I've met Felicity Plunkett once. It was in 2011, when I was attending an Extension 2 English day for HSC Students at Beverly Hills Girls High School in Sydney. Felicity was conducting a workshop for Yr 12 poets, including a girl I was teaching. On behalf of my student, I asked Felicity some questions on how best to approach aspects of the rigorous Extension 2 course. Felicity was generous with her time and her answers were insightful. I contacted Felicity not long after this and questioned her about avenues to explore as an emerging poet. She read some of my online work. Again, Felicity was supportive. She strikes me as a woman who is wise, professional and utterly selfless. Australia's poets are most fortunate to have her as a mentor, role model and critic.
Felicity has a PhD in Literature from the University of Sydney. She is poetry editor with University of Queensland Press. Her rich, wide-ranging and inventive debut poetry collection, Vanishing Point, won the Thomas Shapcott Prize. A later, engaging collection, Seastrands, was published as part of Vagabond Press' Rare Object Series. She was editor of Thirty Australian Poets. Felicity has worked with Red Room Company on many projects. Felicity currently lives in Sydney.
What was there before poetry?
This question feels a little like ‘What was there before light?’ and has been waiting, unanswered, like a chicken-and-egg conundrum, for me to respond to. I remember always gravitating towards poetry, but when I began to discover poets during high school, at first through studying Latin (Catullus, then Virgil) I knew that this was important. Poetry started taking up, delightfully, a lot of space in my head.
What are you first - poet, critic or editor?
I don’t know how successfully I can disentangle the strands, since, broadly, reading and writing go hand-in-hand for me. I love an evocation of this by American writer Kevin Brockmeier in an interview in The Georgia Review. He argues for stoking your life and your writing with ‘books you find beautiful, enriching, fascinating, meaningful, fathomless, enchanting, or unextinguishable.’ It’s an ordered process, he suggests: ‘You let your reading fill your life and you let your life fill your writing.’
Having said that, I think that being a poet is probably the foundation.
Tell me about your work with Extension 1 & 2 HSC English Students in NSW.
During my years as an academic, I was appointed to the Exam Committee for HSC English Extension 1 in NSW and subsequently took over the loftily-titled role of Chief Examiner of Extension 1 and English Extension 2 from 2004-2009.
This involved chairing the exam committee, working with wonderful, creative teachers to develop the Extension 1 exam paper, and spending time in the exam centres for both subjects, working with the Supervisor of Marking and markers.
I believe that each course is exemplary, and especially that having the opportunity to create an independent Major Work in English – whether poetic, fictional, performance, film or critical – is a brilliant opportunity for students. Every year I witness – and these days have some involvement in enabling – lucid, unique work produced by the 2000+ students who take this course. In 2014 I was especially blown away by work I encountered that was well beyond some work I see from tertiary students, and, in the case of some of the poetry and fiction, as good as some professional work I read as an editor. I have great respect for these students, and the teachers who enable them. It’s an energy-testing course, but one that opens a lot of mind-windows. Something I look forward to greatly is the further unfolding of some of these students’ talent.
Which of your many literary achievements are you most proud of?
I’m not sure about pride, but probably the most transformative achievement was winning the Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Prize for Vanishing Point, which involved publication with University of Queensland Press. I feel honoured (and, yes, proud) to be part of the group of poets who have won this prize, including Nathan Shepherdson, Sarah Holland-Batt, David Stavanger and most recently, Krissy Kneen.
Think of the average Aussie bloke in a hi-vis work shirt. How do you make poetry reach him?
Perhaps it helps to think beyond averages and the human cladding that signals our differences, to remember that poetry has the capacity to be, as Robert Frost puts it ‘a fresh look and a fresh listen’. Poetry can reach a person and venture everywhere. Or as Yevgeny Yevtushenko writes: ‘Poetry is like a bird, it ignores all frontiers’. Each can go anywhere, but I’m not sure that you can make poetry, or a bird, do this.
If you were to have a coffee with one dead poet, who would it be and why?
I love to cultivate this possibility. I’ve spent hours, sometimes over coffee, with poets and their words. Possibly the two I’ve spent the most hours with are Sylvia Plath and Paul Celan. Plath was a wonderful cook, too. A slice of her lemon meringue pie would be good.
What does the future hold?