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Bronwyn Lea interviewed about poetry and her favorite books

Poet Bronwyn Lea talks about her life growing up around the world, and the craft of poetry...

READERSVOICE.COM: Have there been any books you’ve come across that people might not have heard of that you enjoyed?

BRONWYN LEA: I was recently given On Entering the Sea: The Erotic and Other Poems of Nizar Qabbani for my birthday. Qabbani is a much-adored Arabic poet from Damascus. He died about five years ago. I mentioned the gift to a Syrian woman I met at a party recently, and she told me when she emigrated to Australia she brought seventeen kilos of Qabbani’s poetry with her. That’s dedication.

RV: Can you give a couple of tips on writing poetry?

BL: At the end of his life Auden said that the poet has but one political duty: ‘to love the word and defend it against its enemies.’

RV: What tips have you learnt from other poets you’ve met as far as writing poetry goes?

BL: I’ve probably learnt most from watching other poets at work. Seeing how they negotiate sounds and meanings, how they learn and develop and change their minds about things, how they discover the reach and limits of their skills and talent, how they find their distinctive voices and come to terms with their own identities. The more I reflect upon other people’s poems, the greater my awareness becomes of my own strategies of writing.

RV: Do you think craft is important in poetry or is it more important to get a feeling across?

BL: I think there’s no dichotomy here. The best poems, the ones we want to live with, will be suitably crafted for the purpose of carrying the feeling. A poem that is all feeling and no craft becomes kitsch, like a Hallmark card. I relate a lot to what Dylan Thomas said, that he likes to treat words as a craftsman does wood or stone-to hew, carve, mold, coil, polish, and plane words into patterns, sculptures, fugues of sound expressing some lyrical impulse, some dimly-seen truth that he must try to reach and realise.

RV: I was wondering how you came to live in so many places over the years.

BL: My family moved around a lot when I was a kid because my father worked in the construction business. So we lived in many developing towns in Australia- Launceston, Darwin, Gove, Townsville-and also in Papua New Guinea. I loved PNG-despite the bad press it receives, it’s an astonishing country and its heat and colour has become a part of my poetic imagination. When I was there in the late seventies and eighties, there was no television and I think this contributed to me being a reader. I read widely and inappropriately-anything that was on my rather liberal parents’ bookshelves. I moved to California when I was seventeen-the plan was to be there a year and I ended up staying for twelve. It’s a long story.

When I returned to Australia a few years ago, I thought I was coming home but I soon found that I had left another home beh ind. Perhaps I’m destined to feel always like an expatriate. In any event, this coming summer I’m going to Sri Lanka on an Asialink residency. I’ll be staying at Lunuganga Estate, which was the private residence of Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka’s preeminent architect. I won’t be taking many books with me because of the weight, but I’ve packed Michael Ondaatje’s memoir Running in the Family and Handwriting,his book of poems about Sri Lanka.

RV: Do you have a favorite poem from editor Martin Duwell’s selection for The Best Australian Poetry 2003 and what makes it a good poem in your view?

BL: I do have a favourite, actually. ‘Elegy’ by Robert Adamson. Shortly after the anthology was released, I was on a panel with Peter Porter and John Kinsella and I was asked to read one of the poems from the book. I chose ‘Elegy’ because I could best feel its mood and hear its music. I find I resonate with this poem and also with Adamson’s commentary at the back of the book. As to what makes a good poem, there are many possible answers (and arguments). For me, a good poem carries within it the music of human speech, and a voice, a nongeneric voice, that can speak above the sea of text and information our culture is busy creating. When I hear this music, this voice, coupled with something new and unexpected, then I know I’m reading something special. I know I’m reading poetry.