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Shastra Deo on writing ‘The Agonist’

Your debut poetry collection ‘The Agonist’ won the Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize last year and has been described as ‘full of the beautiful music of fracture and repair’. The poems are embedded in the body and in the relationship between the physical and the essence of the self. When did you first come to realise this theme in your work?

This theme has always been present in my work, but I began to consciously engage with it when I wrote ‘The Agonist’ during my honours year. I’ve been interested in body memory for a long time, particularly those uncanny stories you hear from people who’ve received organ transplants. A person who was never afraid of water receives a heart transplant and is suddenly terrified of pools or the ocean; after investigating, they find that their donor died of drowning. But, on a simpler level, I’m enchanted by how much of our spatial memory feels automatic. You can enter your house in the dark and still know where the couch is, or where the light switches are. I suppose my poetry takes that house, moves the furniture around, unscrews the light bulbs, then sets a speaker within that chaos.

How did you curate the collection? Were there any poems that didn’t make it into the final draft?

I was lucky in that I got to curate ‘The Agonist’ twice over—once during my honours year with the help of my supervisor, Bronwyn Lea, and again for publication with my UQP poetry editor, Felicity Plunkett. The individual poems are similar in theme and word choice, which gave me a lot of freedom when it came to structuring the work as a whole. In terms of physically structuring the book, I found the easiest method was printing all the poems out, laying them on the floor, and moving them around! Being able to visualise how the poems looked next to each other—and how the last and first lines of separate poems interacted—was really helpful. I also highlighted recurring lines and phrases to make sure they weren’t too close together. The book’s resulting three-part structure is somewhat thematic, though speakers, settings, and narrative lines do recur over the different sections. A lot of poems didn’t make it into the final draft of ‘The Agonist’, but I feel that what I sacrificed in length, I gained in strength. Having Felicity and Bronwyn help me at different stages of the process was incredibly valuable, and I think the collection is better for having them involved.

The poetry in your book deals with tangible sensations and draws parallels between this and the sense of personhood. You’ve said that the voices in ‘The Agonist’ sit nowhere near your own history. Because poetry is often such an emotive genre, did you find it difficult not to let your personal experiences permeate this collection?

No, not at all. I read and write to learn more about the experiences of others (and the Other, if such a thing exists). I already live within my own body, day in and day out, which makes it pretty uninteresting to me! Writing is a method of escape. However, I’d say ‘The Agonist’ is the repository for my personal feelings, if not my experiences. Each poem is charged with genuine emotion, and as such the entire book is still deeply personal. Inventing realistic personas involves a lot of research, so I often feel as though my speakers and I grow and develop together.

What sort of poetry do you think our society needs? What themes would you like to see explored and what topics might be addressed by new and established writers?

I want to read whatever poets want to write. You can usually tell when an author—of any form or genre—is passionate about their subject matter. ‘The Agonist’ is deeply enmeshed in popular culture: the book features a number of poems about the Winter Soldier from Marvel’s ‘Captain America’ film franchise, Matt Murdock from ‘Marvel’s Daredevil’, and Will Graham from NBC’s ‘Hannibal’ and Thomas Harris’s ‘Red Dragon’. I’m sure my sources of inspiration sometimes surprise others, but the fact is all of these characters and media deal with themes that we’re familiar with: loss, regret, pain, and disconnection. I’m always pleasantly surprised by the breadth and depth of subject matter that other writers deal with, but I find myself coming back to works that engage with the spectrum of human emotion.

In the past you have also written fiction and won several awards. Can we expect to see more fiction from you in the future?

I hope so! I really enjoy writing short fiction, but I don’t think I have a novel in me, which has more to do with the sustained effort I imagine a novel requires rather than any qualms about genre or form. I really respect and envy novelists by equal turns! For me, short fiction takes a lot more work than poetry. I often automatically take the same detail-oriented approach to prose as I do with poetry, and I feel this sometimes bogs me down in pernickety details when I should be focusing on the heart or emotion of the story. With poetry, that heart is already—by design—the centre of the work. But I do enjoy challenging myself, and I really hope a short fiction collection is in my future. I recently read and reread Tara June Winch’s ‘After the Carnage’ and Jennifer Egan’s ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’; both books made me want to write in long form again. But later, I think, when I have the time and energy to do it properly.

What are you working on at the moment? Do you have any long terms writing goals?

Most of my focus is on my PhD thesis, which is made up of a new poetry collection and a critical essay. So far, the poetry has touched on my usual themes: the body and its movable and immovable parts, ritual and its relevance to everyday life, and the home and wilderness binary. But I’ve recently started working on a series of poems that bring together T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, ‘Final Fantasy XV’, and the legend of the Fisher King. I’m excited to see where that goes. The critical essay element of my thesis is focused on phantom limb sensation, which I’m sure will inspire some poetry too. My main goal is to have another book out within the next four years, and, of course, to survive my PhD!

Now that your first poetry collection has been released, what do you feel was the best advice you received that helped you get to this point?

Don’t fear rejection. I still get a lot of rejections from journals and magazines. I think each one forces you to take another, critical look at your work, and figure out what can and should be improved. Of course, some rejections are simply because a journal has limited space, or because your work doesn’t fit the theme they’ve decided to go with. That’s fine, and you should keep at it! Success comes down to persistence, hard work, and a bit of luck. Sometimes all it takes is the right person reading your work at the right time. For that to happen, you have to keep putting your work out there. But I think you also need to be kind to yourself, because getting rejections can feel demoralising. Give yourself time to have a whinge, and get back to reworking and rewriting as soon as you feel ready.

Shastra Deo

Shastra Deo was born in Fiji, raised in Melbourne, and lives in Brisbane. She holds a Bachelor of Creative Arts in Writing and English Literature, First Class Honours 
and a University Medal in Creative Writing, and a Master of Arts in Writing, Editing and Publishing from The University of Queensland. The Agonist is her first book.
‘The Agonist’ is published by UQP


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