The Agonist – Shastra Deo PLUS bonus poet interview

Agonist

The Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize is a literary award for an unpublished poetry manuscript written by a Queensland author. The current winner has their manuscript published by the University of Queensland Press. Last month, at the Queensland Poetry Festival, the 2017 winner was announced, Rae White for the collection “Milk Teeth”. 2016 winner was Shastra Deo for her collection “The Agonist” which was launched at the Festival, and Stuart Barnes won the 2015 version of the award, I reviewed his collection “Glasshouses” and interviewed him here.

I have been fortunate enough to receive an advance copy of “The Agonist” from the publisher as well as talking the poet herself into an interview about her debut collection.

As always I will post my thoughts about the book before presenting the interview, verbatim, at the close of this post.

“The Agonist” is a book that questions the physical world, a collection that opens with an illustration by Henry Vandyke Carter from Gray’s Anatomy and then moves to an epigraph by Emily Dickinson, this is a world where the physical meets the metaphysical

The more I think about your body, the more I know
it is no longer your own: your heart is a house
with the doors left open: your brain is the basement

Filled with smoke. The skeleton hidden under the flesh
of floorboards. A stranger roaming the hallways, a
dappled shadow splashed on the wall, flickering in firelight.

Poetry of meat, sinews, bones and tendons. Rooting itself in the physical world, with water, fishing, drowning sitting alongside familial blood connections

Brother, do you remember the Bering Sea,
where we promised to go home again?

A collection of poems that contain (or are even partially called) lexical gaps, poems that demand reading aloud. The syncopation, the alliteration and simply the rhythm leading you to verbalise the poems you’re reading

/yaad/
My childhood, remembered: mouths unsynced
with sound, words swollen and sworn. Throats
dismantled from the inside out. My tongue turned
plosive, poised at the tip of my teeth,
dubbing out of dialect.

Whilst my description to date may seem very dark, there is also an erotic undertow at play here, dark magik sitting alongside the medical anatomical terms, with a hint of the sexual;

I was never good at being truthful
during daylight:
my lovers left wanting
to find the seam where belief and desire crossed,
to make narratives out of my body within their beds.
my fragile geometry reduced to a tangle of interlocked limbs.

Even though this becomes a ritualistic poem.

There is also use of formal constructs, for example the poem “Anatomy of being” is a fixed 26 line structure each line starting with a different letter of the alphabet, the poem talks of the body’s reaction to prayer, to breathing, to panic, linking these everyday functions to the medical term.

These poems recalled a road trip, where belongings are disposed of prior to travel, the poet always hovering on the edge, moving beyond the current physical world, to an unknown world, beyond something…

A collection that shows astute maturity, it is fascinating to know that this is a debut collection, as the depth of exploration, subject matter and deft word usage suggests a writer who has crafted their work for quite some time. One of the highlights of my poetry reading this year, it is a collection I urge you to explore, and keep your eyes out for more work from Shastra Deo, as I am very confident that we will be coming across her name again, yes I anticipate more awards here.

As always I would like to thank to poet for taking the time to answer my questions, to educate my readers in her art form and for her honesty with her replies.

Q. These are poems that demand reading aloud, and you have touched on a fascination about the brain’s processing of language and sound, where does this interest come from?

A few people have said that to me since The Agonist was released—that the poems work well when read out loud. I wouldn’t say it was a conscious decision, as I’m generally most focused on how the poems look on the page. But, I usually hear the rhythm or tune of a line before I know what the words are. Amy Hempel describes something similar: the act of hearing and humming that tune over and over until it translates into a sentence.

I rarely get a first line though, and typically build around whatever’s come to me. “Haven” started with lines that are now part of the final stanza: “And his back, freckled / with oracular precision”. They’re not the most sonically interesting lines (though I like the repetition of the ck sound in “back”, “freckled”, and “oracular”; and how “freckled” and “oracular” each have an r, ck, and l sound in the same order) but they do feel musical to me. I try to infuse the rest of the poem with that same music.

As for the brain, my interest starts with the gross anatomy. I love that the human body houses so many labyrinths—the brain, ear, belly. And more. I also wonder where we house other things, like memory and emotion. I’m no longer fluent in my native language (Hindi), but that’s not really interesting to me: I want to know where my memory of the language went—where it used to live and how it was expunged from the brain and the tongue.

Q. Another fascination is rituals, religious, magik, tarot, divination, from where did this interest stem?

Haruspicy—the reading of omens in the entrails of animal sacrifices—is my favourite form of divination. It all comes back to my interest in the corporeal body and where the body holds its histories. I want the body—medical, cultural, historical, individual—to be something more than the sum of its parts. Archive, container, repository. If we can read the future in the gut, then why not the past? And the relationship between the medical body and magic is well documented—there’s a lovely quote from Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English’s book, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses – A History of Women Healers:

“It was witches who developed an extensive understanding of bones and muscles, herbs and drugs, while physicians were still deriving their prognoses from astrology and alchemists were trying to turn lead into gold.”

As for ritual, I think we take its quotidian nature for granted. The act of brushing teeth, steeping tea, or turning key in lock become symbolic when enacted within a poem, but these rituals are part of the reality of everyday living. I’m reminded of Bronwyn Lea’s “Routine Love Poem”: “they make & remake coffee / they make & remake the bed”. Ritual isn’t limited to hallowed spaces or the shedding of blood. You may not be lighting candles, but what a many-splendoured thing it is to pass through your doorway after dark, turn on your lights, and remake house into home.

Q. There’s a sense of displacement in a number of poems, can you talk a bit about your sense of a “homeland”/“homecoming”?

I’m interested in texts that treat place or setting as a character in and of itself. Jane Harper’s The Dry and Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing come to mind: the Australian landscape, in both texts, feels like a maw waiting to scrape teeth against the ankles of the unvigilant. While I’m happy to research as needed to create a convincing setting, homeland, for me, is a tricky thing.

The Agonist is written almost entirely in persona. When dealing with a new speaker, or one that does not easily fit within an existing mythos, I think about the physical place they inhabit and where it is they want to go. These settings don’t always appear in the poems: more often than not, I catch speakers during moments of travel, or trapped within some sort of liminal space. There’s a sense of wanting to move forward but remaining tethered to the past, or wanting to hold on to a moment while knowing what’s ahead is unavoidable.

Memory, I think, is homeland, and I believe that so much of memory is embodied. I’ve actively tried to problematise that relationship by writing about bodies in crisis. All you can do then is wait to see what emerges.

Q. You are studying for your PhD, you are to become a “doctor” of what? If I had to guess I’d say medicine or something to do with teeth!!

If only! It would be better for everyone if I remain a hobbyist when it comes to medicine and teeth. I’m doing a creative writing PhD: my dissertation will be made up of a poetry collection and a critical essay. The critical essay is focused on body phantoms—that uncanny sensation of an arm, leg, or organ where no such body part remains. I’ll be examining body phantoms as they appear in medical and literary canons up until the First World War, paying particular attention to the moments when they disappear from history. The poetry, so far, has again found its roots in ritual: medical rituals, burial rituals, and séance. But there’s also the issue of creating a corpus or body of work for the phantom to inhabit—how to write both the haunting and the house.

Q. Your tarot readings? Anything you can reveal?

Sadly, I’m not adept at reading tarot. I like the iconography and symbolism of the cards, and how meanings can change depending on the card’s position, the spread used, and the other cards drawn. It’s not a static form of divination. I have drawn cards to carry with me when I know I’m going to be under stress—I had The Chariot in my pocket during the launch of The Agonist! My friend, Madeleine Dale—a fantastic poet—is the real talent, having used tarot to accurately predict our fickle Brisbane bus times. I’m not as gifted.

I think there’s an odd sort of… metonymy at play when invoking the tarot as potential (and uncertain) characters and speakers. A layering, really, of what the name of the card instantly evokes, what the card represents, and whatever else the reader brings in their reading of both card and poem.

Q. I ask all of my interviewees this, I’m building a nice reading list based on the replies, what are you reading at the moment and why?

I’m currently reading Mary Borden’s The Forbidden Zone—a poetic memoir about her years as a nurse during the First World War—for my dissertation. It’s a marvellous book, weaved of fragmentary moments—figures reduced to fragment. And the noise of war. I’m also slowly rereading parts of Catherine Malabou’s The Ontology of the Accident, Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, and Felicity Plunkett’s Vanishing Point. But I recently had a dream that I met and embarrassed myself in front of Anne Carson, so something of hers should probably be next.

To be honest, I haven’t been reading or watching TV as much as I’d like, mostly because of my gaming habit. I hope Marvel’s The Defenders will inspire some poems, as the first season of Marvel’s Daredevil did. But I’m still happily entrenched in Final Fantasy XV; that’s where the majority of my free time goes.

Q.  You end this collection with walking away, so what is next?

Strolling towards something, hopefully! As mentioned, I’ve just started my creative writing PhD, so another poetry collection is in the works. Since reading Stuart Barnes’s Glasshouses, I’ve been trying to make more of a conscious effort to work within form. Not only sonnets and the like, but recipes, instruction manuals, how-to guides. I’ve been playing with the idea of weaponised domesticity—something that unconsciously worked its way into a number of poems in The Agonist. Household tricks are small acts of witchcraft, I think: coffee, cloves, and baking soda to eliminate unpleasant odors; a little lemon juice and sunlight to draw out the bloodstains.

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