After winning the prestigious 2013 Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Prize, poet David Stavanger has just launched his resulting collection, The Special, to an appreciative audience at the 2014 Queensland Poetry Festival. No stranger to live performance (as alter ego, Ghostboy, he has been instrumental in establishing the thriving Queensland slam-poetry scene and is a veteran and award-winning spoken-word artist), Stavanger is also no newcomer to the page: his poetry has been widely published and his chapbook, ‘And the Ringmaster Said’, was released by Small Change Press in 2012 to positive reviews. Stavanger was also commissioned, in 2012, to be Queensland’s sole Workplace Writer in Residence, and has recently acted as a live poetry-writing, reading and educational installation at Brisbane Square Library. A lapsed psychologist, this self-titled Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde of Australian poetry has described himself as ‘two writers in one skin’. Interviewer Michele Seminara speaks with them both.
It seems to me that some poems – while striking on the page – can sound quite dull when read aloud; and that conversely many of the most interesting poems to listen to as performance can appear flat when read on the page. As a poet who works with both mediums, what are your thoughts, and were the poems in The Special intended for page, performance, or both?
Any art can be dull, even if it’s well written or well performed. I find poetry most exciting when it transcends my expectations of YouTube or the poetry journals, and places me in its own hands – whether that be on a page or a stage. Poetry that might fail. My writing in the past has always taken me towards performance as it is driven by varied rhythms and the tension between yourself and a live audience – it has also been very much improv-based as well, pieces cutting and changing live (even forgetting lines is something I see as part of the work sometimes, heckling too – they’re live forms of erasure and found text to me, a way to respond to and rewrite in the present, tense).
The Special was intended as its own document –I didn’t consciously write it as ‘page poetry’ as I don’t believe such a thing exists. I think such divides are theatrical and work well as a device for festivals to use to draw cross-over audiences. There are people who love the idea of poetry wars, but there is nothing to fight for. The Special was written out of urgency, observation and retreat. Some pieces I had performed as Ghostboy and some can – and will –be performed live. I love trying to find new ways into a piece of text; some I just can’t fit into, like that jacket you shouldn’t have bought. Having said that, it was edited very much with the intention of creating a cohesive poetry collection that could be read by others and be still in your hands – even if the voices of the book remain central to the life of the collection.
I love your way of seeing forgotten lines and heckles during performance as forms of in-the-moment erasure or found poetry. Would it be true to say that it’s the poems that might fail, the poems that expunge or are fractured, that hold the most interest for you?
Failure is measured in a different way once you step away from a conditioned sense of success. Poetry in your own hands is better than poetry in the hands of someone else, even if you drop it. Many of my failures have more integrity than many of my successes, where I was often unconsciously chasing the dragon to the top of the mountain. There is only smoke up there. The solid thing is ‘the work, the work’, as UK poet Jacob Polley says. Being a poet in today’s world is humbling, it is to live in a fractured way; it often places you at odds with a lot of what is valued around you. Musicians are increasingly in the same boat but they have the joy of song which can transcend much. Forgetting lines reminds me how little this all matters these days – last week I forgot a whole stanza in front of 200 people live in Cairns. I still sold some books. It was terrifying and I eventually had to try and re-create the middle of the poem on stage. That failed too. But I’m glad it happened. Success.
Human imperfection and fallibility – and the beauty as well as the horror they entail – are strong threads running through The Special. Has your time working as a psychologist informed your poetry in this regard?
Yes and no. I worked for 10 years in various settings and there were particular clients and situations that accumulated and informed the way I now look at the world, having added their own cracks to the window I look out at the world through. But I was kind of broken before that too, and my own family narratives are in this book, as are the ones that were sewn into my family’s story before I was born. And the last ten years have brought their own beauty and horror (and beauty as horror), as well as finding myself increasingly reactive to the faux optimism that is peddled and exploited in both the arts and psychology and broader culture – we need Oscar Wilde and Joan Rivers to return, not Jesus or Freud. I come from more of a humanist view of things, that it is hard in many ways to be here and that art can explore and bend that but it can’t solve anything either. Hence, there is a lot of gallows humour and direct incisions – via recollection, dreams and diaries I have never written in – in the collection. It is very spare and stretched in many ways, as that is how I feel about walking around in the world. But underneath it all, there is always joy, always laughter, even if sometimes it flows dark and unseen. Yes and no.
It’s interesting that you say the poetry in The Special is ‘spare and stretched’, and that this reflects your way of being in the world. In reading the book I felt that I was inside the consciousness of someone who often felt quite detached from the everyday experience of his own life. Is the dichotomy between one’s internal and external reality something you’ve consciously tried to explore in these poems?
We all bring our own consciousness (and subconscious) to other’s work; reading and inhabiting text is an act of transference in my eyes – our response holds up a mirror to the reader as much as to the poet. Sometimes that mirror is black. I’m glad it made you feel something at all. I think detached is an interesting term – a poet is often removed from the poem to a degree anyway, even in first person. Furthermore, anyone experiencing any form of mental illness is to a degree outside the experience looking in. Many of these poems have nothing to do with my own life, they are more accumulations (some intimate, some more experiential or from another point of view, some fantastical or absurd). Many of these poems have everything to do with my life too. Black humour always creates distance from the writer to a degree, even if it is a device which throws the reader into the heart of the work. What is intimacy on the page? Holding the words in your hands is more than enough. I don’t know much about reality – some of these pieces were the only anchor I had during times of heightened flight or fright or rapid mood cycles, others are fragmented dreams, others responses to both my inner worlds and the people that have passed by on the outside, solid and shadow. I know the last two poems are the most stripped back & immediate to me, as is the triptych for my dad and the one for my grandfather (who was maniac depressive, a small child in a man’s suit).
You mentioned that these poems were born of urgency, observation and retreat, and that the last ten years of your life have seen a lot of change. How has the ‘work’ of your poetry evolved in this time, and what has it meant to you?
My writing has become a lot less reliant on performative tricks (but can still be performed), has become a lot more intimate (yet the first person at times is less and less me, it is almost dissociative observations at times), it has become more filmic and picaresque, less pressured, and is more informed by the future and the present than the past. I am also realising the limitations of form and the limits of being naive (or even being nieve) with form too, and trying to decide whether to study form more or abandon it as a trap – a beautiful suitcase with nothing inside.
The opening poem of your collection tells us that ‘to special’ is ‘to observe a suicidal or psychotic mental health in-patient overnight’, and while the poems do go on to explore the darker aspects of the human psyche, the final line of the closing poem affirms ‘I wake up living.’ What comes next for you?
I love that last poem. A friend pointed out that the book’s opening lines are ‘Surviving a plane crash / is good for you’ and ends with ‘I wake up living’. That last poem is an Appendix as it is the one poem truly about the future, which is where my writing is headed. I have the start of a novel I have had for a while (cliché); I have a couple of ideas for writing poems to two more structured themes over the next 18 months; I also want to have a stab at writing a collection of kids poetry – I work in schools a lot, and there is very little of it around (especially Australian). My most immediate thing is to launch this collection – at least across the neighbour’s fence – and also develop The Special(s), which is a collaborative extension of these poems with a bunch of Brisbane artists in various mediums loosely based on David Shrigley’s project Worried Noodles (one of my favourite poetry books). Apart from that, sleep and hot tea.
I had better leave you to it then. But first, one last request: a ‘found’ poetic question, sourced from within those I’ve just asked of you.
your thread is stretched and spare.
forgotten lines erase mental perfection;
fractured humans fail…beauty
as well as horror affirm the living—
what wakes in you?
Could you reply with a poetic answer ‘found’ within your own answers?
Dull art, cutting life, found observation.
Success smoke, broken wilde, joy boats.
Naive suitcase, hot tea heart, noodle trap.
There are those in the writing world who’d sell their grandmother to move forward. Then there’s Walter Mason, who, despite being a well-published author of travel memoir and highly regarded public speaker and teacher, is one of the most generous people you’re likely to meet. Paraphrasing outrageously from his bio, Mason spent his childhood in rural North Queensland. For many years he was a bookseller, working at the famous Berkelouw’s on Oxford Street in Sydney, and later at Adyar, the metaphysical bookshop in the city’s centre. Later he moved into a key role in a buying group for independent booksellers, and spent several years working with many of the most highly regarded and long-established bookshops in Australia. He first visited Vietnam in 1994, and has been back many times since. A lifelong interest in Eastern spirituality has resulted in Mason being the author of Destination Saigon and Destination Cambodia, both published by Allen & Unwin. He is currently a part of the University of Western Sydney’s Writing & Society Research Unit, where he is pursuing a PhD on the history of self-help books in Australia. He lives in Sydney with his partner Thang Ngo, a prominent Vietnamese-Australian community leader, and attends a Vietnamese Buddhist temple weekly, as well as going to church (which makes the mind boggle). Somehow, amongst all this, he had time to chat with Verity La.
Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone
In Destination Saigon you write with such love for Vietnam, though it is a love that’s not uncritical. What was the original motivation for the book?
I had wanted to write a book about Vietnam since I was 26 years old, but fortunately I waited some years. The original motivation was my gorgeous partner Thang Ngo, who I have been with since I was nineteen. We kind of discovered Vietnam together, because he had left as a young child, and so going back was quite a foreign experience for him, too. Ultimately I was the one who became obsessed with the place, and it pretty much became my life. I learned Vietnamese, became a very serious student of Vietnamese Buddhism and just spent lots of time there, going back year after year, making real friends and establishing close relationships with his family and other people I met along the way – especially Buddhist monks and nuns. I’m not such a good Buddhist anymore – a backslider! – but I get better when I am in Vietnam. I’ve gotten a bit too tubby for all that bowing, though. Twice a month we are meant to do a repentance ceremony which involves 108 full prostrations – man, that takes it out of you! Especially if it’s 35 degrees out. So yeah, it was good old-fashioned love that took me to Vietnam. And once I was there I could never forget it.
But the book was originally going to be an account of Buddhism in modern Vietnam. My publisher at Allen & Unwin – the wonderful, now retired, Maggie Hamilton – thought that was a tough sell, and asked me to sketch out a more general book about the place which still incorporated my major passions. She loved what I presented, and so did everyone else there and a book was born. I think they thought it was going to be a spiritual travelogue, but when I finally submitted it they were shocked to discover it was kind of naughty and wide-ranging. They liked it more, then.
Can you explain what you mean by ‘naughty and wide-ranging’?
Well, naughtiness and spiritual transcendence are the two poles between which I wander. So I can spend a month in retreat, waking at 4am to meditate for hours, subsisting on one daily meal and spending my entire time in prayer. And then, the day the retreat ends, I will go out to celebrate with a bottomless jug of Kamikaze (a lethal and mysterious iced cocktail popular in South East Asia) at a drag bar, getting home at 5 am with a half-dozen brand-new friends. I am a reprobate and a saint simultaneously. It’s exhausting work.
My publisher was shocked to see that, having just read a chapter about my genuinely moving communion with the Bodhisattva of Compassion at a serene mountain nunnery, I go on to describe a drunken rampage with a gang of fishermen at a karaoke bar that night. I wake in the morning with a shirtless, tattooed tough staring down at me, and my Great-Aunt told me the scene made her uncomfortable when she read it. There’s no hope for me, I’m afraid. I always say my twin passions are monasteries and gay bars. I am also completely fascinated with other people’s lives – always have been. It takes me about 24 hours in a brand-new place before I am intimately involved with someone’s life drama.
I think it’s because I grew up in a small town, where a healthy interest in the affairs of everyone is a necessity. I have never been able to cultivate that big city sangfroid. I knock on doors and ask dumb questions and am willing to sit and watch and listen where others might wander off embarrassedly. I am also easily led and tend to say yes when people ask me to do things. There is an element of gaucherie, I suppose, but I think it stands me in good stead as a writer. It is not a cultivated skill or a clever talent, though. A pure accident of temperament.
I want to ask you about how you approached the writing of your two books. The stories seem to work as vignettes; they are almost tiles – when they are all put together they start to reveal the nations you’re investigating. Is that how you see it?
Yes, precisely. Each story is meant to be an essay that works all on its own, but that builds toward a greater understanding and a fuller picture – of the place, its culture and history, of my friends there and also, I must admit, me. It is very intentionally memoir. Someone told me that reading my books is like spending a drunken night out with me. The voice I use when writing is very much my own, real voice. I dread didacticism, and want people to have fun more than to ‘learn something’. I do think that people absorb more when they are having a good time, and that is what I hope happens in my writing. That said, one reviewer said that my books were ‘gently moral’. Perhaps I can’t escape my Methodist upbringing.
When I first wrote Destination Saigon it was organised in a much more conventional way – long chapters with beginnings, middle and ends. Maggie Hamilton saw through my dull old ruse and said, ‘There are fabulous stories hidden in here every couple of pages. Let’s just throw out the stuff connecting them.’ So we did – we went through and cut out tens of thousands of words, making it many small chapters. And then even I thought it was quite good. There is a sense of speed, of excitement and, occasionally, bizarreness, which matches my style perfectly. Suddenly it was recognisably me, and not just me copying the literary forms of everybody else. That’s where a good publisher comes in handy – they can see the other options and they are willing to take risks.
You mentioned memoir, which is interesting because both Destination Saigon and Destination Cambodia certainly have their memoir aspects, sometimes in ways that are quite emotionally explicit. Primarily do you see yourself as a memoirist or a travel writer?
I see myself primarily as a memoirist, but travel memoir is a growing area and the two mix perfectly. I really believe that the ‘journey’ aspect of travel writing is less interesting these days. People want to know more about relationships, understandings and circumstances, and less about the relentless number of cities you managed to visit with a mangle strapped to your unicycle. I am not a fast mover, and I like to stay awhile in places. I like to drift on the edges of life, and my writing reflects that. For me the best travel writing has always been as much about the author as about the place. One of my favourites is Gontran de Poncin’s From a Chinese City, which is all about a French count in the 1950s stopping in Saigon’s Chinatown and trying to make friends. Andrew X. Pham’s Catfish and Mandala is another exquisite example – a family memoir as well as a constantly fascinating travelogue. And, of course, in Australia we have Robert Dessaix’s travel memoirs, which are superb and have had a huge influence on me.
I have noticed, too, the growth of travel fiction, which is very interesting, and I often dream about writing it myself. Australia has produced some excellent examples here, too – Felicity Castagna’s Small Indiscretions and Laura Jean McKay’s Holiday in Cambodia. Australians are addicted to travel, so it’s only natural that it should invade our literary space as well.
There’s a strong sense of melancholia in both Destination Saigon and Destination Saigon, especially in the latter. Why do you think that’s so?
Oh! So interesting that you noticed – some people don’t. I grew up in a rural area and was bullied mercilessly at school from the first day of Grade 1 up until I learned how to use my mouth and my wit to defend myself, and that wasn’t till I was 12 or 13. I am always fond of quoting the old Shirley Bassey song (latterly the Kath & Kim theme song): ‘There’s always a funny man, in the game, but he’s only funny by mistake/But everyone laughs at him just the same, they don’t hear his lonely heart break.’ I think at the heart of all humour is melancholy – in fact, an immense seriousness about life and its unfairness. This is why panels about humour at writers’ festivals are so rarely funny. Start digging beneath the skin of a funny person and you stumble upon a well of sadness. Is that mixing metaphors? This is what people who don’t ‘get’ humour always fail to realise. They think the only valid reaction is a frown and a stern chastisement.
I am really interested in this because I have some very dear friends who rarely laugh and who generally disapprove of anything that might induce a smirk. And yet I was raised in an environment in which anything but a smile was considered indulgent and impolite. People in small towns laugh and chat at funerals. Interestingly, this is how people in Vietnam and Cambodia also react to serious and even painful events. If someone falls and hurts themselves people will laugh, not out of cruelty but out of a desire to defuse the pain of a situation. It can take some getting used to.
So yeah, I hone in on sadness and I recognise it in others. My melancholy is probably greater in Cambodia because it is a place that is still dealing with its own trauma, and people have some very real problems, many of which are not addressed by the various forms of aid that flood into the country. Also, in a practical and selfish way, I was more alone there because I couldn’t speak Khmer, and so I felt my existence mediated through friends who helped me function. That can be immensely frustrating and also isolating. Travelling alone is always a fraught thing that leaves you too often in your own company, reflecting on your life and circumstances. Dangerous for a closet depressive like me.
What have you learnt about yourself from being a writer?
It seems cheesy to say it, but actually giving myself the time to finish a major piece of work has changed me immeasurably. I am very much a late bloomer – I am one of those who basically wasted his 20s and 30s and never applied himself properly to anything all. I went back to university at age 35 and finishing my honours thesis (on Queer motifs in the work of Sumner Locke Elliott) taught me that I could actually do something substantial. The offer to write Destination Saigon came almost immediately after that.
How am I different? I feel like I belong to a community of people and, in a small way, to a part of Australia’s history. Even if I never write another book (and I plan on writing dozens more) there is every possibility that in 40 or 80 or 100 year’s time some earnest grad student will stumble upon my two first books and rediscover me. I guess I have acknowledged the truth of my own ego and my thirst for immortality. My grandfather was an inveterate self-publisher, and a part of me wants to do well for him (we share the same name). He instilled a love of literature in me, and was a really remarkable man. I have been given all the opportunities he never had, and I know he would have been confused but proud of me.
I hold myself to quite a strict set of personal standards about what I say and write, and I do see my work as having some kind of greater aim: the encouragement of friendship, respect between cultures, the building of global communities. It’s important to me at this stage in my life that I don’t condemn, blame or hurt other people, and I do my best to make my writing and my public work reflect that. I am absolutely in love with all of the strangeness, diversity and surprises of this life, and I want to write about them. These are quite deeply held spiritual values, and I am aware that they may cause others to giggle about me or dismiss my work. Nonetheless, that is why I am here. I am also aware that I fall short of my own expectations every day, and so I must keep trying till I draw my last breath.
I have learned that I can make people laugh but also learn something new, and that I can tell stories and make connections between people in surprising and delightful ways. It’s tremendously satisfying to know this, and to continue to practise it as often as I can.
The first Verity La interview with Andrea Goldsmith was in December 2010. Back then we focused on her novel Reunion (4th Estate, 2009), and Goldsmith spoke eloquently about the magic of imagination, the lure of language, and the ‘moral power of fiction’. Since the publication of that acclaimed work, the Melbourne-based novelist and essayist has travelled overseas, including to the Galapagos Islands, and more recently has seen the publication of her seventh novel, The Memory Trap (4th Estate, 2013). This is a work that eminent Australian literary reviewer Peter Peirce has described as ‘an adult entertainment – passionate, thoughtful and disconcerting – and altogether welcomed’ (Canberra Times, 27 July, 2013). What inspires Andrea Goldsmith? How does she feel about what she creates? And what are her hopes for the future? Interview: Nigel Featherstone.
A novel is a study of complexity, but it could also be true that the act of writing a novel begins with a simple idea. What was the original inspiration for The Memory Trap?
I had long wanted to write a novel that centred on a genius. In particular I wanted to explore how much bad behaviour could be excused in a person who demonstrated a unique gift. While I touched on this notion in my third novel, Facing the Music, there was more I wanted to explore. So the first character to emerge in The Memory Trap was Ramsay Blake, a genius at the piano but a half-baked individual in most other respects.
Memory and memorials happened along by accident. I’ve recounted the story in a long essay called ‘Imagining Memory’:
It was 2009, a bright day in early spring, when I took the afternoon off work and made my way to Heidi Gallery and gardens. There was a haze of fresh green on the deciduous trees, the Yarra seemed less brown than usual, and a rowdy party of magpies, peewees and rainbow lorikeets dashed through the still crisp air. I meandered around the gardens until the lengthening shadows made it uncomfortably chilly, then made my way to the gallery. There I found a sculpture exhibition, the work of Kathy Temin. I knew nothing of her art or her background, so I entered the long room of the main exhibit with no expectations.
I found myself in a forest of white trees constructed of fake fur and soft stuffing. There were stocky trees and slender trees; there were trees of squashed spherical cushions, others were cone-shaped, still others were cylindrical. Some trees were not much more than a metre tall, others stretched to two or three metres in height.
As I moved among these soft white structures, I was simultaneously dwarfed by them, absorbed into them and captured by them. For reasons I could not explain, Kathy Temin’s sculptural landscape had transported me back to Auschwitz. It was not Auschwitz 1, so nicely spruced up for the visitors with its familiar gates and infamous words, Arbeit macht frei. But Auschwitz 2, Auschwitz-Birkenau, the ultimate death factory, with its equally familiar peaked gatehouse under which the trains entered the camp.
Kathy Temin’s white, fake-fur trees took me back to Auschwitz.
In November, 1999, my partner and I spent an afternoon walking the paths and woodlands of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It’s a huge area and, apart from a few locals taking a short-cut and a small group of bored Polish schoolboys, we were alone. We wandered beneath the pretty trees still rosy with late autumn colour where over half a century earlier Jews were herded together, waiting their turn for the gas chambers. We stood in the ruins of Crematoria 2, 3, 4 and 5 where hundreds of thousands of men, women and children had been reduced to ash. We tramped along the seemingly endless columns and rows of wooden huts. We gazed at the three-tiered bunks where dozens of Jews had been crammed in together: the sick, the dying, and the steadfastly surviving.
At the end of the railway tracks and situated between the ruins of Crematoria 2 and 3 is the International Monument to the Victims of Auschwitz. Built in 1967 in Soviet brutalism style, it consists of huge cement blocks in a geometric pile. In front of the blocks and set into the horizontal brickwork are plaques carrying the terrible statistics. It’s big this monument, and strikingly unbeautiful. It had no effect on me. This place, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was monument enough.
Kathy Temin’s sculpture was called My Monument: White Forest. I did not learn the title until I was reading the exhibition catalogue at home that evening. Sue Cramer, one of the curators of the exhibition writes: ‘If not for the title of Kathy Temin’s sculptural environment My Monument: White Forest, we might not at first recognise this maze-like arrangement of furry white, oddly shaped trees as a monument.’
I knew it immediately.
Cramer continues: ‘Temin describes the work as a “memorial garden, an attempt to translate the feeling I had when visiting memorial sites in Eastern Europe.”’
I wondered how I recognised this. What was it about My Monument: White Forest that made it so unambiguous to me and so very eloquent?
It was this visit to Kathy Temin’s exhibition and the thoughts it engendered that inspired the character of Nina Jameson, an international consultant on memorial projects. And along with her came the major theme of The Memory Trap, namely memory: both at a national level with the cultivation of national identity, and memory at an individual level in the construction of personal identity and relationships.
Although The Memory Trap is told from multiple points of view, to my mind it is Nina Jameson’s story. She’s recovering – unraveling? – from the sudden end to her marriage and returns to Australia where she reconnects with people from her past, including your flawed, sometimes utterly dysfunctional genius Ramsay Blake. Considering the genesis of the novel in Kathy Temin’s exhibition, what does Nina mean to you as her writer?
Nina is a character, and like all my characters, she has to interest me. And she does – in two main respects. Firstly, I’ve long been interested in monuments, so Nina’s job interests me, as do many of her musings on the purpose and effectiveness of monuments. I agree with her that memory is a subset of the imagination and that memory is more in service to present hopes and desires than the events and/or people it is seeking to preserve.
Secondly, Nina is of interest to me in her relationship with Daniel, both when the marriage breaks down and a year later when he resumes contact with her. Of all the characters in The Memory Trap, only Nina is not deceived or deluded by memory, and certainly not when it comes to her marriage. (Actually, she’s not the only character: Zoe’s teenage daughter Hayley is extremely clear-sighted.)
I think that Nina carries the story in the first half of the book, but it is Elliot who moves it along in the second. This was most unexpected. But then the way in which I write my novels makes such surprises inevitable. It’s a very organic process for me. I write my way into the characters and I write many many drafts. What I begin with – whether ideas or characters – is rarely what I end up with.
You mention Elliot, the husband of Nina’s sister Zoe. Whilst much of The Memory Trap is indeed about memory, it also seems to me to be about longing. Halfway through the novel, there is this about Elliot: ‘Cravings, his whole life rent by cravings. And if the cravings suddenly stopped, what would be left of him? Was there something about those hardwired longings that he clung to? Was it the cravings themselves that held him in thrall and not what he craved for?’ What is it exactly about this sense of longing, do you think, that drives the second half of the novel?
I think that longing – unrequited dreams and desires – permeates the entire novel. After her husband, Daniel, deserts her, Nina longs for him and her old life; and of course, later in the book, Daniel longs to have Nina back again. Zoe, long-married to Elliot but longer in thrall to the piano-playing genius Ramsay, yearns for Ramsay. Elliot, who fell in love with Zoe at first sight, has preserved the wonderful feelings of their first months together throughout twenty years of a miserable marriage: he longs for the woman he fell in love with. Ramsay’s younger brother, Sean, once so close to Ramsay has been estranged from him for thirty years. Sean has never really dealt with the loss of his brother and still longs for him. And Ramsay, when his music seems to have deserted him longs for it to return.
Longings tell us a lot about people. They can also highlight delusions, and The Memory Trap is particularly concerned with the delusions and deceits of memory. For example, if Elliot spent less time thinking about the halcyon days of the past when he fell in love with Zoe, he might turn a more realistic gaze on the disaster that is his marriage now. And Zoe, so carried away by her dreams of Ramsay fails to see what an impossible prospect he really is as a lover/partner.
Longing creates rich narrative fuel.
The Memory Trap also reflects on monuments, both personal and national, and longing comes in here as well. All those WW1 monuments dotted throughout Europe, the UK and of course Australia, were initially built to assuage the longing the bereft felt over the loss of their sons, brothers, husbands, friends on foreign soil. There is a longing not to forget. There is a longing for the dead to be alive again. Similarly with the more private monuments people build when a beloved dies. The character of Beth, whose husband died three months before she appears in The Memory Trap, has created private monuments throughout her house.
Many novelists say they write to work out what they think. Did you come to any interesting conclusions in the writing of The Memory Trap, either in terms of the book’s themes or the act of creating fiction, or perhaps both?
I write fiction because I cannot resist it – nor do I want to. I write because I’m defenceless against the seductions of story-telling. I write because I delight in slipping beneath the skin of people – characters – who are not myself. I write because I love language and am intrigued by the intricacies of meaning. I write because there’s nothing else I prefer to do.
BUT – one of the by-products of writing novels is that they provide the opportunity to explore ideas and conundrums, explore them in depth, over a period of time, and from multiple points of view. This is not a reason to write, but it provides plenty of fuel during the journey.
With The Memory Trap I am wiser about memory at the end of writing than I was at the beginning. I understand how it happens that memory – whether personal memory or national (as expressed through monuments) – is more in service to present desires and beliefs than the past event it is seeking to maintain. I understand that memory is a subset of the imagination – that when we remember something we are re-imagining it. I am wiser about marriage and marriage-type relationships, and that too much is made of forgiveness in a long-term liaison. (In the case of Nina and Daniel, they both believe that one unforgiveable act is not a sufficient reason for ending an otherwise good marriage.) And I know more about the singular focus that drives a pianist like Ramsay to better his work – the same singluar focus, incidentally, that keeps Zoe in thrall to Ramsay for close on three decades and Elliot in love with his faithless wife during twenty years of a bad marriage. It’s the same passionate fuel that keeps a novelist at her desk until the job is done.
I am wiser at the end of writing – but what a failing, what a waste of three-to-four years of life if I were not. I do not write in order to become wise, but if this did not happen, I would know that the work I was producing was shallow, boring, inconsequential, a sham. And similarly the author.
As for the act of creating fiction itself, at the finish of The Memory Trap, my seventh novel, I know that writing novels, creating and then crafting a large work that has coherence and integrity, that demands of a reader a dozen hours out of a schedule already under stress, is no easier for the seventh book than it was for the first. But while the process is no easier, I understand the process better, I’m familiar with it. These days I make my way through the years of writing a new novel without the hand-wringing, wrist-slitting dramatics that accompanied the early novels. I know that the writing will come right in the end: that the incoherence of a first draft will give way to a jumbled second draft, which will eventually become a tidier third draft and so on till the final book-worthy version. I know that for me there’s no point in worrying about how my novel will end because I never know my ending until I’m ready to hand the novel to my agent – and in a couple of instances, even later. I know better now how to cut portions that might read like a dream but simply cannot justify their inclusion in the novel, and I know when I can allow an indulgent digression. I know that writing a novel is a process shot through with uncertainty – you only know you can do it when it is finished – so there’s no point in high anxiety on the way, no point in wondering if you’ll ever complete the task. Give in to the uncertainty, leap into the current; you may feel as if you’re drowning, but you won’t.
Yes, I know the process better these days, even though the process itself is as challenging as it has ever been.
One of the most distinctive elements of The Memory Trap – and this can be found in Reunion as well – is that your main characters are very much situated in a broader context. They’re not just Australians in Australia, but Australians overseas – they’re international. What is it that you’re saying through your novels about Australia’s place in the world?
This is interesting. I suppose it IS a feature of my novels. In fact, all my novels have at least one section or character based overseas, generally London, but not exclusively. I confess I have not been wanting to say anything about Australia’s place in the rest of the world. Rather, the fiction works better (and so does the author) with a bigger and more diverse canvas. There are more possibilities to deepen characterisation when you move people away from the familiar. And besides, my characters, mostly well-educated people who work in the arts or the professions, are the type of Australian to have worked and/or studied overseas.
In addition, I love London. I know the city well (or at least parts of it), I have spent a lot of time there since my early twenties. And similarly New York – particularly the Upper West Side of NYC – I have visited often and over many decades. The locations work in the fictions, but as well it gives me pleasure to use these places.
The Memory Trap is your seventh novel from a career spanning almost 25 years. What is your hope for this novel? And is that hope any different to those associated with your previous work?
Another interesting question. If you had asked it before the book was published I would have replied that my hopes and expectations were as they have been for the past few novels. But something odd – good, very good – seems to be happening with this novel. While I see The Memory Trap very much in the same vein as the rest of my work – it’s a novel of characterisation, an ensemble novel in that there are several characters, there are certain intellectual themes – it is being greeted with more excitement and enthusiasm by readers and reviewers alike. Not that I haven’t had a good press in the past, I have, but the positive response seems to be more widespread and stronger than in the past. Sales are excellent, according to my publishers, and particularly so, given the straitened times for literary novels.
Perhaps it is the themes – memory, marriage, the mysteries of music – that have galvanised readers. And the characters, too. It pleases me that so many people highlight Elliot as their favourite character. It pleases me that Ramsay interests so many readers. And the whole area of monuments. It is not something that people have commonly thought about, but as one interviewer said to me, when she read about Nina’s job she wanted to do that job too, and wondered how one went about it.
The Memory Trap deals with the malleability and deceits of memory through the lives of its characters; through Nina’s job as an international consultant on memorial projects it explores memory at a national level as well. We humans seem to have a need to memorialise, certainly we have a need to remember. Maybe that explains the response to The Memory Trap. How it is being received, allows me to hope that this book will sell overseas, will be translated into a dozen languages, will sell squillions, Hollywood will come knocking, and every fantasy that has ever filled the mind of this writer will be realised.
If there’s ever a part of human endeavour where people work extremely hard, achieve an extraordinary amount, but, in the main, unless there’s a miracle (and we all know they’re bullshit), the work goes largely acknowledged, it’s the realm of poetry, especially – perhaps – Australian poetry. So, let’s remedy the situation.
Enter this bloke: Associate Professor Paul Hetherington at the University of Canberra has published seven full-length collections of poetry, including the verse novel, Blood and Old Belief (2003) and It Feels Like Disbelief (2007), along with two poetry chapbooks, and the recently published collection, Six Different Windows (UWA Publishing, 2013). His poetry has won a variety of prizes and is part of the online Australian Poetry Library. In 2002 he was the recipient of a Chief Minister’s ACT Creative Arts Fellowship and he was awarded a place on the 2012 Australian Poetry Tour of Ireland. His poems have also been published in anthologies, journals, magazines and on websites in a variety of countries, including the USA, England, Ireland, Denmark and Japan.
But we’re not done yet.
Hetherington’s doctoral thesis explored the extent to which Emily Dickinson’s poems may be read as autobiographical texts and, more generally, the ways in which Dickinson might, or might not be identified with her poetry’s personae. Formerly publisher and events director at the National Library of Australia, he edited the final three volumes of the Library’s authoritative four-volume edition of the diaries of the artist Donald Friend (volume four was shortlisted for the Manning Clark House 2006 National Cultural Awards) and was founding editor of the Library’s quarterly humanities and literary journal Voices (1991–97). From 1990 to 2008 Hetherington edited the monthly magazine National Library of Australia News and he is a former editor of the Western Australian monthly multi-arts magazine Fremantle Arts Review. He is a former member of the Boards of Australian Book Review and Conversations (published by the Australian National University). In 2011 he was one of the founding editors of the international online journal Axon: Creative Explorations.
Okay then, that’s enough. Pour yourself a coffee or wine or whiskey, curl up on the couch with your favourite online-reader whizz-bang-kafoops, and let’s get into the discussion. Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone (with dictionary on standby).
Congratulations on the publication of Six Different Windows. If I can add up correctly, this is your tenth book of poetry. What’s the motivation behind this latest collection? And is the motivation any different to what drove your previous works?
Thanks Nigel, they’re interesting questions. Like most poets, I write poems one by one – although often in bursts of activity – and the collections that are published are to a considerable extent constructed after the event. But, having said that, it is true that most of my poetry collections do have certain abiding preoccupations – usually preoccupations that belong to particular periods of writing.
Six Different Windows deals with a variety of subjects that connect to the way I understand the past and memory. Although I’ve always written about such matters, I believe that they are inflected differently and perhaps more sharply in this recent volume. For example, my previous collection, It Feels Like Disbelief, which was published in 2007, contains a number of poems about archaeology and how we might understand the contemporary interest in so many things archaeological – programs about archaeology are even popular on television – but it is only in this book that my interest in the subject is explored at some length. These poems are partly a series of reflections about how people may have lived in the past, and they are also a consideration of how we, in the early 21st century, may or may not connect with people from other historical periods and their habits and cultures.
Additionally, some aspects of today’s human situation may be more easily understood when we refract them through the lens of past societies and practices – or they may, at least, be more approachable. Human cruelty is an example. We are all aware of the way in which human beings often behave cruelly, especially in wars, but to step back from contemporary behaviour of this kind can be difficult. Poems that explore events in the distant past have the benefit – if that’s the right word – of being about something that happened a long time ago and for which nobody now alive was responsible. My poem, ‘Sacrifice’ attempts to get at something of the ordinariness – even the dailiness – of human cruelty, and the ways in which we justify such behaviour – and the matter-of-factness of it, too. The poem can be read as simply being about the past or it can be understood as a reflection on what human beings are like all of the time – even now, today, as we speak. In this sense, my poems about archaeology are to a considerable extent a way of trying to find analogues for the present; of trying to sift aspects of the present through the perspectives of people who would not recognise many of the ways in which we live but who were, nevertheless, like us.
Speaking of analogues, this book also explores ways of retelling some of the mythological stories that have become ingrained in our culture, and which have been retold hundreds of times, but which continue to offer important ways of articulating what we know. Two long poems in the book recast the Icarus story, and the Ariadne and Theseus story. As far as we know both of these stories originate, in versions now lost to us, in the Cretan bronze age culture and civilisation we refer to as Minoan. These stories – which presumably had considerable religious significance in their original versions – were subsequently adopted and rewritten by the ancient Greek culture that supplanted the Minoans.
One of the most prevalent versions of the Ariadne and Theseus story – I guess everyone would know it – has Theseus arriving as part of an intended sacrifice of Greek youths to the Minotaur and, with Ariadne’s help, he kills the Minotaur and leaves with Ariadne, before precipitously abandoning her on the island of Naxos. This story is also part of a powerful set of connected narratives and, in retelling part of the story, I wanted to try to reclaim some space and agency for Ariadne, who in the original and lost Minoan version was almost certainly a god with important powers. But I also wanted to write a contemporary poem – to present a woman who was in many ways stronger and more knowing than Theseus, and on whom Theseus depended for his success and eventual fame. This is, in one way, a different form of my interest in archaeology – and in the creative reconstructions that attend to much archaeological practice – because there are hints in the versions of the story that have come down to us of other stories and other emphases. I cannot retrieve those lost versions, but I can rewrite the Ariadne and Theseus story on the basis of some of the hints I find, as I dig around in various sources looking for clues about what might once have been there.
My rewriting of the connected story of Icarus aims to translate that well-known story into the world of terrorism and suicide bombers – to make it utterly and disturbingly contemporary. Why do this? Partly because the Icarus story is one of those rare narratives that mean almost an infinite number of things at once. It is a story about what human beings aspire to be, and what they are, and what they might be, and how they might become something else. And, although it’s not so well known, the Icarus story – narratives about Icarus’s father, Daedalus, in particular – already deals with significant cruelty. Rewriting such a story is a way of trying to connect with one of the resonant narratives that has emerged out of what we call Western civilisation; and to make such a story contemporary is to try to speak of the past and present at once – which, generally speaking, is perhaps what poetry and other forms of literature are always doing anyway.
I haven’t mentioned the first section of the book, called ‘Corrugations’, which is about childhood. I have always been interested in childhood and how the intricacies of childhood experience persist into adulthood; and how they inform what we become; and how elusive they can be – and how delineating aspects of childhood can be a way into expressing important things that are otherwise inexpressible. This section of the book picks up themes and preoccupations that have been part of my earlier volumes of poetry, but I have been even more concerned in this collection to present poems that, while they remain lyric poems, have a strong narrative element. This is because the poems in ‘Corrugations’ are all attempts to delineate some of the key stories of childhood that are more-or-less common to everyone, however much some of the details may differ from person to person. The poems are about growing into selfhood; and about some of the values that are formed as this happens. And they are about how childhood as a reality is nothing like the saccharine version of growing up that some adults wish to remember – and sometimes wish to foist on their own children, too. Significant parts of childhood experience for everyone are fairly stark and bewildering and these poems are an attempt to locate some of the recklessness and even anarchy of that experience; and some of the sexual awakening – and something, too, of how childhood grapples with language and, as it does so, becomes changed and never again like it once was.
The book also presents poems about the importance of literature, art and culture – and, in this way, celebrates making and creativity. Some creative activity can be uncomfortable, but it is a vital part of human society – perhaps even the best part of it, along with the human capacity for love, compassion and charity. I wanted to speak of some of those things, and about how artists continue to help us see the world freshly; and about how they help us keep in touch with quotidian realities as well as the ineffable and the elusive. Contemporary Australian society doesn’t seem to know – en masse, at least – how to properly value its artists and makers even though so many Australians are engaged in artistic and cultural practice and associated activities. I think this is a real and ongoing challenge for governments in this country – to learn how to appreciate cultural capital, and individual making. We seem to have no trouble appreciating those who have a lot of money, but that, relatively speaking is banal.
There are poems about travel and about history in this book, too, along with personal poems – I have always been interested in mapping some of the intricacies of intimacy; of what may be involved when we embark on that extraordinary experience of closely knowing another. But if there is one idea that unites this volume, I would suggest that it is a desire to get at the nub of what we do and don’t know of ourselves and others, and how we speak of such things, and how the past often reveals us to be different from the way we imagine we might be.
Further to this desire to ‘get at the nub of what we do and don’t know of ourselves’, perhaps in Six Different Windows there’s also the desire to get to the nub of what we do and don’t know of language?
What we do and don’t know of language – that’s certainly a fascinating thing to ponder. In one sense, all poems are primarily about language and are a way of getting to know it – the bodily and sensory experience of language; the attempt to aestheticise language and make an artefact out of it (the poem); and the use of a poem to encapsulate an idea of language.
For me, considerations of language are connected to many of the most difficult questions about what poetry is or might be. In our contemporary age, when poetry and prose are sometimes almost indistinguishable – except that poetry is often written in shorter lines (and even that is not always true) – it can be difficult to say what is ‘poetic’. One of the ways I recognise the poetic is when I find works in which language is condensed, ramifying, polysemous and unparaphraseable. Part of what I wish to do when writing poems is to make works that speak in such ways – but to do so without resorting to any kind of trickery or artificial obscurity. To write directly and complexly at once has long been an aim of mine, and to register crucial human subtleties and complexities.
Much of what I know of language is elusive – and only able to be expressed satisfactorily through making artefacts (poems) out of language rather than trying to state explicitly what that knowledge may be. Writing poetry is partly an intuitive and mysterious process through which I try to allow poems to form, arrive and surprise me. I often search for poems by stepping back a little from them and trying to allow some poetic conduit or other to open. What are such conduits, and from whence do poems come? These are tricky issues, but I guess, partly, they originate in the infinite place of language-possibility, where, when one is fortunate, combinations of connected meanings effloresce like flares on the surface of the sun and are expelled as what we call poetry through one or other conduit we call making and writing – but which is sometimes more akin to being-made and being-written.
The poet has to work hard if such expulsions and arrivals are to happen, of course. I think of the painful, sometimes sickening work of making, drafting and revising many poems as being a way of honouring whatever the muse might be and of honouring the process I have just mentioned – and as a way of honouring language more generally. It is a way of saying, ‘I am serious about what poetry might bring.’ We are steeped and formed in language and because, in one sense, language always knows us better than we know it, poetry is often a way of asking language what it knows and what it might offer up.
There may be no ‘nub’ here, however. I suspect that poetry is at its best when it is no longer a literary genre we call ‘poetry’, but is language-without-any-one-name – by which, I mean, language that knows itself (which we cannot fully know) and that truly encapsulates and condenses multiplying, self-enriching meanings. This is more akin to language-speaking-itself than any genre.
In Six Different Windows, I present poems that attempt to engage with language at this level, and which also try to create beguiling narratives and suggestive situations and ideas. Some of the poems are explicitly about words – poems such as ‘Abstractions’ and ‘Pale’, for example, are about what we can and cannot name. Many other poems are about the disjunction between what we know and say; between what we do and say; and how we cannot fully speak about the import of what we know. This disjunction or gap constitutes a profound space where we negotiate meanings, and continually try and fail to get at just how things were, while all of the time seeing them escaping from us – from our grasp, from our understanding, even from our memory.
Poems can be a way of trying to close this gap, or a way of acknowledging it, or a way of naming it. Poem as way-of-seeing-and-speaking-the-gap-between-doing-knowing-and-saying may be a cumbersome phrase, but perhaps that is one good way of saying – naming – what poems often are.
In Six Different Windows the short poem, ‘A Norse Greenlander, 1450’, is most obviously about history, and the terrible privations of Greenlanders during a period of great cold:
A Norse Greenlander, 1450
her wieldy scythe.
Her woollen clothes
are close about her torso,
keeping at bay
the bleating, freezing wind
that blows across a stub of glacier.
Three winters now
her tilling has resulted
in frost-blackened harvests.
Her remaining sheep
are cramped with rickets,
her husband’s ice-pale eyes
are shot through
of blood and forage.
As well as being about history, this poem is about what language tells us of such experiences; how words like ‘wieldy’, ‘stub’ and ‘forage’ work when activated poetically in a dense and sparse poetic tissue. If all poems are largely about words, this is an example of how poems, in largely being about words, are also largely about other things. Or, to put this differently, the more successful they are in being about words, the better they speak of what is beyond words; the better they reveal that words are, after all, grounded in extra-linguistic experience. At its best, poetry brings the linguistic and extra-linguistic into a potent proximity, and that is one of its greatest pleasures.
Reflecting on something you said earlier, an element of Six Different Windows that intrigued me is the barely submerged violence in the poetry, from the rebellion of youth to the outright brutality of more ancient history. Is this something you’ve been consciously working through, or is it a theme that’s surreptitiously knitted its way into this collection?
The nature of violence and unruliness; of the places that exist outside of the confines of ‘right behaviour’ have interested me for as long as I can remember. This is partly because some of the unruly places and spaces (both actual and metaphorical) are where creative energy may be effectively channelled. Poetry, for example – or, at least, my poetry – needs to flow from and into places that are often libidinally charged and which are open to a variety of impulses and desires. This is not because poetry has explicitly to be about such impulses but because unless it is gutsy and charged with true, unsaccharine feeling, then it is unlikely to sit up in the mind or on the page. Politeness and empty sophistication, unleavened by this gutsiness, tends to damage art and making, sometimes turning it into various decorative elaborations.
More generally, I believe that to face up squarely to humanity is to see how cruel and violent human beings can be as well as to observe their capacity for generosity, self-sacrifice and charity. It is to notice that many human impulses are crude; and that much of what we see as ‘appropriate’ behaviour – even as forms of sophistication – are ways of codifiying, and often concealing, fairly basic modes of behaviour. We see this almost everywhere if we look for it – in work places, in many domestic environments and, of course, in warfare.
One of the reasons – and this connects to your previous question about language, too – that the contemporary world has invented an entire lexicon of euphemisms for death and destruction is because, thanks to television and satellites and a host of other media technologies, governments can no longer simply hide behind pat, bland generalisations as a justification for war, invasion and colonisation. Enough of the reality of warfare’s carnage and sometimes needless, gratuitous violence filters through to people in their lounge rooms and in the streets, to compel many governments to find increasingly complicated ways of reporting on and speaking about their engagement in warfare. Some of this amounts to the cynical exploitation of the resources of language.
For example, we now frequently have complex hypothetical scenarios presented as the justification for conflict (reality itself is often simply not sufficient). The most notorious recent example was the WMD scenario used to justify the overthrow of an, admittedly tyrannical, government and in order to change the balance of power in the Middle East. Much more common are phrases that have become dark clichés, such as ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘collateral damage’, which in anybody’s plain language mean death and destruction. Poets cannot change these things but they can try to speak clearly and truthfully – to speak against the tenor of these times.
Mind you, in this book my interest is not in the language of governments, but in delineating some of the starkness and plainness of existence – of stripping away, for example, a few of the veils that modern sophistications tend to impose on how we interpret childhood and the past. I try in Six Different Windows to capture something of the wildness of children and some of the strangeness of childhood – not only its unruliness, but the private, hidden spaces that childhood often occupies. For example, the evocation of the games of children in flirting with death in the poem ‘Abstractions’ is an attempt to say something about how childhood often possesses its own implacable logic and a kind of anarchic free-flow that adult language can neither fully name nor contain.
I remember that many years ago I took one of my daughters and the daughter of a neighbour on a picnic. My neighbour’s daughter – perhaps eight or nine at the time – was from an unhappy environment and as we walked back from our small picnic she suddenly moved towards a place where the ground fell away – I think it was a smallish waterfall, and the drop must have been five or 10 metres or more. She stood facing that space for a minute or so – maybe it was longer; it certainly seemed so at the time – as I entreated her to return and at the same time moved carefully towards her, unsure what she was likely to do. Eventually she returned to me – it seemed reluctantly – and we resumed our walk home, but I saw that there was a gap in that child’s being, and a space in her life, that was dangerously charged – and it was something that my entreaties, however well meant, could barely touch.
All children as they grow and begin to be more clearly formed – but while they also remain significantly unformed – feel wildness and uncertainty running powerfully through their bodies. It is an extraordinary, fundamentally visceral experience. I’m not talking here about the sexual drives of adolescence that are often so badly understood and managed in our society, but about that earlier wildness and strangeness of being eight and nine, or even five and six. Different ideas of gender float much more freely and unselfconsciously through the body at those ages than they tend to do later, as do a variety of notions connected to what we often call identity, but which may be better called what-it-is-like-to-be-me-here-now-in-this-world. Children are usually less alienated from their animal natures; and their pleasure in inhabiting their bodies can be extreme and profound. They are also often very matter-of-fact about what happens to them and what they do – many of the public dramas of childhood are imposed on children by parents who interpret childish happenstance through their own sets of values.
For example, young children often don’t see truth and lies in the way that adults see these things and have to be taught that a lie is a lie and is also not-a-good-thing. Lies, in fact, are often the result of a playful, inventive imagination, and the capacity to construct lies is part of the capacity of human beings to make their world differently from the way that they find it. To be able to lie is to be able to invent. This has been commented on before, but it needs reiteration in a society where many people seem to have an absurdly literal idea of truth and falsity while at the same time being prepared to believe in the literal truth of religious stories that, as far as we can tell, are not even claiming to be literally true – no matter how important they may be for other reasons.
There’s a disjuncture here between the truth as we can know it through our bodily experience in the world and the ‘truth’ that people wish to insist on as artefacts of ideology and self-consciousness. So much human conflict – between adults and children, and between adults and adults – results from disjunctures of this kind, and from the insistence of one party that they know better than another. Poetry, I hope, can be a small antidote to such insistence – a way of looking more accurately at how we are as human beings; and a way of turning our values and assumptions through a variety of different lens.
So, in answer to your question, and among a variety of other preoccupations, this book tries to tease out from childhood, from the archaeological past, from mythological stories and tropes and their connections to contemporary preoccupations, and from the ordinary happenstance of things, some of the less-remarked-upon truths to do with different ways in which we are all implicated in violence and cruelty. We all live with it and know it in myriad ways – even the most gentle and peacable among us – and it constitutes a significant part of what we all are. This is not male testosterone at work – although that is part of it, no doubt – but is about a significant part of what human beings know of themselves in general.
If you have one hope for Six Different Windows, and one hope for poetry more generally, what would those hopes be?
I think that the only hope I have for Six Different Windows is that it finds some sympathetic and engaged readers—and, of course, that someone decides to publish an interview with me about the publication!
As for poetry more generally, I have the – perhaps optimistic – belief that poetry is undergoing something of a resurgence both in Australia and internationally. There are certainly many people writing strong and interesting poetry in this country, and these include poets who are not necessarily well known or widely published. In a globalised world that tends to define success in terms of material prosperity, poetry offers ways into connecting, or re-connecting, with spiritual matters – and, when I use the word ‘spiritual’, I don’t mean religious belief. What I mean is that there are important ways of being nurtured, and of living more generally, which connect to what was once called the soul. We no longer make use of that word very much, but we have no obvious replacement for it either. What the soul needs is what often animates and activates poetry – a cognisance of some of the greater complexities of existence beyond thoughts of immediate gain and individual desire. Arguably, attention to the soul also breeds complexity of mind and, as it does so, has the potential to keep the body – and perhaps the body politic – healthy.
Further, because poetry represents a way of expressing complex ideas and feelings beyond what we usually acknowledge in our daily speaking and doing, it offers a way for people to register a sense of complexity in themselves – and in their associates – that may otherwise go unnoticed. In other words, poetry – and art in general – promises to alleviate that frequent neglect of what one might call ‘possibility’. Poetry is able to yield the hard-to-quantify return of stimulating an individual’s sense of who they might actually be or become, and how they might imagine themselves more fully. It can, in ways that often go unremarked – but are no less profound for that – change a person’s ground of existence. Some people might scoff at this and say that poetry is not much read and changes nothing – and for many people that may be true. However, poetry undoubtedly changes some lives and has the potential to change others. Both reading and writing poetry represent the possibility of better things in a world that sorely needs this possibility.
At the University of Canberra I have been closely involved in establishing the online journal, Axon: Creative Explorations and in founding the International Poetry Studies Institute (IPSI). These activities are attempts to find new ways to publish, discuss and value poetry and poets, and to conduct research into poetry. There is much to be done on these fronts because, in Australia in particular, poetry has been relatively neglected in recent decades – in the literary pages of newspapers, by larger publishers, and even by some writers centres and networks. I believe that it requires focused support and that university research into poetry needs to be pursued as actively as possible.
Overall, then, my hope for poetry is a relatively simple one – that it may prosper and be better supported and understood.
Omar Musa is one of those rare writers who, by hook or by crook, manages to carve a path as a poet and performer and rely on little else. Verity La last caught up with him in June 2011, but since then he’s published a collection of poems, Parang (Blast! Publishing, 2013) and continues to perform his work throughout much of the world. For those who don’t know him, Musa describes himself as a Malaysian-Australian rapper and poet from Queanbeyan, Australia. He is the former winner of the Australian Poetry Slam and the Indian Ocean Poetry Slam, and is part of the international hip-hop group MonkeyKat. Musa’s debut novel, Here Come the Dogs, will be published by Penguin Australia in 2014. What keeps this very busy man going? Come with us. Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone
Tell us about the motivation for getting Parang together.
The motivation for getting Parang together was that I hadn’t put a book of poetry out in four years, despite doing three hip hop records in between. It felt like the right time. The catalyst, however, was the first suite of poems in the book that deal with my relationship to Malaysia. I wrote them all in about two weeks while I was in Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Borneo (where my family comes from). I was really proud of them and thought they signified a nice little departure from my more epic, rap influenced spoken word pieces towards a style that was more sculpted and economical.
Can you talk more about the poetic departure – in what way exactly is this later work more sculpted and economical?
For one thing, the newer work is shorter. Most of the poems are less than a page long. I wrote most of them in about two weeks but took two months to pare them down to bare essentials. My older work is a bit more overblown, meant for the stage and contain a lot of internal rhyme and hip hop rhythms. They have a much longer arc. My older stuff was also a lot more spontaneous. Something like ‘My Generation’, for example, is the first draft of that poem with no edits. I wanted these new poems to mirror the effect of a ‘parang’ (machete) – swift, sharp and effective. I have a friend, Jess, whose editorial feedback I trust greatly, and I got her opinion on most of them. I think they benefited from a good re-draft.
Earlier you mentioned your relationship with Malaysia. How do you think it influenced these poems?
My relationship with Malaysia influenced these poems in a huge way and were the catalyst for me to put the book together. The first section of the book is entirely about my relationship to Malaysia, in particular, Sabah, the state in Borneo where my father is from. As a person with a mixed background, you have a lot of questions about your hybrid identity and where you stand with regards to the ‘homeland’. I chose to explore these complex and rather confusing questions. I think as a second-generationer, you often tend to mythologise and simplify the ‘homeland’, which in reality is an ever-changing, modern country with complicated politics. Environmental destruction is a theme I explore in the book a lot, as I saw it up close, with much of my family working on palm oil plantations. I wrote these poems quickly, trying to capture the moment of return, the mixed feelings you have. The rest of the book was set in a more gritty urban Australian environment (influenced a lot by Melbourne) or in in-between places. The return to Borneo and subsequent poems tied it all together and made me realise I had a collection on my hands.
The notion of ‘homeland’ is something that Australia always seems to be struggling with, and perhaps is currently struggling with it more than ever. As a poet, and a cultural provocateur in general, what do you hope to bring to the debate?
I hope to bring two things that might seem contradictory. One, I am trying to tell my personal story as a guy with a complex, hybrid identity* and a Muslim background, and tell it well. I want to show that my story and voice is just as important in Australian cultural life as anyone else’s. I feel like this is a vital thing to do in the public arena, where the narrative can easily turn poisonous or reductive when dealing with people of minority backgrounds.
Secondly, however, I want to explore as many different styles and ideas as possible in my writing, to show that a person of my background can/should have the freedom to write whatever the fuck they want and not be restricted to writing only about ‘ethnic’ issues (whatever they are). I bristle at the thought that I should only write on particular topics, just because of my name/ethnicity. In fact, just to prove this point, I’m going to go off and write a suite of sonnets about the mating habits of meerkats.
*The more I use terms like this, the more I think they are a bit pointless. After all, no matter what a person’s background is, in this modern world don’t we all have a complex, hybrid identity?
I want to ask you more about that mission to ‘explore as many different styles and ideas as possible’ in your writing. As well as your performance background, and now Parang, you’re also working novel and a stage-play? What’s the commonality between all these forms?
I’m working on a play for the Street Theatre in Canberra named Bonegatherer and a novel named Here Come the Dogs for Penguin Australia. Bonegatherer is a historical play set in the 1800s, whereas Here Come the Dogs is very contemporary, but both of them examine the dark side of Australian society and history. I would say that all of my work leans towards the darkness, and common themes are migration, violence, loneliness and powerlessness (with a tiny bit of redemption thrown in the mix). I have always said that I am intrigued by contradiction and complexity. I would like to think that my work deals with what Cormac McCarthy describes as the ‘issues of life and death’. Stylistically I like to jump around a bit between colloquial and quite archaic language to keep people on their toes. I think often uneasiness is what I am most trying to provoke in my audience.
Back to Parang, is there a poem that best illuminates this uneasiness that you’re trying to provoke, or perhaps even a single line?
‘Here we are, as brave and as useless as poetry’ – from ‘Dark Streets’
Marcella Polain was born in Singapore and immigrated to Perth when she was two years old, with her Armenian mother and Irish father. She has a background in theatre and screen writing, and now lectures in the Writing Program at Edith Cowan University. Polain was founding WA editor for the national poetry journal Blue Dog, and has been poetry editor for Westerly and was inaugural editor for Indigo. Her first poetry collection, Dumbstruck, won the Anne Elder Prize; her second, Each Clear Night, was short-listed for the West Australian Premier’s Poetry Prize. Polain has published essays on writing and completed her PhD at the University of Western Australia in 2006. She has recently completed a third poetry collection, Therapy like Fish. Interviewer: former student of Polain’s, Jas Shenstone.
People seem to have a fascination for a writer’s process. Some perhaps are hoping for inspiration and others may just enjoy the behind-the-scenes glimpse of how a writer works. How do you approach a new idea, a fresh page?
My process is long and unruly. I have tried to make it more orderly but if I plan a lot before I start writing the words just die on the page. For me, there is something necessary about not-knowing that in some way energises the language. So I seem to have two ways of approaching a new idea. In one (and this is usually with bigger works like novels) I have a vague sense of the story that may have bubbled away for years, and I begin when I feel the impulse physically. It may sound odd but the only way I can describe it is this: a buzz of anticipation (as if I am looking forward to a special occasion), an actual leaning forward of the body, a sensation in my chest and throat as if I am about to speak, sometimes a tingling at the back of my head. I need to listen to my body. If I do take my queue from it, the writing begins quite well, and there is often a pleasing balance of not-knowing and control. The other way I write is to begin with no idea and no physical sensation. I simply set aside time and sit down and write the first half-decent line or sentence that I think of.
That’s where the two begins become one quite similar process, because in both I just follow my nose, writing from one line/sentence to the next and the next, looking to be guided by the words already on the page. Hemingway said we should write one true sentence. (He didn’t mean factual.) That’s what I try to do. Then take my queue from that sentence and write the next true sentence it suggests. Pretty soon I will have the beginning of something. It may be the idea I brought into the process or it may be one the process has uncovered. If it’s the former (borne of the first way I begin) then I most likely have a guiding sense of its form and subject. If it’s the latter (borne of the second way) I most likely don’t yet know anything about it apart from what’s now on the page. The more I write of a piece, the more alike the experiences become: writing always into the unknown, one true line or sentence at a time, to uncover what I am trying to say. I usually work in fragments that, for a long time, can seem as if they have no connections. This is a deep imaginative, creative and intellectual challenge; it’s fabulous problem-solving. It is important to remain calm, acknowledging anxiety about all the not-knowing for what it is, and have faith enough to keep going. In the middle of novels, which take me years, writing feels more a test of desire, faith and perseverance than anything else: how much do I want this?; how important is this to me?
Are there any sentences in your own work—or someone else’s—that stand out for you, true sentences that have lasted and stayed with you?
Many, but I have a poor memory for such things. They arrest me and I read them over and over, get a physical reaction – breathless, skin-tingling, tears – and think I will remember them but don’t. Now I try to use a little sticky-note to mark them as I read. But then I run out of notes or forget to keep some with me; anyway, all my books with sticky notes are in my work office where I keep my favourites and I am home without them!
You write poetry and prose. Have you or have you ever wanted to write a play or a script?
I spent several years writing plays and scripts as a theatre arts undergrad at Curtin and film student at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in Sydney, then working as a freelance scriptwriter. I had a play professionally produced and sold a script but I pretty quickly realised two things: 1) Film was not for me, as I don’t like relinquishing control of my work; and 2) I needed a steady income to have some material comfort. So I went back to uni and became a teacher instead.
When you were a child did you want to be a writer? Were you encouraged to write?
I always wanted to be writer. At home this was actively discouraged. But I was encouraged by a couple of wonderful teachers. It is very hard when a child with a calling is treated badly over it by his/her family, but perhaps it is a good test of will. Perhaps that is a stupid thing to say because I am sure we lose a lot of artists in this way.
What are you writing at the moment?
I’m finishing a novel-length manuscript. I’m also writing a few essays, which is unusual for me. I’m looking forward to returning to poetry.
Do you find films influential to your writing?
I love cinema. The narrative of films doesn’t influence me but the cinematography, the visual images, do.
Would you say words or images are more important when you’re coming up with an idea for something to write?
Hmm. That’s a good question. Given my last answer, I’d expect I would say images but I think it’s words. It’s their rhythm, tone, diction. It’s what is not said. Often overheard dialogue sparks something. Although, I do store up visual images and use them once I start writing. Often as detail for character and place. Does that make sense?
What brings you back to the blank page? What gives you the courage to keep writing?
I think I write to find out what I think, to see what will happen, to see what I can make, to get a message across, to give a voice to someone, to investigate something. How can anyone live and not experience many things each day that would drive them to that blank page? What would life be like without making art? I wouldn’t want to live. Its life’s blood to me.
Whether in person or over the wonderful, magical internet thingy, Andrew Croome is fantastic company – smart, thoughtful, and disarmingly friendly. His most recent novel is Midnight Empire (Allen & Unwin, 2012), an espionage thriller that deftly explores drone warfare. Described by publisher Allen & Unwin as a ‘Cold War historical novel’, Croome’s first book was Document Z (2008), which examined the infamous Petrov affair. For Croome the book won the Australia/Vogel’s Literary Award in 2008 and the University of Technology Sydney Award for New Writing at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book and the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction. In 2010 Andrew Croome was named a Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year. If all this isn’t enough, Croome has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne, which investigated the relationship between fiction and history. While others might ask him about the moral ambiguities of bashing up countries by remote, we ask him about the big issue – literary craft. Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone.
How do you start a novel?
I think with two things. The first is an idea – a zone or a topic that feels ‘big’ enough. Ideally, it will be something I don’t necessarily know too much about – so that there’s a process of discovery and mystery in the writing – yet it will also not be so alien that it feels beyond me to capture. This relates to the second thing, which is to find something outside the ordinary: a distance on the ordinary that will act as a kind of ‘source’ for the writing, that will offer an essence or an imagination at the core of the novel. In Document Z, this was the Cold War and the period of the 1950s and often the aura of photographs from that time – not necessarily of the historical figures I was writing about, but perhaps just of streets or crowds or buildings. In Midnight Empire, it’s the landscapes: the deserts of Nevada or the distant mountains of Afghanistan or Pakistan. I feel like that – finding the ‘source’ – is where novels begin. The rest follows later.
I’m really interested in your idea that for you a story starts with a sense of place, especially as your novels have considerable plot and story momentum. At what point do you start thinking narrative structure?
For me, narrative structure comes last of all. Before that has to come the narrative situation – the premise – and the characters who will occupy that space. Some would argue that characters and narrative are in fact one and the same, because the former tend to dictate what is possible in terms of story, and I think that’s mostly true. Plot and momentum are important, but for me any narrative structure is for the most part about meaning. It’s one of the spaces in a novel where the logics of the subject assert themselves. Only once the story is underway does narrative structure come to the fore, especially in the later stages. Document Z and Midnight Empire were different in that the events of Document Z (but not the narrative) were defined by history, whereas in Midnight Empire the story is pure invention. That made them quite different projects, and in terms of narrative I think Midnight Empire was more challenging. I was trying to weave tropes from the worlds of the war on terror and poker together, and to find a narrative that made sense in both.
Do you have moments where you ask yourself, where is all this going? If so, what do you do – keep writing until the story resolves itself?
Yes. I think uncertainty about direction is an important part of the writing process – part of exploring the terrain the writer has chosen. Too much planning probably inhibits the ability of a work to set its own course, to follow paths and find conclusions that are unexpected. Thus, I see not knowing where something is headed as just part of writing – which makes the solution more writing (which could also be re-writing). That said, I usually do have a final destination in mind that I am writing towards. In Midnight Empire, I knew that I wanted my protagonist to end up in Europe, playing poker and existing ‘off the grid’. When I began the novel I didn’t know how or why he’d get there, even if I knew he would. The reasons for that were ones that the novel assembled over time. Alongside ‘Where is all this going?’ another important question is ‘Where has all this gone?’ That is useful for understanding the story that you’ve reached, then for redrafting in order to tell it better.
And what about ending a work? With your two novels have you found that they’ve ended quite naturally and neatly, or do you rework and rework, sometimes going back to earlier chapters to make adjustments? I’m reminded here of something Peter Carey once said, and I’m paraphrasing: that if chapter thirty doesn’t work it’s likely that something in, say, chapter three isn’t working.
I think that there are few, if any, endings in novels that are as satisfying as the journeys which arrive there. In the sense that journeys determine endings, I’d agree with Peter Carey that if the ending is troubled, the cause of the trouble is to be found elsewhere (and the problem perhaps bigger than a failed ending). I think all that should be asked of an ending is that it live up to the journey. My favourite endings, when I think about it, have more to do with poetry than story – things like Cormac McCarthy’s brook trout at the end of The Road (‘On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back’) or John’s dilemma at the conclusion of J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime, as to whether he will nurse his ailing father, or abandon him (‘One or the other: there is no third way’). Mostly the task of an ending is really to carry the reader out of the experience of the novel, without being disappointing. If the ending is doing that, it could be that the journey is working too.
Both Document Z and Midnight Empire are intimately concerned with the politics of the respective eras. Do you see yourself as a political writer? What motivates you to write so knowingly of political context?
While my books are concerned with different types of politics, I don’t see myself as a political writer. That doesn’t mean that my work is without politics, just that the politics are driven by questioning and exploration, rather than by ideology or message. I am intensely interested in politics, especially those that are used to justify or enable actions that are morally fraught. I enjoy characters who are driven by beliefs, who consider themselves to have thought deeply about their world, and who see in the ordinary and day-to-day the influence of global forces. If I had to say what motivates this, I think it’s that all politics are a way of seeing the world and, in a novel, threading together these different ways of seeing seems like a way to get at a little more of the truth not just about those views, but of the greater shape of things. One of statements I think Midnight Empire makes is that while there is danger in following ideology, there is danger in following nothing too.
You mentioned Cormac McCarthy and JM Coetzee earlier. Which other writers inspire you in terms of technique and craft?
I admire Solzhenitsyn and his ability to draw a character, especially works such as The First Circle, We Never Make Mistakes and his prose poetry. Also Don DeLillo for what he writes about, with Underworld and Libra being an influence on my own writing. More recently, I’ve been reading Richard Ford, but in the last while, nothing has topped Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses for me. I’d also list John Le Carre and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People – alongside Conrad and Greene, these works are the template for writing about espionage in a way that goes beyond clever plotting and hard boiled protagonists.
You said last year that writing was the hardest thing, and that sometimes you’ll spend months not writing at all. What’s the impetus to start doing it all over again?
Writing is hardest thing that I know how to do, and between projects I do spend some time not doing it. Other writers might go straight from one novel to another, but for me these are such large endeavours that a break to work on other things for a time feels worthwhile. The impetus to begin again is the new idea for a book, but also the pleasure of writing itself, the satisfaction of writing sentences. After that, the impetus becomes the ability of fiction to imagine and to find and create meaning. Once the writing starts, discipline returns. One of my favourite observations on writing comes from Bill Gray, the author in DeLillo’s Mao II, who says, ‘I’m a sentence maker. Like a donut maker, only slower.’ Writing is work, but the impetus to do it is that it’s work that’s a little bit mysterious as well – exactly how it functions and what it achieves can be mysteries for the writer too.
In The Art of the Novel (1986) Milan Kundera said, ‘To compose a novel is to set different emotional spaces side by side – and that, to me, is the writer’s subtlest craft.’ Phil RetroSpector is an audio-visual artist, not a novelist, but he may well be inspired by Kundera’s words. Based in Galway, Ireland, RetroSpector is a mash-up – or bootleg artist – of the first order, merging an almost unbelievably diverse selection of songs with astonishing results. His debut album, Intro/Version, features haunting remixes of Johnny Cash, David Lynch, Charles Bukowski, The Beatles and Muse. He has also produced original audio-visual artwork for the Absolut Art Collection. In the mash-up/boot-leg world RetroSpector is a folk hero, and Verity La now introduces him to the literary world. Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone.
Let’s start at the beginning, the very beginning. What was your earliest experience of music? And how do you think it’s influenced the work you do now?
My first memory of music is begging my mother to stop singing ‘The little boy that Santa Claus forgot’. I’d get all hysterical and bawl for hours over it. Growing up listening to my parents’ vinyl, it was all Slim Whitman and The Everly Brothers at one end of the spectrum and anything soundtrack-related at the other. A Clockwork Orange and The Good, The Bad & The Ugly in particular were always on heavy rotation. I can still remember the first time I heard the Clockwork soundtrack; I must have been about eight years old. I didn’t really comprehend what I was listening to, or how Walter was now Wendy Carlos, but it completely blew my mind. I’m still hugely influenced by that cinematic sound. For me it’s all about mood. I always say I mix emotions rather than beats. It’s all about bringing a lump to my throat or making the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It always has been.
‘It’s all about bringing a lump to my throat or making the hair on the back of my neck stand up’ – can there be a better motive for making art? That cinematic sound is certainly in your mash-ups. How did you get into making this kind of music? Was it just a matter of experimenting, or were you influenced by what others were doing?
That’s reason enough for me. Even though my background is primarily image based, film to be exact, I always gravitated toward music as music is arguably the most emotionally honest of the arts. But for sure, my film and visual-art base has informed my sound to some extent. Again it comes back to mood. Everything does.
It’s that same old story: failed musician becomes DJ becomes bedroom producer. In about 2004, I became disillusioned with DJing and dance music in general, so I hung up my decks and retreated to the bedroom. I was listening to white labels from bootleg legend Mark Vidler (Go Home Productions, Addictive TV), who was cutting up The Doors with Blondie, and Echo and The Bunnymen with Abba and I thought, wow, I could do that. Now at this point, and generally to this day, the culture is dance-driven, and is all about giving an old song or hook a new twist. I decided early on that I wasn’t going to go that route. I wanted to make music with a cinematic edge and something that wasn’t all about the BPMs. I am a huge fan of the Wall of Sound and nostalgic to a fault. Hence, Phil RetroSpector was born.
Tell us how you actually make a mash-up. What’s the process you go through from idea to finished product?
I spend a lot of time sourcing material to sample. The same applies to working with vocals – sometimes the resources are there at your disposal, otherwise it’s all about utilising vocal-isolation techniques. Thereafter, it’s about taking said elements into a digital audio workstation, such as Sony ACID and/or Abelton Live,and mixing them harmonically.
I tend to feel most creative when I’m feeling a bit blue. I remember I was having a particularly bad week when I stumbled across Harry Dean Stanton’s reading of Charles Bukowski’s ‘Bluebird’. From the moment I heard it, I saw it as a sound painting. Bukowski’s poem resonates like a perpetual wound, tragic and lost, yet it’s incredibly beautiful. It’s so textured. Muse’s ‘Blackout’ provided the perfect backdrop, the way it illuminates, then waxes and wanes. I also knew I wanted to counterpoint this despair with the operatic textures of Delibes’ ‘Lakmé’, which signify the song of the bluebird. I especially like the Bob Dylan bit at the end – ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ mirrors both Stanton’s vocal geography and sentiment.
Editor’s Note No. 1: Do yourself a favour and watch ‘Bluebird Blackout’ here.
One of the things I find really fascinating about mash-up culture is it’s done without financial reward; clearly this is a result of not being able to profit from borrowing songs in this manner. Your work is simply put out into the universe for free, often with the mash-up artist creating ‘cover’ art-work, even videos. In the end it must come down to doing all this simply because you love it so much?
I suppose all comes down to cultural expression. A lot of people deem it lo-brow, fail to see its relevance. Some might argue we are digital punks, who have swapped the mohawk for a laptop. This is our generation’s pop-art.
You mentioned earlier that you work best when feeling blue. Your motto is ‘Warning: Please ensure glass is half-empty before listening’ and you say that you’re openly a member of ‘Melancholics Anonymous’. I was wondering if you could tell me more about this sense of sadness that you seem to love working with so much.
Have you ever noticed when you break up with someone how whatever music in playing at that given moment in time takes on a weird poignancy? I remember after one failed relationship compiling disc after disc of real schmaltz and purging myself on it for months on end. The interesting thing is I became aware of how music resonates most when it’s somewhere between nostalgia and sadness.
Where do you see yourself taking mash-ups into the future?
Mash/bootleg will wax, wane, mutate and then reinvent itself with yet another moniker. Like anything, it’s about knowing when to get off. It’s a culture I’m really proud to be associated with as it facilitated me remixing the likes of Billie Ray Martin,The Young Punx,Giorgio Moroder, and producing audio-visual material for Absolut Art. Right now, I’m working on an audio-visual follow-up to Intro/Version, as well as a number of official remixes. I’m also working on some audio-visual installations for gallery space. I suppose that’s really where I’d like to take it next…
Editor’s Note No. 2: Phil RetroSpector has generously produced for Verity La a very special bootleg, ‘Time out from Teardrops’ – have a listen, because it’s an absolute ripper.
Ever met someone who’s had over 100 short stories published? No, Verity La hadn’t either – until we met Craig Cormick. Not only has Cormick been prolific with the short form, he’s also written across an extraordinary range of genres. Borrowing outrageously from his bio, Cormick’s writing awards include the ACT Book of the Year Award (1999) for Unwritten Histories (Aboriginal Studies Press, 1998) and a Queensland Premier’s Literary Award (2006) for A Funny Thing Happened at 27,000 Feet… (Mockingbird Press, 2005). In 2006 Cormick was a writer-in-residence at the Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang, and in 2008 he received an Antarctic Arts Fellowship to travel to Antarctica, which he documented in his 2011 book In Bed with Douglas Mawson. He has studied ‘bits and pieces of degrees’ at the University of Canberra, the Australian National University, the Canberra School of Art, the University of Iceland and Helsinki University, and has a PhD from Deakin University on creative historical fiction. As a science communicator, Cormick is a regular commentator on public attitudes towards emerging technologies in the media and at conferences in Australia and internationally. He has travelled to all seven continents and his research has been published widely in peer-reviewed journals and conference papers. But having listed all that, who is this man? Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone.
You’ve written over a hundred stories, numerous collections, historical novels and now, with the publication of Time Vandals, you’ve moved into young-adult fiction. What do you think is the common thread between all the work that you do?
I find that my writing brain is a bit akin to my reading brain, so it’s like it’s roaming around the shelves of a great old second-hand bookshop or library, finding new and interesting things in different nooks and crannies, and pulling volumes off the shelf that intrigue and delving into them a little bit before moving on. I know authors are meant to rewrite the same story over and over, at some level, but I find my work is a long trail of grazing into different topics of interest, so my work has roamed across the savannas of historical fiction and non-fiction, climbed into the rocky foothills of relationships and bloke’s narratives, wandered into the canyons of speculative fiction and romped across the wide open plains of young adult fiction.
I really enjoy when a single line from a text, or character from history, or just an idea, works its way into my consciousness and demands to be recreated in a story or text. Perhaps it’s my way of making some sense of the world. It means keeping a part of my brain open and receptive to the ideas that float past (and sometimes it is a lot more receptive than others), but when you feel the germ of a story growing I think of it as a very fulfilling burden – to the point that I find that before travelling to new places and countries I’m preplanning in my head how I might write about it and understand it.
Before going to Paris recently I had the idea of Napoleon revisiting the city today, and that sort of framed how I was viewing it as I went around. Then while there I discovered another perspective of having Ned Kelly bail up a restaurant in Paris in the 1920s, and while trying to dictate his Jerilderie letter, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway keep offering him writing advice. A common element in my writing is playing with genre boundaries, mixing fiction and non-fiction, blurring tenses (and probably putting too many metaphors into a single paragraph in interviews).
I love that idea of keeping your brain open so you can catch ideas as they float past. How exactly do you keep your brain open?
It can be a lot harder than it sounds with the pressures of everyday and the insistence of real-life upon you, but I believe you can learn to get into that zone easier if you work at it. There is a good description of it in Dorothy Porter’s verse novel The Monkey’s Mask, where she has a passage about waking up and finding you seem to be wired just a little differently, like you see and hear everything a little differently, or if you are suddenly viewing life via Instagram: ‘Is this how poems start, when every riff on the radio hooks in your throat. Is this how poems start? When the vein under her skin hooks in your throat, is this how poems start?’
Call it what you want – the zone, a feeling, a reaction, a heightened sensibility or even a visit from those elusive prick-teasing bitches the muses (who delight in leaving you waiting at their pleasure) – but it is undeniable that there are times you seem more acutely aware and responsive to creative expression, and while I do think you can learn to slip into that state more easily with practice, conversely I don’t think it is a place you can live in for too long at a time. I have heard people talking about over-drinking from the well of creativity, and that might be one way of viewing it, or understanding it, but I think of it more like swimming underwater, in that you can do it repeatedly, but you just can’t stay down there too long.
Why? What’s down there under the water that’s so frightening?
It’s not that it’s frightening to be down there so long – it’s just that it’s not possible to be down there too long without naturally bobbing back to the surface. If we want to keep playing with metaphors, I could say that you can, of course, weigh yourself down with leaden prose, heavy chains of ego and other weighty matters, but they can drag you down and you will have trouble ever resurfacing again. And if you don’t resurface you won’t be able to see your work with that same surface view point of other readers, and so you risk losing perspective and believing there is great weight and depth to any old crap you produce.
After all these years of writing, is there a story form that you keep coming back to, due to sheer enjoyment?
I can’t actually say that there is, though I do find I get a little dissatisfied if I write a story and find it too close in form to something I have done before. But I also find that some story forms that I think are quite innovative, my wife raises an eyebrow at me and asks if I am writing just for the enjoyment of myself rather than considering the enjoyment of the reader. She’s got very astute ‘bullshit radars’ which is an asset that can’t be over-valued. Every artists needs a bullshit radar of some type.
How do you juggle that balance between the enjoyment of the reader and the enjoyment of yourself, particularly when it’s you who has to put in the hard yards to make the story work in the first place?
Write for yourself, but rewrite for the reader.
Who are the writers and what are the books that have been critical to your development as a writer?
People sometimes ask who were my mentors as a writer, and I guess there are dozens of them – but they are all people I’ve only known through their work. And earlier this year I was at the Lifeline Bookfair in Canberra, which is one of the largest second-hand book fairs in the world I’m told, and I had one of those moments – browsing amongst the books I kept finding books that had been quite influential to me over the years. It was a really odd experience, like seeing your life played out through finding an old photo album in a bottom drawer at your parents’ house, but here it was played out in books. It really made my head spin that I just seemed to keep coming across individual books that were of some significance to me as I was growing as a reader and a writer. Nigel Krauth. Patrick White. Bo Carpelan (best opening section of any novel), Mario Vargas Llosa. Ernest Hemingway. Ryzard Kapuchinski. Xavier Herbert. Graham Greene. Salman Rushdie. Margaret Atwood. Mudrooroo. James Joyce. Barry Dickens. Roddy Doyle.
But to answer the question in more detail, the earliest books that really made a dent in my understanding of what I should or could be writing were the Jindyworobaks, those Australia poets who were driven to try and find Australian myths rather than say Greek or Roman ones, to use in their imagery, mixing Aboriginal understandings of the land. I had the privilege to hear Roland Robinson reading a poem, at an early Word Festival in Canberra and it really wowed me. So I spent a lot of time looking at Aboriginal ways of looking at and expressing things and how that could be incorporated into a new Australian way of writing, which came to expression in Unwritten Histories (published by Aboriginal Studies Press in 1998, which won the ACT Book of the Year Award).
Next along my journey was magic realism, predominantly the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and I found that very exciting to have permission, as it were, to mix the fantastic with the everyday, and I looked for a way to incorporate the Australian tall tale into the everyday. Looking back I find that myths and epics and fairy tales have always been something I have had a strong interest in, and that were influential in my work. I lived for a year in Iceland and another year in Finland and got into the myths and epics of both countries in a big way too.
But, you know, having started answering this question I realise it’s going to a whole essay, not just an answer, and is going to range across Eastern European literature and literature of dissent, prison literature and censored voices. Then whenever I visit a country I try and read up on its emerging literature, and write something in response to it, which I have done in India, Japan, USA, South Africa, France, South America, China, Antarctica – the list is long, but so is the list of stories written.
Although, I also find the older I get the harder it is to find that same marvellous buzz I used to get from reading when I was young – but every now and then it does happen – like when reading the occasional Murakami, Cormac McCarthy or just rare surprises.
At the moment I’d describe my key interests as Slipstream, that merging of genres and styles, literary fiction with speculative fiction.
And my favourite novel of all time: Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. Favourite collection of short stories of all time: Fishing the Sloe-black River, by Colum McCann. Favourite poem of all time: Under Milkwood by Dylan Thomas.
We started this interview with a mention of how you are now writing young-adult fiction. Tell us about Time Vandals. What did you learn from the production of this story about yourself as a writer?
Time Vandals is a venture into speculative fiction and also Young Adult fiction, which I really enjoyed writing. I suppose my inspiration was Artemis Fowl, which I also really enjoyed and wanted to have a go at the genre. The back story of Time Vandals is probably more interesting than the book itself. I had been reading time-travel books and thought, no one seems to ever have a humorous take on it, and so set out to write a humorous book. I got this concept of a young boy and girl who are recruited to a secret organisation to stop people causing changes to the time-line, and I looked at the science of it and mapped out what would be the real interesting points of history to use – the Titanic, Hitler, etc… And then, just when I’d finished the first draft, I’m googling time-travel things and I discover there is a book coming out in the UK called Time Riders. I read through the details and can’t believe it. A secret organisation set up to stop people disrupting the time-line. Young guys and girls recruited to it. One is pulled off the Titanic. Somebody had changed time so that Hitler wins World War 2… (“Faaaaaarrrrrkkkk!”)
I actually have a bit of a track-record for similar things happening, so after getting really miffed for a few days I decide I can do a better book and look for things that will make this different and beyond the clichés, which was where my first draft was wobbling into to be honest. So it’s now about alternative realities (which is closer to actual quantum physics) and has humour and has zombies – and I think is a really good book. So now the promo begins, which can be pretty fierce for YA fiction, but I’ve kicked it off with a YouTube film and a Facebook site, as YA books are no longer just about the book, but about all the associated mediums that it can exist in as well. Check it out http://youtu.be/mI7ajf2sfFk
But back to the original question: what did I learn from the writing of it? I actually found it was quite fun to write, which isn’t necessarily my normal writing experience – it can be very enjoyable and satisfying – but not what you might call fun as such. But we’d better keep that a secret or even more people would be writing YA books than are writing them now.
What would you like to tackle next?
For what looks like a short and simple question, I find it is actually a HUGE question. There is just so much floating and bubbling around in my brain that I’d like to be tackling next, some projects half-begun (some probably half-baked) and some just ideas. And they move around from being vague ideas to becoming obsessions and then fading back into my head again, and at times there is nothing I would rather do more than write and write and write, and just cut myself off from work and family and eating and sleeping, so I could then just capture some of these ideas and really get them down – but that’s not the shape of real life, so when they come close enough to capture I throw out my net and some become short stories and some become books and some float around near me and then flitter back into the distance. I guess every book/story/essay etc is something that is buzzing around your head and the only way to rid yourself of it is to capture it.
I’m currently completing two books that I’m writing at the same time, while on a literary grant. One is a non-fiction travelogue and the other is a speculative fiction history that I’d like to make into a series exploring alternative histories.
But I also want to write a fiction book set in Antarctica and a book about Ned Kelly (who is a reoccurring motif in my work (Peter Carey inscribed inside my copy of his True History of the Kelly Gang ‘To Craig who will be the author of the second best Kelly book ever written’), a speculative fiction collection/book about Captain Cook and so many Australian history stories and a love-triangle story based on a Japanese classic text and rework some of my books that have as yet to be published and on and on it goes.
Dorothy Green once asked how many people would still consider writing if everything had to be published anonymously. That perhaps should be updated to ask how many people would still consider writing if your chances of commercial publication were small, and your chances of being read and making an impact after publication were smaller. Self-publishing and e-books provide new options for authors, but I think deep down we all just want to write, become rich and famous, and let somebody else look after the editing and marketing and publicity and all those other non-writing parts of the writing trade. But reality is the more you write and the more you publish the more you have to do all those other things and they start to get in the way of your writing as well.
But having said all that, there are also many days when I wonder what else I could be doing with my life if I was not writing. Fixing stuff up around the house. Working with charities. Just relaxing and reading more. Doing more family things. Watching TV and movies. Hanging out with friends. Becoming more a social animal.
How do we measure our worth as a person and our contribution to life? I’m sure that sitting at home and writing may not be as great a contribution to society as getting out and helping people in need, but it does add to our cultural output as a society and is undoubtedly more beneficial to society than some other popular social obsessions like getting drunk and driving noisy cars fast, going to football matches and screaming abuse at opposing fans, or just shopping for the sake of shopping (unless you’re buying books – you get an exemption from crass consumerism if you’re buying books!)
More and more it’s being reported that poetry is experiencing a resurgence, primarily due to the form finding a home – or endless homes – on the internet. Poetry seems to suit blogs, online journals, even in the social-media space (amongst the torrents of Facebook and Twitter drivel it’s always a pleasure to find some carefully crafted words, or tips on how to find some). Although no one’s yet collected the statistics, an increasing number of people might be experiencing poetry, which can only be a good thing. Long-live the creative wordsmith.
Two poets who should be at the forefront of this resurgence (if they’re not already) are Nathan Curnow, a regular here in Verity La Land, and Kevin Brophy – we can all thank our lucky stars that they’ve recently co-authored Radar (Walleah Press 2012). Astute readers will remember that we published Brophy’s ‘Flicker‘ and Curnow’s ‘Blessing‘ in August and September 2012 respectively. Go on, grab yourself a copy – you won’t regret it.
Nathan Curnow is a poet, playwright and performer who has toured Australia and New Zealand and been heard widely on ABC radio. He is the author of The Ghost Poetry Project, a collection of poetry based upon his stays at ten haunted sites across the country and released by Puncher & Wattman (2009). He has also won the prestigious Josephine Ulrick Poetry Prize and co-edited the 30th birthday edition of literary journal Going Down Swinging. Kevin Brophy teaches creative writing in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. From 1980 to 1994 he was founding co-editor of Going Down Swinging. In 2005 he was awarded the Martha Richardson Medal for poetry. In 2009 he was co-winner of the Calibre Prize for an outstanding essay.
Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone.
Congratulations on your joint collection Radar – it’s a truly wonderful read. How would you both describe the book?
I like to think it’s an attentive book, from my collection of poetry to Kevin’s collection of prose-poems, two different forms and styles scanning memory, dreams and experience through language. We didn’t set out intending to come at it from different angles, but I’m so pleased that it turned out the way. Perhaps my work monitors the open skies while Kevin’s searches the ocean depths.
The book fits us between its covers because I think we are both poets driven by a lyrical impulse, interested in pursuing narratives-of-feeling, both of us schooled (though in different eras) by Melbourne’s performance scene, and both committed to a poetry of plain speaking. The book is most definitely two books for the reason Nathan suggests: the forms are very different. Free verse has its own modern tradition now, especially in English poetry, and Nathan exploits it, revels in it. He knows how to make a line work, and how to bend a line ending. There’s none of this in the prose-poems, which are visually not-poetry, and work much more as mental swirls, as clouds posing as paragraphs, slightly exotic as a form. Both of us, though, I think, head out into fiction at times…
How did the idea for the book come about? Was it along the lines of ‘I’ve got some poems, you’ve got some poems – let’s do this’? Or was there something deeper going on from the very beginning?
I guess the deepest thing going on is that we’re mates and have liked each other’s writing, and approach to writing, for some time. I had been sitting on a number of poems when Ralph Wessmann from Walleah Press approached me with an offer of publication. What I had amounted to about half a collection so I made the suggestion of a 2-in-1 book. Thankfully Kevin jumped at the opportunity, which was a real thrill seeing that he’s been instrumental to my development over the years. I don’t even think he had anything written at the time, and we didn’t look over each other’s work until the latter stages. All I knew was that he was heading to Europe and had promised to write, which was enough for me. It’s kind of like if the film director Terence Malick says he’s happy to work with you. The only answer is ‘Wow, let’s do it!’ and then you figure it out as you go. Perhaps Kevin could speak about the process from his end, because I think he was exploring a different approach to how he usually works.
I believe that Ralph and Nathan were looking for a female Tasmanian poet to partner Nathan with the book. And somehow they stumbled across me. I liked the idea because I did want to try writing a book in a creative frenzy, over about six months, and knowing Nathan’s work I knew he would be both professional and lively. I was relieved when I read his first draft, to see that he had taken an autobiographical approach to his collection, while I had taken a more ‘fictional’ and speculative approach to my little paragraphs. I was pleased to see that the two halves would be different enough, and both hopefully engaging for their own reasons. Of course there was something deeper going on and that might make the reading of the book a little more interesting and unsettling than many poetry collections.
Radar certainly is more interesting and unsettling than many poetry collections. Two themes that have emerged so far in our interview are the notion of autobiography and the slip to and from fiction. I wonder if you could expand on these elements of the work.
One of the great twentieth century poet-eccentrics (later adopted by the Language poetry movement), Louis Zukofsky, wrote that ‘the test of poetry is the range of pleasure it affords as sight, sound, and intellection.’ That’s ok, and as poets we want to ‘afford’ our readers those pleasures. But they are not the full range of pleasures. The critic Kenneth Cox, an admirer of Zukofsky, finally decided that with Zukofsky ‘What is lacking is afflatus’. He meant ‘the breath of life that sends a thrill down the spine and gets engraved on memory’. Whether it is autobiography or fiction does not really matter; what matters is whether the body and its breath are in the work, along with those other pleasures poetry can afford its readers. Nathan’s work heaves with afflatus. One of the reasons I pushed out of the line into the paragraph was to get at that part of me that brings the world and its afflatus into the words. I would be pleased if our poetry looks unsettled, and even more pleased if the poetry is unsettling.
As Kevin says, the line between autobiography and fiction doesn’t really matter, what matters is the strength of the piece, how it works and conveys. Although much of my work uses autobiography as a launching off point, I don’t primarily write to tell people about my life, because I know that writing can never give the whole picture. Poems are inadequate frames and writing demands twists and turns which askew everything. Still, much of my work in Radar presents as autobiography which I’m not particularly comfortable with at times, and it’s the reason I’ve included the poem ‘To the Google Earth Tracking Vehicle’, kind of warning the reader that while I’m trying to be honest, it’s also just a pose and can’t escape being that. So the line is hazy and complex, and what matters most is the ‘full range of pleasures’ for the reader that Kevin refers to. This is why I’m so excited about the direction he takes in Radar, because he’s still showing me how to write about life in new ways. His pieces are full of strong images and a deceptively simple tone that presents characters we can all relate to, ones with obvious failings. They are portraits that speak honestly and intimately about others, about all of us, and so therefore, indirectly, about what Kevin does (and perhaps doesn’t) know about himself. I like that you refer to it as ‘the slip to and from fiction’, Nigel. It’s so slippery that it almost becomes a non-issue.
What hopes do you have for Radar?
This is the toughest question. I hope that Radar grows up into a fine classic book without feeling it has a split personality or a repressed side of itself that won’t stay repressed. I hope Radar has a large extended family of readers who get together once a year to talk about it. I hope Radar gets to talk with critics and other books along the way, and that in its retirement, when it is hopelessly out of copyright and looks like something left over from the era of ink and paper, it can hold its own at the bar and sink a few with those old-timers who are still on their feet. I hope that it doesn’t get too garrulous with age, and always knows when to turn the other page.
All of the above from Kevin. I hope the book is returned to over and over. I hope its owners read it to people that they love and that it inspires them to write. Plus I sent a copy to Missy Higgins, who I’ve never met, so I hope she likes it too.
Radar can be purchased by visiting Walleah Press.