Poet Emma Rooksby talks about balancing poetry with academic writing and more

The first book to be published in the Fremantle Press poetry series, Fremantle Press 1: New Poets features the works of three very different poets from Western Australia. “Extremely diverse in tone and approach”, says editor Tracy Ryan, these poems capture unique angles of poetry, from the everyday to the experimental and the emotional.

One of the poets that features in New Poets is Emma Rooksby. Born in Western Australia (and now dividing her time between Canberra and Wollongong), Emma has previously been published in prominent literary magazines, including Going Down Swinging and Eureka Street, and has also worked as an academic in philosophy.

Her poetry collection in New Poets, ‘Time Will Tell’, reads like morning light; soft in its glow and utterly familiar in its theme. Rooksby’s poems play with everyday scenes and thoughts, filling up with sharp lines at just the right moment. Writer’s Edit was lucky enough to talk with Emma about her writing and influences.

new poetsHow does the Australian outback (in particular, Western Australia) influence your writing? How do you interpret the imagery of the landscape in poems such as ‘Blakely’s red gums’ and ‘Summer’?

I must admit that most of the Australian outback is unfamiliar to me, though I have done quite a bit of travel in this country. I generally write about the areas where I have spent some time, and that is mostly urban settings, peri-urban bushland, and national parks in south-west WA, the ACT and NSW.

I often find myself connecting with and wanting to write about individual plants and trees, as well as about human engagements with nature and natural areas. My poems are almost always associated with particular places and experiences. (I’m working on a collection about gum trees at the moment, drawing inspiration from trees in the Illawarra region where I’m now based.)

In fact ‘Blakely’s red gums’ and ‘Summer’ were both written in Canberra, and about places in the ACT. Blakely’s red gum is a common eucalypt around Canberra, and they are used as remnant paddock trees in the rural parts of the Territory. As such they often appear as part of landscapes thoroughly modified by humans, as well as in more natural settings. The poem explores human attitudes to nature, in this case gums no longer performing their allotted role as shade trees in otherwise cleared land; it was written during the extended drought of the mid 2000s, when many properties were de-stocked due to the difficulty of providing feed and water to the cattle.

I found myself wondering how long the trees themselves would last, seeing as their sole human-designated function, of keeping cows cool, was becoming obsolete. The poem also contains an echo of the traditional ‘complaint’ about gum trees; that they are scrappy and messy-looking, with the implication that wouldn’t be left standing long if they didn’t serve some purpose.

I remember writing this poem and feeling that for once I had actually written something I wanted to say out loud, to share with other people; it is one of the earliest poems I wrote that made it into Time Will Tell.

‘Summer’ has a lighter tone, but is concerned with similar themes, namely the relationships between humans and the world we inhabit that has collectively changed so much. The poem anthropomorphises, or rather assigns certain human attributes to, the cockatoos and salmon gums in the opening lines, but in a rather absurd way, almost comically misrepresenting animals’ and plants’ similarities to people – busloads of cockatoos, and laughing gums.

The final line too, uses imagery from the human world – ‘conveyor belts of cloud’ – suggesting weather and rain as reliable functions under the control of some organising power, though whether or not rain will appear as a ‘saviour’ during the hot summer is not clear. The poem’s ending also points to the broader picture of climate change, brought about through large-scale industrialisation and the associated carbon emissions.

At the same time, ‘Summer’ is an Australian reflection on the medieval English song ‘Sumer is icumen in‘ (literally ‘Summer has arrived’, also called the Cuckoo Song), replacing the European creatures from the lyrics with some Australian alternatives. In ‘Sumer is icumen in’, various birds and animals are mentioned, such as cuckoos, as well as bleating ewes and a farting stag (another rather incongruous image). But the regular cycle of the seasons in Europe and the UK is not replicated in Australia, even without the impacts of climate change: rain is just not reliable in most of Australia, and the poem’s reference to a ‘saviour’ is meant to reflect the sense of powerlessness provoked by the variability of natural climatic cycles in Australia.

The process of creation actually started with the image of cockatoos arriving by the busload (there were literally dozens of the birds coming into town every day during the summer dries, and we’d see them flying in overhead), and spread out from there. I really enjoyed finding ways to connect the poem’s content with ‘Sumer is icumen in’, for example with the reference to the pardalote, a small Australian bird, but also similar to the name of a chicken (Dame Pertelote) who’s a character in one of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Emma Rooksby
Poet Emma Rooksby. Image Credit: Fremantle Press.

How did your collected poems featured in New Poets come together? Did you write them as a complete set, or did you write them separately then find the common theme afterwards?

I wrote the poems separately over a period of a few years when philosophy was my main professional focus, and didn’t particularly think of them as forming a single collection, though I was always aware of certain thematic preoccupations in my creative work. In fact, when I wrote many of the poems I had no idea of seeking to have them published, singly or as a collection.

I wrote mostly for myself, as I’ve done since I was young, and it was only gradually that the idea of sharing the work more widely became to seem like a real possibility.

The preoccupations are still with me: the complex and often conflicted relationship between humans and the nonhuman (‘natural’) world; the complexities and ambiguities of memory and the way it plays tricks on us (sometimes with our complicity); and the creative deceptions and omissions that both ease and complicate human relationships. Perhaps the main theme that unites them, and is also reflected in the title ‘Time Will Tell’, is that of the awareness of individual subjects of the inaccessible but nevertheless utterly real existence of other beings, human, non-human, and one’s own past and future self.

A poem like ‘Going it alone,’ for example, reflects on the transition to adulthood, from the point of view of a young person who is seeing that state – ‘adulthood’ – critically, from the outside as it were, but who can also sense that the things she prizes about her youth may be forlorn or pitiable from the ‘adult’ perspective. So both perspectives are portrayed in the poem, neither entirely faithfully, each seen with some degree of distance. I didn’t want the poem to resolve into a single dominant perspective.

Do you find it difficult to switch from academic writing to poetry? How do you balance them?

I have always found it hard to balance academic writing and poetry, and in fact I am no longer working in academia. My experience when I was working as an academic philosopher was that both disciplines made similar demands: it generally takes intense concentration and a great deal of effort to develop an idea or an argument from its first, often quite sudden, appearance to its final form.

Often an idea for a poem, or an argument I want to make, appears to me as if it is fully fledged and ready to be released to the world; but once I start looking at what I have come up with, I usually see many ways to improve it, and the process of development, re-development and polishing can be long and intense.

Of course there are big differences too – academic work runs to thousands of words, and I don’t think I’ve ever written a poem more than a few hundred words long. And I never mastered the trick of coming up with good philosophical arguments by doing some gardening or going on long walks, whereas I find these are both fruitful ways to make space for poetry. Due to illness I haven’t been able do much work of any sort for a while.

Fremantle Press_books3What about the other poets featured in New Poets? How do all three collections work together, and what do you think the other writers bring to the book as a whole?

I think the three collections go well together. My poems are in some ways the most accessible, being generally quite short and not especially complex in a formal sense; they don’t use a lot of cultural or poetic allusions either, and most don’t depend for their meaning on prior knowledge of other poets’ work, though many can be read several ways.

Scott-Patrick Mitchell’s collection ‘{where n equals} a determinacy of poetry, brings an exuberance of punctuation, form and emotional engagement. There’s a lot of physicality in these poems too. The mixture of tenderness, frivolity and sexual intensity conjured by ‘bedding’ is powerfully positive; even the metaphorical reference to death at the end is balancing the way the encounter described in the poem will be ‘immortalised’ in memory. And the verbal representations of the fecundity of the natural world in ‘intimacy with nature’, with lines like ‘water water water water water’ are boldly exploratory.

That’s quite a contrast with my collection, where there is a lot of tension and ambivalence around the interpersonal relations that many of the poems depict (for example, the resentment and self-deceit of ‘The night you went off on your own’ and ‘Not counting’, or the calculating, predatory tone of ‘Beating the odds’).

Many of Scott-Patrick’s poems are also visually exciting on the page – the range of line lengths, the placement of lines and the use of punctuation.

James Quinton’s poems in ‘Little River’ are different again, and full of emotional depth often expressed intertextually, through references to other poems and poets, such as in ‘The Greats’, with its use of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’ His linguistic palette is quite different from both of the other collections: the poems use colloquial language, combined with vivid imagery, and a gift for storytelling that’s a key part of the Australian poetic tradition. Some of these poems have quite resounding endings, even punchlines, such as ‘A Rainbow Like You,’ or the humorous admission in the last line of ‘Stonewall’, that the word ‘ramooka’ – used in the line above as if it had real meaning – is made up. A portion of this collection engages with the difficult subject of the death of a brother, and some of these poems, particularly ‘The Lookout’ and ‘Death Near A River’, are some of the most powerful in the volume.

I’m very proud to have my work included in this publication by Fremantle Press, and glad that the series is continuing. I’ve spent large chunks of my life in Freo, and believe that Fremantle Press contributes immensely to the local cultural scene.


Writer’s Edit would like to thank Fremantle Press for their support, and Emma Rooksby for her insights into her poetic influences. You can read a sample of the book or purchase it in full here.

You can also read our other interviews with John Charles Ryan of Fremantle Poets 2: Performance Poets and Kevin Gillam of Fremantle Poets 3: Two Poets.

Kyra Thomsen

Kyra is a writer and editor from Wollongong. She works full-time as a content writer while reading on the train and drafting short fiction stories in her spare time. Kyra won the 2012 Questions Writing Prize and has been published in Kindling, Seizure Online, Space Place & Culture and Tide. She enjoys admiring her bookshelves, watching cheesy shows on Netflix, and browsing her Tumblr. You can learn more about Kyra's previous publications, plus find fortnightly posts, on her website: kyrathomsen.com.

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