Elly McDonald

Writer

Statement of poetics (1985)

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Poetry and Gender: Statements and Essays in Australian Women’s Poetry and Poetics – editors Davids Brooks and Brenda Walker, St Lucia University of Queensland, 1989, p.57/58

It’s very strange to re-read this after 30 years. I remember I was asked to write a Statement of Poetics for this study early in 1985, in my first term enrolled in English at the University of Sydney. I had no idea what a “Statement of poetics” should be. I knew nothing about gender theory in Literature. I took my draft to my Term 1 tutor, who as it happened was an aspiring creative writer too. She didn’t like me and she did not like my draft. I remember her wrinkling her nose. I also remember that when the writer Helen Garner visited that term, my tutor and a number of students joined Helen for a drink, and I hoped my tutor might introduce us. Of course I should have simply introduced myself. A short while after, Helen contacted me, by handwritten note, requesting a copy of my poetry book, Other People (and other poems). I was thrilled by her interest, and I told her I’d been present that evening at Sydney Uni. Helen wrote back saying it’s frustrating how often people she hoped to meet tell her they’d been somewhere in her proximity but had been too shy to introduce themselves.

The other thing I note is my bullshit. My poems did not have an “male/female, overtly sexual context”? My relationships with women and family were “more complex than my relationships with men”? I wrote “most often about female friendships”? No. No and no. Fact is most of my poems were autobiographical, and most concerned a particular male/female relationship, and I was embarrassed to own that. For the record: Other People (and other poems) was memoir. You know who you are.

Nearly all my poems are records of conflict; I write as a means of clarifying emotion.

The only reader I initially had in mind was me; for years I never considered poems of mine might be publishable. I was writing highly-codified, deceptively simple lines that read like printed lyrics to songs. The music was built-in: I relied on rhythm, and rhythm is still the lynchpin of my style. I actually regard some of my poems as songs for the inner-ear, though I’m aware that rhythms that seem to me insistent are not always obvious, comfortable or even apparent to some readers.

Repetition is another hallmark of my style. I like to play with a word, and its puns and variations and rhymes, in such a way that several meanings may be suggested. Punctuation in my poetry is a guide suggesting mental pauses like musical rests of varying value. I seldom use conventional punctuation, believing it forces too narrow a reading. Ideally, multiple meanings should bounce off each phrase. Lines often have a particular meaning taken by themselves that adds another dimension to their sense in the context of the whole sentence or verse. I like that. I think of it as texture, as verbal cross-weaving. It’s also an intellectual game, a form of self-amusement like a cryptic crossword. I once wrote a six-line poem in which the lines and phrases could be read in any sequence and still convey sense.

However, until quite recently it never occurred to me these games might be accepted as ‘real’ poetry. Real poetry, I thought, was based on metaphor. More abstract, more structurally complex and more dense, real poetry was rife with adjectives. My poetry became very wordy, which in itself I don’t consider a fault – writing is, after all, about words – so long as the words are used to effect. I do think, though, that in poems written during this phase I was cramming in too much, too clumsily.

Because I feel strongly about their subjects, my poems often have an impulsive, obsessive quality. Where poetry is concerned, I’m just not interesting in exploring anything but the politics of personal relationships. The relationships I have with other women and with my family have proved more complex than my relationships with men, so I write most often about female friendships, current and past. These ‘friendships’ have often been problematic, ambivalent; the poems are correspondingly ambiguous. (Some poems that may appear to address a man in fact involve a woman.)

Up until now, stalemated power-struggles have been the dominant recurring theme, and the image of the doppelganger stalks through much of my work. The doppelganger reflects a too-close identification with my perceived (female) ‘Enemy’: almost an exchange of identity. The doppelganger might be the Enemy as Self.

The doppelganger stares back from mirrors. Frequent references to mirrors in my poems are not intentional symbolism, but now I’ve become aware of them I’m sure they relate to a childhood conviction that mirrors are the bridge between the land of the living and a phantasm zone. Quite a few poems of mine are re-lived nightmares, or slip midway into nightmare sequences.

A sense of displacement, of dislocation, is also something I’m increasingly aware of as an element in my writing. The poems’ subjects are usually an Outsider – or an outcast, a misfit who’d choose to be accepted. More often than not, the Outsider’s survival is in jeopardy. The context is hostile, unknowable: strangers, people not recognised, mistaken identity and identity exchange recur.

These recurring elements have not been consciously endowed with significance, and I don’t fully understand their implications. Explicit meaning is not a high priority; my poems are not plotted in advance. When I sit down to write, all I usually have is a mood demanding expression. I may have a character, a specific situation and perhaps a key phrase or metaphor, but for the most part the first draft resembles automatic writing. I write till the words take on some kind of form, and then I examine what may have emerged. Invariably these days it requires re-working, but the first draft is the model.

I hope my work reads as distinctively female. Its focus on relationships in other than a male/female, overtly sexual context and its concern with inter-personal nuances are not, to my mind, typical of male writing. For me, poetry is close focus. I believe there are infinite kinds of feeling, forming all degrees of human bonding: variation on feeling seems to me a subject demanding close examination.

Elly_McDonald_Writer Ian Greene headshot 1985

Headshot taken for inclusion in poetry anthology 1985 (pic: Ian Greene)

Author: Elly McDonald

Art lover. Loves her family and her dog. Worked in the Australian rock music industry as a journalist and published widely as a poet before moving to London and spending the better part of a decade in advertising agencies. Returned to Australia and briefly tried teaching, primarily teaching English to non-English speaking, newly-arrived refugees but also as a high school classroom teacher. Has travelled Western Europe, North Africa, Russia, Northern India, East Asia, coastal USA, some Pacific Islands, and Australia.

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