In Conversation: Joan Fleming and Ashleigh Young

Joan Fleming and Ashleigh Young talk poetry and obsessions.

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Joan Fleming’s new collection, Failed Loved Poems, is published this month by Victoria University Press, where I work as an editor. I first read Joan’s book in manuscript form. As I was reading it, my head started tingling. As if one of those scalp massage spiders (an orgasmatron, I think?) were on it. Usually I try to maintain a professional remove and cool-headedness when reading a manuscript, but this proved impossible with Joan’s book. 

My reaction was primarily to do with the thrilling restlessness of both language and form. The collection is made up of wildly different kinds of poem – the question/response poem, the prose poem, the dramatic monologue, the erasure poem, the list poem, and many others. The effect is almost of dance.

Joan’s preoccupation in this book, of course, is failure – primarily the many failures, big and small, within relationships; but also failures of expression, failures of language. How can a book that paints such a picture of human feebleness also be so moving? I don’t know. I asked Joan some questions about her book via email.

Ashleigh: Failed Loved Poems is a beautiful and fierce book. Was it a deliberate choice, to write a book of such wide-ranging form? 

Joan: I can’t get past this impulse for democracy. In my first book, The Same as Yes, I wanted to make everything talk to everything else, to see what they would say. In Failed Love Poems, I wanted to see how failed love made sense of itself in every possible form. This will for total inclusiveness (after Whitman) is bound for failure of course. I tried to imagine all the ways that lovers don’t fit, or misunderstand each other, but I don’t think I’ve even exhausted my own small experience, let alone the world’s.

AY: Was the knowledge of ‘failure’ right there at the start, or did you sort of believe, at first, that a total inclusiveness maybe was possible?

JF: I never believed it, but the attempt cracked open new ways of seeing that I didn’t know were possible.

AY: At the heart of this book seems to be the couple whose relationship, its rising and ebbing, we see through many lenses. Sometimes the couple is ‘you and I’, sometimes ‘he and she’, sometimes just ‘they’. There’s constant shifting of perspective, yet each has its own intimacy. This shifting seems significant to me, because you have described the book as ‘a slant autobiography’ (a term I had only ever heard in reference to Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and in a slightly different way, in Emily Dickinson’s famous quote: 'Tell all the Truth but tell it slant’). Can you talk a little about what a slant autobiography is?

JF: I want to write poems that balance on that line between the right and the left brain; poems that are grounded in intense moments, ‘real’ moments, but are open enough to dream-logic to stay dizzy. I don’t believe poetry tells the truth, and a straight-up autobiography would be truth-telling. I believe poetry comes from psychic places that we can’t fully understand.

That said, even if I’m writing about invented lovers or invented situations, it all passes through me. There were moments in writing this book when I wondered if my subjectivity was unfair, or somehow tyrannical. I worried that the stories I was telling were too one-sided. But I can’t escape my lens. I hope any old lovers who recognize themselves in these pages will forgive me. 

The language of poetry is the best tool I know for conveying perceptual intensities, and often these are at odds with documentary fact

AY: If poetry doesn’t tell the truth, what does it tell? Isn’t there a truth (if we accept that there are loads of truths, many layers of truths) in that tyrannical lens of yours?

JF: Maybe ‘truth’ is too large and flat a concept to be useful, here. The language of poetry is the best tool I know for conveying perceptual intensities, and often these are at odds with documentary fact. That’s the kind of truth-telling I’m interested in.

AY: The stories you tell in the book are many-sided. I think this also speaks of the evolving set of selves that a person has. Have you yourself ever been somebody else’s subject – has someone written about or documented you in some way?

JF: I have. I remember, before my partner and I got together, he wrote a short documentary treatment for the BBC about me and my poetry. It was all ‘full red lips’ and my ‘royal and respectful gestures’, which is flattering yet hilarious to me now. He had cast me as a campaigner for the visibility of poetry, which is not how I see myself. I wish I was that, but I don’t think I am.

Sometime during the writing of this book, I took the details of someone else’s story and blended it with fiction – but the blend was not total enough to stop the person feeling exposed and identifiable in the piece itself. This was a huge lesson for me, and one that I haven’t fully processed. In my research, I record stories and interactions with indigenous friends and teachers. Questions of ethics and honesty and power are absolutely central in this work. I’m still grappling with what is necessary in art, and what is important in life, and how the two intersect. Or, more specifically, what to do when they are in conflict. The Melbourne poet Jordie Albiston, who writes biographical poetry, has an adage pinned above her writing desk: ‘Very, very dead.’ Don’t touch a subject if it isn’t six feet under. My subjects, though, are very, very alive, which makes things difficult but interesting.

I can be compulsively candid with friends and family. I’m a classic open book. Maybe it’s surprising that none of my secrets have made it into another’s art, so far as I know. I don’t know what I would do if I saw myself on the page in a way that felt excruciatingly vulnerable, but one of my projects for the next decade of life is to be better at putting myself in other people’s shoes.

AY: It should be everyone’s project! There is a lovely simplicity to ‘Very, very dead’. Much more manageable than that can-o’-worms-opening axiom ‘Write as if everyone you know is dead’ (which is also pleasing in its way but forgets that such writing can cause irreparable damage to your personal life). Perhaps sometimes art and life need to be in conflict for you to figure out which one is more important to you, in that moment.

I really liked your short essay on Poetry Shelf last year, ‘Poetry as a child on fire who is trying, and failing, to pronounce itself’, in which you talked about writing this book, and specifically about how when you were younger you idealised love as a ‘Disneyland romance-cosmos’ – and the poetry you were writing at the time reflected that. ‘I rhymed deep with weep and sleep and endowed the sea with an embarrassing number of abilities, including the ability to weep and to fall asleep, and none of it was ironic or subtle or interesting.’ This poetry wasn’t really interested in disconnection or doubt. But Failed Loved Poems is constantly registering knottiness, drifts, miscommunications, evasions, the ‘slant colourings of emotional truth’. Has there been any other change of perception that has changed your writing as dramatically?

JF: The research I’m doing now, into the politics of ethnopoetics, is shifting some big tectonic-plate-sized perceptions that inform how I see and move through the world. I can almost taste how these shifts are going to work themselves out in my writing, but it’s altogether too early to share.

I'm still grappling with what is necessary in art, and what is important in life, and how the two intersect

AY: You use erasure in some of your poems – where we come across blacked-out sections of words. They are small hollows where we can see you sculpting but can’t see what’s been sculpted away. It’s almost as though the poem is in flux, about to become something else again as different words are revealed or papered over. What is it about erasure as a technique that appeals to you? (I have to confess that, in a couple of these poems, as I was typesetting, I could see the words that were hiding underneath the blacked-out bits. I found this oddly creepy, like that sculpture of the see-through cow (was that in a Damien Hirst exhibition?), where you see something you really shouldn’t be seeing.)

JF: I admire Mary Ruefle’s erasure poem books and ambitious restraint projects like Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager. Erasing found text is another way that subjectivity unavoidably asserts itself. Even when doing an erasure on, say, a news report, I’ll look at the result and think, that’s so me. In Failed Love Poems, I was erasing my own words. Sometimes to protect the subject. Sometimes to stop the content from veering into ‘not safe for work’ territory. The poems were stronger, though, after being blacked out. Suggestion trumped divulgence. But I’m disturbed that you saw the words underneath!

AY: So was I! I guess a poem is as much the words you don’t choose or the ones that you do. Do you abandon poems easily? How much tinkering will you put up with before you let a poem fall by the wayside?

JF: I think I’m becoming more consistently tuned into the moments when I know I’m writing from my poetry mind (which is located somewhere in my gut, I reckon), and less patient with poems that I know don’t come from there. I’ll give a slow or wayward poem a month or two sometimes, but usually much less. The best poems for me come quickly. They make themselves known and gather everything they need within a few days.

That said, I am more patient with much longer poems or with new forms. They often need a different treatment, and I’m slower to walk away, less sure that they won’t yield gold.

AY: Do you sometimes find yourself explaining or justifying ‘being a poet’ to someone?

JF: All the time. To myself, to strangers, to my parents (who are always feeding me ideas for novels, bless them). Have you seen that movie where Catherine Keener (I love her) plays a poet, and she tells Julia Louis-Dreyfus what she does at some swanky pool party, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus cracks up laughing until she realizes Catherine Keener’s being serious? Yep. That’s familiar. (Except, this being a Hollywood movie, Catherine Keener is best friends with Joni Mitchell and her apartment is totally luxurious and she doesn’t appear to have a day job.)

Sometimes I feel discouraged that I chose a vocation (or, more probably, it chose me) that is so outside the mainstream. You don’t see poetry reviewed weekly in the pages of the Guardian. You don’t find it in airport bookstores. It doesn’t earn money, for its writers or its publishers. But then I am reminded by fellow poets that we are part of this strange and secret almost medieval guild, all reading each other and writing about each other. Poets make a world unto themselves. And how important it is to pursue a craft that doesn’t feed the market economy. I constantly need to remind myself how the gift economy of poetry operates, though, and the joys that come from that – community, self-knowledge, independence, and the freedom to write without ever being burdened by audience expectations.

You don't see poetry reviewed weekly in the pages of the Guardian. You don't find it in airport bookstore. It doesn't earn money, for its writers or its publishers

AY: This is a clunky analogy but I sometimes think of poets as being like the cyclists of the literary world. They have to work harder to be seen, I think, than novelists (the cars) and they sometimes get annoyed at the lack of infrastructure available to them. They feel excluded. But they buoy each other up; they are vociferous. As you wrote in your recent Cordite essay ‘We Are All Rejects’, despite the lack of money around for poets there are all these new structures emerging where suddenly it feels like there is more space – a groundswell of space, for different voices who don’t fit so easily within university presses or the more well-known literary journals. Of these, what is some work that has really moved you, or excited you, or just made you want to share with others?

JF: Not to seem like a sycophant, but your poems of late have been all kinds of wonderful and I want everyone I know to read them. The new online journal Sweet Mammalian is putting out thrilling work. I love that the editors are seeking poems that are passionate and emotional and hot-blooded. Not an anti-poem in the house. I was deliciously puzzled by Carolyn DeCarlo and Jackson Nieuwland’s chapbook about Kanye West and Kim Kardashian as aliens in love. That was fun. I hope risk-taking like that keeps happening. And any new poems by Loveday Why, Nina Powles, Hera Lindsay Bird, Steve Toussaint, Emma Barnes, Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle, and Lee Posna make my heart beat a little faster.

I’m also looking forward to what Starlings, the new online journal for young writers, comes out with. And can I please register my admiration for Eleanor Catton’s Horoeka/Lancewood reading grant and commentary and review initiative, which is not getting the attention it deserves.

AY: Do you know yet what you want your next book to be?

JF: I’m working now on poems about the space between cultures, on Indigeneity and dominant culture interpretations and the gaps in worldview and what can’t be bridged. I’m calling them my ‘Incommensurable poems’. These are all coming out of fieldwork and family trips with Yapa (Aboriginal) friends and teachers in Central Australia, and research into ethnopoetics and my own family history at the Baptist mission at Yuendumu.

It’s thorny territory, where I have to climb inside my own lens and disrupt it. And be honest and brutal. It’s a departure for me into more overtly political territory, but I’ve always been interested in communication and miscommunication, understanding and misunderstanding. I find that irresolvable space, whether it’s between lovers or between cultures, to be extremely creatively generative. Turns out you can never escape your obsessions.