Wednesday, February 27, 2019

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Ali Whitelock

Ali Whitelock is a Scottish poet and writer living on the south coast of Sydney with her French chain-smoking husband. Her debut poetry collection, ‘and my heart crumples like a coke can’ has just been released by Wakefield Press, Adelaide and her memoir,Poking seaweed with a stick and running away from the smell’ was launched to critical acclaim in Australia and the UK in 2010. Her poems have appeared in The Moth Magazine, The Pittsburgh Quarterly Magazine, The Tahoma Literary Review, The American Journal of Poetry, The Galway Review, The BangorGutter Magazine, NorthWords Now, The Poets’ Republic, The Red Room Company, Beautiful Losers Magazine, Backstory Journal, Other Terrain Journal, Ink Sweat & Tears, The Canberra Times, Bareknuckle Poet, The Bangor Literary Journal, The Glasgow Review of Books, Neighbourhood Paper, The Burning House, The Ekphrastic Review, The Hunter Writers’ Centre ‘Grieve’ Volume 6 Anthology, Poethead, and upcoming in The University of Wisconsin’s Forty Voices Strong: An Anthology of Contemporary Scottish Poetry. She is currently working on her second poetry collection, ‘the lactic acid in the calves of your despair’ and her second memoir, ‘andy’s snack van tour of scotland’. 

1 - How did your first book change your life?

It didn’t. My greatest desire and wildest dream ten years ago was that I’d get a publishing contract for my memoir, ‘poking seaweed with a stick and running away from the smell.’  And one day that dream came true. I still remember the day I signed the contract, which don’t get me wrong, was a momentous day. But that night after the signing, I was back in my little house, sitting in my chair looking around my lounge room at my sagging couch, my old Tibetan sideboard, my lovely Yamaha piano, my empty wine bottle in the––in my opinion, charming––70’s crocheted poodle cover, and nothing had changed. Somehow I’d always imagined signing a book contract be accompanied by flashing lights, excessive tolling of local church bells and breaking news alerts on all the major channels. Instead, I made a mediocre meal that night, had a glass of average red, went to bed, got up the next morning, threw a load of bath towels into the washing machine and life went on. So the recognition of ones work is wonderful and it’s a huge honour to be published––but it becomes apparent the more you write, that actually, the most important aspect of all of it, is the act of writing itself.

How does your most recent work compare to your previous?

Well, this latest book, ‘and my heart crumples like a coke can’ is poetry, the previous was memoir, so there is some difference there––my memoir being more concerned with narrative than metaphor for example. But I think the more I write these days, the more I see that the writing of memoir and the writing of poetry are really coming from the same place. And I see now that it’s possible to make prose as rich and musical as poetry.

How does it feel different?

Poetry feels different because, for me, it is less concerned with narrative than it is with good metaphor. Also what I love about poetry and what makes it different to memoir is that a poem doesn’t have to tell an ENTIRE story. It can be a single moment within a story/within an experience. So when I’m writing poetry, I’m trying to distill the emotion from my experience, I’m trying to boil the story down––I’m trying to reduce it like cream in a pan on a low blue flame until I can hold the kernel of the emotion in the palm of my hand.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I stumbled on poetry really, in a second hand book store in the Blue Mountains just outside Sydney. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular that day and for no apparent reason my eyes fell on this book called, ‘Eight American Poets’. I had never been attracted to poetry in my life––ever.  In fact, I was one of those people who’d always said they hated poetry, because my only exposure to poetry prior to that had been the boring kind we got forced fed in school. But that day in the bookshop, as I flicked through ‘Eight American Poets’ I stopped dead when I got to John Berryman’s ‘Life, friends, is boring…’ My mind was blown ––wide fucking open. I didn’t know poetry could be this. I absolutely devoured that book that same day, (after purchasing it of course)–– John Berryman for entrée, Anne Sexton for main, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath for desert.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

I have a couple of lines in a poem of mine which says, ‘and they will ask you how long it takes you to write a poem/and you will tell them one week/or fifty two, it depends.’ So, the ideas for my poems go down on the page pretty quickly, however this is only the first stage. Typically a poem springs from a random line that will occur to me, and that line will be borne out of something absurd, something funny, something sad, or something at odds with the status quo. I will then build a poem around that line. Thereafter comes a great deal of thinking, tweaking, sculpting and moulding. The line might end up anywhere within the poem, or sometimes the line will become the title of the poem itself, (examples of lines that inspired poems and became titles in my current collection include, ‘please do not pee in the sink’ ‘duty free fags’ a lake full of fucking swans’ ‘on making a chocolate cake and not fucking up what’s left of your relationship’ ‘the time it takes to boil an egg’ ‘my friend’s vagina’). Very, VERY occasionally a poem will come quickly and fully formed, but mostly it’s a process over several days, weeks or months. I also try not to be fixated on how I think the poem should end, or what I think the poem NEEDS to say. If you can stay out of your own way while you’re writing the poem, if you can avoid trying to direct the flow of that river in the direction you THINK it should go, then the poem often brings about some fabulous surprises. Lately, when I finish a poem (if a poem is ever finished - they say a poem is really only finished once the poet is dead), there is a sadness, a grief almost because the process of writing the poems has become more important to me––more so than the actual finished poem itself.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

As I mention above, my poems usually start with a random line which can appear out of nowhere With my first book, I never sat down with the intention of writing a book. It was borne out of a series of short pieces that I then decided to stitch together into a cohesive series of chapters. My poetry collection grew out of a series of poems, however this time, I did sit down to work every day with the intention of producing enough work to form a collection.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I don’t see public readings as part of my creative process––but I do love doing them. It’s a huge buzz to get instant feedback and reaction to you work, especially when we often have to wait six months (or more) to hear back from editors on whether our poetry submission to their magazine has been successful or not.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I know lots of writers who are concerned with social justice, the rights of women, and other very worthwhile causes. My writing doesn’t have any ‘concerns’ specifically. If I see something which bothers me, for example, a story I heard from a friend yesterday, about a young homeless man being prevented from entering the Salvation Army Charity Store in a Sydney suburb because he wasn’t wearing a shirt. I feel so fucking angry and sad about that, that it will find its way into a poem.

My work tends to focus on the ordinariness of us humans, our foibles. If anything I hold a mirror up to myself and I hope my work says something like, ‘none of us are perfect’ and ‘we’re all in this mess together’. In these times of perfect Instagram moments, where everyone looks AMAZING and is living their BEST LIFE, I like calling myself on some of the shitty things about myself, the things I’m least proud of. I like commenting on the nitty gritty of life and death––the less Instagrammable moments no one’s really talking about.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Wow, the role of the writer. I don’t see myself as having any ‘role’ in larger culture. That terrifying idea makes it sound like I might have some sort of importance or noble purpose - neither of which I have. I love to write. It feeds me. It makes me dig deep into myself. If there is any point to my writing, it’s to peel back the layers of myself and write as honestly as I can about what’s important to me. And somehow that work will speak (or not) to others.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

It depends on the editor, but I have been so very lucky to have worked with amazing editor, (Julia Beaven), at my publishing house––Wakefield Press. Before we started work on the edits of my first book, I remember Julia very clearly saying, ‘Okay, so this is when you really start to become a writer’ and she was right. I listened to everything she said, and learned so much, it was incredible. She was patient and MOST IMPORTANTLY, she loved my work and understood my voice, style, humour––I’d say that’s a pretty important aspect to a successful writer/editor relationship. Julia got what I was trying to say (even if at times I didn’t really know what I was trying to say myself). The chemistry between us worked. I think working with an outside editor is invaluable, the greatest gift you can give yourself as a writer.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

1. Show up at your desk every day and allow yourself to write shit.

2. ‘A writer is someone who has to tolerate himself long enough to get something down on
     the page.’ David Rakoff.

3. If you look at a line and hope, ‘maybe I’ll get away with it’ you’re totally not getting
     away with it.

4. Maybe my favourite line ever: ‘Writing is like pulling teeth - from my dick.’ David Rakoff.

5. Take away the mystique. You’re not creating art––it’s work.

6. Don’t wait for the muse.

7. Sharon Olds: ‘I write as much crap as anybody else.’ Talk about being handed permission to
    write crap.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to memoir)? What do you see as the appeal?

I had a gap between the publishing of my memoir and discovering poetry, so for me it feels as though the two genres are quite different art forms. If memoir is like oil painting, then poetry is like sculpture. Both of them are art, but for me each requires something a bit different of the heart and the self. Poetry asks me to dig deeper into myself. It pushes me to find the most unique imagery, the most unusual metaphor. If I’m going to say something, I want it to be as original as I can possibly make it. I never felt that same need or craving when I was writing prose. However, I was a very different writer then and maybe now my prose would automatically demand the same depth from me.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

If I can offer one piece of advice to anyone who’s starting out writing, it’s this: GET A ROUTINE, (in saying that, I can hear at least twenty poets yelling back, ‘Hey Ali, I don’t have a routine and I manage just fine, thank you very much!’ ). But routine, for me, is everything. This is what I’m talking about when I say ‘show up’. I mean sit down at your desk, every fucking day, whether you feel like it or not. Do not wait for the muse––she might never come. So I sit down at my desk every morning and I push my pen. I don’t wait for inspiration––for me, the act of inspiration comes from the actual process of writing, the actual pressing of the metaphorical nib onto the page (although there are also occasions when the muse does suddenly show completely unannounced). I am a morning writer––so typically I’m at my desk from 8am till around 12 every day. Important to note: sometimes the writing goes ok, occasionally it’s wonderful, often it’s shitty––but it’s good to remember that, ‘ok’, ‘wonderful’ and ‘shitty’ writing is still WRITING. It’s all part of it. Writing is not just about the juicy bits. Ernest Hemingway says, ‘I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit….’  So there you go, you heard it from Ernest first––embrace your ninety pages of shit.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Sometime I go for a walk. I find that shakes things up, or at least moves them around. Lately I read that creatively, ‘output directly relates to input’. I love this. Now sometimes if I’m stalled, I’ll think  have I been to the movies lately? Visited the art gallery? Gotten lost in a good book?  If the answer to those questions is ‘no’ too many times, then I know it’s time to fill myself up on other people’s art. Something else I would add to that is––even if I’m stalled, I’ll keep on pushing through, I’ll keep on aiming for Ernest’s ‘ninety pages of shit.’ Because even if you’re ‘stalled’ you can still write shit, right?

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Nice question. That spray-on fake snow that smells of pine cones we used to spray into the corners of our window panes as kids to make it look as though snow had drifted up there. The same spray-on snow that, 12 days after Christmas, you can’t scrape off. Other fragrances: the citrusy scent of christmas clementines; the husk of a greenhouse tomato; square sausages (Scottish delicacy) sizzling in a frying pan; chips caked in artery clogging salt, liberally doused in malt vinegar.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Yes! All the small stuff influences my work: overheard conversations on the bus, in cafes, in the art gallery, in shops, seeing someone’s washing dry on the line on a windy day, a dog tied up outside a pub, being behind someone in the supermarket checkout and marvelling at the contents of their trolley. I agree books can come from books, but art in all its forms can and does come from ordinary places. My work is grounded in the ordinary. The domestic. The familial. Certainly music can influence me too––if I’m stuck, I might stick on an Eagles song that my father loved and that will spark a memory and out comes another poem.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

One of my favourite poets is American poet James Tate––for his slightly odd, slightly left of centre, hilarious yet profound take on seemingly ordinary things. I love James’s work not only as inspiration for my own at times, but just for the absolute pleasure of reading when I’m not writing. Although even when we’re not bashing away on the keys of the laptop, we’re still writing. A lot of writing is thinking. Then I love Charles Bukowski for his ‘fuck you’ attitude and this quote of his on writing, ‘[Writing is like] grasping at the curtains like a drunken monk and tearing them down, down, down.’  This quote set me free as a writer in more ways that I can imagine. It left me feeling free to say whatever I wanted, however I wanted, regardless of consequence. I love and regularly read the astonishing work of poets Brentley Frazer, Bill Moran, Ben Lerner …as well as collections of poetry which are lyrical and deeply moving––Anne Casey, Magi Gibson, Mark Tredinnick, Edward O’Dwyer, I could go on …

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Spend a winter writing in a wind swept cottage on an Outer Hebridean Island with my brother Andrew (an extraordinary musician and photographer), enough firewood, printer ink, paper, electricity and red wine to get us through till spring.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

In all seriousness, I have harboured (for many years) a terrorising desire to be a stand up comedian. Luckily it’s now too late, PLUS I’m too lazy to start any such terrifying new thing now. For those people with the glass half full, it’s never too late. My glass is two thirds empty. It’s totally too late.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Prior to starting to write, the reality of how I was spending my life struck me hard one day. I used to work in a cafe––and on this particular Tuesday, as I carried two bowls of pumpkin soup to a table, I became earth shatteringly aware that  OMG I CARRY BOWLS OF SOUP TO TABLES FOR A LIVING. That was a, let’s say, pivotal moment for me. Until that moment I’d always assumed that one day I’d be an internationally acclaimed [insert dream position here]. After the soup realisation, I started enrolling in community college courses trying to find an artistic ‘thing’ that spoke to me––that one amazing thing I could impress people at parties with; that one magical thing that would suddenly render me windswept and interesting, as Glasgow comedian Billy Connolly would say. So I tried Photography for Beginners, Oil Painting for Beginners, Yoga for Beginners, the list goes on––and I was crap at all of them. The only thing left on the community college curriculum I hadn’t tried was Creative Writing for Beginners. I enrolled. That six week course was the best gift I ever gave myself and that first week’s homework formed the first chapter of my first book.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Last great book:

Last great film:

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m currently putting the finishing touches to the manuscript of my latest poetry collection, ‘the lactic acid in the calves of your despair’ and I’m also working (loosely, given it’s prose!) on my second memoir, ‘andy’s snack van tour of scotland’ which is about returning to Scotland after a long period of absence and reconnecting with my roots, the landscape, the food, the culture, the weather and the Scottish sense of humour, while doing a road trip through the highlands with my brother Andrew, who is the funniest guy on the planet (and nothing short of insane).


John Browning said...

Such a great, offhand interview. I carry bowls of soup to tables for a living. There it is. Beckett-like reality.

Unknown said...

Love it Ali you gorgeous, amazing brilliant poet memoirist Scottish woman!! And thank you for the lovely mention - aaaahhh!!! 🤗💓🌟 said...

“I’m trying to reduce it like cream in a pan on a low blue flame until I can hold the kernel of the emotion in the palm of my hand.”
In awe of Ali ~ I love your down to earth attitude - The ordinariness and magnificence of everything human. Fantastic interview. A million stars ��