Interview with a poet: Ross Bolleter

Emerging Arts Professional Kiri Falls interviews Ross Bolleter about his new poetry collection Piano Hill.

When did you start writing poetry?
When I was 17. I wrote my first poem while breaking up concrete to create a slurry for a concrete floor. I guess it might have been the rhythm of the sledgehammer that prompted it.

I do remember an earlier poem I’d written for an English class that was, well, a bit lurid, and I remember waiting shamefacedly to get it back. But the teacher was very discreet and didn’t mention the content, only saying it was very good and giving me 8 out of 10. I felt absolved and encouraged all at once.

What has kept you writing for so many years?
It’s obsessive. Once you get far enough in it’s really difficult to pull out. When a poem is unfinished I return to it over and over.

Tell me about the themes in your poetry.
My poetry covers the themes of music, mutability, ruin, desire, love, family, immigrant experience, indigenous experience, creativity, and death.

For me, writing poetry is a means to enter the experience of others, often remote from my own. It’s a release from self-preoccupation. Even poems written in the first person can effect that release – the first person is rarely the author.

I like to explore the marginal, most particularly immigrant experience – that sense of being in a strange country, and trying to find your bearings. Although it wasn’t my experience (I was born in Western Australia) I feel a very strong empathy with people who come from so far away, learn English, settle into what is often an alien environment, and succeed in making a life here, especially a musical one. I am fascinated by such people’s memories of home.

And I feel impelled to explore the boundary between indigenous and white culture in Western Australia. What is it like to be indigenous in these times?

I also teach Zen Buddhism and the poem ‘Seeing with the Same Eyes’ plays with intimacy in both its amorous and Zen senses. I’m fascinated with haiku and renga (linked verse), and spend time working in the tight forms that they offer. The concision learned by writing renga has helped me to work economically with words. It has also made me much more conscious of the seasons, and of the names of plants and flowers where I live.

In some poems those elements of nature are active, and even personified. What is your connection to nature as shown in poems such as ‘Coming to Roost’?
I like the idea of active landscapes! A poem such as ‘Coming to Roost’ is a bit abstract, but it’s the way I see these places. It’s metaphorical, fantastical. The earth ‘drowses knees drawn up/in the soot of stars’, and ‘the wind nibbles her elbow’. Personification is a means of establishing intimacy with landscape, I guess. In the right circumstances, the metaphorical is true.

The ‘Suite for Ruined Piano’ is quite unique. Was it inevitable that you write this sequence of poems?
I have written stories about ruined pianos previously. I have written a book called The Well-Weathered Piano that has some ruined piano stories in it. But was I always going to write a poetry sequence like this?

Well, some of these poems were written during the Ten Days on the Island festival in Tasmania in 2008. I created an installation of seventeen ruined pianos, that people could come and play on and explore. That was the genesis of the poem ‘Ruined Piano Labyrinth’, and the title of the installation itself.

I discovered one of the installation pianos at the Gaiety Theatre in Zeehan, the birthplace of the excellent Australian concert pianist, Eileen Joyce. She had played this piano for a homecoming concert in 1948, and it hadn’t been tuned since. It was definitely ruined. Because Eileen used to change her gown depending on the composer she was playing – red and gold for Schumann, purple for Rachmaninoff, black for Bach, blue for Beethoven, spangled green for Debussy – one of the improvisations that I would do in my ruined piano concerts was to call out her gown colour and play a very ruined quote from the relevant composer within the flow of the improvisation. So there were these little flashes of Eileen colour among the chaos of my ruined piano concerts.

Can you explain the connection between your poetry and your music further?
Sometimes, when the music stops, there is the poem. In some way, poetry completes what I can’t do in music. And I think the reverse is true. I like those Schumann songs in Dichterliebe – settings of Heine’s poetry – where the music continues long after the poem is over, deepening the feeling.

While poetic rhythm and musical rhythm are mostly different, those aspects of rhythm as it relates to form – momentum, tidal rhythm, the travelling wave of emphasis – seem common to poetry and music. Ezra Pound said ‘Rhythm is form cut into time’. I live by that.

I can’t find much affinity with strongly metered verse, and even less with beat driven bass and drums, and techno and the like, where the beat is computerized. The results seem to me the death of rhythm, which is related to the body, and is never entirely regular – like heartbeat.

Mostly I let the form follow the content. But form follows rhythm too. In fact, my poems are often formed around breath. Line length is often tied to breathing rather than metre, and a Piano Hill poem might be thought of as a sequence of breaths.

I am fascinated by the possibility of talking about music. What can possibly be said about it? It’s so mysterious. I find poetry is sometimes what results from my trying to say something about music.

Is music present even in poems that don’t take it as a subject?
It’s hard to say. There is rhythm, of course. But, I never try to adapt a poetic rhythm to a musical beat. Although I do set poetry to music, like ‘Five Bells’ by Kenneth Slessor on my album ‘Intimate Ruins’. There the music is as faithful to the poetic rhythm as possible. The music must follow the poetry. I don’t fit poetry into music.

Where do your poems ‘come from’?
Some of my poems have their origin in the remembered rhythms of ordinary speech. It’s often difficult to remember how a poem started once I’ve embarked into writing it. Generally, I think they arise from every day, every night realities. Death is an instigator.

In the poems that deal with death, there is a sense of calm acceptance – even as they encounter grief. Does this reflect your own attitude?
That’s very interesting, I hadn’t noticed that. I’m not sure where it would come from. I think, like most people, I think about death, and there’s that background hum of fear – we don’t know what our death will be, and what, if anything, happens after it. Writing poems is a way of engaging with the mystery, and maybe of trying to allay the fear.

There is a similar theme of ageing, particularly in ‘Breakfast Time’. What does this theme of the passing of time mean to you?
‘Breakfast Time’ evokes a picture of old people living alone (or together) and the chaos that it becomes. Especially cooking. The son’s reaction to his father’s cooking shows that return to childhood that comes upon you when you go home to your parents. That’s interesting to me. The experience of becoming young, submissive and resentful again.

What is your writing process?
I carry a notebook at all times, and jot down images, phrases. Sometimes these are very ‘soft’ – almost imperceptible. I don’t reject any ‘offers.’ Almost always, there’s a rhythmic shape to a phrase that signals me.

Sometimes a poem will grow straight away from its small beginnings, and I try to get it down, remaining as faithful as I can to its prompting – not filtering or censoring it. My best hours for poetry are between 3.00 am and 9.00am, on nights I can’t sleep.

Editing a poem can be at least as creative as conceiving the poem. I’m fascinated by what happens when you remove elements of a poem. Sometimes, everything breathes, and the poem comes to life.

You narrate the stories of some interesting characters. How much are these from real life and how much imagination?
They’re from real life. Completely. For instance, the Bird Man was an old man who lived on Lake St, before the freeway went in. I never spoke to him because he looked like a formidable person. But he was very interesting. When the freeway went through that Northbridge area it was very destructive. A lot of that old culture was lost.

The process of using real life and imagination is an interesting one. A poet uses imagination to change things remembered, so there’s an overlap between memory and imagination. It becomes hard to tell them apart. Especially as you get older.

Poems are based in real experience but when they are written they become quite a distance from that reality. It’s like dreams. Dreams take ordinary activities from your day and twist them around.

Were there any poems that were especially difficult to write?
There were two poems that took a lot more time and effort than others: ‘Crisscross’ and ‘Coming to Roost’. They’re both a bit abstract. It was like feeling in the dark. ‘Crisscross’ took whole weekends at a time.

Are there some poems in this collection that are your favourites?
I would choose, ‘Eulogy’, ‘Glint’, ‘Constellation’ and ‘Late Sonata’.

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