LIDIA VIANU -- KATHERINE GALLAGHER
Posterity will judge harshly poems that eschew feeling
Interview with KATHERINE GALLAGHER (born 7 September, 1935, Maldon, Australia), British poet
LIDIA VIANU: Most poets today – Desperado poets, as I call them – will do anything to hide their identity. The persona in your poems may not be you, but it is a real biography, and also a very engaging one. I suspect it is you. Am I very wrong?
KATHERINE GALLAGHER: Everyone writes as they have to write. In his handbook on writing poetry, John Whitworth has a mini-chapter on finding the ludic, ‘Good reasons for hating seriousness’. Certainly, in the post-modern or desperado world as you call it, there’s a lot of joking going on. Often tongue-in-cheek. I think I tend towards ‘seriousness’ in poetry somewhat as per Theodore Roethke’s idea, ‘Poem: one more triumph over chaos’. But I like jokiness too; I guess I’m a desperado of sorts – I like the name, anyway. It suggests an urgency and imaginative take-off. I certainly like to use humour and irony to free things up and make a point – for example, in Concerning the Fauna from my Passengers to the City (1985). In 1969 when I arrived here in London, I was amazed at how much Australia was seen by British people in terms of its flora and fauna – gum trees and koalas. Then one evening, I saw some kangaroos on a BBC wildlife programme:
When I see kangaroos on the screen,
I take in the landscape in one miraculous jump.
It’s the same with koalas –
my stomach lifts,
I start climbing the nearest tree.
I’m an old hand now.
Once I saw a famous politician
fill a meeting-hall:
his subject: Kangaroos and koalas -
our national identity.
People listened rapt: by the end of the evening,
we were all either jumping or climbing.
Finally in the hullaballoo, the police were called –
only the fastest got away.
True, Australians have been preoccupied with their national identity (not untypical for a post-colonial culture) but I was shocked by the general British ignorance of the place. By contrast, for most Australians, Britain and particularly England, was the great ‘Other’. Concerning the Fauna, like Poem for the Executioners, my first published piece, is a political poem – and my attempts to explore public issues such as race, the environment, capital punishment, war, the place of women, constitute a strong vein in my work. The personal is political and vice versa, sang the women’s movement, one of my big influences, then as now. I think there is a need for poets to explore the political but this doesn’t always happen in desperado land. However, there are exceptions. One of my reasons for admiring Modernists such as W.H. Auden, W.B. Yeats and Judith Wright, is that they were great public poets, ready to examine issues and take a stand, whatever.
Fashion in poetry is never static, and over the years, although I’ve increasingly experimented with ‘other voices’ and varying the tone, more attention to current poetic modes would no doubt have helped my critical reputation in both the British and Australian ‘desperado cultures’. A bit less seriousness perhaps, a few more puzzles, a bit less certainty of tone?? Who knows? It’s strange to reflect on one’s oeuvre; one writes what one writes, hoping to reach an audience. Strangely, my first collection, The Eye’s Circle (Rigmarole, 1974) written while I was in Paris, was quite experimental. It used the ‘eye’ as a persona throughout the book. In Australia, I was even thought to be ‘avant-garde’. (I hadn’t tried sending my work to British outlets then. From Paris, it seemed easier to send my ‘fledgling’ work back to Australia where I was more known.)
However, during the seventies, the women’s movement with its growing presence, books on feminism, and great American women’s poetry anthologies, Rising Tides and No More Masks, to name a couple – fed into my writing. There were similar Australian ones. The landmark Mother, I’m Rooted, (1975) featured 152 poets, including myself. Such a stir in the Australian poetry firmament. And the networking was magical, inspired. Around this time, I met my French husband – more changes in my life, I was flying. Then in 1978, I had my first child – wonderful joyous days and life became more domestic, with both less and more time for writing.
I wanted the passion, the openness of women’s poetry, these sisters across the globe, linked, speaking their lives out loud. I joined in the song and the angst of reclaiming all our pasts and ‘making an identity’. There was a preoccupation with belonging, with finding a voice. I was looking for the vernacular ‘political’ charge of Bruce Dawe, a very popular Australian poet with whom I’d done a workshop in 1968 and who’d introduced me to various American poets Equally, I was looking for W.B. Yeats’ and Judith Wright’s ‘candid speech’, (Dawe, Wright and Yeats are indelibly linked as influences on my work). Poetry was becoming my ‘way of seeing’. I was mostly writing lyrics, memory-oriented, offering a personal response to people, situations or nature. That’s continued to be my principal mode of working. The personal is political. Of course, that doesn’t mean that everything in my poems is true or autobiographical. A voice can seem absolutely sincere and truthful but may not be telling the truth? Does it matter? All art in fiction and poetry finally comes down to the ‘beautiful lies’ and it’s a definite step forward when you realise you can, indeed must, move away in the writing from your own experiences. Shades of Emily Dickinson: Tell the truth but tell it slant.
LV. Like Fleur Adcock and Peter Porter, you were born in Australia. Do you consider yourself Australian? British? Which literature is your mother tongue?
KG. Actually, Fleur Adcock was born in Papakura, New Zealand and she is very much a New Zealander. I consider myself to be Australian, (I guess that’s evident from my replies to the previous question) but like Adcock and Porter, I have lived here for many years and am really a hybrid. A poem titled Hybrid in my forthcoming collection, Circus Apprentice, touches this question.
I have swallowed a country,
it sits quietly inside me.
Days go by when I scarcely
realise it is there . . .
I talk to this country,
tell it, You’re not forgotten,
nor ever could be.
I depend on you –
cornucopia packed close
with daylight moons
and bony coasts,
the dust of eucalyptus
on my teeth; mudded rivers
under the cobalt crystal
of a lucent sky.
It is my reference-point
for other landscapes
that, after thirty years,
have multiplied my skies.
That’s a positive spin on hybridity, a coming to terms with it in its way. Inevitably, modern travel and communications, particularly the internet, have given a global twist to everything, and I increasingly feel myself to be international. But the wrench with my home country has been enormous and my way out of this has been to try to keep up contacts with Australia and to see myself as living in two countries, even a third, if you consider the French connection. It’s ironic that some of my best friends in Australia are hybrids too – Brits who for some reason have decided to live there instead of in the U.K. Anyway, I have many dear friends here and as time has passed, I’ve become more and more part of the British poetry scene, doing readings, publishing here, working in schools and on mixed-media projects, tutoring to children and adults, freelancing, and working as an editor, including on Poetry London, then Poetry London Newsletter (1992-1999). Currently, I’m on the editorial board of Writing in Education, the Magazine of the National Association of Writers in Education.
Growing up in Australia in the 1940s/1950s, I had a very ‘British’ education – Empire-driven, with Wordsworth’s Daffodils and Shelley’s West Wind thrown in. Paradoxically, this has made it easier for me to adapt to living here. At the same time, living in the Victorian wheatlands sans the actual daffodils and the famous west wind, we often felt displaced. It seems hard to believe now, but coming to London for the first time in 1969 was in some ways, like coming home to my own imagination. Colonial messages die hard and Australian poetry, plays and drama were rarely on the school or university syllabuses prior to 1963.
So much for identity and belonging. English is my mother tongue, but I am most myself in its Australian version. After all, I lived there for 33 years before coming overseas. And a lot of my sense of Australia has to do with family, and a shared communal experience envisaging and exploring the sounds and sights of that great continent. Of course, this continuity was disrupted when I came away, wanting to see the world and to escape an unhappy love affair – trying to move on. Now, having lived here 25 years, (in the seventies, I lived in Paris) and though increasingly fitting into the British literary scene, I’m still an ‘outsider’ (well, poets by their nature are always ‘outsiders’). But London is a great city, of splendid cultural diversity and richness, and there are so many other people here of different nationalities as well as British, so many other Australians plus a vibrant Australian cultural centre, that I have managed to dissolve happily into the great London metropolis, this city of the future and of the past. Most importantly, and to state the obvious, here I have the language. When my French husband, son and I came here from Paris in 1979, I was delighted to be able to speak and hear my own language again – although a bank manager gently reminded me, ‘Well, it’s not quite your language . . .’ Smiles all round and glory be to the Australian accent!
LV. Tenderness, more than love is your theme. Postmodern, or, in my term, Desperado authors, have destroyed the fairy tale tradition of boy meets girl and live happily ever after. They will do anything to shock the reader’s emotional expectations. You do not want to shock at all costs. Your world is full and balanced. Why did you start writing poetry? What was the origin of the first poetic impulse?
KG. I find it interesting that you note tenderness more than love as my theme. I think both are in the poems and complement each other in a fairly balanced way. Tenderness. Yes, a caring, an awe before one’s experience, an attempt to present a voice behind the poem, a ‘singing’ voice – quiet, inward, meditative. My poetry has been said to have an understated quality, and this can be problematic as regards criticism. There’s a danger that readers may think the poetry is ‘flat’ and going nowhere. I try to balance understatement with irony and metaphor. And I like to think that my images allow readers an imaginative space where they can make the running. So I want to say that love sits alongside tenderness as one of my themes. It’s in poem after poem. You’re right though that I don’t want to shock people just for the hell of it, nor do I want to be shocked unnecessarily. But shock, used sparingly, has a certain value. My poem The Year of the Tree about carrying an oak through the Metro, ends with a reminder to fellow-passengers to relax – ‘It’s a tree, not a gun’. People are always a bit shocked when I read that. And it was written well before the July, ‘05 bombings on the London Underground. But I think it’s all right, it’s making a point.
I wouldn’t say my world is always ‘full and balanced’. However, I have a lot of Zen in me and try to live ‘in the moment’. Poetry is my refuge, my solace. At school, I wrote a few stories but never thought of trying poetry. In fact, at age 17, I enrolled in a short story writing correspondence course but gave up due to lack of time and motivation.
So how did I get started on poetry? By accident moreorless, as a result of reading The Penguin Book of Australian Verse with my then boyfriend who was doing a thesis on a neglected Australian poet, Kenneth Mackenzie. I was entranced. We also read poetry from other nationalities, including British (Alvarez’s New Poetry), New Zealand, Russian, French, Japanese and American. All these poets and particularly those in the Penguin Australian Verse sparked off ideas and I said, ‘I’m going to write some of this stuff’. This was the Sixties and poetry was becoming more noticed, largely through lively, well-attended readings, sometimes politically-inspired (this was also a time of agitation for Aboriginal voting rights), and a rise in performance events. Sadly, my love relationship wasn’t going where I wanted it to. But it had provided a spark, and I had the ‘poetry bug’ for good.
My first poem?? Around this time, in Victoria, there was enormous political controversy over the imminent hanging of Ronald Ryan, alleged to have killed a policeman. To the end, he pleaded his innocence and large crowds gathered outside the prison hoping to persuade the Premier, Sir Henry Bolte to commute the sentence. All around was a language of despair – the terrible arrogance of killing a possibly innocent man. I wrote the first lines:
‘This is a blinding-place.
Only the hangmen see
fixing the knot of shame
upon their chosen tree’.
Passion, symbolism and rhyme. The poem grew to twelve lines, in three quatrains, and was published in the Australian magazine Poetry (1966). It has since appeared, with several changes, as Poem for the Executioners in my Fish-Rings on Water (1989) and in The Oxford Book of Modern Australian Verse (ed. Peter Porter, 1996).
LV. All of your poems have a short script, something always happens and the lines always offer a memory, a slice of your sensibility. None of your poems leaves the reader empty handed. You know how to tell a story in verse. Do you also write fiction?
KG. It is true that my poems tend to be short, a bit clipped, with usually a strong final line; however, I have consciously tried to write longer pieces. Since I mostly write lyrics, my main way out of this problem has been to do lyric sequences – for example, Poinsettias in Tigers on the Silk Road. Probably a major influence behind this tendency towards a ‘short script’ has been the practice of writing haiku. Its features of brevity, immediacy, spontaneity, focus on the natural world, and sudden illumination have impacted on my writing style. Haiku has to do with dramatic concision and haiku poets look for telling images– trying to capture Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘dearest freshness deep down things’. I have many favourite haiku, but here are two to give the flavour:
left it behind –
the moon at the window.
The temple bell stops –
but the sound keeps coming
out of the flowers.
And one of my own:
November morning –
a rain-soaked rose
sways in the breeze.
In Britain, with a few exceptions, haiku tends to be ignored or treated as a 5-7-5 syllable counting exercise; schoolchildren are laboured with it when the true value, ‘the spirit of haiku’, isn’t widely understood. The British Haiku Society of which I’ve been a member for many years, is trying to rectify this and is having some success. Judith Wright, one of Australia’s greatest poets and my poetry ‘godmother’, started me writing haiku back in 1968 and it’s been an ongoing part of my work. In fact, although I’m a late-starter (I began writing poetry at age 30), the discipline of writing through the senses and carrying a notebook has taught me to see things much more closely, to ‘seek’ their singularity.
Various people have commented on the narrative quality in my poems. It’s all part of a love of story, the appeal to memory and a feeling for adventure and drama. Also, narrative is entertaining. In my latest work, I’m trying to stretch narrative further into longer works – surreal, discursive, in order to vary my oeuvre and to place less emphasis on the lyric. But the lyric is part of me, and I’m mindful of Robert Frost’s idea that in poetry, we’re not trying to tell people something they didn’t already know, we’re trying to give them the ‘shock of recognition’.
Apropos of writing fiction, I’ve always loved writing short stories and early on, wrote them alongside my poetry and published some in Australian magazines and on the BBC World Service. I particularly love Katherine Mansfield’s work and my idea was to publish both poetry and short fiction. But there was never enough time, and I had to earn a living, so following the publication of my first full-length poetry collection in 1985, I decided to commit to poetry.
LV. With some Desperado poets, a volume of verse becomes a diary. With others it is the very opposite: they reveal absolutely nothing of their private lives. When interviewed, most declare that real life and the life in their poems have nothing in common. I strongly doubt that, and am waiting for the poet who is brave enough to admit poetry is a kind of emotional striptease. Do you find that to be the wrong expectation? Would you feel comfortable with such a reader?
KG. I like people to feel that they’ve met ‘me’ in my poems – through that combination of voice(s), rhythms, images and metaphors that makes the totality of a book. Indeed, while there are poets who say very little about their private lives, there are many, particularly women, who tell their story pretty openly in their work. Overall, women seem freer about writing from experience and are less preoccupied with concealing their identity. That might be because generally, they are exploring and claiming a personal identity. That has probably been my case. The American poet, Sharon Olds has had a profound ‘loosening-up’ effect and influence on poets here, with many women poets in particular, adopting her ‘confessional-with-a-twist’ pattern of anecdotes from her life. But ‘confessional’ poetry?? The term doesn’t go down well here. Also, I feel your expression ‘emotional strip-tease’ is perhaps too strong for this ‘digging in the psyche’ exercise. Back to Emily’s Tell the truth but tell it slant. I’m inclined to agree with Australian poet Fay Zwicky who says, ‘Never believe writers who pretend that they don’t base their work on their own experience’ Finally, does it matter? I think it does, particularly in terms of the accessibility of their work, and even, their output.
However, it’s ironic to think that once the poem has been published, especially in book form, it’s on its own and must simply be read for itself. I feel emotion is an integral part of any poem and imagine posterity will judge harshly poems that eschew feeling. Many don’t, of course. And the reading public is very powerful in reinforcing the idea that finally, the poem is more important than the poet.
LV. Your poems ‘trap’ a ‘mood’ (Seascape). In your case, it is one of painful awareness. What I find remarkable is the quality of your style, both clear and encoded. You are not direct (your poems thrive on ambiguity), but you do not make understanding difficult. I have this theory that Desperadoes are the authors who realized that the way Joyce and Eliot used language, although unspeakably enchanting, could have killed the audience of literature if prolonged. So they took refuge in clarity. Your clarity is such a rebellious reaction against the mystery of the word. Your words feed us tenderness, while veiling the actors. Who are the heroes of your life, who are the characters in your poems? You talk about a mother, son, and very little about a husband. As I know nothing about you, except what I read (which is more than most poets can confess), could you reveal the main moments of your life?
KG. I like to think my poems can ‘trap’ a mood. D.H. Lawrence once said, ‘Trust the tale, not the teller’ or something like that. I think that is pertinent to this question. My life is in the poems. It’s true I’ve written a lot about my family in all my books except the first; and I find I write about people and incidents as the inspiration takes me. In Circus Apprentice, there’s an epithalamium for some friends. It’s a singing, celebratory poem but maybe my strongest pieces are sad. With regard to the notion of clarity, I see metaphor as the chief means of creating depth and complexity, with a layeredness and leavening in the content. I love metaphor – surprising, pithy, surreal, and especially extended metaphors (cf. John Donne and the Metaphysicals) as in my love poem, Poem for a Shallot.
I am fooled.
You insist on the secret of skins –
how perfectly each wraps you.
I don’t know how.
I can peel you back to nothing.
I hunt for what isn’t there –
layer upon layer –
down to your cagey heart.
When I try to get away
you’ve snuck into my breath, eyes,
making me cry
into my hands.
I have discussed this poem, how it was conceived and written into its final form on a new website Strix Varia. (www.strixvaria.com)
I like to aim for clarity, especially of image and tone. This helps to achieve authenticity and indeed, accessibility. Yeats’ poetry, with its wonderful rhythms, diction, and fusion of emotions and ideas has always stayed with me. I studied him at University and attended the Sligo International Yeats’ School twice. Judith Wright’s work has a similar importance for me. At a 1967 Australian Literature Conference at the University of New England, Armidale, I showed her some of my poems. She was extremely kind, told me to read widely, especially the Elizabethans, the Metaphysicals, and the Moderns, Eliot and Yeats. She talked of how in her second year at University, she’d dropped out of her Honours English Course which seemed to be ‘Beowulf and more Beowulf’ and had instead used the time reading, reading – Asiatic literatures as well as European. ‘Keep going, you’ve got something there’, she said – words I needed to hear. For beginners, that sort of encouragement is crucial. Besides, there were virtually no workshops around then to give poets the training lift-off necessary to challenge and sustain them.
My life has been greatly affected by growing up on a farm in central Victoria at Eastville, a small place consisting of an Anglican church, a post office and a one-teacher-13-pupil-school. I was second in a 4th generation Irish-Australian family of 8 children, and my Irish heritage is very important to me. Eastville, with its grassy paddocks, classic eucalypts, undulating hills and stretching skies, gave me a lasting sense of sky and landscape. Beyond the house paddocks were Maldon, my birthplace, and Mt. Tarrengower, settled into the blue-haze. This childhood was ‘the quiet life’ par excellence – ‘All that silence, as if nothing’s/happening under the sky,’ as I said in a poem. But Eastville had its own music and was quite a contrast to Bendigo where I attended boarding school, and later, Melbourne, where I worked as a secretary, before attending university in 1960. Leaving Australia and returning has always marked my poetry, as has travel. My first jaunt was to Tasmania, then hitchhiking with my sister around New Zealand in 1955 when I was twenty. The world seemed unbelievably diverse and never-ending. So a poetry of place is always part of my work.
LV. You lived nine years in Paris. Have you ever felt tempted to write in French?
KG. I adore Paris and visit it as often as possible. When I was living there (1971-79), I toyed with the idea of writing in French. Having studied it in school and at University, as well as living in France, I am quite fluent. But I decided that trying to write well in French would take so much time. Most importantly, the French do it better. Nevertheless, being bilingual has given me a wider sense of the nuances of expression and of words themselves, their multi-layers of meaning yet their singularity, and the silences around them. In 1980, my husband translated some of my poems and we juxtaposed meanings. It was an interesting exercise; but lack of time was a factor and I’m afraid we didn’t get past my first collection, The Eye’s Circle.
Then in 1994, I translated a collection by a well-known French poet, Jean-Jacques Celly for Forest Books. Fortunately, I was able to collaborate closely with M. Celly and the book, The Sleepwalker with Eyes of Clay, received encouraging reviews. However, both these excursions into the French language made me decide that it was better time-wise for me to write in English. That said, I would very much like to have a selection of my poems translated into French.
LV. You taught while you were in Australia. What did you teach? Did you enjoy teaching?
KG. I taught English (Literature and Expression) and History (Australian, and 20th Century European) in two Melbourne secondary schools from 1964-68. I greatly enjoyed teaching and the interaction with the students. In fact, if I had more than one life, I’d love to spend the extra one in the classroom. Naturally, I worked on the development of a higher profile for poetry in the school, particularly by enthusing students to read more. It seems that in these desperado times, there’s always a need to defuse the ‘mystique’ surrounding poetry.
LV. How many books of poetry have you published?
KG. I was a late-starter, having begun in 1965 when I was thirty. My books are:
The Eye’s Circle (Rigmarole, Melbourne, 1974)
Tributaries of the Love-Song (Angus & Robertson, Pamphlet Series, Sydney, 1978)
Passengers to the City (Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1985)*
Fish-Rings on Water (Forest Books, London, 1989)
Finding the Prince (Hearing Eye, Pamphlet Series, London, 1993)
The Sleepwalker with Eyes of Clay (Forest Books, London, 1994, Translation of Jean-Jacques Celly’s collection, Le Somnambule Aux Yeux d’Argile)
Shifts (Hub Editions, Wisbech, Cambs., 1997 – Haiku)
Tigers on the Silk Road (Arc Publications, 2000)
After Kandinsky (Vagabond Press, Rare Object Series, Chapbook, Sydney, 2005)
Forthcoming in 2006 – Circus Apprentice (Arc Publications, 2006)
* Passengers to the City was shortlisted for the 1986 Adelaide Festival National Poetry Award. This was very encouraging. In 2001, my publishers, Arc Publications, www.arcpublications.co.uk, distributed Tigers on the Silk Road) in Australia through Penguin/Fremantle Arts Centre Press.
LV. Do you know the London literary world well? Do you feel you are part of it? Who are your literary friends?
KG. Right from my earliest years here in 1970, I received wonderful support from various literary people. Writer-editors such as Douglas Hill (Tribune), Norman Hidden (Workshop New Poetry) and Alan Brownjohn (Poetry Society workshop) were very encouraging. Then in 1979, I joined Blake Morrison’s amazing workshop at Goldsmith’s College which counted later-to-be-well-knowns Wendy Cope, Alan Jenkins, Tony Curtis and Patricia Zontelli amongst its members.
Having lived here permanently since March, 1979, I feel I’ve come to know
the London literary world quite well and am part of it. It’s a diverse scene, with many area interests, reading and workshop venues, and there is an increasingly vibrant National Poetry Society. I’ve read my poems in a variety of venues. from the Barbican to Festival Hall’s Voice Box, from Coffee-House Poetry at the Troubadour to Torriano. Following publication of Fish-Rings on Water (1989) I taught Creative Writing (Barnet College) and did distance learning tutoring for the Open College of the Arts. Also, I’ve been running a monthly poetry workshop, now in its 7th year at Jacksons Lane Arts Centre, North London. I’ve been interviewed on the BBC and devised children’s poetry programmes for BBC Radio, plus published children’s poems in 40 children’s anthologies. I belong to the London-based SLN Network for women poets, a support group which has approximately 300 members and which has greatly facilitated networking between women poets around the U.K.
Also, I spent seven years as an editor on Poetry London Newsletter, now titled Poetry London. Likewise, the Menzies Australian Studies Centre, Kings College, Strand where I have lectured on post-colonial Australian Literature. Yes, London, I love it a lot; especially in spring when the parks are fairylands of blossom. It’s such a giant holdall for so many different peoples and cultures, and it will always be my favourite place in the U.K.
LV. You grew up on a farm near Bendigo. Doris Lessing grew up on a farm in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. I just couldn’t help connecting you two, although no two writers could be more different. What brings you together, though, is the debunking of love. You are both reluctant to look up to that feeling. This may and may not be related to feminism, in its early stages. Are you a feminist? Lessing declares she is not. Ruth Fainlight, on the other hand, was shocked when I said she was not, in my opinion. I confess I do not enjoy feminist aggressivity, but there are so many other sides of feminism that we cannot ignore. Which would be your choice?
KG. Firstly, I don’t agree that I debunk love. Love is such a complex emotion. My mother’s words in the poem Distances (where I quoted her) were ‘There are many kinds of love/and I have lived some of them’ So wise. Mother love, romantic love – I believe in them ardently and hope this is evident in many of my poems. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve understood what you mean here. The critic Brian Matthews made an interesting comment re distancing which might be what you’re getting at. ‘As a poet, Ms. Gallagher endows passionate concerns with the distancing of an intelligence that is almost sardonic in its refusal to expect too much... A kind of serene candour about even life’s big moments gives so many of her poems both an originality and an earthiness which is endearing for being so insistently clear-eyed.’ Similarly with feminism, this is a complex phenomenon, prone to stereotyping and misrepresentation, particularly in the media, but I’m a feminist, for sure. No doubt, some of my earlier remarks have made that clear.
From this point in the 21st century, it is too easy to forget the struggle for equality of opportunity and equal rights with men which the 20th century’s women’s movement worked constantly to bring about. The poetry world was as ‘walled up’ as anywhere else and women have had to strive to prove their talent. But now, the barricades are gradually coming down – for example, Carol Ann Duffy’s winning the prestigious T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize, 2005. There is still much to do. What counts is the poem rather than poets, thank goodness. Women poets have sometimes been dismissed for ghetto-ising themselves, allowing their work to appear in all-women anthologies and so on. However, as the Australian poet Jennifer Strauss says, ‘Better to be visible in a ghetto than not visible at all.’ Most feminists would agree with that and this is the principle behind Dilys Wood’s SLN Network which in the last ten years has greatly changed the possibilities for poetry by older women in the UK.
LV. Peter Porter introduced your volume Fish-Rings on Water. Is this because you both come from Australia or is there a closer connection, from the literary point of view?
KG. Yes, since we both come from Australia, there’s that strong connection but he’s also a good friend in the ‘literary stakes’ and always ready to help. Back in 1989, I’d met him a few times, and had read with him in one of the 1988 Bicentenary events. So I asked him if he’d mind writing the introduction to Fish-Rings on Water. He graciously accepted, and his introduction greatly helped the book to be noticed, not only here but also in Australia. He later introduced my Tigers on the Silk Road when it was launched in the 2000 Haringey Literature Festival.
LV. What did you study in Melbourne? What is your profession?
KG. English, History, Philosophy, French and Psychology. My chosen subjects turned out to be extremely useful for a writer although at the time of deciding my course, I didn’t know I’d drift into poetry. I started a Bachelor of Arts Course at Melbourne University in 1960. My majors were English and History, with a sub-major in Philosophy, and French and Psychology. After my first year, I won a Commonwealth Scholarship which paid course fees and gave me a living allowance. Bliss. Following my B.A., I decided to go into teaching and completed the necessary post-graduate Diploma of Education in 1963. The following year, I started teaching at Newlands High School, a northern suburbs Melbourne school. I had become a secondary teacher – what I saw as a main career until my writing took over.
LV. What made you leave Australia for Europe?
KG. There’s been a long tradition in Australia for young people to go overseas. I needed to get away, to ‘escape’ a very unhappy love-affair, and my friends kept urging me to go ‘see the world’ When I left Australia in 1969, I intended to be away only a year. However, the sights and possibilities of ‘Over there’ grew on me and time flew. I was starting to develop my poetry and in 1971, went to teach English as a Foreign Language in Paris. My brother had already been there for a couple of years and he found me a post at a school in the 7th arrondissement. Mastering the language was difficult but I survived, and meeting my husband Bernard in 1974 changed everything. They were great years, I was working on my writing which he has always supported and I came back to London with him and our young son Julien in 1979.
LV. Geography is one of the charms of your poetry. It is a geography of the soul. Do you like travelling?
KG. Travelling has inspired much of my poetry – travelling through time and distance, and on particular journeys. As in my poem Jet Lag:
I didn’t go round the world. It went around me
crossing time zones in my sealed-off balloon,
following inflight-arrows across Europe,
Asia, Australia. Don’t ask what day it is –
my body clock ticks in those concertinaed
intervals between borders and continents,
oceans urging them forward. . . .
I adore travelling but only on this planet. Space doesn’t interest me except as a phenomenon – a great ‘other’. ‘Sides of the world/ just to stare at’ as I put it in a poem. Place and landscape are major themes and I think the critic Jan Hewitt in a review of Fish-Rings on Water, captures this aspect of my work very well (New Welsh Review, Summer ’90. Vol. III, No.1): (The poems) ‘have a strong sense of place, most vividly, that of her native Australia. But, perhaps because of this, they are also scrupulously aware of the precarious nature of transition. In each case, the transition is as much mental as physical. And it is in this recognition of becoming, that precariousness most manifests itself.’
My collections increasingly deal with environmental issues. We need to ‘see’ our planet, to listen to Blake’s dictum: ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite’.
LV. What contemporary poets do you like? Whom do you think you belong with?
KG. Re the first question, there are so many wonderful poets that it’s virtually impossible to choose. Defining ‘contemporary’ very widely, and following my mentors already mentioned, I guess poets I especially come back to are Gwen Harwood, Les Murray, Francis Webb, Robert Adamson, Sylvia Plath, Peter Porter, Carol Rumens, Moniza Alvi, Carol Ann Duffy, Jo Shapcott, Kathleen Jamie, Mario Petrucci, John Kinsella, Mimi Khalvati, Tracy Ryan, Jane Duran and Diane Fahey. They all have qualities I look for: viz. immediacy and lift-off, a flair for imaginative exploration, of voyaging into unknown places. But there are many other poets whose work I enjoy too. In any case, I believe the poem is always more important than the poet...
I suppose I belong particularly with that generation of post 1970s women poets in Australia and the U.K. who were inspired and supported by a growing tradition of women’s poetry which in turn has led to poetry by women being noticed and accorded parallel consideration with poetry by men as part of the mainstream. Would this recognition have occurred without the interchange and support networks of the women’s movement? I doubt it.
LV. Is poetry in general going to survive this age of fast and pragmatic communication?
KG. Yes, I believe so. But poetry-lovers – writers and readers will have to work to make it happen.
©Katherine Gallagher, 2006