Kona Macphee

survival’s dog-eat-dog
made literal, the trimmings went
to Mertz and Mawson – forcing down
those pounds of husky liver,
sliver by revolting sliver
(Extract from Meat, Kona Macphee, 2011)

Kona Macphee grew up in Australia, where she experimented with a range of occupations including composer, violinist, waitress and motorcycle mechanic. Eventually she took up robotics and computer science, which brought her to Cambridge as a graduate student in 1995. She now lives in Crieff, Perthshire, where she works as a freelance writer and moonlights as the co-director of a software and consultancy company.

As her erratic career path might suggest, Kona has always been equally interested in the humanities and the sciences. In an age of relentless specialisation, there aren’t many niches left for generalists – but happily, writing poetry can be one of them. A poem can take its inspiration from anything, and borrow its imagery from anywhere: not only the inner emotional landscape of the poet, but the physical universe outside, the whole cacophonous spectrum of human thought and the wildest flourishes of the imagination. For Kona, getting to work means walking to her shed at the bottom of the garden – but, as she says, ’who knows where I might end up after that?’

When Kona was a child, she spent many happy hours poring over Forensic Pathology textbooks and related tomes like the quirky late-19th century compendium Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine (Perhaps this explains The Book of Diseases, a poem sequence inspired by various human diseases that featured in her second collection Perfect Blue.) Given this childhood fascination with matters biomedical, it was a particular pleasure for Kona to be commissioned by Human Race to produce a series of poems – not least because she got a personal tour of the closed collection at the Surgeons’ Hall Museum in Edinburgh, which she says ‘enthralled my inner (morbidly curious) ten-year-old.’

Kona believes that the most interesting ideas and inventions tend to emerge at the intersection of different disciplines. An example is the exciting field of biomimetics, where design and engineering take their inspiration from technologies that have evolved in nature, such as the way that individual strands on a bird’s feather zip together. She says, ‘I find there’s a related fruitfulness in poetry commissions, where the craft and thematic preoccupations of the poet meet the particular context of the commission. I’m constantly surprised and delighted by the way that the external source material and the poetic sensibility can come together, often from very different starting points, to produce poems that are themselves full of unexpected and satisfying connections.’

Kona was particularly happy to find a home in the poem Meat, for the story of Australian explorer Douglas Mawson and his fateful Antarctic expedition. ‘The fact that the poem was actually inspired by a footballer with a steak in his boot perfectly epitomises the unexpected directions in which a commission can take you as a writer.’

Kona has two poetry collections published by Bloodaxe Books, Tails (2004) and Perfect Blue (2010), which won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize for 2010. More information is available at www.konamacphee.com

Kona Macphee