RALPH WESSMAN

A conversation with Lyn Reeves

 

"I always felt I would one day be a ‘writer’", says Lyn Reeves, demonstrating where a little faith in one’s ability can lead. Lyn, as it happens, is one of Tasmania’s finest poets and publishers. Her poetry, widely published, has led to invitations to read at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, at Word Storm (North Territory Writers’ Week Festival), and the Tasmanian Poetry Festival. Her Pardalote Press has published haiku and poetry collections by poets – Graham Nunn, John West, Ian Johnston, Jodie Hawthorne to name a few – from both within Tasmania and interstate … the legacy of a lifetime’s involvement with writing generated through an interest in words.

Words and their usage, naturally, are grist to the mill for a poet, and I ask for Lyn’s response to the encountering of new words and consequent expansion of her vocabulary....

‘Yes, I enjoy the taste of words, their shapes, sounds and textures,’ she affirms. ‘They have always fascinated me. More important for a writer than the word itself is the word in relation to other words, the patterns and rhythms they make together to communicate nuances of meaning. I believe words should be easy to access, and not obfuscate. ­ I don’t want to be reaching for the dictionary every second paragraph when I am reading a poem or piece of prose. I like the words to become invisible and their music to carry the meaning. There ... ­I’ve always wanted to use obfuscate in a sentence!’’

‘And the imperative that drives you to write?’ I ask.

‘My poetry is very much concerned with landscape and how our physical surroundings can be a metaphor for an internal state of being,’ Lyn replies. ‘The physical world and our connection to it is an important motif for me. There is an old Jewish legend that the goddess of wisdom, Sophia, left traces in the created world as signs that point to an understanding of the mystery behind the physical world. Things like the markings of a leaf, or the bark of a tree, the way things grow in spirals. It is this mystery and the possibility of grasping it, however dimly, through art ­ and for me the medium is language, that challenges and motivates me to write. But I try to avoid being airy in my poems, and to ground them in the everyday of place, situations and relationships. Some reviewers have commented that many of the poems are concerned with loss, or with its possibility. I think that it is more a sense of transience, with the ephemeral nature of things, wherein loss is inevitable. My poetry doesn’t have an overt political stance and doesn’t push any ideological barrows. I hope that the poems will open up shared experiences with the reader and be windows into a different layer of being or seeing. I think poetry is always trying to say the unsayable, to communicate at a deeper level than prose, and the poet hopes that the words will evoke some sort of recognition in the reader of this shared mystery we live.’

When it comes to publishing, Lyn is a risk taker, something admirable for a publisher to aspire to. Pardalote’s publication of Ian Johnston’s Singing of Scented Grass: Verses from the Chinese is a fine example. ‘This sings well in English...it sits well with the recent work published in Australia by Selwyn Pritchard, as it does with the refinements of Vikram Seth and Arthur Waley and, dare one say it, that warrior of vigorous diction, Ezra Pound’ wrote Barry Hill, reviewing the collection in the Weekend Australian. Yet the book was by a virtual unknown. Johnston - until his retirement an eminent neurosurgeon who’d been appointed a member of the Order of Australia (AM) for his services to medicine - hadn’t published before. Pardalote’s venture with his manuscript was something of a publishing gamble, and with its detailed use of Chinese text, no mean publishing feat. But the book succeeded.

Pardalote Press titles have appeared with regularity over the course of the past six or seven years. Clearly, Lyn finds the running of a literary press richly rewarding. But does it encroach on her own writing? Does she manage to find a comfortable balance between writing and publishing?

‘Yes, it does encroach on my writing ­ and I haven’t yet achieved a balance I’m comfortable with. In the last eighteen months Pardalote Press has published five books and that has been very time consuming. But I get a lot of joy and satisfaction from it. I love the collaborative aspect of publishing and having something tangible at the end of the process. Happily I have some wonderful writing friends who encourage me to keep on with my own writing and with whom I meet regularly to workshop. That helps keep me on track. The most productive times for me have been when I have been on residencies ­- Varuna, St Helens and Darwin, ­ these dedicated writing times have been the most fruitful for new work. If I haven’t given substantial time to my own work it impacts on how much satisfaction the publishing gives me, and affects the way I feel about everything really. My aim is to build regular retreats into my life so that I can focus entirely on the writing for sustained periods. It’s what gives me most nourishment.’

 

In August, Lyn published Jodie Hawthorne’s haiku collection (Watching Pilgrims Watching Me: haiku from Shangri-la), with Jodie on hand to speak about the book’s conception and regale listeners with stories and photographs of the very special part in the world – the Tibetan region of China – where she lives. That same evening, the ABC featured a television documentary entitled ‘Search for Shangri-la’, a documentary both Lyn and I made a point of watching. ‘You can’t believe that places like this still survive in the 21st Century, can you?’ asked the commentator rhetorically. ‘It has only survived because of its isolation…’

It’s a line akin to that often heard in Tasmanian circles where environmentalists warn of the encroachment upon Tasmanian wilderness and its ‘precious places’. Did the documentary trigger any Tasmanian associations for Lyn?

‘There’s no doubt that the encroachment by our modern life-style into isolated places changes them irreversibly,’ she replies. ‘But the "precious places" aren’t only the pristine wildernesses that are threatened by development, and also by tourism. They are any surviving remnants of our natural environment. A friend who recently returned from visiting Ireland, Scotland and Spain remarked how wonderful it was to be back in Hobart where there are so many trees, and how she hadn’t appreciated how fortunate we were to have so much un-manicured landscape around us. We can so easily take it for granted. Where I live, in Lauderdale, the community is involved with an ongoing battle to preserve the sand flats at Ralph’s Bay ­ a conservation area for migratory and resident waders and shore birds, under threat from a proposed canal-style development. There are similar stories around the State and the country, of people fighting to keep their valued surroundings from being trashed, from having public land sacrificed to individual profit, with a resulting loss of habitat for the life-forms that depend on it for survival, and a loss to the community of the spiritual nourishment that such places provide. The Shangri-la where Jodie lives is Deqen, a Tibetan region in China. Apparently there are several places that go by that appellation, and so named by the Chinese government for the tourist appeal. Jodie’s descriptions aren’t at all sentimental or romantic, but insightful observations of the present-day culture among the people in that place, and of the impact on her of the amazing landscape and lifestyle.’

Following renewed interest in the area by developers in recent months, the Ralph’s Bay conservation issue has found new voice. It’s an issue Lyn’s closely familiar with given that it’s playing out in her backyard. ‘It was extremely worrying to hear, at one of our community information meetings, that even though a development proposal goes through an assessment by the Resource Planning and Development Commission ­the government is under no obligation to accept their findings. When the voice of the community is so strong on issues affecting them and their lifestyles and concerns for the environment, and these are ignored in favour of short term gain by a few ­ then certainly the democratic voice is being overridden. It’s hard not to feel powerless in these situations.’

 

At a literary event at Hobart’s Republic Hotel some months ago, poet and environmentalist Pete Hay stood up to read from an essay addressing the issue of uranium mining. Hay’s choice of reading material was perhaps in response to the Labor Party’s announcement of its departure from its long-standing Three Mines uranium policy. Pete’s words recall for me the questions raised by Aussie blogger Kate Deborah in a post to her weblog ‘Moment to Moment’ where she asks, ‘What makes us think we’re good enough, smart enough, precise enough, to harness nuclear energy? What makes us think we can make nuclear reactors safe enough? And storage solutions that will be permanent and unassailable for 50,000 years or until it’s safe to go in there?’ I ask for Lyn’s response.

‘Yes, I’d agree with that, totally,’ she replies. ‘But it’s just an instinctive reaction to something that I’m not very well informed about yet. The possibility for disaster is too enormous. Likewise with the carbon dioxide capturing techniques that are mooted for cleaning up coal. Surely the solutions are closer to home, by a shift of lifestyle and conserving and preserving the resources we have ­and using technology to develop eco-friendly solutions. Of course that’s no easy task either.’

Nothing wrong with instinctive reactions, I suggest; aren’t they’re often the most valuable responses? Capital punishment’s the issue that never fails to trigger an automatic response from me, I add by way of clarification. Don’t agree with it, can’t get past it. Aren’t individuals capable of learning from past mistakes? Of remorse, of atonement? ‘Malcolm Muggeridge once said that the fallacy of the liberal mind was to see good in everything, but in instances such as with capital punishment surely this isn’t a bad thing?’

‘My opposition to capital punishment isn’t based on the possibility of good in people,’ Lyn replies, ‘but on the barbarism and brutality of what I see as State-sanctioned murder. We all have the potential for the entire gamut of responses and behaviours, from great good to its opposite extremes ­- it’s a matter of individual choices. That’s talking on the simple level of individual conscience -­ you can get into very complex discussions when you take it further into community and national responses. We hear a lot about what’s good for the nation, or in the national interest ­where justice, fairness, compassion and morality -­ some of the attributes I associate with the word ‘good’ - can appear to be entirely absent. But I’m not sure if I’ve answered your question.’

But the term ‘good’ is possibly a dangerous one to use these days, I suggest. Likewise, ‘value’, and ‘spiritual’. There’s an exhibition currently running at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in which curator Ross Mellick makes strong claims for a sense of the spiritual. ‘One of the things that troubles me,’ says Mellick, ‘is [that] the sense of the spiritual is in some way distant and esoteric of necessity. That it’s got to be almost incomprehensible, unapproachable, and that always troubles me because it implies the loss of the dimension of the spiritual from ordinary people, and that’s terribly threatening to our world.’ What’s Lyn’s response?

‘There seems to be a resurgence of the idea of spirituality in recent times,’ she replies. ‘For a long time it seemed a taboo subject, a pejorative term. But I think our hearts cry out for a spiritual dimension to life and when it isn’t found in the expected or traditional places, like the churches, we look elsewhere to fill that need. Our modern lifestyles can cut us off from things that nurture the spirit nature, time with loved ones, silence, being rather than restlessly doing. I believe art ­ of whatever persuasion ­ is a spiritual practice. And work can be too. Anything we do with love and mindfulness is a form of prayer and an act of worship. Spirituality doesn’t need gate-keepers or interpreters. It’s not a commodity but a Way, open to all. Not something distant, but something within that connects us to something Other and to each other. With the rise of fundamentalism and the extreme views espoused by some religious groups, more and more people are disassociating themselves from the formal Church and its traditional expression and finding new ways to live their faith. Spirituality isn’t something static, set in stone. Teilhard de Chardin’s notion that we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience throws a completely different light on the spiritual as esoteric.’

I only ever find myself in a church on formal occasions ... weddings, funerals. ‘What do you make of that saying "The nearer the Church, the further from God"?’ I ask.

‘I was watching a documentary on Charles Bukowski the other night,’ Lyn replies. ‘He and his publisher released a little book for the Christmas market not long before he died. It was a tiny book, with one word to a page. "In Art, when the spirit wanes, form appears". They were addressing the "new formalism" in modern poetry. You can probably apply the same comment to the church ­or to any organisation or movement that has strayed from the passion of its origins. Institutions of all kinds are made and managed by people and therefore are prone to all the flaws and political power-plays that you’ll find everywhere - from the local cat club committee to the governments of nations. In the religious systems and structures that people build, God can get lost or hidden. That’s not to say that many people don’t find real support and nourishment within those systems. I dont see the church as a structure, but as an organic affiliation across denominational borders, across cultures and time spans. And I don’t see God as a grey-bearded patriarch but as a life-force, inhabiting everything ­ not only people but all of the universe. So my response would be that God is always near, whether it be in the Church or outside it, and in everything within and around us. This isn’t an animistic view, but a mystic view. It’s "the dearest freshness deep down things" that Hopkins speaks of.’

Finally, I’ve a question on one of the topics writer’s are forever on about … one of the biggies, death. ‘Novelist Anthony Burgess once remarked "We don’t think much about death except as a very abstract stranger who will eventually come into our lives." Any thoughts, Lyn?’

‘It may be true of our society where we are screened from death in so many ways,’ she replies, ‘through the intervention of hospitals and the funeral industry. But I imagine there are places in the world and situations when that isn’t true. There are times in our lives when we are reminded of the eventuality of death more sharply than at others ­- losing someone close, in times of illness or physical danger. But on the whole I’d say that it’s a healthy approach, not thinking too much about death. We are too busy living, enjoying being alive. Knowing that we are going to die can be an incentive to live more fully. But how can death be any more than an abstract notion until it becomes real for us?’

 

(Interview appeared in Famous Reporter 34, December 2006).