EMAIL INTERVIEW WITH LIZ HALL-DOWNS
WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE AUSTRALIAN WRITERS AND WHY?
It’s always hard to choose ‘favourites’ as there are so many Australian writers whose works I enjoy and my answer to this question could easily change from week to week. As far as ‘influences’ are concerned, that’s probably a little easier. In prose fiction writing, I admire writers such as Helen Garner, Kate Grenville, and Gerald Murnane (for their controlled use of language), and Peter Carey, Tim Winton and Patrick White (for plotting and characterisation and, in Winton’s case, a deep lyricism). For the depiction of traditional ‘bush’ settings, but in a malevolent rather than sentimentalising way, I can’t go past Barbara Baynton, but I’m also rather fond of the (sometimes humorous, sometimes maudlin) stories of Henry Lawson. In more popular fiction, Peter Goldsworthy’s novels of the past decade (Wish and Honk If You Are Jesus) have been a source of great pleasure – they introduce an element of flawed humanity into contemporary scientific debate on subjects such as cloning and animal rights, but they are humorous rather than preachy and their apparent simplicity belies a deep seriousness.
In poetry from the past, Judith Wright was an inspiration, not only for her fine poetry but for her literate championing of Aboriginal and environmental causes throughout her life. Dorothy Hewitt continues to produce great work – she was one of the first Australian poets to write about the more difficult issues in contemporary women’s lives from an unapologetically female perspective. And I’d have to name Bruce Dawe, who I first read in high school. Dawe’s work has inspired several generations with its mix of droll social observation coupled with a deep love for humanity, and he continues to write devastatingly honest contemporary poetry. I’ve always been drawn to poetry that has something important to say, either about the self or the world, and isn’t just a prettifying exercise or word game. I can write about the beauty of nature but, for me, the knowledge of environmental degradation and species loss almost always creeps into the subtext. Poetry that’s prepared to state an opinion and stand by it is the type of work that most often sticks in my memory. I’m not so impressed with the ‘Look at me, I’ve read Rilke’ (or Homer, or Aristotle, or whoever) type of poetry that a lot of people with degrees in literature try to write. I’ve read this stuff too, but I’d rather write work from the heart than appeals to ordinary humans than bother trying to impress some self-appointed elite. For the same reason, I’ve also dabbled in performance poetry for many years.
Amongst contemporary Australian poets currently on the readings/festival circuit, there are just too many to mention (and naming names would only offend those I don’t mention)! Thom the World Poet’s fun, supportive Melbourne venues in the 1980s definitely played a large role in exposing me to a variety of poets and poetics, and this was augmented with the many other readings in pubs, galleries and community halls. There were many fine poets on the national scene during this period who continue to produce quality work. The poetry environment in Australia is vibrant and exciting, encompassing a wide range of subjects, styles and methods of transmission and there are few forms I don’t appreciate. The verse novel is currently experiencing a resurgence, egged on by the high standards set by poets such as Alan Wearne and Dorothy Porter. Where I live now, near Brisbane, I’d cite some of the younger poets such as Brett Dionysius, Michelle A. Taylor, Bronwen Lea and Melissa Ashley as names to watch.
WHY IS POETRY IMPORTANT TO YOU?
It wouldn’t be understating the case to say that poetry saved my life. I had a very unhappy adolescence and writing poetry was one of the ways I was able to survive it. Then, a few years after I left the family home, at the age of twenty, I was diagnosed with the degenerative disease Rheumatoid Arthritis. This condition has no known cure, and its aetiology is uncertain. I personally believe that it has a genetic or viral cause that is exacerbated by environmental toxins, abuse, and feelings of powerlessness and fear. RA causes the immune system to go haywire, resulting in severe, chronic pain and permanent deformity to the joints and connective tissues of the body. In the later stages it attacks the internal organs and ultimately significantly shortens one’s life span.
With such a bleak prognosis and with no family support to speak of, within a few years I was plunged from ambitious and perfectionist achievement (I was a straight A student with a nursing qualification and a year of an Arts degree behind me) into long-term poverty and complete dependence on the welfare system. The costs to me socially were enormous: as is often the case when someone experiences chronic illness or life-changing injury, I lost friends in droves and my welfare status caused people to treat me with rudeness, disbelief and disrespect. Because RA is not visible to the casual observer I was often criticised for being lazy and a malingerer, even though I was often in terrible pain and medicated up to the eyeballs.
When I was twenty-two and rock-bottom as far as the disease process goes, I started dragging myself to readings and meeting other poets. Over time, others’ appreciation of my ability with words helped me to become, in my own mind as well as in the minds of others, something other than an illness, a ‘burden’, or a ‘disability-on-legs’. In this rarefied atmosphere where words had supreme importance, I was able to become something else – a poet. And as a poet I was able to address some of the issues that had been raised by the circumstances of my life. A sense of purpose is an intrinsic need for human beings; for me, poetry provided that purpose.
It takes a long time to come to terms with events such as these, especially when they occur in one’s youth. It is only now, twenty years after diagnosis and eighteen years since I first began doing public readings and sending poems away to journals, that I’ve really started to wrestle with my illness in poetry. Somehow such self-disclosure to the hotbed of egos that is any collection of creative people had always felt too risky in the past, and the only emotions I could dredge up when trying to write about RA were self-pity or anger. Added to that, I’d discovered early on that people were very keen to marginalise me as ‘the poor girl with the terrible disease’ when my desire was to be recognised as a good poet, regardless of my physical afflictions. I also got heartily sick of the endless stream of well-meaning advice from people who didn’t know the difference between systemic RA and the occasional ache they felt at the site of their old football injury. This difference is enormous; the result of such dialogues for the RA sufferer is a deep sense of being trivialised. Because of this, I ‘hid’ my illness from all but my closest associates for many years.
So what’s changed? I’m older, for a start, and with age comes a lessening of concern about what others think. And I’ve survived what I now see were absolutely horrendous circumstances purely through luck and an effort of will. I’ve managed to largely overcome the emotional symptoms of child abuse that so afflict later, adult relationships and have been in a supportive, healthy marriage for almost a decade. Emotionally, this has given me a strong base to work from, allowing me to tackle larger projects such as novels. Physically, it’s allowed me to have ‘bad days’ and let someone else take up the slack. I will always write poetry, but now it’s just something I do, rather than essential for my survival. In the face of my worsening disease, and living in comparative isolation, writing in general is one of the ways I am able to stay connected to the outside world.
The poetry I’m writing now, the ‘illness narrative’ My Arthritic Heart, reflects my own journey, but its purpose is to open a window on what it’s like to be struck down by an illness people can’t see until it’s well-advanced. There are far more people with disabilities that fit into this category than there are people in wheelchairs, and they are largely misunderstood. A lot of the mental suffering and social isolation I’ve experienced could have been greatly lessened had I lived in a community that understood the nature of my disease. I hope the work I’m writing now might go some way towards addressing this issue, for the benefit of others.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU WON A MILLION DOLLARS?
Besides paying my own mortgage and ‘realising the dream’ (see below), I’d agonise over the options! There are so many issues I feel strongly about, but in addressing them a million dollars (especially Australian dollars) wouldn’t go very far. Buying up large tracts of native forest and leaving it alone for the wildlife (see below) really appeals to me.
If I had tens of millions of dollars to spend, I’d look into funding medical research into auto-immune disease and its relationship to stress and environmental toxins, research that I feel is long-overdue. It’s interesting that the more polluted our planet gets, and the more stressful our lives become, the more people are being diagnosed with conditions like mine in which the body turns against itself. Cancer, AIDS, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Multiple Sclerosis, Systemic Lupus Erythematosis, Ulcerative Colitis, and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome all fit into this category, and their cost in social as well as economic terms is monstrous. I feel that sufferers of these types of illnesses are the proverbial canaries in the coalmine, a warning to the rest of our species that our own bodies will irretrievably break down if we don’t address the pollution and environmental degradation that are destroying the health of the planet and everything on it. As for people who can’t be bothered concerning themselves with preserving the Earth, perhaps the idea that its health could very likely impact upon their own might go some way towards altering their perceptions.
WHAT IS YOUR GIFT TO THE WORLD?
I think all writers hope to produce work that’s good enough, and resonant enough with others, to live on after their deaths. I’ve concerned myself for many years in my writing with women’s rights, the marginalisation of the poor and the disabled, the legacies of abuse and social inequality, conservation, and, increasingly, paeans to nature. Whether they have ‘lasting value’ I’ll have to leave to others to decide, but I hope that I’ve at least been able to cogently address some of the important issues facing humanity in my own time.
On a material level, my ‘green’ aspirations have long been thwarted by the feeling that one person can’t really achieve much. However, many small things can add up to something quite big. With this in mind, almost two years ago, my partner and I managed to acquire a small block of forested land (just over 9 acres) in South-East Queensland, the bulk of which we have committed to “Land for Wildlife”under a voluntary conservation scheme. One of the things a lot of people don’t realise is that you can have all the national parks you like, but without private landholders committing to preserving surrounding habitat and wildlife corridors, all you’re left with is a land island containing a dwindling population of birds and animals. Add a few broken fences and the presence of feral dogs and cats and the survival of native species is further threatened. The best thing anyone can do to preserve native forest is to buy up large slabs of it and leave it alone! We are in the process of establishing a nest box programme to counteract dwindling local habitats for the large percentage of Australian marsupials and birds that rely on tree hollows to reproduce. (Excessive tree clearing is still a very hot issue on Queensland, and a tree needs to be at least 100 years old before it forms appropriate hollows.) Weed eradication and replanting of native understory plants is also an ongoing project.
Our own lifestyle choice is to use the remainder of the land as a retreat for ourselves and our writing and, in my partner’s case, sculpture. We are attempting to establish our home using permaculture principles and hope to achieve at least some level of self-sufficiency over the coming years. If we can preserve this small oasis for the wildlife, hopefully ‘Euphoria’ will come to be regarded as a special place of value that can be used in the future as a retreat for writers and artists. We know nine acres isn’t much in the wider scheme of things, but the great and ongoing joy we experience in living in a place inhabited by possums, wallabies, gliders, goannas, kookaburras, kingfishers, native parrots, and around fifty other bird species – and knowing we have the power to preserve it – is something we hope to be able to make available to future generations.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR YOUNG AUSTRALIAN POETS?
Read, read, read as much contemporary poetry as possible! But also take the time to read the classics to give yourself a good grounding and understanding of form. Attend public readings and allow yourself to be influenced, astonished, bored, stimulated, and challenged by the work of others. Reading your own poetry to an audience is one effective way of detecting flaws in the work. Learn to take, and to give, helpful criticism. Submit to the editorial process, and accept the reality of continual rejection and occasional success. Above all, recognise that a writer’s calling is a lifelong one, and that many of the greatest artists of the last century received very little recognition in their own lifetimes. Persevere, and have faith in your own work; if you are certain it is good, but it keeps getting rejected, it could simply mean that it’s time has not yet come. Currently, writers’ festivals seem to focus – rather too much, in my opinion – on writers who can present themselves as ‘young’, ‘sexy’ and ‘cutting-edge’, but this emphasis on image has little to do with the quality of work. It does, however, provide a window for younger poets to be heard and is worth exploiting. (Just don’t be surprised when the invitations stop coming after you enter your 30’s!) Lastly, don’t spend all your time with other poets and artists, but keep a foot firmly grounded in the ‘real world’. Mix with ‘ordinary people’ – they, ultimately, are your audience and, if they know you’re a writer, they will gift you with more extraordinary stories than you could ever do justice to.
NAME A PIECE OF VISUAL ART THAT HAS TRULY TOUCHED YOU?
At a surrealist exhibition several years ago I was very affected by the Magritte’s, in particular a painting titled ‘The Wonders of Nature’ which depicts two figures – half-human, half-dolphin – keening to the sky in front of a blue ocean. My partner, Kim, and I are both pisceans, so this painting of ‘fish people’ had particular resonance for both of us. Eventually, Kim made a timber sculpture based on these figures, and called it ‘Homage to Magritte’.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE SEASON AND WHY?
Living in southeast Queensland, there are really only two seasons – wet and dry. The tropical summer storms here are magnificent and awe-inspiring, and I enjoy living in an environment that is simply too hot to be overly concerned with clothes and appearance. This makes people a lot more ‘laid-back’ than in the southern states, and certainly less pretentious. I don’t miss the long Melbourne winters I grew up with, but I do miss the colours of autumn.
WHAT KIND OF WORKING ENVIRONMENT BEST SUITS YOU?
As Virginia Woolf wrote, a ‘room of one’s own’ is essential – but it’s not always possible. During this current phase, while we are building our home and living in a temporary dwelling, it’s been hard to find the physical space in which to write. To remedy this, I’ve been applying for fellowships which allow time to get away and focus solely on writing, and recently spent a very productive three weeks at the Booranga Writers’ Centre in Wagga Wagga. Once the house is finished and our respective studios are set up, I look forward to being able to ‘go to work’ every day, away from the usual distractions. ‘Euphoria’ possesses all the prerequisites for the label ‘Artist’s Retreat’ – privacy, quiet, forest and abundant wildlife – and I hope to settle in and produce my best work here in the coming years.
FOUR POEMS BY LIZ HALL-DOWNS
From Fit of Passion, 1997:
my mother’s hands
i toddled through department stores,
holding her safe hand with its familiar
callouses till some silver shining
thing distracted, stopped me dead
to tilt my head at costly glitter.
reaching up, the hand i grasped
was someone else’s mother’s,
her face a stranger’s. I ran down
aisles, calling ‘Mamma! Mamma!’
in childish terror; and oh, such tears,
such relief, when at last i found her,
smiling at the lipstick counter.
she says my hands are long now
and slender, like her mother’s.
grandma healed with hers but i know
only black/white sepia on the mahogany
mantelpiece, the head shrouded
like a nun’s, as pure and self
sacrificing as that martyrdom
running deep through our family’s
matriarchy, now my hands split
skin and muscle, massage her years
of anxiety, crackling arthritis,
contracted tendons, joints tight as
the pursed lips of disapproval at that
Lost Reputation of my twenties. i turn
her as she turned me, baby, use
fragrant oils, no Johnson’s powder,
feel the remaining years slip under
fingers, find pressure points
and press the point of my maturity
into her aging spine, still striving
to be upright in body, mind,
unyielding to time’s ravages.
the invisible threads we women
spin to our daughters connect
in our eyes, and i see myself
at seventy, and all the women who came
before me – maidens, mothers, crones,
goddesses pulsing through our corded
lives. my hands tremble; her face is mine
i see my unborn children in her eye’s shine.
3 from From Girl With Green Hair, 2000:
texas separation poem
i wake in the night/and roll towards your skin/your long
thin limbs/but the bed is empty and you/are sleeping in
some hotel room/or maybe flicking the clicker to the
late-night news/it is only money/that drives this wedge
over the miles and miles of desert, open farmland/i am
thankful for telephone lines/though we speak of little,
in monosyllables/how sad it is to be bound only/by
tenuous threads of technology!/but you have
responsibilities/i, separation anxiety/and the need
for money/drives this wedge between us/
there must have been days/when lovers were free/today
my insides bleed/especially for you/for our nights together/
curled like small animals/breathing evenly/weak and
bloated, i’m/feeling sorry for myself/and for you/hauling
bricks and lashing timbers on a building site/smiling at
the foreman and pretending to enjoy yourself/while
money/drives this wedge between us/
i would exercise/or read or write/mop the floor or even
clean the kitchen/make strong coffee and watch
television/but i’m tired, and can only lie/listening to
the jolting/of my purple heart beating/its rhythm
strangely alien without your counterpoint/i miss you/and
so will send/this letter of defiance/because our love is
bigger than texas!/let money/keep on trying/to drive/its
wedge between us!/
8/2/94, austin, texas
We drag you down to the river
with spasmed legs, impudent
erection; it takes two to take you
over mangrove swamp, to drop you
in the salt silt where you
find bouyancy, float and smile
at pelicans and sky.
This is a blue day,
unlike your grey
others. We laugh, forget,
discuss green things, till the rise
of cold wind draws us back
to your prison, the hard chrome
and sheepskin, the wheelchair,
Next day, in the sea,
you feel thin as a twig in a strong
surfer’s arms, say it’s been six years
since you’ve braved the waves. And I
bless my difficult legs, give stride
against the undertow, catch your feet,
and as we rise, lick the salt,
a kiss before drying.
can you sit again?
‘we have a bit of an arm situation.
rearranging you like a jigsaw
but just can’t seem
to fix the angle of that broken wing’.
sitting, watching her painting my
my brow-furrowing memories onto canvas,
my ramblings, my nervous edifice.
staring in a mirror, only better,
the slick paint
insinuates the shape of my face, and the one
i will grow into its carapace
red wine while she looks intently.
a brush slides
out a lipsticked mouth – my red scar,
my city armour –
then eyes that stare blue perturbation.
sitting for joanne and seen my face
her hands. it’s an older, wiser me
that sees me seeing
joanne seeing me.
Biog: Liz Hall-Downs
Liz Hall-Downs has been reading and performing poetry in public, and publishing in journals, since 1983. She has been a featured reader at countless venues across Australia, has toured the USA, and has had work published and broadcast on TV and radio in both countries. As well as poetry, Liz writes fiction and essays and has worked as a community artist, writer-in-residence, editor and singer.
Liz is currently living in South-East Queensland where she is working on completing an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Queensland. Her most recent collection of poetry, Girl With Green Hair was published by Papyrus Publishing in 2000. Current projects include an ‘illness narrative’ in poetry, My Arthritic Heart, and a realist novel, The Death of Jimi Hendrix.
* Girl With Green Hair Papyrus Publishing, Ferntree Gully, Victoria, 2000
* Blackfellas Whitefellas Wetlands, Poetry & Music from the Boondall Wetlands by Liz Hall-Downs, B.R. Dionysius, and Samuel Wagan Watson, Brisbane City Council & Boondall Wetlands Management Committee, Audio CD, 2000
* Mountains to Mangroves and Mountains to Mangroves Haiku Cycle A collection of Historical/Environmental writing commissioned by Brisbane City Council and Queensland Wildlife Preservation Society, 1999, online at: <http://brisbane-stories.powerup.com.au/m2m/05_artists/06a_corridor_tales.htm
* Fit of Passion by Liz Hall-Downs & Kim Downs, (book and audio cassette) Fit of Passion Collective with assistance from Arts Queensland & Fringe Arts, 1997
* People of the Wetlands Historical writing commissioned by Brisbane City
Council, 1996, online at: <http://brisbane-stories.powerup.com.au/boondall_pages/artists/black_white/lizhall/liz.htm>
* Grumblebum chapbook, USA, 1994
* Writers of the Storm: 5 East Coast Performance Poets Tyagarah Consultants, Lismore, 1993
* Conscious Razing: combustible poems Self-published, 1986
* Under Her Eyes Self-published A4 chapbook, 1984