Monday, 7 September 2015

Six questions for Dinah Hawken

Dinah Hawken's seventh collection of poetry, Ocean and Stone, is released this month. We talked to Dinah about her new book, which will be launched at Unity Books in Wellington this coming Thursday 10 September.

Dinah Hawken

Your poetry is, and always has been, concerned with the natural environment. Stories and ideas seem to rise up out of an image from nature – the ocean in particular is a starting point. Is this something you’ve chosen to do consciously or are poetry and nature interwoven for you?

No, I don’t set out deliberately to write about the natural environment. Well not unless I’m asked to. (I’m thinking, for example, of ‘The uprising’, a poem in Ocean and Stone that was a commission from the Griffith Review, for the edition of New Zealand writing called 'Pacific Highways'. Or the response to McCahon’s beach walk painting, also in the new book.) But generally I begin a poem with a phrase or snippet of language that comes to mind spontaneously, or is a response to something that is happening around me. Around me is the natural world and I love it in a strong and natural kind of way. I’m amused when I look back to the launch of my third book, where Greg O’Brien described me as a ‘nature poet’. I was amazed – I hadn’t thought of it, but realised it was true. I should have known since the book was called Water, Leaves, Stones!

Some of the poems in Ocean and Stone talk about climate change and are, quietly, political. In particular ‘The Uprising’ speaks about powerlessness in the face of rising tides and lack of political will for positive change. Is it difficult for you to balance politics in a poem? Do I read anger in there also?
It feels similar, but not the same, to be described as a political poet. I’m concerned about social and political issues and so it’s natural to try and write in response to them. But I sense something in the poetry air (at least in the Western world) that sees poetry and politics as incompatible. And true, it is dangerous territory – not in the way that it can be truly dangerous in a repressive regime – but in danger of being seen as too didactic, too emotional, too simplistic, too negative. And so writing a political poem is something of a balancing act for me. It works best when I’m in touch with both my thinking and my feelings about an issue so that what is a political poem is also a personal poem. And yes, I hope you do hear anger in ‘The uprising’: because why are we so slow to face up to climate change? There is so much at stake.

Myth turns up in your poetry – the female deity Inanna, a retelling of the great Flood – what is the attraction of myth for you as a poet?

I'm attracted to myth because of its universality and timelessness.  There's always something to be learned from other times and cultures. But I'm particularly intrigued by the Sumerian myths because they were some of the first stories ever to be written. As well – having been in an undecipherable script and scattered round the world on clay fragments for centuries – they have only fairly recently been pieced together and told again. They have been lying low. I am trying to spread the word.

The poems in Ocean and Stone throw up a lot of philosophical questions – the biggest being, “How do we live within the knowledge of our limits”. Can you say why you ask that question? Also, is this, for you, the consolation of poetry – you can’t change much, but you can write about change?

'How do we live within the knowledge of our limits?' Yes it is a big question. I think of the limits of a single life-time, the limits of a ‘few months left’, the limits of human talent or capacity, the limits of a deteriorating mind, the limits of the earth’s resources, the limits on economic growth, the limits on population growth, the limits on power and ambition, the limits, even, of a single page of paper. Limits, understandably, have a bad name but they are also the frame or sphere in which we thrive. It’s good to know what they are. It’s hard to accept them but acceptance, surprisingly, seems to make room for something new to happen. And it is, as you say, a consolation when you can’t make large changes to make small changes on a sheet of paper or a screen. Anyway, expression does change something – in the writer, if not the reader – and you know what they say: ‘if enough people…… .’ Change seems – most often – to follow a slow accumulation of expression from more and more people.

Joan Fleming said in an interview recently "that I believe poetry comes from psychic places that we can't fully understand." I wondered what you made of that comment?

I agree with Joan about the ‘psychic places’ that poetry can come from and I admire that in her writing – the depth and originality and mystery that can arise from faith in, and access to, the part of the psyche that Jung called the unconscious. Would some people call it the imagination? It’s spontaneous anyway, not something we have much control of. I used to use imagery and scenes from dreams, or daydreams, in my poetry but I do it less now because I don’t have the same degree of access – I don’t remember many dreams. I have to live within my limits!

You've been writing for many years now, Dinah. Do you think your approach to writing a poem has changed in those years? Are there aspects of writing you think you've gotten better at?

Another limitation, now that I’m older, is not having immediate access to a range of vocabulary. Fortunately there is something I can do about that, but in fact I seem to have an urge towards simplicity. In writing and in life. I love one syllable words with strong vowels. More and more I like single words for their own sake. I still like to try something new but at the same time I’m letting myself indulge in my pre-occupations with less hesitation. I still have to work hard at the craft and hope to increase my dexterity in the future, rather than lose it, but who knows?

Ocean and Stone, released 10 September.
p/b, $35, includes colour drawings by John Edgar

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