An Interview With Penelope Cottier

Penelope Susan Cottier, who usually writes as P.S. Cottier, is a poet and short story writer living in Canberra. Penelope was born in Oxford, England and moved to Australia as a baby. She has published three books; two of poetry and one collection of short stories.

Penelope’s poem The Exquisite Confusion of the Prose Poem was my Tuesday Poem this week.

Penelope, I have just finished reading your second poetry collection, The Cancellation of Clouds, and I’ve enjoyed it very much. It seems to me that you combine a number of aspects in your poetry: political commentary, nature poetry (especially about birds), elements of fantasy and surrealism, and grounded observations of your life and the lives of those around you. Does that sound like a recognisable description of your poetry, or have I got it all wrong?

It does sound recognisable to me Tim, in the way you can read a map and recall a seldom visited landscape from it. All the elements you mention are there, certainly, but for me one of the major things I think of is the play of words in each poem, whether the topic is a serious one or a lighter piece (a distinction that I try to erase, anyway). I often think of my work in sporting terms, I’m afraid, and probably the most apt comparison would be chess boxing; I don’t know if you’re familiar with this, I’ve only seen it on youtube, but it involves men with very flat noses playing chess in a ring and then whacking into each other. I try and combine the intellectual and the slap of surprise all the time, so it’s a kind of simultaneous chess boxing.

I’m glad to hear you liked Cancellation; I was so worried, and having enjoyed Men Briefly Explained made me even more anxious. The tone of mine is so much rougher than yours; more unsettled, I think, although you also value humour.

I enjoyed the various political jabs in your poems – both in this collection and those I’ve read online. Would I be right in thinking you are not a huge fan of Australian Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and his policies?

Byron’s ability to suddenly insert an blinding political jab into the flow of his perfect couplets (say about Lord Elgin stealing the Greek marbles) is something I admire greatly, even envy. Today we tend to draw a rigid distinction between political and non-political writing. I sometimes think that there should be a new sport developed, where the crudest ‘real world’ poems face off against the very worst ‘moment of personal revelation’ poems. The former could be represented (in the green corner) by a truly inept rave about climate change, full of well-meaning (and valid) politics, the very obtuseness of which gives poetry and politics a very bad name. This is a creature which can sometimes still be seen in alternative publications or heard at poetry slams. In the white corner we could have the ‘my mother just died and I feel sad’ poem, which inevitably uses words such as ‘numinous’ and ‘lucidity’ and won’t lower itself to any knowledge of the world outside the poet’s ring of refinement. (Penelope stops rant, runs to check Tim’s latest book, while not of the sort described, doesn’t contain the words ‘numinous’ or ‘lucidity’. Quick flick reveals neither, but she is still worried.) Both of these extremes make me puke, although my personal leaning is more towards the former, and there is just not enough good political poetry being written. (I don’t know about New Zealand poetry in this context, I’m talking about Australia.)

Speaking of puking, Tony Abbott, with his open discussion of the importance of his women’s virginity, his pandering to the lowest common denominator on climate change, and his virulent defence of the mining industry’s fight against increased taxation is definitely not my cup of tea. Our Prime Minister Julia Gillard is by no means perfect, but next to Abbott she seems like a shining light. I recently wrote a poem called Abbott’s booby, which is far from subtle in describing my reaction to him, but which is, I hope, saved from the ranting corner by humour. And fantastically detailed ornithology.

One thing that strikes me about your poetry is that even quite long poems often take the form of a single stanza, and that you use long line lengths in many of your poems. Technically, why does that approach appeal to you?

I hadn’t really noticed this, and thank you for pointing it out. To put it in a negative way, I think that I am an extremely impatient writer, and want to get everything down quickly, with as little hesitation as possible, and that as I value the prickly, unsettling tone, I am not interested in smoothing things out later. I’d rather go for the KO than the points victory, but perhaps I need to look at my footwork. (I know I’ve flogged the boxing thing to death, I’ll stop now.)

I sometimes feel that poems are being dictated to me, and it’s a question of getting them down, catching them before the unseen speaker runs away.

There are some poems in Cancellation that use shorter lines, such as ‘The atheistic angel’ or ‘Tiresias at the beach’ but they are the exception. And the prose poems sometimes just cascade on and on.

I haven’t read your first collection, The Glass Violin. Are the poems in The Cancellation of Clouds recognisably part of the same lineage, or does The Cancellation of Clouds represent a sharp break from your previous collection?

My first book contained near every poem of publishable standard that I had written, and there is more variation in quality there. Many of the topics you mentioned above are represented in the first collection too, but I feel I am writing better now, with more confidence and more ability to sift out the less successful works.

The Glass Violin was quite well reviewed, and one reviewer spoke of how ‘busy’ my world was. There is still a lot going on in Cancellation, but I think the poems speak to each other a little more coherently. I am trying out more forms too, notably prose-poems, which weren’t in the first collection.

I was intrigued by something I read on your blog, referring to your first collection:

Yet I actually write quite quickly. I’ve just been a shocker about trying to have my work published. About a year ago I decided to put an emphasis on seeking publication, and I have been quite fortunate in finding places that liked my work.

I have three questions about this:

(i) What prevented or discouraged you from seeking publication for your poems for so long?

I lost quite a few years of my life to depression, which is now routinely described as the black dog, a personification that I find quite amusing, as it conjures up a fat black Labrador acting as a benevolent guide dog, a creature as far from the quiet, years-long desperation of losing one’s way as it is possible to imagine. Anyone who speaks glibly of depression should be taken out and shot, in my liberal opinion. Poets do seem to have high rates of depression, but this is not what makes them poets.

I struggled to write during this time (although I did complete work) and was much too ill to cope with what I call the administrative side of poetry, or indeed any contact with the outside world. I felt ashamed at suffering from depression, which makes about as much sense as being ashamed of having cancer. I think at some level I blamed myself for being weak, and also that I had ‘no reason’ to be depressed, being in the sunny, white, middle class Australia I inhabit.

Interestingly, this is the first time I have discussed my illness in a public forum; as if the distance to New Zealand makes it easier to be honest. Although, of course, with them internets, there is no distance at all.

(ii) What caused you to change your mind and start submitting poems?

I’m tempted to simply write ‘medication’ and that is part of the truth. I finally got to the stage where I knew I was not going to die as a result of depression. I worked my way out of depression through employment at a national cultural institution, working in copyright law, an experience which was positive but which taught me that I am fundamentally not a lawyer. Then I wrote my PhD on Dickens, at the Australian National University, three months into which I had a baby. Miraculously, these two things that could have proven difficult, also helped pull me away from depression.

After the PhD I decided that I didn’t want to try and be an academic either, and that I would try and work at my own writing, rather than produce scholarly articles.

Without my husband, there is no doubt that I would not be around by now. Because of him, I am also free to write as much as I want. So from a most traditional family structure I am now able to compose cutting poems about the world’s injustices including the oppression of women, and from having survived depression, to write funny poems about Death. Death appears in most of my works, it seems to me, in one form or another.

Incidentally, I never used poetry to get out of depression; and my poems are not at all confessional. On the contrary, the slight distance I like to achieve through humour or word-play is something I value all the more for having been depressed. I invented the pen name P.S. Cottier, as I almost forgot to stick around. It’s a reference to a post-script, and is also gender neutral, as I often write in a man’s voice.

(iii) Do you think that in some ways it has been an advantage to have a lot of strong poems already written before you began to submit any of your poetry?

This is definitely true, although I’d rather not have had the extreme experiences that led to my nice little stockpile of poetic weaponry.

The Cancellation of Clouds is your third book; the one we haven’t talked about yet is your short story collection A Quiet Day and other stories. I’m keen to hear more about that collection, and I’d also like to know: do you alternate writing fiction and poetry, or do you work on both during the course of a writing day or writing week?

I was very pleased to have A Quiet Day and other stories highly commended in the recent Society Of Women Writers NSW book awards in Sydney, in the adult fiction category. It is a tiny volume of stories, ranging from the slightly surreal to the examination of loss and renewal in a suburban context. The judge of the awards referred to my stories as having a ‘poetic element’, and certainly, plot is not my particular friend. Or character development. Just description and word-play, in a slightly different form.

I can envisage writing a volume in which prose-poems are mixed with stories that are just a verb or two from being prose poems. Whether people can envisage reading such a thing is another question. If only I could work in a science fiction element it might become the world’s least publishable book.

No structure is imposed by me on my writing week except that I sit down each day at a particular time and write. I am quite looking forward to the minimal structure of being a Tuesday Poet, and posting something on my blog every Tuesday. I spend a lot more time on poetry than prose.

Each of your books has been published by Ginninderra Press. Have you enjoyed having a continuing relationship with one publisher?

Yes, I have enjoyed this. Ginninderra Press was originally based in Canberra, but moved to South Australia just before I sent them my manuscript for the first poetry collection. The two events were allegedly not related. GP publishes a lot of first writers, and it is not in the business primarily to make a profit. (As opposed to those other huge money-grubbing poetry publishers, with their Stephen King type print runs and huge advances!) They recently celebrated their 15th birthday.

All tiny presses have limited funds for promotion, so there is a great irony in the fact that the less commercial one’s work is, the more one must work to promote it. This brilliant insight may have occurred to you too, Tim.

Many of my readers may not be familiar with as much Australian poetry as they should be – and I’m one such reader. Are there Australian poets, or for that matter any poets, you especially enjoy or have been influenced by?

Firstly, I will take your stated unfamiliarity and up it with my near total ignorance of New Zealand poetry. Hopefully involvement in Tuesday poets will go some way to changing this. And I will be going to a reading by New Zealand poet Vincent O’Sullivan in Canberra next year.

I must admit that my literary heroes, until recently, have been from England and, to a lesser extent, the United States. Emily Dickinson, the aforementioned Byron (now there’s an interesting coupling), TS Eliot, Shakespeare; all very traditional. But I truly believe that you must read all this to be any good at all.

If you want to read Australian poetry on line, I recommend the Australian Poetry Library. You can search by poet or topic. Of course only one-third of the poets represented are women, but there are many fine poets here. I am totally in love with the works of joanne burns, a Sydney poet who writes prose poems, of great wit and intelligence, some of which are readable in the Poetry Library. Seeing her read last year was a genuine highlight for me.

There are also many fine poets in Canberra, such as Alan Gould, Geoff Page, Hal Judge, Kathy Kituai, Melinda Smith and many many others, and I try to go to as many launches and readings as I can without compromising my work. It is so good to be able to be a little social, after having been forced into myself by depression. I am also enjoying my doing own readings several times a year, and judging competitions.

Finally, and if you’re willing to tell us, what writing projects are you working on at the moment?

I have just started working on a possible series of linked poems dealing with extinction starring the cane toad as narrator. The corroborree frog may also be in there. We’ll see.

I am shocking in that if something catches my eye, whether it be a prompt for a competition, or an interesting argument on a web-site, I’ll drop everything and wade in.

Most of my good work comes from chasing weirdness in this way, rather than having a particular end in sight. One of my first contacts with you, for example (after you had brutally rejected one of my poems for an e-zine in an editorial capacity!) was because you had an excellent poem about snails on your blog, by Janis Freegard, and I was about to publish a story about snails on mine. (I carefully avoided any puns about getting Shelley during my first email.) That was weird and fruitful. I’m also shocking in that I will post a poem on my blog that has not been published elsewhere; I just can’t stand waiting at times, and going through the established channels of submitting to a journal.

And let’s face it, if I wanted a proper, ordered career, I’d be a lawyer, billing every six minutes of my time to a client. I don’t want that, and revel in my ability to write what I want. It’s a privilege to be where I am now. My business card says ‘poet’.

How to buy The Cancellation of Clouds

The Cancellation of Clouds is published by Ginninderra Press, as were P.S. Cottier’s two previous books, The Glass Violin (poetry) and A Quiet Day and other stories (short fiction). Each can be ordered through the poetry and fiction sections of the Ginninderra Press website.

2 thoughts on “An Interview With Penelope Cottier

  1. Interesting interview, Tim, with a poet whose name means nothing to me – I thought Les Murray was the only Australian poet in existence….! Interesting in terms of the writing approach, and metaphors about how the ideas come and so on. And the self-deprecating humour…

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