A HABIT OF OPENNESS: an interview with Melinda Smith

Having won the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call, in a way Melinda Smith needs no introduction. However, in the interests of starting with the right information in the right place, here’s a few opening words. Smith is the author of a total of six books of poetry, most recently Goodbye, Cruel (Pitt St Poetry, 2017). Her work has been widely anthologised and translated into multiple languages and she has appeared at a number of literary events both in Australia and overseas, including a recent tour of Japan with an international group of English language poets. Smith is based in the ACT and is a former poetry editor of the Canberra Times. She is known for her incisive intelligence and generosity towards writers of all kinds; but what is really going on behind the warm spirit and the creator of the incandescent words?

Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone

What brought you to poetry?


I just wanted to write something that didn’t require footnotes! That is, I realise, terribly ironic, as my sixth book Goodbye, Cruel, does actually have an extensive notes section. However, spooling back to the beginning: 

I always wrote for pleasure as a private hobby, from a young age. Fairy tales, plays, and yes, terrible poems. My mid-80s Year 9 anti-nuclear-war period is a particular highlight. I did toy with the idea of writing as a career too — after seeing the 1984 mini-series The Cowra Breakout (written by Margaret Kelly, Chris Noonan and Phillip Noyce) and being incredibly moved by it, I actually decided I wanted to be a script writer for film and TV. However, to get into the Australian Film Television and Radio School at that time you had to already have had a script produced. As a 17-year-old in late 80s rural NSW, with no contacts, experience or suitable technology, this seemed an impossible ask. (I am quite jealous of my 11-year-old, who can just film stuff on my phone, cut it together with free editing software, and upload it to YouTube.) So instead I picked the sensible option: a professional qualification (studying Law, Japanese and Japanese History at ANU in Canberra). At uni, writing became more of a tool — even a chore — and I no longer did it much as a creative outlet. I got all the way through to the first year of a Ph.D, which wasn’t going well for various reasons, before I realised how much I missed creative writing. I started noodling about with it again on the side, and enrolled in an adult education ‘Introduction to Creative Writing’ course where we tried a different genre every week. Poetry was the genre I ended up enjoying most, and it seemed to be what came naturally when I just let myself write. The other students in the course responded most strongly to my pieces when they were written as poems, too. And being in the throes of thesis writing gave me a new appreciation of the blissful freedom to invent whatever I wanted without having to footnote where everything came from! 

At the end of that year I quit the PhD and took a year off, working in terrible jobs and trying to write at night. I produced a lot of poems — some of them I even managed to get published — and a couple of false starts at a novel. I ended up deciding that I should try to get a day job with a higher hourly rate so I could eventually work part-time and write part-time, so I came back to Canberra to complete my legal training. Legal work in the public service has been my fallback rent-money earner ever since (although I’ve had forays into IT consulting, technical writing and law teaching at ANU). And the poetry continued, at night, at lunchtimes, on weekends, sometimes getting published, sometimes getting rejected. I went on in that way for years, a semi-hobbyist, I suppose. I did read lots of poetry and poetics books and I joined a workshop group with three other poets — Suzanne Edgar, Michael Thorley, Martin Dolan — which I’m still in to this day. At some point late last century the owner of small publisher Ginninderra Press, Stephen Matthews, heard me read at a Canberra Closet Poets event and asked me to send him a manuscript if I had one. I did, and ended up publishing three books with him, in 2001, 2004, and 2012. 

Throughout this time I was still learning — still am, actually — and still hesitant to think of myself as engaging in any kind of conversation with contemporary poetry on a national or international level. I was just beavering away in my small corner, doing my own thing. My fourth book, though, felt to me like it might reach a bigger readership, so I took a chance on sending it to a new specialist poetry publisher with a national distribution network, Pitt St Poetry. To my delight they accepted it, and to my unending surprise it went on to win the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2014. It is really only since then that I’ve felt able to own the label ‘poet’ in any way.


Before we get to Goodbye, Cruel, the prize-winning collection you mention, Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call, has a terrific sense of playfulness. Is that how you see that particular work?


You are right, there is a playfulness in that book, which not everyone appreciates. It can sit oddly with the dark subject matter, which in the case of Drag down… includes bereavement, post-natal depression, miscarriage, divorce, and various other more minor traumas. However, as a reader and a consumer of culture, I am personally drawn to work which keeps a sense of humour even in the face of quite dark things. For example, I love the sensibility of NZ film director and writer Taika Waititi. Even Tolstoy and George Eliot are occasionally hilarious as they wrestle with the Big Themes. In my experience life is like that: dark and light, all mixed in together. So when I write that’s what arrives: a mixture. Some readers can struggle with that, finding it tonally uneven and disorienting, but there are plenty of other more consistent works out there for those folks to enjoy.  

Another factor behind the playful element in that book is that the core section — the section called ‘Downloads’, about child-bearing and rearing — was really written with a particular friend in mind. She was pregnant with her first child and I was in the first few years of my own motherhood journey, and I wrote thinking of her as the first audience, in the spirit of ‘Here, I don’t know if I’ve learned anything much about this stuff but here is my take on it just in case it’s helpful to you’. So perhaps our friendship, which has always been quite playful, also coloured those poems.

It’s precisely because the book is such a mixture that I chose the title. It is actually just a quote from the home screen of my old Samsung 3, my first smartphone: instead of ‘swipe’, back in the day, the verb used to be ‘drag’. Because I saw it every day during a reasonably tough time in my own life, I felt like it was a message to me about how being ‘dragged down’ can also ‘unlock’ you, how being stripped back and having to start again from first principles due to a big change in circumstance can be oddly freeing, can allow you to more clearly perceive the really important things (receive ‘emergency calls’, as it were), and can even lead to you finding small joys in your new situation.


That gets us to your new collection, Goodbye, Cruel. Could you talk a little about the writing and collating of the book?


The central section of Goodbye, Cruel, which gives the book its title, is a sequence of poems on the theme of suicide. In Simon Critchley’s book Notes on Suicide he says ‘We lack a language for speaking honestly about suicide because we find the topic so hard to think about, at once both deeply unpleasant and gruesomely compelling’. The poems in that central section were an attempt to address this lack of language. I’ve not yet been too closely touched by suicide, but several people I know and love have talked about wanting to end it all, and one has tried twice — and is still with us. I have gradually become aware of the great pool of silence that wells up and spreads out around the subject and seems to forbid all discussion. This silence stops people who need help from seeking it, and stops families who have lost people from healing because they can’t speak about ‘the event’. I saw this sequence of poems as an attempt to lob one or two pebbles into that pool.

As for the rest of the book: well, we’ve already established that I like to vary my pace and tone, so the opening section ‘Tiny Carnivals’ is much lighter and — that word again — more playful than what comes later. I hope it doesn’t feel like a bait and switch (I mean, I did put the content warning on the front cover by calling the whole book Goodbye, Cruel) but I didn’t want to start straight into the heavy heavy material on page one. The ‘Tiny Carnivals’ poems are engaged with the creative process in all its forms — there are lots of poems based on photographs and other visual art pieces, a cento or two made up of lines from other poems, even a poem written with smartphone predictive text. They are all little celebrations, little immersions in the wonder of making, being inspired and/or finding and framing. And the sections which come after the suicide poems are varied in a different way — collected around different projects that were engaging me over the two and a half years I was writing the book. There’s a group of poems set on and around rivers, which were partly inspired by a residency at Bundanon on the Shoalhaven River; a set of translations of and dramatic monologues in the voice of 10th Century Persian poetess Rab’ia Balkhi; and lastly a bunch of weird apocalyptic pieces that clearly needed to come at the end of the book and be called ‘Endtimes’. I did experiment with the ordering and grouping of the poems a number of times, and got input from a couple of trusted poet friends, but I’m pretty happy with the order that finally emerged.


The ‘Rab’ia Balkhi’ sequence is one of the most beguiling in the collection. How did you go about creating these poems?


The ‘Safina’ section of the book, which contains the Rabi’a Balkhi poems, is a meditation on the continuing problem of how to live as a female in a patriarchy. 

I first came across Rabi’a Balkhi — possibly the first woman to write poems in Persian — in a small book called The British Museum: Persian Love Poetry, by Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis and Sheila R. Canby (2005, 2013, British Museum Press). The book had one or two verses from a wide range of Persian poets, illustrated with gorgeous Persian paintings from the British Museum’s collection. I was struck by one poem in particular, which ended with a wonderful line illustrating how futile it is to resist love, even love one knows is dangerous: ‘The harder you pull, the tighter the rope’. The author of this poem was recorded as ‘Raba’a Qazdari Balkhi’. The biographical note said that she lived during the 10th century AD, that she wrote poems in both the Persian and Arabic languages, and that she fell in love with a slave and was killed by her own brother.

I was immediately fascinated. I had to know more about her life, her poems, her love story, and its end. 

After some more research I discovered the outlines of a story that is familiar to readers of Persian literature, but which in the English-speaking world is not much known outside the universities. How her brother Ha’ares was a governor in the Persian Samanid Empire; how her lover Baktash (Bakhtash) was actually her brother’s slave. And, most heart-breakingly, how when the brother discovered the romance he imprisoned Baktash in a well and slit Rabi’a’s throat, locking her in a bathroom to die, where she is said to have written her final poems on the bathroom walls in her own blood. 

Not surprisingly her tragic story has been dramatised by others, including by Qājār poet Rezā as Baktash Nameh (Baktāshnāma), and also in Afghanistan’s first feature film, released in 1965, ‘Rabia Balkhi’. I was delighted to learn that her tomb at Balkh in northern Afghanistan has become a place of pilgrimage. 

I suppose at the heart of it, as a female poet I was touched by the story of another female poet. I feel Rabi’a’s story dramatises graphically the struggle women have always had, to reconcile their many duties with a wish to live authentically, as independent, thinking, feeling, creative intelligences. She is an unforgettable example of how, because so much depends on women putting their duties first, a woman is often punished with violence for daring to seek her own path. This is a story that is not unique to a particular culture, religion or historical period. It is a story that continues to play out in many versions over and over again all around us wherever we are. So I decided to bring some more of her story and some more of her poems into English.

To do this I needed to work with translations of her work and I was lucky enough to be put in touch with Omid Behbahani (daughter of contemporary Iranian woman poet Simin Behbahani) and Omid’s husband, translator Abolhassan Tahami. They talked with me about her poems and generously provided word-for-word translations of three or four of them, which I then compared with other translations (where they existed) and worked on them until they became poems in English. For example, the direct translation ‘Want to travel love right to the end? You have to cope with every unpleasant thing’ (which had also been translated by another writer as ‘If thou wishest to be accomplished in love, thou shouldst love things unpleasant’) became, in my version, ‘To take love all the way, you must embrace every horror’.  I ended up using two of these translations to top and tail the Rabi’a sequence in the book. The other, longer, poem is by me, a dramatic monologue in Rab’ia’s voice set during the final moments of her life. I brought my own life experience into play in this poem: as I know from a couple of difficult obstetric episodes, you really do experience a roaring in the ears when you’ve lost way more blood than you should.

As I was trying to familiarise myself with Persian literature, I came across another, more familiar story featuring a high born woman and a slave: the story of Potiphar’s wife and Joseph, which some of us might know from the book of Genesis. In the Persian and Arabic versions of the story, Potiphar’s wife is rendered more sympathetically and she has her own name, ‘Zuleika’. This led me to write another two poems as companions to the Rabi’a pieces, both dramatic monologues in Zuleika’s voice exploring the intensity of her desire, the consequences she suffered, and the many inconsistent versions of her story. At the end of the sequence she refuses to confirm which version is the true one, in case her words — and her fate — continue to be twisted out of her control.


Politics is often present in your work. For example, in the poem ‘Nationality II’ you write, ‘Boat number has become like our first name / the glut of bread that sticks in the craw’. Do you have a particular hope in terms of what might happen as a result of writing political poetry?


In fact that poem, ‘Nationality II’, was the very first politically engaged poem I felt able to publish — in 2016, after twenty years of writing for publication. I was encouraged to write it for UWAP’s Writing to the Wire anthology, which included writing from refugees, as well as from non-refugees like myself.

One of the reasons I have previously stayed away from politics in my writing is that for much of my working life I have been a public servant, and under their code of conduct was prohibited from making public comment on matters of government policy. I did write some very obliquely politically charged poems during that time, produced from a residency at Old Parliament House with artist Caren Florance and collected in the chapbook Members Only, but those pieces used ‘found’ text from historical material. My thinking was that I could always defend the poems with ‘these aren’t my words, someone else wrote or said them 50 years ago, I have merely manipulated the text a little, it isn’t my fault these issues are still relevant’.

However, by the time I wrote ‘Nationality II’ I was no longer a public servant — ironically this was thanks to the cash that came with the Prime Minister’s Literary Award. Since that poem I have added a strand of more overtly politically engaged work to my practice, although I wouldn’t say it is or will ever be my ‘main bag’. I have to work so hard to finish a poem I would like it to have some longevity, and many political poems don’t or can’t. The best ones — and I struggle to write these — are couched very skilfully in slightly oblique language so that they have both immediate and enduring relevance. Think of Auden’s ‘September 1 1939’, for example: the ‘use by date’ is in the title, but this poem is still being shared all over social media because it feels like it was written yesterday, or Ali Cobby Eckermann’s ‘Intervention Pay Back’, which mentions John Howard and Mal Brough by name but heartbreakingly illuminates that the same ridiculous destructive dynamic has been playing out between First Nations communities and whitefella government for as long as there has been a whitefella government.  

Having said that, there is definitely a place for poems with a shorter life span which seek to call out injustices happening right now. I still like to use found text when I write these but my sources now tend to be things like contemporary political speeches and statements; I’ve done, but not yet published, a version of Don Burke’s statement where he says what he (perhaps) really thinks about the women who complained about his conduct, and a speech of Barnaby Joyce’s complaining about media treatment of his personal life which I turned into an apology to the queer community for his treatment of their personal lives by pushing for the Same-Sex Marriage plebiscite. I did perform the latter at the Canberra Writers Festival and it seemed to go down well.

At this point I should probably insert a plug for my next book which is built around a series of poems on white Aussie cis-het masculinity, including a sequence on misogynist language. Some of the misogynist language poems use quotes which have been nominated for or won Ernie Awards for the most sexist comment in Australian public life. Naturally there is a political dimension here, although perhaps there is slightly more ongoing relevance because the ‘injustice’ is a social, cultural and structural issue and not the result of one particular policy. It is depressing how similar quotes nominated in 2018 are to quotes from twenty-five years ago (the awards have been going since 1993). Anyway, this sequence represents, I suppose, where I am currently in my political-engagement-through-poetry journey.


What is your advice to emerging poets?


I feel like the best advice I can offer to anyone who likes to take advice from other writers is to subscribe to Brain-Pickings, curated by Maria Popova. And read the interviews in The Writers Room by Charlotte Wood. You’ll get far pithier quotable quotes, and much more wisdom from truly great talents, in those places.

As for my own two cents’ worth: 

On a practical level, connect with your poetry community locally, nationally and internationally. Locally you can go to readings and festivals and meet up with other poets to swap drafts. Nationally you can subscribe to Australian Poetry; follow organisations like The Red Room; read journals like Cordite, Mascara, Stylus, Sydney Review of Books, foam:e, and Verity La, as well as traditional hard-copy ones like Southerly, Westerly, Meanjin, Overland, Island, etc. Internationally you can use Twitter to connect with hundreds of journals and thousands of poets (if you can stand the social media downsides). Read books by poets you know and poets you don’t. Read poetry in translation. Keep engaging with art in other forms. Send your work out and realise that most of it will come back. Keep going anyway. Don’t give up your day job. If you ever do get any success or recognition, enjoy your moment and then remember to pass the mic along and share your platform with folks who are missing from the conversation.

On a higher plane, as it were: poetry is a combination of technical skill and a habit of mind (and heart): the habit of openness. The technical skill can be taught and honed through reading and writing; the habit of openness on the other hand is trickier. Most of my favourite poets (perhaps most of my favourite people) have been forcibly broken open at some point in their lives, by circumstances beyond their control. The trick, assuming that whatever it is can be survived, is to understand that your particular wound is part of what gives you your voice, gives your poems their power. If you can keep your writing taut and deploy your empathy (without allowing yourself to wallow) you may be able to bring forth the work that only you can make.

TL;DR: read lots, listen lots, think lots, write lots, survive what must be survived and then, when you are able, stand in that fire and sing. 

Then edit, edit, and edit again.

Image by Jonny Lewis, 2012

Nigel Featherstone’s novel Bodies of Men is forthcoming from Hachette Australia in 2019.