Poet of the Month, Donna Waters, on Sestina Poetry and Writing Advice

Every month, Writer's Edit selects one work to feature as our Poem of the Month. This year we're going behind the scenes of the writing to discuss inspirations and influences with the authors themselves.

We talked with South Coast writer and PhD student, Donna Waters, about her sestina 'Memory of Trees' and its influences.

Author Focus - Poet

Tell us about yourself! What’s your writing history like, and what are your accomplishments so far?

I've come to writing a bit later in life, after a decade in psychology and three kids. But I have had a life long love of books and ideas.

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I call it my mid-life crisis – starting a creative writing degree at the age of 40! I didn't want fear – of being too old, or not being good enough – to stop me having a go at writing.

I told myself that I would do a semester at a time until I'd had enough.Six years on, I am in my second year of my PhD and working on a novel.

I have been privileged to have writing published in the creative arts faculty writing publication Tide 2010, 2011 and 2012, the online poetry journal Cordite, and the zine of the University of Plattsburgh (2013).

I was one of a select number of writers chosen to participate in masterclasses with the Australian writers Brian Castro and Francesca Rendle-Short, and am one of eight writers that were invited to be part of the Transnational Story Hub: a scholarly and creative research project led by Dr Merlinda Bobis.

I have contributed smaller opinion pieces to ABC Open and have had letters published in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Illawarra Mercury. Like most writers, I would love to see my writing find an audience beyond myself.

What was the writing process like? Was it easy to write in a structured sestina form?

I find writing poetry, especially this sestina, extremely difficult.

For me, there is a tension in writing a piece that is authentic to the 'rules' of the sestina, yet not so clunky to take attention away from the mood, rhythm and feel of the poem.

I experimented with a variety of words and in the end chose a verb and a series of nouns that could be flexible in meaning and context.

The words I wanted needed to be able to have the capacity of being both static and dynamic at the end of a line.

There’s a lot of sensory detail and strong imagery in Memory of Trees – how important are those techniques when writing a personal piece?

I love detail in writing, as it gives such sensory richness to characterisation and setting.

I think vivid detail and imagery in a personal piece is crucial, as it differentiates the personal from the general, or universal.

Who are your literary influences? What are your favourite, must-read books?

All time difficult question – what are my favourite books!

My favourite Australian writer would be Helen Garner for her clean, crisp writing and her willingness to write about difficult subjects.

My favourite books and writers would include To Kill a Mockingbird  (Harper Lee), Disgrace (Coetzee), Cry, The Beloved Country (Alan Paton), Beloved (Toni Morrison), The Life of Pi.

But also a range of great kids books by Katherine Paterson (Bridge to Terabithia, The Great Gilly Hopkins), Robert Cormier (The Chocolate War, After the First Death, The Bumblebee Flies Anyway), and of course the entirely fabulous Harry Potter series.

I have bookshelves full of classics and mostly realist books, but they aren't all 'literary': I love a great story, with terrific, realised characters.

What advice would you give to other writers? What’s the best lesson you’ve learned?

I think the lessons I've learnt and are still learning are ones that many other established writers have learned along the way.

Write Read Write Read Write Read. Repeat. The importance of reading and writing is paramount.

Find what works. For me I can write in isolation at my desk, but work at times in the lounge room while the kids are watching Masterchef, and at a cafe with company.

I would also advise other writers to get to know their own procrastination intimately. For me, self doubt and perfectionism fuels my procrastination, and whilst this is something I will need to always manage, I remind myself of something I read:

A crappy first draft is better than no draft at all.

I use the 20 minute method at times; I set my alarm for 20 minutes and write: no checking Facebook, emails, patting the cat, putting the washing on, going to the loo or making a cup of tea until that alarm goes off.

And lastly, writing can be isolating. Find ways of connecting with others – online or by joining local writing groups, formal or otherwise. Being with other writers can be very inspiring.

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