Interview with Louise Wallace

photo by Grant Maiden.

There’s a fantastic interweaving of humour and frustration in Bad Things –at sexism, at the way people talk past each other, at the way we treat the world – was your anger an inspiration for these new poems? And is your humour a way to mitigate the crappiness of these bad things?

Well, I was reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric at the time, which is all about microaggressions and race in America. It’s an incredibly powerful book, and to be honest, really floored me – it was all I could talk about for a while. I started thinking about what the idea of microaggressions might look like in a New Zealand context and within my own experience. What I like about Claudia Rankine’s poems is that she doesn’t intend them to just be looked upon and admired. They’re not static objects. She’s hoping to provoke something in a reader, something that might generate a change in their attitudes, or that that reader may then influence the attitudes of others around them. I think that’s a great intent to carry with you when you set out to write a poem.

So yes, some of these poems are speaking to these things – sexism, injustice, people not listening to one another – but in a roundabout way. Poetry still needs to be art as well, it can’t just speak to the thing direct. There still needs to be a little mystery, otherwise it’s not challenging enough to keep a reader engaged. It’s always a balancing act. And I suppose that humour is one of the ways I attempt to do that. Humour can often provide a bit of a haze, so that a poem comes at the thing from an angle, rather than just head-on. Although there’s lots of poems in here that aren’t very humourous, as well!

You’ve got a huge variety of form in the collection – from dense, narrative prose poems to single words on pages – you don’t seem to favour one over another. Can you talk about your relationship with poetic forms?

When I first started writing, I think my relationship with form was pretty basic. Not in a bad way, but I just didn’t have enough knowledge to have the confidence to move around much. I guess back then it was more important for me to be figuring out my ‘voice’. So, now that I feel pretty sure that I know ‘how I sound’ and that that’s never going to leave me (which I think is something we fear!), it’s given me a lot more freedom to work on other aspects.

When I compare this book with my first, Since June, I’m really pleased with the progress I have made with form. And the only way you do that is through reading other poets – not to imitate them, but to expand your horizons on what you think could be possible. As I say, Citizen was very important to me while writing this book. But as were the poems of Kei Miller and Rachel Zucker, as well as – a bit closer to home – Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle. I think these poets are all doing really interesting things with form and structure.

So I guess I wanted to push myself in this book, including my use of different forms. And I’m sincerely proud of Bad Things, because nothing to do with writing is easy! I’ve recently read Bill Manhire’s Some Things to Place in a Coffin, and I think it’s brilliant. It’s gentle and moving, but I was impressed by the use of form. And I think that’s so admirable – Bill is obviously a certified legend by now, but it still feels as though he is pushing himself in his work, pushing at the edges of his comfort zones, where he could easily ‘rest on his laurels’ so to speak, with no risk to his reputation. But he’s not. That’s the sort of experience I want to aim for. What’s the point of anything else?

Much of the collection was written while you were Burns Fellow at Otago University – what is it like having whole months to write poems?

Um... amazing! I know that big expanses of time don’t work for some writers, but for me it’s essential when it comes to the initial part of the process. I’ve learnt that I need big chunks of time to have the space to read and think, and then the writing flows on from there. I can edit while I have a day job, but I can’t write very well. The feeling that I’ve only got a certain window, say an hour or so, to work on a very fresh poem or idea, feels very restrictive to me. It freaks me out a little bit, which isn’t good for the writing.

The Burns Fellowship came at a really essential time. I’d had to work full-time for a couple of years prior just due to our personal circumstances, and I’d gotten to a point where I felt really stuck. I just had no momentum at all. I started the Burns with a rough idea of what I wanted to investigate – which was the use of dialogue in poetry – but mainly I just started reading. I read loads of contemporary collections that had kind of built up on my bedside table in the periods where I hadn’t had the time or energy to read much. I checked out recommendations for great books from the last couple of years. And after a short time, my brain sort of opened up again and all these ideas started flowing.I noticed that I would be waking up in the night with ideas for new poems, or for changes I could make to drafts – something that hadn’t happened for quite a while. And that’s the sweet spot: where you’re so in the zone, that your brain starts doing the work for you; your subconscious starts ticking over, so that you can leave the poems alone for a bit, unsupervised! You’ll go for a walk or a run, and an idea will just find it’s way to you, rather than you having to hunt it down. That’s what reading can do!

You are the creator of the online site for young writers, Starling – can you tell us about it, why you started it?

Starling is an online journal of creative work from New Zealand writers under 25 years of age. I feel like I’ve talked a lot about why we started it – about my desire to create opportunities for young writers, to level the playing field somewhat, and to provide greater reach to the regions – all borne out of my own experience. But we’re two years in now, and what’s really exciting is that it feels as though we’re starting to see some really tangible outcomes for young writers from this platform.

We have been directly contacted by editors of other journals and by festival organisers, interested in offering further opportunities to some of the writers we have published. And for some writers, this is their very first publication. That is Exciting! Capital ‘E’ there for how exciting that is to me. The stuff we’re publishing by these really talented young people is fresh and there’s a spark there that can’t be taught – and that’s what these other editors are seeing. To play even the smallest of roles in trying to give someone a boost at the very start of their writing career is incredibly rewarding. And now some of the writers have gone on to be published in The Spinoff, in Mana magazine, and some of the opportunities we’ve got coming in the pipeline are even bigger and better than what’s happened already. For sure, watch this space.

Bad Things by Louise Wallace, p/b, $25.