Invisible Labour: an interview with Sarah Holland-Batt

Sarah Holland-BattSarah Holland-Batt is an award-winning poet, editor, critic and academic. Her first collection, Aria, was the recipient of several literary prizes and her second, The Hazards, was published by the University of Queensland Press in May 2015 and won the 2016 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and magazines and have been translated into several languages. A senior lecturer at QUT and the poetry editor of Island magazine, Sarah is the editor of Black Inc.’s Best Australian Poems 2016 and Best Australian Poems 2017. She spoke to Sandra D’Urso about her work; their interview was part of a larger ARC-funded project led by Justin Clemens titled Australian Poetry Today.

Sandra D’Urso: Sarah, when did you start writing poetry?

Sarah Holland-Batt: In high school, when I was probably about 14 or 15. I was living in the United States and encountered some terrific poetry in my high school English class. I was initially drawn to poetry for the musical qualities of language, not necessarily the meaning of the poem. I’d been training in classical piano, and hoped at that stage to become a classical pianist. But when I read poetry, I felt I’d found a form that suited me. Of course, we only read the American canon in high school—I encountered Australian poetry later.

Where in America?

In Denver, Colorado. We were reading people like Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Denise Levertov, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, all sorts of stuff. I had the most terrific teacher. One of his classes was an entire semester spent reading The Waste Land by Eliot, and all the source texts Eliot drew upon as well, like the Upanishads and Dante’s Inferno and Middleton’s Women Beware Women. Eliot blew my mind; I loved his use of bricolage, and the rhetorical force and music of his lines. Another semester we spent the entire time reading Russian literature—Dostoevsky, Solzyneitsyn, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Pushkin and Mayakovsky. It was a very American pedagogy, very conversational, more like a university seminar than an Australian high school English class. We called our teacher by his first name, Chip, you know. Looking back, I realise how instrumental that Socratic method was in leading me to poetry, and how lucky I was to have a teacher who really cared about literature. Once I discovered poetry I became serious about it quite quickly. But again, my initial reaction to literature was a musical one. I understood poetry first as a species of composition.

Did you always feel that there was a correlation between music and poetry?

Yes. When I’m reading poetry, I hear the lines in my head. I’m acutely aware of how the poem sounds, as well as what it means. I pay attention to the poet’s compositional strategies in the same way as I might do when listening to a piece of music. The cadence of a poem, its emphases, its rhetorical patterns, its use of form—all of these are close cousins to the kinds of structures you find in music. In writing my own work, I often feel driven by a musical and associative impulse; the act of writing becomes a chase or pursuit of language. Writing a poem often begins for me in an improvisational, generative state; as the poem begins to take shape, of course, you have to rein that impulse in so that the language is in service of the poem’s meaning. As I write, I read aloud excessively, which helps to smooth over the rough edges until the poem, for me, is as close as it can be to the finished artefact. I get immense pleasure reading poets who really know how to use sound; I find it aggravating when I can hear extra syllables in someone else’s lines. It bothers me, like an irritant under the nail.

Were you born in Queensland?

I was born in Surfers Paradise. I lived on the Gold Coast as a child, then moved to Colorado for high school, and then moved back to Australia for tertiary study. Then I went back again to New York for my MFA, then back again. Now I truly feel as though I’ve got one foot in one country and one in the other.

So, when you came back to Australia and you enrolled in literature …

Yes, I studied literature at UQ.

That’s when you became exposed to Australian literature?  Or maybe a different canon?

I read a lot of Australian poets. It took a while for me to get a handle on Australian poetry, and to understand, for want of a better word for it, the tone of it. American poetry—especially much of the poetry I’d been reading—had a sort of heightened rhetoric, a very emphatic style to it, full of grand pronouncements. I was initially stymied by the sardonic tone of some of the Australian poetry I read, and what I perceived to be its deliberate refusal of ardour or beauty. Then, of course, I encountered Australian poets whose work I loved, such as David Malouf, Peter Porter, Gwen Harwood, Michael Dransfield. I also started to understand and appreciate the irony running through Australian poetry, the great pleasure of satire. I also developed a healthy scepticism of the idea of the poem as a vehicle for beauty. Now I read equal amounts of Australian poetry and American poetry. I still feel as though my work sits somewhere between the two countries, in a sense, because I publish equally in America as I do in Australia.

So, if you had to map the Australian poetry scene, you could conceivably do that, but in America…

Forget it! There are so many poets in the States. Although there are a huge number of publishing poets in Australia, too; I’ve discovered that as I’ve been editing the Best Australian Poems these past few years. Of course, I had a sense of who these poets were, but you never actually count them up until you’re in a role where you’re delimited to selecting 100 poems a year. There aren’t 80 good poets publishing in Australia; there are hundreds. But in America there are thousands upon thousands.

In a practical sense, how did you manage making those choices for Best Australian Poems?

I understand the remit of editing the Best Australian Poems to mean that you are selecting from all the poems published by Australian poets in the given year, both those that are submitted to you directly by poets, but also those in journals, magazines, newspapers, other anthologies, and individual collections in Australia and overseas. Both years of my editorship I read every single poem published in every journal, magazine and newspaper in the country, and sought out as many individual collections and anthologies as I possibly could, alongside the hundreds of submissions poets sent it. I felt I had to do this work in order to be able to stand behind my selection and say with authority that, in my necessarily subjective opinion, these really were the ‘best’ poems of the year. It was a huge volume of reading—thousands of poems—but it also unearthed so many gems that made it into the anthology, so it was worth it.

When making the selection from these thousands of poems, ultimately it must be the poems that stay with you—the poems you remember, that insist—that go in. That’s my short answer.

So, there’s also an intuitive aspect to selection?

You start to feel really possessive about certain poems, and you begin to think, ‘I can’t let that one go’. And that’s a good sign; that means the poem must stay in. In 2016, I ended up with 136 that I felt like that about. And I was allowed 100 in the anthology. There’s always a certain quotient of heartbreak in making the final cuts. There are poets who wrote wonderful poems that I couldn’t include because of mathematics. You can’t fight maths. I tried. I would look at the spreadsheet and delete a poem, and ask myself, ‘How do I feel about it now?’ If I felt anxious, then I knew I needed to put it back in. In the end, you end up with the most memorable poems, the poems that insist.

Have you noticed distinct patterns in publishing?

Absolutely. Some more marked than others. Some journals have a particular emphasis on experimental poetics or lyrical poems or narrative poems. I noticed a large number of journals with themed issues. Some journals have a similar stable of names in every issue. Others feature a large number of Melbourne or Sydney poets, which may be reflective of the poets an editor is most familiar with. It’s been interesting to observe those geographical trends.

Did you have to work hard to achieve a spread across the states?

Ultimately, you can’t pay much attention to representing states in an anthology like the Best Australian Poems. It isn’t a definitive anthology, like Puncher & Wattmann’s Contemporary Australian Poetry, whose title suggests it is a complete survey of the field, and which by sheer size has the capacity to be more exhaustive. Nor is it an exercise like Australian Book Review’s States of Poetry anthology, which seeks to link poetry with its state of origin. The Best Australian Poems is an anthology which claims to represent, and only represent, the best in Australian poetry within the constraints of the poems published in a single year. That’s its sole ambit. If the hundred ‘best’ poems of a given year happened to be written by Tasmanians, the editor of BAP should publish them all. The geographical spread falls where it may; you can’t include someone on the basis of geography rather than merit.

The one thing I did keep an eye on was that I did want to include some emerging poets and mid-career poets alongside established poets. It’s exciting to find a young poet who’s written a powerful poem, and to be able to recognise their work in that way. I was also pleased that in the two years of my editorship, the poets included differed quite substantially from year to year.

Of course, there’s a labour that goes into editing that’s not captured in the final selection. Each year, there was a core of poems that I felt absolutely must be included, and some others that might have come or gone depending on a variety of factors. I wanted the anthology to include the spectrum of Australian poetry and poetics, from formal verse through to more experiemental modes. I also had my eye on repetition or replication of subject matter; you don’t want the anthology to be full of elegies or love poems, or to have too many poems on the same topic. You can’t have nine poems about cockatoos, for example. Well, you could, but they’d have to be pretty exceptional poems. In 2016, I read a lot of poems about cockatoos. It was funny. In 2016 there were also a ton of fox poems. Jennifer Maiden’s The Fox Petition that came out last year—god, I love that book. There are foxes all the way through Maiden’s book, metaphorically and literally, but in my reading pile there were also maybe ten other poems just about foxes, several of them very good.

A strange coincidence. I think Robert Adamson wrote about this a few years ago. From memory, he found a cluster of bat poems when he was editing the Best Australian Poems, and he included three. I ended up, I think, with four fox poems in the 2016 anthology. I could write a series of essays about all the odd coincidences and sister poems that seem to be speaking to one another, although I’m sure neither poet is aware of the other’s poem. You hold all of that in your head, as an editor, and in a sense it goes nowhere; you can’t write a rambling essay about all the coincidences and strange echoes you’ve noticed in a year of reading.

That’s such a shame, that would be wonderful.

I haven’t spoken to previous editors about it, but I’m positive that like me, they too have vastly more to say about what they read than they could possibly cram into their introduction. And, of course, a year is an arbitrary and idiosyncratic snapshot, rather than a fulsome representation of everything happening in Australian poetry. Some poets have fallow years. Some publish very long sequences and so are difficult to excerpt or include in an anthology, and so forth. But what you do gain, as an editor, is a wonderful overview. That’s your job: to hold that holistic view in your head and make decisions with the full force of all that knowledge.

Ultimately, that knowledge resides in you, and that’s the major benefit of editing an anthology like The Best Australian Poems. The reward is the reading rather than the anthology itself, which is never a perfect object—you always wish there were more poems you could include in it. Yet I’m very fond of both anthologies, and have been really happy to anthologise all the exciting poetry published during my two years as editor.

The thought occurred to me today about the intimate labour involved in producing poetry; you labour and you produce a language-based artefact that goes out into the world. But at the same time there’s evidence of another process, one that carves out a kind of internal symbolic space, and that must be an incredibly private thing. The private aspect of writing poetry must shape you and that shaping becomes part of your authority as a poet.

There is a lot of invisible labour in poetry. If you do it well isn’t evident in the poem. Part of the work of poetry is making it look as though there’s no work.

There are of course other poets who would think disagree with me about this, who don’t mind the seams showing, and who have a different conception of poiesis. I tend to want my poems to have authority and presence. For me that comes from the process of sandpapering the poem’s edges. For me poetry is about transportation, and the fewer seams the better in that intense moment of engagement.

Do you ever think back to your time at university, and identify certain poets as being influential during that period?

Coming back to Australia for university, I was still reading a lot of American poetry. There’s a very different register at work in the American poetry I was reading and the Australian poetry that my contemporaries were writing. I found the refusal of earnestness that predominates in some Australian poetry really difficult to grasp for the first couple of years. I didn’t get it. I didn’t recognise it as poetry. The American poetry I’d been reading—Louise Glück, Robert Hass, Sharon Olds, Jack Gilbert—was steeped in rhetoric, it was clearly operating within the lyric mode, the lyric I was very present. And I was fixated on Lowell and Bishop, my two mid-century obsessions: both high stylists and rhetoricians. Seventeen years later, of course, the pendulum has swung somewhat in the other direction: I love the irreverence of Australian poetry, and find some of the poetry I used to love a bit ponderous. In terms of Australian poets who were important to me early in my writing life, David Malouf, Bronwyn Lea, Anthony Lawrence, Les Murray, Judith Beveridge, Robert Adamson, Robert Gray, Peter Porter, and Gwen Harwood all influenced me in various ways.

Do you remember why you started writing poetry?

I think I wanted to emulate what I loved about those poems. I also wanted to be part of the conversation poets like Eliot and Stevens were having. A lot of my early juvenilia comprises half-copied versions from poets I loved.

Do you still have those early poems?

Unfortunately, I lived in America and I used to mail poems to friends in Australia. So there are people out there who could embarrass the hell out of me at some point in the future. There’s a lot of old friends who I have to maintain cordial relations with because they have these terrible high school poems stowed in a shoebox somewhere.

So, it starts off as a kind of mimicry because you enjoy the poems that you’re reading?

You love what you’re reading, and you’re attracted to the power of what a poet is able to do so swiftly in such a small space. A few lines on a page can be a king hit.

Did you find that there was a point where you felt like, ‘I am a poet and I understand how to do this’? 

This is a bit of a digression, but I don’t go round telling people I’m a poet when people ask me what I do. I always say I’m a writer. I almost feel that the title of poet is something that should be conferred externally. There are a lot of people who are writers. There are few people I think of as novelists. I think it’s the same with poets.

In answer to your question: if you become too pleased with yourself, you can become lazy as a poet. It’s dangerous to feel self-satisfied. You have to always have a critical eye on your work.

Can you talk a little bit about some of your practices, or some of the things that you do to prepare for writing?

I’m either in the mood for it or I’m not. I don’t write very much; I’m not prolific.  I’ve written two books over eight years. I write more poems than I publish and am fairly hard on myself in that respect; I’d rather not publish a poem than publish something I’ll one day be embarrassed by. I don’t feel the need to write poetry all the time; I don’t have that precious ‘I must write every day’ mentality. It’s better for me if I haven’t written for a while then I’m really aching to do it and then I have a greater impetus. I read a lot more than I write.

Poets sometimes like to tell elaborate mystical stories about how they like to write, but I just sit down and work on the poem. I read it aloud and re-work it. I try and get a draft done, then I will read the whole poem several times and things will stick with me that need fixing. It’s laborious but also deeply uninteresting. I get bored when people talk about their process; there’s a lot of that on writers’ festival panels. The end product is so much more interesting than whether you have eight cups of coffee or nine before you sit down to write, or whether you use a standing desk or a chaise or what have you. I don’t have any of those pretensions or affectations. Mostly I like to write on a laptop so I can see the arrangement of the lines. You can’t always see the respective lengths of the lines or the shape of the poem on the page if you write by hand.

But you’re responding to things, something you’ve read, or …

Often the subject matter is personal, where I’m distilling experience into a poem. The end of a relationship, for example. Grief. Those subjects are difficult to write about. Responding to an external subject is much easier, which is why people write a lot of poems about minor historical figures and so forth. That’s relatively easy. But unless the poem has something animating it, some kind of sincere intellectual and emotional engagement with the subject matter, it runs the risk of being recapitulative.

I’m thinking of your poem ‘A Scrap of Lace’ and how incredibly beautiful and intimate and intricate it is…

That’s a strange poem.

And then it ends with that allusion to an historical event. It was so beautifully done, I thought.

I think that poem is probably a good example of what I mean, because it’s about a number of things simultaneously, it’s not just about lace, it’s not just about the punitive colonial system and the petty things people got sent away for life for. It’s partially about those things, and it’s also partially about family history and the house my grandmother grew up in. It’s a similar poem to Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging,’ insofar as it contends with the manual labour and traditions that are lost across generations. And then part of it is just about how pleasurable it is to write about lace in language. There’s an associative musical aspect to trying to find a lexicon that can encapsulate what lace is.

I fear saying this because I haven’t quite worked out how to say it, but there’s something like a reverse anthropomorphism, or maybe it’s like an imagining of the human as mineral captured in your poetry.

I think my animal poems are very much about the human world as much as they are about animals. But I haven’t thought of the reverse. I don’t know how to answer that question, but I like it.

There’s a mineral quality to the human figures in your poetry. You can almost clunk your teeth on some of those images.

I think maybe what you’re getting at is the fact that I don’t have a cinematic gaze; I have more of a microscopic gaze. I’m focused on detail. That’s what I love about someone like Elizabeth Bishop; she sees the world in granular, nuclear detail.

What are the major tendencies of Australian poetry today?  If there are tendencies. 

That’s a tough question. There’s obviously a strong tradition of interrogating the relationship between self and landscape. There are poets who are interested in process and formal experiments. There are poets who borrow the language of memes and internet-speak, inverted it, playing with jargon, providing a meta-commentary on the debasement of language. There’s a dialogue with French poetics and French poets like Mallarmé and Baudelaire running through the work of several poets. There are some really powerful emerging and established Indigenous poets working with decolonial poetics. There are a lot of people writing verse novels; that’s an observable phenomenon. There are poets writing about the migrant experience, about living between and of two cultures. There’s a strong mode of ecocritical poetry, and there’s a lot of radical or transformational sort of poetics, a lot of feminist poets. And there are lots of poets working with traditional forms, too. But even to say that much is to oversimplify what’s going on; the diversity of Australian poetry is astonishing and so is its overall calibre.

It can be tricky to group people into schools of poetry, however. Sometimes such groupings can have less to do with their poetry and more to do with their demographics, which can be very frustrating when you’re on the receiving end. It’s certainly something I haven’t enjoyed myself, having frequently been called a ‘young female lyric poet.’ I still haven’t ever met most of the poets whose work my work has been discussed in concert with. It seems to be a demographic sort of appellation rather than one to do with a sincere engagement with the poetry. That’s irksome. That said, I get called a ‘young female lyric poet’ less of late than I did ten years ago. Maybe I’m just getting old enough that I don’t get the ‘young’ any more. I understand the taxonomical impulse, but think it should always been rooted in a deep engagement with the poetry.

Thank you so much.

This interview was conducted  as part of a larger ARC funded project, led by Justin Clemens, titled Australian Poetry Today.