Zoe Dzunko is a PhD candidate at Deakin University and a member of the Contemporary Histories Research Group. Here she writes about what it means to be a poet writing a PhD.
Poetry, Creative Writing PhDs and Community
I’m often asked when I started writing poems—almost as frequently as I’m asked why—and find the attempt to provide a definitive response quite difficult. Personal history is strange, that way. On the one hand, I perceive my own attraction to poetry as being connected to something very basic, almost antenatal. It is a lens through which I experience and interpret sound and movement. It is present in my interactions with language, and with the tones and shapes of that language. On the other hand, I wonder if what I’m now describing is merely the natural curiosity, and the fascination with motion and texture, connate to all children. If the chromatic engagements I imagine as being ‘poetic’ are, in fact, universally present before the sensory realm is demoted by logic and knowledge.
For this reason, I feel as though I have been writing poems for a very long time and for no time at all. This is also why I find the self-ascribed epithet of “poet” a complicated proposition. When did I become one? It seems audacious to call upon that tired response of ‘it chose me’ and braver, still, to suggest that I elected myself. At this point, I’m less interested in why and more concerned with what it means to be a poet in the modern world. What does that look like and how do I do it? Specifically, how do we go about engaging with the world, at large, in our work?
My PhD has been a gift, in many respects, but I’m most grateful for the way it has encouraged me to ask these questions and has provided me with the necessary machinery to attempt answering them. While the PhD project is inevitably hermetic, it also paradoxically discourages the act of creating work in a vacuum. The scope of the project provides a secondary filter: the poem needs to succeed, but must also engage with larger contexts. This has been a great lesson for me, as a candidate and as a poet. It has forced me to interrogate my stance, my intentions, my lazy reflexes. It has also prompted me to make the work I don’t always want to make—the poems that aren’t the easiest for me to write. While this constraint might not sound immediately appealing, it has been vital to me. I have learned to write what challenges me and to do so despite the pressures and incursions of daily life.
Furthermore, this process has encouraged me to dismantle any lingering preconceptions I had about the recondite nature of poetry. It is amazing, sure, but I no longer share in any of the romantic notions it arouses. To do so, I think, belies the complexity of the work. Complex, because—at its very best—it is thrilling, rewarding, community-building, restorative work, and because the fleeting moment of being wholly engaged in the act of creating a poem is, in all likelihood, about as close as I’ll come to transcendence. These aspects are nothing short of heroic. They are capable of moving mountains, if we accept that people and ideas and values are the topography upon which we structure and experience our private and social worlds. That said, all of these idealistic notions obscure the upshot of those possibilities, that poetry—like most creative endeavours, I’m sure—is often demanding and lonely. I would argue that these complexities are crucial to the work: I sometimes think of a poet as the singular seeking communion with the plural, and so that ability to internalise prior to vocalisation seems like a necessary stage of this process.
Consequently, one of the most important things for me has been finding a way to sustain myself and my morale. Camaraderie has been really important, on this front, both in finding fellow PhD students to correspond with and also in locating writing communities to tap into. In 2015, I stepped into the role of Poetry Editor at The Lifted Brow, and this experience has been really significant, not only for it having afforded me contact with other writers/editors/creators I readily admire, but also for the ways it has encouraged me to reconsider my own work. Obviously the act of writing will, in most instances, necessitate the prospect of submission, but this process was still quite foreign to me. In my case, at least, I read my work with a writer’s eyes and not an editor’s, so gleaning some insight from the other side is useful. The role has also encouraged me to read more widely and voraciously than ever before, and to remain as engaged with other poets as possible. Not only has this sustained my enthusiasm for writing, but it has also reaffirmed the importance of larger contexts when it comes to writing poems. Just as the requirements of my PhD have encouraged me to engage, query and respond to issues outside of my own work, the act of consciously interpolating myself and my poems in other worlds, has forced me to move them from a realm of introspection to one that is extrinsic and considering of much larger possibilities.