Q&A with Emily Stewart

10 February 2012

Emily Stewart was born in 1987. She grew up in country NSW, and graduated with an Honours degree in English literature from the Australian National University in 2009. She is currently conducting research into digital publishing futures for small press across the Global South, as part of her Masters degree in publishing at the University of Melbourne. She also holds up a day job in educational publishing. Prior to this, she worked variously as a bookshop manager and bureaucrat. Some of her recent poetry can be found online at Cordite, and inside the print journal FourW.

Can you describe your typical day at work?

It would be nice to be a morning person, to wake up slowly and sip a cup of tea, to watch the sun inch across the backyard and to listen to the neighbours’ plumbing jolt and seize as they go about their morning routine.

But I’m not: my work day usually starts with me on the run, gulping down avocado-on-toast which I hold in one hand as I coast on my bike to the train station. My commute takes about fifty minutes, with one change at the centre of the city. And when I arrive I’m in a completely different neighbourhood, one where everybody has perfectly styled eyebrows and lovingly polished convertibles.

I’m an editorial assistant in a large publishing house. I work in a pod with no natural light, right outside the boss’s office. While my computer starts up, I grab a soy cappuccino from the café downstairs. From there, my day is spent proofreading textbooks, copy-editing web material, organising corrections for reprint, and ploughing through a requisite amount of scanning, photocopying, filing etc. On a day like today, I also help to make fifty hanging tissue paper baubles for our work Christmas party. On a day like yesterday, I create crosswords on various science topics.

But of course ‘work’ entails more than what you do for a buck. Once I’m done at the office, sometimes I rush off to a class at the university, or else often I’m checking out a book launch or reading event around town. Then, in the late moments before bed, I steal some minutes for writing poetry.

Do you consider writing poetry to be a form of work?

I have to think of writing poetry as work or nothing would ever happen. And I’d never get any better at it. It’s sort of a crude psychological trick. With other forms of art, like dancing and music, I can dabble and the pleasure of dabbling is enough. But poetry demands constantly, it demands me to read and write, and learn and then unlearn. It’s relentless. In this sense, it’s definitely work, but the best kind.

How long do you generally spend writing an individual poem?

While a lot of other people seem to be constantly hacking away at their writing, for me each line is kind of a hassle to find. So most of my poems take ages to write. I keep a notebook, which is full of fleeting thoughts, fragments — rarely more than a handful of words. And I keep text message drafts of lines which come about when I’m in public and want to remain inconspicuous. At work I regularly email lines to myself too. And scribble on post-its, which accrue gradually in my handbag. All of these things I eventually pen into my journal, and go I from there, writing and rewriting lines until they’ve grown large enough in size and heft. Some lines I’ve had floating around in my head for years before I found the right place for them on the page.

But this isn’t always the case. Occasionally a poem will just fall out in one go. Maybe they’re the better ones. Who knows?

Is work a preoccupation or theme in your poetry?

Many of my poems investigate aspects of consumer culture. Malls, shopping, and air travel are all common reference points. I’m not sure why. I think it’s got something to do with these being completely banal spaces where the richness of human personality and experience blazes out in contrast. I’ve found, especially recently, that many of my poems are characterful, sort-of schizophrenic poems, with a voice designed to dislodge certain assumptions about the structure of our cultures. And/or expose the obvious: things which become invisible, then forgranted, over time.

I think the idea of work – as commerce, ritual, habit – has a lot of poetic appeal. For example, I’m currently working on a set of poems about the opal mining industry. Opals often form as bones decalcify and break down. Seen in this light, mining becomes a slowed-down, grand scale version of grave digging. I like the drama of that.

What is your attitude towards unpaid publication?

In principle, it would be spectacular if the norm was for poets to get paid for their work. Where they’re able, poetry publishers should definitely remunerate their contributors. That should be a priority. And their staff too! The problem is that under regular publishing models there is just hardly any money to do it. I guess I’m personally not too bothered about whether I get paid or not. It means much more to me to see my work in journals I respect. When I do get paid for my work, I view it as a sort of cash investment which I feed back into my development by buying books or subscriptions.

What is the smallest amount you’ve ever been paid for the publication of a poem?

I’m not really sure about this. Maybe about $30-40?

Describe your poetry writing work environment.

My bed! Sprawled out with my laptop, my notebook, and a scattering of poetry books. I use my desk as a table for my toast and a cup of peppermint tea.

Lately I’ve been doing a bit of writing during my lunch break, too. If I can’t be in my bed, then I can be found scribbling at whatever cafe nearby which makes good coffee and doesn’t mind me taking my sweet time.

What do you think is the (ideal) monetary worth of a single poem?

A poem’s worth can’t be measured by money, though it’s fine luck if it comes your way. In fact, the whole idea of a poem having an ideal monetary worth is antithetical to what I see as the essential nature of poetry. I really respected John Kinsella’s decision to pull out of the TS Eliot prize last year after he found out it was being sponsored by a large investment firm. Poets, more than most, are tuned to the abstract and symbolic resonance of things, making money big on the list of things to be wary of.

As we’ve seen at countless junctures in history, poetry often persists as the final act of a person’s freedom. Poems are small acts of dissent, in the sense that when they work it’s because they expose something new about our understanding of the world. I just don’t see where money fits in here. It’s sort of like trying to punch words into a poker machine.

Have you ever worked as an editor? Describe your experience.

I spent a couple of years running a small Canberra-based journal called Block. We were a collective, mainly of uni writing students, and it was a fantastic way to learn a whole lot very quickly about the many facets of small press publishing. And so much fun. At one launch, I got to pour Frank Moorhouse a glass of wine and trade horror stories about doing work experience at a country newspaper office.

That was a few years ago. Now I’ve moved along the chain, and I’m working in editorial at a large educational publisher. The thing to note would be how much grunt work goes into turning words into print, and now digital, formats. And how much ‘digital’ is a total game-changer. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what this means for poetry, or rather what the benefits can be for poetry, and beyond the glitter, I think it’s exciting in terms of accessibility. ePublishing has allowed me to get my hands on journals like the Kenyan-based Kwani?, which was all but impossible to do a year ago. As an editor plotting a couple of future projects, the reach we now have because of this technology, and the cheapness of it, makes it a pretty great time to be doing things with words.

When asked your occupation, do you reply ‘poet’?

No, I usually say ‘I work in publishing’. Occasionally I’ll say I’m a poet – if it doesn’t feel too awkward, or if I think it will lead to an interesting conversation. I like telling taxi drivers I’m a poet. I had a fantastic conversation with one the other day about the French symbolists.

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I remember being about six or seven, and gazing at a beautiful photograph of my great-aunt’s wedding. She had six bridesmaids all wearing these fabulous dresses each in a different pastel shade. My mum walked in, and I looked at her very seriously and said: ‘when I grow up, I want to be a mother’. I think she said something like ‘that’s great, Emily, but I hope you do some other things first’.

I’ve always wondered about people who from a young age steadfastly decide they want to be a vet, or a mechanic, or a teacher, or etc. How can you possibly know until you try it out, alongside some other things for good measure? Is that a totally gen y thing to say? Is it a completely unromantic thing to say? My ethos has always been to follow through on the things I enjoy. The things which inspire me in the kind of way that makes me rubbish at chores like paying bills and cleaning the bathroom, and rubbish at getting to sleep at a reasonable hour sometimes. So far, so good. Having the option to live my life in this way is a privilege of chance I’m grateful for.

Emily Stewart’s ‘State of Origin’, first published in Cordite 35: Oz-Ko (2011), has now been republished as part of the Cordite / Prairie Schooner ‘Work’ feature.

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