Today I’m featuring an interview with award winning NZ fantasy author and poet Helen Lowe. I’m very excited about it too, not just because I love her books, but because I was able to ask questions about both prose and poetry.

I’m especially curious about how the two forms impact one another and Helen had a lot of great insights, I could have asked her another dozen questions I reckon. So I’d like to thank Helen for agreeing to the interview and urge readers to check out her lively blog and her work, especially her Wall of Night series. There’s such a strong feel of myth, heroism and place woven into the stories, you won’t be disappointed! 

Ashley Capes: As both a poet and a prose writer, do you find there are any shifts in mindset or process that you need to undertake to switch between modes?

Helen Lowe: Yes, but the distinction is not just between poetry and prose, since the latter encompasses so many different forms of writing: for example, the novel and the short story. These forms are as distinct from each other, in my opinion, as poetry is to either the short story or the novel. I find that when I am immersed in one form, its specific requirements of style and creative voice tend to take over to the exclusion of other modes. So when I am deep in a novel, I will usually not write so much poetry. The only caveat I would enter is that when I am in an extremely creative phase, then creative expression does tend, like the month of June in Carousel, to start “bustin’ out all over.”

AC:  If poetry can be said to focus on the compression of language and meaning (among other things) where do you see prose achieving the same effect in your own writing?

HL: Hmm, do you mean, where do I see prose (also) achieving the compression of language and meaning in my writing? If so, then I’m not sure I do see it, or even wish to. I love the richness of both language and storytelling and pursue both through all my work. Part of the delight of writing, in my experience, is to explore the fullness of both language and meaning and to find the best means of expressing them through a creative form. Poetry, for example, has been described as “the best words in the best order” (Coleridge), but in some cases context and intention may mean that “best” is achieved through a spare, pared back approach, while in others a fuller, richer expression is required. In short, it’s horses for courses.

Having said that, I do like to make sure every word works for its place on the page, whatever I’m writing. That approach arises, not from poetry but from short fiction, where word limit constraints mean that every word must not only justify its inclusion, but be set down in its best place. Despite writing so-called “fat fantasy” novels I have endeavoured to carry this approach over, which is why I write and rewrite, and constantly pare back as I do so.

AC: Actually, the pared back approach and the idea of constraint leads me nicely to haiku, which you also write. For me, it’s the ultimate in compression, an endless challenge in fact, and I’d love to know what attracts you to the form?

HL: I suppose it is partly its compression, although I would say “elegance.” I love the way the very best haiku springboard from the everyday to something much larger, as in Basho’s (1644-1694) haiku that I think of as “the skylark”:

      In the midst of the plain
      sings the skylark
      free of all things

The haiku ‘cut’ (a transition often indicated, in English, by an em- or en-dash) from the reality of the plain and the skylark’s song, to capturing that ache of human existence (“all things”) that the skylark’s song appears to rise above. The best haiku do capture so much inside so little, but I believe this is achieved as much by the juxtaposition as by compression. Without that ‘cut’ and the springboard from the lesser to the greater, or the mundane to the divine, a haiku loses most if not all of its power. And as a poetic form it’s all about achieving that power.

Another haiku that I feel encapsulates the use of juxtaposition to achieve potency is Issa’s (1763-1827) “spring rain”:

      spring rain
      a rat laps
      the Sumida river

So a rat laps river water: so what? The juxtaposition, and the power, lies between the mundane, the rat, and the sublime, which is the contrasting freshness of both spring rain and spring itself. There is also another layer of potential contrast between rain and spring. And again, as with the very best haiku, both examples make sense when read reversed:

      free of all things                                                   the Sumida river
      sings the skylark                                                  a rat laps
      in the midst of the plain                                   spring rain

I could go on, but I think you’re probably starting to glean my love of the haiku form, as much as the reasons for that love.
AC:  The opening of your novel ‘The Heir of Night’ has always struck me as wonderfully poetic, especially via your use of verbs, the way they almost personify the wind in the keep. And throughout all your writing I find that a sense of ‘place’ is so strongly evoked – I’d like to think it’s in part due to the poetic descriptions you use – is that a conscious choice?

HL: Thank you, with respect to HEIR, but to riff slightly on the phrase “wonderfully poetic”, I am something of an agnostic, if not an outright dissenter, in terms of the contemporary phenomenon of so-called “prose poetry.” In my view, this is almost always prose, and the term arises from our forgetting that prose is not a “flat” medium, but also possesses rhythm and richness in its own right. A favourite example of this is found amongst the opening passages of Dickens’ Bleak House:

“Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs;
fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.”

There is a wonderful rhythm to this passage, but I don’t think anyone would identify Bleak House as anything but “prose” or call Dickens a poet rather than a novelist. The point of my riff is that devices such as rhythm and repetition, assonance and consonance, as well as alliteration, are as intrinsic a part of prose as they of poetry. Perhaps even more so in the contemporary milieu where poets are not allowed to be “poetic” (as it is termed) but novelists still may be, thank goodness.

My riff aside, you ask whether the strongly evoked sense of place in my novels, and the use of active verbs in sequences such as the opening passages of The Heir of Night reflect a conscious choice. The short answer is no. I write what I see/hear/smell/feel in my mind’s eye, using the language that asserts itself naturally to fit that vision. In that sense, the initial draft of any writing is intuitive not studied, and the same is true for my poetry. I tend to revise more critically, but still only focus on those instances where what is on the page is not (to paraphrase Coleridge) the best words in their best order.

AC: I definitely agree re: Dickens, the passage is very poetic; the beautiful and simple repetition of ‘fog’ has always struck me, and it does so much to establish a sense of place. In fact, I’d like to ask another question about place – do you think your writing would differ in any way if you lived somewhere other than New Zealand?

HL: I wonder? Because in fact I have lived in Singapore and Sweden, Singapore as a child and Sweden as an adult, and visited other places, many of which have crept into the geography of my stories. To use the Wall series as an example, when Malian stands on the crest of Jaransor and looks west in The Heir Of Night (Heir), the terrain she sees is very close to vistas I’ve seen from Australia’s Great Dividing Range. Again in Heir, the Winter Country as recalled by both Rowan Birchmoon and the Earl of Night draws on my experience of the north of Sweden, Finland and Russia in “the deep midwinter.” In The Gathering Of The Lost (Gathering), readers may think that Ij with its islands and canals echoes Venice. In fact, the islands derive from Stockholm, which is built on an archipelago between Lake Mälar and the sea, while the canals reflect Bangkok’s khlongs. So arguably, places outside New Zealand already have considerable influence on the Wall Of Night world.

Sense of place can go much deeper though, into what I think of as cultural landscape. Recently, an Heir reader told me that the ruined towers of Jaransor reminded her of ruins in the Jaipur area in India—which I have never seen, either in person or in photographs. I do read widely, however, particularly both fictional and non-fiction history, as well as in the area of mythology, folklore, and fairytales. Both areas comprise cultural material and so it may be that resonances from those enter my writing, imbuing not only the backstory but also the sense of place. I believe this would be the case regardless of where I live.

But given I am a New Zealander and live “inside” our culture, I believe a great deal of what makes my writing perspective culturally distinct (if anything) is going to be invisible to me. A few things though, that readers outside New Zealand have indicated that they see as distinctive include a subtle colonial-cultural dimension to the Wall story, and the number and prominence of female characters, including the main character. I don’t feel qualified, however, to hazard an opinion as to whether any of this is in any way unique, or might arise from my living and writing in New Zealand.