Interview with Judith Beveridge



Michael Brennan: When did you start writing and what motivated you?

Judith Beveridge: I had an adolescence full of confusion, depression and anxiety. At first, writing was a kind of therapy, but then I came to love language and the process of creating music and images. By the time I was eighteen I’d fallen in love with the art form and decided that I wanted to participate in the art form that had given me so much pleasure. I always valued books and writing as a child and always wanted to write in some capacity, but I never dreamed it would be as a poet. I thought I might be a literary critic, but mercifully I didn’t go down that path. I feel deeply alive when I am being creative, despite the frustrations. I love the challenge of trying to find the right words and turn language into song. I write because writing tells me more than anything else does about the state of my imagination and inner life.

MB: Who are the writers who first inspired you to write and who are the writers you read now? What’s changed?

Judith Beveridge: The first writer to show me the beauty and sensuality of language was D.H. Lawrence. I read Sons and Lovers when I was about 16 or 17, and from then on I was hooked on language. I then moved on to some of the American poets. I was very taken with Robert Lowell’s Life Studies for its confessional and psychological mode, and I loved the long-breath line of Allen Ginsberg. I then discovered the generation of US poets born in the 1920s and 30s: Philip Levine, Galway Kinnell, Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder, James Wright, John Logan, Robert Creeley, and European and South American poets such as Rilke, Neruda, Vallejo, Herbert, Tranströmer, Celan, Miłosz. These days, I read much more British and Irish poetry. I still love the writers I discovered in my 20s, but there’s so much happening everywhere that it’s hard to keep up. I read less American poetry these days, but my favourite poets would include Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, Derek Walcott, Charles Wright, Seamus Heaney, Richard Murphy, John Ennis, Alice Oswald, Carol Ann Duffy, Philip Levine, Eavan Boland. I have always read Australian poetry ardently and passionately and I think it just keeps getting better and better.

MB: How important is ‘everyday life’ to your work?

Judith Beveridge: Very little of ‘everyday life’ enters my poetry; only at a very oblique level. I’m more interested in constructing imaginative scenarios and writing about what I don’t know than about what is familiar or connected to my everyday comings and goings. However, the visual and natural world always enters my work. I may distort, combine, reshape much of what I see, but always my work is based in sensory experience of some kind. I’m not interested at all in writing about myself, but I love inventing characters and places and exploring thoughts and emotions through those fictive devices. My latest book Storm and Honey has a long sequence of poems based around the lives of three fishermen. I have hardly even been fishing and have no experience of boats, but I wanted to write about these things because I love the sea and I am interested in lives that are pitted against harsh environmental and physical landscapes. Increasingly I find that place is very important to my work, but often they will be invented places, or places half real, half imagined as these lines from ‘Spittle Beach’ which is a place I made up:

                        It’s cold among the shiftings of shell and sand;
                the rain falling slantwise out at sea. I walk among the pylons,
                    fish-scales are stuck to the wood like grey sleet.
                            Far off, a yacht –

                        its spinnaker filled with the wind looks as bulbous
                as the vocal sac of a bell toad or a bullfrog. Along the shore
                    weed, and the blunt white shells of cuttlefish;
                            jellyfish like smeared

                        globs of glyceride. An octopus, its head like a perfume
                bottle’s puffer, has just squirted a whift of ink, tentacles
                    curl in the air like baby fingers while the man hauls it in.

MB: What is the role or place of subjectivity in your poetry?

Judith Beveridge: I see myself as a nature poet and a lyrical poet, but not a poet who uses their own biography for material, but rather a poet who invents characters and speaks from the perspective of other voices, though of course these voices are often masks for my own, but not always. I like to cross boundaries in terms of identity. I know the lyric has come under much fire in recent times and is regarded by some as being politically suspect for its retreat into intimate and interior spaces, and I agree that its mono-vocalism and its privileging of the self can appear to be very problematic when so many people in today’s world are threatened with annihilation and wars and acts of repression. I also believe it’s the poet’s task to write poetry of social engagement, but I believe these concerns can also be addressed through the personal and through dramatic monologue. Two of the most powerful voices of the 20th century, Akhmatova and Mandlestam, used the lyric extremely well to rebel against social and individual repression.

MB: Do you see your work in terms of literary traditions and/or broader cultural or political movements?

Judith Beveridge: I’m part of the generation of women who benefitted greatly from the feminist movement. I don’t see myself as a feminist poet necessarily, but I am truly grateful for the social, cultural and personal spaces that they opened up for women of my generation. Fortunately, my tertiary education introduced me to a whole range of women writers that enabled me to see what could be done.

MB: What aspect of writing poetry and working as a poet is the most challenging?

Judith Beveridge: I find poetry a hard art form to do well. I always have to struggle for each word. Fluency doesn’t come easily to me. My poems go through many drafts. I often struggle with frustration and self doubt and I struggle with trying to find the long hours that are needed to bring a poem to fruition. I also struggle with the fact that the only way I can earn a living is through teaching poetry writing, by mentoring other poets and editing, so just about all my activities are taken up with poetry in one form or another; as a result poetry can lose its gloss, its glory and impetus. I can become easily ‘poetried out’ and so I have to try and find ways of making it alluring. I do that mostly by reading the best work I can, work that is inspiring and breathtaking. I find that rejuvenates my interest and motivation.

MB: What reading, other than poetry, is important to your work as a poet and why?

Judith Beveridge: I read very little fiction because I just don’t have the time, but I read as much non-fiction as I can because I’m curious about everything and this curiosity feeds my imagination. I love books which deal with cosmology, the natural world, history, science, biography. I often find it is the things that I have read which will inspire a poem, it may just be a fragment from a paragraph, but something will often trigger my imagination and a poem begins. More than anything I would love to have more time for reading. Writing is hard work, but reading is so pleasurable and always provides grist for the mill.

MB: What is ‘Australian poetry’? Do you see yourself as an ‘Australian’ poet?

Judith Beveridge: I’ve got no idea really what Australian poetry is other than a broad church of various styles and approaches written by poets who were born here or who have lived here for some time. It’s true a lot of poets consciously choose Australian history, or local social and political concerns as material, but I tend not to. I see myself as an English-language poet, rather than as a poet who specifically writes within an Australian context, though I am very much influenced by its physical landscapes. I am proud to be part of a scene which I feel over the last few decades has produced glorious, outstanding poetry that is a match for any poetry anywhere. It’s possible that a lot of contemporary Australian poetry over the past few decades has been heavily ironic in tone and that to some extent has been the dominant mode, mainly through the influence of poets such as John Forbes, John Tranter, Gig Ryan, Pam Brown, Adam Aitken. I don’t feel attracted to irony, though I enjoy the work of these poets. I think Australian poetry today is characterised by its diversity and its willingness to be open.

MB: In reference to the heated debates around poetics and poets, Don Anderson once described Australian poetry as Australia’s only ‘blood sport’. More recently critics have seen Australian poetry in terms of a ‘new lyricism’ (David McCooey) and ‘networked language’ (Philip Mead). What is the current state of play in Australian poetry in your view? How do you think Australian poetry and discussions about Australian poetry might best develop in the future?

Judith Beveridge: I’m tired of the bad press about poets. The “poetry wars” were conducted by male poets of the 1970s and 80s who wanted to protect their territory and positions. It was just men behaving badly. I think we have moved on from there, and that the poetry scene in Australia is much more cohesive and diverse. Poets seem more willing to accept difference and be pleasant and supportive of each other which is surely better for everyone. However, I do feel there is a great deal of unfair prejudice against poets who use more traditional methods such as rhyme and metre. It’s hard for those poets to get much traction in Australian, not so much with audiences, but with other poets who equate formalism with conservative values, but this is not a given. If you read the work of our best formalist, Stephen Edgar, you will see that there is a wonderful flexibility of thought, and a remodelling of rhyme and structure to adapt to new thoughts and social criticism. The British and American poets have moved on from regarding formalism as an out-dated method, but we are still stuck in that mind-set. But I feel that Australian poetry is generally very healthy and that many of the young poets are doing interesting work, incorporating the language of the new technologies.

MB: How is poetry relevant or valuable to contemporary society and culture in Australia or at an international level?

Judith Beveridge:
I see the value of poetry as being a way of bringing insight and vision into people’s lives through the clarity and precision of language. The American poet Jorie Graham says poetry “helps clean the language of its current lies”. I think the poet tries to give us back language uncontaminated, to make a space where feeling, perception, thought, imagination and word can all dovetail and become a threshold for connection and interconnection, rather than for division and separation. So much of the political discourse is about prevarication, obfuscation and abstraction. It’s hard to get truths out of the public handling of words. Words can easily become shrivelled by the daily mishandling of them by many social, political and mercantile discourses. Poetry returns us to a mode of communication that is respectful and truthful and which promotes holistic uses of the brain.

• Links (Australia)
• Organisations (Australia)
• Australia Council For The Arts (Australia)

Subscribe to the newsletter

follow us on facebook follow us on twitter Follow us (international)  

follow us on facebook follow us on twitter Follow us (Dutch)