Interview at IP

I’ve just recieved the latest Interactive Publications newsletter, which contains an interview (where I’ve done my best not to ramble) and details for my upcoming launch events in Melbourne!

IP Newsletter #44

Here’s a re-post of the interview with Joanne Brennan.

 [Joanne Brennan interviews Ashley Capes about his new poetry book, Stepping over Seasons]

JB: Before we dive right in to your current work, more generally, what attracts you to poetry? And keeps you there? What feeds your personal hunger?

AC: Poetry’s ability to be concise and direct, and through that, wring every drop of power from a comparatively small amount of words – as a writer I love trying to achieve that. As a reader I’m usually drawn to poetry that surprises me with its use of language and convinces me to take a second look at something; a place, a person, an object or a moment.

I think what keeps me writing poetry is harder to define. Obviously any successes and the feedback from people who read my work keeps me going; meeting other poets and working with them is amazing. And the fact that a single poem can be completed in a relatively short amount of time, especially compared to a novel, is a nice motivator too.

JB: Do you think that, in contemporary Australia in particular, it is an under-appreciated art form?

AC: From some quarters, perhaps. Major publishing houses show a drastically reduced level of appreciation, especially when you see their publishing lists of the past. I don’t think the general poetry readership has shrunk or that appreciation has dipped, because poetry performance like slams and spoken word events haven’t disappeared. Small press publishers have expanded and the internet has opened up a world of interactive elements for far-flung people, so poetry doesn’t seem under-appreciated where it counts.

JB: How did you start out, writing poetry? Was it a case of ‘falling into it’ and then discovering it was where you were meant to be?

AC: During high school I know I drew on a lot of lyricists to begin with, while at the same time I was reading Elliot, Wilde and Plath. Singing in bands had a hand in it too, but that was quite different, writing lyrics usually involves some sort of constraint – melody and song structure. Poetry on the other hand, was only bound by what fit on a page – and that’s probably what led me to the Beats: On the Road by Kerouac and the poetry of Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti. Tyrannus Nix? by Ferlinghetti for instance, just blew me away.

JB: Turning to your latest collection, Stepping Over Seasons, tell us a little bit about your work.

AC: Haiku masters like Basho and Issa have influenced me greatly. It’s that whole ‘economy of words’ that I try to achieve – haiku is an incomparable genre for it and I want my work to have the same power. Like haiku, a lot of my poetry is grounded in the seasons – either with overt references when I write about single moments, or in a more metaphorical sense, where winter, for instance, represents an entire frame of mind. Or a town, or a house, or a year of my life.

I’m still influenced by lyricists and by the Beats and occasionally quite directly by jazz artists like Herbie Hancock – there are a couple of poems in the collection with odd reading rhythms, and that comes from the Beats and jazz.

People tell me that I deal with ‘place’ a lot, and looking over the collection I think that’s true. A few of my poems explore ideas of being trapped, of moving from one place to another, or of the times when my loved ones, like my wife and my family, make the place worth living in.

JB: It has been said that Stepping Over Seasons “artfully depicts the finer details of life, encapsulating change within people and places as the seasons unfurl…” Was this a conscious thematic choice? Do you believe the best poetry does, indeed, focus on the very real details, and, through this focus, can make powerful, broad, more abstract statements? Or do you need to begin with a powerful theme as impetus?

AC: It was a conscious thematic choice, absolutely. I think some technological advances have dehumanised society a little, and perhaps as a reaction to this feeling, I’m drawn to seasonal references and using them to illustrate change. They’re very obvious markers for change but I like their universality.

A sharp focus on detail that resonates with the reader is integral to great poetry. Using intimate moments and objects do allow me to touch on broader ideas. The way I work is usually responsive – in that I write in response to my immediate environment and it might not be until later that I discover any themes that run through poems.

JB: How did the collection come about? Did you write the poems specifically for inclusion, or collate existing work spread across time/space/theme but which somehow came together and worked well?

AC: I looked at work spanning a couple of years and piled together around eighty pieces before whittling it down to the strongest fifty. These I sent to a few people that I knew would be honest and constructive – thanks again, to Michelle Cahill, Graham Nunn, Brooke Linford and Simon Cooper. Once I took in their advice and made adjustments, it was ready to send to IP.

Even after the manuscript was accepted, I was still refining the thematic structure. Thankfully IP was flexible enough to let me make a few final substitutions, and I removed some pieces that I felt were either interrupting the overall flow of the MS or simply weren’t as strong as some newer pieces.

JB: Some poems in the collection particularly stand out. Would you mind telling us a little about these specifically? Are there any which are especially significant, for you as writer?

AC: Shell comes to mind – I wrote it after leaving a rough patch in my life, and much like Overlook it deals with ‘place’ about the way the house we lived in had become painfully empty – even before we left. On a lighter note, I very recently found out that Shell was awarded first place in the 2009 Ipswich Poetry Feast Open Age Competition, which was fantastic news.

Other Objects is a poem in the collection that uses a fairly broken but prose-like line structure, which is fun for me to do as it’s rare that I work outside of my regular patterns. It’s also one of the more positive poems, where I’ve attempted to humanise domestic objects and put my marriage into an honest and but tender setting.

Finally I’ll mention Botanic because it’s one of the longest in the collection, and writing longer poems is always a challenge for me. That, and it’s full of good memories of the Brisbane Botanic gardens, and contains some of what I hope are my most interesting bits of imagery.

JB: The notion, in ‘Overlook’ that it’s much easier for great poets to romanticise the world’s most classic cities, than, for example your own not-so-romantic Australian hometown (very tongue-in-cheek!), is an interesting idea. What role do you think a poet’s environment plays in determining the nature of their work?

AC: I think a writer’s environment is very influential – it certainly bore down on me at times, especially when I lived in more industrial areas of Victoria. Oppressive winters particularly seeped into my poetry.

JB: Do you think that if you were to move to London for a year, tomorrow, your work would change? Inevitably? Why?

AC: A lot about my poetry would change. While I’d still be looking at how the shift of season changes us, I’d have a different experience of those seasons. Famous white Christmases and shorter days in winter. And being exposed to various dialects of English would alter my work too.

JB: Your poem ‘Leaking’ explores the slow loss of love between two people, with love seeping out with the momentum of a leaking tap. Is it difficult writing about relationships, either in terms of specific, personal examples or in more abstract terms? Do you need to be wary about being too specific, in wanting to protect the privacy of those you have loved/lost? And also be wary about being specific in a way that serves to alienate readers?

AC: I used to be more reserved and I included more in the way of metaphors for relationships, but the desire to be honest and direct has taken over for the most part. As soon as I self-censor I do the poem a disservice. On the other hand, as you point out, being too specific can easily alienate readers. I remember reading about David Gilmour and Roger Waters disagreeing over the lyrics to Pink Floyd’s Animals – which contains scathing attacks on the conservative right, including very specific references to Thatcher and censorship stalwart Mary Whitehouse. In that case, where it has political overtones, I think it works. But for poetry dealing with more intimate relationships, it’s probably going to put up a barrier between the poem and reader.

JB: Finally, the IP Picks competition is currently in full swing again this year. Do you have any advice for aspiring poets, who may currently be working on their poetry entry?

AC: I believe it’s vital to seek advice and feedback from people you can trust to be honest, even brutally honest. If you’re lucky enough to know even one writer who is both friendly and accomplished – then it’s worth approaching them to ask for some assistance in looking over what you feel is your best work.

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