Ella O’Keefe lives in Melbourne and is working on a PhD At Deakin University on possibilities of the late modern poetic image using the work of Barbara Guest and Veronica Forrest-Thomson. She is a former director of the ‘Critical Animals’ research symposium. Her work on radio has been broadcast by The Night Air on Radio National, All the Best on FBI radio and Final Draft on 2SER FM.
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Who are you reading now and why do they turn you on?
Given that I am up to my elbows in a thesis, the poets I am writing on, Barbara Guest and Veronica Forrest-Thomson have been accompanying me for sometime – and I am glad of it! Their poetry continues to challenge and astonish me. Guest’s work I love for its erudite, strange and musical language, for its refusal to cohere in the way which we might expect a poem to, but do so anyway and for its air, light and openness. Her poems transform seeing, make everyday views into paintings by making you aware of arrangements and relations. Forrest-Thomson’s work is more tightly wound, her essays and her poems are testament to her incredible, whirring intellect. The poems are sharp and spikey and punctuated with witticisms and are written as to be very aware of the literature that has come before them and which makes them possible, so following up all the references of her writing is an education in itself. More locally I’ve devoured some excellent chapbooks, Senses Working Out by Jill Jones & The Doon Nick Whittock. I love Nick’s sense of rhythm and repetition in the poem, the way he brings slang into the vocabulary of the poem. His poems are great at making deadpan, but often hilarious juxtapositions. I enjoyed the verve and energy of Jill’s poems in this book. They’re all untitled and develop as a kind of sequence. The poems are full of startling language, movement and small events, but the intensity is not building towards a single dénouement. She starts and ends us right in the middle of things, the poems are like incidental electric shocks.
How often do you write? Do you have a writing practice?
I am definitely still working on having any sort of regular practice. In an ideal world the activity of doing a PhD would be a complimentary activity for writing poems, but I find it quite hard to switch between the two modes, and at the moment the phd is winning out. I can see how for other poets doing critical work is generative in a creative context too and I would like to try and develop those links more for myself. Reading a fantastic poem though is often a good catalyst for my own writing, even if it leads to an homage poem I think working out through your own writing how other poems work, or seeing new ways to approach the problem of a poem is really useful.
When you think of Australian poetry, do you see an elephant in the room? If so, what is it?
There are plenty of poets whose work I think is still really underrated and not represented as well as it should be in mainstream review pages and shortlists … But rather than concentrating too much on certain persistent divides which still seem to crop up in OzPo I tried to think about this question in broader terms. Australia as we know it today is built on stolen land. Mining and forestry corporations are still undercutting and dispossessing traditional owners of their country. The category of Australia is contested and I think our art needs to tune into the conditions in which it is being produced. I don’t mean to imply that all works should have an overt political dimension, or directly address questions of nation, though of course there are plenty of poets doing just that. It’s more about acknowledging that our history is part of our present condition, being honest, critical and thoughtful about that and seeing how that could lead to a various kind of field of Australian poetics. Here I see aesthetics and politics as interconnected, so re-configuring thoughts about social and historical perceptions is a way of opening up aesthetic possibilities too.