Q&A with Holly Isemonger

A portrait of Holly Isemonger in greyscale, with a green tinge. Holly has light skin, two-toned hair tied back, clear framed glasses and hoop earrings. She wears a t-shirt and is holding a print/zine of some kind, which has a partially visible title starting with 'Cine-'. Holly is smiling softly and looking into the camera. The photo is super-imposted over the green, yellow and white artwork by Stephani Beck that constitutes the #18 cover.

HOLLY ISEMONGER was the joint winner of the 2016 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize. She is the author of the chapbooks Hip Shifts (If A Leaf Falls Press) and Deluxe Paperweight (Stale Objects dePress). She co-edited Cordite Poetry Review’s DIFFICULT issue and can be found at @hismonger on Twitter.

Our Deputy Editor, Zoe Kingsley, interviews Holly about her role as Guest Editor role for #18: Regional Voices.

In your call for submissions for #18: REGIONAL VOICES, you expressed a desire for writing that ‘is experimental, confessional, lyrical, procedural—we want writing that can’t be put into any category’. 

The writing that comprises #18: REGIONAL VOICES represents this call—poems written to formal structures and rules, ‘concrete’ poems chainsaw-ed into bark. Considering the works published in #18: REGIONAL VOICES and your own writing practice, what do you think ‘constraint’ offers in the creative process and in the final form of a work? 

Constraint offers freedom. If someone asks you to write a poem about your feelings, how can you respond with anything other than a cliché? If someone asks ‘how’s this weather?’ or ‘how are you?’, the response is usually ‘not bad’ (or something boring and palatable and forgettable).

Having a formal constraint removes this banality. It allows one to get to the point. No one has to talk about how nice the weather is etc. Nick chainsawed poems into trees! 

Last summer everything was on fire. 

The constraint, whether it be an exercise, or a task for a chainsaw, forces you to think in different ways when approaching a word or a phrase or a sentence. I have a HECS debt dedicated to the OULIPO (yeah I’m totally going to get a job that pays enough to repay that debt), but the most important thing I learnt from constraints wasn’t the technical rules that can seem exclusionaryit made me understand how poetry… is fun. A game. Truly, a joy.

Poetry became less intimidating. Removed from the standard lyric, poetry could be so cheeky and so innovative and moving! Procedure and constraint helped me to see how playing with words is important. We do it in nursery rhymes; thinking about how a sonnet is constructed is not dissimilar. My mum is a PE teacher and she is the best poetry editor ever. 

In the final form of a work, what I’m looking for is something that plays with form, but does so with heart. I love how the mechanics of form can articulate tenderness. That doesn’t mean I like poems that are pure robot. I want Terminator 2’s Sarah Connor, not the terminator that morphs his form constantly to execute a task. Use the form to say something. I could talk about Terminator 2 forever…

I want people to be able to play with words without the burden of an epiphany weighing on them. I want people to be able to hit a moving cadence if they want to. But you can only do that if the turgid poetry stuff learnt at school is offloaded, and if people trust playing with form, and trust themselves. 

That’s what I looked for in the poems and work we published in this issue. 

As a writer what relationship do you seek with an editor when it comes to the editing of your work? How have your past experiences in writer-editor relationships informed your approach to editing #18: REGIONAL VOICES? 

This is a really good question. A great editor is hard to find and they rarely get the credit they deserve!

In an editor, you want someone that can engage with your work and see where you are coming from, but has the distance from the piece that allows them to see a larger picture so they can give necessary critiques.

In regards to editing my own work, a lot of it comes down to friends. You find a person or two that you click with, and you can rely on their criticism and disagree with it or talk it out. That’s all part of the process. I’ve only got a few of those people. And they are rare, so hold on to them. 

Criticism is good. Get the hang of it, separate yourself from the work, and it becomes easier to bear the blows. But, some people are fools that you don’t need to listen to. Which brings me back to: find those friends, or people you trust. 

In a more formal way: Justin Wolfers commissioned an essay from me for The Lifted Brow, and he is amazing. A great editor can show you the important things you are saying that you didn’t know you were saying, and helps you to articulate them. Plus they will tell you when prose is too confusing or up its own asshole. 

Editorial process when submitting to a journal? Well hands down that’s The Suburban Review. I was so surprised when I first submitted / published with TSR that I got thoughtful feedback. It’s pretty rare to find that. And having now worked as an editor for them, I only have more respect for TSR. The editorial process is collaborative and communicative. 

What’s on the agenda for you at the moment—ideas brewing, projects on the go?

Just published a poem I wrote with Chris Fleming. It’s part of Red Room’s MAD issue.  I guess we were commiserating about weird brains, then did a poem.  I want to write a collection of poems based on my misreads of sentences, signs on highways- and words in general. I am very bad at all that. The cover will be the Big Prawn on the side of the Highway.

OK I really, really want to go for a surf now (don’t worry, I’m not Tim Winton). Seriously though. Go for a surf. 

*MAD is all about writing with mental illness.  If you have ever had a head that is strange or has needed a hand, it’s ok. Remember that if you’re in a dank place, it’s not going to be like that forever. It’s not about people just asking ‘R U OK?’ (I HATE that question). Life happens at you every day and it is often shit, and usually it’s confusing. But it does get easier, especially if you have people to help you through the confusing shit… Friends that understand how terrible wading through a pile of shit is. They are the ones that will get you through anything. It gets easier.