Dying Languages: Duncan Felton interviews Joan Kerr 1 Comment

Dying Languages: Duncan Felton interviews Joan Kerr

Joan Kerr’s work has been published in Australia, the U.S. and the U.K., including two appearances in Best Australian Poems (Black Inc.), and read on Radio National’s Poetica. Credits include the John Shaw Neilson Poetry Prize (twice), the Henry

Kendall Poetry Prize, the Woorilla Prize, the W.B. Yeats prize and the Dorothy Porter Award for Poetry, and placings in the Gwen Harwood, Val Vallis and Rosemary Dobson prizes. Joan’s short fiction has appeared in Going Down Swinging,

LiNQ, Wet Ink, Visible Ink and the 2006 FAW prize anthology The Envelope Please. Her latest poetry publication is Dying Languages, one of three suites contained within Triptych Poets 3, recently released by Blemish Books. Just before the book was launched, she spoke with Voiceworks EdComm Alumnus Duncan Felton about the collection, herself and her work.

You’re one of three poets in Triptych Poets 3, with your collection blending language, colonialism, the historical and the personal. How would you describe your third of the book, and could you reveal a little about how it came together?



I haven’t seen the two other suites so I can’t say how mine relates to them, but I suppose mine is all about human connection and disconnection. I’m not very interested in writing about the events of my own life – the more personal poems here are generally earlier ones. I’m very interested in what makes people tick, in extraordinary, one-off personalities like the great eccentric explorer Wilfred Thesiger, in the glorious gift of language and the way we live inside it, often unaware of what we’re doing with it, or how it shapes us. When I was putting the poems together I was looking for this general linkage between language and the other aspects of the human mind and the way we live in society. I also wanted to show a variety of styles and to include some older poems that haven’t found a home before.

Within your collection Dying Languages is a suite that shares its namesake, containing “Laminal post-alveolar stops / half-open lax voiced vocoids” and definitions of words from the Boro language and others:
“Gansuthi, the first-grown feather / of a bird’s wing, / bokhali, a woman carrying / a child on her back” and “tokwampari / early morning when birds sing”, for just a few examples. I was intrigued. What’s your connection to these languages?


I’m a speech pathologist, working with people who’ve lost their language. For all the linguistic technicalities I deal with, the thing that has always fascinated me is the way we can turn mere sound, joined-up phonemes, into feeling and thought. It hits me very hard to realise that all over the world whole cultures and histories are dying every single day as the last speaker of a language dies. The poem “Dying languages” is about this. The Boro language is just one example I read about. It’s an Indian language and there really is a book called “A Descriptive Analysis of the Boro Language”, from which the poem quotes. I was gripped by the strangeness and beauty of the vocabulary and by the personal tragedy of the writer (the death of his young son, to which he refers in the epigraph). The third section of that poem is really a found poem made up of the different terms for “dawn” in one of the Aboriginal languages.

Would you describe yourself predominantly as a poet or do you wear several other labelled hats?



I say I’m a poet and fiction writer, but that both of these are interests of mine, not my purpose in life. I’ve never wanted to be solely a writer. I haven’t written much poetry at all in the last few years, I think because I became dissatisfied with what I could do – I wanted to do what I couldn’t do! I still haven’t really moved on from that. As well as that, I started to write short stories, some of which I’ve had published, and, jointly with my sister Gabrielle Daly, to write novels under the name of Gert Loveday (our blog is at gertlovedaywriter.blogspot.com). We’ve written 5 comic novels, with some interest from publishers or agents in two of them but none published to date. They don’t fit into a genre, so not very marketable – they range from a novel written in the voice of a child to one about political skulduggery surrounding a miracle youth drug. We’ve had enormous fun writing them, so it’s been worth it for that reason alone.
With an impressive list of publications and awards to your name, how long have you been writing poetry?


I didn’t start writing poetry till 1996, when I was in my 40’s, and fiction only in the last five years or so. I did my first degree in English Lit at Melbourne Uni in the days when you were taught to have awe for the greats, so I came out thinking “How could I possibly write anything worthwhile?” I wrote my first poem for a local competition just to see if I could. I was shortlisted in that and then came 3rd in the Melbourne Poets’ comp with my second poem, so I began to believe perhaps I could be a poet.

Where do you write?



I’ve never found that ideal spot where everything feels exactly right and the writing flows! All over the house, depending where the sun is. I make a lot of jottings of first lines, phrases, from what I read, or things people say, and then usually work directly onto the computer. I do lots of drafts.
And finally: why poetry?



The challenge of it, I suppose, the compression and precision, like a little bomb that will go off if you’ve packed and primed it right. And when I did start writing, it was the thing that came most naturally to me, because I’d always read a lot of poetry and always been interested in how poets created their effects. For a long time I couldn’t imagine how anyone wrote a short story, let alone a novel. Now I’m trying to do all of them, to the detriment of my poetry at the moment. It’s a different headspace, fiction.


Interviews with JC Inman andPS Cottier, the other two poets in Triptych Poets 3 may be found on Scissors Paper Pen’s Sound Cloud and Verity La, respectively.

  • http://pscottier.com Penelope

    Strange to never have met a person who makes up another third of the Triptych. It’s a little like a loss, but one I wasn’t aware of until the book came out. And one we can hopefully remedy one day, Joan. So more a lacuna than an extinction!

    I hope you do find the way into more poetry. Novels suck energy like teenage vampires, I’ve been told.

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