Photo Credit: Rhian Gallagher
Cilla McQueen has published 14 poetry collections, has won the NZ Book Award for Poetry three times and was New Zealand Poet Laureate 2009 -11. Her last collection of writing was an exquisite suite of little books in a box entitled Edwin’s Eggs and other poetic novellas (OUP, 2014). The book, written during her Laureateship and posted in pieces on the Laureate blog, was a poetic response to pictorial works in the National Library. I reviewed and loved it here. Reading favourite Cilla poems that other poets picked on an Otago University post sent me flying back to all the poems I have loved, and like Michele, Emma, Ian, Bill and Brian, I would have trouble picking just one. Every book serves a poetry talisman to carry with you. I am currently writing the foundation stones of women’s poetry in New Zealand but I also want to cast a light on several women in the last few decades (small part of a larger work). I want to explore women poets who are a significant part of the strata upon which we write. Cilla is one of them.
What prompted this interview, however, is the recent release of In Slant Light: A Poet’s Memoir. This book has affected me on so many levels. It is beautifully written. It takes me back to the unfolding of self and notself on the page when you barely call yourself a poet. That Cilla started writing poetry when most around her were men, and most of the women poets were hiding in the shade, meant that she was ‘daring’ to write. Or ‘transgressing’ as she also puts it. The book makes me want to delve back and write my way through Cilla’s poetry. I want to sit in a kitchen and drink tea with her and talk about writing and books and life. Her memoir leaves gaps, and I love that, but it reveals the dimensions of a life that have enriched the dimensions of the poems on the page.
In Slant Life: A Poet’s Memoir Otago University Press, 2016
Did your childhood shape you as a poet? Your new memoir is most definitely the memoir of a passionate reader.
Yes, I’m sure it did. I was fortunate to have parents who knew the importance of reading and who loved all the arts.
Cilla 1954 Arthur Street School
What did you like to read as a child?
Everything – A.A. Milne, Lois Lenski’s The Little Airplane, lots of fairy stories, adventure stories, myths and legends. Especially stories about going through some portal into another world, for instance Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass; the Narnia books by CS Lewis; The Door That Wasn’t There by Ursula Horsley Smith, with Rosemary Cosgrove’s illustrations.
Oh yes! I loved those portals too. Did you write as a child? What else did you like to do?
I wrote letters to my aunts, uncles and grandparents overseas, usually to thank them for birthday or Christmas presents. These were a hard task but were insisted on by my mother, who made sure the spelling and writing were up to standard. I wrote poems and stories in cut-in-half exercise books. I thought of these as real books and was pleased with them. I also liked ballet, mime, gymnastics, making up plays.
Did you write in your teenage years? Did you read poetry?
I was very taken with concrete poetry at one stage and had fun chopping up lines of words and putting them in a new order, to make nonsense or a peculiar new sort of sense.
What three words resonate with your time as a teenager?
Eager, curious, self-conscious.
Great words. Fascinating to consider the degree they stick with us. When you started writing poems, were there any poets in particular that you were drawn to?
Shakespeare, Donne, Villon, Dylan Thomas, Prévert; Beat poets; e e cummings; began to read New Zealand poetry after meeting James K. Baxter in 1967.
Your first book appeared in 1982 (Homing In) when not as many women poets were as visible as they are today. How did this affect you as a writer?
I felt shy, unsure, surprised that it was well received. As a new woman writer I felt junior in a mainly male artistic circle. I also felt somehow transgressive, for daring to write.
Do you think it makes a difference when the pen is held by a woman?
It certainly ‘makes a difference’ to the life of the woman holding the pen. And further, to the minds and lives of the women who read her writing.
Your poems are infused with such musicality they sing themselves to life. Yet what makes them matter so very much is the heartbeat — the way a poem will creep deep under your skin as reader because it makes the world matter. What are some key things for you when you write a poem?
A sense of joy in the release of restrictions of everyday language, a feeling that anything goes – I can think, experiment, change, manipulate the language to make it supple and economical. I’m always listening. It’s a subtle thing, poetry. Cocteau wrote that ‘[Poetry’s] modesty consists in masking its own equations’ (Diary of an Unknown).
Do you think your poetry has changed across the decades?
It’s probably better self-edited. I didn’t go to a writing school, so made all my mistakes in public, as it were. The work has gone through periods of change, particularly unruly in the performance poems, but also periods of paring down and stripping, also lyric periods when musicality seemed paramount. Each new poem brings to bear all the language experience of previous poems.
Your new memoir has affected me on so many levels. Partly because I am a poet who also had to find her writing life, who has lived with a painter for thirty years, who spent a long time with another language and who found joy in many of the books and films you mention. But most importantly, because the memoir is so beautifully written and because it raises issues that will have affected many women writing.
What were the joys and difficulties of writing a memoir?
Looking for and finding fresh memories and writing them down; recasting familiar ones, looking around the edges of the familiar; realising one’s place in the past and in present time. Pinning down what happened when, and thinking about the reasons why.
Why poetry and not prose?
Associated memories flood in very fast – I need to use compressed language to retain the feel of them. I find that a fragment of memory is best expressed in poetry because it presents itself not as a narrative but as a simultaneous display, more like a dream. It seems that poetry can collapse time.
Did you have filters at work as you wrote? A need to conceal for the sake of others and for the sake of self?
No need to conceal, but a natural process of selection operated, and on top of that, the selective forces of poetry. I didn’t feel compelled to lay all bare – what’s the point.
For me, your memoir represents the emergence of multiple, overlapping selves (reader, poet, mother, wife, lover, friend, teacher). What moved me so deeply was the way in which the poet found room to breathe and exist. At one point, in the middle of your life with Ralph Hotere and your daughter, you write: ‘I have to look carefully to find myself amongst all this.’ What tipped you into writing?
I had been writing a journal for several years, just for myself. As I started to read more poetry the language of my daily thoughts was affected; thoughts appeared in chunks and slivers, which I then worked on until the product resembled a poem, or so it seemed to me. When Ralph and Andrea and I spent a few months in Avignon in 1978 I began to write seriously, with their encouragement. I sent an early poem on a postcard to Hone Tuwhare, ‘Saturday Afternoon in Provence’, about the Pont du Gard.
Your memoir, so poetic on the page makes the gaps of telling poignant. What did you most love about this period? What did you find most difficult?
I loved the inspired conversation of creative discovery in a life where the arts were central, 24/7. My difficulties were normal – balancing lives, being teacher, wife, mother and breadwinner until Ralph’s work started to sell.
This is memoir written out of love, and that is infectious, but there are subterranean hurdles. Is writing joy for you, or is it pain, or is it a mix of both?
Of course, it is a mix of both.
You studied and taught French. Did this affect your poems at all?
It gave me practice in thinking in another language, about grammar, vocabulary and syntax. There’s a clarity in French syntax that I find satisfying; through teaching, I learned to see language as a magical, plastic substance.
Music has been a significant part of your life as a poet, particularly in view of your performances. What key things matter in this poem-music collaboration?
The ability to listen. Trust in another performer’s musical ear. Inner hearing of the musicality in words. A sense of time. Delight in shared discovery through improvisation.
The detail in the memoir is so vivid it makes time and place shimmer on the line. It is a way of laying down roots in a poem. Would you write a sequel?
I don’t usually like to do the same thing twice. In fact, in the sequence of my oeuvre, especially in long poems such as ‘Bump and Grind, (spinal fusion)’ in Benzina (1988); the Berlin Diary (1990); ‘The Autoclave’ in Markings (2000), and many Bluff poems, I’ve already traced the progress of my life until now.
What irks you in poetry?
What delights you?
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?
Gardening, walking, drawing, thinking up imaginary music.
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?
I’d like a Complete Shakespeare, please.
Otago University Press page
Poets pick favourite Cilla poems
Cilla’s Laureate page
NZ Book Council page
NZ Electronic Poetry Centre page
Te Ara video clip