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A conversation with Zenobia Frost

Queensland poet Zenobia Frost was a featured reader at the 2009 Tasmanian Poetry Festival. Along with Kristin Hannaford and Rob Morris, Zenobia was taking part in a poetry tour of Sydney, Melbourne and Launceston in September and October as part of the Poetry Tour Bus, an event sponsored by the Queensland Writers’ Centre and the Queensland Poetry Festival. In August she performed at the Queensland Poetry Festival as well as MC’ing one of the festival’s big events, Friday night’s ‘A Tangle of Possibilities’ featuring UK poet A. F. Harrold, Canadian Elizabeth Bachinsky, and singer songwriter Neil Murray. Zenobia’s debut collection, The Voyage, was published in 2009 by SweetWater Press.

Zenobia, from a poetry perspective 2009 has proven a significant year for you, what with the publication of your first collection followed by invitations to festivals. What has been the reaction from family and friends?

Well, I've had plenty of stranger or more controversial things to say to my folks than, "Mum, Dad - I'm a poet," and they've been aware of my writing habit since the very early days, so they've always been supportive. I think it has even (usually) made up for their (mostly) mild disappointment in my complete unathleticism. I was surprised earlier this year when my chapbook launch turned into a family reunion; so many relatives came out of the woodworks - I was both moved and humbled. I'm not a very attentive niece / cousin, and I don't really keep in touch, so it was really nice to know that they were willing to overlook that and set up the cheese and crackers / take endless photos / buy several copies of my book.

Are there particular poets and styles you tend to lean towards? I was interested to read Jamie McKendrick’s response to the question of poetic identification and influence on an international email list recently, where he wrote "When any of us began to write poems, I imagine, there was no sense of wanting to belong to any group we knew of. It's solitary, though haunted by voices - usually at that stage, the dead."

My poetry is often haunted by voices, but usually I don't realise until a long time after. I think, "Gosh, this dead poet is copying me!" It's always a pleasant surprise. Locally, I find I'm influenced by Jeff Harpeng and Ross Clark's writing, because I so often work closely with them - we tend to have poetic dialogues going. My favourite poets of years gone by (and there are a lot of them - I tend to pick little bits from lots of places - so it's not really worth listing them all) are usually nostalgic, whimsical and romantic. I love Baudelaire and Goethe and Lewis Carroll - I don't know if I lean towards their styles, but sometimes I find echoes of them in my writing, unexpected.

In December’s famous reporter there’s a very fine poem by Edith Speers entitled ‘Flowers’, in which the poem – much as the flowers do – tends to break out in all directions; and I’m reminded of an interview with John Ashbery in which he’s asked whether it's possible to write about flowers without sounding flowery about it. Ashbery replied that he didn't think there are any things that can't be written about in poetry '… it all depends on how it's done.' Do you find there are particular subjects for poems you gravitate towards? Are there, conversely, topics and issues you shy away from?

I often hear young writers being told to avoid writing about love, heartbreak, suicide and drugs. Perhaps this is for good reason - they are some of the easiest areas to screw up. But any topic can be written about well, and any topic can be written about poorly. It just takes a fresh spin, and guts. I tend to avoid writing about "issues". I'll leave that to the experts. I think flowers and butterflies can be gutsy and important too, after all, and I'm much, much better at writing about them. I avoid writing about "big" things, because they boggle my brain. I gravitate towards writing about "small" things - moments between people, day-to-day things. I'm guilty of writing bucketloads of love poems. I like writing about insects and fish and other creatures who don't ordinarily get a mention, or who are more likely to end up squished on the bottom of a thong. I tend towards the autobiographical - not all the time, mind you - but it allows me to reflect on my own relationships and behaviours. I'd like my writing to be useful to me, first and foremost. Real people are interesting, after all, and tend to be built out of potential poems.

You performed at the Queensland Poetry Festival in August, what impressions did you take away of that event?

The festival was a highlight in and of itself; it ran so smoothly, and the atmosphere was so relaxed. I really enjoyed meeting and being introduced to the work of Barbara Temperton and Jane Williams, and meeting Geoff Page was an absolute treat. As expected, Hinemoana Baker - our poet-in-residence - was amazing, and international artists Elisabeth Bachinsky (Canada) and A.F. Harrold (UK) were definitely highlights. A.F. was such a different kind of poet, and brought a great vibe to the festival. It was like meeting the poet-child of Spike Milligan. Loved him!

Are you interested at all in incorporating other art forms into your own practice? We were treated at last year’s Tasmanian Poetry Festival to the Northern Territory’s ‘scribesisterspeaking’ with their mix of poetry and song, and this year Kevin Gillam took to the stage with good effect with his cello….

Oh, the cello! I love Mr Gillam's cello poetry. It sweeps us off our feet. I'm definitely a fan of music and poetry getting together. Blending artforms can often bring things out in them that we wouldn't otherwise have seen; music can illuminate poetry, and vice versa. I'm somewhat envious of the many fine poets who are able to join with musicians successfully; I'm not sure how lyrical my own poetry is, or has the potential to be. A composer friend of mine has used a couple of my poems in projects of his, and a few years back we worked together on one track (water devolution: http://www.myspace.com/colouringbynumbers), which found its way into Going Down Swinging. All this talk reminds me of just how much I need to get projects like these going again. I ran a couple of events last year where the aim was to blend disciplines, and they went down very well. It's nice seeing music audiences meeting and interacting with poetry audiences, and cabaret audiences, and so on. One musical project that is more recent is Madrigal Maladies. Friend and co-poet Nerissa Rowan and I take unlikely song lyrics, and find the performance poetry in them. We've had some great fun with that so far, 'covering' songs by such bands as The Dresden Dolls and even old Blink 182.

I remember some years ago Philip Mead speaking about the inadvisability of attempting to pin poetry down, how the moment you seek to do so is the moment poetry’s likely to unlatch the window and flee off down the road.… What are your thoughts on the use of poetry for attaining an end – for political protest, for instance?

Creative public protest, I think, is most effective. Surprise events that catch a crowd unawares are much more likely to get an emotional response from passersby, because they are engaging and unexpected. That’s not to say that traditional protests - marches, etc – aren’t valuable. Every act makes a difference, and is better than silence or indifference. I believe poetry has power as a mode of protest, though often I think it would depend on the prominence of the person writing or the place published. This does remind me of a brief story: I met a poet a few years back who wrote on political themes, and who got really cranky with me and some friends for not ‘saying enough’ with our poems. Why weren’t we protesting against the world’s wrongs loudly too? He did what he did well, but I knew (and still know) that if I tried to write in that style, it would come out overcooked. The passionate political outcry just isn’t something I’m very good at, regardless of how passionate I might actually be. Not everyone is talented at the same kind of writing, of course, and we all have unique aims. I’d rather focus on the positive and the beautiful in the world, because that’s what makes me feel like I’m making a difference, even if its only in myself.

(Conducted via email Oct/Nov 2009: interview appeared in Famous Reporter 40, December 2009)