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Interview: Siobhan Harvey

Siobhan Harvey is the author of the poetry collection, Lost Relatives. She was runner-up in 2012 Dorothy Porter Poetry Prize, 2012 Kevin Ireland Poetry Competition, 2011 Landfall Essay Prize and 2011 Kathleen Grattan Prize for a Sequence of Poems, and nominated for the 2011 Pushcart Prize (US). She has a Poet’s Page on The Poetry Archive (UK), and lectures in Creative Writing at Auckland University of Technology.

Catch Siobhan @ QPF 2013 in Domestic Hardcore (Foyer, Saturday 24 August, 10.30am), Serrated With Light (Shopfront Space, Saturday 24 August, 1.30pm) & Promise of Sun (Theatre Space, Sunday 25 August, 12.15pm)

As both a poet and an editor, do you find it easier or harder to redraft your poems? How do you know when you have a final draft?

For me, drafting and redrafting poems – and any piece of writing – is a skill perfected after years of being a writer. What my work as an editor and creative writing lecturer/ teacher have furnished me with is a constant return to the fundamentals of the writing and editing process, a constant ability to sit at the shoulder of writers, emerging and established, and see how they edit their works, the things that go right for them, the things that go wrong. As a result of this, my own writing has grown to a stage in which I actively embrace time as one of my best friends – alongside patience and a thesaurus. So that, even if I have drafted and redrafted a poem through 10, 20 or 30 drafts, I always allow it time – a week, a month – to sit untouched in the corner of my room, ignored even though it continues to call to me like a needy child. Only after I have allowed the poem that time – to settle, to draw new ideas to it – do I return to the work and have a final draft of it, and then know it is finally finished. In this, if a poem takes 6 months or a year or two year to journey from genesis to conclusion then I am comfortable with that, accepting that the chronology of this completion is a lot shorter that we humans require before we’re fully formed.

Tell me about the first poem you wrote.

Too, too long ago. I was 14; my life was a turbulent mix of living with an eating disorder, ongoing experiences of childhood violence, and understanding that I was trapped in a small town and the only way out of it, I thought, was my intense intelligence. It took my first faulted efforts with that poem and a few more faulted efforts with further poems to realise that escape also lay in words, in my passion for and knack in using them.

You’re also an experienced creative writing teacher. Do you have a favourite writing task or prompt that you always come back to, that you’d like to share now?

I have worked as a university lecturer and tutor in Creative Writing for nearly 15 years in both the UK and New Zealand. Additionally I teach occasional community education courses in Creative Writing, such as one I’ve been doing recently facilitating the writings of new migrant women, a course I – as a migrant woman – particularly enjoyed. The tasks and prompts I deploy are experience -dependent, but one I always come back to with new writers, like my first year undergrads, is a ‘List Poem’ exercise. Form, particularly of free verse poetry, can be something students new to writing poetry can struggle with. Lists are structure. We use lists all the time to order our lives – shopping lists; lists of chores to be completed. In précis, then, this exercise frees students from the concerns of having to focus on form and structure, and thereby enables them to focus primarily on language, imagery and the inter-connection of ideas.  Students take a number between 6 and 10, and a subject they feel a strong reaction to: someone they love; something they want to achieve in their lives; places they want to visit or have visited; a favourite personal landscape such as a writing space, and so on. Students combine the number and the subject into a working title: ergo ‘6 Ways to Love’, ‘7 Things I Love About My Child’, ‘8 Cities I Have Visited’, ‘9 Things I Want to Have Achieved by the Time I’m 60’ and so on. Students then write bullet point responses to the working title. Each bullet point is developed, its language edited and refined by focusing upon its musicality (the syllabic cadence and interplay of words, occasional use of alliteration, assonance and so forth), upon introducing a colour and upon developing an image from that colour.  Each bullet-point, developed, edited and refined, becomes a line or verse in the poem, in turn enabling students to begin to experiment with structure and form.

Tell me something about a poet whose work you’ve been reading lately.

Last year I was asked to select my picks for best New Zealand Books. The standout poetry collection in New Zealand in 2012 for me was Dunedin poet, Emma Neale’s Kathleen Grattan Award for Poetry winner, The Truth Garden (Otago University Press). Neale writes extensively here and elsewhere (her previous collection, Spark, Steele Roberts, 2008 and as editor of the wondrous Swings and Roundabouts: Poems about Parenting, Random House NZ, 2008) about the domestic experience. Her poems are infinitely accessible, rich and imaginative; all the qualities which touch me the most as a poet. Neale is an eminent fiction writer, and her poetry displays an equally adept use of language. She also belongs to a wider group of poets living in Dunedin, such as David Eggleton, Sue Wootton, Brian Turner and Richard Reeve, whose work, shaped by the forceful landscape of New Zealand’s South and by a rich and liberating use of language, I admire and enjoy.

What do you like about the poetic form?

As a mother, poetry has been the most accessible creative medium for me in recent years. Because the form and development aren’t matters which can or should be rushed, I can carry poetry – words, images, ideas, forms – with me as I go about my domestic chores during the daytime and evenings, returning to them – to add new words, images, ideas and fresh forms – when I return to the pages upon which my draft works are written during the hour or two of free time I get each day. The notion that poetry is a portable enterprise is one which is practice, rather than simply theory to me. Everyday, I carry my draft poems with me wherever I go and whatever I do. Beyond this, I am also drawn to the engagement with idea and language in poetry. As a writer I am forced by poetry to work hard to arrive at (after countless corrections) le mot juste, the perfect first and last lines, an aesthetically pleasing form and concision (of language and meaning) which stretch me in the best ways possible.

Tell me about some of your poetic influences.

Poets whose work has/ continues to have a deep impression upon me include Anne Sexton, Roy Fisher, Jane Kenyon and Billy Collins. For me, though, influence is also born of connection with other poets, meeting them, reading alongside them at festivals and so forth. Since my arrival and assimilation in New Zealand I have been influenced profoundly by many, many poets, local and international, I have been fortunate enough to meet, including Alistair Paterson, Riemke Ensing, Kapka Kassabova, Jan Kemp, Harry Ricketts, James Norcliffe, Helen Rickerby, Emma Neale, Sarah Broom, Albert Wendt, Peter Bland, and, during a festival in Indonesia, American writer Stephen Haven and Maltese/ UK migrant poet Norbert Bugeja.

What can we expect to hear from you at QPF?

I’ll be reading from my first New Zealand collection of poetry, Lost Relatives (Steele Roberts, 2011). It’s a book about migration – an anonymous migrants journey to and assimilation in Aotearoa New Zealand, the struggles, the delights. It took 10 years to complete, and only came together when I realised that the story at its heart – migration – is the universal story of New Zealand, and that migration is a narrative shared by everyone living in the country, be they first generation migrants, ancestors of those who came to the land by ship in the 1800s or, centuries before that, by waka from Hawaiki.  I will also be reading an occasional new poem, born by parenting my gifted, nephology-fixated, autistic son. I have been fortunate to find that some of these new poems have already found homes in New Zealand and international magazines such as Best New Zealand Poems 2012Meanjin,Stand and Structo.

Interview by Tiggy Johnson