Jack Ross, ed.: Poetry NZ Yearbook 2017 (March 2017)
An Interview with Elizabeth Morton
[via email – 11 February-2 August, 2016]
Elizabeth Morton is from Auckland, where she is a student of a number of subjects, including etymology, neuroscience — and poetry.
Her poetry has been published in Poetry NZ, takahē, JAAM, Blackmail Press, Debris, Meniscus, Shot Glass Journal, PRISM: International and Cordite, as well as the 2015 New Zealand Poetry Society Anthology, Scattered Feathers.
Her fiction has appeared in Flash Frontier, Paper Darts and Smokelong Quarterly; her reviews in Booksellers NZ, Beattie’s Book Blog and Poetry NZ.
Two of the poems in the following selection, ‘Reincarnation’ and ‘Losing you,’ will also be included in her debut poetry collection, scheduled for publication by Mākaro Press in mid-2017.
- Winner — New Voices Emerging Poet Competition (2013)
- Runner-up — takahē Poetry Competition (2013)
- Nomination for Pushcart Prize (2014)
- Runner-up — takahē Poetry Competition (2014)
- Nomination for Best of the Net Awards (2015)
- Highly commended — Kathleen Grattan Award (2015)
- Second place — Sunday Star-Times Short Story Competition (2015)
- Second place — Sunday Star-Times Short Story Competition (2016)
- When did you first start to write poetry, and what would you say was the impulse that inspired you to start?
- There’s a couple of things I’d like to pick up on in that answer. First of all, though, I’m fascinated by your list of favourite authors. Borges and Plath I guess are fairly orthodox choices, but not so much Masefield and Kipling. What appealed (appeals?) to you in those two?
- I wrote my Master’s thesis on John Masefield, which is why I have a bit of a soft spot for him, although I did focus on his prose more than his poetry. That’s rather by the bye, though. What I really wanted to take out from your first answer was that phrase about ‘harder living but better poetry’. Do you consider yourself a confessional poet, or do you find that a reductionist description of the difficulties of how to employ what you refer to as ‘autobiographical particulars’ in your writing?
- I’m interested in that phrase you used: ‘cloak-and-dagger confessional’. When it comes to writing about material which concerns other people and not just yourself, where exactly do you draw the line? I know that’s a difficult question, but do you ever find yourself consciously censoring things for the sake of domestic peace?
- Your mention of alligators reminds me a bit of that book of short stories by Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles. I know that alligators and crocodiles are not the same thing, but there is a certain atmosphere of surrealism about both creatures. Have you been much influenced by the surrealists? Do they form part of your personal pantheon?
- So where next with your writing? I know you have a book coming out soon from Mākaro Press in Wellington. Perhaps you could tell us a bit about that, and the new directions that denotes in your writing from here on out?
- I have to end here by admitting how amused I was to read the biographical note for your very first appearance in Poetry NZ (Issue 32 ), Liz. You are described as living on Auckland’s North Shore, ‘where she “philosophizes” with her overdue library books’. It seems that even then you had a strong taste for reinvention through recycling! Thanks for answering all of these impertinent questions for us.
I wrote adjective-heavy, clunky verse as a kid, as I imagine many children do — poems with words like ‘resplendent’ and ‘effervescent’, which, at the time, I thought ingenious, but in retrospect evoke cringe. I tapped out my first real poem at 16. It was a celebration of Times New Roman, insofar as it was reliant entirely on its font. There is a certain authority bestowed by serif typefaces. The poem wasn’t much chop. It was adolescent nihilism, in iambic pentameter.
The impulse to write was stirred by my reading — in the early days, the likes of Borges, Plath, Masefield and Kipling. I was a mimic and a magpie, until I bellyflopped into my own pool of experiential fodder, which made for harder living but better poetry. At about that point, writing became necessity. It was a way of focusing the nebula to a discrete point on a page, cobbling together something corporeal from the haze of memory and idea. Poetry as a form also lent itself to the obfuscation of autobiographical particulars. It was my way of yakking about people I know and places I’d been, without committing myself to facts!
I suppose the appeal is mostly in nostalgia. On childhood road trips, my father would lug along a dog-eared anthology of poetry, which included Kipling’s ‘Gunga Din’ and Masefield’s ‘Cargoes’, along with other gems like Southey’s ‘Inchcape Rock’ and Whittier’s ‘Barbara Frietchie’. They were all sing-song poems, and my father would stress the dum-dee-dums, so that, at times, the content was obscured. But still, when I spot a cargo ship at sea, I break into Masefield’s ‘Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack, / butting through the Channel in the mad March days’. I loved the poem’s exotic lexicon — with its ‘Quinquireme of Nineveh’ and ‘gold moidores’ and ‘pig-lead’. I would take print-outs of Masefield’s ‘Sea Fever’ and ‘The Ballad of John Silver’ down to the Milford rock pools to read in subsequent years. During my later adolescence, my tastes changed somewhat. I dropped my Masefield and Kipling, and obsessed instead about T. S. Eliot and Ted Hughes, Dylan Thomas and Patti Smith. But I’ll still break into Kipling’s ‘If’, given a moment’s sentiment.
I’m not adverse to the label of ‘confessional poet’. Confessional poetry is often scoffed at due to a charge of solipsism. I think that confessional poetry doesn’t entail solipsism — quite the contrary. A confession typically assumes the existence of an Other — somebody to receive, and possibly absolve an admission. In that respect, confessional writing exists in an ultimately empathetic and communal domain. I think of my poetry as cloak-and-dagger confessional. I’m hiding behind and inside of things — sometimes a dog, sometimes an alien, sometimes a chair. But I’m always there. That said, it’s a two-way street, insofar as sometimes I’m stealing from other people’s experiences — grabbing metaphorical sneakers and having a trudge. Of course, that is dangerous territory. It’s always speculative. I think there’s a line that I stumble over now and again. That place where appreciation meets appropriation. It’s tricky.
For me, the line-drawing is largely reflexive. I don’t tend to censor consciously, but it certainly does happen. Sometimes censoring occurs where I struggle to approach an event, or a person, head-on. I wrote a piece of flash fiction the other day, where I substituted alligators for characters staffing a psychiatric ward. It was less about protecting their identities, more about my own difficulty rendering them as people. I do spin yarns where parents and ex-lovers and arch-enemies make an appearance. Typically, I exaggerate their flaws to the point that they are no longer recognisable. At least, that is my hope. Often, people tell me they see themselves in material I wrote before I’d even met them. That can be awkward. Other people are tricky. As a rule of thumb, though, if in doubt, add an alligator.
Oh, I haven’t read Schulz! I intend to follow him up. Surrealism has been hugely influential for me, especially the cinematic — Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain, Lynch’s Eraserhead, Fellini’s 8½ and Habicht’s Woodenhead. I love that intersection between darkness and absurdity, the grotesque and the beautiful. I hope that some of that comes across in my poems. As a teenager I was drawn to Artaud — I think it was his biography that hooked me, as much as his art. I love to be unsettled — be it by film, music, literature or visual art. I think I have only once been discomforted to the point of putting down a book. That was Story of the Eye by French writer, Georges Bataille. Certainly not one to read on public transport!
Sure! The Mākaro publication is very exciting. I’m the emerging poet in the next Hoopla Series, which comprises three books of poetry — by an emerging poet, a mid-career poet and an established poet. The poems in my collection are largely those which form the manuscript I submitted to the Kathleen Grattan Award in 2015. They are often doggy, salty and darkly nostalgic. I have reviewed a number of Mākaro’s collections, and have been impressed with the quality of publication. Mākaro Press is a relative new-kid-on-the-block, commencing publications in 2013. But it already has a strong presence.
My latest work is a departure from the more quaint and domestic aspects of life. It sidles away from the confessional, and tends towards the chaotic, the global and the political. I think this denotes a movement for me personally — I am more often focusing outward. Patti Smith and Ginsberg and Ocean Vuong and Danez Smith are some current influences. I am also writing more short fiction and flash fiction. Often, I steal a line from my poetry and use it to kick-start a story, or vice versa. I am the queen of self-plagiarism. My stories sometimes tread on each other’s toes. I find myself employing recurring tropes. You can hear the echo of one poem in the next. I don’t reckon this is a bad thing, though. It provides the reader a tug line, or so I hope.
Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2017. ISBN 978-0-9941363-5-0 (March 2017): 48-51.
Poetry NZ Yearbook 2017