I first met Helen a few years ago when she gave a workshop on travel writing. I was excited about the workshop because I had read Helen’s poetry. Helen was warm and engaging, her tips for travel writing were insightful and everyone came away from the workshop feeling upbeat and inspired. Fast forward a few years and here’s our interview. I hope you enjoy reading it and finding out more about this poet turned novelist.
NLK: Can you please share a little about yourself?
HH: I started my writing career in 1992 at Edith Cowan University and followed the poetry stream. As a mature-aged student I thought writing poetry would be an easy way to get through university. How wrong I was! During that time, I moved from an English Major to a Writing Major, with poetry remaining as a minor study. Nevertheless when I had my first poem published in ECU’s broadsheet it was the start. I had caught the bug.
NLK: Can you tell us about your published work and your journey to publication?
HH: I started sending my poetry to various anthologies, literary magazines and journals. After a slew of rejection letters, and I guess possibly improving the work, they were accepted. So, from there I organised a first collection trying local publishers and then as luck would have it in 2008 I was awarded a Macquarie/Longlines Poetry manuscript program at Varuna in the Blue Mountains. That brought about a first collection titled Evangelyne & Other Poems published by the Australian Poetry Centre, Melbourne. I have to say that during this time I was also attempting a novel and writing short stories.
NLK: What advice would you give to new and emerging writers/poets?
HH: Never give up. If you love writing make it your vocation. It’s not easy facing rejection, but that means you just have to improve. We’ve all heard the old adage, read, read, read, but this works because you are studying language and all the elements of the genre you intend to write.
NLK: You are a novelist and a poet. What was your pathway into these two mediums and in what way do they inform each other?
HH: I learnt firstly how to write a soft, rhythmic language, in other words, poetic language. I read the best poets, including Jill Jones, Anthony Lawrence and John Kinsella as well as the American Poet Laureates. From an early practice of free verse, I moved to prose poetry which I love for its absence of strictures. When I starting writing my first novel, it felt like I was trying to mould a lump of clay, but the idea of expansion and the freedom of time and plotting the story worked for me. That lump of clay, over several years, became two novels and another bad one in the bottom drawer!
NLK: You’ve had writing residencies around the world. Your most recent was just last month in New South Wales. Can you please share how you prepare for intensive writing periods or writing residencies?
HH: I don’t really prepare for intensive writing periods in a residency. I like to investigate the environment that I’m in, go for walks, find the nearest café, talk to the other artists and learn about their art. As often the case, with all that stimulation, I then start working. It’s wonderful to meet people of like minds. We are all there for a purpose: to focus on a project, be inspired and achieve certain goals. While in NSW, I wrote four chapters of a new novel, a kind-of domestic noir/crime story. The residency gave me that spurt and incentive that I needed, especially when it comes to the hard part of portraying crime and criminals.
NLK: You have a Masters degree in Writing. How did this course of study influence your writing
HH: At the time of completing my post-grad study, I had come to realise that education is one of the most wonderful, beneficial, and important pursuits that a person can do. It’s often a hard road, but it is so worth it. Of course, studying the masters, writing into the late hours of night, learning from one’s peers, lecturers/ ie supervisor, all this has definitely played a role in my writing career. It’s all one package deal. This might sound silly, but having that experience under your belt, there is nothing you can’t do.
NLK: What writer or work has had the most influence on your creative output? What have you
learned from them?
HH: I taught creative writing at the Fremantle Arts Centre for 12 years in association with the OOTA Writers Group. Every fortnight I structured a class teaching the elements of writing, in particular the short story. Along with the class, I learnt to write fiction. There are so many influences, plus a few standouts. From Jack Kerouac, I learnt, ‘first thought, best thought.’ Flannery O’Connor’s short stories are brilliant in the art of suspense, and Raymond Carver is good at the short story using spare prose. I would say an early influence has been Natalie Goldberg and her two “how-to” books, Writing down the Bones, and Wild Mind. Even though I often used her books in class, she taught me two main things that I will never forget, ‘write what you know’ and ‘the power of detail’. I can recommend her work to anyone starting out with writing.
Helen Hagemann has poetry and prose published in major Australian literary journals, including Westerly, Southerly, Cordite, Ashbery Mode (Tinfish 2019) and The Adelaide Literary Magazine (USA). In 2004, she won an ASA poetry mentorship studying with NSW poet, Jean Kent. In 2008, she won a Macquarie /Varuna Longlines Poetry Scholarship with her manuscript Evangelyne & Other Poems published in 2009 in the Australian Poetry Centre’s New Poet Series (Melbourne). In 2013, a full collection of Arc & Shadow was published by Sunline Press WA. Helen holds a Masters in Writing from Edith Cowan University, writes reviews and has been accepted into writing residencies throughout the world. She is currently working on a children’s collection of poetry titled Miniscule, a prose poetry collection /cross media platform on Instagram called Bounty. Helen’s debut novel, The Last Asbestos Town, was published in May 2020 by Adelaide Books, New York USA. and her second novel The Ozone Café was published in December 2021, also by Adelaide Books.
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