Interview: Ali Whitelock.

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By  Nik Eugeniou.

Ali Whitelock is a Scottish poet and writer living in Australia. Her first book, ‘Poking seaweed with a stick and running away from the smell’ was published with critical acclaim in Australia and the UK. Her poetry collection ‘And my heart crumples like a coke can’ was published recently by Wakefield Press, Adelaide. To keep up to date with her work please see her website at http://www.aliwhitelock.com/

INTERVIEWER

Have you always been a writer? What influences do you think lead to you to pursue writing?

ALI

When I was 18 and still living in Scotland, my sister moved away from the family home to live in London. This was pre-email, pre-internet, so we wrote letters, put them in envelopes, queued up at the post office, bought stamps and popped aforementioned letters into a big red box at the end of the street.

I loved writing these letters to my sister. I certainly didn’t see myself as a writer at all, in fact I saw myself more of a Loser (with a capital L), having chosen to work full-time in our family business out of a sense of daughterly obligation to my father, rather than being out in the big wide world being all I could be. But my letters to my sister were purely that – letters to my sister. I wasn’t trying to write, trying to become a writer, trying to be anything.

Many, many years have gone by since those letters, then about two years ago my sister handed me a little package and inside was all of the letters I’d ever written to her. A Kleenex moment. Reading through them was quite an experience, seeing what my younger self had put on the page, all typed up on an old Olivetti manual typewriter––and some of them illustrated! (I’m thinking right now of a letter I sent her to let her know our dog Cleo was in season again and how every dog in the neighbourhood was baying at our door. My illustration showed Cleo in a human bed with her lover, both dogs laying side by side on their backs, their little hind dog legs crossed, each drawing long and hard on a post-coital cigarette). All of that to say, no I haven’t always been a writer. And I’m clearly not an illustrator––I just wrote letters to my sister and loved the process.

The major influence that lead me to pursuing writing? Boredom. I was bored in my life. I was now in my 40’s, living in Australia, working shitty job after shitty job. This wasn’t the life I thought I’d be living––although if pressed, I wouldn’t have known exactly what life I thought I ought to have been living. All I knew was, there had to be something more. I wanted to try something creative, but I didn’t know where to start, so I enrolled in a few evening classes at my local community college. I tried Photography for Beginners, Oil painting for Beginners, Life Drawing for Beginners, you name it, I tried it and I was crap at all of them. And not only was I crap at all of them, but I had no affinity with any of these art forms whatsoever. So, I thought, shit, I’m not creative. Then in desperation I noticed another class I hadn’t yet tried,Creative Writing for Beginners––and BOOM!  (a friend of mine likes to laugh at my use of BOOM––you know, cause I’m a woman of a certain age (!) and well, it’s sort of a younger person’s thing).

Anyway, the first night of that six-week course blew my mind and changed my life. I discovered putting pen to paper. I found this creative thing that made me feel alive. I found this creative thing that made me feel like ME. The piece of homework I wrote for the following week, Retard Dad, became the first chapter of my first book, Poking seaweed with a stick and running away from the smell and I just kept on writing and writing, well after the course was over.

 

INTERVIEWER

What draws you to poetry and where did writing poetry begin for you?

ALI

I didn’t grow up in a house where there was poetry and I wasn’t studying English at school (I was thrown out of the English department and put into Geography because I was such an underperforming student––apologies to the Geography department as it turns out I was no good at Geography either). Plus, I was one of those people who’d always said they hated poetry. A few years after Poking seaweed came out, for whatever reason, prose started to feel too wordy. Too waffly. During that time, on a visit to the Blue Mountains, I was rummaging through a second-hand book store in Wentworth Falls and stumbled on a book called, Eight American Poets. John Berryman was in there, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop––my first adult exposure to poetry and my mind was blown––wide open. I’ll never forget the moment my eyes fell on John Berryman’s opening line, ‘Life, friends, is boring …’ Almost a religious experience (which is a big call, given I’m not religious at all). Shortly after that, not setting out with the idea that I would now write poetry, I just started putting short bits of text with strange line breaks down on the page. Rather than now telling entirestories from start to finish, I was now interested in a single moment withina story. I wasn’t sure what these short bits of text were––were they poetry? And so, I went along to a six-week discussion on poetry at the NSW Writing Centre and it turns out that these short things I was writing could, in fact, be referred to as poetry.

The intensity of the process of writing poetry is what keeps me coming back. Writing poetry grounds me, feeds me, fuels me, excites me. I read a wonderful line by Hélène Cixous in her ‘Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing’that says, Writing is learning to die. It’s learning not to be afraid … Now, let’s not get too macabre here, but before I started writing, I feared death. Looking back, I can see now that it wasn’t so much that I feared death, but more I feared not truly living. Because I wasn’t truly living. I was on the hamster wheel of shitty job after shitty job, with no respite or relief by doing something I loved at the same time. Now that I’m writing every day I feel so fulfilled and one day, I quietly realised I no longer feared death. Writing is teaching me how to die. It’s also teaching me how to live.

INTERVIEWER

What inspires you to keep returning to the blank page?

ALI

The business of isolating the emotion from a story or an experience is what keeps me returning to the blank page. I love trying to get the words down on the page that will convey an emotional experience to the reader in the most exact way I possibly can. It’s like I’m trying to take a polaroid of the contents of my heart. It’s like I’m wrestling with the poem and at the same time trying to stay out of its way, so it can say whatever it is it wants to say.

I love the push and pull, the entanglement of writing a poem. It’s like gymnastics for the soul. When I’m writing a poem, I feel as though I’m constantly taking great leaps on and off life’s great parallel bars and doing a few somersaults in between. For me, writing a poem is an intense process and it can take some weeks, or as much as some months. And time doesn’t matter. What matters most to me now isn’t even the finished poem, (in fact, I suffer a little sadness when finally, the poem decides it is ready), but the actual process of writing the poem. The actual writing of a poem is the thing that brings me the most joy. The poem itself has become almost secondary.

INTERVIEWER

What motivated you to write poking seaweed with a stick?

ALI

The most interesting part about writing Poking seaweedis that I didn’t set out to write a book, so I was never faced the, I AM NOW WRITING A BOOK, mountain. I was just having fun, digging deep inside myself, accessing this wild reservoir of absolute creativity just for the pleasure of doing so. I’d only ever written letters to my sister; how could I be writing a book? PLUS, I was thrown out of the English department in high school for being such a Loser student. So, I didn’t have my sights set on a literary career. I was just playing, allowing myself to follow a thread, allowing words to pull me. And nothing had ever felt so good. After the six-week course, I just kept writing and writing until I had so much material, someone said to me, hey, why don’t you put your bits of writing together and try to make them into a book? So, I did. I lay my A4 pages around the lounge room floor, put them into some kind of chronology or coherence, then I somehow stumbled on an agent, and somehow Wakefield Press in Adelaide and Polygon in Edinburgh published it.

INTERVIEWER

Have there been any stand out scenes or moments that have been difficult for you to address in your writing? How did you overcome that?

ALI

There are many moments, hours, days, months of private grief as I write. Much of my writing is concerned with loss. So, there are times when I spend weeks wading waist deep through a vat of seemingly unending grief as the poem finds its legs and starts to reveal itself to me.

Stand out scenes which have been difficult to address in my poetry are the tender moments between myself and my father as he was dying. My father was an abusive man with whom I had a tumultuous relationship. Although I didn’t know he was dying, in retrospect I think he knew that he was. He would have been terrified of death.

I’m tortured when I imagine his fear around that. I remember sitting around his hospital bed one night making encouraging noises and saying things like, you’ve just got to get yourself built up again and you’ll be fine,although somewhere in my heart I knew this was a lie. So, writing that intimate detail, knowing his fear of dying, knowing he didn’t get a chance to talk about his fears before he died, kills me. Then the moment of his death itself; his resuscitation by the medical staff because we hadn’t had the conversation with them about whether they should resuscitate should he lose consciousness, because no one actually knew he was going to die. I hate remembering that time, but I write about it because I want to. I want to document what I didn’t even know I felt myself. I want to document it because I have spent a long time cut off from allowing feelings of love and closeness to exist within me. I have always been good at pushing my emotions down. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy so much digging them up now, like big earthy potatoes, bringing them into the light. The documenting of this stuff is important to me. It’s important because life isn’t always pretty. And I am in the business of laying out the un-pretty stuff that’s happened in my life and in the world. I am in the business of hanging my poems out on the line to flutter in the breeze and to watch them whisper to people as they wander by.

INTERVIEWER

Was the process of writing your memoir different to creating your poetry collection and has your process changed over time?

ALI

The writing has changed, and the intensity of the writing has changed. Writing poetry is more intense for me than writing the memoir was. Of course, I have ten years of writing experience now since publishing the memoir, so I think I would write a different memoir today. But the thing that is similar with each book is that I never set out with a plan or with an overarching story line or theme for either. I just let the stories/poems unfold. I didn’t stand in their way. Although I didn’t set out to write a memoir, I did consciously decide to write a poetry collection. When I was writing the memoir I just wrote the scenes/experiences that were the most emotional to me––the funniest, the saddest, the most horrific, and I poured my heart into each piece. Then I essentially knitted the stories together to form a coherent series of chapters.

Same process with my poetry collection––as I wrote, I didn’t worry that the poems might be unrelated or that there was no real ‘theme’ holding the collection together. Then once I had a certain amount of poems, I set about putting them into an order that worked for me, then gave the collection a name and found a publisher. Sounds so easy. But it was the hardest I’ve ever worked. This collection took 18 months of writing every single day without a single day away from my desk. Why? Because writing the truth makes me feel alive. Turning my life experiences into art and see other people relate and react to it feels good. And because writing is like a muscle, I continue to show up at my desk because when this muscle is working well, the worst thing you can do is walk away and let it stiffen.

INTERVIEWER

What is the most memorable feedback you’ve been given?

ALI

When, and my heart crumples like a coke can first came out, Wakefield Press sent out copies to potential reviewers. One day I got a text message from someone I didn’t know. The message said,

‘I fucking love Crumples. Will be reviewing for magazine.’

This was the first feedback I’d had since the book came out. I texted back saying thank you, but I didn’t know who this person was. It turns out it was poet Dr Brentley Frazer of Bareknuckle Poet Journal of Letters, author of Aboriginal to Nowhereand Scoundrel Days. I loved that message; the immediacy, the brevity, the simplicity, the warmth of it. In that single moment, I felt all of my hard work had been recognised by another human on the same planet. Another human got it. Nothing has ever felt so good.

INTERVIEWER

Who are your writing idols and how do you think they have influenced your writing?

ALI

So many of the modern American poets are my idols: John Berryman, for his, ‘Life friends, is boring….’ James Tate for his slightly left of centre, often hilarious tales juxtaposed with great sadness. Charles Bukowski for everything. In particular his quote, grasping at the curtains like a drunken monk and tearing them down, down, down which set me free as a writer in more ways than I can ever imagine. Sometimes writing feels like that––like I’ve stood on the hem of a too long curtain, I trip on it, fall forward, the curtains and the curtain pole come off the wall and I writhe around in the floor cocooned in the curtain until eventually the poem is formed. When I first read Bukowski, I was gobsmacked by the simplicity yet the power of his words. I was gobsmacked that you could say THAT on the page and say it in THAT way. Bukowski was a total liberation for me. I felt unshackled. And daring. There was no subject I couldn’t put down on the page which is, now that I think of it, probably why I feel so comfortable sharing so many intimate details of my own life in my poems. I know these poems can shock – but I also know they can liberate.

INTERVIEWER

What would you say is your greatest achievement?
ALI

Am I allowed to say, and my heart crumples like a coke can? I hope so. I’ve never worked so hard on any project and I have never loved any process more. To have a book at the end of that period of intense writing, to have it published and to have the book well received is my greatest joy. I’m still pinching myself.

 

INTERVIEWER

Is there a new collection in the works? What can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?

ALI

I continue to write every day, so happily, yes, there is more work on the way. I’ve just signed a contract with Wakefield Press for my next collection (possibly called, ‘in the silence of the custard’or,‘the lactic acid in the calves of your despair’we haven’t quite settled on the title yet) and it will be out at the end of this year. Also, the UK rights to and my heart… have just been sold to an Edinburgh publisher and will be released in the UK in spring 2020. I’m about to embark on a reading tour of Scotland, including events at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Ireland (all details on  my website www.aliwhitelock.com) reading alongside some incredible poets and writers like Magi Gibson, Ian Macpherson, Edward O’Dwyer, Angela Carr and Gerard Smyth. I’m also working on my second memoir, Andy’s Snack Van Tour of Scotland about travelling around Scotland with my brother Andrew (who is nothing short of insane), as well as working on a weird little collection of letters to Neil Diamond (yes, yes, it’s cheesy but that’s the point) called, Letters to Neil.Letters to Neilcame about one morning as I sat writing on the Isle of Mull, staring out across the glassy surface of Loch na Làthaich. Out of nowhere, I started writing in this naive young girl’s voice as she wrote a letter to Neil Diamond. How does this happen? You stay out of the way of what wants to be written. You let whatever wants to come, come. You don’t censor. You get rid of your preconceived ideas about what you’re writing and where it is going. You let the stories reveal themselves to you. You let the words pull you. You trip on the hem of your own thick velvet curtains. You writhe around for as long as it takes.