Interview #73 — Bella Li
by Robert Wood
Bella Li is a poet and artist from Melbourne. She is the author of Argosy (Vagabond Press, 2017).
Argosy was commended in the 2017 Wesley Michel Wright Prize, highly commended in the 2017 Anne Elder Award, and won the 2018 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry and the 2018 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry.
Her most recent book is Lost Lake (Vagabond Press, 2018), which has been shortlisted for the 2018 Queensland Literary Awards Judith Wright Calanthe Prize.
Bella Li talked to Robert Wood about ekphrasis, assemblage and palimpsests.
“Poetry is something people often feel their way towards, blindly. I had two wonderful English teachers, but for a long time pitched into it mostly by myself.”
What did you read growing up and how did you come to be involved with poetry?
In the dark ages before the internet, I spent a lot of time in libraries, hanging out with books. Besides fiction, I particularly liked geology and astronomy: earthquakes and volcanoes and the chemical compositions of stars. In high school I read a lot of genre fiction—fantasy, science-fiction, horror; at university I majored in literature and was introduced to The Canon. Poetry is something people often feel their way towards, blindly. I had two wonderful English teachers, but for a long time pitched into it mostly by myself. Now I feel very much a part of a community. There are many writers, editors and readers who have been supportive and encouraging over the years, and I’m always grateful for their generosity and time.
Are there any influences that have lingered, poets you have been reading for a long time who still matter for you today?
While I was working as a judge’s associate, one of the other judges was in the process of replacing all his law reports with poetry books—there were boxes and boxes, floor-to-ceiling shelves that took up entire walls. He would lend me items from his collection, including a journal containing an article about Susan Howe, with excerpts from the sequence ‘A Bibliography of the King’s Book or, Eikon Basilike’, which is probably still my favourite of hers. Emma Lew’s work is also an important touchstone—her poem ‘Avalanches’ is one I often show students as a brilliant example of the pantoum form in English. Anne Carson is another long-time companion.
Lew’s poetry taught me about dramatic personae and the cinematic jump-cut, about creating atmosphere through absence as much as presence. Howe and Carson interweave poetry with history and myth, essay and philosophy, in ways that are challenging and fiercely intelligent; they also have a certain disregard for form (or an appreciation of its malleability) that I like. The latter are fairly prolific and have been publishing for decades—Howe’s Debths and Carson’s Float came out last year—and both remain convincing.
You have been a part of poetry and poetics that crosses into the visual, including in your recent release, Lost Lake, which followed on from Argosy. Can you speak about the appeal of formally innovative work that connects text to image?
Poetry has always been highly attuned to the relationships between text and image, and many of the major artistic movements of the last century have involved close correlations between poetry and the visual arts: ekphrasis has been practised since at least Homer’s Illiad; Ezra Pound’s Imagist Manifesto (which championed precision, economy, and musical rather than metrical rhythm, and took its cue from artists such as Picasso and Matisse) still influences what we now see as modern poetry. As for texts that combine forms, the tradition includes, among others, William Blake’s eighteenth-century Songs of Innocence and of Experience, and the work of various twentieth-century avant-gardes—including the Surrealists, Futurists and Concrete poets.
In the contemporary Australian context, there are many poets who have produced work at the intersection of text and image: Duncan Hose, Nick Whittock, Angela Gardner, Tamryn Bennett, Toby Fitch, Amelia Dale, A.J. Carruthers, Leah Muddle, Michael Farrell and Pascalle Burton, to name a few. Inken Publisch, SOd Press, Cordite Poetry Review, Rabbit Poetry Journal and the Rabbit Poets Series, and Otoliths, regularly publish text-image hybrids. Given the scope of this activity, what is exciting is the singular way in which each work contributes to ongoing conversations about text and image as particular species of representation, and about the nature of representation itself. In some ways, poetry shares more in common with other genres of art than it does with other genres of writing.
As part of this, how does collage matter for your own creative practice? What does the process of reference, of stitching together, of assemblage help you do that other techniques do not?
In a recent anthology, poet Rosmarie Waldrop says: ‘We always write on top of a palimpsest, in dialog with a web of previous and concurrent texts, with tradition, with the culture and language we breathe and move in. Many of us have foregrounded this awareness as technique, transforming/ ‘translating’/ collaging parts of other works.’ (women: poetry: migration, 2017) Art and language are cultural products, and culture by definition is communal and cumulative—texts, too, have genealogies; they move beyond their makers. Techniques of referencing and assemblage have long been commonplace in a range of art forms, including visual arts, music and film. In poetry the tradition stretches back thousands of years, and has been integral to the practice of numerous poetics—Modernist, Objectivist, Oulipian, Conceptual and Archival, among others.
I reference and assemble material from a variety of sources—novels, films, musical compositions, popular magazines, children’s books, medical textbooks. It’s a way of engaging with culture that’s meaningful to me; of drawing connections; of being simultaneously a reader and writer, and aware of the ways in which the activities of reading and writing overlap; and of working with themes and other constraints, which switches on the problem-solving part of my brain. It is also to work with text as texture—an impulse that borrows, too, from the visual arts—and to ask questions about how meaning-making is affected by framing, context and sequencing. The particulars of this practice vary with each project—collage was far more central to the composition of poetic text in Lost Lake, for instance, than in Argosy—and each piece: some poems or sequences are composed entirely of other texts doctored and spliced together, others use a few phrases, others use none at all.
“Art and language are cultural products, and culture by definition is communal and cumulative—texts, too, have genealogies; they move beyond their makers.”
There is often a layering of myth and history in your work, a kind of building up that allows us to look at stories with different eyes. This is where the content matches the form. How do you see history in the field of poetry?
History as an explicit subject is a recurring obsession in poetry. The epic, which began as an oral tradition and is located at the beginning of literature itself, was a form primarily concerned with collective experience—the birth of nations, the origins of peoples. Such preoccupations with the past trace distinct lines into the present. In the early twentieth century, the Modernists turned to classical texts to speak to what they perceived to be the moral vacuousness of their era. Since then there has been a shift in focus, with the emphasis moving to revision—precisely of seeing with ‘different eyes’—to seeking out gaps in canonical records, questioning official accounts. There is an awareness, now, that if history is a text it is composed of many voices, and many absences, too.
Archival poetics, which involves the retrieving and reframing of historical documentary sources, is a field in which poetry and history most clearly dovetail. Writers who work in this vein include Susan Howe, M. NorbeSe Philip and Michael Ondaatje, and in the Australian context poets such as Jordie Albiston, Natalie Harkin, Matthew Hall and Jessica Wilkinson. Each work that engages with history (and all do, to some degree or another) raises questions about how our visions and revisions of the past—which rely upon those of others, on what is passed on or enters and survives in the archive in the first place—inform the ways in which we live now, the ways we make sense of and treat each other, the ways we see beyond our individual moments to broader fractures and allegiances, collective memories or amnesias.
“With regards to identity, it is an unquestionable good that issues surrounding access to publication for women, writers of colour and LGBTQIA+ writers, have been brought into focus in recent times. Whether a writer chooses to address the subject of identity in, or in relation to, their work is a decision open to each individual, in each case."
Pulling back a little now to think about the ecosystem of Australian poetry, what is the importance of experimentation today and how do you balance it with accessibility and identity?
These three factors aren’t necessarily antagonistic. Any live art requires experimentation, or play: the testing of boundaries, the trying of new forms (which sometimes entails a return to old ones). This is not to say that every work must be sui generis—this is an impossible task—but that there must, in the broader ecosystem, be a movement towards unsettlement. To take one recent example: Bonny Cassidy’s Chatelaine plays with prosodic elements such as alliteration, assonance, rhythm and rhyme, in ways that unsettle contemporary poetics, as well as the poet’s own previous body of work. Elsewhere, poets like Benjamin Laird, Pascalle Burton, Ian Gibbins and Chloë Callistemon, are working with code, gifs, video and sound; challenging our conceptions of language and sequence.
Accessibility depends on a reader’s reception rather than a writer’s intention, and can be difficult to gauge. Books are meant to be passed from makers to readers, who will see in them what speaks to personal interests and desires, in ways that are idiosyncratic and unpredictable. With regards to identity, it is an unquestionable good that issues surrounding access to publication for women, writers of colour and LGBTQIA+ writers, have been brought into focus in recent times. Whether a writer chooses to address the subject of identity in, or in relation to, their work is a decision open to each individual, in each case.
And, where do you see the avant-garde in its relationship to prize culture with reference to Mascara’s new awards, and culturally and linguistically diverse concerns in particular, including at this years Victorian Premier’s Prize?
Anything that celebrates the excellent work being produced in Australia is welcome and appreciated. Amelia Dale’s Constitution, which won the inaugural Mascara award for poetry, unequivocally deserves the accolade. More broadly, much turns on definitions and context. In the latest issue of Mascara, A.J. Carruthers points to the difficulties inherent in any discussion of the avant-garde, stemming from uncertainties about the term itself and what it may denote in any given place and time (free verse, for instance, was once considered radical). Form is central to poetry; texts that are visually distinctive may foreground an awareness of form in a more obvious sense, but every poem and every collection engages with questions of what poetry is or can be. If we look through the lists of winners of major awards we see they are filled with innovators—poets like Jill Jones, Gig Ryan, Pam Brown.
While there are fewer works by writers from a diverse range of cultural backgrounds among the lists, this appears to be changing. Books that have won or been shortlisted for multiple major prizes in this year alone include Shastra Deo’s The Agonist, Omar J. Sakr’s These Wild Houses, and Nguyễn Tiên Hoàng’s Captive and Temporal. In terms of funding and opportunities for the development and/or publication of new work, there are grants from a number of funding bodies in recent years that have been awarded to writers from diverse cultural backgrounds, and prizes and initiatives, such as the Nakata Brophy Prize, the David Unaipon Award and the Wheeler Centre’s The Next Chapter, which specifically support writers whose voices may not have previously been heard. I think this is all cause for optimism.
You are also active in poetry as an editor with 5Islands and Slow Canoe. Can you speak to us about the importance of this kind of work for your own artistic practice and for the community at large?
With 5 Islands and the Slow Canoe, I am lucky to be working alongside people I admire and promoting work I believe in. Curating for the Slow Canoe (a multi-disciplinary live event as well as a chapbook press) also allows me to work with different formats and interests, and to encourage conversations between artists in various genres. There are many people who not only write, but also edit journals, run festivals and presses, teach and organise readings, events and education programs, translate and review—often with little or no remuneration, and mostly in spare moments while juggling other jobs and responsibilities. This kind of work takes you beyond the self: collectives are about shared values and goals, and supporting and sustaining communities. I also love bookmaking, and have met so many really lovely and talented people, so I get a lot out of it, too.
“This kind of work takes you beyond the self: collectives are about shared values and goals, and supporting and sustaining communities.”
What are you working on now and how does it fit in with your back catalogue?
I’ve just reached the end of a period of travel, to conduct research and gather material for the next book. This was supposed to be my second book, so it’s been gestating for a while, growing new limbs. Besides that, there are various other projects keeping me busy, including this year’s Australian Poetry anthology, co-edited with Jill Jones; the next Slow Canoe Live Journal (the most recent chapbook, Thrift, features artwork by Duncan Hose, Jackie Ryan and Leonie Brialey); production for Melbourne poet Anders Villani’s first collection, Aril Wire, for 5 Islands; and, also, my PhD.
Do you have any advice for emerging writers?
Be faithful to your visions and methods. Think critically about them, too. At the end of the day you have to sit in a room with the thing you made and shake hands with it.
I like ice-cream, so I’m also going to say: eat ice-cream.
What are you currently reading?
Books accumulate around me several light years faster than I can read (I also work in a bookshop), and seem to take priority over more useful items: for instance, I have almost every book by Stanislaw Lem translated into English, but no couch. What I’m reading now is mostly related to my thesis, but I’m also in the middle of Alison Whittaker’s Blakwork, Lem’s Fiasco, and the first volume of Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s The Photobook: A History.
“Be faithful to your visions and methods. Think critically about them, too. At the end of the day you have to sit in a room with the thing you made and shake hands with it.”
Who are you inspired by?
Lately I’ve been watching YouTube videos of Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist and composer. In one of these videos, Gould is talking about Bach, whose music he spent a good deal of his life performing and recording, and he says this: that Bach wasn’t ahead of his time—he was in fact very much behind, composing in forms such as the canon and the fugue, which were considered outdated by his contemporaries. The lesson is to not be afraid of being out of time, out of step, with what everybody else is doing.
What are you currently listening to?
The last album I listened to on high rotation was Angel Olsen’s Phases, which is a collection of B-sides, but actually I think her best album to date.
How do you practice self-care?
Not very well. I have a tendency to want to do everything and don’t understand the concept of physical limits. Even when I’m not actively working, I’m thinking about work: I walk into furniture, fall off bikes, and acquire soft tissue injuries.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
A certain amount of freedom: my mum is Chinese, my dad is Korean, and I grew up in Australia—I don’t feel bound to any one culture. At the moment I’m thinking a lot about gender—the treatment of women as objects, possessions and second-class citizens cuts across many cultures.