Working with Words: Sarah Holland-Batt
Sarah Holland-Batt was announced today as the new poetry editor of Island. She is a lecturer in creative writing and literary studies at Queensland University of Technology. Her first book, Aria (University of Queensland Press, 2008) won and was shortlisted for several major awards, including winning the Thomas Shapcott Prize for Poetry. She writes poetry, fiction, and criticism.
We spoke to Sarah about writing terrible poetry in high school (we’ve all been there, right?), why the freedom of thought universities represent is more important than ever in Australia right now, and the sense of discovery and novelty she feels about her new job as poetry editor of Island.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
A terribly ambitious – and just plain terrible – long dramatic poem I wrote when I was still a sophomore in high school in Colorado. It mashed up my obsessions of the time – Eliot’s ‘Prufrock’, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, snippets of Wallace Stevens –and turned them into an incomprehensible farrago. At the time I thought it was brilliant. Somehow, miraculously, it was published in a magazine for high school students out of Delaware. Hopefully all copies have since been destroyed in a hurricane or similar.
What’s the best part of your job?
Academic life has its pleasures and its pitfalls, all of which have been comprehensively immortalised in campus novels since the 1950s; those tropes hold reassuringly true. And while the Jim Dixons and Pnins and David Luries may still wander the halls of humanities departments – I couldn’t possibly comment – the truth is that working at a university is a great privilege and a gift. Given the current anti-intellectualism and philistinism pervading our politics, we need universities and the freedom of thought they represent more than ever in Australia. As Coetzee said recently, ‘such institutions are, in ways that are difficult to pin down, good for all of us: good for the individual and good for society.’ So the best part of my job, really, is knowing that I am part of the great tradition of critical enquiry in the humanities – a tradition that has given me a lifetime of thought, argument, and joy in language and ideas in return.
I’m also incredibly energised by my work as the new poetry editor of Island. There’s a clandestine thrill in reading important new poems before they’ve been aired to the world. There’s also the imminent possibility that the next Harwood or Slessor is lurking somewhere in the slush pile, so my editorial work is always infused with a sense of discovery and novelty. It also helps that Island is a brilliant and serious magazine; it’s wonderful to work for a publication that makes such a significant contribution to our national culture.
What’s the worst part of your job?
As a poet? The endless, unassailable doubt.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
Working on the manuscript of my second book with Sharon Olds when I was living in New York and studying at NYU. Sharon’s a brilliant and fearless poet, and spending time in the company of her audacious, freewheeling intellect was an invigorating thing.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
‘Literature is strewn with the wreckage of those who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others.’ – Virginia Woolf.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?
I’m with Capote: I don’t care what anybody says about me as long as it isn’t true. Although I’d add the caveat that I prefer stories about me to be interesting too.
If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
Conducting opera. Maybe composing. Opera is, to me, poetry’s closest cousin, and my other great love.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
Well, I work a lot with young writers in my job as an academic, and I think you can unquestionably teach techniques of creative writing, elements of style and structure, critical literacy and thought, editing, etcetera. I do, however, also take on board the critiques of Elif Batuman and others – the concern that ‘programme fiction’, as she calls it, can become homogenised and prescriptive – and I guard against it. I’ve got no interest in making writers in my own image or in being an aesthetic gatekeeper.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
I like the (possibly apocryphal) story about Nabokov, who when a student came to him with a similar query, pointed out the window at a tree and asked the student what kind of tree it was. The poor pained student didn’t know. Nabokov replied, with characteristic acidity, ‘You’ll never be a writer.’
The morals of that story are twofold: 1) never turn to Nabokov for reassurance about anything, and 2) be ferociously curious about the world. If you’re not curious, you’ve got no hope.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
Both, although I prefer to buy them in a good independent bookshop. In Brisbane, I love Avid Reader; in New York, Greenlight, Book Culture, the secondhand stacks at The Strand.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?
I particularly adore the irreverent tearaway William Beckwith from Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library; I have a strange fascination with wayward aristocrats, and if his narration is anything to go by, he’d be dazzling company. I’d happily let him prattle on about his Byzantine world of the bathhouses and luncheons all night. But by far and away the character I feel most kinship to and affection for is January Marlow from Muriel Spark’s mostly-forgotten bravura novel Robinson. She’s plucky, prickly, wildly outspoken, coolly logical, deadpan hilarious, assertive, judgmental, and deeply unsentimental. She also teaches a cat to play ping-pong on a mysterious volcanic island somewhere in the Azores. What’s not to love?
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
Probably the most important moment in my reading life was when I read T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land at fifteen. I remember repeating Eliot’s talismanic lines about the hyacinth girl to myself over and over again: ‘Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden, / Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, / Looking into the heart of light, the silence.’ They echoed in me then, and they echo in me still. To me, they are just about as mysterious and affecting as lines of poetry can stand to be. Stevens’ ‘Sunday Morning’ had a similar effect. Those pungent oranges and bright green wings! Both those poems made me determined to write poetry.
Around the same time that I discovered Eliot and Stevens I also read the novels of Nabokov and Toni Morrison for the first time – two towering intellects and master prose stylists. Both helped shape my conception of what literature was capable of. Pale Fire in particular set me alight. It pillories poets, critics and academics, of course – but so light-footedly and cleverly, and god knows we deserve it.