Annamaria Weldon is a West Australian poet who also writes and publishes in other genres, and has done since her first feature article appeared in 1978. Working with words in different ways, she’s developed the writing practice which has sustained her for more than thirty years through changes of career, home life and location. Annamaria will be my Stories on Stage guest (in conversation with Will Yeoman) at Koorliny Arts Centre on July 23, 2014. For more information about Annamaria, click here or visit her Facebook page here.
Monique: Your book, The Lake’s Apprentice has just been published. How did the book come about?
Annamaria: The Lake’s Apprentice is both a landscape memoir and poet’s journal of poems, nature notes, essays and photos. In 2009 I joined SymbioticA’s eco-art project, Adaptation, as writer-in-residence based at UWA and Lake Clifton in Yalgorup National Park. After researching for a year in collaboration with the naturalist Laurie Smith (Fellow, WA Museum), with a focus on the thrombolites, I continued my explorations and writing with a more personal approach to my experience of the wetlands. I was falling in love with the place! When I told George Walley, who has been my cultural mentor all along, he said ‘It loves you right back’. Yalgorup’s lakes and thrombolites gave me so much – the structure, the symbolism, the science and the songline for my story.
Monique: Would you tell readers a bit about The Lake’s Apprentice? What can they expect from it?
Annamaria: The feedback I’ve had from readers is diverse, and I think that is because you can approach this book on many levels. It is very accessible, personal account of my encounter with a specific Australian landscape, and it takes as its first central reference the significance of the Yalgorup wetlands to the Bindjareb Noongar people. It is also a story of ‘coming home’ to country as a migrant, which respects the depth of knowledge in existence around us, and grieves how little we care for or share traditional knowledge.
The main text is not over-burdened with academic information but each section is well supplied with comprehensive endnotes to literary quotes and research references. There are 250 scientific and traditional footnotes of names for plants and animals, four pages of notes as to how the poems came about, an index of 70 photo captions and even a further reading list, if you want to immerse yourself that deeply. But you could choose to read through and feel the joy of the place without looking up those details. You could also take it to Yalgorup as a field guide …
Nicholas Rothwell called it an act of pilgrimage in writing, and I haven’t hidden the thoughts of my heart and soul, something which I’ve been told has given others ‘’permission” to write about the ecology of a place with greater emotion and spiritual honesty.
Friends have read the poems to their children, showed them the photographs. Even people who love nature but are not intense readers have commented that the way The Lake’s Apprentice is put together – in short paragraphs, anecdotes and some longer, sustained essays – has encouraged them to ‘dip in’ and feel they could find their way through its 260 pages!
A love of language is as important to me and my publishers, UWAP, as the accuracy about place; the book contains award-winning writing, such as ‘Threshold Country’ which won the inaugural The Nature Conservancy Australia Essay Prize 2010.Mark Tredinnick who judged that contest said that the essay is about ‘a way of living wide awake to the details of where one is, not just who one is’. There is also my Tom Collins prizewinning poem about Pinjarra ‘The memory of earth’ and the Peter Porter shortlisted poem ‘After Devotion’ which was published in the Australian Book Review.
Of the book as whole, Barry Lopez said it is ‘the best kind of nature writing’.
Monique: What made you realise there was a book, a body of writing, waiting to be written about Yalgorup?
Annamaria: I had never been to Yalgorup before my writing residency there, but the first time I leaned against the wooden rail of the observation platform at Lake Clifton, out there above the water and those ancient living rocks, leaned into the luminosity, stillness and unstruck sound coming from the lake and the sky, I felt at peace, like falling through light itself, I was compelled to put into words that could be shared all the awe and mystery I felt. But I didn’t know what kind of story that would be. It came together over the years, through collecting fragments of knowledge, contemplating experiences, photographing the light – and very like the thrombolites themselves, letting it hold together in a clotted structure that is formed and ‘fixed’ by some chemistry of the lake itself. It has felt so much as though I were just passing on what the place was saying.
Monique: Your web page says the area has transformed your life. What is it about the area that has affected you so?
Annamaria: The thrombolites gave me their sense of place, and my sense of self at home here, then helped me to dissolve even that as I became immersed, steeped as they are in the saltwater sounds, shapes, sensual and spiritual aspects of the wetlands. Symbiotic, surviving because of a long adaptation, central to the region’s Indigenous creation story, these living stones regenerated my connection to country’s profound mystery and meaning, to a story bigger than myself, after the deep loss of my own birthland. Because of them, I recognised and recovered my lifelong learning about landscape’s language and was initiated into a relationship with my latest, and perhaps my last, teacher: I became the lake’s apprentice. Once I came to know of the thrombolites’ significance to traditional Bindjareb Noongar culture, and to scientists working at the outer edge of understanding their process, I saw the unexpected parallels. Thrombolites may be an ecotone of new encounter between these different languages. How appropriate that Lake Clifton is located in Mandurah, and the Noongar name for this place ‘Mandjoogoordup’ means meeting place of the heart. This is where my Maltese migrant story met its Australian songline, the two edges formed a new centre, and I was no longer split. There is more, but it is better explained in the book: about slowing down in a fast world, about respect in an exploitative one, about contemplative processes rather than about wanting everything to be a spectacle. I love the wonders of the waysides, the overlooked world, and how the local is holy to us. I like that we cannot know the meaning of everything, that there are mysteries and marginal places. It is what has taught me to listen. Listen!
Monique: What is it about poetry that attracts you as a writer? What other genres have you dabbled in?
Annamaria: I’ve only ‘dabbled’ in fiction and my dabbling ended up broadcast on ABC Radio National. Other than that, non-fiction and poetry have been constants since 1978 when I began writing for publication: at first, articles in the national Maltese newspaper and then for years I was also magazine writer in Malta. In Perth I worked for The West and after that, in public relations, translating complicated legal information into consumer-friendly prose. I’ve also written book and poetry reviews since 1978. My first poetry book was published in 1983 in Malta (Ropes of Sand, Associated Press). In 2008 ‘The Roof Milkers’ poetry collection was published in WA (Sunline Press). Poetry – trusting the image, being alert to what it might lead to – that is a process I love! It is the closest to free associative intuitive thinking, to imagination, to the head and heart integrated as one voice, a voice which loves language – it feels the most ‘given’, pure form. Rather like photography. Being available and tuned in, writing it down, is the only thing I can ‘do’ to make it ‘happen’. Even so, it can at times take up to a year to unearth the deepest impulse at the core of a poem.
Monique: I understand you are responsible for the photographs in The Lake’s Apprentice as well. How long have you been exploring nature photography? What do you like photographing the most?
Annamaria: Photography has been called painting with light, which is also what the Icon ‘writers’ were said to do. I feel light is deeply spiritual and love to photograph its effects. My father and I once spent a week on a farm in Denmark (SW) while he photographed the same stand of Karri trees in changing light! I only began to take photos that mattered to me when I returned to Malta after an absence of 5 years, and I only bought my own camera five years ago, for this project. But like fiction, it is largely a path not taken and I feel very fortunate that The Lake’s Apprentice included my photos – I rather think it is impossible to take a bad picture at Lake Clifton!
Monique: You’ve lived in a number of other places other than Australia. Did the landscape there speak to you as strongly?
Annamaria: I have been promiscuous falling in love with places, I adored the woods in England, and in Guatemala the mysterious mountain jungle, in Umbria the palette and patterns of the landscape. Other places like Libya it was the spice smells and the sound of the call to prayer. But intimacy, real connection when you just know the land knows you are there, that I have only experienced with my island landscape in Malta, and now at Yalgorup. And now that I’ve actually lived longer in Australia than in Malta, I feel a spiritual connection to place here. It’s not reducible to aesthetics or science, storytelling or discovery. It’s all those things of course, but without the spiritual bond, there’s no union.
Monique: Back to poetry … can you remember the first poem you ever wrote? What was it about?
Annamaria: I can only remember it because I found it again when I was packing to come to Australia in 1984 – a poem about my grandmother’s spring garden in the Mediterranean, and on the very next page of the school copybook was a rather bloody and dramatic piece about the Great Siege of Malta, complete with forensic depictions of decapitations! I was about 12.The nuns let me read the lyrical poem out at Assembly! That was the year I won a national essay competition too, about sound pollution on the island. It seems already I was trying to comprehend the world through words, as though language were a microscope or a telescope which could bring things closer and into clearer focus . And we had brilliant teachers who taught us how to read and love texts.
Monique: How much time do you spend writing or working on writing-related projects?
Annamaria: It’s the Beloved, everything leads back there, everything begins there. It is the core of my life, so I give it my best hours. Writing is a very wide process though, it includes how I read, the conversations I have, places I visit. Only my family and very dearest friends have equal claim to my energy. I appreciate being the age I am – 64 – because there were many years when that desire to immerse myself in the writing life couldn’t be lived out as freely as I longed to, because I had other responsibilities as well. But the magnetic pull was always there and that is why writing, working with words in one form or another, is how I survived . I never ever wanted to do anything else, but I don’t have a romantic view of it either, because of starting out as a journalist which teaches you discipline and curiosity! It is great training in making the best of what you have been told to write about, and discovering the unexpected significance at the heart of many subjects. But I suspect it is the same of any pursuit to which one dedicates a lifetime of passion – its about staying with it long enough for the unseen layers to be unlocked, whether you are researching ants or you are a ballet dancer.
Monique: What other writing-related projects are you working on at the moment? Is there another book in the pipeline?
Annamaria: I’m preparing a masterclass on Wild and Urban Habitat writing, working on two commissioned essays for separate publications, and am at the mercy of a poem about ravens and an owl, a disturbing incident that I witnessed. I’ve been writing about it for 11 months! If I were to write another book, it would focus on Mandurah again, perhaps focus more on the human history in that wetlands landscape.
Monique: What do you do when you’re having doubts about your writing?
Annamaria: Ah, doubts! That constant companion, I don’t even name it anymore because that gives it more substance and it’s only a feeling, it’s not real. However, your question has made me realise that I have specific approaches to this issue. But they are oblique. Having high expectations doesn’t work for me. Sometimes like a field a writer lies fallow for a while. There are at least three kinds of ways my doubts interrupt writing: if it is showing up as a reluctance to ‘be at the page’, I usually notice that within half an hour of breakfast and most times I remember to just enjoy a few little rituals which bring me back. I don’t think it matters whether that is raking leaves, doing morning pages or lighting candles and warming essential oils (my choice), as long as they signal the same thing to the psyche every time: you are preparing to enter creative space. I like to prepare my space, to be comfortable, and mostly it works very well. In the past I’ve met deadlines by typing on a packing case in a house without furniture (for my very first piece for The West, in fact) so I know writing is not about comfort, but traditional rituals are great for carrying us past what we ‘feel like’ or ‘think we are thinking’ at the time. The right rituals can connect you to something bigger than your own ego! The other thing is not to fuss about it, and use that phase to read, read, read, often several books at a time, but they have to be beautifully written. Mostly poetry and non-fiction, but every now and then, fiction works too. Because I always keep notes while I’m reading, like a dialogue between the two writers. Inevitably, it seeds ideas. Sometimes I just read my notebooks – it is surprising what I find there that I had forgotten. The stillness and immersion of reading lets my imaginative side come to the fore rather than the one that pays the bills and organises the diary. I start to see threads and connections and unusual resonances between what I am reading and what I thought I couldn’t write. If a process really feels seriously blocked, then I turn to a special friend, also a writer, and we walk by the river talking it through. We’ve done this for each other for over a decade. She is experienced, insightful and honest. When I came to the final pieces which would complete The Lake’s Apprentice, and was reluctant to get on with writing them, she told me straight out that the problem was my not wanting to finish the book and let it go, after so many years. And of course, she was right.
Monique: How do you procrastinate?
Annamaria: With my other love, photography! I also have a very tidy pantry and linen cupboard, because I tidy up, iron, cook. I would like to develop the habit of weeding the garden as a form of procrastination, but writing is easier. I also love handcraft, and with two grandchildren to enjoy it with, have a wonderful excuse for a well-stocked ‘craft room’!
Monique: What’s your writing process like? Where do you write? Do you need complete silence or can you cope with noise? How do you get into the “zone”?
Annamaria: I began to write for publication in 1978 while at home with a very sick nine month old daughter, and a boisterous four year old son, so the notion of only writing when conditions are perfect makes me laugh.
With nature writing, the nature in that phrase comes before the writing, so it is essential to have time and opportunity to be immersed in the place I am writing about – over and over and over. I don’t take many notes, in fact my head is empty of words when I am outdoors, but I am blessed with very accurate recall and I have always kept an up-to-date detailed journal, and I take photos. When I get to the creative writing part, poetry or prose, I write in longhand first, then type it up and then edit in longhand, before making a typed, revised draft. There’s a rhythm to this.
As a published nature poet/writer I’ve been in demand as a community mentor, working with diverse groups from battered women and differently abled youth to guest lecturing at universities and working with festival artists, and those have been tremendous opportunities for me to grow as a person and to explore the relevance of nature and words in a variety of circumstances. However, both as an older woman and as a writer, I’ve become much more reclusive, and deeply relish spending days and days on my own with books and words. I don’t write all day long, but I like to stay alone and not ‘break the spell’, even when I’m cooking, which I often do as when I write, I like to be well fed! I think there is something of the child in being creative, so safety from unwelcome interruption and also being well cared for feels helpful! My ideal writing space has light and books, table-tops to spread work papers on (I write longhand and then on a word processor), a window with greenery and a birdbath outside, and somewhere a candle’s lit and there’s an evocative fragrance – of the rain-soaked garden or of flowers, river gum leaves, essential oils, incense – and yes, cooking. The sense of smell is very pleasurable and induces ‘the zone’ for me more than anything. I’m moody about music, it can be distracting, but adore the sound of rain falling and dislike the sound of wind.
Monique: When you write, what is your biggest weakness?
Annamaria: I daydream, write slowly, redraft, I make many drafts. It takes me a long time in that process to discover the layers of meaning underneath the primary story or image or incident which prompted me to pick up my pen in the first place.
I adore researching, and indulge all these weaknesses. I’ve learned not to judge harshly. When I had to write fast, when I was younger, I was able to do so. But it wasn’t lasting writing. It was more performance than process. Colour pieces, deft weaving of information and wit, useful writing. I know the difference now between that and creative writing. I’m prepared to sink into those unknown spaces, the ‘baptism of dark water’ which is what Lorca called Duende, and to wait patiently – waiting means drafting and redrafting, thinking, loving into the spaces in the writing that haven’t yet revealed their secrets. It is very humbling because I can’t MAKE it happen… I can only carry an image with me and be open to writing down what it reveals.
Monique: Which books have impacted on you in your life?
Annamaria: Books about the mystery of place, since I was very young: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden; later The Mists of Avalon and Marianna Sirca; on coming to Australia, Harland’s Half Acre and An Imaginary Life, and in recent years, a truly marvellous publication from National Museum of Australia Press called Making Sense of Place.
Monique: Which book are you reading now?
Annamaria: The Swan Book (Alexis Wright), Memorial (Alice Oswald) Swamp (Nandi Chinna), Unbraided Lines (John Charles Ryan), John Clare by Himself. So that’s one fiction writer, three poets and an essayist. Those categories are fluid though, as Alexis writes like a prose poem, Nandi includes research and John includes poetry, and John Clare does everything!
Monique: Do you ever skip ahead a few pages or read a book’s ending?
Annamaria: Yes, I am totally eccentric in my reading. Literary Journals I read always from the back forward, for example! I write in books too. I feel they are my element, as though everything to do with reading is permissible and nothing needs forgiving. Very strange, for such an anxious ‘good girl’! But thank goodness for that …
Monique: Where in Perth or Western Australia would you take an overseas visitor?
Annamaria: On a perfectly still and sunny winter day – in Makuru (June July) – there is no comparison with the observation platform at Lake Clifton. Barry Lopez said, when I took him there ‘O boy, this is like no place else on earth’
Thanks for answering my questions, Annamaria.