Denise O’Hagan

Denise O’Hagan interviews poet Angela Costi

Angela Costi is the author of four collections of poetry: Dinted Halos (Hit & Miss Publications, 2003), Prayers for the Wicked (Floodtide Audio and Sunshine Text, 2005), Honey and Salt (Five Islands Press, 2007) and Lost in Mid-Verse (Owl Publishing, 2014). Since 1994, her poetry, stories, plays, essays and reviews have been widely published. In recent times, you can find her work at Mascara Literary Review, Eureka Street, Cordite Poetry Review, The Blue Nib, The Wellington Street Review, Australian Poetry Journal and StylusLit. She manages ‘Angela Costi Poetics’, a Facebook page dedicated to reflecting on the poetry writing process. 

This article was originally posted on The Blue Nib.

Denise: Good morning, Angela, and thank you for agreeing to this conversation. I thought we might start with an overview, as you are an unusually multi-faceted artist – a playwright and community artist, as well as a poet. How did you come to wear these various hats, and how do they influence each other?

Angela: Throughout my teenage years and as a young adult at university, studying law and arts, I had multiple roles. In addition to student, I was advocate for my parents and grandparents who were migrants and couldn’t communicate with the system. Also I was their historian, in the sense that they were oral storytellers, and I began writing their stories in Greek. ‘Wearing various hats’ continued into my adult years, as I graduated from uni and practised for a while as a lawyer specialising in environmental law, town planning and local government. At the same time, I was writing poetry at night. Then, in my mid-20s, I left law altogether as my yearning to write overtook my days. I went back to uni to study poetry and playwrighting. This led to pursuing a freelance life as a creative writer. 

My first commission was writing a play with young people about bicultural existence. From the mid-90s onwards, I reinvented my work life to encompass working with diverse communities across Victoria on large-scale plays. A highlight was being commissioned by the City of Melbourne as the community writer for the Relocated arts project. From 2001–2003, I was located at the former Kensington Public Housing Estate where I was tasked with conducting extensive interviews, collaborative workshops and creative events, including a play, with the public tenants in order to document their traumatic process of forced relocation as the large housing estate (their home) was being demolished. I wrote poems exploring the layers of forced intra-state migration, which accompanied photographs of tenants and their lives at the Estate by photographer, Angela Bailey. Writing the play for this project incorporated poetic devices. For me, plays and poems have a relationship like that of siblings, connected yet forging ahead separately. 

Denise: Well, you’ve certainly forged ahead in your poetry! ‘You offered an apricot pregnant with juice, / it opened at the merest touch …’ was a line that stayed with me from ‘Another letter’. Reading your poetry is an effortless, a pure joy, and gives me the impression you’re a very natural writer – would that be so? When did you start writing poetry, and what first drew you to it?

Angela: I don’t think of myself as a natural writer as I revise and revise. There are many poems and plays slumping with sheer exhaustion at my attempts to motivate them to sprint off the page. Those moments when a poem easily slides out is due to conscious and unconscious thinking about the idea that triggered the poem. I still revisit the poem to see what edits it needs. 

The first time I wrote a poem with the intent to share it with the world was in 1993. When I was no longer a lawyer, rather an explorer of the page. I was voraciously reading poetry in all its forms. I was sketching with words and they were showing a combination of spill and discipline, of Greek and English, of ancient myth and contemporary struggle – I felt so alive with the challenge of disclosing my voice, my difference and my lens. 

Denise: Indeed, there’s a pervading sense of the past in your work, a delicious melancholy that runs through it as you reconcile your place as a child of Greek Cypriot immigrants with growing up in modern Australia. ‘I’m groomed to marry the past,’ you write in ‘The question’. How does the language of poetry help you tread the space between these two worlds and their values?

Angela: Poetry enables me to express the experience of those two worlds through the musicality of language. I mostly write in English, but I also thread Greek language and Cypriot dialect in many of my poems about these intersecting and colliding cultures. This doesn’t seem forced, it feels innate and connected to an inheritance, an ancestral awakening. One of my first poems to get published was in Australian Multicultural Book Review (1994). It was called Visiting Yiayia (Cypriot-Greek Grandmother). 

This heralded the writing of poems that were creatively documenting the personal experiences and yet universal emotions of inheriting a different culture to the one I was living – my grandparents and parents being traditional Cypriots had vastly different lives, values and stories, which were inspiration for many poems. 

Denise: Reading your poetry, we sense this and are privileged to feel the heartbeat behind your lines, some of which draw on intensely personal memories.But is there any aspect of your experience or interests that you deliberately avoid exploring in your poetry, and why? 

Angela: I would never divulge the personal disclosures or secrets of my friends, family members and people I work with. Another area that I avoid writing about is my ill health. I carry within my body multiple tumours that grow on nerve-endings. This idiosyncrasy has a diagnosis: multiple schwannomatosis. Not that this is taboo like another’s private story, but it’s an area that brings up challenging emotions such as anxiety and fear. I want my poetry on this subject to be more than self-interest. I have written a few poems that open the door to my illness and some have been shared: Shrapnel is an example, published in Cordite Poetry Review. It’s still a difficult topic to do well. 

Denise: Thank you foropening up to this part of your world, Angela. I agree, the line between disclosure of the personal per se and the reworking of it through an artistic lens so that it may resonate universally is a challenge to many artists – ‘Shrapnel’ is a courageous, powerful poem indeed. Turning to your study of Ancient Greek Drama in Greece and work on an international collaboration involving your poetry in Japan, how have these international experiences shaped your poetic vision?

Angela: In Greece I was immersed in ancient drama and poetics, and in Japan I was introduced to classic syllable-based poetry and contemporary free verse. Whether it was studying Aristophanes and then performing as part of the chorus in Lysistrata, or learning about the pain-staking discipline of tanka, I was drawn to the innovative endeavour within the traditional form. Ishikawa Takuboku, for example, who was influencing the form with the language of the every-day. Immersed in the remarkable contributions of classic poets of different times and societies, brought to the fore the dynamic evolution of poetry as a revered communication tool. These experiences have both humbled and empowered my poetic direction.

Denise: I can imagine!Back on the home front, how do you balance writing poetry with your work in the local justice sector and with your family?

Angela: I don’t think I balance them well! All three are competing priorities. My work in the social justice sector is about advocating for people who have been disadvantaged by circumstances and system. It’s both challenging and rewarding. I have two teenagers in senior high school years and older parents who need support; I’m not alone here, as they’ve invented a category for my ‘wedged-in-the-middle’ position. And I continue to have this yearning to write, which I do mostly in the early morning before the family wakes and the zoom meetings emerge on screen to announce another injustice. I must say though if I didn’t have to work, I would gladly write all day, every day.  

I take heart that many writers and poets before me had families to support or working lives, or both, and somehow they continued to contribute. I am one of the growing number of women poets who fall into this category as historically male poets with competing professions have been listed, such as George Seferis, Constantine P. Cavafy and Pablo Neruda. 

Denise: You’re an inspiration to us, Angela! Now, there are some things that everyone always wants to ask an artist. So here goes – what, or who, would you say is your main inspiration behind writing?

Angela: I come from a long line of kinaesthetic miracle makers: mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers. They found a way to rise above poverty by drawing from their skills to create with their hands exquisite embroidery known as Lefkarathika. (This embroidery became world known when in the fifteenth century Leonardo da Vinci visited Cyprus and took a Lefkara lace back to Italy with him to decorate the Duomo Cathedral in Milan.) I am a creation of these women, and I in turn offer an intricate sequence of threads through poetry-making. 

Denise: What a marvellous legacy! Hence the allusions to lace-making and embroidery that run through your lines. Writing habits, as we both know, vary tremendously. Do you have a particular writing routine, or a set process for editing your work and polishing it to final form?

Angela: I like to start the earlier part of each day with poetic thoughts. Even if all I can write within those one or two hours are two lines, they are the beginning of a journey. When a poem or other form of writing has been drafted, I like to read it at night and make my edits and then revisit those edits next morning. 

Denise: There is something about reading and editing at night, I agree – perhaps an intensity of focus that escapes us during the daylight hours. You must have done a lot of night reading, then, as you’ve published four collections of poetry, the latest of which is Lost in Mid-Verse, which I’ve been quoting from.How has the experience of releasing your work out into the world affected you?

Angela: The first collection was in 2003 and the last was in 2014, indicating how long it takes me to release these worked and reworked thematic collections. The lead up process for each was intense and creatively nourishing as it involved discarding many poems to focus on theme, adding very new poems, and collaborating with a poetry editor. After release, there is the learning to settle into another pattern of creative pursuit, learning to read the reviews without a quaking heart and learning with gratitude that my contribution is a tiny ripple within the smaller pool of poetry, the larger river of literature and the greater ocean of life. 

Denise: What a beautiful way of putting it! Which other artists have exerted the most influence over you? 

Angela: I find this question very difficult to answer because it risks me leaving out artists. There have been so many poets, let alone the visual artists and musical artists. I could list for hours the many poets I have read and cherished but will provide three who have passed away who had an impact on me: Yiannis Ritsos (particularly his monochords), Adrienne Rich (the way she melded ideology and metaphor) and Judith Rodriguez (gifted with words and generosity of spirit). 

Sometimes it’s one poem or a series of poems that have influenced me rather than a poet’s entire output. An example is Elizabeth Bishop’s poem One Art. When I read this about 25 years ago, it inhabited my existence as a masterpiece of form (villanelle) and of subject (personal losses in life). I can read this poem today and still not tire of its dance on the page, the way it coaxes me to recite all of its lines and reminds me of how to share the deeply personal in a way that echoes. 

Denise: A more straightforward question, now: What books are you currently reading, poetry or otherwise?

Angela: I always have a combination of books. I read them simultaneously and enjoy moving from pure poetic to prose, which is based on fact. Currently, I am enjoying The Collected Poems (1931-1987) of Czeslaw Milosz. I have just finished the exceptional novel by Barbara Kingslover, Unsheltered. I am also reading the essays and poetry in the latest issue of Hecate – Queer Legacies, New Solidarities 2018 and my nonfiction book is a collection of essays about working with communities in Australia titled The Relationship is the Project, edited by Jade Lillie.

Denise: These are wonderfully diverse titles! What role do you feel poetry does, or should, play in our society?

Angela: If we think of how people transferred their creation stories, their stories of faith and survival, poetry inhabited their voices and captivated their audience. Holy text in whatever faith is born through poetic vision and form. Poetry is that deeper wisdom found in the speeches of legendary leaders. In our contemporary life, it’s one of the most practiced, prized, judged and listened to art forms. We need to learn to value that person at age 80 who writes her first poem as much as that person at age 17 who is determined to make a career of it. Each poem has the potential to make us pause to reflect, wonder, think; essential responses in our society which tends to be overwhelmed by reaction, haste and demand. 

Denise: Lastly, what advice would you offer to aspiring poets out there?

Angela: Now that I am stepping quietly into my 50s, I can say be grateful for both acceptances and rejections you receive from publishers, funding bodies, festivals, conferences etc. The rejections teach you about yourself more than the acceptances. Some things I’ve learned are resilience and tenacity, and above all, review and revision. Also do not apologise if you find your life is immersed with competing needs taking you away from your poetry practice. Dorothy Hewett, a well-known Australian writer, stopped writing for eight years to take care of her children and when she returned, she had so much to contribute. Experience underpins our craft. 

Denise: On that note, I want to thank you so much for your time, Angela. It’s been an illuminating conversation. I’m sure we’re all looking forward to your next poetry collection, and in the meantime, I’m going to settle back and lose myself in Lost in Mid-Verse!

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