Libby Hart is the author of three collections of poetry: Fresh News from the Arctic, This Floating World and Wild.
Her first book, Fresh News from the Arctic, won the Anne Elder Award and was shortlisted for the Mary Gilmore Prize. Her second collection, This Floating World, was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards and The Age Book of the Year Awards, and longlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. Her most recent book, Wild, was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards and named one of the Books of the Year for the Australian Book Review, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Libby has published widely in Australia and overseas, and her work has been adapted for stage (This Floating World), composed as an opera score (Wild), and broadcast on ABC Radio National.
She is a recipient of several residencies and fellowships, including an Australia Council for the Arts international residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig (Ireland), DJ O’Hearn Memorial Fellowship, Readings Glenfern Fellowship and Writing at Rosebank Fellowship. Additionally, Libby has held residencies at The Cill Rialaig Project (Ireland), Varuna—The Writers’ House, and Palace Cinema Como to coincide with the inaugural Poetry in Film Festival.
“Do small things with great love.”
How do you describe your work?
I’m a poet who writes criticism and non-fiction from time to time. My poetry has a tendency to cross diverse cultural worlds and physical locations. I often incorporate emotional landscapes into these settings in order to convey the human condition. My work is also strongly linked to nature as a theme. Mostly, my preoccupations gravitate toward place, memory, history, culture and mythology.
Who/What inspires your work?
I think curiosity is the driving force of my inspiration. Under this umbrella I tend to find a lot of material that I get very passionate about—these topics are often quite eclectic in scope. Also, I will generally gather up a wide range of research material that ultimately ends up dictating what I write about.
What is most important to you, in your work?
Being authentic to who I am and what I have to say. Authenticity is key.
What elements of your personality make you good at what you do?
I need a certain amount of alone time to feel grounded and authentic, so that helps if you write poetry for the page. I also love words, as well as attention to detail, layers of meaning, and patterns and linkages. I guess the latter roughly translates to connection and how life is all about connection. Also, I’m a voracious reader and researcher, but I think that is more of a by-product of being curious about the world.
Do you experience self-doubt in your work? What happens?
Every. Single. Day. Varying degrees of it, anyway.
What happens? I can overthink things. Make something too complicated. But I think my biggest feelings of self-doubt surface when I bring a new book into the world. I feel incredibly vulnerable for the first twelve months or so of a book’s release. For me, the vulnerability has grown with each collection.
What are you particularly proud of?
For not giving up on poetry.
I experienced a somewhat “off again/on again” relationship with poetry from 2015 until last year. In many ways I lost my faith. Everything that poetry used to be for me—a place of sanctuary and/or a place of healing—was turned on its head.
This occurred for reasons both personal and professional. This period in my life was difficult on many levels. Ordinarily poetry would have been a place of refuge at such a time, but in many ways I just couldn’t stomach it. I needed a certain amount of distance from it to just “be”.
I think Derrick Austin said it best when he wrote: ‘We live in a culture that values and encourages the production of a product, that thrives on publication and exposure. We’re all susceptible to being pulled into that way of being. However, it goes against, what I think, are the natural silences that happen to artists. Sometimes, we don’t have anything to say. Sometimes, our priorities have shifted. Sometimes, we must pause and reflect on what we want our work to achieve and contribute. All of these are fine. There are so many ways to motivate ourselves to write. Though living with that hard silence might be the most important way to keep writing and remind ourselves that the words always return.’
How are your family and friendships connected to your work?
They are intricately connected to my work, but this largely goes on behind the scenes. I rarely dedicate a poem to someone I love unless it relates firmly to the reason why I was compelled to write about them.
For example, in my last collection, Wild, I included a poem about my uncle who took his own life in 2008. He had tried at least once before two decades earlier and as a result suffered a brain injury that altered his personality.
I lost my favourite uncle when I was a teenager because the man that would come in and out of my life after that first (known) attempt was someone I often hardly recognised.
I wrote the poem, ‘Elegy’, to try to work through that 20-year gap between both attempts. I also wanted to honour and thank him for all the contraband literature he lent me as a kid. My uncle was my best teacher. He introduced me to poetry (Charles Bukowski was the first poet I read from my uncle’s book collection) and I have everything to thank him for that.
What are your joys and heartaches?
It’s always a great joy to see a book come together. I get such a thrill when I’m almost at the finishing line, but I think Louise Erdrich summed it up so perfectly when she said: ‘The writing itself is the reward’.
My most profound creative heartache is that there’s no money in poetry. Or very little, anyway. You can’t make a living out of this line of work unless you enter academia and that space is something I have never felt comfortable inhabiting.
Who or what are your supports?
It varies with each project, but my friends and family provide ongoing support. I’m also incredibly grateful for any financial and in-kind support I receive from arts funding bodies and residential opportunities. I’ve always felt that this kind of support is not just a helping hand to develop or complete a collection, but rather it provides validation for the vision I have for a project.
Do you have a personal mantra?
Do small things with great love.
How do you know when a project is finished?
Intuition and experience. These are my closest allies as I work.
How do you juggle work, life, people and creative inspiration?
I don’t think anyone can juggle all of these commitments successfully. It’s an unrealistic expectation to think you can. Life is ebb and flow, and it all depends on what’s happening at any given time. I think if you can surrender to that notion then you can exercise self-care.
If you are kind (or kinder) to yourself you can conserve valuable energy and brain space. There’s far too much energy wasted on kicking yourself and/or being frustrated. It’s more important to manage your expectations and to try your very best to rebel against the cult of busyness and the cult of success.
Nobody gets to define you or your success, you have to figure that out for yourself. If you are trying to meet other people’s expectations then you’ll never achieve your own expectations, and you will ultimately hurt yourself.
The pressure to get published, the pressure to be shortlisted and win awards, and the pressure to be an entertaining performer at a reading is all superficial in the long run. All that matters is the work and that it is authentic. You need to be guided by your own values to ensure you have that authentic creative space for your practice.
Libby is based in Narrm (Melbourne), and acknowledges the Wurundjeri people of the larger Kulin Nation as the sovereign owners of the land on which she lives and works. She pays her deepest respect to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Elders past, present and emerging for their knowledge, wisdom and legacies. Libby extends this esteem to the cultures, insight and continued histories of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nations.
Read a sample of Libby Hart’s poetry here.