At the end of last week my pdf of the New Zealand Poetry Society magazine, A Fine Line, arrived in my inbox, with not only a review of My Iron Spine, but also an interview with me.
First of all, the review. It was by Anne Harré, who also did the interview. She seems to like it - says it's 'an intriguing combination of poems'. She's a bigger fan of the first, autobiographical, section than the rest, which many people seem to (whereas most of my favs are in the second section). She says it 'lilts along' and that 'the images are, at times, sublimely beautiful, yet manage to convey a deceptive naivety. '
Ultimately the poems in this first section work because they are personal. It is the personal voice of the poet that cuts through deceptively simple narrative and grabs the reader’s attention through to the end.She says of the second and third sections: 'While entertaining, they don’t hold the same sway as the first section', but likes 'Emily Dickinson'.
All in all, it's pretty positive: 'Overall, though, this is an accomplished collection. Rickerby has a strong poetic voice that draws the reader in and is well worth a read and a re-read.'
The interview, which was conducted via email, is the first in a series Anne is going to do with poets in the magazine. She sent me the questions, and I found I had to think a lot about (most of) them to come up with my answers - especially 'What is the point of poetry in the 21st century?' (What do you think? Let me know.) A really interesting exercise.
Anyway, Anne has very kindly said I can re-publish the interview here, so here it is.
Much of your work reads as deeply personal, deeply felt. How important to you is the personal, and how do you deal with the vulnerability that poetry provides?
I find it kind of curious that people respond to my work in that way. Some of the poems in My Iron Spine are deeply personal, but most of them are biographical – about other people. Sometimes poems that are autobiographical are not that personal, and sometimes poems that seem autobiographical aren’t. The more personal ones, I usually try to layer with other things, so they maybe don’t seem so personal. And the poems I write that are really personal haven’t seen the light of day.
This personal–impersonal thing in poetry is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I’m pulled in both directions. Part of me wants to write impersonal, opaque, imagistic poetry, and the other part of me wants to write about my personal feelings and experience and say things that we’re normally too afraid to say. Sometimes poems become really universal by being very personal and specific – I’m not expecting people to be interested in me so much as find something that means something to them in my work.
Which writers inspire you, and why?
I’m inspired by heaps of different kinds of writers in different ways. In terms of poets, some I’ve recently been inspired by are Eliot for his gorgeous opacity and Sharon Olds for her honesty. Anne Carson and Anne Sexton have been inspirational in recent years. I’m also inspired by the poets and writers I know, as I see them change and grow and reach. I’m inspired by non-fiction a lot too, and lately I’ve been inspired by Alain de Botton’s combination of philosophy and the personal. Lots of novelists have inspired me – Jeanette Winterson and Margaret Atwood probably being the two major ones.
Do you ‘wait for the muse’ or are you one of those disciplined writers that try to write something every day?
I guess I’m somewhere in between. I’d love to write every day, and I did during a halcyon period when I wasn’t working. But in these days of full-time employment, that isn’t working for me. I do need to make some time and space though, or the muse doesn’t visit very often. I’ve found that going somewhere like a café, where I won’t get distracted by home things, and just thinking and reading and writing rubbish in my journal often creates a space where poetry can come.
Robert Frost wrote that “to be a poet is a condition, not a profession”, so for you is it one or the other (or a bit of both)?
It’s definitely not a profession for me – sounds too much like I expect money from it. It’s more like a condition or a vocation. For me it’s something I do, or something I am, depending on how I’m feeling about it and how much I’ve written lately.
What’s the point of poetry in the 21st century?
This is a difficult one to articulate. I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about the value of art, and I really do believe it is important, even in these days when we tend to value the utilitarian and the economic. And, while I think that art does have utilitarian and economic value, I think it’s really important to have art as both creators and audience; to make us think about things differently, to give our lives meaning, beauty and something bigger than ourselves.
For many people, poetry in particular maybe isn’t that relevant; but for me it is. The value and difference of poetry is its intensity of language. Probably more than any other art form, it works with metaphor and subtext – you say something, but you’re also saying something else. It might mean it enables you to say or explore something you might not have otherwise been able to. Or, that you’re saying multiple things at one time – for example, my poem ‘Winters of discontent’ is partly about the classical myth of Persephone and Demeter, partly about my own experiences of depression, partly the archetype of dying in winter and regenerating in spring, partly about the reader’s experiences of sadness or loss, and so on…
What is the appeal of live readings (either as an audience member, or performer)?
Hearing a poem read is very different to reading it on the page. I enjoy both and, although a few poets are quite bad at reading their work and it’s better to read it on the page, hearing the poem read can bring words to life in a different way. It’s interesting hearing the rhythm and pace the poet envisaged for the poem.
In recent years I’ve come to really enjoy reading my work, probably as I’ve gotten better at it – though, being a shy person, I can still get a bit nervous. I enjoy it when you get a good response from the audience – turns out I quite like instant gratification, like everyone else. It’s also helpful when it shows you that something isn’t really working, or that something works better on the page.
Do you prefer crunchy peanut butter or smooth?
Definitely crunchy, and only with honey.
What are you working on at present?
The poetry project I’m working on is what I hope will become my next book, Cinema. They’re poems that are loosely inspired by film – some specific films, some film technique, some film-related experience. And I’m still writing some more random poetry.
Inspired by the film stuff, I’m also starting to video poets reading their poetry, with the aim of sticking them on the internet and making them available to people. I’ve got several publishing projects on the way, including a new Seraph Press book (Ithaca Island Bay Leaves by Vana Manasiadis), and JAAM. And I’m blogging – http://www.wingedink.blogspot.com/ – and I’ve recently joined Twitter. As well as twittering inane things about what I’m up to, I also ‘tweet’ short extracts from poems I like.