A couple of weeks ago I interviewed Alison Whittaker about her Mary Gilmore shortlisted collection “Lemons in the Chicken Wire”, whilst we were communicating back and forth and finalising the interview the Judith Wright Poetry Prize winner was announced. Alison Whittaker’s poem “Many Girls White Linen” shared first place in that Prize with Holly Isemonger and her poem “OK cupid”.
The judges of the Judith Wright Poetry Prize, Jill Jones and Toby Fitch (stay tuned here I have a Jill Jones interview in the pipeline), said of Holly Isemonger’s poem;
‘OK cupid”…is a dark, post-digital love poem in which the words of three stanzas are recombined to tell a warper tale about the split-second decisions one makes in the world of online dating. The poem could be seen as a nocturne: the words rotate almost musically, but the recombinations also deconstruct the events within the poem. ‘OK cupid’ shows how repetition is really, in Gertrude Stein’s sense, insistence. (‘Overland Journal’ issue 226 p 28)
‘OK cupid’ can be read online here or better still support Australian writing and buy a copy of edition 226, or even better still subscribe.
Holly Isemonger’s “Deluxe Paperweight” was published last year, by Stale Objects Press, and is available to download here (when at that page click on the word “link”)
Opening with a page of reviews of Lars Von Trier films, the collection engaged me from the off, as a filmgoer, who has both loved and loathed Lars Von Trier’s movies, Holly’s views on films “Breaking The Waves”, “Dancer In The Dark”, “Dogville”, “Melancholia” and “Nymphomaniac” brought my own experiences back to life;
Dancer in the Dark
Some reasonable people will love this film and others will despise it… but we are not reasonable… we have spent too long reading the little box that describes the art. We know the arc of tragedies, and musicals — we dread, so here we find ourselves with Bjork in the depths of hell. We raise our fists and look for Lars who has left. He is scooting away on the surface of this shallow film to the spiritual sequel, featuring Nazis, his mother, a communist and a swan that will leave him wondering how to get out of this sentence.
We then move into more formal psalms, onto images from iconic movies and then “Hip Shifts”, where repetition features again, the Tom Waits references bringing a broad smile to my face;
I am Tom Waits’ dumb teenage girlfriend.
We live in a shopping mall.
A car park surrounds our house
like a bruise. I drive.
Technology and the digital age is never far from Holly Isemonger’s work, manipulating an online translation tool to present the decay of language and meaning in “Free Online Translation Service”, an insight into the poet’s world where the essence of meaning is eroded by our current digital environment, the poem a stark reminder that text and language is ever shifting, faster and faster the more we utilise technology.
Finishing with “Failed Screenplays”, more images from art, film and the poet’s personal collection and then the questioning “Five Obstructions” the collection is a humorous as well as horrific take on our modern lives, when do we have time to simply live and love?
A further poem by Holly Isemonger was published earlier this week in the eChapbook “Tell Me Like You Mean It: New Poems from Young and Emerging Writers” – this online chapbook also featuring Alison Whittaker – you can access the book free here and Holly Isemonger’s poem here a continuation of the “Sad Witch Psalms”, three which appear in “Deluxe Paperweight”;
let autumn crust the skin
on egg yolky afternoons
note hoe light leaks like
pus though windows
onto nudes burst the
culture blister only let
him touch u if u do him
the shit busker believes
you want him imagine
bob dylan is dead
Another young poet who is pushing the poetic boundaries and bringing a refreshing change to the flavour of the written word, to read a collection of poems that uses a raft of techniques to bring smiles to my face, and that questions the limits of language is an enjoyable exercise indeed. With recent recognition of her work, Holly Isemonger is a young poet to keep your eyes on, one that will challenge and amuse.
As always I would like to sincerely thank the poet for their time and honesty in answering my questions, Holly Isemonger being more than generous in her replies and time. I personally found this one of the more revealing and amusing interviews I have conducted and look forward to reading many more published works.
Over to the interview:
Q. Icelandic author Jón Kalman Stefánsson says, in his latest novel, “The poem surpasses the other literary arts in every way: in its depth, potency, bitterness, beauty, as well as its ability to unsettle us.” Some of your work is “unsettling”, do you think that’s a harsh or fair assessment?
Oh yeah for sure, unsettling is apt! I don’t ever set out to write things that are a bit gross, sad or creepy but those themes always seem to float to the top. I guess it says a lot about my psyche and interests?? Pleasure and repulsion are at the core of a lot of my poems but I don’t mean to write them like that. I guess it stems from the fact that I have an extremely ambivalent attitude toward poetry.
Some of my favourite poems convey both attraction and repulsion (with a certain sense of humour and wisdom) and I think those themes are particularly salient to people who identify as women. Too much can be made of the whole ‘hatred of poetry’ thing but I think there is something to it. To hate something, you have to respect it on a certain level. I love poetry, but it’s frustrating. I think my complicated feelings towards poetry is what makes me so interested in it… which perhaps says more about me than the form.
As for the quote you mentioned, I agree. Poems have a long history that is tied to the very nature of being human. There is a reason Ring Around the Rosie is still sung by children. It’s a form of play, it helps kids learn the rules of social interaction and teaches them about language- yet this is a song about the plague, but those sun drenched memories in pre-school and kindergarten are beautiful and they pass all too quickly- plus sometimes it’s v funny watching kids figure out language and coordination! So in this one nursery rhyme (which I would call a poem) you have this intersection that brings so many different elements of life together: humour, beauty, death, history etc. – plus there are the meditative and chant like qualities of poetry and rhyme. Combine all of these qualities and you have a précis of the human species. And I find that pretty unsettling! Like how in Jurassic Park the old dude has a fossilized mosquito caught in amber. To zoom out and see humans like that. It’s dark.
Q. Your Judith Wright winning poem “OK Cupid”, featured in the latest “Overland” Magazine (issue 226) uses a dating app as a subject, can the everyday be poetic?
Yeah this is my ongoing beef with poetry, it should reflect our everyday life! I think this is why lots of people don’t like poetry- it’s not that they don’t like poetry per say – it’s that they had to read a fuck tonne of Keats, Wordsworth etc. So people are like, ‘how does this relate my life? I have no time for this ivory tower bullshit.’
However, sometimes the idea of making poetry ‘relatable’ can be misconstrued. Ok Cupid is an ‘experimental’ poem, I used an exercise (or constraint) where I rearranged the words in three stanzas in three different combinations, but (I hope) it’s still relatable. Being relatable doesn’t mean that you that you can’t engage with form. We all spend a LOT of time manipulating text. Whether it is a text message, facebook, twitter or an email. Each medium demands a different kind of sentence or phrase. So poetry should engage with that process.
Reading NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! for the first time really made me understand how poetry, and particularly experimental poetry, is not an abstract academic idea. It opened up a whole new way of thinking about form, experimentation, history and subjectivity. AND it makes me SO angry that Kenneth Goldsmith is the go-to guy for “experimental” or “conceptual” poetry for many people.
Q. “Deluxe Paperweight’ opens with reviews of a number of Lars Von Trier’s films. He is seen as a “bad boy” of world cinema, and has said, “A film should be like a stone in your shoe”, are you poems “stones in shoes”? Are you the “bad girl” of Australian poetry? And, I have to ask this; did you watch the 5.5-hour Director’s cut of “Nymphomaniac” or the equally gruelling 4-hour version?
I hope my poems are like a stones in shoes…I think. Or maybe like grit that slowly transforms into a pearl? I dunno, I lose all my jewelry anyway. It would certainly be an honour to be the “bad girl” of Aus poetry but realistically it’s more of a gang, or perhaps a coven. There are so many great poets pushing the form in Australia, like Emily Stewart, Alison Whittaker, Amelia Dale, Elena Gomez and Astrid Lorange- all have taught and inspired so many writers, artists and poets. And of course- the one and only Pam Brown! I don’t think Australian poetry would be where it’s at now if not for her, she is a huge inspiration to so many poets. If I could (and one day I hope I can) I would make her writing compulsory on every syllabus along with Ali Cobby Eckermann.
In regards to Lars, he is one really painful stone. Or maybe he’s like having an ulcer in your mouth but you keep touching it anyway because although it is a bit gross and painful it’s kinda satisfying? I don’t like that many of his films, and he is clearly a bit of a jerk, but I am glad (against my better judgment) that he and his films exist in the world.
And yes I did see the long version of Nymphomaniac at the movies. I liked the first half because it was fun, the girls were just trolling everyone and I loved it- and who doesn’t like to watch hot people root? But the second part was garbage: a woman who loves sex is crazy? And then she is slowly and gruelingly punished. It’s like- really? We’re still doing this?
But god bless Charlotte Gainsbourg, she’s such a trooper ❤ ❤
Q. Your bleak imagery is also peppered with humour, “best buy your own beer”, or your acknowledgements containing the comment “and other stuff I can’t remember”, is it a fine balance between horror and humour?
Well I’m glad you thought they were funny. I don’t really think about it, in general I have a pretty dry sense of humour and that seems to infect everything I write. Most of the writing I really love is a combination of comedy/melancholy (e.g. Lydia Davis, Russell Edson, Chelsey Minnis and Matthew Welton). Life is pretty funny – if sometimes painful- so I write poems like that.
Also, I wrote “and other stuff I can’t remember” because I literally couldn’t remember. I’m glad you found it amusing.
Also, Gone Girl was the best rom-com of 2014 and if u don’t agree I’ll see you in court 😉
Q. Film obviously plays an important role in your life, with references to many classics, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Badlands, Chinatown just a few. Can you explain a little about your love of cinema?
When I used to work at the local IGA in my home town I would ask every person who came through my checkout what their favourite movies were, I would keep a tally on the back of receipts and blue-tack them to my register. It was fun because I would have so many interesting conversations and bypass inane chats about the weather. It really opened up an unusual space for empathy, I met so many fascinating people with a wealth of knowledge about movies, books, life experience- I would have never had those conversations if I didn’t ask them about their favourite movies. If they came through my checkout and I just said ‘how are you’ I would have judged them, not in a bad way, but like: you are a dad, or mum, or grandmother or kid or a creepy guy from the RSL. And they probably would have done the same to me. Through this one question about movies, I learnt so much from a bunch of really wise and interesting people that I would never otherwise talked to. Don’t get me wrong there were still customers that were a pain in the ass, but most people were open and kind. That was a pretty formative period.
One shift, the people who owned the video shop (TOP VIDEO) next door came through my checkout and offered me a job there. Needless to say, I accepted. I adored that job. I compiled folders that had lists of all the different movies that had won awards, I wrote up little introductions to various directors and actors. I don’t think many people read them when they came into the shop. But it was fun nevertheless.
One of my favourite dick moves was when groups of women would come in to get a fun rom-com for a ‘ladies night’. They would hire stuff like My Best Friend’s Wedding, 27 Dresses, Runaway Bride etc. But people would often see Kirsten Dunst in a wedding dress on the cover of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia (a movie about depression and the end of the world) and hire it thinking they were in for a delightful marriage plot. How I wish I could have witnessed their faces as Kirsten Dunst flees her wedding in a golf buggy and pisses on the green as the end of the world looms.
There are a million reasons to love movies but my passion for them came kinda late. It was through a subject at uni taught by the brilliant Sarah Attfield. I was introduced to films by Tarkovsky, Lars von Trier, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Agnes Varda, Claire Denis, Chris Marker, Wong Kar Wai, Tsai Ming-liang, Roy Andersson- and watching Elem Klimov’s brutal war film Come and See still haunts me. Discovering these filmmakers really changed the way I thought about film. (N.B I watch so much trash- all these fancy directors could indicate otherwise- I’m terrible).
I think there is a correlation between poetry and movies. What was such a revelation to me was that some movies- like Tarkovsky’s for example- make you think in a very unusual way, and I think it is the same way you think when you read poetry or look at a painting. If you think of novels as linear/horizontal thinking, reading a poem is a kind of vertical thinking. You don’t think about the forward motion of the story. You don’t process the content, sound, image and temporal qualities separately. It’s an experience where you hold all these elements in your head at once and the meaning comes from a spooky place at the back of your mind. I don’t know much about art but I am obsessed with Hunters in the Snow by Bruegel the Elder. There is something in all the layers of meaning, which operate simultaneously, that I find super unsettling. That painting turns up in Melancholia and Tarkovsky’s film Mirror, which also features a voiceover reading Tarkovsky’s father’s poetry. So it’s all linked I guess?!
I could bang on about movies forever but I’ll spare you!
Q. I ask all my interviewees this, what are you reading at the moment and why?
The last book I loved was Transit by Rachel Cusk. I have never read anything like it. There’s not much in the way of plot but she just examines the interactions that happen around her, and how people are accidentally cruel to each other. I think she is trying to figure out a different way of formulating what the ‘self’ is: it doesn’t come from within but it’s how you relate to the people around you. It’s cutting yet compassionate. The book is filled with a deep sense of wisdom. And besides that- it’s a delight to read!
At the moment I’m reading some feminist theory on horror films. It’s so weird to me that the genre is often perceived as a bro-ish genre (well, I thought of it like that) when it is, usually, quite literally about women overcoming all the awful shit that they have to deal with irl, but on an allegorical level. There is still a lot of annoying horror sexism stuff… but hey- beggars can’t be choosers and I love my female leads!
Q. Finally what is next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?
Hmmm. I’m just trying to figure out how to make this whole writing career thing work. And it’s kinda tricky. I’m working on getting a collection of poetry together. And I am trying to get a daily schedule together- I’m not sure which one is harder! Can someone give me a job where I get to talk about movies and literature? (CALLING YOU SBS & ABC IF TURNBULL HASN’T GUTTED YOU ALREADY).