Comradery and solace: Gemma Billington interviews Michele Seminara

Gemma: Do you come from a literary background? What does poetry mean to you?

Michele: While I don’t come from a literary background, for some mysterious reason, I always felt I was a writer. I wrote my first novel at age eight, and even as a young girl knew writing was my ‘thing’. The first poetry I really got into as a kid was a selected of T.S. Eliot – mind blown! I always loved poetry but never thought I could write it. Now I write nothing else, although I still have no idea how a poem “works” or is created, or if the last one I wrote will truly be my last. You can’t command a poem – they are cats, not dogs! Still, although they are slippery suckers, completely underrated, and make “nothing happen”, I love poetry above all other written forms because it’s the most potent distillation of language, imagination, thought, emotion and spirit.
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Gemma: I thought I’d begin by asking about your inspiration for Suburban Fantasy. How did you go about selecting the poems, how do you hope a reader will react and how would you describe the overriding message?

Michele: The poems in Suburban Fantasy are mainly drawn from my last five years of writing, although several predate that. Some of the poems are rejects from my first collection, Engraft: I left them out not because I didn’t like them but because they didn’t fit stylistically or thematically into that book, or weren’t quite “cooked” yet. There’s an art to selecting and sequencing poems, and I find it helpful to approach the creation of a new book as if it’s one long poem with many parts. I try to take the reader on an emotional journey. There’s no overriding message as such, I just choose poems that speak to one another and hope that they will also speak to the reader; it’s a very intuitive process.
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Gemma: A motif throughout the collection is the notion of one’s home within themselves and their mind – “I abide in the safe house of my mind”, “the panic room in the basement of my mind”. Does poetry, for you, provide a sense of belonging? Can it be seen as reclaiming a space, having being conditioned to view yourself as a second-class citizen compared to men?

Michele: Reading poetry definitely provides me with a sense of belonging. The most powerful poets for me speak to what’s truest and most fundamental in the human experience, and in reading and recognising my own inner world in theirs, I find comradery and solace.

Writing poetry gives me something else though – I’m naturally quite introverted and live most comfortably inside the “house of my mind”. When I write and dwell inside, I can expand and be myself; when I move through the world, I feel somewhat distorted and diminished. No one is necessarily doing this to me, it just comes from a sense of not quite being what’s expected.

No doubt this is in part related to moving through the world as a female who’s been socialised to “please”, and Suburban Fantasy explores that, sometimes quite darkly and explicitly. I suppose in poetry I can let the wilder thoughts and feelings out to play in a way I wouldn’t feel comfortable to do in my life, although that’s not just about being a woman, but an artist. I love strong female artists who are confident to occupy space and be fully themselves, in their work and their lives. I aspire to do the same – to have my inner and outer worlds align – but the truth is that no one’s stopping me doing that but me. It’s a journey of self-acceptance.

Gemma: Following on from that, your work speaks to themes like misogyny, female objectification, and patriarchal control. Does building a home in one’s mind provide a key part of female liberation and bodily autonomy? And why did you want to discuss those themes?

Michele: For me, safeguarding an internal space to abide in is vital for personal empowerment – not just as a woman, but as a whole person. Of course, women – generally more than men — are expected to nurture and give of themselves, especially if they’re mothers, and many of the poems in Suburban Fantasy were written during a particularly intense period of mothering for me. When there’s little time or space for yourself externally, the autonomy of the inner world is vital. It can keep you strong and intact so that – even if you don’t have the opportunity to act on it – your inner power remains undiminished. I believe external liberation of any kind is impossible without this kind of authentic internal liberation. As women, a lot of our battles are with ourselves, that deep socialisation, those voices in our heads telling us what not to do, feel or say. Of course, there are still plenty of external obstacles, especially for women living in very patriarchal authoritarian cultures, but my particular focus in Suburban Fantasy was to explore the internal feminine landscape, to subvert the notion of a ‘suburban fantasy’ and examine its underbelly. And just as I find solace and solidarity through reading poetry and inhabiting others’ internal “rooms”, so I hope readers might find shelter in mine.

Gemma: You’ve divided the book into four distinct sections – Blood Nature, Suburban Fantasy, Second Coming and Incarnate. What do these stages represent? Is this process cyclical or linear?

Michele: The first section deals with family trauma; the second with female autonomy; the third section is more concerned with mental health and emotional growth; and the fourth is where it all calms down a bit and drops from head to body and heart, with contemplations on mortality. Whether that’s a cyclical or linear progression for the reader might depend on their view of life, death and afterlife, but for me it feels cyclical; I think we spiral our way up the mountain of self-knowledge, revisiting particular life lessons many times in our journey.
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Gemma: A few of your poems utilise intertextuality through remixes and responses. What’s your aim in this? Are you in conversation with these artists or do you hope to provide an alternative insight?

Michele: I love writing found poetry by repurposing, manipulating and redacting other textual sources to create something new. Doing so really helps lift me out of my own writing ticks and ruts, and shakes up my go-to writing rhythms, word choice and syntax. But it’s more than that – when responding to or re-using others’ words, you enter into conversation and/or collaboration with them. Sometimes the aim is to build upon what’s already there, or to tease out hidden meanings you find in the text; sometimes you’re subverting it completely. Bit always it’s very exciting for me to approach another’s writing in this way and explore how I might speak through their words. It’s like playing dress-up, but in trying on a new outfit, you discover and express another aspect of yourself you might not have been brave enough to on your own.
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Gemma: Another prominent theme in the book is mental illness, something that is gradually becoming normalised. How has it impacted your life and can writing help express enigmatic mental health issues?

Michele: Members of my family have suffered from mental health issues, and when that’s the case, it’s a family issue, not something that just starts with or effects only one person. Still, their experience is not mine to tell, so when I write about it, I do so only from the side of how I’m thinking or feeling or coping, and that’s very subjective. I think poetry is an excellent form for expressing and exploring intense emotion, and for me, that’s sometimes the best I can do – reach for a pen and scribble something down that I refine later. It makes me feel less alone, and I hope that in reading the poems, others might feel less alone too.
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Gemma: Maternal guilt, blame, grief, and healing seem to be key themes in the book. Did you want these ideas to stand out? Did you hope to encapsulate the universal human condition or rather an intimate construction of your individual experience?

Michele: I have three children, so mothering has been, and always will be, a huge part of my life. To not write about it would feel dishonest, and I’m glad poets like Sharon Olds have pushed the envelope of acceptable literary topics and motherhood is now a common subject for poems – but sometimes I do feel a little vulnerable letting it all hang out, especially when it comes to emotions of blame, guilt and grief. I hope that by laying bare my personal experience, others might feel less isolated and more at peace with their own. And I think the most powerful way to approach the universal is through the particular. But ultimately, I am a “better out than in” person and would find it hard to write any other way. I believe that only writing which comes from the poets’ heart has a chance of touching the readers’ heart, and I don’t see any point in writing or reading a poem that doesn’t begin and end there.

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Gemma Billington is an aspiring writer and undergraduate student at the University of Technology Sydney. While studying Journalism and Social and Political Science, Gemma enjoys spending her time writing, reading, or going for long walks. She currently writes content for Art of Smart and the student publication, The Comma.
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.Suburban Fantasy by Michele Seminara is available from UWAP 

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