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An interview with Jordie Albiston

You once wrote an article that, in part, responded to a young reader who had asked you why you "never write poetry about yourself"; at the same time, I remember Dorothy Porter once referred to her verse novel Akhenaten as her most autobiographical work. Do you feel that in working with the structure of other people's stories, specifically in your last two books, it is easier to take risks, or write personally?

Well, I'm going to have to echo Dorothy, because I don't often write about my own life as such -- you know, "I went to the shops, ran into Kate, etc..." For me, those last two books are about me as much as they're about the subject at hand: I see it as a question of metaphoricity, and in the case of a full-length book concerning one person, event or theme, the metaphor is simply extended. It's the same principle as writing a metaphor of self into one poem or one single image, but extended.

How did you come to choose those particular stories?

I was originally going to concentrate my doctorate on the first fifty years of white settlement at Botany Bay and Port Jackson. Although I changed my plans in the end, I'd already gathered a lot of the archival material, and it was just sitting there, and it still very much interested me as a writer. It was an easy skip to make, from the PhD to poetry. What's the difference? It's all maths. And that's how Botany Bay Document came into being. And with Jean Lee, I'd enjoyed writing Botany Bay Document so much that I wanted to focus on one woman, rather than many different voices. It took a long time to find Lee: I researched for about six months, I think, looking for the right woman with whom I could properly engage. I was working in a bookshop at the time, and a biography of Jean Lee came out, and I was handling it and I thought, “Who is this woman?” -- I'd never heard of her. The more I read about her, the more it worked: the tussles she'd had with God, and with her biology as a woman ... she was a single mother -- there were a lot of places I thought I could write from.

Obviously you have an academic background -- you say that you didn't consider it much of a leap from your PhD to a book of poetry. How does your academic background inform your work?

I think studying has given me a sense of discipline and precision as a writer. When I sit down to write poetry, I'm disciplined: I turn the computer on, take the phone off the hook, shut the curtains, and focus. I didn't used to be such a focussed person...Also, in the academic world, you can't afford to make many mistakes as such, or write assumptions into your work: everything has to be checked. You have to learn to retain the spelling of a particular name, or what year such-and-such happened, or was said, or written. You have to. And hopefully that precision feeds back into the poems. Academia also taught me how to research: where to begin, how to go about it.

Recently your work has begun to take off in different directions from your last two books -- last year there was the one-woman show of The Hanging of Jean Lee at La Mama, and now both Botany Bay Document and The Hanging of Jean Lee are being written as operas. How do you feel about the fact that your work is being taken to different audiences in this way?

Well -- this is a difficult question, because you're one of the composers! Any artistic act that evolves from some writing I've done has little to do with me, in its new form, really. My job is finished. I don't feel that “my work” is being taken to different audiences: it's the stories themselves being taken to different audiences in different ways, and it's a layering kind of thing. The ABC also did a radio dramatisation of Jean Lee, and yes, they're my words, but it's a dialogue, it goes on. If another artist picks it up, it's going to affect people differently depending on how it's constructed. Because these stories are historical - Botany Bay, Jean Lee - I don't own them as subject matter. For me it's simply a flow-through effect, and I'm really glad that Jean Lee, particularly, is getting more treatment, because she's been such a concealed kind of character in our history. I don't expect many people to read my poetry, and so I don't expect an audience to go to an opera or a play because it has my name attached to it. I mean, I'm very pleased about it, but not in an egotistic sense. I just celebrate that the stories are getting out there.

You have a background yourself in music. How has that influenced your work?

Totally. I don't think I'd be a poet at all if I didn't have that background: the two are so intermeshed. I learned piano and then flute as a girl and ended up at the College of the Arts, although I enjoyed flute itself less and less as time went by. I'm a cellist by nature, although I don't play the cello! But more than that I think it's been listening to music all my life: classical music was always playing as I grew up. I starting off liking people like Lutoslawski and Janacek, and from there found my way to Hindemith, Webern, Ligeti, and then I went backwards, and I've only really begun to appreciate composers like Mozart and Schubert in the last fifteen years or so. Beethoven and Bach were always there, of course - and Bach is my favourite composer of all - but some others have taken me a long time to engage with. And in terms of influencing my writing, I'm interested in that fourth dimension of poetry, the actual physical and psychological connections between words and lines: and that's similar to orchestration in music. I mean, with music, all you've got are musical notes and silences. That's it: they're your tools. Notes and silence. And with poetry, it's words and spaces. My poems are fairly structural, and I know I'm a bit formalistic for many people's tastes, but I do believe in things like unity, balance, symmetry... a poem doesn't necessarily have to look visually symmetrical to please me as a reader, but there has to be a very particular sense of organic order and cohesion: a beginning and an end, and a relationship between every part.

You work a lot with form. How much do you use traditional forms, or create your own forms -- and what advantage do you see in adhering to those forms in your own work?

Well, there's nothing without form -- there's no poem without form. Content and form: they're the only two elements. And poems simply about how someone's feeling don't really appeal to me as a reader. There's got to be some structure there, in terms of both content and form. And personally what I like about form is that for every restriction offered, there's always a liberty as well, hidden away in there. There's no reason to be scared of form, because for every rule there's a window or even a whole tesseract that opens, and it's that kind of movement that I like, that kind of momentum...

Obviously the rhythmic aspect of your poetry is very important, and that does get quite complex at times. I remember once when I was talking with someone about my own work, they suggested that I go through my various writing stages, and that the final thing I do be a rhythmic rewrite, to make sure the rhythms fall into place. What sort of process do you go through to write a poem. Are there those stages? Do you start with the idea of the rhythm?

That's a good question. I tend to start with a shape, actually, an architectural kind of figure. There's a shape I want to express. It's this thing I want to make, and then I look for the right content that might suit that thing. Sounds a little boring, doesn't it? Not very emotional -- but for me, the passion is in the maths. Rhythms themselves come fairly naturally. I lean to the triple meter side of things, but I enjoy enjambment and other ways of upsetting the apple-cart...

What kind of drafting process do you go through with a poem?

I write straight onto screen, and always have. I only use paper if I'm stuck without my computer! And as far as the drafting process is concerned, I don't print off until I'm pretty sure what I'm doing is “right”. It never is, of course, but it means I do print off at a late stage. I don't keep working notes or drafts, I prefer not to leave many traces at all. I don't have journals (or at least only blank ones!), I barely write letters, and it's the same with drafts: they hit the bin as soon as I'm finished with them.

Do you have any kind of writing rituals you go through? You mentioned before that you write straight onto the computer, and you've also told me before that you start the day reading biography and poetry; do you have reading and writing schedules that you follow when you are writing?

Well, it's a bit different being on a grant rather than working fulltime at the moment, because I'm able to make those rituals for myself, timewise anyway. My writing days are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays -- only three, but they're full days, often sixteen-hour marathons. The rest of the week is pretty much filled with reading, cooking, teenagers, the business of life. Occasionally I make a couple of notes between Sunday and Thursday, but most of it's happening in my head and I don't turn on the computer or pick up a pen. And I do read biography everyday -- that's my nurturing source.

Any particular biographies?

Anyone -- almost anyone. When I go into bookshops, I head straight for the biography section. Whatever. Churchill's letters. Anybody. Just to see where they went wrong, where they went right, how it was for them. They don't need to be artistic, although often they are musicians or painters or writers, but it's certainly not just those people. It's anybody really. I've been reading about Leonard Bernstein, and Darwin recently.

When did you start writing?

When I was little -- around kindergarten time. Mum and Dad still have poems I wrote when I was four or five, and one grandmother used to mark them for me out of ten! Then writing was replaced by music for probably fifteen years, and I really didn't start again until I was about twenty-eight. That was an epiphanal year, and poems began to come. Those early pieces are long trashed, but there was that recognition, that feeling of “This is where I belong”. So I kept on going.

Can you note any particular influences, either in your early work, or what you're doing now?

Among writers? It's funny, I feel some prose writers have had a big effect on me, which may not make immediate sense if we're talking about line turns, but there's Janet Frame, Paul Auster, Toni Morrison. The Bible is a good source of inspiration, and has been influential - the actual language of it, not just the stories - especially the King James, its particular syntax and choice of words. And of course Emily Dickinson, the Americans. Bob Dylan. Other than that, I'm pretty much interested in what anyone's doing. The Australians I like to follow would include Peter Porter, Rosemary Dobson, Mark O'Connor, Jan Harry, Jenny Harrison, Alex Skovron... this is hardly an exhaustive list. More recently, there's been Peter Minter, Rebecca Edwards...I've been reading Mark O'Flynn lately... you go through phases, where you just really love one writer and read all their books... I tend not to read much poetry as I'm getting toward the end of the week and preparing to write myself, because it is easy to be influenced, and I'm much more strongly my own writer when I'm isolated from other poets. I mean I live with a poet -- you've got to keep certain barriers, otherwise it all starts bleeding into itself, and you end up in a big mess of words.

Have you ever written creatively in other forms? You mentioned that prose is an influence on your poetry -- have you attempted prose writing? Or are you interested in doing so?

I wrote a terrible novel when I was about twenty-two, which you will never see. That showed me I am not a novelist, definitely! I've also written a couple of short stories. One of them was in an early Picador New Writing, but I could see afterwards it was simply a long poem put into short story form. I tried a few more - maybe four or five - but they just didn't work. No, I'm just a poet. I love poetry as a genre because you have to pay so much for every word that you use. It's a very costly literary exercise, as opposed to writing a novel. I mean, a poem is so economically driven. I guess that's where the maths comes into it for me, because every single word has to have a relationship with every other word, and somehow you've got to write music into it as well, if you can. It's such a challenge. Each poem to me is an immense event, and it can also be draining, extremely.

How long does it take you, generally, to write a poem?

Well... from the first idea of it, probably about six months. And from the first turning on of the computer, probably sixteen to twenty-four hours, which may be spread over two or three weeks. I've always worked like that. Any poem will take a long time to gestate, because I don't want to type anything until I've almost got the thing in my head. Even on computer, even on a screen of lights, as opposed to a piece of paper -- it seems so concrete, that first line. I work from beginning to end, with the idea of a shape and the idea of a story in my mind. I never start with the last line, or the middle image... it's the first line that's going to dictate to a large extent the rest of the poem.

Joan Didion once said of her novels that her first sentence has to be perfect, because everything grows from that, and once you've got your first paragraph written, there's no going back.

I agree with her! And of course it's more compressed with poetry -- you'd be talking about your first word as important, your first phrase, and after your first sentence there being no going back... And it's a question of respect as well, of honouring the poem. What is trying to come out on the page? You think in your head “I want to write a poem in Italian quatrains” or whatever, and you've a vague idea it'll be about a page and a half long, and you want to cover this sort of ground, and that's about all you start with -- and then this completely different animal comes out of the computer, which has barely anything to do with your original idea, and you think “Where did that come from?”... It comes down to respecting and honouring the poem itself. It's the Michelangelo thing: chipping, tapping away, seeing what's inside there, trying to help get it out.

In the past you have taught Creative Writing/Writing Poetry at a tertiary level; how do you feel about the writing courses that are available everywhere? Do you feel that they are useful for the students? Do you think that writing is something that can be taught?

I think they are useful, but I think the nature of their usefulness could be questioned. Obviously, you get a group of students entering a writing course, and they're going to be writing differently at the end of that course, because of what they've been exposed to. Yet they could expose themselves to the same world by simply reading and writing! Because that's what it comes down to, that's how you learn to create poems. Reading and writing. There's no shortcut. I feel a little ambivalent about my own involvement with teaching, because I've often felt forced to it for financial reasons, and I've not done writing courses myself. I suppose I don't believe you can teach someone how to “be a poet”. You can teach them a bit about language and craft and obvious associated skills, but you can't teach someone how to develop a voice. It's either going to happen, or it's not. Courses can have a narrowing effect, too, because you've only got the one teacher and that might be the only course you do, so from then on you're marked by that experience. I do think it's most important to make your own mistakes, and to work out your own answers. Somebody can short-track you and say, “This is what is wrong with your poem,” and you may save some time, but what is it costing you? Courses can make it quicker for you to see certain problems, but is the experience really giving you the skills to sort them out yourself? Or the confidence, the independence? You may find out less working on your own, but you find it out more honestly, more convincingly.

At the same time you've done manuscript assessment, and participated in formal mentorship schemes on a one-to-one basis. How does this form of teaching/guidance for less experienced writers differ from the classroom situation?

In all ways. It's one-on-one, it's dialogic, you're not having to deal with maybe two or three talented individuals in class, and then having to pitch your teaching to try to work with those people while at the same time doing the right thing, and involving everyone else. It can be a difficult juggling act, especially when you've got up to twenty-eight students in one class, and they're three-hour sessions, and everybody's intense, everyone wants their poem looked at, of course... That's what you bypass in a one-to-one situation. One-to-one you learn as much as you teach. And teaching-by-correspondence and manuscript assessment are different situations again, because you don't get to meet the person, don't know who they are, and they don't know who you are. Those are my favourite teaching situations!

Do you think of yourself as a feminist writer, especially given that both Botany Bay Document and The Hanging of Jean Lee are working with untold stories of Australian women?

No, I don't think of myself as anything particular at all. I'm pretty much anti-political. I write about women because I am one, and that's where the story stops. It's really hard to write about a man, engage with the male heart and mind, when you've got almost no understanding of men at all: and that's me. I don't understand those people over there, those men, even though I have a partner, a son, a father, a brother. I barely understand women! But it's nothing to do with holding a flag and being a feminist. It's more to do with truth, and silence, and the fact that many women's voices have been silenced. If I wasn't a woman, I don't think I'd be writing about women, but I'm not specifically a feminist.

Can you tell me a little about what you're currently working on?

Yes! It's a collection of chained verse -- sestinas, pantoums, villanelles, ottava rima -- all types of chained verse. Sometimes I'm working with complete forms, although at other times I may use just one isolated device -- like an anaphoric structure or something -- in a poem. Part of what I'm trying to do is help develop some of these forms, help -- along with numerous other poets -- challenge and reinforce them, help them to hold what we need to express right now. I mean, villanelles were written 400 years ago, and they still have a lot of energy, but how do you apply that energy in the early twenty-first century? I feel we have a responsibility to move within some of these forms, if they're tractable, if that can be done. And also, I'm trying to develop some kind of Australian aesthetic for certain chained verse forms. Earlier this year I spent time going out and counting branches in the bush, timing waves at the ocean, and so on, looking for patterns I could weave into the work that were specifically Australian patterns, because we do not have a European, or American, or African landscape... I pretty soon had to accept that almost everything in Australia is random! There are no patterns! Then I started looking at natural speech rhythms, the way we talk, because if you're working on a syllabic poem like a villanelle, and also listening to the way we speak as Australians, you realise we elide our words differently in this country, which creates different diphthongs for example, so your syllable count is affected. I have another year on this grant, and hope to have the collection published next year. Its working title is The Fall.

(Kate Middleton's interview with Jordie Albiston appeared in Famous Reporter 24, December 2001).