AMONG THE POETS:
an interview with Andy Jackson
Andy Jackson has been a consistent feature of Australian literature for well over a decade now. We might as well call him what he is: a landmark of Aussie performance and page poetry. Among The Regulars is a collection of poetry just released by papertiger media. The following interview is an insight into the inspirations that have created the poet and the poetry.
What is the nature of the poetic identity for you? How closely do you cohere as a person, with that public figure, the poet known as Andy Jackson?
It’s complex, but I do know that my sense of poetic identity has been strongly shaped by how I got into poetry in the first place. In the mid 1990s, I put myself forward on open mic nights, reading things out that were half-formed and raw, not so much because I wanted to perform poetry, but because I wanted to say something, my own intimate feelings and ideas. On top of that, I think I wanted to control the way people see me. I’d lived with the staring and comments that having an unusual body brings, and I wanted to be in charge. This semi-conscious impulse lead me to the stage, through a fascination with the power of language (and communication!) into poetry.
The poetry I like to read (and hope/try to write) is poetry where something is at stake, something both personal and political. The poet is in the poem somehow, not just manipulating it at a distance. In my poems, the ‘I’ is usually me – and when it isn’t, I’ve still written it by accessing my bodily feelings. I’ve noticed, too, that if the impulse to write is purely intellectual, I can’t sustain it, finish the poem. The unwritten poem has to demand an answer from a part of myself I’m not totally familiar with, or in charge of.
So, I think people familiar with my poems have somehow become familiar with me. But, of course, only one (albeit crucial) aspect of me – they’d know me just as well by examining my rough drafts, my friends, my fridge, the pile of unread books in my room, my rubbish…
I’m now just as much purely on the page as physically visible, so inevitably my sense of poetic identity is shifting. The body is still important to me thematically, but my own body may be receding out of the poems. We’ll see (or read)…
I’d like to ask you about the idea of ‘controlling’ the way people see the poet. Also interesting is the process of transition as we ourselves move from ‘raw’ and ‘half-formed’ things to other, more cohesive and connected beings. Hence some see a ‘spiritual’ element in poetry. I was wondering how you understood such questions of ‘spirituality.’ The page offers us a medium for transformation, but the stage offers a whole new dimension to this process. Has presenting yourself physically been a crucial part of that for you?
Great question. In a way, you’re opening up the question of the difference between what poetry does for the poet versus what it does for the audience (or between the poet and the audience). A huge area.
What I think of “spiritual”, I don’t think of some kind of separate world distinct from the physical, or that cynicism-inducing section of the bookstore. I think we’re talking about transformation, unexpected change. Something about writing poetry opens up possibilities that aren’t immediately apparent or accessible through direct intellectual effort. It’s not otherworldly, but it’s certainly also not the way the dominant world operates. I like your phrase about moving towards being “more cohesive and connected” – my experience has been that this is what writing poetry can do – not so much make me a bigger, better person, but enhance my connections to others and to the world as it is (which sometimes mean I become smaller!)
A classic example for me would be my poem “I have a hunch…”. The first line is “I have a hunch / that curvature can be aperture” – a line that just came into my head, which I felt I had to follow the logic of. I have quite obvious spinal curvature, so those lines are of course puns on physical deformity, and suggest that it’s not straight-ness but difference that open up insights. I finished the poem by going with my intuition, and it has ended up being my own individual secular mantra or prayer.
But I didn’t just write the poem. I felt drawn to make it public, especially to read it in front of people. I remember the audible gasp when I first read it out – naming the elephant in the room, but also suggesting what the elephant might be able to do. I’m not so much concerned about what poetry means, but what it does, its impact. Not that it has one single impact either – poetry offers ambiguity, space, uncertainty, multiplicity. And, in my case, I hope it encourages a deeper sense of empathy, connection, an unsettling of ideology. Poetry works between poet and audience, I think. It has huge potential in a world of detachment and objectification, where everything is made into a consumer item – it can help remove the blinkers.
I can take myself and this process all too seriously though. A few years back, I was approached by a stranger on the street, who asked if I was “still doing [my] stand-up comedy”. Huh?! Your audience doesn’t always remember what you intend them to remember!
I have a hunch
can be aperture,
given that light, like water,
does not travel in a straight line,
but finds the lowest point: an equilibrium.
its gnarled paths and knotted logic
is best placed to receive that light;
not the blinkering eye,
mindless servant of the busy mind.
The skin moves, gracious
to accommodate the push of bones
and between the bars of ribs
the heart beats, regardless,
The body processes everything
in a fumbling and gradual physics,
a photosynthesis of sun, cloud, dirt and sound
into a pulse.
And what harm can the spit of strangers do?
It rains (god, it can pour!)
and the flesh shines all the more.