Interview with Melinda Smithphoto of author

by Angela Gardner

AG: The form of a poem is an integral part of its character. Poems are crafted objects and I am thinking about design precepts: William Morris’s form follows function, and that objects must be both useful and beautiful. So I am wondering about the how and when; at which point in its making does the form of a poem become decided. And how do you see the link between form, function and beauty?

MS: I would have to say the answer to this question is different for different poems.

For some poems the form is an integral part of the idea for the poem and comes first. Poems that fall into this category are things like acrostic poems, where the subject of the poem is its acrostic word (like Home Sweet Home in Drag down to unlock…), and hidden quotation poems (like Slippage in this issue of foam:e) where I am either responding to the meaning of a quotation or using it as a form of creative disruption to generate a completely unrelated poem. My glosas too (like ‘Given’ in Drag down to unlock… ) are responses to other poems and so the poem necessarily begins with a decision about which stanza of the initiating poem I am going to use, which gives me the final lines of the stanzas in my new poem.   Similarly with terminals like ‘Falling’ and ‘A conga-line of servants’ from Drag down to unlock (which use the end words from Philip Larkin’s ‘The Trees’ and Les Murray’s ‘Comete’ respectively) – the form and part of the content is determined by the poem I am responding to. My anagram poems (like ‘Decree Nisi’ in Drag down to unlock…) also have both their form and their content determined at the outset by the word I choose to anagram.  I suppose all these techniques really boil down to is a group of strategies for exorcising textual earworms, or eyeworms. A word or phrase or poem keeps niggling at me until I turn it into a poem of my own, and the poems that come are literally built from what engendered them.

For other poems – say, those that arrive as a mood, or a series of images - the form emerges more organically during the writing process. Sometimes they simply remain a free verse series of images (like Bondi Sketches or ICU in in Drag down to unlock…). Sometimes the poem will start wanting to obsessively circle around something and come back to it many times over, in which case I usually let it and make it into a repetitive form like a triolet or a villanelle or a pantoum.

As to the link between form, function and beauty: that such a link even exists is a much more contested proposition than it was in Morris’ day. Whatever I say on this point that purports to have general application is likely to be shot to pieces by someone. Speaking personally however, I will say that I think form (by which I mean any system of compositional restriction, not just traditional forms with names) has been crucial in pushing my poetry further and producing results that are stranger and more interesting than the initial notes and ideas one works from. I find for me the process of loading myself with chains and struggling free is almost always more productive and successful. And the geek in me finds it intensely satisfying when the form of a poem is able to amplify its effect.  When working in forms that other poets have worked in before, there is the added aesthetic payoff which comes from being in conversation with those poets and poems.

Your poems use a lot of acrostics and I wondered if that showed a cryptic crossword brain or an interest in poetry from an earlier age or both?

Probably both. I have said on many occasions that I find the blank page quite intimidating and one tactic to reduce this effect is to turn the writing of the poem into a brain-teaser exercise. My use of acrostics is one such exercise. However they also form part of what I call my ‘dagginess’ aesthetic, which is to deliberately take terribly unfashionable things and try to make them live again. Perhaps it is more of a ‘zombie’ aesthetic – I’m not really under the illusion that I can actually resuscitate the acrostic as a credible poetic form, but I’m quite happy to borrow the dead body for my own temporary purposes. At any rate I seem to have adopted acrostics as one of the forms I work in. Just like every other system of compositional restriction, they do their job in pushing the work further. And as I explain above, they are useful for exorcising textual eyeworms.

Some of your poems have the feel of song lyric and in your interview for ACT Writers Centre Magazine you advise aspiring poets to listen to Bob Dylan (amongst other things)! Do you think for you there is an immediate relationship between music and poetry? Can you unpack that a little?

Well of course if you go far enough back before the advent of writing, all poetry comes from song, so I don’t think the link is very controversial. Now that we have writing though, and in the absence of actual musical melody, poets are faced with decisions about how much emphasis to place on heard  features and how much to place on seen / read ones.

I draw a distinction in my own mind between page-poems and performance- or sound- poems, and I enjoy writing both. Obviously the ideal is to have a poem that works in all formats but realistically poems that rely on textual organising principles, like hidden quotations, acrostics, and poems with very specific layouts, are not able to apprehended fully when you simply hear them read aloud.

However poems which do have an organising principle that you can hear, like metre or rhyme, or which use alliteration and assonance heavily, have to be put together with an ear for how they unfold as a series of sounds in time.  This is where we still get the crossover with song. I recommended Bob Dylan because he has such a great ear for how to achieve ‘word sounds unfolding in time’ excellence. In his case this means unforced, surprising and hilarious rhyme, metrical fidelity and variation, and a sense of exactly when and what intervals to drop surprising images onto the listener. I’m not saying there are no poets who do this well, but if you’re just starting out, and you are interested putting together poems that sound great when performed, going to school on Dylan will get you a long way.

I will also admit to going through a ‘Dylan phase’ when writing Mapless in Underland. There are more than a couple of poems in that book that borrow metrical schemes from songs of his, some of which he borrowed in his turn from early 20th century blues performers.

(To the ‘listen to Bob Dylan’ injunction I would now add ‘listen to Courtney Barnett’ (seconding Liam Fearney’s recent effusions on the Southerly blog In particular I think Elevator Operator, Avant Gardener and An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York) are songs that will be with us for a long time. For the same reasons as Dylan).

Having said all of that, song lyrics and poems are ultimately different beasts. I know when I write an actual song lyric designed to be sung with music (as opposed to a poem that looks a bit like one) I have to take a lot out, to leave room for the performer’s voice, and for the melody, harmony, rhythm and volume, to do their thing.  Rhymed metrical poems may look a lot like song lyrics but you have to make them much denser because the words are doing all those other jobs as well.

I was very impressed with First…Then… poems from planet autism. I read the title poem to a group of women I had over for lunch. Not poets I might add, and they all loved it, recognising the demands of raising their own children, but taken to an extreme, and appreciating the sense of humour and exhaustion. Were you thinking of an audience when you wrote those poems, have you been surprised by their reception?

That book began life as a kind of community arts project, so (much more than any of my other books) it had in mind a very specific audience: people who live with autism and those who love and care for them. I got funding from ArtsACT and worked on it one day a week for a year, resulting in a chapbook of 24 poems, a blog and regular Facebook and Twitter posts targeting people in those categories. I did not necessarily think anyone outside that world would read the book and I was not sure how much ‘traction’ the book would get even inside that world. However readers have responded very strongly, and the title poem (the one you read out) went ‘viral’ on a small scale, that is to say when I posted a link to the poem I had 1500 people visit that page in one day. When you consider that the average poetry book is doing well to sell half that number of copies, that is pretty good going.

The best response I have ever had to that book is one from a young man who bought it at one of my readings, and took it home and shared it with his family. He said “I read it out loud all morning then gave it to my autistic half-sister (who has a young autistic kid). We all love it. I hate to be all mushy but you've brought our family closer. Props to you.” When I got that message I basically thought “My work here is done, and I can die knowing I did an OK thing”.

(I realise this is not what many people think poetry is for, any more, but I persist in my daggy anachronistic preference for, once in a while, poetry that can bring about connection and community in this way).

(For any readers who want to know more about the book and read the poems in it, visit

In Drag down to unlock there is a poem ‘Passengers are reminded’ that cuts in and out of another voice (a train station announcement) and I love the way that the narrative and the public/private space evolves with the voices. Could you tell me a little about the development of narrative and the importance of voice in your poems?

I like to play with voice in my work. I suppose it might have something to do with the fact that when I was a teenager I wanted to become a script writer or playwright (the couple of half-scripts floating around in my bottom drawer may even now one day re-animate themselves…).  I do love dialogue and how much ‘backstory’ and atmosphere it can convey in a short space. 

In fact many of my poems are probably best characterised as dramatic monologues, in that the ‘lyric I’ in them is demonstrably not really me. This is carried to its extreme in First… Then... where almost all the poems are in the voice of someone else, but it is true of more than half the poems in Drag down…  and of many in my earlier books too. Mark Tredinnick went so far as to call Drag down… a book of ‘fabricated confessions’.

In the particular poem ‘Passengers are reminded’ (for those readers not familiar with it, the train station announcements are interwoven with the thoughts of a character who, it emerges, is on the way to a funeral) I was trying to capture the way that sometimes your consciousness flips focus seamlessly between the external world and your internal monologue. Because of this seamlessness I didn’t want to make any cute text-based distinction between the two voices by, for example, using italics or indents for one of them. I wanted the reader to go on the same journey of initial confusion (wait, did I just hear the announcer say that or is that one of my thoughts?) and by the end of the poem be able to distinguish the two voices while getting the full impact of what they both have to say (or not-say) about the journey to the funeral.

You recently won the PM’s Prize for Poetry, for which congratulations. Are you able to give us a sneak peak, a little taste, of what you are working on?

Whatever people may think of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards in general or the Prime Minister in particular, I am profoundly grateful for the fact that with the prize money I have been able to give up paid work for a space to focus on writing and performing (in between looking after my complicated family).

I spent a lot of 2015 doing collaborations with people working in other art forms. One of these collaborations appears in this issue – part of the SWIPE project from letterpress printer and visual artist Caren Florance. She is getting several different poets to respond to the same set of images and is assembling the results in a number of different formats.  I have also collaborated with or responded to the work of a dance artist, a flautist, a photographer and several other visual artists. The result of one of these collaborations is the #LookUP project, which is a set of 365 photographs of the sky (one for each day of 2015) by artist Rhonda Ayliffe, with accompanying micropoems by me. This will become a series of Instagram posts, a set of postcards and a short film. I also did a total of 16 performances in 2015 (I am normally a once-or-twice-a-year performer) – mostly because of increased interest in my work brought about by winning the award.

I have also been working on a series of more traditional poems all on the same theme, which will form the core of my new book coming out later this year from Pitt St Poetry. I don’t want to say too much about those until they are properly finished – I have a Bundanon Trust residency coming up in May when I can hopefully do the last sustained burst of writing and editing to put that book to bed.  It has no working title as yet.  I am also looking forward immensely to participating in the Voci Lontane Voci Sorelle poetry festival in Florence in September (an opportunity for which I have to thank The Queensland Poetry Festival). That trip will no doubt generate a lot of boring travelogue poems that may eventually turn into something interesting once I have put them through the wringer.

Thanks Melinda it’s been a pleasure talking with you about all your many projects. Really looking forward to the new book from Pitt St Poetry.

Thank you for having me in foam:e, and wishing everyone a happy and fulfilling 2016.