Poetry Shelf interviews Maria McMillan on Tree Space and other things. ‘Maybe there’s a new Poem space for every poem’

Maria McMillan

Maria McMillan lives on the Kapiti Coast. She is a writer, activist and information architect (fascinating bio!). In 2013, Seraph Press published a limited edition of her chapbook, The Ropewalk. In a review I said of this book: ‘I love the grace, the phrasings, the syntax — the flecks of life and the speckles of fiction that move you out of routine into the sheer pleasure of poetry.’ For the full review go here. Victoria University Press released her new collection, Tree Space, on June 6th. To celebrate the arrival of this terrific collection, Maria agreed to answer some questions for Poetry Shelf. I will post a review of the new collection shortly.

Thanks to Victoria University Press I have a copy of the book to someone who likes or comments or this post or my forthcoming review.

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Did your childhood shape you as a poet? What did you like to read? Did you write as a child? What else did you like to do?

I think it must have in the sense that words and books and thinking were all considered important in my family. I wasn’t musical or sporty but I read and that was more than okay. In fact I think I spent most of my childhood hidden behind closed curtains lying on the strip of sun that fell on to the wide windowsill of our sitting room. My mother would play piano, or someone would be playing Bowie, or Kiss or Split Enz, there’d be the rain-like clatter of my father’s typewriter. I and usually one or two other people around the house would be reading.

There were bookshelves in all the rooms and there was always something to read. I read mostly novels and loved almost all of them. My sisters were a few years older so I had this wonderful back catalogue of all those subversive 60s and early 70s piccolo and puffin and others. But also I’d come across the plain hard-covered books of my mother’s childhood, often a dirty orange I think with the crisscrossed mull showing through the spine and the sort of title you could feel with your fingers. There were lots of other books too, some common, some obscure that I never saw in other people’s houses. So I had and adored E. Nesbit books, Noel Streatfeild, Madeline L’Engle, Elizabeth Goudge but also the Anne of Green Gable books, and Girl of the Limberlost and those funny NZ versions of the English boarding school books of the 1940s. We also had stacks of Tintin and Asterix comics. We all read the Moomin books, so it was a house with Hattifatteners floating around it and, when seasons changed, the sound of Snufkin’s flute. Even as adults my siblings and I describe people we’ve met in relation to the Moomin character they most resemble.

We’d get books for Christmas and birthday presents too and my brother and I were usually allowed to choose one or two novels through the Scholastic Book Club. Some of my favourites came that way; The Velvet Room, a fantastic depression-era tale by Zilpha Snyder was one I read and reread. I think Playing Beatie Bow, came that way too, and I remember the jolt of realising it was the same Sydney and written by the same Ruth Park as Poor Man’s Orange and Harp in the South – old books I’d discovered of my mother’s. I feel lucky too that I came into my teenage years just as Margaret Mahy was writing for that age group. The Changeover was particularly lovely and important. So many. Books were just there.

When you started writing poems as a young adult, were there any poets in particular that you were drawn to (poems/poets as surrogate mentors)?

A bit earlier than that, for my seventh birthday I got a gorgeous anthology of children’s verse. My mother was getting me to read out poems and I chose that Robert Louis Stevenson’s From a Railway Carriage ‘Faster than fairies, faster than witches / Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches…’ and understanding and loving how it sounded like a train on its tracks. When my mother said I could read another one I just asked to read that one again. I loved how exciting it was and the sounds bounding and rattling over one another. That feels important.

Mum had Fleur Adcock’s Selected Works and as a young adult that became perhaps my favourite of all poetry books. I loved that Adcock was intensely emotional but writing intelligently and in a restrained almost detached way. I had no idea how she did it but I could see how the carefulness of her craft was key to its potency.

How does being an activist impact on your writing?

I think the process of reconciling my activist self and my writing self has been huge and will probably keep being huge. I used to write a lot of protest poems, urgent, angry and furiously important to me. I don’t think they were very good as poems, but I also miss and I guess try to honour some of the compulsion and passion that drove me to write them.

I think for me beginning to learn properly the craft of poetry has been about understanding what poetry can and can’t handle as a medium or – I should say – what my poetry can and can’t handle – many others are writing overtly political poems that are wonderful.

I have, over the years felt and thought so much about the world and what I think is wrong and right about it that I can’t address that stuff directly in verse without the lines shrivelling up. Sometimes I blog about that stuff, I‘ve had fun with indignant press releases, and I get into some satisfyingly hard core online arguments, I just can’t bring it off in the sort of poetry I want to be writing.

Another idea has been helpful through all of this – I can’t remember where I first came across it. That is, if you’re experiencing or thinking about something intensely, it’s going to come into your poetry no matter what you’re writing about. If your best friend has died, you can write about something completely different, say a cat, and the poem will still be about your grief over your friend. That’s useful because I don’t want to be writing bad political poetry but I also don’t want to be carving off a writing part of me from an activist part of me. I just have to have faith that the things that are important to me are there in what I write. And everyone who has read Tree Space has mentioned the ethical and political dimension to the work, so it must be there.

I think this whole issue of how to be a politically engaged writer is ongoing for me. I think if you understand about injustice, the most important work you have to do in your life is to challenge it. I don’t yet know how that fits with writing, but I also do want to write, and if I’m not writing directly about injustice, then I worry I’m wasting my time.

There’s other parts of me which recognise that genuine original creativity is the best and most exhilarating sort of liberation. It’s the great challenge to the oppressive forces that silence and control people. I’ve mentioned Madeline L’Engle already. I loved that scene in A Wrinkle in Time when Meg goes to another planet and there’s a town there where her father is hostage and the whole place is controlled by an enormous brain. Meg walks into it, and every street has a row of identical houses, each with a perfectly mowed lawn and every lawn has an identically dressed child and they’re all bouncing a ball in time with each other. It’s a wonderful and petrifying scene. When Meg faces off the huge all controlling brain she resists it by recalling ideas, poetry, knowledge and feelings. On good days I think poetry is inherently good and subversive just because it’s there standing up against mass produced lies and violence.

Does it make a difference that the writing pen is held by a woman?
Yes and no. Yes because I think our life experiences are still very gendered. I had parents who brought me up absolutely to believe that girls could do anything, and women should be financially independent and have control over their own bodies and minds. Despite all that, coming into adulthood as a young woman is I think a world away from coming into adulthood as a young man. Learning the rules of adulthood for us are, and I’d guess even more so for young women today, about valuing ourselves and each other according to male approval. It’s also about learning of the vulnerability that comes with sexual maturity. It seemed that for years in my late teens getting to know women friends was about them disclosing to me their stories of rape or abuse or eating disorders. It’s really confusing that all this physical and emotional desire to explore sex and sexuality, celebrational and exciting stuff, comes packaged with these rather frightening realisations. Those experiences and the other experiences of womanhood in what is still  a sexist society are profound and different and inevitably impact the knowledge base that I (and I’d guess other women) bring to writing, and as someone interested in those things it particularly impacts my writing preoccupations and subject matter.

No in the sense that I don’t think style or rigour, intellect or emotional depth, frivolity or darkness are split along sex lines. The differences and similarities between individual writers are far more interesting and complex than that. What does make a difference sometimes is the reception given to women and men as writers. Eleanor Catton has mentioned being asked what she feels rather than what she thinks. I think too there’s a presumption that women must write about emotionally intelligent characters and not tackle hard violent things. I think some critics of Pip Adam’s novel, I’m Working on a Building, couldn’t get over the fact a woman writer was discussing characters and situations more conventionally depicted by a bloke.

Your poems offer delight on many levels. For me, the first delight is the musicality. I love the surprising rhythms that shift from liquid honey to addictive syncopation and the accumulation of startling phrases. The glorious juxtapositions. What are key things for you when you write a poem?

Thank you. I do read my poems out to myself as I write them, unless it’s somewhere public where that would just be weird. But given a quiet room somewhere I will say the words over and over without even noticing (damn maybe I am doing it in public places). It’s a very integrated thing, so writing the words and saying them out loud and editing are all part of the same movement. It is all about the sound. That was never a conscious decision, it’s just what I’ve come to realise I do. It may be the same for all poets but by the time I get to the end of writing a poem I may have read out loud each line thirty or so times and rearranged and tweaked and added words and ditched bits based on what it sounds like to me. Then I’ll read the whole thing out again and again alter things until I’m satisfied.

I think I’m always looking to remain interested in my poem from start to finish. I know that if I, with all my self-interest, can’t retain enthusiasm no-one else will be able to. There’s something as well where I want each line to be as full as it possibly can be without collapsing. Because my style tends to be quite sparse that’s an interesting challenge. What other ways can a line hold weight if it isn’t with strings of bedazzling nouns and dense adjectives?

I’m also getting increasingly impatient with craft for its own sake. I get nervous of aiming for poems that are good or competent or clever. I want to write poems that need to be written, poems that tell stories, or untell them, poems that belong in the world as well as the world of poetry. I’d prefer to write bad important poems than good trivial ones.

Michael Hulse recently queried the status of certain poems in a review he did for New Zealand Books. In his mind, some poems weren’t in fact poems. How would you define poetry?

This question got me excited. I know lots of people spend decades thinking about this question but I haven’t really so it’s fun to come up with my own answer. Here’s a three part hypothesis cobbled together from my and other people’s ideas, no lab testing yet, unlikely to be replicable, I eagerly await its disproval.

(1)         Sound must be a central concern of a poem. Not that a poem has to be musical or sound pleasant, it could be discordant or jarring, but some of the poem’s force must be delivered through how it sings, how it moves the air. Even if it’s not read out loud there’s that strange alchemy where we know a poem’s cadence and rhythms without moving our lips. How it alters or attunes to our breath.

(2)         A poem must have integrity. All of it must occupy the same planet and must abide by that planet’s physical and psychic laws. Bits can still rebel against other bits of the poem, in fact that’s good and necessary. I think what I mean is all the parts of the poem must talk to each other, even if they’re shouting. It needs to all be a thing and the same thing.

(3)         A poem must have a beginning and an end, I’m not quite convinced about the beginning. I was intrigued when Mary Reufle was in New Zealand and distinguished between her poems and her poetic writing. It made sense but I wasn’t sure why. Now I think it was probably this third point. Her poetic writing might sound lovely and have internal coherence but it might just float there being poetic. A poem needs a conclusion. It needs to come to something. It must, by the end, engage with something other than itself, the sound it makes, and the space it takes up on the page.

I think you could write a bad poem which meets these three criteria but it would still be a poem, and, I think any good poem would have to meet these criteria.

I love the title poem. You write: ‘To understand tree space you must search all tree space which is/ impossible.’ Wonderful! What did you learn about tree space?

When scientists, who have some data, genetic or observational, about different species and they are trying to figure out how those species are related, they have to contend with the fact there’s a whole lot of different possibilities. You can depict those possibilities through family trees, showing where a population branched off and became a new species, when in turn another species branched off that, and so on. The imagined terrain that contains all possible family trees, some bushy with lots of divisions and subdivisions, and some stark is called Tree space. It’s so vast that it’s impossible for a scientist to look at all the trees and figure out, given their data, which is the most likely tree – the tree most likely to be a correct depiction of how different species evolved. There’s a computer algorithm that searches Tree space. The papers talk of high ground, and clusters of more likely trees, branch swapping and jumping to the next tree. When I learnt, through my partner, of Tree space I was besotted, all that gorgeous language and metaphors that felt like a real physical place you could wander through. I love the bush, and Tree space felt rich with that meaning too, like a thing I always knew about but didn’t have a word for.

This set me thinking about poem space! Can you shift that line to the context of poetry?

I love that idea. And it’s true isn’t it, because we can never understand everything about poetry, can we? You never understand how to write poems, only the poem you’ve just finished.

It fits too because there’s a certain element of poetry that’s unknowable chance and guesswork. Not to diminish the skill involved, some people are brilliant at sitting very quietly at the right spot, in the right weather and holding the net in the right way. But those seemingly random often transformative elements of poetry I find incomprehensible in the best possible way. So I like the idea that we might search and search Poem space to try and understand it but it’s futile. It seems important to keep searching though.

Maybe there’s a new Poem space for every poem, and as poets we have to search it all to find the best possible poem. That’s a slightly frightening and tiring thought but it feels right too. All that reading out loud to ourselves, word swapping, adding new branches and so on.

Maria McMillan blog

Victoria University Press page

Seraph Press page

1 thought on “Poetry Shelf interviews Maria McMillan on Tree Space and other things. ‘Maybe there’s a new Poem space for every poem’

  1. Pingback: Congratulations The giveaway copy of Maria McMillan’s Tree Space | NZ Poetry Shelf

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