from Issue #6: An Interview with Judith Beveridge

Image: Devadatta's Hirelings, Jamalgarhi (CC) Photo Dharma @ Flickr

Image: Devadatta’s Hirelings, Jamalgarhi – Photo (CC) Dharma @ Flickr

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‘PATIENCE IS A KEY INGREDIENT’

An interview with Judith Beveridge

Theodore Ell

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JUDITH BEVERIDGE was born in London in 1956 and moved to Australia with her family as a child. She grew up and studied in Sydney, where she still lives. After having worked in diverse jobs in offices, adult education and bush conservation, since 2002 she has taught poetry in the postgraduate creative writing program at the University of Sydney. She is poetry editor of the literary journal Meanjin.

Beveridge has published five collections of poetry: The Domesticity of Giraffes (1987), Accidental Grace (1996), Wolf Notes (2003), Storm and Honey (2009) and most recently Devadatta’s Poems (2014). Her work has appeared in many anthologies and has won numerous awards, including the Dame Mary Gilmore Award, The New South Wales and Victorian Premiers’ Poetry Prizes (the latter twice) and the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal.

Devadatta’s Poems is Beveridge’s first collection focused on a single subject. It extends themes that have increasingly absorbed her attention across several collections: the life and spiritual quest of the Buddha and the wider dramas that unfolded among those around him. Beveridge’s first Buddha Cycle of narrative poems appeared in Accidental Grace and was followed by Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree in Wolf Notes. These sequences depicted the wanderings of Siddhattha Gotama across India before his attainment of enlightenment. Devadatta’s Poems takes place after he has become the Buddha and is written from the point of view of Devadatta, Siddhattha’s envious and power-hungry cousin, who joins the new monastic order so as to bring the Buddha down. Devadatta even tries to murder him several times. The new sequence strikes many contrasts with the earlier poems ‘spoken’ by Siddhattha – the calculating versus the contemplative, the sensual versus the ascetic, lust versus renunciation, violence versus tranquillity – but both cousins are bound, ironically, by their longing for Yasodhara, Siddhatha’s wife, whom both have had to leave behind in their distant home city.

This interview was conducted by email in July 2014 in the weeks after the launch of the new book and was reviewed by both interviewer and interviewee before publication.

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ELL: Devadatta’s Poems is your first book written only in one voice, telling one story. In the past you have placed narrative sequences among other work on varying subjects. Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree was one of those cases. What was it that led you to set Devadatta apart in this way?

BEVERIDGE: I wanted to give myself the challenge of writing a book-length sequence. I’ve always loved Dorothy Porter’s book Akhenaten and Geoffrey Lehmann’s Nero’s Poems and I felt with Devadatta that there was enough narrative material to do an extended sequence. The trick was in trying to work out how long or short the book needed to be, whether or not I would do a more extensive book. In the end I opted for a shorter book, throwing out quite a number of poems I had initially thought I might include. I opted for a tighter focus.

ELL: In the poem “Dawn” in Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree, Siddhattha reflects, ‘Not yet / am I a sorrowful man. Not yet.’ Was there a sense then that there would be more to tell, that after Siddhattha’s enlightenment there would be new trials?

BEVERIDGE: When I was writing Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree, which traces Siddhattha Gotama’s journey over north India before he became the Buddha, I came across Devadatta, the Buddha’s cousin and thought at the time how that would be a great story to explore. Devadatta caused the Buddha a great deal of trouble and grief by trying to take over the Buddhist Order and by trying to murder him three times, so, yes, in a sense that line can be seen as alluding to future strife for the Buddha, though when I wrote that line I didn’t consciously have that specific conflict in mind.

ELL: Siddhattha’s reflections in the earlier sequence are not all contented – he is, after all, struggling to revise his whole way of living – but his motivation is essentially humane. The new sequence turns that on its head. What did it take to shape the inner life of a speaker whose motives are so much blacker, even murderous?

BEVERIDGE: At the centre of Devadatta’s Poems there’s jealousy, hatred, ambition, lust, cruelty. It’s always easier, I think, to write about flawed characters, mainly because our language for these emotions is so much richer, and because these emotions are so much more dramatic and more embedded in our literary, cultural, social and political history. Every day these emotions make the news and so inhabit our minds and imaginations very frequently, so it wasn’t that hard to depict a flawed and corrupt character. However, I didn’t want to make him so terrible that readers would be entirely repulsed by him.

ELL: Devadatta’s antagonism towards Siddhattha is quite clear (‘Some nights… all I do is scheme / to give Siddhattha schism, infighting, dissonance’) yet both cousins, in your depictions, define themselves, to themselves and to us, in quite similar ways. They are constantly searching in the details of the world about them for some kind of solace or confirmation, and both are quite lucid and self-controlled in describing what troubles them. Did you envisage a family resemblance? How did you approach contemplating that same setting from a new point of view?

BEVERIDGE: The difference lies in the fact that Siddhattha after years of struggle finds inner peace and the path to wisdom. I knew I could never write about Siddhattha after he had achieved enlightenment because it would be fraudulent of me to try and imagine what an enlightened mind might experience. Devadatta is still caught up in all the illusions, in suffering, in the mental traps, and so resembles Siddhattha in those years before he became enlightened. Devadatta too is searching for something, but does not have the discipline to let go of craving or aversion, so he seemed like a good candidate to continue on with. It would be so hard to do justice to the character of the Buddha after enlightenment.

ELL: You mentioned having to ‘throw out’ a number of poems you originally thought of including, for the sake of a tighter focus. What was in those poems that seemed to distract from that? Could you use them elsewhere?

BEVERIDGE: No, I’d never use the poems elsewhere. The poems I threw out were poems which didn’t seem to be strong enough, or that were simply going over ground I had already covered, or they were tonally similar to other poems and weren’t adding a great deal to the narrative. There are a few of those discarded poems I do like, but they will simply have to be forever part of the reject pile. I have hundreds and hundreds of poems like that from previous books.

ELL: The drama of both sequences seems to be almost all internal, with Siddhattha and Devadatta reflecting on events after the fact, in the spaces between the ‘moves’ of their lives. We’re not often inside their minds while they are in action. I’m wondering about the source of that reflective distance from events. Is it a result of how you see the personalities of these figures? Or is it more to do with finding a way into a poem?

BEVERIDGE: It’s probably a reflection of the kind of poet I am. I write reflectively and meditatively and I’m mainly concerned with human emotions. There’s certainly very little action in Devadatta’s poems. It’s mostly thought processes and Devadatta’s plotting and planning how to kill Siddhattha. This was one of the problems I had when writing the sequence: I didn’t want it to become an endless treadmill of thoughts and I was constantly worrying about how to progress the narrative, because in a way the story doesn’t go anywhere much in terms of plot. It’s more a psychological investigation. One of the most challenging elements in writing the sequence was to try to give a sense of movement in a story that essentially has little action. I’m not sure how well I’ve succeeded in creating this movement, however.

ELL: The main exceptions to that sense of distance are the poems in which both cousins long for Yasodhara – Siddhattha’s wife, whom he leaves behind, and who is the object of Devadatta’s lust. What did it take to depict this side of both their natures, this thought that overrides everything else?

BEVERIDGE: Human longing and desire are emotions that most of us feel most of the time, whether it’s longing for a person, a place, a lost time, a lost opportunity or whatever, so all I had to do was tap into that feeling. The hardest part was finding the right language and images. You might have noticed I have used Yasodhara’s hair as an element that represents her beauty, especially in Devadatta’s poems. This was one way I was able to evoke the emotions and give focus to the mood.

ELL: Is Yasodhara a character whose story you’d consider telling, from her point of view?

BEVERIDGE: It has crossed my mind to do so. I’ve not really tried a woman’s voice before, but if I do write it, it probably won’t be for a while. I’ve also thought of writing the story from Rahula’s point of view. He was Siddhattha’s and Yasodhara’s son, so there are still some options and possibilities.

ELL: What is it that draws you back to this drama, to elaborate the various sides of the story? You published the first Buddha Cycle in the mid-90s and the world that it opened up seems to have occupied you a great deal ever since.

BEVERIDGE: It’s true I’ve always been captivated by the Buddha’s story, ever since I was a child. It certainly has a much better ending than the story of Jesus. Eastern religions seem very sensible and attractive to me. I could never accept the Christian idea of original sin, but I’ve always thought that the idea of things being related on a deep level to ring true. I dislike the hierarchical structure of Christianity and find in Buddhism a more harmonious and integrated view that includes a non-exploitative attitude towards nature and animals.

ELL: Can you describe the effect that visiting India has had on you and your work? Have you written much while there, or do you tend to reflect on details after the fact?

BEVERIDGE: I visited India on two occasions, though not for any research or religious purposes. I was married to an Indian and we took our young son to meet his family. I didn’t write a word while I was there, but I tried to absorb as much as I could. I was lucky in as much as I got to experience an Indian family first hand, so I wasn’t a tourist as such, but was able to observe things on a more domestic and intimate day-to-day level.

ELL: How far has your reading taken you? The Siddhattha-Devadatta sequences look to very ancient texts. Are there any Indian writers in particular, ancient or modern, whose work has offered inspiration?

BEVERIDGE: I have read many books on Buddhism and on the Buddha and on life in ancient India, but I don’t like to know too much about a subject because I find it shuts down my imagination. I like to have imaginative room to move, so in the Devadatta sequence, there are quite a few things which are not historically accurate, and most of the scenarios I have simply invented in order to dramatise something about Devadatta’s character. I usually find that something very small, some almost trivial detail might start a poem, such as the existence of ox-toads. I have read some Indian poetry. I am especially fond of the work of AK Ramanujan.

ELL: What is it about his work that appeals to you?

BEVERIDGE: It’s a while since I’ve read him, but I’ve always enjoyed his insights and his precise use of language. He was born in South India, but wrote mainly in English and probed his culture mainly for an English-speaking audience. He died in Chicago in 1993 and there’s part of one obituary I think rings true: ‘In the quiet yet affable wit known best to his extended family of students, colleagues and friends, Ramanujan would observe that he was the hyphen in the phrase “Indo-American”. But to everyone who knew him and the passionate brilliance of his language, he and his poetry were rather a richly evocative metaphor for the human experience wherever it might be found. He was as much at home with Yeats and Tagore as he was with the classical literatures of India.’

ELL: It’s interesting that you should say you prefer not to know too much about a subject, as your range of subjects is so broad. As well as the Buddha sequences there is Driftgrounds: Three Fishermen in Storm and Honey. And in that sequence the poem “The Book” reams off the most bizarre species of fish – hardyhead, toothy flathead, rhinoceros file fish, robust pygmy star-gazer – before the speaker admits he hasn’t found ‘the right one’ to throw back at his fishing-mate when he calls him sweetlips. Is there a sense that your character’s casting about, his gathering-in of names and effects, reflects your own?

BEVERIDGE: Yes, absolutely. I love names for things and part of my interest and love of writing poetry is that you do get to name things. The thesaurus is great for this: it has long-lists of names in all sorts of categories. I am always casting around in my poems for the right word.

ELL: What is it that draws you to such varied subjects? What gave rise to Driftgrounds, for instance?

BEVERIDGE: I am always searching around for subjects, and as I don’t like to write about myself, I cast around constantly for possible characters and scenarios to write about. I think most writers are very curious people and they often have broad interests and obsessions. One of my obsessions is water, so I wrote Driftgrounds partly to indulge my love of seascapes and riverscapes and also to try to explore the brutal subject of fishing and how character and place affect each other. I like using characters in poems as they give you a way into material not your own.

ELL: Your previous collections have usually included both longer sequences, like Driftgrounds or the Buddha poems, and sets of diverse ‘single’ poems, but it seems to me that with each collection the sequences have been growing longer. Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree made up a large portion of Wolf Notes and Devadatta’s Poems is, of course, a single book. Has ‘narrative’ been occupying you more than the writing of ‘single’ poems recently?

BEVERIDGE: Certainly for the last couple of books it has. I find that having a larger project to work on helps me generate poems more easily because I can slot into the character or ready-made narrative, not every single poem has to be begun from scratch because of the established setting or mood. However, for my next book, I am deliberately going back to single, unrelated poems as I want to have the challenge again of a broader range of subjects and forcing myself to start from the blank page with each new poem. It’s uncomfortable, but I don’t want to fall into easy habits.

ELL: What is it about a narrative sequence of poems that attracts you, as opposed to rendering the same story as a novel?

BEVERIDGE: I just love writing poetry. Writing prose doesn’t especially interest me because I like the fine detail and focus that a poem demands and I enjoy working with sound and rhythm and metaphor and texture of language. This is not to say that novelists don’t also work with these things, but they don’t work with the line or the line break and I love working with lines, finding out what they can achieve. I also love the intensity that a single poem can have and a poem can often say in a few words what it might take several sentences to say in prose.

ELL: Another trait one can sense in your work is that often once you’ve settled on a subject, you draw image after image out of it, elaborating the possibilities into long chains. “How to love bats” is one example: you tell the reader to ‘Begin in a cave’ and ‘listen to the floor boil with rodents, insects,’ but before long the poem has brought those sensations into the human world: ‘Visit op shops. Hide in their closets. / Breathe in the scales and dust / of clothes left hanging.’ You use the same technique of elaboration in Devadatta’s Poems as well, especially in conveying Devadatta’s dreams of Yasodhara. I’m wondering to what extent this ‘cataloguing’ and elaborating reflects the way you shape a poem. Do you list different attributes or qualities first and then build them into a shape, or do they trigger and grow from one another, while you are writing verse?

BEVERIDGE: Definitely the latter. For me writing is always a process of discovery inasmuch as I don’t really know what it is I am going to say before I write. I discover as I go along. One thing I do consciously is to try to push my material as far as I can imaginatively. I like poems that have imaginative reach. This means my poems go through many, many drafts before they are finished, as I often take wrong turns or produce material that I end up scrapping before I can discover the true or meaningful poem. But I like this. It makes for hard work, but it gives me a strong sense of vocation when I’m writing, a sense that the poems are quite often hard won, as I believe they should be.

ELL: Is there a sense in which you are also attempting to win over yourself in writing poems? The discomfort you mention in relation to writing about your own life calls to mind another much earlier poem of yours, “Fox in a Tree Stump,” in which the speaker of the poem recounts being forced into flushing out and killing a fox, and recalls, ‘I was nine years old. All my life / I’d stuck close to my yelled name.’ Your work has travelled away from the brutality described in that poem, but it seems to me that ideas of threats to oneself, and of oneself as a threat, have persisted, especially in the case of Devadatta. I’m wondering how you negotiate your degree of involvement with characters. How complete do you think they can be as masks?

BEVERIDGE: There is a paradoxical relationship between myself and the characters I use because they are both masks and not masks. They are masks in the sense that the emotions I give my characters are all emotions I have experienced, and I imagine most human beings have experienced, as they are the usual ones. What I change are the settings and the circumstances and this allows me a distance and perspective I wouldn’t get if I were writing directly from my own life. But I love the idea that I can move away from my own particular experiences and enter them in a more universal way. So, yes, I am attempting to ‘win myself over’ in my poems by trying to understand my own emotions through a more general lens. And what I get from this process is a sense of shared humanity.

ELL: With all your varying characters and subjects, is there a centre to your poetry, something that will set you writing where something else may not?

BEVERIDGE: Always the motivating and centralising factor for me is language. My poems always start with a desire to play with language. It’s the hardest thing in writing, to get the language right. It’s easy to have ideas for poems, but getting, as Adrienne Rich said, ‘the language that’s adequate to experience’ right in a poem is always a challenge. I don’t mean that I play with language in a postmodern sense, such as in L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry, where the intention is to leave the meaning up to the reader, or that I break down syntax, because I do essentially want to communicate and I want to communicate emotion. I still believe the lyric has a lot to offer and still has relevance for the reader and writer, and that inflecting emotion into a poem is a serious task.

ELL: Has your recent turn back to single, unrelated poems altered your working habits?

BEVERIDGE: My working habits have always been pretty much the same, no matter what I’m working on. I need long stretches of time before me. Six or seven hours is a typical stretch for me to get anything done. I’m painfully slow and plodding. I’ve never been able to work at white-hot speed, like some poets. And I do enjoy those long stretches. They give me a strong sense of vocation, that I’ve worked hard.

ELL: How far off may your next collection be?

BEVERIDGE: Hard to say. I think my next book will be a New and Selected Poems, so my intention is to write the ‘new’ section, which is why I’ve chosen to work on miscellaneous poems, rather than a coherent project. But I’ll take my time. Patience is a key ingredient, I think. I’d rather produce a work I’m happy with than rush into publication.

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