This Lost Shark is always seeking answers. Dialogue keeps us moving forward. In this series, I am asking poets where the words come from – the influences, the process, the themes, how it’s changed. Tasmanian poet and collaborator, Karen Knight is first to respond.
I started writing from a very early age due to a strong family influence. Both parents were artistic. Dad was a piano and singing teacher and composer. Mum was a singer and a speech and drama teacher, they both wrote poetry and short stories, so there was never a shortage of books and music in the house. Both brothers played guitar and at one stage my youngest brother brought a euphonium into the house.
When I was 12, I wrote some lyrics to a piece of music Dad composed and it was published by Allans, in sheet music form, so that was pretty exciting.
Around the age of 15, Dylan Thomas’ poetry had such a profound effect on me that I decided then and there I wanted to become a serious writer. The Beat Poets, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin guided me into the literary world and I had my first poem published by Poetry Australia when I was 19.
Nowadays I always listen to music when I write. Groups like Massive Attack, Left Field and Portishead certainly put me into the right frame of mind (I like the dark stuff). For a few years now there have been two poets, Billy Collins and Matthew Sweeney who have had a similar effect on me that Dylan Thomas had when I was younger. I always want to write when I read their work. I used to jot down my drafts on paper, but now I like to feed the computer, I can see the structure/shape of my poems a lot quicker this way.
I don’t have any political influences and landscape not very often, except when I am commissioned to write something that relates to landscape and then I suprise myself as to how much it does influence me, sub-consciously.
When I was in Scotland a couple of years ago staying in a pod at the artist’s retreat, Cove Park, which is in the West Coast area, the landscape inspired me greatly and I had no problem writing about it, because it was different to anything I’d experienced before. The hills, the lochs, the black faced sheep, the Highland cows, the wild blaeberries, etc. In some parts, the farmed trees were so dense, your eyes had to adjust, because it was like looking at them through 3D.
The writing process
I usually agonise as to how to start a poem and the titles are always difficult for me, as I love quirky titles, especially one word titles and I also love deceptively simple words and images in poetry, so I try keep that in mind when I’m writing down the first drafts. I usually hone in and craft the initial idea as quickly as possible, but I usually find there are two poems in what I’m trying to say so I have to work through that raw process, then put the poem aside and come back to it each day with new eyes and a fresh approach, preferably in the mornings.
I would love to say that the words just flow for me, but they don’t, they never have and I lack confidence in my ability at times, which can be damaging. I like to read the work aloud as it helps me with the rhythms and patterns. And even when I think it’s finished I usually send it to two close poet friends of mine who have great skill in picking up on the tiniest details. They give their valued opinions and constructive criticisms. There are usually changes to be made, particularly with line breaks and grammar, they’re not my strongest points as I’m usually too swept up with my images to worry initially about the structure. So as you can see, it’s a long, drawn out process and sometimes it takes me weeks to write just a few lines and certainly a long process to get it to the final stage of sending the work out to a publisher.
I’m also very reader conscious which can be agonising at times.
My favourite place to write is Varuna- The Writers House in the Blue Mountains. I swear there are creative ghosts up there guiding my hand, but it’s probably because there are no distractions and they have a resident cook.
I relate strongly to Philip Larkin’s description of his daily routine as – work all day, then cook, then eat, wash up, telephone, hack writing, drink and T.V. in the evenings. I almost never go out.
Where the voice(s) comes from
My emotions trigger the voices and that’s usually somewhere deep in my psyche that elbows me when we’re ready. It could be something I’ve read, heard or seen, it’s unpredictable. I remember when I heard Walt Whitman inviting me to buy an old National Geographic Book that was in a Red Cross bookshop window. I went in and bought it for 10 cents and there was an incredible spread about him and his life, things I didn’t know about him, he was a voluntary wound dresser during the American Civil War, he donated his brain to science and when he died, a young laboratory assistant dropped Whitman’s brain and it had to be thrown away. It was riveting stuff to come across and for two years I researched Whitman’s life and the American Civil War until I finished my previous collection Under the One Granite Roof – Poems for Walt Whitman (Pardalote Press, 2004)
It’s an incredible rush when something like this happens to you, where a whole collection of poems can arise out of reading an article. I wish it could happen all the time.
Definitely birds keep popping up all over the place throughout my poetry. I have a great affinity with birds and have always had them as pets, rescued and reared many wild birds and set them free, so they appear subconsciously throughout my collections, even in my new book Postcards from the Asylum (Pardalote Press) it’s been pointed out to me that there are quite a few references to birds. So there is definitely recurring themes in my work. I like to work with specific themes now, particularly since I started applying for grants, as it’s easier to sell your idea if you are focused on one theme.
How have my feelings about poetry, the reading and writing of, changed since I first started writing?
Poems I wrote in my teens were way too obscure, too dramatic and too surreal. I was hiding beneath my words and in love with the idea of being a writer. I dressed accordingly, read all the trendy books, wanted to be seen with writers, be linked romantically to poets, but I didn’t put enough time and effort into the writing process. I needed life experience to sort me out, which it has.
I don’t read as much poetry as I used to. But now and then I will go through a phase where I come across work that will have an incredible impact on me for e.g. Luke Davies is high on my list at the moment, not only his poetry but his novels. I’ve just finished reading ‘God of Speed’ and couldn’t put it down. ‘Totem’ is one of the finest poetry I’ve read in ages. I’m also always eager to see any new works from Ian McBryde as he never disappoints.
I think T.S. Eliot got it wrong when, in terms of philosophy and society, he said that the modern world was complex and various, so therefore poetry also had to be.
Billy Collins has taught me a lot about writing poetry. He imagines he has someone in the room with him, who he’s talking to, when he’s writing, and he has to make sure he’s not talking too fast or too glibly. He writes about simple, every day things, but with such depth and empathy, he shatters you with his summations. These are the goals I hope to achieve as I continue writing.
I suppose I keep trying to follow Dylan Thomas’ philosophy on writing poetry, that it should make the toenails twinkle. I like to stir the emotions in my readers. I believe that poetry should touch other human beings, not just to entertain, but to give comfort and stay with them for a while.
I like to make other poets envious.
It’s a Girl-Interrupted Dream
The inmates love me, they think
I’m a rainbow-flavoured icecream.
Ladies-in-waiting scrub my restless skin
and put away my loved-out jeans.
I get to watch the same Paul Newman
movie every week.
I read the Penny Dreadfuls
from the one-shelf library,
stamped ‘donated by the
Australian Red Cross’.
I have my own room, with a double-locked
door and all the boiled mutton I can eat.
On Sundays, the anxious ones
show me cowboys and Indians
with roast gristle and three veg.
On river picnics I sit with a long-termer
and consider the strength of the current.
There’s talk of a cure for this lunatic calm.
Everyone has a lagoon breakout
now and then, their sandbanks
crumbling like halva.
Finally, I’m part of this mad scene.
(from Postcards from the Asylum, Pardalote Press)
Karen Knight’s poetry has won her many awards, including the Dorothy Hewett Flagship Fellowship from Varuna, The Writer’s House. Since the late 1960’s, her poetry has consistently appeared in literary journals, newspapers and anthologies, including Best Australian Poems 2005. In 2007, Karen travelled to Scotland on a three week International Writers Exchange funded by Varuna and the UNESCO City of Literature in Edinburgh. She has written five collections of poetry to which she has received three Arts Tasmania grants and an Australia Council grant. Her current collection, Postcards from the Asylum (Pardalote Press) won the 2007 Arts ACT Alec Bolton Award for an unpublished manuscript. Karen often collaborates with other writers, visual artists, painters, scientists and musicians. Some of her work has been translated into Tamil and set to music by a New York composer. She has recently completed a collaborative work Twinset (Knucker Press, UK) with Scottish writer, Dilys Rose.