I often say I started out my writing life as a poet, which feels a bit cheaty, since I have had very few of my poems published (partly because I sent few out). I have a third of a verse novel in a box under my bed, called The Hanging of Frances Knorr (I lost a little heart for it when Jordie Albiston published The Hanging of Jean Lee the year I was writing Frances Knorr - Frances Knorr and Jean Lee were two of the five women hanged in Melbourne for murder, so it seemed that relatively speaking, the market was already flooded.)
My attempts to write a verse novel were an immediate and fannish response to Dorothy Porter's The Monkey's Mask, which I'd discovered a few years before during my first year at uni in Tassie at the age of 20. I remember being totally electrified at this fast and sexy way of telling a story.
I was devastated to hear of Dorothy Porter's death in the last weeks. At 54 she was young, especially for a poet, and to me Australia is a lot emptier without her. The poetry she should have written hangs in the ether somewhere, taunting us with its unavailability. I have read a few tributes to Dorothy Porter over the last week or so, but I wanted to pay my own respects.
I saw Dorothy Porter talk at Tas Uni. I was twenty and in love with the following: poetry, a boy called Ben, Classics. I was wide open, hungry for experiences. And so it was that Dorothy Porter, completely unknown to her, entered, and became a part of me, and in particular, a part of the writer I would become.
She said three things which have particularly stayed with me and I am going to share them with you now:
1. READING: She talked about the structure of her days - how she works. She said she reads in the morning and writes in the afternoon. As a writer now I often think of this. With my two little girls and my chaotic existence, there is little time to factor reading into my working time, though I often dip into poetry when my writing is lagging. But when Una goes to school and I have five days a week to work, I plan to develop a similar structure. I am woefully out of date with my reading. Before Fred was born, I had a fairly intimate knowledge of what books were in the bookshops, what was being read and discussed and debated, and I'd usually read everything shortlisted for the CBC awards at least, if not the adult prizes. I'd spend weekends leisurely perusing the review sections of at least two Saturday papers. Now, I admit, I often don't even recognise half the shortlisted titles. I am constantly getting books out of the library and returning them unread. To designate time for reading in my work day would be a luxury and a pleasure, however, I am also convinced it would make me a better writer.
2. WRITING: She said that she writes to music and that all her novels had a soundtrack (I seem to remember she wrote a lot of Monkey's Mask to Crowded House). Now I often have a song or an album for my novels (though I usually listen to them in my thinking time as opposed to my writing time). Drift's was 'Who Will Sing Me Lullabies?' by Kate Rusby. Little Bird's song was The Nicest Thing by Kate Nash (I know some people hate her accent but I adore it, and find her music incredibly touching and human). Only Ever Always has a song too: Burgundy Shoes by Patty Griffin (when she sings 'Sun' my heart breaks, every time).
3. VERSE NOVELS: Dorothy Porter said that in a verse novel, each poem should be like a haiku, capturing a single moment. I suppose you could say a verse novel is kind of like a photographic essay, moving from moment to moment, with the spaces between filled with the potency of the unsaid. I often remember this when I'm writing or reworking, even in prose, because I think there's a lot to be said for distilling a scene down to this single moment. This is what makes reading a verse novel such a compelling experience for me, these narrative stretches, where even the smallest things are noticed, but with the lightest of touches, the antithesis to the heavy quagmire of descriptive prose.
I have said before that my ideal of the afterlife is wandering around a library filled with books, one for each person - the story of their life written in a style or genre that best suits them - naturally Dorothy Porter's would be a verse novel, and I look forward to reading it. In the meantime I wish for Dorothy this: a morning of reading, and an afternoon of writing, and everything else an afterlife should supply, wine, conversation, music, mountains to walk in. I wish she finds her own peace, whatever that might be.
Dorothy Porter's beautiful poem The Fish Eagle is in Island's current issue and available to read on their website. The last breath of the poem hangs eerily in the air long after you finish the poem. Thanks Mum for the link.