Western Australian based writer Charlotte Guest has recently launched her debut poetry collection “Soap”, published by ACT independent publisher Recent Work Press, a small imprint that publish “poetry, short fiction and non fiction, and other short-form textual experiments.” I have a large number of their publications on my shelves so am hoping to get to a few interviews with the poets over the coming months.
With a soft pink cover and the title “Soap” you could be forgiven for thinking this is a collection of indulgence, poems with a “girlie” bent, you would be very far from the truth, these works exploring the end of girlhood, full of sexual tension, and female oppression, male dismissiveness, they are poems buzzing with awareness.
‘You see society through old
frames, you are perpetuating that
against which you argue,’
says a confident boy with flushed
capillaries, exalting in this
repartee. ‘No, what I am saying is,
the historically oppressed
form allegiances based
on the common ground of di-
hold my gaze. His eyes bulge
as he takes a swig from
his Old Fashioned, looking
down his straight nose
at me. ‘Why are we still
bandying about old terms?
Why do we still talk
of race and gender?
Have the last fifty years
I open my mouth and
push bubbles out.
We are talking
over our heads, like
A collection of female celebration, that also includes all the awkwardness, the angst, the unsure, finely balanced with revelations, as in “For Eurydice”, the oak nymph, who I know of as the wife of Orpheus, and his musical visits to the underground, unfortunately as in many mythological characters the female is known in relation to the male. Charlotte Guest giving us a clearer picture;
The naturalist amid
turns the sand and
a knowing look.
Picking her way up
the tan slope, a
bobbing desert bird,
she is attuned to the electric pop
and a sense of wrongness:
the sacrificial giving of
to the sun.
This is a very personal collection of poems, one where you feel as though you’re encroaching upon the poet’s own space, her private world, it is a though you are reading a diary of somebody you don’t know, as Charlotte Guest moves through various phases of womanhood. It even includes the personal slipping away of her Nanna, in the poem “Nanna, Kalamunda”, or a nostalgia for the family unit in “Daddies”;
Slumped on the garden step, my father,
his storied hands writ large, is
soothed by the night’s coolness and
harangued by images
of bigger moons.
Using many formats, generally prose poems, but including formats such as concrete poems, this is a fine debut where you can see a development as the collection progresses, the poems written over a six year period.
As always I would like to thank the poet for their time in answering my questions, and for the thoughtful replies, Charlotte Guest originally not being 100% convinced she should be interviewed makes me even more appreciative of her efforts. I am glad she finally agreed.
Q. In your “afterword” you state; “Like many poetry collections, Soap is a very personal document. It circles around notions of self and belonging, and questions of femininity and feminism. Soap is both an interrogation and celebration of private worlds, my private world.”, and I know you were reticent to be interviewed about your book. Does the notion of the private becoming public cause anxiety for you?
It both does and it doesn’t. As a reader of poetry and memoir, I know how respectful readers approach personal writing. Of course you can’t guarantee all readers will treat the material in the same way – as experience transformed and translated into something separate – but I think you have to trust your imagined and real readers. You have to let it go.
The reason I was hesitant to be interviewed was not necessarily to do with the book; it was to do with me! I think it’s a classic case of Imposter Syndrome, a loss of confidence in what I know and what I have to say. I have just started a new writing project on this very topic…
Q. You review poetry, or poetic criticism in the poem “the Seagull”, however professionally you work for the University of Western Australia Publishing and present video blogs discussing their poetry releases. Does this duality make you a harsh critic of your own work?
That poem is slightly ironic, I think. I was thinking about T S Eliot’s ideas of what makes a ‘good’ poem, or an aesthetically pleasing poem, and how I disagreed with some of those ideas. It’s ironic because I wrote my objections into the poem at the same time as trying to satisfy all this criteria of a good poem: having images that logically build upon each other, for instance, maintaining continuity of thought and argument, ideas of balance and symmetry. So it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek that one.
I am a harsh critic of my work, yes. I do my best to interrogate each line and word choice in a poem, and remove it if it’s not right. This means my self-editing tends to be a process of cutting things out, and as a consequence my poems are quite short.
Q. Your book contains a range of poetic styles, from prose poems to concrete (shaped) poetry and more traditional approaches. Can you talk a little about the different approaches and how the poem comes into being?
The collection is largely free verse poetry, and I think in future work I’d like to engage more deliberately with different forms of poetry – villanelles, sonnets, haiku, and so forth. One of my reflections after publishing this collection was that I’ve kind of started at the end, so to speak, and now wish to work my way back to the beginning. By this I mean that I want to produce work that adheres to the rules of traditional forms, to see what is possible through constraint.
So while I’m glad the collection presents as diverse in form, I know that my default mode of writing poetry is in free verse and I wish to now unlearn that, to pay more attention to different kinds of poems and their particular demands.
Q. You finish the book with loss and the book begins with an epigraph by Fay Zwicky “Is anyone ever ready for exactly who they are?”. You’ve taken this journey to define the moments in between these “events”, what “moments” do you find are the ones that require capturing in poems?
In many of the poems I have tried to capture feelings of uncertainty and trepidation. There are some poems about grief that I wrote as a way to work through accepting the deaths of certain people. Some are about the body as it matures and changes, both celebrating the female form and feeling estranged from this process we cannot control. I like the idea of ‘moments’ that you raise, but as I’m writing this it’s emotions that come to mind, as opposed to moments in time. Although memory is certainly I theme I return to often.
Q. I ask all my interviewees this, it is helping to build a great reading list, what are you reading at the moment and why?
I have just finished reading Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, which is his book (not) about D. H. Lawrence. It’s an incredible, rambling, and seemingly untamed book in which Dyer wrestles with the intention of writing a study of D. H. Lawrence, but can never pin down his subject (or himself) enough to get started. I loved this book, and will be reading more of Dyer’s work.
Q. Finally, another question I ask all interviewees, what’s next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?
I am working on a prose project at the moment, which I won’t divulge much about in case it doesn’t get off the ground (much like Dyer’s study of Lawrence!). It is a work of non-fiction, which I think I alluded to above…