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.