In Conversation with Zenobia Frost

Brisbane is an amazing town with an overabundance of talented sorts, and if you want to talk creative overachievers, Zenobia Frost definitely makes the list. Zenobia, aside from being one of those genuinely nice people, is a winner of the Val Vallis Prize, and a Queensland Writers Fellowship, as well as being shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Kenneth Slessor Prize and a Red Room Poetry Fellowship. Kicking ass over at the Queensland Poetry Festival, Zenobia is dedicated to making the local poetry scene as accessible and engaging as possible (spoiler: she succeeds). I am so incredibly hyped to get to talk to Zenobia, and find out some new writers to fall in literary love with!

Poetry is an artform in a constant state of motion, and utilises a range of forms and styles. Though I know it’s a complex question, how would you describe your poetry to someone new to the artform?

It is indeed a complex question! First I would say — to someone new to the art form — that poetry is like … the motorcycle of the literature world: a lotta power in a concise package. Or, for a different mood, the Buffy of the lit world: 5’4”, looks little, packs a surprising punch.

I tend to tell people what it’s about rather than how it’s formed: my first collection is about graveyards and (in…contrast) growing up. My new collection is about living in Queensland, rental insecurity, love, loss, and pop culture (i.e. The Bachelorette, but make it gay). It is also a platform for my bad puns now sealed with an ISBN.

When I talk to people about poetry, it often devolves into horror stories from school. For a lot of people, their experience with poetry is all about the dead white guys with very set structures in their work, and a focus on winning the girl. Even worse, often all the beauty and meaning of the work get lost within the need to critically evaluate and analyse every single word, and that experience has stopped so many people from exploring poetry outside of the classroom.  What advice would you have for people thinking of giving poetry another try? Or those who think poetry is all about the white male perspective?

*gif of Robin Williams tearing out pages from the textbook in Dead Poets Society*

It’s tricky. Teachers — who are all, to be clear, underpaid precious gem — aren’t always creative writers, rarely poets, and often might not even have the time to read for pleasure often. When it comes to poetry Vs NAPLAN… if students see poetry at all in their classrooms, it’s often taught through a narrow lens. There’s a balance, of course, between analysis and feeling: there ought to be both. I got really lucky: I had a particular teacher (where are you, Ms Cooper?!) who got the balance — I really have a lot to thank her for. She was putting books in my hand from her personal collection.

Coming back to the present day (because high school is now far, far behind me…) , I would hope that poetry’s current resurgence in popularity — led, at least in part, by forms like slam — show people that poetry comes in many forms, shades, tones and voices. There is something for you in poetry, whether it’s on the page or stage or both.

You hear that fear of poetry from prose writers almost as much. I think even prose writers sometimes think poetry is an untouchable mystery, not a condensed (often-)non-narrative form. Sure, some poetry is challenging — in the same way some prose (fiction or nonfiction) is challenging. In terms of how ‘hard’ or ‘mysterious’ poetry is, there are the Judith Butlers of poetry and the Dan Browns of poetry, there are the James Joyces of poetry and the Stephanie Meyerses of poetry, and literally every conceivable tone, voice, style and level of accessibility in between. This is not a judgement call on any of those authors, by the way; I just mean, there is poetry out there that was written for you.

What do you think makes a good, or great, poem?

Let’s first get subjectivity out of the way: life is a rich tapestry, and every person will have a different opinion of what makes good art. For me, a great poem isn’t trite or stale. For me, a great poem might have surprising images that resonate, might sound really damn good, might make me feel something, might be technically inventive, might be funny — or any combination of these things.

Recently, I got to take a workshop with Buddy Wakefield, and he has a list of overused words that he refuses to use in poems. Are there any themes of images that you think are just overdone at this point?

I think lists like that are useful tools, but of course, rules are made to be broken — it’s interesting to think about how you can make those overused words new, or subvert their overuse. I remember, years ago, a poet (I think it was Ross Donlon?) introduced his set at a reading by saying he’d been told cicada poems were overdone, and then he read this most incredible cicada poem. Then all of us on that trip (to Tasmania? It was years ago, there was wine) wrote fun cicada poems and were, truly, the softest and smuggest of rebels. It’s very rare we poets get a new theme to work with; the trick is making them new, and new again.

What themes, phrases, or images do you love to see reflected in poetry?

I don’t have too many preferences! I just want to be surprised.

After the Demolition is your latest book, published last year through Cordite. What’s the collection about?

As the collection came together, it really did develop a theme of rebuilding, moving on, changing — after various kinds of demolition (of houses, of homes, of bodies, of relationships). Ironically I don’t much talk about Feelings publicly (I’m a tweet-n-delete gal), but in these poems you’ll often see my grief and displacement. I had some lemon years; I wrote some lemonade. (It’s not all gloomy, I promise! There’s also joy — specifically newfound queer joy — hope, and also The X-Files rambling. Sometimes these poems reflect (with mixed success) my secret dream to be a stand-up support act for Rhea Butcher.

Can you tell us about the inspiration behind After the Demolition, and the process of creating it? 

The book split itself into sections: ‘Schrödinger’s Roommate’, ‘The Loneliness Act’, a long poem called ‘Stations and a Crossing’ and ‘Cursive Fever’. Essentially I looked at every poem I’d written since my first book, Salt and Bone, and pared it down; my editor, Kent MacCarter at Cordite, went above and beyond refining the collection, and I had the invaluable editorial help of powerhouse poet Sarah Holland Batt, and of my poetry partner-in-crime Rebecca Jessen, who (amongst other modes of poetic support) helped physically lay the dang pages out on the living room floor to play 52-poem pickup.

Kent let me change the title of the book maybe … 6000 times? He is very patient.

The original inspiration from the book was intense Brisbanalia, and then I had one of those, uh, lemon years and the direction of the book changed. The Brisbanalia is still coming; I have all this research about Brisbane’s mall rollercoaster waiting to be poemed. I had to write my way out of 2017–18 first, and part of that survival mode involved writing approximately six million poems about renting.

I was also incredibly privileged to have a Queensland Writers Fellowship during that time. Applications are open now: shoot your shot!

Where else can we find your poetry and writing? 

If you really want to stalk through my archives, you can find links to most of my writing online here, including some of my collaborations with composer Timothy Tate.

If you prefer listening, there are some recordings of my poems on Soundcloud (or call Poem Phone — I think it still works?).

You can buy After the Demolition from Cordite Books directly or from Small Press Distribution (if you’re in North America). At the time of writing, Cordite is still offering 50% off all books — with free shipping, that’s basically giving books away. In this crisis one thing you can really do to help writers is to support small publishers. Folks like Kent work so hard for their writers.

I’m also editing a book for wonderful Metro Arts on the organisation’s history at its original Edward Street address in Brisbane. I’m beyond stoked to be working on this project and rifling through their archives. It’s a wonderful thing to get stuck into during iso lockdown.

Oh, I’m jealous! That sounds like so much fun!

Alongside your poetry and collab with Metro Arts, you’re also working with Queensland Poetry Festival to provide a range of events during our current hibernation. Can you tell us a bit about what we can expect in the coming weeks and months?

So many good things coming up! At first, I was (like many folks!) crushed to have to change our programming: I was about to launch new events at cool Brisbane spots like Archives Fine Books and John Mills Himself, as well as our regular Riverbend Books series. Still, within the bounds of the damn NBN, we adapt.

Watch out for monthly Couplet Poetry events, co-presented by Brisbane Libraries and either live-streamed or pre-recorded depending on the bandwidth of the day.

We’ve launched Panacea Poets for which I, ah, literally panic-bought poems (or readings from poets) so that QPF can bring you brief readings on the regular. I wanted to both administer soothing prescription poems for our audiences and get lots of great poets paid a li’l something during this trying time.

We’re also trialing running poetry workshops via Zoom. Workshops are something QPF has traditionally only run at/adjacent to the August festival; however, this year we planned to run workshops through the year here in Brisbane. Best laid plans… Still!

And don’t forget QPF’s annual awards are open!

It’s the season for people to settle the hell in and stay at home. Are there any books you’re hoping to get off your TBR pile during hibernation?

Ah, well, that was the plan, but actually it feels like every piece of work takes 3x as long doing all of it from my home office on sluggish Wi-Fi. I have read Jill Jones’s A History of What I’ll Become (UWAP) this week, and loved it. Honestly, when I get the time to pour myself into the bath and read, it’ll be soothing Terry Pratchett rereads. I’ve been listening to Phoebe Reads a Mystery (Phoebe Judge from Criminal) reading a Poirot novel (The Mysterious Affair at Styles) for the last week or so. I’ve been dipping in and out of Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body and Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks. (I also planted beetroot, marigold, rosemary and strawberries.)

For those without a TBR pile, who are some writers or books you’d recommend? 

(I’m just looking over at my poetry shelf to my right.) Keri Glastonbury, Fiona Wright, Jill Jones, Alison Whittaker, Eileen Myles, Morgan Parker, Warsan Shire, Margaret Atwood, Jay Bernard, Lindsay Tuggle, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Jacqui Malins, Caren Florance, Elena Gomez, Hinemoana Baker, Kevin Gillam, Jay Hulme, A.F. Harrold, Pascalle Burton and (to admit bias, my pals) R.A. Briggs, Shastra Deo, Rebecca Jessen, Rae White, and (there is always) more.

What’s the next writing project you’ll be working on?

Well, all my plans had involved overseas travel during 2020 so, uh, we’ll see!

I felt very creative (read: kind of manic) coding a bot that generates poetry fortunes from the text of Ask Me About the Future (in collaboration with Bec Jessen and Shastra Deo), so maybe I’ll do more of that during 2020. Go talk to the Oracle; ask her what to do next.

When she isn’t kicking ass over at QPF, you can find Zenobia online via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and her website.



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