Bella Li wrote her first poem in primary school, but wasn’t formally introduced to poetry – in the form of poets such as Tennyson, Poe, Pound and Eliot – until high school. She didn’t start writing poetry again until her first year at university. “The poems I wrote were particularly hideous, although at the time I thought they were okay,” says Bella. “This makes me nervous about what I am writing now.” Perhaps this nervousness is a poet’s intuition about good and bad writing: after all, her work was anthologised in Black Inc’s anthology of Best Australian Poems in 2012.
Lian Low interviews Bella Li
At university, Bella stumbled across a website that contained “full-text versions of hundreds, possibly thousands, of poems”. The best feature, she says, was a ‘random button’, which “brought up a random poem every time you clicked on it”. Unfortunately, this free library of poems didn’t last long, its life presumably cut short by eventual copyright enforcement.
For Bella, “reading poetry is an important part of writing it”. “Read poetry often enough and it starts to becomes a frame through which the world takes shape. And chance encounters are essential,” she says. On a recent trip to the US, Bella discovered “a whole slew of great, independent local presses, publishing some excellent local poets. I bought thirteen chapbooks from one bookshop alone.”
When I put to her the question about identity, Bella brings up the “permeable and contestable nature” of categories such as Australian/Asian/Asian-Australian, and in practice would use the category of Australian more than Asian-Australian. As a poet, though, she’d rather be “just a poet”, as she’d like readers to approach her work “with as few assumptions as possible”. For Bella, her poems are written in “regions far away from myself, biographically speaking, and I would like to send them out into the world as independent beings”. However, she qualifies, “this is in an ideal world, and in reality it is hard to escape categorisation”.
For the Peril Map, Bella has contributed a poem called “Mawson”, which evokes the stark landscape of Antarctica, the title of the poem referencing the Australian explorer Douglas Mawson who led an expedition to Antarctica in 1911. “Antarctica is, for the vast majority of people, a place that exists only on maps. And its existence on maps is closely tied to Australia and the history of Antarctic exploration, ” reflects Bella.
“Explorers seem to me a strange breed – they dream of the unknown. They are impervious to the same fear that keeps me, for example, in my warm house, with its predictable walls and roof, and reliable running water. Mawson, by many accounts, was a formidable man. The expedition he led to Antarctica in 1911 – incidentally called the Australasian Antarctic Expedition – sought to map previously unknown parts of the landscape, and to collect data on the geology, climate, animal life, etc. His was a knowledge-building enterprise. Mawson almost died in the process – at one point he had to bandage the soles of his feet to his…feet – but the expedition as a whole was a success. As a result, Australia currently has the largest territorial claim on Antarctica – although this is not recognised by all nations – covering about half of the continent, as well as some of the surrounding waters. So it is very much a part of the Australian landscape, albeit geographically distinct. It is also technically a desert, which is the dominant type of landscape in Australia.”
Responding to Peril’s theme of terra/land/place led Bella to reflect on the process of mapping.
“To map is to name; to name is to claim ownership; and to claim ownership is to inhabit – both physically and imaginatively – a particular space. I think poetry can and does perform the same imaginative, inhabiting function.”
As a reader, I’m struck by the deliberate aesthetic choices that Bella makes in how her poems are to be displayed on the screen / page. I ask her about the reasons behind these choices.
“I am interested in how texts act as bodies through time, how they mediate the relationship between past and present. In the field of history there is a hierarchy of primary and secondary materials – journals and letters, according to this hierarchy, bring you closer to the ‘truth’ than history books and encyclopaedia entries. But very few people access primary documents in their original form. The passage from handwritten letters to printed text in a book, for example, entails a process of translation and transcription, often by a third party but sometimes also by the original author. What distinguishes primary and secondary sources for me is not necessarily the degree of veracity, but a certain textural and tonal quality. As a writer and editor, I am conscious of the way in which this quality can be altered, however subtly, by an editorial hand at a later stage, and the physical impact these alterations can have upon the shape of a text.”
As an editor, I can’t help but also notice the texture of her poetry – as if she’s gone over her original text with an editor’s pen to inscribe another layer. Editorial mark-ups don’t usually get printed as the finished product, but for Bella, this is part of the poetry.
“I had intended ‘Mawson’ to be a fairly straightforward, journal-style piece, but I came to the sentence that begins ‘The stars’ and I wanted the end of it to be obscured and inaccessible – in the same way that a memory can become obscure and inaccessible over the course of time. That sentence has always been incomplete – the square brackets and blank space wrote themselves in, as did the other ‘interventions’. So although the intended effect is, as you say, the inscribing of another layer of text in time, it is an illusion. With ‘Mawson’ there is no ‘original’ text – or, rather, the ‘editorial interventions’ were written contemporaneously with the ‘original’.”
Bella also has an interest in writing in prose poetry as a distinct form. She explains, “Prose poetry is both liberating and challenging to work with. I think there is a perception that line breaks and spaces, rhyme and meter – all of the formal elements of verse poetry – matter less in a prose poem. In some respects they do, but in others they matter more because there is very little else to give a prose poem shape. The dimensions of the page itself are important; the left and right margins become the walls of a container. The natural, slight pause that accompanies the end of a line at the right margin of a page makes a difference to the way in which that line and the next are read – even if this is not a formal break. This dependency on margin (and font) sizes makes for interesting times when a poem is being published – a verse poem will generally look the same no matter where it appears; a prose poem will always look slightly different.”
How the poem is laid in the proofing stages is important for Bella, and she says she has to “choose her battles”.
“It doesn’t help that I often like my poems to be justified. Or that I use blank spaces in place of words. That causes a bit of trouble too.”
Having arrived back from her US trip with a small library of new chapbooks, Bella has one forthcoming with Vagabond Press.
“Vagabond Press is a local press that publishes writing from the Australian/Asian-Pacific region. They have a limited edition series of chapbooks called the ‘Rare Object Series’, showcasing work by both new and established Australian poets. I think the plan is to produce 100 of these, and then to collect some of the work in an anthology, to be published in the next year or so. My chapbook – Maps, Cargo – will be in one of the last batches, out sometime at the end of this year.”