Zoe Dzunko Interview

Interview – Zoe Dzunko.

Zoe Dzunko is an Australian poet and editor of the Powder Keg, an online poetry journal; two of her poems (Sand Under Nails and Fake Flowers Last Forever) were published in LYRA’s first issue. Zoe is always wonderfully generous in correspondence, and interesting too. Below is a beautiful, honest interview.

Jago: When did you start writing poetry, and why?

Zoe: I always find this question difficult to answer because I don’t feel as though I had a definitive ‘poetry moment’ – there was no big revelation. I didn’t, like, stumble across Rimbaud and in that instant find a new world had opened up to me. My induction into poetry was a much subtler and more protracted process. It has been present for a long time, sharing space with other interests pursued with more fervor and, only now, after those fascinations have waned, can I see that poetry has been the one constant of my life to date.

What I do believe to be true—and certainly true for me—is that most children are writing poems and, if they aren’t writing them, they’re largely occupying a mindscape I’d determine as poetic. I think about those early years, perhaps before formal education begins, where sensory and emotional realms are far less likely to have been denatured by logic. Children are driven primarily by their instincts, are attuned to their own tactile connections to spaces and objects, and are predisposed to internalising the patterns of extrinsic worlds to build private meaning. I think this is why the phrase ‘because’ often proves to be an unsatisfactory response to a child’s ‘why?’, the reason such a response begets more questions.

‘Because’ represents an arbitrary logic or code that fails to adequately address the distinctly more immaterial processes at play in the child’s mind.

So, for me, the poem is a return to that space—one that resists ratiocination and instead validates the primacy of human feeling. I find it interesting that many of us, especially non-poets or those with little interest in poetry, turn to it in moments that defy abstraction. You go to a funeral, and somebody reads a poem. Why? I mean, maybe it’s a force of habit, but I feel like it’s a good example of how we rely upon logic until we meet its end point. Of course, we know that whatever we love is finite, we understand this with a removed sense of certitude, but the feeling of loss or trauma is not dispelled by this knowledge.

As somebody who grew up in the grips of a very fraught adolescence, poetry did the same work for me, in that it gave weight to my personal experiences and validated an often waning sense of self. My involuntary response to that anxiety was often reticence, not just a perceived sense of voicelessness but a literal taciturnity. I wouldn’t say that poems were cathartic, then, as much as they were an affirmation of the legitimacy of my emotions. Poetry grants us the potential to dwell in a ruminative state, and honours the complexity of our inner life.

I suppose this goes some of the way to answering why and when poems came alive for me.

J: Is there anything you try and address in your poetry?

Z: Not consciously, though I’m sure that certain issues could be said to be prominent in my work. Ultimately, this is a reflection of my personal fixations, the way they surface like stubborn weeds along the fringes of the poems. Even if I don’t mean for them to do so; even if I explicitly attempt to ignore them, often I wont realise they’ve emerged until long after the poem has been written.

Something might be said for my lack of command over the work itself, but I think these tropes arise in inconspicuous ways because they are so indivisible from my psyche. It’s like looking at your face for the whole of your life and seeing only your face, not the details of its constitution.

Imagining this poem-blindness taking the shape of a body and a mirror is actually pretty apt, because that iconography tends to dominate the poems. I am fascinated by frontiers, especially those somatic in nature, be they the limits of physical shapes, the division between mind and meat, or the partitions between individuals that are imposed by material boundaries. I’m also drawn to the specifically female binary of vacuity and substance, and our submission to our bodies; I often imagine my physical shape as an antagonistic shadow I drag behind me, with its exhausting needs. It’s easy to forget that such divides do not really exist—a sense of realisation that I’m forever writing towards.

J: Can poems be political?

Z: I would say that in much the same way as everything—even something self-designated as apolitical—and especially any human-made piece of art, is innately political. Even a poem that refuses to engage with political discourse is, by its very nature, political for this act of omission. I don’t believe it’s possible to evade some level of partisanship ever, especially not in a poem, which seeks to pull from outside contexts and reconfigure this information in such a way that it might be compressed or crystallised through a miniscule human lens. If I float the notion of my personal experience in a female body, I am ultimately doing so in acknowledgement of the limits of my own perception, and in concert with the myriad experiences of gender that, while vastly different from my own, are as vivid and legitimate.

More specifically, I think that some of the best poems being written, that have ever been written, are overtly political. I’m not sure that we can equate observable politics with the direct sense of a poem containing within its world the impression of something being at stake, but maybe we can. Maybe it is that simple. If I think of the work that has brutalised me, has impressed upon me its cruciality, it has always been the poem seeking to contravene the oppressive structures within which it finds itself. I think it’s also important to note that in the case of voices that have been subjected to systematic marginalization, the very act of speaking and reclaiming that autonomy is an undeniably political act, however grossly insufficient this redistribution of power might be.

J: And would it be fair to think of it as a somewhat moribund art – or, has it seen a resurgence, perhaps because of the Internet?

Z: I could talk about this all day because I find the perceived validity of such an axiom endlessly amusing. Primarily, I think this is an issue that comprises one percent truth and ninety-nine percent perception. I think that if poetry were a brand, it would be a very good one with a really bad marketing campaign. Sure, it could be said that less people are reading poems, per capita, than they did historically. But less people are growing their own food, and still they go on eating. What I mean to say is that the prevalence of an action doesn’t by virtue detract from its importance, nor its relevance.

In the end, there are two aspects of this idea that strike me as being the most interesting. One of these centers around my belief that people are engaging with poetry more often than they realise, but are doing so without actively acknowledging this fact because it doesn’t cohere with perceived notions of what experiencing a poem entails. If somebody sings a song to themselves, relying upon the musicality of those lines to make melody, and if they do this without the presence of external instrumentation, are they singing or are they reciting? I feel these lines are pretty blurry, and I wonder how a widely accepted love for music—which occurs in practically all societies—can coexist with the notion that poetry is irrelevant or fundamentally esoteric, when the two forms inarguably belong to the same genera and, when traced to antiquity, can be seen to root from the same source.

Secondly, I’m fascinated by the notion that poetry is outdated or irrelevant or necessarily highfalutin, and fails to engage with the realities of contemporary life. I think this is a pervasive notion and perhaps the strangest one. If I were forced to isolate one form that is, in a broader sense, pushing against the grain of the modern world and its many banalities, I would say poetry. Sure, some film is doing this, but that film is a small slice in a really overbaked pie. Some music, yes, but the same goes. There is bad and lazy poetry, of course, but for the most part poetry has—perhaps as an upshot of its fringe position even amongst avid readers and larger publishers—not kowtowed to market driven priorities which stack the weight in favour of broad commercial appeal.

Of all written forms, poetry continues to be the least saleable. We know this, it’s boring, but that isn’t my point. The point is that despite whatever very real issues persist in the poetry world—especially those concerning hierarchies, abuses of power, and the many other examples of malfeasance which echo the structures of the world, at large—it is still a community of people that have sacrificed time and personal comfort to make work within a framework that prioritises value above economic viability. I’m not saying that this is acceptable, but I am suggesting that it presents a vastly different vision than that provided by late-capitalism, and for this reason it feels decidedly revolutionary to me.

I mean, we have a television show here that serves no larger purpose than to document people watching television and record their responses. Strip away the minimally interesting meta-critique, and really this is what we are left with; this concession to total enervation is what people have chosen to pour their time and money into. I just feel like it would be impossible for anything to be more boring than this, more utterly played out, than modern entertainment flexing tired muscles while gasping for air.

J: How have you found being an editor of an online poetry magazine?

Z: It has been great. It’s one of my big joys, reading the scores of amazing poems we are sent, and reveling in the trust-exchange that takes place in that process. I’m currently living in my hometown, a speck of a place at the bottom of the world, so the very real sense of community the magazine has provided me, though virtual, has also been important to my sense of connection and survival. I guess my hope is that maybe there is a poet reading the magazine, in some other small town, somewhere, who feels a momentary sense of connectedness missing from their daily life when they do, just as I have done.

J: Does being an editor conflict with writing poetry?

Z: I believe it does, yes, but it is a highly productive conflict. It has been disruptive in ways that were slow to announce themselves, and didn’t really align with my expectations. Obviously there is an understanding that giving time to the work of others is time taken from your own. Of course, this is true, but everything is time—is lost time—so how I can I be sure that this time spent on editorial work would not otherwise be filled. I can’t and I love it, so that seems irrelevant to me. My work is better for the work of others.

Anyhow, the larger shift was very discreet: a kind of tectonic movement that changed everything for me. It was a philosophical shift—that is perhaps the best way to describe it, although the phrase philosophical feels problematic for its abstraction. Ultimately, the more involved I became as an editor, the less I found myself wanting to speak. The less able I was to trust my own voice and my perspectives. Assuming that role required that I encounter work from a very different standpoint, not merely to read it with a critical eye, but to consider my own biases, and to be mindful of whatever festering wound, in me, fed these poems their resonance.

I had not brought a dialectical lens to the process of reading poems before, and I certainly hadn’t turned this lens in on myself to understand why certain work was shiny, for me, where other work was not. I think, as a white editor especially, it’s terrifyingly easy to slip into dangerous habits. Those self-congratulatory mindsets that fuel tokenism, have laid fresh cement over the cracks of division, have promulgated the simplification of rich and varied experience. It’s easy to love work because of what it represents—if it represents a perspective that needs to be centralised, and one that dismantles the blatant tyranny of these cultural modes. It is much harder to start picking apart that system and to consider your place in the process.

Ultimately, for me it’s a question of intention. These days I find myself thinking more about cruelty than I have before. More about suffering, and of people’s carefully constructed devices to justify the perpetuation of the various sufferings that suit them. These are very delicate glass houses we are building. I mean, cruelty is not made permissible in accordance to the box it is forced into, however small or seemingly negligible that box might be. It is an idea, I think, a logic—or it is a system of logic that allows us to absolve ourselves according to where our actions fall on a sliding scale.

I had a conversation tonight, about eating animals. I should say, a lot of great people eat animals so this is not a moral judgment, but I raise the example to close in on my point. The idea really was the proposition of ‘ethically’ eating animals, as though such a thing might be secured through an artful consideration and implementation of said ethics. My question is: who decides? Do humans get to decide the ethics based upon their own chains of reasoning and is this code relevant? Is this code worse because it once again reifies the dominance of human choices over and above every other living thing, most notably, other humans?

A long winded and somewhat oblique answer, I suppose, but one this role has led me to. I want to have my own mind, my safe and easy apprehensions, be as labile, as utterly uniformed by personal biases as I can let them be. I can do this by questioning intentions, however circular the process, however strident the results to my own thinking. I can challenge my own assumptions of what is acceptable or what is appropriate, mindful of the fact that my own needs are not universal truths and that my version of kindness is not the world’s version of kindness. In so doing, I can dismantle my assuredness in an endless cycle of self-interrogation. I think this pattern of thinking is what makes a great poem, and more importantly what makes a good person, so that is the conflict but I don’t feel at all conflicted by it.

J: Do you think it still means something to be a ‘female poet’ rather than simply a ‘poet’, or do you think it’s an unnecessary prefix?

Z: No, I believe it still means something to be a female anything. I think it’s dangerous the undercut the distinct perspectives of any individual, be they privileges or burdens. Assuming that the nuances of gender or self-identification don’t inform individual experience and, by extension, the work arising from said experiences, completely undermines the challenges many people face in making their work, to begin with.

J: Is there a poetry of Australia? And if so, what makes it Australian?

Z: Well, I should say that I don’t imagine myself an expert on Australian poetry, by any means, so I don’t really feel qualified to comment on its idiosyncrasies in a canonical sense. That said, Australian poetry, as I have experienced it, is impossibly diverse and informed by poetics the world over—perhaps this act of witness and reconfiguration is what makes it unique, or what makes it Australian.

Though, to call something Australian, as a non-indigenous Australian, feels absurd. This might be why I find it difficult to pinpoint any unifying national characteristics, be they poetic or otherwise. I feel deeply disturbed by the legacy of this place, one that goes routinely unacknowledged by many of its inhabitants. White people in this country live, for the most part, in a state of unchallenged luxury; a hereditament that bestows upon them the assurance of safety, a right to which they feel entitled. I should say we, because I am daily granted these privileges by virtue of my lineage.

I think Australia, as far as colonial settlements go, has been wildly unsuccessful because the expropriation of land, life, and indigenous culture is essentially, intrinsically, defined by failure. Perhaps, the only non-failure in this great mess of failure is that, still, some thirteen of several hundred indigenous languages remain widely spoken, and that one of the oldest and most advanced living cultures has managed to withstand centuries of unimaginable cruelty.

J: Which poets, or writers, have influenced you?

Z: Many many, of course. I grew up reading Anne Sexton, and the Australian poet Gig Ryan, both of whom really demonstrated to me the importance of bravery in writing. I’m still dealing with this, of course. I feel nervous about implicating people in my work and actively conceal poems with allusions to blow jobs, or dicks in general, from my dad. Anyhow, if I was forced to choose the poets that have influenced me, and by that I mean influenced my sense of a poem’s potential, I’d say: Alice Notley, Mary Ruefle, Dean Young, Anne Carson, Matthew Zapruder, Claudia Rankine, Eileen Myles, Brenda Shaughnessy, Terrance Hayes, the list goes on. I would also say that my life and my work, both, are indebted to my mentor Cassandra, who has supervised my postgrad work for going on seven years and hasn’t disowned me, yet. I probably wouldn’t be writing poems were it not for her early encouragement, or for the influence her work has had on me.

J: Which poets would you recommend to us?

Z: I would recommend the poets I am most fortunate to count as peers—although, the phrase peer feels audacious because I am utterly in awe of their talents, which far exceed my own—like my Powder Keg co-editors’ Sarah Jean and Rebecca, or my dreamgirl Chelsea Hodson, or my favourite pen-pals Tommy Pico and Jon-Michael Frank, or my hero of all heroes, Natalie Eilbert. One of my first, truly dear, poetry friends Mark Cugini has been instrumental to me breaking my poems open and making them fun to read (or trying to). Friends aside, at the moment, I also love love love Kam Hilliard, Wendy Xu, Danniel Schoonebeek, francine j. harris, Don Mee Choi, Sophie Collins, and Douglas Kearney, and cannot get enough of their work; I doubt there is such a thing as enough when the poems are as good as those poets make them.



Zoe is a poet and an editor at Powder Keg.

LYRA has completed its Kickstarter campaign and will be on general release from the 19th of May.