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Carolyn Finlay


I grew up in New Guinea and Australia, moving to England in 1969 for what was meant to be one year, but became 35; shifting gradually westwards from London and doing bits of this and that, mostly starting things and not quite finishing them. Late in life I decided to knuckle down and get some qualifications, initially training as a therapist in 2000. When my son started university, it sparked off my desire to get some more education of my own. By 2005 I felt quite pleased to have completed my BA in French and Linguistics, and have just started an MA in Medieval Studies.

Gloucestershire has been my home since 1978. In the 1990s Jan Morris and I started up two shamanic groups locally, which ran classes and experiential workshops under the names of Different Drum and the Rainbow Lodge. The shamanic worldview dovetails very much with my own perception and experience of the world, and is central to my perspective on both work and life in general. In childhood I wrote poetry, and returned to it intermittently until taking it up again seriously in my 40s. My first collection, Giveaway (Stride) came out in 1997, and the second, Foreigner (Waterdog Press) in 2001. My work has been published in various poetry magazines over the years, and in two anthologies: Earth Ascending (1997) ed. Jay Ramsay, and Earth Songs (2002), ed. Peter Abbs; and a short story, ‘Zoom’, in Necrologue: the Diva Book of the Dead and the Undead (2003), ed. Helen Sandler. I’ve done readings at poetry festivals in York, Wessex, Nailsworth and Cheltenham, but not recently, and in my beloved home town, Hobart, which has an extraordinarily creative literary community despite its isolation at the southern edge of the world.

Contact Carolyn at: cfinlay@info.com

See Carolyn's website.

An Interview with Carolyn Finlay
by Dee Sunshine (September 2005)

Dee - I first came across your work in 1997, when I supplied an illustration for the cover of your first poetry collection, ‘Giveaway’. I was very impressed with your poetry, particularly with your ability to tackle ‘new age’ themes without recourse to platitudes and clichés, which is no mean feat. You were in your mid-forties when this collection was published, which is quite late for a first collection. I’m presuming that mothering three children was a factor in this. Was that indeed the case? Or did you take to writing poetry late in life?

Carolyn - Actually I wrote poetry as a child - apple trees and stuff - and again in my late twenties in London I was strongly overtaken by some poems which found me, often triggered off by visual images from film, TV, etc. These poems were basically 'about' [though I hadn't planned them or thought about a theme beforehand at all] stuff happening behind the stuff you see/experience around you. That doesn't express it well though; because my experience throughout life has always been that all those stuffs are intermingled.

So eg one of those short early poems was about how time 'moves' in a silent, empty space, within walls, say, and whether the time and the movement and the walls etc are in fact separate from me experiencing them. And also that my sense was that the wall, say, was not particularly different from - certainly not inferior to - me as a perceiving entity. But even that doesn't cover it really, because [reading over what I've just written it sounds like an intellectual exercise, but it was very much not that, it was about my experience always].

For example, growing up in Australia in the '50s, I was always extremely aware of the land, the trees, rocks, the light, the water, etc, in a way that was partly visual of course, but more as an exchange between those things and something in me, like a type of ongoing 'conversation' between particles of some kind. I always felt that [a]liveness of what people call the inanimate world, and that it wasn't separate from me. As if the visible universe were more like a TV screen, composed of 'dots', with space between them through which the other ‘layers’ behind could be perceived, but each layer also permeable and infinitely expandable the closer you got. And in those days there was a lot of silence, so you could just 'be' and be quite absorbent and responsive, so there could be an interchange. But also that all this was absolutely normal and not surprising. But then no-one else ever talked about these things or gave hints that they were experiencing them - but quite possibly they were. So the poems were a way to express some things I felt quite strongly, but that didn't seem to be expressed in the culture, or interesting or relevant to other people.

And later when I started writing 'properly' in my late 30s - i.e. with intention and focus and application - I wanted to convey some of all this through the poems, but in a way that expressed it as absolutely normal like washing-up, say. Or waking up, and to express that pretty much everything that is regarded as 'normal life' also contains other dimensions all the time - so you could wake up every morning or once in a lifetime or not at all; or you could think about light, which is something taken for granted [unless perhaps you are an artist]. Basically the poems were intended as a kind of "What if...." Gosh, what a lot of rabbiting on from one simple question, and I could go on and on, but will leave that with you - maybe you can extrapolate a couple of pithy sentences from it.

Dee - I was told long ago that the art of poetry was to make a lot of hard work read as though it was spontaneously written. If anything, that is the approach I have taken to writing. I spend most of my time re-writing rather than writing. I was wondering, given that you are in your fifties and have published only two collections, if that is the way you work, or have you got thousands of unpublished poems in a drawer? Also, could you tell me a bit about how you tackle writing. Do you have some sort of regime, or do you wait until the muse calls? Would you say that writing was your life, or does it play second fiddle to living?

Carolyn - That's a very interesting first sentence. I have never thought of it like that at all - but maybe should have. I do re-write, in fact some poems may take 20 drafts or so, but that wouldn't be of the 'whole poem' as it were, I would tweak words or lines here and there and then leave them often for quite a while, a week, a month, before going back to them. On the other hand, some poems write themselves and really don't need much tweaking, though I have got more critical of them now than when I started. But my poems tend to be quite short, and even a longer sequence will be composed of short individual poems.

I don't have a writing routine at all, and have always allowed 'life' as you put it to get in the way of my writing. Children can be used as a reason - I won't say excuse, because that makes it seem as if it's 'bad' not to always be writing, whereas I think these things do ebb and flow, and can even benefit from an absence.

I certainly don't have thousands of unpublished poems, and those I do have are unpublished for the reason that they're not good enough or just plain haven't worked. But in a sense, I do view poetry as 'my life', and that sense is to do with what I was talking about last time - it's intimately tied up with the way I feel in the world, approach and perceive things. For me, there is an enormous difference between poetry and prose, though I do try to write in prose, short stories and things [and try to incorporate aspects of poetry, or poeticness, into those stories in terms of viewpoint, voice, assumptions etc], I really feel that poetry holds a certain type of key to the universe, that it allows a highlighting of things which can open up viewpoints, illuminations, consciousness. Of course prose can also do those things, so I'm not being clear enough.

I suppose really I think of poetry as some kind of magic - and by that I mean a fundamental line into the deep reality of everything and a celebration of it, and a moving on and through from whatever the present situation is.

Dee - Staying loosely on the theme of ‘magic’ (at least, as I understand magic) can you tell me about your interest in shamanism. What sparked your interest in it initially? Could you also tell me how much, and in what way you feel shamanism has informed your writing?

Carolyn - I think all the things I said initially about how I perceive the world are completely connected with shamanism as well as with poetry for me, there's no separation. Obviously, with poetry, there are 'technical' issues to do with writing, etc., but the poetry comes out of my whole conception of my own internal experience of the observed and felt universe. I was 'always' aware of something that nowadays is known as shamanism, in a way. But I did read a great deal as a girl, probably 3 books a week most of my growing-up years, and was drawn to myths, 'fairy tales', any 'tales' that reflected the sense of imagination grounded in profound earthy reality that to me represents a kind of world view, and a freedom of mind/spirit/soul.

But it wasn't until my own 'mid-life crisis' at the age of 40 that I realised books were being written about this kind of thing and you could go on courses and meet other people who were 'doing' or teaching it. I felt very lucky, to be alive at a turn of the world where this wasn't punishable by death!

For me, central to a shamanic perspective would be taking responsibility for your own life and actions, and not trying to impose beliefs or anything else on other people - apart from the aspects of respect for the earth which you would find in any neo-pagan religious practice. My own experience, directly, has always been that 'spirit' exists in all things and that I experienced it direct, as distinct say from the Christian view that it needs to be mediated through a belief in Jesus. For me it never needed to be mediated. Also, I always had a very strong desire, or need, or urge, to 'meld' completely with the totality of everything, to merge all particles of myself somehow completely in an inter-meshed way with the (natural)world surrounding me - perhaps this is mysticism, but that label also covers many structured belief practices and can involve following quite rigid sets of other people's rules (and sometimes even costumes!), which I can't relate to.

Dee - For those who don’t know much about shamanism and might be curious to know more, can you recommend some reading material?

Carolyn - Sacred Hoop magazine is the only (and best!) proper shamanic mag - as opposed to pagan, of which there are probably a few. Run by Nick and Jan Wood for 12 years, with lots of small ads at back for groups, practitioners, etc. Strongly recommend: F David Peat, ‘Blackfoot Physics’; Caitlin Matthews, ‘Singing the Soul Back Home’ and Leo Rutherford, ‘Principles of Shamanism’

Indian fiction is usually stunning - heartbreaking and funny and cosmically clever all at once - Louise Erdrich's mindblowing quartet of slim novels set on an Indian reservation over a period of many years is sheer looping brilliance: ‘Love Medicine’, ‘The Beet Queen’, ‘The Bingo Palace’ and ‘Tracks’ (read last), and for similar thing by the unbelievable Sherman Alexie, lots of humour and poetry and interweavings etc; ‘Reservation Blues’, ‘The Lone Ranger’ and ‘Tonto Fistfight in Heaven’, anything else you can get your hands on of his.

Dee - Thinking about the United Kingdom, and especially England, as a highly densely populated land, with very little in the way of wild landscape and next-to-nothing in the way of indigenous pagan/ shamanic tradition, it stuck me as peculiar that you elected to stay here, rather than return to Australia. But I didn’t take into account that you were nineteen at the time, and that you arrived at the tail end of the ‘swinging sixties’. I expect London was a very exciting place to be then. I’ve always been quite envious of your generation: even if it is a somewhat illusory envy, the whole hippie trip still appeals. I have some almost sacred memories of hanging out with hippies on the Isle of Iona, when I was a kid. These memories are very rose-tinted in effect, because most of the barefoot, guitar-playing flower children I hung out with ended up, like many others, either selling out to the corporate world or getting lost in a spiral of drug-addiction. Even those that avoided either extreme of this spectrum seem kind of lost at sea in this pragmatic, consumerist world. So, I guess what I’m asking is, how did the world strike you back in 1969? Were you excited by what was going on? Have you any interesting anecdotes? ( eg: did you ever share a joint with Jimi Hendrix?) Were you optimistic about what was happening back then? And, ultimately, are you disappointed by the way things have developed since then?

Carolyn - I think, in terms of your question, my first reaction is that the things you describe seem to me to be quite broad - 'movements' almost, and I suppose when you are actually in/at the time of things like that, it's much more personal and subjective. And your perspective bespeaks a political and social involvement that I'm afraid to say, in my 20s, I just didn't have, having probably been more concerned with my love-life - whatever condition it was in - than in 'issues'; though actually, because my father (and mother too) was very left wing and had been a member of the Communist party during the war, and in fact ran for parliament in Tasmania on a Labour ticket (and lost), I was obviously aware of unfairnesses and worse in the world. But - and maybe for that reason - I turned my back on the political for a long time; well, actually I still find it difficult to have respect for that whole arena when it is so male dominated and so hypocritical and money-wasting and destructive.

As for the swinging sixties, I was naive but obstinate. I've never liked following trends and tend not to run in groups but to have close personal friends. And I was 26 before coming across anyone who ever offered me a joint. It's never provided me with much pleasure to drink much or to do 'mind-altering' in a big way, though occasionally it's been interesting and revealing of the 'cosmos' - however, I would say that I feel as if my mind is 'altered' in some sense anyway, and actually shamanic journeying achieves the same thing in a more integrated sense and with more possibility of multi-levelled unfolding in a conscious way. I don't have any celebrity anecdotes, except that I do know an American woman locally on whose floor in New York Bob Dylan once slept!

As for being disappointed nowadays... not really. Despite the parlous ecological state of the world and the American stranglehold on greed and economic imperialism and its effect on appalling levels of world poverty, I think life is probably better for many people in terms of public acceptance of 'free speech', personal rights, tolerance, identity - for women (in the Western world) it is better, though there's still a long hill to climb. I suppose 'women priests' represent some kind of an advance, though I think they've missed the point somehow, as the institutions are all dominated by crusty old men who aren't interested in equality in any sense. Why are 'women priests' not just 'priests'? Would it be appropriate to have 'male priestesses'? In my childhood it was still quite common for boys to be sent on to further education and not girls.

And, on a different note, when I came to England in 1969, there were still enormous numbers of houses which didn't even have bathrooms, with outside loos, no heating - to an Australian used to a bright, clean, newish environment this was just staggering. People, even those who wouldn't describe themselves as well off, wouldn't accept those kind of conditions today, or not for long. But details aren't the point really - as I've got older, my internal fury and railing at injustice hasn't diminished, but I've realised that as a person, my capacity to change/help is in fact limited. That doesn't mean stopping or giving up 'the fight', whatever that might be for each one of us - in fact, for me, achieving this university degree so late in life is a part of that, one step towards the next step. But it's helped me to feel better about just doing what I can manage to do and leaving other people to do what they can do, and trusting that.

And also I would trust in 'spirit'. Because each of us only carries a small part of the whole, and can only perceive a small part of the whole, but if our intention is good it does ripple outwards. We can't control everything, but we need to start with kindness. And it needs to start at home. If I were to go off and do 'good causes' and neglect bringing up my children, and if - if - they were left with a legacy of unhappiness or dysfunction because of that, then my choice would have been unwise. North American Indian saying: when we make a decision, we need to think about its effects down to the seventh generation following. You could hardly argue with that, could you? How often do any of us do it? Time for me to get off the soapbox.

Dee - Your youngest child is 14, so it won’t be long until she flies the nest, after which you’ll have less responsibilities and more free time. What do you plan to do when this happens? Are you looking forward to it, or do you have mixed feelings?

Carolyn - Basically, my plan is to carry on with more study - having just got my BA, I'm going to do an MA in Medieval Studies at Bristol for the next 2 years, and then who knows? There's a long-term possibility of further research in ethnology, which could be good. Also I hope to be able to gear up a bit more on writing short stories and be a bit more active in trying to get things published - either through Waterdog, my own 'press', or other people's. Also, I'd just love to do some proper travelling, sort of wandering, slowly - but with a dog, a cat, a very old mother and a not very well daughter I think that one's on the back burner for a while.

Dee - It’s never too late to go off travelling. My mother finally had her ‘gap year’ (which ended up being closer to two years) in her early sixties. Tell me, where is it you’d like to travel to, and what attracts you about these places?

Carolyn - There are lots of places, but there's definitely a top 5 - or 10 - or maybe 15. I'd like to go to Finland and sit in a wooden cafe with red cushions, be surrounded by people who speak a language incomprehensible to me, have a look at their art, there's a quite surreal naive kind of thing that springs from there - melancholy coastal landscapes, big rocks. In the same vein but with differences I've been drawn to Alaska for a long time and have written various things set there, so it might be good to actually visit. I'd really love to see the glaciers tumbling into the sea, silver birches and more rocks - and Anchorage which has a bad press, but having grown up in Tasmania I feel at home in small capital cities on the edge of stunning scenery a very long way from anywhere else: the boredom and interestingness of them, their quirkiness and similarities. In these places there are many strong people who sink or swim under the limitations of isolation and provincialism but who strike a transcendent spark of originality within their world. Ditto Newfoundland and other bits of Canada, and New Zealand which I've never made it to.

On the other hand I'm very drawn to medieval Europe - to the whole intricate thing of "the city" and what it means, in terms of a made object/archetype that humans create, but also as concentrations of energy, learning, power, corruption and glory - the building up and knocking down of life. I'm very familiar with France and Italy but haven't got to Prague or Budapest yet, or Copenhagen, or Riga, or Tubingen, or Spain/Portugal other than a package holiday in 1973.

And I'd like to go back to Australia for a long spell and travel around all the parts of it I've never been to, and plug back into it, understand more about its meaning to me now and in childhood. In all these places I feel I could let my soul run - be open to poetic, cosmic, human discoveries and linkages. But for now life is about staying at home and getting on with stuff, so all this is in the future.

Dee - No mention of Central or South America? I guess I was imagining, what with your interest in Shamanism, that you’d be heading off into the sunset looking for a Don Juan or Don Genaro to initiate you into the mysteries of peyote. Have you no hankerings in that direction?

Carolyn - Ah, but there are so many different variations of shamanic practice! The North American Indian and the Celtic traditions have been the ones with most resonance for me, and you could spend a lifetime on any of them. Shamanic journeying also can take many 'forms' and be achieved by different routes, some of which could involve hallucinogens, others drumming or rattling - but quite honestly, these are different means to an end. If you have experienced a lot of journeying you can do it without them, though for a group you might wish to hold the energy by a drumbeat for various reasons.

One of the central attributes of all the multitude of varied types of shamanic practice throughout the world is that it must be experienced by the person themselves, rather than following any other person's doctrine. Obviously people can be guided and helped. But there is a very old tradition in the British Isles of the Hedge-witch, the 'witch alone', which means pursuing your own path or energy line within the interpretation of certain traditions.

Dee - Quite a few of the women I know who are in their fifties have issues with ageing, many of them mourning the loss of their looks and their fertility. From what you have said in this interview, it strikes me that you positively embrace life, and that ageing, for you, should be no barrier to fulfilment. But, that said, do you feel more aware of your own mortality now? And does that in any way affect your outlook?

Carolyn - Yes, it would be hard to deny that ageing presents 'challenges' with respect to the self looking back from the mirror! Particularly for women, no doubt, as they are judged so much on their looks. But in a way there is a freedom also from the tyranny of the need to be seen as physically attractive, to play that particular game of presenting yourself for someone else's approval in some way. It's interesting to think of relationships between 'equal humans', where sex/gender/whatever would be irrelevant. But I wonder whether that ever actually happens?

I think I have always felt that there would be great freedom in being older - in the dropping away of society's expectations, the becoming more invisible and yet having accumulated more knowledge of life through which to observe it. The thought of travelling unnoticed appeals to me - let’s face it, who gives a second glance to a middle-aged woman? My grandmother used to tell me stories about a pair of eyes, who had lots of adventures and got up to all kinds of unexpected things. Sometimes I think what I would really like would be just to be that pair of eyes.

As for mortality - I've never really felt a lot of fear around death. Obviously, violence and pain are undesirable, and I would like to be around for my children as long as they need me. But maybe it would be lovely ...

Dee - On that note, when your number is finally up, how would you like to be remembered?

Carolyn - It's bizarre, this question, isn't it? Apart from close family for whom it's an emotional issue, I think I'd like to be remembered as having made some sort of contribution, even if it was at the level of recycling bottles. But then these judgements are all subjective aren't they? I mean most people couldn't give a toss about poetry for example, even though it might be important to a poet! I'm probably most likely to be remembered as that woman with the black whippet - more people stop and talk to me about the dog than anything else.

Carolyn Finlay's website
Seven poems by Carolyn Finlay
Contact Carolyn at: cfinlay@info.com

© Dee Sunshine & Carolyn Finlay, 2005.

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