There is just over a month until QLD Poetry Festival hits the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, August 21 -23. Angela Costi is one of the many featured artists at QPF 2009 and this time I shine the spotlight on her to find out about the role of spontaneity, influences and the importance of performance.
What is the role of spontaneity in your creative process?
I’d like to think that my creative process is balanced, albeit precariously, between spontaneity and a thought-inspired response. I like responding to my intuition and the spark within. Often this spark leads to igniting a need to write about a certain thing. This may turn into a passionate pursuit as I read books, rummage through the Internet, discuss with friends, take notes and then embark on the poem. This is how the poem, When Ash and Bone Speaks, came about – through a spontaneous urge to know more about the destruction of Pompeii and its people.
Sometimes the actual process of writing involves spontaneity as I find myself beginning a sequence of every day words and thoughts around a particular image, which grows into another wordscape by allowing my senses to flow and my curatorial guard to relax.
Eliot said, “Poets learn to write by being other writers for a while, and then moving onto another one.” Who are the people who have influenced you and who are you reading now?
In my earlier years as a poet, the mid 90s, there were three pivotal ‘poetry camps’ that influenced my momentum.
Firstly, there was an urge to explore poets of my heritage, which is Cypriot-Greek, so I spent days reading Sappho, Homer and trying to understand hexameter poetics. I then proceeded into Modern Greek times with George Seferis, Yannis Ritsos, Constantine Cavafy and Zoe Karelli. And then in 1996, Pi O, an Australian-based poet of Greek descent published 24 Hours, which explored the ‘third language’ as he called it – that which describes the language of migrants in Australia. Reading this pioneering book and hearing Pi O read from it confirmed my direction with those poems of mine that were drawn from my cultural roots.
Secondly, in a second-hand bookshop I bought Eight American Poets: an Anthology, edited by Joel Conarroe. This anthology introduced me to Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill, Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, Theodore Roethke, John Berryman, Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell. I was particularly immersed with Elizabeth Bishop and Anne Sexton to the extent that I made it my goal to read every poem they had ever published.
Thirdly, the Melbourne poetry scene in the mid-to-late 90s had a certain loose group of established poets that were frequently reading, accomplished, inspiring and they were encouraging to emerging poets. Some of these poets were Homer Reith, Kevin Brophy, Myron Lysenko, Lauren Williams, Lyn Boughton, jeltje, Grant Caldwell, Shelton Lea, Ian McBryde and Jordi Albiston. Apart form their own work, these poets introduced me to the poetry that influenced them, including Sharon Olds and Vicki Viidikas.
I’ve just finished reading Poems of Nazim Hikmet which I relished and I am three-quarters of the way through Poet’s Choice by Edward Hirsch, which is a collection of his 130 short essays on poets that have undoubtedly had an impact on him and his poetry. They include better-known poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins and those lesser-known gems such as Thomas James (1946-1974), Dorothea Tanning and Kate Daniels. I’m about to embark on The Goose Bath Poems by Janet Frame who is a renowned New Zealand author.
Why perform/read your poetry?
Although my poetry has its first relationship with the page it needs to roll off my tongue like second nature. I love reading poetry that reads beautifully and recites beautifully – and that’s what I strive for with my poetry – a seamless relationship with page and stage (which can be difficult to achieve).
Further, because poetry making is such an ancient practice and given that many cultures began poetry as an oral art form, there is that strong unrelenting practice of applying metre, rhythm, pace, tone… qualities that lend themselves easily to ears and listeners.
I am always interested in the thought processes and practices of writers. Would it be possible for you to share with us your process, in other words, what does Angela Costi do in preparation for writing?
Over the years I have gathered a few rituals, which enable me to enter the writing zone. Often I light a candle. (I grew up in a traditional Greek Orthodox household, where lighting candles was commonplace.) A candle’s flame possibly evokes a sense of company and camaraderie on the journey. I like a quiet place, like an empty house or a library that only allows whispering but then I have used certain music to evoke a mood or a tone of voice. (The music is often without voice or if voice is used it is more like an instrument.) Sometimes I read poetry or I read my notes or I close my eyes to conjure a visual trigger point. From my travels to many parts of the world, I have gathered a large book of postcards and images, which I use to stimulate my imagination.
Finally, where are you looking when you write?
When I am writing at a deeper, unconscious level, I actually see the images, people, space… I am writing about. In a sense, there is no distinction between me and the world I am creating on the page – my eyes are focused inward and so I do not notice that the kettle has boiled, the phone is ringing, the kids have arrived home, and that I am cold.
Other times, I am very much aware of the letter and word patterns I am creating. I like to see the precision of enjambment, the effect of six or four lines to a stanza, the way one word looks as distinct from another.
And sometimes, I look up and notice the flame is still going strong and I return to my words.
Angela Costi is the author of three collections of poetry: Dinted Halos, Prayers for the Wicked and Honey and Salt. Her poems have been widely published, broadcast and produced, including in the US, UK, Greece and across Australia. In 1993 she received a travel award by the National Languages and Literacy Board of Australia to study and undertake an Ancient Greek Drama program in Greece. Since 1993, she has performed her poetry locally, nationally and internationally, including the Melbourne International Arts Festival 1999 and 2005. The Relocated arts project, for which she was the commissioned writer, received the award for innovation and excellence in community, 2002. Recently she returned from Japan, where she was funded by the Australia Council for the Arts and Vic Arts to work on an international collaboration involving her poetry, Japan-based Stringraphy Ensemble and an Ancient Chinese musical instrument known as the Sheng.
When Ash and Bone Speaks
My bedroom is Pluto’s new chamber
with no after-thought nor explanation
he unleashed Death, the mauling is beyond pain,
and Pluto spares no pleas for mercy or lenience
with the ruthless pride of an Emperor, he thrust
a fountain of flame which seared throats to silence
― how quickly he changes my room
the four walls melt into something blacker than night
the ceiling cannot be trusted, with hit after hit
of shooting hot rock it heaves in panic
air is corrupt with a smell and taste of sickness
it aims calculated punches at my ribs and fists my lungs
like a gladiator about to slay a wounded cub.
How long have I been lying on this bed of embers
sizzling me softly, lulling me into its burning arms
― long enough to know my baby has turned to stone,
to know my husband lies buried somewhere beneath me,
to hear my mother, father, sisters, brother…
gasp after gasp, cough after cough, breath till no breath
their final release of the one hope to see our little one
suckle my breasts, as odes are sung to its new future
each one takes a turn to cradle, to croon a lullaby
give a promise to protect against everything wicked and bad.
Yesterday, if it was yesterday,
I had my husband’s eager ear
pressed against the full bloom of my belly
insisting he could hear our cherub pattering about
Mama placed a bouquet of sweet wine grapes,
honey figs and caramel dates on my plate
hoping fruit would ease the tender tug and pull of womb
the sun made quiet love to the water in our pool
white butterflies fluttered from flower to leaf
laughter swam easily from our mouths
as we threw a book-full of boys and girls names into the air
I caught the marble smile of Goddess Juno
whispering maternal endearments.
Now I know I was being mocked
basking in delusion, to think I could compare my content
to that of any Goddess, any Priestess, any Sibyl
I should have been aware, alert like the birds, the cats
at the slightest tremor they fled taking their knowledge
I should have looked at that fire breathing cloud and screamed
like the slave girl turning her broom into a weapon
begging then threatening her master to set her free
I should have understood why my insides were pummelled,
Baby knew, my Baby knew, Baby wanted me to say:
Yes, let’s leave!
to the question my family left to me
I became their Fortuna, their one and only chance,
Sweetheart it’s up to you, they said,
all I could think of was the swelling in my tree trunk
legs, the cramps surrounding my spine
the blubbery barge of me hobbling into the frenzy
all I could think about, was me, was only me.
Pluto wants me to feast on dread and terror
before Death takes me, but I am not hungry
I want to feel myself burn into nothing but ash
I want my bones to shrivel into chalk
I want nothing to be left of me at all,
Pluto when you pass me over to Vesuvius
do not make me drink from the River Lethe
I refuse any after-life unless it’s soaked
in the memory of what I have done.
Thousands of years later, my memory returns
distorted by legend, embellished by science,
trapped in fossilised moment and glory
they pick at my bones and those of my baby
pour plaster into my ashen grave, resurrect the shape
of horror as they imagine, how awful for me they cry,
tears fall at my feet, while I stare back with hollow eyes,
they bring bouquets of spring flowers freshly picked
from the fertile fields at the volcano’s base
they bring their children, their elderly parents
I hear them say: Isn’t she a beautiful specimen.
In the volcanic ash of Mount Vesuvius, in Pompeii,
the skeletal remains of a young pregnant woman
were found, specialist DNA biologists determined
she was about to give birth.
Published in Going Down Swinging No. 27 and in the Melbourne Museum’s Exhibition ‘A Day in Pompeii’ Teacher-Student Guide 2009.
Catch Angela at QPF 2009:
Saturday August 22 – 11:45am – 12:45pm
On the Lip of Philosophy: feat. Angela Costi, Angel Kosch & Sophia Nugent-Siegal
Saturday August 22 – 8:00pm
A Million Bright Things: featuring a short set from every bright thing on the 2009 program plus a feature set from the awesome Neil Murray
Sunday August 23 – 2:00pm – 3:00pm
Proscuitto and the Pink: feat. Angela Costi, AF Harrold & Paul Magee
Sunday August 23 – 7:00pm – 9:00pm
Just Kissed Goodbye: feat. Janet Jackson, Angela Costi, Jane Williams, Neil Murray, Elizabeth Bachinsky, Geoff Goodfellow, Paul Magee, AF Harrold, Hinemoana Baker and the QPF Committee
All sessions are held at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, Brunswick St. Fortitude Valley.
For full program details head to www.queenslandpoetryfestival.com