Interview with Merlinda Bobis


Interview with Merlinda Bobis
© Mido Semsem on Shutterstock.

Merlinda Bobis gets an extensive interview with Michael Brennan – poet, editor of Poetry International's Australian domain, and director of Vagabond Press – in which she discusses her life and work, and the world of Australian poetry.

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

Merlinda Bobis: At ten years old, I wrote my first poem in Pilipino. Because it was ‘cheaper’ to paint with words. From childhood to my twenties, I dreamt of becoming a painter and did a lot of ‘young doodles’ with watercolour. But I knew my family would not be able to afford arts school and the materials for an arts practice. So I shifted my image-making to another language: poetry. Not onerous on the pocket. Just pen and paper. Can be done in between housework and homework, or quietly on the mat as my younger sister slept.
MB: Who are the writers that first inspired you to write and who are the writers you read now? What’s changed?
Merlinda Bobis: I grew up on British and American writers in my English classes at school. So Poe, Keats, Barrett Browning, Rossetti, Longfellow and Philippine writers in English also schooled in British and American literature. Unfortunately because of the colonial history of the Philippines and the as-yet colonial framework of education then, we hardly read writers in our own language. Later, teaching at Manila universities, something shifted. I became friends with a Philippine poet writing in Pilipino. I began writing in this language and even my English ‘shifted in sensibility.’ It was like coming home. Now based in Australia, most of my heroes write in their original language: Garcia Lorca, Rilke, Neruda. I read them in the English translation, sensing that there is always something more that I cannot quite reach and this ‘unknowing’ has its own pleasure. Then there are the poets who make English exhilaratingly strange: Edward Kamau Brathwaite or Ntozake Shange. They teach us new things about the language that we think we know so well.

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

Merlinda Bobis: Everyday life, especially the living body, is central to my work. Most of my poems, short stories, novels, and plays are always about the body doing or being done to. I find that up close and in the most ordinary and mundane gestures or quietude, the body intimates or resolves into something bigger, something more than commonplace.
MB: What is the function or place of subjectivity in your poetry?
Merlinda Bobis: Subjectivity is crucial. The poetry that I like pivots on something deeply felt, something ‘true’ to the poet. I am suspicious of poetry that is all intellectual ballast or aesthetic performance. One can applaud afterwards but feel quite hollow inside.
MB: Do you see your work in terms of literary traditions or broader cultural or political movements? 
Merlinda Bobis: No. To be framed by a tradition or a movement shackles the sensibility and the urge of play, of taking risks. I cannot even keep myself to one form. I started with poetry, moved on to short fiction, drama, then the novel, and I have performed my own work on stage and in radio. I have also taken my poetry into the novel, and some novelists do not like this. Some poets do not like this either. And perhaps some critics find this annoying, because they cannot quite frame the book in the expected form, tradition, movement, or the language that they know and expect. As a transnational writer shuttling between different cultures and languages, I find the border, that in-between, as the birthplace of new ways of experiencing and articulating the world.
MB: What aspect of writing poetry and working as a poet is the most challenging?
Merlinda Bobis: Everything. Honing the image, then the line, then the stanza – the discipline of the exacting craft, even as I try to make sure that ‘that something’ deeply felt, that ‘little truth’ at the outset, somehow carries through in the final poem.
MB: What reading, other than poetry, is important to your work as a poet and why?
Merlinda Bobis: Prose, drama – narrative. For me, image-making is always story-making. Then there’s the ‘reading’ of the real world, the lived story that one must never forget.
MB: What is ‘Australian poetry’? Do you see yourself as an ‘Australian’ poet?
Merlinda Bobis: A rather simple and obvious answer: Australian poetry is poetry produced by an Australian. But this brings me to the question, “Who is an Australian?” The Australian (thus Australian poetry) could be any of the multiple cultures, sensibilities, languages, poetics hopefully equally valued in this shared space. I am a Filipino-Australian writer, with my imaginary dreaming-shuttling between different cultures, sensibilities, languages, and poetics in this shared space.
MB: 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? How do you think Australian poetry and discussions about Australian poetry might best develop in the next ten years?
Merlinda Bobis: I dream of an Australian poetry (and, in fact, of an Australian literature) that is becoming more true to what Australia really is, in its multiplicity and complexity. Not just in its production, because the poets will keep writing anyway, but in its proud recognition of such multiple and complex production.
MB: How is poetry relevant or valuable to contemporary society and culture in Australia or at an international level?
Merlinda Bobis: This is best answered by Nobel laureate Octavio Paz: “Each poem, whatever its subject and form and the ideas that shape it, is first and foremost a miniature animated cosmos. The poem unites the ‘ten thousand things that make up the universe,’ as the ancient Chinese put it . . . Mirror of the fraternity of the cosmos, the poem is a model of what human society might be. In the face of the destruction of nature, it offers living proof of the brotherhood of the stars and elementary particles, of chemicals and consciousness” (1990, 158).

Microphone image via Shutterstock

© Michael Brennan  

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