Falling in Love with Grief: the Nature of Raw Salt

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Poetry is at the core of everything we do at Red Room Poetry. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that most of our staff are practising poets who bring their voices and creative flair to our programs and projects.

Today, we have the pleasure of announcing the launch of Raw Salt, the debut collection of Red Room's very own Creative Producer, Izzy Roberts-Orr. Izzy is a poet, playwright, broadcaster and arts worker based on Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung and Dja Dja Wurrung Country in regional Victoria. Her poetry has been published in various journals and anthologies including the Australian Poetry Anthology, Melbourne Poetry Map, Voiceworks, The Lifted Brow, Seizure, Cordite, Visible Ink, Scum, Going Down Swinging, Debris, The Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry Anthology, the City of Literature’s Poet Laureates of Melbourne project and more.

Raw Salt explores contemporary elegy and writing the environment — excavating and engaging death and its aftermath, lineages both ancestral and intellectual.

What follows is a conversation between our Marketing and Comms Manager, Rani Ghazzaoui, and Izzy about the universe of Raw Salt.

Raw Salt is, above all else, a love letter to family. An ode to what is most loved and familiar in a person’s life. It is a memory tale in which nature and grief are at the centre of its intimate narrative. Would you say this is an accurate characterisation?

"You pile up associations the way you pile up bricks. Memory itself is a form of architecture." ~ Louise Bourgeois

What a gorgeous characterisation. Place was deeply important to me in the writing of this book, and in particular the places on Yuin country where I spent a lot of time with my family, and where I feel like they still reside.

‘Stanza’ means room — and I love the idea of the stanza as a lyric dwelling place, of poems as places where we can pile up memories like stones. Where you can, "build / a dry stone wall. A shelter, a shack (…) something to keep these stones safe.” — from ‘Knuckles’ (p. 63)

2. Grief opens tiny tears in the muscle.

The room cracks and plasters over its

own gaps when the foundations shift.

The echocardiogram will not confirm nor

deny whether your heart skips beats.

~ 'Heart Room', Raw Salt (p. 45, Vagabond, 2024)

In our society, where ageing is taboo, pondering death is almost unspeakable. Regardless, Raw Salt explores finitude in a very organic way. How did grief manifest in the nature of Raw Salt?

Perhaps it was inevitable in some ways that grief became the focus of my practice for so long. My dad Gareth died suddenly when I was 21, and for a long time every poem I wrote kept circling back to that big well of grief.

One week after I began my Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship to work on the collection in earnest, my dear friend — writer, editor, activist, and former editor of national youth literary publication, Voiceworks, Kat Muscat — died unexpectedly. I was shattered, along with the Narrm Melbourne literary community as a whole. I was also determined to make the most of that time as best I could, because I knew that’s what Kat would have wanted me to do. There is a poem in the collection, ‘Holding Onto Smoke’, which I wrote for her.

I remember wondering at one point in the writing of this book why grief and the ocean felt so entwined to me. The day that dad died was the day the ocean fell on me, it felt like I was walking under water for many years. Leah Manaema Avene said something beautiful in an audio documentary my gorgeous friend Beth Atkinson-Quinton made, which has always stuck with me — which is that maybe the ocean is the only thing that feels big enough to contain our grief.

Reading your book feels equal parts like hopping on a time travel machine and, somehow, also as if one is seeing into the future. How would you describe the universe of Raw Salt?

I suppose in many ways the universe of Raw Salt is pretty idiosyncratic — it’s shaped by the places I grew up and spent time with my family, on Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung, Yuin, Taungurung and Arrernte Country. It’s shaped by my dad Gareth and who he was, his love of horticulture and the natural world, his tendency to deafen us with loud rock music while cooking with a tea towel in his back pocket, his humour and fierce love — as well as the challenges of loving and being loved by him. It’s shaped too by my mum and my sister, by the person I grew into, shaped by the places and people I carry with me. I would like to think this universe is also shaped by the many voices of poets who came before me that I drew inspiration from in crafting the collection, and the mentors and peers who’ve helped me hone my craft and reflected back to me the parts of my work or poetic obsessions they find compelling.

Although introspective, at points your writing feels like a catharsis, like a giant wave crashing into the shore. Did it take you long to feel that this work was ready to be shared with the world?

It’s taken about ten years for this book to make it into the world, and even at the last stages of editing and production, of seeing people receive their copies in the mail or having friends text me pictures of the book on bookstore shelves and in windows, I don’t know that I truly felt ready. For a long time I also felt quite self-conscious about the singularity of my focus, and nervous that my work was too personal, unable to bridge that communicative divide we often hope for in poetry — of specificity as a gateway to the universal.

Part of why it seemed so important to take my time, to sit with the shape of my grief and to grow with it, to read widely and deeply, and to find different ways into the questions I had and ideas I was exploring, is that I really didn’t want to offer a collection to the world that was only a fresh wound. To go back to your earlier question about how grief manifested in the work, I think it’s also fair to say that death has been written about a lot — and taking on such a big topic, it sometimes felt hard to have something new or original to say about it.

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What about your writing process? Do you have any rituals, idiosyncrasies, qualms?

Walking is a huge part of my practice, and though I’m not huge on routine in the time-bound sense of the word (e.g. get up at 5 am every day to write or similar), I am interested in patterns that help me write, or how I can set the conditions for creativity.

Something that I’ve realised is that most writers, and certainly most poets, are fitting their craft in between the cracks and the quotidian demands of working to earn a living, housework, and caring for themselves and others. Recently, I’m finding that just setting myself a timer for even 3 minutes a day to journal or jot down some lines is a great exercise to keep the cogs turning. Then if I’m in a groove I might set myself another 3 minutes when that timer goes off. It’s a great way to push through self-doubt and just get something onto the page. After all, if you haven’t written anything you have nothing to edit!

I’m working my way through some of the #30in30 Writing Prompts I didn’t get to in Poetry Month last year and finding that fruitful, and keen to test out this menu of constraints from Author unknown next.

Also, since moving to the bush I drive a lot more and have realised I have to keep a notebook and pen stashed in my glovebox as often something will click into place for me while I’m on a long drive. Driving thoughts and shower thoughts are fairly well documented phenomena I believe, even if only anecdotally!

The book's five chapters seamlessly converse with one another, there is a lengthy dialogue between past pains, memories and present time. Could you expand on your process of categorising your poems?

There were points during the manuscript development where crafting these sections felt challenging — particularly because the poems were created over such a long time span. In the end though, and after much tugging to and fro, I settled on these sections that I felt captured some of the central questions I was asking when I wrote the book.

At one point I considered taking out the sections altogether, but it felt really important to me to find an organising principle to anchor the project for myself and the reader. Book of Hours, by Kevin Young, is one of my favourite books on the death of a father I found and read while finishing Raw Salt, and I’ve just looked back and realised that funnily enough that also has five sections.

(While I’m on the subject of Kevin Young, he compiled a wonderful anthology of elegies, The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing, which I heartily recommend to anyone wanting to journey further into the elegiac form)

Something I found really useful in the final stage of categorising the poems was this article, ‘Ten Questions for Emily Lee Luan’. I had been searching for really practical advice around how to organise and shape a collection for ages, and been frustrated by turning up information mostly in the vein of ‘do it your own way’, or ‘there are no wrong answers’ — which, though true, are not particularly helpful processes that you can practically apply to find out what your way is. In contrast, Lee Luan talks about giving her poems sticky note tags, and laying out poems that she knew belonged somewhere specific in the chronology of the book, "almost like tiling a floor" . This method of tiling or quilting the book together really clicked for me, and I did exactly that — laid all the pages out time after time until the order felt right. She puts it beautifully by saying, "it seemed like the house the poems wanted to build". Her book Return is another I highly recommend.

The cover of the book is one of those nostalgic elements so present in this book. How did the art for the cover come about?

The first section of Raw Salt is called ‘Wind Phone’, and the first poem in the collection, ‘Imbibed Aubade’, references the Wind Phone ( 風の電話, kaze no denwa) in Ōtsuchi, Japan. Itaru Sasaki built it to “carry his thoughts on the wind” after losing a loved one, and in 2010 he opened it to the public after a tsunami killed over 15,000 people in the area.

I first heard about the Wind Phone on an NPR podcast and was really taken with the idea. At the time I was living in Brunswick, and I used to visit the phone booth on Stranger Street sometimes when I couldn’t sleep in order to talk to my dad. Dad was also a big phone talker when he was still alive, I have strong memories of long hours spent talking to him over the phone and a number of other poems in the collection reference that. Our voices are as unique as our thumbprints, and when he died so many of us called his voicemail to listen to the sound of his voice again.

As well as that very personal angle, a lot of what I was trying to do within this project was explore contemporary elegy.

Across the course of writing the book, I asked myself many times, “what’s the point?” and I spent a lot of time thinking about who the ‘I’ in these poems was addressing. Who was the audience for my grief?

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If you could write a message in a bottle that’d flow in the sea and reach the Izzy who started writing these poems, what would you say to her?

To turn this question on its head slightly — every time I move house, I find the letter I wrote to my future self when I was 15. Here’s something she said to me:

I hope that by the time I’m your age, I will have written at least one of those ideas down.

The main thing I’d want to tell her is, “Keep going. Stay curious, try to be fearless, and listen to your own internal chime. Follow your obsessions, keep reading widely and voraciously and keep writing.

I can’t wait to see what kind of poems I’m writing in another ten years.

Let me kneel and unpack these boxes

of ants. Your ribcage a home, a cave

made of earth and bone. I will hold you

like a shell to my ear, soft in the swell,

almost breath.

~ 'Raw Salt' (p. 33, Vagabond, 2024). Raw Salt is published by Vagabond Press and is available here.