Purple Basil Red Feather stitches together poems that I’ve written in the three years since my sister Kerstie died. My partner ‘pling & I both lost younger sisters within a quarter of a year. The experiences of grief, remembrance & celebration of life have & continue to be profound & inspiring.
‘pling & I are v. much connected with creating food – in the garden & kitchen. These passions were shared with Kerstie & Carolyn (‘pling’s sis). The seasons are inextricably linked with rituals of food & memory.
Dovetailing with the sudden loss of Kerstie, was a return to my birthplace Morocco in celebration of my 40th birthday. The intertwining of birth & death was poignant. The kaleidoscopic landscapes & sensations of Morocco and sense of Kerstie travelling with us became the poem Postcard from Marrakesh.
2. Tell us about your process. (Do you start sparse and widen out, or do you write down every possible association and cut back? Do you research the subject matter you are writing about? Is it pure intuition?) Take us through an example if you want.
The individual poems that became Purple Basil Red Feather were originally short line poems. I adapted them to prose poems for Writing To The Edge. The sequencing of them follows my process of grief – from the heaviness of shock to a lightening of its weight.
Lean lines is my poetic generally. Precision cultivated over the years and influenced by the writings & tutelage of joanne burns, John Scott and Peter Bakowski.
I’ve recently returned to microfiction (after years of concentrating on poetry) and have been working with an editor of another upcoming publication. We’ve worked to adapt my style to what’s happening narratively. Some sections have short & punchy lines eg to create a dynamic beginning or sense of fractured time & place. Others are slightly more expansive in evoking layers of experience – physical, emotional & spiritual.
My processes tend to be intuitive as I write primarily from direct experience. If the subject matter has elements such as historic, I will research them. For example, I have poems about my light keeper ancestors and did considerable research on lives of light keepers. Research involved visiting light houses, reading – fiction & nonfiction, exhibitions, performances, feature films & documentaries, relating to light houses, shipwrecks etc. I & we (the poems are from a collaborative book Lightseekers with photographer ‘pling) gathered light house knowledge over seven years.
3. What advice do you have for other writers? (About the first or last line? About how to choose the title? Do you follow any rules?)
Titles are often the first phrase that generates the text. For example, Purple Basil, & Red Feather are titles of two of the individual poems that formed Purple Basil Red Feather. As titles of the individual poems, they encapsulate the essence of the poem. Purple Basil exploring the poignancy of seasons/ gardens/ living/ dying. Red Feather elements of boldness, surprise, lightness & letting go.
Some pieces have needed me to create a title rather than it finding me! A poem that took time to be named is Buddha Road. It’s a surreal one evolved from dream. It has an image of large men, with buddha bellies juxtaposed with trucks on a freeway. So the title is an attempt to bring together that juxtaposition. As well as references to road stories & Buddhist tales.
If unsure about a title or any element of a piece, I’ll workshop it. I regularly workshop via email with several writers and face to face with ‘pling. I find workshopping an invaluable part of drafting processes. It’s a practice learnt through my Creative Writing degree (see below) and continued. Over the years, I’ve actively workshopped in writers groups as well. For me, small groups or 1 to 1 works best. The relationships that are built involve trust, understanding & appreciation of what one another are striving for. Most of my final drafts integrate workshopping suggestions as well as self edits.
4. Who or what inspires your writing?
Dreams – departure points for many of my poems over recent years. Particularly the more surreal eg Buddha Road. I find these strange ones provide interesting imagery, juxtapositions & narratives.
Returning to the first question: losses find their way into my dreams (as well as waking & day dreaming moments). One of these most significant losses & inspirations was/is a dear friend of ‘pling & I, director, performer, fiddler, mentor & leading force in Canberra arts – David Branson. Since David’s tragic accident over 12 years ago, he’s shaped dreams & several poems and a book. jumping out of cars (joc) with andrea gawthorne and ‘pling, is dedicated to him.
My/our current book (seeking publication) Lightseekers is inspired by light/ dark/ shade, dreams, memories, image making, storytelling & personal histories.
Interarts has and continues to be much of my creative practice & production. My first book Passionfruit & Other Pieces was also a collaboration with printmaker Hannah Parker.
I am inspired & motivated by my collaborators & mentors. Joanne Burns, as mentioned, was my tutor. Her influence during the Bachelor of Creative Arts in Writing was considerable. In addition to her carefully, artfully created words, I enjoy her irony and wit. I find her poems satirical yet compassionate. The compassion and exploration of being human is also a feature of Peter Bakowski’s poetry that affects me.
Susan Hampton’s rigorous, line editing has really developed my poetry. She did 2 manuscript assessments of Lightseekers. Her questions about intentions in various poems and encouragement for more detail especially with historic ones, has I believe, enlivened and created more textures.
Lizz Murphy’s manuscript assessment of joc has furthered my self editing skills. I am more adept at picking up patterns in my writing eg favourite phrases. Repetition can be deliberate and effective. However, in a sequence or collection I like to keep the language, imagery, tone etc varied.
5. Tell us what you do if you haven’t written anything in a while and you want to get started writing again? Could you share your favourite writing exercise with our readers?
Phrase in mind – 1st line/ start
As mentioned in # 3, often I start a piece with a phrase or concept that’s been in my mind for a while. That will be the first thing I write on the page (by hand*). Sometimes there will already be other words even lines formed or forming in my thoughts.
*First draft/s are always by hand. I love the actual art of writing & believe the kinaesthetic is part of my creative processes.
I’ve spoken about how dreams inspire many of my pieces. I journal daily, usually at breakfast to capture dreams & other thoughts while fresh. My poems & stories aren’t written in my journal as such but the dreams/ fragments are.
Images – books, exhibits
In my practice – own writing & in facilitating groups/ courses, I use visual stimulus a lot. Images – anything from newspaper/ magazines to paintings/ etchings etc in books or exhibitions. The image could be a starting point for imagery &/or narrative. Some of my pieces are directly linked to a picture. A poem Facing the Light was created in response to photographs by Martyn Jolley published in his book Faces of the Living Dead – The Belief in Spirit Photography. The photograph and the book’s concept linked in with memories of seeing or sensing my grandma’s spirit (after her passing). Another poem Riding with Orpheus is a response to the exhibition Massive Love of Risk: The Art of Splinters Theatre of Spectacle 1985-98, Canberra Museum & Gallery and the aforementioned David Branson – a significant creative energy & founding member of Splinters.
The upcoming publication mentioned in # 2 is based on a collection of photographs from a library. Selecting one of these and writing a story in response, fitted well with my creating with visual stimuli.
Going to exhibitions, seeing performances (dance, theatre, music) etc is integral in keeping my creative life alive. If I have been very focussed on my day job, re-engaging with arts assists me to get back into a ‘creative space’ – different ways of thinking, writing, being….to my paid work operandi. As discussed in # 4, interarts & collaboration are very much part of my writing practice, projects & production.
Reading poetry, fiction & non-fiction, and attending poetry readings & performances also segues with writing momentum.
Submitting to publications especially themed ones, motivates many of my texts. It may be writing a new one or reshaping an existing one. It guides my choice of submission eg Running with Pegasus was the obvious choice for the theme wings! A fairy tale theme kick started the return to micro story writing as Ginger, a microstory I’d written & had published a decade earlier seemed to fit. With some editing, it became Gingerbread.