Kate Middleton is the author of Fire Season (Giramondo 2009), was awarded the Western Australian Premier’s Award for Poetry in 2009, and was shortlisted for The Age Book of the Year in Poetry. This year, she is the inaugural Sydney City Poet.
Lisa Gorton: I know that reading is always part of what defines a place for you. Which poets define your sense of Sydney at the moment?
Kate Middleton: Robert Gray, certainly, for the harbour, and Judy Beveridge for writing on water in general. Although the poems in her latest book, Storm and Honey, aren’t specifically set in Sydney, knowing her in Sydney gives me a flavour from those poems, in an interesting way. Then Fiona Wright, whose first book, Knuckled, came out only last year. It’s a terrifically Sydney book, incorporating elements of the Western suburbs – an area that doesn’t get a lot of poetic airplay. Those voices from different generations have been part of my thinking about Sydney. Then, outside the city, Robert Adamson on the Hawkesbury River is an inescapable voice, the voice of a very particularised landscape – and thank God for him!
LG: You’ve been organising and taking part in events in some of Sydney’s iconic places: a reading in Wendy Whiteley’s Lavender Bay garden, for instance, and the festival at Woollahra Library where you read with the sun going down over the harbour behind you. I wonder whether any of your poems deal with those iconic places; also, are there are more secret iconic places in Sydney for you?
KM: Well, though Wendy Whiteley’s garden is an iconic place, it’s also a secret place – not marked on maps. It has such an interesting history. She was essentially trespassing until the Railway leased the land to her, and later to North Sydney Council. It’s a place with its own delicious, secret history. For me that is still one of my secret places, even though it’s a lot of people’s secret place, and even though we had a public event there.
I’m very much a café and bookshop kind of girl so a lot of the time it will be cafés on the south end of King Street. But walking through Sydney Park has become very important to me. I live in St Peters right near the park, near the old buildings that you’re not allowed to climb on or enter. Those are important places for me to sit and think.
I grew up in Melbourne along the Yarra where the Heidelberg School painters worked and a number of them also painted cityscapes in Sydney. In particular, I like going to Coogee where Arthur Streeton painted a beautiful view. I think Charles Condor did as well. I’ve found that vantage point. That for me is a particular Sydney spot.
LG: You’re seeing Sydney through paintings. Are the poems that are coming out of your time in Sydney particularly visual poems?
KM: As part of the role of the Sydney City Poet, there’s a suite of six poems that I’m required to write; I nominated to write on six paintings, which are leading me around the city. Though I’m probably not going to include the Heidelberg School painters in that suite, they’re poems that I’m writing because they have come to have a lot of meaning for me.
I think these poems relates to ideas of Sydney as a glamorous city, in the sense that there are all these iconic places and iconic images that have been created by the artists. Trying to create responses to those in verse is a way of engaging with the city that – though I have visited it many times, and though both of my parents were born there – I’m just getting to know all over again. They form my map.
LG: When you’re talking of iconic Sydney places I’m thinking of Fire Season and how your poems about celebrities work between the iconic status and the intimate personal nature of those people. I’m wondering: when you think of the iconic paintings that define Sydney for you, what is the element of intimacy cutting across that for you? Do you have that almost dramatic quality in your poems again?
KM: I think I do. As well as being the birthplace of both my parents, one of my grandparents lived in Sydney when I was a child. I spent a lot of time in the city. A lot of memories I have of early travels are from Sydney: images that I later came to recognise as attached to particular places. When I went to a gallery I’d see something and think, ‘Oh, that’s something of Sydney’. The pictures have those biographical references, which help me form a relationship with them that complicates the purely ekphrastic, in ways that I hope allow a reader who’s not familiar with the artwork to respond to the poem.
LG: Which are the artworks that you’re writing about?
KM: It started with Brett Whiteley and his balcony pictures. I had the opportunity to stand on the balcony at Wendy Whiteley’s house and see that exact view and it was dizzying. Astonishing.
I’m working on poems about Margaret Olley and Cressida Campbell and their still-life paintings. I’m working on Grace Cossington-Smith’s very famous picture of the Harbour Bridge as it was being built; a Margaret Preston image of the harbour and the bridge; and then one of Martin Sharp’s Lunar Park series.
But I’m also working on other poems. I want to make sure I can present six poems that are worthy, and I tend to write more than I need, so I’m also working on a Jeffrey Smart picture, and I’m working on the Heidelberg painters and their Sydney views. I’m also thinking about the photographers, particularly Olive Cotton because she has a particular personal reference insofar as my grandmother knew her.
LG: That’s a fascinating and in some cases quite surprising selection; several of those paintings have a dreamy or soft quality. Do you think you’ve been looking for that?
KM: I’ve been looking for different kinds of surfaces and for different stories that attach me to the paintings. With the Cossington-Smith, I actually put that image together as a jigsaw puzzle three years ago when my Mum bought it for the family for Christmas. I spent a huge amount of time with that image, but in pieces! When we finished the puzzle we realised there was a piece missing – a very frustrating experience for puzzlers, I’m sure you’ll realise! So there are autobiographical associations that I want to have.
But that softness … With the Margaret Olley, I was interested in the fact that all of our experience of cities, no matter how iconic and filled with beautiful images, is still predominantly interior. That’s what led me to add Cressida Campbell, who I admit I had not thought of earlier and who I met at Margaret Olley’s house – another of those extraordinary experiences that you can only have every so often.
But I also wanted to add some of the Lunar Park glitz and fireworks, because artworks with different surfaces call out poems with different surfaces. The Whiteley poem, for instance, has longer lines that try to communicate the ease of his visual lines.
LG: One of the elements that future literary histories will leave out, if they’re anything like past ones, is the nature of the meetings between poets and the atmosphere of the places where they meet. Can you give that human and social sense of what being the Sydney City Poet has been like?
KM: I think Sydney has an extraordinarily lively poetry scene. Every time I talk to people and they learn that I grew up in Melbourne they have this wistful sense: ‘But isn’t there so much more happening in Melbourne?’ as if the poetry’s elsewhere, and yet there are so many readings and launches and projects and people talking here. I’ve been so impressed. I think Sydney absolutely rivals Melbourne as a place where things are happening.
There are a lot of places where I meet poets. Being new to Sydney as an adult, and coming there in this role, many of my friends in Sydney are poets and writers or other types of artist. I’ll go to a launch at Glee Books and be very glad to get my glass of Shiraz and I’ll listen to some poems. Launches gather a crowd of 40 or 60 or 80 people who want to hear and celebrate the poems. Or I’ll go to a reading at Sappho’s, next door. It has a reading every month, with an incredibly varied and high-quality set of poets. I can be a bit awkward. I don’t necessarily know what to do in social situations; but people have been very friendly. Often, from one of those events, there’s come a suggestion: ‘Let’s meet for coffee and talk,’ which has made it easier to settle in.
But I’ll also go to a pub with people and, over a drink and some nachos, look at some writing and say, ‘Okay, what’s going on here?’
I also love the cinema and while I go by myself, I also go with writer friends. It’s so interesting, talking about film with poets, as opposed to cinema studies people: the things that come out of those conversations are more off the cuff. They are the source of inspirations, though I might not know that for six months to come.
LG: But which are the places that characterise the style of poems you’re writing? I suppose at the back of that question is the argument that poetry changed when the coffee houses came in: they brought a new kind of tough-minded discursiveness. If you’re thinking about the Sydney poetry scene, what kind of place seems to best define the atmosphere of the poems that you’re writing there?
KM: For me, it’s between the café and the gallery. It can be the café in the gallery, or the café as a gallery – a place that’s both social and about some form of contemplation and interaction with art and other people, in a watchful way.
LG: You’ve been unusually generous in engaging with other poets and their work through your website, which has a blog and also interviews with poets. What has that brought you and your readers?
KM: Well, obviously the way I’m most centrally engaged with other poets is to conduct interviews that try to really engage with individual poets. There are plenty of places that have a ‘one questionnaire fits all poets’ approach. That can instructive to a degree but it won’t delve deeper and get at what’s different about a poet; and what’s different about a poet is where, I think, their power comes from.
As ever, poetry’s not the big moneymaker so a lot of places don’t make space for long interviews. And I personally love reading long interviews – so a lot of it is selfish! I ran out of Paris Review interviews some time ago! So until the next one comes out I’ll have to make my own fun, right? I genuinely want to know how poets I admire are making their work and thinking about language; I think the questions that I’m interested in can’t be so unusual that others aren’t interested in them too. For those who want to think about a poet and get the background of their work, an interview can be incredibly helpful. It’s also a way writers can attract new readers to their work.
I’m lucky that the site has a small but steady readership at this stage.
LG: Does poetry’s small readership bother you?
KM: Yes and no. It doesn’t bother me how many people read my work or don’t read my work, other than that I hope it won’t affect my ability to put out another book down the track. But coming from a position where I think people already do love poems, it’s just a matter of them finding the will or the desire to read the next one. If the last poem they loved was in high school or primary school and they haven’t read one since, it saddens me a little, in that I think they’re missing out on a fundamental pleasure in language. So many people are using merely functional language instead of going into the wonderful world of play that language involves. At the same time, there are people who find their pleasures in art galleries, cinemas or concert halls. If that’s where they want to spend their time and have their experience of art, that’s wonderful. Everyone has a different set of pleasures and a different brain, and that’s fine.
LG: You have a musical background and you’re dealing very much with art as you develop this suite of poems about Sydney paintings. I wonder how you see those other interests feeding into your poetry?
KM: Well, music is fundamental to me – from when I was eight or so and taught myself to read music, and learned the recorder, to when I was 22 and finished my music degree. I haven’t played or written music much since then; so, in almost 10 years, I haven’t really written a piece of music, which is strange to think about. Every so often I’ll get a hankering to pull out a textbook and do some counterpoint exercises … But I think that I always knew, once I started writing music, that it was something that I was learning to support writing poetry. I think that the music degree has helped insofar as I have some understanding of rhythm, though I can’t write metered verses very well. I know that. I’m always disrupting a regular metre in poetry.
LG: Maybe it’s all that work in counterpoint?
KM: Yes, I think I have resistances in music that are born out in my own poetry – insofar as the classicism of Mozart is something that frustrates me from its very simplicity. It’s something that I resist in my poetry. But that could just be a lack of skill!
LG: I think the word ‘counterpoint’ is intriguing because I think it’s true –, it’s exactly what you do: you often break out of a mode into a different mode; you often break halfway through a line. You use brackets or you have a different tone coming in, so you’re often working with a classical tone and its domestic counterpoint.
KM: Yes, sometimes that’s juxtaposition, and that’s a great contemporary mode of poetry: ‘Oh look, this and this thing aren’t related but they are related because I put them in poem together!’ I do try to shift the diction and the pitch of the voice. I think the music training has given me a greater ability to know the pitch of voice in a poem, and how that fits into a larger architecture, possibility more that it has given me any rhythmic drive.
LG: How do artworks play into that as well?
KM: I like writing about art because it forces me to slow down enough to look at a painting. I like writing about art because the paintings force me to articulate some quality of surface that’s beyond the pictorial or the abstraction: the dimension of texture in a painting or even, in a photograph, the texture that’s implied. I haven’t ever been really good at writing about sculpture, maybe because I can only deal with the implied third dimension, not the real thing! Or maybe I just haven’t spent enough time with it yet.
I think that writing about art is about taking time, for me.
LG: Finally, what has surprised you most about being Sydney’s City Poet?
KM: Just … that I can do it! It’s something that I’ve just tried to take in my stride. I have a very practical background and upbringing so when I see a problem – such as, what would a City Poet do? – my natural response is just to set to and do it. What surprises me is that, six months on, I have had to make a list of what I’ve done and the list is long. Week by week, I never feel that I’m getting anything done. The fact that I have done so much – that’s an endless surprise!