Interview with a poet: Caroline Caddy

Speaking from Shanghai, where she lives for part of each year, Burning Bright poet Caroline Caddy discusses the influence of China on her writing.
A lot of my poetry concerns China, and one of my collections, Working Temple, is all about China. I wrote that in the early 1990s, and now some of those pieces on Shanghai are almost historical documents, because things have changed so much.

It’s a very beautiful country, and you might be surprised to learn that most tourists are Chinese people travelling from other parts of their country. The proportion of Western tourists is very low. The other week I travelled out with a group of Chinese to visit Huangshan (the Yellow Mountain). It’s a tall mountain with jutting stone and pine trees growing out of the sides, and such a view! It’s the kind of thing you might see on a television documentary and wonder if it could really be so stunning – and when I climbed the mountain I found that it really was.

You’ve published nine collections of poetry now, eight with Fremantle Press. China is a recurring theme in your work – what other themes do you recognise?
Landscape, particularly Western Australia’s landscape, is certainly a common theme. When I began writing, I started with fairly straightforward material about sea and forest, that kind of thing. I was reading poets like Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, various poets who wrote on landscape. When I published Conquistadors (1991) I had moved on somewhat, and being surrounded by people who were going through human predicaments at the time, I found this was what I was writing about. Not that writing about landscape means not writing about predicaments – in fact, landscape cannot be separated from humanity. In later collections I tackled different topics, such as Antarctica (1996). While I did describe what I was seeing and experiencing in Antarctica_, the penguins and birds and so forth, I dwelt on humans in that environment, how they dealt with it. Editing the Moon (1999) talked more about travel, something I have done a lot of, I suppose. And in my current collection, “_Burning Bright“:/books/1141, I see a melding of all these themes.

What changes do you see when you look back over your work?
The main change is that in this new collection I feel very confident and at home in my own style, both on the page and in public reading. For instance, I have a particular style of not left-justifying every line of a poem, keeping the lines moving, and I’ve become much more confident in this style. I find that what is on the page suits my voice much better these days. I used to be very shy of reading, you know.

How did you become more confident in reading publicly?
Age is one reason – and simply doing it more often. I say to young people, even if you’re scared, you have to do it. A long time ago I realised that there were poets who don’t make public appearances, who are poets on the page only. And I thought I might just be a poet on the page … but I knew I was kidding myself. Once I started reading publicly more often I found the feedback very useful. People’s comments could be helpful and encouraging, and gave me something to build on.

What direction would you say your poetry is heading in?
A lot of poets experiment with different styles and voices, but that’s not really me. I have considered it before, but I think it is best to go on in the style I’ve established, to do that well.

A few years ago I was reading haiku by a Japanese poet who was casting aside the rules of haiku (just as we have done with Western poetry). He was writing haiku of one line, one breath. I read his book, and at first I wasn’t sure and thought to put it down – but then I realised what he was doing: he was accumulating, very gradually, throughout the book.

It’s like travelling in Australia: I tell friends who visit, ‘You have to change your idea of what it means to see a country’. In Australia you don’t see things immediately, you have to experience the process of travelling as well as the destination. It’s about duration.

With every good poem there will be a point where everything you read before (within the poem) suddenly takes on new meaning. And that’s what this poet was using: duration.

I’d like to do something like that, perhaps. Something where it grows very slowly.

How do you begin to write your poems?
Sometimes with the end, sometimes the beginning, sometimes the middle. Some poets just start writing, they fiddle with words until something comes into being. But I don’t like to force it. I prefer to wait, to use something that has struck me, an idea. When I travelled out to climb Huangshan recently, I looked at it from a distance and it was so tall, these peaks jutting into the air. It was wonderful – but to simply describe that would not be enough for a poem. However, when we returned to the city, I noticed the tall buildings and thought, ah, this is Huangshan made by people. So that’s the seed of a poem, and it will sit in the back of my mind and perhaps one day it will surface and I’ll work on it. A poem may be worked on for days or weeks.

Which poets do you look to when developing your own work?
When I was first writing in the 1970s I was reading English poets from the ’50s and ’60s: Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, and others published in the Penguin poets paperback series. American poets from the ’50s and ’60s influenced me as well, and Robert Frost, of course, although he was earlier. At the moment I’m reading a collection of every poet who has won the Academy of American Poets’ annual fellowship award over the last fifty years. It’s quite nostalgic for me.

I was also heavily influenced by many Australian poets when I began: Randolph Stow, Dorothy Hewett, and, of course, Judith Wright – coming up behind, I found them quite inspiring.

What makes you a Western Australian poet?
I write a lot of poems about wheatbelt towns and the WA landscape. I’ve travelled a lot around those areas, and I’ve lived on the south-west coast since 1978. Western Australian poets often focus on the imagery of the landscape. I’ve noticed that when I travel in China I am taken to visit a temple, or when I travel in Europe I am shown an old castle or historic place. What I want to write about is very plain places, like the meeting of a gravel road. Every square of land in WA has meaning, whether to the Aboriginal people or the European people who settled there. I want to write about these ordinary things that have meaning to ordinary people.

What advice would you give to young poets wanting to improve their poetry?
There are lots of younger poets coming up, and many of them are very good. I used to read a lot of ancient Chinese poetry when I first became interested in China, and recently I’ve been reading it again, mainly Tang poetry. There’s a quote from an eleventh century poet called Wei Tai that I think is useful. He said, of poetry:

‘It should be precise about the thing
And reticent about the feeling.’

Young poets need to know this. When I edited the poetry section of indigo I would see many poems that were too strong on the feeling, with not enough about the conditions, the senses, using eyes and ears and touch and smell. Poetry for therapy should be put aside by anyone who seriously wants to write.

I would also say read. Read widely. Don’t stop reading.

What are you most looking forward to about Fremantle Poetry Month, during which Burning Bright will be released?
I am really interested in meeting more upcoming poets. I’ll get to meet the emerging poets from New Poets, and several others who will be performing at the launch of Fremantle Poetry Month.

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