This interview originally appeared in Northerly, January 2017, for the Byron Writers’ Festival.
Sarah Holland-Batt is a veteran poet on two continents, with works published internationally and a long list of accolades for her two volumes, Aria (2008) and The Hazards (2015). She is currently the poetry editor of Island and senior lecturer in Creative Writing at QUT.
How much of your artistic process is linked to the need to be somewhere else?
It’s become procedural to me to be somewhere else, to look back at something to whittle it down to the important kernel. I need the estrangement of distance to write about an experience. It’s distance plus time, that’s probably the little equation that a poem comes out of.
You’ve straddled two continents for most of your life – what kind of an influence has that had on you?
My sense of culture and the references that I want to make are neither wholly Australian nor American. My vocabulary is a mixture, sometimes I revert without thinking to American spellings, it affects all sorts of things, you know. I think my personality is a mixture of the two, and my writing straddles both American and Australian influences. American poetry was the first body of literature that I read. I only began reading Australian literature at 19. People have commented that my poetics has a declarative, American element to it. I see myself as being a part of both literary cultures.
You mentioned in a previous interview of being ‘motivated by doubt’. How do you get from doubt to the conviction that is present in your writing?
Questioning or equivocating is the act of writing the poem: the act of doubting each utterance until you reach the final product, which maybe has the air of confidence but doesn’t really begin from that. I like poems that have thought about their subject matter and come to a conclusion over a period of time. I think that’s the way I work. I’m very doubtful. I abandon so many more poems than I write. The easy way through a poem is always the worst way.
Music has played a large role in your life. How does it influence your writing?
Music involves intellect and mathematics and so does the poem. Language can do in the poem what music can do. It’s similar to song writing or composition; you’re working with rhythms and sometimes meters, there are set structures that you set yourself. You work within those confines and it becomes like a puzzle. There’s a conversation between form and imagination that goes on in the poem and in musical composition. To me they are analogous.
Can you describe how you see the link between the natural world and human concerns?
I think it’s fraught and often unexamined. So much of what I want to write about has to do with violence and history. There is violence in the animal world, and I’m always interested in the human truth underneath the landscape, or whatever it is I’m describing. I don’t have a theoretical agenda. It’s very much about what happens in the writing process of the poem. Sometimes I’ve been really surprised. For instance, in The Hazards there’s a poem about the toucan. They’re beautiful and cute and often the subject of children’s literature but in reality they are vicious, cannibalistic. As I wrote the poem it became a weird portrait of dictatorship mediated through the figure of the toucan, rather than a poem about the toucan as it started out.
How do you go about making a collection?
I start with the arrangement, how each poem speaks to one another. They are loosely themed by place into sections. I don’t cluster individual poems based on theme, I look at finding some bridge from one poem to another. There’s a trajectory there – it partly has to do with a sense of music, like the movements of a symphony – I like there to be a sense of development in each section and a sense of an arc across the book. That being said, of course you can just open my book and read a poem.
What do you think a poem should be doing?
For me it has to do three things. It has to have a sense of authenticity, there has to be some great pleasure when you’re reading it, and it has to stand up to repeated readings. For me the whole point of the poem is that it’s something that you can return to over and over again. You don’t get tired of the great poems.
Interview by Katinka Smit (c) 2017.