new zealand electronic poetry centre

Cilla McQueen



Interview with Cilla McQueen   

Michael Harlow
First published in English in Aotearoa 13 (Nov 1990): 93-95

Cilla McQueen is one of New Zealand’s most distinguished poets. Two of her volumes of poetry, Homing In and Benzina have won the National Book Award for poetry. As a Performance artist, a number of her works have been recorded on cassette-tape. Recently, she performed in ‘The Red Rose Café,’ of which she was a co-writer, in Dunedin – a commissioned work for the 1990 Celebration. Her publisher John McIndoe, Dunedin, has recently published her Berlin Diary.

Michael Harlow   In your essay, or rather, ‘talking story,’ Stone Soup, as a writer and teacher you talk about poetry and teaching . . . If you are accurate in your perception, and I think you are – very accurate –, it’s a lamentable situation with poetry in our schools. My question is: why in fact are we turning young readers (and potential writers) away from the discovery of and the delight in poem and poetry?

Cilla McQueen   Because living poetry is dangerous to the status quo. The system prefers to deal with dead tissue, which can be dissected and analysed without provoking anti-vivisectionist outcry. I have seen brutal scenes of dismemberment taking place in New Zealand classrooms.

Creative thought, expressed in living poetry, is anathema to people who use the education system to perpetuate a social or political system. To them, education means everybody learning rules by heart and sticking to them. Because poetry can’t be confined to rules, it’s stamped on very hard when it steps out of line. It’s remarkable what nastiness both teachers and literary commentators will resort to in order to quell independent thought.

Poetry is an organic thing. It ought to evoke an active response. But it’s depressing for the poet to see a constellation of meaning which was wrought with care, perhaps awe, in a moment of insight, or grace, turned into an instrument of torture which brings forth groans at its very name.

MH   Is there something in the way that we live, and imagine the world to be that constrains or inhibits the poem from flourishing, as one might argue it naturally ought to flourish in our education system? Or – perhaps you can’t really ‘teach’ the poem or poetry? If so, that seems to be a remarkably depressing state of affairs.

CM   Our education system produces people who can analyse and comment, but it doesn’t foster creative development. It produces people who strive towards objectivity and lose touch with their psyche in the process.

When you think that education really means leading out, bringing out the potential in a human being to participate in the world, it seems a pity that our approach to poetry is so one-sided. I don’t think you can ‘teach’ poetry, any more than you can teach people how to be alive. But you can help to bring out the ability to participate in life, and poetry.

This involves an openness to risk, to new experience and to patterns of thought other than that perceived by the system as the correct one, the one on which the rules are based.

Our intellectual caste system puts poetry at the top of the ladder of linguistic and conceptual difficulty, the unspoken assumption being that the ability to ‘understand’ poetry means a high intelligence. Now who promoted this rubbish but certain of the poets themselves, and their coterie? Linguistic dexterity is part of poetry, but not all. There is the other half, the shadow half, the soul, the jigsaw lock.

MH   In ‘Rock Poem, Carey’s Bay,’ you speak of an ‘interchange’

            balancing at the interface, tiptoe on

            a point between the world and dream.

where, it seems, subject and object want to be/become One experience. What early Greek scientists, who often were also poets and philosophers, imagined as ‘armonia’ or a ‘fitting together,’ hence, ‘harmony’. Heraclitus’ ‘above and below’, Jung’s ‘essential identity of opposites’. But: this is a world view, isn’t it? A fundamentally biological and psychological way of experiencing the world. We seem to have lost this cosmological way of seeing and feeling – certainly our philosophy of education seems so distant from this realisation. How can the poem/poetry survive in such an over-rationalised and deliberative system?

CM   As philosophers have known for ages, and these days quantum physics backs them up, it’s impossible to separate the observer from the observed, and it has to be allowed that the very presence of the observer affects the picture. Complete objectivity is impossible. Logic’s sway is threatened by the simultaneity of subjective/objective experience. Yet it is at that interface that poetry operates in both writer and reader.

Awakening an interest in poetry means traversing that delicate ground between inner and outer self.   Usually, the poet doesn’t mind being subjective; poets haven’t got anything to hide, if they’re honest. But subjectivity is about as popular among teachers as God.

Some academic critics get around the problem of having to say what they actually think by claiming that they, being observers and thus intimately involved with what they observe, i.e. the literary text, are integral to it and entitled to elbow the author out and take the text over, in a viral sort of a way.

If teachers aligned themselves with the creative rather than the destructive, they would find themselves on the same side as their pupils and thus able to foster and guide their development by opening up the whole creative field.

MH   Can writers – poets and prose-makers – do anything in schools to counter this rather relentless fixation with ‘measuring’ and systematising literature?

CM   Yes, writers can show that they are real live people no different from anyone else. They can resist measurement and encourage individuality. By example, they can encourage people to think for themselves. If poetry is treated as a natural thing, dream and creative initiative will also surface again as valid parts of the education system.

MH   If you were to be a writer-in-schools for a term or so, and had complete control of what and how you would ‘teach,’ what would you do?

CM   Get to know them, do it with them, learn from them, not be separate or dogmatic. Uncover, discover, relax.

MH   I’ve sometimes thought, quite seriously and with no mischievous intent, that we ought to eliminate the ‘teaching of poetry’ from our schools the way they’re set up at the moment, or at least positively advocate disregarding it as a school subject. What might happen as a result?

CM   Perhaps popular forms of oral poetry, ‘rap’ for instance, would grow to fill the space. Rhyming would reappear naturally as an aide-memoire and rhythm would reinforce the old dance of words to music. People would discover that rhyme is pleasurable to certain centres in the brain, and that there are felicitous links between utterance and melody. Imagery would re-emerge as a potent means of conveying complex information. There would be some who took to it, and used it to reach into the unknown inner and outer spaces.

Poetry might eventually reappear on the other side of the fence, as a powerful anarchic means of expression which brought into question our whole intellectual, spiritual and social system. Kia ora.



Last updated 1 April, 2006