‘That is some crafty bite’: Trisha Pender Interviews Melinda Bufton

By and | 1 May 2019

In her eagerly awaited second collection, Superette (Puncher & Wattman, 2018), Melinda Bufton delivers dramatically on the promise announced in her 2014 debut, Girlery (Inken Publisch, 2014). Girlery performs a provocative en guard to a literary culture overly sanguine in its dismissal of all things ‘girl’. In it, Bufton subverts the charges of superficiality and irrelevance that are often levelled at the popular culture of girls and instead celebrates this culture in loving, defiant detail. Fans of Bufton’s poetry, among whom I happily count myself, will be delighted to know that her second collection does not tone down, or retreat from, the concerns of her first. If anything, this collection is louder, smarter, deeper, and more glorious. Superette is Girlery’s dark and dangerous big sister.

As the back cover blurb of Superette (further discussed below) announces:

Superette’s speaker assumes the guise of an audacious flaneuse with a practiced eye for detail. A combination of Dorothy Parker wit, burlesque, and punk, this citizen stylist observes urban life anew … Be prepared to surrender to Superette’s artful turns and city pockets, as Bufton leads us through a contemporary expanse with effortless flair.

This is a book that insists with renewed force, with intensity and bite, on the centrality of the ‘girl’ and her manifold concerns, on the sometimes saccharine and sometimes strident dialects of popular culture, and on the need for a rambunctious, even raucous resistance to the practice of putting girls, and their cultural productions – poetry collections included – in limiting boxes.

Superette offers a beguiling combination of poetic insouciance and sprezzatura: ‘Would that / something could shock me like a television’, mourns the jaded speaker of ‘Tangerine Crush’, and yet in the same poem: ‘Never … Never say it can’t be done’. These are poems that refuse to play ‘nice’ even as they offer compelling new takes on classic genres like the Ars Poetica and the Defense of Poetry: ‘When a piece of music’s good it starts with / a simultaneous burst in my throat, heart and nethers’ (‘Tangerine Crush’). In a third-year English course I co-teach with poet Keri Glastonbury at the University of Newcastle, we assigned Superette to the class, eager to hear what our students would make of its feisty attitude, its pop cultural capital, and its artful verbal play.

Trisha Pender: I want to start somewhere superficial (or maybe ‘material’ might a better way to put it) and say that Superette is, pants down, one of the most physically stunning books I’ve seen in a long time. The cover is a work of art. Or very good advertising. It says: ‘Me! Me! Me! Me! Buy Me! I’m Beeaauuutiful!’ Was that part of a deliberate strategy? Is the design part of your design?

Melinda Bufton: This is funny and gorgeous … and all true. There is also little point to my world without the visual. This is why there are eyes within my poems, and why the cover presents a glittery eye.

The book is checking you out. But of course, it’s very ready to be looked at, also. One of my frustrations with poetry books has been that they are full of the most beautiful, twisted, earthy, elegant, brittle, lyrical, explosive content we could be reading nowadays and then they are wrapped in brown paper. Essentially. Actually, worse, brown paper is quite pleasing and tactile. There are a million reasons that poetry books are not what they could be, in term of production values, and most of them lie with the cost; I understand this. However, if I’m buying a book, I myself would like to keep looking at it, get into its thing-ness, show it to people. Stare at the cover, etc. It is superficial and it’s also part of communing with the book. I was really fortunate that my publisher and commissioning editor – David Musgrave and Ann Vickery – engaged Newcastle designer Miranda Douglas, who understood exactly what kind of cover (and then some!) that I’d envisaged.

I love that you say ‘A work of art. Or very good advertising’. It’s actually both. I was heavily into TV as a kid, I mean I was born in 1973, which meant peak TV world and peak advertising industrial complex (unless of course you were one of those unfortunate children who were only allowed to watch the ABC, or had a daily allowance of twenty minutes, or something). Here I would just say, please see the written works of David Foster Wallace: *the end*. I am deeply, deeply enmeshed in wanting my book to operate as my proxy, via being a product. So therefore she – Superette – must go forth in her best look.

TP: The back cover blurb, as well, is like this ridiculously distilled cocktail of the concerns the volume pursues. Ridiculous in that its genius, I mean. I don’t think I paid much attention to the blurb before reading the book, but then when it came around to preparing to teach it to a class I teach on contemporary literary cultures, I thought, what do we have here? The blurb of the year? You would be hard pressed to find a more apropos description of the contents of a poetry collection. It is meticulously en pointe. So with this book, the outside reflects the inside in a way that is very canny, and which seems very deliberate. Was it, or am I just making this up?

MB: No, you’re not making it up! And maybe this pops the bubble a bit (because, my god, I love the idea of ‘meticulously en pointe’…!), but the blurb came first…some of the poems had already been written, but the publisher needed a blurb early on in the process, and so I wrote one that was used to create the final copy. It was very deliberate, and was a useful ready-reckoner as I worked on the poems and wrote new material. I could hold the poems up to the blurb (like a photographer holding up a print as it develops) and see what I had. The blurb was not in charge of the show, you understand, but was in conversation with the emerging poems. There was room to move, but a nice, fuzzy, contained bomb of aesthetic suggestions to work from.

I guess the other thing that is true, both for this question and the one about the book cover, is that I’m one of those people who cares about books as objects but also as part of an eco-system of publishing. Early in my career I worked in the book-trade industry and I have respect for sales tools like blurbs. I can’t help this; my relationship to books is very multidimensional, for me they are a product as well as cultural, personal, artefact. This is not about me recruiting others into this view; I’m not attempting this; if I were, I’d be a gift-book talent agent scouring Instagram for the next Rupi Kaur. It’s simply that I’m nostalgic for other parts of my life, like when I was a twenty-two-year-old bookseller with a sales target. So, ok, blurbs can be deeply wrong, for sure. But I think they can operate as a kind of charm. They’re like a spell. I mean, how can we not consider them the most enticing, distilled, miniature poem in their own right?

TP: Right! I’d like to ask you a bit about your poetic intertexts and influences in Superette. Does your poetry talk to other poems or poetry styles being produced in Australia right now? Perhaps, specifically, to other poets? I’m thinking about your inclusion in the 2016 collection Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry, but not only that association. You are also identified as a Melbourne-based poet. Are there other coteries that this collection is in conversation with?

MB: Yes, the root of my work and its influences initially came from – and enduringly continues to come from – the Melbourne poets I know and love. Michael Farrell invited me to a poetry-reading group in 2010. Everything – and I mean, everything – has happened since that one thing. It’s like a well of goodness, and the way that this operates for me is via the conversations I can have with these people. It’s a shifting and evolving population, but it also isn’t. There are really three important ingredients here: there are the conversations and friendships – it’s kinship, really – there are the bonds that mean people keep coming, in person, to hear each other read (or launch books, or perform), and there is the work on the page, that arrives later, in the form of books, mostly. When I was younger I assumed that being a writer was about the visible – the book on the shelf in the bookshop, public profile etc. – and now I know that for me in this world, what it looks like is actually groups of people chatting and then writing things, and then sharing them with each other. It doesn’t look like anything, it looks so low-key; but it’s the deepest, most mystical and most important thing. It’s this exchange that electrifies the work; it allows you to work vertically with ideas as well as horizontally (that is, you might go to work on a half-finished poem with new intentions, having learnt of something the night before in a chat…maybe you don’t follow the path you were originally going towards, horizontally, when you blocked out the initial parts of that poem).

In addition to this, all of my work is deeply influenced by the 2010 Gurlesque anthology (Saturnalia Books). Possibly to the point that I need to stop mentioning it, ha! But the curious thing about this book is the way that I discovered it after I’d started writing the poetry that would be included in my first collection, Girlery. I had no knowledge of the style of ‘Gurlesque’, and, at that time, I also hadn’t discovered any Australian poets doing this kind of thing. In happening across Gurlesque, while browsing in Collected Works bookshop, I found a description for my style and also a repository of dozens of outrageously punky works. Collected Works, the Melbourne poetry bookshop that so, so many poets were lucky enough to know and inhabit, has just closed (at the end of 2018). Kris and Retta Hemensley, who created and tended this den of excellence, so much deserve their retirement – it’s impossible to state how much they have done, for so many people! But of course the shop is deeply missed. I would never have found this book, without Kris’s curation of stock; when I took it up to the counter to buy, he said, ‘Oh I thought that looked interesting – something for the young people …’. I loved this, and I wasn’t young. So, I really should say the Gurlesque style was a key influence once I knew about it…at the very least, it can be a way to explain my work as feminist, because the anthology exists as an example of a very specific third-wave, performative feminist poetry. The editors, Arielle Greenberg and Lara Glenum, wrote an introduction that traces the lineage of the style as they see it. It describes the kind of girlhood that I had, or at least the kind of pop culture diet I was raised on.

Being included in Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry (Hunter, 2016) was a beautiful thing, because this is a markedly different anthology to previous anthologies of feminist poetry in Australia. This is also addressed by this book’s editors, Jessica Wilkinson and Bonny Cassidy, when they survey previous anthologies in the introduction and remind us that they all had their own political and literary strategies (as does any anthology), but that this new one was asking the poet to define contemporary feminism to them, the editors. They also emphasise that this book’s purpose was to open the questions; that the anthology should open the way to responses, by way of other anthologies. To me, considering feminist poetry as an energetic and wild space, while paying attention to its past, is the most important thing.

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