Q&A with Soph Fitzgerald

A square headshot of Soph Fitzgerald is set against a banner. The banner is a zoomed in section of Maddison Henriks’s cover, which features stipple-shaded paper planes. Soph’s headshot is sepia toned. They have short, dark hair, and wear a striped woollen jumper with a shirt colour poking over the top. Their shoulders are square, and their head is slightly turned. They’re smiling with a bit of teeth, and have a warm glint in their eye. To the right, on the banner, are the words, ‘interview with Soph Fitzgerald’. In the bottom right hand corner, in smaller font, are the words, ‘#31 subscribe’.

Writing on Wurundjeri land, Soph Fitzgerald writes for page and screen, but mostly for fame and wealth.

Our Associate Editor Lora talks to Soph about their suite of poems, ‘βabel’, published in #31: SUBSCRIBE.

Your poetry suite ‘βabel’ plays with the nature of language and translation. The result becomes a display of the kinship functions of language; where language behaves as a barrier for some, it becomes a call of familiarity to others. Would you be able to talk to us about the ways in which you have developed this sophisticated exploration of language within your writing practice?

I think language has always come to me unsteadily. It’s something that can so easily be misspelt, misspoken, and misunderstood. I have some natural affinity for manipulating English, but none for my mother’s Greek. Then again, claiming English and I are on good terms is dicey—I am an abysmal speller and often fall prey to subtext and slant meanings. Language is a cheeky mistress, giving us grief from the moment we start stringing sentences together. The wrong tone, the wrong words, the wrong order of words, and you’re in trouble. Understanding why might come slower to some than others—myself included. Why did they hear this when I meant that? What did I do wrong?

If we’re talking about my exploration of language, I suppose it’s within that question, which could also be read as: what words, in what order, can or cannot communicate my meaning with as small a margin of misunderstanding as possible. This is not a good rule in any sense—it’s relevant to children and people learning new languages and probably also breakups. And also, to my poetry. Poetry is a new dalliance for me: my degree is in screenwriting, and I write and teach narrative prose. The main difference I find is that poetry is deeply concerned with briefness, words in time. Logic is less important than grace. There is space for surprise, odd nouns and adverbs, double meanings, jokes even. How much beauty, how much simplicity, can I fit into one line? I suppose, after a lifetime of struggling to be clear, there is something appealing about surrendering to the dream-logic of poetry, where meanings confused are still meanings made.

Within your poem genesis 11, there is a retelling of the biblical account of the Tower of Babel. What arises is a generous interwoven discourse of themes: human and divine, connection and disconnection. I’m curious about what drew you to selecting this setting for your poem?

These poems were provoked by the biblical story of Babel, in which the Abrahamic God ‘confounds’ the unified language of humanity to prevent their tower from reaching heaven. This myth has stirred great and myriad emotions in me. There is something inherently flexible about it, as you mentioned, full of thematic possibility—love, language, distance, religion, work. Not to mention the word Babel itself: an expression of language without meaning, or language in which meaning is confused. The use of ‘βabel’ as the title is actually a quiet irony itself. Beta (β) actually makes a ‘v’ sound in Greek—another babble. I suppose it’s a matter of form matching function: poems about the perils yet essentiality of language set in the mythic end of a single human tongue.

In your poem fruit, there is a choice to include a footnote with translation. As a reader, I noticed that this choice brings to the forefront the symbiotic relationship of author and reader. How do you navigate this relationship, and is there a conversation that you would like to open with readers of your work?

On a base level, a writer’s job is to deliver information to a reader that will tell them a story. Controlling the flow of narrative—what information is shared, and when—is where craft comes in. I see the choice to include a footnote in fruit and not in genesis 11, as an extension of this. In genesis 11 the two bricklayers make the choice to continue to build the tower, only to find themselves separated from each other by a new language. The last line, in modern Greek, is thus deliberately obscured, (likely) distancing the reader from the bricklayer who is distanced from his dear fellow. However, in fruit—the thematic counterweight to the opening poem—a grandchild and grandmother are similarly bonded by affection but separated by language. However, the separation is harmless—a brief babbling of words. The speaker mispronounces the word for ‘good’ in Greek, instead saying a word more closely resembling Galah, the Australian bird. The grandchild does understand the Greek words—albeit partially—so it goes to reason that the reader should too. I’m not one to play too heavily with a reader’s patience. To me, the relationship between reader and writer is hierarchical: with the reader miles above the writer. A writer’s job is to please, entertain, delight, and engage the reader. What good is a story without an audience’s attention, let alone approval? Perhaps there’s a case to be made for ‘art for art’s sake’, but I’m not one to make it. If anything, the conversation I open to readers paints me as nervous and shy. Tentatively asking: Is this right? Is this the feeling? Is this how it is for you, too? Wringing my hands and hoping my clumsy attempt at capturing life hits anywhere close to home.