Fullers Bookshop, Hobart. 25th October, 2016.
Thank you everyone for joining us this evening for a discussion about poetry, with Anne Kellas. Anne's an interesting, kind, generous person, always a pleasure to have a conversation with. When I finally sat down to a much-delayed reading of Anne's new poetry collection, The White Room Poems, I started to regret in some ways - just a little - having agreeing so glibly to take part in a conversation with Anne ... not because I was disappointed in the book at all, but because I wondered if I'd be equal to it. There are times when you read the work of many of Tassie's fine poets when you're simply transfixed by the quality of the work they're doing.... I get that sometimes with Tim Thorne, Sarah Day or many of the poets I see in this room. And certainly - absolutely - I had it in this case with The White Room Poems. So, first I wanted to congratulate you Anne, it's a very fine collection of poetry. And I think some of it had its genesis here in Fullers Bookshop ... ?
It did ... on that seat over there. The organisation Australian Poetry had a café poets project to which you could sign up to be a registered cafe poet. So I used to sit here on a Saturday and a Wednesday morning and write, and engage people at the tables. One fruitful engagement from that was meeting a Pakistani doctor from the Royal who wanted a poet to come along to one of their conferences. And I met Anne Carson, a lovely poet from Victoria who'd read online that Fullers had a café poet.... And I sat here refining the poems that I'd written and worked on some new ones, so I'm very grateful to Fullers for those hours leisurely writing, with free coffee!
I think it's always nice at these discussions to begin with poetry, as well, so why don't we start with you reading one of the poems from the book. Anne, could you read 'Ice Memory'?
Broken lines of reason trail after me
like breath in winter:
"And" is not followed by a sound.
Something in the heavens
From the great unfathomable mountain,
from the mountain wrapped in scarfs,
its blue cliffs crumbling
sometimes into ocean
sometimes into poem,
from high up here at the peak,
a stirring in the air.
And suddenly, a mountain bird
flies down to land on me,
clutches at my arm.
His eyes are huge, his fear
hot breath on my cheek.
Adrift, a few white shreds
of denim cloth-like snow.
Blue cliffs line up, edge to edge
against a glassy sky.
All steps taken,
no change made.
Still the ice,
and a bitter orange sun.
I did mention the names of other Tasmanian poets a little while ago, but in a way I think it's somewhat misleading to categorise you with them in that much of your writing strikes me as very un-Tasmanian - mention of 'the blue cliffs' in that last poem notwithstanding. I get a sense in a lot of your poetry that it's not what I'd read in the work of another Tasmanian poet. Partly, I think, this is true on the level of content. At one point late in the collection you write, 'this is nature poet country, I'm a stranger here'. But it's also in terms of the form, the shape of the sentences. I love the sinews of your text, and the way your images burst through at times. I wondered if you could start by commenting on this and how you feel your writing is distinct in this way, and where this comes from.
Where it comes from is probably South Africa, I have a close association with poets there. I struggle with putting an adjective in front of 'poet' to describe myself, I don't see myself as a lyric poet or a nature poet, or this poet or that poet. I've been called a couple of those things, but I don't see myself as a 'something' poet, the nearest I come to is as an 'abstract' poet ... perhaps an 'abstract lyric' ... cos I thought I'd better cook up something for myself. I do find it very hard to fit myself into Australian writing in the sense that sometimes I find it hard to place my poems. I've just had one poem accepted after many attempts; I finally took out all my white spaces, and it was instantly accepted. So ... somewhere, I don't fit, I'm aware of that.
Why did you choose the word 'abstract'?
It fitted. I felt comfortable with it. But I probably feel comfortable with no adjective.
And the white spaces?
When you write free verse, the white space is part of your speaking, it's part of your writing, it's part of your shaping of the poem. It's part of listening to the poem, it's part of how you read the poem. It's what happens in that gap, in the silence, as much as what happens in words that you speak.
You mentioned a South African context before, does that still resonate with you?
Yes, except I think I've fallen between two stools in that I've lived here thirty years, and I don't really relate to contemporary South African writing either. Although when I read it, I instantly understand what they're on about. I don't always instantly understand - or like - some of what I read from other cultures. The African experience is something I intuitively, innately relate to.
How old were you when you left South Africa?
I was thirty-five.
Hmm. So there's a big heritage there....
A big heritage.
And what is it, if you can pin it down, that you recognise in that tradition of poetry that you might find an affinity with in your own verse?
It's very graphic.... When I left, my favourite poet friend - Lionel Abrahams, who was a mentor to so many poets there - said to me, look you shouldn't emigrate because if you do your words will become imageless. He was quoting an African poet who'd gone into exile in England and had written back to South Africa saying the risk of exile is that your words become imageless. It's the imagery that I instantly see when I read something from South Africa.
It's interesting that you mention the word imagery, and I'll come to this in a moment but I wonder if you could read 'Tiger' for us....
Here, below the snow-line,
in my rose-covered cottage at the edge of the forest
I watch the hours pass.
The shadows of trees stand next to trees.
In the darkness under the leaves
the birds of this patterned forest
and the juniper berries
and all the fruitfulness of morning,
sing. Above the forest canopy, a purple sky, heaven.
In the void I heard your voice
so distant now: In my present marriage
we only rent houses.
The tiger pads by my side.
He is tame, he lies low.
He howls at the moon on Tuesdays.
When you told me you had a lover
my heart leapt with fright
so that the tiger growled,
paced around his cage all day
while I lay inert,
I took the tiger by the leash
and begged him to go back to the forest,
leave me alone.
But he licked my hand
said he liked it here,
with all the roses.
I was scared when I looked at the moon.
I stroked his back.
The tiger slept.
Later he limped off
and sulked somewhere
on the forest fringes.
I tried to forget about you.
But I was lonely,
bought a dog
caged a green songbird.
That was a mistake,
the music brought him back,
he leapt through the window
made straight for the birdcage
and that was that.
Straight for the throat
Beads of blood on the windowsill.
His footprints in the rose-garden.
One feather on the lawn.
He’d never look me in the eye again.
He never came back.
My pot of quills was broken.
My canvases were wrecked.
I could have written to you,
but my words were imageless
and you wouldn’t have seen me.
I began to forage for stray fruit in the forest.
I became careless,
left gates open,
hoping the tiger would return
for the dog,
I became wild.
Rent my clothes.
A lover in despair will do anything.
Later I learned
they'd translated the forest into Japanese,
and that nothing would grow on the pages blown hollow
by the wind’s winnowing,
all the topsoil bleached into fossil.
I went to Japan.
The emperor had just died
and the second world war was news all over again.
Morality grew here and there in patches among the reeds.
A wild goose pecked at it.
I glimpsed the tiger.
He’d been turned into jade.
He’d become an idol.
I called in the image-breakers
and they yelled at him to come to life.
If only I could sleep again.
When I woke up I was in Africa.
The image-breakers were yelling at me.
I went to sleep again.
When I woke, a frog was kissing me.
I went to sleep.
When I woke up I was in India.
There were only people,
no houses, no sand, no forest,
only sky and people.
I went to sleep again.
I couldn’t invent the tiger any more.
No more dreams came.
The image-breakers had left me alone.
I listened for something
for a dream, note, sound
for a synchronistic event.
I listened for your voice,
for your presence,
for a sign, but none came.
There were no aftershocks from the revolution
and I settled down to rose-gardening.
‘Afterwards he came back and lived with me
and we lived happily ever afterwards.’
I wish I could write that it was so.
Then one day, the tiger kept its word.
It hemmed me in.
Each way I turned, it faced me.
I became afraid.
It’s only natural, I suppose,
that far from home.
I begged him to go,
showed him the open gate,
said ‘Go, shoo. Voetsak!’
He looked offended,
pretended not to hear.
Stretched his paws like a cat.
I gave up.
That was a big mistake.
So I ran for it. I am still running.
When I stop I’ll tell you what happened.
Isn't that wonderful?
Kevin Hart, Anne, writes about the influence of Paul Celan in your work. I know you've spoken to me of this in the past. I've not read a lot of Celan, but I feel - especially in the first half of your book perhaps? - that there's a sense of his visionary cloudiness, in some ways ... it's not always clear exactly what it is that you're understanding from Celan, but there's a striking poignancy and vibrancy of image through all of that. So I was wondering if you could talk about what you find in Celan and how this has affected your own work as a poet....
I encountered Paul Celan some time ago. I'd only read his poems in translation but then I know a bit of German so I looked them up and read some of the German versions as well. It was the symbolism that really attracted me. In Paul Celan's case, it was the utter emptiness of what he was describing, of the grief and the horror of the Holocaust. His way of using language as a tool to hammer at that grief and use it as a language that actually spoke something that wasn't what we know as German or English but something immediate that we understand before we understand the words. And then yesterday, because I knew you'd ask me a question about Celan, I thought I'd better read an academic article about Celan and know what I'm talking about; I started this very abstruse article about Celan suggesting that a poem is like a handshake. That there's something in a handshake ... that you understand the person before you've met them, as it were, and heard them speak. And something of that nature happens when you listen to a poem - or write a poem - there's some immediacy. And then you go back and you reread it, and you understand and get more out of it. Something pre word, almost. That invisible language that....
Is that something that you strive towards creating?
I don't strive to create it. When I sit down, I'm pretty unconscious of what I'm striving to do, I simply feel I need to write. Often I'm half asleep ... I don't have a particular intention.
I used the metaphor of clouds in the last question - clouds, the sky, mountains, perhaps a tiger prowling around - these are elemental, almost primal images in your work. Does that tie in - do you think? - to something that is essential or universal?
I think for this book the image of a mountain was definitely at the fore of my mind. The other images that you mention, I was unconscious of their presence.
The mountain ... it's weighty, of course ... but it seems to be something more of a goal, something to strive towards - whereas a cloud is something to hide within, in a way. I'm interested in how this resonance has come to take place in the work.
Well yes, the mountain was a challenge, this mountain of grief that I was given to handle, that I had to traverse and it wasn't a case of walking along on a straight path, it felt like climbing a mountain to survive after the death of our younger son. In dreams, the image of a black mountain would come to me, and of course when I was in Zurich we were taken into the Alps ... it was almost suffocating.
The section the book is named for, 'The White Room Poems' is an agonising section to read, describing these events that you've just mentioned; it's such a clear and distinct exploration of grief. Would you be able to read 'To the mountain' for us?
TO THE MOUNTAIN
I thought I had to go to the black mountain. Zürich.
As to the dark and rain-black mountain
as if by night
as if in winter
and tread the path of mourning, as I was.
But it is bright and sunny in Zürich.
François is dead.
That’s all the phonecall said.
But I am talking backwards.
Picture a Swiss village,
In the bell clear blue air
in the night sky
or in the day
I cannot sleep.
There are phonecalls and translations
to make a death official.
in a new Swiss chapel
my younger son
lies as if in state.
A chapel with little wooden rooms.
He lies on a high shelf-bed.
Eyes closed against the day.
But no: I remember wrongly.
I had to kneel
to place a scarf about his head.
In the bell clear blue air: night.
Ozone day in a Zürich summer.
Far traveller going to pieces,
“I am not a tourist,” I keep saying.
We travel in an empty train
to Zürich, back to Adlisvil.
Up the steep hill,
and across the valley, there’s the chapel,
with its shiny wood and huge glass doors
built just behind the church,
on the steep hillside.
Bells ring each hour
and each half hour
and each quarter hour
through every bone of my son’s body
God-ready. Lying waiting
nothing more than cloud-light
light now, snowless in summer heat.
In Switzerland of all places. These museums, parks,
these cobble-stones – here’s where he’d walked,
they tell me. And here’s where the thunderstorm ripped through
at twilight, rent that tree in half.
Here in the garden – here they’d stood,
with beers in hand,
so carefree, near this garden pond.
Marvelling at the lily white.
And thistles, purple prick of blood
so quick – a dragonfly
flicks its needle.
Breath so slow.
It’s too hard to walk ahead.
My body wants to stand
Still. But this step.
Then this step.
We keep walking.
Round and round the garden pond that morning.
Morning. And by moonlight later.
The garden at night.
The pond, midnight.
The pathway to the pond,
from the room he died in.
Down the steep hill, across the valley
we can see the chapel on the hill.
Hill steeped in meadow flowers, wet grass.
We have a key to the chapel where he lies.
But we only visit twice.
Why I do not know.
There is nothing to say.
We are as blank as snow.
In one of your later poems in this collection, Anne, you say
I light a candle, try to draw,
but all my pencilling remains mere lines.
And if I write, my words turn into sand.
I can imagine my words turning into sand if I were to go through the experience you did, losing François - and I wonder if you could give us some insight into how these powerful poems found their shape. Was it one of these trails around the mountain that you had to follow, or was it something else?
Yes, one poem in here - 'Journey to my son' - I wrote about flying to Zurich over beautiful cloud formations, that was a very tangible one. For the rest, I use a method of journalling where you write down your dreams and daily events, basically you journal all the time. So I suppose I've journalled my way through these years. A friend who's not here tonight, because she's ill, kindly lent me her shack; and I would sit there free-journalling. I wasn't set up to write poems, it was just journalling; and later, I would go through the journals and find the essence and draw those together.
That's interesting, because I certainly noticed they had what felt like perhaps a greater sense of narrative than many of your other poems? Do you think that's a reflection of that process?
The passages that Ben's talking about are in the centre of the book, and I used them to structure the book. It's the 'White Room Poems' suite of poems. I submitted them to a small magazine, Blue Giraffe and they were published as a suite, and when I came to putting this book together I couldn't draw those poems apart, they glued themselves together.
I was aware of making a narrative as I structured the book, I felt very much that what I was writing was a kind of narrative. I have a friend - Terry O'Malley - who calls himself a narrative painter, so perhaps bits of me are a narrative poet: there, I've found an adjective!
Could you read another of the poems, 'On hearing bells at midnight'?
ON HEARING BELLS AT MIDNIGHT
My world’s gone dark. It’s closed.
My night is still.
I’m waiting for your soft voice, smile,
My son grown angel.
My world grown dark.
If I had listened well, would you be here?
Typing, with your castanet fingers,
rests at the end of the bar, treble clefs and silences, pauses
and expert word falls
– all your silent, silent poems
you never shared with me,
my quiet poet son?
I scream at the silence.
Do you read these words over your shoulder,
my shoulder, as I write them?
You said a council worker found you
lying in the early morning dew
in a park at Easter,
your heart still beating.
You said you woke in surgery
surprised to be
alive. But now you lie
where no one can revive you.
And all our hands are ice.
And all my lines lie glistening on a page.
My sleep-waked son, does your spirit-self
inhabit this dark night?
Or are you in your own stern night?
My sight’s worn down by light, my night’s gone dark
your own dark sun gone down,
your street wanderings
secret, your step into infinity,
reckoned foolish by some,
I see your brave questioning.
But then, I never was a reliable witness.
Wasted moments fill these years.
How can I see them through
without seeing you. Will you wait,
in a dream I asked, Will you wait for me in heaven?
And strangely, you,
my son grown child,
my son grown angel,
said yes, sounds like a good idea.
And listen now:
St John’s in New Town
sound the hour.
Make me then a shaved priest,
my sleep-waked son:
an angelus of sorts
has called us into silence.
In an email to me just the other day you mentioned about how conscious you are of your poetry as dialogue; that you write the poem outwards to another. I'm curious about how you feel this applies to this part of the collection.
Yes, I sometimes have written the poem as if to my son. Mostly when I write I'm not aware of any audience and in fact I have to be unconscious of somebody, like a reader, who might be critical. My friend Megan has a wonderful phrase, 'policeman in my head' that watches what I'm writing and inhibits what I write....
An Afrikaans policeman!
Yes, an Afrikaans policeman.... So I have to be very deliberate about putting any listener / reader out of mind as I write, so that I'm free.
As soon as I've written a poem, then I very deliberately think, now: what is a reader going to make of this? I do - very much, when I'm editing and revising - think of the reader and their reception ... what they're going to make of it, is it intelligible ... and is this what I mean? I do think that a lot of poetry - that I personally don't like - is a monologue where the poet is, almost, singing a hymn to themselves. That's the sort of poetry I can't relate to. I have to feel I'm in some kind of dialogue with the poet, and that applies with my own poems.
And that's part of your editing process....
That's part of editing.
I'm really interested in your work and the way you change things up in the poem, it feels like you don't let a piece of writing fall into a predictable rhythm. Is that something you think has developed in that process of editing, or does that come from the first....
I think that's there from the first. So maybe I'm dialoguing with myself, interrupting myself....
Actually, when reading a piece here - 'Half moon at dawn' - where you have the birds in a kind of dialogue....
One bird argues himself awake:
As if he’s bidding on the day.
Ups the stakes:
(More day. More light.)
Heh heh ... perhaps I'm arguing with myself. It could be a nervous tic, I should perhaps be careful I don't break the poem's tone or rhythm too much.
I like it, I like it! I like the way you let an amazingly vibrant image break through at certain times and pare things back for a little while in the work, it's very striking.
I was wondering, did your thesis make you ask many questions of your poetry?
Yes, actually the methodology I've used with my thesis allows me to bring poetry into it, so some of these poems have found their way in, and I've written some others for the thesis.
I'm wondering how this process of more academic reflection has affected your writing of the poetry....
Ah.... Well all my life I've avoided academia. I didn't ever want to do an English honours degree, because I was terrified it might change my poetry. So I deliberately did not enrol in an English faculty, I've enrolled in an Education faculty because I'd like my thesis to be read by teachers and parents, I'm not interested in preaching to an academic audience in my thesis, I'd like it to be a practical account of a parent's anguish that might help another parent to see writing on the wall where I didn't.
In a way it's freed me open and been quite liberating. I feel I've got permission to write. I've struggled all my life with needing permision to write.
Why free verse?
I was anticipating a question like this, and hoping it would be asked - because I have an answer!
I simply see free verse as another form of poetry. I don't make a huge brick wall between free verse and formal verse, and whenever there are debates among some of my dear friends who say that you have to write sonnets and villanelles and everything in order to get your P plates to write a poem, I butt out of that conversation.
I've tried writing sonnets and villanelles but they just come out as somebody else, not me. So for me the free verse form is something I'm comfortable in. But I don't see it as a distinct genre, like rap poetry or song. I think each poet accommodates their voice through a form, and if they do that wrongly it shows.
What is your view about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature?
I think it's put the Nobel Prize for Literature up in lights. I was very interested to see that Bob Dylan himself has remained silent and hasn't answered phone calls.
I haven't made up my mind thoroughly. My first thought was that it was an absolutely appropriate award at this point in time in our history - in these times - because it suddenly reminds everybody of the message in his words in big, bold, capital letters.
Which poets inspired you the most when you were growing up?
Aah ... Yeats, I love Yeats! Wordsworth. I read a lot of Dylan Thomas, and listened to him on vinyl record. Hopkins. And T.S. Eliot. They are the people I return to every time I get cynical about poetry and lose my passion for it, I go back to what I really loved as a young person.
Does writing poetry prove therapeutic?
I've never used the poetry as catharsis. I think it would be a travesty for grief to make an association between those two things. But in all honesty, when I finished the book - and I don't know if it was simply relief at finishing the book - I felt my grief had gone into a different stage. And I'm experiencing the same thing at the other end of my thesis. I feel as though some work has been done. Any writing I do would have some cathartic purpose, but it's not my intention, I don't set out to salve my grief through writing. Although I did say that I journalled my way through grief, the journal writing certainly was my companion. As Giles was.
In my thesis, I'm not allowed to be cathartic, that's part of the ethics approval process!
Anne, perhaps you could read us some poems of your own choosing as we start to close this evening.
THE WHITE ROOM
Sometimes seen in the background
of a novel by Coetzee:
a pale, hurrying young man.
He strikes a chord.
The Umberto Eco phase.
The drum kit solo.
Phases of the moon.
It’s just the contents of the psyche,
says the man in the white room.
Images sink away, and water
spills over the dam wall,
flooding thought with mantra,
and patterns built of 4s,
the square roots of 2.
Just the contents of the psyche,
NARCISSUS IN NEWTOWN AT YOUNGBERRY TIME
In the casuarina-soft sky
– your face.
I am your mirror words
– left waiting wondering
pinioned on the banks
and staring back
– not the poem you wanted to write
with its yellow cries
its purple walls
its tissue paper
lost planet halves
balanced in the netted air
in the planet wheel garden.
Clematis coils spurl seaward glances
at the empty panes.
Don’t touch, eel bird, child.
Thank you very much, Anne Kellas.
Ralph Wessman, December 2016
Anne Kellas was born in South Africa. Her first book of poetry, Poems from Mt Moono, was published in 1989. Her second collection, Isolated States, received funding from Tasmania's arts funding body in 1993 and was later accepted for publication by Australian poet/publisher Tim Thorne. Her third poetry collection, The White Room Poems (Walleah Press) appeared in 2015. In 2004 Kellas established Roaring Forties Press, a small literary press which, though based in Tasmania, Australia, published the posthumous collection of poetry by Lionel Abrahams, Chaos Theory of the Heart, produced in conjunction with Jacana Media in Johannesburg. They also published the Australian short story-writer Geoffrey Dean's seventh collection, The Literary Lunch. Some of Kellas' poems have been set to music and recorded by Australian composer, singer and producer, Matthew Dewey (Isolated States, a song cycle based on the poetry of Anne Kellas).
Ben Walter's work has been published widely, appearing in Griffith Review, Overland, Island, The Review of Australian Fiction, The Lifted Brow, Kill Your Darlings, Cordite and a range of other magazines and journals. He is the author of Below Tree Level, produced as a book and literary installation on Mt. Wellington, and edited the award-winning craft/fiction anthology, I Sleep in Haysheds and Corners. He has twice won Express Media’s award for Best Project for Young Writers in Tasmania. In 2013, his unpublished poetry manuscript Lurching was shortlisted in the Tasmanian Literary Prizes. You can visit his website here.