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Fiona Zerbst, author of Oleander, in conversation with Janet van Eeden

Mediocre poems are just not good enough.

Fiona Zerbst’s fourth collection of poetry, Oleander, shows a poet at the height of her craft. Zerbst confronts a diverse range of subject, from the ephemeral Butterflies, Moths and Wings to grittier topics such as the aftermath of Cambodia’s brutal past in Remembering S-21, Cambodia. All are approached with masterly skill. Zerbt’s control of poetic traditions enlivens her thought-provoking poetry. She is able to wield her pen with a surgeon’s skill as she dissects all aspects of the human condition. It’s a long time since I’ve read poetry which was written with such technical prowess while also resonating with the sensitivities of its perceptive author. JvE

JvE: You have travelled a great deal in your life Fiona and this comes through in your poetry. In fact it seems that your journeys into less than touristy areas such as Vietnam and Cambodia, the Ukraine and Russia for example, seem to inspire your work. Does your love of travel go hand in hand with your love of writing poetry? Which do you think comes first: the travelling or the poetry?

FZ: The love of poetry came first, before I had travelled anywhere. But when you travel you engage with so much – people, places – that you inevitably feel the need to talk about what you experience. Also, it is easier for me to talk about the politics of other countries than of my own country. It is easier to find a language, a lexicon, and achieve the necessary distancing.

JvE: I was very impressed with your style of writing. In the age of free verse it is refreshing to find such well crafted poems. You use all the literary tools which the master craftsmen/women of poetry used to have at their disposal: rhyme, meter, assonance for example in some of your poetry. I quote an example here where you use these devices in the beautiful poem Butterflies:
It was more
like seeing nature panic
than unhand that stir
of wings, a beauty
much too strange
to hold. In salt-worn
shells, the core
of death lay hidden
but, like duty,
life, unbidden,
rose on flaky wings
to beat as living things.

JvE: (Cont) So the question is what makes you draw on traditional poetry structure these days when it is regarded as slightly unfashionable?

FZ: I think a poet needs to master his or her craft before writing free verse successfully. Once you are comfortable in the language of tradition, you can begin to move away from it. Otherwise you may think you’re writing effective poetry when in fact you’re writing quite bad poetry. Poetry is a discipline, like any other art form, and as a young writer this was impressed upon me by the editors who mentored me. I’m very thankful to them.
For me, the most charged, intense, passionate poems are those that wrestle with their own constraints – they create tension and tension within a poem can be a wonderful force. There is nothing more irritating than loose, meandering, badly written free verse – it goes against the whole rhythm of what makes poetry an art form. However, some poets do use it to great and extraordinary effect – but usually because they have been ‘blooded’ in the veins of tradition.

JvE: Tell me more about your writing background. You have your Masters degree and I wondered if it was in English. Is that why you like traditional poetry forms perhaps?

FZ: Yes, I have a Masters in English, and I retain a fondness for more traditional poets. Every poet should read widely, without skipping the classics. How can you attempt to ‘transcend’ a tradition when you haven’t explored its boundaries and structure? It takes a lifetime to absorb and use and pay homage to and then move away from a tradition, with your own voice and your own excellence. There are no short cuts in poetry, nor should there be. Some of my favourite poets – among them Joseph Brodsky and Derek Walcott – were sticklers for tradition and form and it served them very well. They haven’t ‘dated’ in any sense. I know I will be reading them until I die, with a never-ending appreciation of their technical mastery and emotional range combined.

JvE: Do you see writing as way of expression of your views of political events? Your poem Remembering S-21, Cambodia resonates with your abhorrence of the atrocities which took place in that country. I quote this passage from the poem:

This was a school,
with blackboards, white-
and-tan-tiled floors. Children
filled the concrete stairwells.
Then it was wire, shackles,
prisoners taken
from their families. They were beaten,
starved, herded like children,
helpless, fed a gruel
of watery rice. Obedient,
they still starved.

FZ: I am outraged by these things, but it is often difficult to write about them. James Fenton has written (mostly) very good poetry about Cambodia – he was a reporter in Vietnam and Cambodia – and his poems inspired me to write simply and passionately about politics. After all, politics is about human beings.

When I visited S-21, where so many ordinary Cambodians were tortured and killed, what struck me was the very ordinariness of the place. And many people have said that about Dachau and Auschwitz and so on. It is almost unimaginable that awful things happened there. And that defines our own limits; we cannot get beyond the wall that is the present. It is an existential anguish, which is why writing about these experiences is difficult and why the writing frequently causes anguish in the reader. Think of how effective the poems of Paul Celan and Anna Akhmatova are, for example.

Of course, I wasn’t in Cambodia at the time of the genocide, so I cannot write with authority about what people went through. But we have records; we are seeing trials taking place now; we have so many memoirs of survivors and of witnesses. So imaginatively speaking it is possible to respond to the events as a writer. But at the same time you have to choose your words very carefully. Rhetoric, cliché and false sentiment are so readily apparent in bad political poetry. You still have to write the poem from a place inside yourself. If you don’t, your poetry will be disingenuous.

JvE: Apart from travelling, where do you get your inspiration for writing poetry from? What purpose does writing poetry play in your life?

FZ: I have been writing since I was 10 so I have never lived without poetry and I am not sure where the inspiration came from. It was a compulsion, unfortunately. I don’t write as much now, but at least I have a sense of technique now, so I can say what I want to with fewer false starts. I was depressed for much of my young life, so that fuelled a lot of the poetry, I suppose. Depression is rather crippling in other ways, so poetry helps.

JvE: Do you regard yourself primarily as a poet or as a freelance writer? Would you ever consider writing a novel for example?

FZ: I consider myself a poet first. That is what I measure everything else against. The freelance writing is a way of making a living and it is a good way to live, but I have never striven to be a journalist in the way I have striven to be a poet. I love John Pilger and Robert Fisk and they represent the kind of journalism I would want to write if I were to dedicate my life to journalism, but I am really living to write another poem, then another, and, I hope, another.

I will probably try to write a novel, but I have no expectations as to what it will be like. If it is appalling, I will of course accept that I was not born to write fiction. But it might be fun to try.

JvE: What are you working on at the moment? And what direction would you like your writing to take over the next few years if you could have everything happen according to plan?

FZ: I am always writing poems, though fewer than I used to, and I am about five poems into my next collection. But as the last one took me about eight years to write, it seems unlikely I’ll have another ready soon. I could write and publish a lot, but quality always trumps quantity. I think only about ten percent of my total output has been publishable, though. I am very hard on myself, very rigorous, and if a poem has even one false line in it, that I feel cannot be changed, resolved or made to ‘talk to’ the other lines in the poem, I abandon the poem. I know I could churn out lots and lots of fairly good poetry, but I don’t want ‘fairly good’. I stand by, and live by, what I write. So I want it to be my testament. Mediocre poems are just not good enough.

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