Poetry and Reading Classic Literature with Poet Danijela Kambaskovic

We’re often told that ‘love’ is a cliched theme. We’re often told that everything has been done before. But the truth, really, is that love is very hard to write about well. When this is done, the written word renews universal passions in us; love regains some of the philosophical power it had for the ancients. It takes a brave writer to delve into themes of love and intimacy and to make them transcend the everyday. Danijela Kambaskovic does just this in her poetry collection, Internal Monologues, published by Fremantle Press in 2013.

Danijela Kambaskovic is an academic and author currently living and working in Western Australia. Born in Yugoslavia, Kambaskovic migrated to Australia in 1999 and has published two previous poetry collections in Serbian (Atlantis and Journey) as well as a number of scholarly books and articles; she’s currently working on a novel with Shakespeare as a character. With specialised interests in Shakespeare, history of ideas, Renaissance poetry and drama, feminist criticism, and literary translation, it’s fitting that Kambaskovic’s first collection in English, Internal Monologues, makes the old world new again.

Internal Monologues approaches love through classic characters in mythology and literature, speaking to their lovers. Kambaskovic uses modern language and first-person voice, featuring word play and sensory imagery, to explore love and loss with a rawness that enriches the romance. In a review of the book on Cordite Poetry Review, Libby Hart says:

Kambaskovic helps reignite fiery personalities and her diversity of individual voices is strong. By way of examples, Cupid speaks to Psyche (‘Between waking and sleeping / I kissed you open and licked your heart’), Ulysses and Circe hold a dialogue, and then later Penelope gets an opportunity to speak to him (‘… a soft / translucent kiss / of the warm sea’). Hamlet and Ophelia also address one another (‘I am your blood plum: ripe, good.’).

Writer’s Edit were lucky enough to discuss literature, love, and writing with Danijela Kambaskovic…

Poetry about love, suffering, and living from Danijela Kambaskovic...
Poetry about love, suffering, and living from Danijela Kambaskovic…

Why did you decide to explore themes of love in Internal Monologues? What first inspired you?

I am a researcher specialising in the history of ideas on love and courtship in society, religious doctrine, and a Shakespeare scholar. I am also a poet (which, in my case, I would define as having the world-view of a philosophically-minded, feminist cartoonist who can’t draw but needs to tell the truth somehow), and have been an avid reader of myths and fairy-tales from an early age.

I live across two worlds – I was born and raised in Belgrade (this is where my two first poetry collections were published) and came to Australia at twenty-nine, so I have both my identities: the European (which is also complex as I am of mixed ethnic heritage) and Australian (which is equally complex as I am married to a fourth-generation Australian who is also Jewish).

I have long had a fascination with Plato’s and neoplatonic philosophies of love — which ascribe ‘love mania’ (to use Plato’s term), the heightened state of mind achieved when we fall in love, transcendental value — and thought and wrote about why we no longer do. Internal Monologues was also written at the time of personal turmoil, at the age of 38-39, a crucial time in the growing-up process of female humans.

Did you ever feel like the characters and themes were cliched, and how did you overcome this as a writer? How did you renew these themes in your writing, make them new for a modern audience?

No, I have never felt that. I felt protected, rather: working within the frameworks of some of the most magnificent stories ever written made me feel a lot safer. I also felt safer because, in using these characters, I followed the lead of Renaissance poets whom I study, who always use ‘subtext’: this means bending well-known texts – in their case, usually Biblical or Classical – to one’s own ends.

Renaissance poets also wrote poem sequences to tell stories of love. This was one of the most popular literary genres in the history of European literature, and its 400-year-long history affected how we think of love and courtship today.

It makes me laugh when we think we can invent the wheel and not be ridiculous in the face of the various types of wheel already put forward by those who came before us. I have no egomaniacal pretensions.

The most original thing any of us can possibly do is tell the truth. This is much, much harder than it seems.

Your academic focuses seem to revolve around medieval and Renaissance literature. How do your studies inform your poetry in general, and more specifically, in Internal Monologues?

I think I have answered this question partially, but once again, briefly: in general terms, Renaissance poetry, thought, and doctrine influence me every day by giving me ‘dual vision’: I see what people thought and believed in the past, and how firmly they believed it, and then I see what we think and believe today, and how firmly we believe it.

If you imagine these world views as the hard halves of an oyster shell, there is a tiny sense of relativity formed like a pearl between them. Nothing is a given. For this, I am eternally grateful.

As to how this influences works in specific terms, I’ve already talked of Internal Monologues in the previous question; but perhaps you will get a clearer idea of the way these interactions work for me if you read the Dedication, published at the end of my epic poem, The Williad (An Epic About The Epic, Écriture Féminine).

Why is it important for writers to revisit works of the past when writing new poetry or stories?

There are several reasons. Here are some I give my students:

  • Because you can’t expect to write innovatively without knowing what’s been done. This would be like proposing to do original medical research without knowing what has already been achieved in your field.
  • Because emulatio (Latin for the notion of studying in order to better) is a literary and pedagogical tradition with several thousand years of history. This is how the best orators, writers, and philosophers were, and are, formed.
  • Because it is comforting to know that people who lived five hundred years or so ago shared our insecurities and fears.
  • Because it is comforting to know that although the people who wrote five hundred years ago shared our insecurities and fears, they ended up writing immortal things.
  • Because (this is the least important, yet very powerful, reason) because it is important to remember how young those people, who wrote five hundred years ago, were. It helps us realise that we don’t have that much time left.
Danijela believes there's no future without looking to the past...
Danijela believes there’s no future without looking to the past…

What advice do you have for writers looking to draw inspiration from the past in their reading and writing? Where should we start?

It’s interesting you should ask me that. I’ve recently had a conversation with a science student who told me that he would really like to read, but doesn’t know what to choose. It was a shock to me to hear this; then I tried to imagine what it would be like to be a person trying to ‘break in’ after a youth with little or no reading, with all the choices available today, and I realised it must be very daunting.

When it comes to modern-day reading, there’s nothing like going into a public library. They’re still there in brick and mortar, and offer electronic books as well as printed ones. Walk around and look at titles. The trick is to give yourself permission to take whatever you like (and not employ the internal ‘editor’ which tells you that you should be reading something more intelligent, more serious etc). Reading is fun. At least it ought to be. If it isn’t, it’s not likely to last.

Over time, you may or may not develop a taste for more serious books. If you don’t, well and good. There is a place for trash in everyone’s lives. (But printed trash is never as bad as TV trash, because it uses the power of your own brain, not the power of the movie-team’s brains, in order to come to life.)

As for making a start on old works, if this is what you would like to do, again, this is what I tell the students:

Do not think of old works as something that we need to revere, to be afraid of, or to worry about. Think of them as written by people who, like us, wanted to tell stories and to entertain people. They just happened to live in the past.

There is no particular, respectful way to read Homer or Ovid. Read them on the toilet, or on the bus. They can handle it.

The thing about good writers is that they are good. No matter what the year of writing is – in Ovid’s case, it’s around the birth of Jesus – you will know a good writer by the fact that their writing will grip you. You will not have to ‘pretend’ to enjoy something that’s boring. You’re not with a teacher. There’s nothing to explain. You’re sitting on the bus, reading things for yourself.

Take the story of Philomela in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for instance. A man promises his wife he would bring her younger sister from their father’s home to keep her company for a while. When the ship arrives and they come onto dry land, he takes the girl, closes her in a shack in the middle of the woods, and repeatedly, brutally and violently rapes her over several days. She begs him to have mercy; he rapes her again. Then he cuts off her tongue so she can’t tell her sister. The cut-off tongue moves and writhes across the floor like a snake, as if trying to say something.

Want to know what happens next? Well… you’re not alone. You are in the company of hundreds of thousands of readers who lived in the past twenty centuries. (That’s another reason why we should read old writers. The sense of community with dead people.) The ending can be found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Danijela’s Top Ten Bucket List of Old Literature for Writers

Read the works themselves (‘primary works’ before you read the ‘secondary works’ about them. Read them for fun (Susan Sontag: Towards the erotics of literature is the foundational text here).

Read them with your heart and mind open, savouring every line. You are a writer; you are reading not only for the ‘what’ (this is a reader’s way of reading), but also for the ‘how’ (this is the writer’s way of reading).

If reading a work in an older version of English, persist even though the language may feel different at first. Ignore that and focus on the matter, not on the language. The discomfort will disappear after a little while. (Your brain will soon start understanding: if you don’t obsess about each word but focus on getting the meaning, it is geared to do this automatically).

  1. Genesis (the First Book of the Bible)
  2. Homer’s Odyssey
  3. Ovid’s Metamorphoses
  4. Ovid’s The Art of Love
  5. Any good older children’s edition of Graeco-Roman Myths
  6. Any good older children’s edition of Norse Myths
  7. Dante’s The Divine Comedy (Inferno)
  8. Petrarch’s Il Canzoniere (take the whole collection and choose any poems that catch your attention, but do not dismiss the possibility of shocks)
  9. Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron
  10. William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure
  11. William Shakespeare’s sonnets (choose any sonnets you like from a complete edition, but do not dismiss the possibility of shocks)
  12. Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Club

Well yes…there are 12 works, not 10…I got carried away. The list would be even better if I were allowed 20 or 30. But let’s keep it at this.


Writer’ Edit would like to thank Danijela Kambaskovic for taking the time to discuss her writing with us, and for giving us the grounds to delve into the classics with such enthusiasm!

To purchase Internal Monologues, or find more information about the book, see the Fremantle Press website.

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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