The Stella Interviews: Sarah Holland-Batt
Congratulations on being longlisted for the 2023 Stella Prize! What does it mean to you to be included on the list?
Having your peers read and recognise your writing is a rare and beautiful thing, and I’m very grateful to know my book has resonated in that way. It’s also meaningful to me that the Stella Prize recognises poetry alongside other literary forms; this goes a long way towards bringing poetry to the centre of the Australian literary conversation. I’m so pleased for all the poets whose works will be recognised by the Stella Prize in years to come, and I know the Stella will do much to create poetry readers, too.
Your longlisted book, The Jaguar, has been described by Geoff Page (Sydney Morning Herald) as “an affecting meditation on mortality”. What would you say are some of the central ambitions or themes of your work?
In one way or another, my poems are about seeing. They tend to have an appraising gaze, whether that’s turned outward or inward, or both. These days, I’m interested in contemplating the things that are difficult to look at: decline, death, violence, grief, sadness, ageing. Holding the gaze when the gaze is hard seems to me to be the essential task of the poet.
I wrote The Jaguar during and after the last years of my father’s life; the poems witness his decline from Parkinson’s Disease and his death, which was emotionally complex and ambivalent terrain. Because death, dying, and illness are discomfiting and even taboo subjects to contemplate, we’ve developed a euphemistic common language to describe them which often smooths their unsettling and frightening aspects into more palatable ideas about the nobility of suffering and the grace of release. But sometimes suffering is just suffering: pointless, long, unredeeming. I hope I’ve said something of the truth about my father’s suffering in these poems, and resisted platitude. I hope the poems are, in their own way, honest.
What draws you to poetry as a form?
Wallace Stevens once said, “Reality is a cliché from which we escape by metaphor,” which resonates with me. I think in images; my brain works by metaphor. For better or for worse, poetry is the literary form that enables that chase of language for me. I like poetry’s discipline, its intensity, its succinctness. I’m also drawn to poetry’s musical and formal qualities, and the fact that the poem is a visual composition on the page as much as it is a work of language. Of all the literary forms, poetry makes language feels most material and pliable to me, and most full of possibility.
Ultimately, I like the challenge of making a world from nothing. The poem begins in silence and ends in silence, and the poet builds everything between the two. I enjoy the freedoms and pressures inherent in that.
Can you tell us a bit about your artistic process? How do you write, where, when, and on what?
The poet’s truth isn’t the same as the historian’s, but nonetheless when I’m writing a poem, I’m working towards a form of truth: a linguistic truth, an imagistic truth, a musical truth. Paradoxically, to reach those truths, there has to be unreality, mutability, and total imaginative freedom. That’s the associative, dreaming side of poetry. I draft best when my mind is wandering and drawing together incongruous things.
And then there is the act of shaping, or perhaps sculpting, the poem into its final form, which requires a more conscious and acute form of attention. I read aloud a lot as I edit; I listen to the cadence and the music of the poem, and tinker with the shape of the thing. Often there’ll just be a single word or line that can take me weeks, or even months, to resolve. That part of the process feels like what I imagine a hunter must feel. You’re on the scent, but your quarry’s not quite in view.
Are there any particular books or authors that have inspired your practice?
Too many to start naming names, really. All the poets I’ve read have taught me something in one way or another. I’ve spoken a lot about what the work of Louise Glück means to me. She was the first poet I truly loved when I was young, and she remains a touchstone for me today. Her poems have a strikingly intimate, strident lyric voice that felt like an incoming missile when I first encountered it. She makes me think about the question of who is speaking in my poems, and to whom—and what it is I mean when I say “I”. Sharon Olds is important to me for similar reasons.
Writing this book, I thought a lot about the elegy, which is to say, I thought about the question of how to make someone present who was absent, and what the function of poetry is in relation to understanding death. This sent me scattering in lots of different directions. But the single poem I reread most was Robert Gray’s masterpiece, the poem “In Departing Light”—perhaps the finest poem written about the ambivalence of a death that comes after long suffering. Emerson once said that when encountering genius, “we recognise our own rejected thoughts…they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” I had that uncanny feeling reading Gray’s indelible last lines, as he contemplates his mother’s torturous experience of Alzheimer’s, and her eventual end: “she / who hasn’t survived living, how can we dream that she will survive her death?”
Find out more about Sarah Holland-Batt’s 2023 Stella Prize longlisted book, The Jaguar.