Interview with Maria McMillan

Maria McMillan (Grant Maiden photography)

Your new book The Ski Flier begins with a sequence of poems titled ‘11’. What are these? What is it about the number 11 that people get obsessive about?

It’s a good number isn’t it? And I did get kind of obsessive. These are strict syllabic poems. There’s 11 poems of 11 lines each and each line has 11 syllables. When I told my mother I was working on these she said it made her think of the Armistice, you know the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. And that fitted well too. There’s a lot of violence of various sorts in this sequence, wars I suppose, waged in places other than battlefields.

I liked how relatively long lines gave a conversational tone to the lines, a natural speaking voice I think, but the syllabic restraint still provided a structure and some tension in what could have been become something entirely rambling. Eleven syllable lines forced me out of being too pared back or poetic. It gave me time to figure out things. I got trained into being really sparse in my poetry and so this was good for me. I keep thinking of when Sinead O'Connor grew back her hair, I've earned big hair she said, or something like that. After years of being bald. I reckon I've earned 11 syllables.

Often when I read your poems your concept of space – particularly uninhabitable space like mountains, crevasses, sea floors – reminds me of how Ursula le Guin uses space in A Wizard of Earthsea and The Left Hand of Darkness and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. People do battle with evil and philosophical conundrums out in these spaces. What is it about uninhabitable spaces that attracts you as a writer?

I had to think about your question for about three days so I didn't just say yeah crevices cool eh? Abysall Plains, woah. What about them mountains? So cold. Deadly mate, deadly. Wicked.

I haven't read enough le Guin. I have an enduring love Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time (don't read the last in that series her morality takes a weird dive into a whacky form of Christianity, AWIT is the best). I love the skipping scene in AWIT. When all the kids are creepily skipping in perfect time in some city controlled by a gigantic pulsating brain. It's so much easier just to be taken over by the brain. Resistance is painful. I love you associated with this book, please continue to do so.


A teacher I once had said he liked poetry which asks an unanswerable question and then answers it. It feels a bit like that, poems inhabiting an uninhabitable spaces. Going to the extreme of an idea or a situation or a place, to the furthermost point, to the place you can't go past and then going further. It's romantic but interesting, the idea of extremity forcing us into a more pure form of ourselves. Adrienne Rich's Phantasia for Elvira Shayatav, (the leader of an all women's climbing party) is amazing on this

In the diary I wrote: Now we are ready
and each of us knows it I have never loved
like this I have never seen
my own forces so taken up and shared
and given back
After the long training the early sieges
we are moving almost effortlessly in our love

It is kind of fantasy too. All the women in that trip Rich is writing about died. Jennifer Peedom's film Sherpa, is a good one for interrogating some of the heartfelt spiritual urges people have to go really really high, some of the Everest climbers were gobsmackingly arrogant. There's places in this world that should be left alone.

It seems to me (tonight anyway) that what I was grappling with in The Ski Flier was that concept of how do you inhabit somewhere uninhabitable. Both physically hostile and politically hostile spaces. How is it to be on a mountainside where you can't breathe both because it's so beautiful and because you don't have enough oxygen, and you might be about to die. What are you doing going to mountains whose inherent instability is exacerbated by climate change. Everything's falling down. How is it to come into adulthood as a young woman and have your own sexuality explode at the same moment as having your illusions of a basically just society explode? How can we live knowing and witnessing the terrible cruelties in the world? Why aren't we consumed by hopelessness? Why don't we curl up on a nice snowy rock and let the cold take us? (I am not advocating this, please don't do this) How do, despite it all, hope and kindness undo us?

Maria McMillan reads at her launch at St Peter's Hall, Paekakariki


You had a reasonably long apprenticeship as a poet before you published a book and now you’ve produced two full length poetry books and a chapbook in the space of 3 years. Does poetry come readily to you? Or did you just have a lot of work backed-up?

Hmm. I wrote the poems that would become The Rope Walk (2013) and Tree Space, (2014) concurrently for about 10 years, figuring out what and how I wanted to write (and this changing all the time of course). By the end I knew they were two different books. But as you know, the lead up to publication is long and probably I'd written 95% of the poems by 2012. So The Ski Flier is really a sort of themed best of 2012-2016 which makes me seem a bit less prolific. Like lots of writers I know I have long periods of torpor and over-engagement with social media and self doubt punctuated by rare and ridiculous bursts of elated productivity.

Can you tell us the last 3 books of poetry you read that have stuck with you?

The Collected Poems of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, Spirit House by Tusiata Avia and The Internet of Things by Kate Camp.

The Ski Flier by Maria McMillan ($25, pb) is available for purchase now at excellent bookshops and through our online bookstore.