Most of the writers who visit the attic are novelists, so I’m very happy to welcome a poet as my guest this week: Thuy On.
Today, Thuy writes about changing course from critic to poet, and how documenting a particularly turbulent period of her life became a poetry collection. She’s included one of her poems at the end and is also giving away a copy of her book, Turbulence, that’s currently receiving rave reviews across the country. Details on how to enter are at the end of the post (so keep reading!).
Thuy On is books editor of the Big Issue and a Melbourne-based freelance critic, editor, copywriter and manuscript assessor. She has been a freelance literary journalist and critic for 20-odd years and has written book reviews/interviews/features for a number of publications including the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian, the Big Issue, Meanjin, Overland, Books + Publishingand Australian Book Review.
Documenting Life in Poetry
I think a lot of people are scared of poetry, bearing stale resentments of having to parse the meaning of worthy-but-ancient poems from a dusty era. They associate poetry with highfalutin’, highbrow literature. Conversely, other readers associate it with the lite, trite, fortune-cookie type of inspirational porn seen in a lot of Insta contributions.
When my own collection was published in March this year, I knew a lot of people would have such prejudices and preconceptions. There are very few publishing houses in Australia that even publish new works, and the fact that poetry as an artform is not terribly appreciated in this country meant that I was up against a rusted-on culture of fear and ignorance.
But I hope Turbulence allays some of the concerns. My intended audience was never other poets—I’m not interested in writing for the cliquey fold—but for general readers, and particularly for those who don’t normally read poetry.
An acquaintance called Turbulence, ‘theatre on the page’, and it’s the most perceptive comment made about it since it was published. It’s exactly ‘theatre on the page’. It’s about big events that have happened to me over the last few years following the messy dissolution of a long-term marriage, and, though personal in scope, I hope its general themes of love and loss resonate with anyone who’s ever suffered and strove for equanimity during difficult times.
The koi swimming on the cover are a symbol of perseverance, one of the themes of the book. Koi are known to be able to swim upstream, against the currents, so they are a perfect metaphor for Turbulence.
In poetic form and like a diary, I documented a lot of the rough moments I went through, but I hope readers will also find grace and beauty and hope within the book.
I’ve been a freelance arts and literary journalist and critic for twenty-odd years and busy writing about other peoples’ words, so it was initially strange to focus inwardly. But there’s no denying the cathartic joy of writing about your own life, albeit one embroidered and heightened by art. It really is cheaper than therapy and, I’d argue, far more effective.
At first I was hesitant and doubtful about even claiming the word ‘poet’: it seemed pretentious, and I was far more comfortable with my ‘critic’ mantle as I’ve been doing arts criticism for far longer. But even beforeTurbulence made it to print, I managed to get twenty-eight poems from it published in various online and print publications, so I felt buoyed by the recognition.
When, the manuscript received a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship and was also shortlisted for the Penguin Random House Write it Fellowship program, I felt encouraged enough to start approaching publishers. I had over one hundred poems at my disposal and was lucky that the collection was eventually picked up UWA Publishing.
The writing of Turbulence itself didn’t take long, about a year. My poems are mostly small, less than a page each and I wrote quickly and efficiently. Initially, just pouring emotions on the page was far more important than the craft; the shaping and editing came later.
I find poetry a relaxing medium to work with; others may take up running or baking but I prefer to wrestle with minimum words. I’m a sprinter, not a marathon runner. Not for me the lengthy novel with its multiple characters and labyrinthine plotting. I don’t have the patience. The poem, when you’re finally happy with it, brings instant gratification in a moment’s reading. I aim for a burst of emotion in each of my poems: concentrated and distilled.
like you have a paper cut
we are a chapter over
in the pages
I want us to spill
crumbs and morning after
coffee as we lie
with buttermilk sun
sneaking between shutters
there is a library
to be collected
of what is yet unwritten
let’s start with your spine
I want to read History
followed by the fiction
in your eyes
after which those fingers
can flip all the way through
find the right spot
Thuy has kindly donated a copy of her poetry collection, Turbulence, for a lucky reader to win.
If you’d like to enter, you just have to leave a comment below or on any of the social media posts about Thuy’s piece.
Entries close 12pm (WST) on Thursday, 4th June, and the winner will be chosen randomly.
International entries are welcome, but we can only post to an Australian address.