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Brad Evans Interviews Jean Kent

 
 
Jean, what is your background? Where were you born?

I was born in 1951 in a little town called Chinchilla, in Queensland.

Where were you educated?

I went to primary schools all through Queensland. I went to about eight schools in seven years and then my parents settled in Toowomba, and that's where I did secondary school. After that, I went to the University of Queensland and completed an Arts Degree.

What poetry were you studying during your education?

In primary school I was extremely lucky that the poems in the readers and the anthologies were interesting. In a lot of the smaller schools, there was usually only one teacher for several classes, so there was plenty of time to sit and read on my own. I remember there were a lot of English poets, people like Wordsworth and `Daffodils', but there were also Australians who had written ballads, such as Banjo Paterson. I liked the sound of the English poems but I didn't really connect with the content of them. I remember when we were learning `Daffodils', I was living in a little town in Queensland which was very hot. I looked out the window of the classroom and the sky was full of enormous thunderclouds and there was no way anyone was going to grow daffodils in that place. The Australian content was a bit distancing too. I should have connected with that because I had relatives who lived in the country and had properties, so things like cattle mustering should have struck a chord, but I wasn't that interested in that life anyway. I was a lot happier when we got to poets like Kenneth Slessor and John Shaw Neilson. The poetry that interested me was on a different level, a deeper, emotional level.

Were you searching for an Australian influence to the poetry you read at the time?

No, not really. The poetry that really captured my imagination was the work of Dylan Thomas, which was not Australian at all, but the music of the language and the imaginative scope were extremely thrilling to me. I remember listening to `Under Milkwood' when I was sixteen and I was completely in a trance, I don't think I really knew what it was about, but it was just magic. When I listened to it I didn't know how much time had passed or what had gone on, but I knew I had discovered something. It was wonderful.

Did Dylan Thomas present an English influence to his poetry?

I didn't think about what sort of country or connection it had, it seemed to me to be a voice which spoke across all cultures. There was emotion, there was music, there was human content which was very believable. I think perhaps that `Under Milkwood' too had that little town which, in hindsight, connected with me because I'd grown up in different towns and I thought there wasn't anything much to write about them. At the same time, I was reading Patrick White and discovered a story called `Down at the Dump', which is about a little town, and that was a revelationary reading as well, because there were the people that I'd grown up with and I could see that he was making poetry out of them. When I was at school, a lot of the poetry seemed to come from somewhere exotic and different. It would have been quite easy to conclude that when you're writing poetry you've got to have azure skies and all of this foreign content, that your own home territory is not as interesting. With those writers I learned that was rubbish. You could write about something on your own doorstep.

What differences can you see with the kind of poetry that was taught during your education and the sort of poetry that exists today?

The very early poetry I was introduced to was far more structured, it was very rhythmical, with rhyme and distinct form. By the time I was finishing secondary school we were looking at people like e.e. cummings and William Carlos Williams, so we were starting to get away from such strictly organised poetry and there was some acceptance of the possibility of using language closer to everyday speech. But the influence of America was nowhere near as dominant as it is today.

Jean, have you received sponsorships, scholarships for your writing?

I've been very lucky. The main reason I've been able to get to this point, and write full-time for a while, is that I have had a few grants from the Literature Board. The first one I had was in nineteen-eighty and I'd been madly saving my money to take time off to write anyway, so it came at just the right time. That chance to actually write full-time was critical to get somewhere.

How did you find the financial support at the time?

It gave me enormous freedom, because I had the time to write. There is a feeling of responsibility which goes with it too. You have to propose to do something, so there is a weight of obligation and I had to come to certain decisions about how I was going to stick with that. I've found with most of the grants I would spend the first months doing something totally different, and then in the last months I'd rush back to the project that I'd proposed. I'd had the freedom to spread my wings and do what I wanted to do. It was easier to knuckle down after that.

What aspects make a good poem?

I have to get a feeling of genuine expression. Something that's unique to that person in language which is fresh and memorable. It could be very clear and pure so that it doesn't need anything else, or be rich with music, imagery, experience, something giving it surprises, so that it's exciting to read.

Who first introduced you to poetry?

Mostly school. And less formally, my parents through the books they had. My mother loved to quote nursery rhymes and the Christopher Robin verses. I also joined the ABC's Argonauts' Club when I was about nine and I used to write little verses -- I wouldn't call them poems -- to send to Icarus.

Did you write your own poems after you began to read poetry?

I started writing poetry when I was sixteen. It was around that time that I discovered Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins, and also people like Shelley. That mixture of intoxicating language and outpouring of emotion matched up very well with being sixteen.

What kind of poetry do you write?

I find this question very hard to answer. I think it's probably lyrical-emotional, but I don't like to categorise it. I tend to want my poetry to operate on quite a few different levels, I also want it to be accessible, so I hope that it's clear. I think it also has a narrative flow to it.

Do you consider your style of poetry unique?

People have said to me that they've read things they didn't know were mine and halfway through reading it they've said it must be a Jean Kent poem, so I thought that was really nice. And I hope that is the case. Certainly, in my times of doubt, I look at what everybody else writes and I think this is nothing like what I write, and it's quite a shift then to convince myself that what I'm doing is still okay.

When you read another person's poem, and you consider it great, how do you react?

Often I get a shiver down my spine and goosebumps all over. Sometimes I feel literally stunned. It depends upon my mood, I think. If I'm feeling confident in myself, and if that poem has struck a chord, it quite often will start off some writing of my own. There are other people who I read and I think that they're so good, how can I write another line.

When you are talking about good or bad poetry, can a bad poem show promise?

In workshops I've seen poems which are a bit of a mess, or basically borrowed, but there's still one line, or some spark -- and to retrieve that and actually make a poem has struck me as possible, though hard. Sometimes it's the line or part that the poet least believes in, which they say they'd just thrown down. That sometimes is where the heart of expression is.

How do you know when you've written a good poem?

In the past, I would quickly send things away and test them with magazines. I also have a friend, who I went to school with, who writes and we've been showing one another our poems since we were about seventeen. We do that a bit less now than we used to because we've developed very different styles. I think it's a very solitary process. There's a point beyond which nobody else can really help you and it comes back to that gut feeling of whether it's all clicking together and whether it is right.

How often do you re-work your poems?

Most of them need a lot of work. I do quite a few long sequences, some of those can involve fifty or more drafts over several years. There might be only a line, two lines, just a word, changed in a draft. Or I can struggle for ages before I find the right form. The number that I've finished in less than three drafts -- I can point to them in my books and say `That one was a gift!'

What moments and experiences bring out the best in your writing?

In order to actually do the writing, I need quiet and solitude and quite a lot of uninterrupted time. So, sometimes, what can come of that is just a reflective response to what's all around me. At other times, though, it can be because of some dislocation or some emotional destruction that has occurred and I might have written a little bit about it at the time, but I'll go back when I'm a bit distanced from it and make it into a poem.

Do you find it easier to have your poetry published overseas than in Australia?

There are certain types of poems which are easier. I found with some of the poems that I wrote in Paris, the overseas response was more positive than in Australia.

Do you see more Australian poets are now looking to have their work published overseas?

It does seem to be the case, yeah.

What are the reasons for Australian poets to look overseas?

I think part of it is that there are so many enthusiastic publishers overseas. If you get a poem accepted into a U.S. magazine you get a really nice letter, which is the sort of thing you don't get in Australia. Overseas editors do tend to write a lot more enthusiastically, like you've done something interesting and worthwhile, whereas in Australia you get thank you very much we'll take it.

Have you disagreed with any criticism which you may have received with your poetry?

Yeah, obviously some critics have particular styles that they like and I think my style is quite distinct, so that does polarise people a bit. Some people don't like it.

Does the average Australian appreciate poetry?

No. I don't think they have the vaguest clue what it is. When you go into a bookshop, there are no poetry books to be seen usually, so you've actually got to know about it before you go in and it's very difficult for people to know what's being written. Most tend to know what they learned at school and, quite often, that's been done in an examination context which has really not encouraged them at all, so they don't keep reading it after they've left school.

Is poetry appreciated and valued differently by people from other cultures as compared to those in Australia?
I have difficulty answering that because the main awareness I have is from a literary group anyway. There may be more respect for poetry, but whether more people read it, I don't know.

Do you think that performance poetry is becoming more successful in Australia than the written form?

I think performance poetry has become a different strand of poetry, it's a kind of theatre. It has its followers and people who regard that as what they want to do. I don't really think the two should compete with one another because they're separate.

Do you feel that the older generations appreciate poetry more than the younger ones?

It seems to me that there are people who have time, and that makes all the difference, not age. I've been invited to do readings for groups like Rotary and PROBUS, and the audiences have ranged from young adults to people in their eighties. You wouldn't expect them to go out and buy poetry, or even to listen to it much, but once they're there in a group and a poet is brought to them, they're very enthusiastic.

Do you believe that anyone can write poetry?

I think it's probable that anyone can write a certain number of poems. I think if you're eighteen or so, it's quite probable that you can produce some quite reasonable poems because of what's happening in your life, if you're open with your own emotions at the time. If you're still writing when you're thirty or forty, perhaps you're closer to being a poet.

Are there certain skills that one requires to write poetry?

If you want to write poetry that has meaning for other people, I think yes! The language has to have some control, even if it's just clarity and focus. An awareness of poetic techniques -- rhyme, rhythm, imagery -- is very helpful if you don't want to end up with chopped-up prose.

What purpose does poetry provide for you?

My own poetry is the main way that I express things which are most important and which I feel most deeply. It's also a great source of intellectual enjoyment because I like using the words, shaping the words, and that process of creating a poem. I sometimes wonder, under what circumstances would I stop writing -- and there have been periods of six months or so when I haven't written very much -- but if I don't do it I get quite depressed. It's not a cathartic activity, but it is like a spiritual connection that's occurring and it's helping me to express something that's important for my own psychological health. The communicative aspect is important too, I do like the fact that other people pick it up and it's no longer mine, and it has some other power to move them.

What is the purpose of the poems in your latest publication, The Satin Bowerbird?
 

This book comes about seven years after my second book, Practising Breathing, and it covers that period of development in my own life, so there's a bit of a journey that's occurring there. I can see that there is a summary of that time, with poems that literally travel from Lake Macquarie, where I normally live, to Paris, where I had a six months residency in 1994, as well as a lot of looking back to the past and why I'm a poet. The central section is very much about growing up in Queensland and being a student and discovering poetry. At the time, in the nineteen sixties early seventies, there was a lot of questioning concerning social values and how people should live. There was a lot of idealism. I've now reached a stage where I want to look back at all that and see what happened to my generation and why we made the choices which led to the way we live now.

Do you feel that poetry has a role in society?

In my own poetry I do like to write about ordinary people. When I was working as a counsellor in TAFE colleges, the people who came in there often had a disadvantaged schooling or they came from poor backgrounds, and they were looking at what they could do to improve their lives now. Seeing those people was quite moving. It was a highly privileged position to be in, because people would come and they would pour out stories about their lives and also their deepest dreams and aspirations. Some of them were just walking poems, so I felt that I had an extreme privilege there to take their experiences and record what was happening with them. I guess I wanted to use poetry to pass on a feeling to other people that there are all sorts of possibilities and that your life has value, whether you're a train driver or whatever.

Can poetry be used in political circumstances?

I think that becomes quite risky. Some of the poets who were interesting and exciting to me when I was a student were people like Anna Akhmatova and Miroslav Holub. I don't think I really understood the political consequences of what Holub was doing, because I didn't really know what was going on in Czechoslovakia at the time, but his poetry had quite a profound effect in a very subtle, gentle way. I think writing like that is the way to go if you want to be political because it's not too overt. Your message is there and people can be changed without necessarily realising what is happening.

Do you feel the need to be published as a poet?

Obviously I do because I keep trying to get books published! I think it's a lot of hard work to write and it's a little silly to leave such things in a drawer. It is frustrating because the recognition and acknowledgement of the work are minimal. But I know I get a lot of pleasure out of other people's books and reading poetry in magazines, so I guess I'm responding to that. They gave me something -- maybe they'd like to read something of mine as well.

Do you sense any pressure to have your work published?

Not really. Living up here I'm fairly remote from poetry groups and I've always been operating on my own. It's been a matter of looking around and seeing where I fit in then sending poems out when I'm ready, rather than feeling pressure from anybody else.

Initially, how difficult was it to get your poetry published?

In the very beginning it was ridiculously easy. I didn't really think I was going to write poetry, I thought I was going to write prose, but I'd written all these poems when I was a student and I sent some away and they were automatically accepted. If I'd realised then how difficult it would be later, I may have been a bit more grateful. I went back to writing prose and then about ten years later I started to get some poetry published again. It wasn't terribly difficult in magazines, but it was very difficult to get a book published.

How many rejections have you had over the past few years?

Over the past few years there haven't been terribly many, because I haven't sent many things away, which is one way to avoid them! The manuscript for The Satin Bowerbird was almost finished about two years ago. That was when it was submitted to Hale & Iremonger. The wheels toward publishing roll slowly. There's been some revising and new poems added, and that's been my major concentration. I don't think it gets any easier -- you still have ones where you're trying to do something new and it just doesn't work, or you send it to the wrong place, and the crushing blow is still just as awful when it comes back.

What feedback do you get with your rejection?

Nothing, usually.

Do you think they should provide something?

It would be helpful. There have been a few people who have been really good to me at various times and they've said look we think this works, but these few lines let it down or perhaps you could clarify this bit. That is enormously helpful. Even if the editor just writes `this is not our style', I think that's helpful.

Have you found inconsistencies with the feedback from editors?

Absolutely. There have been some poems which have been rejected by several magazines and then -- perhaps after a few little tidy-ups -- they've won competitions. Or someone overseas has been very enthusiastic.

Do you feel that poetry editors of magazines fulfil their roles?

I think a lot of editors have a really rough time. Most of them are doing it for love and they're either in other full-time jobs, or they're working flat out for a pittance. I've tended to work out a group of magazines that I respect and I concentrate on those. Generally, I regard those people as doing as much as is reasonable. It is a shame that magazines are not in shops and that they're not easily available.

If you were offered the chance to have a poem published in a magazine, but the editor wanted to make some changes, how far would you go in changing the poem?

I'd look carefully at whatever was suggested and perhaps take a month or two to decide. I find that there is quite a lot of pressure involved in that. It is very tempting just to say okay or no, but I do usually need to go away. I know in this latest book, my editor suggested a few changes and it took me a full month to re-write one line in a poem, because the whole poem was slightly skewed or thrown off balance from changing that line.

Do you feel that editors may reject your poems for other reasons? Such as content?

Quite probably. I think that the individual personalities of editors mean that, sometimes, there's going to be a poem which does not have any meaning for them. It might be that their particular life circumstances don't match up with that. I don't like to talk too much about male and female preferences in poetry, but I do think that there have been some editors who have a preference for a masculine voice and for masculine subjects. What's called `domestic poetry' is inferior, so there are some people who I wouldn't send any that have got domestic subject matter.

Did those publishers give you an indication why it couldn't be included?

No, that's when you usually end up with this little mass-produced slip, you know, the editor regrets -- and you don't really know whether the magazine's full up or what. That's become more common the last four or five years. You used to get a lot more feedback and it was relatively rare to get the other note which comes now, saying we can't publish anything until a year's time. Please resubmit.

What ratio do you have with acceptances and rejections of your poems?

I have a general policy where I always submit about three poems in one go and it's very rare for more than one to be taken. I regard that as not so much a rejection of the other two, but rather they've chosen the one they like best. So, I then submit the other two somewhere else. I've developed a tendency over the years to wait a bit before I send things out. Often I'll wait six months before I decide poems are ready to send away, so that increases the chances of getting them accepted.

When were you first published?

I was nineteen when my first poem was published in Expression, a little magazine, based in Adelaide.

What is the history of some of your published work?

Verandahs was the first book published in 1990, Practising Breathing came out in 1991 and now The Satin Bowerbird in 1998. Verandahs had been developing over a period of ten years. I kept discarding poems and putting in new ones, but by the time it came out I still had an enormous backlog of poems, and that's why Practising Breathing came out only a year later.

How do you select your poems for one publication?

That's a bit of a gut reaction. With The Satin Bowerbird, there are quite a lot of poems that I have already finished which haven't gone in it. I'm saving those for something else. I tend to throw them out on a table and put them in piles and think this goes with that, and see how they add up. I put them together a bit like a novel. If you want to start at page one, you can work your way through to page ninety-six and feel like you are going on a journey. There's a sequence. You don't have to do it, but if you do, the poems are positioned so they have a nice flow and feeling between each one, with references backwards and forwards.

What are some important things you would say to a poet who is just starting to write?

Write as much as possible and show it to other people when you're ready. But also read as much as possible. Even writers you don't like -- try to read their work and try to step back and think what it is you don't like, and why somebody else would consider it a good poem. Try to write from your own perspective, and get to know your own voice. What makes a poem really leap out for me, is when it says something I haven't heard anybody else say quite in that way before, so there's an authenticity, a genuine individuality. Sometimes people have that right at the start when they write, and then they lose it, they get wrapped up with technique and trying to be good. You've got to find to your way back to what it is in you that's special.


The Satin Bowerbird (published by Hale & Iremonger), is available from good literary bookshops, or online from Gleebooks, Sydney (http://www.gleebooks.com.au), Dymock's, Sydney (http://www.dymocks.com.au).
© Brad Evans, Jean Kent 1998
This interview first aoppeared in Five Bells magazine.