Interview with Michael Heald

April 5, 2002

mheald2-0467e640-173c-4cba-9af0-d2bb36fe4996-0-206x304Michael Heald was born in Grimsby, England in 1959.  At the age of twelve, he moved with his family to Perth in Western Australia.  After completing his schooling at Swanbourne Senior High School, and a basic Arts Degree at the University of Western Australia, he worked for a number of years as a squash instructor in Europe, and afterwards completed a Ph.D on contemporary Western Australian poetry, also at UWA. Michael published his first collection of poetry, Occasions, in Shorelines. Three Poets in 1995, and his second collection, Bodyflame. in 1999, both with Fremantle Arts Centre Press (FACP). A third book is presently under consideration.

 Michael lives currently in Ballarat, Victoria with his partner Sharon and their young son, Jim.

This interview was conducted by Anya Daly in Melbourne, in August 2002.

When did you begin writing poetry?

I began writing poems when I was very young. I hardly remember a time when I didn’t write them. My earliest memories are of being in my parents’ house in England, aged about six, and trying to get the words right for a description of spring. In the first year of primary school my teacher gave me an exercise book to write poems in, to prevent my getting distracted and misbehaving. I’m not sure why she did that, but I just accepted it. I cut out a picture of an eagle to stick on the cover, and got started. That predatory image I chose has since intrigued me. Later in primary school, we had a very encouraging headmaster, who gave us poetry ‘lessons’ – he provided a subject, and away we went. Then some were chosen to read theirs aloud, and the class voted on which was the best. I describe this in the poem ‘Subject’, in Occasions. I think it was important because it gave me the sense, at a formative stage, that poetry mattered, and was a legitimate way to engage with myself and those around me.

Are your family happy about your choice in career or did they have other plans for you?

My family have always been very supportive of my writing. I suppose it’s a bit hard to refer to poetry writing as a ‘career’ in the normal sense, since it doesn’t fit in with the formal economy very well. In general, my family has a genuine interest in poetry, and in the expressive capabilities of language, and they have been very understanding in allowing me to follow my literary inclinations. My mother is currently exploring her childhood experiences of the Second World War through writing. My father has a strong interest in Zen, which is, of course, a tradition in which poetry has an important place. And my sister teaches young children, and is very aware, therefore, of the developmental dimensions of language, both functional and imaginative. So I don’t feel like a linguistic oddity in my family by any means.

How did you come to publish your first collection of poetry?

I sent a manuscript to FACP. I’d been able to work on it quite intensively thanks to a residency at the Katherine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre, in the Darling Ranges just outside Perth. I’d published a few poems in magazines in Australia and England. The press said they could include the collection with two other poets in a series called Shorelines, designed to showcase new poets. I leapt at this chance, but gathered afterwards that I could probably have held out for my own separate collection. However, those kinds of things don’t really bother me. There’s a fair bit of power-mongering and politics in the poetry world, which strikes me as rather ironic, since poetry doesn’t fit very well into a capitalist economy, and is never really going to lead to fame and riches anyway. That situation is at times frustrating and unfair in that many people have well-paid jobs in various parts of the literature ‘industry’, while the actual producers are often job-less and insecure financially.  Despite this it can also be a good opportunity to keep considerations of ego and status out of the process of writing. If I can be high-minded for a moment, I think that the vocation of poetry should be, and can be, rather above the careerism which so bedevils other areas of working life. And I suppose for me, the basic fact is that matters of status and reputation simply bore me – I just can’t get interested in them, even though there are often some fascinating tales around of wheeling and dealing.

Having said that, it is genuinely difficult these days to publish poetry. There are many reasons for this, most of them rather crudely economic, and I won’t go into them now. But to be denied publication is a serious problem: not just a blow to the ego, but an interruption of the process of moving the work into a public place. This can have serious consequences not only for writers, but also for the well-being of the culture in general. Poetry is an important repository of many perceptual and intellectual sensitivities and explorations: the loss or decline of these is significant.

What are your sources of inspiration?

That’s a difficult question.  I could say something like ‘the natural world’, or ‘the migrant experience’, or ‘the insights of Buddhism’, but nothing like that would sound right. I think my ‘inspiration’, what provides the impetus to write, is the pressing sense of a certain quality of being which is at once uncommon, and yet also present in all experiences. There is a kind of strangeness about all things, and I suppose that reveals itself in various ways, or it strikes you in connection with various situations at different times. For a formulation of the kind of quality of being which I’m talking about, I would tend to look towards the Buddhist notion of experience which is somehow beyond the ego, though it’s not something you can be doctrinaire about. I think it has certain consistent qualities, and yet it is infinitely various. Now we’ve entered the realm of paradox!  Perhaps I could say that anything can be ‘inspirational’, but that doesn’t make the process entirely arbitrary or random.

You once remarked that many of the ideas for your poems come from that time between sleeping and waking.  How important do you think it is for poets to have this access to the unconscious for the effectiveness of their art?

For me it’s very important, but poetry is a very broad field, and some poets either wouldn’t see the need for such psychic exploration, or wouldn’t think of the process in those terms. Cognitive science seems to be indicating that 95% of brain activity is unconscious, and this accords with my sense of a very powerful substrata to our experience. Certain states, such as that between sleeping and waking, may provide opportunities to glimpse that depth, and I certainly value that, though I also acknowledge that conceptualising this, and its representation via language, is a very complex matter. There are many cultural and cognitive factors which mitigate against our access to ready-made, or raw poetry – but then again, nothing can really be ruled out. The mind is mysterious.

Poetry, I think, is often dealing with the relationship between the experiential and the conceptual. So an ability to focus the experiential and see through conceptual habits is necessary, though this might not necessarily be seen as accessing the unconscious.

So, how might you otherwise ignite the process?

I don’t think, in general, that I pursue poems, or seek to ‘ignite’ them. I find that enough pressing material presents itself, and the actual challenge is to do justice, artistically, to that material. I often find that I begin with a kind of hypothetical attitude. I seem to think “If I were to write a poem, this is how it would go, or these would be the images I could use…”  This is a kind of first stage, which seems to repeat itself, always to my surprise.

Perhaps it’s like creating a free space – or permission to write… Like opening up another level, plugging in the data and allowing this other level to go to work on it….?

It may be just a quirk of my mind: a loop that I’m aware of, but that still recurs.  Once I get started, I discover – ah! There is a poem here, and then the poem seems like a centripetal force and draws lots of things into it.  Sometimes it seems as though you could almost use anything, everything: every scrap of experience could be turned into poetry.

Would that mean it might become mundane?  What’s the magic ingredient that enlivens those experiences, makes them meaningful for not just yourself?

During those periods, you can overwrite. Ask anyone who’s tried to read Pound’s Cantos in their entirety! You may get a lot of material that is very mixed in terms of quality. My writing cycle seems fairly consistent. Most of the time, I can’t write.  I just can’t find a voice, and then I find I start to be able to. It often seems to be a rhythmic impetus, which is closely bound up with a kind of attitude, or tone, which enables me to begin, or continue poems (I’m always working on around fifty or more poems at any given time).  In times when this process has been more or less uninterrupted, this tends to happen about every six weeks or so. Then I can get a lot started and make progress with older drafts and complete a number of poems. Then later a trailing off occurs, when I feel I can write about anything and that’s when they can become facile.

Are there dry spells?

Yes – when I’m travelling.  It’s almost as though your voice is connected to a certain place.  You move, you leave it behind. When I returned to England the first two times, I lost my voice. I thought, how can I articulate this place?

So where is your place?  Australia? City? Country?

I think it’s got to the point where it doesn’t matter that much.  Over the years your voice, or voices, become easier to find, I think.

I recently watched a program on the ABC about synaesthesia (the ability to see smells, hear colour, taste an emotion) and it struck me that this is often how poets communicate – mixing these sense impressions through image and metaphor.  Would you comment on this?

I didn’t see the program. I think that synaesthesia is important, and is one variety of many syntheses which poetry may accomplish. The poetic creative process can involve registering experience at moments ‘prior’ to our usual experience, and therefore synaesthesia may be a realisation of experience before, or as, it is divided amongst our various sense organs and processed by the brain. In this way, poetry can render a less differentiated, more primary kind of consciousness, which can be very powerful, though the conceptualisation of such a consciousness is, again, a complex matter.

Apparently the cave paintings of our Neolithic ancestors display synaesthetic qualities. The paintings occur at places in the cave system where the acoustic properties are unusually focused, and the distribution of paint has a correspondence with the distribution of sound.

Certainly, composition, for me, is often driven or accompanied by what feels like a concrete perception of something normally considered abstract: the spatial apprehension of a mental or cultural process, for example.

Wallace Stevens proposed that having a “day job” was essential to his art.  What effect, if any, does teaching literature to overseas students have on your writing?

I’m not really sure about the necessity of a ‘day job’ as such, since I’m not a great admirer of our economy and the way it structures our lives. But I do think that writing poetry is a sporadic activity which benefits from being mixed with other forms of activity. That is not to say that the process of composition is not continuous, or potentially a ‘full-time’ thing. It’s just that the stage of physically composing is not continuously present. I do feel that writing poetry is a sufficient way to justify, or occupy, one’s existence, if there’s a way to get the other things you need, such as food and shelter, etc. But the crucial question is what works best, or what the right balance is for the individual. It is usually going to be a difficult balance to achieve, because the good time to be writing cannot be anticipated or planned for very well, and because the personalities of poets vary a lot. Dylan Thomas, though needing a great deal of time to compose each line, speaks also of saving a Mars bar just so he would have something definite to do the next day (ie eat it!) thereby staving off a crippling ennui. Personally, I have also found that you can have too much time to write.

Teaching Literature to overseas students, as a particular way to accompany poetry writing, I find pretty amenable. When I was teaching specialist students of Literature in a university English department, I found that less favourable, probably because of the need to handle a great deal of theory. I’m not against theory per se, but it’s probably a different mode to composition. A non-specialist audience, like my present is different: I feel more at the interface between the text and the world at large, which is stimulating. It just feels more ‘out there’ and challenging, and down to earth, though I don’t intend a general slur on academics: they often do excellent and necessary work. Again, it comes down to what suits an individual best, along with the more general factors I’ve indicated.

What would happen if you didn’t have this avenue to explore this intense curiosity about experience?

I imagine I’d get very irritable and unhappy, based on the occasional times when, for one reason or another, I can’t get to my notebook. But perhaps I would just find a different sort of equilibrium.

So, does your partner recognise this and perhaps need to send you to your room, “Go and pick up your pen!  I don’t want to see you until dusk!”  – that kind of thing?

Well, at least with poems, practically, you can work on them fairly easily, and fit that in around other activities (like looking after children: my son might snatch the manuscript from my desk ten times, but between the ninth and tenth time I’ll get to look at it for a sustained period of time!…)

Writing is sometimes seen as an invasive, even predatory activity – through which writers “cannibalise” their own and other’s lives.  Is this true also of your poetry?  Have any of your sources of inspiration objected to their inclusion in your verse?

Yes, writing can certainly be invasive, though it depends on how people define and protect their borders. Some people said they thought my second book Body-flame was very personal, but I don’t really see it like that. It also reminds me of some comments about the sequence ‘Twins’, in Occasions: one reviewer, Alan Wearne, thought it was a confessional poem, and judged it accordingly (ie not as good as Snodgrass’s ‘Heart’s Needle’, and so on) But the expression, or confession, of feelings is not my aim: my aim is different: to render experience translucent to other insights: an aim not so dissimilar to Rilke’s, I think. Rilke is one of the most satisfying poets to read: the emotion is there, but also a profound intelligence, and his work is so well-achieved in terms of poetry’s medium, language. His phrasing is superb: exhilarating without being showy, eloquent without being over-formal or pretentious. It lives in the language, but is never just a matter of linguistic effect: magnificent stuff! Though I’d probably qualify that slightly by saying that his later work, the later ‘Duino Elegies’ and the ‘Sonnets to Orpheus’ are most impressive to me.

Some people read my poems and say they’re really grim – focussed on suffering.  My poems may certainly sometimes be visceral, confronting, but I don’t think my tone is morbid.  It’s not!  In ‘Twins’, for example, or ‘Reminder’, there’s an exploration of the bodily experiences, which are also emotional. But it’s not that I’m morbidly wallowing in suffering, or, in some premeditated way, ‘transforming’ it via the writing process. I think that language, and poetic form, help to crystallise a dimension of my actual experience, which partakes of a kind of freedom within the experience.

That probably sounds rather general and abstract. In fact, I’m just drawn into particular experiences and I try to articulate them.  As Phillip Larkin describes it (a poet I disagree with on many things, particularly politics!) – you get an ‘emotional concept’ which you try, through the poem, to recreate in someone else. This phrase ‘emotional concept’ is quite good – it’s a hybrid, both feeling and thought, and that’s what it feels like – a conceptual depth and a powerful feeling, and that’s what I try to manifest in the poem.

But I digress! If people are uncomfortable about appearing in my poems, I do have sympathy with that, and will sometimes simply not publish the poem. However, my own position is really that the discomfort comes from an overly narrow view of self: we don’t really own our experience, it has a life of its own, if you like. If that experience can be rendered significant in a poem, (it has its own intrinsic significance, of course) then I think that’s worthwhile. So words like ‘predatory’ and ‘cannibalise’ have very limited validity, I think. Nevertheless, you can’t just force your idea of self onto someone, so I would respect a person’s right to define their own limits.

Would you comment on the thematic thread running through your collection “Body Flame”?

I think that the book focuses mostly on the imperatives of the body – though ‘body’ includes all of that unconscious mental realm too. My main mood, I think, was that of vehemently acknowledging the power, indeed near irresistibility, of bodily experience: how we are rooted in it. But also in the book are intimations of a mysterious capacity to intervene in these processes and for them to be transformed: this relates to my interest, again, in Buddhism. So there’s a kind of dialogue between those things in the book, a tension which is still present in my current work. Reviewers of Body-flame haven’t made the mistake of labelling it confessional, which is a relief, because I think I also see the book as, in part, a challenge to conventional western poetic notions of self-expression. Emotions, for me, and in Body-flame, are not the final word, the final value. Emotion is generally a necessary, probably inevitable, part of a poem, but I would want to qualify Ezra Pound’s famous assertion that ‘only emotion endures’. I think it’s the form that makes a poem endure. Without form, emotion in a piece of writing dissipates and is not distinctive.

How would you describe the thematic shifts in the development of your poetry –  from references to your personal experience, the Aborigines and their oppression, the landscape and the day-to-day world?

Well, a constant has been an interest in the natural world, and that has also flowed into what you’d call politically engaged poems dealing with the views and treatment of nature by societies.

With political poems it’s hard to get the voice right, so it doesn’t sound angry, belaboured or didactic. They are hard to do, but I think I can do them better now.  So there are a few more of these in the latest work. For example, a sequence called “Catchment” which is about protecting the Wombat Forest near Daylesford.

There’s no shortage of such material in Australia, being a continent on which the mass destruction wrought by industrial society has been delayed, but then unleashed with peculiar severity. The subject of indigenous people is of course closely connected to this, and the confrontation between indigenous cultures which are not habituated to very powerful technologies which allow a coercion of the natural world, and our own, is fascinating and one of the most crucial situations for humans to consider. There is a very great deal of misguided thought and argument in this area, I think, and that is a major stimulus to the writing: to try to lay bare the dynamics of it, without vested interest, and without the preconceptions which often doom the debate to endless circling around vague notions of race and civilisation. Of course, there is always the danger that poems can be commandeered by one group or another, and perhaps only a vigorous and thorough critical environment can prevent that, or ameliorate it at least – but such criticism is not really that much in evidence in Australia. Reviews tend to be brief and superficial, longer studies few and far between. General education about poetry tends also to be inadequate, which compounds the problem.

An interest in Buddhism has also been a constant in my work, and this has many implications. It relates to the view of emotions as one part only of the flux of our experience, not the final value, as I said before, and this can result in quite a radical reassessment of the Western tradition. And although, as I also said, I’m not doctrinaire about this (that would be antithetical to the spirit of Buddhism anyway) I am very interested in how devotional poetry works, and how it differs from contemporary forms. Of course, you don’t have to look to the East for the devotional: English poets such as George Herbert and Thomas Traherne, for example, are fascinating, and their poems certainly transcend any one religion, I think. Herbert’s lines from ‘The Flower’, ‘We say amiss this or that is/ Thy word is all, if we could spell.’, although they are evoking the Christian sense of God, can also be read as recognising a Buddhist experience of the lack of inherent self-hood in things. I know that issues of comparative religion are complex, but nevertheless, I think it is valid and important to realise these connections.

There is also, of course, a large body of so-called ‘ecstatic’ poetry, but there are all kinds of issues associated with evoking the ineffable, which leads to a certain unevenness in such work.

Apart from shifts in focus, have there been any changes in terms of style or structure in your poetry? What has inspired these?  Are you currently experimenting with any new forms?

I think when I began writing, I was very careful to let things speak for themselves, as it were: to make sure that I wasn’t merely imposing descriptions on objects or events, but that significance was embodied, not abstract: what Eliot called the ‘objective correlative’, though that term tends to assume a certain relationship between form and content which is not necessarily the one in my work. As time goes on, though, I think you find different kinds of formal integrity, or you become able to achieve these. For example, in my more recent work I’m more comfortable with articulating ideas which can seem rather abstract, but I feel that I can manage a linguistic representation of them which has, say, metaphoric and performative substance. I also feel more able to make use of the adjectival aspects of language, which, if you’re not careful, can seem like cheating, because you’re merely appending qualities to things: but that doesn’t have to be the case. Making more use of the various possibilities of sentences is another development, I think, and a bolder use of rhetorical devices, such as repetition. Although Rimbaud called for the death of rhetoric, (and I can see why he wanted that, given his literary context), rhetoric is really ineluctably part of language, and can be used without compromising emotional sincerity, as long as you’re aware of its dynamics, both historically and technically.

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