Patricia Sykes has published two collections of poetry, partly with the fuel of New Work grants from the Australia Council and Arts Victoria. Her first, Wire Dancing (Spinifex Press, 1999), was commended in the Anne Elder and the Mary Gilmore awards for 2000. In November 2004, Spinifex Press released her second collection, Modewarre: Home Ground. Most recently, she has written the poetic text for Mother Tongue, a piece for soprano and fifteen instruments, commissioned by the acclaimed young Australian composer, Liza Lim, which will premiere at The Festival d'Automne in Paris in November 2005. In May 2005, Patricia and Andy Jackson talked poetry. He lives in Carlton, she in the Dandenong Ranges. The gap was bridged via email.
To be cliched, first things first – what got you started in poetry? and what's kept you going?
Patricia Sykes: A friend suggested I'd find the answer ?in the swamp'. Of course I laughed. But she's right, I ?got started' because the years were ticking away. It was panic, an anxiety that if I didn't leap into the murk soon it would be too late. I think children possess wise gullibility. I remember knowing when I was about seven or eight that there was something powerful and tricky going on in poetry. It was like entering a cave of multiple magics. The occasional dragons were an added proof. I still believe poetry is a dangerous activity, risky, subversive, even necessarily delusional. In attempting to re-create, re-shape the swamp, poetry disturbs equilibrium, especially that of the status quo. How intoxicating: activism, celebration and sleuthing in the one activity. I keep at it because I'm hungry. Each poem is a kind of failure, a mere inkling of the complexity of the swamp. Perhaps I've grown more gullible, less wise.
What do you think has changed in your writing between 'Wire Dancing' and 'Modewarre: home ground'?
PS: I like to think the poems in the Modewarre collection listened to those in WD to the extent that they became less concerned with explaining themselves, more 'open' to a variety of responses and interpretations. This strategy obviously doesn't appeal to readers who want to know what a poem 'means', but for me poetry is very much about the 'hidden', so to simplify it is also to falsify. It's a difficult tension, at least for those who require justification. I prefer that readers meet me half-way. In writing ?Modewarre?' I was very conscious of wanting to explore various stances, attitudes, voices, apparent in poems such as ” 'dis-locations…a polemic” ', and ” 'a ferret in migrant trousers' “. In one sense these invite debate but also empathy, criticism, even derision. In an age of hyper-language I prefer not to overlook the cross-currents and complications implicit in various modes of speech. Corporate speak and advertising for example have become akin to dialects, as has the language of party politics. I was also wanting to break through the perception of the poet as the prevailing first-person-speaker, to disturb a preference for this. An inverted form of democratisiation? Perhaps.
I have my own ideas about why the duck is such an appropriate motif. What convinced you that she was a rich source of themes?
PS: The modewarre is appropriate because she's 'there', the being beneath and inside the word. 'Inside' because as symbol she inhabits it, and 'beneath' because she has been buried under the selective forgetfulness of colonial history. My family certainly didn't know the meaning of Modewarre when we lived there. I wasn't hunting a motif when I began researching the English translation, the duck turned out to be a gift, an unlooked for presence. I've been fascinated by birdlife since childhood and I relish being in water so to discover a water-bird at the core of what I was wanting to explore made me a little breathless, even wary. It felt both too easy and too daunting. The themes were a given. I've always associated Modewarre with the themes of belonging, identity and loss. It's a small step from the personal to the communal. On the one hand a white child's loss of a mother and the dislocation that followed: loss of home, family, school, friends, an entire mini culture that for her equalled ?the world'. And for the Wathaurong the displacement of themselves, their culture, their connection to the Modewarre land. As I wrote, the ripples kept widening: the duck as endangered species, the fragilities of occupation, the self as witness, as possesser and dis-possesser, succeeding waves of migration into arrival or mis-arrival. And always the modewarre slightly out of reach. An indifferent vortex? At the very least a possibility rather than an answer.
To me there's an interesting interplay between immediate felt emotion and reflective thought in this collection of poems. Are you aiming for either, both or neither?
PS: No, I wasn't conscious of aiming for either of these but it doesn't surprise me if it's there. I think of poetry as a form of speculative discovery so it's not inconsistent that a dialogue between 'immediate felt emotion and reflective thought' may emerge in the poems. I like to imagine they were think-feeling themselves into existence as I wrote. It's often a tenuous business, isn't it, locating the track that veers between certainty and uncertainty? I sometimes find myself wishing for a snail's glinting bodyprint to follow but that would be like begging a key from the invisible.
Are you aware of your place in the Australian poetry scene/community?
PS: No. I don't have any sense of ?poetry identity', of ?belonging' or ?fitting in' anywhere. I think I've always felt, generally, an outsider. Perhaps this has to do with poets being thieves in the night', or perhaps it's because I favour a dis-possessing eye, even if I don't always achieve this. Besides, rupture is as valuable as rapture, at least in creative terms: for example, Keats' notion of himself as a chameleon poet strikes me as a potent way of saying ?how can I be a single identity when I inhabit so many?'.
To me there seems to be a political position or framework beneath the poems in “Modewarre?” – at times it erupts into the text explicitly, but mostly if flows just underneath the surface. In what way do you think your poetry, or contemporary Australian poetry in general, can hope to foster political thought and engagement in the reader or the public in general. And, how is this related to your statement that these poems are “more open to a variety of responses and interpretations”?
PS: As a reader I am ?touched' by the themes and concerns of whatever material I choose to be reading, and I don't consider political nuances (of whatever flavour: gender, environmental, religious, cultural, governmental, relationship, racial, etc.) to be exceptional, a special case. Poetry has always encompassed variety, from the curse to the sonnet, from the lyric to the satiric, from love to death, peace, war, sex, tryanny, dictatorship, ennui, and all manner of hybrid variations.. I think it is only cultures who consider themselves particularly sophisticated (a defensive vulnerability in my view) which cannot deal comfortably with the so-called political in poetry. Fortunately it's there in the work of many Australian poets, maybe not exclusively or to the forefront in each poem but always integral to their poetic energies. I'm thinking of the work of Coral Hull, John Forbes, Gig Ryan, Jennifer Maiden, Les Murray, Lionel Fogarty, Lisa Bellear, and Gillian Hanscombe among others, poetry in which ideas, personal power, systemic power, and exploitation create disturbances, engage with contradictions, and explore resolutions. The fact that Poetry is not as popularised as sport for example is more to do with the way cultural activities are promoted and valorised in Australia. That's the big ?kick'. So when I say that the poems in ?Modewarre?' are open to a variety of responses and interpretations I mean that I'm inviting readers to leave comfort zones and other preferences behind. Not that I'm asking them to do the poet's work but to be aware of the doors in the work, ajar or fully opened, leading sometimes to labyrinths, to cul-de-sacs, or to portals. Language and symbol are shared universes after all and while ?Modewarre?' may have ?political' rivers flowing through it, it is not setting itself up for preselection.
I've noticed when you've read your poetry in public, you've given some background information which isn't in the book itself, to assist the audience. When you're writing poems, how do you decide what to leave in or out? What's the difference between a “poetry reading” and “reading poetry?”?
PS: To answer the second part of your question first: the act of ?reading poetry' is usually a private one of course between reader, the poetry and the invisible poet. The reader can pause over particular images and lines, re-read certain sections, take as much or as little time as desired to engage with a poem or a collection. A public audience doesn't have this prerogative. True, some audience members may know the work being read, may even be reading along as the poet reads, but generally they are listeners without the advantage of the page in front of them, without the option to pause, retrace, re-read. Which is one of the reasons I contextualise my readings. I need such hooks myself, being more visual than auditory in the way I absorb information. Also, I'm interested in having a conversation with listeners about some of the impulses that inform a work, not to explain it or pin it down but to explore and re-engage with the context.
How do I decide what to leave in or out of a poem? I think it was W.B.Yeats who famously said that poetry is an outcome of the quarrel with ourselves. Looked at in this light, poetry is a matter of debate and argument, but I prefer the idea of negotiation, exchange, challenge. Most intriguing are the times when you're inside a poem, listening and groping on a vaguely defined road, the end of it disappearing into haze and peopled with amorphous shapes that shift and reform. Or those instances when I find myself caught on a horizon between sea and sky, tossed between cross currents, a turbulence both exhilarating and frustrating. These are the times I go out and pull up a blackberry shoot or hack at some bamboo and, left alone, the poem finds its way out of the whirlpool. I suppose I'm confirming that it's a matter of negotiation: you initiate, respond, defer, question, withdraw, re-visit, and most importantly, you listen. I used this process as a form in the poem ?proximites', which is in ?House of Water', the second section of the book. I tried entering the poem in various ways but couldn't decide on which beginning was ?right' until it dawned on me that the unformed energy inhabiting the poem actually wanted multiple gateways. So I gave it what it asked for.
What are you writing currently?
PS: I'm more in thinking than writing mode at the moment, to do with the necessary hiatus between books I expect but also the death of my youngest sister in February. The most recent thing I've written is a poetic text which was commissioned by the Australian composer, Liza Lim. The piece, “Mother Tongue” (for soprano and 15 instruments) will have its premiere at The Festival d'Automne in Paris in November this year. It has been an absorbing process and I'm looking forward very much to seeing/hearing the work performed in Paris, and then in Australia next year, where it will be performed by ELISION, The Australian Contemporary Music ensemble, who will premiere the piece as part of their 20th anniversary celebrations.
What have you seen recently that you'd recommend? Feel free to mention other books, art, film, places, experiences, anything.
PS: In fact I haven't seen any films/exhibitions this year. I've been very much in withdrawal mode. I spent a great deal of time with my sister in her last months and am still trying to absorb the loss and recover some emotional energy. Being present during and at her dying has been the most inspiring event of my recent calendar. I am delving into several books though and can unreservedly recommend ‘The Collected Poems' of Stevie Smith (which I'm reading for the third time: her ?voice/voices' seem able to combine the apparent innocence of nursery rhyme with an ascerbic wit), Brian Castro's ‘Looking For Estrellita'(a collection of essays, many of them, in his own words, dealing with “writing, autobiography, identity and hybridity”), Barry Lopez' ‘Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape', and especially ‘The Audre Lorde Compendium: Essays, Speeches and Journals'. To quote from her:
for the embattled
there is no place
that cannnot be
(from “School Note” in The Black Unicorn, W.W.Norton, New York, 1978)