Interview with Michelle Dicinoski
An interview with Michelle Dicinoski
by Angela Gardner
Your first collection, Electricity for Beginners, from Clouds of Magellan Press, was a long time in the writing. Could you tell me something about the structure and selection decisions. Did you for example rewrite any poems so that they could be included?
I originally wrote Electricity for Beginners for a Master of Philosophy in creative writing, which I completed in 2006. That same year, the manuscript was shortlisted in the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize (the very year, Angela, in which you won the award for Parts of Speech!) I wanted to keep working on the collection, but I knew I needed some help. I was thrilled to be selected for one of the annual mentorships offered by the Australian Society of Authors. These mentorships are great, because they give you direct access to an established poet (or fiction or non-fiction author) who can help you to refine your work so that it’s ready to show to publishers. I was very lucky to work with Judith Beveridge. With Judy’s help, I revised most of the poems and wrote some new ones. I actually retained only half of the poems from my Masters—sixteen poems—and the rest were entirely new.
Structuring the collection as a whole was a surprisingly difficult and lengthy process. I don’t remember the exact methods that I used, except that I originally tried to have loose themes for each of the three sections, which also had separate titles. But that didn’t end up working, because it was too restrictive. Once the section titles were stripped, and I stopped worrying about internal cohesion, the structuring seemed to happen much more easily. When Gordon at Clouds of Magellan said he wanted to publish the collection, we did a little more fine-tuning, but no major revisions. Although we did seem to debate my comma usage endlessly!
You have also written memoir. Is first person narrative the most natural medium for your poetry?
The first-person stance does seem to be my natural mode, but I do also love the second-person stance. And I actually think it’s sometimes important to reject what comes naturally, and to push yourself in new directions, so I have been trying to write more poems in the second and third person.
I am always interested to find out which poets people read and admire. So who do you read and what is it about their writing that captures your interest?
My reading varies, and it’s hard to single out individual poets—there are so many that I admire. It’s a bit easier to see who has influenced you in retrospect, I think. I’m particularly drawn to American poets, and have been ever since I first became seriously interested in poetry as a teenager. Sylvia Plath, for example, had a huge impact on me. Her imagery and subject matter seemed like nothing else that I had come across at that point. Walt Whitman and e.e. cummings appealed to me for the way they use language, but also, I think, for their transcendentalism. I love Raymond Carver’s poems for their focus on small, ordinary moments. In terms of more recent poets, Richard Siken’s wonderfully cinematic book Crush blew me away. It is stylish, sincere, funny, and devastating, often all at once. Closer to home, I was really impressed by Louise Oxley’s reading at the Queensland Poetry Festival in 2011, and by the precision of the language in her collection Buoyancy. Jacob Polley was a highlight of the festival, too. What captures my interest most of all is a poem that can startle me or produce a physical response: goosebumps, a laugh, a gasp.
What role have mentors played in your career?
Mentors have been really important for me. Bronwyn Lea was my advisor when I was undertaking the Masters at the University of Queensland, and she encouraged and inspired me not only in terms of writing, but also, crucially, in terms of publishing. It’s important to get your work out there, and a lot of beginning writers are so scared of rejection that they don’t even send their work out. I am really grateful that I was encouraged to publish right from the start. And my formal mentorship with Judy Beveridge was terribly important because it enabled me to keep the momentum up with Electricity for Beginners, and to keep going. When you have a really great poet telling you that your manuscript is good, and deserves to be published, that is such great encouragement. And we all need encouragement.
I know you have been working on some documentary video projects – can you tell me about the inspiration for these and where we can check them out on-line?
I have been working on a short documentary film about ‘orphan’ home movies—movies that have somehow become separated from the people who made or owned them. I’ve been buying strangers’ home movies from the 1950s and 60s on eBay, digitising them, and piecing them together in a reflection on memory, technology, and forgetting. It’s called ‘Collecting Orphans,’ and you can see the work in progress on YouTube.
Should I ask about karaoke?
Karaoke is always the answer, but never the question.