Poetry’s Leading Light: exclusive interview with Sarah Holland-Batt


bookshelf nsst 2015

When did you first start considering writing poetry, or writing as a serious pursuit?


I started writing poems when I was in high school in Denver, Colorado. I was studying classical piano seriously at the time, with the aim of pursuing that as a career. Then I came across T.S. Eliot, thanks to a brilliant English teacher I had; we studied The Waste Land for six months, and read all of the source texts, too: the Upanishads, Middleton’s Women Beware Women, Chrétien’s Perceval, the whole tamale. By the end of that course I was sold on Eliot, sold on the whole mysterious and beautiful enterprise of poetry. I started writing poems then seriously, and never stopped. 

Who are you major influences with regards to poetry, Australian and Other?

My first and lasting influences are almost all American; I was in high school in the States when I discovered poetry, and was well and truly steeped in that tradition by the time I moved back to Australia. The poets who have been most important to me are a varied bunch—but, perhaps unsurprisingly, Elizabeth Bishop and Louise Glück and Robert Lowell are in the first rank. When I moved back to Australia, I discovered so many admirable poets of all sorts of different schools (too many to list), although I find myself disinterested in the factionalism that often plagues poetics here. I’m also a huge fan of Polish poets—Szymborska, Zagajewski, Herbert, Milosz—and of Italian poet Eugenio Montale, but their influence on my work is probably less tangible. Some of my current favourites are Luljeta Lleshanaku, Lars Gustafsson, Kevin Young, Tracy K. Smith, Robyn Schiff, Roger Reeves. I could go on.

What do you think Australian poetry does well, and, what do you think it could do better?

I can’t really speak of a whole continent’s worth of poetry as a singular entity—there are, after all, incredibly varied schools of work being produced under the broad umbrella of “Australian poetry”. As a general observation, I think that Australian poets are somewhat less inclined towards the confessional mode than American poets; then again, there are incredibly fine poets such as David Malouf and Bronwyn Lea who prove me wrong on that score. Australian poetry has a rich vein of writing expansively and compellingly about landscape, from stunning Aboriginal song-cycles to the dense lyrics of Les Murray, the Sydneyscapes of Tranter, Beveridge’s immensely textured postcards from India, Adamson’s Hawksbury River region, and the ecopoetry of Peter Minter—I could go on and on and on and on. Engaging deeply and thoughtfully with place and landscape: that is something that Australian poetry has always done from its first inception, and continues to do extremely well.

I note, with a great satisfaction as a reader, your voice is strong and you are happy to show your vulnerability– something difficult for many emerging writers. What helped you push yourself through this, immense (some would argue) barrier?

Maybe it’s a by-product of having grown up in Oprah-era America, but I don’t have any problem at all with confessional writing. In fact, I probably take issue with the idea of writing about the self as a barrier—but then again, I grew up reading Whitman’s “Song of Myself”. You can’t get more gloriously, lavishly, monumentally celebratory about the self than Whitman. I like the act of vivisecting the self in its varied states—ecstatic, depressive, etcetera. That, among other things, seems to me to be the work of poetry.

With regards to your “notes” at the end of “The Hazards” ; I know it’s polite, but I found that it reading these notes took some mystique away from your work. Is it necessary to provide notes on work? Was this your decision , or poetry protocol? Why do you care for “notes”?

Well, I didn’t really include them to be polite! And actually, I must say, I think my book has fewer notes than most. I included them where I felt the reader’s understanding of the poem would be edified by some knowledge that isn’t made explicit in the poem. For example, the poem “Medusa” plays on the idea that ‘medusa’ is Italian for jellyfish; for non-Italian-speaking readers, that little chestnut is probably important. It isn’t always necessary to provide notes, but, for the inquisitive reader, they can illuminate the more obscure aspects of a book. I quite like finding and following up the curiosities I encounter in the notes sections of poetry books—but then again, I started my poetic life reading The Waste Land, which is surely unparalleled as far as its unapologetic rabbit’s warren of notes goes.

I felt at times in The Hazards you were covering a huge breadth of subject matter, and that you seemed to be writing poems about everything. Only then did I refer to your extensive travel/ fellowship schedule, and I sort of understood the pressure upon you to produce work and “perform” as a poet in residence etc. Do you find yourself thinking these things, or do you have creative process that allows you to include or exclude certain subjects or ideas?

Funnily enough, I feel almost no pressure to ‘produce work’ or to ‘perform’. I’m not particularly prolific, and I prefer it that way. That being said, travel and movement are central to my writing—I write best while traveling, and enjoy the act of the encounter that travel prompts. A new place, a new room, a new city to walk—this is the intellectual canvas I like best. The Hazards is the product of some seven or eight years of writing and traveling, including, as you say, several stints living overseas, so it probably does have a more expansive gaze than some other collections, although there are certain threads that tie together the poems—an interest in ideas of violence and extinction, exile and loss, among other things.

What does your creative process look like?

When I am away, I like writing somewhere anonymous: a hotel room, a bar, a café. These are first drafts; subsequently, I can rework a poem for months, chipping away at it until I’m happy with the final result. My editing process entails a lot of reading aloud. I’m obsessive about the sonic qualities of my poems.

Are you sick of fellowships and residencies? It must be illuminating and exciting to travel and write, yet does it destabilize your “stock in trade”, your “creative bedrock”?

Ha! No, quite the reverse. I love travel and don’t know how I would write without it. I have spent most of my life moving—from one continent to another, more than once—and find that rhythm of almost contant travel strangely soothing. I’m incredibly grateful to have received support and fellowships from places like Yaddo and MacDowell—they feel like home to me, and are where I do the bulk of my work. I have also made some fantastic friends in those artists’ colonies: fellow writers, artists, composers. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I’ve spent some of the happiest days of my life in those places, as Sylvia Plath once wrote about Yaddo. 

What are you reading now Sarah?

Recently I’ve read some stunning fiction: Phil Klay’s Redeployment, James Scott’s The Kept, Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back, Laura Van Den Berg’s The Isle of Youth. I’m currently reading Colin Barrett’s brilliant book of short stories, Young Skins. Gorgeous stuff. Poetry-wise, I’ve enjoyed Robert Adamson’s Net Needle, David Brooks’ Open House, and Les Murray’s Waiting for the Past this yearI have a huge backlog of poetry books beside my bed to get to, as I’ve been in a bit of a fiction phase of late.

What are you writing at the moment?
I’m doing more research than writing at the present; I suppose I’m collecting my thoughts after the publication of The Hazards, and slowly starting to envisage what my third book will look like. So far, I’ve been writing poems about the machinery of violence and of torture. We’ll see where that takes me.

Sarah, I feel your style lends itself beautifully to a poetry novel…have you ever considered this? I feel you could complete an Australian classic with your eyes closed (with a Nick Cave soundtrack) – Australian History needs something like the “Holland-Batt treatment”- you do this so well. Have you ever considered an extended historic piece?

I’ve never really been drawn to writing a verse novel—but I do have a novel manuscript on the go, which is a straight literary novel (no poetry involved). I suppose that while I do like some verse novels—Derek Walcott and Les Murray have written two excellent examples—I prefer my narrative in prose. So no plans at present to write an extended historic verse novel—but I’ll keep you posted!

How often do you dedicate to writing per week?

That’s difficult to answer, as it’s quite changeable. The rhythms of my writing are very much dictated by my academic job; I find myself writing the most during the Australian summers, when I am usually holed up at a residency in the Northern Hemisphere somewhere. I write less during my teaching periods. This rhythm works for me. I like immersing myself in poetry for weeks at a time, then coming up for air. I don’t have a totally regular writing practice, though. I know some people swear by the act of sitting at a desk for x number of hours every morning, and so forth. That simply doesn’t work for me; I’m just not that prolific. I do like to write more in the evening hours than during the day, though. In essence, I write when I am compelled to, which perhaps sounds more mystical than I mean it to. I can’t, and won’t, force myself to write.

Sarah Holland-Batt’s The Hazards is available now from all good bookshops and poetry stockists.

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