Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Rhythm & Muse - a conversation with poet Kathy Kituai
Recently returned from Lochinver, Scotland, where she collaborated with ceramicist Fergus Stewart, award winning poet Kathy Kituai has published four poetry collections, a cassette and CD, three anthologies, a children’s picture book and a radio documentary. Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (co-authored with Amelia Fielden) will be released in May by Interactive Press. She is published in UK, USA, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and Australia.
1. Was Scotland a new dawning?
KK: Returning to my maternal, great grandmother’s country changed the way I feel about myself as a white Australian. Much as I love Australia, this is not my country even though I was born here. I came home to myself in Scotland, especially the highlands, and put a piece of the genetic puzzle that has been missing into place again.
2. Did it change how you feel in your own skin?
KK: What a sensitive question. Yes. I stand taller somehow. I burst into tears as we flew over Scotland, and apart from feeling a complete idiot, I cherished viewing hills and glens in which I might have grown up, had my great grandmother not migrated to Western Australia. It does strange things to you.
3. What does collaboration do for the poet?
KK: So much I’m still digesting all that I’ve learned Lizz. You look at your own work (and theirs) quite differently. Possibilities occurred to me with different collaboration from visual artists, dancers, and musicians to children’s illustrator, poets and now a ceramicist that wouldn’t have occurred to me had I worked alone. Nothing smartens you up quicker than collaboration.
4. Did you find poems you wouldn’t have found anywhere else?
KK: Oh Yes! Ideas jump into my head that wouldn’t have been there had I not brainstormed ideas as well as discussed ways to combine two art forms. Cross-cultural as well as cross-art, is even better. Because my latest collaboration with a Scottish ceramicist, Fergus Stewart, was all of the above, I see pottery quite differently now and appreciated the fact that I’m a poet. What do I have to lose if a poem fails except several pages of scrap paper or hours on a computer and perhaps a few more dents to my ego? Potters can have an entire kiln load fail after labour intensive weeks of kneading clay, trimming pots, glazing and firing them. And if they use wood fire kilns, as Fergus did, 18 hours or more of feeding the fire box then cooling it down. I have a lot more respect for ceramicist now.
5. You have given five years or more of your life to tanka – has this changed how you write free verse?
KK: Tanka has taught me how to combine and balance internal and external landscape. Even though I’ve always enjoyed using language creatively, I cut to the essence of the poem sooner. It’s a joy coming back to free verse after many years of writing a five line form and I’m pulling stanzas, words and ideas all around me like a full silk skirt. However, the discipline of form, and its lessons on freedom will never leave me.
6. Is there one Scottish poet we all must read?
KK: There are so many good poets from which to choose like Stewart Conn, Christine De Lucas, Kathleen Turner, Don Patterson and Robert Robertson. But if I had to select just one, it would be Norman McCaig, an Edinburgh schoolteacher who saw himself as a writer not a poet. MacCaig spent most of his time trekking the Assynt Region, which by coincidence was where I was in retreat. He wrote 3, 897 poems but only published 693 and has much to teach poets about humour, Zen and the poetry of place. Having lived for two months in the part of Scotland he loved the most, I came to understand the highlands, my Scottish ancestry and his poetry better.
7. What would you be doing if you hadn’t gone to Scotland?
KK: I would’ve kept on applying for funding in order to take up the Highland writer-in residency in order to collaborate with Scottish ceramicist, Fergus Stewart. If that had failed, I’d have sold my piano, my car and had my children had they visited during that time. As it was I applied four times before receiving generous support from Arts ACT. That’s just the nature of funding.
8. You probably brought back a swag of books - did you bring back a kilt?
KK: Kilts originated in Ireland didn’t they? The Scots are far more interesting than what they wear but then again I never did get to look underneath one?
9. Where to next?
KK: Pray that Fergus receives funding so that he can complete our Pots and Poetry collaboration in Canberra later this year, We intend publishing my tanka collection and exhibiting them along with his pots, 2012, in both Australia and Scotland.
10. What question do you wish people would ask?
KK: I would like to be asked at least two, questions if I may. ‘Why collaborate?” as well as: “Why specialize in an ancient Japanese form of poetry that is little known or understood in Australia?”
11. What’s the answer?
KK: Both collaboration and tanka have taught me how similar the creative process is no matter the art form or the century in which poetry was written and deepened my process. In addition to all the benefits and challenges that is gained, of late I’ve begun to suspect that the reason I collaborate is because I am a twin. My brother, The Other, shared the womb with me. And although I am a recluse by choice, and have published on my own, I seek The Other in art, and by connecting with them through collaboration, feel whole again.
In the case of tanka, it chose me. No poet in their right mind would specialize in a form or poetry that might mean being left out of most Australian anthologies. All I can say to poets who don’t want to suffer the same fate, be wary of tanka. It’s addictive, more than satisfying to write and gaining in popularity. Maybe the answer to both of these questions is that I’m the sort of poet who likes to swim upstream just to see if I can arrive at the place where words began for me.
Kathy Kituai’s latest titles are Straggling into Winter (Interactive Press 2007) and its CD version Heart Takes Wing (with Nitya Bernard Parker, Interactive Press 2008), and In Two Minds (with Amelia Fielden), MET Press 2008). By the way, you can catch up with Kathy and other poets at the new Canberra tanka group Limestone, which she has instigated: fourth Sunday of the month, 2 pm, ACT Writers Centre.
Rhythm & Muse is an occasional conversation with poets Lizz Murphy has met. © Lizz Murphy and the guest poet.