Mark Roberts interviews Zalehah Turner

Zalehah Turner Biographical Note   Zalehah Turner Four Poems

When did you start writing poetry? Can you remember the first poem you ever wrote?

The first poem I ever wrote was either ‘The House of Change’ or ‘Pills, Opportunities and Optimism’. Both were part of a series six of poems written as an assessment piece for English in High School. I’ve always been interested in intermedia and transmedia poetry. I created a one woman show accompanied by audio and visual media for Theatre based on ‘Pills, Opportunity and Optimism’. The rest of the five poems, I developed as theatrical, multimedia pieces for a play I wrote for the same subject entitled, Andrea, Alec and Avril which included contemporary ballet, a medusa style, snake queen on stilts, skaters in wire meshing, and a Chinese dragon rat.

The threat of death interrupted my studies at 19 and continued to over many years. However, I never stopped writing and drawing. The first poems that I wrote after returning to university study were four haikus which were displayed in Federation Square as part of the Overload Poetry Festival in 2008.

What made you want to write to start writing poetry?

The short answer, reading ‘Howl’ by Allen Ginsberg and my love of words and poetry.

Can you talk about some of the major influences on your work? Who were the poets that inspired you to start writing and have those influences changed over time?

My work is influenced by art, films, novels, music, and poetry. I am continually impressed by the power of expression from creatives working in a variety of mediums who come from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Milton by Blake made a significant impact on me at a young age. It was on my mother’s bookshelf along with other books of poetry and works of literature. It seemed magical, powerful and mysterious. It definitely encouraged my desire to engage through both art and poetry. Howl by Allen Ginsberg inspired me to start writing poetry. Its impact on my life was uncontested until, I read The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot. I read and re-read the poem and was incredibly intrigued by all the literary and personal references within it. Admittedly, I first read T.S. Eliot’s The Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats as a child, so, perhaps his influence was there all along. My poetry was, and still is, incredibly influenced by Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space.

Curating the featured writers for Rochford Street Review has also significantly inspired me. It may also have inadvertently helped me develop my Honours Project. It has significantly increased my appreciation of Australian poetry as well as, opening me up to work from Manus Island, Ukraine, and Russia. Interviewing poets and reading their reflections upon their own work is incredibly interesting and inspiring.
For me one of the highlights of your work at RSR has been the leading role you took with the New Shoots Prize (co-creating, judging, promoting). Can you tell me about how you went about organising that prize and the work involved? I’m particularly interested in understanding if it influenced your own work in any way.

I undertook an internship with The Red Room Company early in 2016 where I complied a collection of plant inspired poetry for Tamryn Bennett, the Artistic Director of the RRC. The RRC were just beginning their project New Shoots. I saw the opportunity, as an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review, to collaborate by developing a prize or rather prizes where the winners could be published in RSR, RRC and on the Royal Botanic Garden website. Tamryn and I agreed on the guidelines which I wrote and she put together a great package of poetry anthologies, seed packets and journals for the different prizes. There was an incredible amount of work involved but as ecology, poetry and community engagement are all very important to me, it was an invaluable and inspiring experience. I was impressed with the submissions, the variation and range, as well as, the strength in the poetry. I put together a shortlist. Tamryn and I easily agreed on all the winners, and most of the highly commended.

I developed a plant inspired poetry prompt for social media each Sunday as way to promote, inspire and engage poets and plant lovers. It opened my eyes to the incredible changes that the planet is undergoing and the amazing responses from artists, poets and the world as a whole. Publishing the poems and interviewing the winning and highly commended poets was a great chance to go back and take an in depth look at poems we had chosen and find out what the poets had to say about their own work. If the entire experience didn’t influence the way I think and write, including the topics I write on, I would be surprised. Sure enough, when I met with my Honours supervisor late last year to discuss my project for 2017, I warned her of the possible impact of New Shoots on my chosen project!

What are you working on now?

I am currently editing a couple of poetry reviews from contributors which I aim to publish in Rochford Street Review soon. I am also reviewing two poetry collections, one art exhibition, and currently finalising the editing and layout for the Featured Writer for issue 22. Aside for my work as Associate Editor at Rochford Street Review, I am working on a 30-page intermedia poetry collection entitled, Critical condition, focused on the interstitial threshold between life and death in medical crises. Critical condition is my Honours Project and the Creative component of my Honours (Communication) degree at the University of Technology, Sydney which I started last week.

Many Thanks Zalehah