Sarah Holland-Batt is an award-winning Australian poet. Rising to critical acclaim after winning the Thomas Shapcott prize for her first collection, Aria (UQP), Sarah has continued to make waves across the Australian and international poetry sphere, with work published in The New Yorker, Slate, Poetry, Agenda, Michigan Quarterly Review, and many more. Her second collection, The Hazards (UQP) has won her further attention and cemented her as a strong, clear voice in Australian poetry. AWM intern TJ Wilkshire got a chance to talk with Sarah about her poetry, her evolution as a writer, and the process of excavating a poem.
How do you think you’ve evolved creatively since Aria in writing The Hazards?
I wrote Aria when I was relatively young—most of those poems were written when I was 24 or 25. So I look at that book with a sort of embarrassed tenderness—there are poems I’m fond of, and those I wouldn’t write today. I don’t know whether I’ve evolved, per se; I suspect I’m just older, better travelled, and I’ve read more poetry, which has no doubt influenced the way I write, and what I prize in my own poems. Poetry is so much about life experience and reading experience—in the intervening eight years between those two books, I have certainly had plenty of both.
When you were writing The Hazards, what methods did you use to stay on track? Or did the work come together slowly poem by poem?
I wrote the poems one by one, then once I had a critical mass of poems, I started looking at them to find correspondences between them, and shaped the book in that way. Poetry isn’t really a form you can force by just sitting down and trying to stay on track; sometimes you have the material for the poem but no impetus, or impetus but no way in to the subject matter, and neither of these scenarios will produce a poem. When I sat down and saw all the poems together, I was better able to see the strands that linked some of them together—travel being one of them. It was only after I had all the poems in front of me I was able to decide I wanted to order the book according (loosely) to the places the poems were written about.
As both an artist and someone who works in an arts organization, where do you see the future of the Queensland arts industry heading in the next five years?
I work at a university, not an arts organisation; a university is a different beast entirely, far less subject to the whims of state or federal arts policies, mercifully. I have felt great sympathy, however, for those who have worked in arts organisations in the past and present across the country, as the funding situation—particularly the cuts to the Australia Council—has been dire of late. Seeing our nation without a robust arts sector is a sad state of affairs; the arts cost so little and give so much to so many that it’s criminal in my view that the arts are always the first on the chopping block for budgetary cuts. I can only hope that the Queensland arts sector continues to bounce back from the savage cuts of our past government; it’s wonderful to see the QLAs up and running again, with support and partnership from the Premier’s office. Here’s hoping the next five years continues in the same vein.
Has having an academic career influenced your poetry? Or vice versa?
My job affects my writing insofar as it dictates the schedule of my writing over the year; I tend not to write much during the teaching periods of the year, and then to write intensively over the breaks and research periods. This has produced a sort of lopsided rhythm to my year, where I do bouts of concentrated writing, and then not much of anything for a few months. To be honest, this suits me well; I like to think about writing a poem for a while before I write it, and those fallow periods I use for thinking, ideation and reading. It is also a pleasure and privilege to work with fine young writers, and to participate in conversations with them about literature, writing and art; I enjoy that aspect of my work at QUT enormously.
I am a ferocious editor; I frequently edit poems for six months or more before I’m happy with the end product. For me, editing is really where the writing of the poem begins. A first draft is just that—a sketch or an outline of the idea of the poem, its penciled outline. The editing process is where you test every syllable, where you put pressure on every single word in every line, and see if you can’t better it somehow—either by cutting, revising, replacing, or, indeed, by jettisoning the entire stanza or even poem and beginning again. It is almost a mathematical process, wherein your job is to make sure everything fits and there are no rough edges, perhaps best likened to the smoothing of a stone via thousands of small corrections. Editing a poem, too, is where you are the most creative; you must think of all the other possibilities and hold them in your head as you weigh each word. I like the challenge of it. Once I have the feeling that there are no further moving parts, then the poem is done.
You can read more about Sarah Holland-Batt here.
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.