SUCCESS SMOKE AND
JOY BOATS: an interview with
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.