Photo Credit: Ben Speare
Victoria University Press has just published Joan Fleming’s second poetry collection: Failed Love Poems, a book in which I found so much to admire. Joan graduated with an MA in Creative Writing at IIML, where she was awarded the Biggs Prize in 2007. She is currently working on a Doctorate in ethnopoetics at Monash University in Melbourne. Her debut poetry collection, The Same as Yes was published by Victoria University Press in 2011. Along with Anna Jaquiery, Joan recently edited Verge 2015, a literary journal from Monash University. It is a terrific issue – I reviewed and highly recommended it here.
To celebrate the arrival of her new collection, Joan agreed to be interviewed.
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 read constantly as a kid and kept journals. Shel Silverstein, fantasy YA novels with animal characters, kid romances, and a collection of ‘morality’ storybooks with titles like Courage: the Helen Keller story are what I remember reading and re-reading. I had an imaginary friend named Becky, and I think I was a bit fey, always off with the pixies or tucked into a corner, praying under my umbrella. But I was a performer, too. I would do anything goofy, just to be looked at. I was an easy child, but a strange one. I wonder if you can see that in my poems now.
When you started writing poems, were there any poets in particular that you were drawn to (poems/poets as surrogate mentors)?
The poems that carved early grooves in my mind were often lived or shared, somehow. I would memorise poems and recite them to my own head as I walked through Wellington. Paul Muldoon’s “Wind and Tree” is now inextricably Kelburn; Hopkins’ “The Windhover” is Lambton Quay. I discovered Anne Carson and wanted to inscribe everything she’d written on the inside of my body. I carried her “Town” poems with me, like “Town of Uneven Love”: “If he had loved me he would have seen me. / At an upstairs window brow beating against the glass.” See how you can walk yourself deeper and deeper into that poem?! I have an intense memory of drunkenly reading sections of Howl aloud to a living room of people, not all of them friends, and then going out into the alleyway behind the house to cry. Music had a similar effect. The poetry of Radiohead and Bonnie Prince Billy can still bring me to my knees. For me, it was about rhythm, emotion, suggestion. And poetry having palpable effect, an effect you couldn’t escape, even if you wanted to.
I love the way your poems refresh the page. There is an elasticity of grammar, a tilt of perspective, dazzling connections and disconnections, an originality that furnishes a distinctive voice. What are some key things for you when you write a poem?
My only rule is to write from the gut, not from the head. I know when I’m writing from the head. What happens is this flat, crass, nasal voice squats in my frontal lobe and won’t shut up, saying, “this is what a poem should do.” When I’m writing from the gut, there are no directives. Only sensation, surprise, connection, music, and feeling. It takes a lot of time and a lot of reading to get the gut working, but it’s the only way.
I adore the inventive syntax at work in your poems; a syntax that replays ambiguity and honeyed fluency all in one breath. Are there any other poets that have fed your syntactical inventiveness?
Anne Carson and Gertrude Stein are heroes of odd syntax for me. Jerome Rothenberg’s pseudo-translations of ritual poetries have also been influencing my practices of fragment and invention.
Deletion and erasure is a potent device (so apt for revelations and concealments when it comes to matters of the heart). Whereas Mary Ruefle whites out part of a poem in order to create something new, you have used bold black as an erasure tool. It steps away from a thing of aesthetic beauty as we witness on Mary’s page to something far harder hitting. Like a gut kick. Can you talk a little bit about notions of erasure in this collection?
Do they hit hard? That’s good. A couple of the blacked-out poems are angry ones. Erasure turned out to be a way of protecting certain subjects and lending torque to poems that gave too much away. The act of erasure also feels thematic – we perform conscious or unconscious erasures on our memories of love. We select moments and lenses; we tell ourselves a story, that casts the beloved in golden or bitter light. Blackout was a way of enacting that selectivity of the mind – the mind’s failure to tell itself the whole truth about love.
‘Things’ are palpable. They send you on a goose-bump trail such as with paper or sugar or biscuits. At the start of ‘First loss’: ‘When we met, all the songs were about loss,/ all the television shows contained it,/ it was in everything, like sugar.’ And then a little later: ‘your eyes gone hurt and biscuity with broken/ light and hunger.’ What do you want things to do in your poems?
Sometimes I want things to be persons. To have personhood, agency, worldview. Or be receptacles for emotional energies that can’t possibly be named.
At the heart of the book – love. Like a word repeated to the point it is drained of meaning and vitality, love can be elusive. Reading the poems love felt like a human glue. To know love is to have lost love, could that be true? To lose love, is to know love. To have lost love is to invent love, could that be so? What discoveries did you make as you wrote? Or is this only to be discovered as you live?
There is one monstrously important relationship whose aftermath I put to rest in these poems. There are still poems in the book I can’t re-read without getting choked up. I know confessional poetry is unfashionable, but candid, passionate, stirring writing is what I am always looking for. Those are the poems I value. That particular relationship was a ‘failure’ according to the standard narrative. We were together for years, but we didn’t marry, we didn’t have children, it didn’t end when one of us died. But it’s impossible to call it a failed relationship. It was a success. It didn’t last, but in the end (the last sequence in the book is named as much, “The End,”), it made us both larger and more capable of giving and receiving love.
I loved the proseness of the poetry/ the poetry of the prose. Would you write a novella or a novel?
I tried to write a novel a couple of years ago, but it was a dreadful, a plot-less, cringingly autobiographical mess. I’ve entertained the idea of writing a pulp novel about non-monogamy, Confessions of a Call Girl–style (surely it would be a bestseller!?), or a historical novel about my grandparents’ time as missionaries in Central Australia. Though I worry about becoming one of those writers who dilutes her craft by spreading it too thinly. Fiction is an art form I have huge admiration for, but I’m a total novice at it until further notice!
You recently spent time in the Outback. How did that vastness and colour infiltrate your writing?
Yes! Absolutely it has. That time helped strengthen my intuition. Weeks on end in the desert will do strange things to your body-perceptions. The land starts to talk to you, and you can’t help but listen, because it is working on your moods and your dreams.
I’m writing about that time in the Outback now. About my relationships with Yapa (Aboriginal) friends and worldview. I suppose the full effect of that desert-infiltration will show itself in time.
What New Zealand poets are you drawn to now?
Some of the New Zealand poets I’m most excited about haven’t even published full collections yet: Hera Lindsay Bird, Loveday Why, Nina Powles, Lee Posna, Bill Nelson, Emma Barnes, and Sugar Magnolia Wilson. I also want to read everything written by Ashleigh Young, Sarah Jane Barnett, Rachel O’Neill, and Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle. It’s the next generation I’m most drawn to, though poets Jenny Bornholdt and Dinah Hawken still loom large.
Joan Fleming’s webpage
Victoria University Press page