‘The amorphousness of meaning-making’: Elena Gomez Interviews Toby Fitch

By and | 1 February 2020

EG: What’s the poetry equivalent of that? For artists we see the studies and sketches, and then there’s often a finished sculpture, but we never see the poetry drafts do we?
TF: There are those annotated editions of famous books – like Plath’s Ariel and Eliot’s The Waste Land – that include drafts and crossings-out and edits, but we rarely see these in a gallery setting. I print out my manuscripts in draft form and then lay them out on the floor and read through them, sometimes take out poems and put in new poems, or move them around. I keep many versions of my book manuscripts. It’d be really boring probably as an editor or literary executor or student to look through them all and see the variations in poems, but you’d see certain poems morphing as the manuscript drafts progress, poems that are live, in flux, not ‘finished’.

There’s another poetry equivalent of the visual arts drafting process where you’ve got the document of one poem open and you’ve got the master version at the top of the document maybe, the one you’re working on, and below it you’ve got previous versions you want to keep so you don’t lose a particular section of it you’ve nominally deleted, and then you’ve got all the detritus of parts you might want to use in some other way at some other point, like rubble collecting beneath. Even with this safekeeping process, I often delete bits as I’m going and then later am like, oops …

EG: It’s hard though, when we use computers. We automatically just backspace …

TF: It’s an automatic response to something that you’re working on…

EG: ’Cause it’s attached to your thoughts. As soon as you think something’s not right, you’re already deleting it …

TF: And maybe it’s heightened for poets like us who also work as editors.

EG: Going back to Where Only the Sky had Hung Before, I noticed that in a few poems you reference your daughters, partner Frankie, and Minky (the dog). How did becoming a father affect your poetic practice?

TF: It made me start to name the people in my life in my poems, ’cause I didn’t do that before. I’ve occasionally had fictitious names, not really characters, just like people I guess, occupying my poems. Or figures, sometimes mythological ones, that only really exist in literature. I’ve always been wary of naming people in my poems for various reasons, one being, would they even appreciate ending up in one of my weird poems? I guess I want to acknowledge the influence of the closest, most important people and creatures in my life. I’ve tried to be a lot more open and just play with the idea of autobiography …

EG: I think that’s something that’s more noticeable in your latest collection than previous ones, but then all of your works make sense as a body, but then it’s also it’s grown and changed over the years. But that’s what we want to be as poets.

TF: There’s a natural letting down of the guard, maybe. I don’t know if it’s natural, maybe it’s totally forced – trying something different in each new book, or adding a new component. I have a manuscript on the go that’s called Or: An Autobiography, which is mostly a long poem called ‘The Or Tree’, which in turn is a ‘fictitious’ version of the fictitious long poem ‘The Oak Tree’ written by Orlando in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography. ‘The Oak Tree’ is never quoted from in her ‘novel’, and so in constructing my own real version of that unreal poem, and likewise exploring themes of sex, gender, love, identity, self, I’ve been able to attempt an extreme kind of expressiveness – hopefully. It’s confessional, in terms of androgyny, but also abstract and amorphous. So, another swerve or oscillation in my methods. I’m sure there are also forces beyond me influencing all this, such as the way we communicate on the internet, confessing things in weird ways through filters, firstly through language, and then through others filters like avatars on social media. The resultant ‘you’ is at multiple removes, no matter how authentic you try to be. It’s not too dissimilar to a poem. Voice is a construct, a version of you or a version of a character that could be you but one who can also be saying things more difficult, conflicted, even problematic (but necessary) to (try to) express.

EG: You’ve worked in many casual jobs over the years. And it feels like for poets, we’re either stuck in that kind of precarious trap or forced to take on a full-time job that’s not related to anything, and that has its pros and cons. The pros being, of course, a stable income but the con being the amount of time or head space you can afford to poetry. What’s your view of the relationship between work and poetry?

TF: It’s hard to disentangle them. Sometimes I would love just one full-time job for a certain kind of stability where I know where my hours are going and I can be like, ‘right, every evening or morning I can do this’, and so in terms of writing, I might then know how to fit that in around work. But for the last four or five years it’s been four or five jobs at a time (sessional teaching, literary editing, scholarly editing, programming and hosting literary events) before I can really think about what I’m writing, and the timing for that is all over the place. Since having kids it’s been more than a full-time load, along with my partner’s full-time income, just to be able to stay living in the inner west in Sydney. We’re very privileged and lucky but juggling all that stuff is very draining, and yet I’ve been more ‘productive’ over the last few years than ever before, so perhaps something about precarious work has forced me to develop certain skills that also help with writing poems? I’m not trying to make excuses for capitalism. I often worry I sound like a prat when I talk about work, you know we’re all ‘so busy’, that’s the kind of narrative we repeat, whether as arts workers or corporate stooges, but it’s just true for many people, and also relative.

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