‘A poem is not a puzzle with a correct answer’: Anne Brewster in Conversation with Hazel Smith

By and | 15 February 2023

In an incisive review of Hazel Smith’s fifth book of poetry, ecliptical, Chris Arnold gestures to Smith’s reputation as a ‘relentlessly experimental’ poet. He notes the book title’s uncanny – because unintended but entirely logical – connection with Ern Malley’s iconoclastic The Darkening Ecliptic, to draw out some intriguing comparisons between these two books. Since her first volume, Abstractly Represented, Smith has been an innovator in Australia, in linguistic and generic experimentation. She has also been a pioneer in performance writing, intermedia work and electronic writing and her work has continued to break new ground over an impressive career spanning four decades. Nevertheless, Smith loses no time in problematising the descriptor ‘experimental’ in this interview. During our interview, Smith reflects on her commitment to expanding her own flamboyantly eclectic repertoire, discussing her interest in enigma, immersion, the alignment of the satirical and the surreal, the discomfort that humour in poetry often produces and computer-generated text. Smith had formerly been a professional musician and examines music’s formative impact on her poetry. She excavates her complex relationship with her Jewish heritage and talks frankly about the strictures of proscribed ethnic identities. Smith’s critical cosmopolitanism is evident in tropes of migration, displacement and transgenerational trauma, and in her attention, throughout these poems, to the precarity of many diasporic peoples.

Anne Brewster: A couple of times in your new book, ecliptical, you comment on poetry as a marginalised, arcane form and you question – somewhat provocatively – whether many people actually read poetry. If this is so, why do you write poetry? What does it offer you?

Hazel Smith: Very few people read poetry: even people who are quite prolific readers and love reading novels often neglect poetry or feel uneasy with it. I think many readers are largely compelled by narrative; they like immersing themselves in a storyline, and in the lives of characters, and they don’t normally find that same pleasure in poetry. They also tend to regard poetry as difficult. I think poetry needs an image make-over so that readers are less intimidated by it and are encouraged to find it more seductive. They need to understand that poetry is immensely varied and constantly changing: there is something for everyone. Poetry is also emerging in electronic literature in kinetic, interactive, generative and multimedia forms that are giving it a new vitality, but many people are not aware of that.

I am drawn to poetry because of its concentration on the enigmatic and chameleon qualities of language: a word can mean so many different things and you can endlessly explore and exploit that in poetry. I also hugely enjoy working with the interplay between sound and sense. But there is something more fundamental about my attraction to poetry. I embrace poetry because it is a very flexible and malleable medium. You can stretch it in so many different directions. I am always very interested in opening up and questioning what a poem is. In particular I like to hybridise poetry with other forms such as prose, or writing for performance, or screen writing. I also love to bring poetry together with visual images or music; in fact there are URLs in ecliptical (interactive links in the ebook version) to associated collaborative performance and multimedia works. Poetry gives me enormous scope and allows me to diversify my writing. Variety is a central dynamic of my poetry. I like to write in a way that is heterogenous rather than homogenous. I am very eclectic in my approach to style.

AB: I’m interested in the title of the book – ‘ecliptical’ – a word that invokes ideas of eclipse and ellipsis. You seem quite interested in the act of not seeing everything. When you talk about personhood, for example, as you do in the poem ‘Personhood: A Few Preliminaries’, you’re interested in incompleteness and disruption.

HS: I feel that we never do see anything in its totality; everything has an incomplete or mysterious element to it. The title ecliptical was an attempt to capture this by welding the word ‘eclipse’, which involves the idea of hiding or obscuring, together with the word ‘ellipsis’, which suggests gaps and silences. People have secrets, they often withhold information, we rarely know the full story. So I often choose to write about situations that have an enigmatic quality. I like to raise questions rather than give answers. And I don’t necessarily want to fill my readers in on all the details.

AB: I love your idea of aligning the practice of listening with the practice of reading. You’re exploring the particular kind of attention we bring to artistic conventions that you’re working within. Especially with experimental work – what kind of different attention does it require?

HS: I embrace experimentalism but I have some problems with the term ‘experimental’ as it is sometimes used in the contemporary poetry world. For me ‘experimental’ mainly means work that is negotiating new territory, using new techniques and approaches. But the word ‘experimental’ is often used to describe a specific school of writing that is part of an alternative tradition of poetry, which started with the dadaists, surrealists and futurists. This kind of work sometimes, though not always, courts discontinuity, non-linearity and collage but it is not necessarily experimental in the first sense I outlined because it is normalised, to a certain extent, as a set of alternative conventions. So for me the word ‘experimental’ is important but it begs a lot of questions.

Getting back to your question, however, work from the experimental tradition, that is work that draws on these alternative conventions, requires a different kind of attention that is less dependent on linearity, narrative, continuity, cohesion. I think it is important when reading this kind of poetry, or any poetry that seems quite demanding, not to worry too much, at least initially, about what every word means: a poem is not a puzzle with a correct answer that you have to work out. You have to immerse yourself in the experience of the poem as a whole, in its musicality, in its visual aspect, its play with language. You have to surrender yourself to the poem, its obscurities and ambiguities, the impossibility of totally understanding it. It is difficult to do, but this surrender to a state beyond normal understanding is an experience that all good art ultimately demands.

My own breakthrough in appreciating poetry came when I began reading surrealist poetry. It was almost impossible to extract the sense in any logical way, so I had to immerse myself in the imagery and stop worrying about exact meaning. I think that people become too bogged down in thinking they have to be able to paraphrase a poem and understand every bit if it, but that is only one aspect of reading it. I remember when I first started teaching poetry, I was taking a class in which we were reading a Plath poem and the students wanted me to explain to them what every line of this poem meant. Their desire to unpick the meaning was perfectly valid but that process can also be reductive. Perhaps the full experience of reading poetry comes from immersing yourself in the experience of the poem in the way I have suggested but also grappling with its micro and macro meanings on repeated readings.

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