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Five Questions with Maria Takolander

Maria Takolander will be familiar to Geelong readers as a short fiction writer, essayist, and poet, but also to the local writing community as a scholar and Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Deakin University. Maria’s latest book is the poetry collection Trigger Warning, published by the University of Queensland Press (UQP). Trigger Warning will be launched online tomorrow, Saturday 31 July, at the Geelong Library by Gregory Day, Miles Franklin-shorted author of A Sand Archive. We sat down with Maria ahead of the launch to chat about her latest work and some of the themes and ideas explored in the book.

Trigger Warning, your fourth poetry collection, explores themes of mortality, domesticity, and climate change, moving between internal and external worlds and often blending the two. Can you talk about some of the ideas you explore in the book, and how these themes developed during the writing process?

I guess the book is unified by a thematic interest in extreme experiences, but it is also interested in the problem of how to represent those extreme experiences. The first part of the book, called ‘Confessions’, is about my experience of growing up in an environment of domestic violence and then having to deal with the legacy of that into my adulthood. For the longest time, I didn’t know how to talk about what I’d lived through or the struggles I was having, because no one else was talking about it. I found inspiration, though, in the confessional poets of the 50s and 60s (such as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton), who wrote about mental illness and intense relationships in a way that had previously been taboo. That’s why a lot of my poems are ‘addressed’ to these poets. The second part of the book is called ‘Domestic’, which is a euphemism for a fight inside the home, but the poems here are a healing attempt to reimagine the everyday objects of the domestic space in a way untainted by my personal history. In poems about the television, the telephone and the bed, for example, I attempt to encounter these objects on their own terms, telling their strange histories, or speculating on their cultural significance. The third section of the book, called ‘Outside’, turns to a tragedy that’s happening outside our homes: climate change. I suppose, once upon a time, a lot of these poems might have been called ‘nature poems’, but how do we write about nature now, when it’s becoming so ‘unnatural’? My answer to that question, as the strange appearance of many poems here suggest, is in part to de-naturalise the conventional forms of poetry.

‘Trigger warning’ is a term used to alert readers to content that may be upsetting or ‘triggering’. What is the significance of the title of your book, and what effect does/should it have on potential readers? 

Trigger Warning seemed an obvious title for the collection because the first part of the book deals with how I was triggered by a recent event in my adult life to relive my childhood trauma. The content itself may also be ‘triggering’ for some readers, especially those who have had similar experiences, though I would hope that those readers would also feel recognised and less alone. As a phrase, ‘trigger warning’ also appears in a poem about my visit to the city of Medellín in Colombia, where I was a guest at their international poetry festival shortly after a truce between the warring parties in that country. Before every event the festival organisers recognised the numbers of the murdered and the missing. They never issued a trigger warning. What they did was confrontational, especially for those in the audience who had lost family members or experienced the trauma of violence themselves, but it struck me as the necessary path to healing, and the way to prevent history from repeating. When it comes to domestic violence, we have to break our silence about it in order to stop it happening. Domestic violence thrives under the cover of silence, as does the trauma it inflicts on children, who don’t understand what is happening to them and who carry that unnamed damage with them into adulthood. We really need to start a conversation about this, which I hope my book will do. When it comes to climate change, we need to look at what is happening to the world, no matter how difficult and painful, if we are to come up with solutions.

You use many different forms of poetry in the book and even include graphs and other graphic elements. Can you talk about some of the poems that are displayed differently on the page, particularly ‘Routine Elegy’ and ‘Fractured States of America’?

‘Routine Elegy’ is about the repetition of our daily lives, which are dictated by the rising and setting of the sun. It strikes me that this repetitiveness can get more intense as we get older, and perhaps more painful, especially when our loved ones die but we have to keep going through the motions of living. This poem is about my mother-in-law who went on repeating her everyday routines, but with the knowledge that her husband of 50 years was gone. The poem is represented in the form of a circular diagram to represent the circular nature of that experience. When it comes to ‘Fractured States of America’, it’s a sequence of three poems about the fracturing of the ‘normal’ in the United States of America during the Trump years and in the age of climate change. One of the poems, ‘Sinkhole Alley’, is based on a news article reporting the disappearance of a man into a sinkhole while he was sleeping. The poem uses graphics to try to enhance the bizarreness of that event but also the bizarre things that are starting to happen in the Anthropocene.

You write fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, with multiple books of each genre under your belt. What is the attraction of poetry, for you? Are some ideas best explored through poems and some through fiction, for instance? 

Poetry is a special way of communicating. People often say, ‘oh, I don’t understand poetry’, but I work very hard for my poetry to be understood. I also believe that we understand poetry at the level of ‘feeling’ or ‘intuition,’ which isn’t always translatable at the level of the purely ‘rational’ or ‘logical’. Just think about how you feel when you’re in a forest or looking at the sun setting over the ocean. You’re overwhelmed by an experience that isn’t easy to capture or describe. The same is true when it comes to the experience of trauma, which is buried deep in your body, where it’s hard to unearth. That’s where poetry comes in, providing a way for you to feel your way into expressing things. You’ll find yourself drawing on metaphors and images, and being attentive to the sounds and textures of words. When it comes to reading poetry, my advice is to let it wash over you in the way you’d let that vision of a forest wash over you. Remember that feeling is at the centre of who we are as human beings. Poetry is often associated with madness, but it’s the lack of feeling that makes someone a psychopath!

Writers are often asked for writing advice – how to craft a short story, for instance, or how to write memorable characters. But we wanted to ask you for reading advice. Your poems are often arranged in such a way that demand the reader turn the book sideways, or figure out a graph, or look up translations of Finnish phrases in the back of the book. So how does your poetry encourage a certain approach to reading? 

Well, I’m definitely trying to get the reader’s attention! I want to ‘trigger’ readers to be aware of this book in their hands. I want to invite readers to think about the act of reading itself. We’re so immersed—often mindlessly—in digital culture, but let’s not forget to pay attention—genuine attention—to what it is we’re reading. Let’s savour the smell of the print and the pages. Let’s turn the book over in our hands to get the best view. Let’s not take for granted what it’s trying to do.

Register to attend the online launch of Trigger Warning, 3pm Saturday 31 July, through the Geelong Library’s website here