An interview with Melissa Ashley

Melissa Ashley is a poet and fiction writer who lives in Queensland. She recently completed the first draft of a novel, the weird sisters and a poetry manuscript, the way her body means the world, for which she received an Arts Queensland Individual Writing Project Grant. She is currently enrolled in full time honours studies in Australian Literature at the University of Queensland. She is the former assistant director of the Subverse: Queensland Poetry Festival (1999-2001), and co-ordinator of The Arts Queensland Award for Unpublished Poetry. She has published her work in New Music: An Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poetry, Short Fuse (forthcoming USA), Subversions, Imago, Hecate, Overland, Journal of Australian Studies (forthcoming), New England Review, LiNQ, Ulitarra, Divan, Social Alternatives, JAAM (NZ), Pirate Jenny (USA), Drunken Boat (USA), Mentress Moon (UK), Poetrix, Hobo, retort (+ others).


Kate Middleton: I’ll begin at the beginning - when did you start writing poetry?

Melissa Ashley: I remember it distinctly - I was in grade nine and the class was introduced to protest poetry. Along with our analyses of Paul Simon, the teacher permitted us to hand in one of our own efforts. Which started me on a course of scary turgid love poetry for the next three years.

I take it that was like the adolescent poetry I suppose we all write - when did you begin to see it as something you wanted to take further? - To see it as a vocation, I suppose.

In 1995 I returned from living in England for a year and through a friend hooked up with the local Brisbane poetry scene. I had been writing a novel in England, and somehow or other after a long hiatus became intensely passionate all over again, about poetry. Becoming involved with a living community of poets, at first through readings and performances, and later on the organisational side of things, helped consolidate a commitment to take writing poetry seriously.

I know more recently you’ve also been working on a novel - a completely different novel! - and I understand if you’re reluctant to discuss the work itself, but can you tell me how writing a novel is different to writing poetry?

I think that’s a really good question, because to me they are utterly different processes - so much so that they’re almost unrelated. Poetry and fiction are different ways of being, seeing, thinking. For me writing a novel is something I can get up and do every day, four to five days a week (time and ideas pending of course, although this is another issue). I’m making it sound easier than it is. Only twice in my life have I been able to immerse myself in writing in this manner, both times for roughly six month periods. I have written the first draft of a novel and will not be looking at it until the end of the year. It’s a project I feel that I have to dive back into, and not in odd spaces, but with a decent chunk of time available to think it through. Whereas writing poetry is entirely different. I can’t write poetry on a day-by-day basis. Before I switch on my computer, it’s almost as if I need to have the poem formed in my head - there’s so much thinking, reading, feeling, living, talking that goes into it. Although through the writing/compositional process, the idea is skewed or twisted or creased slightly, and the final product of the poem ends up being something else again.

Is the undertaking of a novel, a large prose work, similar in any way to the undertaking of a larger poetic project or theme-based suite such as you have been working on?

It’s similar in the sense that you need a large framework or structure to work with - you’re producing a body of interconnected writings - so for me there is a comparable element which involves a substantial amount of planning or meta-writing, and research. Before I began (for which I received an Arts Queensland grant), I’d written poems fairly spontaneously - individually - without any particular themes or ideas bringing them together. Eventually I found producing poems in dribs and drabs like this quite frustrating. Which I know now simply meant that I was ready to tackle a major project.

In your own work you experiment with poetic form, and we’ve also been talking about Anne Carson recently, and her use of different form, and how people are divided on just how poetic it is - what is it that you actually see as poetry? What do you think goes into a poem?

It’s something that’s very hard to articulate, partly due to people’s differing subjective - which includes the aesthetic - criteria of what makes a ‘poem’. I’ve gone through phases where my poetry has been fairly experimental - in a grammatical or syntactic sense - and at times I think it’s gone overboard, beyond the boundaries of what a ‘poem’ is. I’m interested in poetry that could be considered postmodern - associative, fragmentary, not searching for an underlying ‘essence’ inside its subjects - although this is sounding like a dichotomous opposition, and that’s really not where I’m coming from. People writing out of a more narrative lyric or modern tradition sometimes have issues with these forms.

It’s quite hard to pin down what for me makes a poem. I feel like I’m constantly discovering how plastic or malleable or fluid the form is. Poetry is extraordinary when you really start to think about it - such an economic, condensed style of writing. The permutations of combinations of image, metaphor, symbol, metre, metonymy, landscape, idiom, mythology, narrative, cultural specificity - I could go on all night - are infinite. The poetry I find most exciting today inverts and reinterprets our received notions of how these ‘ingredients’ can be combined, or to take a concept from Levi-Strauss, ‘cooked’, into a poem. Poetry in a way is like this incredible palimpsest that with every new ‘generation’ or ‘movement’ or ‘school’, is rewritten, over and over. Alison Croggon uses the metaphor of mathematics to describe the incredible motility of poetic language.

How do you decide what is to become poetic subject matter? Especially since you do work in both poetry and prose - is it obvious to you when you think of something that you would like to write about that it will become a poem?

Something that often happens to me is I start out writing a poem, and after one stanza it turns into a short story. No matter what I do, it refuses to become a poem. And I really want to write a poem - the ‘idea’ seemed poetic enough at the time - but I can’t force it to take that shape. For me, part of the process of writing is the unpredictability of that intense engagement with computer screen or paper during the actual moment or space of composition. Out of the bits and pieces of the idea, persona, tone, rhythm you might have tossing about inside your skin (and this might go on for weeks, years even), the ‘poem’ is created, however what it finally becomes through the writing process, is like the Gestalt effect.

You were saying before that you’ve written work that has been quite experimental in the past where you feel you might have pushed that too far - what do you see as too far? What does it become?

I felt that I went too far in the sense that I stopped communicating with anyone but myself. At university a couple of years ago, I studied Monique Wittig’s The Lesbian Body, and while I absolutely adore the book, I also kind of resent it, because it affected my writing in a such detrimental way, down to its very roots and bones. I began producing strange block-style hybrid prose poems about Greek goddesses and the anatomy of the female body. I knew what I was talking about, however I don’t know if anyone else did - or cared - and that’s a problem. Wittig is also a philosopher, and via The Lesbian Body was attempting to push out the boundaries of poetic language, trying to rupture the dichotomous structures of Western thought (such an unambitious project!). So when I picked up on this, probably on a more sensual (and by that I mean poetic rather than philosophical), than intellectual level - only half-aware of what I was doing - my writing became very convoluted.

What I know now is that Wittig’s project was a moment in time, the world has since changed - thank god we don’t live in the seventies - we’ve gone beyond the literary fashion of goddess-archetypes; however for a while I was seduced. So as a result of descending into this poetic Gehenna (hell), (and subsequently clawing my way back) I’ve become very sensitive about experimental writing. I feel that some people are partial to it - you’ve got generations of American language poets, and Australian too - but it leaves others cold.

When we were talking recently, you mentioned that you see my work as somewhat formal - and I do write in more or less strict forms at times - and you’ve also mentioned that you yourself don’t have a formal background as a poet. How do you feel about traditional forms in poetry, and in your own work?

The more I learn about poetry and study it in a ‘formal’ academic context, the more interested I become in questions about and the possibilities of, form. I was actually very resistant to traditional structures when I started writing - I was fascinated by the lyrical ‘I’ confessional style and Robert Lowell’s free verse, also the ‘free-flowing’ voices of poets like Dorothy Hewett (‘Alice in Wormland’) and Fay Zwicky. I recently discovered Judith Wright’s series of ghazals, The Shadow of Fire - written in her sixties - exquisite, and attempted to use the form but couldn’t! I also tried to write a couple of sonnets and managed the requisite number of lines but they were so long! They weren’t sonnets at all - they were block poems. I like the way Margie Cronin plays with form. Her (fifteen line) poem "The Number of Days" has the subtitle: ‘sonnet philosophically and formally uncontained’. Sometimes I feel constrained by form - it presses down from the imposing history of poetry and suddenly I’m paralysed.

Are you interested in the future in exploring other forms of writing - for instance playwriting?

Playwriting terrifies me! The same way that picking up a musical instrument does. My ‘explorations’ will probably be along the lines of academic papers, reviews, fiction and poetry.

How do you write?

I’m very ritualistic about writing. I like to go for an hour’s walk early in the morning before getting started. I used to take a notebook along, and found myself standing up against tree trunks jotting down notes. I burn oils - tangerine, jasmine and bergamot are a favourite combination at the moment. Sometimes I read a couple of poems or a short story before starting, to get things flowing. I don’t really draft. I do research though, and am often surrounded by piles of print-outs and downloaded articles from the Internet. I build my poems, word by word, line by line, dragging each word out, like pulling hooks from my skin - as Rebecca Edwards described the writing process, ‘it hurts’. Behind the physical act of writing, is the mental and bodily activity of incubating the idea, which as I said earlier, can take anything from a couple of days to years.

How does the fact that your partner is also a writer affect your writing life?

Ultimately it’s good because writing is a difficult occupation. Unless you’re somebody like J.K. Rowling who produces extremely popular books and is able to economically self-sustain, it’s extraordinarily challenging to always strike a balance between study, work, kids, writing. Having a partner who fully understands and supports this alternate lifestyle is great.

Can you talk a bit about your main influences as a writer?

Sylvia Plath, like many female poets I imagine, was one of my first major influences. I got obsessed with her as a literary persona, read about five biographies, her novel, her short stories, her letters home, Ted Hughes’ poetry and went to the State Library and listened to her recite, and was completely freaked out by her voice....

Yes - she’s got that weird, matronly English-sounding voice you just don’t expect!

Yes - it’s so odd! She’s behind this mask. Then I went through the Anne Sexton stage - so I did have that American so-called confessional-mode influence. There are many American 20th Century poets I love - Muriel Rukeyser, Denise Levertov, Robert Lowell, May Swenson. Through my involvement with the Subverse: Queensland Poetry Festival, I’ve come to know loads of contemporary Australian poetry. Poets like Margie Cronin, Jordie Albiston, Coral Hull. I really enjoyed Dorothy Hewett’s earlier work - particularly her, well - you could call it revisionist myth-making - she might not agree with that category - but things like Alice in Wormland where she’s exploring a kind of fairytale persona and doing all sorts of bawdry, macabre things inside it. T.S. Eliot - I saw Fiona Shaw’s performance ofThe Wasteland (on TV) and that blew me away. But probably a big thing for me was just eclectically dipping into all sorts of anthologies, and searching on the Internet - looking up poets, printing out their poetry, sticking it all over my bedroom walls.

More recent influences are our favourite, Anne Carson. Autobiography of Red and Men in the Off Hours are two books I adore. There’s an American poet I’ve just discovered called Alice Fulton, who writes about the body in a contemporary vernacular that’s very cheeky and sharp and sexy. The first poem of hers I came across was titled "About Music for Bone and Membrane Instrument" - I was hooked immediately. She engages in a peculiar kind of melding, the New Zealand poet Paola Bilbrough is the closest example I can think of to her work.

You recently received a grant to work on a specific poetic project - could you talk a little about this?

I’ve finished the project now. I had the idea for the way her body means the world about three years ago. My interest was sparked through reading The Lesbian Body and other feminist-oriented poems. I was interested in exploring the idea of the female body and femininity as discursive texts in contemporary Western culture. It’s quite difficult for me to talk about the project now - because I’ve been reading all sorts of theory about the body - the past thirty years of feminist debate - and I’m at the point where the body is about to vanish! It’s not a sign, not a text, not corporeal, not material, not discursive, not natural. The project I originally conceived was probably quite simple; I’m extraordinarily sensitive to the over-sexualisation of women’s bodies for corporate and economic purposes. I wanted the project to appeal to young people, by producing alternate ways of developing individual identity to the homogenous myth of white femininity. The body of writing I produced ended up being quite different to the original concept. I wrote poems about art, film, paintings, pornography, cigarette smoking, plastic surgery. It became a (very small!) inquiry into the history of visual representations of the female body.

Writing as a woman, and dealing specifically with this subject matter, can you describe how gender affects your idea about your own work?

In twenty-five words or less? I think it has a huge effect. Women, just like men, need a collective consciousness of art/literature to draw inspiration from. As a woman writer, I’d benefit more from studying the work of Fay Zwicky than Michael Dransfield. I read plenty of men’s poetry too, but I’m always excited and pay more attention to the discovery of a new female poet.

Do you think it is important as a woman writer that you write about this subject matter? Is it an attempt to reverse the silencing of women’s histories?

I don’t know if it’s about silenced histories so much - it’s just that it’s the one image we’re given, and it’s this white, middle class, thin woman, and that image is projected everywhere - and it’s a highly sexualised one. From selling glasses, to alcohol, to health insurance. And I want to go against that homogeneousness. It’s hard to talk about it without sounding like Naomi Wolf! I’m not coming out of a negative view - I want to be positive. I’m interested in how that image became so all-pervasive. Its power intrigues me. Maybe that’s why I’ve felt impelled to explore it through writing. The female body still fascinates everyone...

It’s the classic subject matter -

And it’s been the classic subject matter of poetry. Women as the idealised "other" for the male poet. They have not been poets themselves. So when women pick up a pen to write poetry it’s almost like they have to subvert, rewrite, revise and turn around the inherited meanings of poetic symbolism.

How has your critical work through university affected your writing?

In an obtuse way, yes. I get paralysed in terms of creative writing during semester. I’m in the middle of writing a suite of poems at present and every night after studying, at about ten o’clock, I turn on the computer, stare at the page for ten minutes, then turn it off again. I can’t compose a line. I find that a year after I’ve completed some course, the ideas and poems I’ve studied return in my imagination and have a massive effect on what I write.

Until recently you’ve been involved with the organisation of the Queensland Poetry Festival - again, how has this role affected your view of your writing?

I was involved with the festival for about four years and one of the greatest benefits to my writing has been the contact with the interstate and occasionally international poets that we’ve brought to Queensland. I guess that’s the writers’ festival benefit to everyone. On the organizational side of things, I’ve become aware of how much poetry struggles economically to survive, but on the other hand, how many people are dedicated in a really giving way, to keeping the beast alive.

With Subverse, we wanted to run one of the best poetry festivals in the country. And that meant making it a professional operation where the poets were paid, stayed in hotels instead of being billeted to other people’s houses, the festival sponsored people’s airfares etc.

Do you think the festival has connected with a wider community - I mean, often you go to a poetry reading, and it’s always the same people. Is a festival a vehicle where you have the opportunity to find a new audience?

That was part of our ‘manifesto’. It was really important to us to try to raise the profile of poetry, particularly in Queensland, because Queensland, Brisbane, is considered a regional area by funding bodies such as the Australia Council - and the rest of the country too, I think sometimes. However we believed that if we put on a slick production there was no reason why we couldn’t potentially attract extra audience. Not just the faithful old practitioner-supporters, but other people too. And I think it worked to some extent. We staged events in nightclubs, cafes, art galleries. We also invited writers involved in cross-media presentations, bands, data-projection et cetera.

One of the biggest challenges (perennial to poetry operations) was limited funding and resources. In Australia, poetry always seems to fall short on the side of marketing and distribution. We didn’t have time to do a huge publicity campaign, but I always think that if people poured money into that area, they could potentially seriously increase the audience for gigs. In places like South America, they fill football stadiums. People come to listen to poets. Obviously that’s not going to happen in Australian in a hurry, but I think you can raise the profile somewhat - although it’s a constant fight.

My own impression is that poetry is often relegated to its own section that almost no-one visits - but I know there has also, for instance, been a lot of attention in New York recently on poetry ‘slams’, and they’re gaining popularity. And then you have a poet like Dorothy Porter who can make the bestseller lists. Do you think there is some kind of resurgence occurring?

I think there is. Bronwyn Lea mentioned in an article in the Courier Mail recently that the number one term typed into web search engines (after sex) is poetry - which I find incredible. It seems to me that the Internet is the place where poetry is flourishing. It’s an exciting prospect for Australian poets, in a sense, because national boundaries and stifling regionalism can be somewhat left behind via this sort of global media. Like John Kinsella’s concept of ‘Regional Internationalism’. However, in the hardcopy world, poetry is also alive and well. Mainstream publishers who five years ago were putting their poetry lists under indefinite moratoriums are publishing again. A book of verse written by a terminally ill child recently reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list for something like three weeks. I do think there’s a growing or revived interest in poetry - absolutely - it seems to be thriving. A lecturer said to me once that every generation of poets seems to have this perception that poetry is under threat of dying out, that it’s a marginalized and unappreciated art form, so maybe this fear is just part of being a poet. There’s been a kind of poetry renaissance in Queensland. I can’t speak for anywhere else in the country, but there are all sorts of new poets coming through, and the local community is vibrant and healthy.

Also, in your role on the festival you’ve been in the position to make discoveries, and promote the work of newer voices - younger Queensland poets particularly - could you talk a little about this?

You’ve got people like Rebecca Edwards (based at the moment in Townsville): she’s an amazing voice - one that’s powerful and unafraid to confront painful spaces. Gina Mercer, Sam Wagan Watson, Michelle A. Taylor, Brett Dionysius, Bronwyn Lea, Jayne Fenton Keane, Lidija Cvetkovis... A whole generation almost of developing Queensland poets whose first books were published in the past five years. Then there are slightly younger writers on the cusp of their first book length publication, people to keep an eye out for like Paul Hardacre, Luke Beesley, Liam Ferney and Katarina Konkoly. The next step for these poets is to get some recognition beyond Queensland.


(Kate Middleton's interview with Melissa Ashley appeared in Famous Reporter 25, June 2002).