Melinda Smith's writing really, really impresses me. Her debut collection with Pitt Street Poetry, Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call (what a great title!) is one of the most inventive, arresting and moving collections of Australian poetry I've read in the past decade. She is a gift to Australian writing! Her work cuts straight to the heart of the matter; the poetry she pens is full of compassion and warmth and sincerity.
I thank Melinda very much for her openness and honesty in this revealing interview. I should also thank her for her patience... this should have been published on CRUX ages ago!
Melinda Smith's work has appeared in many publications including Cordite, Verity La, Quadrant, Island and The Best Australian Poems. She has two poetry collections with Sydney's Pitt Street Poetry. Her work has been widely anthologised and translated into several languages. In 2014, she won the Prime Minister's Literary Award. She lives in Canberra.
What was there before poetry?
There was always poetry. I wrote poems from when I was young. I loved A.A. Milne and Dr Seuss and Ogden Nash. And also, growing up with an Anglican priest for a father, the rhythms and hymns in church every Sunday probably lodged in my head as well. I wasn't particularly good at drawing or music or making anything with my hands, so writing poems was always my creative outlet on the side. I started getting serious about poetry in terms of writing for publication in my twenties, when I was in the middle of PhD study in another discipline (Japanese History) and not enjoying it much. I ditched the PhD but stayed with the poetry all through subsequent decades, qualifying as a lawyer and working for several years in the public service and in the IT industry. And becoming a parent twice. It is only since winning the PM's Literary Award at the end of 2014, though, that I've been able to dip out of most paid work and focus on poetry a bit more. It still has to fit into the time left over from being the primary carer for my sons, but at least when everyone manages to make it to school I score some more writing time.
Which part of a poem is hardest to construct?
The part you are most afraid to write. But that is almost always the part worth persevering with.
Think of someone in their forties. They don't like poetry and they haven't read a poem since high school. You have the job of writing a poem for them. What do you write? Why?
About fifty percent of my poems are written for this person - for a general audience or non-specialist reader. In my mind this reader is not somehow a lesser person because they don't read poetry - they might be really into other kinds of culture, they might read fiction, or love cinema, or jazz, or whatever, but they don't read poetry. At the moment. So when I write a poem for a reader like this, I have to leave a way in for them. The poem might be a sonnet or an acrostic or a syllabic or a piece of ekphrasis or a complicated allusion to another poem, but for me the poem fails if the general reader can't engage with it without the need for that technical knowledge. It they want to go deeper the layers are there. But on the surface there must be something that invites them in, even if it's just a phrase that sparks a lot of questions they find themselves wanting answers to, or a particularly arresting bit of word-music. Or it could be addressing one of the universal themes we have in common - love, loneliness, death, birth, regret etc. There's no particular kind of poem you might write for this person - but it has to speak to their humanity rather than their specialist literary qualifications.
If you weren't living in Canberra, where would you be based?
My life has a number of sliding door moments in it. In those alternative lives I live in Shikoku, Japan, Syracuse, NY, Washington DC or Melbourne. It I got to choose now where to live I think I would stay in Canberra - but I would like the universe to also arrange a beach house somewhere on the South Coast of NSW. With a caretaker and a cleaner.
Does the Australian Government look seriously enough as mental health in this country?
I assume this question is because of the depression poems in Drag down to unlock... and the suicide poems in Goodbye, Cruel. I'm not an expert on mental health policy. I am, however, a survivor of mental health issues, as are several people whom I love. I think as a society we need to move beyond 'awareness' to understanding, support, and most crucially, preventative action. A key preventative factor is connectedness - to family, to community, to purpose.
If I could step up on the soapbox for a moment, I'd like to plug the Kurdiji 1.0 project, an indigenous-led initiative which is developing an app to encourage young people to stay connected. They are crowdfunding on GoFundMe.
We all need to look after each other and we need support to do that from employers and governments. Poetry can help too, in its tiny way, by looking with clear eyes at the difficult things and making a space where it is safe to speak of them.
Do female poets have enough of a voice in Australia?
I think things are improving but there is still a need for editors, festival organisers, prize juries, grant administrators etc to make conscious decisions about gender balance, not only in terms of what is selected to be published, reviewed (reviewing is a particular problem area), programmed, awarded and funded, but in terms of who gets to do the selecting. There is an even greater need to think about cultural diversity and to have strategies to address imbalances there. If you can't see it, you can't be it, as the saying goes, and young indigenous people and young people whose names aren't Smith need to have writers to look up to, just as young women need to see older women holding power and respect in the literary world.
What are you most proud of?
In 2011, I got a little ArtsACT grant to write a day a week to produce a chapbook of poems on the theme of autism. That book, First..., Then..., came out in 2012. The poems are written from a number of different perspectives - parents, siblings, onlookers, as well as poetic responses to the autobiographies of autistic authors. Every time I read a poem from First..., Then..., I get one or two audience members coming up afterwards to chat about that part of their lives. A couple of years ago a young man bought a copy from me, and a few days later he Facebook-messaged me to say he had been reading it to his Mum, his autistic sister and her autistic son (the young man's nephew). He said, 'Thank you. You've helped bring our family closer together.' At that point I thought, if I never write another word, I have done something worthwhile with my poetry.
Of course, I have been varying degrees of pleased and shocked to receive other kinds of accolades - but in all honesty that little book and its impact on one family remain the things I am proudest of so far.
What were the challenges you faced when writing Drag down... and Goodbye Cruel?
Starting, keeping going, finishing, and everything in between.
To elaborate, Drag down... was written over a period of ten years, beginning during my first pregnancy and ending when that child was nine and his little brother was six and a half. During that time I went through the normal combine harvester that is becoming a parent, with a bonus dose of post-natal depression and the extra overhead of adjusting to having a child with special needs. I'm not trying to claim this as the toughest possible life experience - after all, I never stopped being white, educated and having enough money to live on. All the same, some of those years were very difficult and I didn't write much at all. My monthly poetry workshop group (Suzanne Edgar, Martin Dolan, Michael Thorley) kept me going and kept me producing the odd draft, but there were a lot of meetings where I'd turn up and say, 'Sorry guys, I've got nothing again this time'. Also, when I finally started to get my mojo back, in 2011, I ended up committed to completing the autism project described above, which meant I put the Drag down... manuscript away for a whole year. So it was a very slow train coming.
The heart of Drag down... is (not surprisingly) the pregnancy, childbearing, postnatal depression and parenting sequence in the Downloads section. Most of those poems were written when an old friend became pregnant for the first time, and I thought, right, I want to write poems for her as a kind of guide. The work came out of wanting to say, 'here's what I have learned - it may not help you, your journey may different, but for what it's worth, here's an account of some terrain I know.' As I've said elsewhere, that sequence is not a definitive take on the subject matter, or anywhere near as good as the best writing in this space, it's just my take on it.
One part of that book which was relatively trouble-free was the finding-a-publisher part. I sent it to Pitt Street Poetry, they read it, and they said yes. I will always be thankful to them for that.
As for Goodbye, Cruel, starting it was complicated by the fact that four months after I launched Drag down... one of my sons developed a chronic, incurable, life-threatening medical condition. Poetry was the last thing on my mind as we spent a week in hospital with him, learning how to do round-the-clock blood testing and injections, and how to calculate the grams of carbohydrate in every one of his meals with scientific precision. Not to mention visiting his school twice a day for several months afterwards to train the staff how to do those things during the day. At the time, Drag down... was shortlisted for the Prime Minister's Literary Award. I don't think I'd written any poems for nine months and I felt like a complete fraud. When it won, the last thing I felt like was smiling into a lot of pointed cameras and talking about my achievements. All I wanted was for our son not to have what we had.
Fortunately, he has been an amazing trooper about the whole thing, and all of us have now adjusted to our new normal. But it was a bumpy road for a while.
One enormous positive which came out of winning the Award was a period of freedom from paid work. I'd already been talking with my very understanding, wonderful partner, about taking some time off work to re-balance things; the prize money made that decision much easier and has extended that period of freedom for much longer that would otherwise have been possible.
The actual writing of the book was a fits and starts process which really got underway once the 2015 school year began. This time a couple of things were different: I felt pressure to produce a worthy follow up to my unexpected prize winner; and I was suddenly in demand as a reader, speaker, reviewer, editor, collaborator and launcher. It took a long time to get my working rhythm adjusted to these extra factors. The best policy was obviously to ignore the first and enjoy the second (while still remaining productive by using travel time for writing as much as possible). I was not always able to put this policy into practice.
I became aware at some point in 2015 that several of my drafts dealt with suicide in some way and that something was starting to coalesce around the theme. In the end, that sequence of poems became the heart of the book and gave its name. I suppose I became interested in writing about this difficult topic because one person in my circle had been talking about it seriously for several years and another had tried twice but was still with us. I had noticed the great silence that opens up when someone takes (or tries to take) their own life - a silence that can prevent families and communities healing, and that can discourage people thinking about it from seeking help. The poems came from a wish to break this silence in a small way.
I should say that the final book, despite its title, actually contains less than twenty suicide poems, and there are many other kinds of work in it: micropoems, translations from a 10th Century Persian poetess, poems describing real and imagined disasters, light lyrics, and more experimental work with found text. The whole thing really came together during two weeks in May 2016 at the Writer's Cottage at Bundanon, for which I have to thank the Bundanon Trust. As well as giving me time and space to work on Goodbye, Cruel and my other piles of drafts, Bundanon gave me several un-looked-for poems of its own, most of which are in the Riverine section of the book.
Now that it is done and out in the world, I feel enormous relief. I am proud of having pushed through despite of everything else that was going on. Goodness knows what people will make of it; it is very different to my last book. Here's hoping it finds a reader or two.
You were once a tea maiden. Shed some light on this.
I haven't mentioned that my abortive PhD was actually at the University of Cambridge. I got a scholarship for Commonwealth students, but only completed one year of the three. My time as a tea maiden (okay, a waitress at an old-world style tea room) was in the months after I had quit - no more scholarship meant no more rent money, and while I worked out my next move, I needed a job. The tea rooms in question was The Orchard of Grantchester, a village just along the river from Cambridge, onetime haunt of the Bloomsbury group - and onetime residence of poet Rupert Brooke.
On summer Sundays, the place was completely teeming with American tourists and members of the braying classes up from London seeking an Edwardian earthly paradise. What they got were teabags in enormous tarnished pots, three day old cake, frankly unsafe ramshackle deckchairs under the straggly apple trees and weather fine enough to take their minds off it if they were very lucky. Meanwhile, as a shift supervisor, I was dealing with employees smoking heroin in the loos, and barefaced Basil Fawlty lying to customers stupid enough to ask if the sea bass was fresh.
Tell me about tomorrow...
I hope it is quiet and solitary. Having just done a whole lot of public appearances launching the new book, I feel like I need that.
For the first time in years, I haven't got a big meaty project on the go. I feel like I need to do a lot more reading and reflecting - and processing everything that's happened both poetically and personally since 2014.
I've just handed over the poetry editor gig at The Canberra Times to a new editor so that's another change. It has been an enormously stimulating and inspiring two years, but I am ready for someone else to take a turn now. I'm replacing that with some other bits and pieces of contract work to subsidise my poetic activities.
I do have a few smaller projects I'm part of - a set of translations of Japanese poet Kawaguchi Harumi; contributing to a couple of other themed multi-poet anthologies that look like fun; and spoken-word improvising with a dance company. I'm also researching and writing a set of workshops. Every day this year you can see a micro poem of mine on the Instagram account @lookup.project. This is an ekphrasis collaboration with artist Rhonda Ayliffe - she took a photograph of the sky every day for a year and my little poems work like captions to those. It's also a short film and a set of postcards. In amongst all that I'm toying with further study.
I have no idea what tomorrow looks like - but as long as it involves reading, writing and continued health for those I love, I will call that a win.