For the second year running, EWF are dedicating a whole day to women in writing. Featuring panels, workshops and performance, A Room of One’s Own will invite inspiring ladies of literature to discuss topics such as diversity in publishing, Impostor Syndrome, pitching and grant applications.
Ahead of June 17th, we’ve asked opening keynote speaker Courtney Sina Meredith and closing performer Emilie Zoey Baker to interview each other about poetry, feminism and well, whatever they like.
Courtney Sina Meredith launched her first book of poetry, Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick, at the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair. Her first book of short stories Tail of the Taniwha will be released in 2016. Her play Rushing Dolls won a number of awards, and was published by Playmarket in 2012. She was the Bleibtreu Berlin writer in residence 2011, a delegate to London for the British Council in 2012, and a guest of the BBC to the House of Lords in 2014. Her poetry and prose have been translated into Italian, German, Dutch, French, Spanish and Bahasa Indonesia.
E: So, something that struck me immediately about your work is a very down to earth respect for your lineage. I wonder how that came about, if it was something you decided to make important or whether it was always taught as being important?
C: Look I know lots of people say this, but I really did have the most brilliant childhood, it was just my mother and I across flats in Auckland. We lived with all kinds of artists, musicians, academics and creatives – she was the one who really got me into poetry, and at a very young age. I was writing all kinds of crazy poems from when I was only four or five years old: love notes about ants, star framed stanzas about the moon, tissues that I’d written on with felt tips – soaked in cold water and left to dry on top of the washing machine. Naturally, I’ve brought the bond with my mother into my writing and it’s overflowed into how I operate professionally, how I teach, how I mentor, how I negotiate and so on. I work from the heart.
I lost my maternal grandmother when I was only 6 years old and she was absolutely the love of my life. I have beautiful memories of her surprising me with traffic light cakes – layered green, red and yellow, building huts in the lounge, taking bus rides into the city and chewing on rainbow gum together. I can still feel the soft skin on the inside of her arms, I can still see her laughing after I requested blue jelly for breakfast. She made me feel ridiculously treasured.
It was important in my early works to honour my mother and my grandmother, it was also beyond my comprehension as to why such a stagnant and one-dimensional view of Pasifika women was the norm. I don’t feel the same responsibility to be as prescriptive with new projects – I’ve got a book of short stories coming out in August and the stories are very abstract, open to interpretation, grappling with endings, snapshots of failed relationships, and so on. The writing process wasn’t about proclaiming strong, free and wild wahine toa, it was more like running alongside different ideas sketching a path out of words.
How about you Emilie, I’d love to know more about where your voice comes from and what it’s made of? I was at an exhibition opening last night, and someone turned to a friend of mine and said, ‘What’s it like to meet you?’
E: Wow, there’s a question! I think I’d have said; loud. I must remember that for parties. I love the way you described your grandmother, I’m currently writing about mine too but I have a very different experience. The collection is called ‘Racist Bigoted Poems About The Weather’ which might give you some idea of our relationship. She now has dementia so she’s forgotten she’s racist, she’s also forgotten who I am and it’s finally nice to spend time with her.
I think my voice is a collage of non fiction and pop culture. I am a big history nerd and lately have been working on a collection of funerals for people that did amazing things but died without honour. It breaks my heart that Herman Melville passed alone in a hovel with no idea that in the future Moby Dick is a masterpiece. It hurts me that Tesla died knowing his pure electric heart was stolen and turned into a machine. The incredible deaf women at Harvard University that secretly mapped the stars, changing science forever. I want to send them a message back through time, telling them that we love them, that they helped change the world and shape culture. I want to write a eulogy for Copernicus who was locked up by the Catholic Church and labelled a sinner. I want to assure him he was right and they were all wrong. To all those women burned and drowned for having knowledge of nature, I want to send them a secret postcard to say we hear you and we are so, so sorry. I want to tell them all they were made of stars and bits of uncut galaxies, that every one of them was special.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about genetics, how we’re all connected and I’d love to do some research into that one day.
Speaking of research, how do you approach your work? Do you do like to study or does it come more from your heart? I like to read a little Rumi or something for my poetic foreplay. How do you get inspired to sit at the desk and write?
C: I wonder if it’s a sign of the times, my grandfathers are/ were (one is no longer with us) pretty racist and sexist and homophobic. I won’t bore you with all the ways ‘lining x y z people up and shooting them’ is seemingly the answer to all of our troubles today, I’m just gently patting your hand through the computer with a look of, oh yeah, I know what you’re on about.
I hear ya on the uncut galaxies and wanting so much to acknowledge people, all kinds of people, who have gone before. If we were at a bar with yummy wine (both being extremely loud I imagine, ha!) I would unfold an entirely different narrative with you. I’m a bit of a mystic myself and always looking for meaning, or perhaps, meaning is the wrong word – justice? I like your take on poetic foreplay and Rumi is an excellent choice… When I was younger I would go into libraries and just feed. Gorging on all sorts – philosophy, cook books, self-help, monologues, as many Victorian poets as my arms could carry. Things changed over the years, I wrote most of my latest book listening to The National, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Fleetwood Mac, bursts of London Grammar and of course Thom Yorke’s haunting, open wound vocals. I hear the music in the beginning, the first few songs and then it’s not so much white noise, but like I’ve crossed a meditative bridge and on the other side is a version of myself that can quite happily sit huddled over my Mac for long periods of time without breaking concentration. This is me delving into prose though and trying to condense inarticulate truths, sort of like wrapping cloth around vapour. When I’m writing poems it’s different, I wrote most of my first book of poetry on foot, at parties, in bed hung over, in toilet cubicles at gigs, across my arms with cheap mascara. In the last few years, I’ve written a lot of work on site, overseas, right in the belly of the beast. And other times, there’s absolutely no sparkle, no moleskins, just a very real deadline and a sense of duty to complete something within a given timeframe. The research aspect is pretty important but in different places I guess, it depends on what I’m trying to say and there’s always a sense of wanting people to not ‘feel’ the research, it should be seamless within the body of the work (ideally).
And now I’m going to selfishly deviate: tell me about one of your favourite moments on stage, where were you, who were you talking to, what did the moment feel like?
E: I’d REALLY like to see a poem written in cheap mascara. I can’t even get the stuff evenly on my eyes, can’t imagine trying to write poetry with it. Consider it a new mission.
To answer your question (and I want to ask you EXACTLY THE SAME THING OMG.)
My friends ‘The Boon Companions’ throw these amazing art parties. Well, they are kind of parties and kind of ‘happenings’ part performance, part workshop, part immersive theatre and alot dancing. Each party has a different theme and a few months ago they did a 1973 feminist march. Everyone dressed up full 70’s fem, there were famous speeches performed through the night, a sit in, vagina modeling, yoni-yoga and zine making. There was also a dance floor that went crazy! By the end of the night everyone was ripping off his or her clothes (and a couple of woman burnt their bras to woops and hollers.)
To close the event I was asked to perform Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech. I was SO EXCITED and collaborated with the ‘Ladychoir’ who played the part of the senate. (Singing ‘order, order!’)
I also found a guy willing to stand behind us with a red bucket on his head pretending to be Tony Abbott. The crowd went bananas. B A N A N A S. They screamed the lines along with me, the whole front row knew it by heart, and the entire audience yelled and, screamed, booed, cheered, cried, laughed and hugged each other. It was so beautiful to have her honored like that. She was one fearless leader and in the context of a night celebrating the political achievements of women, her words were my absolute highlight. The fact I got to say them was just tremendous.
C: You’ll have to forgive me Emilie, I remember reading excerpts of that speech years ago, but I admittedly haven’t read or heard it in its entirety. Do you know it off by heart? How fucking amazing!
[Logs onto google, looks up ‘Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech,’ scrolls transcript with eyes popping out of head.]
And you’re right, it is a total bitch maneuvering mascara like a pen lol, I don’t know what I was thinking, the eyeliner had run out and I wanted to get a girl’s number. It didn’t eventuate, so I scrawled random words on myself instead %-) It was all very, of the times, I sort of miss being that feral, but from a lovely wise distance ha!
[Continues reading speech while musing on answers re favourite performance, finds a clip of young people on YouTube reciting speech, insert overflowing heart.]
God, I don’t know, it’s hard to pick a favourite performance – it’s split between a family reunion and reading for the German president. My grandmother was one of 13, so when we have family reunions it’s like a major event, my mother has over 100 first cousins and the majority of them have children – so you can only imagine the size of the family by now. All the children and grandchildren of the 13 initial siblings had to each do an item, it was pretty special that for my family – my grandfather, all of my uncles and aunties and my cousins, my parents and my brothers, stood behind me on the stage while I performed a poem. It was pretty special to be acknowledged by my family like that and it was incredible getting feedback from my elders lol! They had lots to say about how the words made them feel. I felt like I’d done my grandmother proud. That’s probably been the hardest part of my journey; when I’m looking out from the stage, the one face I always want to see in the audience is never there.
My other favourite performance to date would be at the Berliner Festspiele in Berlin, I was the first performer for Lemi Ponifasio’s world premiere of ‘Le Savali.’ The German President gave a speech; the theatre was packed with about 1000 people, a full house on opening night. Once his talk was over, I stood up in my seat and turned to him, he was standing at the front of the stage – but not on it, so we were at the same level, not exactly eye to eye, but close enough. I was mic’d up, out of my mouth came this booming voice – even I was surprised by the volume and the power. They’d dressed me in a black couture gown; it was all very dramatic and glamorous, light years away from my life in Auckland. It wasn’t so much the fuss and pomp that I was seduced by. It was more that I’d spent a good month writing that work by myself in Berlin, Lemi had complete faith in me and didn’t ask to hear any of it – not even a first draft. I guess it was a moment of stepping out from all the scaffolding around me, letting go of everything I knew, bearing my soul to the big bad world.
Speaking of bearing souls, what are you working on at the moment Emilie?
E: Oh nothing just A READING FOR THE GERMAN PRESIDENT. NBD. *faints*
I’m actually headed to London in a few days, then Paris and Krakow where I’ll be the guest of the Milosz poetry festival. I’m going to meet with youth slam organisations, perform at a few spoken word events and sit in on some classes led by poets who teach. I’m pretty excited. I’ve never been to Poland and I’m very thrilled to be part of this prestigious festival. I’m also going to go on as MANY historical tours as possible. I’m collecting information about all the world’s queens. From different times and different cultures. Their lives, their rules, their reigns. Something hopefully wonderful will come out of it.
What about you at the moment?
Also I’d like to ask one more question to end. How important are titles of a work? And what is your absolute favorite?
Let’s make one up.
There’s a long list of poems in an online anthology, what would you DEFINITELY click on?
I’d click on a poem titled: There’s Wee On My Yoga Mat. (Guess I’d better write it then)
C: BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA, I wish you could see me cracking up in my office :L:L:L Can you actually write that poem just so I can recommend it to students with a straight face?
Actually it was funny, he was speaking in German, and people kept clapping, and of course my cue was to get up once his speech had finished and everyone clapped – but they clapped all the bloody way through! I eventually had to turn to someone next to me to translate where he was up to – so I’d know when to launch into action.
And WOW you’re just casually jetting off to London, Paris and Poland! AND somehow managing to pay homage to some of the most rad women in history? What planet did you come from? and promise me that there are plenty more like you yet to descend on earth!
Titles are important but I wouldn’t say I’m super precious about them, a lot of the time they feel like in-jokes, but I’m the only one in the know lol. Hmm, a title that I’d pick out in an online anthology… I’m drawn to things I don’t understand, 9 out of 10 times I’d click on something written in a different language, something with numbers in the title, cities always interest me too, and anything that starts with ‘Letter to a…’ or ‘On…(love, longing, death)’ I wonder if that makes me an insufferable snob.
I’m looking forward to launching my new book, coming across to Melbourne next month (obviously a major highlight!) and I’m doing a bit of travel later in the year, I can’t talk about the details just yet – but I’m bursting with excitement waiting until I can ha!
This has been a really special, getting-to-know-you experience Emilie, but much more than that. I think writers live in their heads a lot. I know I do. That’s why I’m at a fancy gym several times a week, trying to get out of my thoughts and into my body. I can’t wait to meet you J
E: You too Courtney. I think we’ll have a blast.
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