Sunday, November 2, 2014


Welcome to Crux - Interviews with Australian Poets.  

In this first edition we meet Sydney's Fiona Wright. Fiona's multi-faceted work captivated me the moment I found it in Gleebooks. Her poems are witty, pithy and poignant. At the south-west Sydney high school where I teach, I recently set several of Fiona's poems for Yr 11 Standard English to study. The students found her poetry accessible and honest, and were most fortunate to have Fiona visit them. 

Fiona's work has been published in various journals and anthologies both here and overseas including Black Inc's Best Australian Poems 2008, 2009, 2010, Overland, Heat, Australian Literary Review and Going Down Swinging. She was runner-up in the 2008 John Marsden Young Writer's Award. She received the Dame Mary Gilmore Poetry Award in 2012 for her debut collection Knuckled. 


What was there before poetry?

For me, not a lot. I started writing poetry in earnest in my last year of high school, although I realised later on that I had been writing things that I didn't know were poems, of a kind, at least, for years before that. I kept it up through university, and started getting my first publications too, which was a blessing, really, because I was studying media with an eye to becoming a journalist (because what else do you do with good marks and an aptitude for English?) and realising very quickly that it probably wasn't the field for me. Instead, I started working on student lit-mags, and interning with a few arts organisations and I met people who were making a viable living as writers or editors or arts workers - a thing I'd never thought possible before - and so I set out to do so myself. Which has essentially been making it up as I go along, but I love what I do and I know how lucky I am to be able to say that.

How did poetry captivate you?

I hadn't read much poetry when I started writing, but I quickly found a few books that I really loved - the fierce and sexy Dorothy Porter; a feisty Russian poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko - and that was it, really. There's an intensity to both of those poets - personal and political - that was really important to me at the time. I was a very intense teenager - I'd like to say that I've outgrown that, but I'm not sure that I ever did - and it was a rare occurrence for me to find that intensity matched. But I also found poetry a really playful form, or a form with a lot of room for humour and surprise, I'm still having a lot of fun with those things.

I've also always liked the way poetry so often resists the kind of closure you find in fiction, the way it's ok, or even better most times, to leave things unexplained and unresolved, the way so many things in our lives are. It's ambiguous and puzzling and contradictory, like people are; and that can be fascinating and incredibly potent too.

Describe your writing process.

I'm a scribbler. I'm always carrying around notebooks in my handbag, because I've found that I write a lot in my head when I'm walking, or waiting, out in the world. And during those strange times before falling asleep or waking fully. I always draft poems by hand and edit on computer, although it's the opposite when I'm writing prose. I've developed a really lovely habit over the past few years of writing mostly in the mornings, in a cafe, for a good two-hour block, as many mornings per week as possible. I find working in a public space really helps me focus (or that could be the coffee), and it's also great for eavesdropping and people-watching, which are two of my favourite things to do. And then the afternoons are for editing, reading, and planning. Some poems don't need much editing, others have to kick about for months, and be pushed through any number of different variations and permutations before they find their final form.

What did you most hope to achieve with your debut collection Knuckled?

The flippant answer to that is that I most hoped to have a book! I think most first collections aren't put together with a specific project in mind, rather they tend to bring together the material-so-far, as it were. And that is partly true for 'Knuckled.' But I also wanted to make a collection that had a strong voice and a sense of humour, and I was really intent on mapping as well. Most of the poems are very firmly about place and about the way places can carry stories for us, as sites of experience and memory and emotion. And of course, I was working a lot at the time with a writers' group in Western Sydney, a group that's now become the Sweatshop Literacy Movement, and we were all working on writing about the western suburbs, from the inside, and bringing that particular place into our literature more prominently.

Tell me about your involvement with Red Room Company.

I first got involved with Red Room through their Toilet Doors project, in 2004. It was a project that teamed up six poets with graphic designers and illustrators to make a series of posters for display on the backs of public toilet doors, instead of the ads for urinary tract health or gambling helplines that you're more likely to see there; the project really appealed to my sense of humour, and it was the first large-scale publication or project I'd ever been included in. After the project ended, I started working with the company as an intern, of sorts - I needed to do an internship as a part of my ill-advised media degree, and the company needed more hands, so it worked out quite well. Red Room is a really vital and energetic organisation, and I'd certainly never seen anything like it at the time; and because it was still quite small, I was able to be involved on all kinds of levels - from researching project partners to helping out at events, to media work, reading submissions, and, of course, meeting and working with the first poets I'd ever met. It gave me a great grounding in contemporary poetry, and really gave me the confidence to pursue my own work, which I'm still so grateful for. Red Room now runs a really great poetry education project alongside their other work, so I still get to be involved, sometimes, in their workshops and projects within schools, which is always a joy.

What have you learned from all your years in publishing?

I think there are two really important things that I learnt really quickly, which are essentially, don't take it personally, and don't be lazy. Don't take it personally I say because I've seen the other side of submissions, in terms of both how huge and competitive the slush pile really is, and how some of the decisions that magazines make about what is accepted and what is rejected come down to factors that are almost outside of the writing itself. By that, I mean that some decisions come down to themes that have become apparent within that particular issue, the number of pages still available, the fact that the gender balance might need correcting, or because they're not quite right for that particular publication - so some works might miss out by a tiny margin, and not necessarily because they're bad pieces of writing. 

Don't be lazy is also, I guess, related to the size of slush piles - because you're reading so much writing, as an editor, it becomes quite obvious that there are some little tics and tricks that writers fall back on when the work just isn't working, as it were. It gets to the point where you can spot a cliche in an instant - and of course, any kind of cliche isn't going to make a piece stand out from the huge pile of slush that it's been plucked from. I guess what I'm saying is that reading bad writing, or sloppy writing, really helped me recognise some weaknesses in my own work, and to work harder to overcome them.

What role does poetry play in Australia in 2014?

I think poetry is always going to be a small force, in terms of its reach and readership, but that doesn't make it any less vital or important for the people who love it and live by it. What I love, and have always loved about poetry is the strength of the community it has, how passionate and intelligent that community is, but also how generous and supportive it can be too, when it is at its best. I don't think poetry is ever going to be a commercial force, but in many ways, that is its very strength - it's a counter-narrative, and a thing that is always defiantly and even perversely itself. My favourite kinds of people are like that too.

Is Sydney your home for good?

That, I don't think anyone can ever tell! For good is a long and definite thing! But Sydney is my home, I love it here, and it's where my community is too. I love the way this city is so various, that it has so many little pockets and enclaves that are so different from the others, and that it's so fiercely tribal too, perhaps as a result. And it's beautiful, I love living in such a beautiful place.

When can we see another poetry collection from you?

I do have something in the pipeline, which will probably be appearing in early 2016, after I finish the PhD that it's a part of. In the meantime, I have a book of essays scheduled to be published by Giramondo next year, which I'm very excited about. It's a very personal little book, about illness and hunger, and about writing as well, really, and something that has been both exhilarating and incredibly difficult, at times, to write - and I'm quite proud of it as a result.

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