Tuesday, May 9, 2017
CRUX #9 - BRONWYN LOVELL
It is a delight to have Bronwyn Lovell appear in this edition of CRUX. Bronwyn lives and breathes poetry in all its forms. Her spoken word performances (available on Youtube) are raw and mesmerising - we are given a self-assured, brave and galvanised young poet. When she was working for Australian Poetry she was a great supporter of this country's poets, whether emerging or established (I'd like to personally thank her for promoting my own work via twitter).
Here, Bronwyn talks about the many sides to feminism, working with indigenous people in Cape York, how writing can be intimidating and the resonance the first Alien film has for her today. It's an engaging piece, full of conviction. I'd like to thank Bronwyn for her honest responses.
Hopefully, we'll meet up one day and talk sci-fi films!
Bronwyn Lovell is a PhD Candidate in Creative Writing at Flinders University in Adelaide. She has worked in both administration and publication roles for both Australian Poetry and Writers Victoria. Currently, Bronwyn is working on a feminist verse novel set in space. Her writing has appeared in Award Winning Australian Writing, Best Australian Poems, Australian Poetry Journal, Australian Love Poems, Antipodes, Cordite, Rabbit, Eureka Street, The Global Poetry Anthology and ABC News Online. Bronwyn has won the Adrien Abbott Poetry Prize, and been shortlisted for The Montreal International Poetry Prize, The Newcastle Poetry Prize and the Bridport Prize.
What was there before poetry?
For me, I'd have to say movies. I wanted to be an actor for a while. Then I wanted to be an auteur. I majored in Film Studies in my Bachelor degree at the University of Sydney before going on on to a Masters in Creative Writing, mainly because I wanted to study scriptwriting. I enjoyed poetic writing best, especially in voice-narrated fiction film, so I took the poetry workshop to improve my prose. I felt completely out of my depth. I had that fear of poetry that is very common; I was afraid I didn't understand it. Terrified in fact. I was sure I would be discovered as a complete fraud and kicked out of the class.
My teacher was Judith Beveridge. I had studied her poems in high school. Thankfully, she is the most unassuming and down-to-earth person I've ever been fortunate to encounter. She is wise and humble, incredibly experienced and knowledgeable, but not in the least bit intimidating. Her teaching style is gentle, her manner thoughtful, her feedback insightful and generous. I loved her class and signed up for another the following semester. Pretty soon, I cared more about poetry than scriptwriting.
And I remembered that, way before I had become frightened of poetry, I had written it. I wrote a childish form of poetry from a very young age. It was a kind of game for me. Finding rhymes to match other words, like playing snap, or finding a puzzle piece that fits. There was nothing subtle about my early poetry. It was not art. It was play.
As soon as there were lullabies there was poetry. As soon as there were picture books and nursery rhymes. As soon as there were sounds and words to shape on the tongue. As soon as there was song. So perhaps, there was nothing before poetry. Just light, breasts, human warmth... maybe it's all poetry.
Share a poetic childhood memory...
Christmas completely enchanted me as a child. I was particularly taken by the songs and movies featuring a white Christmas. Everyone always got excited on screen when it began snowing. With lyrics like, 'I'm dreaming of a white Christmas', it was clear to me that a white Christmas was something special that didn't always happen, but if you were lucky enough you might get to experience this magical event. I had never been so fortunate growing up in Western Sydney, but I held hope every year. Thankfully, my parents never had the heart to explain seasons, climate or hemispheres, and hence the utter hopelessness of my dream.
However, early one Christmas morning when I was about five years old, my parents woke me up and sent me outside. It was 5am and the sky was still dark. The street and everybody's front yards were white. A giant hailstorm had covered our suburb in chunks of ice. 'Here is your white Christmas', they said. 'This is as good as you'll get. Enjoy it before it melts'.
Tell me about your work with Cape York's indigenous people.
I can't help but be very conscious of my own privilege growing up in mainstream white Australia. And I always feel a little anxious when people ask me to talk about my time in Indigenous communities because there were positive and negative aspects of that experience, and sometimes the stories I share aren't what people want to hear, and sometimes I feel unsure of whether or not those stories are mine to tell.
I admit I was really shocked when I first visited a remote Indigenous community. It didn't feel like any Australia I'd ever known. It was like stepping into a Third World country. There was rubbish everywhere. Homeless dogs were scavenging the streets, covered in mange. I was seeing things I'd never seen before and it was extremely distressing. I remember wondering how a broken ceiling fan gets up a palm tree. I was in complete culture shock. I rang home, crying to my parents.
I went to Cape York to teach remedial literacy in primary schools. Often I taught children who laughed with me and were eager to learn, who tried really hard and beamed with pride when praised for their efforts. But there were times I taught terrors of children who threw their desks and chairs, swore at me, threatened me, were violent in their frustration. The most difficult children to teach were those who couldn't read three-letter words, despite being overdue to start high school. They were stuck on baby books. They were angry, understandably. There was much at stake. It was desperate.
There are barriers to learning that are challenging to overcome in these conditions. Too many of the children suffered permanent hearing loss from preventable conditions. A couple had foetal alcohol syndrome and were unable to retain new information. Some had been sexually abused. Others came to school with scabies and sores. All the children were beyond resilient. These kids were amazing. And most of Australia has no concept of their daily struggles and joys.
What moment in your esteemed poetry career are you most proud of?
It doesn't feel esteemed at all. Emerging is a word I'm more comfortable with than esteemed, but then again I've been emerging for a long time. I've been writing seriously for more than a decade and I don't have a published collection yet. A couple of international shortlistings is the most impressive thing on my CV, along with some small, local successes. I was proud to be included in Best Australian Poems a couple of years back, next to all those impressive poets' names.
A career in poetry is a funny thing. It doesn't feel like one imagines a career should. It isn't structured or linear. A poet's success can't be measured in the usual ways. Precious few successful poets in this country would ever, I imagine, be able to buy a house or car from their poetry income. As a society, we don't value poetry. That is, we don't attach a monetary value to it. It's priceless. So while poets may lead a rich life in many ways, we will always be poor.
I've made sacrifices to pursue writing as a career. I work for minimum wage. I don't have weekends. I don't have financial security or superannuation. Being a poet feels like swimming upstream - it costs a lot to choose not to go with the flow - mentally, physically, financially.
At this point in my poetry career I think I'm proud of not giving up, of continuing to put work out there despite rejection. I'm proud of myself for trying. There's an Australian cultural cringe associated with trying. None of us want to be seen as trying too hard. Being a try hard was the biggest insult at my high school. That and loving yourself. I remember 'She loves herself!' was spat accusingly in my direction a few times when I did well in a test. It's funny to reflect on now. Both these things are not easy to do: to have the guts to really try, and to value yourself. I fail at both most of the time.
I think I'll be proudest when I finish my verse novel. I hope I can tell the story as movingly as I imagine and write it as beautifully as it reads in my head. Like everything, the writing of it started with a wonderful idea that came to me, and my biggest fear is that I won't be able to do justice to that original vision.
What are the challenges faced by feminist writers in Australia today?
A huge challenge, I would say, is overcoming societal misunderstandings of feminism.
I had a discussion with a woman earlier in the year who told me she is not a feminist and does not support feminism. I was astounded and also a little offended. However, after probing her reasons for this standpoint, I realised that this woman's gripe was not with the ideology of feminism but with the word itself. She said she doesn't like feminism because it sounds like it's 'all about women'. She liked the idea of gender equality though, and thought that if feminism was called 'equalism' or something similar, then she'd feel more comfortable supporting it.
Australia's Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, Julie Bishop, does not identify as feminist either, saying the word 'isn't part of my lexicon' and 'not a term I find particularly useful these days'. She says that she would never blame being a woman on any obstacle or setback in her career. I find Bishop's sense of superiority here to be false, and her assumptions disturbing.
Statements like Bishop's imply that feminists are whingers who should simply knuckle down and work harder, rather than pointing out that societal systems have been set up in ways that are biased against and unfair to women. Also, suggesting that feminism is no longer relevant implies that society has eradicated the problems posed by sexism. This is simply not true, and taking such a position towards feminism is not only ill-informed, it is also deeply irresponsible.
The public is too quick to declare feminist writers femi-Nazis, to mansplain feminism to them, and - especially now, with the anonymity of the online space - to insult, violently threaten and otherwise abuse women for their political views.
This is a country where our first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, was subjected to a relentless torrent of sexist abuse that revealed a deeply prejudiced Parliament, press and public. Australia proved it was not ready for a female leader, and sadly, neither was the United States.
Perhaps the biggest problem is subconscious gender bias. We are all sexist, but most of us don't think we are, because we're unaware of the deep-seated patriarchal values and beliefs that shape our thought processes and influence our decisions and judgements. All of us need to examine our thinking more critically, all the time.
More than a political stance, feminism is a personal experience. Sexists aren't strangers, they're colleagues, family and friends. It's tiring and disheartening to continually come up against the same close-minded arguments aimed to shut feminist discussion down - in the boardroom, in the newspaper, or at the kitchen table.
Feminist writers are essential in keeping the conversation going and fundamental in promoting public awareness of issues, which is the first step towards lasting change.
You're interested in women in space and you're working on a sci-fi verse novel set in space. In that context, which fictional female character in sci-fi films do you most admire and why?
I could write an essay on this. In fact, I'm writing a thesis. So, I will try to be brief.
I believe the most fascinating filmic depiction of a woman is Ripley in Alien, specifically the original film, because the script was written with an all-male cast. Since the alien was the most important aspect of the story, the writers had focused on the creature and not developed the human characters to the same extent. The crew members of the Nostromo were generic and there was a note on the script that specified that the sex of the characters was interchangeable.
Ripley's character was going to be predictably male until director Ridley Scott had the revolutionary idea to switch the gender and subvert the audience's expectations, because no one would expect a young attractive female character to be the lone survivor of a horror film. That was not how the genre used women. If they weren't saved by a male character, most women were hunted down, screamed wildly and promptly met a grisly end. Women did not outwit, outsmart, outplay, and hence, they did not survive.
Ripley differs because it is not a female role; it is simply a role played by a female. So this allowed Sigourney Weaver a rare freedom as an actor, in that she did not have to perform female gender in a way that had been written onto the character by male writers. And how refreshing, how revolutionary this was - still is today, in fact.
What I admire about the character of Ripley, particularly in that first Alien film, is that she is capable and manages to remain calm and logical when other characters allow emotions to cloud their judgement. She is a valuable member of the ship's crew and is respected as such.
Unfortunately, when it came to revisit the character in the sequels, Ripley's gender is inevitably consciously written into the story by the series' all-male writers.
In the second film, Ripley is stripped of her professional status and reluctantly coerced into a mission by powerful and corrupt men; the writers make Ripley a mother whose child is dead; and the alien species, which displayed characteristics of both genders previously, is heavily skewed female when it is revealed to have an egg-laying queen, who is famously labelled 'bitch'. In the third instalment of the series, male criminals attempt to rape Ripley and she is saved from this fate not by her own strength and wit but by the timely intervention of another man, who she also happens to sleep with. And in the fourth film, there is a lot of sexually violent banter and behaviour towards Ripley, which begins to feel very tired and predictable, and nowhere near as exciting as our first introduction to Ripley in the original 1979 masterpiece.
And yes, I do believe the first film to be the best, despite widespread popular opinion that its sequel is superior. Aliens may be faster-paced, but I prefer the slow burn of Alien.
When it comes to writing/performing poetry, what most intimidates you?
Poetry slams definitely intimidate me. Memorising your work and then standing and reciting it in front of an audience with no notes and a strict time limit is extremely nerve-wracking. Especially since that time limit is often signalled by a scary-sounding bell or buzzer, and then some random audience members will hold up scores reflecting their judgement of your poem or performance.
Considering that the fear of public speaking is one of the most common phobias, poetry slams surely take social terror to the extreme. The whole scenario is pretty much my worst nightmare. I maintain the utmost admiration for those who are brave enough to enter poetry slams and make themselves vulnerable on the public stage.
I'm in my mid-thirties now, but when I was in my late twenties, I used to compete in slams quite a bit. I think that word 'compete' might actually be what presents the problem for me. 'Slam' doesn't sound much friendlier either. Neither does 'sacrificial poet', who is the person who volunteers to go first like the lamb to the slaughter on the performance poetry altar. And although most poetry slams are held in extremely warm, generous and supportive environments, the nature of a competition means there must be winners and losers. And for that reason I find it odd that we have so many competitions - written and oral - in the poetry world, because I believe poetry is far more nuanced and far more encompassing and personal than could possibly be reflected by any public competition's scoring strategy.
In terms of poetry on the page, reading amazingly talented poets can feel intimidating because you can't help but wonder how you could ever write anything as moving and insightful. Of course, comparing oneself to others is a useless exercise at best and crippling at worst. Part of yourself recognises your own inferiority and thinks, I should just give this up. And that isn't being insecure; it's being realistic. But you keep writing, because we are creatures of hope, and because the more you learn the more likely you are to get better.
When you have lofty ambitions for your writing, your high standards can get in the way. When you are worried about writing well, it'd difficult to write naturally and authentically. I am experiencing said dilemma right now as I write this. It's a constant battle against the ego. What intimidates me most are my own expectations, and the expectations I think others have of me.
The literati are intimidating. Academic language is intimidating. Deadlines are intimidating. Critics are intimidating. Open comments sections at the bottom of something you've written are intimidating. None of these are the enemy. Ego is the enemy. All of it comes back to how we feel about ourselves. The only way to not feel intimidated is to take yourself out of the equation and just focus on the work.
Finish this sentence: The real Bronwyn Lovell...
... is embarrassed by this question.
I hate to speak about myself in the third person. Something about it feels false and conceited. Of course, as writers we have to do this odd and unnatural thing quite a bit, usually when asked to supply a bio to accompany a piece of writing.
But even if this question were phrased differently, I would still be at a loss to answer it. My best attempt would be to say that I'm a single woman who lives with a dog and a cat in a one-bedroom unit in Adelaide that is stuffed with ornaments and trinkets, with colourful pictures and phrases stuck all over the walls, such that my whole home resembles a teenager's bedroom. I love trying to make my garden beautiful and spend a lot of time trying to get my lawn to grow. I work at a cinema to pay the bills. I am behind with my PhD and I am trying to catch up. I feel like a disaster most of the time, but I'm always trying to be less disastrous.
Understanding who you are in a professional sense seems a lot easier than the perpetual personal endeavour of coming to understand one's self psychologically. Sometimes I feel like completely different people on different days, or even at different times of the day. Sometimes, I get the urge to completely reinvent myself. To clear our my wardrobe and cut my hair and cast off old patterns of fabric and behaviour and embrace new ways of being in the world. To draft a new version of myself, to rewrite and edit my entity.
Like most people, I imagine, I am still trying to work out who the real me is and who knows whether that's a process of evolving towards the real or stripping back to it. So much of ourselves is constructed, but I don't think real equates to original either. I think we are all works of fiction. And the best fiction is always true.
Tell me about tomorrow...
I have hopes, of course. I hope tomorrow is where my novel has been written, where I've found solutions to some of my problems, and where my heart has healed. I hope tomorrow is where I try hard and love myself.
Ultimately, who knows what I will make of the future or what it will make of me. All I know is that my best chance of positively influencing tomorrow is by doing the best I can today.
I used to be one of those people who always had a five-year plan. But life has had its own plans, every time. And I think life has known best. I used to be highly focused on the future, but I don't know that it was very healthy. It allowed me to live in fantasy more than reality.
I believe humanity has to implement some major changes if tomorrow is going to even exist for us as a species. I hope we can rise above our own selfishness to meet that challenge.