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Iambic Pentameter is like breathing – an interview with Lisa Brockwell

Inspiration comes to us through the earth and through our bodies.’

I don’t usually read poetry. I often find it difficult to understand, and don’t want to work on puzzling it out. I love the work of Thomas Hardy, and Philip Larkin, but I haven’t explored much beyond that. When one of my closest friends began seriously writing poetry I was forced to try again, and Lisa’s technique makes reading poetry a pleasure. The poems, which have recently been published in her debut collection ‘Earth Girls’ are, as the prominent Australian poet Geoff Page said recently in his review, ‘distinguished by a dramatic context and a narrative thrust,’ and they’re written in plain language that makes the experience of reading them effortless, until, coming to the end, I find I am filled with myriad vivid images and complex emotion. I talked to Lisa recently about how she does it.

Where do get you inspired?
Anywhere I can be at the supermarket, or in the car. Sometimes I pull over and write down a line. And it’s a lead, or a thread that I follow up at home.

How long does it take to write a poem?

It can take a week. Then it’s intense. Like Chocolate Biscuits

Others can take 6 – 7 years. Jennifer and Angelina was begun in 2009 and I wrote twenty drafts. It was substantially changed again just before being published. I looked at it again and saw more I could do to make it better and much tighter. Often it’s taking things out.

You once said to me ‘technical limitations bring inspiration.’ Can you tell me what role technique and technical considerations have to play in your writing?

Limitations are helpful. Form is an amazing way of bringing out what wants to be said. Too much freedom is not helpful.

There are different forms in the book:

About twenty per cent of the poems are sonnets. Waiting for the train, or Eden are sonnets.

There’s a ballad: The Ballad of Monday Morning.

Dramatic monologues – ie when you take on someone else’s point of view. Like Jennifer and Angelina, or the Easter Island Statue, or Earth Girls Are Easy.

Pretty much all of the poems are written in iambic pentameter – the rhythm that’s under it is ten beats and five stresses. Which isn’t strictly followed, but when it isn’t, that’s to actually stress something.

Lots of poets writing in English write in Iambic pentameter, or even if they don’t realize it, generally they are. Or a variation on it.

Shakespeare wrote in Iambic pentameter, probably because English poetry falls naturally into that rhythm. The line of ten beats is the line that we breathe on. A thought or an utterance takes about three seconds, and we have an in breath and the length of the out breath is a line of about ten beats with five stresses.

For example, ‘I never pretend my life is normal.’ (First line of Jennifer)

How long did it take to write this book? About eight years.

Are they all based on personal experience? No.

What role does personal experience play in the book?

It plays the same role in my poems as President Obama’s life does in his presidency. Or the CEO of Wesfarmers is informed by his personal experience in his Chief Executive Officering.

Why is it called Earth Girls?

It felt important to have my female point of view in the title. It feels like it is a book about being a woman. Of course I’d rather call it was called Earth Person, but I feel like I’m always being positioned as a woman and ‘that’s her point of view’ and in poetry generally the canon is so male and so dominated by that point of view that the default is male, and any other point of view is exotic and weird. It’s also a particular reference to a form of poetry that was very hot about twenty years ago called “Martian Poetry’ where white men poets sat around in Oxford looking at the world as though they were Martians who had just landed and it was really degrading sexually objectifying poetry that was just horrible. The title says we don’t need a Martian, there are actually lot of very different points of view here on earth, if we’re willing to look at them and give them space.

There’s also a quote from Rilke in the front of the book from the Sonnets To Orpheus where the main word that comes up all the time in that book is ‘earth.’ I wanted to nod to that, that everything we have comes from the earth and art comes from people that are on the earth, and that inspiration comes to us through the earth and through our bodies. This is where we are, we’re not spirits on sticks, we’re here on earth. That there’s a magic that happens in the earth, and that art might be divine, but it comes through the earth. And we’re not in control of it.

The quote is really beautiful: ‘No matter how the farmer frets, he never reaches where the seed turns to summer, the earth bestows.’

Poetry used to be such a popular form. Poets like Robbie Burns or Edna St. Vincent Millay were like rock stars. Why isn’t it as popular now?
One reason is because there are a lot of really pretentious people around who get a lot of power out of making poetry inaccessible and only for a chosen few, who know the codes and the canon. Not because they actually know anything about poetry or what they like, but because they know certain codes and passwords that are really just ways of saying ‘are you an aristocrat?’ in a different way, or ‘are you part of the in-group’? It can be extremely left wing, and extremely Right On, or in an ‘in group’ in another way, postmodernist or modernist, saying there are only certain ways of writing or reading or enjoying poetry, and you have to know those passwords to be acceptable or you’ll be laughed at. And that’s done poetry a lot of harm, and it started with modernism – just after the first world war, like Ezra Pound. Or T.S. Eliot.

I love T.S. Eliot but the way his poetry was deployed has a lot to answer for. Whereas people like Robert Frost are excellent but not elite. Before that poetry was an art form of everyone. Which doesn’t mean it was just accessible, there were always – like music – amateurs and professionals and people who are elite and excellent and people doing it as a community for enjoyment, like theatre, but it’s been in some people’s interest to take into universities and keep it there. And it hasn’t made poetry more excellent, it’s made it a lot less so.

Do you think it could be popular again?

It is becoming so. The internet is fantastic for poetry. And because no one has ever made much money from poetry the digital revolution doesn’t threaten the industry the way it does with other forms of writing, instead it really opens it up. It means that poems that are excellent and that are not necessarily silly limericks that someone has written in five minutes, can actually meet a much larger audience.

Like Warsan Shire in the UK, who has a poem called Home that’s become incredibly popular as an internet meme. (A line is: ‘Show me where it hurts? And the earth says everywhere.’) It’s a really amazing poem about a woman whose family background recently was being a refugee and now she’s in Beyonce’s movie, Lemonade. She’s an excellent poet who has become really popular.

Thanks, Lisa.

Thank you.

Find out more about Lisa at