The 2009 Sydney Writers’ Festival event ‘Alleyway Honour’ wasn’t the first time I’d heard Fiona Wright read but it’s the furthest back that memory allows. Performing with a writers’ group known as Westside under the auspices of the Bankstown Youth Development Service, what I remember most about Wright’s reading was the distinct way she played with the shape and texture of her poems. Words and line breaks hovered on a tightly held breath before deftly dropping to fill out a scene. The tenor of her voice gave the work heat but, critically, there was daring to it too. There was something about the delivery, and the frankness of her stare, that made even the gentlest of images feel like provocation.
Wright became interested in literature at an early age, encouraged by her parents. As a teenager in the mid-1990s, she attended an academically selective girls’ high-school, the same one as Christina Stead, who has since turned out to be a major influence, although Wright only really became interested in her work after she’d left school. English was a preferred subject, however, and the trigger for her first foray into poetry.
Having spent her adult life dedicated to literature, she has built an impressive career as a poet, critic, editor and essayist over a relatively short period of time. Over the course of the last ten years she has worked for organisations that include the Red Room Company, Griffin Theatre, HEAT magazine, and Giramondo where she remains poetry editor. In 2007 she was awarded an Island of Residencies placement at the Tasmanian Writers’ Centre, which allowed her to develop a series of poems about Australians in Sri Lanka. In 2008 she was runner-up for the John Marsden National Young Writers’ Award, and in that same year she began making regular appearances in Best Australian Poems, fairly well appearing in every volume since 2008. She has also been published in some of the nation’s most well-known publications including Going Down Swinging, The Age, Overland, Australia Literary Review, HEAT and the Sydney Review of Books. Her first poetry collection, Knuckled, was published in 2011 and was awarded the Dame Mary Gilmore Poetry Award in 2012, while her first collection of prose, a literary memoir entitled Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger, has just been published to ecstatic review. She appears regularly at literary festivals and readings, particularly in her hometown of Sydney, and she recently directed ‘Verse and Voice: A Poetry and Spoken Word Festival’ with Miles Merrill.
Adam Ford once described Wright’s poetry as ‘strong, clever, tight’. It’s a good description for the way she talks too – on point and with a sense of distilled clarity. She has a wicked sense of humour that borders on slyness insofar as it sidles into conversation at unexpected points. There’s a feeling of immense generosity about her spirit.
The conversation for the Sydney Review of Books took place over three separate occasions, beginning with an extended chat across my dining room table one afternoon when the remnant chill of winter was still in the air. We met to discuss a Gleebooks event – an ‘in conversation’ between us both on the subject of her new book Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger. Fiona arrived exactly on time – she says she is never late – and with a gift of homemade brownies. A few days later we conversed as part of the strange experience that is the staged tête-à-tête – with audience – before finally meeting over Skype and tea as the weather finally made a bolt towards summer.
Rachel Morley: The brownies you gave me when we first met to discuss Small Acts of Disappearance were excellent. Do you bake when you should be writing?
Fiona Wright: I wouldn’t say I bake when I should be writing. It’s often after I’ve finished writing or when I’m stuck with my writing. But I still call it procrastibaking. I love making cakes in particular. Baking is almost the opposite of writing. It’s creative, but it’s procedural. All you have to do is follow the instructions and you’re guaranteed to end up with something that works. It’s thoughtless and meditative and tactile in a way that writing so often isn’t.
What kind of child were you?
I think I was a very strange child but I also think that’s something a lot of writers have in common. I was imaginative, and I loved to read, but I also remember feeling like I didn’t fit in, especially at school.
Did you read a lot when you were younger?
Absolutely. Strangely enough, the books I really loved – or at least the first books I can remember really adoring – were Enid Blyton books, especially her series about English boarding schools. In retrospect, there’s something really bizarre about reading them in the Australian suburbs because they are so very English in their landscapes and their social settings. There are foxgloves and cornflowers and field mice throughout, and phrases like ‘flying off the handle’ and ‘mind your ps and qs’. I like to think that’s why I fell in love with Australian literature so completely as an undergrad because suddenly reading about places, landscapes and settings that I recognised was so startling and wonderful an experience! Still, when I went to Sri Lanka in my early 20s, I met people who had also read Enid Blyton growing up, right there in Colombo, where a monkey on a telegraph pole is not an unusual sight.
My mother was studying YA fiction as a part of her Masters when I was in primary school, and she used to pass on the books to me. I loved Gillian Rubinstein in particular – she’s a wonderfully creepy writer – and I read a lot of Emily Rodda too.
Did your parents play a role in nourishing your imagination and your love of reading and writing?
Oh definitely. My mother is a big reader and we still pass each other all of the books we’ve finished reading. She’s much more a fan of a good, straight narrative than I am. I prefer my novels to be a bit difficult, a bit strange.
Let’s move to poetry. You’ve said you came to it by accident when you found yourself unexpectedly writing poems, not short stories, for your Year 12 major work, but then, looking back, you decided you’d been writing poems for some time before that. Why were you drawn to poetry?
I still think I sort of fell into poetry accidentally but what I realised, when I started writing those poems at school, was that I’d been writing what I thought were song lyrics for a long time beforehand. They were terrible and angsty, of course, and I’m really glad the internet was only just coming into existence at the time, so there’s no evidence in the public domain. But I think I was drawn to poems because they can be so playful. Without having to take care of plot and pacing (which I’ve never been any good at, anyway) there’s so much more room to just play with language, which I really love to do.
[CustomHighlight] I love working with teenagers, because they feel everything so intensely, so the poems they come up with are often so vivid and kind of wild.[/CustomHighlight]
How did your school approach poetry? Was it encouraged, understood?
It certainly wasn’t the main event and we really didn’t do much work on poetry until the senior years. Even then, it was almost cordoned off into a discrete module at the beginning of the year. I think our teachers found it a difficult thing to approach. Funnily enough, joanne burns used to do some casual teaching at my high school, so I did meet my first poet there, even though I didn’t know it at the time. I didn’t read her work until much later. I love how funny her poems can be and how interested they are in the textures of words.
Do you think there still tends to be a difficulty introducing and teaching poetry in schools?
I do think so. I think both teachers and students have a bit of resistance to poetry because it isn’t easy and because there are so many preconceptions about what it is and should be. The work I’ve done in schools has mostly been with the Red Room Company, and with Sweatshop, and they both really focus on working with poems that are relevant to the students’ lives, that are contemporary, and on combining reading and writing poetry at the same time. And both programs encourage cheekiness and playfulness, as well as story-telling, so it can be a lot of fun. I love working with teenagers, because they feel everything so intensely, so the poems they come up with are often so vivid and kind of wild.
Those early school experiences can be critical in drawing students in, or alternatively, affirming resistance. I want to ask you about the ‘resistance to poetry’ because it’s something that’s been topical in the SRB of late, but first, let’s continue with those formative years. You mentioned travelling to Sri Lanka when you were younger, and you’ve written about that in Knuckled and most recently in the essay collection Small Acts of Disappearance. How old were you when you went away and what effect did this trip have on you and your writing?
I think I was 23 when I went to Sri Lanka, which seems amazing to me now, especially because I chose it partly because I didn’t know much about it. I didn’t know anyone else who had been there, aside from my grandfather, who had been stationed there for a while during the second world war. I went there to do a placement as a journalist, to get some experience in the field. I thought journalism was really the only option for someone who was good at English, but I realised in Sri Lanka that I didn’t really like the work – it’s too hectic, too fast-paced for me. And I’d also had some pretty horrible experiences freelancing in Sydney that had me feeling like the industry was very much a boys’ club, and one that I didn’t want to be a part of.
I was deeply affected by Sri Lanka, because the day-to-day life was so different from everything I was used to, from the fact I was living in a country in the middle of a civil war, to the way in which gender roles and interactions are so circumscribed and, of course, my very visible difference as a foreigner, which was something I’d never had to reckon with before.
I love the way travel really highlights difference, that the small details of the places and interactions you witness seem so heightened because you’re not habituated to them. You see more sharply, and I think it makes you reconsider your own world with a different gaze as well. But I’ve also been aware, and I talk about this in Small Acts of Disappearance, that my experiences of travel have always been complicated by my illness, so I never can be sure how much of that heightening is due to novelty, and how much to malnutrition.
Can you say more about this? About the illness, Sri Lanka and the ambit of Small Acts of Disappearance?
By the time I went to Sri Lanka, I’d been unwell for about four years, but I was still a long way away from recognising the full extent of the illness. The physical condition, the rumination that was causing my frequent vomiting, had been diagnosed, and I had been trying to manage that by avoiding the foods that seemed to trigger it – which was the slippery slope, as it were, that eventually led to anorexia. The physical part of my illness was definitely exacerbated while I was over there – mostly because I really struggle (and still do) with rice and coconut cream, which are the two inescapable staples of Sri Lankan food – so I was sick almost every day, but I was also restricting my food intake in ways that weren’t related to the illness at all. I was very aware of how perverse this seemed, in a place where many people were going hungry because they didn’t have and couldn’t get food, and thinking about this, as well as the questions about gender and embodiment and visibility that the experience raised in me, led to the first essay of the book.
I think I saw that first essay as something of an experiment. I’d never written about my illness before, never been able to look at it properly either. It was terrifying, but really thrilling as well. Each of the essays in Small Acts of Disappearance came about in a similar way, triggered by something I’d been reading or experiencing or thinking about, and spiralling out from there.
You’ve been asked about your illness in interviews quite a bit recently, including during our interview at Gleebooks. What is it like to talk about experiences as personal as these that have gone on to become acts of writing? Do you feel close to them or does it feel like you’re talking about the life of a character?
I do still feel close to them, but I think the acts of writing caused them to lose some of their sting, so they’re interesting to me, rather than painful. It’s that wonderful mediating effect of writing, its ability to hold things clear that I’ve always been drawn to, and which is very similar to the way in which hunger works, of course.
I also think that I’m happy to talk about my illness because I think it’s so important to talk about illness, all mental illness, really, but eating disorders in particular, because there’s so much misinformation around – some of which really misled me in the early days – and because so much of the illness is predicated on secrecy, invulnerability, even shame. I was ashamed of my illness for a very long time, which is a terrible thing, so in some ways it’s a relief to speak so openly for once.
The ‘In Colombo’ essay is striking in the way it challenges some of the commonplace thinking around disordered eating. It’s often seen as a state in which the senses are numb but you describe starvation in a way I’ve never heard before: as a ‘state of constant sensuous anxiety’, one where the ‘world glistens in [a] state of apprehension’, an experience that ‘pull[s] the body between extremes of hyper-alertness and a foggy dream-like state’. I’m interested in these contradictions that find their impetus in a body denied yet that is attenuated to a condition of being that is almost hyper-real in its sensualities.
Yes, it’s one of the things that fascinates me most, and one of the things that’s been the hardest to let go of too as I’ve been getting better. There is something very powerful, and quite addictive, about the sensuousness of malnutrition. It’s a purely animal response in the body, the sharpened awareness, which has to do with survival, but it also makes you feel very alive, and feel the world very keenly. Which means that the body also becomes its own distraction from everyday worries, or the greater mess and noise of the world, it’s all tamped down. And that’s very much the appeal, I think, the enchantment or enrapture of that state. That’s the trap.
This attention to detail, to what might be thought of as existing in a state of acute observation, is very much the way of the poet or the novelist. You draw a comparison in the book between the impulse to starve and the impulse to write. Can you say more about this?
Both impulses come from the same place, I think. They are both systematic, by which I mean, they are both driven by a need to order and organise the world, to make sense of it and, I guess, to control it in some small way. I think that’s what I mean by the meditative nature of both acts – both of them bring a kind of clarity, as well as a distance, to experience and to the things that confuse or hurt us. I think both writing and hunger are about making patterns and finding meaning, and they’re both highly ambitious acts as well.
The attention to detail was something that really scared me for a while – it’s one of the first changes that happens in the brain with chronic malnutrition, a move to what psychologists call ‘detail-oriented thinking’ rather than making the constant unconscious generalisations that we need to deal with the constant stimulation that our environments and interactions throw at us. But because details are so important to my writing, and especially to my poetry, the idea that they might only be a product of my illness, was horrifying. I was terrified for a while that I might lose my ability to write as I recovered. But the two things, hunger and writing, aren’t dependent on each other, they’re just driven by the same anxieties. And I know too that I could not have written essays at all when I was very sick, because I just didn’t have the concentration span they need.
It strikes me that Small Acts is about personal, lived experience but it’s presented very much as a book of ideas. You range across hunger, the conditions that structure the consciousness and experiences of the anorectic mind and body, questions of what it means to occupy space, ideas around illness and metaphor, and you look at various literary depictions of anorexia and addiction. What kind of reading and research were you doing to come at the book this way?
One of the first books that was important to writing Small Acts was Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, a book about the sudden death of Didion’s husband, and about grief. It’s a beautiful book, and it’s structured rhythmically, or poetically, rather than by finding a narrative. There are long, discursive passages and digressions, repetitions, and interleavings of medical or diagnostic material and psychological theory as well. I was incredibly excited by the book, because it seemed to offer me a model of how I might write about my experience, about my illness, when the one thing it doesn’t have is a sensible or stable narrative.
At the same time, I was already reading cultural histories of anorexia and the odd psychology book, in an attempt to understand that side of the illness – it was still a very new idea for me, because I’d been denying the problem for so long. I was really struck by how differently the disease was interpreted in each of these books, according to the time they were written, the background of the author, all of the usual things. That’s really how I became interested in the metaphor of hunger – and the various metaphors and magical properties that I had ascribed to food over the years.
Your critique of illness and metaphor is compelling and I know you have an interest in Susan Sontag. Did her work influence your approach?
Absolutely. I read Illness as Metaphor fairly early in the piece, and it made so much sense to me. Sontag’s argument is basically that illnesses that we don’t understand – that science can’t yet ascribe a cause – we try and domesticate in other ways, by making them metaphorical. The examples she uses are consumption and cancer. Consumption because it was metaphorically related to artistic sensibility and sensitivity, poets draped over the bathtub in an attic, that kind of thing, before the bacteria was discovered; and cancer because of all the strange talk about ‘fighting’ the disease and ‘not letting it win’ that existed even when Sontag was diagnosed.
In my first hospital admission, one of the clinic staff – and she was a dietitian, not even a psychologist – asked me what my vomiting was a metaphor for and it made me absolutely furious. Because it isn’t a question you’d ask of someone with pneumonia or a broken leg. But at the same time, I completely understand that desire to make sense of something that is senseless. It’s so much harder to contemplate something that is essentially meaningless.
One of the most powerful and thought-provoking metaphors comes in the essay ‘In Miniature’. You use the miniature to ask why people want to be smaller. I wonder if you could explain your take on the miniature and how it relates to hunger and the occupation of space?
The essay on miniatures came about because I was reading about space, place and belonging and home for my PhD, and stumbled across some work on scale, miniatures and giants, and found myself utterly obsessed for a good two months. Because so many of the ideas about miniatures – the kind of attention they demand, their disparity and artifice – resonated with the way I felt about my own body, especially when I was very ill. I was constantly being stared at when I was unwell, and complete strangers would comment on my body too. And I realised that this was one of the paradoxes of anorexia – that smallness had made me more visible, more present even as I felt my body disappearing.
You say too that the miniature offers borders. What do you mean by this? And by referencing Bachelard when he says, ‘the better I am at miniaturising the world, the better I possess it’.
I think it’s Steven Millhauser who talks about the miniature as ‘the universe in graspable form’ – graspable both in the sense that miniatures can be held in one hand, but also in the sense that they’re small enough to see every detail at once, to see them in their entirety. Which means that there’s nothing that escapes your attention, nothing hidden or mysterious or uncontainable. I think anorexia is very often an attempt to lend the body those same qualities – certainty, knowability, containability, unbreachable borders, as it were.
Bachelard’s quote appealed to me because of the way the world shrinks with anorexia, because of that intense focus on details. And the controlling aspect of the illness means that so many activities and social situations become inaccessible as well, so parts of the world fall away, and you’re left with an orbit that is very small, but very tightly controlled and possessed – even if you lose so much agency and possession of your own faculties in the process.
How does fiction and poetry allow us to come at illness from another perspective?
What I love most about poetry, or find most useful there, is how it contains uncertainty and ambiguity, how it’s so often open to different meanings, and to suggestion and suggestiveness. The gaps and spaces are important, and that’s very different from the rigidity of my illness. I also think it’s a form that allows for intense emotion, and often contradictory, messy emotion, so there’s a permissiveness to it that is powerful.
In fiction, though, it’s empathy that is important. The fiction that I talk about in Small Acts I chose because reading those books was always a kind of recognition, of a shared imagination or experience; and some of them – Christina Stead’s For Love Alone, and John Berryman’s Recovery in particular did make me feel less alone.
The kind of intellectual curiosity you show here hums through your earlier work too, but with different focus. Many of your poems telescope into everyday exchanges, from small acts of intimacy noted in bars or on streets, to encounters marked by flirtation, silence or awkwardness. What interests you about everyday intimacies? Does it come back to that sense of being an outsider, watching in, watching on, that you mentioned earlier?
I think so, yes. And of a strange curiosity about other people’s lives. I’m fascinated by the slippages between public and private space, how so many very personal, emotional experiences are played out in public. And they’re always out of context in a way, because watching on, you never can tell what the full story is so it’s fertile ground for imagination, even wild speculation.
And with speculation you can play. How do you know there is a poem to be made?
Often I know there’s a poem somewhere when I can’t stop thinking about what I’ve seen, or read, or something that has happened to, or around me. Or when a word or phrase sticks with me and I can’t shake it off.
That reminds me of an earlier interview you did when you were asked where a poem starts and you quoted that line from ‘The Monkey’s Mask’ in which a character asks, ‘does a poem start with a hook in the throat?’ Do you still think of it this way?
Yes! I love that line of Porter’s because it really does feel that tactile, for me at least. There’s usually something kind of niggling away at me, almost itching, and often the poem is my way of trying to figure out what is it that I can’t quite let go of.
It’s very bodily isn’t it? There’s the rip, the tear. Or the thought of it at least.
Absolutely. And I love that Porter registers it in the throat, like an anxiety.
So when you feel that pull what tends to happen next? Are you a methodical writer? Do you have a standard process for writing a poem? Say, idea-notebook-computer-redraft, or are you more haphazard? Perhaps looser is a better way of describing it?
I want to say that I’m not methodical, but I think I am. I always draft poems on paper, in one of the many notebooks I have in all of my handbags and desk drawers, and then redraft and edit on screen. Although if I’m having trouble, things can get a bit a looser. I’m a huge fan of scissors and glue. It’s entirely different when I write prose though. That’s always straight onto the screen, and often at set times of the day as well. I think it’s a matter of speed. Each word in a poem requires its own piece of thinking, and it’s also often a more associative kind of thinking, so it seems to make sense to tie that to the body. I do have very structured routines and do write almost everyday, but that’s as important for sanity as it is for practice!
You write a lot in cafes don’t you? And under windows.
I do! I love the social element of both, or the semi-social element I guess is more precise. There’s a sense of being in the world, and connected to people, without really having to participate in either. I think it’s important to be in the world and connected, because so much of writing is an individual and potentially isolating pursuit – and I know I really struggled with the isolation and lack of accountability when I was first starting out.
But part of it is the performance too, and I think offices work in this way, that being around other people means you’re less likely to slack off. Or get distracted by things that need cleaning – although my problem has almost always been the opposite, getting so distracted by the work that I forget to take breaks or be gentle with my body and brain.
In his review of Knuckled Adam Ford said your poems are ‘strong, clever, tight. They feel like they’ve been edited and rewritten until their focus is much clearer, until any first-draft excesses that may have existed have been stripped back considerably’. Does this resonate with the way you approach revision?
It really does! I know that my first impulse in writing is towards excess (because it’s so much fun), but the energy of excess can very easily derail a poem. In Knuckled I was really interested in clarity, and brevity; but it is something I’ve been experimenting against recently because I think there’s often a real joy in poems that are rambunctious. It’s just that they’re often harder to pull off!
I imagine you’d need to think differently about the design and shape of that work then. Mark Roberts was very complimentary about this aspect of Knuckled. He said your ‘use of line breaks and spacing lines across the page create some wonderful images’. Have any particular poets shaped the way you create movement in the language through the design and shape of your poems – those that are briefer and those you call rambunctious?
I’ve always thought of line breaks as a rhythmic device, as the space for breathing, or the punctuation that isn’t actually punctuation. I’m also really interested in the way that they can hold that ambiguity I mentioned earlier, or suspend completion, even if momentarily. I think Gwen Harwood is the master of the ambiguous line break. She has a really wonderful way of setting up expectations at the end of a line, and then undercutting them entirely with the beginning of the next.
I like the way you describe that – the idea of the break holding something, doing its own work, whether it’s ambiguity or an act of suspension. How do you know a poem is finished? Is it ever finished?
Often I think it’s finished, and then read it again a few months later and discover that it really isn’t. But I also know that I would happily keep editing poems endlessly, even when they’re published I still want to change things.
Yes, there’s that terrific scene in the Brett Whiteley documentary, A Difficult Pleasure that shows him still working on a painting at the exhibition opening while guests quaff champagne. You read your work out loud at readings and performances. Do you enjoy it?
I love it. I really love performing, even though it’s always terrifying!
I’m often struck by the texture and tone of your reading voice. You give weight to the language in a way that holds the poem in the air; somehow it doesn’t lose the form it finds on the page. Do the poems feel different when you read them aloud?
When I write poems, I’m almost always sounding them out in my head, if not actively muttering to myself in my corner of the cafe, I think voice is absolutely integral to the construction of poetry, to its rhythms in particular. But poetry always means differently when it’s read out. I think it has to do with the resonances of the words, as well as weight and texture, which are excellent ways of describing the work that the voice does. I think this too has something to do with speed. It’s impossible to rush a reading with the voice the way that you can, with inattention, on the page
You said some years ago in an essay for Overland that ‘poets and reviewers are the writers who operate more than any other within a tight-knit community’, and that for poets, this sense of purpose might be said to stem from their marginalisation and the oddity of their obsession and their craft. Do you still think there is something particular about the communities formed by poets and reviewers?
I do. I think it’s particular, peculiar and wonderful. For poets in particular, what we do is only important to a small number of people, or at least, only recognised as important by a small number of people. And people who work with or in poetry are never lukewarm about it. There’s always a huge amount of passion and excitement, so it’s really special to find other people who share that, and who understand immediately what it is you do and how you work. I also think that a lot of poets – and I include myself in this, no question – are slightly strange people, and really appreciate the strangeness in each other.
Tell me about strangeness. You’ve mentioned it a few times.
Well, I think it goes back to both that sense of being an outsider, and to imagination. Imagination is a wonderful thing, and it’s integral to my life, but I also think it’s not something that’s always appreciated by the wider world.
Who do you include in the list of poets, and perhaps other writers, as having been key to your sense of community?
When I was first finding my feet as a poet, I was taken under the wings of a really wonderful workshop group that included Liz Allen, Jane Gibian, Adam Aitken, Greg McLaren (who was my university tutor at the time), Adrian Wiggins, Mark Mahemoff and Niobe Syme. They’d all been writing for a lot longer than me, and were really supportive and helpful, as well as a lot of fun to be around (there was always far too much cheese and lots of wine).
I was also working at the time with Johanna Featherstone and the Red Room Company, and was introduced to a lot of poets and their communities that way. Some of the communities are tied to place too – the Sweatshop gang from Western Sydney, and my current writing buddies, who are scattered across the inner west.
You mentioned the Sweatshop writers. What has been your involvement with this group?
I started working with the Sweatshop writers in about 2009, in fortnightly workshops at Bankstown, which Ivor Indyk facilitated. It’s always been an incredible group, both because we were always fierce with critique, which is so useful, but also, conversely, because it’s an incredible supportive group. By now, too, we all know each other and each others’ writing so well, which is such a privilege, really.
Watching from the sidelines, it’s seemed to me that those engagements have not only been about literary endeavor but about staging some fiercely social and political provocations too – challenging ideas about where literature comes from, what it sounds like, the kinds of stories that are worth telling, and who might be writing them.
Absolutely. Mohammed Ahmad talks a lot about writing as a kind of self-determination, about literacy as a coming-to-voice, and I think that was a really important idea for me when I was writing Small Acts of Disappearance. That personal stories may well be the most important ones we can tell. The first essays that I wrote for Small Acts, ‘In Colombo’ and ‘In Hospital’ were written for Sweatshop projects.
On the theme of literary marginalisation, there’s been a lot of talk again, particularly in the SRB, about Australia’s ongoing reluctance to take poetry seriously. Ivor Indyk has written several times now about the ‘prejudice against poetry’ which he says is underscored by laziness and mislaid perceptions about inaccessibility, inert publishers and critics that keep peddling the line, the ‘market says no’, an out-of-touch prize culture that continues to push poetry off its lists, and a general ignorance about what it is that poets do. I’m guessing claims like that resonate with you?
Absolutely. The mislaid perceptions in particular – especially because I know I was afflicted by them when I first encountered the form, and I see it all the time in students as well. But I also think that it’s one of the most glorious things about poetry that the market says no – it means that poets exist outside of the market, outside of any consideration of its pressures, and so are free to do whatever they please, and push all of the boundaries they like. So too that smaller, looser organisations, associations and events seem to spring up all of the time. But there are publishers that are doing a wonderful job with poetry, that treat it seriously and produce really powerful, thoughtful books, even if those books are only read by 500 people, if you’re lucky. But the difficulty and reluctance around poetry has really become all the more obvious to me since I’ve been working in prose as well. Even at the most basic or crass level – the payment I’ve received for an essay from a literary journal, for example, are sometimes ten times what I’ve received for a poem, it’s astounding.