Shastra Deo burst onto the Australian poetry scene this year when she won the 2016 Thomas Shapcott poetry prize. But it takes years to become an overnight success, and Shastra’s journey has taken her from Fiji to Australia and trained her sharp ear for the emotional weight of language. AWM intern and fellow poet TJ Wilkshire took some time to chat with Shastra about poetry, rejection, and her upcoming collection, The Agonist.
I wrote the first draft of The Agonist as part of my honours dissertation, which meant that the collection as a whole was informed by my research question: ‘what happens to the self when the body is dismembered?’ As the collection has grown and evolved, I’ve found myself coming back to the subjects that seem to recur in most of my writing: how memory is embodied and subsequently enacted through the body, how the physical world interacts with and is overlaid by what is unseen, and where we store our selfhood. I’m often inspired ghost stories, specific places and their vernaculars, and old medical journals (phantom limb sensation is one of my research interests and informs much of my work). But, I’m not above drawing inspiration from popular culture. The first seasons of Hannibal and Marvel’s Daredevil triggered whole suites of poems; I’m still fascinated by the role of the damaged or destroyed body within both shows’ narratives.
When can we expect UQP to release your poetry collection?
UQP will release The Agonist in August 2017, to coincide with the collection’s launch at Queensland Poetry Festival. QPF’s 2016 program was so rich it had me wishing I could be in two (sometimes three) places at once, but one of the highlights was the launch of UQP poet Stuart Barnes’s Glasshouses—winner of the 2015 Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize. I’m excited for my own launch at QPF next year, but mostly I can’t wait to hold my book in my hands. UQP has been treating The Agonist with such care.
What has your writing career been like so far? What have been your achievements to date?
My writing ‘career’ has been short but punctuated with lots of pleasant surprises; my writing practice dates back to the moment I learned to construct a sentence. Short story writing was my first love. I was lucky enough to receive the runner up award for the 2012 State Library of Queensland Young Writers Award, and I won the Field of Words Short Story Competition during the 2015 Winter Round. Peril published a short memoir piece I wrote about growing up Fiji-Indian in suburban Victoria, which was my first, proper, paid publication—I’m excited about it still. I also have poems published in Uneven Floor, Sundog Lit, and Platypus Press. The Platypus Press editors picked my poem ‘Scorched Earth’ as one of their 2016 Best of the Net Nominations, which was pretty neat.
What advice can you give to other emerging writers trying to break into the poetry industry?
Don’t be afraid of rejection. I recently read a wonderful article by Kim Liao on Literary Hub, in which she quotes a successful writer friend: ‘Collect rejections. Set rejection goals. I know someone who shoots for one hundred rejections in a year, because if you work that hard to get so many rejections, you’re sure to get a few acceptances, too.’ Email and Submittable make sending your work to your favourite journals easy. You may feel discouraged if you get a few rejections in a row. That’s okay! But keep revising, reworking, and resending your work anyway. When it comes to revising and reworking, find other poets to workshop with. Objective feedback is incredibly valuable. Of course, subjective and loving feedback is wonderful too, but make sure that your network of nurturers challenge you to grow.
Do you have any particular poetry techniques? Where and when do you do your best writing? What writers inspire you?
The speakers in my poems have distinct and discrete identities, and are far removed from my personal history. Writing poetry, then, is for me a process of discovery and invention, of inducing hauntings. I treat my keyboard as if it were a planchette, and hope that I’ll be able to summon a talkative ghost. I’m sure there’s some rule against inviting ghosts into your own home, but I’ve done it: I write in bed, on the couch, and on the floor. I’m a horizontal writer, and I’m terrible with pen and paper. I tend to do my best writing on my laptop when the sun is shining—I like to wake up early and make the most of the morning. By the middle of the afternoon the light floods my bedroom, which makes for perfect nap conditions. If I’m completely blocked, I like to reread my favourite poets—Margaret Atwood, Michael Dickman, Sarah Holland-Batt, Richard Siken, and Maria Takolander—and treat their works as instructions. I find that immersing myself in the cadence of another poet’s work, as different as that work may be to my own, often inspires me to take more risks with form and composition. But then again, sometimes it’s nice to reread for the joy of it.
You can read more about Shastra Deo here.
The Agonist will be released by UQP in August 2017.
TJ Wilkshire is a twenty-something Brisbane based artist and writer. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Writing and English Literature and is currently studying the WEP Masters at the University of Queensland. Her work focuses on birds and she hopes to one-day turn into one. Wilkshire’s poetry has been published in Peril and Uneven Floor, and won the NotJack Competition.