Excerpt from a reading journal, 2005
So let’s begin this interview.
Firstly Michele, your job is to tell me, without prevarication, just tell me in your own words, similar to an ink blot test, your first impressions of whatever I place in front of you.
I’m here to help you find your own work; there are clues, evidence, that you can confirm or deny, but the most important thing is to answer truthfully.
We are recording these interviews merely for research purposes.
Thomas Sayers Ellis, an American poet, writer of The Maverick Room, 2005:
All I have in me is risks… All the risks live between truth and trouble, my favourite
I have never written a poem that wasn’t the most important thing in the world to me at
that moment, that I wouldn’t have gone hungry for, or screwed over the phone
company for, or worse…
Cal Bedient, poet, critic, reviewer:
Of a good poem one may finally ask ‘Are you as happy with being complacently well made
as you seem?’ And of a great poem ‘What and where are you, exactly, and where are you
On the other hand, for it is nothing if not a paradox, the great poem rests before you like
a still thing, nodding only with each slap of its own rain, while its underside remains dry
Sometimes poetry seems larger than me, something I have to rope in or distil like a chemist to get to the essential elements, only then can I create something that may surprise me. At this, the beginning, I don’t feel I have anything remotely distinctive to say, but am playing with words/ideas, a subconscious mimicry of all that I read or have read.
One of our first exercises involved mind mapping, free association of words. Why do I feel so stuck when presented with free choice? I would like to ‘risk’ as Thomas says. Risk for me is about stepping off somewhere and not being sure of the landing. Although I loathe ‘the cathartic experience’ having seen enough of it at Drama School, where someone is always left to clean up and remove the liquefied remains of the ego.
Stephanie de Montalk
You can write the autobiographical in the third person… you can spy.
I question whether it is right to misrepresent ourselves, pretending it is someone else’s experience, doesn’t that allow us to recreate ourselves and our lives as more glamorous/
She says she never uses third person to write about big things like love, death or the intensely personal. I feel like a purist in my questioning, and yet a certain relief in the idea that you can explore with a pseudonym ‘I’. Sometimes it’s useful to stand outside and report what you see in the third person, maybe the perspective will show up something new, unrealised.
She talks to us about the act of ‘getting words down’, sometimes going straight to her computer and just writing all the words that surround the experience without any thought to the form. Crafting and shaping – that’s really the work. I admire her knowledge of history and botany and she tells us she reads encyclopedias, she has a voracious thirst for knowledge. I am incredibly moved by the fact that she talks to us for 2 hours standing all the time because of her injured pelvis, there is a fragility and a stoicism and because she has a Polish background I can’t help but think about Poland in the war and its injuries too.
Like a magpie looking for shiny objects, I use the experience of her talk to write a poem for our Distinctions exercise.
Stephanie has a great relaxed reading style, I enjoy the way her work matches her delivery. She is unpretentious. I am very scared about reading my own work, as an actor it’s been too long since I was even vaguely real (are poets more real?). I think I sound like someone out of the Royal Shakespeare Company. I hate the way actors read poetry. I hate the rehearsed sound of them. Will the words ever sound naked, new? Will the sense ever have its own rhythm? Will I adopt a poet’s voice and if so whose?
Penny’s session on memoir
So many things to consider, I’m relieved it’s not me attempting a memoir.
Is it fair to tell a story which involves others’ lives without their permission? Can we assume our memories are more accurate than theirs? The tense thing is interesting – are you looking back and remembering or writing in the present? It would be easy for it to become a travelogue or a sequence of events. Penny gives us some great extracts to read. Mark Doty has an amazing ability to move around a lot, to write in the present as a child and then comment on it with all his adult perspective. I think he uses a filmic style – like the way he invents flashbacks or envisions a scene as a play – it’s as if ‘now we see this and now we see that’. He also implies attitudes from other people that he feels on a visceral level and then identifies in adult form.
I do feel slightly voyeuristic reading very personal material like the rape in Alice Sebold’s book Lucky. I don’t want to read the graphic details of her rape but at the same time I want to know what happens next. Her memory is so visual and she uses fine details to place us in the situation – it’s scary and uncomfortable but immediate.
I start to think of how the poems I am writing have a memoir quality – they are taken from my life, involve other people, are written without their permission. I want to try to use detail like Alice’s hair-tie in the rape scene in Lucky to locate the poems, with minimal amount of filling in – I still tend to write in a narrative style, the sort of style prose writers will say is just prose with interesting line breaks.
This first part of the year I have been thinking in storylines, and have just decided to write it all out anyway as part of a narrative sequence, and then move more out of my head into something more primal?? (Oh, really, Michele.) I don’t like the word, maybe I mean just explore more gut reactions to things. (You won’t, you know.)
Penny talks about discursive interest versus the narrative’s momentum. How many side roads can you veer off on, and then return to the plot – is it distracting to embroider too much?
On the other hand the memoir has to have some point to its telling – there must be some attitude from the writer or some subtextual commentary to make it worth reading. Really difficult to have all those layers that need weaving with invisible thread.
Much like the cohesive thread that a collection of poetry would have, and that’s the thing I realise, that this year we are working towards a consolidated piece of work – the poems will be in conversation with each other. I must stop reading ‘collections of’ because they are not the same as one book written in one time zone.
I’m reading a memoir of the Vietnam war, it’s American. I’m fascinated by the nicknames the soldiers have for each other, like Pigpen, Rat, Ski, Oreo (from Oregon) and Tiny (who is huge of course).
Not sure I’ll ever be able to write the war poems I wanted. Even getting small details from my father is hazardous. I email my Mother asking her to ask Dad did he have a nickname? No, comes back the reply. Well maybe Kiwi soldiers didn’t go in for that sort of thing. Another email from my Mother saying she asked Dad what his nickname might have been if he had one and she said ‘he went very quiet’…
One day I’d love to write about the complexities of this man but I’ll have to wait for the last post to be played I think.
Ideas for poems – after the last post poems:
the number he would be remembered by, the number that would be sent home without him
the metal circles clinking like a charm bracelet, close to the heart
The record I used to play to make my brother cry: ‘The Green Berets’
How we wouldn’t recognise our father when he came home on leave with a beard, how he
would disappear again in the night – only a memory of a shadow through a mosquito net
The Seekers playing on a portable tape deck on a beach, my father staring and staring out to
sea on the last day of his leave, ‘Now the carnival is over’ – the saddest song in the world
After the SAS reunion, the suicide
Meeting my father in Vietnam – what he would say to me…
Have decided on a working title for this part of the year: ‘Whistling where my head would have been’ – it sums up this overriding feeling of writing blind or whistling in the dark.
I am getting really excited about reading some of the classwork – it’s all so diverse. At the moment the novelists are going full speed compared to the poets – well, this poet. There is a feverish quality to them, they are bulking up, like preparing for a weightlifting competition. The poets seem cooler, as if we are getting lighter somehow, treading with delicate steps.
It’s about places, people, and what you leave behind and what you take with you – what’s gained, as we spend time living and moving through our own time.
How do I know what I think
until I see what I say.
E M Forster
The whole idea of this body of work is to find the threads, as Bill says, ‘bumping into your subject’. After my first portfolio workshop I can see possible links, maybe recurring images: Caversham, daughter, body parts of my parents. All essential elements of myself, shades of me.
The feedback is useful, although others are seeing things that I don’t quite see yet. Apparently there is movement in the collection I showed them, the structure of the poems seems easy to read and enjoyable (hmm, worry about that). People liked the way they found things out in the poems, that they start out as one thing and develop into something else – this metamorphosis I find encouraging because it is what I am attempting. I didn’t think that the work was particularly moving but comments back seem to indicate some emotional resonance.
I had thought I’d move geographically down the body in the next lot of work I want to do – body as landscape. I’m aware that what I’m writing is autobiographical but was slightly relieved that the class found things for themselves within the poems, so like most first novels which tend to be about the author’s life, I’ll continue until I sicken myself! (You are perilously close.)
Have bought a friend whose mother has died Jenny Bornholdt’s book Summer. I’ve read Jenny a lot and find that she just gets better and better. Summer is such a great juxtaposition of poems, with her father’s death which travels with her to this bright different country, so many old experiences rubbing shoulders with new. ‘Things We Didn’t Do Last Summer – A Survey.’ I love the way she uses one thing to talk about another. I found the whole collection wonderful, so I buy it for Denise and continue to borrow it from the library for myself.
Sharon Olds’s book about her father’s death is great too, she writes as if she’s his lover – the poems are incredibly intimate, in fact all her family relationships seem as if they are with lovers. I enjoy the way she calls a cunt a cunt.
– oh bugger off, I know what I’m reading
– you are so frustrating
– so are you
Have just read a great story of his in the London Review of Books. Sharp and funny but oh so cruel. He talks about poetry readings:
I’d rather be in a dentist chair than go to one of those things where the lady-poet
whispers in her breathless little lady-poet voice about how come she’s out of sorts
and about granny’s mouldering petticoat in the attic … and the boy-poet, he’s worse still,
striking this earnest pose – probably thinks it will get him laid – and giving forth in these
little pellets about going fishing with the old man, getting things straight between them.
Accurate but so black. I heard him read earlier in the year, very charismatic, great voice and a wonderful way of making the poems rich with tone, irony etc. I immediately was captured by him and found myself going straight out and buying The Strange Hours Travellers Keep. Well, you know you are really holding something with this book in your hand. Very smart, confident long lines but carefully composed, as he says his rhythm and influence is jazz (the thinking man’s pop – me saying that, not him). You cannot flick through his book or check it out while still in the shop, you either buy it or put it back and somehow that is so much like him, the man. He would make a terrible patient to nurse and I suspect he has a low tolerance for boredom unless it has good tits. I could be so wrong but he strikes me as that kind of man.
God, August would chew up my Edna and Charlie poems like a scrap of tobacco, roll them around on his tongue and spit.
The Dear Diary section
The computer has died and I am so lucky that I have this journal on Ken’s computer. I am beyond frustration. It seems I have bits of work all over the place, and nothing is coming together. Some of it is lost but I like to imagine it wasn’t too important or else I would have printed it out which is what I usually do. I have lost all my emails though and some were special, some were ideas I wanted to work with as well, but there is nothing I can do and because I didn’t know about (or chose to ignore) backing things up and floppy disks etc I guess I have to accept the consequences. I HATE technology – I would be extinct if survival depended on it and in fact I am becoming extinct because I have so much anger at being forced to use it (technology) that it will no doubt shorten my life, the way anger can. My god, if I had been writing a novel I would have had to pull out of the MA I think, imagine starting that all again if I’d lost it.
It is cold and we have just moved house again so that’s 3 times this year and another move coming up in 5 weeks. Florence has been sick so work is difficult – I know I have to work in the spaces I can find, the gaps of time and when Ken’s computer is free, and accept it is not perfect – but it never would be anyway, there is always life to be worked around. I guess the thing that is worrying me most is self doubt. I expected more from myself and the moment I think about where I wanted to be at this time of the year, the less I seem to be able to do it.
I don’t think this break from class has been good for me – I seem to need the stimulation and interaction from the others. I like to hear how they are going. We had dinner at the borrowed house the other night and a lot of us are in the same position of panic and juggling commitments. I feel for the novelists because of the time they feel they have lost and how they can’t afford to leave their projects for even a day. It is also really hard to keep writing poems, I have things I want to write but they are not coming out as poetry.
I’ve suddenly realised why I am so resistant to keeping up this journal – it’s that I have no idea who my audience is!
I’m assuming now that I am its audience, so I will try to think of it more as a record of how I am working. (You knew this Michele – yes I know, but I forgot.)
I have been reading so much lately but what has struck me is there are only a few poets that I want to go back to. Robert Hass is one of them. I find myself studying his work over and over. I like the density of language, the sounds and the way something simple is always at the heart of his poems. They are crafted with so much else to think about, that they become fascinating – that is what I’d like to see more of in my work. So ok it’s imagination that gives you the ideas but it also needs some sort of layering (maybe) so that a poem doesn’t just sit like a fried egg on a plate.
I want to find something that gives my work a second read and if it doesn’t have that then I need to figure out why. I think there have to be echoes, I worry there have to be classical references. My friend Denise brings me a book about Greek Gods, she wonders if I might like to throw a few into my poems – I wish I could. I would sound very grown up and learned. So far there hasn’t seemed to be the appropriate space.
I have had 2 terrifying days with a rat in the kitchen – one of the cats brought it in and then lost it. It’s the size of an apple box, grey fur and a white belly. I had to set a trap, an industrial USA army trap, in fact, and got the rat on the second attempt. The noise and carnage was horrific. Ken’s away so I had to phone Danny (ex) to come around and remove it. Of course all I can think to write about is the rat and our brief relationship and how I killed it and how scared and sorry and mixed up the whole experience was. So I spend a day on the rat poem which oddly enough never mentions a rat. I am so easily distracted – this is the reason I will find myself with no sections. (Sections – my current obsession.)
Noticed reading Greg O’Brien’s new book that I find the 2 line couplet style of poetry tiring after a while, it’s like my eye wants to be allowed to read on a bit longer. It’s so nice to have free rein sometimes without being forced to break. Emily Dobson was quite emphatic about the 2 line style in her poems, said that within that strict structure the meaning became fresh. I’m not sure about housing your poems all in the same way. Really liked Greg’s poems, liked this one about his mother:
… And Heke Street is
a tightly fitting shoe she will wear unlaced
as far as the corner and take off. ‘If we all
carry one another then none of us will have to
walk,’ she says.
Greg doesn’t use a lot of punctuation in this book, and he has long sentences which I enjoy. Penny in my last workshop mentioned wanting longer lines in my work – am trying to figure out what it adds or why she might think it is more effective.
Looking over my stuff – the lines are all short – I know Mary Anne would say ‘play around with it, try it with longer lines, see what it looks like.’
four homes for you. Your bed will be a compass in this city.
To every bedroom, you will bring the same sock, the same
piece of fluff, a corner of paper and River Phoenix. I will bring
an umbrella ceiling to hold over you at night
to keep the dark from falling.
or the way I have it already –
I will make four homes
your bed will be a compass
in this city…
No, I like my short lines better – well maybe because this is a small poem. (Are all my poems small poems i.e. not enough of an idea to sustain more than one brief moment? Another neurotic worry.)
I like the look of certain words when they are sitting alone. ‘Circumstance’, for example. It’s like the ‘b’ lines have their own narrative. I think that is why I do it.
in this city
bring the same sock
ceiling to hold
to keep the dark.
There is still some sort of story there. (Well kind of, Michele.)
Bill has longer lines too, for the most part, as does Bernadette Hall. Have just looked at The Merino Princess. She has a style I really like, she can also throw in classical references when she wants – something I wish I’d learn to do. She has written a series of sonnets called ‘Tomahawk Sonnets’. I start to read them, hoping it won’t be what I thought it was, and of course it is!! She writes of burying someone at Anderson’s Bay Cemetery in Dunedin – she too has been struck by the name of the road, Tomahawk Rd, which you drive along to get to the cemetery. I have a poem about burying my grandmother at the same place. It ends with:
But I shall be buried off Tomahawk Road
in the south with the women
buried between the sea
and the golf course.
This is happening a bit now. Mentioned to Bill that I had a Charlie and the C T Club poem, mentioned it because Bill names the C T Club in a poem called ‘Bumps’ (great poem with all the sort of detail that I enjoy) – but I don’t feel I can repeat or use ideas that are already out there. I mean the ‘Tomahawk Sonnets’ is almost something I felt I was working towards, when I saw the title I wanted it too. And they are so good.
Strange really to suddenly feel sad, as if somehow I feel I am the keeper of all southern images because they are so personal to me, intimate, but just because they have resonances for me doesn’t mean they are mine. God I feel incredibly sad now, or maybe daunted.
Well Michele, it is about going home isn’t it – it’s about grief and home, and wanting to live with Edna forever, and to be looked after – her unconditional love. Good old Edna.
Ha ha – reminds me of the conversation I had with Angelica Torn who played Sylvia Plath in Edge at Circa Theatre. I was so upset and moved, not because Sylvia killed herself, but because of a speech she makes just before interval, talking to her dead father at his graveside. She really was an amazing actress (not Sylvia… well maybe) but anyway I said to Angelica afterwards how upset I’d been at the interval, and she said, very matter of fact, as if this was not uncommon – ‘Unresolved issues with your parents’, and it is true of course, but said in an American accent it sounded so clichéd, it made me laugh. Poor old Ted got a hammering in the play, still if it’s your last day to live, as she says in the play, you can really say what you like – what have you got to lose? No one seems to be jumping on the band wagon and writing the Ted Hughes one man show, well not that I’ve heard of, although Ken was sorely tempted after seeing the play. There were many intakes of breath and attempts to stay calm as he battled with self control not to call out ‘bullshit’.
Only two and a half months to go, now it’s important to finish this journal and be able to focus on the poems I’ve yet to write. My last workshop was warm and positive but as always the gaps are highlighted and there’s still so many amendments to be made. While this journal is hanging over me I seem powerless to do both. Good grief, I appear to have lost my glasses.
I am continuing to absorb Bernadette Hall’s words in the hope they will, by osmosis, work on me. I’m growing to love her use of language and how she challenges her readers. Why is she not more famous? Why has she not gone to Menton or been poet laureate? I think she is bloody marvellous.
I am over my jealousy about the ‘Tomahawk Sonnets’. I appreciate the influence she may have on what I am trying to do.
Siân gave us a piece to read by Lloyd Jones called ‘Daring to fail’. In talking about particular books, he says:
These books aren’t just merely clever. They began life as a dare and are held aloft by their
I love the image of the dare – inspiring too his last paragraph:
Mansfield’s challenge to ‘risk all’ continues to resonate. Serendipity plays its part too. So
does the happy accident of language, as well as that impulse that preschoolers know
the moment they reach for a stick of crayon – called desire.
Tah dah, I get to meet Bernadette, which is just perfect for the end of this journey – if I was to wax lyrical I’d almost say it has a wonderful symmetry, or something to do with torches. Bernadette talked about wanting to write in a primal way, how some of her newer poems are like incantations, how she draws them out from somewhere that she doesn’t even know exists. The brilliant thing was I kept understanding everything she was saying. How different that would have been at the beginning of the year. We talked about her niece who was killed in the London bombings and she said she had written poems in Antarctica which now have so many resonances with how she is feeling since losing her niece – the cold, the landscape, gravel, stones over your eyes. I’m not doing justice to her in the way she described her latest work but I was already seeing the poems in my head and definitely feeling them.
I asked her about Tomahawk Road. She too was taken with the name, something about the ‘cutting off’ sense of it, which seems so appropriate when it runs by the cemetery. We talked about how it is always so desolate there and windy and cold, how the sea always seems to be thrashing about. I was greatly moved by her poet’s sensibilities and she was so generous, it was so lovely to share something that means something to both of us, which is this silly old cemetery beside a golf course. I do feel somehow it was a lucky meeting for me.
Queen of Spades in a brown tweed coat …
When Bernadette read this poem she made me cry, but it was more than that, she touched all the broken places with this simple duck story – now that is magic.
Well little journal, you and I have to part company. I’m aware that I’m pushing you out the door, when there is still a lot I’d like to discuss. You’ve been like a neighbour I’ve shared a cup of tea with before the important dinner guests arrive. In a funny way you have been good company, so thank you.
A woman at the box office said yesterday ‘Well, I’ll be bound’ – not an expression you hear a lot now, but I did think of you. You will be bound. Sleep well in whatever little space you find yourself. Bye for now, love Michele.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michele Amas is an actor and director who is also winner of the 2005 Adam Foundation Prize, which goes to the top folio of work by an MA (Page) student at the IIML each year. She apologises to anyone who unwittingly finds themselves in her journal.