This is not my first time standing at the formal gates of this university. I am in my second semester of my second year, having decided—after failing at a social work degree and failing even more at graphic design—that I want to be a writer. WRIT2100, Writing the Poem, is the only creative writing course I’m enrolled in this semester, and I’m resentful. Anxious, maybe. I haven’t written a poem since high school. Something about the vast spectrum of teenage sorrow and plates of blood. But I’m a grown up now, a proper one, strolling out under the sandstone arches with a few light books at my hip. I don’t know yet that I am going to do things I cannot imagine I would ever do.
In 2015, two years from now, I’ll be frantically writing my poetry honours thesis. Bronwyn Lea will be one of my supervisors. In 2016, I’ll go on to win the Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize with that same manuscript (The Agonist, forthcoming from UQP in September 2017) that sometimes made me suffer in ways I had not heard of. But for now, in 2013, I know nothing about poetry. I’m afraid of sonnets. In our lecture theatre Bronwyn talks about the rhythm of the word, the musicality of the line. How a poem should embody maximum strength with minimum effort.
I’ll confess: every assignment I’ve written and will ever write at UQ has been an attempt at maximum strength with minimum effort. Minimum effort being minimum time and minimum thought. Minimum effort in the context of poetry is something else. A poem should embody maximum strength while giving the reader the sense that it was written with minimum effort, even when, more often than not, the opposite is true. In WRIT2100, I’m sometimes lucky. Some poems spring forth from the temple of the head like Athena, fully formed. Others require the full effort of my tutor Melissa Ashley and my tutorial group—their encouragement and incisive suggestions.
Before July 2013, I was caught up in that romantic notion that writers are solitary creatures, producing their best work alone in the late sunlight on crisp white sheets. During and afterwards, I’m hungry for feedback. Everything I learn I learn from reading the work of others, from dismantling the way they use the line. Which brings me to Sharon Olds.
Bronwyn recites ‘I Go Back to May 1937’ in a voice I’m still trying and failing to emulate every time I read out loud. Her recitation is rhythmic, musical. This is no surprise: Olds is a master of the confessional poem and delicious to read aloud. Short story writer Amy Hempel has recalled a moment when Olds looked out of a restaurant window at an ordinary brick building and read its surface, describing it in scansion:
“how the strong beat was the window, and if you ignored the air conditioners, you’d have: wall WÍN(dow), wall WÍN(dow), wall WÍN(dow)…”
Olds saw “iambic apartments”, felt that her poems had to be “graffiti across that row of windows—‘handwritten, grounded, less organized, more like an ordinary human being talking to another.’”
In 2017 I’m no longer afraid of sonnets, but I’m still a bit afraid of Sharon Olds—her work and how it’s embodied, unflinchingly, with her selfhood. How each line strikes with maximum strength and minimum effort. How, despite my honours degree, my masters degree, and my manuscript—all completed here at UQ—I’m still small and I’m still learning. I’m still discovering my selfhood as a poet, a writer, and a person.
But with poetry, I’ve found, it always comes back to maximum strength, minimum effort, and the last line of Olds’s ‘I Go Back to May 1937’:
“Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.”