News & Conversation
Interview: Michelle Cahill

Michelle Cahill is the author of fiction, essays and two collections of poetry, most recently Vishvarupa which was shortlisted in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. Her poems are anthologised in 30 Australian Poets (UQP, Ed Felicity Plunkett), Contemporary Australian Poets (Ed John Kinsella), The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry by Indians and Another English: Anglophone Poets from Around the World, (Tupelo).

Catch Michelle @ QPF 2014 in tongue tied (Sat 30th Aug, 10:30am), our gods dance nightly (Sat 30th Aug, 12pm) & seasoned storms (Sun 31st Aug, 1:45pm)

Interview by Vanessa Page

One of my favourite poems of yours is ‘How the Dusk Portions Time’. There’s such a beauty in the language and the flow of this poem. Can you tell me more about your process in constructing a poem like this one?

I guess my poetic sensibility was sparked ephemerally so I wanted to stop, process, imagine, record. Later, I came back to edit. I try to make the most of these possibilities: it’s like riding a wave.

I try to stretch the limbic threads to cognitive and perceptual material. I mention that because there’s certainly effort involved. It’s like taking the impulse from beyond control into zones of narrative, rhetoric, image, the abstract or unknown where shape is a layering and a sculptural process. The poem moves both on the surface and below it into depths of uncertainty, resignation, even mourning. I think for me this happens by concentration and detachment at the same time. So the flow results from careful diligence to process rather than accident or force.

Night Birds is your most recent offering. Can audiences expect to hear works from this chapbook during QPF, and what other works will you be drawing on?

I’d love to read some of the poems from Night Birds as well as newer work, and I’d like to share how these biological and historical narratives spark connections. For instance how territory is often a place of siege, violence, boundaries, and how these resonate with themes of survival, frailty, migration, loss, belonging; how language is implicated as an instrument to dominate or negotiate. I’ve been writing about “North” as an imaginary space of abandonment, or of the desire to return home. How animals and birds survive, breed, combat assailants, extreme climate and landscapes can provide reflections on the everyday journeys we make.

I would like to read poems from Vishvar?pa, as well, of course, as that book was quite a journey in itself. I’m glad that those poems continue to be anthologised. It takes a long time to be distanced enough from a book to fully appreciate it as a separate and unique thing.

Migration and physical journeys are familiar elements in your writing. Can you tell me about the importance of these themes to you and how they have shaped your work?

I spent my formative years in three countries, not one of which was the country of my origin. So my poetics reflect this ambulatory praxis: different places are referenced or evoked specifically and simultaneously or the movement between places can form part of the subject. Movement is both physical, of the body; and psychic, of memory, dream, nostalgia. There is instability and anchorage, risk-taking, home coming and leave-taking. The notion of home in many of my poems is constructed as transitory or unstable, but the poems are also grounded in everyday domesticity, where maternal responsibilities exert restraints on the persona. So these tensions are dramatized within the poems; they become a complex and comprehensive interior world. In this respect inflections of tone and voice are technical aspects for the poems to work.

You founded Mascara Literary Review in 2007. It’s a journal that adds an exciting cultural dimension to the literary landscape. How important is its place in the current poetic conversation in Australia and what kind of works do you usually look for to publish in the journal?

I think Mascara has excavated a space where none adequately existed for the creative and theoretical crisis of diversity poetics. Alice Pung describes it being a “pivotal part of the Australian cultural and literary landscape.”

Many platforms tokenise and appropriate difference without even being aware, while others exclude difference. It became clear very early on that we needed to deepen the extent of representations and particularly of its discourses so that others editors, magazines, platforms would follow some of these initiatives in their own way and time. We didn’t want to copy the mainstream or other radicalised cliques; we would rather be copied or parody ourselves because we do not consider ourselves to be inferior to some arbitrary standard. We support poets of diversity who are finding their own way, and their own words. We try to present alternatives, multiplicities of languages and voices, even theories.

From the start Mascara rejected the notion that its creative and discursive content would be ghettoised or quarantined. Implicit in this there is resistance and a double speak, for sure.

The story of Mascara has been one of self-learning, negotiating from the flip side of pedagogy while connecting at different times with academia, activism and the writing community. This has carried limitations and resistance but also strengths as we have not been confined to invested agendas. When I formed the journal in 2007, this selfie: self-determination and self-representation was not readily embraced by literary communities. But times have changed, and our project and focus has helped to negotiate progress for many writers (poets) of diverse backgrounds. It challenges and contributes to the mainstream. The global network has been massively relevant. The journal is read in 65 countries. Even still, we are in repressive political times, we are resisting entrenched structural bias, navigating uneven histories of power which are reflected in all the genres, poetry especially.
I think Australians who have lived overseas in more cosmopolitan countries understand the fear bordering on paranoia of racial difference that passes unrecognized here. As a poet of colour and difference it’s not possible to be oblivious to this. It’s not possible to develop your own craft while ignoring the realities of privilege and unconscious bias which affect your cohort. Part of my writing for instance is an engagement with this activism. I believe it is even more reason for Mascara to develop its language of nuanced activism.

As editor I focus on presenting exciting and excellent Australian writing. We are unapologetically not afraid to curate different representations. We have a particular interest in critical appraisal of migrant, Indigenous , refugee, translations and diasporic literature.

Who are the artists you are most looking forward to catching perform, during your time at this year’s festival?

Gosh, there are so many poets I’m keen to catch, especially those whom I haven’t heard reading: Janaka Malwatta and Max Ryan, Sam Wagan Watson and Sandra Thibodeaux, Jonathan Hadwen, Eleanor Jackson, Jessica Wilkinson, David Stavanger, whose book is marvellous, Kent MacCarter, Maria Takolander, the interview with Bronwyn Lea and Judith Beveridge talking on Devadatta’s Poems will be a highlight. The opening night with Warsan Sire, Sarah Holland-Batt and Cyril Wong is going to be a ripper. Thanks to QPF and Sarah Gory. I know I’ll really enjoy the weekend!