Q&A with Katie Bowie

The grey background is superimposed with the cover of The Suburban Review #20 on the right. On the left is a photo of Katie. She is wearing a red top and smiling directly at the camera.

KATIE BOWIE is a poet who daylights as a teacher. When she isn’t writing or at the chalkface, she can be found binging TV drama from the late 90’s or inhaling whole trays of donuts. She lives in Sydney with no pets and no children which, considering the conditions of the COVID pandemic, seems for now to have been a pretty good decision.

Our Associate Editor and Media Manager, Maya, speaks to Katie about her poem,’The Clean Out’, published in #20: Handbag.

Your poem ‘The Clean Out’ is such a delight – surreal, a little gruesome, achingly relatable! What inspired this piece?

I feel like this year in particular has brought a heavy cognitive load that I’ve really struggled with. When I saw the ‘handbag’ prompt and thought about spaces that seem to gain and retain a lot of clutter and mess, I thought about the mess inside my own head. There’s been a lot of talk about the mental load that women carry and when I started to take stock of the things that weigh me down I realised that it wasn’t one thing in particular but many small, almost trivial things that accumulate over time to make up this load. 

There’s a fantastic strain of dark humour permeating this poem, satirising the very serious reality of people (especially those of marginalised genders, who are often expected to perform uncompensated emotional labour) not being able to take a break until they are past breaking point. As a poet and a teacher, how do you navigate having multiple obligations and responsibilities while trying to avoid overwork and excess stress? 

I’m extremely lucky in that I have a lot of support from my family and at my work, but my profession in general is one where there can be a sense of toxic stoicism that can undermine mental and physical health. There are a lot of negative assumptions that teachers have crazy amounts of free time and endless holidays but we spend our evenings/weekends/holidays marking essays, planning lessons, reading texts, staying up to date with developments in our subject areas, and the load from genuinely caring for the many students we are responsible for is a heavy one to carry. A few years ago I was at a point of serious burnout and it was only when I was completely removed from the classroom (I had escaped to the other side of the world) that I had the sense of feeling like myself again, and feeling completely clean and refreshed. 

I love teaching and I love being in the classroom, so on returning I decided to draw some conscious boundaries that would help me to stay fresh enough to continue doing what I love but also allow me some time to pursue writing and maintain balanced relationships. Honestly, I could write about this problem for ages but I think that the biggest problem is a tendency we have to take on too many things and put our health and wellbeing last. The only person who can really make healthy boundaries and know when to stop and take time for myself is me, so I try to listen to my body and my mind a lot more than I used to. 

‘The Clean Out’ describes some very invasive sounding surgical procedures. Do you think we all need a good clean out from time to time, or is there something to be said for a comfortable amount of mess?

There is definitely something to be said for having a total clean out, if only so the clutter of life can accumulate again. However, I’m such a messy person at heart that I don’t think I can actually live without a little bit of mess and I’m a bit suspicious of people who are overly organised. I think that the mess gives our lives texture which is why I ended my piece with the emptiness being paradoxically refreshing and hollowing.