November 14, 2013

Julie Maclean


Julie Maclean is the author of Kiss of the Viking (Poetry Salzburg), and When I saw Jimi (Indigo Dreams) – winner of the Geoff Stevens Memorial Poetry Prize (2012) and shortlisted for the Crashaw Prize (2012). Julie’s poetry and short fiction feature in leading international journals including The Best Australian Poetry (UQP)Originally from Bristol, Julie is now based in Victoria, Australia. 

Words and Stories 

“Dick, Jane, Pip and Spot got me reading by the age of four. My lovely dad took me to the library once a week from a very young age where my love affair with words and stories took me away from the tedium of family life. I shall never forget how much I sobbed over Seal Morning by Rowena Farre. Around the same time a song The Twelfth of Never was in the charts and it’s such a sad and sorrowful piece that whenever I hear it, rare these days, I always remember that lonely croft in Scotland and Laura the seal. I loved that depth of emotion words could wring, as I was growing up in the ‘Stepford’ 50s, when pleasant and control were the order of the day.

“A nonsense poem, commended at school when I was five, made me very keen on the craft of writing. This is it, and it is ridiculous:

A robin sitting on a nest

with treacle

running down her breast.”

Rhyme and Rhythm

“Around the age of five, Spike Milligan’s poetry made me laugh and instilled in me a love for rhythm and rhyme, and the weird and whacky.

“Night Mail, by WH Auden, revealed to me what could be done with words and sounds:

Dawn freshens, Her climb is done.
Down towards Glasgow she descends,
Towards the steam tugs yelping down a glade of cranes
Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces
Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen.
All Scotland waits for her:
In dark glens, beside pale-green lochs
Men long for news.

“Gerard Manley Hopkins came to me around the age of nine when I chose the poem Spring to recite in front of the class. I won a book token, and remember the dusty timber floors of Blackwell’s in Clifton, Bristol, where I selected the Oxford Book of Verse and fell hard for The Lady of Shalott.”

From the Heart

“When I begin a poem I use free association and see what surfaces. Studied attempts have lacked emotional truth and often end up in the bin, unless I am after a more remote or comedic effect. Whatever the genre I invariably jump in and see what happens. It’s done for me in life.

“It’s important, in poetry particularly, to find le mot juste. It was revelatory to me to learn about the origins of the English language and I am so thankful we were invaded by so many. When I want beauty and softness I go for French. When I choose stark and bold, Anglo Saxon gives it up, and if I want to sound clever I go to Latin. That sounds a bit contrived but it’s not a conscious act at the time of writing. When I analysed my work as part of a writing workshop, I discovered this pattern.

“A tutor on the same poetry workshop, a former academic, said he thought it impossible to write good poetry without English, Latin and one other language, preferably French. I thought that was untrue as there is great poetry that doesn’t come from the academic or intellectual womb and is often emotional, raw and immediate. I think there’s a place for all kinds of writing and response. Having said that, it is enormously helpful to be able to play linguistic gymnastics and have those extra tools for added manipulation.”

Free Association

“To me, words liberate, otherwise why would I choose to spend half my life indulging them in one way or another? On the other hand, it is sometimes hard to find the right words or phrase to convey an idea. I often, however, find the right words when I read others’ work, and those  moments are priceless.

“Recently, I’ve been trying to find the words to describe how I feel about my identity and nationality, having spent the first twenty-four years of my life in England and the last thirty-five in Australia. These days I come back to the UK each year to spend time with my ageing mother and I’ve become preoccupied with the question of identity. The last line of a recently read short story summed it up for me: the writer felt like a visitor in her homeland, rather than a returning native. On a good day I feel like a global citizen and on a bad one like I belong nowhere.

“I think if you are willing to wait and see ideas will arrive in all sorts of forms: a conversation overheard, on the radio, in something read. Often, the right ideas come with concentrated, and quiet, sitting and thinking. The best ones come this way after the initial blurt.

“The exciting thing about writing is that these challenges come up time and time again. This year I was lucky enough to attend a workshop run by Pascale Petit, who only needed to say once, ‘what are you trying to say?’ Every time I’ve drafted a piece since I think about this comment. If I’m having difficulty, I write out in plain prose what I am trying to describe – this reveals the essence of the idea. I can then start to edit and shape my poem, story or essay. Sometimes, working through this process, whatever it is doesn’t seem worth saying and the piece remains in draft form – for a later day, or no day at all.”

When I saw Jimi

“These are some comments from a recent review by poet Pippa Little, of my new collection, When I saw Jimi:” 

Julie Maclean’s voice is sharp as new-cut limes and sometimes very funny. Her poetry is definitely of the unsentimental kind. I like her oblique scrutiny of life, how she captures a fleeting moment in a few words:

Milk warmed

by a milky sun   Bird shit

on the silver top

Her poems can be haunting (and) evoke private sadness within a wider world. There are some great lines – ‘stick close to nice man with small feet’ – from Tango Nuevo and if this collection has a connecting theme it is growing up from a not entirely innocent girlhood into realities of sex and loss, given an interesting texture through the contrast between the poems’ English and Australian settings. Another poem I like, Axolotyl, which begins:

In my melancholy baggage

there’s a dead dog   a dead dad

a dead friend or two

Taking Risks

Words can be breathed into life through the art and craft of the writer and these are the words I love to read. It’s so interesting to see how the language is manipulated to create membership of a club, to exclude, to instruct, to manipulate emotion. There is a trend in some poetry circles to cram poems with obscure language and ideas. I quite enjoy the linguistic ride but so often there is no blood or heart in these pieces. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies thrill me to the core. Her writing has a strong physical effect on me. It has such scope in its exploration of the physical and psychological; it literally takes my breath away. John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman masterfully juxtaposes historical fact and fiction, and at the end he still manages to surprise the reader. Bold and brave writing. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak has gone into my top ten as another piece of creativity taken to the extreme in such a poetic way.

“I’m most interested in literature that takes risks. I enjoy seeing evidence of historical research, and how writers work with facts to make art. Good writing moves me and shows me something about the human condition.”

“Meaningful words and phrases wax and wane like phases of the moon, depending on my mood and circumstances. The most memorable often end up in poems.”


“I heard a radio program last year in which a writer described the 400 year old Japanese  Festival of Broken Needles or Hari-Kuyo, which I found evocative. On February 8th women gather at Shinto shrines, or Buddhist temples, and begin by thanking their needles and pins for their faithful service. Next they place them in jelly or tofu  – a soft bed – and lay them to rest. The other idea that is acknowledged on the day is that the needles have taken on some of the sorrows and difficulties of the women – they’re carrying or sharing the burden of the women’s emotional troubles. The final aspect of Hari-Kuyo is the idea of valuing the small things. The Japanese call it mottainai. It’s a Buddhist word, and is connected to the Shinto belief that objects have soulsIn general, mottainai is about not being wasteful.


“I was once asked for a word I would never use when submitting a poem. I came up with crepuscular. It seems to ooze, ‘creepy’ pus and unpleasant muscle, and yet the meaning – so divine. I have toyed with it in two poems now but still can’t come at it. It’s from the Latin, crepusculum, meaning dusk or twilight. It can also mean uncertain, obscure, doubtful.


“I hate some words that are being ‘verbed’, like ‘predate’ when the writer means prey on. Clumsy, and awkward. I love others like google, now lower case, I note. Jargon used by anyone to exclude or spin or sound clever is detestable. I can’t bear ‘referencing’ when it means to refer to.

Finding your Inner Tortoise

“I was affected by Carl Honoré’s In Praise of Slowness and a phrase that I found amusing: finding your inner tortoise – something I’d like to do. I was traveling in Far North Queensland recently and found turtles appearing in my poems, so maybe this is a sign. Still, the turtles I encountered moved very fast… as if they were flying.”