Poetry Book Club: Melinda Smith


hey everyone so welcome back to girls on
key YouTube channel we do videos about poetry for you guys so as I said I’m
here with poet Melinda Smith from Canberra we’re here for the Newcastle
writers festival and today’s book club is about this beautiful book goodbye
cruel. So luckily we have her here today to give us a reading this was launched
one year ago today at the Newcastle Writer’s Festival so it’s really special and she’s going to do reading for us and then I’m going to ask her a few
questions about the book okay so this one is called leaves from the lover’s almanac and it’s part of a longer series that I did each poem was inspired
by a photograph taken by artist Rhonda Aliff and some of them kind of came
together in the same voice and the ones that were all lovelorn came together in
this poem called leaves from the lover’s Almanac. Day 27 hold me up to the light
read my disease day 28 I hover just above the idea of you day 33
your breath then mine no argument yet day 49 you trail your vapor my nebula
reddens. day 69 brush my lips with bindii Day 71 you have left me a blue
hourglass to sift my blue hours day 130 when you pass you leave flames in the
strangest places day 139 smitten by the struck match I become a dumb candle. Day 147 I never said I would leave you
unchanged day 148 I can still feel the glow in my backbone day 191 when you
consume me make all the air flower with ruin. day 277 Here I am broken open to
a tiny carnival day 281 when I look at you I see more than one thing burning
day 362 waiting for you morning and night the sea eats at me okay I’m going to read a poem now that’s
from the central section of the book which has got the same title of book
goodbye cruel so that central section of the book
deals with the theme of suicide so that’s a Content warning on these two
pieces this problem is, it’s actually I’m not sure if you can see it but it’s kind
of laid out in a particular way on the page which can reflect what’s going on
in the poem somebody trying to make a decision and then eventually the
decision is made and then the consequences flow. There will be there will be time
for the last walk in the garden for the spears of lavender for the little
half-hearted yellow roses there will be time to snip a handful of stems to bear
them gently into the cool kitchen to place them just so in a slim chipped
vase there will be quiet into which will fall small pebbles of sound the neat
chirp of the door locking the wobble of the fruit bowl set down on the table the
flesh of the last nectarine coming away from the stone like fabric tearing there
will be reasons without number reasons to stop every one impeccable
there will be a trapped moth beating its soft dust panic onto the high curtain
there will be pain there will be light flaring along the windowsill there will
be nausea which for once will be precisely as bad as it feels there will
be the blur of the wrong focal length of looking too closely through a flyscreen
inhale there will be a sense of something almost becoming clear
resolving a faint scent of rosemary exhale there will be a
feeling of coming apart petal by petal dropping and scattering strewing the
clean tablecloth there will be in peace and infinite understanding buzzing on
the wrong side of the pain but then there will be no more time. There’s
another one from this sequence which is a slightly more positive one this is
about to be translated into Japanese actually which I’m very excited about
but it comes from the story of Don Ritchie who was a man who just a kind of
everyday guy who had a day job in sales and he lived near the gap on Sydney’s
south head which is a place that’s if you’re not from Sydney it’s a place
that’s kind of renowned as somewhere to go if you’re thinking about ending your
life because it’s quite a big dramatic drop off the cliff into the sea and Don
Richie made it his other job to try and start conversations with people who were
hanging around the clifftops looking like they might be thinking about
jumping and his family thinks he that he saved somewhere between 160 and 400
people or at least you know started a conversation that ended in them not
jumping that particular day so this is called contemplating the gap and it’s in
memory of Don Richie. Every story stumbles in its own way all so far from
here and from each other the funnel has a wide mouth but one by one they slide
down it to teeter on the lip of this one exit staring at the heave of the sea
breath beaten from them by the cliff wind. You can’t just sit there and watch
through your window can I help you in some way?
160 times and I’ve never lost sometimes they come for a cuppa
afterwards they tell me things they tell me you feel the pull in your guts and
your giddy head there is an urge to laugh and an urge to launch into the
more to make gravity finish all at once the dirty dragging work it started the
day you were born they tell me you only feel vertigo when you don’t want to fall
can I help you in some way? most of them come back with no. I’m a
salesman though. No is a beginning. So this I just wanted to ask you about the genesis of the book starting with the title goodbye cruel obviously there’s a couple of
meanings there so do you want to talk to us a bit about that. oh yeah I’m very happy
to and I thank you for having me. oh you’re welcome the book club and it’s
a privilege to be part of the girls on key family thank you so the book it kind of
expanded out from that central section which is all poems on the theme of the
suicide and the way that I generally work is I’ll write away for a little
while just let myself write and let myself well write comes and eventually
it will be clear to me that there’s a theme emerging in what I’m writing and then
I’ll construct a book around that and I’ve written a few poems and then I
wrote that that one that I read contemplating the gap about Don Richie
and that was the one that made me realize it it was actually a sequence
that needed to come together around suicide and so yeah I put that
together and why that topic is I suppose because I I have an acquaintance with it
without having been directly burned by it as it were so I have a number of
in my circle who talked about leaving us and none of them have been successful so
I have had this real kind of feeling that it’s an urgent thing because I
don’t think it’s something that I would be able to write about if anybody close
to me actually managed to go through with it and I’m being aware as part of
negotiating those conversations with those people that a great big silence
opens up around the subject and we don’t talk about it and we don’t have a
language for talking about it in a way that is helpful we just kind of step
quietly away and try and pretend that it’s not happening and I thought why don’t I just try right into that space and see what happens and so that’s where
the idea for those poems came from right and it’s interesting because poetry and
ezard’s all that is often a conversation and it’s a place to talk about let’s say
some things that as a society we find difficult we can make art as a way to
converse about those topics so that that’s the power of poetry isn’t it and
and so in your process of putting the collection together how was it for you
emotionally you know what was what was it like dealing with it better. It varied
yeah if there I mean I did tread quite carefully and I was careful to use
stories that were kind of at one remove from from things that were happening in
my immediate circle so there are actually quite a lot of poems in
there that are inspired by other works of fiction or films or pieces of art as
well as things that are closer to home and the closer to home things aren’t
really overt they kind of just woven into the other poems but I mean
there’s a particular poem in there that people often asking me about because
it’s in the first person and that’s something I do a lot in my work I
take on a lot of different voices and most of them are nothing like my
voice or enough nothing like my experience but the first person the
lyric I is a very easy and quick way to connect emotionally with the audience of the poem and there’s a poem in there about
a child whose mother takes them to kindergarten and then goes to a friend’s
house and locks all the doors and windows and gasses herself and then the
child growing up and finding out a little bit more about that afterwards
and that’s that the I in that poem is not me it’s actually based on an
autobiography of a man Jeremy Gavron who lost his mother in a similar way but I
kind of interpolated things into that incident that aren’t from from his
life either so I found that was a way to engage with the material without
it being too draining going and because how long was it from the
beginning through to the publication putting it together, how long as the
process? Quite long I mean the book before that came out in 2013 and 2014 was just
a rough yeah various things happening and I didn’t do a lot of writing that
year so it was basically 2015 in 2016 so two years basically writing and then I
should actually thank the Bundanon trust because the book finally came
together during the residency at Bundanon in the middle of in May 2016 and then it
took a while to go through the publication process and then it was
launched a year ago this weekend in Newcastle writers festival 2017. I’m interested with
the concrete poetry that you put in here so is that’s something that you’d like
to explore more or you’ve had an interest in what’s your interest for
that stuff stylistic poetry? I’m interested in keeping on experimenting
with different formats for poems and I do because I’m based in the ACT and the
ACT creative community is quite small and so it’s quite easy to work with
people in other disciplines and I do a lot of collaborating with visual artists
too and I mean I even collaborate with dancers and musicians and stuff we do
stuff for art festivals and events down there but the collaboration with artists
has made me think a lot about how hard looks on
what you can do just like the shape of things so I suppose that’s where some of
that experimentation is coming through thank you a new winter sequence that was
from an Instagram collaboration of photography and are you able to tell us a bit more because we didn’t get to hear kind of bit more about there. yeah I don’t
learn as well all I would love you to put a link down down down below for um so it’s so that first sequence that I read the lovers Almanac was actually from a
poet artist or a poet photography collaboration I did with Rhonda Aliff
who I know through her connections to the ACT arts world but she’s actually
herself based in Kabago or and a farm at Sam’s Creek
near Kabago down near Bega on the south coast of NSW and um yeah and we
actually both of us had the same kind of difficulty happen in our family in 2014
both of our eldest sons were diagnosed with the same illness and we found that
that impacted our creative process in similar ways and that it just made it
quite difficult to keep producing at the same rate yeah so we Rhonda decided that
just for that year she was just going to take a photograph of the sky one
photograph every single day and she called it the look up project and then I
followed along on her blog and was watching the beautiful photographs
of the sky around Bega and I found them very kind of just nourishing to look at
and you know I felt we felt quite a strong connection to each other because
of the personal kind of circumstances and so I ended up approaching her and
think of and loved to write poems about these to these photographs
and I don’t know what the end result might look like but as a daily practice
I think it would be really helpful of course she was doing the photos
religiously every day in the photo that the value of the photo came from you
know this was this date this was this data by the end she had 365 for a whole
year and I didn’t really do a poem a day I would I would treat them a bit
like crochet squares and I have like 10 or 11 or 12 kind of Bank up and then I’d
find a cafe and sit down and do a whole bunch of the
little micro poems generally the first drafts weren’t that great so they went
through quite a lot of editing before we actually ended up putting them all
together so it was actually the following year when we finally had the
whole lot of them that we did we turned them into so we first turned them
into a film um so it’s just like a PowerPoint show basically with captions
and so it was shown in an Arts Festival in Canberra projected on the roof with
cushions underneath so people could go a lie down look at these beautiful
photographs of the sky and then we had the like a caption the poem words coming
a little bit after you saw the original image and the idea that we came to was
that each poetic caption would make you look at the sky in a new way and so we
had sky and then words and then they stayed there together for a little while
and then the sky melted away in the words were there and then the next one
and the whole show went for kind of 90 minutes yeah and then they became
postcards and then in 2017 we thought we’ll just put them up on Instagram one
every day so that was its next manifestation and we haven’t done a lot with it since then but please go and check out the Instagram feeds all the photographs are
there and the poems are in the Instagram captions on that Look Up project because
it’s a daily thing did you find that and it was hard to find a new angle on
because the sky is the sky. it’s I suppose the sky is the sky but it’s it’s a different color, ’cause she took
them at different times of day different colors at different times of the day…she didn’t take them from the same spot every day so there are sometimes there are bits of
different trees intruding in the photographs sometimes there are
buildings sometimes there are you know power lines going across or you know or
the daylight moon is there or or the you know it’s a sudden – clearly a sunrise
or a sunset and very often occasionally she’s at Bega you know she she was at
the beach so there’d be like and or rocks or whatever intruding in the
photographs. No cheese! Absolutely no cheese. but there was plenty there to work with
and it oh yeah it was an interesting thing you know how
I responded to the photograph obviously also depended on where I was in the day
what had been happening for me creatively and personally and so the
quite a number of different voices emerged through that project there was a
lovelorn voice yea, there was a really cantankerous kind of grumpy voice that I’ve
christened Hanrahan after that old Nursery Rhyme well that old Irish song
will all be ruined said Hanrahan and that Hanrahan has another
collection in goodbye cruel as well called Days of Hanrahan so there’s some
more of the grumpy poems in there and then there were a couple more kind of
thankful and philosophical voices that didn’t end up those poems didn’t work
without their images which is why they’re not in the book, but you can look at them all on Instagram to see how they work. And that’s a really interesting point how do you do you
like exploring different voices you know is that something you’re interested in
and I mean have you done any novel writing exploring characterisation or? I have a couple of screenplays in the bottom drawer and I do like I like i think with voice just just with a quote from a particular character
that’s a character in a situation you can just convey so much so as a poet i
often salt little bits of dialogue through my poems because it’s so if you’re
careful with it um it’s such an economical way to convey a lot. I agree. andI love playing with that and I mean you know I don’t enjoy spending too much time in my
own head I like to get into other people’s heads and so I think that’s
another way in is to try and find their voices having their voices being
respectful and careful about how you do that yeah when they’re real people for
example yes only one of the one of the pitfalls I guess and people ask about
this a lot is have you had people thinking that the poem is
autobiographical when it’s not have you had that situation where people read into it that
this your story my story. How do you navigate that there’s a lot of people do see
poetry as being autobiographical automatically and it’s hard to sort of explain it’s fiction you know yeah no I do I do
and I have a couple of different responses one is of course it’s natural
because most poems were written with the lyric I are actually connected to the
poet in some way and it’s through your own voice in your own thoughts as well
yeah it’s filtered through that obviously. yeah but so it’s a natural response in the reader
to think that that’s actually the poet speaking from their heart about their
own life but I exhausted my own life as material my life quite a long time ago. It’s not actually my life in there. But as I said
I like to borrow the lyric I as an emotional kind of cattle prod isn’t that
terrible to – because I for me poetry is about connecting on an emotional level and a
lot of what I think about it’s kind of unfashionable and daggy
in my work it’s just it it has a very heavy reliance on emotion and I kind of I
just don’t care anymore this is clearly what I do so I was gonna
keep doing that and people can think it’s daggy or or whatever but um so I
understand I’m playing with fire taking that lyric I and using it to
speaking voices that aren’t my own but also you know I’d like people to give
the the poet some credit for technique and hardest rien and working with
materials yeah so anyway but I I’m not angry with people when they do that but
I do put footnotes in the back of my book to say you know by the way this is
not if this is where this poem comes from just in case you were wondering and
you’re thinking I needed to be calling some help hotline that’s myself for
example yeah well I mean that’s the thing is that you pay homage to that – you know
for example with the story of Don Richie Don Richie so you know this is a way to he
has obviously passed now so being able to tell that story and that those kind of
things particularly around this topic are quite powerful
and this book is quite powerful I do recommend it very highly
and not just in that sense but in terms of the work itself so please do pick
up a copy and thank you so much Melinda for being on our show Thank you so much for having me Anna. I’ll pop Melinda’s links and I’m just going to
get her to quickly say a few words that event that she runs in Canberra for those
of you who are in the area oh thank you I love being able to plug things like I said I should just mention also
that I did actually get Don Ritchie’s family’s permission to publish that poem
because it was clearly something that you wouldn’t do without asking so but
onto the plug so I somehow I seem to have got on the organizing committee for
a series of poetry readings that is on every Monday night in Canberra at a
venue we have they’re called Smith’s alternative which is a kind of cafe bar
performance space right in the center of the city across from the GPO and so
every Monday night from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. we have a poetry event on the there we
have generally have two poets and an open mic section and 2018 is already
totally full we’re going to have Anna come and read for us very soon and we’ve
had a number of wonderful poets come through and we’re going to keep having
them come through to 2019 is we’ve just got confirmation that we can do 2019 and
we haven’t started working people for 2019 yet but I’m quite keen to bring
lots of different styles of poetry together because that cross-pollinates
the audience so we generally try and have either an out-of-towner and a local
or a page poet and a stage poet yeah together and it’s lovely we like to
think of it as a very positive welcoming space although it’s an open mic it’s not
it’s not a competitive slam environment there’s no kind of scoring or anything
like that it’s just very strictly timed do your thing in three minutes
sit down, If you haven’t read before and you want to get up on the open mic please
go along if you’re in the area and it’s fantastic so we’ll pop the
links to that below as well [Music]

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