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Libby Hart - Poet Series

By Justwrite @must_write

Libby Hart - Poet Series
Libby Hart’s most recent collection of poetry, 'ThisFloating World' was shortlisted for a Victorian Premier's Literary Award (CJDennis Prize for Poetry) and 'The Age' Book of the Year Awards (Dinny O'HearnPoetry Prize).
When did you first start writing poetry?
I started writing poetry in my early twenties. Poetryhovered around me like a longing before I began writing it. At the time I wasan avid reader of poetry and still am of course, any writer is an avid reader,but I suppose it was my own insecurities that blocked me from allowing myselfto say: Yes, I could do that too.
In so many ways poetry is an apprenticeship that perhapsyou never graduate from. I always enjoy quoting that story by Annie Dillardabout French workers. When an apprentice gets hurt or is exhausted, theexperienced workers say to him or her: It is the trade entering your body.Poetry enters the body every day. It enters you and you enter it. There ismystery and joy and heartbreak and exhaustion. Sometimes all at the same time.
What do youenjoy most about it?
I think enjoy is the wrong word for me. Poetryis sanctum – it’s where I live and breathe, and find shelter when it’s mostneeded. And this extends to all poetry, not just my own.
Poetry is a very organic thing for me. It is aboutcapturing what enters your body, what touches you: a place, a moment, and a‘matter of the heart’. Words walk through me very organically. I am touched bythem and I have to capture them and make them into something more than afragment or a line of poetry. So these are the two things that go side by side:the moment of connection or response to place, event or subject; and then theaction to articulate. Sometimes these can be years apart.
Tell me about the first poem you had published.
The first poem I published was titled, ‘Rebecca’s Hands,1923’. It was published in 1995 in the AustralianMulticultural Book Review (Issue 2) and it was in response to a Paul Strandphotograph of his wife’s hands. The composition was very tight and composedonly of Rebecca’s hands, hence the title of the photograph and the poem. Thisis still one of my favorite photographs. I am a very visual person and I loveblack and white photography. I have a profound respect for the likes of Strandand other groundbreaking US photographers of that era, including Edward Weston,Dorothea Lange and Imogen Cunningham to name but a few. The poem discussed thephotograph and branched out into such things as palmistry and fate.
What is your usual writing routine? Doyou write every day?
If I have a routine as such it is largely about keepingfocused. I have a full time job, so it is actually really hard finding the timeto write and unfortunately I never do as much as I want to. But my routine goesbeyond the physical act of writing. I do a great deal of thinking and feelingmy way through a poem. This entails notes, fragments of lines, a lot of readingand research, and I am also always reading other people’s work which helps keepmy mind open and fresh.
I do all of this each day and wherever possible I escapeat lunch time to scribble away, edit drafts of poems or go to the library tosearch out a research title or poet or subject matter I have been thinkingabout. I try to do at least an hour or two of work in the evenings and whereverpossible I dedicate at least one day of the weekend to writing.
What advice would you give a would-be poet?
I often say that I didn’t choose poetry, it chose me. I’mnot really sure why it decided to tap me on the shoulder. There have beenmoments in my life when I really wish I knew the answer to that question, buteach time I ask it I come up empty-handed. What I know is this: I write poetrybecause I don’t have a choice. I write poetry because it is sanctuary. I writepoetry because it gives me a voice. I write poetry because it allows me tounravel a situation, an event or a subject and make sense of it. Poetry ismystical and mysterious, and I honor it as best as I can.
My advice is always to read, read, read. Read otherpoets. Learn from them. Read non-fiction and fiction. Learn from them too.Question. Observe the world around you. Live as authentically and as fully asyou possibly can. Listen to music. Listen to what a song is telling you. Go togalleries and explore the visual. Watch films. Good films. Listen to thelanguage that is going on underneath the conversations. Use all of your senses.And get very familiar with your gut instinct because this will be yourlong-time companion in writing poetry. Travel as much as you can. Go to placesthat make you uncomfortable and make you question. Live in the world and respondto it. Know your stuff, but also remember that it takes time to grasp it. Andallow yourself to keep learning. The keep learning part is the most crucial. Bepatient. Have an editor’s eye. Don’t be a smart arse. Always listen toconstructive criticism. Remember that you learn something from every poem youwrite or read. Don’t ever think poetry is an ‘elite sport’, you are onlycompeting with yourself. Be professional and reliable. And more than anythingelse: ‘know thyself’ and make sure you have something to say.
What’s your opinion of self publishing? Would yourecommend it?
I haven’t really given a lot of thought to selfpublishing, so I can’t discuss this issue in any great detail. I think if apoet is intending to self publish then I would strongly advise them to getassistance from an editor, designer and possibly an artist or photographer.What makes a book a beautiful object is good design and excellent editing. Thework is fundamental of course, but it takes skilled editing and design toreally make your poetry the very best that it can be.
Do you perform your poetry? What are the differencesbetween writing for the page and writing for the stage?
I write for the page and I read my poems, but I am in noway a performer. There is a great deal of difference between the page and thestage, if you are talking about performance poetry. I can’t really discuss thisin any great detail because it’s another world to me and for the manyperformance poets I know they feel the same way about ‘page’ poetry. SometimesI get a strong suspicion that there is a line firmly drawn between the two, asif we’ll all break out into a dance from WestSide Story, but it really doesn’t have to be like that. After all, poetryis as widely diverse as the people writing it.
Have you been inspired or influenced by a particularpoet’s work? How did it affect your own work?
I don’t think I could ever pinpoint just one poet orpiece of poetry. There have been many, many instances in my life where a poethas shaped my perspective. But if I had to give one example today what springsto mind is when I first discovered Michael Hartnett in an unassuming anthologyof Munster poets about a year before I visited Ireland for the first time.
The first poem by Michael Hartnett I ever read was ‘Deathof an Irishwoman’ and anyone that is familiar with this poem will know what apowerful introduction that must have been. What I remember most about thatfirst experience was that I read this poem with all of me being present. That’sthe one thing that struck me most – that he made me sit up and take notice fromthe very first line. I also knew from that moment on that he was telling mesomething in a way no other person could – and how attractive is that for aperson such as me who, like Ruth Stone, ‘decided very early on not to writelike other people’.
Michael Hartnett was my introduction into what I woulddescribe as an un-homogenised Ireland. And he spoke of it in his own way, withhis own gripes and philosophies. He also introduced me to the bards and helpedme reacquaint myself with my love of the Irish language, something that hadlain dormant for about fifteen years. Michael Hartnett is spectacular becausehe is achingly real. He wrote it (and lived it) like it was, in all of hiscontradictory ways. He was at times uncompromising, but always heartbreakingand authentic. My favorite Michael Hartnett poem is ‘Sibelius in Silence’,it’s an extraordinary poem of great deft and vision.
If you had to choose a favourite contemporary poet who would it be and what makes them yourfavourite?
I can’t choose only one and my favourites list willinevitably change again and again, but for today I would say John Burnside andCarolyn Forché. I respect them both for writing uniquely and full of spirit andintelligence. Both poets tackle very different terrain, but they do loop upsomewhere in the soul department, as they are both preoccupied with existenceand what it means to ‘be’. John Burnside just keeps getting better and better,and I highly recommend his latest book, BlackCat Bone. I’m sure Carolyn Forché has another book just around the corner,but her 2003 volume, Blue Hour, wasbreathtaking to read for the first time and I pick it up again and again andagain to help me clear away the clutter of my thoughts and anxieties aboutwriting poetry. Her poem, ‘On Earth’ is one of my very favorite pieces ofpoetry.
What about the masters? Who would you choose and why?
I’m not crazy about the word, ‘masters’. It makes methink of Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED lecture and her discussion around genius andits Roman roots. Each comes from the same place and each is more complicatedthan a label. But who do I respect? Whose legacy is it that I return to againand again? I would say Ted Hughes, Homer, Ovid, Rilke, Shelley and Shakespeare.And there are others such as William Carlos Williams, Pablo Neruda, WilliamStafford, TS Eliot, Rimbaud and a whole heap of others including James Joyceand Chekhov (Chekhov may have never written a poem in his life, but he had apoet’s heart).
For the first six poets I am thinking it would be selfexplanatory, but Ted Hughes is pitch-perfect time and time again. His vision ismind blowing, really. We are forever in debt to Homer and Ovid. Rilke’smysticism is his finest attribute. Shelley’s authenticity and wild intelligencewas my way into writing poetry thanks to the wonderful Richard Holmes and hisbeautifully written biography, Shelley:The Pursuit. And Shakespeare... what could I possibly say about the manthat has not already been said? Hamlet ismy favorite of all of his work. I reread it recently and it still blew me awayafter all these years.
What, of your own work, is your favorite poem?
That’s a very hard question for me to answer because I amover critical when it comes to my writing. What I will say is that ‘ThisFloating World’ is the poem that means the most to me.
‘This Floating World’ is a very long piece (46 pages inbook form). I had parts of the poem published in a variety of journals both inAustralia and overseas, but the work as one whole poem was published in mysecond collection of poetry, ThisFloating World, published last year (2011) by Five Islands Press. Thesongline makes up the bulk of this collection although there are four ‘overture’ poems in the firstsection.What was the inspiration for, or story behind, the piece?
‘This Floating World’ is a songline or oral map of the island of Ireland. Thereader is guided through the songline by an omnipotent force who listens in onthe intimate soliloquies of people, ghosts, birds and animals. Even thelandscape and ocean have the opportunity to speak from time to time. The work is essentially a celebrationof how, in some small way, we are connected to all things.
‘ThisFloating World’ was born from an extensiveroad trip I embarked on when I first visited Ireland in 2005. The journey of thesongline is largely influenced by the route undertaken at that time. I was thenfortunate to receive an international residency from the Australia Council forthe Arts to spend time at The TyroneGuthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig in County Monaghan (Ireland) in2008 in order to write the first draft of this book.
The work is faithfulto the elements and the ethereal. Water holds a strong presence in Ireland,whether it is through rain, mist, bogs, loughs, waterfalls, holy wells, seasand ocean. Wind also, particularly in the west of Ireland, is a force to bereckoned with. Because of this I shaped a poetic narrative that is dictated bythe direction of the wind or rain. Fluid and transient in nature, ‘This Floating World’ is full ofrushed thoughts, forgotten histories and quiet contemplations that reiteratetransience and mutability.
Obviously I can’t include the whole poem here for youtoday, but I will give you an abridged version of it in the form of one voicefrom the songline. This particular voice is called ‘Dreamer – Trá Chloichir’ and it is placed aboutthree quarters of the way into the poem.
One thing I will stress about ‘This Floating World’ isthat time is elastic inside the work itself. Both the present and the pastintermingle with ease. So too do both this concrete world in which we live inand the Otherworld. And although I created an Otherworld that was eclectic andfull of creative license, it was still faithful to the idea that there are twoworlds connected to the island. This belief system is still prevalent ineveryday Ireland, most particularly in remote areas, and I do admire this sideof traditional Irish culture very much.
The voice, ‘Dreamer’, chiefly concerns the legend of the selkie-folkor seal people who transform themselves from seals to human. I have loved thislegend for many, many years so I was very keen to include a selkie in the work.
DreamerTrá Chloichir
Dark one are you restless to this sea inside you?
To the chill that seeps into marrow
when you circle your secrets?
Altered and sooty-eyed
you haul a billowing scent
when you come to the surface.
A wave made flesh, made of bone.
Slip of sealskin, the chuck of it,
a seaweed of your own making.
You are naked now, you are glorious.
You are a man uponthe land who needs time
to find his feet.
You take back your shadow
and gaze out to sea,
drinking in the memory of it
while the shrug of your wet skin
lies loosely in your arms.
The pelt of bog will keep it moist
fostering desire
until the pull of your second life
hooks you again.
You fold its enigma
with new found fingers,
heed it like a breathing creature.
You use your hands
like they’re the center of things,
the cusp of things.
Are they indeed your soul, those hands?

Notes:‘Dark one are you restless’ is from Thomas Kinsella’s translation of The Táin (Oxford University Press,Oxford, 1970). Reproduced with kind permission of the translator. ‘A man upon the land’ is from a traditional Irishpoem (‘I am a man upon the land / I am a selkie in the sea’). ‘Are theyindeed your soul, those hands’ is from, ‘Anatomy of a Cliché’ by MichaelHartnett from Selected and New Poems(The Gallery Press, Oldcastle, County Meath, 1994). Reproduced with kindpermission of The Gallery Press.Libby Hart - Poet SeriesLibby Hart - Poet Series
This Floating World,Five Islands Press, 2011, Melbourne
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Fresh News from theArctic, Interactive Press, 2006, BrisbaneTo order:
Five PoetryJournal
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