Thursday, January 12, 2012
Interview with Aussie writer, Helen Patrice
Helen Patrice is the author of one of my favourite books, the verse novel A Woman of Mars, of which the acclaimed SF author Ray Bradbury says: 'Helen Patrice's poems are little love letters not only to the Red Planet but also to the sense of alien wonder that is so often missing from imaginative fiction and poetry. Bravo to her!'
She is also known for her columns in NOVA and Living Now (Australia) irregular appearances in Circle Magazine and Sage Woman (USA), and has had poems and articles in a variety of other publications —literary, magickal and mainstream. Currently she shares her poems with the private facebook group Free Verse Weekends.
As well, she is one of my best friends — but I would think highly of her writing anyway, I promise, and trust the same goes for the nice things she says (below) about mine. In fact, the appreciation of each other's writing caused the friendship, not the other way about.
I asked the questions I personally wanted answered, thinking that they would probably be the same ones to interest others.
Rosemary: I’ve long known you as a naturally gifted poet, columnist and blogger who has also written some lovely short stories. What form of writing did you start with, and how old were you then?
Helen: I was in primary school when I started writing, likely about nine years old. I know I was playing word games then, and forcing my best friend to play them with me. We’d select our favourite ten tv programmes, and take it in turns to write five lines of a story, each time adding in another show. A lot of fun. My friend noticed that I was pretty tough on character continuation, and following through a plot line. She didn’t care, but I sure did. If I mentioned Dr Who in the first five lines, I sure wasn’t going to just forget about him in line 55. It was a natural progression to start writing my own stories, and some fan fiction. By the end of primary school, I was showing my stories to the librarian, Dawn Bursey, who bless her, encouraged me. So, fiction was my arena for many years.
R: Was it always your goal to be a writer, as in your primary occupation, or did you have other career ideas when you were growing up?
H: From age nine, I knew I wanted to be a writer. Astronaut came in maybe a year earlier. I went so far as to apply to the air force when I was about to graduate high school, on the basis that NASA’s astronaut qualifications base was: American citizenship (I figured I could marry some Yank, no problem), air force training, and ten thousand hours of flying time. Sure, I could do all that. Several problems: I didn’t know any Americans, the air force didn’t want me, I wore glasses and that precluded flight training, and at that time, the air force didn’t let women fly the planes. Writer seemed easier after that. I never gave up hope however, and sent my resume to NASA once a year up until they retired the space shuttle programme. I can’t tell you how many rejection slips I had from them, telling me to go get a science degree.
R: How have you supported yourself while trying to ‘make it’?
H: Let’s see: checkout chick; public servant; leaf polisher for the public service; clerical work; teaching creative writing, tarot, belly dance, meditation, yoga, palmistry, and astrology; doing tarot readings; working in a crystal shop; integration aide; house cleaning; ghost writer; one dreadful night on a sex phone line; child care worker; professional declutterer; belly dancer. If there’s anything else, it’s been lost in the mists of my mind.
R: This is a digression, but I’m sure everyone else will want to know too — what was so dreadful about the sex line?
H: I put the kids to bed, and clocked onto the sex line. I was dressed in old pyjamas, and fluffy slippers, and had the ironing board set up. I had a set of headphones on, and within minutes, the first call came through, and I found myself telling the man that I was wearing black cut out lace knickers and bra, and that I was restless and hot. It was erotic auto-pilot, while the guy had a heavy breathing attack down the line at me. This went on for several hours. I got through the ironing, chopped up vegies for a casserole the next day, and then I started getting tired. I'm not a night owl. I had two small children who had to get to school and kinder in the morning. I was supposed to log off the sex line around 5am, and I knew I'd have to get my kids up around 7. It was 1am. I was tired. Some bloke phoned up, and wanted some ridiculous scenario, which I blathered on about. We were meant to keep the guys on the line as long as possible. The sex part was over with fairly quickly, and you moved on to building a fantasy life with them. Where you'd live, what sort of life you'd have, where you'd holiday, what sort of shower you'd have so he could peek in at you each morning, blah, blah, blah. I reached the end of my creativity, as I sat watching some evangelical tv show with the sound off. I wanted to go to bed. The guy on the phone wanted to know what I was doing right that minute. I sighed. "Sitting on the couch, watching religious tv," I said, and hung up. I phoned in, logged off, and never went back. I couldn't do it.
R: For much of your adult life you have been a single mother to two profoundly deaf children, one of whom is also autistic. I know something of how this has impacted your life; how has it affected you as a writer?
H: For many years, I didn’t write at all. The shell shock of it was profound, and I felt I had no voice any more, nothing to say that wasn’t the stuttered words ‘deaf’, ‘autism’, ‘help!’. When I did begin writing again, my foci had changed greatly. It was as though, at long last, I’d been touched by life. I’d been down in the mud where it gets gritty and real, and my characters had more to them, I’d seen the good and bad in people, and I’d seen the amazing bravery of my son, trying to be with us through the miasma of autism and hearing impairment. Finally, I wrote about it. I’ve written one unpublished memoir about my daughter’s hearing loss, up until age twelve when she received her cochlear implant. I’ve written poems about autism, and several articles. The memoir about my son is still to come, if I’m brave enough to write it. Sometimes, when my writing feels fragmented and doesn’t make sense, I can feel autism sitting in the back of my own head, watching, and I understand all over again how it must be for David.
R: How hard has it been to persist in (a) writing (b) trying to get published?
H: You’re speaking to someone who’s just announced dramatically on facebook that they are quitting writing, knowing full well that I’m only on hiatus. Persisting through everything has been both curse, and lifeline. I’ve felt dragged from my family by the urge to write, and dragged from writing by the guilt that pulls me back to parenting. When my brain happily rewired itself to move from fiction to poetry, apparently with no going back, I thought I’d lost said mind. I wondered what on earth was going on. I wanted to quit, sure that I’d gone mad, or that I’d just lost it completely. Then I saw that I’d been a poet all along, and that it was no wonder my short stories were so very short, and that my characters were light brush stroke sketches.
In terms of getting published, persistence and an unattractive thick skin help. I was once proud of my huge collection of rejection slips, declaring that they proved I was a working writer. After I had the kids, and suffered post-natal depression, I became very sensitive to criticism and couldn’t bear to look at the rejections or suffer too many. I stopped submitting.
I’m now happily medicated. I don’t mind saying this. I think clinical chronic depression is a bogeyman that needs to have the light of day shone on it. I have depression, have apparently suffered from it since my mid-teens. After I had the kids, it became chronic and very bad, and I never ‘picked myself up’. In 2008, I was diagnosed, and the doctor and I found the right pill, and I have not looked back since. I still have my bad times, but I know a lot more about managing them, and making allowances, and am slowly starting to submit again in volume.
Getting my book published was luck. I’d made no submissions of the manuscript. My girlfriend Marianne Plumridge thought the collection was good, and through her husband Bob, a well known science fiction artist, she knew publishers and editors. She showed it to the right one, and boom, a few days later, he said he was publishing it!
R: I was in total agreement with Marianne. I’m very glad that she had the contacts to do something about it, and that our judgment has been so beautifully vindicated. If I may back-track a bit, when did that rewiring of your brain happen? Was it recent? (I thought you wrote some charming short stories early on.)
H: I would estimate about eight years ago. My short stories kept getting shorter and shorter, with little characterisation. I was having less and less success in the traditional short story field, with a beginning, a middle and an ending, with plot, character, theme. I found myself honing in more and more on a single vision moment in a story and just wanting to tell that bit, with the rest as window dressing. Then I stopped writing for a couple of years, and found myself absolutely exhausted at the idea of building a short story, finding it way too much effort.
R: Sounds a bit like me as a novelist. The few times I’ve tried it, I’ve bored myself stupid very quickly. So, what happened next?
H: I had lunch with Earl Livings and bemoaned my non-writing status. He prompted me to get The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron off my bookshelf and actually do the 12 week programme to recover my creativity. Now, I'd had this book for a few years, read it and thought 'Yeah, yeah, sounds good, one day maybe'. The day had come. I started it, in the middle of winter, where the view out my bedroom window was grey concrete, a strip of clover grass about three feet wide, a dead lemon tree, and the grey back fence. I did my morning pages in bed each morning, exploring my depression(and getting the first inkling that perhaps I was chronically depressed and that this was perhaps not normal), exploring my ailing relationship, exploring what I might want from my life.
Then, out of nowhere, the poems started. Pouring out of me, sometimes three each morning, coming directly out of the morning pages. Once the twelve weeks finished, the poetry died for a little while, and so I attempted a short story that just died in the first page. Try as I might, I could not progress the story, and finally realised I didn't want to. I wanted to concentrate on a single moment in the story. So, I told that and had a paragraph from a short story. I messed around with it, trying to pull it out, like taffy. No go. It took weeks before I realised that it wanted to be a poem. So, my life as a poet began, and I remember sending you my monthly poetry output for your opinion.
R: It was mostly terrific stuff even then! Your natural aptitude seems to be for free verse, though I know you write haiku too. Apart from haiku, did you ever study form or did you just bypass it? (I always thought one needed a good grounding in form in order to write free verse well, but you appear to give the lie to that theory.)
H: I did do some study of form, under Jennie Fraine, at Frankston TAFE, back in 1988. I joined her poetry class and she took us through practice of various forms, before we moved to free verse. I was never much good at form, though, didn’t like the constrictions, and was relieved when, after one term, we could do as we liked. Every now and then, Rosemary, you’ll mention a form that sounds interesting and I’ll have a disastrous mess with it in my journal, before deciding all over again that ‘fuck this shit, it’s back to chopping up sentences’.
R: Your poetry is a lot more than merely chopping up sentences! You seem to have a sure instinct for line endings, natural rhythms and so forth. How much crafting do you do at the time of writing? (For myself, a so-called first draft might be more like a tenth, only it all happens as part of the initial creation.)
H: How much crafting do I do at the time of writing? Very little. I work with the breath when it comes to line endings, where I want the reader to pause. Or where I can see a play on words, or two possible meanings if I break a sentence where I do. Most of the poems you see on Free Verse Weekends are written on the site, as is. No work, beyond the initial idea, and wanting to say it. I think this is why most of my poems are short. That 'small river stone' of an idea that just has to be said economically. Sometimes, when I come to the page, or the group, I have no idea what I'm going to say, thinking 'surely this time I'm all tapped out', yet something appears. I can't say it's always good, but it's mostly first draft. I don't analyse too much what I do, for fear that if you analyse what is in the cake, it no longer tastes as nice.
R: I hate you. Well, no I don’t; I like playing with form sometimes, and wouldn’t want not to be able to. All the same, to get results like yours so easily … ! Despite your strengths as a poet, I always thought your great dream was to be a successful fiction writer. Do your recent verse novel, A Woman of Mars, and the new one in the pipeline satisfy that urge, or do you still long to get a prose novel published too?
H: My great dream WAS to have a prose novel published. I saw myself having written a best seller of some sort (who doesn’t, really?) and appearing on the Don Lane Show. I wanted to tell him that I too would like to punch James Randi out. Never happened. The Don Lane Show was cancelled, I never wrote the book, and then, last year, Don Lane himself passed away. I believe James Randi is still going strong, so there’s hope I might get to punch him out.
I have to admit that I’m simply not prepared to do the work in terms of a novel. I’ve written four novels now, all through NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, where you write 50,000 words over the course of November). Chicklit, murder mystery set in Melbourne’s belly dance community, science fiction, dark urban fantasy. I’ve never rewritten any of them. Once I’ve told the story, I’ve told it, and have little interest in going back over it.
Rewrites, and the thought of line edits, and galley proofs make me want to be sick. So, unless I can produce a perfect novel in the first draft, it ain’t gonna happen. Not unless I get locked in a room for months on end with nothing else to do but rewrite my stuff.
A Woman of Mars does not quite satisfy that urge, but it will have to do.
R: At present you’re working on a ‘salacious memoir’ about the men in your life, and have begun a series of poems about them. Will this memoir be all in verse, or will it include prose passages too?
H: Oh, the prose part was just too hard. All this dreadful whiny, angsty stuff came out. In poems, not so much. I could cut to the chase, my perceptions of how it all was. So, now I have around 25 poems, with a few more to add from my files, and will likely end up with around 35 poems all up, to be put together in a chapbook, and then, if I get brave, perhaps marketed as an ebook. I doubt any publisher would be willing to put their hand up and say “Hell, yeah, sex poems from an unknown!”
R: Are you writing the memoir as catharsis for yourself, entertainment for others, or both?
H: All of that. I didn’t look on it as catharsis, but what a great thing it’s been to be as bitchy as I like, knowing that it’s first draft, knowing that I’ll change the names, knowing that considering how uncharitable I’ve been in some cases, the guys are not likely to put their hands up and say: “Hey that’s me in poem 24, hey, everyone, look, look what she said about me, I’m gonna sue!”. And, when I’ve shared the poems, there’s been a certain amount of giggling, and gasping.
R: What I’ve seen of it is often very funny, yet serious at the same time. I can hardly wait for the completed volume. You were recently chosen as one of only 12 poets to participate in a weekend workshop with the legendary Marge Piercy, whose work both you and I greatly admire. Was she formidable, inspiring, nurturing, all of the above ...?
H: Marge Piercy is my poetry goddess, and when I applied to the workshop, I doubted I’d get in, and was greatly surprised when she replied less than 24 hours later, in an email saying: “I want you, but CAN you get here?” I stared and stared at the screen, thinking ‘Holy crap, the Goddess emailed me!’ You betta believe I could get there, any way possible. I didn’t care if she lived in Outer Mongolia. Marge said come, and I went.
I was terrified before the workshop, wondering if I was THAT good, or THAT bad and Marge needed to tell me in person. “Hello, I really must tell you that you are crap, and to stop writing straight away. Please, do the universe a favour.”
When I found out that applications were in the hundreds, and that only 12 were chosen, I was gobsmacked.
Then, on the first day of the week-long workshop, I saw her in the foyer of the Seniors Centre, in Wellfleet. Short, stocky, a wild frizz of black hair, and, well, I have to say it, a rather dowdy outfit covered in cat hair. She has glaucoma and thus cannot see her clothes that well, and I daresay, even if she could, she would not give much of a damn.
She was lovely. Nurturing, direct, honest, and not formidable in any way, except in terms of her steel-trap mind which remembers everything it reads. Her knowledge is extraordinary, and it’s no wonder her poems are full of such beautiful detail. She knows the name for everything, and has the curiosity of a kitten. She is opinionated, passionate when she feels she has been wronged, and was gently encouraging of the only man in the workshop, joking on the first day that he was brave.
R: Were you the only non-American in this workshop?
H: I was indeed the only non-American. There were several from Alabama, a couple from around New York, one from Colorado, one from Minnesota, and oh, I can’t remember where else now. I do know that Melinda, who has the most delightful southern accent, would beg me to read anything from an English poet, in my ‘English’ accent. I sounded English? I don’t bloody think so! In turn, I wanted her to read just about anything.
R: What in particular did you gain from your attendance?
H: I think most writers go to workshops to find out if they’re any good. They want to hear that what they’re doing is not crazy person nonsense. I got a wide exposure to American poetry, and an introduction to ‘Poets and Writers’ magazine, which I’d not encountered until then, but is a marvelous tool for those wanting to publish in the States. I got reassurance that I was indeed a poet, and a pretty good one, which is nice to know. Since then, I’ve carried a little kernel of confidence inside me. Even now, when I’m feeling discouraged about the publishing side of things and feel it’s all too hard, I know that I am a good writer, and that I am just not appreciated. Does that sound martyred and wanky? Yes. It’s more that I’m a good writer, but just not willing to play the right games, curry favour, and network myself sick. I go to science fiction conventions, forget completely to schmooze editors and publishers and attend the right parties, and instead spend my time buying steampunk costumes, talking with random people, and acting the goat at the Baen Books room party.
R: Who are your favourite (a) poets (b) fiction writers?
H: You know, I hate this question, because it can depend on the day, the phase of the Moon, or whether or not the kitten is being nice to me. I will thus list the mainstays, and ignore who I might be passionately in love with this week.
Poets: Great Goddess Marge Piercy of course; Carol Ann Duffy for her marvellous ‘The World’s Wife’ collection of poems; Mary Oliver for seeing the sacred in the ordinary; Jennie Fraine for bringing Africa alive for me; yourself dear, for your wide vista of topics and for being both tough and gentle; Billy Collins for his humour and insight; Naomi Shihab Nye is a recent addition, as is Kim Addonizio.
Fiction: Connie Willis. I adore her screwball take on science fiction themes, as well as the heart she brings to some very clinical subjects. Arthur C. Clarke’s earlier works before he got into sequels. Asimov’s short robot stories. Nina Kiriki Hoffman is writing some wonderful fantasy that is gripping and human. I love Mercedes Lackey’s Diana Tregarde series, but she says there will be no more because they don’t sell enough. A pity.
R: I agree with you about quite a few of those! Honoured to be included, and fascinated to learn why. Thank you. Who are your biggest influences as (a) a poet (b) a prose writer?
H: As a poet, my biggest influences are Marge Piercy, Rosemary Nissen-Wade, Carol Ann Duffy, and the writing books of Natalie Goldberg.
As a prose writer, I have to look back to Erma Bombeck, Charles de Lint sometimes, Connie Willis, and, of all people, John Birmingham. Whenever I get jammed up, I go read ‘He Died With A Felafel in His Hand’ and realize that anything goes.
R: Well, thank you again, for putting me in such company! Certainly both Piercy and Goldberg are among my influences too, and I also love Bombeck and de Lint. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
H: Write, write, write. Get off facebook, get off twitter, myspace, angry birds, and whatever else is holding you in thrall. Put down the Wii, and go to the computer or the blank page and start. It doesn’t matter what. It doesn’t have to be good. What it has to be is words on the page. Write everything – poetry, fan fiction, prose, snatches of plays, whatever. Have a go at everything, hold nothing back, be brave. And when you’re not at the page, get out into the world, stand still, be silent, observe and ask ‘Why?’ Wait for your own answer.
Read voraciously, and not just what you think you’ll like. I used to go to the library and if the author I wanted wasn’t available, I’d often pick the next book along, on the off-chance that maybe a typo in filing meant that Lawrence and Laurence were the same person and I’d find more goodness. I did find goodness, but also some icko stuff as well, and I learned from that too.
R: Good advice! Where can people (a) read your work online (b) buy your book?
H: NOVA magazine, published by Sunrise Publishing, have a fine backlog of my articles. I was their ‘centrefold’ for around five years, writing an article a month for them on their theme. Some of them can be found on the NOVA website.
I also have my own website, which is run by my friend Yvonne Hintz. There should be some new stuff up on there shortly.
As for my book, ‘A Woman of Mars: poems of an early homesteader’, it is available through PS Publishing, Stanza Press, in the UK. If you go to the site and have a hunt around on there, you should find it. [I've linked direct to their Poetry page. - R.] For those in Australia, I also have a number of copies for sale, and those interested can contact me via my website. $25 excludes postage. Cover by Bob Eggleton, and back cover blurb by none other than Ray Bradbury.
R: I'm very glad to learn of the NOVA website. The magazine has sometimes been hard to get in the small country town where I live. I'm now having a lovely time catching up with all your articles.
Yes, I know this post is about Helen, not me — but the interviewing did take up quite a lot of my life this week, sending questions and answers back and forth, with answers leading to new questions, and so on.