Our inaugural Jazz Chap is a small portion of a larger work, both entitled Chaingrass, by Catherine Vidler. The complete collection will be available in 2017 from SOd Press. Catherine is also the editor of the Australian poetry journal Snorkel.

Who are you? What have you published? What have you learned?

I am a poet living in Sydney, Australia. My poems have appeared in literary magazines in Australia, New Zealand, the US and the UK. My first chapbook, Cloud Theory, was published by Puncher & Wattmann in 2007. In 2011 Puncher & Wattmann also published my collection Furious Triangle. Recently, another chapbook, Canberra Poems, was published by Ginninderra Press. Now, thanks to you, my chapbook of chaingrass poems is being published here at Jazz Cigarette.

What is Chaingrass? How did it start?

“Chaingrass” is a word from a very beautiful poem “Falseweed,” by the New Zealand poet Bill Manhire. [It was] published by Egg Box Publishing in 2015 and also appears in the most recent issue of the New Zealand literary magazine Sport. The part of the poem in which the word appears is as follows:

            I saw how breeze in the chaingrass
            made the small chains sing,

            I began to recall
            how the words came knocking.

My pieces attempt to respond to ‘chaingrass’ as encountered in its context of meaning and music quoted above. My personal response to chaingrass is intensely visual. It is also one of sustained marvelling. The chaingrass pieces try to show this both in their numerousness and internal permutations. They don’t know what chaingrass is or what it looks like, but they do know it exists in the world. In this way they celebrate both its mystery and its presence.

Are there visual poets you identify with, or who inspire you?

I have spent a lot of time engrossed in UBUWEB’s visual/concrete poetry database. I am especially drawn to concrete poems created by poets working with typewriters in the 1960s and 70s. One poet I very much admire is Aram Saroyan.

Many of these visual poems seem to suggest an observance of nature, the shape of plant stalks, flower petals. Is this something from which you glean?

I love and am fascinated by trees, plants and flowers. I particularly enjoy engaging in the close examination of fine structures, for example discerning the arrangements of veins on the face or underside of a leaf which I might have picked up from the ground, or studying the interior of a blossom I come across.

Mystics of both yesterday and today hold a lot of stock in what they call sacred geometry, ideas based around how shape is never something of chance. Things are formed in a certain way for a reason. What do you think of that, and does it inform your work at all?

I feel wonder when I learn about the existence of intrinsic patterns in the world, for example the occurrence of Fibonacci numbers in nature. I also enjoy encountering and creating symmetrical arrangements. On the other hand I am very attracted to, and challenged by, chaotic material and asymmetry. In my most recent chaingrass work I have been making a series of ‘patterns’ each of which arises from a chaingrass piece contained in the original series. The process involves selecting, duplicating, rotating, re-sizing and re-positioning pieces of text. For each pattern, several asymmetrical textual ‘collages’ are produced along the way to making the final ‘symmetrical’ result. These ‘chaotic’ preparatory pieces seem to be becoming increasingly assertive in putting themselves forward as poems in themselves.

Some of these are reminiscent of Georgia O’Keefe’s close-up flower works, which were exhibited in the 1920s as a peak into feminine psyche, famously lampooned in the series Breaking Bad as “vagina pictures.” How do you feel about such interpretations of art that limit themselves to sex or race or ideology?

It seems to me that any interaction with a piece of art will be at least partly informed, consciously or unconsciously, by underlying assumptions and associations, whether general or specific, such that I feel it may be helpful to be aware of, where possible, the influence of such predispositions with a view to maximising the richness and variousness of an interpretative experience.

Tell us about how Snorkel came about

Snorkel is a bi-annual online literary magazine which specialises in publishing creative work by writers from Australia and New Zealand. The magazine also very much welcomes contributions from the wider international community. I started Snorkel in 2005 together with fellow poet/associate editor Nick Riemer, and web designer/photographer Nick Smith, after returning to Sydney following three years of living in Wellington, New Zealand. While in Wellington I was lucky enough to participate in two creative writing workshops at the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML), which was founded by Bill Manhire in 2001, at Victoria University of Wellington. For one workshop, Creative Writing in the Marketplace, students were given the opportunity to collaborate on the creation of an online literary magazine under the excellent guidance of our workshop leader, poet and editor Chris Price. The IIML’s online literary magazine Turbine came into being as a result of this exercise, and the experience I gained in the workshop was crucial to the subsequent creation of Snorkel. While spending time at the IIML I met many fantastic New Zealand writers, both personally and through their work.

Upon returning to Sydney in 2004 I felt very sad to have parted ways with these writers, and the experience of doing so brought into focus for me a curious phenomenon, namely that Australians and New Zealanders seemed not to be aware of, or to read, each other’s work to nearly the extent one would expect or hope for. Snorkel attempts to encourage and facilitate literary communication and exchange between the two countries by bringing writers from both sides of the Tasman together.

A young person deciding to pursue their art. What’s your advice for them?

I am not sure I would feel able to offer advice as such but I could encourage the young person to listen to, believe in, and respond to their urge to pursue whatever form of art they were inspired to make. Another suggestion would be that they immerse themselves in the work of other artists as both a crucial and wonderful part of their individual trajectory. I could also share the thought that poetry-making, for me, has always been, and continues to be, a very bumpy and unpredictable experience characterised by innumerable false starts and ‘fizzers’, occasional happy accidents, productive periods followed by unproductive periods, and personal responses ranging from intense excitement to ‘flatness’ and frustration. Over time I have come to accept and/or embrace all these parts of the process, viewing them as mutually interactive components of an ever-developing, adventurous whole.

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