Sarah Holland-Batt for The Stella Shortlist
Sarah Holland-Batt is the author of three books of poetry –The Jaguar (2022), The Hazards (2015) and Aria (2008) – and a book of essays on contemporary poetry, Fishing for Lightning (2021).
Her honours include the 2016 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry, a Sidney Myer Creative Fellowship, and residencies at MacDowell and Yaddo in the United States. She is presently the Judy Harris Writer in Residence at the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre, and Professor of Creative Writing and Literary Studies at QUT.
ASTRID: Let's dive into The Jaguar. It is a beautiful collection of poetry and it is also quite an intimate work. What has it been like for you to share that with the world?
SARAH: Yeah, that's a good question, Astrid. I mean, I think when I first... The book sort of broadly deals with my experiences with my Dad's Parkinson's. Dad passed away a few years ago, so it also takes in the weeks and days before and after he died. I think for a long time I thought that that subject matter in a way wasn't quite fit for poetry. It took me a really long time to write the poems into, I suppose for want of a better word, metabolise those experiences into something that I thought others might want to read. And then they are very intimate poems and they're poems about the complexities of my relationship with my Dad.
But strangely, the experience of having had the book out in the world has been one of a really amazing response from readers that I hadn't quite anticipated, and that I think a lot of what goes on around death and dying, and ageing, and caring for ageing parents, Parkinson's, dementia, those kinds of neurological illnesses, they're actually quite universal experiences.
I think especially now that we have an ageing population, that people are living longer, that adult children are having this experience more and more. It's been quite extraordinary how many other stories I've heard in response from readers, people sharing their own experiences. Even though the poems themselves are dealing with quite an isolating, I think experience at the time, having the book out in the world has been one of really quite amazing connection with readers, which is sort of unexpected. I think sometimes with poems about those really deep and intimate kind of personal experiences. It's surprising when they resonate and that that's been kind of, I suppose, my experience around that.
ASTRID: I'm glad you're having that experience, Sarah. I found the act of reading the poems immersive, but also really quite profound. I happened to have a chronic degenerative neurological condition myself, and so I guess I read it in a very different way trying to understand your father's experience of you watching him and being there with him. Sometimes I worry about representations of illness in literature and poetry, and I found The Jaguar comforting actually on every page.
SARAH: That's so beautiful to hear.
I mean, I did think quite deeply about the way in which we speak about ageing and death and dying. And we speak about these things, I think with an extraordinary quotient of fear and the terror of contemplating death, the terror of contemplating what might happen towards the end of life, whether one is lucky enough to make it to old age or not.
I think I was seeking a kind of alternative language for that. I think there's a very well-established kind of set of tropes, all of which are very negative, and reinforce that fear around decline and coming to the end of your time and all that sort of negative language. I mean, for Dad, it was a very poignant and difficult experience, and I don't want to diminish that, but I think poetry, hopefully, and literature generally can prompt us to think about these experiences or see them perhaps in slightly new ways. I think that was sort of part of what I was trying to think through. If we set aside the established kind of cliche language that we have about death and dying and ageing, what other kind of language might we find?
ASTRID: I'd like to ask you about what you perceive as the themes of The Jaguar. Obviously, this is about your father and his experience with illness and end of life care and death and your experience, none of your family around him. But I think to summarise that as grief is almost to miss the beauty and the depth of The Jaguar. There is so much more in there as well, including your individual and moment to moment experiences of knowing your father across that time, and it was a very long period of time. So, for you, what are all of the other things that rise up within the poems?
SARAH: I mean, I think for me, a lot of what I think about and have thought about across all my books is our animal nature. I think a lot of the strange things that human beings do collectively, societally, can stem from our delusion that we are separate from the natural world. I'm thinking of climate change and a range of other things that if we took a moment and recognised that we are part of the natural world and not apart from it, I think the world would be a very different place. So part of the poems, I think were trying to think of my father and myself as animals, as humans are thinking of the way in which we change over time. Dad changed over time quite significantly and it was quite a surprising trajectory to watch someone who I knew in quite a fixed way change a lot.
But I also changed, I think, for the better caring for him through that period and watching that and witnessing that. And then I think the last thing that I care about a lot in my poems is seeing. There are poems that are interested in seeing moments in the image, and then there's also the living that goes along that overlays all of the dying sometimes in a sort of surreal way where you can be having a very profound experience and the world is sort of going on. The poems, I hope, capture that, I suppose oscillation that I felt watching with this major life event going on with Dad and his illness, but life still continuing on in pressing ways at the same time. I hope they're poems of life as much as death, but I think if anything, I hope the poems speak to the fact that those things coexist and happen all the time, and that there's value in looking hard and looking forward to what death means, to what the end of our life means that brings our daily life, I think much richer meaning.
ASTRID: How have your family and close friends reacted to the work? I guess by that, I mean many people you don't know have been reading about your experience, not of your father, but those who knew your father and who know you.
SARAH: Yeah. I mean, the one person I was concerned about was my Mum. I have a very small nuclear family. It's Mum, Dad and I, no siblings, and my Dad's parents had both passed away well before I was born. There's not an extended family in that sense to have enormous concern about regarding the way that I thought about my Dad. I mean, for me, I was wanting the poems to resonate with my mother and that she wouldn't feel that his privacy had been violated or that his dignity had been violated.
I think those were concerns for me as well. I had to make peace with that, I think even if the book had only had one reader in my Mum or even in myself. I wanted to sit well with them. So that's probably one way of answering it. I mean, I didn't talk about this experience of Dad Parkinson's with my friends for a very long time. He was diagnosed when I was around 18, and he died in 2020, so just shy of me turning 40 last year. I mean, in that sense, there was a lot of it that my friends didn't know probably until they read the book. But towards the end of his life, I think I've found it a little bit easier to speak about it. But we don't have great cultural conversations around this stuff, I don't think. I think there's a bit of a missing language. It was partially me not speaking about it. In a way, the book probably has opened up some of those years to people who felt like they've known me well, but then seeing this other material that was going on at the same time.
ASTRID: I agree. We have a terrible, societal approach to grief and illness and death. One of the questions I do have for you is do you consider The Jaguar a literary work of grief? I guess by that I mean there are quite a few famous works of grief. I'm thinking of Joan Didion and The Year of Magical Thinking, but this is poetry.
SARAH: I mean, I think there are allergies in the book, but there's a lot more. I would be hesitant to say, I think it is a book about grief. I think grief itself is... I'm still grappling with it. I'm not sure that I have a handle on that. I think for me, they're really poems about observing and that witnessing itself to me, witnessing these moments, some of them very poignant, some of them slightly comical with Dad across his illness, that act of finding a language for something for me is probably my own personal way of coping.
Grieving, I think is something different. I don't know that a poem that grieves is always successful. I think there's got to be something generative in writing a poem where somehow you're transmuting that intense feeling of grief or whatever it is, happiness, joy, love into art, into a work of language. For me, I see the poems as slightly distinct from the feelings that I have about what actually happens in the poems in a way. I think writing itself is a process of translating grief and those raw materials into something else, if that makes sense.
ASTRID: It does. Sarah, with that answer, you've preempted one of my questions. People often mention the act of writing, the act of composition and therapy in the same breath, but writing is not always therapeutic, and writing is not always cathartic, nor should it have to be. I was going to ask you to outline the process of how you compose poetry and how you got these words on the page.
SARAH: Yeah. It's definitely not therapeutic for me. I can say it's the opposite and that often trying to get a poem right is just agony, total agony. I think it's just far from the spectrum. Therapy for me is going for a Thai massage or something like that, or having a good sleep on a Sunday morning. Writing for me is often quite excruciating in that you're grappling to get the precise piece of language that you want. And so it's a very conscious act of trying to sculpt language for me. It's not therapeutic.
There is a little bit of pleasure when you feel like you've gotten a poem right, but for me it often starts with an image, with something that bothers me, something that stays with me, something that my mind seems to loop and return to. And then the question is, well, what's the poem in that? Because I think we have a lot of experiences that can be personally profound, but they don't always translate into something that a reader might receive on the other end and receive something from.
I'm cognizant that the poem is, it's obviously a speech act for the poet, an active language, but then there's a receiver of that. And so trying to work out what the poem is often takes me a really long time. I'm giving you a long answer here, because it is sort of a convoluted process and that there'll be an image or a line or maybe something said to me that stays with me for quite some time. And then generally speaking, it's sort of months or even years after the fact that I work out what the poem is. So it's quite a slow process. And then all of a sudden you'll just have a moment where you think, ‘Oh, maybe it's that’.
I mean, to give you an example, I remember watching a carer in my Dad's nursing home, helping my Dad eat his lunch at a point where he wasn't really able to feed himself comfortably anymore. I was watching this kind of delicate, really delicate process, and she was being very kind of careful and it felt like watching, I don't know, a precision, some precision method of, I don't know, jewellery making or craftsmanship or something, this kind of dance between the two of them. It was a poignant moment and I'd think of it on and off probably for a year or two. And then I was thinking, ‘It is quite beautiful, but just to say that as it is not a poem’. And then I found a metaphor for it quite unexpectedly one day walking beside a koi pond and watching the sort of slowness, the slow kind of deliberate movement of the fish under the water, and that became a poem that kind of blends those two very unlike things together. So maybe that gives a little sense of how it happens. It's slow is my sort of short answer, very slow.
ASTRID: The metaphor of the koi. I think the imagery that you give the reader or the listener will... For those who read The Jaguar, it will stay with you for a long time. You've just outlined how you create the poem, but I'd like to interrogate a little bit further about style and form. It is of course about the emotion and how the reader responds, but also you have incredible form, and that's not just language choice, but it is how you create the poem and the bounds within which you work. Can you talk to us about style and form?
SARAH: Sure. So the lovely, but also slightly terrifying and agonising part of poetry is you start with nothing. Every poem has to find its shape, I think. And the unit of sense in the poem is the line. That's what distinguishes poetry from other types of prose. It's what makes poetry, poetry. And I think understanding the line and what it can do. The line of poetry establishes the rhythm of the poem. It's a way of controlling the emphasis in the poem. So, thinking about where a line breaks, where a line starts at the beginning of a line of poetry, there's a little micro beat of silence at the end of a line of poetry. There's a little beat of silence too. There's a musical composition that goes on when you're writing a poem where you're thinking about where you want readers to take a little breath. You can get a beautiful surprise when a line floats out one word at the end and then returns to something unexpected at the beginning of the next line. So you're thinking of, I suppose, controlling the reader's attention through the structure of the poem. Then you think, so in addition to the line, you have the stanza, little clusters of lines, and there's silence in between those.
And so there is a really, I think, intense musical patterning to the poem in addition to things like rhyme, repetition, all of those structures that poets have in common with musicians and composers. But then there's also the visual component to the poem and that we know it's a poem. When we look at it on the page, we get a sense of what the line length is going to be like, what the shape of the poem is. All of these things, I think, contribute ideally to a poem's meaning, to its impact.
For me, I pay a lot of attention to the sonic qualities of poetry. I think that's why I'm a poet. I like language. I like the way it sounds. I like putting it together and letting sounds play off one another. And then there is sometimes a bit of a dance between the sound of the poem, the meaning of the poem and the composition of the poem on the page. And often there's a bit of tension, I suppose, between those elements. And you have to have an eye on all of them, I think, to edit a poem successfully. Does that capture a little bit of what you were asking me?
ASTRID: Oh, Sarah, that was a masterclass in poetry.
SARAH: Oh, good. I'm glad.
ASTRID: Quick question. How long did it take The Jaguar to fall?
SARAH: I mean, I'm slow. As I've said, I'm very, very slow and painstaking. I mean, one of my favourite poets of all time is Elizabeth Bishop who published a book a decade, and I think that's good. I think poetry is really all about editing and actually about saying as little as you can to convey the meaning that you want. It's not about bounty and plenitude and putting as many words out into the world as you can.
For me, I probably wrote double the amount of poems that have made it into the book. I'm a pretty sort of savage self-editor, so there's another 80 pages of material that I didn't actually want to collect in the volume, but a lot of the poems sort of happen slowly over a few years. And then a great rush of poems happened after my Dad died.
I think perhaps that's probably common in that when the arc of something concludes, you have a different vantage point towards it and certain things start to make themselves clear. I took myself to a cabin at Springbrook in Queensland and managed to write a significant sequence of poems quite quickly. It's a bit of both a bit of slow generation and then a bit of some more urgent kind of writing. And then the question becomes, the shape of a book of poetry is much like what I was just speaking about, I suppose, in terms of composing the individual poem and that you do think about how one poem moves into another. You think about the sequencing of it.
I thought with this book, one of the things that it does is it sort of starts at the end of my father's life and at the end of the book circles back to his childhood. I was thinking of the reversal of the usual kind of trajectory of grief, the chronology of it, that usually we start with birth and end with death. And then I was thinking about how I wanted the sections to move between one another. So all of those things come into play as well as just getting the poems down. Then you've got to sort of shape them into something that has a, I suppose, an arc for the reader. I wanted there to be a sort of slightly startling and unexpected arc in starting at the end, and then slowly coming to the beginning in a way.
ASTRID: Sarah, poetry became eligible for the Stella Prize last year in 2022, and Evelyn Araluen's Dropbear was the first work of poetry to win. You are a poet, of course, but you are also an academic and a teacher. I'd like to ask your understanding of the role poetry as a medium is playing in contemporary writing and publishing in Australia?
SARAH: Well, yeah, that's an interesting question. I mean, I think there is a bit of a renaissance of interest in poetry at the moment, and things like the Stella, including poetry is fantastic. The recent announcement that there'll be a laureate in the new National Cultural Policy is exciting and I think indicative of that. I would say poetry has had greater heydays that there was a time, believe it or not, in the 1990s when major publishers had all had poetry lists. Penguin had a poetry list.
I do think that poetry still occupies a marginal position, more marginal than I'd like to see, given the vitality of what's going on in contemporary poetry. There's so much important and brilliant work being written not only in this country, but around the world. I would like to see poetry continue to creep towards the centre of our culture. But I think there are lots of exciting signs at the moment that there is a renewed interest in poetry and that hopefully there'll be greater support for it, I think, in a sort of policy sense as well. I mean, the other answer is there's so much work that goes on with small presses in Australia. There's so many small presses operating on really, really slim margins, putting out excellent books.
I don't want to give an overly rosy position and that I think there is a lot of work that deserves more support and more readers of poetry. And that's something I think about a lot. We have a lot of poets writing and what poets in this country I think need more than anything and more readers. I'm incredibly supportive, for instance, of the announcement that there'll be a poet laureate in this country because looking at how that role functions in the UK and the US, it's all about readership. It's about getting people interested in reading poetry, making people feel a little more comfortable in approaching poetry.
I think that's a really good thing, and that would be the one kind of remaining thing that I would diagnose as lacking poetry readers in this country. It's such a shame that there aren't more because we have so many magnificent poets, not only writing today, but in our literary history. So I think there's a range of things that could still happen to make more readers, but we're certainly heading in the right direction, and I think it's fantastic that the Stella is open to poetry as well. It's just the more that we can see poetry as part of literature more generally, rather than kind of slightly separate to it or marginal to it, I think the better.
ASTRID: You mentioned the small press publishers that are doing fantastic work, getting poetry to readers. What was your path to publication?
SARAH: My first book won a manuscript prize, the Thomas Shapcott Prize in Queensland, which is for an unpublished manuscript by a Queensland writer. And that prize is still going on. It's been around now for more than 20 years, which is amazing. Named in honour of the great Queensland poet, Thomas Shapcott. So that prize came with an honorarium and a publication contract with the University of Queensland Press, who were my first and remain my publisher. I was lucky in that sense.
But prior to that, I should say I did all of the usual things, which is being rejected a lot, writing a lot of poems, sending them out, building a list of publications, starting small. And then I remember the first time I had a poem accepted to Meanjin, that just felt so monumentally exciting. I think that is the standard kind of path I think, to becoming a published poet and that you have to send your work out and have individual poems selected and vetted by editors, and you learn a lot from that process. I'm a big fan of rejection as a young writer. I mean, not too much of it, hopefully, but I think you learn something from the poems that are not accepted. You learn something when you've had a poem accepted somewhere, and then they send a batch back and go, ‘Look, there was nothing here, but try us again’.
I think most writers who are hungry to become better writers will then return to those poems and have a look at them with new eyes and think, ‘Okay. Well, what could I have done here to make this poem stronger? There was that whole process that I think is still pretty much the case for all poets who go on to publish a book. I was lucky to win that manuscript prize, and that became my first book, Aria, which came out in 2008. And then the whole thing continues.
I mean, that process continues now, and probably part of what separates, say, poets from novelists and that novelists, unless there's also short story writers, there's not a lot of necessarily feedback or extracts that get published book to book. I think with poetry, you have probably a pretty close handle on how the poems are landing with editors, given that you're effectively writing and publishing all the time between books. So even though it's been a while between each of my books, I do feel as though I'm still actively publishing quite a bit in between them.
ASTRID: That was an excellent answer, Sarah. Thank you. I do hope that helps poets who are working on their body of work in 2023. My final question for you, Sarah, bearing in mind the idea that we are encouraging more readers of literature and more readers of poetry, are there any contemporary poets who are influencing your work?
SARAH: So many. I mean, I always get asked these kinds of questions and then you feel agonised to leave people out. I will say I think there are so many contemporary poets whose work is meaningful to me in an Australian context. I feel very lucky to just have pretty astonishing peers putting out books all the time. Just to name a couple of recent ones. I was particularly moved by Maria Takolander's most recent collection Trigger Warning. I thought that was beautiful. Lisa Gorton is a poet who I admire enormously, LK Holt. I'm naming women thinking in the context of the Stella as well. Obviously, there's an extraordinary groundswell of new poets who are younger than me, but whose work intrigues me enormously. I loved Alison Whittaker's Blakwork, for example. Shastra Deo is an interesting poet as well. There's so much work out there that to start listing poets I think would be a dangerous thing.
But the beautiful thing about poetry is that a lot of your influences are baked in quite early. When people ask me who is influencing my work, funnily enough, it's often just the poets that you discover in your teenage years who if you go to look at your work, that is a very formative, definitive kind of influence. And for me, that experience was American in that I grew up in... I did my high school in the US and so my major poets, the touchstone poets that were the first poets that I loved are American poets, which is slightly unusual, I think in an Australian context.
Most teenagers would grow up probably being introduced to Oodgeroo and Gwen Harwood, and people like Les Murray and Robert Adamson, and Robert Grey, and Judith Beveridge and so forth.
For me, the poets that kind of shaped me very profoundly were of another tradition in which I don't write, but I suppose still have connection to. So there's that, and then there's your contemporaries. I mean, every month I'm reading work by a new poet that I hadn't heard of, who I find interesting. I think that's why I'm a bit cagey about naming a definitive list of names, because it's always changing and expanding.
ASTRID: And yet you gave a wonderful answer. Just to draw the link, you mentioned Alison Whittaker. She was one of my co-judges on the Stella Prize this year.
SARAH: Oh, fabulous. She's a very amazing writer. And her work, Blakwork, I thought was just such an interesting kind of hybrid book, a great book. One that I'd commend to your listeners if they haven't read that already.
ASTRID: Sarah, you have provided an excellent start for more poetry readers in Australia. Can I once again say many, many heartfelt congratulations on The Jaguar?
SARAH: Thank you so much, Astrid. Such a pleasure.