Cilla McQueen Interview with Nick Ascroft and Richard Reeve
First published in Glottis 9 (2004)
Cilla McQueen is the most celebrated poet of the South, and the southernmost. Throughout her nine books of poetry she has remained an evocative voice of reason and nature, a unique teller of images, thought, and history. Her latest collection Soundings “explores human fallibility with a quiet grace that enables her to move seamlessly from one era to another, transforming the violence and suffering of one age into the oppression of another.” (our reviewer Robyn Anderson pg 156). Politicised or playful Cilla’s poetry in its effortless grace, is always rewarding. The following interview with Richard Reeve & Nick Ascroft was conducted by email.
Richard Reeve : What sort of connection do you feel with the South?
Cilla McQueen : An opposite connection. Born in the northern hemisphere, brought up in the southern. Something in my Celtic and Scots ancestry seems to chime with similar qualities here. There's strength in the clannish families. The landscape suggests familiar inner landscapes. I am beginning to learn about the history and people of this place from within, a privileged view for a person with no Maori blood. There is great warmth, also something a bit grim and tenacious, and something musical, untamed. I love it.
RR: Do you ever consider yourself the Sibyl of Bluff?
CM: It's taken a sea-change for me to feel at home here but I don't feel very oracular. One does tend to notice certain weird links, in life as in language.
RR:What are these weird links? Do you think they can be articulated in terms of the self-made destiny which seems to underpin the lives of many poets? That is, how are these links informed by your poetic identity?
CM: A poet perhaps allows the possibility of seeing, even seeking, shapes in, a shape to life. Listens to and remembers dreams and intuitions, picks up resonances which may contribute to meaning, keeping them in mind. I am very interested in history.
Berlin Diary hung together through intuition. The idea of the meniscus began with ‘To Ben, At The Lake’ in Homing In. It occurred to me to go and have a look. The Wall was an excellent concrete metaphor. I was thinking about permeability and flow as well as opposition and complementarity. It wasn't long before the Wall came down. I'd known it would, it had to. I went in person to the concrete metaphor and had a good opportunity to consider these themes, especially polarity, both political and poetic; also personal in terms of my north-south transposition. It was fun too.
The idea of shape or correspondence can be too alluring, though, it can't be forced. There needs to be some surprise synchronicity, serendipity, acte gratuit, Murphy in it. Organic. Requiring recognition.
There's a prose piece called ‘Eggs’ in Crikey which is still mysterious to me, in the way it put itself together.
RR:And what auguries can a Bluff poet disclose to the average urban android?
CM: It's going to be important to know where the ground is. Not to get completely globalised. I am impressed by the way grass can break up concrete. Once in a German zoo I felt sorry for a neatly fenced, scrupulously labelled exhibit of authentic weeds and wildflowers.
RR:Your latest book, Soundings, seems to present you, the poet, as a field of historical influences. I particularly enjoyed your 'confrontations' with Richard Greynville; they remind me of Basil Bunting's ‘ Briggflats', his meditations on Blood-Axe and Aneurin, though of course the differences between you are clear. To this end, do you believe there is anything essential in you that makes you a poet? Or are you just an historical circumstance?
CM: Yes, to both. An awareness of the historical dimension resonating in the present and influencing the course of events. Ancestors provide entry points. You might even get an inkling of their personality, in the manner of a Stanislavsky actor finding the germ of a character within his own psyche, in order to transpose yourself into their world. A manifold. It's interesting to imagine how they might think, how their inner landscape must reflect what is going on around them. I felt entitled to speak to Greynvile (an old spelling of Grenville; I used it to suggest his time) on the question of colonization. I wanted to guess his mindset. His 'lost colony' at Roanoke was an extreme example of colonial imposition. However what seems from my point of view his enormous arrogance was probably from the viewpoint of an Elizabethan civil servant a strict sense of duty driving a conviction of the divine right of kings.These poems are about the concept of utu. My encounters with Kati Mamoe and Waitaha descendants in my life in Bluff give me a similar privileged glimpse into the ways colonisation affected this part of the world, and another strand of my ancestry, the St Kildan one, gives me another example of what flows from such contacts with vectors of change. As a poet I have an intense feeling of vitality which requires expression, a sense of form, and intuition. I like thinking in language and making it work economically. I like the correspondences which derive from resonance both historical and linguistic. Playing around with thoughts and writing them down takes up most of my time and I don't make much distinction between my life and my work.
Nick Ascroft:To me, the two most obvious strengths in your poetry are the freshness of the connections—the imagery, the metaphors—and the generousness of storytelling in the poems. The two often link where your stories are based on an image or a metaphor. This makes your poetry sound dishonest, fantastical, but there is always a sense of honesty, a seeking of truth, through story, image, metaphor. Is this how you engage with the world? (I think of your comment on the weeds in the German zoo). Or is it simply the contrivance of poetry? It seems to me these things are “true” in themselves, the human way of seeing, a sort of primordial reasoning. Is your use of metaphor solely a device for gratifying writing, or the simple truths of connections? Do you hunt for metaphors, or are they obvious, do they surround you?
CM: They surround me. One needs to be alive to connections both physical and psychic—to chimes, often serendipitous. For instance the central image of ‘The Autoclave’ in Markings—I didn't have to look for that metaphor, it was part of the story and conveyed plenty of layers of meaning. The poem is distilled from what I wrote when I visited the beach where my Scots ancestors landed in 1853 at Point Nepean, Melbourne. I learned about the quarantine station, methods of decontamination, the autoclave and sterilising, the task of dealing with deadly infectious disease in incoming ships. The effect on the indigenous people, same as this part of the world 150 years ago, with measles and other diseases brought in. A weakening effect on a small population. On the island of St Kilda the “boat-cold” was brought by visitors, kinsmen, castaways. There was a smallpox epidemic in the 18th century when smallpox brought from a neighbouring island all but wiped the inhabitants out. At the quarantine station the idea of passing from one world into another via the Foul Room and the Clean Room—it sounded like Dante. By chance etc, I found him on the table where I was staying, opened the book and there was the “ship of souls” and a rich parallel vein of imagery. One image is found and others cling to it like a reef. But the poem didn't come together until after the Flounder Inn burned down—there by the disastrous side of serendipity was another vein—cleansing by intense heat, a kind of stripping of the past in order to go into the future unencumbered. Weaving it all together helped me to cope with material losses, actually. I don't construct theories in one side of my brain and test them in the other. It's the other way round, somehow—the world is testing and it's up to me to divine the pattern in the carpet. As I see it, poetry deals with truth.
NA: Alongside your art of words, your visual art has received some recognition. What is different about the impulses of the two forms? Which do you prefer? Is non-verbal art more expressive? can it be? is it less constrictive? or... better?
CM: It's another language and fluency is a pleasure—another way of putting things. It's more direct than words, but it has rhythm and shape, volume, colour, line as a vocabulary. To draw a landscape establishes a strong relationship with it. More so perhaps than writing about it, which is a different thing. Perhaps it has to do with the viewpoint of the observer. When I draw a landscape it is clear that I exist and these are the marks I make without artifice. I often draw backwards or upside down or left-handed; the impulses are coming from a different part of my brain. It makes a change.
NA:(Finally & perhaps less importantly) In an interview from an earlier Glottis, David Eggleton skillfully dodged a question I put to him on the relation of pot to poetry. It seemed a pity, there being so much hysteria & paranoia over the poor little shrub, but I suppose no one wants to be labelled a drug-flake. But I put it to you, have you found marijuana or other hallucinogens to increase the pleasure of reading poetry, or to inspire the writing of it? & If so, what exactly is it about the state that befits poetry? Or does it not so much enhance creativity as delusion?
CM: I'd say it can have a useful place in making creative work, especially perhaps at the beginning of something when the mind is throwing up all sorts of offerings—lateral ideas, fresh odd perspectives or words, connections, a sense of fun—I don't think it hurts. For me there remain the stringencies and discipline of working with language in order to make something tougher and more concentrated than mere consecutive utterances—there will always be a large degree of skill and clarity needed there. I've never tried anything other than pot and am quite glad about that.