September 2023

Back to Issue 14

Jan Owen in conversation with Rosanna E. Licari


1. Jan, can you tell us a bit about yourself?  Where were you brought up and educated?

I was born in Adelaide in 1940 and attended Presbyterian Girls College, now Seymour College, then spent three years in Melbourne at Ruyton Girls Grammar. I enjoyed the more cosmopolitan atmosphere of Melbourne at the time, with girls of different nationalities in my class, several teachers from Europe, foreign magazines on the news-stands, and the 1956 Olympic Games.

My family returned to Adelaide in early 1957 so I left school a year earlier than planned and went to work at the Waite Agricultural Research Institute as a laboratory assistant in the Plant Physiology Department. I liked the place with its ambience of experiment and discovery, the people were great and the work on plant growth hormones was important and interesting. Though I started an arts degree while working there, I felt some regret that a science degree was not possible, given my school subjects. My interest in biology, geology and physics  edges into a number of poems at least. I completed a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Adelaide after transferring to the Barr Smith Library, and later obtained a library qualification. In 1965 I travelled for a year through Europe and the Middle East with my husband, then came family life and three children; those years and my own childhood were experiences that shaped me as a writer.

2. When did you realise you were a writer?

I had no sudden realisation, it was a gradual process, especially since I’ve had other roles related to family, work, study, travel and so on. Rather, the first realisation was of the joy of writing: at nine, an earnest poem about a horse; at eleven a limerick which raised a laugh; at thirteen a wobbly sonnet on a sunrise; at eighteen, a sultry rhyming poem on a jacaranda, inevitably by a verandah. Then at thirty-three or so, multiple drafts of poems on nature, old age, sadness, yearning, fate, etc., all doomed to failure, but useful exercises in getting rhythm and rhyme and narrative plodding along together, and also towards getting sound and meaning in synch in free verse which I mostly write now.

A pleasant surprise was finding my ‘Ice-Oh’ in Quadrant was accompanied by a sketch of a cart horse. If it’s illustrated it must be a poem! The Friendly Street readings in Adelaide, and literary events interstate increased my confidence; interest and encouragement from writer friends has always been uplifting. I developed some editing skills and began to be published in Australian journals then in overseas journals, some in translation, so I saw a path forward.

A number of Australia Council and South Australian writers grants, some poetry prizes, and also residencies in Malaysia, Rome, Venice and Paris were affirming and an acknowledgment that I could put ‘writer’ on my tax returns. A first book, Boy with a Telescope, in 1986, was a tangible validation. Then came six more books, a few essays, a volume in Dutch, overseas reading tours and festivals, a volume of Baudelaire translations with Arc, and the ongoing pleasure of running poetry workshops.

3. Who were your main influences in writing? 

I would have to include the ‘what’ as well as the ‘who’ in my answer since the deepest influences have been the experiences of my life. ‘Don’t think destiny is more than what is packed into a childhood’, as Rilke wrote. So: family, the war, a father missing in action, my grandparents’ safe old home, with its canary cage, quince, lemon and fig trees; a marmalade cat, and a bomb shelter turned cubby in the back garden. A brother and sister, caring parents, eccentric neighbours, dogs, cats and ducks, tree houses, gangs, measles, ballet, school fights, fast freedom on a first bike. Learning French was another opening to the world, and then making up a secret language with my brother. Drama lessons and acting were enlarging, and my early writing often started with mimicry – moving into another reality with another persona, the play of imagination. Years later, I had fun writing parodies. And of course, the adventure of reading was a bridging influence: childhood story books and poetry books, in fact everything from comics, myths and legends, Victorian essays, moral tales, adventure stories, to Edwardian poetry anthologies, bush ballads and my father’s old school books. Painting provided the first experience of making that I remember – splashing blue and yellow about with exuberance; and dancing was an early sense of creating a separate, free self. I agree with Les Murray’s comment on poetry as a sort of dance, and Donald Hall’s idea that a feeling for poetry begins in the body and psyche of the baby and young child.

The influence of other writers is often not conscious I think, as a good poem directs you back to your own resources. If admiration, surprise, recognition and exhilaration signal challenging influences, then there are many. I’ve loved poetry ever since I was given a book of poems at six – another mysterious world opened up, and by nine I was memorizing bush ballads and Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. So I’ll just mention a few of the poets I have enjoyed and admire: the Romantics, Anonymous, Coleridge and Browning, then later, Dylan Thomas, Hopkins, Donne, Vaughan, Heaney, Yeats, Dickinson, Roethke, Kinnell, Levine, Ammons, Stevens, Plath. Also, Mary Oliver, Russell Edson, Marvin Bell, Les Murray, Gwen Harwood and Frances Webb. Shakespeare, I come back to often.  

I have been particularly struck by poets I’ve read in translation. The cultural differences and an aura of strangeness in their poems, as well as the sense of a different mode of thinking,  can question my mind set and shift my perception a little. They are a spur to write differently and take more risks. I’m thinking particularly of Yehuda Amichai, Miroslav Holub, Zbigniew Herbert, Wisława Szymborska, Rilke and Baudelaire. I feel grateful too for so many poems whose authors I’ve forgotten; a single line can lodge in your memory and affect your life. I’m an avid reader of famous quotations.

Perhaps the more conscious and deliberately chosen influences, though, have come from essays, interviews or comments by poets, philosophers, artists and critics, especially those such as Gaston Bachelard who combine or transcend those categories. Insights, strategies, techniques, idiosyncrasies of style, obsessions and odd theories can all open up possibilities to explore, and give a heartening sense of camaraderie.   At the moment I’m rereading a favourite, Theodore Roethke’s On Poetry and Craftit’s so impassioned and wise, a real gift, especially the piercing note book entries. 

4. How do ideas for poems occur to you? 

For me, perceptions or observations rather than coherent ideas are more useful as starting points. Stuff out there, more than mind manoeuvres or intentions So I often start from things, places, incidents, the material world, a curious fact, an intensely felt moment, or an insistent word or phrase. Some examples: a monstera deliciosa in a waiting room, a boy on a bike, venetian blinds, kohlrabi soup, a pangolin, cathedral candles, pebbles, fireflies, bees, bats, flowers, music, bills of lading, and sudden sharp memories.

Sometimes a persistent emotion like grief, anger, happiness or disappointment will summon up an image for me – an empty stage, a smashed vase, an escaped balloon, a mangrove swamp. The idea for/of the poem emerges as the poem develops. The pull often seems towards the essence of a thing or experience, its mystery, the almost unsayable. There are the wonderful lines in Hopkins poem ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’:

     Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

     Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

     Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

     Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

Reading poetry like that is certainly a spur for me, and teaching poetry is also a reminder to take one’s own advice and write. Which is not easy since a poem is a little foray into the unknown; poetry does seem to push at the limits of thought and needs the right silences. I’ve found that an initial difficulty can be useful – trying an unlikely angle or subject, for example. Ammons produced a whole playfully profound volume on garbage. The consensus of specific do’s and don’ts for creative writing is partly dependent on the taste of the times, I think, so I like ambivalent generalities as well: try breaking the ‘rules’ brilliantly, risk writing worse, and attempt the weird as well as the wonderful.  

5. What are the biggest challenges you encounter when you set out to write, and how do you deal with them?

‘All things can tempt me from this craft of verse’, wrote Yeats. I guess he meant Maud Gonne and Irish politics. Nothing so dramatic for me. It used to be lack of time, and interruptions due to the more mundane obligations of earning money, doing the housework and gardening, sharing the family’s delights and dilemmas. Now, it’s just the reproach of the blank page. When I was translating the poems of Baudelaire, each new attempt seemed an impossibility. Sitting doggedly facing the poem versus the blank sheet for an hour or two (with a ban on coffee) usually forced an opening line, a phrase, a word, something …anything! As with my own poems, some were finished in a few hours, some took many drafts on and off over weeks.

Plenty of time and too few challenges can also be problematic, allowing doubt and procrastination to set in. A new direction helps me – writing a collection of satirical limericks was pure pleasure, I found. Distractions can be good alternatives anyway: reading and learning, friends and strangers, experiencing the physicality and beauty of the real world. Making cumquat marmalade is grounding.

6. Are you working on anything at the moment?

I’m reading history, philosophy, and poetry, and learning Italian, that’s to say, self-work. I’m also back to working on a manuscript of ekphrastic poems, responses to Utagawa Hiroshige’s woodblock prints in the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. The challenge is to find a variety of angles or narratives, not to rely too much on description and imagery, and to keep something of a personal presence, the vertical dimension, as Holub called it. So some are short and impressionistic, others, longer and unpredictable. I like the idea of a space and time beyond the frame for an apparently two-dimensional artwork like one of Hiroshige’s prints, with a third dimension manifesting as the effect on the viewer.  And great art reaches further into the fourth dimension than we do …