Ella Skilbeck-Porter. Photo by Ella Skilbeck-Porter.

Graduate Researcher Series: an interview with Ella Skilbeck-Porter

Ella Skilbeck-Porter is a doctoral candidate in French Studies in the School of Languages and Linguistics. Her research explores contemporary visual poetics in both French and Australian literary contexts.

Ella is also a poet and writer, with works published in Rabbit, Cordite Poetry Review, and Southerly. Her manuscript, These Are Different Waters, was recently shortlisted for the prestigious Helen Anne Bell Poetry Bequest. This offers Australian women poets a generous financial prize and the opportunity to publish their collection with Vagabond Press.

To celebrate Ella’s achievement as a finalist for the Helen Anne Bell Poetry Bequest, Monica interviewed her about her doctoral research, visual poetry, and inhabiting interstitial spaces between languages and cultures.

I wonder if you can start by telling us about your doctoral project and, in particular, about your next steps now that you have passed your confirmation.

My thesis is titled The Poetic Line: Textual Spatiality in Contemporary French and Australian Visual Poetics. I’m examining links, connections, and divergences in visual poetry in France and Australia, tracing histories of the form in the two countries, with a particular focus on women practitioners.

I’m currently working on a journal article for publication that hopefully will form part of a chapter, and I’ve started to sketch out the introduction and methodology sections of the thesis. I was grateful for the intense focus that the confirmation deadline provided. As a result, I have a plan to follow now, which is a comfort when contemplating the scope of the project.

How did you come to this research topic? I know there is a strong tradition of French visual poetry. Stéphane Mallarmé, for instance, is an exemplary figure in terms of attempts to introduce a visual aspect into poetry. So I’m curious to hear which aspects of your university studies impacted your academic and creative interest in visual poetry.

I studied a double degree at the University of Technology Sydney in Communications and International Studies, majoring in Writing and Cultural Studies and French. I then completed Honours in Writing Studies with the Australian novelist Debra Adelaide.

I first started making visual poetry in a poetry elective subject with Martin Harrison in 2012. He was the most incredible teacher and poet, and that class opened up new worlds for me. In that class, I noticed a recurring preoccupation with art and visuality in my work, and I began to explore this more. I remember handing in a poem that was a drawing. The only words were in the title. Martin didn’t question it, which was a pretty big moment for me. It gave me the permissionto continue, and stretched my idea of what “writing” poetry could be. That same poem then placed third in a poetry prize for poets under the age of 21 and was published in Rabbit. It was my first published poem.

I’d encountered Un Coup de dés and Apollinaire’s calligrammes in a French class previously, but we also looked at them in Martin’s classes. Those were very special, three-hour sprawling seminars where we thought about what poems do and how they create their own reality. Martin was very focused on how we write about the present, andhe was very sensitive and responsive to the everyday world around him. I think this was what made him such a remarkable teacher. He listened deeply and pushed thoughts further.He sadly passed away in 2014.

As for the visual aspect in poetry, that has always been there long before Mallarmé! Throughout history and all around the world, artists and poets have merged art and writing. I’ve read it described by Dick Higgins as a “natural impulse.” The first recorded piece of writing might even be a visual poem where the letters are composed in a very curious spiral. But no-one can know because it’s in Linear A, which is as yet an indecipherable language…

You’re a finalist for the Helen Anne Bell Poetry Bequest, for your poetry manuscript, These Are Different Waters. So congratulations! Can you tell us about this manuscript, its themes, and your influences?

My manuscript collects together poems written during the last nine years. I realised recently that it’s a record of my twenties. The collection is quite experimental. It plays with form and is divided into two sections: Inflatable Pool and Concrete Pool. There are some long, free verse poems, prose poems, poems that use Oulipian constraints, a pantoum, and photographs of poems made from actual concrete.

The judges (Kate Lilley, Pam Brown and Melinda Bufton) described it as a “through-composed ink-spell,” which really blew me away. “Through-composed” is a term from music theory referring to a song composed of stanzas which take different forms, but which all contribute to the whole. I’d never heard the term before, but it fits so well. I’m amazed my work has been read and commented on by these incredible poets; I couldn’t ask for better readers.

The collection is also about grief and is dedicated to my brother Max, an artist and musician, who we lost suddenly in 2020 in tragic circumstances. It’s hard for me to say that, and it’s very difficult to process the loss and grief of not having him here. We were exceptionally close. Poetry is a way to process, but it’s also a way of writing to him. I’m quite mute in my grief, but this collection is something I can share. 

Do you have any plans to travel overseas for your doctoral research?

Yes, I’m planning on at least one research trip to France, and several  within Australia as well. I was originally planning to do cotutelle, a joint PhD program in which the candidate spends half the duration of their candidature at an Australian university and half the time at a French university, but I’ve decided to do the PhD program solely at the University of Melbourne, and travel to France when I can (for hopefully several months each time!)

You’ve also had the opportunity to tutor French 1 students this year. Can you tell us a bit about this experience?

I taught two French 1 classes in 2021, which was a really lovely experience. I was able to have my classes primarily on campus. We only held a few classes on Zoom during the semester.

I started learning French in high school and continued during my undergraduate degree, which proved to be quite helpful for my teaching. I can remember my French classes so well, including what worked and what didn’t. It can be daunting learning a second (or third, or fourth!) language, so my approach was primarily to create a comfortable – and hopefully enjoyable –  environment where students could practice and not feel embarrassed to make mistakes or pronounce words weirdly.

If you were trying to encourage university students to start and/or keep learning an additional language, what would you say?

I’d say: persevere. Even if sometimes you don’t get the best marks. Try to enjoy it. Have fun. Be creative.

Learning a different language is learning about a different culture, the two are entwined. Learning French, for example, then allows you to engage and find out more about the Francophone world. One of the reasons I enjoyed learning French was because watching films, reading, and listening to music in that language then constituted studying! So it was a way of following my interests and broadening them. 

It can also be a perfect and unique time in your life to be able to turn your attention to studying another language in a supportive environment with other students. I had some students who said to me that they’d learned more in the first two tutorials than in a whole year of language classes at high school. It can be a lot to take in and a lot of ground is covered. But if you turn up and engage, the learning process will happen and it can be invaluable.

Also, watershed moments do arrive. After struggling to understand a grammatical structure or pronounce a certain syllable or word, you can sleep on it and suddenly it clicks and you understand. It is worth it for such moments.