Moving Houses: A Conversation with Zenobia Frost




QUEENSLANDER ZENOBIA FROST’s poetics across books, and Twine projects, shows a keen interest in class and its relationship to place. Her poems enter into the structures Australians occupy in their daily lives, houses, office buildings, and even graves, speaking to the ghosts that occupy them. Her first book, Salt and Bone, published in 2014 with Walleah Press in Tasmania, examined cemetery history and the impacts of class on graveyard security. Frost has received a number of fellowships and premier Australian literary awards, and is a programming director at the Queensland Poetry Festival. Her latest book, After the Demolition, presents the reader with a sumptuous poetics of architecture and loss. The poems are tender queer domestic portraits as much as they are encapsulations of the state of flux that is being a lifelong renter. We corresponded about the housing crises in both the United States and Australia, the relationship between architecture and the body, poems as houses, writing through grief, and contemporary Australian poetics over several days in January 2021.

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KATE DURBIN: You begin After the Demolition with a preface: “This book has multiple fire exits. This book has too many keys. You can climb through a window into this book.” And then you reference The Poetics of Space, by Gaston Bachelard, which is so much about the emotional responses we have to spaces in the house like attics or cellars, and also about impermanence, a theme that is also prevalent in your work. What interests you about houses and their relationship to poems?

ZENOBIA FROST: Ah, my anxious attachment to houses is showing. An only child, I grew up playing house in removalists’ boxes: we moved from New Zealand to Australia to England, and back to Australia, before I was 11. My Dad’s beloved weekend hobby was visiting display homes to collect ideas for what would become an oddly sprawling brick house here in Brisbane, where the wanderlust petered out.

Dreams of home ownership are deeply ingrained in Australian culture — and were often within reach for my parents’ generation — but lifelong renting is increasingly a reality for younger Australian generations. As a young adult (and, still, as a not-so-young adult), I thought a lot about the temporality of home as I moved from sharehouse to sharehouse on the tides of rent increases. In my writing, I was compelled by the adaptability of both people and spaces under the restrictions that come with renting in Australia, where you cannot so much as place a picture hook without written permission. I wanted to know what made a home stick in muscle memory — “inscribed,” as poet Fiona Wright puts it (in the title poem of Domestic Interior, [Giramondo 2016]), “upon the body as habits of movement” — even for a renter required to leave a house as un-rearranged as a hotel room? Close your eyes now and walk through a beloved house; you could do this blindfolded or in your sleep, like a haunting.

When it comes to poems — besides the cute fact that “stanza” is Italian for “room” — houses became the spaces through which I navigated memories. If I can call up exactly the texture and shape of a room, I can recall how I felt there. (This is not to say that every I in After the Demolition represents me but, well, okay, often it does.) I think there’s something of a demolition of the self every time you leave a room you know well for the final time: the part of you that lived there is gone; a new you moves into a new room. In my personal narrative, I think of the chapters of my life so far as divided up into the places I lived at the time.

I love the idea of a “demolition of the self every time you leave a room.” Sometimes I think about the houses I used to live in, and I feel like I still live in all of them. Maybe because, as you say, I left a part of myself behind in them. I love that you’ve turned your houses into poems. How did you imagine the architecture of the book?

The first section of the book, “Schrödinger’s Roommate” (thank you to my publisher for indulging this pun) is something of a rental tour of houses in Brisbane. In these “blueprint poems,” I wanted to write temporary rooms in enough detail that they feel inhabitable while reading: I hope the reader can walk into the room and plant their feet. As I wrote the exegesis around this work (this section in particular arose out of MFA studies), I became more and more interested in the origins of a distinctive kind of architecture in Brisbane: the Queenslander house and, its little sister, the worker’s cottage. These stilted timber houses were often built as accessible housing — even social housing — for the working classes, but have since become prized for all the features that made them unique — their adaptable verandahs/sleepouts, breezy transoms, hardwood floors — and renovated into gentrified oblivion. The first sharehouse I lived in out of home — on an impossibly steep street in Toowong (“Blueprint No. 1: Siemon St”) — was a tiny three-bedroom worker’s cottage with a mango tree out the back and a view of the city. We were booted out when the lease ended so the owner could renovate and turn a profit: now the house boasts six bedrooms, 3.5 bathrooms, and no mango tree. It last sold for AU$2m and rents for AU$1,450/week. We paid $410/week rent (still a lot in 2009!) and usually had to unlock the back door via a back window as both doors were permanently broken.

What started out as research on sharehousing poetics ended up becoming a reflection both on the state of housing (in)security in Australia, and a reflection on myself as a renter. Rates of homeownership are in steady decline for millennials and younger generations, but Australian rental prices surged by 54 percent between 2006 and 2016. Each year Anglicare Australia releases a Rental Affordability Snapshot; in recent years, including 2019 and 2020, precisely zero percent of rentals in Australia are affordable to a person on welfare payments, Jobseeker, Youth Allowance, or the Disability Support Pension, even if sharehousing. So many Australians experience housing stress.

It’s sad to hear about the increasing rent in Australia, as it’s also a huge problem here in the US and particularly here where I live in Los Angeles. I’ve seen my rent more than double in 10 years. It seems with so little money in poetry, that to be a poet is often to be a renter, that eternal precarity. At the same time, your book deals with renting in a delightfully funny way at times. You have lines like “a mouthful of rented ocean,” which seems to emphasize the absurdity of renting and owning anything at all. There is also the humor in the abject yet lively houses and their landlords in “Distractions in Rental Inspections.”

Renters are no stranger to going full Kondo on their condos — if you move often enough you become paradoxically unsentimental about Most Things and intensely attached to a few key useless things that you drag from house to house. (For me, I’m embarrassed to say this includes a busted-up portable Underwood typewriter — cliched, I know.) There’s the absurdity of ownership, and then the core part of us that wants secure attachment to place. I remember reading anecdotes in my research about towns rebuilt after natural disasters, where community consultation meant inconvenient quirks and flaws of architecture were put back just as they were. I both reject the indignity of renting in Australia and remember the broken front door with a fondness bordering on Ostalgie. In “Distractions at Rental Inspections,” I wanted to capture the way we may very keenly lock memories of house inspections in our memories, not only because we are carefully inspecting a place for suitability, but also because we immediately imagine our things ourselves — within it. When you make a rental application, you make a leap of faith. It’s like asking someone out, but immediately planning the wedding.

“Distractions at Rental Inspections” also does this wonderful thing where houses become bodies and bodies become houses. You write of the “hall’s narrow gut.” I read somewhere once that architecture is an extension of the body. What is the relationship between the house and the body, for you?

I guess the house is your body’s body. I think ideally architecture should strive to be an extension of the body: to make our movements softer, smoother, easier, more temperate, better lit. But — and I speak for myself here — I think there’s often a blurring of self and surrounding when it comes to extreme feeling: love, grief, mania, dissociation. The Haunting of Hill House is a great example of that — the trope of a house becoming sentient through the sheer profundity of feeling there. This wasn’t wholly intentional but, looking back on After the Demolition, I can see those blurry lines develop: in the beginning, I was aiming to write, more objectively, blueprint poems as exercises; later, this conceit became a way to navigate loss or despair. I have surreal, relivable memories of the rooms where I’ve more or less melted into the floorboards on an existential level.

I love the detritus of the domestic in poems like “Blueprint No. 4: Bramble Tce,” the “deflated bath oil beads” and “the antique smell of bong water” and a “corpse of a sofa.” This poem is such a voluptuous, lived-in space to be in as a reader, all while there is also this underlying sense of sadness, the references to Pompeii and dust, the sense that all is vanishing. How did you come to this poem? Did you look around the house one day and think, I must write this house?

Oh boy, this house! I was, at the time, dating someone who lived in this timber house marked for demolition. Someone on the lease knew the owner who, as a favor, rented it very cheaply (under the table, I’m sure) to these folks. Its back stairs literally swayed in the breeze. As a sharehouse, it was — and I mean this with warmth — disgusting. The relics of past residents (the deflated bath oil beads, the sofa) gathered dust alongside the new additions (the smell of bong water). It was eerie and empty — kind of a halfway place — and there really was the original blueprint of the house, mounted, propped against the fire flue. It had to be written, since it is now gone.

“The Loneliness Act,” the book’s second section, deals with the death of a family member and it is more mournful than what came before. Can you talk about writing through grief? I am wondering if turning one’s grief into a house that you can peer into, perhaps allows a slight distance, like looking into a dollhouse.

You know, I’ve just looked back over the poems that deal with grief and hadn’t quite realized how many of them are set in transient spaces: a bedroom being deep-cleaned, a hotel room, a caravan, a hospital room. Last year, my therapist and I talked about cemeteries being such a healthy way to process grief, because you don’t live there. You visit, and then you leave. (Thank you, therapist, for tailoring metaphors to the Gothic for me.) My dad’s ashes are still at Mum’s house — COVID has delayed our scattering plans — so there’s never been a cemetery for this grief. Of course, life is dotted with non-flammable but nonetheless acute losses that don’t get a resting place either. So yes, I think the poem is a kind of useful dollhouse in that instance: you can put your arm in and move things around, but you can’t squeeze your whole self inside and stay there.

You mention Gertrude Stein in one poem, and I can see her influence here, in all the everyday objects and details, in the “sky” as “fresh linen.” Are there any other poets, writers, or artists who helped you think through this book as you made it?

The thanks I owe the most are to Kentucky Route Zero (I’m listening to the soundtrack right now), a game by Cardboard Computer. Houses and other living spaces — especially those impacted by loss — are characterized by their flux and transience (for instance, a houseboat on a river accessed by a highway that only sometimes exists). But they also glow with a sense of attachment. You often enter empty spaces and, with a few clicks, know a great deal about the people who might have inhabited them. The working title of After the Demolition was Museum of Dwellings, which came from a section of KR0 where a township of homes has been moved for capital-P Progress by the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces, and — inhabitants and all — museumized.

Speaking of moving houses, the book is very formally playful for example, there is a poem where you have to flip the book on its side to read it. This formal playfulness made me think of After the Demolition as a series of rooms the reader moves through. “Blueprint No. 4: Bramble Tce” formally feels to me like a set of steps I’m climbing. How do you come up with the forms?

Heh, well, the sideways poem — “Chivalry Isn’t Dead It’s Just Been Criminalised” — satirizes a Daily Telegraph column, so as a chunky column-esque prose poem it just had to go on its side to fit in the book. I did hope “Bramble Tce” would have a sense of movement, of stepping through, in and up, so I’m very glad that translates. With that one I recall I sliced up all the lines and laid them out on the floor — my original plan had been to have the lines form the borders of a blueprint … but I’m not that artistic. I try to read a lot of poems that experiment formally (e.g., Keri Glastonbury’s Newcastle Sonnets or Stuart Barnes’s centos) and soak up that willingness to both practice and play. The form, for me, usually arises through redrafting — I try a few different shapes/vessels and see what sticks to create the mood I want. A lot of the poems in “Schrödinger’s Roommate” have such an intense accumulation of detail — I had to decide whether they needed breathing room, or whether cramming all that detail together gave the room life.

Even though it’s not in the book, I want to talk about your Twine poem “Ghost Light,” since it seems related to your poetics of architecture and space. In “Ghost Light,” you create a nonlinear interactive poem for the reader to move through, very much in line with Twine narrative games such as works by Anna Anthropy, and also the haunted house narratives of Choose Your Own Adventure books. And yet there’s a spectral quality to this poem which feels entirely your own. Can you talk about how you conceived of this work, and if you see it in relationship to After the Demolition?

I’m so stoked you liked “Ghost Light! I think it’s the most fun I’ve ever had making something. The idea that poems don’t have to have one direction, one set line — that they can contain multitudes, as it were — absolutely lit me up. I owe fellow Brisbane poet Shastra Deo for this, completely, and then I took a class with Tegan Webb on digital narratives/coding for babies. (I am baby.) The poem came about during a research project last year — I had the privilege of compiling a book to celebrate the history of Metro Arts, an independent arts organization in Brisbane. They have just moved to a new venue after 40 years in the most glorious, impractical converted warehouse in the city center. It’s a place that means a great deal to many Brisbanites, including me. (It’s where my moonlighting in arts writing began.) I spent a few ecstatic weeks there in the archives — just buried in files, faxes, and photos from six stories of art-making — before COVID-19 forced me and the archives offsite. I wasn’t sure how to bring together the many fragments of poems I wrote in response to the archives.

Twine was perfect for this project because it meant I could embed poems within poems; I could add a binaural soundscape; I could let the text reflect a building that embraced flux (and withstood fire) over 130 years. It was also a natural way to extend the blueprint poem — to make the poem more 3D, in a sense.

Who are some poets you recommend readers in the US start with, to introduce themselves to Australian poetry? I have Pascalle Burton’s brilliant About the Author Is Dead sitting near me, a recent favorite of mine, also from your publisher, Cordite.

Yes, Pascalle’s poems are so clever, so unexpected, and often so funny. All right — I’m limiting myself to books that came out fairly recently: Alison Whittaker’s Blakwork (Magabala Books, 2018) is an incredibly original, compelling collection — and Alison is a fantastic example of a poet whose work works on page or stage — anywhere, anytime. Keri Glastonbury’s Newcastle Sonnets (Giramondo, 2018) is a favorite, too. It’s a witty, weird, and queer collection of sonnets about a coastal city north of Sydney. Shastra Deo has followed up her visceral debut, The Agonist (UQP, 2017), with eerie forays into digital poetry (check out her itch.io). Sarah Holland-Batt is such a generous mentor to Queensland poets (as associate professor of Creative Writing at QUT), but her work speaks for its dang self in The New Yorker and beyond too. My bias is clear — I wouldn’t date a poet whose work I didn’t stan — but I really think Ask Me About the Future (UQP, 2020) by Rebecca Jessen arrived at just the right time; its vulnerability and hope intersect in a way that makes the book a tender, queer companion in a post-2020 world. Also, any of Pam Brown’s books are worth your time — wherever there is a picture of the queen in a hall in Australia, replace it with a portrait of Pam.

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Kate Durbin is a Los Angeles–based artist and writer, whose books of poetry include Hoarders (Wave Books), E! Entertainment (Wonder), and The Ravenous Audience (Akashic).

 

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