• The Past Feels Close: Talking with Lucy Dougan

    Lucy Dougan’s books include Memory Shell(5 Islands Press), White Clay (Giramondo), Meanderthals (Web del Sol), and The Guardians(Giramondo). Since the early 1990s she has been published in a range of journals in Australia and internationally, and has had work represented in many anthologies. She has worked in arts administration, as a tertiary teacher of creative writing and literature, and as poetry editor of HEAT magazine and Axon: Creative Explorations. She currently works for The China Australia Writing Centre at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia. The Guardianswon the Western Australia Premier’s Book Award for 2015/2016. With Tim Dolin, she is co-editor of The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky (UWA Publishing).


    AMY LIN: I’d like to start by asking about your compulsion to write in the poetic mode, why it is that you choose this form, and how has your relationship with poetry developed over the years?

    LUCY DOUGAN: It remains a mystery to me as to why I make poems. Maybe if I really understood why then I would stop. For the same reason I don’t keep any kind of diary that would try to track what is going on deep down. So, although compulsion is the right word I’m really not sure why things take the shape of poems. I know that I can’t work out the same material in prose. In that sense, it must have something to do with the line as a unit. I love the world of sound so I think there is something in that: brief units, grabs. Sometimes I get a sense that I could have worked in another medium and I have kindred feelings towards anything expressive that is minimalist in style and cumulative in its meanings.

    Though I can’t tell you about the compulsion I can at least tell you what has supported it for me: freedom, especially having had a lot of physical freedom in my childhood, and the atmosphere of my family home. There are a few writers in my family so making things is just seen as a possibility, as something you might do. Later on, this atmosphere or family culture that made making things possible was bestowed by my partner and our children. I can’t say enough how not being the major breadwinner helps someone who wants to make non-commercial stuff. It can’t be underestimated. That person is your best collaborator.

    As to poetry down the years, I would say that as I have aged, like everyone, I’ve experienced those huge paradigm shifts (analogue to digital for one) that batter interior life and privacy; and that poetry — reading it, making it — remains incredibly precious and consoling, like sleeping in a tent or climbing a tree.

    It’s funny that if we accept that we write poems, without questioning why, it helps the creative process, though questioning why is also what we do as poets. Speaking of this idea of searching, your creative PhD thesis explored, through poetry, your journey to Naples to discover your birth father and his side of your family. Can you talk about how this project came about, and how other creative works informed your practice?

    I had resisted the idea of shifting creative practice into an institutional setting because I wanted to keep poetic and academic apart. I was drawn back to university life for two quite practical reasons: the lure of four or so years of supported work and having a guided structure in which I could unpack something difficult, something buried. I had been uncertain about how to start writing about the experience of not growing up with my biological father and being bereft of his Italian (specifically Neapolitan) culture. These were not things that we had really spoken about as a family. I still respected my parents’ need for it to be that way and I had never wanted to confront them.

    The structure of a thesis meant that I could approach this story sideways. Rather than the “lovechild exposé” it became about the city of Naples itself: its complex histories, its sense of the deep material past being visible in the present, its eccentricities, secrets, myths, and stories. My three rediscovered siblings where a gateway into Naples and its histories. There remains a real embracing and acceptance of mystery in Naples so that you might be driving around the Bay and someone will wave a hand out the window and say sirena as if that were an incontrovertible fact. This way of interacting with a place was really important to me. We would take the passeggiata where my family live in San Giorgio and people would stop and say, “Oh, she has her father’s mouth or she looks like auntie so and so. I found this acceptance and lack of prying very comforting. People would say to me, “Oh well, that’s just life. Important you found each other. Important you came here. It’s yours to find your way in now.

    When it came to stories in and about Naples I was drawn to thinking about film in the exegesis. It is a city so overlaid with the cinematic and also a city in which the same story keeps happening and keeps getting told: a woman confronting something difficult in that city and coming back to her senses. I worked particularly with Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy and Mario Martone’s L’Amore Molesto (an adaptation of an Eelena Ferrante novella). In these films I was interested in the confrontation of a buried history and the ways in which the protagonists interacted with the ruined spaces of Naples… the ways they turned inwards and away from that famous and over-defining view of the Bay.

    I think it’s this sidelong approach that allows a more intimate access to your subject matter. In fact, I have found your poems to have a subtle, gentle touch to them, yet they are often loaded with gravity and resonance. How have you developed your poetic voice and style to be what it is today?

    I think that my poetry has changed subtly with each body of work in an organic way. Looking back, I can now recognize that my early work lusher, more Romantic. It was somehow more restless and I was experimenting with longer lines. And it wore its heart on its sleeve. Generally, my style has become more reserved, closer to natural speech, and it is also pared right back. I don’t really work for much tonal variation and I want cumulative meanings, repetitions, motifs, places, and situations to emerge through the time of each poem and their time together in the book. That’s not to say that a spare style is how a poem will happen to me as a first draft. These are often wild and all over the place so I suppose what you allude to may be a result of that wildness and unruliness being transformed or compressed. I do think aging, and especially going through menopause, has had an effect on my creative life. I do feel less lush. I feel weathered by that experience and I went through phases of feeling lost, angry and depleted. But the flipside of that is that once I got through that I felt even more in love with the world and everything in it and for what is always at stake. I don’t have a sense of my style being “mature” or settled. That would be to calcify. Every poem is the first poem. That is important to me. I still feel lost, which I think is important for making things.

    With new work, I never really know where I’m going until a few of my poems start to speak to each other. I have to wait for that to happen. Sometimes I drum my fingers on my manuscript file and say, “Come on. Where’s the party?

    You speak of the changes in your body and how this impacted on your relationship with the world and with poetry. This reminds me of what you said in a conversation with Robert Wood that you wrote more poetry after you had your first child and after you started working in an office. Like other creatives who hope to balance career, family, and writing, I find this immensely encouraging. Can you speak about your enhanced output during such a busy time in your life?

    I know that it sounds simplistic but having my first child really opened me up. I was young when my husband and I started our family and I felt truly creatively energized by motherhood and also by the privilege of seeing the world through a new person. Growing and living beside all my three kids at all their stages of development has made me see the world in ways I never could have before. Something about motherhood both slows down time — especially with young children — and then speeds up the time that you have to make stuff so that everything seems like some creative emergency. I thrived on that.

    At around the birth of my first child I also started an office job at a big inner city hospital. It had a pull for me because both of my parents had worked there as doctors. It was a real old war-horse of a hospital that was getting a makeover: the Royal Perth. Thankfully, my office was a bolthole right in the corner of the original part of the building… green tiles and a trolley at morning and afternoon tea. It seems like another life and in a way it was. There was something about having that space to myself just a couple of days a week that made me “come to” as an adult. I was writing love letters on the boss’s time (drafts of first poems) and I was getting to know the rhythms of the hospital, the lives of its staff, its secret spaces above and below. There are still things from that time that I hope will find their way into poems some day: the stories of the orderlies (many of them from Italy), the rooftop drinks, birds that found purchase in the building. It was altogether a fertile time. It was like being in a big ship full of shifting light.

    I guess it’s another example of how key coming-of-age moments in our lives can inform our creativity. Another concept that you have spoken about in workshops is the “monster field,” a concept conceived by Paul Nash, and how this is a space that you half-see, that has a shifting presence. What does your monster field look like, and how does it take shape and aid your writing?

    For Nash, a monster field is both a geographical location but also something elusive. It is akin to John Berger’s notion that there are many different kinds of experiences of and in the visual world, some that just slide out of our line of vision, and some not meant for artists but for others: children, animals, hunters. For me at the present moment “monster field” represents something — anything — that I have grasped at only to lose it. It is nothing new in my practice. It has always been there, this tension between losing and longing and looking all over again for what is lost so there is also a sense of the revisited. If I could give some examples from newer poems, it’s the spectral bougainvillea flowers at the end of “The Brazier” and the abandoned vanity seat in “The Throne.” So it is also connected to ordinary daily re-encountered space. This has been important to my practice. I think it is a common experience, a kind of haunting in a way, the sense that you are close to something that is significant but that it nevertheless eludes you. And in the idea that there are things we can’t really believe in but still do. Again, it is connected with ageing and with loss because it is about the cumulative effects of loss and longing. Slippages could be a good word to describe it. It’s the intersection between the absolutely ordinary and the occult. These two things lay close together and Nash knew that.

    Grasping at something only to lose it reminds me of reading a poem, you think you understand the order and the truth of the poem, and then the experience ends. And it’s not just monster fields that shift and change. Your collections Memory Shell, White Clay, and The Guardians, each have poems preoccupied with houses and interior spaces, the way these shift and change with the people who dwell within them. Can you talk about this motif within your repertoire?

    You are quite right. That is a preoccupation but it remains like a blurry photo because I guess it is about spaces that I (and others) have lived through in time so that it is always already a shared space… almost the feeling that you might be a ghost in your own home. These poems about interior space connect to being alone a lot (last child, big gaps), living in multi-generational family situations, which I have done all my life, family presences, stories, photos, and possessions. All of these marks of habitation are there in my work, I think, but hopefully not labored in any sense, just in the natural “thereness” that comes from generations living closely. The past feels close to me in terms of the preservation of material things, in terms of their persistence and the right feeling of them against skin or held in the hands.

    I have been drawn a lot to early people. I remember the great consolation of the idea of early people at my father’s sudden death. I have been drawn, too, to notions of repetition through inheritance, the proximities one can feel inside family trees. And yet for me this is necessarily provisional because my experience of my own family suddenly changed. I think this combination of things also fed my sense of a fascination with Naples in the sense that in the eruptions of Vesuvius that ordinary present lived moments (and people’s dwellings) were simultaneously wiped out and preserved. One of the houses at Pompeii goes by the loaded name of Villa dei Misteri. Its frescos show the initiation of a young woman into a Greco-Roman mystery cult. I always wanted to write a book called Villa Mystery for the sound of it, for its Agatha Christie echoes and for the sense it carries of all space as a mystery. The body, our own interior, our own “house” is the ultimate site of mystery.

    Speaking of this mystery within ourselves, in your poem “On the Circumvesuviana,” you write of keeping at bay “this damned theatricality / of selves – this constant circus / of being wedded / to a place, a story, / as worn out and / full of grace as this.” I love these lines because it reminds me of the way poets seem to wield their speakers — and humans seem to wield themselves — in ways that are age-old yet beautiful. Can you tell us about this poem?

    I think that if you work in the lyric mode you have to be very careful about self-representation. That is really fraught. You have to strive for a sense of the old communal lyric otherwise what is the point. It could all very quickly become a note to self about myself and I would hate that. With the Naples story I got handed this rather tricky — potentially tacky — material. There are so many “I wasn’t who I thought I was” stories or “this gave me access to this” or “I could tap into that,” but to be true to the experience it wasn’t at all like that. It was a really ambivalent, uneasy and, at times fraught, situation that had the potential to hurt people that I loved. I couldn’t feign a closeness or proximity to my biological father or his culture without that being utterly wrong-footed and false. And I do think that Naples is a place that is both “worn out and / full of grace” as are any stock stories about life. Who anyone is… it’s not simple and it’s never going to be a static thing. I think that is the big attraction of the lyric mode. It has the capacity to let that loose. A friend and I recently transposed this poem to a song and the lyrics changed quite dramatically. We needed a chorus which became “here comes what I know that I don’t know” and I felt that really got to the heart of not only that particular experience but the experience of writing poetry itself.


    Photo of Lucy Dougan by Tim Dolin.