The Annual Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, for an unpublished manuscript, is awarded at the Brisbane Poetry Festival with the winner having their book published by University of Queensland Press and launched at the Festival the following year. I have interviewed 2015 and 2016 winners Stuart Barnes, for “Glasshouses”, and Shastra Deo, for “The Agonist” and continue the association with the Prize by interviewing 2017 winner Rae White, whose book “Milk Teeth” was launched on 3 September 2018.
Rae White is a non-binary poet, writer and zinester living in Brisbane. Their poetry collection Milk Teeth won the 2017 Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize and is published by the University of Queensland Press. Rae’s poem ‘what even r u?’ placed second in the 2017 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize – you can read that poem here. Rae’s poetry has been published in Australian publications such as Meanjin Quarterly, Cordite Poetry Review, Overland, and Rabbit.
Rae is the editor of #EnbyLife, a collaborative zine about non-binary experiences. They hold a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Creative Writing Production) from Queensland University of Technology.
Before you prepare yourself for a haunting journey encountering decay and body parts you need to crawl under your mother’s bed…
Each of your milk teeth, toddler shoe-
boxed under your mother’s bed.
You giggle, call out
her sentimentality but I’m dizzy
at dinner, preoccupied
with thoughts of tinkling
dentin slipping on my palm.
I excuse myself, lurch
into the bedroom.
My arm zigzags in the dark
touching fusty carpet before finding
the muted box compact with duct.
Pinpoint fingers remove
one creamy molar.
(from “Mother’s milk”)
This is taken from the opening poem to the collection and your “pinpoint fingers” are going to be working overtime collecting such matter as teratoma, a wand made from “the knotted dried leg of an ibis”, rusted tweezers and bones (teeth, osteopenia, “skeletons with eye sockets/for mouths”).
Most of these bodily parts undergo a transformation under Rae White’s microscope, a world of insomnia and nightmares.
Broken into six thematic sections, each with a epigraph, it is not always a dark place, there are humorous references, for example a flooded Macca’s, and nostalgic reflections. Part II primarily focusing on gender, enlightening the reader of the inherent bias in the everyday, for example the opening of the HTML poem “<title>gender options</title>” ;
<option value=”biological”> MALE</option>
<option=”Other”> 404 404</not-an-option>
>>Gender not found<<
(taken from “<title>gender options</title>”)
Please note – rendering of this text is not ideal on a mobile phone.
Section IV are poems of love and sensual pleasures and section V the natural world, highlighting the broad and multi-faceted subject matter in this collection.
Engagement with other poets another highlight, the poem “under \ over” is in response to Shastra Deo’s poem “There Is a Cure”
under \ over
half awake stretch point the toes \ you shift rollicking the bed
edge phantom arm between cracked slats \ play my spine with fractured
knuckles like ice water trickling bone
press my skull onto mattress \ your whisper-teeth tracing pulsing neck
slide leisurely, bed screeches \ mother’s voice plump with
childhood warnings in my head
There Is a Cure
The air was never sweet
here but now there’s oil
slicked across the water,
the dark of it crawling
four-footed into the house
I tell you not to let your feet
dangle over the edge, because I
have found footprints
that stop at the foot
of our four-poster bed,
your phantom weight
crumpled in the covers.
These are only excerpts from each poem, to fully understand the response you’re going to have to invest in copies of both Rae White’s “Milk Teeth” and Shastra Deo’s “The Agonist”, the last two Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize winners to have their books published by UQP.
“Milk Teeth” is another engaging, thought provoking collection, with decay and body parts becoming glistening, with the human place in the natural world being questioned, but at the same time it can be playful, and humorous, using symbols, codes, social media posts, emails and a raft of textual techniques (for example how the poems are placed on the page) to engage, unsettle and ultimately reaffirm.
As always, I am forever grateful to the poet for their time in discussing their work. Rae White being extremely busy with the Brisbane Poetry Festival and the book launch was very generous in giving their time to discuss another brilliant addition to the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize Winners.
You can follow Rae White here https://raewhite.net/ where links to online stockists of the book are provided and you can follow them on Twitter using the handle @wings_humming
Over to the interview
Q. Nostalgia is a prominent theme, fishing, camping and the whole of section VI are examples, the poems “Sabbatical” and “Go and gone” ending with pumps pushing a “cat back with a slosh” or with trainers pushing “the gutted cormorant” it toppling “Into the water”. Is there such a thing as redemption?
I loved tying together both those poems about mobile games with similar themes of nostalgia, loneliness and, at the end, the bodies of animals and themes of morality. As for redemption, I wonder what the characters in these poems would do if given a choice? How far would the character in ‘Sabbatical’ go to have back ‘the lost days of breakneck fishing’? What lengths would a lonely fan of an augmented reality game go to in order to reconnect with kinship?
Q. You’ve shown that emails, Twitter, online dating profiles and Pokémon Go can be poetic, is there anything you don’t look at with a poetic gaze?
Probably not to be honest! My interpretation of things in life is quite reality-adjacent, where anything and everything could be mystical or memorable or have creative potential. Folks could interpret this as a side effect of my depression and mental health, but to be honest the conflation between ‘madness’ and creativity has always concerned me. If I look at the world with a poetic gaze, mentally tagging anything I could possibly use later in my work, does that make me ‘mad’ or does it simply make me a creative adult human? I believe the latter.
For example, I recently made this zine called Junk. I used words and phrases from a spam email I received to create poems and then crafted them into a zine. When people do or see something everyday, like a spam email in their inbox, it can become mundane. I like to polish the mundane, the domestic, and give things back their shine. I’m also not the only poet or creative person doing this either. For example, Zenobia Frost and Rebecca Jessen wrote a 12-poem performance based on the Bachelorette! And Holly Isemonger’s award-winning poem ‘OK Cupid’ is another great example of looking at something that perhaps wouldn’t normally be considered poetic in a poetic light.
Q. Several poems speak of the battle involved in “gender options” or of recognition, they bring home the exhaustion, the constant battle. Is writing cathartic for you?
Oh absolutely. The process of using things that have happened to me or someone I know (the misgendering, microagressions, discrimination, abuse…) is something I can angrily, exhaustingly piece together puzzle-like and massage into a poem. Once it’s complete, I feel this tremendous sense of relief and my shoulders relax. If that poem then brings something new to the non-binary conversation or acts as catharsis for someone else, then that’s even better.
Q. I’ve used this question for other poets, so pardon the repetition. Icelandic author Jón Kalman Stefánsson says, “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?
Definitely a fair and accurate assessment. I find this weird beauty in the grossness of things. At the Queensland Poetry Festival launch of Milk Teeth, a friend of mine gave me a stunning gift: a small jar containing crystals, lichen, butterfly wings and the small bones of a possum. I was both captivated and unsettled. It was utterly gorgeous but at the same time, would be something that some people might find yucky. I try to bring a similar conflicting duality like that to my work: to engage the reader through casually unsettling their expectations, asking the reader why they might find something unsettling and why. And for all those lofty goals, I also just like writing about mysterious, creepy and gory stuff because I enjoy it, and I can only hope it’s also entertaining for the reader.
Q. Besides the recent book launch, you always appear busy launching zines (in fact I have a copy of your “diary of a lavender plant” zine). Can you tell us a bit about this format of creating and how you got involved?
I got involved in making zines when I was published in Woolf Pack, a Brissie zine for women and non-binary folk. They were also the very first place to publish my poetry! From there, I decided to start making my own zines because it seemed fun, cathartic and accessible. All you need is some paper, glue, scissors and an idea, and you can make a zine! I think it’s that low barrier to entry that gave me the confidence to start getting work out there, being a part of zine fairs and stocking my work at rad places like Junky Comics (Brisbane) and Sticky Institute (Melbourne). One of the things I love about zines is how diverse and DIY they are. You can get your own voice out there and explore new ways of creating.
Q. You have a strong connection to the natural world, section V of the collection focusing on plants for example, is nature the “ultimate triumph”?
Ooh part of me hopes so! I have over 100 plants in my house and outside on my balcony, and I love watching them grow: they wrap around objects in my house, around each other, some of them close their leaves up at night to sleep. I love the idea that perhaps plants are just waiting for us to fuck up the world even more than we’ve already done, before saying enough is enough and taking over, triumphing over us. I like to explore that concept in poems like ‘Abandoned greenhouse’ and ‘EVIDENCE: house plant, Holland Park’.
Q. I ask all my interviewees this, and it is building up a nice reading list, what are you reading at the moment and why?
I just finished reading Jos Charles’s feeld, which is explores trans narratives and the reclamation of language through this Chaucerian-like transliteration of English. It was utterly incredible and inspiring.
Q. Finally what is next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?
I’m currently working on my second poetry collection focusing on non-binary people and space: how non-binary transgender people are allocated or denied spaces in Australian society (including socially, politically, physically, digitally and linguistically), and the way in which our bodies continue to take up space despite marginalisation and violence. I’m also slowly working on a short story collection and on a couple of secret exciting projects, which I’ll hopefully be able to announce soon!
You can read some of my work, order my book and check out my upcoming events at https://raewhite.net/.