Airini Beautrais lives in Whanganui. She is the author of four collections of poetry. She answers our five quick questions in the lead up the 2018 Kāpiti Writers’ Retreat.
1. What is it that attracts you to poetry as opposed to other storytelling forms?
Poetry as we know it is often written in some form of verse, either free verse (divided into lines but with no metrical or numerical structure), traditional forms, or contemporary variations on these. It is also often segmented into relatively short units – even in the case of a prose poem sequence. These formal features offer a vast array of possibilities in the structure of a story. Shifts between time, place, speaker and so on can happen more easily and more suddenly than in conventional prose. Poetry is also often associated with lyrical writing, which gives the storyteller opportunities to focus on specific moments, to include information that may not be dramatic or exciting at first glance, or to be linguistically weird. I do enjoy writing prose fiction as well, and the non fictional essay can also be a storytelling form. I think while poetry offers a different range of resources to other genres, there is always going to be some overlap. My feeling about genres is that they are fluid and evolving, and there are also lots of possibilities involving ‘hybrid’ forms.
2. A lot of your work deals with episodes from ‘real life’ and involves research into diverse subject matters. Is research always a core part of your work?
The last two poetry collections I have written have involved a huge amount of research, but this isn’t always how I work. It can be quite daunting and can also bring a sense of heightened responsibility which may act as a damper upon the creative process. On the other hand, it’s fascinating to learn new things and go sleuthing for information, and there’s a big temptation to include large amounts of peripheral or irrelevant detail simply because it’s interesting.
More recently I have been working with fictional material. I think it’s always advisable to read widely in the field you are writing in, and this counts as a kind of research – how did other poets/ writers approach the same subject or form, and what can I learn from them? What will I do differently?
3. How do you go about the research process? And how do you balance ‘facts’ with the needs of the story you are telling?
I go about it in a meandering sort of way. I’ve talked to people, gone through archives, trawled the internet, read lots of stuff from official histories and scientific works to school reunion pamphlets and handmade zines. Sometimes research could be taking a walk around a site and recording sensory observations.
There will always be a certain number of ‘facts’ that aren’t in dispute, but the majority of information about the past is inaccessible to us – we weren’t there and didn’t experience it. I find ‘fact’ a risky thing to negotiate. In Dear Neil Roberts I ended up writing a lot from a personal perspective, reflecting on a tragic event through the lens of my own life. In Flow I incorporated elements of fiction, as well as personal experience, alongside poems based on the historical record. These decisions stemmed from a reluctance to try and write an authoritative account of historical events.
4. What are you working on now?
I have a fictional sonnet sequence in incubation, which is part soap-opera storyline and part interrogation of the sonnet tradition. I have also been working on a collection of short fiction, which is turning out to be quite feminist and quite dark.
5. Tell us a little bit about the workshop, what should people expect?
We will be looking at a variety of examples of poems and lyrics that incorporate story. Our main focus will be on writing, sharing work and giving feedback. The work will probably be quite raw and rough and a certain amount of detachment from one’s fresh creation will be helpful. There’s no right or wrong way to do this, but hopefully workshop participants will find ways that work well for the material they have chosen to write about. I hope we will all have fun.
In a workshop, everyone brings their own feelings, opinions, knowledge and experience to the room, and we all have something to learn from each other. I am looking forward to being at the retreat, meeting people and sharing ideas.
Register for the 2018 Kāpiti Writers’ Retreat here