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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

In Due Season--Valerie Volks

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THIS MONTH'S GIVEAWAYS are The Game and As Black from White and now In Due Season.

THE WINNERS are Paul Clark of the Burdekin and Crystal Mary of Gympie.

TO BE IN THE DRAW, POST A COMMENT. For submissions for author interviews to aussiewriters, email Wendy Sargeant at aussiewriters (at) gmail (dot) com (without the spaces), but before you do, be sure and post a comment.

Valerie Volks is the winner of the POETRY section of the CALEB prize. Valerie's story shows how good things can come from great tragedy.

Valerie, you've said that writing became your coping strategy, a way of dealing with the experiences and emotions that the passing months of your husband's terminal illness brought. Can you elaborate on this, Valerie?

I'd started a Creative Writing Masters degree at Tabor Adelaide well before there was any thought of changes in our life's plan. My husband I had both intended to retire at the end of 2008, with years ahead for him to paint and me to write—both of these were long-deferred ambitions. When he was diagnosed with cancer, I wrote the first poem, Tenebrae, that became part of the later book; it was part of my current unit on Poetry. I found immediately that writing gave me a sense of coping, of managing the emotions I was feeling.

I did not expect, at that stage, that the year would turn into one of almost constant hospitalisation for Noel, and a growing realisation that we would not be sharing our planned retirement; instead that he would be dead nine months after diagnosis. All year as the clouds darkened and the shadows lengthened, I kept writing poetry. It helped. After his death so much of my grieving was poured into the poems that I continued to write. That enabled me to distance myself, and to cope with the intensity of feeling. It was indeed, I would say, a coping strategy.

I'd written the poems entirely for myself, with no intention to circulate them at all. So when, through my course work, Pantaenus Press said they had read them and thought they should be published, I really hesitated. Their argument, that it might help others because it articulated the experiences so many people faced, was what finally convinced me. That's actually proved to be the greatest thing for me. The book, In Due Season, has sold very well and even won awards, but far more importantly I have had the most heart-warming letters and emails from many people, who say that reading these poems has been a source of comfort and help to them in their own grieving.

Which poets have inspired you over the years?

I love the 'classic' poetry—Chaucer's fascination for and perception about people, Shakespeare's breadth of vision and richness of imagery, John Donne and the sharpness of metaphysical wit. I've also been inspired by the Victorian poets— Tennyson, Browning, Arnold. I studied these in Year 12 English, and they've had a deep and permanent impact. Of modern Australian poets, Bruce Dawe has been a long-term favourite, and he's probably the poet who has had most influence on me, with his capacity to give significance to the everyday.

To quote from your website: 'The poetry is varied in both form and mood, ranging from formal and measured sonnets and rhymed poems, to the more anguished raw emotion of the free-verse poems. Throughout, there is a personal tone which makes this poetry accessible to all readers.' How do you think your free verse allowed the raw emotion more than the other poems?

This really goes back to my earlier comment about the way in which formal poetry requires you to distance yourself and confine emotions within the demands of rhyme and metre. It's excellent therapy: as John Donne expressed it, it's taming of emotion, especially grief, by fettering it in verse--two interesting words that sum it up perfectly. 'Tamed' emotion is a depth of feeling that has had to be confined and managed to match the poetic form; in this way it is 'fettered' by it. A great image, because it takes us right into that wild almost animal-like quality of terrible grief, and says "Look, you really can manage this by writing; you can cope."

The other side of the coin is therefore equally true: in free verse one is expressing the 'untamed' emotions; that's why it seems more raw. The anguish is not greater; it just comes through in a less managed way.

It is notoriously difficult to publish poetry. The connection with Pantaenus Press through the Masters course was a great opportunity. Describe your journey to publication.

It was so reassuring to be approached by Pantaenus Press with the idea of publication. They had offered to produce a simple print version, but because I wanted to produce something that my husband, a keen artist and a first-rate magazine editor and producer, would have been pleased with, I decided to invest some of own money in the publication and create more of an 'art-book'. The photographs and pictures add a depth to the experience of the poems.

The publishers were happy to have this arrangement and I felt that Noel would have liked the book, which is very much a tribute to him and a celebration of a long and happy marriage. It's sub-titled Poems of love and loss and this is accurate. They are love poems as well as grieving poems.

Many poets now are choosing performance as a way to publicize. Is this something you could find yourself doing, or does the vocalizing of those emotions cause too much pain?

I've actually grown used to it. Somehow I seem to get a lot of public speaking engagements, particularly to talk about writing as therapy. I often read from the book, and it's oddly comforting. There's something about re-visiting very special times and a very special happiness, because in an ironic way to have shared a loved one's dying is one of the most intimate experiences you can ever have.

When did you start writing poetry? Was it purely a reaction to your grief?

No, I've always written - and for most of my life poetry. In my late teens I wrote two verse dramas, and in all the intervening years in times of very strong emotions I've found myself writing poems. But for many decades I've been too busy living to write very much. Now I seem to be re-defining myself at this stage of life as a writer. Winning the CALEB Prize for Poetry was a particular joy—a real reassurance that others could see some merit in my writing.

Have you written in other genres?

Over the decades I've written many short stories, and several novels—all, sadly (but understandably!), unpublished. Now I'm writing much more successfully, but particularly in verse. I have a verse novel A Promise of Peaches about to be published in the next few months, and I'm well along the way with a third book, another verse novel.

Tell us about some of your poems—their significance to you.

The last ones in the book are particularly significant: they recapture so much of our lives together. At Melbourne University is a nostalgic looking back at our youth, while the title poem In Due Season is really an overview, set against the background of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, of the four seasons of our lives. They're a celebration. The last poem in the book, Epilogue, is for me a final statement. When the man says, as we fail to get the complete solution to the hard crossword, "Tomorrow we'll see what it was", I guess this is really my statement of faith: one day all the questions in life will be answered for us also.

Thanks, Valerie.




  1. Thanks Valerie, Thanks Wendy. Inspirational post :)

  2. This is a great, inspiring read. Thanks Valerie and Wendy.

  3. Great post to read how the writing of poetry helped cope with grief. I have this book and it is beautiful. Like Valerie, I often find the hard times result in poetry. For me, social issues do too.

  4. Thanks, Dale. Would love to see some of your poetry some time too:-)

  5. Hi Wendy, thanks for stopping by my blog! If you are interested in hearing more about my debut novel, which will be released this March, either stop by my website,, or shoot me an email! I am currently looking for influencers.