Q&A with Annelise Roberts

A photograph of poet Annelise Roberts from the shoulders up, wearing a striped turtleneck and smiling. This photo is superimposed on a background featuring a phone screen in landscape orientation. The phone screen is set to a camera app which is displaying a grey fuzzy texture on a black background. The top of the screen reads ‘THE SUBURBAN REVIEW ISSUE #17 THEFT.’

ANNELISE ROBERTS lives in Melbourne and is a PhD student in creative writing/literature at the Australian National University. Her PhD project explores the poetics of texts related to the British nuclear testing program in South Australia. Her poetry, short fiction and criticism can be read in places such as Rabbit Poetry, Mascara Literary Review, and Subbed In.

Our Associate Editor, Panda Wong, interviews Annelise Roberts about her poem ‘READ WORDS’, published in #17 THEFT.

The way ‘READ WORDS’ explores theft through ‘raiding’, reworking and referencing is fascinating—and speaks to a broader tradition of ‘ borrowing/stealing’ within poetry. Can you tell us more about your process and approach with this piece?

The poem actually came about during this period when I was really struggling with authenticity. I couldn’t seem to arrange anything on the page that felt genuine, solid and self-evident—everything I got together seemed like just a sly mimicry of someone else’s voice, like I was trying to trick everyone. Watching the Chopper Read documentary I was really impressed by his linguistic conviction. Chopper knew how to use words in a really forceful and natural way. He seemed to really mean what he said—even if what he ‘meant’ was an act, the saying of it was true. I was a bit jealous, really, and I decided to see if I could make use of that poetic intensity he generated with his own language. You could say, I think pretty accurately, that I appropriated it (or attempted to). This whole process of getting at authenticity by appropriation came to seem strangely cynical, ironic, cunning. I was also doing some reading and thinking at the time about Australian settler poetics, the struggle settlers had in developing an aesthetic to write about this country that (they didn’t want to remember) they had stolen, and I thought that what I was doing with this Chopper poem was somehow obliquely related to these other settler acts of appropriation.

‘READ WORDS’ plays with structure, using subheadings, breaks and space to create this really effective tension. What was your intention behind your structural choices?

At the time I wrote this poem I was also kind of interested in films, and in the idea that the narrative arc of a film—the macro perspective—could somehow be present in the micro level of the dialogue. I wrote a few poems like this: taking down snippets of dialogue over the course of watching a movie, resulting in this big long block of text, and then going back afterwards and thinning it all out by removing blocks of words but staying true to each word’s original narrative order, until some kind of distillation seemed to have taken place. There was a strange shape left at the end of this process that I found really pleasing. Partly I was experimenting with the idea that these distillations or abbreviations could still convey something about the unabridged whole, in an impressionistic way.

The shape that I arrived at in ‘READ WORDS’ seemed to me to say something about the tabloid mode of that Channel Nine documentary—the headings that generate sensation, the columns of compressed information for easy digestion, the spaces like advertisement breaks. I thought setting it up in fragments also gave the poem a kind of choppy speed that reminded me of the urgent tone and pace of these current affairs shows, the way they hop from one image to the next in the conservation of drama. But the blocky stanzas are quite heavy, too; if the poem is like a sketch of this sensationalist documentary, instead of becoming lighter or ‘sketchier’, the impression has somehow instead become more dense—or (I also like to think) has revealed an existing density in the tabloid genre. 

Lastly, where can we find more of your writing?

There’s not heaps of it around. Subbed In and Rabbit have published a couple of my poems, and I’ve done some book reviewing for Cordite, Plumwood Mountain and other places. I’ve got some poetry and short prose works in development that I hope to get out in the world this year. Right now, I’m working on a novel called Totem that I’m completing as part of my PhD—maybe one day that’ll be out in the world too.