The poet said fuck on stage. It doesn’t sound like anything extraordinary and nor would it have been, but for the context and the fact that her mother sat in the front row. I admit I looked over to the poet’s mother when I heard the resounding, almost yelling of ‘fuck’ on stage, and she didn’t really react. Not that I’d met her before so it would be hard for me to know. Even as I realised the mother didn’t react, I was aware that perhaps she felt so self-conscious that she was using all her energy to indeed appear to not react.
Then the poet said masturbate.
It wasn’t said with the gusto she’d said fuck, nor the clarity, but rather a touch of speed and an almost-muffle, but it was there. I heard it, others heard it, and I imagine her mother heard it.
Again, her mother failed to respond.
I know it sounds odd that I’m surprised she didn’t react, or more that I’m surprised the poet said fuck and masturbate on stage when she knew her mum was there. Even I’m a little surprised I’m surprised.
On the same stage almost two years beforehand, my own mother sat near the front as I performed my first featured poetry set, and I said fuck too. More than once.
Fuck is a word my brothers and I got into trouble for saying when we were kids. Mum used to say shit all the time and I said it once when I was starting high school. Mum wasn’t impressed and before she dished out consequences I reminded her that she said shit all the time and asked how she could expect us not to. I didn’t get into trouble that day, nor any other time I said shit.
But Mum never said fuck and it seemed, even by my own argument, fuck was off limits.
When I was planning my poetry set I knew I was going to say fuck in front of her. Of course, as an adult, I had no disillusions of any consequences, although I didn’t want to make my mum feel uncomfortable, or myself, for that matter.
When I got to the bit where I had to say fuck I chose not to look in her direction. Same the next time I had to say fuck. I tried not to imagine her reeling a little, perhaps sitting up straight all of a sudden and wondering whether she worried that people were staring at her. Though I suspect, unlike the other poet’s mother, my own did reel a little, whether or not it was because I said fuck or whether it was the context in which I said it. Though I didn’t say masturbate in front of her, nor do I think I would. (Although I realise it’s to say this when that word does not feature in any of my own poems. To date.)
Even considering this and knowing I would again say fuck in front of my mother for the sake of poetry, it still surprises me that this poet did it.
Perhaps it’s some crazy double standard, or maybe it has something to do with me having a good understanding of my own relationship with my mother and knowing nothing about this poet’s with hers. Maybe it has something to do with the age gap between the poet and myself, which makes me almost old enough to be her mother. Though really, I suspect it has more to do with context.
By that I don’t mean that I said fuck in the middle of a humorous piece about being in labour while this poet said it in a more, let’s say, aggressive, piece that suggested she less than loves her life, or more specifically, one aspect of it. Although that does have something to do with it.
I don’t remember the context of her saying masturbate, other than, as I’ve already suggested, it seemed rushed, like she was aware her mother was listening and hoped she could somehow disguise it so her mother mightn’t notice. Maybe she didn’t feel comfortable saying it at all.
I do recall the context of the poet’s message though, the thing the poet, through the various poems she delivered as part of her featured set, was trying to say. She hates being a parent.
No two ways about it, considering the context of her overall performance, I have no doubt the poet hates, more than anything else on this earth, the responsibility that comes with caring for a dependent child.
At least she did when she wrote the poems.
A poem that involved no swearing was perhaps the most disturbing she delivered. It was the kind of poem that, as I listened, I wondered what would happen in the future, when her toddler grew up, could read, could ask questions like, ‘Why did you hate me so much, Mummy?’, ‘Why didn’t you want to play with me, Mummy?’ and ‘Did having me really ruin your life Mummy?’
Because this poet is angry. Angry about being a mum, angry about being responsible for a dependent child, angry about not getting enough time to herself to be herself, angry about her marriage breaking up, angry that her life isn’t what she hoped it would be. Angry that she was tricked into the responsibility of being a parent when she had a completely, albeit naive, expectation of what it might be like. Angry with society’s attitudes toward mothers.
I feel for her. I’ve been her. I feel the pain she’s suffering. I feel the pain her daughter may suffer in the future. I feel for her mother who sat and listened to her daughter’s pain, unable to do a damned thing but sit still and listen.
I understand where the poet is coming from, the things she feels right now, the desperate need to break out of it, at all costs. I’ve been there, although not so publicly. I felt ashamed of such thoughts, struggled to come to terms with them in the safety of my lounge room instead of belting them down a microphone in a dimly lit suburban pub. On one hand, I admire her for being brave enough to say some of the things I wasn’t, even though I’m all for getting the messages out there. I mean, half the reason she feels like this to start with is because talking about the things she’s expressing are taboo, but that’s a separate issue.
I think her poems are important. I agree the world needs to know what it can be like for new parents, how it can be difficult to adapt to new responsibilities, particularly when, as she pointed out in one of her poems, you become invisible to the rest of the world when you have a baby. But I’m not yet decided whether she’s brave, or whether she just needs some help. Even if she doesn’t need help, perhaps her poems will show others that many new mothers do. And that they often don’t know how to get it. I look forward to the poems she’ll write next.
I hope she’ll write some that offer the right balance to give these dark ones the strength the message in them deserves. The kind of poems that show the light side of parenting, that show she learned something valuable from this dark place she’s in.
While I could argue that other poets write about the happy times and this poet’s experience provides the balance, I can’t help but feel that without her providing a balance herself, the audience, instead of hearing her message, will just think of her as the poet that said fuck on stage. And masturbate.
It’s too late to get my daughter
a baby makeover
cotton crop bras in size 0
or a romper to claim her daddy just wanted a blowjob.
Perhaps next birthday she’ll get
six-pack of pretty g-strings
porn star t-shirt
or Playboy lip gloss: In the Mood.
In a couple of years maybe
a push-up tween bra
computer game where she can buy virtual breast implants
her first pair of dominatrix boots
or a kiddie magazine with the cover story I’m ready for my first time.
When she starts high school, there’ll be
tickets to see the Pussycat Dolls
a t-shirt suggesting cats are powerful
or one saying It’s not rape if you yell surprise.
Once she turns sixteen
a pole-dancing kit
meal replacement shakes
voucher for Botox
her first Vajazzle
a weekend away with her boyfriend
or a boozy party playing Spin the Bottle.
When she first moves out
a plant for her hydroponic garden
set of satin sheets
lift to her first porno shoot
and a business card for a local shrink.
Then once she’s all grown up
I don’t think there’ll be anything left.
A feature of Verity La will be interviews with writers we love. The first of these is Tiggy Johnson. Who, apart from being a co-founder and the editor of Page Seventeen, has published and performed her poetry widely, consistently and to acclaim. Her first collection of poetry has just been released. It is called First Taste and we will soon indeed have a taste for you. Let’s start with the interview.
Do you think having a philosophy of poetry helps or is it a burden on any given poem? What are your own guiding principles during composition? Have you evolved a process over the years?
Usually a new piece comes to me as a voice in my head speaking the opening lines over until I write them down. Or sometimes I let the lines continue to play, building into more lines, more voices perhaps, until a significant portion of a poem or story is written. This is the most common way I write new work, and generally I just know whether the piece might be prose or poetry. This might be based on whether the voice is speaking in fragments or whole sentences or have more to do with the tone, or feeling of the piece. It might be based on whether the voice speaks of something I’ve experienced or witnessed, or if it comes straight from my imagination. But somehow I just know.
More recently, my process has changed somewhat as I’ve been attempting to capture not just moments that should be preserved in words, but to voice my views on various issues. Particularly issues associated with parenting, partly because I feel I have an opportunity to speak for many who would otherwise remain silent, but mostly because that’s where I’m at right now, parenting is what I spend most of my time doing. I used a new ‘technique’ to write ‘Shopping for girls’, for instance. I’d been thinking a lot about the decisions I’ll need to make in raising my (four-year-old) daughter and as a result of this, attended a presentation where, among others, Melinda Tankard-Reist spoke about the sexualisation of girls in society. I spoke briefly with her afterwards, unable to comprehend how she deals with these issues on a daily basis, and thanked her for her work in speaking up for others, like myself, who couldn’t possibly carry such a heavy burden without suffering unwelcome side-effects. I left feeling heavy and in the morning, immediately after dropping my son at school, I opened a blank document on my laptop and wondered where to begin, how I could do my little bit to speak up but – more importantly – to express my own thoughts.
I spent the next two and a half hours moving from Melinda’s site to my Word document, writing one line at a time, not in chronological order, often searching other sites to ensure the poem seemed complete, like I hadn’t missed anything. It felt odd in some ways to be researching for a poem, as I’d never done that before, but in others it felt refreshing as even then I was aware that for myself, I was breaking ground, and that this was an opportunity to swing in a new direction with my poetry.
Since then I’ve thought about these kinds of things more. About whether I want to pursue writing at least some of my poetry this way, or focusing it on similar issues. And I do. Which means that possibly for the first time since I began writing poetry, I’ve started to think about the structure of a poem before I might begin writing it. About what things I need to necessarily include and what I don’t. But I try not to overthink these things, as that would be a sure-fire way of making anything seem too difficult, but I have in the forefront of my mind that I want to be honest in my work. Sometimes I find this difficult, particularly in poetry, as my poetry is generally drawn from my own experience and/or expresses my personal views and at times I feel quite exposed. But I don’t want to back away from something because of this. Once or twice I’ve felt this way about a piece and had to make myself build up to letting it out there. For instance, I let one friend read it, then performed it in front of a small audience and then a larger one, and by then I was ready to own it.
I don’t tend to think that I have any particular ‘philosophy of poetry’ although I suppose I could simply say that I want to write honestly and express my own and other people’s truths. I want to capture the type of moments that, as a parent, are too easy to forget otherwise, such as in ‘Discovery’ (where I captured my (2-month-old) daughter discovering that she can ‘make’ her fingers move). But I also want to tackle social issues, like I’ve described above and again attempted with ‘Baby’s health is everything’. So far I’ve tackled only issues that weigh on my mind as a parent, things I struggle with, particularly as my parenting values are somewhat old-fashioned and I refrain from many modern parenting practices which, surprisingly, leads to a lot of criticism. But that is an issue to discuss another day. In another space.
Tiggy Johnson’s new collection of poetry First Taste is available at St Kilda Readings and Collected Works. Otherwise, order directly through Page Seventeen.