“I love doing the performance stuff. I love it when you make contact with the audience and you can see they get it, because all feelings are universal” says poet and performer Claudette Mountjoy, whose work Confidence features in The Alternative Archive exhibition.
Claudette Mountjoy in her home studio, 2022. Photography by Duncan Wright
Claudette has always been a storyteller. Her stories come out of life; from the complexities of family relationships, experiences of womanhood, and regional life in WA’s Southwest. We recently visited her where she lives in Northcliffe, a small town about 357km south from Perth, surrounded by Karri, Marri and Jarrah forests. We met Claudette at “Dawn Shybottom’s Wash House”, a launderette next to the Northcliffe Family & Community Centre, where mounted in two Perspex poster frames, is her story Dawn Shybottom. Written about her alter ego, it’s a humorous tale of self-discovery and the expectations of womanhood.
“Dawn you do not have to have the cleanest washing in the Shire
and be on every committee
to be barely acceptable.
You do not have to slip around like a bleached salmon filled to the gills with
inferiority, gasping for life.
You only have to be yourself.
Go find yourself Dawn!” from Dawn Shybottom
We walked over to Claudette’s place where her life’s work was laid out on her dining room table; paper documents, black and white photographs from performances, newspaper articles, flyers and small literature publications. Our conversation began over freshly baked scones with jam and double cream from the local dairy company.
We discovered that Claudette’s knack for storytelling goes back to her childhood growing up in the suburb of Morley (formerly Morley Park), when it was largely swamp and bush. She never felt confident with spelling or math at school but loved to perform and tell stories to her neighbours. “I was a bit dyslexic. So I always had that thing where you feel that you’re a bit dumb because you can’t spell very well…but I just started to perform” she says.
“When I was about four, I found a new tactic to help me stave off my sister’s aggression. Much to Mom’s relief. I stopped winging and putting the A on the end of words and started to make up stories to entertain my sister. The stories were about two little mice, Mickey and Bony, who made a caravan in their father’s workshop and traveled around the world. There was a devil and a witch called Paddikan and Pitch that chased them all through the stories. My sister loved the stories and I could make her do anything for me by telling them”, she reads from her story Crawling in the Dark.
Claudette had seven children and worked as a general nurse and a nurse in psychiatric care. She used her experience of motherhood, and having two children with bipolar, as inspiration for her writing. “I just started to write stories about them, like the Yellow-eyed Dog and the Dysfunctional Family, then perform them in public”. With no training in performance or writing, she initially worked through the fear that comes with standing in front of an audience and sharing something personal. But, she says “I don’t feel nervous anymore. I just like making that connection”.
Claudette’s relationship with her older sister has inspired many of her stories, like Crawling in the Dark. “Thrashing around on the bed like a crocodile in cling wrap, I feel like a baby must feel before the head comes out; eyes bulging on the brink of life and death. I’ve been good and compliant all my life, but now I’m taking a nosedive into the primeval swamp of menopause and, “I HAVE TURNED NASTY!” “…The resentment I am feeling is toward my sister. Gasp! That feels better. I know feelings are universal so this story is dedicated to all you sisters out there. It’s my story about how I’m dealing with my dark side” she reads.
She shared with us a recent altercation she had with her sister involving the hurtling of a fish. “She lives up the road, and she’s a fundamental Christian. I’m a believer, but not in that way at all. And she’s always going on about hell. And I hate that whole thing about hell. I can’t relate to it. And the guy next door had given her a fish. We were arguing about how I just didn’t think there was a hell. And she just threw the fish down because it was given to her, threw it down, hopped on a bike and went riding off to her place. I was so mad, I picked up the fish and threw it at her. She didn’t stop, she just rode home. And I was really angry because it’s always…this has been ongoing since we both became Christians, different types of Christians. So I picked up the fish, and ran up to her place and threw it at the door. Then she comes out, scales it, cleans it, cooks it and eats it”. Despite their differences, Claudette says “But I do love her, but I had to write that to get it out of my system”.
Claudette says her work “Fits in with life, wherever”, having performed in lounge rooms, university galleries and out in the bush, like The Krone performed in the forest, “When they were fighting to save the forest, the ministers came to the tree and we went there and performed it at the tree”.
Over the years Claudette has run local writers’ workshops and occasionally she still performs to local school children who get a giggle out her stories. She enjoys going down to the Northcliffe Community Recreation Centre to use the computers and recording system, and hopes to produce a collection of her stories or a memoir in the near future. Currently, she is in a pre-creative stage, saying “I’m a work in progress. I mean, having to see my husband through his death”. But she’s managed to find light in the darkness, stating “It makes you really look at life and appreciate people”. She hopes to write about her loss eventually, but for now has enjoyed some painting to stimulate her soul. As Claudette says, “Creativity comes because you have to make it or you die of boredom”.