Flute of Milk – Susan Fealy PLUS bonus poet interview


Another massive thank you is in order, with poet Susan Fealy being very generous in her replies to my questions, I am slowly building up a nice little reference site of Australian poet interviews with the following poets all having recent works reviewed and being interviewed here (links on names are the links to the interviews):

Bruce Dawe 

David McCooey 

Alan Loney 

J. H. Crone

Maxine Beneba Clarke

Tina Giannoukos

Eileen Chong

Michael Farrell

If I can figure out a little more of the WordPress details I would like to set up a separate section on the blog featuring only the interviews with poets, bear with me whilst I learn to overcome my luddite tendencies.

To date the interviews have been with four male poets and four female poets and today I am now adding another female to the list, with more in the wings, and am very conscious of ensuring equal representation here, publishing numbers may not be equal, however I will do my upmost to ensure interviews and reviews are as gender balanced as possible.

Onto Susan Fealy’s debut work “Flute of Milk” another publication from the “poetry club” at the University of Western Australia Publishing, I have reviewed the first four releases from this collection and am now about to embark on the following six, and with another four due in May it appears I may be a little busy!!!

The collection opens with the ekphrastic “Made in Delft; after The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer”, a copy of the painting is here


(image courtesy of http://www.essentialvermeer.com/catalogue/milkmaid.html#.WOgcbtKGPIU )


“One can almost taste the milk/Escaping her jug.” Flowing perfectly to the title poem, “Flute of Milk”, which is a reference to John Banville’s novel “The Sea”, the opening two sentences of the novel reading;

They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide. All morning under a milky sky the waters in the bay had swelled and swelled, rising to unheard-of heights, the small waves creeping over parched sand that for years had known no wetting save for rain and lapping the very bases of the dunes.

And Fealy playing with the milky light;

Inside the dairy, washed so white
it approaches blue,
muslin-draped pans of milk
dream into their silence
and two steel milk-churns
(sentries in flat hats)
burn with white rosettes:
light held from the sun.
(from “Flute of Milk” p16)

This collection is a vibrant kaleidoscope of colours, whites, blues, “A paintbox:/a flock of parrots” (p20), reds and pinks of sunrise. With poems such as “A Confluence of Blues” – containing the Henri Matisse quote “A certain blue penetrates your soul” – celebrating the palette of colours in flowers, and the Brett Whiteley homage “For Cornflowers to Sing” celebrating his vivid use of blue.

The common thread being light and refraction, less shadows, more celebration of brightness, light, with the novels by John Banville, “The Sea” and Marilynne Robinson’s “Housekeeping, two early references, both of those books containing light and the natural world as themes and threads.

A subtle collection, laced with metaphor;

crystalline as crème brûlée
and sometimes as acidic
as an ants’ nest undone by rain,

and sometimes as welcome
as the neighbour’s dog –
the one that meets you behind the fence
just as you reach your door.

(from “What Memory is Like” p 26)

And subtle readings, slow contemplative poems that linger long after the page has been turned;

A Poem

is close
to a musical instrument
It’s a place
to leave your fingers
and your lips.
A poem aches to be
a woodland flute
but is more a piano.
Some poems are conch shells,
familiar as bone
in your hands. A poem
gleams in the arc-light –
sparks from atolls in the dark.


Section two of the collection opens with a quote, the closing section, from Robert Hass’ short prose poem “A Story About the Body” (a copy can be read here),  The following poems then focus on the bees in that story, the danger that lurks beneath the surface, the collected detritus, the underlying truth.

This is a collection of light, “This whiteness assembles/only whiteness” (from “Southern Ice Porcelain” p68), colour and vibrancy,

The Wabi-sabi Storage Jar

It’s large enough to lair an animal.
Gravelled, rich-red, its slabs
Roughly rhyme around its opening.
One smooth black lip binds its craggy lip:
Night kisses a mountain.
It is pocked in sliver as if
Fire dragged its starlight to the surface:
A crime of green
Found a home here
When flame collided with clay.


Creation (porcelain and pottery) and the natural world (clay, plants and flowers). A sparkling array of poems, another welcome addition to the UWAP Poetry Club collection.

As always I thank the poet for making the time to answer my questions, and her honesty and in-depth replies. I have repeated the questions and answers verbatim, I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did.

Q. Brett Whiteley is known for his vivid use of blue, and you capture that in “For Cornflowers To Sing”, the collection opens with a rendering of a Vermeer painting, is ekphrastic poetry an attraction for you?

I find that a poem arises when there are collisions between 1/ my internal world 2/attentiveness to the outside world 3/ an image or linguistic trigger. I have learnt that to produce a poem the experience of these collisions has to be immersive, and place me into an ambiguous space where tension between images, ideas and tonalities are worked through associatively. I write to help understand what I am experiencing and I write until I surprise myself. When the associations take a rhythmic, musical and structured form it can make a poem.

Ekphrastic poetry is an attraction because the visual arts place me into that immersive space quite readily. They also give an experience that has conceptual and sensual elements that are beyond my own understanding. Sometimes, I am filtering the aesthetic and seeking to grasp the creative energies that went into the making of the artefact. It might seem fanciful, but a deep engagement with a work of art approaches a radical intimacy. It can feel like I am engaging with the creative process of its maker. When I think about it, perhaps ekphrastic poetry is attractive to me because I mostly write in free verse and so the painting, photograph or other artefact provides a kind of container or boundary.

I find it fascinating that some art works produce an ekphrastic response, while others do not. I was lucky enough to attend Robin Hemley’s lecture on the ekphrastic essay (at the time, he was a visiting professor at RMIT university). He noted that creative writing in prose arrives to try and resolve the dysjunctions or ambiguities found in a painting or photograph. Locating these may be a necessary condition for utterance to arise but it does not seem sufficient as many works of art have mystery and complexity. I think poems only take off for me when the artwork resonates with my internal world.

Q. John Banville and Marilynne Robinson are just two references you use in section one, writers who play with light as a theme, something you’ve done throughout your collection. Why the attraction to refraction?

The recurrence of light and shadow may be a consequence of my imagist style and the fact that paintings and photographs have triggered poems. Light and shadow work with the painterly motifs of this collection but they also resonate with the exploration of hope and transcendence versus despair. Housekeeping and The Sea have ghosts that haunt the present and they are immersed in water and light; their immersive, haunted qualities help build the flow as it were.

Q. Robert Haas’ work “A Story About the Body”, which you quote to open section two of your book, can be interpreted in many ways, danger beneath the surface, underlying truth beneath a pretty veneer, being just two readings. What is your take on this poem and how has it influenced your work?

The power of this poem for me lies in its multiple meanings—each of which—mercurial, resist exact definition. I like the layers of the poem and the way the unresolved tensions charge it with electricity. I like its simple language and its interrogation of the human condition.  The meanings of the gesture from the spurned older woman spark with the meanings of the young man narrator receiving the gesture from a woman whose culture and aesthetic he is entranced by, but does not understand. But perhaps most of all what I like is how the poem hints at the possibilities for poetic language to contain and transform difficult experience. The poem buzzes with the sensual and the symbolic. It has the aliveness of her recent action and the shock of his response. The small blue bowl contains the allure and eroticism of rose petals, the history of her breast, the history of the erotic charge between them, and the sting of its dead, failed consummation. Numerous rose petals and numerous bees evoke the tactile and the swarm of her feeling. How different it would be ( as it were) if the small cultural artefact contained one of each! I aspire to write with such deceptive simplicity and charge. I chose an extract from this poem to open section two early in the development of the collection. It introduces the trope of bees and the ways in which artefacts might be containers, but it also alerts the reader to the allure and sting of relationships, and life cycles lived in the body.

Q. In “The Vase Imposes” you create the stillness, the meticulous preparation and the contemplation by the use of short lines and space. Is poetic “form” one of your more enjoyable pursuits?

The crafting of a poem always involves the working through of how best to yoke form and content. Yes, I do enjoy that process. When I began to write poetry I liked using traditional forms because they were reliable containers. I am less wedded to them now because I have found from experience that energy, strangeness and originality are more likely to arise when I let the page net the first draft.

Sometimes a poem finds its bones very quickly and often the structure of the line sets much of itself down in an early draft.  At times, I draw on Judith Beveridge’s advice to structure the poem in a number of different forms. It gives me distance and helps me apprehend what the poem is telling me it wants to be. When I wrote ‘The Vase Imposes’, it was clear from the beginning that the minimalist aesthetic of the Flower- Master and the tension of adopting its extremity was best conveyed by short, clipped lines and white space around small stanzas. The making of this poem meant working with the paradox of how simplicity is wrought from control. A control that suggests a kind of violence. The surprise of the poem for me was to see a link between the art form and the control of women in that era and culture.

Q. You end the collection with the poem “Writing with the Left Hand”, highlighting awkwardness, but also leaving the reader with a sense of personal honesty (“I will use the ink from my dead hand”). Was completing this collection a struggle, leaving such a large part of yourself on the page?

That is a really loaded question to ask a clinical psychologist! I have thought a lot about the relationship between the self and the artefact. I feel comfortable that by the time the poem has been shaped, it has become itself even if its genesis began with elements of lived experience or my imaginary life. I shaped the collection over a number of years and nearly all of these poems have been published elsewhere. By the time the collection was done it did not feel like I was leaving blood on the page.

‘Writing with the Left Hand’ was placed last in the collection for a number of reasons. The body and mortality are themes in part two. Blood is a liquid of our mortal body and of course I wanted to end the collection with flow. This poem flows into new possibilities but acknowledges that the rupture of change involves loss and this demands a kind of redress that paradoxically reconnects oneself with the past. I am glad that you sense the personal honesty in the poem. It was a classic case of seeking to write in a voice that is not one’s own becoming an accidental way of discovering insight into the self.

Q. I ask all my interviewees this, what are you reading at the moment and why?

I like to really immerse in what I am reading, rather than skim over it on the way to something else. I read with the demand that it surprises me, moves me, challenges me spiritually and intellectually, offers me the possibility of being changed by what I read. I want to be jolted by language that is pushed to its limits. So, as you have asked me about what am I reading, and why, I will tell you about the work that is offering me, consistently, these kind of experiences.  I have returned to Peter Boyle’s magnificent translation of The Trees: Selected Poems 1967-2004 ( Salt, 2004) by the Venezuelan  poet Eugenio Montejo ( 1938-2008). Reading this poetry feels like walking through a cathedral of ancient trees while pierced to the quick by his profound insights into the human condition. These lines from the critic Perez quoted in the introduction by Miguel Gomes capture something essential about his work: ‘when we read his poetry we succumb to the sensation of being reached by the past, which has become a hidden aspect of the present, something we must uncover in order to restitute both memory and immediacy to their original state of communion.’

Jen Hadfield’s Nigh-No-Place (Bloodaxe, 2008) is a language of delight, verve and play that startles and invigorates. Even her brief poems contain whole worlds. Her subject is everyday lived experience in wild, cold climates and language itself. Her language is rich, deft, audacious, has something of Shakespeare and Hopkins. It is a radiant mix of the imaginative and scientific close-up observation.

In the wake of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s death I have returned to his Selected Poems (Penguin, 1962) translated by Peter Levi and Robin Milner-Gulland, and found video footage of him reading his work. It still leaves me breathless.

Q. Finally what is next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

I am writing lineated poems interspersed with prose jottings. At this stage I am not sure where it will lead. I am happy to let it run its own course until I work out what it is telling me to do.

I have just finished my first review of an art exhibition ( O’Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith: Making Modernism at Heide Museum of Modern Art). I decided to focus the review around ‘making’ and work towards an understanding of what modernism meant for each artist. I developed the review from responses to individual paintings because I trusted that this would provide a fresh response that I could shape. I had to keep in mind that the art world is not ready for a review written in verse! Seriously, I was never in danger of doing that, but I did learn that close observation and negative capability help to review an art exhibition just as they help to review a collection of poetry.

I have been rereading some of my early poems and reflecting on the fact that I write fewer overtly political poems. Making myself write a particular type of poem is a guaranteed way of making a failed poem but I want to think more about what political means in the context of the poem and be open to where this takes me.


Thanks again to Susan Fealy for her time and her wonderful replies. Coming up on the blog I have some questions with an “experimental” poet and am hoping to have this interview with you in the coming days too.


3 thoughts on “Flute of Milk – Susan Fealy PLUS bonus poet interview

    • That is probably taking it a little far, but I like your positive nature!! Let’s see once I get to 50 interviews, I have a few lined up, could well get there by 2018.


  1. Pingback: “Argosy” & “Lost Lake” – Bella Li PLUS bonus poet interview | Messenger's Booker (and more)

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