Australian writer Judith Rodriguez on her books and writing in general.
I suppose Homes and Families would be one side of my work ... my poetry is partly about that because it is the scene of our most important decisions ... it is the cradle of our abilities.
MELBOURNE was the place to be in March this year, when the city was all dressed up for the Commonwealth Games. Flinders Street Station, the grand Edwardian baroque building that is Melbourne's most famous landmark, had been repainted and refurbished recently. And when Judith Rodriguez, an ardent devotee of the city, suggested that we meet under the clocks at Flinders Street Station, I knew we would be honouring an old Melbourne tradition. Judith stood out among the revellers in her formal black hat and bright magenta top, as we picked our way through the crowds to a quiet retreat called The Writers' Centre on the second floor of a period building on the busy Swanston Street. Judith was keen that we should use the antique lift, its steel interior lined with old photographs that she wanted me to see. Her exuberance was infectious. Surrounded by well-stacked bookshelves, we settled into comfortable chairs in the cool room that we had all to ourselves. Judith seemed pleased when I commented on the immediacy of her Terror; Poems."I've always wanted to write about things that engrossed me in print and very frequently I found it absolutely impossible. I need long gestation and I do believe that poems are often more profound when they have had that long process. With Terror; Poems somehow I was indeed able to write fairly close to the events — one of the poems was a memorial for the Australian victims of the bombing in Bali. I feel it extends my range to be able to write these and of course I am a more political person than when I was younger and found it more difficult to form opinions."
Would she agree with the view that all poetry is political, I asked. "Our relations are a kind of politics and writing about the neighbourhood is a kind of politics. There's a kind of loyalty to place and culture that is a kind of politics. And I think this is a thoughtful development of our age — politics has come to assume a wider meaning for us than it used to when I was younger when it was confined to party politics and government".Speaking about poetry and social responsibility in Australia, she said, "I think many writers are inclined to try to take on what they see needs thinking about and changing in print. I can't say that's it's new in poetry or indeed in novels because the novels that I still care for are indeed political ones — of commentary, if not of protest. And the poets I care for too — I mean, Judith Wright in the end valued her poetry so little that she stopped writing poetry and engaged in protest on behalf of Nature and the Green interests and anti-nuclear interests."While it isn't easy to slot Judith's poems because of their diversity, much of her poetry deals with homes and families. I asked what images and themes she saw in her work. "Very interesting that when I brought out my first book on my own, even I thought that it was various and perhaps that's a good thing for a young poet. A bit like a ragbag ... And then with the second book, I found a very strange thing happened. I started writing poems, which were keyed to water. They didn't come in a straight line — they weren't about water in the same way each time. Also I found that when I walked down by a little creek by La Trobe University, where I was teaching at the time, I would come back with a poem each time. "I suppose Homes and Families would be one side of my work but I'm not a very good homebody. Yes, my poetry is partly about that because it is the scene of our most important decisions, our most important relationships; it is the cradle of our abilities." Judith is quite clear about what she thinks is the most important thing happening in her poems, for herself. "As far as I'm concerned, I'm a fairly unaligned writer. I don't think I fall into any groove. I suppose ... especially early on, I found myself defending the domestic poem and I wanted to say let us be true to our own experience which, in Australia is often what you'd call lower middle class, being a homebody, getting to work each day. And if you couldn't write that poetry with a sense of its importance then you were sort of lying and I did write a few things like that early on. But, I'd also like to go beyond that." Now, Judith Rodriguez would like to include more of what ruffles her about society in her poems. "I think discontent is a very productive emotion and I'm always discontented. I think that's a very productive thing for the state and for the artist."
I mentioned my interest in her decorative linocuts, some of which are included in her works. "I do them like poems; they're more than an illustration, they're an impression." Like most writers, Judith has her favourites from among her own works. "The ones that matter to me the most are the ones where I most clearly perceive that there is a force outside myself, which is speaking through me, and there are just one or two poems like that. ... and these are not the poems that would appeal to audiences ..they are my private poems for me. There's a little poem called The White Room,... I had a poem in my second book called Eskimo Occasion - about me and my two daughters, who were then little toddlers, at breakfast in the kitchen and a lot of people remember that poem because it's fairly exuberant. But I would like to say that that was in 1976 and this is 2006". What were some of the major developments in Australian writing in her time? "We've seen some very interesting things that kind of followed on American poetry that was written in the 1960s — an openness to experiment and often to experiment that was led to by knowing of other literatures. I feel the writing scene has become a lot more professional, career-oriented marketing wise; perhaps you could call it a loss of innocence. But there's a lot more variety; there are Australians contributing to the international thriller scene; there are people writing confidently about our cities in a way that they wouldn't have earlier because they felt our cities were too trivial or unknown. So I suppose we've got a bit more savvy." Did she think that Australian writers would become better known, get more attention on the world scene?"The problem with Australia as say, compared to India or China, is the reading audience. Although we are united and heterogeneous in one language, and although we try to insist on a general literacy, it's a small market. Now that's what we have to overcome. English as a language is developing in a very fruitful and colourful way. But the reverse side is that although we have writing in English from other countries, this tends to drown what we try to do. The defence of one's own culture — making sure that everything that is written there is printed and circulated — that's something our government needs to do". Responding to the general uncertainty about whether writing could be taught, Judith said, "There are lots of things that can be taught. A systematic interest in the scene — that is the very simplest. But you can also teach people that there are requirements, for instance, if somebody is devising narrative, or certain uses to which you can put stage or film or a dramatic construct. I'm sure a lot of writing careers were wasted because the writers found no company, found no discussion; in many cases didn't even find the other writing that they'd be interested in. And the fact that there are now writing classes enables that to happen."