Interview with Carmen Leigh KeatesPhoto of interviewee

by Angela Gardner

First of all congratulations on Meteorites. Winner of the Whitmore Press Poetry Prize. I’ve read it through a couple of times and am very impressed. Also welcome aboard as an editor of foam:e.

Are you happy with attention and the reviews for Meteorites? I notice you had launches in Melbourne and Brisbane so far.

Any attention at all is enough to astound me. Saying that, to have a review from Martin Duwell is special. He reads more closely than anyone, and over the years I have met more than a couple of poets who feel that out of all their reviewers, he was the one who engaged with their work the most thoroughly, even if what he was saying was not uninhibited praise.  

Anyway, yes, having the launch at Collected Works in Melbourne first, and then a huge launch (for a poetry book) in Brisbane at Avid Reader was wonderful. Who’d have thought we would pack almost a hundred people into a little courtyard on Boundary Street on a sweltering Brisbane night? I’m so glad people kept insisting on a local event. It was a really enjoyable occasion and I’m thankful to Melissa Ashley for doing a Q&A session with me and asking such perceptive questions. Down in Melbourne I had Nathan Curnow launch the book and I’m not being a sycophant when I say it was the best launch speech I’ve ever heard.

I still think the book might have potential overseas due to its main subject matter – cinema. I really want to pursue that broader audience in the coming year, and this is where we start to understand the practical impact of prizes on attracting new readers. We shall see.


Where did your interest in writing poetry begin?

I had a couple of weird, short-lived but very demarcated mental phases when I was eleven and then fourteen—I was suddenly very perceptive toward what I read, and this meant no longer backing away from literature that I knew I did not understand initially. I read a lot of Joyce, whose novels are of course so poetic. I located Joyce completely on my own and had no idea who he was when I bought my first book, a thumping omnibus edition of Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses. I remember thinking that this was proper writing. Although my literary perceptiveness absolutely dropped off again (which in itself was a source of distress because I felt a sense of losing a tool, a ‘sword’, in my life), I kept the openness.

I’ve continued to put myself in the way of poetry without feeling the need to solve any mysteries—I am eating what looks good, I have a very active superstition that the poetry is nourishing me, and I am accessing the things that seem like they can give me what I need. This is completely connected to my sense of ‘well being’, to deploy that over-used term!

As to writing, my experiences at ages eleven and fourteen concreted something about being active within literature. I was activated and I don’t know why or how, but the activation itself was a fact.


You’ve said much of your inspiration for Meteorites came from film. How would you describe the process of ekphrasis? Do you see yourself with a responsibility to build on the existing narrative or with the freedom to bring an entirely new story into being?

The films in question are great works – like Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. Tarkovsky wanted to change his viewers’ emotions; not just to entertain viewers, but to completely include them in the ‘time’ of the film, which is also ‘time’ in viewers’ lives when they are watching. I just started asking myself about what I was seeing, and naming the images, the objects, noticing one thing coming after another and considering the sequences. Inventory behaviour.

Andrei Rublev is an especially interesting example because there are different versions of the film, due not only to artistic editing choices, but also due to Soviet censorship, and to pre-empting that censorship—playing with it, as Tarkovsky is known to have done.

Andrei Rublev, for the obsessive, must be looked at as a group of films, then. In this sense it is like a great book that is found in the form of several similar manuscripts, so it is natural for a poet to like and to relate to the changes in outcome that stem from the smallest edits. Due to there not being an ‘official’ version of the film and its respective exegeses (unlike, to return to Joyce, the existence of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man alongside the much earlier Stephen Hero, which was saved by his sister from incineration), the creator becomes much more present to the reader and then the choices, the edits, the relative omissions, become realms in themselves. I love this film; seen as a group of films, as I’ve said, it’s like a big animal, and I am strolling through the fur, subsisting off the ecosystem of a living, moving world.


The landscapes of the Swedish poems capture echoes of a pre-Christian past…as a reader I felt you were seeing many layers, can you tell us more of your experience. Did you spend much time in the cities?

Yes, I spent time in Stockholm, Helsinki and Copenhagen (and I’d like to spend more time in each), but I saw these as transition locations to go elsewhere. I could not really get into the real sense of community, only quirks of how people behave with strangers. Although each city has its charms, if I were to live in Scandinavia, I would be in the countryside because it is like land is a primary source, and a city is a secondary source, when talking to a country, and I’m feeling this more in Australia now too.

The Danish countryside has such beauty it made my ears ring. You go back to Copenhagen and it’s good beer and art and relaxingly appointed apartments (and always more graveyards) but there’s nothing like walking past herds of horses in fields where the long, broad grass has gone crazy; a horse eating that grass must be the happiest beast.

As to the pre-Christian elements coming through—a grave is the most practical thing in the world, and especially if you are not near the sea. But then there are the boat graves, the ‘skeppsättning’ (ship setting) graves of Scandinavia. These graves are poems – I read them like that. I was intensely confronted by them, partly because I did not know that I was going to find them.

The first time I saw boat graves, I was on a bike, cycling to where Tarkovsky had shot his last film, The Sacrifice, on the east coast of Gotland, which is a large Swedish island in the Baltic Sea. I was riding along and then these fucking things appeared on the side of the road! This was a Bronze Age barrow cemetery called Gålrum Gravfält and it had eight boat graves—great boulders arranged in the shape of boats. I was all by myself and I cried. And then when I got back on my bike and rode away, I cried some more. The experience was bigger than love. The graveyard was a work that I did not understand, but I was activated by it—the activation was a fact.


How do poems find their place in the finished manuscript?

These poems have had a lot of work on them and over many years. Some have changed quite radically from what I at one stage thought was their finished state. In the end I had to go by instinct of which poems felt strongest the most often; if a poem started to feel sentimental when I was in a more critical mood, it went into the fire. I really didn’t mind – my feeling is a poem could always live again later if it calls loudly enough.

For Meteorites, I supplied Whitmore Press with two contents pages – one chapbook length, one collection length, and the editor, Anthony Lynch, went for the longer one. The order in which the poems are presented is very important, and I was delighted when Anthony accepted my poem order.

I feel lucky to be a poet and to have a manuscript that can be read in one go. It was vital that I be able to do this when trying to maintain velocity across the whole work, or relationships between certain poems. Of course I realise that the book will seldom be read in one go by others, but if it were, I think the reader would find that it holds together very well. It’s like setting your watch and doing forty laps of the pool.


Now that your book Meteorites has been published, what are you working on now? Are you still haunted by films you have seen?

The big, simmering thing is my latent memories from my last trip to Scandinavia in July. It’s like a huge, complicated Last Will and Testament composed in a vastly different time, and we’re waiting for the executor and lawyer to come and tell us what it really means. On this last trip I explored Denmark more, and made my way up to Norway for a little bit too. I returned to Gotland and now I yearn to go there for a full northern summer. I said to one friend that I think it’s a resurrection fantasy, to go far away and cut off from the norm that much. To disappear and rise again!

As to the films, I still love Tarkovsky, and I wish I had the time to watch, unequivocally, all Bergman’s works. Some of his films are so hard to find here. But you set your internet alerts like a good scholar and sometimes they pop up online. I love that.

I have a lot of poems about my time in Hobart, which is another place I love, but I really do need to turn the entire garden over, so to speak; there are many poems but I haven’t fully developed enough to start publishing them individually yet – there are probably only six or so that I’ve worked at several times.

I am learning that I cannot wait for holidays to engage with a big lot of poems, but must tend things a little every week. This year I have scaled down to an 80% role at work in the hope of getting my magical powers back. I’m off to Hobart at Easter for a week or so, alone, and this will I hope be the orientating point from which I can start building the next book. I’d love to have, say, twenty new poems in a strong state by August. I’m keen to get that core set, and then we shall see.


It's been great talking with you Carmen, good luck for the writing.