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‘Myth is not merely decorative’: Prithvi Varatharajan Interviews Michelle Cahill

1 February 2018

PV: It’s bringing to mind The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets, edited by Jeet Thayil (2008). Thayil’s introduction is titled ‘One Language, Separated by the Sea,’ and it seemed to me to be symbolically, as well as actually, bringing together all these Indian poets writing in English all over the world, to create a sense of community where one didn’t seem to exist, where otherwise they might have felt adrift. In India, these poets have in the past faced judgments that they are un-Indian because they use a colonial language: English. But where is their community?

MC: Yes, that is the conundrum. And I think it is often the younger, avant-garde researchers in India and Australia who have new ways of looking at this, compared to older generations. They would see this kind of work as a contribution rather than a contamination or a cultural dilution.

PV: What are your broad poetic influences?

MC: My reading has been quite conservative, I would say, but it has changed. I enjoyed reading British and American modernist poets and contemporary Australian poets when I was growing up. I hope I’m broadening that now! I heard Alice Oswald read and her work is rare magic. She is an astonishing poet, a genius, really. However, I want to say that European or white settler poets are working within an established tradition and are not as compelled to divide their attention towards political or postcolonial concerns. So they have the opportunity to specialise; to extensively develop their aesthetics whether it be avant-garde or lyrical. Their pathway enjoys the privilege of lying directly along the lines of the Western canon reaching as far back as Homer or as recently as Ashbery or Mirrlees. This is why I think building aesthetic outposts is important for those of multiple heritage. I have developed my own aesthetics concerning the poetics of multiplicity in Vishvarupa and the poetics of migration in The Herring Lass, but it will always be a poetics of contingency, concerned with ethics.

PV: Can you give a sense of your family background?

MC: I have always preferred to keep my own life private from my writing because one postpones the personal life for writing and because, ultimately, I have had to make myself a discursive subject, which is not always comfortable; it is a slippery business and it can be dangerous ethically. I am careful about this.

PV: You’ve published two other full-length poetry collections, The Accidental Cage (2006) and The Herring Lass (2016), and two chapbooks, Ophelia in Harlem (2010) and Night Birds (2012). Where does Vishvarūpa sit in relation to these?

MC: Well, it is not for me to say where it sits, though I hope my work is always progressing and moving in new directions. Vishvarūpa did emerge during collaborations with Asian Australian poets, Kim Cheng Boey, Debbie Lim and Adam Aitken, whom I worked with in Mascara Literary Review. We were thinking about what Asian Australian means. Our alliance was not without disparities but I remain grateful for that period of my work. Writing comes before the questions of identity; that applies to my fiction as well.

When I was younger I was simply writing for the purpose of writing – I was writing because it was who I am. But when you start to realise that the spaces you are traversing and navigating are not merely physical or abstract; when you realise that there are ideological and racial barriers and literary boundaries, it invites a questioning of who you are – as a cis female, what ‘nation,’ if any at all, do you belong to, and what textuality actually means.

PV: I was thinking that Vishvarūpa is quite focused on Hindu mythology. It seemed to be quite a self-contained project.

MC: I don’t know if I would agree, entirely. I’ve spoken about the syncretism in the language. I would like to suggest that the richness of layering in the poems leans strongly towards an irreverent disregard for the hermetic.

From the beginning I fell in love with the possibilities which partway through, felt remote and startling, because I did not know where I might creatively extend or relocate, after the book was ‘finished’. That sounds precious, but I’ve no doubt that other writers share this feeling when poetry wholly absorbs the self: it is a heightened experience. I was also helped greatly and inspired by Judith Beveridge, who mentored me: I’d like to mention how grateful I remain for that. She nudged me along gently, and with precision. I think it is wonderful to have an opportunity to work with a poet, with someone like Judith Beveridge, in that way.

My most recent poetry collection, The Herring Lass, is about human and non-human animal migrations. I am interested in how the lyric is changing now, given the Anthropocene crisis, globalisation, technology, how it is responding to all these pressures. I’m interested in thinking a little more about what I do next, if I come back to poetry again. I don’t feel a great need to keep writing in a formulaic way. My relationship has always been to language. I consider myself a writer first and foremost.

Robert Frost wrote an essay where he talks about the paths to poetic knowledge, (something which I am cynical about and equally trusting of). He says: ‘Scholars get theirs with conscientious thoroughness along projected lines of logic; poets theirs cavalierly and as it happens in and out of books. They stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields.’

I feel akin to this wildness, and perhaps my task is best served by time. Meaning that I would like to be contained and unrestrained, by turns, when the time is right. Ultimately, it isn’t poetry that matters; it is the life one leads. That’s what makes me more nervous than poetry despite there being so much violence and cruelty and loss in language itself.

This research interview has been conducted with the support of the Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.

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