Interview with a poet: Emma Rooksby

New Poets author, Emma Rooksby, says she’s stopped asking herself if whether what’s on the page is ‘good enough’ and has turned her attention to expressing herself with authenticity.

Which poets have influenced you (and your writing) most?
I read a lot of poetry as a child. Growing up in a house full of books, I read Chaucer, Tennyson, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Hardy and many others, though not with any particular assiduity! I also read a lot of J. R. R. Tolkien’s fiction; Tolkien is not a poet and is not widely known for great writing, but I liked the cadences in his writing when I was young, and I still sometimes find similar cadences coming out in my writing (at least in the early draft stage!).

These days I read widely, and am not sure who I would count as a major influence. But I find contemporary Australian poetry incredibly varied and stimulating. I enjoy reading work by, among many others, Jordie Albiston, Judith Beveridge, Robert Gray, Anthony Lawrence, Michelle Leber, Kate Llewellyn and Tracy Ryan. I’m also a big fan of UK writers Kate Clanchy and Alison Brackenbury.

Your collection ‘Time Will Tell’ in New Poets is your first publication in book form. How have you improved and refined your poetry over the years?
I’ve learned a huge amount through reading and writing poetry more systematically over the years since I first started scribbling. For example, I’ve learned better how to frame a personal experience within a poem, using it to make a broader point, rather than hoping that the sheer force of an experience would somehow ‘carry through’ and automatically make for a strong poem.

I’ve learned a similar lesson, though more slowly and painfully, in relation to poems that express social criticism. I initially found it very hard to be anything other than direct. A part of me believed that criticism expressed indirectly would somehow always be compromised or softened. While I still believe there is a place for direct social criticism in poetry, I no longer think that being indirect necessarily weakens a message, and I’ve learned to make points more subtly.

Another way in which I think my poetry has improved in the last few years could be expressed in terms of ‘authenticity’. As I’ve had increasing success in publishing poems, and more years of writing experience, I’ve gradually grown more confident in my judgement, and am able to write without continually asking whether what’s coming out on the page is ‘good enough’.

That final point goes for choice of subject matter as well as choice of words and form. I’ve recently started to write a volume of poems about eucalypts, a project I might not have dared to embark on a few years ago. But now it’s a project that really makes sense to me, and my confidence in my ability to create an extended sequence of poems on a single theme means that I can work on it wholeheartedly.

In your opinion, what place does poetry hold amongst other literary and art forms?
Poetry is so diverse, both formally and in subject matter, that it’s difficult to make comparisons. The qualities that I especially value in good poems – and that are important reasons why I choose to write in poetic rather than other literary forms – are not actually exclusive to poetry. These are the ability to work outside of narrative and argumentative structures (if one wishes), the relative brevity of the form (again, if one wishes) and the intense focus on formal and aesthetic qualities (rhythm, sound, image, and the interactions among them). After many years of writing 5-, 10- and 100-thousand word works of non-fiction, I’ve found being able to create something worthwhile with so few words still something of a miracle.
Poetry’s place has changed of course, and continues to change. Not so long ago poetry was put to a wide range of narrative and didactic uses (my grandmother can still recite reams of mnemonic doggerel intended to help students learn Latin), most of which are more or less unthinkable now. And the verse novel continues to make regular comebacks.

What do you most admire about the other two poets included in the selection?
J.P. Quinton’s poems have great emotional power, even at their most sophisticated conceptually. As a former inhabitant of Perth, I find many of his poems very effective at invoking the sense of what it is like to live in Perth. I feel this in the sardonic mimicry of suburban comfort in ‘Sunday Arvo’, the awkward, half-critical qualities of the persona in ‘Self-Portrait in Perth’, and the almost apologetic realism of ‘A Rainbow Like You’.

In Scott-Patrick’s contribution, I admire the creative anarchy and enthusiasm that infuses the poems, the capacity to set words at play, and the sheer recitability of so many of them. I also love the way some of the poems, particularly ‘bedding’, un-self-consciously combine images of eroticism and domesticity, two elements of intimacy that are often kept firmly segregated.

What was it like to work with Tracy Ryan as editor?
I haven’t worked with a poetry editor before, but from my perspective Tracy was close to the ideal editor. She obviously appreciated the poems in my collection, and was respectful of me as their author, but at the same time she was able to offer extraordinarily perceptive criticisms and sympathetic suggestions for change. I was in awe of the way Tracy could put her finger on just what was ‘wrong’ with a poem, and express this in such a way that I could immediately see what needed to change.

How has the process of publishing your collection differed from publishing your academic books?
This has been a very different editing process from academic editing and publishing. With academic publishing the editor’s focus is largely on fixing grammatical errors and increasing clarity. Editing is done by people with a specialisation in editing per se, and these people are usually not experts in writing the type of work they are editing. A separate academic peer review process pinpoints strengths and weaknesses in the content; this generally happens well before editing, as part of the process of deciding whether or not to publish a work.
By contrast, the editing process for New Poets was one in which Tracy, the editor, had much more expertise in writing and publishing poetry than J.P. Quinton, Scott-Patrick and myself. For this reason, Tracy’s criticisms and changes went to the substance and quality of each poem as a poem.

What are you most looking forward to about Fremantle Poetry Month in July, during which New Poets will be released?
I’m really looking forward to spending time with the many poets and poetry-lovers at all the events that are being organised. With support from organisations like OOTA (Out of the Asylum) the poetry community of Fremantle – and Perth – will be out in force at the events during the month.
What makes you a Western Australian poet?
I have spent much of my life in Perth, and I identify strongly with elements of the natural landscape in that part of the world. Western Australian themes (the beach and the port at Fremantle, the local trees and plants) often recur in my poems, although the focus of the poems in ‘Time Will Tell’ tends to be on memory and self-knowledge rather than on place.

What is the poetry scene like in New South Wales? How does it compare to WA?
I can’t speak in any detail on this subject, but Sydney is home to an amazing annual poetry festival which attracts a huge number of writers from around the country and internationally, not to mention any number of poetry groups. There are also many active writers’ groups in regional centres. For example, Wollongong, where I live, is home to the South Coast Writers Centre, which hosts regular events across southern New South Wales. In fact, towns all along the south coast of NSW are creative havens for practitioners of the arts. And Charles Sturt University at Wagga Wagga hosts the amazing Booranga Writers’ Centre, where there’s an incredible concentration of creative energy, with writers such as Derek Motion and David Gilbey.

Who else in New South Wales would you recommend we look out for as a new and emerging poet?
Derek Motion is definitely one to watch. Reading a poem by him is like going on a wild ride; you’re never quite sure where it’s going to take you next. I’m also a fan of Alison Thompson, who’s one of the Kitchen Table Poets from the Shoalhaven region of New South Wales.

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