1. Felicity, can you tell us a bit about your background? Where were you brought up and educated?
I was brought up and educated in Sydney. I spent almost a decade at Sydney University, some of which was in the era of free education, doing an Arts/Law degree (the law part of which I didn’t finish, despite continuing to study it when I was a PhD student in English), then having my first academic job there – a year – before getting another one-year job, this time in Hobart at the University of Tasmania. I feel very fortunate to have had access to that wonderful tertiary education. I took both English and Australian Literature, read a lot, and began to publish a few poems. My first professional poem, ‘Oyster’ was in Southerly, published under a pseudonym, for no good reason I can remember, though I wanted to include my grandmother’s surname ‘Greening’. I worked as an academic for the next decade, before resigning to focus more on writing.
2. When did you realise you were a poet?
I’d probably say, instead, that I recognised an affinity with poetry, and that I felt that as soon as I was able to read by myself, something that became pretty central in my life from early on. I have also played and listened to a lot of music, which was very helpful in understanding writing as a kind of orchestration, and poetry’s musical and sonic aspects. I know I hoped, from a very young age, that I could read and write a lot in my life.
3. Who were your main influences?
If there was some kind of Spotify playlist that revealed whose work we have read most, the poets on constant rotation in my life would include Paul Celan, Sylvia Plath (because I did some of my PhD on her work), Rilke, Jane Hirshfield and Tracy K. Smith. At school, it wasn’t until the last year that I remember doing much poetry at all (then it was T.S. Eliot, Robert Browning, Denise Levertov and Sylvia Plath), but I did Latin before that, so I read poets including Catullus and Virgil. I read a lot of poetry, and recent highlights have included work by Ranjit Hoskote, Claudia Rankine, Anne Carson, Yannis Ritsos and Tracy K. Smith’s dazzling Wade in the Water.
4. How do ideas for poems occur to you?
Jane Hirshfield says in an interview that: ‘Obsession is not quite the right word for it … but it’s the closest I can come. Something had grabbed hold of my psyche and interest and emotions and I needed to keep working it out.’ <https://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/unbound/bookauth/jhirsh.htm>. I find that ideas accumulate or congregrate, as I start to explore or trace a thought. There’s usually something elusive I have to listen to, so it takes a kind of patience and attentiveness. Occasionally it happens for me in the marvellous way Dorothy Porter described when she talked (in an interview with you, I think, and elsewhere) about poetry and the daemonic. Sometimes I’ve had ideas tumble into my head, and had to stop the car, or the ironing, or the sleeping or whatever it is I think I’m doing and transcribe something. That’s pretty exciting.
5. What are the biggest challenges you encounter when you set out to write and how do you deal with them?
When I resigned from my academic job and began working as a freelance writer and editor, I found that inspiration was a bit of a luxury, and I learnt that grit and tenacity were very helpful and more reliable. I find that a poem takes as long as it takes, and I can’t anticipate what that might be. Writing, for me, takes time. But I love doing it, so that doesn’t feel very challenging. The process, for me, is painstaking, not painful. I have to protect space and time to do my writing, so that time becomes precious.
I’ve been practising meditation for a long time, and that helps when I feel distracted, or scattered, which can be a challenge. I also have quite a full workload with the various parts of my life, so I aim to cordon off time, not always successfully. My kids are now old enough – and wonderful enough – to be extremely supportive of my writing, so I’m very lucky there, and I also have brilliant loved ones who will read my work for me as my first readers so I can get a sense of whether it’s working.
6. Not only do you write poetry but you work as a reviewer, writing teacher and edit poetry for UQP. Poetry publication is very competitive. What do you look for in a collection of poetry?
My work with poetry involves assessing and editing others’ work. This includes developing the work of high school students and other poets and finding ways to discuss the work of writers whose work I review. There’s an openness to what a work might be saying, and an attempt to read it on its own terms that reading a lot tends to develop. In Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, Jane Hirshfield writes about concentration as a ‘particular state of awareness: penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open’. This is the kind of state of mind I aim to cultivate as a reader, though of course I don’t always achieve it. We all read amidst distractions. Good poetry – the best words in the best order, as Coleridge put it – is as unique as its writer. I notice a kind of goose bumps effect when I read something that has that – there’s an element both of surprise and familiarity to it, as though while it feels fresh, it captures something I realise I had always hoped to understand.
Emily Berry put it this way in an interview: ‘A poem has to move me in some way — emotionally or intellectually (preferably both). I keep trying to work out what it is to be moved. It has to do with the body, obviously. It’s like a wind sucks a little door open inside you and a few autumn leaves blow in.’ <https://chireviewofbooks.com/2017/11/27/dear-poetry-editor-emily-berry-poetry-review/>.
7. You are also a widely published reviewer? How do you deal with work that doesn’t engage you?
If a work really doesn’t engage me – if I can’t find a way into it – I won’t review it. Writers deserve a responsive reviewer. Osip Mandelstam wrote that a poem has a secret addressee and Paul Celan describes poems travelling towards their readers like messages in bottles, in the ‘not always greatly hopeful—belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps’. As a writer, I am aware of the time and energy that go into writing, and this makes me value courtesy in reviewing – not some kind of mousy politeness so much as a careful attentiveness. I feel that if I can’t, for some reason, make a connection with a work, it would be better finding another reader. Having said that, it is the role of the reviewer to be as open as possible and to make the effort to figure out what a book is doing.
8. What are you working on at the moment?
I have a new book, A Kinder Sea, forthcoming with Pitt St Poetry, so I’ve been working on the last stages of that, as well as new poems – one about the anatomy of wrists, another is partly about singing, with a few angels passing through it, one of whom has a beard. I always have stray ideas, notes, thoughts – that may or may not lead to a poem, or some other kind of writing.
9. Finally, many writers have periods when they are not writing. For some, it is a concern, but for others, it’s not. What do you do when you get writer’s block?
Writing and reading fuel one another for me, so there’s always energy coming from one direction or the other. But for me, it’s also just a matter of showing up for writing, as for any other job. If I feel low on creative energy, I have a few things I do to change that – listening to music, meditating, getting out into the natural world, etc., but mostly, if I’ve come from marking a pile of students’ exams or doing several loads of washing, I have an appetite for writing! I love that Tracy K. Smith says that joy is part of the process for her – it is for me, too.