Walleah Press         Famous Reporter 36 (Feb 2008)


A conversation with Jane Williams

Jane Williams is an Australian poet, currently living in Hobart, Tasmania. Five Islands Press has published two collections of her poetry, and a third is due out from Ginninderra. Awards for her poetry include the Fellowship of Australian Writers’ Anne Elder Award, the Bruce Dawe Poetry Prize and the D.J. O’Hearn Memorial Fellowship.

The world of the poet seems very natural; to the poet at least. But in the eyes of the general public, the poet's often considered something of a mysterious entity. I asked Jane when it was that she first began to consciously consider herself as a poet.

"I've used poetry and story telling as a vehicle for creative expression, for responding to anything that moves me, most of my life, but in terms of seeing it as any sort of direction for a 'career' if that's what you mean, well I'm still not sure about that terminology. I suppose the term 'vocation' risks religious connotations which isn’t what I mean either but seems closer to mark in the sense that I feel compelled to do it.

"I remember a positive critique from Graeme Kinross-Smith when I was in my mid twenties was a bit of a turning point for me. I think that kind of recognition and support is invaluable when you're starting out, when you can fill a king size doona cover with rejection slips! I think this 'mysterious entity' business is unfortunate for poets. It puts us in the ether, in the world but not of it. I think we all feel that way at times and that it's more part of the human condition than something poets have a monopoly on. The idea of a poet (or any artist) being seen as somehow 'other' is a romantic notion that might stroke the artistic ego for a nanosecond but one that I feel is basically unhelpful and potentially quite alienating."

Writers’ techniques for avoiding hard graft – actually sitting down and writing – are legendary. New Zealand novelist Deborah Challiner made the point in a recent press interview that she was privy to every writing avoidance technique under the sun including "I've washed washing that's already been washed". I wondered whether Jane held any such tricks up her sleeve?

"I don’t know why it’s so difficult sometimes to take that first step but yes it is and yes there are times when I’d do just about anything to avoid writing. No one likes being told what to do and I guess the Muse is the writers’ boss as much as her inspiration so naturally it’s something to rebel against from time to time. That’s part of it. Another part could be fear of failure or even of success …

"But for me, once I’ve arrived, once I’ve given in to the process of writing I have that sense of being where I belong and I guess that’s what keeps me coming back. Usually when I’m not writing I’m aware it’s a choice I’m making rather than something out of my control … I can analyse it and come up with all sorts of reasons why I’m avoiding it which I suppose is a little avoidance technique all of its own but in my mind and heart, in my dreaming life - I’m always developing some piece of writing … how much makes it onto the page ... how much of it is worth the paper … well …

"For me honouring writing and the compulsion to do it means believing in writing as valuable and valued work - to believe what I do is of use ... And often this is a tall order. Writing, we know, is a solitary process, there are often conflicting loyalties at play and 'art as work' isn’t a comfortable concept in a producer/consumer driven society. It’s not as easy to acknowledge the process of writing as work the way it is say the process of building of a house. You can watch somebody at work building their house day in day out and appreciate the process on the same level you might appreciate the finished house. Watching somebody writing or rather in the process of writing would inevitably entail periods of witnessing the writer ‘away with the faeries’ staring at the blank sheet/screen/wall or apparently nothing at all!

"I’m definitely happiest when I have a balance of different kinds of work in my life. When I was younger I used to think it would be heaven to be a full time writer to the exclusion of other work but my experience has shown me quite the opposite. While it’s crucial that I have blocks of time here and there to devote solely to writing, the idea of attempting to write from 9 to 5 each weekday from now until I 'retire' appals me in a way. For a start, writing is one of the arts from which you need not necessarily ever 'retire' but if you are writing all the time what feeds the writing ?' I get cabin fever and itchy feet regularly. I need to be up and about, observing and taking part in the world in order to write about it authentically. The balance between private and public time, between solitude and the company of others can be tricky, too much of either ‘stops play’ for me.

"I don’t know that I believe writing always has to be hard work either in the sense that the artist must suffer for art for it to be worthy, I just think as with other forms of work it can be at times harder or easier, more or less joyful. While writing is sometimes the bane it also contributes immeasurably to my quality of life. I can avoid it but I can’t not do it again.

Australian poet and publisher Coral Hull edits the long-standing and successful literary website Thylazine. Hull is of the view that given the exposure it offers, publication on the net and in electronic journals is just as valuable - perhaps more so - than print publication.

But for others, print publication remains the focus of their attention. I asked Jane how important print publication is to her.

"There’s no question the net offers instant and wide exposure to writers at all levels and I have a lot of respect for the kind of forum Coral Hull provides through Thylazine, especially its humanitarian aspect.

"I wouldn’t say I had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the world wide web but I did resist for some time, maybe for the same sorts of reasons I always felt more connected and in control driving a car with gears rather than an automatic. Not that many years ago I used a 1930’s Remington typewriter - for the romance of course! - I still have it and it still has its appeal but now a days I publish some work on line, study partly on-line and use a web site to promote my writing. I think being a bit of a Science Fiction buff over the years has made my gradual appreciation of the net a lot easier. There’s no doubt part of me is seduced by this technology but I’ve got a foot in both camps and if the wind blew I reckon I’d find myself on the side of the scribes. One of my favourite Sc Fi novels is Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, using book burning and the banning of books as the well recognised symbol for suppression of critical thought. Characters in Bradbury’s world had a kind of interactive TV and radio earpiece to keep them ‘informed’ and entertained and in their place. Ideas seem to me somehow more alive, more deeply cultural in books. I’m aware this way of thinking is potentially merely nostalgic. Though I hope not. When my computer crashes it’s frustrating and I may regret the loss of text I forgot to save but unless I’m on a space odyssey and the computer’s name is Hal, I can’t see myself getting too choked up. A book on the other hand as an object of affection creates an intimate reading environment which is as much a tactile and emotionally engaging experience as it is a cerebral one. I think I'll always have a preference for the book over the screen. I can dip in and out of reading and writing on the net but not for long stretches and time spent curled up with that un-put-downable book … how is that replicated? I know some writers make notes, draft and work their way through to the finished piece all at the computer but I’m more of a scribbler. It's an important part of the writing process for me. I take notes and first drafts on paper. I can edit from the screen to a degree but I need the hard copy to really work through the idea of the poem or any piece of writing."

Speaking on the death of French mime Marcel Marceau last September, a French broadcaster - Jacques Chancel – remarked that "He spoke in silence. And what is amazing is that, while so many people speak and manage to say nothing, for him it was the silence that brought a whole melody of language."

Perhaps there are many writers of whom it's unkindly said they write too much ... how does Jane feel about her own output? "Do you write less than you'd like to? Do you suffer from fear that much of what you struggle to say mightn't reach the page?"

"I think in part that writing helps me to sift through all the internal and external dialogue and arrive at something closer to meaning. So I do it a lot but there's only a small percentage of this 'lot' that I'd like to see published at any given time and of that an even smaller percentage that gets published. There are certainly times when I write less than I'd like to. As for the prospect of never getting onto the page all I'd like to say ... on a bad day it can be a frightening thought if I dwell on it but on a good day it can be exhilarating forcing me to sort out the rubble from the gems. It's also something I take for granted. I don't take it for granted in a defeatist sense but in the sense that I don't think it's possible (or desirable perhaps) to enact all we imagine in a life time. Wouldn't the one cancel the other out?"

In a laudable piece of journalism focussing on the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Burma last year, Evan Williams in the Weekend Australian [Sept 29-30] wrote of U Sein Win, a seventy-year-old man who'd spent thirteen years in prison for his political activities and who explained his willingness for further risks by agreeing to be interviewed. "It's nothing for me to be sacrificed another time for the good of the country, for the good of the young people," Win said. The journalist added that Win "wanted to give young people an example that they could speak out against illegitimate military rule, that sacrifices needed to be made for the good of future generations". The corollary here between writing and action is extremely strong, attesting to the capacity of political writing for making powerful, persuasive statements. I asked Jane whether she felt drawn to express yourself in this way.

"I do sometimes wonder if I found myself living in a country where writers are persecuted for speaking out against the powers that be ... would I have the courage to continue ? What kinds of sacrifices would I be willing to make by way of example? I don't know. I suspect my pen is more of a crutch at these times, scribbling away about issues I may have more of a chance influencing positively at a grass roots level. I often feel drawn to write about social injustices and while I don't support Bernard Shaw's 'Those who can, do; those who can not, teach', I'm well aware I write in lieu of the kinds of sacrifices made by some one like Sein Win. I cannot (choose not to) act in a more direct way. In a scene from one of my favourite movies ‘It’s a Wonderful life’ there’s a little cross-stitched plaque on a wall that reads ‘You can only take with you that which you’ve given away’ Is the giving away (passing on) of ideas in the form of words enough? I don't believe so ... am I capable of more? Probably.

The question of 'place' is one that’s continually debated in Tasmania, often in the context of the State losing its ‘wild places’, and reminiscent of the concerns of US environmental writer Barry Lopez, a visitor to Tasmania some years ago. In a poignant essay published in these pages some years ago [‘Natural Grief’, Famous Reporter 13, June 1996], Lopez wrote of his concern with man’s encroachment on nature, a concern triggered by the visit of both a mountain lion and a black bear near his home in the Cascade Mountains in the western United States.

"It is grief that makes me silent.

"Over the years -- I know because I’ve counted -- fewer salmon have been coming back here to spawn. Fewer birds now migrate in the summer. I’ve walked thousands of hectares of nearby old-growth clearcuts, morose with disaffection, as tight in the chest as a distraught relative. It is not nostalgia I feel, any more than I would feel nostalgia over the loss of my fingers to a power tool. It is grief. Sensing the mountain lion and the bear are now cornered has compounded the grief.

"When people do visit here, there is little of the cause of this sadness I can point to. What most see is beautiful and overwhelming. I cannot show them a kind of history, the long process I know of life in a forest by a river. It is this deep, sprawling, diverse natural history, not objects (a bear, a fish, a bird, a tree) that is disappearing. And because my history is entwined in this history I can’t purge the grief I feel unless I obliterate the affection in those memories. It is not a grief another geography, a change of scene, can cure."

Though resident now in Tasmania, Jane lived for many years in various locations throughout Victoria and Queensland. Does she too identify with ‘place’ in the sense that Lopez writes of the Cascade Mountains, in the same sense that environmentally-concerned Tasmanians mourn the loss of their 'wild places’? Or does ‘place’ hold a different connotation for her ... perhaps less of a physical locality, more a place of the heart?

"It’s true I can’t say I’ve experienced the depth of connectedness to place someone like Barry Lopez or Richard Flanagan talk about. Part of me senses it as something missing and there’s a certain longing there but … it is what it is. Or isn’t. I’ve moved around quite a lot so whether it’s as simple an explanation as that, but I doubt it. I think it has more to do with a belief in and a willingness to be open to what a relationship with place might ask of you. This means something different to each of us but the fundamentals around what constitutes abuse of the natural environment being clearer and more widely accepted now must influence the nature of this relationship to some degree. I do have a love of and respect for the environment. And I hope in time my actions as well as my writing will reflect this ... I’m a ‘country girl’ at heart. I love walking and camping and have always been drawn to rural landscapes and especially to the coast. I invariably turn to these places to clear my head and heart and in some sense to prepare the way to write. I try to minimise the degree of harm I inflict on the environment as a human being but I’m aware I get far more than I give in this relationship.

"I’m a relative newcomer to Tasmania but when I first moved here just over five years ago it was to Bruny Island initially. I wondered in what ways the island’s Aboriginal and convict histories had left their marks and what part tourism might be playing in balancing or white-washing this. I was only there for six months on a kind of sabbatical so I had high hopes for what might come from living in this particular place. I wasn’t disappointed ... challenged and a little frightened at times by the isolation but not lonely (the way I've occasionally felt living in more urban environments) and not disappointed. I found the natural environment an ultimately nurturing one. My poem ‘tips for the last tourist’ was written there and is one of the few poems I’ve written directly inspired by and about place. But it’s a minimalist piece, I haven’t written anything at all in any great detail about place and I’m not sure how capable I’d be, but I can see it’s perhaps more likely to happen in Tasmania than anywhere else I’ve lived. Looking at the general themes of my writing I suppose you’d have to say I'm moved by people before I'm moved by place. Of course the two are inexorably linked and the kind of environmental devastation you refer to is a product of the darker side of this relationship. But how well, how authentically we can care for the environment if we’re not demonstrating the same respect, love and degree of responsibility toward each other - I’m not sure. Maybe it’s a chicken and egg thing. I don’t know. I admire anyone who fights the good fight whether their faith is, for instance, environmental or humanitarian. Two sides of the same coin I’d like to think."

Recorded late 2007, and published in Famous Reporter 36 in February 2008. Examples of Jane's writing can be found at her website.