Sarah Holland-Batt poet interview

Southerly77.1

A few months ago, I had a review and interview published in Southerly Journal (issue 77.1). I looked at Sarah Holland-Batt’s “The Hazards” and quoted few answers that she kindly provided in an interview. If you are interested in the Southerly article you can purchase a copy here

As the interview had a lot more detail that I was able to include in the final published work, today I present the full un-edited version. As always I am extremely grateful to the poet for her time in answering my questions, and with Sarah Holland-Batt being the editor of “Best Australian Poems 2017”  (and in 2016), as well as being a judge for the Fiction and Poetry categories for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards I am amazed that she found the time for my humble blog.

As always I hope you enjoy the insights into the poetic world of last year’s Prime Minister’s Literary Award winner.

Q. Your epigraph is from Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem, taken from the German Luther Bible, ‘For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower therefor falleth away.’ A number of your poems musing on fleeting existence. What drew you to that theme?

For almost half my life I have watched the torturous decline of one of my parents due to their debilitating illness; this made me think about death and mortality relatively early, and it’s a subject that has persisted in various ways for me in my work. When someone who you are close to is in decline—even figuratively, say, insofar as they are losing their memory, or their personality—the idea of death as a gradual process rather than a singular and definitive event takes root and comes to infuse everything in your life.

Q. Poetry has a long association with animal metaphor, and Section II of “The Hazards” are all dedicated to animals, predominantly birds and appear to link to a travel journal of sorts, can you explain this a little more?

I think of those poems (perhaps strangely) as chiefly political poems rather than ‘bird poems’ per se. Several were written in Central America, and chime with recent political histories—juntas, dictatorships, evolutions/uprisings and so forth. I’ve always been interested in animal hierarchies and animal violence; in their often brutal ecosystems and behavioral patterns, I see echoes of certain kinds of human activities and drivers—basest instinct, opportunism, self-preservation and self-interest, but also recklessness, proteanism, opulence, indulgence, contrarianism, and on and on. I suspect all my poems are travel journals of a sort; I tend to write while on the move, rather than while at home; I find estrangement from myself, my mother tongue, my latitude and longitude a powerful inducement to write.

Q. You talk of ekphrastic poetry in the Notes and personally the images from Emanuel Phillips Fox’s The Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay 1770 (1902) were extremely vivid. The other poem that really struck me was Reclining Nude after Lucien Freud’s Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995), what drew you to this controversial work and can you tell us a little more about the resultant poem?

“Reclining Nude” was simply an attempt to replicate the sheer materiality of the paint in Freud’s painting—which has an incredibly thick, trowelled-on texture—using language alone. It was a challenge I gave myself: work toward that sort of impasto using language. It is also a poem about the inherent class gap between painter and subject, and, of course, about the painter’s gaze, which (in characteristic Freudian fashion) is incredibly unforgiving towards—or perhaps just honest about—the human body. Flesh seems to me Freud’s perpetual subject, a compulsive fascination that approaches that of the Dutch Masters’ obsession with fabric, haberdashery and upholstery; for Freud it is skin, rather than velvet or gauze, that he renders in faithful deeply textural detail.

Q. The collection ends with the title poem “The Hazards”, and images of distance, vulnerability, and finishing with an existentialist refrain. It leaves the collection with a hint of “what next”, so what is next?

Another book of poems, eventually, although I like to take my time between books. I also have a novel manuscript that I’m working on at a snail’s pace; my work commitments make poetry a more achievable form, but I’ve always loved writing prose and am hoping to find time in the near future to recommence work on the novel as well.

Q. Congratulations on winning the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry for 2016, one of the most financially rewarding Awards for poets in the country. Female representation on the shortlist was limited to yourself alone, so congratulations on your work being recognised despite the gender bias. Has winning the award sunk in and do you think this will positively impact your ability to write more poetry? Do you think it will increase your popularity?

This is perhaps a side point, but I don’t particularly believe that because there happens to be only one woman on a shortlist in a given year that the judges’ decision necessarily reveals underlying or systemic bias. I read the books of the other poets—Les Murray, Robert Adamson, Michael Farrell and Simon West—and thought they were all extremely fine collections; I was pleased to be in their company. And as it so happened, women won the vast majority of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards this year, which was pleasing to see. Winning the award still feels surreal; winning on the eve of Trump’s election to the Presidency made it feel doubly so. It certainly will allow me to write more poetry, and to spend time researching, writing, and travelling—all necessary components of my work. But I do think the establishment and continuation of the PMLAs is important for Australian writers. In the context of the severe budgetary cuts to several state literary awards, the continuing presence of national awards that robustly and generously recognise literature’s importance to Australia, and the part writers play in forging our culture, is heartening.

Q. Finally, I always like to ask this, what are you reading at present and why?

I had a year of the most extraordinary reading as editor for Black Inc’s The Best Australian Poems 2016; systematically reading every Australian literary journal, a large number of anthologies and collections, and thousands upon thousands of individual poems certainly occupied the vast bulk of my reading time. I’m gearing up to do the same thing for the 2017 edition, so I predict another avalanche of poems just around the corner, too. Of the individual books of poetry I read over the past year, I loved Peter Rose’s The Subject of Feeling, Liam Ferney’s Content, Jennifer Maiden’s The Fox Petition, Dan Disney’s either, Orpheus, Michelle Cahill’s The Herring Lass, Michael Farrell’s Cocky’s Joy, and on and on. I have the new (and beautifully produced) Puncher & Wattman Contemporary Australian Poetry on my bedside to read in the new year. And as far as fiction goes, I just finished rereading the unsettling, unrelenting Submission by Michel Houllebecq, which does everything I want a novel to do.

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