Poetry Shelf interviews Morgan Bach: ‘finding my way into a poem is not something I can force’

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Morgan Bach’s debut poetry collection, Some of Us Eat the Seeds, is to be launched today by Victoria University Press at Unity Books (details here). A graduate of the IIML MA in Creative Writing Programme, Morgan was awarded the Briggs Family Prize for Poetry. She currently lives in Wellington. To celebrate the arrival of this terrific new collection, Morgan agreed to be interviewed by Poetry Shelf.

 

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 suppose it must have… I think being a shy child (because of living in the wops when I was very small) who kind of watched everyone set me up as both a bit of an outsider and definitely an observer. I suspect I came across as a bit of a creep! I certainly didn’t really meet any other kids I actually felt a proper kinship with until I met my friend who’s an amazing writer… That seems more significant than ever now.

I remember reading a book called Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present (which Sendak had illustrated I believe, but I can’t remember who the author was… Charlotte someone I want to say), and finding it made me sad for a reason I couldn’t understand, and I think now it might have just been the tone of the whole thing, the miniature story that almost worked like a simple narrative poem, with an undercurrent of sadness and isolation that (now I think of it) would have resonated with me. Of course, it was a child’s picture book and I was about 3… but I suppose I found that story cathartic in a way and so I’m therefore assuming words were important to me early on. I remember singing a lot as a child, and it always being more about the words for me.

I did write, but not with any great purpose. Or rather, everything I started (outside of school) got abandoned pretty quickly. There are some hilarious bits and pieces though that have survived in family archives and prove me to have been a cynical and doomy child.

I always read a lot, all sorts, mostly fiction though in the first couple of decades of life.

 

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

Oh heck, I can’t remember now… So many over the years it all just kind of layers up as compost on the brain – turn it over and you can’t distinguish the origins of the matter anymore.

 

I love the way your poems have anchors in the real world (such sumptuous detail) but are unafraid to negotiate things less physical (states of mind, philosophical ideas). In other words, your poems take root in the world you inhabit and that includes inchoate worlds within the mind. They are inventive, suggestive, intelligent, at times puzzling (I like that!). What are some key things for you when you write a poem?

Thank you! I think that’s right – or at least that’s a balance I hope to strike. I wonder if that approach comes from how active my dream life can be. Sometimes it almost dominates with its use of my energy – waking up can be relaxing.

I think the key thing for me finding my way into a poem is that it’s not something I can force. It has almost never yet worked when I’ve tried to force it – I imagine most writers feel the same? I think that’s why I seem (to this point in time) to be incapable of writing to traditional form. The results are fit only for burning.

What I have realised over the process of writing this book is that I actually don’t write a lot on paper… most of it seems to happen in my head. But once it’s on paper not that much gets thrown away… the survival rate of poems is pretty high so far! I’m sure that will change over time. But yeah, currently I find it takes a phrase or idea to kind of catch in my head (like getting a song stuck) and then weaving my way out from that point. I say weaving as it’s then a process of tying the more ephemeral aspects to the concrete world. That’s my preferred space I guess.

 

Your debut collection, Some of Us Eat the Seeds, struck several intoxicating chords with me. I stalled in the first section, with the evocative family poems catching me at every turn. What are the pitfalls and the benefits of drawing family, familial relations, into poems?

Pitfalls – I’m already worried that some of the family will think I’m talking about them when I’m not. I’m a little worried they’ll think I’m claiming things they’ve experienced differently with too much authority. But the thing is, you can’t think about that or you’re censoring from the brain and that’s crippling. And as I’ve said to my mother – the poems they’re in aren’t actually about them, or if they are, they’re about my memory of them… they’re inevitably about me. Benefits – It’s just that they’re the people that populated my world back then… I’m not sure why I wrote about it. I didn’t set out to write poems about family or familial relations but it worked out that way anyway… I’m kind of hoping I’m done with it though. I prefer (or am more comfortable with) the poems in that section that aren’t about my family.

 

In a poem that took me back to games of spotlight, ‘Night in the forest,’ the power of the dark for a child with a torch, on and then off, became the power of the dark for a poet for me. Would you agree there are ways in which your poetry nudges the dark (dread, for example)?

Yeah definitely – and nudging is the right word, in that it’s both rubbing up against and gently testing. I adore this quote from Rebecca Solnit (the essayist) on Woolf (who I also love): ‘It’s the job of writers and explorers to see more, to travel light when it comes to preconception, to go into the dark with their eyes open.’ I feel like that’s a motto to live and write by.

 

Going back to the notion of poetic strands (physical, thematic, abstract for example), I loved the way ‘thought’ bravely makes itself visible in lines and phrases. (‘The past is a tether/ you don’t need to wear’). Do you think poems can be enhanced by ideas flickering on their hems?

Yes I feel like ideas (as visible thoughts) can often do something good in a poem. I seem to be unable to avoid doing my thinking on paper… But more than that, I feel like reading into a poem where there is active thinking presented, that you then relive in your own temporal experience of reading, can at times walk you into a space where you’re staring the writer bang in the eyes – or it can feel that way. Like getting lost in the eyes of someone in a portrait (I mean in a painting or photograph) – the static art object or defined collection of words expands somehow, and you’re in a little world of connection through that thought (which I’m equating here to a brain-stare haha – see what happens when I think as I write?!)

 

The final section of poems brings to life states of mind of the adult (love, desire, discovery, betrayal, heartache, recognition). What difference does it make when you write the adult as opposed to writing the child?

Unfortunately I think there’s a bit of a cynical streak across the whole lot… I suppose that’s because the adult is remembering (re-membering even) the child, and so colours experience a certain way (‘memory makes its own myths’ to quote myself). What difference does it make … Well I think I feel more comfortable writing the adult, because something about childhood makes me uneasy. I think it did at the time. I would certainly never go back. I don’t think I was ever a comfortable child, and I’m really enjoying aging. I feel like the ‘adult’ poems here are still kind of young though… I’m looking forward to seeing what I’m writing in another 10 years. The other thing is I suppose there’s more risk in writing the adult. Everyone’s inventing childhood through memory, but the adult carries an implication of self (even if it’s a fiction). I quite enjoy that risk though, so far…

 

Yes, a different implication of self than the smudgy thing a child navigates. Are there filters at work? A need to conceal for the sake of the poem and for the sake of self?

Heck yes. I’d say that seeming to reveal a great deal can be the best way to conceal what is most private. That said, most of my filters are for the sake of the poem. There are plenty of fictions or elaborations, which hopefully get to a more truthful truth.

 

What do you want readers to take away from your debut collection?

A feeling of resilience and self-reliance perhaps. It’s not a particularly cheery book but I think it’s kind of hopeful…

 

I can see those threads. You definitely fall upon nuggets of hope (light). You have studied Creative Writing at IIML at Victoria University. What key things did you take from this experience?

That reading and critiquing other people’s work is often the best way to work out what you need to do to your own work. That it’s a hell of a lot of work to write a book in that short span of time, but it’s so very worth giving yourself the opportunity to do it if you can. I loved the MA year at the IIML. It was the kind of experience I’d hankered after for so long and such a rare opportunity to just focus on reading and writing with a bunch of people who are as nerdy about it as you are. I wish I could do it again, really.

 

You acknowledge a writing group in your endnotes. How does this nourish your writing?

I’ve been in a few writing groups since doing the MA. One with my MA class… though we’re currently flagging! Come on guys!

My most productive one of late is with a bunch of damn fine and interesting Wellington poets at various career ‘stages’ or perhaps spaces is a better word, and with different kinds of poetry goals. It’s exciting to see their new work in early and sometimes quite raw form, and to be spurred on to write for our little deadlines. Also the camaraderie – I think that’s important.

 

What irks you in poetry?

Abstraction that isn’t tied to anything concrete, too much of a cerebral remove, or if it’s so academic as to be exclusive of almost everyone. Word play for the sake of sound alone – I understand that it has merit but I just can’t take it myself – you know what I mean, that stuff that is a bit like a toddler practicing with their tongue and vocal cords but is just essentially human white noise. I guess that’s my wanting a brain-stare again.

 

What delights you?

When you encounter poems that make you feel like your brain has been through a car wash. I don’t mean some ‘great revelation’ has occurred but just a combination of sense/sound/image/thought that creates that almost magic adrenalin behind the eyes feeling. I really hope I can make something like that one day…

 

What New Zealand poets are you drawn to now?

Oh I never know how to answer these questions, partly because there are too many and partly because ‘favourites’ lists feel too intimate/revealing to me. I know that’s weird… I’d rather tell you my full medical history or something. HA!

There are so many NZ poets that I love – I still read more NZ poetry than stuff from overseas. I’d basically just list everyone.

I will say that I am so excited about Joan Fleming’s forthcoming collection, if her recent poems are anything to go by. We have a few in Issue 2 of Sweet Mammalian and they are so good. I love how she has these little turns in some of her poems, a really interesting movement, and lines that just kind of kick you in the guts. Can’t wait.

I stand by my many previous claims that Ashleigh Young is the most interesting writer (poetry included) of our generation. I, like a lot of people, am hankering after another collection from her.

I’d like to shout out to what my Sweet Mammalian co-eds do too, Hannah Mettner and Sugar Magnolia Wilson, who are both wonderful clever and gutsy poets (though very different) and are constantly blowing me away with their delicious brains.

 

Any other reading areas that matter to you?

Yes, all of them… Who does not love a good essay? And nothing is more transporting than a novel that’s so good you forget to get up from your seat for hours even to eat. Also music – I mean good lyrics. I can’t listen to music unless I like the lyrics. It’s a totally different craft than poetry of course but it’s still important to me for the brain-compost.

 

Some poets argue that there are no rules in poetry and all rules are to be broken. Do you agree? Do you have cardinal rules?

The only rules I’ve tried to set myself so far are:

  • Don’t censor from the brain
  • Don’t try to make ‘yourself’ look good to the detriment of truth
  • Everything is layered – language, interaction, assigned meaning, just actual life – and so should a poem be.

I just made those up now, but I reckon they’ve been in there, unspoken.

 

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

To be honest I find it a bit overwhelming. I personally don’t feel I have time for both life and Twitter, though I see that it’s productive and enriching for other people. I’m only ever lurking or dutifully responding there. I use Facebook sometimes willingly and sometimes with a feeling of entrapment. I find it more conversational and so more useful, though I just duck in and out these days. I actually like Instagram the best, as I find it the least taxing. Perhaps when life is less busy I’ll find it all useful…

 

The constant mantra to be a better writer is to write, write, write and read read read. You also need to live! What activities enrich your writing life?

I think travel is the main one for me. It’s always been my default day dreaming space. I suppose it puts me into that outsider/observer role and also just bombards the senses with the new. I’ve been craving it so much… I’ve been waiting to get the book out before heading off again, for an as yet undecided ‘while’. I’m hoping somewhere along the way I’ll find my way into whatever the next project is.

 

Finally if you were to be trapped for hours (in a waiting room, on a mountain, inside on a rainy day) what poetry book would you read?

Just one? Too hard… I’ll stare out the window being indecisive instead.

 

Victoria University Press author page

My review of Some of Us Eat the Seeds.

Friday Poem on Poetry Shelf; Morgan Bach’s ‘In pictures’

 

 

 

 

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