Friday 2 August 2013

Diana Brodie: an interview

Diana Brodie's been publishing poems for nine years. I know her because we attend the same local poetry group at her house. Hearing a poem of hers most months, I'm not surprised that she now has a book out. "Giotto's Circle", has been published by Poetry Salzburg. It's available from the Poetry Salzburg site. This interview was conducted via e-mail in mid-2013.

1. When did you start writing poetry? Has your writing gone through recognisable phases? Can you identify any breakthrough moments?

I think that when I was very young I had the idea of becoming a poet. I read a lot, learned poems by heart and sat pensively by the window with an open book. My parents had firm plans for me – a job in my father’s office, starting as near as possible to my fifteenth birthday.

When I was about eight, I had a schoolteacher who was especially good at teaching creative subjects and I so much enjoyed my first lesson in how to write a poem that when I arrived home from school, I went to my room and wrote another, but when I took it to show my mother, she became extremely angry and tore it to shreds, dumping it in the kitchen bin with the vegetable scraps.

Writing a poem was, I think, considered pretentious, "a waste of paper" and seen as "trying to be clever when you’re not". I couldn’t bring myself to try writing a poem again for five decades apart from compulsory homework exercises. I only remember writing a limerick that I had to explain to everyone who heard it.

I had a lot of trouble at home in trying to be allowed to stay at school beyond 15 and the lucky chance came when I was injured in an accident on the way to school (!) and gained the sympathy vote after my sister’s pleadings to my parents that I should be allowed to continue at school and then go to University. I had to pay my own way (and pay board to my mother) though.

I thoroughly enjoyed my university years and ended up with an MA in English. I then trained as a teacher, got married the following year and soon afterwards came to England. I was reading a fair amount of poetry and in our early days heard Auden read his poetry in Great St Mary’s in Cambridge.

The need to write poetry surfaced only in the 1990’s when I happened to meet someone who was talking about correspondence courses and she mentioned that they were available in poetry. I had felt I’d be too embarrassed to bring my inadequate efforts into the light of day so this was the perfect solution. I enjoyed the course, which had an Arvon residential week at the end. This was about the time – 1997 - that the Poetry School was founded in London and I enrolled on Mimi Khalvati’s versification course. After work on a Friday night, I’d catch a train and head for Covent Garden. I have taken Poetry School courses in every subsequent year.

I enjoyed writing and after a few years, the Poetry School asked me to submit for an anthology of a selection of PS poets considered likely to publish a collection at some point (I think most of those selected have done). I was very surprised by this but I began to submit more poems elsewhere and fairly soon had some publications. Another year or so went by and comments became even more encouraging so I decided that if “real poets” thought I could do it, I was under an obligation to try (though it felt for a long time like pretence). So that was the final stage before the breakthrough of a book publishing offer. I wrote a lot, went to dozens of courses and aimed for a book more than a pamphlet. I don’t know why that direction was recommended to me, but that is what happened.

2. Do you write literary prose too?

Very occasionally. I’ve got a piece in this month’s issue of the New Zealand literary journal, Takahe. I’d have liked to have done more but I don’t have the time, having started so late with poetry. The only other thing I do is quite a lot of writing and editing for the Parkinson’s Society, information sheets and handbook or a review. I’ve got a piece in the next issue of the next national magazine.

3. What factors affected the ordering of the poem in the book? Now that you can see them all together do themes emerge that you didn't notice before?

I only understood my poetry when I had several attempts at putting a collection together and realized, for instance, that a poem was often not really about the subject I had originally thought at all. The subconscious does not need to refer to the conscious mind in order to create a metaphor.

The themes I keep finding traces of are Waiting. Waiting to be in the right place, waiting for change and seeing it. Waiting to leave. Looking at ways of leaving. Maps. Jumping. Flying. Landing. Falling.

Also, circles. A poem is often circular beginning with an idea which grows as it develops and then at the end may have a simple or profound conclusion that refers back to the beginning. One thing I love about growing older is that there seems to be so much opportunity for renewing old friendships.

The book is divided into sections, each section title being a phrase quoted from a poem within that section and giving a clue to other themes. Starting with No Ordinary Thing. Poetry makes the ordinary extraordinary, or should do.

4. How does your family view having a poet in the family?

My sister, Wendy, has been very supportive and she has read many of my poems. I think she is glad that these things I write about have now been said which once they never could be. We scarcely mentioned them to each other until we were in our 50’s, long after both parents had died. Three decades, in fact. My mother would have loathed my poetry.

With my husband and daughters, for a long time, there wasn’t much discussion about it and I think it was seen as another example of my enthusiasm for taking courses. When my daughters were teenagers, I took 3 ‘A’ level exams and I often went to evening and weekend courses on any subject that interested me but gradually, poetry became the chief focus. Becoming so immersed in poetry as I have been has been a big surprise. Since I’ve had mobility problems, my husband has been very good about accompanying me on the journeys to Arvon houses or to the London Poetry School and staying in the area until I had finished the course. He knows well the Devon coastal path and Shropshire walking tracks, also the Lambeth area. Our grandchildren are very excited and impressed that there’s a book.

5. They say that blind people compensate by enhancing their other senses. You're not as mobile as you used to be. Have you found that some other faculties are working harder?

Well, the other faculties all have their problems too because a neurological disease can affect everything. It’s challenging physically but I’m extremely fortunate to be given the opportunity, while I can take advantage of it, to have "Giotto’s Circle" published.

6. What advice would you give a budding poet? What have you learnt about becoming a "poet".

I think that a writer’s focus should be not on “becoming a poet” but on writing a good poem, considering all feedback seriously, being able to justify changes you don’t make and those you do. Edit ruthlessly, especially the wordy first stanza that can feel like a huge intake of breath.

Also, make good contacts with others writing poetry. There’s a lot to learn and you can build up useful information that way.

7. Which writers do you re-read? Have you learnt any tricks from them?

I like Fleur Adcock and Raymond Carver. Dennis O’Driscoll. Brendan Kennelly, especially "The Man Made of Rain". I like mystery but also directness.

8. How has your relation to New Zealand and its poetry changed over the years?

At school, I think there was only an occasional mention of any New Zealand poets but that seemed to dwindle to nothing after I was about 12. I bought one paperback anthology of “New Zealand verse” in those years but I didn’t feel interested in it. I’m pretty sure that during my university course – four years at University - there was no mention of them. Of contemporary poets, there were a few of the UK and American “greats” – Eliot, Auden, Wallace Stevens – that was about it and anything else I was left to discover for myself. I didn’t read much NZ poetry for years, then it tended to be expatriates like Fleur Adcock or Janet Frame, both of whom felt very uneasy in a New Zealand cultural climate.

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