From Within the Poetry Cycle: Interview with Joel Deane

You wrote a poem about last year’s tragic Bourke Street incident, which was read at the Bourke Street Memorial Service in January by the Deputy Lord Mayor Arron Wood. What were you feeling, hearing your poem read by a public official at a major event?

I didn’t watch the poem read live at the venue or on TV. Let me explain why. One of the survivors of the Bourke Street attack is a friend of mine. As the first anniversary of the attack approached I found myself dwelling on those days. It was a difficult month. My father had died a few weeks before, in terrible circumstances. One day I was talking to my friend about what happened to my father, trying to make sense of it all. Then, a week later, I was visiting that friend in the Alfred Hospital, trying to make sense of such a senseless act.

So, a year on, I was thinking about January 2017 when the organisers of the Memorial emailed to ask whether I knew any poems that might be appropriate to read out. That email triggered me. I spent the next three days trying to write a poem about the events of January 2017. Before I sent the poem to the organisers, I told my friend what I’d done. I guess I was seeking his permission. He told me to send it, so I did. On the day of the Memorial I watched a bit on the TV, then turned it off. Once I heard from my friend that he liked the poem, I went back and watched the video. I thought Arron Wood did a great job with the reading. As for me, I was just relieved my friend thought it was OK.

Most of your poems are rather economical and look as though they are suspended and solitary on the blank page. Others are longer, less spaced out, and laid out in neat lines. What dictates the way a poem looks on the page?

I don’t know the answer to that question. The truth is that, for me, writing poetry is all about the process. I only write a poem when I feel something I don’t understand. Once I start writing, the poem shows me its form as it arrives. Sometimes it’s simple – the poem is a sonnet or something. Usually, though, my poems go through drafts – sometimes dozens – until they look and sound right to me, and many poems don’t make it out of the draft stage. The poems that do make it out often look very different to how they started out. I have some very short poems that started out as very, very long poems – a hundred lines or so. As for the layout, I’ve read various theories. A line should represent ‘a unit of breath’ for example, I think that one’s from the Black Mountain School. Theories can help, but they can get in the way, too. I just keep rewriting the poem until it feels resolved.

Of course, there are other factors that come into play. For instance, the poetry I’m reading can have a big influence on my writing. If I’m reading, say, Fred Seidel, I don’t suddenly want to write like a randy old goat who rides motorcycles, but I might want to capture the casual, almost castoff, feel of his best poetry. Where am I in the poetry cycle is also important. I usually write in poetry cycles. Nothing good comes for years, then something starts driving me up the wall and I write a few short, sharp poems and then, all of a sudden, a big one arrives – a poem that’s either big in size or feels (to me at least) like it is a watershed. Once that happens, poems start coming so fast it feels like dictation. And then it stops. And then I know I have a collection. The poems I write at the beginning of a cycle are much colder than the ones that come at the end. The last poem in “Year of the Wasp”, for example, is the last poem I wrote in that cycle and it’s a love poem. Among other things, I realised after that it’s an apology to my wife. Speaking of poetry cycles, I think I’ve just started another one. I’ve finished six poems this summer. Given that I only finished three in all of 2017, that’s a big deal for me.

When do you know a poem is finished?

I know it’s finished when I read it aloud and can’t hear a false note. I read my poems aloud all the time when I’m writing. I sometimes tape them and play them back. I also use readings to test poems, to find out whether they feel right. Robert Frost spoke about the importance of “sentence sounds”. I agree.

When launching Andy Jackson’s new collection ‘Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold’ at Collected Works recently, you mentioned every time you were “jealous” of a particular line! Quote the poetic line, of any poet dead or alive, that you are the most envious of.

The point I was trying to make was that there are poets who have the ability to write lines, or poems, that sound like no one else. Andy Jackson is one of those poets. That’s why he’s important. I couldn’t possibly quote just one of the lines of poetry I wish I’d written, there are so many by so many poets alive and dead. A line of two from Andy’s poem, “Jonathan”, will have to suffice:

it’s not how many years you live, but the songs
you write into other people’s bodies. We don’t end

where the skin is, we’re liquid and air, we enter each other.

*Name the poetry collection you keep returning to.

Ariel by Sylvia Plath.

Your collection ‘Year of the Wasp’ – shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry – was written after you suffered a stroke. At what point after that experience did you feel the urge to write, and how was that urge different than before?

The urge the write was immediate and fierce, like the urge a drowning man has to swim. The trouble was that I was in no shape to write poetry for a long time. Not only that, I didn’t have the beginning of a clue what it all meant. So I tried to write and the “poetry” that came out was tripe. The problem was that, since the age of 15, the only thing I’ve ever wanted to be was a poet. Everything else – fiction, journalism, speeches – was secondary. The first literature has always been poetry. And then I had a stroke and couldn’t write it. And so I brooded for a few years. And then – just when I stopped pushing and started to think I was extinct as a poet – the poetry that became the heart and soul of “Year of the Wasp” started to arrive. Once I’d finished the poetry cycle, though, I was nervous. I honestly couldn’t tell whether it was any good. Reading the poems felt like putting my head inside a furnace. So I showed it to my publisher, John Hunter, and he convinced me it was worth putting into print. To answer your question, though, yes the urge was different with the “Wasp” collection. When I wrote it I felt like I was buried alive. Still do. I didn’t feel like that before.

There is a great deal of animal imagery used in ‘Year of the Wasp’ – “the seagull with ants for eyes…wearing a surgical gown”, “the owl [floating] across the darkened ward” and “the wasp…inside [your] head.” When in hospital – in a powerless kind of survival mode – does the differentiation between the way you perceive yourself and other living creatures lessen?

The stroke ward was not pleasant. I remember trying to prove to the doctors when they did their rounds that I was fine: smiling, joking, sitting ramrod straight in my bed – putting on a show. I didn’t fool then, but I fooled myself. I was convinced I was fine. My wife was convinced I was trying to kill myself. I wasn’t. I was just another trapped animal trying to escape. While I was in hospital, I thought about transfiguration – becoming something else and, ultimately, becoming nothing. Then, one night, I thought I saw a wasp in the ward above my bed. And I started thinking about being that wasp. And that thought stayed with me until it was time to write the collection.

*What is your favourite word?


*Poetic self-portrait: in seven words or less, describe Joel Deane.

Like a dog returning to its vomit.

Joel Deane’s ‘Year of the Wasp’ is available at good bookstores, but can also be purchased directly from Hunter Publishers.

(Questions marked * are questions I ask all of my interview subjects.)

Amanda Anastasi