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Poetic narrative

An interview with Stephanie de Montalk

This interview took place by email. Questions were sent from writers, family and friends. All interviewers remain anonymous.

Michele Amas managed the interview process and edited the results.

Stephanie de Montalk has been the 2005 Victoria University Writer in Residence. Her most recent collection of poetry, Cover Stories, was published this year and her essay ‘Pain’ appeared in Sport 33. Her novel The Fountain of Bakhchisaray will be published next year.

Photograph of Stephanie de Montalk

Stephanie de Montalk (photo: Robert Cross)


Your forthcoming novel (or poetic narrative, as you’ve sometimes described it) includes your own modern version of Pushkin’s verse tale, The Fountain at Bakhchisaray. I read somewhere recently a remark to the effect that Pushkin doesn’t ‘travel well’ into other languages. What issues did you face in creating your own version of Pushkin: were there aspects of the poem you consciously chose to keep or to ignore? Has the experience inspired you to read more Pushkin, or more Russian poetry?

Pushkin in the hands of a sympathetic translator is marvellous; he’s so fluid, coherent and modern that much of his work could have been written today. Unfortunately, many translations seemed to tie themselves up in awkward metre and rhyme schemes – including the only translation I was able to find, world-wide, of The Fountain at Bakhchisaray, made in the USA in 1848: that’s the 600-line poem; Pushkin later wrote a much shorter poem dedicated to the fountain. In the beginning I was nervous about tackling Pushkin, the incomparable beauty of whose Russian is, as Robert Dessaix recently described it, ‘beyond discussion’. It was enough that I had presumed to put Pushkin in a novel written from the distance of New Zealand. However, after listening to a reading of the poem by a Russian friend who then gave me a spontaneous verbal translation, and discovering that Nadezhda Mandelstam had said Pushkin’s ‘verse always fully mirrored his actual state of mind’ – a state I had spent over a year steeping myself in – I decided to give it a go, using the 1848 version, as well as the 1934 Russian ballet of the same name, as sources of detail. I was further assisted by advice that, behind the rolling Russian language described by Osip Mandelstam as ‘speaking flesh’, Pushkin wrote with economy and simplicity, in a lively concrete style, in the natural rhythm of speech.

Despite its critical acclaim and financial success, Pushkin dismissed The Fountain at Bakhchisaray as ‘trash’. It was subsequently rejected by some English critics as chaotic and clichéd. I’ve attempted to re-write it in a spare, musical style. I hope Pushkin approves. So far the world hasn’t fallen down on my head! Yes, the experience has increased my interest in poetry from Russia and Eastern Europe.

In terms of combining poetry and prose, what other works have you looked to as helpful models for this process?

I read Lloyd Jones’s The Book of Fame and Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red: a Novel in Verse. However my own novel already knew which parts wanted to be prose and which parts preferred to slip into lines.

Now that you have ventured into poetic narrative, do you feel at home in the territory, and is there another novel coming along behind The Fountain at Bakhchisaray?

I do feel at home writing poetic narrative. I’m not planning to write another novel for a while. My next project, working title Explorers, will be a series of historical short stories, factual and fictitious, in the form of narrative poems.

You have one of the best laughs in the world. What do you think the place of humour is in poetry? Can it get in the way of being properly serious?

Regarding the laugh, who says? Certainly not the sister who used to be in charge of the Number Two Nurses’ Home, who famously pinned a notice to the Untidy Rooms list beside the lift (on which, I’m pleased to say, I never appeared) reading: ‘Nurse de Montalk, you have a laugh like a hyena!’ Perhaps it was the friend sitting unbeknown to us both a few rows ahead of me in a Peter Sellers movie (in the sixties) who called ‘Hello Stephanie’ into the darkness after the first burst of laughter.

As to the place of humour in poetry, well, I think it can be advantageous in all sorts of ways. I especially respond to the lightening effects of gentle irony and self-deprecatory jest in situations which might otherwise seem self-important or unduly introspective. I don’t think humour gets in the way of ‘being properly serious’ used in thin slices.

Some writers research their work only after they finish writing it. How does research work for you?

I tend to research before I start, and while I am still writing. This is because the groundwork in large part determines the direction the writing will take. Before I wrote Unquiet World: the Life of Count Geoffrey Potocki de Montalk, I spent a year researching as I cleaned and made an inventory of Potocki’s archive. The following year I continued to fact-find in response to the narrative’s demand for more information. At this point I became aware of the seductive nature of research: that it’s often easier to go delving than to write, that finding leads and following trails is exciting. However, since the biography was to be my MA thesis and I was working to a ten-month deadline, I had to curb the temptation to keep searching. Moreover, the vast hoard that was the archive imposed its own restraints in the form of the series of superbug infections I had contracted the previous year as I sorted through Potocki’s mouldy, rodent-ridden papers – a situation Bill Manhire jokingly referred to as the Curse of the Count. Well, curse or not, that superbug certainly steered me away from tracking down each last detail. My novel, The Fountain at Bakhchisaray, which imagines the story behind Pushkin’s romantic verse tale of the same name (previously discussed), involved a huge amount of research, and here I did become seduced. No wonder: the material I was working with – 18th and early 19th century Southern Russia, Crimean Peninsula and Ottoman Empire; a Polish countess with my own family name captive in the harem of a Tatar khan – was utterly irresistible. Also, I kept uncovering unexpected nuggets. As a result, the first draft of the novel was digressive, bogged down and very different, I hope, to the version I’ve written this year. But that overburdened draft was necessary because it left my imagination free to wander without the need for further investigation, or even to visit the locations involved, and it gave me a firm basis from which to extract the story.

Regarding poetry, research – which can suggest the direction of a poem – is the first thing I do – as, for example in ‘Concrete’ (Animals Indoors) where I needed to get to grips with the technicalities of bonding sand and cement, and in ‘Violinist at the Edge of an Ice Field’ (The Scientific Evidence of Dr Wang), where I briefly read about quantum theory – at its most basic level, I hasten to add.

Did you have to think hard about using the name ‘de Montalk’ as a writer? Does it come with any baggage that either pleases or bothers you?

I don’t think too hard about much of what I do: as my husband reminds me, and a ski instructor in Scotland once observed, I have a tendency to be ‘wild and erratic’ (or rather I did have: I’ve calmed down markedly of late). In fact, John urged me to revert to my maiden name – maybe because he considered I was putting the good name of Miller at risk. Yes, the name de Montalk did come with a bit of baggage – that of my cousin’s extreme views, flamboyance and obscenity trial – but this was baggage I was well used to handling. One of the nice things about reverting to my original name – which I now pronounce correctly as de Montalc, rather than de Montalk as it is known in New Zealand – was the feeling that I was recapturing part of my youth!

Your poems are full of both factual knowledge and concrete things. Tell us about your attraction to the factual and actual in your writing? Is there a connection to your previous work as a documentary writer?

I love facts. I read encyclopaedias – an enjoyment that started in childhood with Arthur Mee’s wonderful ten-volume The Children’s Encyclopaedia. I see images and hear music in scientific, medical, architectural, historical, etc words and phrases. I get a kick out of investigating, ordering, and giving imaginative depth to seemingly dry topics and lives – which is why I was drawn to making film documentaries, and find non-fiction as fascinating as fiction, if not more so.

What about your background as a nurse, has this shaped or affected (minutely perhaps) your work?

Most definitely. Nursing taught me the art of observation, the necessity of self-reliance, the value of seeing the funny side of things and the need for an awareness of what might lie beneath the surface. It allowed me to deliver babies and lay out the dead.

You used to sing all the time on the ward as a nurse, why do you now say you have lost your voice?

Because I have lost it. Looking back, I think I started to sing less when the children became teenagers! This may have had something to do with the process of reining myself in and becoming a more serious parent. Whatever, by the time they had left home, my voice had lost its flexibility and strength: a classic case of use it, or lose it.

Europe is a huge presence in your work. Is this because Europe is part of your own character/cultural background?

Ever since 1968 when I first travelled on ‘the Continent’, as Kiwis doing their OE used to refer to Europe, I’ve been more attuned to Europe than to New Zealand. NZ is certainly beautiful and special, but, as one who likes to live at the centre of things, I feel isolated here; also, I prefer the older stone, softer sun and kinder light of Europe.

Could you tell us a little about your relationship with your long-distance-running daughter Melissa Moon. Is there any sense in which she is a kindred spirit?

Mel is very much a kindred spirit. We laugh at the same things and are still starters for a Neil Diamond concert – at which, to John’s cowering amusement, we’re liable to get up and boogie. Mel teaches me about determination and drive, finding ‘fuel in disappointment’ and ‘digging deep when the going gets tough’.

What might you both be possibly running towards? What might you both be possibly running from?

We can’t imagine what we might be running away from! Mel says she’s running towards her next challenge, athletic or otherwise. I’m moving in a similar direction, but at a languorous pace, dodging ill winds and trying to avoid cracks in the pavement.

What would be one irrational fear you have as a writer and one rational fear?

Rational/irrational, take your pick: unwittingly passing off someone else’s thought or phrase as my own; losing whatever I am working on to technical failure, my computer incompetence and acts of misappropriation or nature.

You recently completed an essay, ‘Pain’. How do you avoid self-pity when writing about yourself – especially a self which in your case is in a great deal of pain?

I tried to write as my sons say I drive – with one foot hovering over the brake pedal! I saw the essay as a chance to define, and thereby confine, chronic pain.

You have considered of late converting to Roman Catholicism; what is its appeal to you and is there anything in the Roman Catholic view of the world that is reflected in your writing?

This is a tough one and I’ve been trying to decide whether or not I should say ‘pass’! Here’s the best I can do in summary of the situation.

Yes, I am currently exploring Roman Catholicism... even though I was raised a Presbyterian: an aspect of my upbringing I did not follow through on after leaving home. My interest was awakened one Saturday morning in the spring of 2001 at the Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill Street. I was to read poetry at the Cathedral as part of the Centennial Festival of Music and Arts the following week and had come to see where the reading would take place. While I was standing in the cloisters listening to the choir rehearsing, I experienced a kind of personal epiphany, or sense of spiritual connection (of the sort, perhaps, that Colm Tóibín, a lapsed Catholic, experienced in a therapy session where he suddenly felt the urge to make the sign of the cross in memory of his father). It seemed to be connected to a strange, ancient sense of genetic, or ancestral, memory. I can’t describe it. It was not sought and, as I knew little of Catholicism, completely unexpected. I was profoundly moved and had to leave the precincts. John said, ‘Your Polish ancestors (Catholic) are calling you.’ This sense of epiphany returned on a couple of occasions in cathedrals during visits, two years in succession, to Warsaw and Krakow (the period of my research of The Fountain at Bakhchisaray), and again recently – at which point, like a number of converted writers, I became spiritually curious. For me, the appeal of Roman Catholicism lies most immediately in the sensate and timeless liturgy, rhythm, and significant symbolism of the religion – including biblical interpretations which convey theological truths and elucidation of human circumstances rather than literal detail and history; in its tradition of rituals and rosaries; its mysticism; its poetry. I respond to the Church’s age, maturity and the fact that it has been evolving for 2,000 years, learning, testing its youthful absolutism through crusades, sieges and inquisitions, endlessly defining its role and vast sweep of religious experience. I also respond to its accommodation of evolution and creation, and to the view that the limited logic of human beings, finite within time and space and the known laws of the universe, can neither prove nor disprove the existence of a God, or an infinite cause of creation and design. This is not to say that I am comfortable with all aspects of the religion’s dogma, but my feeling so far is that the Church, as a framework, is sufficiently realistic and robust to make room for individual beliefs held in good faith. With the exception of my novel, which touches on Islam and Roman Catholicism, and a tendency to be Latinate, I don’t see an especially Catholic view of the world reflected in my writing.

Click here for the extract from The Fountain at Bakhchisaray


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