Words by Camilla Patini, ACTWC Blogger in Residence
Melinda Smith won the poetry category at the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards on Monday night for her collection of poems, Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call, published by Pitt Street Poetry.
The judges commented, “Readers of Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call will be rewarded by a book full of unexpected and richly varied pleasures. There are poems with a lightness of touch, and a self-deprecating tone, but there are also poems that deal with more serious matters”.
“There are skilfully rhymed poems, haikus and highly experimental free verse. From its range of technique and tone to its depth of ideas, imagery and emotion, this collection announces the arrival of a major new poet”.
Melinda Smith grew up in Orange, NSW and has lived in Canberra since 1989. She has published three books of poetry. Her poems have appeared in magazines, newspapers and anthologies both in Australia and overseas, and have also been set to music, hung on gallery walls and appeared on ACTION buses. She won the David Campbell prize in 2006 and in 2011 she received an artsACT New Projects Grant to complete her third book.
Could you tell me about Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call? What is it about?
The book is a collection of everything I have written in the past ten years. I didn’t start out with any particular theme in mind but as I came to organise the poems to put into a book they fell into a number of different groups. Going with the smart phone theme of the title I decided to place them into sub categories: ‘Uploads’ are about death and endings and ‘Downloads’ are about birth. ‘Sport’ is about boy-girl issues
The reason the tone of the book is quite varied is because it is a record of ten years of writing and your mood and approach can change quite a lot over the course of ten years. I attempted to deal with quite difficult subjects. A lighter approach works best for me when I have to approach difficult things. It’s my way of making it easier to talk about.
Do you have an audience in mind when you sit down to write?
I really like to think of my audience as someone who is a friend, who shares some reference points with me but isn’t me. I try to bear in mind all the things someone who isn’t me might need explaining. Poems find their own audience and the poems don’t all have the same range of people who might be interested in reading them but if I don’t have a particular reader in mind they aren’t necessarily the same age or have had the same experiences as me but I can make a connection with them.
Do you get more pleasure out of writing the first draft or out of the actual revision of a poem?
I still do all my first drafts with pen and paper. I tend to give myself demarcated windows of time. I live like that because I have a paid job and two children – one of them has special needs.
I am most productive when I am sitting in a café when there is a buzz around but no one directly talking to me. I can sit on something for months and if I’m excited about it I can turn into something more quickly.
I meet with Susan Edgar, Martin Dolan and Michael Thorley. We have been meeting for more than a decade and we meet once a month, sometimes it ends up being once every two months. We pass our drafts round the table and settle in for a good long session of looking at each other’s work and being really honest about what works and doesn’t in the draft. I almost never publish a poem if it hasn’t been through that process. I trust them implicitly as first readers. They are very different people and different poets. They all pick up different things and altogether make a great polishing factory for poems.
What is the physical act of writing like? Do you read your work out loud as you are writing it?
Woolf compared it to being a fisherman with a line. You have to let the line play out and let the fish go. If you pull too early the fish might get away. If you let it go too long the fish might pull away. You have to let your mind be at ease and hold your line until you feel it’s the right time to pull it in. That’s the dream state I feel I’m in when I’m writing but you don’t get a poem out of that that anyone else can read.
The other part of it is as important and it’s a lot harder work. I enjoy the feeling of having worked on something and feeling that it’s good enough to share with people and send it off somewhere. It’s hard work but you have to do it if you want to get it out there.
Has technology and especially Twitter affected the way you write?
An exception to poems which were composed on the page are the twitter poems. I composed them on twitter but I thought about them a lot before I started typing them in. Those poems attempt to engage directly with that medium. If twitter didn’t exist ([…] the poems wouldn’t either. Yes, these things have affected the way that I write. There is something quite freeing about being just you, a pen and a piece of paper. That is the way I prefer to work.
What would you like to see more of in contemporary Australian poetry? Is there something missing?
A lot of my poetry is directed at the general reader which assumes that they like books and they like words and that they might read lots of novels. But they might not have read a lot of poetry. There is a lot of poetry directed at a specialist reader – a reader who not only loves books and loves words and reads a lot but has also got a degree in a postgraduate qualification in English and has read an awful lot of poetry and cultural theory.
This is 80% of the poetry audience in Australia. I have a forlorn hope that poetry can reach out to people who are not in that group. I would like to see more of that. In New Zealand, the UK and in America it is still ok to write poetry for a general audience and is not seen as a lesser exercise. Sometimes in Australia, poetry for the general audience is seen as a lesser animal. I do not want to lose the richly layered and allusive works that are created by and for people with tertiary education in literature and cultural theory but I think there is room for poetry that has a slightly broader audience in mind as well.
Camilla Patini is an undergraduate student at the Australian National University where she studies History and English Literature. She writes book reviews and until recently, a column on love and relationships for Lip Magazine . Her writing has also appeared in Woroni and rippublishing.