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Jennifer Maiden

in conversation with Catherine Kenneally, December 2004

This interview is 4,000 words
or about 10 printed pages long

C. The first piece of yours that I remember reading is ‘Play with Knives’. How do the themes you were tossing around there tie in with work you did later?

J. One of the things — two of the main theories I tend to work with; one is what I call my hierarchical theory, actually an anti-hierarchical theory. I’ve been interested in people surviving torture and trauma for some time: I was actually Writer in Residence at New South Wales Centre for Torture and Trauma rehab unit for a while. One of the theories I’ve developed about trauma is if someone is traumatised at an early age they tend to have a very unstable hierarchical position after that because their basic belief in benign authority is gone. So what happens then is that they tend to try and find a position in the hierarchy either at the top or at the bottom. What happens is if they get down low they get tremendously dissatisfied and kick against the pricks and try and go up in the hierarchy and once they get up the top they tend to destabilise themselves and go right down the bottom again — that’s one of the themes working through ‘Play with Knives’.

Jennnifer Maiden, photo by Katharine Margot Toohey

Jennnifer Maiden, photo by Katharine Margot Toohey

    Another theory I’ve had for an awfully long time dates from the Vietnam War when I wrote a long poem called ‘The Problem of Evil’, basically about the Vietnam War and the use of language as a disincarnating force in the Vietnam War, and that theory is that to achieve some sort of moral equilibrium you constantly have to — what I thought went wrong in the Vietnam war, why it’s called ‘The Problem of Evil’ and why it’s about the drug of immediacy is if someone gets too immersed in immediacy and can’t conceptualise, it leads to a form of evil and bad behaviour. But if, on the other hand, they become too immersed in the theory — again like two ends of a hierarchy, if they’re too immersed in the theory they get out of touch with reality, again you get evil, immoral behaviour. What I thought happened in Vietnam was they were totally immersed in the reality of it and they couldn’t get out, on one level, on another level they were totally immersed in the concept of it and couldn’t get out. So again you needed a mixture of the concept and the reality as a moral force. Vietnam seemed to me an example of when you can’t do that, that’s what happens. I suppose the current Iraqi conflict is the same thing.

C. Interesting concerns for a poet to have: those questions of the problem of evil.

J. To get back to ‘The Problem of Evil’, you can see both of those theories at work, but not in an abstract way.

C. As for ‘being immersed in particulars’, that’s the poet’s job, at least according to some.

J. Again, more both, because immersion in a particular won’t get you as good art as if you’ve got the concept as well, but if you’re totally immersed in the concept again it doesn’t work out, so you need a balance between the two.

C. The impression I have of the things that peg down your conceptual interests in an autobiographical sense have a lot to do with motherhood, your becoming a mother.

J. I’m not sure about that...

C. I’m visualising a book of yours with you and your daughter on the cover.

J. That’s ‘Selected Poems’. ‘The Winter Baby’ has a painting I did of Katharine on the cover. That’s fairly late in the piece, from that point of view. If you read ‘The Problem of Evil’ you’d probably get the same sense of someone being immersed in detail, that’s much earlier, written when I was 21, and I didn’t have Katharine till I was 37.

C. Thinking back through the books and the concerns threading through them — what’s your account of how they develop?

J. The theories? Those are just a couple of examples I was using because you were talking about ‘The Problem of Evil’. I tend to like to develop theories that I can work from, as I said because I think it’s a good idea for a poet to have ideas and work through them and then use them. Not to use the particular to reinforce the ideas because that’s bad science. You don’t get a theory and then go back to reinforce it, but basically to use the theory as an investigative tool. And I think I’ve done that since I started writing adult poetry when I was about 17. I’ve always had an idea and then married the idea with the facts.

C. What are the books we haven’t mentioned?

J. There are fourteen. The first one was ‘Tactics’ with UQP, published when I was about 26. I was born in 1949, it was published in 1975, but I’d written a lot of the poems much earlier. ‘The Problem of Evil’ comes in the middle; it was published the year after. It took me a long time to get a publisher for it. Kris Hemensley actually published it, very bravely, in ‘The Ear in a Wheatfield’ and then Bob Adamson picked it up later on. The poems in ‘Tactics’, which was the first book, were actually written before and after ‘The Problem of Evil’ — most before some afterwards. At the same time I had a collection of more experimental poems published by Gargoyle.

C. So the public got a big hit of you in one go.

J. Yes. Not so much because I was writing a lot at that time, but, because I was 26 before I published my first collection, there was an accumulation of 7 years of poems. After that there was a series of poetry collections. ‘Selected Poems’ with Penguin has a picture of me and Katharine on the cover, but the work in it is all much earlier, and the poems about Katharine came out in ‘The Winter Baby’, not in the ‘Selected’, and that won a couple of Premiers’ prizes. I was quite proud. I suppose the problem about getting the prizes for the poem about the baby was that it made it look like social direction, made it look like I was being rewarded for writing poems about motherhood. When I was writing about the Vietnam War, nobody gave me any prizes. Well, actually Rodney Hall gave me the Harri Jones Memorial Prize for ‘The Problem of Evil’ but he’d asked me what I’d written that year and said, ‘Right!’ — it wasn’t like it was ... And when the ‘Selected’ and ‘The Winter Baby’ were reviewed in the Sydney Morning Herald, the sub- heading was ‘Maiden Mellowed by a Season of Motherhood’, and I got the two Premiers’ Prizes... a general impression I was being pushed in one direction.

C. I think I got that impression at the time.

J. I think it’s obviously as with anything else I write, the birth of Katharine was seen as part of a process; if you look at ‘The Winter Baby’ poems, the poems ask ‘what does this mean in terms of life, in terms of poetry ?’ They’re investigative poetry still I think. I remember Mark McLeod criticising my poems because I started off with a statement then went all around the bush having a look at it and then came back to it at the end. Which is actually the point of a lot of what I do; I’ll have a look at an assumption from different points of view in the poem and if I think it’s okay I’ll come back to it, but restate it slightly differently, in a way that is the result of the process.

C. He thinks you should sneak up on a conclusion?

J. I don’t know quite what process he thinks you should use, but clearly the point is he thought I didn’t know what I was doing; it is actually what I’m meant to be doing, what I mean to do, what I need to do. In reference to ‘The Winter Baby’, I think a lot of ‘The Winter Baby’ is actually like that: this is an assumption about motherhood, let’s have a look at it and then work through it; different aspects of that and if it’s okay at the ending we’ll come back to it but in a more informed way. And if it’s not okay it’ll say that at the end of the poem, if I don’t like that assumption after I’ve had a look at it I’ll be saying that at the end of the poem.

C. Did the reaction that you got to ‘The Winter Baby’, all of that approval, as it seemed, for writing on an approved topic, push you in another direction, make you less inclined to write about motherhood?

J. A lot of the people who liked my earlier work were coming up to me looking worried and saying, you’re not going to keep on doing this, are you?

C. A momentary madness?

J. The point about it being about Katharine is that she was only a baby once, and because I tend to use immediate experience in my poetry she crops up in the poems still, in different ways, usually making some intelligent comment I would never have thought of, but it will work through there but there aren’t any more poems about babies because I don’t have any more babies. I think if I’d gone ahead and had six children people would have been really worried, from an artistic point of view (laughs). It was a once-off, the motherhood thing, and as usual, when I’m interested in a topic I was really immersed in it, and being madly in love with Katharine too was very good material for writing.

C. A lot of women responded very positively to that collection, however cynical you might feel...

J. Oh, no I’m very proud of it, I’m glad I could do that. I’ve got some portraits I did of Katharine at the time too which are very positive and I’m very proud of them as well. I’m not cynical about them. It’s of its time, perfectly valid for its time. One of the things I do find about poetry, it’s a very obvious thing to say, but if you’re writing about something someone else has got experience of, it’s a great key to sharing the poem. I remember there was a friend of mine who didn’t like poetry and liked music, and I happened to write a poem about Mendelssohn, and he liked Mendelssohn, and according to him probably the only good poem I’d ever written was the one about Mendelssohn. It’s the same thing, if you’re writing about an experience and people say, yes, I’ve had that experience, it’s not a legitimate key to the poem or anything like that but it’s a great key to sharing the poem. Picking a poem for an audience, I think that’s fine.

C. Do you get up in front of an audience very often?

J. Not very often, no. I’m better at it than I used to be. I do like public reading, I don’t mind it really these days. I do tend to work one to one, I tend to look round and get a feeling of the audience as individuals. I don’t read to an audience as such. I like to write private poetry for public audiences, I don’t think I write public poems.

C. In some parts of the world, poets are public property. In Dublin, if you’re a poet a lot of people know, you can make a living going from festival to festival and doing your stuff. It’s not quite like that here. But, again, I would have thought you were one of the more reclusive, perhaps, of our crop of poets.

J. Not necessarily, no. Not by choice. If someone asks me to do something I’ll do it, but I hardly ever get asked to do anything. I don’t get asked to anything; I don’t know what that means. I probably got asked to every festival once and not again. I’m not on anybody’s list of who-do-we-get-to-read. I would if I was asked.

C. Do you see yourself in a loose group of poets who are kindred spirits in one way or another?

J. No. Some of my friends are poets. It doesn’t really matter whether their poetry is like mine or not. In fact, most of them, I wouldn’t know whether they like my poetry or not. Half the time I suspect they don’t.

C. How much has your poetry been channelled into a professional life of any kind... do you make money teaching?

J. No. I used to do contract work with unis and I did senior writing practice at University of Western Sydney for a while. Again, they didn’t renew contracts and I don’t have work like that any more. I don’t even do workshops any more.

C. Do you think that will remain the case?

J. I don’t think I’m fashionable. I don’t come to mind when someone wants to do a workshop or uni teaching or anything like that. Also, Katharine’s been home-schooling, when she was younger, and now she’s teaching herself, and I’ve been a sounding-board for the Higher School Certificate this year. I’ve been pretty called out on that.

C. A huge job?

J. More for her. She’s done a marvellous job, regardless of what the results are, given that she hasn’t got any teacher assessment. She won’t get as good a mark, because teachers always mark up and she hasn’t got a teacher. She’s only got her exam results, which will pull it down a bit. Nevertheless, being a free spirit, she wanted to do it this way, and I agreed that it was the best thing for her with things she wanted to do like languages at different extension levels. I think being a sounding board is tiring, being the passive half of someone who’s learning something is difficult, not being able to impinge. It’s quite hard, Keats’s negative capability in a different form (laughs).

C. Has that meant you’ve had less time?

J. I’ve hardly written anything this year. I’ve had one poem published by The Age. I’m keeping my hand in, writing poems about the Bush administration and Iraq. I think that’s necessary. And I’ll send that to The Age and it’s in The Age eventually, which is good. But that’s the only writing I’ve been doing.

C. Out of conviction, wanting to have your voice heard?

J. Yeah. Moral obligation.

C. Over the years you’ve been schooling Katharine, has that meant you’ve had to cut back on your writing?

J. Only this year, the Higher School Certificate.

C. Take us back through your publications, the ones we haven’t mentioned, since ‘The Winter Baby’.

J. ‘Acoustic Shadow’, one of my favourites, that was the one Penguin published after the ‘Selected’, that’s got my Gulf War sequence in it, first Gulf War. It was published about ’93. And it’s got a lot of poems about modern warfare, a lot of ideas poems, fleshed out with reality, autobiographical reality, observational reality. In that one I was working on my idea that poetry is three-dimensional philosophy (laughs); a lot of three-dimensional philosophy in there, I like that one. I like ‘Acoustic Shadow’ as a collection, but it didn’t win any prizes. Then there’s the ‘Mines’ collection with Paperbark, which won the New South Wales Premier’s. That’s an accumulation of poems written after ‘Acoustic Shadow’ — you’ve got a lot of Clinton administration poems, there’s three I’m particularly fond of about Madeleine Albright at the end of it. Plus there’s poems about Katharine, autobiographical experience, working through ideas, political observations. About my family, my ancestors, my great-grandmother was Indian, there’s some family history, one version of family history, highly colourful version of family history, stuff about my grandfather. That was 1999, that won the 2000 Premier’s Prize.

C. You’re modestly listing those awards, and the number of publications to your name, it’s surprising you don’t spring to mind when they’re looking for people to read, or be on panels at literary festivals.

J. It does surprise me a bit too. Also I was enjoying doing contract work at University of Western Sydney, and the kids loved me, because I had a queue of them. I worked out what it was, at UWS in particular, a lot of the kids had expression problems, they wanted to do well, but they didn’t know how. I worked out a system which I called progress marking, whereby I’d give them a mark for something, but I said if you want to improve the mark, you don’t have to, but you can do this and this to improve the mark. They loved it and it worked really well. Someone who’d never got a distinction in his life got a distinction, things like that. It worked out fine except it was a huge teaching load. You had to mark things three times. It didn’t make me too popular. I think it was one of the reasons I didn’t get asked back. But I was a bit surprised, I live in western Sydney. I was actually Writer in Residence at UWS for six months, too, I was a bit surprised I never got asked back there.

C. Now that Katharine’s finished her schooling, will you be pushing yourself harder, for more public roles?

J. I find that doesn’t work. If you try to do that it doesn’t work. People tend to think, oh, what a terrible pushy person, we won’t get her. Even if I was inclined to do it, I think it would be counter-productive.

C. An agent?

J. Again, I don’t know what agents do. I had an agent for a little while. I actually wrote a sequel to ‘Play with Knives’, which a lot of people really liked, in manuscript, but it never got published. At that point I thought I’d better get an agent, but it didn’t appear to help.

C. I’m sorry to hear that. That’s a surprise. Was that long ago?

J. Yes, about ten years ago now. I’ve never written another novel since, because, I’ve got two unpublished novels sitting in a drawer that no one wants to print. You’re really talking to a total failure here.

C. Except you’re obviously not. If you ran your CV past someone who wasn’t in the Australian milieu they’d have to be impressed.

J. I got the Christopher Brennan award for a lifetime’s achievements. I was very pleased to get that. I thought, that’s the Fellowship of Australian Writers, that’s writers’ writer sort of thing. They sent me a plaque and everything. I was pleased to get that.

C. And it has been your life’s work. You’ve never deviated. There hasn’t been a period where you haven’t been a poet.

J. I suppose so. I think earlier I might have quibbled with... but I think actually I am a poet. I think the incredible impracticality of anything else I try to do indicates to me I’d better stick to poetry (laughs.)

C. What other things?

J. I’ve had other jobs. I’m an incredible failure as a housewife, as you might imagine. It’s lucky I only tried motherhood once. It helps that I had terrific material to work with with Katharine, she’s turned out great, but having seen other mothers in action, I’m filled with awe and despair, I could never do what they do. I worked at the museum for a while, that turned out alright, but again I don’t think anyone was too sad when I left. I worked at the Corporate Affairs Commission for a while too. Writers in residencies have been better, Torture and Trauma, and schools. I’ve done a little bit of work in prisons too. I think when I was at uni the kids loved me, I don’t mean in a sentimental way, I was really fair with them and I explained the system, helped them get on top of the system.

C. Do you read a lot of poetry, from elsewhere?

J. Yes, I do. I haven’t had much time. I’ve been concentrating on HSC texts as you can imagine. I’ve spent a whole year concentrating on John Tranter’s ‘The Floor of Heaven’, God help me; when you do that you get more respect for the work rather than less. Top to bottom on Tranter’s ‘The Floor of Heaven’, Katharine was doing it for the HSC, gendered language. The usual early influences, like Wallace Stevens, and Lowell and so on, and the French, Mallarmé, Baudelaire. Probably very traditional people, like John Berryman, I like the ‘Dream Songs’. I’m always careful about that line from Berryman, ‘We are using our skin for wallpaper and we can’t win’. I don’t like straightforward confessional poetry, if there’s such a thing, for that reason, or straightforward performance poetry either. I think you need that little chamber of privacy to retreat into with poetry. Modern Australian poets, modern American poets.

C. Your’e at a point where you can expect to have more time for your own work, consider the future. Have you thought what comes next?

J. I wouldn’t anticipate that I’d get much more successful than I’ve been. Shouldn’t say that because I’ve got another collection called ‘Friendly Fire’ coming out with Giramondo next year, I’ll probably terrify my publisher that it’s not going to succeed (laughs). It might be okay. I think it’s more in substance like ‘Acoustic Shadow’ than ‘The Winter Baby’, or a cross between ‘Acoustic Shadow’ and ‘Mines’. Also, you might be interested, it uses George and Clare, some of the characters from ‘Play with Knives’, in all sorts of interesting worldwide settings like Baghdad and Kabul.

C. They’ve been important characters in your mental landscape all this time?

J. I like them as characters, of course. George, as you know, is a probation officer and he ends up in the unpublished novel being an observer for Amnesty International overseas. That made sense to me, after his wife died, and Clare ends up not being such an international careerist, more working and doing various things but still incredibly iconoclastic, and she’s still Clare. The pair of them in the last poem meet up in Baghdad, George goes off and has a long conversation with Saddam Hussein after he’s supposed to have been captured. It’s still the characters from ‘Play with Knives’, I thought since I’m not going to get the prose about them published I might as well put them in poems.

C. The title would suggest there’s strong political content.

J. There’s some private poems as well, topical poems as well.

C. If anyone had run away from ‘The Winter Baby’ period with the impression you were going to write about motherhood and domesticity for ever, that that was what you did, they’re probably in for a shock if they haven’t been keeping up.

J. Well, they’d get that too. There was another novel, I shouldn’t forget that, another novel before ‘Play with Knives’, ‘The Terms’, again about urban occupation of buildings, public service politics, terrorism, stuff like that, I shouldn’t forget that. Tend to forget that one. Same sort of topics. That’s always going to be there.

C. Not that I’m suggesting motherhood isn’t political.

J. It is political. That’s there too. The personal poems are there. It’s not that I’ve stopped that. Not one or the other. Probably the collections after ‘The Winter Baby’ integrate the two things more.

C. Finally, you’re not feeling dispirited about having seemingly dropped off the radar a bit?

J. I don’t think if you are a poet, except for a few male poets I won’t mention, I don’t think you have any idea you’re going to be a raging commercial success in the first place. You don’t go into poetry to be a figure on the international stage — again with a few male exceptions I won’t mention. I think you have to do it for it’s own sake, why else would you do it?

Cath Kenneally

Cath Kenneally

Cath Kenneally is a poet, novelist and broadcaster. Her books are Harmers Haven (1996), Around Here (1999), Room Temperature (2001) and All Day All Night (2003), with Ci Vediamo forthcoming in 2005. She is completing a PhD in Creative Writing at Adelaide University for which she has written a second novel, provisionally titled ‘Holmwood’. She produces and presents ‘Writers’ Radio’ for National Community Radio, reviews books for the Weekend Australian newspaper and is Australian Broadcasting Commission’s Radio National visual arts stringer in Adelaide, South Australia.

Jennifer Maiden was born in Penrith, New South Wales, Australia on the 7th of April 1949. Thirteen of her poetry collections (one including short stories) and two of her novels have been published. She has won the New South Wales’ Premier’s Prize twice, the Victorian Premier’s Prize, the Christopher Brennan Award for a lifetime of achievement in poetry, and many other awards. She has been Writer in Residence at the Australian National University in Canberra, the University of Western Sydney , Springwood High School and the New South Wales Torture and Trauma Rehabilitation Service. Her novel Play With Knives has been translated and published by dtv in Germany. Her next collection, Friendly Fire, is forthcoming from Giramondo Press in 2005.

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