Interview #96 — Gemma Mahadeo
By Cher Tan
Gemma came to Australia with her family in 1987. Prior to that, she lived in England and the Philippines. She is reviews editor for the Melbourne Spoken Word website.
Gemma spoke to Cher about craft beer poetics, navigating mental illness as a person of colour and the interplay between classical music and poetry.
How did you come to poetry as a form?
I enrolled in a double degree in arts and music at Melbourne Uni, and in my arts degree, took subjects on modernist literature which introduced me to Imagist poetry. Despite how elitist the approach was, I really liked its brevity. I was also studying early modern music performance (think of the Renaissance and the periods slightly before and after) where European literature and music were inseparable. This made me fall harder for poetry—I stopped just wanting to read it, and started to write my own.
Although I no longer play instruments on a regular basis (maybe a piano at the moment as I have access to one!), music will always be my primary art form. For this reason, I can’t get out of the habit of thinking of words, lines, and the spaces between as another kind of music. Being exposed from an early age to different English dialects and my mother’s first language, Tagalog, also helped to form this sense of musicality.
Many of your poems are responses to another writer's work. Sometimes they're also essays addressed to someone/something, such as in Tangela: An Unauthorised Biography. This brings to mind what the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari once wrote in their collaborative text A Thousand Plateaus:
[...] reach not the point where one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I. We are no longer ourselves...We have been aided, inspired, multiplied.
Is this something you do consciously? I'd love to hear more about your process(es).
In terms of writing non-fiction, especially pieces like the one you mention above, it feels really important for me to cite my influences even if they can stand alone without the reader knowing—it's really about the enthusiasm of sharing the amazing work that other people have created. A part of me wants to acknowledge the creative(s) who have inspired the work I’ve written, and to recognise that my response wouldn’t exist without their inadvertent inspiration.
When I read Tanya Thaweeskulchai’s poetry collection A Salivating Monstrous Plant, I loved that it was multidisciplinary (it incorporates Butoh, a form of Japanese expressionist dance) and explored how if a plant grows for long enough, gets thick, wily, as solid as steel; then wouldn’t it be funny to imagine that this book was secretly a homage to the Pokémon character Tangela? I originally wanted to write an experimental review of Thaweeskulchai’s book, but the piece took a different direction and became Tangela: An Unauthorised Biography.
Even though many Pokémon are gendered, I was drawn to the idea that Tangela's gender was irrelevant, much like how overgrown vines are knotted and twisted to form thick ropes over decades—it's messy and complex. I don't mean this in a dismissive way, but more in a comforting “this is bigger than our petty human notions of gender and sexuality classifications” way, which affirms my self-perception and how I negotiate my queerness. I mean, if Tangela’s attacking you and you’re about to be strangled by the power of nature, your human form is done for!
I can’t get out of the habit of thinking of words, lines, and the spaces between as another kind of music.
You've introduced me to a whole amazing world of craft beer from what I previously knew or cared very little about. Through you, I feel that you've helped me see beyond and subvert craft beer for its mainstream image: which is that of the middle-class white “beard bro”. How did you begin this interest, and how do you incorporate it in a poetic sense, like what you did in your time at Froth Magazine?
About a decade ago, I was lucky enough to live in a sharehouse with an excellent home brewer who very patiently convinced me that not all beer tasted like macro swill (i.e., flavoured yellow water that makes you burp a lot). I’m not sure why, but it also seemed less daunting to try new beer styles or breweries’ products than it did to learn about or experiment with wine . Maybe it's that elitist thing at play: why do people associate whisk(e)y with cigars and “good taste”? Why not grab a good book and a pint at the local and enjoy both? When craft beer started becoming popular in Melbourne, it felt more accessible and social than spirits and/or wine culture.
Poetically speaking, having a set amount of words to describe drinking a beer in detail when you have no formal training in that industry meant I wanted to people to be able to read my reviews and hopefully take them as an invitation to give the beer a try too, because that was how I started in the first place. There’s also enough good beers (like works to read!) that you’ll always stumble upon a good example of one. I very rarely drink a beer or read something and think “ugh, that sucks!”, but even if that’s the case, it’s important to be able to articulate why—there's a distinction between whether it’s done what it tried to do unsuccessfully, or if it's just not to your personal taste.
That said however, I do find that the craft beer industry sadly still has such a long way to go in terms of being inclusive. There are so few people of colour making beer and writing about it in Australia, whereas the writing community at large feels a lot better represented in terms of race, gender, and LGBTQIA+ identities. So while my time at Froth has forced me to be very creative with language, as well as really push the limits of my descriptive capacities, it didn't make me feel as though people were that interested in changing the status quo within the beer industry. Consequently, writing about beer is something I’ll most likely stick to in my poetry and creative writing—for now! (While very much enjoying the more than occasional tipple.)
To directly answer your question, there was one beer review of Moon Dog Brewing’s ‘The Jaffawocky’ (a chocolate orange New England-style black India pale ale) that I wrote in the style of Lewis Carroll’s poem The Jabberwocky. It was begging to be written!
I've noticed that you combine unconventional styles in your poems. For example, in Diagnosis, Four Minutes, Something-Something Seconds, you manage to weave classical music (either played on flute or melodica) into the piece. Can you speak more to that? How does the writing and music come together for you?
This piece is directly inspired and influenced by so many other artists! I'd read Elizabeth Allen’s Present and David Stavanger’s The Special, and had yet to come across people of colour directly speaking about their experiences with mental illness and associated treatment. So I wrote Diagnosis... to address that, and also to take the piss out of some of the experiences I had while being treated or when I was acutely unwell—the ones which you have to find the humour in or your heart will just break.
It’s used a lot in film, but the Wagnerian leitmotif in his Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”), is something I use a lot to help me get through periods of acute illness, or as “memory anchors”. Listening to or playing certain pieces of music helps me create personal life memory maps from when I first started learning them. The Mahler snippet is a hat-tip to Luchino Visconti’s film Death in Venice, based on Thomas Mann’s novella —when the theme is used throughout the film, it’s just lush, heartbreaking queer longing in audio-visual form.
I used the melodica in this poem because on one of many long hospitalisations, I brought in my melodica and decided to practise Béla Bartók’s violin duets based on folk tunes, given I’d be in for a while. An old person got cross with how atonal it apparently sounded and complained, so I had to stop, and I ended up sneaking down to the empty adolescent ward rec room a few times and playing the piano. It reminded me of when I first read Sarah Kane’s 4’48 Psychosis and how pared-back resources were for emotional retreat in a public British psych ward—whereas mine was the opposite, being in a private one.
The repetition in my poem reminded me of Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle line in One Art: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master”—the softness of the words uttered and the subtle rhythm, yet it can convey so much wryness! Again, it’s also me poking fun at the memory loss I experienced after electroconvulsive therapy. I can’t downplay how debilitating it is, but when I'm on the mend, I do joke about my experience with it as a way of coping, and in the hopes that others don’t feel touchy talking about it around me.
I don't know what memories I’ll lose, but I don't seem to have lost knowledge of my musical ability (particularly on the viol, or the flute); however my nephews’ and niece’s birthdays are (embarrassingly) not etched into my memory the way I feel they should be. Most of the musical choices that appear are pieces I can play or adapt to one of my instruments, and some of the classical music snippets that should sound dazzling or impressive (Prokofiev’s ”The Bird's theme” from Peter and the Wolf) should sound like my bird is dying, flying really slowly and not chirping happily at all, when played by me. A few others are based on being on hold on the phone to Centrelink and trying to explain that I’m too sick to attend appointments or keep up with paperwork due to memory issues (a truly tragicomic affair). They’ve definitely ruined a few classical music hits for a lot of people!
Musical snippets are also one of my favourite memory triggers. I remember the last time I committed to learning ”The Bird's theme” at concert speed—I’d chosen it because I was very anxious at the time, and felt like there was little about my life I had control over. Practising helped me reclaim agency, the way editing poems-in-progress does.
There was one beer review of Moon Dog Brewing’s ‘The Jaffawocky’ […] that I wrote in the style of Lewis Carroll’s poem The Jabberwocky. It was begging to be written!
We've spoken about that “in-between” space in private before, feeling like we're “neither here nor there” in terms of identity, bits of ourselves everywhere but never in one specific place. How do you come to terms with this, especially in a world always so eager to put us into single boxes?
Gosh, it’s such a mixed blessing. To be able to authentically have the experience of several ways of being Asian (Filipino, South Asian Indian diaspora, Indo-Caribbean; being born in London, living in the Philippines, largely growing up in Melbourne) but not fully belonging to a group. It’s like in Mean Girls when Gretchen insists Rachel can’t sit with them at lunch, but the person here who is insisting you can’t sit with your people is... yourself? I feel similarly about my queerness, even though my type of queerness feels honest to me. Is being a bit scruffy/unpolished and losing yourself in obscure, mind-blowing facts about your interests a valid type of queerness?
I come to terms with it as best as I can by being around equally mixed bags who accept (and sometimes like!) who I am. I try to avoid people who tell me that I make everything about race, or insist that their (patriarchal, white) experience is vastly different and therefore more valid, because it does put a dent in me for days after.
One “box” I’m struggling with at the moment is realising that I’ve most likely identified as non-binary since I was four, but resigning myself to the fact that this isn’t something I have the emotional energy to address as widely as I want to, and that the sole reason for this is my family. There are many ways they want the best for me, but this often includes conforming to a bunch of societal expectations and binaries that in the past have contributed greatly to my declining or chronic mental ill-health.
In your poems, you speak very honestly about mental illness, as with in person and on your Twitter. As people of colour, there's often so much stigma around mental health that a lot of it is either kept behind closed doors or swept under the rug. I know that I'm definitely not as vocal as I should be as a result of this conditioning. How do you navigate this?
My colleague Carly Findlay told me about the social model of disability, and incidentally, this is another “box” I feel I don’t have the right to claim to belong to (note: this is my issue to work on, I don’t deny my chronic illness/disability) because it is an invisible illness. It’s a massive part of my day-to-day life, and I do still struggle with ableist conditioning, not to mention well-intentioned people telling me that I could have it worse (which I’m acutely aware of when not in hospital, or on the rare occasion I’m not on any medication).
Before both my parents retired (they used to work in the public and private psychiatric health sectors), poetry literally was my only way of navigating my mental illness. It probably helps that they’re also not particularly curious about reading my work, and I don’t feel comfortable mentioning or celebrating writerly successes with them.
Do you have any advice for emerging poets?
Read lots, and read what you enjoy reading. Don’t force yourself to read things because you feel it’s essential in the journey to becoming A Great Poet, because the works you need for that to happen will find their way to you anyway. Don’t panic or rush work that you’re writing just for you (says I, acknowledging that I don’t have a full-length collection, but have a manuscript in progress).
Support others’ work by attending readings, launches and buying their books! Hearing poets read their work is precious in the same way watching a play you’ve read a script for comes to life on stage. Write, edit, submit, use rejections as a reason to refine a work, then keep on submitting. Ask friends and colleagues whose opinions you trust to go “hardcore crit” on your work when you feel you’ve done as much as you can on your own.
And remember that you’ll produce your best work when you’re happy and healthy. Took me a while to figure this one out!
Who are you inspired by?
This is a hard one! I’m inspired by Djed Press, Liminal (of course!), the queer mates whom I trust to read the raw drafts of poems who tell me to keep going, the Australian authors I’ve read in the past few years, and the editors who are kind, guiding and engaged enough to help me polish my work or offer suggestions.
What are you currently listening to?
King Krule’s The OOZ, The xx’s Coexist, and Shostakovich’s string quartet in C major. I’m also relearning J. S. Bach’s C major Prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier (excellent excuse to listen to Glenn Gould playing Bach anything on piano!). Do my cat’s constant meows and chirrups count? She has a range of them above the standard “I want wet food”! My favourite one is when she just wants to let me know she’s close by and happy.
What are you currently reading?
Monstress vol. 3: ‘Haven’ by Marjorie M. Liu & Sana Takeda, Blakwork by Alison Whittaker, and an embarrassing amount of fanfiction based on the BBC TV show Merlin.
How do you practice self-care?
Ooh... a ridiculous amount of working in my pyjamas, snuggling my cat, taking my medication regularly and on time, and not drinking alcohol if I think it’ll interfere with my mood.
One other one which I’m not proud of, is having to avoid or delete news e-mails: starting my day reading about the chronic mental health issues Manus Island is causing is not something I can do. I feel like a failure of a human for not being able to, but I need and want to stay well. My cat has a meow/chirrup that usually means she thinks I’m stressed or anxious, and it genuinely reminds me to stop, take a break and make a cup of tea (or three).
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
This is probably the hardest question for me to answer. It means being aware that you’re not white, working your actual arse off to honour the start your family have tried to give you with their decision to migrate from overseas to here, and realising that there’s a community who want to punch you down as soon as you start to stand up.
It means coming into adulthood and learning so late about the history of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, learning that this is their land made of hundreds of nations, and that as a migrant, you’re not quite an invader but you are complicit. Coming to admit that no matter how hard you work or how bright your well-intending Asian parents think you are, there are power structures in place that will seek to punch you down.
But it also means rejoicing in your wonderful jumbled heritages because it gives you insights that some people have to find “overseas” in the form of travel and holidays, and knowing that they’re only seeing the “best-dressed” version of what they’re hoping to find because of their white privilege.