I told her that words
have poems in their bones
and she understood
and then went off to make poems
with nothing but light
wordless and thoughtless and
she is a poet
she is a wise woman child
she is a magnificent daughter of god
When I think of the great New Zealand writers I think of Katherine Mansfield, Janet Frame and Sarah Elwell. High praise I know, but no other writer weaves words into such tangible magic the way Sarah does. I feel so blessed to know her. There have been a few things I always wondered about, and Sarah was kind enough to give me a glimpse into her beautiful world.
1. How does a story arrive into your life? Do you hear the characters begin to talk in your mind, or does something you see or remember inspire you to begin? Have you ever felt you were born with a particular story inside you?
I believe everything is story. Breezes, smiles, raindrops, molecules ... I don't mean that things have their own story, but that they are story in themselves. And for some reason, I perceive those stories. I guess it's just the way my brain operates. This is why I can be emotionally overwhelmed by the smallest thing, like light against a lemonwood hedge. The weight of its story transfixes me.
Sometimes certain stories will be particularly compelling, for all kinds of reasons, and these are what end up on my page. But never as actual narrative. Rather, it's a feeling or an image which inspires a broader telling. Plot and character, sentences and other tedious matters of structure, are then hammered into the story until it takes a more conventional appearance - a poem, a short tale, a novel.
So you can see that I wasn't born with a particular story in me - rather, I was born with a brain which perceives all the stories. This is probably why people find me inconsistent, why I have trouble creating a personal brand, and why my works are quite different from each other. It's also why I've found it so hard over the years to focus on any one particular project: so many stories to tell! I am getting more disciplined with age.
2. I am riveted by the idea of synaesthesia. I probably love this concept of letters having colours because I think of every letter in the alphabet as being beautiful shape wise on their own. I used to sometimes hold books up to my eye so I could fall into the beauty of their outlines, like a secret work of art. Do you think your synaesthesia helps you to form deeper, more unusual sentences, or is it more of a frustration? How old were you when you realised you saw letters, indeed the world, differently?
I've always had a lovely time playing with my synaesthesia, but it wasn't until I was about thirty that I encountered the actual term. I assumed everyone perceived letters, numbers, concrete items, in the same way. It's almost inconceivable to me that people actually don't. My daughter has synaesthesia also (it tends to be hereditary) so for us it is just a fancy word for ordinary.
Sometimes the synaesthesia helps when I'm writing down a poem, especially if the story wanting to be told has an inherent colour. For example, I will try to use brown words for a brown story. This can lead to unusual word choices which hopefully work. But it causes me problems with novel writing because a longer work comprises several different stories, images, moods, and I don't like the mash of colour. I also have to fight my synaesthetic sensibilities when it comes to editing. Colour and shape seldom care about proper grammar! I also tend to use "and" too much because it is a sweet and trustworthy word which creates a river of colour and sound in my head, whereas commas are bitter and have teeth.
I know what you mean about the art of text. Some fonts make my bones ache with their beauty and dignity and indeed their story; others make me feel literally sick. Comic Sans, for example, upsets my stomach.
3. The land often seems to be a character in your stories, more a participator in the narrative than a backdrop to events. How does the landscape inform your work? Do you think living at the bottom of the world, amongst wild places, makes people more likely to tap into their creativity?
Thank you, I am so glad you said this. I have a deep attachment to nature (although more in the way of spirit than actual gardening or walking in dirty, mosquito-plagued places) and its inevitable that this infuses my writing. It is especially important in my current novel, and perhaps even more so in the next after that.
I don't know about other creative people in New Zealand, I can only speak for myself when I say that growing up in a forest which was once beneath the ocean absolutely did something to me. I remember it happening, like a beautiful infection which came upon me and changed the way I saw the world.
Perhaps we must thank the Maori for nurturing the close relationship between land and people, from which we have all benefited. But I'm sure people in Alaska or Scotland or the mountains of Pakistan have the same degree of relationship with their landscape. I guess when it comes to drawing inspiration from the wild places, it's partly a matter of cultural acceptance. Here in New Zealand, we have a culture of being on the land, of going bush to find ourselves, and of playing outdoors. So we love our poetry of bone and sea and stone, because it means something real to us - it speaks of what we have in our hands and under our feet all the time.
But having said that, there really is something special about this land's rawness and self-possession. Laying my hand on the dark, damp earth here, I can feel its pulse. And at the same time, looking out my window, I can hear the pain of this valley which was raped of its forest, scalped, and stabbed with concrete houses. New Zealand has not yet surrendered quietly to humans.
4. Most artists feel a little like outsiders. When did you first know you were different, meaning you saw things differently, felt things deeper than most people around you? Is this when you realised you were a writer/artist? Did you always know?
I was an adult before I realised just how differently I saw things from other people. Perhaps this is because, when growing up, I read so much, and the authors I loved were all strange like I was! I felt like an outsider for other reasons. As for realising I was a writer, that also was an adult thing. I read and lived and dreamed stories, so writing them seemed a natural part of that relationship, rather than me being "a writer".
5. As well as being a writer and poet, you take wonderful photos. What does photography bring you that perhaps your other disciplines don't, or at least don't in the same way?
You are too kind, thank you. I feel photography is the same as writing. It's about translating the stories into a form other people can see.
Isn't she beautiful? You can visit her lovely blog here.
Thank you so much Sarah for sharing all this beauty with us.
P.S (For some silly reason typepad is not allowing me to put spaces in between lines. It's all perfectly separated in the first format, but as soon as I hit publish it jumbles it all together. Marvelous.)