A Conversation with Madison Griffiths

Interview by Leah Jing McIntosh.

Madison Griffiths is a freelance writer, artist and poet whose work has been published VICE, SBS, Daily Life, Overland, PEDESTRIAN.TV, Catalogue Magazine and Broadsheet. She started self-publishing her poetry at the start of 2016, and has performed spoken-word at a number of events over the last year.

We talked to Madison about writing poetry, using anger productively, and demanding attention.

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You’re a poet, writer and visual artist—how have you come to this point? What have been some of the stumbling blocks along the way?

Writing (and performing) poetry was actually a New Years resolution of mine. It seemed a little more forgiving than my usual, problematic ploy to commit fairly religiously to a gym membership.

Perhaps I’m a walking stereotype if I admit to this, but I have always been creatively inclined—be it in music, art or word. After painting a series of hilariously angsty naked self-portraits in my graduating school year, I was accepted into Victorian College of the Arts. In a strange twist of events, I ended up back in the academic realm of things. I enrolled to study Arts/Laws at Monash University in 2015; all the while finding myself obliged to write and draw in my own time. In my first year of law school, I still hosted two solo-exhibitions (one at Melbourne Arts Club, the other at Daisylegs.) Across one semester, witlessly enough. It was rash and silly, but I did it.

I hit stumbling blocks every day. Personal, financial, mental and professional stumbling blocks. Stumbling blocks that don’t look like stumbling blocks. I think it’s important to be transparent about the ache of it all, sometimes—about how I have lost friends, and struggled to pay rent, and received a decent slog of rejection letters. But I have an incredible support network who are convinced that my words are worth something, and who tirelessly back me.

Describe your creative practice.

My creative practice started off rather… emotively. I wrote when I wanted to die. I wrote when I was possessed by some bothersome crush. I wrote when I was angry, and tired, and even drunk: like I was leaking with feeling, and I needed to string it into something tangible, almost. Appropriate it.

That style of writing feels desperate, and even romantic at first—but it isn’t sustainable. And it likely isn’t all too flash, either. Now, I have a list. One day of the week, I draft invoices. Another day of the week, I pitch. I set aside time to illustrate. To scan poems. Some mornings, motivating myself to do work is plainly uninspiring. It took maturity to understand that, but it is a necessary learning curve.

As a freelance writer, how do you make it work? What does your week look like?

I work one or two days a week in retail to ensure rent is paid. But I also have a supportive network: namely my partner, my parents, and even friends of mine that work to take the edge off of any potential financial woes if I fall flat. If I were living off my freelancing funds alone, I wouldn't have the opportunity to engage in larger projects—and they are just as important.

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Do you ever experience writer’s block? 

Absolutely. The only way I get through it is by reading other people's work. But in terms of writer’s block when I’m writing poetry, or have a spoken word performance to muster, looking through imagery, listening to music, and scrolling through my Tumblr feed helps.

Most of your poems revolve around the female experience. Of women not ‘taught to love any better’. Of how we should ‘practice saying no.’ That ‘to be a girl/ was never/ what they said/ it was’. What is your impetus for creating these poems?

I remember sitting in a bar off Elizabeth Street with my boyfriend (Theo*, for narrative sake) at the time, discussing the female experience in a way that drew attention to the sheer nuisance of it all sometimes. Theo never engaged in it; always finding my musings no more than tired rants. But this time, I was relentless. He spent the car trip home kicking and screaming like an erratic child, calling me harrowing names. I was a 'dumb cunt'. A 'weird bitch.' He never wanted to see me again.

There was always something about my outspokenness that made his stomach turn, and when I came to recognise our relationship as abusive—which admittedly took 23 sweaty hours in transit—writing about women was the next best thing. Like some kind of bold rebound, I strung together everything he said, and made it prettier. I took the edge off. I demanded people listen.

I really thought it would go away—this feeling of needing to take up space—but it didn’t. And that is where I am now. 

The way you present your poems—in capital letters, often stark against a pastel background, makes them appear dictums, rather than suggestions. How did you decide upon this mode of presentation? They seem particularly influenced by an internet aesthetic. 

No doubt. Growing up, I spent a lot of time figuring things out online. Considering I lived in quite an isolated part of Melbourne, the internet was where I was able to fetch inspiration; to make sense of myself in Tumblr posts, screenshots and MSN transcripts.

I first came across one of Jenny Holzer’s essays on Tumblr when I was fifteen. It was so anguished and powerful, I was instantly hooked. She had a way of dissecting and humiliating her surroundings. Her style was addictive. Her words were capitalised, in Times New Roman, sharp and central against their colourful backgrounds. I printed ‘WELCOME YEAR 2012’, stuck blue-tac to its edges and pasted it to my wall.

Perhaps subconsciously, Jenny Holzer’s work has influenced mine. I wanted to sicken people a little; at least in how demanding I was. It was fascinating what sort of lines resonated in my poems, when I first began. My first text piece read, IF YOUR UTI WENT AWAY, SO WILL THIS, and people found solace in it.

I also wanted my work to be unceremoniously…boring, in a way. I cared not for fancy fonts and skill. I wanted my poems to feel like discarded word documents; like shopping lists, and points of advice. I wanted them to graduate their author; to distance themselves somewhat from me and become somebody else’s for a while.

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Writing about topics which vary from personal experiences of vaginismus, abusive relationships, and r/RedPillWomen, you often chose to write in first person about these experiences; what has influenced this decision?

I like humanising my thoughts. I mean, no matter how political or ‘objective’, my articles all originate from a personal place. Perhaps it’s selfish of me to treat each essay like a cheap therapy session. But people appreciate being let in; being trusted. It’s difficult to resonate with statistics, and sweeping statements about violence against women. Even when I was searching relentlessly for resources at the end of my abusive relationship, I couldn’t find the solidarity I was looking for in info-graphs. I wanted testimonials. I wanted lyrics. I wanted drawings. And when there just wasn’t enough—I filled the void myself.  

At the end of your article on Red Pill Women, you write, ‘there’s a lot to be angry about.’ How do you ensure this anger doesn’t exhaust you?

 My anger essentially becomes my work. That’s all my poetry is: anger, spun together in nice ways. I appropriate my anger by turning it into something quite beautiful; by hand-balling parts of it to other people on the internet, and having them appreciate it, share it and screenshot it not as anger, but instead as something bigger, and more engaging, than just rage or frustration.

I think anger is really healthy. It’s motivating; and it’s something a lot of women are expected to swallow, as anger isn’t a ‘routine’ or acceptable emotion according to tired stereotypes. Because it is obvious how I feel about the way the world works, I find people often publicly engaging with me—challenging my opinions at social events, and in conversation at bars, for example. This is difficult for me for some reason; as I find myself behaving politely in all of the ways young women have been conditioned to behave, whilst wanting to instead cry out and pour ale down the neck of their shirt.

As both a female and feminist writer in 2017, do you receive backlash to your articles? How do you deal with this?

Absolutely. The Daily Mail ran an inflammatory feature on me after an article of mine was published in Daily Life. The feature exposed me to a ton of abuse (and I make a point of calling it abuse, because that's what it is). It was entirely anonymous, though—which took the sting off. But it was constant, and I felt like I was being taken for a ride: like there was this hard-to-get joke, and I was the punchline without knowing it. 3AW interviewed me in a humiliating fashion. Tim Blair mentioned me in his blog, which only worked to invite a bunch of sad men to reflect on all of the ways they’d hurt, rape, and debase me. It was a tough week.

In terms of dealing with it, I shake it off. I keep creating. We have to.  

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You’ve also studied at VCA. Does your visual arts training inflect your writing? 

I wasn’t there for very long, and was stuck in a strange, post-adolescent rut where I felt neither here nor there—so I didn’t fully appreciate, nor understand the experience. I had a conversation with someone recently whilst gallery sitting at Neon Parloura really nice space in Thornbury where my last group exhibition took place. Reflecting on his experience at VCA, he said, it is like this: being told that you aren’t good enough… but also that you’re the best. All in the one breath. I think that is essentially what captures creative, tertiary education—at least from what I know and have gathered.

I am working on a project at the moment that relies upon both my craft (drawing), and my poetry skills. It is incredibly time-consuming but rewarding. I don’t like to think of myself as impatient, but a part of me is—if I want to say something, I find ways to say it as hastily, urgently and loudly as possible. Perhaps that’s how I ended up relying on bold, written statements as opposed to just ornate illustrations.

We’ve talked to previously about white-passing, and your complex relationship with identifying as a WOC.

 I think—ironically—that my understanding of being mixed is a particularly white one. It assumes that colour is necessary; that pigment is a true and honest indicator of culture, when that isn’t the case.

In saying that, the correlation between identifying as a woman of colour and experiencing racism are non-existent, in many cases. This is something I demand white-passing women of colour acknowledge. My being white-looking grants me an incredible amount of privilege. I don’t bear any burdens imposed upon a lot of South Asian women, and am given permission to speak about my cultural background without racist disruption. I will never know what that feels like; unlike my partner, unlike my family members. It is important—as a white-passing person—to use the platform I am inevitably given to elevate marginalised voices. To not speak over other people of colour, whose experiences are myriad, constant and much more consuming.

See, I can ‘tap into’ my culture. I can view it, appreciate it, and materialise it through a protective layer of fairness. I know the recipes, can scoop up dal with my hands, and will never be deemed lesser despite all this. This means that I must remain committed to listening, and acknowledging my inevitable ignorance. I am neither, I am part, but I am never whole.

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How do you navigate the intersections of culture within your family?

The two different cultures at play in my family—my white side, my Sri Lankan side (including my step Sri Lankan side) are incredibly different. Sometimes, this can equate to a recipe for racism, if you will; meaning that I often am expected to take particularly racist claims directed toward other members of my family as ‘jovial’. I find this difficult. There has been a lot of discussion surrounding the erasure of class in intersectionality, and it must be acknowledged. In saying this, I do not believe it is permissible for particular members of certain class groups to not grow out of bigotry; especially when they have been exposed to different cultures. Nor should people of colour—particularly women of colour—be expected to laugh at their slurs.

What is your dream project?

I have so many dream projects. I love picture books. I want to start working on an illustrated yearbook, actually—where I interview, draw, and spend an afternoon with a myriad of different people, over the time span of a year. I’d love to work on something—anything—with Miranda July, or Aziz Anzari, or Warsan Shire, or Ellen van Neerven… the list goes on.

Do you have any maxims you live by?

There have been a few that have come and gone in the past, namely centred around this: ‘don’t commit to doing anything that you can’t defend’. I like that. It has challenged me in a myriad of different ways. It is what motivated me to stop eating animals my first year out of school, in fact.

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Do you have any advice for emerging poets?

Yes! Don’t take your work too seriously. It will grow and adapt in ways that are necessary and, at times, embarrassing. Form—and style—is whatever you make of it. I wish someone had told me that the best time to write poetry is (controversially) when you don’t feel like it; when there is no burgeoning desire to get something down on paper. It’s easy, otherwise, to make sense of yourself as a smorgasbord of depression, unrequited love, insecurity, and other… sad states of being. There is more there, I assure you.

Who inspires you?

I don’t even know where to begin. My parents, my partner, every woman of colour who has ever persisted—and existed—in the face of adversity, especially my grandmother: a 17-year-old migrant from Sri Lanka who made it work, who makes it her duty to question and challenge white supremacy. My eclectic group of friends and invaluable community. Seeing Reni Eddo-Lodge speak at the Melbourne Writers Festival reminded me that we are all part of the conversation; and I’m not going to save my inspiration just for those who have managed to carve their own pedestals out in magnificent ways. I’m going to keep it close to home.

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What are you currently listening to? 

I’ve just started getting into podcasts! I’m currently listening to a backlog of Sisteria.

What are you currently reading?

Between a Wolf and a Dog’ by Georgia Blain.

How do you practice self-care? 

To quote the article I wrote about self-care for Catalogue Magazine, “in more straightforward terms: the obligations of femininity ensure that oppression comes to occasionally disguise itself as ‘self-care’.” My self-care doesn’t necessarily look like face moisturisers and R&R. Instead, it involves creating. Catching up on Law & Order: SVU. Putting my grubby hound into the back of the car and heading down to the dog park. UberEats.

What does being Asian-Australian mean to you? 

It means aunties. Aunties and cousins. Aunties and cousins that downright refuse to be bound by relational boundaries. It means warmth, and filling sad homes with food, and women. A few years ago, there was a tragic death in our family. It shook everybody differently. And yet we came together in ways I can’t quite capture through word. Trays of sambal were brought into the living space, and colonies of people more-or-less moved into the home where it happened for about a month. This is just what we do; it’s what we’ve always done, and it's what we’ll always continue to do.

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InterviewLeah McIntosh