Michelle Cahill is a Sydney poet who was born in Kenya and spent her childhood in the UK. Her most recent collection Vishvarūpa was shortlisted in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. She received the Val Vallis Award and was highly commended in the Blake Poetry Prize. In 2013 she is the CAL/UOW Poetry Fellow at Kingston University, London. She is a co-editor of Contemporary Asian Australian Poets (Puncher and Wattmann) and she edits Mascara Literary Review
Interview by: g emil reutter
GER: You have written, “Poetry and poetics are being shaped increasingly by theoretical perspectives, tutored by academia. This signals a potential for innovation and transgression of established conventions.” Can you expand on this statement?
MC: I guess I mean that theoretical approaches to writing poetry are frequently informed by philosophical and discursive awareness that shapes the poetics and complicates the poet’s natural voice. This can be dense and awkward; little more than a series of writing exercises that feels as if it’s tutored by curriculum and derivative. But at its best the poetry can be beautifully challenging of conventions, undoing the poet’s own previously held assumptions and voicing intrepid manifestos.
So I guess I am referencing the potential for intersections between poetic practice and philosophical or ethical discourses.
MC: It was about living my life, responding to nature, experience,whilst being quite remote from a poetry ‘scene’ as such although a few conferences that I attended did inspire and shape the poems in their later stages. It was partly about my experience of Buddhism, which shifted my perspectives on understanding death, suffering, freedom. There are several poems about asylum which respond to the repressive politics Australia holds towards refugees and more generally misplaced people. There are also poems about motherhood and the difficult negotiation of domestic spaces that women frequently experience.
I received quite a lot of editorial support from the publishers Interactive Press and that helped to refine the book. I love that it is an unmediated response to these concerns and experiences, confident with its free verse forms.
GER: You have received a number of grants and residencies over the years. How important have they been to your development as a writer/poet?
MC: I’ve felt privileged to receive grants for writing; they have enabled me to take time out from the routine of a day job and fall into deeper rhythms of writing. Residencies are also marvellous opportunities to focus on writing and less on daily interruptions. The best residencies provide meals and room cleaning or laundry services so that you don’t need to waste precious time on the mundane tasks.
The other vital aspect is taking that journey elsewhere, meeting other artists/writers and being inspired by those conversations. Residencies may become a starting point for creative collaborations, for lasting friendships; a residency tends to open up my imagination to new possibilities and challenges. Sometimes it alters the direction of my work.
GER: Your second collection of poetry, Vishvarupa is a more recent full length collection. How does this collection differ from the The Accidental Cage?
MC: It’s less experiential and more deeply embedded in mythic and imaginative space where arguments about identity, power, love, death, and representation take place. The poems are more formal in structure, though I don’t necessarily think they are more disciplined. The poems in Vishvarupa concern a partially real and partially imagined self, and the multiple layers are satisfying in deeper ways.
But even still, there is something fresh and unrehearsed about a poet’s first collection and nothing can quite replace that quality.
GER: As a writer of short fiction and poetry do you use different methods in the development of the two genres?
MC: Mostly it’s trial and error as with all writing. The more you write the more skilled you become in using language to achieve sometimes tricky outcomes. Fiction is painstaking and complex; it’s technically the most challenging genre to write , I think.
But the outstanding poems require one to live an uncompromising, often difficult life. Poetry is a way of life, really.
GER: You are the editor of The Mascara Literary Review. As an editor what do you look for in work submitted to the review that inclines you to publish the work?
MC: Good writing is what I look for, meaning that the poem, story or essay is confident, of a high quality, and risk-taking in terms of content or style. As editor of a journal one can shape it to not merely reflect but also investigate one’s perspectives on diversity, on cultural and literary representation. It’s a two way process: I mediate Mascara; Mascara mediates me.
MC: It’s been hugely valuable and has far exceeded my expectations. It connects me to an international community. The ability to read and cross-reference writing over the internet is in my view, marvellous.
GER: What poets have inspired you over the years and how important is it for a poet to be well read regarding the work of other poets?
MC: Brigit Pegeen-Kelly, Robin Robertson, Dîpti Saravanamuttu, Judith Beveridge, Peter Boyle, Louise Glück, Seamus Heaney, Lucy Brock-Broido, Sujatta Bhatt, Meena Kandasamy—
These are just about my favourite contemporary poets writing in English.
GER: You have lived on several continents during your lifetime. How has this affected your writing and sense of place?
MC: It deepened my inner life and made me very independent as a writer since there was little external stability. It familiarised me with losses at an early age since leaving a country is a huge upheaval. It made the Australian landscape at first seem strange and hostile, though now I love it. There is a vivid connection to place in my writing, (often more than one place), and a sense of the journeys between them.
GER: How would you describe Michelle Cahill?
MC: Private. Sensitive. A lover of words.
*photographs from various internet publications