Thursday 5 June 2014

An interview with Maria McMillan

We spoke to Maria McMillan about Tree Space, her first full collection of poetry which is launched next week, Tuesday 10 June.

Why do you write poetry?

Creating something is important to me. Maybe it's important to everyone. Because I have spent lots of emotional and intellectual energy over the years thinking about difficult stuff that's going on in the world, I've found poetry a way to not get too lost or sad about it all. Amidst destruction, there's an enormous and sustaining joy in building things that are all my own. It's like nose-thumbing at all the silencing and control that goes on. It's a rebellion and an answer of sorts to the things I hate.

And poetry, poetry just makes sense to me. I like words. That sounds trite but I really do like words. And I love a good poem - those full body experience poems that involve your heart and your head and make you tilt your head to one side to listen to their music. Poetry that you feel in your knees. I want to hear that and read that and do that.
There’s a lot of sea in your poems – the underwater world is very present – where does this come from?

The first time I went snorkeling was in choppy waters off Great Barrier Reef. I was astonished by it. That what I thought was the hub, the centre -  life on land  - was sort of insignificant to what was going on down there. The closest I can think of how to describe the sensation is Tina Makereti's line "when at night there was this — the pure thrilling sensation of it?" in Where the R─ôkohu Bone Sings. I'm being overly earnest because she was talking about the astonishment of good sex in a world that carries on seemingly unmoved by it, but the same sort of deal, we're up here wandering around oblivious, and then down there, get this, luminous fish in colours I thought were entirely human made, soft coral that moves in time with your breath, those stiff brilliant landscapes and how movement, not stillness, governs that place. Much later I found a couple of ocean related science books that fed my fascination Killer Algae by Alexandre Meinesz and the wonderful Mapping the Deep by Robert Kunzig.
There’s also a lot of amazement in your poem – at the incredible things in the world, both natural and human-produced – and at the strange behavior of humans. Is it fair to say that amazement drives your poetry?

Yes I think that's fair. And poetry feels like a medium where I can, on good days, handle that amazement without my knee-jerk self consciousness kicking in. I'm torn because I find expressions of awe sort of cringey and want to snort contemptuously at them especially when I think awe is often played up as a out of the box spiritual experience - it's packaged and contrived. I feel like there are waves of books coming out where people got book deals to write about their incredible and unexpected life changing experience in a foreign country before they've actually had that experience. And there's that website which people tweet and share all the time where everything video is "Watch this video and you won't believe your eyes" and "What happens next is truly incredible". All of them. And some of them are of course amazing but it makes me so sad and cynical. On the other hand I am in awe of people, and the natural world, and the way some moments seem to bend time and become something entirely else. I want to find a way to live with that awe and enjoy it.

You use a distinctive syntax throughout the poems where you cut short your sentences with a full stop. It has a stop-start effect, like the flickering of images and sounds – can you talk about why you use this effect, what it does to your poems?

As I worked with others on my poems I often got feedback that I was being a bit overboard with adjectives or repeating the same thing in a number of different ways. I realised through this, that the guts of my poems were often in very plain pared back language. I guess I've explored that and pared back not just words within conventional syntax but the syntax itself. I think it probably started with figuring out I could often just say a single word or concept without having to explain it so I'd often find say Sky to be more parsimonious, to offer more to the reader than The blue sky or The expansive sky.

Later I was quite influenced by Mei-Mei Bersenbrugge who uses long unbroken streams of words and ideas contrasted with short sharp phrases. The music of it and the way it sensually loads a poem actually made me breathless when I first encountered it. It also does wonderful things to meaning. I think her work helped me understand how fracturing sense can add depth. Take a simple sentence like I am walking down the road and you get a single meaning. But what if we break it up? Say I am. Walking down the road. Or even I am. Walking. Down the road. Suddenly we get a metaphysical declaration. I am. A note like diary entry with Walking. And Down the Road which could be a situating statement, or temporal, or ambitious. And then by the end of the whole phrase you also get the meaning of a whole. This example is pretty cheesy and would be irritating if you encountered it in verse, but I like having multiple meanings going on. Poets often do this with line breaks, but using a full stop forces the reader to slow down and I hope to concentrate on each part. I love the idea of shifting time through syntax as well as sense.

You’ve been writing poetry for a number of years – and suddenly two books appear – your chapbook The Rope Walk last year, and now your first full collection – can you say a bit about the long process of getting to a published book?

Both manuscripts were produced over about 10 years. The Rope Walk poems are persona poems from many generations of a fictional family and I always knew when I was writing a poem that fitted into that set. So I had my Rope Walk poems and then I had everything else. I always wanted The Rope Walk to be a standalone things but on advice I tried to fit them into a wider manuscript, and then I took them out. I shuffled them and wrote a few more poems that belonged in there.

As for the other pile, over that time, my tastes changed and I would keep rejecting things I previously liked so the pile didn't grow very fast. Meanwhile I was having children and trying to fight water privatisation and working. I finally realised that if I didn't do something soon I would end up getting annoyed with myself and maybe with the world a bit. The Rope Walk felt finished and I had enough other poems for a full-length manuscript. In a burst of energy I summoned the courage to send, in the same week The Rope Walk to Seraph Press, because I knew they sometimes published shorter books and Tree Space to VUP.

Tree Space was the result of culling and sorting and culling and sorting. I almost re-sorted it all again before I sent it but I realised that was procrastination and if Fergus liked the poems and hated the order he'd come back to me. Tree Space went through various name changes as well, but other poetry books kept getting published which stole my key words. That's bound to happen over a decade. I am grateful now though, Tree Space is absolutely the right name for this collection. When we got closer to publication, about a  year after Fergus had said yes, I added three more poems to Tree Space and reordered it again and that order seemed to work for everyone. There's actually been no substantive changes to the manuscript. The whole thing, from giving a brief to the designer (Keely O'Shannessy) and getting back her glorious design, to various bits of proofing, to having the chance to reflect about it all, and getting some lovely feedback from a wider group of readers has been a very happy experience.

Tree Space is available for purchase now, pb, $25

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