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The Poetry Kit Interviews Katherine Gallagher

Katherine Gallagher

Tell me about your background. Where were you born and brought up?

I was born in September, 1935 at Maldon, Central Victoria. Maldon is a picturesque, listed, 1850s gold-mining town, now much-visited for its well-preserved period-buildings, hooded-verandas and stone-slab streets. My great-grandfather, John Edward Gollougher, (the spelling changed later), a ship's carpenter from Donegal who deserted at Melbourne during the goldrushes, was one of Maldon's early diggers. Unfortunately, though he and his partner had a claim on what turned out to be the richest mine in Maldon, they 'couldn't go deep enough/to crack the golden rib' as I celebrated him in a poem. When the gold ran out, land hunger followed gold hunger and he, like thousands of others gave up prospecting to take up a selection, in his case, at Eastville ten miles away. This was the farm I grew up on and Eastville and its landscape are embedded in my psyche. In my schooldays, it bothered me that it was on only one signboard in Victoria and wasn't on any maps. This prompted an early poem for the Eastville School Centenary in 1973.
'You head out there - / It's not even on the maps. / I used to wonder why / when I was a kid.'
The poem celebrates the place and ends with a comment on my primary schooling: 'Eight years it took.' Of course, Eastville, comprising All Saints' Anglican Church, a farm-cum-post office run by my formidable Auntie Nellie, and Eastville State School, and situated about twenty-one miles from Bendigo, was no tourist-mecca. There wasn't even a shop. Alleluia. The quiet life.
Nowadays, not surprisingly, I feel rather differently about Eastville's quiet beauty, its landmark eucalypts, gentle hills and stretching skies, with Maldon and Mt. Tarrengower in the far-off haze. As a child, I never thought much about the long-gone original settlers who'd wandered over Eastville's grassy paddocks but it's a thought that comes to me more and more these days.
I attended Eastville's one-teacher-thirteen pupil-school until the 8th Grade (what is now Form 2). Then it was off with my sister to boarding-school in Bendigo: St. Mary's College, run by Mercy nuns. A life of timetables, rules, tumbling prayers and new subjects, days very different from Eastville, that's for sure. In better moments, we sang Masses and thundered out 'The Bells of St.Mary's'. There was no overdose of poetry but we did get some Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Browning, and a few Australians - Henry Lawson, Henry Kendall, Dame Mary Gilmore and A.B. 'Banjo' Paterson.
Everything was very syllabus-oriented. Plus ça change. . .Rheumatic fever at fifteen ended my academic ambitions and I left school without Matriculation which was then University entrance. After a few years as a laboratory assistant, secretary, tourist (hitch-hiking around New Zealand and Tasmania), typist, and studying for a University entrance exam, I started an Arts Degree in 1960, graduating B.A., Dip. Ed. in 1963. What to do? Teach?? Having originally planned to be a primary teacher, I was now a trained secondary and taught in two Melbourne high schools, 1964-68. A late starter but . . .In a strange way, that's been the pattern of my life: a late-starter as a poet, late-starter as a teacher, late-starter as a parent. . .

Do you come from a literary family?

No, my family was quite un-literary but there were a few books on the shelves - romances, biographies, thrillers, westerns. I remember my father as a voracious reader - the sort who'd start a book and finish it, even if he had to be up early next day. My mother with her eight children, always said she had no time to read. Looking back, I think that was true. Both parents quoted from ballads, snippets of well-known poems and tongue-twisters remembered from school; told us folklorish stories and so on. I've found out since starting to write myself that one of my great-great uncles on my mother's side, William Rogers, was a poet. I'm fourth-generation Irish-Australian so I guess there may have been other poets around as well.

What were the books/events that most influenced your beginning as a writer?

My beginning as a writer was directly due to the influence of The Penguin Book of Australian Verse and my then boyfriend. I was helping him with his thesis on Kenneth Mackenzie, a neglected Australian poet. We read from The Penguin Australian Verse but also poetry from other nationalities as well, including British, New Zealand, Russian, Hungarian and American. All these poets and particularly those in the Penguin Book sparked off ideas and I said, 'I'm going to write some of this stuff.' My friend encouraged me and though our romance eventually folded, much to my chagrin at the time, there was one very important result: I had the poetry bug. I was amazed to see how much Australian poetry had been written. I discovered Judith Wright, my 'poetry godmother' - a great poet and trailblazer; A.D. Hope, Kenneth Slessor, Francis Webb, James McAuley, David Campbell, John Shaw Neilson, and many others.
Mostly blokes, of course. The women poets were only getting geared up and it was difficult to write without an existing women's tradition. I published my first poem as K.M. Gallagher but shortly after, changed it to Katherine. Later on, around Melbourne University and the Fellowship of Writers, I met or read poets such as Judith Rodriguez, Vincent Buckley, Philip Martin, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Anne Elder, Barbara Giles and Bruce Dawe. It was very much a 'Melbourne' scene. But things were happening, and the Les Murray-Robert Adamson-John Tranter 'phenomenon' was shortly to take off.
During the year, teaching kept me too busy for much poetry-writing but in the summers of 1965 and 1967, I attended two interesting seminars on Australian literature at Armidale's University of New England, in northern New South Wales. These were my first contacts with national names - 'real writers': Judith Wright, Thea Astley, Thomas Keneally, David Ireland, the young Les Murray who was being talked about as a poetry voice of the future, and others. At the 1967 conference, I showed Judith Wright some of my poems. She was extremely kind, told me to read widely, especially the Elizabethans and the Metaphysicals, and talked of how in her second year at University, she'd dropped out of her Honours English course which seemed to be 'Beouwulf and more Beouwulf', and had instead used the time reading, reading - Asiatic literatures as well as European. 'Keep going, you've got something there', she said. . .words I needed to hear. For beginners, that sort of encouragement is crucial. Besides, there were virtually no workshops around then to give poets the training lift-off necessary to challenge and sustain them.
Another important step on the way to getting started was having my first poem published in 1966, in Poetry, the Australian Poetry Society's magazine. Placed next to one by the already well-known Chris Wallace-Crabbe, and called 'Life-line', it was a political-protest piece inspired by the hanging of Ronald Ryan, the last man to be hanged in Victoria. (The poem has since appeared, with several changes, as 'Poem for the Executioners' in my 'Fish-rings on Water' collection and in The Oxford Book of Modern Australian Verse (ed. Peter Porter, 1996))
Next, in 1968, I attended a workshop led by Judith Wright and Bruce Dawe just prior to the Adelaide Festival. I'd greatly admired Dawe's work for its satire and his ability to combine the colloquial and the lyrical in an authentic, dramatic voice. He was also into American poetry and read us lots of James Dickey as well as his own work. Wright also read from her poems, sometimes saying, 'I think I'd write that differently now.' At the time in my worshipful stance, I couldn't believe how she could be 'dismissive' of some of her earlier poems. Quoting Blake, she told us that perception was the great secret of it all. If we wanted to be poets, we'd have to observe well. She gave us lots of haiku exercises, and talked about the 'spirit of haiku' - what has become a life-long interest.
After all that, I felt I was on my way to being a poet. Following on from my tail-end-of-Empire schooling, my discovery of Australian poetry had been mind-blowing. Growing up at Eastville, I had the landscape - knew every stick and stone in some places. But now, almost suddenly, poetry became my life, my way of seeing. . .

What sort of poetry did you begin writing? What were its main themes and techniques?

I started writing lyrics and satires, writing out of experience or on subjects I felt strongly about. Echoes of Bruce Dawe, I guess. Engaged in teacher politics and angry due to the lack of money being spent on education by successive conservative Liberal Governments in Canberra and Victoria, (what's new?), I fired into poetry about public issues: education, racism, and war, alongside more personal pieces - mostly love-poems - usually in free verse, occasionally, rhyming quatrains.
It's long been a tradition in Australia for young people to go overseas, so for various reasons, including the chaos of my life, it seemed time to get moving. Today, it's different. Most young people stay away only a year or two. I was one of the last of that breed of sixties' expatriates who went and stayed. When I left Australia in 1969, I planned to be away only a year. However, the sights and possibilities of 'Over there' grew on me, time flew and in 1971, I went to teach English in Paris. A great time. Getting the language was difficult but meeting my husband in 1974 changed everything and I came back to London with him and our young son in 1979.
Paris in 1971 had been a revelation. I was greatly influenced by the sense of sky, and the fluid beauty and detail of the city. For my poetry, this was quite an experimental take-off phase - influenced by living for the first time 'outside' my language, by the spatial aspects in French poetry, and by the sense of a new freedom and experimentalism coming out of the Australian poetry scene thanks to the Robert Kenny, Kris Hemensley, Robert Adamson and John Tranter innovations. Ern Malley was finally coming in out of the cold. Anyway, in this recharged scene, I wrote a series of impressions around the 'eye' as persona, voyager. . .This became my first collection, The Eye's Circle, published in 1974 by Robert Kenny's Rigmarole of the Hours Press in Melbourne.

To what extent do your 'roots' influence what you are writing now?

My 'roots' have always greatly influenced my work in terms of inspiration, subject-matter and audience. Even if I wanted to forget it and I wouldn't, I'm an 'Australian poet' resident in the U.K. Living as an expatriate means that one writes out of a divided identity - what I call, 'living in two countries.' Hence, my background comes into everything I write - to some extent, anyway. There's also the French connection. Sometimes I feel 'global' - a member of the World. However, Australia is absolutely 'me', it speaks to my deepest self. After all, I spent my first thirty years there, and have a huge family and lots of friends there, largely in Victoria. As far as audience goes, whilst my main audience is probably around the U.K. at the moment, and London in particular, my Australian audience, in terms of editors and general public, and centred mostly in Bendigo, Melbourne and Sydney, has always been interested and most supportive. The women's network has had a lot to do with this. I try to go back every couple of years to see my family, friends, and other writers, and to catch up on the scene in general - I don't want to be forgotten. I try to keep up contacts in other areas too; I'm London correspondent for Overland magazine, one of Australia's best and longest-running magazines and one of the first to publish my poetry. I also regularly go to the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies which presents seminars and introduces Australian writers over here.
Australian poetry has received an enormous boost in the U.K. and Europe generally (probably I should include the U.S. in there too), due to what I call the ' Kinsella effect.' John K's tireless energy as editor, web-site facilitator and poet, has had phenomenal run-on effects. When I first came to London, I was astounded by the ignorance of Australia, of Australian writing and poetry, in particular. Australia as part of the kangaroo-koala 'hick' syndrome a la Edna Everage vogue. The recent Australian issue of Poetry Review, with its broad look at the Australian poetry scene, and co-edited by John Kinsella and Peter Forbes, has been an eye-opener for many poets and readers here. Peter Porter, by his poetry and presence, has always had a major representational role in the U.K., and over the last few years, there's been the Les Murray effect. His amazing poetry and prizes have also helped put Australia's poetry 'on the map'. So maybe, due to lots of factors, including the internet, it's all starting to come together.
However, apropos of my poetry-connection, I know it is more than time for me to have another book out down there as well as here. My next book, 'Tigers on the Silk Road', being published by Arc in 2000, will also be distributed in Australia. My last collections (a book of poems and a translation from French published by Forest Books) were distributed in Australia but not widely enough.
One side-effect of being published by Forest Books was my getting involved in translating. French is my only 'other' language, and when Brenda Walker, Forest's Director, offered me the chance to translate Jean-Jacques Celly, a well-known French poet, I accepted, not quite sure what I was getting into. At least, I thought, my French husband would be able to help with subtleties of meanings and idiom. His advice, alongside collaboration with Celly himself, made it a rewarding, marvellous experience. I'm a 'believer' in translations and I don't think, vis-a-vis Robert Frost's famous statement, that poetry need necessarily be 'lost' in the translating.
Finally, I love poetry and write for anyone who'd like to read my work - nothing profound about that, but I'm thrilled that I'm also going to have a Selected Poems out from Salmon Publishing, (Ireland), this to be distributed in Ireland and the United States.

How did you go about getting your poems published?

As far as magazine-publication goes, knowing where and what to send out is always difficult. In my earliest writing days in Australia and later in Paris, I used information on magazine-outlets and competitions as listed in the Victorian Fellowship of Writers' Bulletin. And I subscribed to quite a few Australian magazines such as Adamson's New Poetry, Stephen Murray-Smith's Overland and Grace Perry's Poetry Australia, and U.K. magazines such as Poetry Review, Workshop New Poetry and Ambit.
The Paris Australian Embassy had quite a good range of Australian newspapers as well as magazines and that was useful for keeping in touch. Getting poems accepted for publication is always a bit of a lottery and very much down to editorial taste. My six years as a co-editor on Poetry London taught me a lot about that.
As far as book publication goes, that depended somewhat on a mixture of sending out and contacts. Jim Hamilton (FAW Secretary in Victoria) introduced my 'eye' poems to Robert Kenny, my first publisher. For my second pamphlet, Angus & Robertson wrote me. I owe an enormous debt to Elizabeth Webby, Professor of Australian Literature at Sydney University, and until recently, editor of Southerly, for the publication of my first full book collection, 'Passengers to the City'.
In the early eighties as my MSS came back from a British publisher, I realized how hard it was going to be to get published here. Besides, due to having published quite a lot in Australia during my Parisian decade, I was probably more known there than here. Elizabeth, over here on a sabbatical, read my MSS and recommended me to Hale & Iremonger in Sydney and they published the book in 1985. As all poets know, there's nothing lonelier than not having a book. So I felt really encouraged when 'Passengers to the City' was shortlisted for the Australian National Poetry Award at the 1986 Adelaide Festival.

How does the way you make a living influence your poetry?

The short answer: earning a living takes up a lot of my writing-time. Since the 1990s and following the publication of 'Fish-rings on Water' by Forest Books (1989), I've worked largely as a poetry tutor in schools, colleges, for the Open College of the Arts, Barnet College, Jacksons Lane and assorted festivals; also by giving readings, selling poems here and there, and doing editorial work. As Carol Rumens once said, 'You get paid much more for teaching poetry than for writing it.' Too true.. Poetry certainly isn't a sparky market although we were told for a while that it was the new 'rock'n roll'. I don't agree with that sort of publicity 'dumbing-down' stuff. However, it is pleasing that the growth in performance poetry has had the effect of destroying some of the unhelpful aspects of poetry's 'mystique'.
Nevertheless, whether performance or on-the-page, poetry is a long way from being integrated into the culture and we're still at the stage where poets are the main readers of other poets' work. This is true in the U.K. and probably in Australia too. I believe the market has to expand outside poets. If I had a wand, I'd get poets into schools on a grand scale. Poetry is quite popular with children. They just need more of it.
I'd use the internet more. I'd also put poets into influential editorial positions on newspapers and publishers' boards so that poetry gets equal consideration with fiction. I like Andrew Motion's latest idea of sending poets into teachers' colleges to train teachers so that they might feel really positive about poetry and be more likely to transmit a love of it to their pupils. They, after all, are the poetry readers of the future. The Independent's Daily Poem was a great idea, but I note it's recently become the Weekly Poem. A shame.

Can you describe your most effective working method? Do you wait for inspiration or sit down every day with the intention of writing?

My proven working method centres around my notebook, drafting, and polishing. As I go about, I write notes - ideas or impressions in my notebook, then later add to these first notes before typing up the poem into a more-or-less acceptable first draft. After a further draft, perhaps a week or two later, I show my latest version to a couple of friends whose opinions I trust and then do a further draft and so on. In the past, from time to time, I've attended a regular workshop and have taken work-in -progress along for comments from this wider audience of practising poets. This is really useful.
Paul Valery said, 'A poem is never finished - only abandoned' and I agree with that. The writing process is ongoing and it can take years and many versions before one arrives at what seems 'finished'. Formal workshops on various themes are always helpful, but of course, everything depends on the facility and inventiveness of the leader and the other participants.
As far as inspiration goes, waiting for it is a sure way of killing it off. My first inspiration usually comes when I'm well away from my computer. With regard to work-in-progress, I keep my drafts in a pile and like to work on them when I've got my head clear from other commitments such as tutoring or housework. I find it pays to keep the idea of seeing those drafts becoming a book firmly in mind as a sort of deadline, for it's the 'fine-tuning' (the 'finishing' pace Valery) that's the hardest part. Finally, no matter what the critical comments from others, the poems are one's own to decide for and about. A bit of a burden? Yes. Rosemary Dobson quotes Mandelstam as having said, 'writing a poem is throwing a bottle in the sea. It will reach the person for whom it is destined'. I like that - it's a frame of mind that lets you get on with the next poem.

To what extent, if any, do you collaborate with other artists?

I've started doing collaborations only a few years back - first with an artist and now with sculptors, and find the whole process very rewarding and exciting. In collaborations, projects expand - it's the input of extra minds somehow. In 1999, I was responsible for the poetry in a poetry-sculpture project at Barking, London, for the Word 99 London Festival. This involved working with pupils from two local primary schools and a sculptor from the Cambridge-based Carving Workshop. I'm currently involved with another poetry-sculpture project on the Tottenham Marshes.
Overall, I think the special value of collaborations is that they offer the chance to widen poetry's appeal and audience, and to place the word/poem in a different context - away from the page, but nevertheless in a striking, albeit more public, setting, usually involving performance as well.

Who do you write for? Do you have a particular audience or person in mind?

I don't write for anyone in particular, that can become a burden, but I don't write just for myself either. I think I write out of some inner compulsion to explore and evolve through my writing as it goes out into the great 'unconscious'. I'm by nature a chatterbox and I like to think of my poems making conversation with - Who knows? Robert Frost said that when we write poetry, we're not trying to tell our readers something they didn't already know - we're trying to give them 'the shock of recognition'. Poetry doesn't have to be 'simple' to be understood. It is to a large extent, the art of metaphor, digging to find the power of language. Unfortunately, our age doesn't like to think in metaphor too much.

Which contemporary poets do you find most interesting?

This is one of those maddening questions impossible to answer. What's 'interesting' for me in poetry? I guess I'd define it an terms of range, adventurousness, poise and sharpness of image - combined with feeling. It might be a bit old-fashioned in some quarters to want feeling in poems but I love lyrics, either as short pieces or in sequences. By its nature, the lyric suggests a real person there in a voice that's meditative, quiet, musical, authentic. I want to meet the poet on the page. In the global world, poetry's thankfully gone global too. My favourite poets range from Australia to Britain to the U.S. and Europe. To name a few: Judith Wright, Les Murray, Gwen Harwood, Robert Adamson, Peter Porter, John Forbes, John Kinsella, Diane Fahey, John Tranter, Anthony Lawrence, Philip Salom, Tracy Ryan, Fay Zwicky, W.H. Auden, Seamus Heaney, Carol Rumens, Jo Shapcott, Selima Hill, Maura Dooley, Carol Ann Duffy, Don Paterson, Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Rita Dove, Nina Cassian, Michael Donaghy, Jane Duran, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, and Marina Tsvetaeva. But there are many others. Finally, the poem is more important than the poet.

Which trends in modern poetry do you find most interesting?

I love the endless variety of modern poetry, including its range of forms - everything from four-liners to book-length sequences. Then there's the mix of voices, the growth of performance poetry and readings generally, tied to a growing reader-listener-curiosity feeding into the genre. I'm also interested in what seems to be a movement back to having more feeling in poems. (I'm talking about the English/London scene here. One of the amazing aspects/benefits of Ted Hughes' later poetry was that it had the effect of drawing people's attention to how central feeling and passion were to the poem.) Global communications, including the internet, have meant there's a wider choice in poetry now - great fun, wit, an increased vitality, and a poet is less tied down style-wise.

Does poetry have any influence outside poetry circles?

Yes, of course, but its influence is mostly personal and quite intangible. It strikes me as ironic when people quote Auden's famous lines, 'For poetry makes nothing happen' out of context. The remainder of the stanza points out what poetry does make happen in people's lives:

it survives
In the valley of its saying where executives
Would never want to tamper; it flows south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in.

As I mentioned earlier, I would like to see poetry given much more prominence in education so that young people in particular would inevitably become acquainted with it. I say this partly because I nearly missed out on poetry myself, the joys of reading it as well as writing it. I'm sure there are many people around today who're in a similar situation and who are growing up without poetry. . .

Do you see 'performance poetry' and 'slam' as sideshows or a return to the origins of poetry as story-teller and social conscience?

Performance poetry and slams are 'sideshows' with a difference. It's not my favourite sort of poetry but performance poets especially have brought a new sense of liveliness and enjoyment to poetry, and along with that, new audiences and new performers. I love the word-play and range of voices in this increasingly sophisticated art. And the subject-matter - clever, understated, overstated, ironic, political. Successful performers can do wonders with text and music, voice and sound. Children love them. And anyone who's ever been bored senseless by a dull poetry-on-the-page reading will pray for a bit of instant performance. I suppose the only danger is that some people might forget that this is only one side of poetry.

What use do you make of the internet?

I love it, and find it extremely useful for communicating with my family in Australia, poets and friends. I hope to get my own website soon. As far as poetry itself goes, I see the Internet as revolutionising the knowledge and availability of poetry and its enjoyment. As for sales, it's still early days but with poetry lists, well-designed publishers' websites, catalogues, on-site launches, who knows?

What are you working on at the moment?

I'm currently putting finishing touches to my 'Tigers on the Silk Road' collection for Arc and getting my 'Selected Poems' on the way. I'm also working on poems for my next collection and doing a few translations from French. It's an endless trail. I've also got two collections for children: one for 7 - 11 year olds and a book of rhymes for 6 - 8 year olds based on Australian animals and birds to finish and send off to publishers. Also, I was recently appointed Blue Nose Education Officer and I'm trying to get something off the ground for that. There aren't enough hours in the day...


  • The Eye's Circle (Rigmarole, Melbourne, 1974; reprinted 1978)
  • Tributaries of the Love-Song (Angus & Robertson, Poets of the Month 4, Sydney, 1978)
  • Passengers to the City (Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1985. Distributed by Forest Books)
  • Fish-Rings on Water (Forest Books, London, 1989)
  • Finding the Prince (Hearing Eye Press, Pamphlet Series, London 1993)
  • The Sleepwalker ~ Eyes of Clay (Forest Books, 1994), Translation of Jean-Jacques Celly's Le Somnambule aux Yeux D'Argile
  • Shifts (Haiku - Hub Editions, Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, 1997)
  • Tigers on the Silk Road (to be published by Arc Publications, late 2000)
  • Selected Poems (to be published by Salmon Publishing, 2000 - 200 1)

© Katherine Gallagher, Ted Slade 2000