Words by: Mandy Tu
Image credit: David Vincent Smith
Sitting across from Karen Lowry at a quiet hour in the afternoon at Gloria Jean’s, I can’t help but feel a bit intimidated.
Karen is studying a PhD in poetry and electronic literature at Curtin University on a full-time scholarship. She’s organized and coordinated the 2012 and 2013 WA Poetry Festival, performed as a feature poet at different venues around Perth, as well as had her poems published in literary anthologies such as The Australian Poetry Journal and WRIT Poetry Review. On the third of June, Karen will be flying to Sydney to perform as one of the twenty finalists in the AMP Bright Sparks competition.
We spoke about the details of the AMP event, her PhD work, and the thread that ties it all together—poetry.
Tell us about your upcoming event in Sydney.
So it’s a competition run by AMP; they run AMPlify festival, which is a business and innovation festival, and they run this competition for PhD students. You’ve got to pitch your thesis to non-academics without using jargon. I have a hundred and fifty seconds to pitch my work, and my research is on poetry, a lot of the people there are scientists, I’m the only creative writer; I’m the only person in Humanities. So I’m kind of going up against people where, when they’re showing their importance to the crowd, they go, “Well, I’m trying to cure heart disease,” so the benefit is, you won’t die from a heart attack. I’ve got to get up there and I have a hundred and fifty seconds to convince people who have probably never given poetry a second thought that poetry should be important to them.
So when and how did you start writing poetry?
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I remember being three years old and I couldn’t actually write words, but I’d get these bits of paper and write poems. They were just squiggly lines, and then show them to my mum, and get really upset when she didn’t read the words out right. That kind of escalated till I made my own picture books; I remember binding them, punching the holes and tying the wool through them, to bind them together.
I really started writing poetry properly in high school. I dealt with quite a few issues in depression, so I turned to it, not really thinking about me as writing poetry: I didn’t think of myself as a poet. I just wrote poetry, because when I was trying to deal with depression, it was poets like Sylvia Plath I could relate to the most. And then I had an English teacher say that my poems could get published and he sent one away to the journal Primo Lux, which is for high school students, and at that point I thought, Oh, well, maybe I am a poet. I still did two years of a teaching degree at university, because I felt that I needed a stable job, and then my mother got sick, and I failed my teaching units, but passed with high distinctions in my writing work. So I transferred out of that degree into a Bachelor of Creative Arts, and started taking it more seriously.
This also ties in with my other question: that some people find that writing poetry is therapeutic. I guess that applies to you, as well?
It does, yeah. I challenged myself a lot more, especially recently in my poetry practise. I did start out writing as a therapeutic practice, and even now, if something upsets me, or I have a fight with a friend, I’ll write about it, but my actual PhD thesis is looking at the suburbs. It’s a series of poems; a verse novel, and it pushes the identities of people in the suburbs as far as you can to the extreme, before it starts getting unreasonable, with a real kind of humourous outlook of these characters; they’re just so extreme and different to each other. In doing that, I’ve had to branch out very much from writing therapeutically to writing about things that I may not have a direct experience with.
So what inspired you to take that on, writing poetry about people in the suburbs?
I knew that I wanted to work in digital poetry, I knew I wanted to make a poetry game, and I wanted to find a way to make poetry more accessible to people that arent’ poets, because there’s that phrase every poet hears, that “Poetry is just for poets”. And it shouldn’t be, it never used to be. When I was thinking of the subjects I wanted to write about, I thought about what I’d written about already, and I’d already looked at trauma in writing, so I thought, well, what else does my poetry really fit into? And the only way I could really pigeonhole it was suburbia. My poetry wasn’t about big political events that were happening in society, it wasn’t about nature, it was just about the experience of the everyday, you know, living normally, no one big thing happens to you, but these small events that happen in our lives each day can still be worthy of poems.
What do you think is the role of poetry in today’s society? You’ve just mentioned the phrase that poetry is mainly for poets, so what role do you think it should play, if it’s already not playing that role already?
I think the same role as any other form of art; I mean, we don’t question music, or say “Music is for musicians,” or think of art as just being for artists. They all kind of work towards that same goal, and people consume art for different reasons. As a teenager, I turned to Sylvia Plath and even printed out lyrics to my favourite songs for something to relate to, for the assurance that someone else could understand me; escapism—you read a novel, or you listen to a song, just to escape from the everyday, whether you’re dealing with your mother having cancer or just a boring car trip home, you kind of escape out of that moment and into another one, and poetry’s really the best medium to do that in. A poem can be read in as little as three minutes; a novel’s four hundred pages, a movie’s going to take you at least an hour and a half; even a good song will be about four minutes.
Do you think we should be getting teenagers to read more poetry?
Yeah, I think it’s a really good form for teenagers, and that’s one thing I guess kind of caught me off guard with my work is that I’ve always kind of anticipated the audience being around my age, because they’re obviously who I write for best. But everyone who’s seen the poetry game has been so enthusiastic about showing it to their kids; I’ve had teachers who’ve wanted to take it into school, so I’ve seen how applicable it is to that generation, and getting kids to be enthusiastic about poetry again. And it can still serve the same purpose as it did for me, for something to relate to. I think one of the issues is that a lot of kids think that poetry is Shakespeare or Wordsworth, and they’re dense, it’s written in English that we don’t speak anymore, so it’s hard to understand. Very few kids get shown modern poetry, or get shown about what’s being written now. By incorporating modern poetry, modern styles into a game, they’ve got the chance to understand it better. They can play through the poem, and by playing a game, it’s something they’re familiar with, and they go, “Oh, I can understand this part of the poem better now, because I just played that character,” the same way that you get games about movies and books.
Do you think poetry should evolve and change with the times to appeal to a younger audience?—We’ve just discussed that, so I think poetry has evolved and changed with the times, it’s just that the audiences are not aware that it has changed because they’re not aware of what’s going on.
Yeah, I think poetry has changed. I don’t think it’s changed enough. I guess my issue is, if you look at how many art forms have used new technologies, poetry is really just on the cusp of that. I mean, it’s kind of dipped its feet in the water, but it’s a bit too scared to go swimming. Even with music, you’ve got Spotify, YouTube, there are so many options out there. You can’t really point to anything about poetry, other than poetry blogs, maybe some online journals. But computers can do so much more than that, and people have experimented with fiction, creating fictionalized games, but no one’s really gone, all right, how can everything a computer has to offer make a poem better? It’s always, all right, we’ll stay right on the edge here and not put our feet in the water.
Do you think that’s because poetry’s a part of an older era, it’s just poets that people know and love, separate from everything else?
I think there are two reasons behind it: the big one is that poetry has been around for a very long time, and a lot of people do kind of have that ‘higher art’ impression of it, where there idea of putting it on the Internet kind of downgrades it in a sense. But I think another and the bigger part of it is that I haven’t met a poet who knows how to put it on the Internet, other than on a website. There’s not really any information out there, like if you wanted to do something with fiction and a computer, there are so many books out there that will guide you step by step through the process, but there’s no source you can go to if you’re a poet, that’ll go, “All right, these are the best programmes to use, this is how you can go about it.” So it’s no wonder people are scared to do it.
What are your thoughts on slam poetry, performance poetry?
I actually wrote an article on slam poetry for The Conversation, about a month ago. I focused on two things in it, but the thing that’s relevant here is the fact that with a slam poem, the audience doesn’t get to read it. The judges aren’t poets, you don’t have a panel of poetry people judging your slam poem, they’re random people picked out from the audience, and as a result you need to make sure that whatever you write is going to appeal to that audience the first time they hear it. They don’t get to hear it again, and they don’t get to read it a few times to appreciate the meaning. So it’s very audience focused. You can’t be a slam poet and worry about the metaphors; your sole concern is: Will the audience get it like that? Will they get it the first time they hear it? And I think that’s a really important skill to learn as a poet. It’s not that having more publicated poems are bad, but you can get lost in the technique. By being able to write a slam poem, it teaches you the important skill of always bringing it back to the audience.
What advice would you give to young poets who are just starting out?
Read. You don’t have to buy poetry books, you don’t have to go and read Shakespeare or Wordsworth, forget about the classics. The classics are great and most poets are going to tell you to appreciate them, but if you’re just starting out, find something you can relate to, whether it’s fanfiction poetry or someone like Sylvia Plath was for me, just Google and find something you enjoy. Even song lyrics are poetry; I started out printing song lyrics and reading those to myself. So just find something you can relate to, and start writing. And as you get better, you might pick up Shakespeare and appreciate him more. But if you don’t enjoy that style, don’t torture yourself trying to read it anyway.