A relatively new voice, Caitlin Maling’s work explores ecopoetics and the environment in both America and Australia, and the experience of living both at home and overseas. In this interview, Amy Lin talks to Caitlin about her interest in Criminology, science poetry, mythical figures, pop culture, and blurred binary distinctions between self and other, nature and culture, and the universal and the human. Caitlin Maling’s second book Border Crossing was released in 2017 by Fremantle Press.
AL: The poems from Border Crossing were written in America, when you were living in Houston and travelling across the country. Where were they edited and compiled into this collection? Did the actual act of crossing borders influence the way the book was put together?
CM: The poems were edited in a lot of different places. A lot of them were edited as I was writing them, and then didn’t really change much from there. So they were edited all over America, but the ones that were individually published were published in Australia and then I’d get editorial feedback from Australian journals. But the bulk of the editing was done here in WA, so I came back and Wendy Jenkins, who’s the poetry editor at Fremantle Press, likes to work in person with the poems so I came back last summer for an extended period of time and met with her on a regular basis. She’d give me handwritten notes on the poems that I’d take home and compile. So they were edited here, up at Cervantes, at my husband’s parents’ place at the Grey Shack Settlement, so it was in my different Western Australian landscape places as I tend to just take my manuscript with me. I think it helped me think about the arc better. There was an extra sense of distance; a lot of the poems are about Australia while I’m in America, but then I was editing America while I was back in Australia. So I was again refracting that American experience back. Even though it’s not as autobiographical as Conversations I’ve Never Had, knowing where I’d ended up at the end of the book—that I had returned Australia, that shaped how I saw the overall journey of the book. Towards the end, ‘Road Runner’ has Bicton in it, which was the most recent poem I wrote that’s in there, so the return to Australia did end up structuring the book.
AL: You have a background in Criminology, and some of your poems from both Conversations I’ve Never Had and Border Crossing reflect this interest. For instance, in CINH there was the poem addressed to child murderer Robert Thompson, and in BC you write of ‘the man who drove his sons into the dam’. How have you found the process of weaving public news with personal memories?
CM: In both of those poems it’s not necessarily crimes that I’m addressing from a criminological perspective because when I worked on criminology it was much more macro, rather than forensic psychology or anything. I guess I was really morbid as a kid, so there were crimes that for whatever reason I felt like I’d personally processed or which shaped my understanding of the world as I was growing up. Especially with Robert Thompson—hearing about that as a kid, and then always wanting to read and understand it made me very aware of what people are capable of. I remember when Conversations got reviewed someone said that ‘it’s very good on violence’. And there is that sense of roughness and violence that does go through perhaps too much in my work. I guess it is criminological in the way that I was always interested in exploring the potential for those things in society and in the individual, and it does come through, and those poems are a way of empathising with those things.
AL: Popular culture seems to find its way into Border Crossing, with allusions to Bridezillas, The Bachelor, a singing show, and the ‘sad teen cancer movie’. These snippets seemed to be tinged with a sense of irony, and form fresh subject matter for the collection. How do you see the role of mainstream culture in contemporary poetry?
CM: I guess it depends what you want to do. You do have to have that balance between: ‘Is this poem going to stand up in ten, fifteen years time or is it just a poem for now and reflecting back immediately on what I’m seeing around me?’ And I think poetry can do both. So I’m always really interested in poetry that speaks back to what’s happening in this instant, potentially more than I am interested in poetry that’s trying to stand up for ages, I don’t know why. I do think it has to be doing something more than that as well. Some of my poems can get toward that—some don’t, but then I just find them funny, like ‘The Bachelor’ is funny to me. But I’m always really interested in these naff sociological studies—folklore studies—in tropes that are being continuously refreshed in Western culture. And so I look at these new iterations of reality TV and being like, ‘What is this actually trying to say … ’. Or not what it is trying to say because I doubt it is trying to say anything, but what is it that it could be saying and why is it saying that? Why do people want that story? The Kardashians could be a contemporary Brady Brunch, I don’t know why, it’s just like this happy blended family.
AL: It seems to me that there is an undercurrent in the poems about how the show is speaking to the viewer, as in ‘You are what this show is all about’.
CM: Yeah it is about that. To me, it’s a bi-directional relationship. In the same way that we are taught to read in a certain way, the TV is teaching people how to read it, teaching TV how to serve them in some way. I like to watch reality TV shows until I get to that point when I understand what is happening, or I think I do. ‘You are what this show is all about’ is about those singing competitions where you start to learn the narrative arcs that you can expect from them. Then it’s like candy—you’re consuming this really familiar sweet thing, which is also slightly toxic.
AL: Another recurring motif in BC is that of consumerism or corporatisation; in the book we see the natural landscape disrupted with Walmarts and Loews stores. And I know that you’re interested in ecopoetics and the pastoral mode for your PhD thesis. How does this second collection negotiate boundaries between natural and humanmade worlds?
CM: Ah, it’s interesting. I like the pastoral because in the way I see it, the way I like it, it’s not pretending to access this pure, sublime nature; it’s this very artificial mode. I like that in it. So I don’t necessarily think of it as crossing borders between the natural and the humanmade, but that there isn’t necessarily a border. There’s no way really to get beyond the constructed even if you’re looking for a way beyond the constructed. It’s the idea of landscape as being shaped by human vision. So even in the poems where … I’m always driving—immersed in a transcendent experience, it’s not so much of a nature / culture binary to me. The way we think about nature is part of our culture. ‘February in Oregon’ was a poem written differently, trying to gain access to a place through writing about place. But even that was fake in the way that I put it put together afterwards. So while it sounds like a calendar of my days, those days were not in that order. I pulled it together and made a collage out of it, put the numbers on top of it. The compositional process is shaping the landscape.
AL: In this collection it seems that you have honed a sophisticated way of structuring and segmenting your poems. For instance, ‘Sad Teen Cancer Movie’ intersperses scenes from a film with the drive to a cinema, and ‘February in Oregon’ breaks its meditations into twenty-eight parts. Is there some significance in these textual gaps, these borders that the reader must cross?
CM: Yeah. I like collage as the idea that the reader has to bring it together in their mind. I like poems that require a reader to do something, that active participation in the construction of the poem. Which all poems do, but I like the textual gaps. Someone asked me to define poetry recently and I realised I was getting a little 1960s Robert Bly, like ‘I like the poetic leap!’ And then because I’m not a subtle person I wanted ‘giant poetic leaps for the audience to jump over, in caesuras’. But it’s also, I guess, for me, resisting the tendency of Conversations—those poems are quite narrative, and they have a tendency towards epiphanic endings, and the complete poem. So I was wanting to write away from that, to be interested in seeing what else I could do with poetry. To push myself harder in that direction and see what I could weave together. I was reading Tracy K Smith, Life on Mars, she does the weave so well. I was also reading creative non-fiction—which could also be poetry—and how they do the weave that is so essential to the lyric essay. Thinking about that in some of the poems as, ‘what could this mean as an essay?’ So with ‘February in Oregon’ there are tiny little daily things that are essayistic in that way.
AL: One thing I really like about these poems is the way you play with language from line to line. For instance, ‘Islands’—which is my personal favourite—is composed of thirty-four sections which are often connected by some semantic or linguistic link. To what extent do the histories and meanings of words drive the drafting of your poems?
CM: Very little! My husband and his friends, engineers, will be in a car and he’ll be like, ‘What does this word mean’, and they’ll debate forever and I’ll be like, ‘Stop it, I’m dying, this is so boring!’ There are some that I like and I’ll take those, but rarely do semantics come into play. The exception is I love colloquialisms and their dual meanings, and I like words that are particular to places, place words that people say funny. ‘Islands’ I like, because it mimics the kinds of conversations I have with my husband, in the layering.
AL: There seemed to me to be quite a lot of plays with language, and humorous anecdotes of misunderstandings of words, for instance you talk about emailing someone about the ‘erogenous zone of California’.
CM: That’s all true, though. I have personal favourite words. It won’t be the actual meaning of words but words that for whatever reason I’m attached to, what I think they mean.
AL: One thing I noticed about Border Crossing was its exciting use of scientific imagery. Readers get human biology in ‘Tinnitus’, physics in ‘Fear Letters’, animal biology in ‘Organ Mountains’, and even mathematics in ‘Checkpoint’. Is it difficult to write science and maths into poems, and what do you think these disciplines can bring to poetry?
CM: It depends how much you love them. I love them. Before there was Alternative Facts as a general thing we now talk about, one of the key ways I used to irritate my husband was make up my own alternative scientific theories and pretend that I believed them. And that requires knowing things to a certain degree before you can embellish. ‘So theoretically, we could have a carbon sun’, and he would say, ‘You can’t have a carbon sun’, and I would be like, ‘I don’t know why not?’ It’s just stuff that I love and that I encounter. I don’t set out to research things but as I’m moving about I take note of things that I find interesting, I read the noticeboards at random tourist attractions and think about that. I think a lot of what I’ve been working on is motivated at looking outside of faith. I’m a pretty hardcore atheist but what other wider structures can I use besides faith-based structures but at the same time not wanting to turn them into faith-based structures. So I do like to research that type of stuff.
AL: It’s another resource that you can mine for poems I suppose.
CM: Yep. And I used to think everyone should write science poetry. Then doing my PhD work I found this book it’s called Against Ecology or something by Dana Phillips and it’s all about how poets make science into a metaphorical thing, but it’s an actual thing, and we misrepresent the sciences, and it’s inaccurate. Where images of ecology are used to stand in for a presumed holism of everything is not something I’m interested in. I’m more interested in science in the sense that there’s still that gap between knowing that the universe is gradually expanding and everything is getting colder, or if it’s something else that’s going on, the idea that there are still these fundamental conflicts at different levels of physics, I love all those gaps and things that can’t be explained.
AL: It seems quite fertile ground for poetry in many ways, though we often think of science and poetry as opposite realms.
CM: But there are poets that are so much better at it than me. You know A. R. Ammons, the American poet, I read this paper about his use of fractal geometry in structuring poems. I can use the metaphoric language, but the actual physical structure is not mimicking the scientific process or physics, but the ones who can do that, I’m like ‘Whoah, you’re so cool!’
AL: Like Conversations, Border Crossing makes use of mythological, biblical and literary figures, such as Herakles, Aclima, Cain and Abel, and the occasional Shakespearean heroine. In what ways do these figures aid your expression of personal experience?
CM: I think of the ones that are mythological often as like my diary poems. They’re often the ones that people want to cut from my manuscripts. But I don’t end up doing it because I think of them as tracing even more than the popular culture ones, exactly where I am in that particular moment. So it’s that age old mask of saying something to people that you can’t say otherwise. They allow me to access emotions in a different way. Or ones which combine mythic figures, real world events or pop culture is again tracing the linkage of these archetypes throughout, which is something that I’m very interested in.
AL: In ‘Shreveport’ you write, ‘I never thought / I’d be nostalgic for destruction, the catastrophic fire warning of midsummer … ’. Yet your poetry also seems to display a nostalgia for the beauty and life inherent in the environment. How did you find the process of writing about this tension or ambivalence?
CM: I think nostalgia is a key word there, I’m always trying to push back against sentiment—even though I’m not very good at it—and see what’s beneath it, both in terms of what is driving this desire for, for lack of a better term, unification with nature and also what of nature exists outside of desire, outside of the human eye, outside of the poem. It’s an impossible task, obviously, but that’s what I think makes it interesting. Ambivalence I think is essential for a lot of poetry, especially mine where I can definitely get self-aggrandisingly lyrical. In terms of ambivalence in writing environments, I think often of this piece the late WA poet Fay Zwicky wrote on the (also WA) poet Randolph Stow—and Australian masculine modernism more widely—where she talks about the landscape taking the place of the unobtainable love object in lyric Romantic poetry. It’s a desire for possession, which is extra dubious when your write from and about—as I do—colonised landscapes. Whenever I feel my poems trying to tug me that way, a warning light flashes ‘danger’ in my head and I try and pull the other way, that’s the key ambivalence in my poetry I think.
AL: Poems such as ‘Background Extinction’ seem to hint at the insignificance of the human experience compared with the universe (‘How slow the universe moves / measured against our one life’). In a collection that explores ecopoetics, globalisation, science and travel, what kinds of ideas were you raising about what it is to be human?
CM: I don’t think it means anything to be human, but I would like it to, this is another key ambivalence in my work. Poetry as much as it can be said to be about anything, is, for me, about trying to bridge the gap between word and world, to get as close a possible to some type of meaning beyond the linguistic while always acknowledging that there is a gap. I am a relentless dualiser, very prone to binary thinking. One of the things I’m interested in raising in my poetry is how to get beyond this, that’s really what the title Border Crossing was about for me, the borders between self and world, self and Other, self and other-than-human, world and universe.