Truth, but language is still powerful. It moves people. It tells their stories. It is a volatile and dangerous tool.

These are the things I am learning. I still have many questions. How to retain my poet’s naïveté, to follow an impulse along a charged path, while being sensitive to those who have gifted me the impulse? It’s a tightrope walk, a magic trick. How to make the lovely-and-talented assistant disappear, and keep the puff of smoke, the flash of light, make the audience gasp? For answers, I look to masters like Elizabeth Bishop, whose poem “Casabianca” remains one of my guides in the writing of the failed love poem. The poem is concrete, grounded in experience. It writes back to an earlier poem about a genuine historical event. And yet, it is perfectly mysterious. It is both a truth and a lie. It tells a kind of story, but more importantly, it resonates with something untellable. It is a portrait of a child on fire who is trying and failing to pronounce itself.

Joan Fleming is currently studying towards a PhD in ethnopoetics at Monash University, Melbourne, and working on her second book. Her debut poetry collection, The Same As Yes (2011), was published by Victoria University Press.  In my review in The New Zealand Herald’s Canvas magazine, I wrote that the poet is open ‘to the world in all its strangeness, absurdities, loveliness and wonder. The poems are a meeting ground for the surreal, the offbeat, the magical and the ordinary.’ It was one one of my favourite debut collections of the year. Joan won the Biggs Poetry Prize in 2007. She has recently started blogging here.

Victoria University Press page here

A poem on Tuesday Poem here

Poem in Snorkel here

3 thoughts on “An Occasional Series on Poetry: Joan Fleming on poetry as a child on fire who is trying, and failing, to pronounce itself

  1. ejneale

    Scintillating, compelling prose from one of my favourite younger NZ poets. Am scorched awake by this as if sighting an ex lover unexpectedly across the room.


    1. Paula Green Post author

      So perfectly put Emma. I think and have thought for a long time Joan is an astonishing writer. It is a lift to read something like this and then engage and ponder the numerous issues — beyond the sheer delight of each sentence.



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