Self-Portraiture, However Slant: The Poetic Drive of Joan Fleming

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Joan Fleming grew up in New Zealand and studied creative writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University, where she won the Biggs Prize in 2007. She has since relocated to Melbourne, Australia. She is the author of two books of poetry, The Same as Yes (VUP 2011) and Failed Love Poems (VUP 2015). She edited the 2015 edition of Verge, Monash University’s creative writing annual, themed around Errance, the act of travelling from one place to another without any clear destination, or a wandering of the mind.

The Same As YesBoth of Joan’s books are beautiful and striking, but for me her debut The Same as Yes is indelible. It is surprising, iconic, and strange. I am reminded of Zachary Schomburg’s Scary, No Scary, but from Joan’s singular perspective. Thrilling–like searching for another Twin Peaks and finding Top of the Lake.

Joan’s poetic drive does not begin and end on the page. One of the coolest expressions of this is her participation in butoh, a form of Japanese dance where performers cover their bodies in white paint. Her dance company, AND WHY, filmed “THERE IS NO PERSON WITHOUT A WORLD” in Dunedin in 2013, and her recent butoh-poetry video “Folded Skins,” which places Joan in the Australian desert, can be viewed here.

Folded Skins from J.Ollie Lucks on Vimeo

 

Joan is thoughtful and smart without pretension. Her writing is incisive, unexpected, and quietly academic. She is thinking about big things and articulating them in small ways that we can all pick up and turn over in our hands. I first saw Joan across the room at someone else’s book launch at Unity Books in Wellington, New Zealand. I had no idea who she was but I knew I wanted to find out. I’m still figuring it out now and I love that.

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Caro DeCarlo: Where did your interest in writing come from?

Joan Fleming: Writing arises from reading, and I was always an obsessive reader as a kid. My childhood influences are a mix of fantasy novels, Shel Silverstein poems, bizarro Paul Jennings books, and an encyclopedic series of ‘morality’ stories that I read in order and kept in a treehouse. Poetry came later: I crossed paths with Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas and e.e. cummings in high school, though at the time I was more interested in Margaret Atwood novels and the heartbreak lyrics of singer-songwriters. Maybe I was late to writing poetry because I had a distracted time in high school and early university –– partying, experimenting, falling in and out of love. I always had this outrageously strong yearning for deep connection. I thought it was ‘normal,’ but now I suspect that not everyone pours their entire being into seeking, keeping, fostering, and understanding friendship and love the way I did –– and do, I suppose. Relationships are still incredibly important to me. But when I reflect on all the hours, months, and years of my life I’ve spent in intense self-analysis and conversation, trying to understand love and connection and to process its textures and failures and gifts, I think: maybe I could have spent that time doing something more productive. Anyway. It was Dinah Hawken’s Writing the Landscape class in the last year of my BA that showed me what a poem could be, and how I might write one into existence. I started reading Anne Carson and a lot of contemporary New Zealand and American poetry. From then on, for better or worse, I knew my vocation and was committed to following this foolish, otherworldy poetry path.

Failed Love PoemsCD: How did you approach writing the poems that appear in your first book, The Same as Yes? Do you feel your practices changed at all for Failed Love Poems?

JF: For The Same as Yes, I stumbled upon the prose poem form and got hooked. That blocky little paragraph could hold all the music and story and dream that I needed it to. I wrote long lists of titles, inventing all the possibilities I could think of –– all the objects and people that I could imagine engaging in conversation with each other. I find it interesting and helpful to set constraints like that.

Failed Love Poems was similar, in that the concept or constraint came first. Or, more accurately, the concept arose out of a few poems I wrote that all glommed together in a satisfying and generative way, and I thought: yes, this is where the next book is headed. Failed love. Failed language. The failure of poetry to tell experience. I resolved to push my forms. The hardest I pushed them was in writing the two prose-poem sequences in the middle of the book. When I re-read these, they break my heart. Proof, for me, that formal risk-taking can pay off.

CD: What are you working on now?

JF: I’m working on PhD poems. These are coming out of my research in a field called ethnopoetics, that theorises and practices the work of taking oral and ritual forms of poetry and representing them on the page. The poems I’m working on are also informed by some recent desert trips with Warlpiri people from a couple of central desert communities where I have family connections. I’m writing about the experience of being in “two minds” and navigating the space between cultures. It’s rich territory, also very political, as it deals with power structures and race. I’m treading cautiously but also conscious not to lose my poet’s naivete, which I think is necessary. Self-portraiture feels like an ethical approach. I’m working hard to be wide awake inside race and difference, and to, in Claudia Rankine’s wonderful phrase, “inhabit, as intensely as possible, the moment in which the imagination’s sympathy encounters its limit.”

CD: What was the process like having two books published through VUP?

JF: The first book-shaped thing of mine that Fergus at VUP saw was my MA portfolio in 2007. His feedback was basically, “not a book.” He was right. I spent my MA year experimenting and challenging my habits, rather than writing toward an easy book that might be published right away. The following year, I got suddenly worn out by the Wellington spleen and gave away most of my clothes and belongings and moved to rural Golden Bay. There, I abandoned all the MA poems that I was trying to wrangle into a book, and started writing prose-poems. I sent that manuscript of prose-poems to VUP, and they liked it very much, but thought it was “a bit slight.” It was disappointing, but also fair enough. Most of those got published, in one form or another – a chunk of them in a hot chapbook series called Duets that came out in 2010.

It was a while after that that I sat down and wrote The Same as Yes. Those poems came in a great rush after a bit of a hiatus, and when they were done, I bundled the thing up and sent it to Fergus and the VUP team and their response of “Yes!” came quite quickly – within a couple of months if I remember. The book came out later that year.

The team at VUP has always been firm and clear with their feedback, on everything from cover design to line edits. The only arguments we’ve had have been over the cover font! It seems a minor thing, but details like that end up feeling incredibly important. Still, I have always felt I had agency over the books. My integrity and needs as an artist were acknowledged and respected. Both books needed only fairly light editing, so that helped. The Same as Yes was originally much longer, and needed a good whack of poems to be culled, but Failed Love Poems was very nearly in book-shape when I sent it off.

CD: In addition to writing poetry, you’ve been involved in really stunning visual art work, some of which has been quite personal in nature. How important (or not) is it for you to put yourself out there, through poetry and performance, in a way that feels emotionally resonant?

JF: It feels natural to put my emotional life at the centre of my making. Probably everything I do is self-portraiture, however slant.

CD: What is it like to engage in butoh performance? How did you get involved in the first place?

JF: Butoh is punishingly difficult, both physically and mentally. For so much of my training, I thought, “Why am I doing this? Why am I putting myself through this?” To train yourself to get away from your habitual movements, to tap into a mode of movement that is primal and authentic and nothing to do with thought: it’s horribly hard. Your mind keeps getting in the way.

But the moments when I have accessed “butoh space” –– it’s indescribable. It’s worth it. You come out of it, back to earth, and it’s like you’ve been on another planet altogether. Raw emotion bubbles up from a place of deep play, and you just submit to the feeling.

I first saw Butoh at an outdoor festival in Wellington. Some friends of mine were in full white butoh body-paint, and they were “flocking” through the crowd. I didn’t know what I was seeing, and I couldn’t look away. The four of them together made a slow-motion creature, like personified weather –– they were moving in a line and passing movements from dancer to dancer –– it was very intimate and deeply strange. I thought: that’s what I want to do. I’ve trained in fits and starts, with teachers from Wellington and California, Mexico, and Japan, and I’ve done a few performances. I am an absolute novice though; an initiate. I’m out of practice since I had surgery on my knee, but I believe Butoh is a practice you can keep doing into your 60s, even beyond. The older Butoh dancers I’ve seen are really the best. Babies and toddlers are also great and unacknowledged Butoh masters.

CD: You’ve lived and studied in New Zealand, and are now based in Melbourne. Do you consider yourself a Kiwi writer or an Australian writer (or both/neither)? Is location important for creativity?

JF: Location is less important than space and routine. I can write anywhere, but I need the right conditions: books, a space that feels like me, and a morning routine that I can keep for several weeks at least.

I consider myself geographically and patriotically confused, which is how I have felt my whole life. I love Melbourne, though I have many homes.

CD: What’s a typical day like for you, if there is one? What’s an ideal day?

JF: A typical day at the moment involves writing work, life-admin, a bit of teaching work, phone calls with friends or family or partners, cooking at home, ideally a bit of time to look after my headspace through exercise and chanting. Weekends are for being with people and out-of-town adventures and party dancing and therapeutic pottering. Is it strange to say a typical day is also an ideal day? I really like my life at the moment.

More of Joan’s creative work can be found on her website. Her poetry appears in Snorkel, Turbine, and Sport, among other places. She tweets @wellhellojoan.

Author Photo: Kate van der Drift

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About Author

Carolyn DeCarlo has lived in New Zealand for three years. Sometimes when her friends tell her she’s a real Kiwi she actually believes them. Each month, she’ll be featuring a new voice in poetry from her favorite place on Earth.

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