This week, I interview Maria McMillan, whose poetry collection The Rope Walk was recently published by Wellington publisher Seraph Press.
Congratulations on your first book, and such a fine book. How did you get started on this project? What sparked it off?
I had to write two poems for a writing workshop, and without meaning to, produced two linked persona poems. One from the perspective of a 19th century man experiencing his last days in his home country of Scotland before emigrating to New Zealand. And one from the perspective of his wife on the death of their young son on the ship coming over. I found making stuff up in these poems liberating. It let me write a sort of truth that I couldn’t reach when I was strictly observant of or trying to record real experiences. I made a leap then from documentary poet to maybe a drama poet. There was something new for me as well in using a voice from a different century. I became fascinated with the notion of a stoic people, like the Scots are perceived to be, experiencing huge emotional and physical moments. If your culture is taciturn and unfussy how do you talk about leaving the place your ancestors are buried knowing you won’t ever come back, or about losing a child? How do you make small words carry big moments?
So I had these two linked poems, and they got a good reception in class and from my teacher so I started writing more from different generations of the same family. I think the poems are ambiguous and can be read in different ways but for me I know who is the narrator of each poem and how they are related to the other narrators. I know the back story. I thought a lot about loss when I was writing them, and I wrote them among writing other poems over nine years, so way after that course had finished. I thought about the loss of a homeland when you leave it, the loss of men not coming back from war, and men losing their jobs and sometimes their sanity and their sobriety in the 1980s, and waves of young people killing themselves. I also think about the loss – I’m not sure what it’s a loss of – when you grow up female and all the exhilaration of becoming a woman, and how that’s tempered by a sudden realisation that there’s some danger in being female, and you and your friends are in a vulnerable position. What do you do with all that? How do people cope with all these different sorts of grief?
You’ve chosen to write about a fictional family. Why not a real one? Will we hear more about Megan, Margaret & the others?
In that first poem, I actually spent hours trying to find this photocopied transcript of this amazing diary of my ancestor who left Scotland for New Zealand, a first hand account of farmers forced off their traditional land, an account of his last days before getting on the ship, then the journey itself and arriving here. It was riveting stuff. I couldn’t find the diary and the poem was due so I started doing it from memory and then I just made stuff up. It was great for me, because I always had a nagging concern about whether that ancestor’s story was really mine to tell. Did I need permission to tell it? Who from? Also, when I got rid of the idea that I had to be accurate I could say what I wanted. I could have the characters move and speak and think the way I wanted them to. I had perfect knowledge of them because they were mine. It was much easier than having to research minutiae to figure out motivations, or possible scenarios.
As to reappearance of the characters – no, I think I’m done with them. It could have kept going, but I needed to stop and do something else.
The book is beautiful as an object as well as having beautiful contents. How did the cover image come about? Why did you choose a ship?
I had always imagined that the cover would just have text on it. I love really good typographical design. My partner, Joe Buchanan, is a typographer and he’d agreed to do the cover, but he decided it really needed an image to work. Apparently the letters in my name didn’t look right. I said okay, but it has to be a 19th century circus trapeze artist mid-leap, or a ship. Joe’s quite ocean-focused and went with the ship. He drew an image based on the ‘Adamant’, the name of one of my poems, as well as a real immigrant three-masted barque. Then he did a linocut of it. He printed it all, including using a die-cut for the circle, on his 5″ x 8″ Adana platen press.
I was really lucky to have so much input into the cover but it was Helen Rickerby, who runs Seraph Press, which published the book, and Joe who made really good final decisions about how it could all work and look as beautiful as it does.
How do you make time for writing? Is there a particular time of day you prefer? A place you like to go to?
I work four days a week, sometimes five. Joe and I have two small children. Usually it’s night that I write because that’s the only child-free time I have but sometimes I shut the door of the bedroom in the weekend. I’m not a cafe writer. I need to be alone, and there needs to be no music or talking. I think it’s because poetry is so much about the sounds of the words. Even when it’s for paper and not performance, it’s all about the sounds. I usually write a first draft in one sitting, and I do a lot of reading out what I’ve just written. I think my writing ear needs quiet. Those non-disturbed moments are rare, and it’s frustrating when nothing comes of it. Often the case.
You belong to a writing group. How does that affect your poetry?
My writing group is fabulous. We’re all poets. We used to meet in person, but now we do group video chats which has meant we meet more frequently and it’s sort of a routine low key thing we can do in our dressing gowns if we want. Having a dedicated audience willing to talk about your stuff in detail is a luxury. Our rule is the poet reads their poem and then shuts up while everyone talks about it. We’re quite strict about that and are very stern when the poet tries to interject and explain something in their poem. I learn a lot every time, whether it’s my poem or someone else’s being discussed. They’re all smart, and great readers and writers. It’s like two hours of full immersion, so you’re bound to end up a bit more fluent in understanding what does and doesn’t work in poetry.
It’s been good as well, in that when I’ve run out of steam submitting to despondent journals, I’ve been pretty relaxed about it, because my measure of success has been whether my writing group likes something or not rather than if it’s been accepted somewhere.
The other good thing (I’m quite fond of this group as you can tell) is that I see my friends and peers write astonishing poetry. It’s not some big anonymous overseas genius, it’s my mate producing a small miracle of words. There’s a sort of awe in there but also it makes it achievable. And, as well as celebrating with them, when they produce a winner, a sort of fierce determination in wanting to match them is born. Like that is it? Right then. So it’s motivating because you don’t want to be left behind.
You have another book forthcoming from VUP. Can you say a bit more about that?
Tree Space will come out in 2014. It’s a different beast to The Rope Walk. There is a bit of sea in there though, and some boats and toxic algae and stuff. But there’s also hitchhiking and protest marches, and road trips to Waitara and climbing mountains. There’s a Polish cabin attendant too. A lot of moving from one place to another. Lots of science. As well as being a typographer, Joe studies the evolution of species. When he told me that he was hanging out in this thing called Tree Space, essentially a virtual endless mathematical terrain which represents all possible ways in which species might relate to one another, I had to write a poem about it. Phylogeneticists use algorithms in tree space to figure out how species probably evolved. They have all this language around Most Likely Trees and Branch Swapping, bushy and stark trees. It seems wonderful that figuring out the very basis of life happens like this now.
Maria McMillan has been writing poetry for many years, and The Rope Walk is her much-anticipated first collection. Maria has studied politics, trained as a librarian and has a long history as an activist. Originally from Christchurch, she now lives in Wellington with her partner and daughters. She blogs at http://mariamcmillan.weebly.com.