All Tomorrow's Poets 2016: Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle
Next in our poet interview series, Cait meets her absolute favourite: Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle. The pair discuss starting out, performance art and Autobiography of a Marguerite.
C: How did you find yourself writing poetry, Zarah?
Z: When I was little I was always writing–– I think I probably started out with stories, kind of mimicking stories I found and then passing them off as my own [laughs]. I feel like I probably got into poetry around age 8 or 9, and properly into it around 13 or 14… I always wanted to put a book together. I had a document on my computer called ‘Poems for my poetry book,’ of which I think the working title at the time was Thoughts in a Box. Oh god. From about that age I had this poetry book as a goal, and I would send my work off to writing competitions for high schoolers. When I was about seventeen I sent some poems to Turbine. I got one published and I think that was the first time I was involved in this adult literary world.
C: Tell me about the process of writing Autobiography of a Marguerite.
Z: I think the year before I started writing it I was thinking a lot about autobiography, and I was doing a course at Auckland Uni about Writing Selves. We had to do writing exercises as part of the course which made me start thinking about memory and trauma. I was reading Georges Perec, W or The Memory of Childhood, which has two narratives going on at the same time. One is quite a normal autobiography with plain language and the other is a fictional story. As it goes on you realise it’s kind of allegorical and the worlds start to get closer and closer. You realise the trauma there, and it mirrors the way that memory or trauma can work–– coming back, interrupting the present. I think my interest in autobiography started around 2010 when Greg [Kan] showed me a book called My Life by Lyn Hejinian. It was one of the first times I was introduced to experimental language writing. That, and the teachers I had at the time, changed things for me. It really started me off on a different track. I felt interested in writing something that has autobiographical elements, but also in interrogating the genre itself–– trying to understand more about identity, and how the past and present influence each other.
But also importantly: part of the process of writing the book was probably working on another manuscript [currently unpublished] the year before, and the reading done around that. The manuscript was a collection of experimental prose poems, dealing with themes of illness and life patterns and beliefs and identity. I was influenced a lot by [Eric Berne’s] transactional analysis, a book called “Love Your Disease: It’s Keeping You Healthy” by John Harrison, and a book called “You Can Heal Your Life” by Louise Hay. Harrison’s book was pretty important to Autobiography of a Marguerite. It inspired me a lot when I was writing the first section of the book. Also, I didn’t want to write a journey of a specific illness with medical details but I wanted to explore illness in relation to family and identity, and how they all interact..How does a person deal with their illness? How do other people react, and how does the reaction of others alter the way someone deals with their illness? Does illness become part of a performance? Is illness (socially) rewarded or punished? What value do we give illness x or y? How does it affect relationship dynamics?
C: There’s a parallel there with Greg’s work in This Paper Boat. Do you influence one another?
Z: We were in the same MA class, and we became interested in quite similar things, both in content and form, as the year went on. Greg and I have been ‘poetry buddies’ since about 2010. We’d talk about this stuff a lot and show each other our work.
C: Do you have any other influences you constantly return to?
Z: There are a lot of books that I re-read. Allison Carter, and Amina Cain, and Leslie Scalapino are very important to me. Also R.D Laing. I feel like this year I’ve mainly been re-reading things and haven’t been able to finish anything new. Last year when I was feeling blocked, I started looking for things outside of the writing sphere. I took a printmaking class. And I became really interested in performance art and conceptual art, and I spent a lot of time on the internet looking at video/performance art online. Molly Soda, Hana Pera Aoake, Marina Abramovic, Sophie Calle. I think music, as well, has been quite a big influence over the last year or so. Actually, a giant influence. Also Twitter and Instagram. I think they’ve been a greater influence lately than any particular writing.
C: How do those performance artists influence your writing practice?
Z: I feel like I’ve been interested in intimacy, and artifice, and sincerity, and that these artists encourage my thinking around those things. I started recording conversations with people I was seeing in a romantic/sexual context. I’d put the dictaphone on with the hope we’d forget it was there. I wanted to capture intimate conversations, partly because maybe I could use them in some way later, for writing or another project. Performances can feel very intimate and sincere, but they are also very artificial. But the artist makes a space, and they are bold in doing so. I like the assured energy. I want my writing to feel quietly assured. Watching a performance can feel very intimate..especially when you are alone...I suppose I want to create a similar kind of intimate atmosphere with a poem.
Zarah will be reading for us at All Tomorrow’s Poets on the 26th of August at 6pm.Autobiography of a Marguerite is available here