Kona Macphee was born in London and grew up in Melbourne, Australia. After secondary school she moved to Sydney, where she spent several years variously employed as a music student, waitress, shop assistant, civil servant and apprentice motorbike mechanic. She subsequently studied Computer Science and Robotics at Monash University, and then took an M.Sc. at Cambridge as a Commonwealth Scholar. She still lives in Cambridge, where she currently works in Astronomy as a software developer. She began writing in 1997, since when she has won a number of poetry prizes including an Eric Gregory Award in 1998. Tails is published by Bloodaxe. Kona very kindly answers a few of our questions ...
Mark Thwaite How did your collection Tails come about?
Kona Macphee "Slowly! It seemed like the closer I got to finishing it, the less I wrote - the Zeno's paradox of publication."
MT There is a lovely mix in your poems in Tails between the lyrical/poetic and occasionally difficult use of language and the deeply personal. We get a poem about IVF and, later in the collection, a poem dedicated to "Caitlin, b. 31.01.03" - how do you bridge that formal/personal divide?
KM "I suppose I don't see it as a divide. In fact, the more emotive or personal a subject is, the more likely I am to use a tightly-controlled traditional or nonce form: paradoxically it's the constraints of the form that make it possible to get started on a difficult theme."
MT You were born in London but brought up in Australia, did an M.Sc. in Cambridge and now work as a software developer. How, why and when did poetry fit in to all this!?
KM "English was always my strongest subject at school, but apart from a bout of bad poetry at around 19, I didn't write much in my teens and twenties. I moved to the UK in 1995 as a graduate student, and started writing poems in 1997 during a visit to Australia - I don't know why. As to where poetry fits now, it gets less of my time than it deserves. I like to get absorbed in creative activities, and yet I'm often blocked when it comes to writing poems. I suppose their demand for self-awareness and emotional honesty can be quite hard to face - much easier to get absorbed in some intellectually intricate but emotionally distant piece of computer programming ..."
MT How do you write? Longhand or straight onto the computer? How much do you revise/rework your poems?
KM "Sometimes I use a fountain pen and A4 hardback notebook, sometimes I use a rather techie computer-based text editor called "vi". I go through phases of favouring one over the other, but (ironically?) I do miss my editor's cut-and-paste function when I'm working on paper. The amount of revision I do varies from poem to poem. Some hang around for years being intermittently reworked; others are written quickly, like taking dictation, and seem right straight away. I'm never as happy with the ones I've had to labour at; it's like I misheard them initially, and can never quite recapture what was lost."
MT What is coming next?
KM "Nothing in a hurry (apart from more software). I hope there'll be another collection of poems at some point, but that's likely to be quite a few years away. I'd perhaps like to try a film script one day, because I get so much pleasure from good cinema."
MT Who is your favourite poet?
KM "I have favourite poems rather than any one favourite poet. I suppose in his lyrical (rather than satyrical or typographical) mode, E.E. Cummings captures many of the things I most like in poetry - a distinct individual voice, an incantatory quality, a spiritual and emotional intensity, an absence of heavy-handed "look-how-clever-I-am" erudition."
MT What is your favourite book/who is your favourite prose writer? What are you reading now!?
KM "The books I most often revisit are my various collections by the Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig, whose drawings have the same qualities I value in poems. His books are undeservedly hard to find in the UK. I like fiction writers with a psychological insight or flavour, for example Pat Barker or the excellent Australian writer Frank Moorhouse. I'm not reading anything at the moment - reading anything other than bedtime stories has become a rare luxury lately."
MT What book do you wish you had written?
KM "The next one!"
MT Do you have any advice for the aspiring writer!?
KM "Learn your craft: well-mastered technique is a necessary (if not sufficient) condition for good writing. Don't discount prescriptive, restrictive or traditional exercises: the more skill you develop in your medium of expression, the better you can use it to express your originality."
MT Anything else you'd like to say?
KM "Thanks for the questions, and good luck with ReadySteadyBook."
MT Well, thank you, Kona.