Before I come to Annandale to meet Julie Chevalier for our first chat in 2014, the interview has been lined up for about five months. The strange elliptical paths of writers mean that our first ‘contact’ was back in 2011 when I held in my hand a review copy of a book of short stories until then unknown to me: Permission to Lie, published by the small press Spineless Wonders in Darwin, 2011. [Spineless Wonders subsequently published two volumes of other writers’ short fictions, edited by Chevalier and Linda Godfrey: Small Wonder: An Anthology of Prose Poems and Microfictions (2012) and Stoned Crows and Other Australian Icons (2013) – Ed.]
Permission to Lie had an earthy cover, decorated with two roughly sketched naked figures laid out head to head: a man and a woman. Around them were placed clothes with small tabs appended, the sort one uses to dress paper dolls. The twin concepts of both deliberate disguise and the powerlessness of the doll figures in deciding on their own choice of clothing intrigued me as a potential metaphor for the book’s title. So did the idea of the naval signal-flags code used when a ship’s captain seeks ‘permission to lie alongside’—for the purpose of docking, fuelling or transferring of cargo.
What really struck me in this series of partially interlinked tales was that they could view humanity and human actions with such an accurate and unflinching gaze, and yet still retain compassion in the telling. Reading certain characters, I had the feeling that that same stern gaze had been, at times, turned on the author herself. The cover really started to make sense. Incidentally, the theme of dolls or figures of representation is flagged in Chevalier’s first published story, ‘The Doll Who Faced the Wall’ (Southerly, 2005) and, following Permission to Lie, the books of poetry, Linen Tough as History and Darger: his girls, both of which were published by Puncher & Wattman in 2012. A few weeks after my review appeared in the Australian, I received a much re-directed thank you card. I was thrilled and surprised. I didn’t find out until I interviewed Julie that not only was Permission to Lie her first book; it was also the first book from Spineless Wonders, so every review mattered. Since then Julie and I have exchanged the occasional email. I wrote a blurb for Cracking the Spine, a book of Australian short stories with accompanying essays by the authors, which she co-edited with Bronwyn Mehan (Spineless Wonders, 2014), and when she came to deliver a guest lecture to a first year fiction course I was teaching, the class and I listened, amazed, as she detailed the thoroughness of her drafting process (which we talk about here). That was the first time we met face-to-face, around April 2014.
In November 2014, I stepped through the wooden gate of her Annandale front yard for the first time, finding myself pretty uncomfortable in the position of being a guest whose job is to be nosy. The house seems purpose built as a writer’s retreat; there’s a tiny picket fence outside: hinting at a desire for private space. Inside, light paintwork, touches of dark wood, comfortable lounges, even big glass doors onto a small balcony, a rarity in this part of town. It seems as though everything has a place, but it’s also fine to take your shoes off and tuck your feet up on the couch. We’re chatting over snacks when a soft clang draws my eye to the front door, and the appearance of another, smaller, eye in the letterbox slot (Julie is facing in the opposite direction). I tell her about the eye. ‘Oh that’s my young neighbour’, she says, unfazed; ‘sometimes he likes to make me a cup of mint tea. But he needs to learn to use the doorbell.’ Does Julie know all her neighbours? Yes. I’m not surprised.
That first session went quickly, with much of it escaping my haphazard note taking; more of a back and forth discussion than a formal Q and A. Julie has lived such a rich life, and her account of her research for her poetic portrait of Henry Darger, outsider artist and social isolate, is so interesting, and also, at times, resonant with her previous life in the US, that I sometimes feel I am confusing her real and imaginary worlds. As I reread the books at home, I wonder if I am making up facts in my readings between lines.
For our second talk, I realise I’m going to have to use a dictaphone if I want to get everything down. At least it’s only my phone, so it looks like it belongs on the coffee table and its presence isn’t too intrusive. I notice again the deep blue of the lounges we’re sitting on, and touches of blue around the room. Is it her favourite colour? Yes, she says. We’re easing into this. There are photos of grandchildren, and I know Julie does a fair bit of ‘grandkid duty’ as she puts it. I decide not to ask too much; this is about writing—but bits and pieces of family history and family present trickle through as we talk.
Embarrassingly, I’m tempted to ask Julie her star sign, because she reminds me of my mum. Practical. Left-leaning. Minimalist. Maybe a little reticent. Efficient. Good time-management skills. We’re having this chat between her morning Italian class in the city, and going together to Little Fictions at Knox St Bar that evening. Capricorn? No. Virgo? No. Cancer. In that way it has that makes it ‘work’, astrology makes sense in hindsight. Cancerians also are reserved, prudent, not quick to talk about themselves, compassionate, but with emotions kept well below surface level. Julie tells me about recently writing a poem about Jesus, being convinced he was an Aquarius. I tell her my Mum’s birthday is the 27th, so he’s definitely a Capricorn. Prudent, cautious, economically sound. Doesn’t sound like Jesus. Is the poem published, I ask? ‘Oh no’, she says. ‘When I realised the star sign didn’t work, I ditched it. It takes a while to write poetry, and often by the time the thing is completed I’m sick to death of it.’
I know that you’ve devoted a lot of your creative (and professional time) to other art forms, like ceramics and painting. When did writing become important to you? Was it some kind of sudden revelation or had it always been there in the mix?
I wrote when I was at Uni; I was in a poetry group.
This was before you came out to Australia?
Oh, yes, a while before.
Were you studying literature or creative writing at that stage? Or interested in writing but studying in other fields?
Oh no—did every poetry course I possibly could. Every time I had a chance to do a thesis, I did it on poetry. Then I was in this little poetry group at the uni...
So, a group of student poets, swapping poems …
Critiquing each other’s poems. I don’t think we had a clue.
I don’t know that that matters, especially at the start. I think for every class I’ve taught, there’s been a group of students who’ve set up their own group outside of the class workshopping time we have. It’s all practice.
Mmm, I always encourage that in my own writing classes—much better than friends or relatives.
Oh definitely. And I’ve found myself, as I’ve gotten older and have written more, that you try and form or join a group with people who are roughly where you’re at yourself with your writing.
Yeah, yep—and people with similar interests. Because often the poetry people are happy to critique prose, but prose writers seem less comfortable with poetry. There was a group I was in for years and years that was a disaster, really. Though it got me into the habit of writing three thousand words a week when I was working full-time for the Department of Education, which was a huge achievement!
Yes it is. Were you an early morning writer, or a late night writer?
A bus writer.
It didn’t make you feel sick?
Well, I guess if you sit there on the bus with the pencil and the paper, you’re thinking, aren’t you? But at home I wrote more at night than early in the morning.
So I’m guessing your first full-time work was in America too, then?
Yes—Boston Public Library. I’d already done a Bachelor of English in upstate New York, but at the library’s suggestion, I started a MA in Library Science at Simmons College. I only completed four courses but around the same time I was taking evening and summer courses at Boston University and Harvard—that was great; I was overwhelmed thinking of all the footsteps on the grounds there.
And you came out here to Australia in 1965. How did that happen, and what was the experience like for you?
Well, I married a PhD who lived across the road from me, and we came to work out here. He worked at the University of Sydney for the rest of his life. I came with a background in poetry and English, and I remember really pushing to do a Masters in English at the University of Sydney, but when I got there, I was devastated. It was very Anglo-centric. They were teaching Leavis; I’d been reading Williams and Stevens, not Robert Frost. So I went further back, to Donne and Blake instead, which was acceptable. I also missed the food, being able to go places at night—bookstores, ice-cream stores.
So, certainly since you’ve come to Australia, you’ve had a lot of different jobs. And I think it is worth talking about, because there are definite ways in which your working life shows up in, or certainly informs, what you write. Has it been chance, or maybe restlessness, that’s seen you flourish in so many careers?
That was my guess; just a feeling…
Oh, definitely restlessness. It’s like: if I’m not learning, why am I doing this? Let’s learn something new instead! Where it’s interesting; where I’m getting something out of it. Then you’re not just there for the money, you’re there to learn.
Does this restlessness ever make it hard for you to finish things?
Every time I left a job, I took it with me, so that I could go back to it if I needed to.
I suppose I meant that more in the sense of finishing creative projects, than careers – but it’s a great perspective – that instead of these one-eighty degree turns on a career path, you find a way to bring what you’ve learned in other settings into play.
When I was a child, there was a whole string of unfinished projects, including a green cotton apron, which followed me around for about fifteen years, y’know, and my Mother and Father thought I should finish! I don’t think I’m like that now...
No, you do seem pretty organised... [laughs] James Valentine on the ABC had a call-in segment once for the longest unfinished piece of craft. There was apparently a cross-stitch that had been on the go for about fifty years!
[Laughing] My green apron with the apple dot-embroidered on the pocket would be high up there! Really hideous!
I remember that when we were talking about working and writing full-time last time–I think this was on the phone, you said that you’d find it impossible to write and to teach at the same time.
Oh, yes, I think so. The only work I’m doing now is writing related. The only paid work... the unpaid work as well.
That’s pretty endemic to the industry, isn’t it?
How do you start the writing process? I think I remember you talking about writing on shopping dockets and envelopes when you came to talk to my class.
Oh I like to write and do the first edits in longhand, shifting things around. I enjoy shredding the drafts.
I can’t imagine shredding all my drafts!
Well, then you know you’re finished with them. A year and a half ago I deleted about a hundred poems.
Were they unfinished?
No, just awful and cringy. I should cull again. You don’t go and get back a great poem from a lousy start five years ago, do you?
I live in hope!
Maybe yours were further along? Better?
No, no way—but I also like to have a record of what was going on at the time.
I’d do that with a painting, a drawing. It’s more of a record of a social time, when you’re outside with people, painting. Poetry’s just kind of isolating, you’re sitting at a desk. Painting at summer schools, etcetera: you’re painting or drawing most of twelve hours. You were so tired, you were often completely uninhibited and did the best work. You don’t have that with poetry, the physical exhaustion, stretching canvases, although I used to go away writing with poets very often. We’d rent a house and break up the time into solo writing, workshopping, exercises.
When Ron Pretty ran the Poetry Australia residential sessions in Wollongong, you needed twelve poems to apply. I don’t think I even had twelve then. So I took some of my prose and Linda Godfrey helped chop it up. I got in. I went feeling like a fraud and I left feeling like a poet. Poetry Australia ended up using that as a tagline. It was great being immersed in poetry. I’d get rhythms in my head when I was walking around. We got coaching on how to read in public, and someone read every night. That’s where I met Michael Sharkey, Jennifer Harrison, Susan Hampton.
Are the new lit journals that are proliferating in print and online combinations a new model for young writers, do you think?
They have a lot of energy that I find very appealing.
I think we are used to this idea of a more rigid hierarchy in terms of publishing in Australia.
Yes, and links to universities: chapters of theses, research, creative writing undertaken at universities. I think flash fiction is the most exciting thing at the moment. Prose-poetry/flash fiction—I’m finding it less interesting now to write the three thousand word short story. But American authors seem to be moving towards writing longer, four to six thousand words, and I find Australian male authors are quite interested in it too: Ryan O’Neill, Andy Kissane, Mark Vender, who has just moved back to Melbourne after some years in Columbia.
We were talking about Cordite earlier on the phone: I think it’s a very early example of that kind of more open experimental approach to publishing ... even from the outset.
Yes, it’s immaculate isn’t it? And Kent is so good at making it feel personal. The administration’s great.
On the phone I got that sense again, that I’d already picked up on, that you’re, sort of, a natural-born educator... and mentor... and that, this is the thing I mentioned in the introduction, how unflinching your writer’s gaze is, and yet there’s still compassion.
Oh, that sounds nice! That’s a lovely thing to say...
I think it’s true! You know, you talked about your time teaching; and how it doesn’t mesh with writing, and you said, ‘because there’s never going to be a time when adolescent problems don’t come up’, and you didn’t say it in a groaning kind of way, or even a sad way. It was just like it’s this fact, and you knew it would be something you’d have to be there fully to help people deal with.
I enjoyed that energy. I like working with adolescents. One of my good friends, Bryan, was one of those students. I had dinner with him and his wife, Vicki, about two weeks ago. And I saw her last time I was in Melbourne. We’ve all kept in touch, through all these different changes. But I taught at the Australian International Independent School—it was a Year 11 and 12 school then; it was set in the bush, around North Ryde. And there was this really close network of community that I just loved!
That’s always special, when it’s real.
I think it was the first time in Australia that I felt part of something I believed in.
So this was, essentially, a private school? But presumably not too heavy on the fees?
Oh, low fees. And we would take kids that had just been chucked out of all the local schools; like private schools. At one stage they were caning pupils from Normanhurst boys—and we were getting the boys in alphabetical order! I sent my kids there too. Ahh, like a breath of fresh air. It was as left-wing as left-wing could be: Friday nights we’d cook up brown rice, and some kind of a vegetable thing to have on top; we’d have an Indian banquet.
But it wasn’t a boarding school? Everyone just stayed around on Friday night?
Nope. It was just on a hill in the bush near Macquarie Centre. It’s now under a freeway. It really was idyllic; almost all outside. Everyone used first names; there were no uniforms; the seminars were eighteen people maximum and I taught with everybody sitting in a circle, and they all contributed all the time. I had my own big room to teach in. So on one side of the wall, I had the students write up quotations they’d read in literature that they liked and on the other side we had a time line that was our Western literature, music and history. Like 1400, 1600, 1800. And we’d just write. Whatever came up, we’d just write it in the place. So you could see what was going on in a certain year with different forms. That was fun! I also taught pottery there. But the minute I left they repainted that room... but it was really significant for me, all of that. I think it’s because it wasn’t ‘lecturing’. I enjoyed it so much more than teaching in the public system!
That’s right—you’ve done that as well. Where were you? I remember you saying you read Bleak House three times!
Oh, out in the western suburbs. And yes, all seven hundred-odd pages of it. When you teach you really have put all of yourself into it.
You certainly seem to like high-energy jobs!
Oh well, then, yeah—I had more energy, my kids were little.
I’m not sure everyone would agree with you that having small children is a time when you have lots of energy! What about the work you’ve done in the Correctional Services system, I imagine that required a lot of stamina—physically and mentally.
Again, I think I’m always escaping from the middle class. You know, trying to learn about the other. Maybe that’s a point of view thing too, learning to see things from someone else’s point of view.
I think it shows in the topics you write about and the way you write about them. It’s going to be very clear, I think, when we talk about your most recent work, the book on Henry Darger—but I’d really like to talk about Linen Tough as History too. I’m now wondering if the title might be a sly nod to your unfinished apron! I laughed out loud at the poem about Chedo’s, in Coledale. My partner lives at Scarborough so I’ve had coffee at Chedo’s lots of times. You have everything so perfect at the house and at the café, there’s the speaker, making everything there shipshape in her mind also: ‘focussed on perfection, you adjust Chedo’s doormats / move the sea blue dog bowl one-half centimetre to the right’—and then you have the woman in the dressing gown going into the bottle shop next door, and I had one of those irrational ‘Oh God, could that have been me?’ moments—because I have done it!
[Laughing]: I was minding my daughter’s house, which was up for real estate open days, and so everything in the house had to be absolutely... and Linda Godfrey and Dael Allison were there with me because it was a great place to do our workshops. So I was sleeping on two single bed mattresses in a corner of a room, and I had to make that look like this beautiful bed, and we had incense, and scented soap.
Can’t you even buy a magic spray that makes houses smell like you’re baking cookies?
I don’t know—but we did do the coffee thing, and in one of those local ‘house’ type shops in Thirroul, they had a carved chrysanthemum thing, which you were supposed to leave in the bathroom, and it was supposed to sell the house for you. It was really expensive. So I had to dig that out every time. I was a bit sad because I loved that house. It was just an old brick veneer house but with the escarpment up the back. They had lyrebirds and wallabies and bush pigeons; oh, it was great. Chooks...
I was really interested in the voice of the poem–is the speaker’s constant adjusting of everything at Chedo’s because of being in this mode of constantly adjusting the house?
Oh, you’re so conscious of every detail, you know, when you do the real estate thing, everything has to be perfect. There can’t be a wrinkle on a pillowcase! Linda and Dael and I went down for coffee while the real estate agent was taking people through, and we had to sit there and write a poem while we had a coffee.
I was trying to work out when the poem was first written, or when you would have been staying there, because I thought that the escarpment real estate gurus might be trying to distance themselves from a ‘Coal Coast’ image now.
Oh—I changed it; I altered that because it was for an issue of Griffith Review that was on coal or something. I tweaked the original a bit.
Having said that, I liked it being in there, because if you look past Chedo’s and the kind of shop where you would have bought the chrysanthemum, a lot of ‘the coal coast’ is still there. A lot of the houses, as you said, are still old fibro or brick veneer—I think there are plenty of families that would be second or third generation householders by now.
Yes, I was glad to have that in it anyway, too, because you know, there’s still the coke works at Coalcliff, and it’s a big part of the area’s history.
There are some amazing contrasts in the area, aren’t there? Plenty of tough linen and tough history in the mix there. And then, not too far down the coastal trail, you have the ‘towradgi girl’ poems; have you spent time there as well?
Oh, Towradgi. They just kept coming. Every year I’d write another one out of the clear blue: ‘That’s the Towradgi girl again!’ It was based on nothing!
Really? Because I was reading them, thinking ‘Who’s Towradgi girl? It must be a relative’.
Everybody said that: ‘Is that your daughter?’—‘Is it your grand-daughter?’, and it’s not at all. The only thing real in it is once I went to the Chauvel cinema, and I had to wait for the film to start and I wrote about the setting!
I think that when a poem is realist, we do to tend to assume it might also be real…
Yeah, I hate that when people say that! But nobody thinks Towradgi girl’s me, luckily. She hasn’t come back anymore.
I thought Linen was a very diverse collection.
Yeah, probably because it was my first book.
I read several reviews of Linen, and I noticed that a couple of them were along the lines of ‘the wordplay’s great, but there’s a bit much of it’, whereas I thought I could see a nod to the materiality of language and a bit more going on than just light puns or jokes—so I wanted to ask you what you feel the role of things like wordplay or neologisms is in the text?
I love words, obviously. I would hope it would go on the side of wit rather than being stupid. Judy Beveridge talks about the wordplay and compares me with joanne burns, which is very nice. joanne was my mentor for that book.
For wit and brevity I really enjoyed ‘Letter Perfect’, one of my favourites in the book.
Now that’s one I never read anywhere. I read the Chedo’s one.
Well it is very visual; it makes me think of some of Johanna Drucker’s work – this real focus on materiality at the level of the individual letter. I can imagine it would still sound good read aloud, but you do need to be able to see the shapes of each letter to really appreciate their description. Like ‘D Mrs. Monotit / the deportment teacher’.
I had a friend’s son who referred to his teacher as Mrs. Monotit.
Well how could you not use that! The opposite problem is when you wear something strapless that’s too tight, and you get the four-boob.
Oh, quadruple breasted [laughing].
I just loved ‘Letter Perfect’ because it’s visual, but it’s more than just visual punning and a riff on the theme of a child’s alphabet primer. The way that the letter D is focused around ‘M’ sounds for instance. Or ‘i the all-seeing lyrical/ I/ wears her self-indulgent hat/ indoors’: You’ve got the ‘i’, the ‘eye’, and the hat. Or: ‘q:/ he’ll never amount to much without/ you’. It’s great – maybe you could do it next to a chalkboard, and draw the letters as you read. I love that kind of work—multi-modal performance. I suppose not many venues have a blackboard spare.
Well actually, the original one I did had all those letters in India ink and I did them with a quill so they splattered all over, deliberately. And then I’d made a paper that was full of things like the holes punched out—you know, the paper holes—I put them on, and other bits of little stuff, and more ink and so I printed it on that.
So it was just a one-off?
Well... nobody was very interested in it. I don’t think that poem’s ever been published anywhere but in this book.
I liked ‘jalapenos’ too:
breakfast at the pub: y’all want red or green chilli with gravy red or green jelly? you asked
That’s why for me the wordplay is really interesting. Some of it’s true to life; it’s this idea of accents making the same language different. Then you have a poem like ‘barn dance at westport island’ that has something like the word ‘fun(d) raiser’ as a one off, but then you have something like: ‘fiddler magicians saw the lady of the lake in four-four time’. That’s a very extended and complex one. Is it just something that happens naturally as you write?
Mmm, yeah. The first one was mishearing. I was actually writing last night and I was very conscious that I was cutting out a lot of those easy wordplays and a lot of those easy vowel repetitions and when I looked back at what I’d written, I’d killed the darlings, you know?
And how did it feel?
Well I went back and looked at it, just before you came, and I didn’t put any words back in, but I changed it from two lines to three lines—three line stanzas instead of couplets. I thought—it needs more material, because it needs more explanation.
It feels to me like you’re very in control of the diversity of the material for a first collection. Especially in your ekphrastic works. In a strange coincidence, as I was walking down to your house, I spotted half a mannequin—a pair of male legs to the waist, lying next to some bushes on the footpath!
Like it fell off a mannequin truck, or something?
Oh, it looked it a bit more beat up than that, probably from someone’s sharehouse. But I’d wanted to talk about the poem ‘hans bellmer stuffs dolls’, so it felt like a sign. I wasn’t familiar with Hans Bellmer; I looked him up last night.
I was very curious about the layout…
With the boxes? He used boxes.
Oh, to put the dolls in. It was a bit hard to tell from the artworks I saw.
But I also wanted to have that feeling of claustrophobia, and I wanted it to be able to be read across as well as down. It isn’t something I’ve used before or since.
Well, I think that’s why it stood out. I like to think that as a poetic audience we’re getting more comfortable with different devices in the construction of poetry.
No one’s ever commented on it before.
Really? Even with lines like ‘it feels like your legs / are attached back to front / fitted with someone else’s cunt’? And then across the grid: ‘that sick feeling when your forehead touches the floor’. [Julie goes to get the book for me, that has the artworks in the boxes.]
These are probably more horrific than what you saw. The ones that are out in the woods I don’t like much. I don’t like any of them really. I used to like him when I was an art student because I’d seen his pencil drawings. And they were so delicate and that’s what interested me—and then I got these books. Yuck! I couldn’t get into it.
‘flesh pillowing around fishing line / delicately rendered in 4H pencil’?
Here’s a pair of legs attached to legs; there was one I had in a book of German surrealist drawings or something, and it was this very, very beautiful delicate oval sort of eyelid with a fishhook through it, and it was done in 4H or something. It was so delicate; that was what interested me.
So you haven’t gone on to write a series?
Nope. Here’s one with the boxes. And here’s one I think is really moving – it works. It’s his wife. Here’s another box one.
It’s a bit of a Wunderkammer style. Some of the sculptures, the contorted bulbous ones, like the kind you write about actually made me feel a bit sick to look at.
I don’t want to revisit him [laughs wryly].
It’s a great poem though. I found it pretty powerful. And I love the way that it’s ekphrastic, but it’s not the poet musing on the artwork – you let the artwork speak; give it agency.
No one’s ever liked it. I don’t think anyone’s read it!
What would make you think that?
Because it’s horrible...
But it’s so interesting: when you look at the picture, the doll is so inhuman looking, but you give her a really human voice, and a punchy one too, that goes against what appears to be her total incapacity. And still on art poems, I loved ‘The intimacy of the shelf’.
The Giorgio Morandi one?
Yes, the narrative you’ve created from this beautifully simple still life: after describing the objects very humanly, you have the stepchild wriggling into the ‘hot bed’, which I think is suggested just by that strip of brighter reddish colour between the vase and the bottle. I just found the second stanza very touching: ‘bribed into exile with new crayons’ ... those memories – of kids waking up way too early. ‘Go put the cartoons on!’
[Laughing] ‘Go and raid the cookie jar!’
And ‘morandi spins a white bowl in a microwave’ ... that was one of those poems for me where I just wondered: ‘how do people put these ideas together?’
Because you sit there looking at the microwave, waiting, and there’s this white bowl going, with the shadow changing on it, and you’re thinking, ‘Oh my God, Morandi should see this! He’d love this! You know I’m a real fan of Morandi—I went to the Museo in Bologna, and I couldn’t get into the house because it was Saturday.
Bit unfair. Like a Tuesday in Paris!
I think it was about two hours on the train each way. Again, I’ve tried to write some about Morandi, and he had such an exceedingly tedious life, you know, aside from being bombed and selling two paintings to Mussolini, not much happened.
Of course now you say it, I can see it – but on the first reading I just wondered how someone comes to put poetically together the inventor of the microwave oven with a twentieth century Bolognan still life artist!
It’s that light and shade in the microwave going round. There’s another poem about Morandi in the latest Australian Poetry Journal, a sestina. He lived at home with his three sisters all his life.
I also had to google the Anselm Kiefer sculptures you write about. I haven’t been to the Art Gallery of New South Wales in way too long.
I’ve seen Kiefer shows as well overseas.
I’m thinking about the three poems in Linen that are in response to the Kiefer works: the three women, ‘Myrtis’, ‘Hypatia’ and ‘Candida’. Do you think you could have, or would have, written these poems based just on historical research?
Without the visual? Why do I use the visual? Oh, that’s a hard one! I mean obviously I did research as well.
Well, it’s particularly interesting in this case, because the Kiefer visuals are quite bold and abstract in some ways, although they are certainly representational of the lives of these women. So you would be researching and working with both the historical and the visual, I suppose.
Yes, there definitely is an appeal in the visual. And then, with the Darger, you’ve got his autobiography as well. That was a gift, having that. It was like a kind of a touchstone you could go back to, to use as a measure for other things.
At the beginning of the first poem in the set, ‘Myrtis, poet’, the lines:
a bronze gown binds my torso its folds fissures where poems brood
there’s a bit of ambiguity as to whether we are necessarily talking about a statue, or a bronze-coloured dress; and if we do take it to be a statue, it could be any number of statues of a woman of antiquity. But when you move to the next section, starting with ‘instead of a head / on my shoulders / a book droops – / greased wings of geese’, you’re clearly in the world of the Kiefer statue.
Yeah, Yeah—and that sort of heavy lead weight of it. You know, having this heavy lead weight with the open book almost being wings. Do you know these?
Yes, I looked at as many pictures as I could before we talked. I think they’re incredible.
He did forty of them. I tried to visit him in France and wasn’t able to.
For you, does seeing something like this sculptural representation give you a better sense; a sense that makes sense to you, of who this woman was?
Maybe it’s another dimension. Maybe it’s another person’s view to bounce off: so you have her, and you have his interpretation of her, and then you have your interpretation, so it’s a three-way thing.
That’s a really interesting way to look at it, I think.
They’re made out of lead—they must weigh tons and yet here are these people whose bones ... you know, one of them had her bones scraped with shells. And she sounds so fragile.
Hypatia. I was very curious, I hadn’t heard of that. You sound slightly vulnerable even talking about it. So that’s that thing of really wanting to get rid of someone completely. Like throwing bones in a river, so there’s nothing people can form a cult around. Well, given that we’ve just talked our way through a fair bit of Linen, do you feel like your next collection might be more targeted, or are you maybe just a diverse writer? You seem to like to play?
Mmm, I like to play, yes. Possibly slightly less diverse. I mean, at the moment, I would have a couple of different themes in the book so that ... I mean I’ve recently done one set of poems that’s maybe fourteen pages of related poems. So that could slot into a book. And I have the theme for the book. The question mostly is things jumping around from being stories to being poems! Not knowing where they’re going to end up.
You mean as you’re writing them—not where their place in the book will be? They’re fluid as you write?
Yes, and having similar themes running in the two genres.
That sounds great! I love books and styles that move around.
The problem is that I think there’s a push to review books as a thematic whole and to look at books for awards as thematic wholes.
I was surprised that, of the reviews I read, people didn’t seem to comment on the geographical scope of the book, which is big—or the recent historical scope. I like that, too. Very different to Darger.
It’s always an issue, particularly with short stories. I mean if you write a short story, and you put it in the United States, it immediately gets looked at as ‘This is American, not Australian, so we won’t publish it. So it’s very hard to know how to sort of honour the experience I had in the United States, without transferring it here. So in a poem I’ve been working on, I’m hitching back and forth all the time: do I call this car a ‘car’, or do I call it a ‘Pontiac’, or do I call it a ‘Holden’? You’re sitting on the fence if you call it a car, aren’t you?
At least you would have been able to get away from that geographical split in your second collection, Darger: his girls, but even though it’s set in America I imagine that working on a very focused project like that brings its own challenges?
Well, yes it does. This project involved a lot of research where research materials weren’t always easy to find. For the voices, being raised in America helped. Even though my family’s from New Jersey, I was able to use my Grandfather as a model to some extent—because they would have been contemporaries.
Oh, not because your grandfather reminded you of Darger though?
Oh no; it was about voice, and mannerisms, and just, I suppose, the social and cultural mores of the time.
I have to admit, I’d never heard of Henry Darger until reading the book. When did you first come across him?
On the back of my 2008 Poetry and the Trace Conference program, I had scrawled ‘Why all this attention to Henry Darger? A misfit artist from Chicago who traced colouring book outlines and glued then on to street debris. He spent his life mourning a lost newspaper photo?’ In a paper session I’d heard that day, and from some subsequent googling, he appeared to be an untrained artist and a social isolate who was obsessed with little girls. There was definitely a sensationalist angle. After his death, his room was found to be full of paintings and collages and writings, some of which are quite disturbing.
Knowing nothing about Darger initially, except those basics, how did you feel about writing him? What prompted you?
Initially, I was just curious—the book took three years in total to write. It started with one long poem, maybe two pages, that was looking at that more sensationalist side of it, thinking it was true. It sat there for about a year, but it became the germ of the story. I did a bit of research and reading during that time, and then after I got the MacGregor book, it really took off for me. John M MacGregor is an art historian and psychotherapist, he was living in California, I think, and he spent twelve years looking at Darger’s art and writings, including actually staying in his rooms for some of that time.
So what came out of that?
Well, the book weighs in at seven hundred and twenty pages, and I felt that some of his argument about who Darger was as a person, and as an artist was unfair. Using his authority as an art writer and a psychotherapist to read the artworks and the man, he came to the conclusion that Darger had the potential to be a murderer or a serial killer. The more I researched, the more I found that there was no evidence of Darger ever having been accused or ever suspected of any kind of violent or sexual misconduct.
In a recent radio interview you did on Darger for Radio Skid Row, I remember the interviewer wondered whether you might have thought of Darger as, in some ways, a kindred spirit, or felt some kind of connection with him as a visual artist?
I didn’t feel like he was a kindred spirit. It’s more that I came to understand him differently. Some of the paintings are so visceral—here, I’ll get the book for you—but I feel very strongly that a person should not be judged by the subject matter of their paintings. Maybe that’s the outlet that they need.
[Julie already has her Darger books piled on the bench, and pulls one out for me. I’m entranced. Some of these works would sell fabulously as prints in today’s vintage-mad consumer climate. Hundreds of delicate images of little girls, in the style of the clothing catalogues of the time, often traced onto transparent paper and collaged or painted onto backgrounds of cardboard, or whatever material Darger could find on the street. These pretty little girls are sometimes in soldiers’ uniforms, sometimes in dresses, and sometimes naked, with small penises, or with tissue-paper traced, or cut out viscera glued over their small bellies. These works are literally visceral. The effect they have on a first-time viewer is overwhelming.]
I guess I can see where the sensationalist angle came from. But at the same time the little girl figures are so beautiful; the innocence—and some of the colours are so bright. After hearing ‘outsider artist’, ‘obsessed with little girls’, I was expecting something even more disturbing than the Hans Bellmer works you wrote about in Linen; some real predatory depravity, but this doesn’t strike me that way at all.
This was in the age of the Andrews sisters and the Dionne quintuplets, so Darger would have been aware of them. And in his fictional work, some of which is represented through these artworks, he had a band of seven little sisters called ‘The Vivian Girls’. They look identical because they’re often traced from the same model. In the writings they are rebelling child-slaves.
I really liked the poem in which you talk about the transgenderism of Darger’s work, and the framework you posit for it in the poem—because after all, as you say in the introduction, no one knows why he drew penises on these figures, and you get the fictionalised voice of his one friend Whillie in there too:
after one of our walks to the ice pond whillie suggested I draw the girl slaves with the waterworks on the outside like us so I traced each girl then added the details freehand quickly got into the three-stroke swing of it gave a penis to each Vivian girl as well for balance and strength lucky little hermaphrodites not old enough to grow breasts or need the pads stacked in convent cupboards, on shelves in bandage rooms
Well when people talked to his neighbours after his death and the discovery of the artworks, a lot of people thought he may not ever even have seen a naked female form. But at one point, he was at a Catholic home for boys, and later, as an adult, he worked at St. Joseph’s hospital, so he was familiar with both hospitals and convents, and a lot of the work he did was things like rolling and packing bandages. He would have had some idea of their function, and from the viscera in some of the works, it definitely seems he had a basic knowledge of anatomy.
Well, even though I was expecting a different kind of disturbing feeling from this book, I still felt a kind of menace, and a sadness around what happened to Henry in his early years. The menace came often from the sing-songy nursery rhyme sections you insert. The first poem, just after Henry licks his thumb to turn the page of his father’s newspaper:
four year old darger squats in a corner eating motherless pie he sticks in his thumb and pulls out ‘i didn’t mean to papa i didn’t mean to’
I nearly teared up there, on the first page. It just sets a tone.
The strange thing is that no one really comments on the word play in the Darger book. And it’s full of it.
Very much so…
The nursery rhymes: I didn’t know whether to take them in, or leave them out.
I think because it begins with a childhood, the nursery rhymes suit, and then you’re just in that space.
Yeah, and one comes in toward the end. The people in my poetry group said, ‘Oh, leave them, leave them!’
I’m glad you did! And the next poem telling of the death of his mother during childbirth, and how his father gave the baby up because he was lame: that’s very affecting too—and he wanted a baby sister, didn’t he?
Oh yes, I think so, and after that, when he started school, he began acting out. Lashing out at other children. He started school in grade two or three, because he could already read: his father had taught him a lot about the Civil War. But he ended up in the Lincoln Asylum for Feeble-minded Children. And really, he remained institutionalised for the rest of his life, if you include working in the hospital environment. It definitely affected him. In one of the paintings, there are rows of children in beds with fiery red hands coming down to throttle them.
I think again, this is an example of that unflinching but compassionate gaze I talked about. I think you saw something unfair in Darger’s life-journey, and in the aftermath of it, perhaps.
There was a vulnerability that I found appealing, and also a strength. I mean, this man, after being released from the Asylum, and rejected by the Army, supported himself his entire life working menial jobs. And the artwork was so intriguing.
I’ll definitely be scouring the net for some more information on Darger, and some more of his artworks. I suppose this is a bit like the Anselm Kiefer portraits we talked about earlier; his artwork is a third party in your exploration of his life. I believe you’re off to Italy before this will go to print. Does this relate at all to your next collection?
Well as we’ve talked about already, I do have a great interest in ekphrastic work, and I’m particularly keen to look at more Renaissance Art. I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about Leichhardt, which I live very near to.
Well, I hope you have a fantastic and productive trip, and I’m sure I and lots of others will be interested to see what’s in your poet’s suitcase on your return!