Excerpt from a Reading Journal, 2011
Here is my gameplan for reading for 2011. I plan to read around my subject matter and around my form. I am frightened of reading too closely to what I am writing as I am highly suggestible and have had the experience of subconsciously appropriating bits of other writers’ plots and only realising afterwards what I have done. ‘Accidental plagiarism’ and I want to avoid it like the plague.
I am writing a series of poems around a girl who is an alcoholic/addict, who becomes a ‘ship mole,’ who transpires to have been sexually abused as a prepubescent, who experiences life in psychiatric facilities and prisons and who eventually commits or attempts suicide. I am already thinking The Lovely Bones – because of the 1970s setting – and do not want to imitate Alice Sebold’s wonderful novel.
So my plan is to read around the subject matter – preferably novels rather than poetry – to avoid being ‘cross-infected’ with plot and style. My plan is also to read poetry around the style and format rather than the subject matter, to dig out collections with cycles or long narratives or thematic links.
My big fear, my bête noir, is the Australian poet Dorothy Porter (RIP). I was saddened to hear that she died of breast cancer last year, at the age of 53. Dorothy is (was) a mighty, mighty poet. I love, love, love her hard-edged, lesbian noir, detective verse novels. I particularly like her book What a Piece of Work. It is set in Rozelle Hospital – the psychiatric hospital in Sydney where I trained as a psychiatric nurse – and explores themes of psychiatry, dysfunctional relationships, promiscuity, psychopathology, sexual abuse. It is so close to the work I intend to write, in themes and also in style and form, that I am frightened to reread it in case it influences me too much. My big fear is that someone will read my work and say ‘Oh, she’s trying to do a Dorothy Porter.’ I do not intend to reread this book this year, yet know I will be tempted. Will I be able to resist the magnetic pull of What a Piece of Work? I will probably try and fail. If I was a betting gal I’d put my money on Dorothy.
So, once again with conviction: novels with psychiatric/prison/addiction/sexual abuse/ pathological promiscuity themes. Poetry collections with thematic links or strong narratives. Verse novels, but not What a Piece of Work. Yeah, right.
Editor’s Note: the final entry in Natasha’s Reading Journal is an 8-page commentary on What a Piece of Work.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Natasha Dennerstein was born in Melbourne into a Russian/Polish Australian family and now lives in Wellington. She has spent many years working as a psychiatric nurse. She is currently writing poetry for her MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University.