“Humour and lightness”: an interview with Australian poet Jane Williams on what moves her

By Lawrence Pettener

Writer Lawrence Pettener sat down with contemporary Australian poet Jane Williams last November at a coffee house in Kuala Lumpur to produce this interview.

Williams was born in England in 1964 and is based in Tasmania. Her writings have been published in many publications in Australia and outside, such as Ireland, USA, Canada, England, Japan, Sweden and India.

She is a prominent feature at reading events across the globe, such as Canada, USA, Malaysia and Czech Republic. She has also won many prizes, including the Bruce Dawe Poetry Prize in 2005.

(For more information about Williams, go to her website).

How does Tasmania get into your writing?

I’ve been there about 15 years now. I started off on Bruny island (off the south-east coast of Tasmania), and gradually moved into Tasmania’s capital city, Hobart. So geographic isolation was attractive to me at that time though I wasn’t specifically writing about place.  On the whole my poetry tends to be people-focused, but I do feel there’s been a kind of undercurrent of place influencing some of my writing since I moved to Tasmania, in a way that I haven’t felt in other places I’ve lived. Even if you don’t consider yourself much of a political animal or an activist – as I don’t really – I think it would be hard not be aware on some level of Tasmania as place with its indigenous and convict history, the wildness of the landscape, environmental beauty and degradation etc … While I was living on Bruny island I wrote my first poems influenced by some of these themes. I guess I’d say Tasmania works its way into the poems rather than me setting out to consciously write about it. And I think it’s opened me up to feeling connections in and to other places …

What’s your Kuala Lumpur connection?

I turned up at Sharon Bakar’s Readings during a 4-week holiday in KL, and one of my poems was included in the anthology and the title of the poem – Everything About Us used as the anthology’s title, which I was chuffed about. That was a poem that developed in KL. From our accommodation we had a view of the local mosque, and women in the street taking their kids to school. I wrote a lot there, but then I always do when I travel; I guess I’m fed by different situations and encounters.

I recall Ted Hughes saying, the more he tried to insert or force an agenda, the less powerful his poems became.

Yes, I can really relate to that. I think I can relate to it on multiple levels. In writing (poetry) if I thought about an overriding agenda to begin with, I think I’d be stymied from the start. It’s a complicated thing for me to understand let alone explain but … maybe something to do with being open to the idea of surrendering to whatever moves me/is moving me without being overwhelmed by intensity of feeling (positive or negative) and risk being blocked … being locked into one side or the other …

As a people poet, have you mostly lived in slightly underpopulated areas?

Yes, relatively; though I live quite centrally in the city of Hobart now it’s still a capital city of only about 200,000, the second-least populated after Darwin. Having said that I appreciate being around people more the older I get I think; I need my own space, and time but it’s equally important for me to know that there are other people there behind the door; that we’re all living our lives simultaneously. Writing can be naturally isolating and lonely so it’s important to keep connected with other people, especially non-writers … and I need to be in the world if I’m to try and write about it with any real integrity I think.

Do you have a mini-canon of your main poets?

The poets that I was reading say, thirty-five years ago are not the poets I read today; of course, I still admire them very much, but my tastes have broadened as they should. Back then I was reading Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, e.e. cummings, Emily Dickinson and in Australia Bruce Dawe and Kate Llewellyn among others …

I grew up on Bruce Dawe in my education and then continued to read him by choice (drawn to his character portrayals in particular); so I haven’t turned to other canonical Australian poets (Les Murray, Peter Porter), huge as they are, in the same way I’ve turned to Bruce Dawe.

From America, I think I mentioned Stephen Dunn, whose poetry I’m hugely enamoured of, and also Irish poet Pat Boran (READS OUT BORAN’S A Man is Only as Good).

This relates in a circular way: how important would you say humour is to you and your poetry?

As important as breath itself. Oh God, yes; yeah. I wouldn’t call myself a humorous poet, but if I didn’t bring humour and lightness into some of the poems I’m not sure I could write the more serious ones. There are times when you need to be able to laugh at yourself and your situation, otherwise you’re stuck. Growing up my mother advocated looking for the funny/sunny side where possible … not always possible of course but a sanity saver at times.

And you have an Irish father.

I do!

How does Asia’s development strike you?

Well, take Pat Boran’s poem ‘A man is only as good as’ where he talks about measuring a man’s worth and decency on the premise of how he talks to a dog in those more challenging moments – in the howling of the cold night moments.

It’s interesting … in the midst of the poverty of Vietnam for instance, what I see and admire is family taking care of their own but also looking out for the homeless, those with disabilities and those with children with disabilities – they seem to be treated as part of the community, rather than apart from it. Aged care homes are not such an institution as they are back home. Maybe it has something to do with certain subjects (ageing and death …) being sanitised in more developed nations while in parts of Asia they seem more integral and part of that is what draws me, I think.  

I remember a meal we had in Ho Chi Minh, in one of the many small living quarters doubling as a café in a side street … just a handful of tables and our table backed onto a fold-out bed where an old woman was half lying, half sitting, eating slowly and messily from a bowl in her lap … clearly a family member … at one point a little boy came in from school and walked over to her – grandma? great grandma? – showing and telling about his day as any kid might … but it was the way it was all part of the same scene, flow of life etc … that impressed me, that I hope I can learn from …

As westerners, we can be much more closed off than that. Keeping things pigeon-holed, compartmentalised …

Coming to Asia, do you see much humour around? I include its etymological relatives – humility, humanity.

That’s a good question. That’s a really good question.

When we stayed in KL the last time, our first, we stayed 4 weeks somewhere in the north of KL, not that far from Batu caves, and we were pretty much the only white people around. We rented out the top floor of a house from the Malaysian family below. In that time we had some of the warmest human connections with local people we’ve experienced anywhere.

There was no rudeness or dismissiveness, just a little bit of wariness initially, but it was in a lovely shy way that was probably the kind of humour you mentioned, in the genuinely warm and curious smiles.

My husband found a woman selling chicken rice a couple of blocks away on a street corner and that became one of our staple meals – for the food and its low cost, sure – but also for the human exchange. It was coming up to the end of Ramadan; we were feeling quite guilty, because we were surreptitiously binning beer bottles. It had a really interesting effect on our time there, because we stopped drinking any beer after a while. And although we’d only had a smattering of conversations with our hosts prior to this, the family invited us along to an Eid Al Fitri celebration; so in the genuine sense of much of the human being around, definitely. The hospitality, inclusivity and general respect … dealing with us outsiders … again, something to learn from and incorporate into attitudes at home.

I wouldn’t call myself a humorous poet, but if I didn’t bring humour and lightness into some of the poems I’m not sure I could write the more serious ones. There are times when you need to be able to laugh at yourself and your situation

How long have you been into Pat Boran?

I do tend to have the same poet in my bag for months at a time, sometimes a year or two. I don’t know how long it’s been now. There’s another Irish poet, Enda Wyley, she’s great. Her first book had the wonderful title, Eating Baby Jesus. It was terrific. I’m not a practising Catholic now, I don’t attend mass, but I do still love visiting Catholic churches, there’s some kind of thread there, for sure. But it all got too hypocritical, I guess; sadly. I think I missed it in my life for a long time, the ritual and the community. But I think you have to be true to yourself or maybe true to your doubting in a sense …

As poets and Aquarians, do we need the container of religion?

Container’s a good word, yeah. Maybe not; but I don’t think it’s always easy to leave that container; it’s a bit like leaving home, only I think it’s bigger, because it’s familial, obviously in the sense that you grow up in it, but when you believe you’ve developed your own personal relationship to it as well, it’s a big deal – maybe not for everybody, but yeah, I have these memories of feeling quite betrayed and disappointed as I became more aware: the realisation that there really is this human Wizard(s) of Oz working the strings etc I remember as a child, I was maybe 11 or 12 years old, making an appointment with our parish priest wanting to know the answers to ‘life, the universe and everything’ and feeling how really in some deep-seeded way he was just as uncertain as I was …

But spirituality is a different thing, isn’t it? Sometimes I wonder had I been raised in an agnostic or atheist environment, how that might have affected my sense of spirituality.  But we have the history we have, we can’t disown that altogether, I think; it would diminish us.

How much were you tempted to get your own kids into poetry?

My daughters are 34 and 30 now. The youngest’s my number one fan, she attended virtually all my readings, until she moved to Melbourne a few years ago. The eldest would probably name rhyming, traditional poets if you ask her who she really likes in the poetry world. They’re both very creative –interested in visual and performing arts.

Was it a temptation to enthuse them – too much?

In some senses, they might say that I should’ve exposed them to more, because while creatively, philosophically, intellectually, through discussion, I tried to guide them in their attitudes to life, and relationships, we were quite isolated, and they went to a tiny country school with just 2 teachers. There were lots of positives from that, but once they moved out into the wider world, it was an adjustment. But we make these decisions for our children for countless reasons.

Do you find they make observations honed by having a writer mother?

To some extent, maybe. I found that because they were daughters, it was important to me they saw that I was both mother and writer. I tried to instill in them that women can choose to be mothers and be enriched by that, of course, but needn’t see it as a limitation necessarily.

Was it a tussle to assert a study place at home, the closed-door boundary?

Yeah, that’s always been a challenge, and my way of resolving and coping with that was eventually to realise that I need to be a mobile poet, I need to be able to write and create in transit. And as it’s turned out, that’s what’s borne out – in retrospect, not by design. I think reading and writing in this way has worked best for me. A ‘room of one’s own’ and being able to close off from the rest of the world, it has its desirability, sure, but I can’t afford to rely on it. Because I seem to be able to write anywhere, I think I need to embrace that, rather than try to make somebody else’s idea of what and where a writer needs work for me.I guess that’s why I always carry a notebook and pen; I’m never without one. If something occurs to me I’ll just get a few words down, and then see if it’s worth developing further at some later stage.

Do you hold with Eliot’s method of memorising a poem to work on, rather than referring to drafts?

Yes. I don’t know why I feel that; I don’t have a photographic memory, but whatever I’ve lost, it’s OK. I’m not going to stop writing.I’m not by nature a hanger-on; I’m the opposite of a hoarder in life in general. I travel incredibly lightly; we can do 7-week journeys just with carry-on luggage; the Asian climate helps. I have a couple of outfits, which I just wash and rotate.

Has there been a temptation to romanticise your Celtic background?

Sure, yeah, of course; particularly being a poet.

I certainly do feel a connection, it’s real, I mean my dad never lost his thick Northern Irish accent. I’m in love with all the variables of the accents, all the dialects. We’ve spent time in Galway, which we adore; there’s such a strong musicality about the place.

I love that in some Irish pubs, someone feels a song coming on, and they just set their glass down like that (clunk), and there’s a hush, and they start. You don’t get that in Australian pubs.

I would almost feel comfortable standing on a corner in Galway for instance and reciting poems because I know that the culture supports it; respects it without necessarily needing to analyse and understand it in the first instance. I think people are interested in poetry from an early age; being sung/read lullabies and nursery rhymes for instance. This is a fairly common interaction between parent and child and the musicality, rhythm and rhyme is the beginning of an appreciation of poetry.

People get lost somewhere along the way, and I suspect most of the time it’s in schools, they get scared off; they get taught the wrong kind of poetry in the wrong way. Kids are either terribly intimidated by it, or they secretly fall in love with it – I know these days it’s more encouraged especially with the interest in performance poetry, but people still have this fear; they say: I don’t get poetry, I just don’t get it; and that’s when I want to ask them what they remember their parents reading to them or what they remember being read at special occasions, weddings and funerals … and what they do remember, what they find memorable, invariably includes poetry.

Poetry can be ‘highbrow’ sure, postmodern etc, but poetry can be moving intellectually and emotionally, can be relatable in some way that still challenges the reader without being obtuse or obvious.Like all art forms there’s a type of poetry for just about everyone; I like to think so anyway.

About Lawrence Pettener

Photo: http://lawrencepettener.com

Originally from Liverpool, Lawrence Pettener works full-time in the Klang Valley as copy-editor, proofreader and writer, specializing in helping solo authors. His most recent (and forthcoming) book reviews and interviews are in The Star (Malaysia) and Juliet.com. As Kwailo Lumpur he writes comic material about Malaysian life, food especially. Following the success of May All Beings Rock, three original poetry books are due out in 2019.
Find him at: http://www.lawrencepettener.com