Prithvi Varatharajan Interviews Maria Takolander

By and | 1 February 2015

PV: Describe the role that Finland plays in your poetic imagination, then.

MT: Finland is a very strong presence for me, imaginatively speaking, growing up with all of those stories about the Finnish war, and the experience of exile – which was a very difficult one. My grandfather had to fight in the war: he wasn’t a soldier but he had to kill men, and this was something he never came to terms with, and he became an alcoholic. So there’s this kind of generational legacy as a result of the Finnish war, from the repressed pain, I suppose, of the generation who did endure it – and who did triumph, even – and yet there is this legacy that comes from that. So Finland as a place, its history: its personal significance for me is profound, in my work.

PV: I see some of your more recent work as a poetic re-animating or re-writing of history. Tell me about your interest in history, either broadly or especially as it relates to your poetry.

MT: History is incredibly strange. It’s almost readymade poetry for a poet like me who’s interested in de-familiarising reality. In the same sense that looking out to space de-familiarises our existence, looking into history also de-familiarises our lives in quite profound and provocative ways. For instance, if I refer to the poem ‘Convicts,’ which is about Australia’s convict history, that poem was written as a result of a visit to the museum in Hobart. And in a display were some manikins wearing convict clothes. They were true to life size, and I was struck by how small people were two hundred years ago: people were so much smaller than they are now today. And visiting replicas of the ships – they have such low ceilings. People are strange! Human history, human evolutionary history, is utterly strange. How can I not but explore that strangeness in poetry? I can’t resist!

PV: Tell me about your interest in Stanley Kubrick.

MT: Stanley Kubrick is an important filmmaker for me because I think he’s very bold, and I think he’s bold enough to explore beneath the surface. I mean, he makes incredibly beautiful films, and yet within that beauty he’s not afraid to acknowledge the kind of ugliness or absurdity or meaninglessness or violence that lurks beneath that, beneath that polished surface. So I think if I’m attracted to Kubrick’s films, it’s because I share what I like to think of as a similar aesthetic in that I like to write very polished poems, but I also like to use poetry to examine what lies beneath, I suppose, our attraction to beautified surfaces.

If I wrote in response to A Clockwork Orange, it was actually because I hated that film. It made me feel incredibly uncomfortable. Its vision of the amoral world that these characters lived in was, of course, objectionable to me. And yet when I dislike something, when something unsettles me, I can’t let go of it. I have to explore that rather than try and push it away. That becomes for me a provocation. The film presents a vision of the world as fundamentally meaningless, and libidinal, and violent. And I suppose there’s an argument for that being true, and for art existing to disguise all of that: to give us a sense of meaning, and beauty, and morality. And that’s something I try to explore in that poem.

In regards to Eyes Wide Shut, again, I was attracted to this very stark but also beautiful vision of human nature as being fundamentally libidinal or sexual. And I suppose I do have a sense of life as being precisely that: that we as humans are almost vehicles for life. And all life wants to do is to keep regenerating itself, to keep being born again and again. So the desires that we think we own are not our own. Our desire is life simply wanting to be reborn. And if you think about that again in that vast context of the universe – you know, there’s this massive space of death. And here life has miraculously gotten a hold, and it’s almost as if life is desperate to keep hold of itself, and will use human beings or other animals or plants or whatever, just to keep living, out of this urgent or desperate sense to be. To exist.

PV: There’s a really interesting tension in your poetry between embodiment and disembodiment – especially in the motherhood poems, but also in poems like ‘Why Nuns are Holy’ and ‘Seed’. On the one hand there’s a keen observation of bodily rhythms and processes, and attentiveness to the visceral and the grotesque in the body. But on the other hand, the body seems to be viewed with a sense of detachment, as a kind of strange, fleshy object. I wonder if you have anything to say on how your interest in the body has come to have this double-edged quality, of embodied experience and detached observation?

MT: In terms of my interest in the body, I could somewhat facetiously refer to my Finnish heritage. Because Finns are known for being quite comfortable in their skin: we have saunas, for instance, naked and in groups, and it isn’t a problem at all. And yet Finns are also a Lutheran people. So I was raised as a Christian, as a Lutheran, with a strong sense of the spiritual side of things too. So I suppose that that cultural heritage contains that kind of duality to begin with. I also found the experience of pregnancy and childbirth to be one that drew attention to the strangeness of my body. To the ways in which I did not own my body. And that’s something I obsess over somewhat in those poems I wrote after the experience of pregnancy and childbirth.

I think those experiences of pregnancy and childbirth are ones that we sanitise in our culture, and I’m really not sure why. But I think that that sanitisation in fact distracts from the power of that act, the power of that regenerative act. Female power, I don’t think it would be too controversial to say, makes some people feel a little uncomfortable. So we’re given these sentimentalised and cute visions of pregnancy and childbirth, but I didn’t find anything cute about those experiences at all. I found them to be very powerful ones.

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