Kitty Walker curled up recently with fellow Lighthouse Arts Collective member Sally Lewry as their four kids ran riot on a sunny autumn afternoon. The pair recorded a conversation about the looming launch of Sally’s debut book Able in the presence of rocks and the themes it covers: death, grief, birth and life.
KW: When did you know that Able was within you?
SL: Well, initially I was just writing out of necessity. I had no intention of creating a book, the poems were coming very fast. I started writing when my partner was diagnosed with cancer. He was very sick, I’d care for him and my son during the day and then when everyone was in bed I would write.
KW: Had you written before your partner got sick?
SL: Yes. I’ve always written within the context of performance, but in quite a different way. I’d usually go into the studio and I’d be moving as well as speaking and writing. But this [the creation of Able] was sitting and writing.
I have always written poetry but it’s been a very private practice. And it was interesting, this process of making this book, because my mother-in-law, who is also a poet said: Do you want to leave the Garden of Eden? Because at the moment poetry is just for you. But, that’s where I feel like the book started to take on a life of its own. It was asking to be shared.
KW: We’ve spoken before about the poems that are included in this book seeming to have a different life. What do you mean by that? In what way are they different to things that you’ve written previously?
SL: Well, I wasn’t trying to write about anything specifically. They were just coming. Obviously, I was writing about everything that I was experiencing. But that was the thing, I couldn’t ignore them. Once I started writing, my head would be a bit quieter. I’m a kind of maker who always composes as I’m making. So, as I was writing, I was really formatting them and I think that because of my work in performance I have a strong sense of rhythm that just came naturally. It was only later that I went and edited, and I really didn’t edit a lot of them. They’re fairly raw, but I also think, that’s my kind of style. How I write.
There were these four themes that were coming through of death, grief, birth and life. I could see that they are all the same thing. In that way, it was kind of hard to order them, or separate them. Grief is in death but so is birth and so is life. And there’s death in life. They’re so intertwined.
I decided really clearly: I’m going to make this into a book and I’m going to share it. Even though they’re quite personal, there is enough craft there and rigour that they stand up. And now they feel kind of removed. Even though I was writing them at such an emotionally heightened time, they became their own thing. A lot of writers say that. You have to let it go. And once you release it, it’s not yours anymore.
KW: And then they take on a new life?
SL: They do. They’re personal, but they’re also speaking of these big questions in life. I feel like people can take them and hopefully apply it to those experiences they may have had in their own life.
KW: In a way, the themes are big enough, that pretty much anyone can connect with them.
SL: Yeah. But how do we talk about this stuff? That’s my question. Everything I was experiencing I was thinking: Wow, I live in a culture, a society, that has very limited capacity and limited language to talk about these primal human experiences that we will all experience. Hey guess what? All of us are going to die. Everyone you love is going to die. And birth as well, where is the language around it? So that’s what I’ve tried to contribute – some language around this.
KW: The land and landscape of the two locations that the book was written seem to have a powerful impact on the work. You wrote these poems in two very contrasting areas of Australia – this epic, mountainous, boulder-filled, rural setting of the Macedon Ranges. And the sometimes-wild ocean, but then also spookily bay-calm of Point Lonsdale. How did these differing landscapes inform what you were writing?
SL: Because I was going through experiences that were difficult and that, as a culture we have limited language around, I felt incredibly isolated. My constant companion was nature. And actually, when you have these massive questions, when your partner dies very young and then you’re giving birth on your own – you’re asking ‘why’ all of the time. It’s incredibly frustrating that you can’t get an answer and to know that you won’t get an answer, but that question keeps coming. But then, I would look out of my window – and there was a huge maple in our backyard that we were married under – and the seasons aligned, so that when my partner was dying, that tree was shedding its leaves. It was an incredibly comforting thing to look out of my window every day and see that nature was showing me: Well, this is the way of things.
And I would walk a lot, because I had little babies. So, nature was giving me a lot of comfort, it was a companion. When I moved to Point Lonsdale, living by the ocean, it’s such a beautiful metaphor, that although you feel that there is no movement, and you’re stuck in the same place, actually: there is so much movement. Every day I would go down [to the ocean] and it would look different. Death asks you, it shows you how short life is. All you have is now. Try and live in the present moment. That’s what nature shows you. Also, that every moment is different, to be held in wonder and beauty. That’s what I love about nature. It shows you decay everywhere, and death everywhere. But there is also so much life and beauty. You can’t believe that that tree will ever have leaves on it again when it's a skeleton, and then there it goes. It was nice having those contrasting landscapes to be writing in.
KW: The book was also written during a time in which a wedding, a death, and a birth took place – all intensely personal experiences. Did the process of putting pen to paper act as a cathartic process?
SL: Not only cathartic, because it’s not just about resolution, because it’s actually about how to go forward. And this is what I think poetry does – and why I love the form – it actually tries to speak to that which has no words, an interior landscape and feeling, yet, in trying to find the language it questions, it actually has more questions. So, for me, I was able to keep going by asking the questions, not in finding the answers. The process was absolutely cathartic in lots of ways. But what it allowed me to do was to start with something very personal and then expand on it to make it bigger. I think because I was writing about nature a lot, it does that too, it makes you feel small and humble. It started in the personal, but then moved, which was actually a relief. A lot of what now? And, how might I live now, having had this experience of death? It brings you closer to life and that’s what I’m trying to do with the poems. To bring life to death. Which I don’t think we’re very good at, in our culture.
KW: Has poetry been the focus of your artistic process for a long time?
SL: No, but it was actually the first form that I found. As a teenager, I had an experience where I went to a really rough school and education was not valued. But, I was lucky to have an English teacher who did poetry with us that opened me right up. I’d always been writing poetry as a teenager, as all teenagers do. I went to her (she was leaving the school) and I said: Would you read my poems? So, I gave them to her in a brown paper bag – all scraps of paper – and she took them. At the next lesson, I was so nervous, and I said: Miss, do you still have my poems? and she said: No, I’ve forgotten them, and did it in a very blasé way. And I thought: Oh my God, this is my heart and soul, this is my life work. Even as a 14-year-old I had that relationship to them.
The last lesson I was to have with her before she left the school, we had to go on an excursion. And in the middle of the excursion, at lunchtime, which was with the Head Teacher of English. She said: OK I have a presentation to make. Miss O’Neil couldn’t be here today but she wanted to present these to Sally. She had brought this beautiful book and she’d photocopied my poems and stuck them in. She said to me: You have a gift and you have to keep writing. She gave me her address and said: Please send me your poems. Get them copyrighted now!
To have somebody see me in that way, it was amazing! But then I started to feel like they were daggy, that poetry wasn’t cool. It was in my early 20s that I moved into theatre and performance. And then poetry would come back into my life and I’ve always read it but I would never really share it. I think because it’s an incredibly vulnerable form. You can’t hide in it. It’s actually a really difficult form, because you’re trying to say so much in a very short amount of space. So, the form has a rigour to it. Which is very powerful, but it’s also difficult.
It’s not surprising that poetry came back into my life in the way that it did when everything was falling apart. Because everyday language just didn’t cut it. I needed poetic language and I was reading a lot at the time. I was reading poetry to my partner, who was finding great comfort in it. It leans into mystery. That’s what poetry does. It’s so closely tied – I’m not a religious person, but I’m a spiritual person – poetry is so closely tied. Religious texts are often poetic texts. That’s how we used to navigate through these massive transitions through life – through poetry. And that’s why I think it’s coming back in a big way in the world, particularly in the States there’s a lot of movement. So, I kind of dropped it because I thought it was a bit daggy, but it’s always been with me. And if I look through my performance work as well, it’s been present.
KW: I love that 14-year-old teacher story.
SL: I found her! I found her on Facebook. I found her and I wrote to her. She said: Of course, I remember you. She said: I’m not teaching anymore, I haven’t been for many years, but that is so heartening to know that teaching can make a difference. For me it was such a great moment, because as an artist you just have to make your work and not worry about success. You just have to have integrity in your work. You never know where it’s going to lead. Often people want success or a response immediately. But who knows, this book might land in someone’s lap in ten years’ time and save their life. And I will never know that. She never knew, she probably never thought when she did that, that generous gesture to a teenager, that in 20 years’ time, that student would track her down and say: I’m publishing my first book of poems can I send it to you? And she said: Oh my god I would be absolutely delighted. And that exchange in itself is for me enough.
KW: You’ll love this question. How do you find the time to write, with two young children in tow?
SL: [sigh] Well, I sacrifice sleep. I always carry a notebook with me. When I lived in the Macedon Ranges, to get my children to sleep, often I would just drive and it was an incredibly beautiful landscape to drive through. We spent a lot of time driving in the car. When days were difficult I would put the kids in the car, put music on and just drive. And I’d pull over. Roadside poetry. I’d be writing snippets as the kids were sleeping. Or pulling my notebook out at the park, but often, just staying up late to write.
But it was difficult, because often a poem will come and if you can’t grab it when it comes – it goes and it looks for another poet. It got harder to pull back the threads of ideas and thoughts that I had, because I’d be so tired. And I was lucky that the first couple of months, when I had my youngest son, my mum was around to help. In another way, having kids can actually be helpful with time – because I have a window and I just use it very well. The kids are asleep and I’m straight in and writing and I’m leaving the laundry or whatever. It’s hard, because it’s difficult sometimes to get into flow. It’s incredibly lonely living on my own without my partner, yet, I would not be writing nearly as much.
KW: Do you think that in a strange way you’re crazy productive because you have to be disciplined? You know you’ve got to get it out, in a way like other working mothers?
SL: Yes, absolutely. And also losing my partner, it raised a question: What do you want out of life? Life is too short. One of the last things he said to me before he died was: Follow your bliss. Which is a really simple and powerful thing to live by. And that’s how I got to this point. I’d always been private with my poems – this is the most exposed I’ve ever been in my work – it feels quite scary in one way to be sharing this. But then I just think of him. And I just think: Life is short and you’ve just gotta do it and follow your bliss.
KW: Following on from that thought, would you describe that your practice has changed since having children? We’re not just talking about the writing of Able, you’re an interdisciplinary artist who works across a myriad of forms – how do you stay true to what you’re trying to get out as an artist and a mother, let alone trying to do it all on your own?
SL: That’s a massive question. But, having kids smashes your ego which is awesome – you just get out of your own way. My practice has shifted so much. Making theatre is really hard. You need a lot of time and space. In one way, having children has shifted the forms that I’ve been exploring which is really great. I need to do things that I can do in fragments, that I can do in my own home and which are accessible. I started working more in visual art / installation and then writing. And it’s been really good because I think you can get trapped in an identity as an artist – this is what I am and this is what I make. When I had kids, it was all annihilated. I’ve always been an artist – I don’t want to make work unless I’ve really got something to say. But that’s been even more heightened since being a mum and since having loss in my life. I’ve always had a rigour to my practice, but it’s really given it rigour. And also, there’s not as much bullshit. You don’t sweat the small stuff. When you have a kid, you become human in a different way.
KW: Looking at your practice, say a decade ago, to now. Has your practice, and Sally as an artist, has it morphed? Can you see, could you have foreseen the trajectory of where your form might have gone. And when you look back at the work you were creating a decade ago, how do you feel about that work?
I don’t even know who I was a decade ago. I feel like I’ve been through so much transformation. Some of my security stuff has been sorted out. Which got in my way as a younger artist. I wish I had been a bit freer as an artist, because I think you can get away with a lot more. I always wanted to make work with integrity and I was really trying to say something and be of a particular standard – but it’s that funny thing about process. You’ve just got to realise that it’s all a part of it and all of it is important.
I could never see that I would be here now. I think as a younger artist – and I think a lot of people are confused by that term of having a practice – what does that mean, and what is it and how does it look? You always have to be articulating it. Once I had kids, and particularly the last two years of my life, I have seen that I have a very, very strong practice. Now, I haven’t had a lot of big outcomes, but I am in practice and imbedded in practice just in the way in which I live my life.
I’ve had a lot of friends say to me: I can’t believe you’ve written, and you’ve done this and you’ve done that and you’ve got two kids on your own and you lost your partner. And my response is: Well, there is no choice. It’s like breathing for me. I am always reading and I am always researching and I am always writing. It’s how I live. Particularly after losing my partner, but also after having children, I’ve really seen and had deep gratitude for my practice. I really feel like these poems saved my life. If I didn’t have a practice, I think about people who aren’t artists, how do they get through something like this? It’s like my best friend almost. It was a thing I had before meeting my partner and before children. I’ve always had it. It’s really a part of me, that feels of its own. Being a mother and being a widow is all tied into it, but it’s just me.
KW: We very briefly touched on this before, but I’m interested to hear more of your thoughts. What do you think the future holds for poetry as an art form?
SL: I think it’s got a really exciting future. I mean, there’s a whole new wave of poets on Instagram who now have hundreds of thousands of followers. I think a lot of young people are engaging with poetry as writers and readers. It feels like a new freedom: anyone can be a poet, anyone can write and share. It used to be for the masses not the few. There’s a lot of stuff in the States, there’s a really famous podcast called On Being that has millions of followers. She is an avid supporter of poetry and poets. She interviews a lot of them. On their website they have a great project called the Poetry Radio Project and I think that a lot of people are saying, as we become more of a secular society and we don’t have such strong ties to religion - people are turning to poetry. I think it’s really exciting. There’s Nayyriah Waheed for example who does really short form poetry, like a few lines, and she has more than a hundred thousand followers on Instagram, and I’ve just seen that Yrsa Daley-Ward who writes similar poetry is performing with live music in Melbourne next week and I guarantee you that it will book out.
KW: What are you reading right now?
SL: I’m reading Being Salmon, Being Human: Encountering the wild in us and us in the wild by Martin Lee Mueller. It’s really amazing. This man is looking at the history and lineage of salmon, myth and narrative and totem animals. He considers salmon as a metaphor for how far they travel as a species, how they are crucial to the whole and how they can lead us forward in this environmental crisis that we’re in.
KW: How on earth did you stumble across that one?
SL: I often just walk into book shops and let books find me. The book I need always finds me. Martin Lee Mueller’s mentor is a man called David Abram, who writes the most incredible nature philosophy which is basically poetic prose. So, I knew that was a good reference. For some reason I just read non-fiction at the moment. I can’t really get into fiction. It’s got to be really good writing. And the other one that I just finished was the Norwegian writer Karl Knausgård. He’s done four books – Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer – and Autumn and Winter were letters written to his unborn daughter. All about the world. Very philosophical and poetic. Quite a masculine voice, but I really liked it. I’m always reading. I’ve always got about five or six books on the go.
KW: Who’s your favourite poet, when did you discover them and why do you connect with their work?
SL: That’s really hard. I think my favourite poet would have to be Mary Oliver. If I had to choose one. And I connect with her because she writes a lot about nature and wonder in the world. She comes from a very, very hard life. A lot of abuse and darkness in her early life particularly. And she found hope and courage through observation and attending to the small things in the world. She writes about them in the most exquisite way. Her poems do this thing when they end, they kind of close and resolve and at the same time they open and leave you with more questions and you just want to read the next poem.
KW: How did you discover her?
SL: I came across one poem – Wild Geese - which is one of her most famous poems. And then I just started reading her books, her poetry to my partner when he was dying because she talks a lot about death and life in death and within nature and how much she values life, because she came very close to losing hers. She’s prolific. She’s in her 80s and still writing.
KW: For many, poetry can be a hard art form to engage on. Do you have any tips on how to break through?
SL: Well, I think that unfortunately our education system has failed all of us. The main context in which we all learn is that there is a right and there is a wrong. And in poetry that doesn’t exist. It’s actually incredibly liberating and freeing because you, the reader, have a place in it. Good poetry is somewhat abstract but like a lot of good art, you can read what you want within it.
I would also point out that every person engages with poetry all of the time because you’re listening to music. Lyrics are poetry. And often, not that great if you take the music away! The writing, often, does not stand up. Good poetry can hold its own, just with writing.
My tips would be – drop the idea that you have to understand it. And also, start slowly. I can’t just pick up a book of poems and read poem after poem after poem. They’re often dense and epic. It’s like when you go to a gallery – you can only take in so much. Just engage with a bit here and a bit there. I also think that we’re not taught how to read poetry. It’s really useful if you get audio books – there’s a lot around. Listen to Mary Oliver reading her own poetry. You get a real understanding of rhythm quickly.
Turn your TV off one night a week and read poetry instead!
KW: Final question: what should people attending the launch of Able in the presence of rocks on 12 May 2018 at New Hall in Point Lonsdale expect to experience?
SL: I think they should expect to experience emotion. And emotion coming from someone whose really not afraid of it. And not afraid of sharing it. And being vulnerable. They should come to experience a real love of language. I once worked with this great director and he said: Every word should be held up to the sun like a jewel. People should expect to see a real valuing of language and an immersive experience of these themes [death, grief, birth, life] but not necessarily any answers. I’m posing a lot of questions for you to take away. Expect an experience that asks you to be active on a certain level. That doesn’t mean literally, but to come and let your imagination and your body and your heart and your guts be involved. Because Able in the presence of rocks is only 50% complete until there’s an audience to receive and be present with the work.