An interview with Bernadette Hall
Bernadette Hall (photo: Robert Cross)
We’ve heard it said, in an entirely neutral way, that had you lived twenty years earlier you would have been a nun. Any comments?
I was brought up and educated within a Catholic tradition pre-Vatican II so, in many ways I do think I was born in the Middle Ages! Latin was the magical language of ritual and community worship. The Church was the centre of our little world and religious practice was extremely theatrical. The costumes, the candles, the flowers, the incense; the ancient wooden church was collapsing so there was also an element of danger. And the Protestant kids on the way to school were definitely dangerous! The Dominican nuns who taught me at high school were distinguished academics. One had studied at the Sorbonne. Another turned down a lectureship at Oxford. I admired them enormously. At the grand old age of 13 I was almost hooked into the Juniorate, a kind of junior convent. I’d even got the big navy bloomers! But I chickened out at the last minute. Some guilt at the time but now I’d call it salvation – otherwise I don’t think I’d ever have grown up!!
Did writing sneak up on you, or was it a conscious decision?
Writing has always been a natural response for me. When I was at primary school I used to write little rhyming poems on topics a friend would set for me. Things like ’Snow’ and ’The Sea’ and ’The Pony’ – which is quite funny because my next collection of poems is called The Ponies. Maybe we just go round and round in circles all our lives. Anyway I’d give this girl, Annette the poem and she’d give me a penny and I’d buy and ice cream. It was a good arrangement. Later on, when I was in my 40s, I found that poems gave me my own space and a private voice in the busy life of family and high school teaching. And then I looked up and found I was addicted!
In many of your poems you tackle issues of family and ancestry. When you write about your family do you feel you have to be true to events, true to the feeling of events or is truth not an issue at all?
Poems are fictional things. They’re made up. They answer to an internal music and the demands of an internal narrative. In other words, they’re neither history nor biography nor autobiography. In many ways I’d rather read a collection of poems by a writer than their autobiography because I think the poetry, if it’s really good, will take me further into the inner workings of that writer. Also it will open up a magical world for me, one that I can walk around in and pick the fruit that I want. I can come back time and time again for more. Maybe I will discover something new. It’s endlessly nourishing and exciting. Janet Frame’s autobiography is full of that kind of poetry. I’m not the least bit concerned if her recollections are inaccurate or stray from the literal truth. What’s important to me is that they celebrate the imagination, as does the writing of Margaret Mahy.
Is Janet Frame one of the writers who has had a major influence on you? Are there others?
She has definitely influenced me. I love the dark, Gothic quality in her work and the mischievous humour. She writes amazingly detailed lists which include much contemporary, local New Zealand material. It’s all about making her fictive world concrete and accessible and familiar at the same time that it’s mysterious and magical and filled with a very special kind of wisdom. Living in the Maniototo is one of my favourite novels. I read it over and over.
Other writers who have influenced me are the American poets Wallace Stevens and John Berryman. I think they’ve influenced my head space probably more than my actual style. I love the cool, philosophical, brilliantly chill writing of the one as much as I like the meaty, wrecked, compassionate brilliance of the other. I am grateful to Sharon Olds for her courage in dealing with topics that others might find unseemly, and for her ability to break out of a boxed stanza structure into a looser form. I have been experimenting with surrendering tight structures this year and going for something more like knitting on big needles with lots of holes in it. I love Ian Wedde’s beautiful Earthly: Sonnets for Carlos, which goes way back, I think, to the late 70s. Michele Leggott’s book Dia is one I read over and over again for its zest for living, its astonishing layering of academic and domestic worlds, its love of kids and the beach and lemon-honey and flowers and poetry. My discovery this year is Czeslaw Milosz. I admire the weighty humanism of his work and the attention he pays to Polish history.
Has moving from Christchurch out to Amberley Beach made a difference to the way you write?
Moving out to the beach has made me more of a plainswoman. It’s a great feeling to drive out of Christchurch, heading north, to cross about six rivers including the Waimakariri and finally the Ashley, and to end up in the beautiful Hurunui, which stretches from the north end of Pegasus Bay to Hanmer. It was a surprise to find the huge winegrowing region of the Waipara Valley right on our doorstep. It’s as if we’re living in the south of France! I love the feeling of being out in a huge wide landscape. I had a similar feeling when I was living in Iowa, in the States, but I missed the sea there, and in Antarctica. We’re only three minutes from a stony beach so the sea is very much part of our lives. I hope the expansiveness in the landscape will be matched by the expansiveness in my work. In my ’Stations of the Cross’ poems, there’s a lot of Amberley Beach imagery.
In James Brown’s interview for Turbine during his residency at Victoria in 2004, he said, ’when I have time and space to write I don’t seem to have any trouble producing poems?when I don’t have a grant of some sort it’s a different story.’ Is this a statement that rings true for you?
Having a residency certainly speeds things up. It’s a most marvellous safety net. You don’t have to waste time ’earning a living’. You can explore and take risks in your work and say yes to everything that’s offered, all the opportunities that crop up for writers e.g. on radio, on panels, little commissions, chairing readings, working with students etc. Access to a university library is a huge advantage. And being in a place like the IIML, you get to meet all the visiting international writers who turn up in Wellington. I haven’t stopped grinning all year! It feels like a very privileged, ’real’ literary life and I’ve loved it. Being a high school teacher, I used to do most of my writing in the school holidays, once I’d got over the term’s exhaustion.
Is there such a thing as a day off from being a writer?
I remember being impressed by something that Michael Houston once said in an interview, something like, ’Music is my life but my life is more than music.’ If by a day off you mean a day when I’m not sitting at the computer, I have many days off. If you mean a day when I’m not, consciously or unconsciously, hanging out for words, or images, or just trying to live really engaged and open to what’s around me, well, I hope there aren’t too many days when I’m like that. Being aware seems to me to be a lot of what being a writer is all about; and reading heaps.
Do you extensively re-work and edit your poems? Do you have some poems that you feel you just can’t ever get right?
I’m trying to write with less and less re-working – looser, wilder kind of stuff. I was delighted when Laurice from the New Zealand Poetry Society introduced my work at a recent reading by saying, ’Bernadette’s poems used to be finely crafted feathery things, now they’re meat pies!’ Yay for the pies! Richer, juicier, splurging out of their neat packages, that’s what I’m after, some of the time anyway. I’ve got thousands of hopeful words and lines and segments stashed away. I have to believe that some of them will lead to something in their own good time. I just need to keep checking up on them and not fretting. Waiting for that kick-start.
You have published six volumes of poetry including the selected poems, The Merino Princess. Do you have a personal favourite out of these books?
My favourite book so far is Settler Dreaming. I love the hazardous beauty of the drawings that Kathryn Madill included in her design for the book. She’s a perfect reader of poetry – full of intuition and love of language. She brings a lot to the work she reads. It’s amazing to see a kind of conversation between us picked up in the images she makes.
Our collaboration is not about big arguments or discussions. It’s about a shared imaginative landscape. The poems are bigger and braver. They tackle toughish stuff like the death of my brother, Peter, politics (in Irish and in New Zealand settler histories). There are two extended pieces: the prose poem ’Erlich’ and the poetry play ’The Bomber Pilot’. I’m always wanting my work to develop and grow.
You shared the Artists to Antarctica fellowship with Kathryn Madill. What do you see as the connections between poetry and visual art? Are you a secret painter at heart?
I adore art. I am a bit of a collector, mainly the work of friends like Joanna Margaret Paul and Kathryn Madill. It’s very special to me to have that personal connection with the work. Our little shack at the beach is filled up with paintings and some bits of sculpture. Kirsten Morseth, a Christchurch artist, lived with us for two years when we were still in the city and it’s great to have her work on display. I think all the arts are intent on deepening the conversation between people. And exploring what it is to be human. I love music and dance and drama and films too, as part of that whole wider dialogue. Hearing the Hilliard Ensemble perform ’Passio’ here in Wellington this year is one of the highlights of my life, so far.
You’ve written in a variety of forms, but the ’gothic romance’ called Sul that you’ve been working on as your ’Antarctic project’ this year is a first for you. What influenced you to choose that genre, and were there any specific difficulties you have had to overcome in making it your own?
I’ve written stuff a bit like this before – a short story, ’Erlich’, and a longish narrative poem called ’The Anger of Vito Pacelli’. But none of these are 4400 words!
Kathryn and I needed a pretty unique project to push us through to the top of the list to get us to the Antarctic. A collection of poems wouldn’t make good use of her art. The thought of a novel fills me with exhaustion and boredom before I even start and there’s nothing at all that would suggest I’d be capable of producing one, which, in a typically perverse way, suggests that one day I might like to try!
It definitely took discipline to finish such a long ’poetry’ text. I enjoyed writing the dialogue because I’m drawn to writing plays. What I had to surrender to was a more urgent narrative drive. I had to get that little motor going, whirring away towards some climactic event that took a while to reveal itself. That was pretty stressful. But what exhilaration when it finally happened. I enjoy writing prose in essays and reviews and such like. But I think I’m too much of a ’drama queen’ to succeed with a real novel. And too impatient.
If Sul isn’t a ’real novel’, what is it? Does the word ’romance’ imply a love story?
It’s hard to say what Sul really is. I think it’s more of a poem than prose because it’s all pretty tight; there’s no wasted space. There are similes and metaphors and the kind of layering that you associate with poetry. The music of the text echoes that too, little chimes and falling cadences. There are jumps that are more like stanza hops than a leisurely working through every facet of an explanation. But I’ve used pretty straightforward vocabulary, the sentence structures are short, simple and clear. There are Antarctic references e.g. different species of penguins, the aurora, the morgana mirage but nothing to cause a real hassle to a reader. And it has got fast action and plenty of conflict. I frightened myself sometimes when I was writing it.
I’m imagining the story appealing to young adults, female probably, and married women, they seem to be the main consumers of romance! But a very dear friend of mine says he’s dying to read the story – he’s never understood women and he’s eager to enter one of their fantasies! Sounds a bit dodgy to me!
How did you realise the character of Sul?
Kathryn showed me a book of art by Inuit women. Many of their paintings were illustrations of Northern myths and fables. And I’ve taught hundreds, probably thousands of girls over the years and I’ve seen some of them begin to fade out at about the age of sixteen. They become thin and pale. Depression or anorexia sets in. They get a dangerously angelic look as their bodies start to disappear. In the very earliest Christian times, they’d probably have been canonised as saints! Sul is a girl like that. I wanted to find out what the trigger was that set her on this path. Plus there is a fantasy that I suspect is not mine alone – the way people (women people) sigh when I say to them, ’Imagine if you could walk on the ladder that the moon lays down at midnight on the sea. This project will be a picture book but definitely NOT for children. Text and paintings. All hazardously beautiful. That’s the very nature of Antarctica, isn’t it?