Tony Messenger interviews Ali Whitelock
Ali Whitelock is a Scottish poet and writer. Her second poetry collection, the lactic acid in the calves of your despair was long listed for the ALS Gold Medal for an outstanding literary work in 2020 and is published by Wakefield Press. Her debut collection, and my heart crumples like a coke can, was published in 2018, also by Wakefield Press, with a forthcoming UK edition by Polygon in 2022. Her memoir, Poking seaweed with a stick and running away from the smell, was launched to critical acclaim at Sydney Writers Festival (2008) and in the UK (2009). www.aliwhitelock.com
This lockdown has seemed endless, reflecting back to March 2020 when I was first sent home from the office, temporarily we thought, I’ve now endured more than eighteen months of working from home, an interrupted social calendar, sporadic lapses in concentrated reading and writing, and all of the other associated ills that most are now to blasé to even consider.
Take a moment to feel for those writers whose books were released, or scheduled for release, during the last eighteen months. Launches, readings, hoopla and hurrah all cancelled, whilst their works attempt to garner support via social media channels and via online sales.
Ali Whitelock, Scottish born and Australian resident, is one such writer, her second collection from Wakefield Press, ‘the lactic acid in the calves of your despair’, was due to launch on the same day that NSW had its first lockdown. Zoom book launches had not even been thought of at the time, so yet another writer must start swimming harder against the currents to get their work recognized.
Similar to her first book published by Wakefield, ‘and my heart crumples like a coke can’, Ali Whitelock’s poetry approaches personal places in a raw and open manner, as the opening lines of the first poem “in the silence of the custard” attest:
Night crept in, stumbled and fell at my feet
badgers keeked from hedgerows
window wipers wiped, grouse tails flashed, patsy
cline played on the stereo i listened in the dark and fell to pieces.
Onomatopoeia, alliteration, and metaphor abound, in these poems that address personal subjects such as grief, hysterectomies, climate change and politics. Spiced with irony, the juxtaposition of helplessness with humour is unbalancing, you move from shock to smile within lines and once done return for another reading.
…now the ice caps are melting & the fucking polar bears are dying.
then trump got elected. i tried to write a poem about this heat but it ended
up being about the daughter i never had & sadness crept up behind me,
put its hand over my mouth and pulled me backwards into a filthy dark
alley i hadn’t been game enough to venture into before.
– from “kmart sells out of cheap fans made in china”
Trump, “turbo charged” air conditioned shopping malls, attempted suicides, unborn children, climate change, and dying polar bears all in a single poem with an ironic title. However, it is the helplessness, the impossibility of a single person making a difference that rings true throughout.
Ali Whitelock carefully balances the broad social issues with her deeply personal revelations, a reconciliation with her father before his death, her personal health problems come up against cures such as “chrysanthemum tea” or humour such as the process of writing a poem in “a poem walked into a bar”, the opening section here:
thrust a sheet of A4 paper into my hands, said,
‘here, have this.’
‘what do you mean?’ i said, ‘what is it?’
‘it’s a poem,’ the poem said. ‘a poem?’ i quizzed.
‘aye, a poem,’ the scottish poem replied.
‘ well how come you’re just handing it to me?’ i said
‘because,’ the poem said, ‘i’ve been watching you from the driver’s
seat of my big poetry bus and every time i pull up at your stop
i see you hunched over your laptop only stopping now and again
to get a cup of that kombucha or whatever the fuck it is you’re drinking
these days, or to rub the RSI in your forearms from your too much typing
and i see you agonise trying to find exactly the right word with exactly
the right weight that conveys the exact emotion you are trying
to get down on the exact page exactly no one gives a flying fuck about.’
Formal poetic processes such as responses to other poems, ekphrastic musings or found lines all make their appearance in this varied and readable collection. As Ali Whitelock’s work matures there appears to be a more sinister, wiser head, she’s “veering off the well lit path into unexpectedly intimate spaces” as she explains in her interview.
As always with any interview subject I would like to sincerely thank Ali Whitelock for her time and honesty in answering my questions.
T.M: Both of your books, from Wakefield Press, have interesting covers, your first, ‘and my heart crumples like a coke can’, has a photo of you looking directly at the reader, as though “I’m open here, I’m sharing my life’s moments with you”, the second, ‘the lactic acid in the calves of your despair’, you appear more knowing, Rodin’s ‘Thinker’. Two questions here, did you have a say in the cover designs? And is it a case of the more you write the more circumspect you become?
A.W: Ah, cover design. I’m pretty hopeless when it comes to anything visual, so I leave cover design to Wakefield Press and their vast experience in publishing. Given my poems are deeply personal and very revealing, I completely understood the rationale to go with my face on the cover. Still, it did feel a bit confronting in the beginning, which was weird because what was I afraid of? Being exposed? I’d already exposed just about everything about myself in the pages of the book, so why stop at the cover? So I gave myself a bit of a talking to and now I don’t think twice about it.
As for ‘the more I write the more circumspect I become’, I have always taken risks in my writing, and that continues. The moment I find myself thinking, ‘oh shit, I can’t say that’, then I definitely have to say that. Having an edge of fear as I write brings an excitement for me and an edge to the process which I hope translates into the finished poem. If I’m not excited by what I write, how can I expect anyone else to be excited by it? And while we’re on the subject, what is a writing life without risk and fear? I’m reminded of Robert Dessaix in his book Night Letters where he writes about his character Robert stepping out of the doctor’s office after being diagnosed with an incurable disease. Robert becomes, suddenly, very acutely aware that until that point in his life he’d always taken the orderly, well lit path through life and had never ventured off it into the undergrowth. With my writing, my excitement comes from veering off the well lit path into unexpectedly intimate spaces and trying to express myself as individually and originally as I can. My pal, and poet, Magi Gibson, once said, ‘You know Ali, your metaphors are daringly banal’, which I loved because that’s precisely what they are. They are always rooted in the every day banality of baked beans and fried eggs and our basic human foibles. I am not one for the grandiose. (I was chatting with Magi recently and I brought up her ‘daringly banal’ comment. Magi immediately pointed out that when she’d said that, she’d also said they were breathtakingly beautiful:) There you go Magi, the record has been set straight!)
At risk of banging on, your question also reminded of a time when I was in the audience at an opera masterclass at the Sydney Conservatorium. I wasn’t singing in the class although I was having private singing lessons at the time. The visiting American professor was trying to get the students to be less wooden as they sang. As the day drew to a close he urged the singers not to fear and not to hold back as they sang. He ended the masterclass with this exquisite line: ‘Safe singing. What’s the point?’ Perhaps that’s where I got my own writing philosophy from –– ‘Safe writing. What’s the point?’
TM: In James Tate’s poem ‘It Happens Like This’ the protagonist looks after the town’s goat. In your homage ‘natural born goat killer’ you inadvertently kill the goat. How did this leap occur?
A.W.: I used to gather all my veggie scraps for my neighbour’s goat. Around the same time a dear friend of mine (who also has goats) asked her neighbour to feed them while she was away. Her neighbour inadvertently fed the goats rhododendron leaves not knowing they were poisonous to goats. One of the goats tragically died. I could only imagine how devastated my friend’s neighbour must have felt. After that I became terrified that I may, unwittingly, feed poisonous vegetable matter to my neighbour’s goat, so I would Google any of my more unusual vegetable matter to make sure it wasn’t poisonous. It was around about this time I stumbled on James Tate’s poem (also involving a goat). It is such a quirky poem and it inspired me to write down my very real fears about unintentionally murdering a goat and having an entire village turn against me as a result. For the record, I love animals more than I do humans and the worst thing I can imagine is having unintentionally caused an animal harm. Perhaps the true genesis of my goat poem centres around a time when I was around 17 and my cat had two kittens, Morticia and Pandora. One day, when the kittens were still little, probably only 12 weeks old, I got into my car and reversed out of the driveway not knowing that Pandora was under the car. I can’t begin to tell you of the horror that unfolded. The kitten died a horrific death. So maybe in some way my goat poem is speaking to the fear, horror and devastation that still lives in me since I, however unintentionally, killed my own kitten.
T.M: The poem ‘if life is unbearable’ was obviously written pre-Covid, but it is reminiscent of lockdowns, baking crazes etc. Are you a prophet?
A.W: Ha ha, yes. But obviously, no. Look, the dark place we inhabit in ourselves is the place where all the juicy stuff lives––all the secrets, lies, fears, regrets, love, hate, shame, the list goes on. This poem comes from that same dark place inside of me and tries to speak to the banality and extraordinary weight of mechanically trying to enact things that are meant to bring us a sense of purpose or perhaps joy, (be that baking a cake or a loaf of sourdough or [insert your own sense of purpose/joy here] ), despite the fact that some mornings you can barely lift your head off the pillow. This poem seems to say, whatever’s going on in your life, you still somehow have to find it in yourself to keep going, to keep putting one foot in front of the other. And that can feel like an incredible burden.
This next bit may be slightly unrelated, but bear with me. I’m reminded of Jerry Seinfeld accepting the Clio Award from the Advertising industry for services to advertising. Who knew Jerry wrote ads? Anyway, Jerry gives an acceptance speech which is super scathing of the advertising industry. The audience of advertisers laugh heartily as he says, ‘I think spending your life trying to dupe innocent people out of their hard-won earnings to buy useless, low-quality, misrepresented items and services is an excellent use of your energy’ and goes on to say, ‘if your things don’t make you happy, you’re not getting the right things’. It’s such a philosophical moment that comments so loudly and clearly on what it is that’s meant to make us happy, ie., buying stuff. The message from advertisers and capitalism at large is all we have to do is spend money and we’ll be happy. Well, this aspect of society is one I rail against and I guess it’s what I’m also (albeit less obviously) railing against in this poem––this idea that all you have to do is XYZ or buy ABC and we’ll all be happy. Well, I’m afraid simply doing XY Z or buying ABC may not be the answer for all of us. This poem is trying to acknowledge that in this shit storm of a world (where we’re bombarded by advertising and social media lies), how difficult it can be to keep putting one foot in front of the other regardless of how we are actually feeling. For some light relief, here’s a link to Jerry’s speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uHWX4pG0FNY
T.M: These are very personal poems, working through stages of grief, hysterectomies, bodily changes. Is it a cathartic experience to work through and craft these subjects onto a page?
A.W: My catharsis comes from the regular therapy that I’ve been having since, oooh, around 1995. When I’m writing my poems, it’s never about trying to work through my experiences (bodily or otherwise). I’ve never sat back after finishing and poem and thought, well, I’m glad I sorted that shit out. By the time I come to write a poem I’ve already emotionally and psychologically processed whatever it is I needed to process and that’s why I can then go on and write the poem freely, honestly and without fear of consequence. So really, when I write what I’m doing is retelling (not reliving) my stories/experiences in ways that are as poetic, artistic and original as I can make them. I wonder how my poems would come out if I hadn’t already processed the issues before hand. The phrase, madwoman’s breakfast comes to mind.
T.M: In your author’s note, again obviously written pre-Covid, speaks of Edinburgh, Melbourne, Sydney, how has the restriction of travel impacted your full-time writing, and of course your poetry readings?
A.W: For the last twenty years I’ve had a house full of pets. Because I’m an animal maniac, this has meant I haven’t been able/prepared to travel as much as I would have liked. Sadly the last of our fur family (Nellie the cat) died last year. We had her for 21 years, her brother Angus for 19. Our darling Hector The Dog left us the year before Angus. We’d always said when the last of our pets departed we’d head to Scotland and France for an extended period. But when Nellie died, Covid was here and we were in lockdown . So here we are––perfectly able to travel because we have no pet responsibilities, but unable to travel because of the virus.
My latest book was due to launch on the same day that NSW had its first lockdown in March 2020. The lockdown was so fresh, Zoom launches weren’t even a thing yet––look at us now! So in lieu of a launch, I video recorded myself making a bit of a launch speech. Nellie The Cat made an unexpected appearance and naturally the video was infinitely better as a result. When Nellie died, as a tribute to her I edited the video to show less of me and all of the Nellie highlights. It’s right here if you fancy watching. She was damn cute (if not super demanding). RIP little girl. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fSe1hY6nwVA
As for poetry readings, when live readings opened up briefly in Sydney in May and June 2021, I made hay while the sun shone. But yes, both lockdowns have clearly massively impacted all of us, let alone us poets.
T.M: How has this impacted your writing practice?
A.W: I still write every day so the lockdown hasn’t affected my writing practice. But I’m sure it has affected/influenced what I’m writing on a day to day basis. If there’d been no pandemic I’d have based myself in the remote Scottish highlands or France (my husband is French) for a few months so there’s no doubt I’d be writing something different to what I’m writing now. I can’t help fantasising about writing in a French medieval village––wandering around with a pen in my hand and freshly baked baguette under my unshaved armpit.
During this most recent lockdown I finished writing a new collection. Luckily for me, before Covid graced our shores, I already had a writing routine which I lived and died by––nothing gets in the way of that. For me, writing is all about the routine, the showing up for it every single day. When I sit down to write each morning, I’m like one of Pavlov’s dogs. I lift the lid and start salivating.
T.M: How do you see the relationship between style & form (for example you use various styles, responses, slides, prose, concrete) and how would you rate their importance for you, respectively?
A.W: Mark Tredinnick once said, ‘the poem escapes from the form.’ This was way back when I first started writing poetry and I had no idea what this could mean. But eventually, I started to see that some poems looked and read better and seemed to come to life when they were laid out on the page in a certain way. So the relationship between style and form is massively important. I think the form adds a new layer to the meaning of the work and makes the poem more whole, more 3D, more complete.
How do I know which layout will be the right one? I don’t really know, for me it’s just a feeling. As I’m writing, I move lines around, indent things, centre things, make shapes … I experiment with various forms and miraculously, one will fit and the poem will be brought to life. I think writing overall is like learning to make bread. Eventually you understand how much yeast to put in without weighing it, you understand when the mixture needs more flour, you understand how long you will have to knead it before putting it in the oven. Your writing process becomes intuitive and personal to you. This is why making writing a regular and routine practice is so beneficial. The more time you spend kneading a poem, I think the better you get at it.
T.M: I ask about your writing practice & the impact of Covid, however looking back, once you had made the decision to be a full-time writer, what were your main creative challenges and have they changed over time?
A.W: My biggest initial challenge was getting over the fear of not being able to produce. I had given up a salaried job in order to pursue my writing dreams. The fears were there from the start – what if I sit down and can’t write a word? What if what I do write is crap? What if I’ve been kidding myself all this time and I’m not a writer but a big fat loser? We’re all familiar with that negative self talk. So I didn’t try to get over those fears. Instead I sat down to write with the fears in the room. I invited them to ‘come and pull up a chair, but please, keep the fucking noise down cause I’m trying to get some writing done here.’ From day one, somehow, I felt if all I could do was merely show up, then the writing would take care of itself. Somehow I knew I had to create the environment where writing could exist as opposed to the pressure of, ‘I’m now sitting down to write’. I also knew I had to give myself permission to write crap. One of the other challenges for me was to accept that each day will not bring about a masterpiece. That’s just a fact. But over time, if you chip away at it, if you keep showing up every day and making space where writing can happen, you might just write something that makes you happy.
And here’s the thing, writing is not only about producing ‘good writing’. A day of writing may yield some good writing, but in my case, mostly it will be mediocre or crap. This doesn’t get me down. I now have enough experience to know that the bad and mediocre writing can and will be made into something that’s good. The mediocrity is just the first draft. Once the mediocrity is down, then begins the real writing––where I have to work hard to make my mediocrity into something that’s good. I can only achieve that by the hard work of chipping away at it every day. Writing, for me, is always hard work but it’s never a chore. There’s a massive difference.
T.M: I ask all my subjects this question as it has built a great reading list, what are you reading right now?
Contempt –– by Alberto Moravia.
Oh my god, this book. The Boston Review says, ‘The most striking aspect of Moravia’s fiction isn’t its once-daring sexual focus, but the cool calculated way it looks at love – or lack of it – in the modern world.’ The atmosphere created in this book is mind blowing.
Mark Rothko: Towards the Light in the Chapel –– by Annie Cohen-Solal.
I’m a huge fan of Rothko’s work. This book maps the journey of Mark Rothko from young Jewish migrant to world renowned artist. Fascinating insights into the jealousy between artists of the time and the quest to gain recognition and the disdain these new expressionist artists held for the establishment of the time.
Conversations with John Berryman –– Edited by Eric Hoffman.
I have a fascination with Berryman. This series of conversations satisfies me in ways I can’t quite explicate.
Anthropology and a hundred other stories –– by Dan Rhodes.
Little snippets/single paragraphs detailing lost loves. I dip into this book time and again, it is gorgeous, tragic, tender, funny & utterly joyous.
The Only Story –– by Julian Barnes.
An utterly engrossing novel. So tender and heartbreaking.
Stuff on my Cat –– by Mario Garza
Because who doesn’t want to look at photographs of a cat with whipped cream and a cherry on its head –– or a cheeseburger on its back?
T.M: And finally, what are you working on at the moment, anything you can share with us?
A.W: I’m working on a second memoir about travelling around Scotland with my brother. I’m looking forward to the day when I can get back to Scotland to complete the travel and hope to write it holed up in a rickety fisherman’s cottage somewhere in the north west corner of Scotland, gazing out across the Minch, a peaty malt in my hand, perhaps even a sprig of heather in my hair.
Tony Messenger is an Australian writer, critic and interviewer who has had works published in many places including Overland Literary Journal, Southerly, Mascara Literary Review, Sublunary Editions in the USA and Burning House Press in the UK. He blogs about translated fiction and interviews Australian poets at Messenger’s Booker and can be found on Twitter @Messy_tony