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Lisa Gorton on her poetry collection ‘Mirabilia’

A portrait of Lisa Gorton.

Lisa is a poet and novelist, essayist and reviewer. Her first poetry collection Press Release won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry; her second, Hotel Hyperion was awarded the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal; her third, Empirical, was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s and NSW Premier’s Literary Awards for Poetry; and her fourth, Mirabilia, was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry.

Lisa has also written novels: The Life of Houses, the co-winner of the 2016 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction, and the novel for children Cloudland.

She has a PhD on the poetry of John Donne from the University of Oxford.

Lisa spoke with program manager Anna Kate Blair about Mirabilia and Empirical.

The poems in Mirabilia contain lots of nouns, many of them seductive objects of rarefied materials, which gives the poems a solidity, almost as if they were spaces in which many things are collected. What is your own relationship to materiality and how do you feel this informs your poems?

Writing Mirabilia, I was often thinking about the relationship between art and violence. So, I was collecting things in that light in these poems. But, when you mention seductive objects and rarefied materials, I think that you must be thinking chiefly of the central sequence in Mirabilia: ‘Tongue’.

In ‘Tongue’, I was thinking about Leonardo da Vinci’s 1478 painting The Benois Madonna (also known as The Madonna of the Flowers). I was trying to trace the life of Fioretta del Cittadino who is believed to be the painting’s model.

Art historian Bernard Berenson dismissed the painting because the ‘young woman’ in it had ‘puffed cheeks, a toothless smile, blear eyes.’

Da Vinci painted this picture in Florence in the year of the Pazzi Conspiracy, after the murder of Giuliano de Medici. Poor and young Fioretta gave birth to the child of the murdered man. Her child was taken. She was written out of the record. In that year, 1478, the corpses of the conspirators were cut up and carried about the streets, while artists made life-like paintings of the dead, and effigies and sculptures. So, grief and broken bodies, art and power – these form the backdrop to the poems’ inventories of, among other things, the Medici’s collection of rarefied objects.

My own relationship to materiality? I find it mysterious, how matter gives rise to consciousness – how the tongue laps air and, by that ‘the sounding out of all the names of things is known to us’. Or, to take the question another way, almost everything in my place is from an op-shop, a second-hand store or the side of the road. I like things that have survived through different times.

‘I’ is curiously absent in these poems – we don’t really get a sense of a speaker at all, save via the quotations of others. Can you tell us about this absence and how you conceive of the speakers of your poems?

In poetry, the lyric ‘I’ almost always predominates over other voices in the poem.

I didn’t want it in this work because I was trying to create a kind of dramatic space in which forgotten voices could be heard or, at least, the absence of them felt. I didn’t want an ‘I’ speaking over them, or in place of them. Also, I was trying to bring into poetry that heteroglossia (raznorechie, ‘varied-speechedness’) which Mikhail Bakhtin found only in the novel: a clash of different voices, different conceptions of world.

I don’t think that I’m exactly absent, though.

I was interested in reading Empirical, particularly, in order to consider ways in which white women, or white people more broadly, might write against empire – ways in which poetic practice could become a form of solidarity rather than erasure or aesthetisation. How do you see your work operating in relation to this?

This is a difficult question to answer. Australia – with no Treaty, no Voice to Parliament, no real acknowledgement or understanding of its true history – is still, I think, a colonial country. The pain of that is still being felt. I think that those who haven’t suffered need to be careful not to appropriate other people’s suffering. I think that writers need to try to assess their motives: that they are not writing to be admired, to be found innocent or to be made innocent. So, I am not sure that it would be ethical for me to claim solidarity – as though to conflate my voice with the voices of those who have suffered, and still suffer, from colonisation. Instead, I am more interested in analysing colonial history and its visions of place.

In Empirical, I wanted to write about the colonial history of a small piece of land near where I live, which meant tracing the violence that lay behind its parkland vistas and behind the ways in which I saw parkland.

You’ve written both poetry and a novel. What is it that you see the space of the novel as offering to a poet?

I don’t think of poetry and prose in opposition. There are so many kinds of poetry, and so many kinds of prose. In Mirabilia, for instance, I wanted poetry to have some of that ‘varied-speechedness’ which prose more often has. Still, I suppose a novel has a different sense of time in it – ‘the time in the composition’, as Gertrude Stein puts it in ‘Composition as Explanation’. In The Life of Houses, I wanted the feel of time and its workings-out in the life of a family.

You’ve been publishing poetry for over a decade. How do you feel your work has been shaped in relation to time?

As soon as a book is published, I feel a stranger to it. Perhaps you could see each of my books as a reaction against the book that came before it?

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