Some writers like to blow their own trumpet as loud as possible and as often as possible, usually assisted by the electronic megaphone that is social media. Then there are those who just quietly go about their writerly business, being published here and there and slowly making their mark. There is a version of the latter: the quiet writer who also wants to change the world. Enter: Sarah St Vincent Welch. Originally from Sydney, St Vincent Welch is a Canberra-based writer, editor, writing teacher and image maker, who is known for her short fiction about the lives of women and girls and for chalking her poetry on the footpaths at arts festivals. Open (Rochford Press, 2019) is her first book of poetry and ‘collects some of the very best of the thoughtful, wise, mysterious, layered, haunting, lyrical work Sarah has been producing over many years’, according to the revered poet Melinda Smith.
Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone
How would you describe your new poetry collection, Open? And can you tell us a little about its genesis?
ST VINCENT WELCH
I call Open my tiny wee bookie. It is twenty-eight pages so it is on the longer side of chapbooks. It is playful, soulful, lyrical, about family and places. It is personal, containing worlds within worlds. Of course, it is hard to see and then describe one’s own work as it often comes from some mundane place and it is difficult to push beyond the origin of the pieces to describe this new thing created from an experience or experiences and memories and language.
The genesis of Open (and by the way that is a wonderfully grand word for such a little book) was actually via Verity La and, I recall, a suggestion made by you, Nigel, that I submit something for consideration for publication. Ghosts 1 and 11 was the piece that was published a little later, and Mark Roberts contacted me after he read it and asked if I would like to submit a collection of poetry for a chapbook with Rochford Press. We moved in similar circles in early 1980s Sydney: Poets Union, Left, Feminist, and Peace movement, and we both studied English literature at Sydney Uni (though Mark was a year or two ahead of me). We had mutual friends and lived in the inner city of Glebe, Newtown, and Enmore, before the major regentrification — rents were cheap and dunnies were out the back. Mark was one of the Collective that published my piece ‘From a Journal 1983-84’ in Minute to Midnight (Anna Couani, Kit Kelen, Carmel Kelly, Mark Roberts; Red Sparks Press, 1985). It was an important piece and experience for me, as I felt I actually had something to say and had a voice. It was a response to my participation in The Women’s Peace Camp at Pine Gap.
I had never imagined that a collection of my work would be solicited, so to speak. Seeing myself as primarily a fiction writer I was a little surprised that my first collection would possibly be poetry, but was affirmed by a feeling of connection and that at last my perseverance was paying off, and I was delighted it would be through an independent press and a with colleague from the past; that sat well with me.
My work lies somewhere between poetry and prose, and while I can determinedly write something that is more like poetry or more like prose, above all I am in love with image and sound; narrative, though an aspect of my work, is less important for me. But when creating a poetry collection I faced the same dilemma as I did with my short fiction: what comprises a collection exactly? How do I make one? What goes out and in? I had a couple of goes at it. I think Mark was unaware what a big deal it was for me. Rochford at that time produced handmade chapbooks, which I found very appealing, being a grass-roots sort of person, and I love making things and wanted to join in on the making. Mark’s magazine back in the 80s, P76, had beautiful hand-printed covers, was typed and I think roneoed. I own all of them. Technology has moved on in the meantime, but the beauty of the handmade remains. In the meantime, the press has also moved on and gone in another direction, with commercially printed books. Dylan, my husband, and I, were very involved in the design, so the feeling of making it to a degree was still there.
Later, after reading Mark’s work, I realised why ‘Ghosts 1 and 11’ resonated with him. A nostalgic childhood country NSW preoccupation: the almost mystic qualities of those dusty familial places I recognised in his ‘Lacuna’ poems. Place is really important to me, and subliminal connection. I felt I had that connection over time with Mark at Rochford Press through my poetry. However, there was a lot of silence from both sides: we were both busy, with family, with work, and over the years I had suffered injury and illness. I also had other major projects and life events happening, as, I’m sure, did Mark. Since we were both really busy and there seemed no huge urgency (or none was communicated to me), the manuscript had its time to develop. So while the genesis was in 2013, for a little book it has taken a long time to get together. At some stages I thought it had slipped off the back-burner and down the back of the stove, but then I heard of it being proofread in another friend’s living room (Mark and I don’t live near each other) and realised the project was still on the boil.
I had offered a couple of titles and Mark preferred ‘Open’. I am always using competition deadlines to create work. I noticed the winner of a short story wine-label writing competition was the sort of writing I like to do, and thought, How about I work on a piece called ‘Open’ in an attempt to understand why this title may provide a sense of collection for these poems? (describing opening a wine bottle in there perhaps…). That is how I wrote the last piece of the book, which has the title name of the collection. I never sent it off to the competition. I felt it too personal to me. It is very much my world view, and I was surprised by what emerged; it is how I like to be, dreamy, diffuse but intense, connected subliminally, connected in a heightened way to everything. A quiet ecstasy (naturally induced). But I had assembled a manuscript that was still not quite there. It was a good start though.
In 2016, Project 366 (aka Project 355+1) happened. This project, curated by Kit Kelen and Anna Couani, involved a daily writing commitment for a year (a leap year). My friend Lizz Murphy first told me about the project just before New Year, when I was in Melbourne, and Anna and I were talking about it as well. (This was an online chat as we live far away from each other, with me sitting on the edge of the bed in my in-laws spare room reading about this amazing possibility.) The first poem I posted on Project 366, ‘Half Moon Bay’, became the first ‘poem’ (after a kind of prosey prelude) in Open. And those people wading back to me at Half Moon Bay in the poem were my dead; they came in a vivid dream on New Year’s Eve — the veil between the living and dead was very thin. I decided to do what I thought I couldn’t do and join Project 366 and write and publish a poem and an image a day for a year online with a group of artists and writers. A bit crazy for a short story writer and novelist. But it was one of the best creative experiences of my life. ‘The book is a door’ (the prelude to Open) is a very old piece, closer to thirty than twenty years old, and I had always thought it would be a good beginning to something. I hang onto everything I write (but that does not necessarily mean I can find it). So it found its own place at last.
The word genesis in your question has really got me going (and I riff — a book in the Bible, a rock band, a Star Trek episode). What is genesis? Is it more a geneses? I have always written poetry and I can trace the line if I think hard enough to ‘Open’ from childhood. I loved to read and write poetry at school because I was blessed with wonderful creative teachers, and I was surrounded by the libraries of my grandparents and great-grandparents at home, where I retreated; those books were my sanctuary, and many of those books incorporated poetry. I was also inspired by the range of courses I could take at uni: I ended up doing a double major in English literature because I just couldn’t miss out, and many of those courses were poetry. I stumbled into a group of poets (I have done that a few times over the years). There was a feeling like in many of my projects that it might not happen, the stars may not align, but they did. And that as always was okay with me. I just felt privileged I had been asked in the first place. So many things need to come together for even a little book to happen. And after a period of illness where I was a bit off the radar, Mark seemed alright with accommodating an unforeseen delay from my side.
Other important geneses are discussions I had with Melinda Smith, one on a long walk between a carpark near the Mint and Parliament House in Canberra. We both had the same idea: if a man and his son could walk from Adelaide to Canberra to protest the plight of refugees and our government’s policy of offshore detention, then we could walk from the Mint to Capital Hill to join him in protest when they arrived. On the walk we talked poetry, and Melinda gently guided me with ideas about how to make a collection, and I asked her to write a back-cover blurb. And there were discussions with Lizz Murphy and Anna Couani too. I think connections with other writers and artists are so important, the ongoing discussions can often shift your thinking or show you another angle or approach. To simply be able to ask: how do you do this? I’m not sure how.
Thanks for such a detailed and illuminating answer. The poems in Open appear to be concerned with internal geography as much as physical place. Is that how you see it?
ST VINCENT WELCH
Mmm: internal geography and physical place in Open. ‘Inside is outside, outside in, all at once, all of a sudden, always, over and over’ is a quote from the final prose-poem in the book. My boundaries are soft, permeable, I am fanciful perhaps, that is when I am my best me to myself, when ‘inside is outside, outside in.’ Binaries like inside and outside, the oppositions we think and know and perceive within the Western traditions are, I believe, troubled by our bodies (I’m referencing Elizabeth Grosz here) as our bodies know there is so much more to all of it, so I find inside and outside a constant preoccupation and muse upon their qualities and how we get from one to the other, or maybe we just are in both and also between all the time. But that is hard to talk about. That is where art comes in. Art is where we find a place to talk about hard to talk about experiences and ideas. That is my initial take on ‘internal geography’ and ‘physical place’ in your question, inside and outside.
Visually, I love reflections and shadows that occur in and on and through everyday objects and illustrate this sort of merging confusion of boundaries, and I’m distracted by them constantly in my everyday life and take photos when I perceive it going on. ‘Geography’ is an interesting word to use, as is ‘place’, in your question. Geography, I think, has a big meaning. Big for what is inside, and in a little book. I think of geography as something studied and quantified, something known and mapped, something we learn to read through cultural learning and education — whatever that may be — with its own language and codes and conventions, something we agree upon. We could learn it in a classroom, it could be oral, it could be experiential, most likely a combination, as it is for me in Open. Perhaps, then, internal geography is about my wanting to be open to the known and the unknown, the not entirely mapped. Press the edges of the map outwards. Whether I do that in Open or not, I don’t know. Maybe. It is a pleasing way to look at it. I am pleased your reading of the book led you to that question.
Place is also a preoccupation for me, as I mentioned earlier. I see place as similar to the function of character in much of my fiction; maybe I do in poetry as well. We ask ‘Where is this?’ or ‘Where are you from?’ It seems to be the beginning of communication, of a way into knowing or meeting or communicating with another person. I suppose the book as a portal, as an open door, as in ‘the Book is a door’ which begins and frames Open, tries to captures the ‘passage between’ for me, this amazing technology ‘the book’, the ultimate portable inside-outside-outside-inside in all its manifestations (until we make rather than imagine a holodeck, I suppose, but as in Star Trek the physical book will survive even if we can pop it back into the replicator rather than a bookcase). And story is what hooks us through, what helps us remember ‘where’ and what it is like. And how we use language can help us remember the story. So my poems often have a narrative sense. (And this is where poetry comes in again: rhythm and sound link to our bodies, to pulse, to voice — ‘This happened here.’ ‘Here is where this happened.’ — whether it did or it didn’t. And this imprints on the place too; I believe it may, it just may. Do all creatures feel this, the plants, animals, insects?)
Oh, I rave. Nigel, gardens are so compelling for me, the intersection of Nature and Man (another binary/opposition, which isn’t an opposition), a place of common human expression and need across cultures, with all our different gardens or growing places or rocks placed to guide us, in all their traditions. I think games and music are aspects of our common humanities as well. Games, and playing, feature in Open as well.
So yes, internal geography, a mapping, is as much of what Open is about as the physical places: Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, gardens, school playgrounds, beaches, libraries, homes, places in memory layered over and under what is still present, what is obvious. But what that internal geography is I am still mapping. I think they may even be in balance, though that is not what I was reaching for. The words are just what I do, and then I discover what I am thinking or want to explore, a sense of pushing and being pulled at the same time.
I have drawn some of those internal maps in Open, like my mother’s garden. The ‘Archaeology of Gardens’ just rose up out of me while I participated in Project 366 and it is quite a long poem to draft in day! A very familiar place. An important place. It no longer exists as it did. But it exists in that poem now in the outside world for whoever opens the book, and perhaps it evokes other gardens significant for them and they experience a little of Mum’s garden, and what it meant to me and my family, to her, especially.
I write about places in Open where some ‘magic’ has happened for me, and I feel they are intrinsically ‘magical’ places. Perhaps every place has that potential. And I think about the moments where people feel this. I suppose a feeling of presence when inside and outside come together more, maybe that happens in special places or at special times in special places. When you feel lifted out of the everyday but are still in it. I feel healthy and alive when that happens. But it is perhaps a heightened experience difficult to maintain — perhaps it is too difficult, to be inside and outside equally and to still get yourself and your body around to do the things that need to be done. I feel that heightened sense and thought when I am writing, and enjoying it.
A heightened sense is so important to writing, isn’t it? Speaking of which, as well as for your poetry you are known for your social-justice activism. How does one inform the other?
ST VINCENT WELCH
The social-activism I have mainly been involved in is the peace movement of the 1980s, feminism — especially around women’s right to control their fertility — and now the human rights of refugees especially in relation to indefinite detention, offshore detention, and denial of the right to work or study for refugees who arrive by boat in Australia. This is the out-there-rallying-working-protesting-writing-letters and meeting sort of activitism.
I feel pacifism and women’s rights legitimately inform both my poetry and prose, always, as I am a woman who wants peace. It happens in subtle and overt ways in my writing. It is just who I am, or who I came to be. An early involvement in the Poets Union in Sydney fused these preoccupations. The Poets Union advocated for poets to get paid for readings and for publication. They were active in May Day marches and in peace protests. I see poetry as having the possibility of being the voice of the people and high art. It can be so many things. An individual voice that explores freedom and identity, that protests, that is not silenced. A voice that joins others, that may represent others.
Poetry has the advantage of having no money it. Negative money. The scene is not pure by any means; no human activity is. But you have to love it to do it. Be idealistic. In a country that does not value art, in fact derides artistic activities (maybe we are getting a bit better, I don’t know) there is little to be gained outwardly, there’s just lots of hard work and people thinking you are deluded, except in very small circles. But in moments, in education, in times of trouble and reflection, poetry is there, it remains an art form people naturally turn to.
Writing and facilitating creative writing has led me to an ongoing engagement with writers living with disability and mental illnesses, with those writing in English as a second (or third, fourth or fifth) language, and with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers — and with all our differences and diversity, writing, story and love of language is common. Writing is powerful. Story is powerful. Language is powerful.
Poetry has many advantages as it springs from image and sound and body; it is something I’ve noticed people feel they can own quickly — in rhyme and playfulness and anger and love. It is private and, once shared in any way, it is public. It is resistance. (Except for the poetry of John Laws and Donald Trump.) Social activism and poetry are connected in my life. How does one inform the other? They are just together. And with some tensions. Not all my poetry is overtly about social-justice — in fact little of it is — as I am white, middle-class, and privileged. I feel I can legitimately write from my point of view about women to a degree, but not all women. And about the environment. But I can’t write from the point of view of refugees or Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders, of course. Though I can promote and enjoy their poetry.
Poetry can be a tool for change. It has certainly stirred my heart around many issues and human experiences. Violence of men to women in Browning’s ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ obsessed me as a young woman; the narrator feels he has the right to strangle Porphyria, it is a loving act in his mind and completely psychologically plausible, and we recognise its horrible terror and certainty and dwell within it.
Recently, along with colleagues from Refugee Action Campaign in Canberra and members of the Canberra writing community and friends, I organised a continuous reading of Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend But The Mountains in Garema Place, which is in Civic, the town centre. We had sixty readers and it went from 8.15am to 7pm. We gathered, we reflected, we talked to passersby, and the poetry threaded through the story and helped us link the action to World Poetry Day, which is also Harmony Day and Persian New Year. This was an example of people coming together to protest through poetry and story.
Poetry moves people; it shows people different points of views and experiences which they can live out in their imagination and which helps them understand other people better. That is the best of what poetry can do. I try to do it. It is on my radar as a tool. But it is a sensitive creature; you have to get it right.
I see the climate emergency as a topic that filters through my writing as well (how can it not?), as in the poem in Open called ‘821.3 in old Civic Library’ (821.3 being the Dewey Decimal moniker for Australian Poetry). I observed a mother and baby asleep on the floor in that aisle, sheltering from the heat. I saved and savoured that experience and almost biblical image:
there’s fire in our skies
and a storm coming
This refers to Canberra’s extreme high temperatures during bush fire season, specifically in 2002. This was the year before the firestorm where we lost 500 hundred houses, forests, and human and animal lives. It was a hot and scary summer in 2002 as well. I along with others took shelter in Civic Library’s air-conditioning, seeking the safety and peace of that public space that serves so many purposes. The metaphor is clear, it resonates, I hope.
What keeps bringing you back to words?
ST VINCENT WELCH
I return to words because it is a habit, though in the early days it was also a struggle, but it is one I have come to expect and accept. Returning to words is also solace, a communion, a community, identity; words are beautiful and malleable and precise all at once. Creating with words is a practice: it is work, joy, pig-headedness, a determination to not be silenced, a way to learn and research and explore, a continual challenge and puzzle, a way to think and dream and discover, record and observe, to include, an occasional ecstasy, and sometimes when I am lucky, a way to share and receive.
Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer who has been published widely. His war novel, BODIES OF MEN, was published by Hachette Australia in 2019 and was shortlisted in the 2019 Queensland Literary Awards and received a 2019 Canberra Critics Circle Award. His other works include the story collection JOY (2000), his debut novel REMNANTS (2005), and THE BEACH VOLCANO (2014), which is the third in an award-winning series of novellas. He wrote the libretto for THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, a highly regarded contemporary song cycle that had its world premiere in 2018. His memoir essay, ‘The Boy and the Mountain’, appears in the Australian Issue of the Chicago Quarterly Review (2020). He has held residencies at Varuna (Blue Mountains), Bundanon (Shoalhaven River), and UNSW Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy.