Interview / Josh Inman / Poetry

The Music in the Line: an interview with poet Adrienne Eberhard

– by J.C. Inman

I recently had the chance to catch up with one of Australia’s fantastic writers, Adrienne Eberhard, a poet, short story author and teacher, whose works thrum with an inner music. Adrienne will be hosting a poetry workshop at the ACT Writers Centre on 9 December from 6pm-9pm.

 JC Inman:  Musicality and imagery has such a prominent place within your work, I read excerpts online from your three existing collections and they just dance off the screen, how essential are they to your creative process? And are these skills or devices easily learnt by those less adept?

Adrienne Eberhard:  Poetry seems to me to be a form of music.  Music’s twin, if you like.  The shape of a line, the rhythm, the sounds of the language, all create a kind of music.  We experience a really good poem through the body – it plays the body and the heart in the way music does.  Sound and image are the fundamentals of poetry.  I think I came to poetry through the music of language – I was captivated as a child by the sounds of words.  My mother would recite poems and snippets from Shakespeare and long before I understood the meaning, I was caught by the sounds.  I played the piano seriously for years – I had lessons from 7 to 23 – and continue to play, and my sons all learnt different instruments, so music has always been a big part of my life.  I remember going on Sunday drives with my parents (in the days when families still did such things) listening to ‘Songs of Renown’ – lots of arias!  I would stare out the window, daydreaming, with these incredible voices and their, at times, heart-breaking music,  filling the car.  I think that all these things had an enormous impression on me.  Poems are meant to be spoken/heard; we forget this sometimes.

I think that musicality can be learnt through listening to lots of good poetry and to music.  Focusing on words –  loving them for their own sake – is something I really emphasize to my students.

JC:  Your collections of poetry, notably Jane, Lady Franklin and the series that you are currently writing are written from the perspective of historical figures, and possess tangible connections to Tasmania.  Do you write to reveal histories, commemorate place or hint at commonality of human experience?

Adrienne: I’ve always been interested in history and I think I write about history to do all three: reveal, celebrate and explore connections between human experience over time.  I think a place is its history as much as anything else.  When I was 10, I spent time in Greece and Italy with my parents – it had a profound impact on me.  I’d always read  Greek myths and legends and suddenly, there we were, surrounded by this incredible environment that was filled with stories from the past, and with tangible evidence of the past in statues and temples, and museums crammed pack with all sort of things.  I think those statues made me so aware of people’s lives all those years ago.  People just like us.  I’m really interested in female historical figures such as Jane Franklin and Marie Girardin, and I suppose part of the impetus is to tell their stories but it’s much more than that.  They become a means of exploring Tasmania – not just its past but its environment and its impact and hold over me.  In some ways, they are masks that enable me to explore all sorts of things.

JC:  Given the emphasis on the sound of your poems, the rhythms and rhymes, have you ever tried your hand at Performance Poetry such as Poetry Slams (I run one here in Canberra, and am headed to Launceston as a feature)? Or have you crossed mediums and placed your compositions to music, or for the stage?

Adrienne: I haven’t tried performance poetry although I do believe that any reading is a kind of performance and its imperative that we read well.  I have been asked to write poems for a Hobart Choir to sing.  I love the idea of poems being set to music.

JC:  I’ve seen online reviews of your works, with many kind words from respected voices, including Territorial Treasure, Geoff Page, and you have been awarded grants and made short listings for prizes, is there one piece that holds a special place as the poem most representative of your goals, or is it a case of the best yet to come?

Adrienne: There are a couple of poems that I hold dear (for want of a better expression!), not so much because they are representative of my goals so much as they succeeded in doing something that was really important to me at the time.  ‘Awakening’ in Agamemenon’s Poppies is a favourite.  I felt like I had to serve an apprenticeship in the early days of writing, and I explored lots of different forms and tried to make them mine.  This sonnet is based on a memory of an experience from many years ago and it’s a love poem that explores that notion of Donne’s of ‘two become one’ but recognises the essential separateness of individuals.  I was pretty happy with it at the time.  ‘Earth’ from ‘Earth, Air, Water, Fire’ that was runner-up in the Josephine Ulrick Poetry Prize, is also a favourite.  For a lot of the time that I was trying to be a poet, I was also the mother of young children.  We spent a lot of time at Mole Creek because of my partner’s work studying caves.  Those four poems are all about our children and place, and how place shapes us enormously.  I’m really enjoying writing the Marie Girardin and Marie Antoinette poems, playing with lots of forms.  I hope there’s some good stuff to come!

JC:  You teach creative writing and were editor of poetry with Island, so maybe you’ll have some insight into this: is the rise of social media and blogging – and all the avenues of expression that exist on the web, and its accessibility, a boon to poetry or the death knell?

Adrienne: A bit of both.  I think that social media and the impetus to use it is opposite to the quiet, contemplative space necessary to writing and reading poetry.  This worries me.  I think if young people never learn to concentrate, to read, to give a poem a go, then they lose something of immense value.  It’s not that we lose poetry but we lose the readership and the potential in ourselves for understanding/empathy/compassion etc that poetry can provoke.  At the same time, blogging, if it is thoughtful and comes from the desire to explore ideas rather than just hear our own voices, can be enormously productive in terms of the conversations it engenders.  YouTube and TED talks are examples of fantastic sources for hearing poems spoken aloud/dramatized, or for poetic ideas to be explored in new ways.  So, a bit of both boon and doom!

JC:  Who inspires you? Were I to guess a ‘poetic influence trajectory’ I’d start with colonial poets such as Henry Kendall, through the Imagists like William Carlos Williams and into contemporary poets.

Adrienne: My biggest influence would have to be Seamus Heaney’s poetry.  I love his early poems with their wonderful connections between the child and the adult, his acknowledgement of the importance of childhood and its influence in terms of place and image, his focus on watery, green spaces, and the absolute concern with language, with sound.  I come back to his poems again and again.  I read a lot of the imagists including HD and Gertrude Stein.  I try to keep reading as widely as possible and tend to have favourite poems rather than favourite poets.  I love all things to do with the Romantic period but particular favourites come from more recent periods such as Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Ted Hughes, Galway Kinnell, Michael Ondaatje.  I was recently introduced to British poet, Alice Oswald, and love her work.

JC:  In all of history, who would you have wished to have been understudy to, and who would you have liked to teach (and what lesson would you have taught?)

Adrienne: Understudy to Shakespeare, for the ideas, the sophisticated usage, the forms, the empathy and understanding.  I would love to have the time to devote to writing, for it to be a complete apprenticeship, not to have to think about anything else.  I juggle writing with teaching and motherhood – I wouldn’t have it any other way but sometimes I dream of a room of one’s own without any distractions except perhaps a garden, and a teacher with whom to have endless conversations about language and ideas. I don’t think I want to have taught anyone in particular but I love teaching.  I feel like I’m on a mission to bring poetry back into kids’ lives.  I’m lucky enough to teach poetry to small groups at one particular school and at uni, but I also try to go out into other schools as a volunteer, to get kids playing with language, thinking about the sounds and resonance of poetry and what it can teach us about being human, and being alive in this astonishing world.

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