David Howard, ed.: Complete with Instructions (2001)
II – A Conversation with Julia Allen
Modern poetry is not about music. It’s about nerve – who has it and who doesn’t.
– Stephen King
Julia Allen is married, with four children, and works as an English Teacher at Christchurch Boys’ High School. She is the author of one book:
- Midas Touch. Christchurch: Nag’s Head Press, 1990
I asked Julia Allen straight off what it was like writing poetry here:
I write poetry in my head, really. I don’t know if it’s particularly allied to the place. Like a lot of other poets, I’m interested in identity. Just as with a Chinese box, identity becomes the infinite regress. I suppose it comes from the sense of not really feeling I have any identity at all. Writing poetry for me is actually structuring identity, trying to structure it.
That sense of structuring an identity is apparent in your poem ‘Drop’…
Actually there’s a story about that poem. I wrote it when my son was six. I lied in it, actually. I said there were windhowls, but there weren’t. I’d never heard windhowls, in fact. I wrote it about Taylors Mistake, on the coast, and when my son died, we went there to scatter his ashes. My daughter was there too, and she made this comment on the poem as we climbed down towards the sea: There are the windhowls. And there were! The wind was howling, and of course we were scattering his ashes in the sea. It’s funny how sometimes things you write can happen.
Poetry has an uncanny way of prophesying.
I don’t know if it does actually prophesy.
Do you think it’s more that experience will conform to the pattern you’ve created, if it’s sufficiently compelling?
I think it is more like that. I’ve found it very hard to write since then, since my son died. My memory isn’t operating very well. It’s just beginning to feel safe to start remembering again. I’ve started to dream again. Sometimes I’m resolving things in my dream. I wrote one poem which I felt almost worked. It was about Ashley: drinking with death (again about relationships) – dealing with death as a companion. I’ve found a lot of comfort from reading Rilke. The idea of finding out who’s alive and who isn’t.
You mean those ideas about angels from the Duino Elegies?
Not so much that. More the fact that you can see people and not realise that they’re not alive. I did meet and talk to someone who’d been dead for seven years. It was in church, actually. I talked to one of the priests, and afterwards I found out that he’d been dead for seven years.
Is it a family trait? My family in the West of Scotland all see ghosts and have premonitions.
My sister sees ghosts. My mother sees ghosts. Another thing happened to me. I suppose it’s got nothing to do with poetry; it was actually a university-based course of Bible study. We were all going round in a circle talking about experiences we’d had, and the man just before me said that he was writing a book on synchronicity, on coincidences. He also told us the name of his father, and the name was the same as the minister I saw in the cathedral, the ghost. He finished by saying: ‘I really believe that we see ghosts, and that they’re really people.’ I’d been worrying about what I could say when it got to be my turn, but now I just turned to him and said, ‘That’s strange, because I think I saw your father.’
It’s a sort of triple coincidence, isn’t it? The fact that he was right next to you, the fact that he was the son of the man you saw, and the fact that he was writing a book on coincidences.
I do have some belief in coincidences. I’ve written another whole folder of poems since I published my book, which I took to the last reading, and afterwards I couldn’t find them. They were gone. That was the one copy. So I decided that I must have to write them again. It didn’t worry me, funnily enough. Maybe it was because I read out all of these poems, and the one people commented on was one I’d written twenty years ago.
David Howard said you were going back to Formalism, after writing some more confessional poetry.
It never pleased me at all – it was experiential rather than formulaic. For me Fate is an homme fatal. Fate is …. I think that sexuality is a part of Fate. Male poets always see Fortune as a strumpet, but Fortune or Fate can never be a strumpet to a woman, because Fate is necessarily other. Fate is an Other you have to come to terms with, whom you have to be engaged with. I see celibates as people who have stopped engaging with Fate. Part of the reason of celibacy is to free you from Fate. Fate is ruthless, which is why it’s something to have a relationship with.
Death is a friend, a companion – not an alter-ego, somebody who should be a mate. Death was never part of my world until it came into my life. Death came breaking through in a way which was almost a kind of rape, in a funny sense – it was totally out of order. Once Death has broken through and become a force you have to engage with it. You have a relationship with the forces that come in. They can be quite physical. There can be a force of Anger. The poem "Flax", that was the force of Anger coming through into my life.
Anger with a person, the universe?
In this case the Anger became expressed through the way the flax whips the air. And also, sometimes, it’s a sort of metaphor. What I’m saying is that you create the drama of your life; you make it a work of art. The art is image.
In one of my poems (you see, this is where my memory is painful, but it’s coming back), I say:
is disguising himself
in his best
You get the entirety all at once: ‘a complex of emotions in an instant of time.’ We are our acts – what I want is to be the essence and the action at the same time. It’s wanting to somehow play a trick so you can see these things as the same as you are: Anger, Death, Theatre.
I know ‘no ideas but in things’ … yeah, but bugger it, I want people to be things – I want everything to be people.
An anthropomorphic cosmos?
These elements are out there in things, and you take them. The Casino has opened up, so the force of Gambling has entered my life. When I went there, I felt totally overwhelmed by the force there. Other people can go in there and have a coffee – I have to engage with the machine.
So this is the force of Chance?
It’s a real have, really – the computer chip controls it. It’s been programmed in a chaotic way, but there is a pattern in it. Occasionally you can almost tune into it and almost finish it – there’s something so lovely about rolling the dice in your hand and engaging with it. I think it’s because even in the old one-armed-bandits your hand has some influence on when the wheel stops.
You’re not really engaging with Chance, but even so it almost becomes a love relationship. You can have a relationship with the thing which motivates you first. Not by physically engaging with it – a bit like phone sex. Engaging with the role the machine plays in our lives now. I lost a whole lot of work, school-work, yesterday on the computer – and driving up the hill my car just stopped. So I thought: ‘Bugger it!’ The only thing to do was to buy a packet of cigarettes. Machines are made to serve.
Do you see yourself exclusively as a Christchurch poet?
I tend to think that the value of having a group of Christchurch poets is to allow you to read in front of other people. The last time I did it, I thought: ‘I’ve lost it completely.’ I lost a lot of confidence when my son died. I had a huge sense of failure. He had epilepsy, he developed it at the age of sixteen – and I wasn’t there. If I had been I could have saved his life. But then, I wasn’t there a lot of the time.
You couldn’t be there all the time.
After he died, I was out in the little hut he lived in one day, and I looked up at the painting on the ceiling (he was an artist, a painter), and I suddenly realised: ‘My God, it’s a self-portrait.’ I’d looked at it a lot of times, but I’d only just then seen his face in the painting. There was a face in it, and around the outside it said: ‘The ice is melting, but things have sure changed in your absence, Sonny boy.’
It was so strange to be sitting reading his thoughts. It was strange. My first thought was resentment.
You resented his pre-empting your thoughts?
It was almost as if I’d gone through two years of hell, and the work of art was already there. I came there with my thoughts, only to find that he’d already taken it back. It was as if you set out to write a poem about a playground, only to find that the playground has already written a poem about itself.
You do resent a dead person sometimes.
It’s like he’s won. My other son has suffered from it, I know – from thinking, ‘That’s it; he’s died at the moment of perfection. I have to justify my existence, he doesn’t have to do it any more.’
It’s at times like those that it’s worst to meet decisive, optimistic people.
Yes. They tell you all these wonderful things that are happening to them. I sometimes think I want to be on my own for a while, not make decisions for someone else. I call it going down a hole. My sister does too. She’ll ring me and say, ‘I’m down a hole.’ It doesn’t really help, but we feel better knowing that someone else is miserable too.
I love that line of Sylvia Plath’s: ‘I make love in a fish puddle.’ I was talking to my sixth form today, and I asked them, ‘What is poetry?’ ‘Oh, it’s romantic,’ they replied, ‘poems about love and flowers.’ So I quoted the Plath line and asked them, ‘Is that what you mean?’ It’s pretty honest and pretty straightforward. One kid in the class who obviously hates poetry said ‘Why can’t people say what they’re trying to say?’
Yes, you could just say ‘I’m really angry today,’ or ‘I’m kind of sad, and I don’t know why.’
I gave them the line: ‘The car crept up to the starting-line like a spider crawling towards its prey,’ and asked them, ‘What elements do they have in common?’ Then I told them that at night I often get up and think, ‘Gee, that spider looks like a car creeping towards the starting-line!’ They all laughed. I don’t know why.
They laughed because they could see that you’re full of shit. You’ve never thought that in your life.
Of course not, but how could they know that?
Teachers never see how obvious their strategies are to the victims. Now I’m going to ask you a stupid question: What is the poet’s role in society?
I see it just as sanitising. When I feel insane I read poetry, and it makes me feel better. It helps us to make sense of things, to make sense of experience. When I was at school and I read Hamlet, I thought, ‘But this is all true. This is how I think.’ A lot of people like poetry: they hold on to the old things. Poetry is soothing; it’s still a kind of paradise.
It’s like with little kids. They can’t sing, but they say, ‘Bugger it, I’m going to sing;’ they can’t dance, but they just dance anyway. Writing poems is like singing and dancing – some of us can’t do it properly, and we do it anyway.
Maybe none of us can do it properly. Maybe that’s the point …
I asked about the rather self-conscious italics and word-spacings in her book of poems, Midas Touch:
I don’t know why I did it, it just seemed right at the time. I probably wouldn’t do that spacing now, it just seemed that there needs to be that distance between words. When I read a poem, I hear those gaps. Just by looking at them I can see them right away – when I read, I read in chunks. There it is: boom – like looking at a painting.
But it takes time, doesn’t it? You can’t grasp a whole page at once.
I can. I look at the whole page; I can take in all the words. Reading the poem is what Pound calls it: ‘an intellectual and emotional complex in an instance of time.’ You can see it in that Hotere exhibition: there’s a painting that says ‘this is a pathway to the sea,’ and the words are a pathway too.
For me, poetry’s a way of defeating time, resisting duration. In Pound’s Cantos he’s always echoing back and repeating himself. In a sense to appreciate the Cantos you have to remember all the cantos at once.
You know, it’s interesting talking to you – it’s like remembering a different person’s life, two different people’s lives. This identity doesn’t know how to write poetry at all. What I’m doing is impersonating who I used to be …
I’m definitely going to use that line.
Years ago I was in a play called Lulu, the Wedekind play. An artist saw it and did this painting of me called Lulu – only I’m Lulu and Pierrot at the same time. The point of the play is that Lulu has no identity. When I met him, the artist, he told me that he’d heard people talking about me in the staff-room, and he said, ‘You’re not at all like they said. You’re very, very ordinary.’ And I said, ‘Yes!’
Do you ever feel you have an alter-ego out there?
It is uncomfortable to think that someone is doing you better than you are. Sometimes you can see other women starting to wear your clothes, to be you . So you start wearing different clothes. That person’s become me, and I’ve become something else. Time, identity, those are the main concerns of my poems. I don’t really see any deep connection to Christchurch … I am from here, in my childhood I used to love the trees, and I’ve got a flame tree in my garden …
Just as in ‘The Garden of the Water Fir.’
I know, but I can’t really understand that poem. I wrote it when I was twenty. It came to me in a dream.
scattering the graininglight you
enter the dream drenched
ponding to your feetyou look
poisesolidas an idol
in a temple
under the Shui-sa
I explained that the image of the idol moving – ‘idols don’t move!’ – must refer to its reflection in the water, just like the broken syntax of the opening. She listened to my views with great concentration, but also objectivity, as if it really were the work of another person, on the other side of a great divide.
Complete with Instructions. Edited by David Howard. ISBN 0-473-07646-2 (Christchurch: Firebrand, 2001): 34-37.
Complete with Instructions (2001)