Sandra D’Urso Interviews Fiona Hile

By and | 1 February 2018

SD: So, your attendance at those poetry nights prompted you to write new material, which was read in front of other poets but was also then developed into a book?

FH: Yeah. And a few of us were doing PhDs and teaching at the same institutions and reminding each other to send out poems for various things. Jessica Wilkinson started Rabbit poetry journal around then, too, so there’d be lots of launches and readings at Collected Works and elsewhere.

SD: I went to a poetry launch the other night and saw Ella O’Keefe and others reading…

FH: Yeah, I was there, at the Alderman.

SD: Yeah, the Alderman is such a small space but it just seemed to suit the atmosphere where everyone was really quite attentive and invested in the poets reading, as though the entire audience felt like they were part of something …

FH: Yeah, even though that was more like a post-party, or after the orgy or whatever, as they say, but post-party because there used to be a lot more gatherings like that. In fact, Ella was also one of the people always at the poetry groups, and she’s doing a PhD as well. There used to be more people, more cat-calling, more enthusiasm; to me that was like the polite version.

But it was still exciting because obviously there was Andy Carruthers, and some of the Sydney contingent there. Another aspect of it is that it introduced me to a whole bunch of people that I never would have come into contact with from interstate and overseas. Especially up in Sydney there’s a real series of channels between people here and there, and also in some regional places, but a lot to do with academic conferences, poetry conferences and philosophy as well.

SD: Would it be accurate to say that a considerable part of the poetry networks bubbles up out of institutional contexts?

FH: Yeah, but from my perspective and others I’ve spoken to it’s like a kind of rebellion. But it’s a funny kind of rebellion because it works so well from within the institution. God, I had a great time writing at uni because you know, being in the computer lab, but writing poems instead of working on my thesis, I felt supported. So, I don’t know how rebellious you can be in that situation where you’re in an English department and they probably want your poems.

SD: What are the biggest influences upon your poetry?

FH: … I think the things people say to me are the biggest influences, but obviously that has to come in conjunction with a whole bunch of reading of other poets. Sometimes people say things and it feels like the words have been dropped into you, and so you don’t understand what they mean. It can be such a potent thing, it’s a parable or an allegory, just all the gambits that people have. And so, reading philosophy, I’m constantly comparing my speech, their speech, philosophy’s speech, and poetry’s speech, sometimes just to like it and sometimes because I’ve got a problem that I need to sort out. I’ve written the occasional poem where I thought it was about one thing and I looked back later and thought, ‘Oh, that was that situation.’ I knew what was going on, even though I thought I didn’t and I’ve written it out. So, it is definitely like I write things that are mysterious to me at the time, or that I think I don’t know, or I don’t want to know.

The other important factor is my fiction writing; I went through a phase of revisiting my two unfinished novels and fossicking through for inspiration and then just turning whole chapters into one poem, just by cutting out words, which was really, for me, an interesting reckoning because of how much of what I’d written I thought was useless in the fiction. It was like, wow, it’s so extraneous and unneeded when you try and make it into a poem. It’s almost the case that nothing survives of a chapter of a novel. But maybe that’s just the way I do it because it’s condensation and refinement; I know other poets do it differently. I think that covers just about everything you could be influenced by, almost. I mean to be more specific about philosophy, one of the biggest problems I’m conscious of, is that project of what is a woman, what does a woman say, what if our idea of a woman is just what a man thinks a woman is, what of my experience is just interpolated? And I still read great things all the time where, like the other day I read, and who was it? I think it was Lacan just saying, ‘Women’s masochism is a male projection, a male fantasy,’ and I’m like, ‘Yes, finally! I knew it.’

But that realisation keeps me going. I read another female poet saying something like this the other day, and I guess they say it all the time, we say it, but it prompts me to think, ‘Well, that’s a huge project, if you can, from now on write anything you want in pursuit of creating what a woman is.’ You’re never going to run out of impetus. You’ve got centuries of rage fuelling you so you’re not going to run out of that, especially because every day in your life you keep being reminded of how you’re a little bit ahead, conceptually, of the everyday project in terms of the punitive things men do, or even women do and that you do to yourself.

SD: Who are your favourite feminist poets? Or is that too prescriptive?

FH: I don’t necessarily think of poets as feminist or not feminist. I mean, maybe certain poems become aligned with feminist projects or movements. But it goes against the grain for me to think of poetry as a category like that. I mean, for instance, I don’t think of Sylvia Plath as a feminist poet. That doesn’t mean she’s not or that other people don’t think of her that way.

SD: I think I’ve got that category rolling around in my head because I went to see that documentary the other night, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry.

FH: Yeah, someone told me they saw that and they loved it.

SD: It follows a range of activists, people like Kate Millet, who were part of the early women’s liberation movement in the States, during the ’60s and ’70s. It also touches on the centrality of poetry to those movements. But it wasn’t shy about exposing the tensions, and rivalries either. The overall message seemed to be about how some of those gains around reproductive freedom especially, have been rolled back since then.

FH: Mmm, it’s so scary. I’m having a browse through the Shulamith Firestone book, have you read that?

SD: Yeah, The Dialectic of Sex. She was in the documentary too, and I’d never seen any footage of her before. And to learn the circumstances of her death was a bit harrowing …

FH: She’s a real mystic. That’s the other thing I’ve been reading a lot about and it’s been focusing me a bit more is Lacan on the mystic, and how the mystic is almost like a heretic.

SD: So, the mystic as a figure that speaks out-of-turn?

FH: I think for him it’s like speaking to the beyond of the other, but through the creation of a vernacular, like creating a speech that could measure up to that desire. But the Shulamith thing on reproduction, even back then in the ’60’s she had that belief of, ‘Don’t let them take reproduction out of your hands,’ just like Margaret Atwood ended up writing in The Handmaid’s Tale. And it’s difficult because, if you think about science and what science means and how important it is to innovate, and then you think about the question of, what is women’s freedom? You then ask, would it be freedom from childbearing, would that constitute freedom? What part of that is of women? Because my first reaction would be, ‘Yeah, do not let them get a hold of that.’

SD: Yeah, the documentary also touches on how those gains impacted women differently. White middle-class feminists fought for access to birth-control and abortion but Mexican women, women of colour and migrants were fighting against the horror of enforced sterilisations. It featured one of the activist’s daughters reading their mother’s poetry aloud. There was something really affecting about that.

FH: What were the poems about?

SD: Some were about reproductive rights, sexual assault, and some were about being mired in domestics and labour in the home.

FH: I guess I just feel uneasy about conflating poetry and politics. But I don’t really want to delimit a feminist project by categorising it, either. It’s like once something’s categorised it can just be dealt with and set aside. Having said that, it’s important to be able to conceptualise and communicate ideas when it comes to something like political action.

SD: When did you start writing poetry?

FH: So, does everyone say, ‘What does that mean?’ because you can go, ‘When was your first poem published? When did you start writing poetry? When did you …’?

SD: When did you first start writing poetry by your own definition?

FH: It’s tricky because I imagine it’s possible to have quite a broad definition of what a poem is, like, you heard a pebble fall on the ground and that was your first poem, or something. I used to work at Channel 7 in Sydney as a script editor, and I remember driving back to Rozelle where I lived, and I definitely remember being on the corner, at the lights turning right into Darling Street down towards Rozelle, and seeing an old woman standing on the median strip and then going home and writing something about her shoes and her feet overflowing outside the shoes. One of the script editors I worked with had gone to film school, and I might have showed him that poem. He might have encouraged me a little bit, maybe, just in talking, not about poetry though. He showed me a story that he’d written to get into film school. And who knows, maybe, I’m just making this up completely, but maybe it was the idea that you could get into film school by writing a different genre, so therefore you could move between genres. Actually, now I think of it, I had a boyfriend when I was about twenty who was studying theatre writing at UTS so I received a kind of informal education through him. He was a frenetic reader and worked in a bookshop so I had access to a lot of different kinds of writing – Joe Orton, Margeurite Duras, Sylvia Plath – as well as plenty of conversations about writing and acting with people I met through him.

But I think I’d always written little stories, and I’d always been, I want this on tape, I feel like I was a bit abused at school, like just the most slanderous things that teachers used to say to me. I remember, I wrote a story about a baby vampire and this is in Year 7 or Year 8 or something and the teacher wrote on it, ‘So dramatic as to be amusing rather than scary,’ and I was, obviously it’s my deep feelings about being six months old and powerless, now I think. And then on my school report another teacher, or maybe the same one wrote, ‘Fiona has little flare …’ f-l-a-r-e ‘… for creative writing.’ And every now and again it returns to me, like I’ve refined it in my imagination, and I’ll be like, ‘Who would write that?’

SD: Did you study poetry in school?

FH: I left school in Year 10, almost by accident because my mum was a bit powerless with me, so I said I wanted to go to another school where my friend went who was having quite a creative life at Sydney Girls’, and then I couldn’t get in because I didn’t realise it was selective or you had to live in the area. So I ended up going to Cleveland Street High, which is where my brother and sister had gone, before we moved out to the Western Suburbs. I only lasted a few weeks there. And then I ended up going to Darlinghurst Technical College. You used to be able to, before it was an Art School, do your HSC in one of those out of school learning things. And so, I remember the teacher there saying, ‘You should do Double English, you’re really talented. You could even be a journalist.’ And I thought, ‘Are you serious? Is this what you’re offering me, to be a journalist? Who would want that? I’m a fucking writer.’ But I obviously never voiced that, or much else either, until I was 35 or something.

But then I got really sick and didn’t finish the year, so that was abandoned. When I was at the catholic girls’ college that I went to until Year 10 there was some poetry education. I remember Porphyria’s Lover made a big impact on me. Elizabeth Browning’s Sonnets to the Portuguese. There was some Shakespeare, and some kind of enthusiasm about my essay writing. But I don’t think I ever wrote poetry. No, I didn’t. And then I ended up working in television, doing script writing.

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