LOOKING UP ELEPHANTS' TESTICLES: an interview with
P.S. Cottier, also known as PS Cottier, also known as Penelope Cottier, is a poet and short story writer who lives in Canberra, the national capital of Australia. Her book of short stories A Quiet Day and her two poetry collections The Glass Violin and The Cancellation of Clouds have been published by Ginninderra Press. Her poems have found homes in myriad places, both Australian and international, from The Canberra Times to extempore to Gloom Cupboard and beyond. She endeavours to publish a poem a week on her blog, pscottier.com. Thanks to Blemish Books, her poems are sharing the pages of Triptych Poets 3 with those of JC Inman and Joan Kerr. Thanks to Verity La, you get a glimpse at the person behind the poetry, plus a pun or two. Play is serious business, you see. Alliteration and rhyme too.
Interviewer: Duncan Felton
Penelope, your collection Selection Criteria For Death is upcoming in Triptych Poets 3. With a respectable handful of other books published, along with poems in journals, e-zines and on your blog, what does being published in print mean to you? Does the whole submission/acceptance/launch/review process still give just as much of a buzz? And to what extent is this kind of acceptance a motivator, rather than the pure joy/hard slog of the solo creative process?
I think I’m of a generation — or the generations — for whom a book in print is still unquestionably the most important object when we are talking of literature. Now, to contradict myself and question that emphatic statement a little, I also love seeing my work in e-zines and even on my own blog. And Triptych Poets 3 will be an ebook as well. But the sensuality of a book, its ability to stroke the reader as she reads, to have a presence in a room when we leave it… The trees still make a noise, even when wedged between covers.
This book is a little different, as I am being published with people whose work I have not read, something that has only happened to me before in anthologies. So there will be a real sense of discovery reading the other 66%, after, of course, having a good long gloat over my 33%.
I worked on poetry for ages before sending off any for possible publication, and when writing itself is going well, that is still the best thing. However, when people say yes, produce a book, and feed me cheese at launches, that is indeed nice.
Sending off my work is the least best part of the process, particularly if it’s to the type of journal that sits on decisions for twenty years. I’m over sending to certain journals because of that. Those extra slow ones, and the ones that publish two poems by women every third issue and call it a ‘Special Women’s Edition’, are another of my least favourite entities. I’d rather occupy the intertubes (spellcheck made that interludes, which was almost appropriate) and publish on my blog instead. I truly hate the fact that there is a hierarchy of publication in poetry, which would seem to defeat the purpose of using words to show the world in a slightly different light. But I always was an incorrigible idealist.
In Selection Criteria for Death many of your poems feature animals as subject, as metaphor and otherwise. I noticed: cockatoo, crow, crabs, elephant, swan, gecko, guinea pig, wolf, and the list goes on. And your PhD thesis was on animals in the works of Charles Dickens. What is it that keeps you returning to animals in your writing?
That is truly a challenging question, Duncan. About halfway through writing my thesis (which quickly developed the pet name ‘Dogs in Dickens’, despite there being a whole lotta diverse animal in there) I had a vivid memory of borrowing a book from the mobile library near my parents’ house as a young child. It was called The Encyclopedia of Dogs or All About Dogs or some such, and I remembered seeing a rather disturbing illustration in black and white of a man with a dog in it, which fascinated me. About twenty-five years later, I realised that the man was Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist, and the dog was Bullseye. So perhaps all my life I’d been waiting to rediscover that particular dog? Which kind of throws a tack amongst pedestrian ideas of linear progress, doesn’t it?
As long as I can remember I have found it hard to draw the divisions between animals and people that others find easy. I first became vegetarian at eleven, for example, simply because of a sudden realisation of the cruelty involved in any slaughter. (It’s been on and off since then. Oysters are usually my downfall.) Yet other people who are kind think nothing of chomping down on dead things, which I find mystifying. I suppose they just dwell on the deliciousness more than the morality.
The energy and diversity of animals make some of my poems motor along, to use inappropriate Top Gear terminology. ‘The elephant quits the room’ in the new suite, for example, is about an escape of animals used as metaphor from the stale menagerie of cliché. You will note that it contains the phrase ‘coconut-sized cliché’ which originally started as a reference to elephants’ testicles. I awoke one night from uneasy dreams into the shadow of the knowledge, probably gleaned from David Attenborough, that elephants’ testicles are internal and therefore can not be seen, as can coconuts. Scurrying to Google, I confirmed that this was right. I decided to leave the image, as I liked it anyway. But it occurred to me that this is perhaps the modern definition of a poet: the person looking up elephants’ testicles at 2 a.m., for purely literary purposes.
Another element that stood out to me in your poetry was a sense of play: wordplay, humour, puns and such. Is this an essential element for you when writing? And where should poetry and comedy meet?
Comedy is propping himself up at the bar. In saunters Poetry. ‘Hey love, why the feminine ending?’ Boom boom and apologies.
When I look back — and I’ll soon be getting to the age where I’ll be expected to bore the shit out of ‘the young uns’ with that sort of phrase — I can remember no happier moment than playing in the sandpit of the neighbouring boy, with his cars. He wanted a proper game of broom broom here come the cops, whereas I wanted to bury the cars and pretend they were treasure. I have been beholden to play and pun ever since. (See?) Perhaps I believe there is an ideal joke somewhere, an ideal play of words, which will transport me into God’s sandpit, and all the special buried vehicles will be revealed. (Perhaps I don’t.)
But I find the prevalence of a certain type of poetry rather offputting. The smooth move from landscape to internal musing. The notion of the self as a strangely unsocial being (although I am an intensely private person myself). The overuse of words such inchoate and luminescence. It really is all bad, IMHO. I don’t want any of that in my own work; I want energy, frequent tickling and an occasional pinch. The natural world is there, but not, I hope, contemplation of it at leisure.
I have always preferred Shakespeare’s comedies, to his tragedies, with all the fervency that only a sometimes depressed person can generate. The notion that bleak and sad is more true than quirky or comic is rather adolescent, and often produces poetry that is only a hop skip and limp from ‘no-one loves me and the weather is crap’. No names will be mentioned.
Of all the literary competitions in Australia, the one I would most like to win is the Cricket Poetry Prize, which probably says a lot about my sometimes hidden love of sport, alongside less structured play. My poem ‘All the blond Jesuses’, from the new collection, began from noticing that Jesus is often depicted as a David Gower doppelgänger in stained glass windows, and then imagining him (Jesus, that is) or multiple hims, playing in a match. I hope this poem shows how play can also be serious.
Some great poetry can be produced within traditional forms, even today. But for me, play tends to lead me to free verse and tributes to forms such as the advertisement and the blog. I’m just so incredibly playful… It’s a duty. I’m like a Staffie after a stick, I sometimes think, totally oblivious to possible splinters. However, if play does ever become a tired trick, as one sees with superannuated comedians prostituting themselves for laughs, it’ll truly be time to put myself down.
I feel like Canberra is another essential element, a character or a backdrop in a good portion your work. What’s it like being a poet in The Nation’s Capital?
When I first arrived in Canberra from Melbourne, about twenty years ago, I thought it was Mongolia without the comfort of yurts. I had not trained myself in the methods by which to recognise its worth. I literally didn’t see the beauty. Now I wonder round and gaze at the cockatoos and wattle and think original things like ‘this is pretty’ and ‘those hills are a fine sight’.
I am far more engaged in the world of poetry than I used to be, so perhaps the recognition of natural beauty is linked to my ability to write. (Careful, Penelope, you’ll be using the word ‘luminescence’ next…)
There is a slight divide between the worlds of poets who write primarily for the page, and those who write for performance in Canberra, and I am glad to see some movement between these worlds. One of the things that made me submit to Blemish Books, was frankly, the fact that it is run by people who have contacts with both these two worlds.
Looking away from Canberra, I am delighted that I am now part of the Tuesday Poem blog group, and have a poem published in New Zealand once a week. Most of my science fiction poetry is published in the United States, too.
Everyone asks ‘what’s next?’ for their last question, but not me, not this time. Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you become a poet?
I was never destined to be an accountant, although I did try to be a lawyer for a little while, and that almost killed me. I have always written, but after having a baby and writing the PhD, I decided to try for more publication.
I became a poet, to answer the question a different way, because I am infested by words. I look at the world and can’t help but think of weird ways of describing it. I think I am slightly blessed with synaesthesia. Smelling a flower can transport me to where I last smelt that type of flower, and I can feel the dress I was wearing back then, or taste what I had been eating, and that sudden memory, while not necessarily forming the subject matter, energises the next poem.
So it’s a bit like Proust, but shorter. And with a lot more puns.
Interviews with JC Inman and Joan Kerr, the other two poets in Triptych Poets 3 (click on the link to purchase the book), have their homes at Scissors Paper Pen and on Virgule the blog of Voiceworks Magazine, respectively.