John Kinsella interviews Robert Adamson
JK: We’ll begin by talking about an interview with Michael Palmer in Exact Change, the American journal with a recently-published issue that focuses on L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, and the American and other avant-gardes. I’ll refer to a comment that Michael Palmer makes early in the interview, regarding Robert Duncan: “When Duncan speaks to that grand collage, it is certainly not singular in its construction, I mean this is the construction, an instance of how it constructs itself.” He’s using Duncan as a reference, but he’s talking about the notion that poetry comes from lots of different sources, and it’s pulled together but becomes something entirely valid in itself, even though it’s made up of lots of component parts. Have you anything to say about that, Bob?
RA: Yes, it’s that image . . . When Robert Duncan came to Australia and stayed at my place for two weeks before he went on his tour of Australia we started off like this, almost having an interview-discussion. He used to let me give him a metaphor or an image of what poetry is to me, and he said (I’ve repeated this before, but I’ll get it right this time): Each poet is a link in a chain which goes from the beginning of time when the first poet ever wrote, to the end of time and the last poet who will write then. Time itself doesn’t exist there is no such thing as time. Poetry exists in the eternal present which is the past, the future, and now, which all coexist. And so you have the image of a chain, with each poet, if he truly is a poet, being a link in that chain . . . Unless you know of that, unless you are aware of that, unless you can participate in that, you’re really wasting your time. So it kind of implies that you really should read, and be aware of how vast the universe is that you’re a part of.
JK: We’ll later be discussing the parallel strains in your work of lyricism and interest in the way language works. The Clean Dark is seen as the height of your lyrical powers, whereas Waving to Hart Crane is seen as the peak of your experimentalism. Do you see that notion of things coexisting, of various poetries being outside time, as relevant to the duality of your writing?
RA: Well, see, it’s a thing that continues. My so-called poetry is a project which (it’s a stupid word but I can’t think of a better one now) is like a journal of my you’re stuck with all these similes and metaphors of a journey of discovery, You’re exploring, and poetry has the unknown. Now I’m conscious about that; when I started, I wasn’t. When I started writing poetry, I just wanted to write poetry, and I wanted to find out what poetry was; and so by reading everybody in the universe starting with Shelley and ending up with Mallarmé you know, after about five years you get a fair picture of what it is. Then you discover the Modernists Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Zukofsky and then you realise, that’s what Palmer is referring to as Duncan’s idea of the grand collage.
RA: So it’s a matter of awareness and education; it’s a matter of how much you know. The more you know, the more you are capable of going into a new area of that unknown. And as you travel into the unknown you’re discovering things, your work is discovering things. Your work is really a record of what you’re discovering in this imaginative adventure. Duncan calls it an adventure of the imagination.
JK: Duncan has been in many ways quite central to your poetics.
RA: Before I met Duncan, I was reading a lot of American poetry. I was especially interested in W. S. Merwin, and I was steeped in all that “deep image” poetry. Robert Bly, Mark Strand, James Wright. Now, when Ginsberg came to Australia in 1970, or ’71, I think it was around that time, he came to the Adelaide Festival, and I went there with great expectations, because Ginsberg had been on . . . the judging panel for the Pulitzer Prize, and they had just awarded it to W. S. Merwin, so I was really excited. I wasn’t so interested in Ginsberg I’d discovered him five or ten years earlier through Bob Dylan; Dylan led me to Rimbaud and then to Ginsberg. Then when I . . . read Howl I thought, “Oh, right, this is a level up from Dylan”, but after Howl I read through Ginsberg and realised Dylan was way ahead. Way ahead of Ginsberg! Dylan is often mentioned by some of these so-called language-centred poets as a person who is acceptable to them, whereas Ginsberg wouldn’t be, so much. He’s the sort of epitome of the great heroic poet-mage which to a lot of people is a bullshit idea. Whereas Dylan, because of his postmodernism, his ability to create himself, continually recreate himself he uses all that for commercial reasons [is different].
JK: Also the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets might say they had a political problem with Ginsberg, insofar that he’s a self-contained poet who only refers to things that he has directly experienced in the “ego” he projects from his ego whereas Dylan is someone who’s making social commentary.
RA: That’s right.
JK: And they are more or less social commentators.
RA: Yes, exactly. Dylan was a forerunner of the social-comment type poetry before the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E . . . He was of the baby-boom generation; he was one of the rare exceptions that wasn’t like that, didn’t use that poet role, in the way Ginsberg did. But getting back to Ginsberg: I arrived in Adelaide thinking when I met Ginsberg I’d find out a lot about W. S. Merwin . . . One night we ended up in a hotel with Ginsberg and various other people. Finally everyone got tired at about 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, and then I was alone with Ginsberg. I started asking him all these questions about W. S. Merwin, and the type of thing that Merwin was interested in, including Merwin’s version of religions. After ten or so minutes, Ginsberg said, “Stop. stop, stop, you’re talking to the wrong man”, and wrote down Robert Duncan’s name and address, and handed it to me. He said, “Here’s someone that will be interested in it like you, a fellow scholar-poet. I’m not like that, I don’t know any answer to all these questions.” He more or less said, “He’s got a head full of ideas and they’re driving him insane I’m not like that.”
When he gave me the address, I was just terribly disappointed in Allen Ginsberg. I thought, “you old cunt”, just his way of palming me off. Then I thought, “well, why did I expect more?” It was just that he was the first real American poet that I ever met, and I thought there’d be more, and there wasn’t. But I underestimated Ginsberg in this, because when I came back to Sydney, my wife Denise at the time asked me what happened and I said, “Oh, Ginsberg palmed me off and gave me Robert Duncan’s address.” Duncan was this unapproachable person that lived in the world, who was one of the great poets, and I just wouldn’t have imagined he would ever write to me, and so I was very disappointed.
She didn’t say anything to me but she put one of my books in an envelope and sent it to Robert Duncan, and three weeks later I went to the mail and there was this letter with a San Francisco postmark on it, and this beautiful handwriting, from Robert Duncan. I just couldn’t believe it. I ripped it open; there was this long letter-essay about my poetry and how much he liked it. So I wrote an answer which took about a month, an essay answer, and we started this correspondence which went on for ten years. But after writing to him for five years I asked him would he like to come to Australia, and he said yes . . . I just didn’t think why would they be interested in a connection with a few desperate poets in this barbarous culture at the bottom of the world? that was my image . . . But I’d been reading so much, I was full of all these questions that Duncan was interested in. So when he said, “Yes, I’ll come to Australia”, I went running in to the Literature Board and said, “Robert Duncan’s willing to come to Australia!” and they said, “Who’s Robert Duncan?” I was just destroyed by that.
Finally I went to a bank and got a loan from a bank manager to bring him here. First of all the bank manager said, “What are you talking about?” I said, “Bringing a poet to Australia is not as strange as you think.” I had all this literature, and Duncan at the time was doing lectures around the circuits in America, and he was getting vast sums of money or to me they were! A thousand dollars a reading at the universities. And he had posters, and I had all the Duncan advertising material. I laid it out on the desk of the bank manager, and I said, “It’s not much different from bringing the Beatles to Australia, or a pop singer.” He got this, and it went click . . . and it all made sense to him. Especially, I mean, all the very impressive credentials that I laid out on his desk. Credentials that a fucking bank manager could understand, but the Literature Board didn’t know what I was talking about. He gave me the money, and we brought Duncan here.
JK: Stylistically, in what way did Duncan influence you, when you approached his writing after speaking to Ginsberg?
RA: It was really direct, but . . . as soon as he answered the letter, I read his poetry again, of course. I immersed myself in Roots and Brambles, Opening of the Field, all those early books, and tried to write like it. I consciously tried to write like it. To me it was a great freedom because here was an American poet that was still using the rhetoric and the mannerisms of my favourite poet, who at the time was Shelley, in a present time. There was no contradiction. You know, in Australia if you made any mannerisms like that, you were trounced by people like John Tranter and others of my peers. They said, “That’s old-fashioned, we’re into a modernist era, and you just can’t write like Shelley anymore.” But Duncan well, this was no problem, because, as I said before, that was the image of the chain: each poet in a link, no such thing as time, it all coexists, present, past, future. So it gave me a great permission to do anything I wanted to do. But the more I read at the time, the more I was taken away from Merwin the more lightweight Merwin and James Wright and company became. Of course when I met Duncan, when I wrote to Duncan, he wrote back and said, “Look, if you want to find out what’s at the bottom of the edeep image’ poetry, read Lorca and company.” Once I started reading that . . . you could see a lot of it was an imitation of it. A fairly empty imitation.
And then when he got here, I was working on a poem a set of poems, “The Grail Poems”, which turned into something in the end when they were reviewed . . . now my original idea for these came from Jack Spicer’s Grail poems, but whereas Jack Spicer did them in a manner that, say, someone like Tranter would probably accept they were spiky, urban poems, he took the Grail myths and just placed them in the streets of San Francisco and wrote them in the jargon of the time I didn’t do that with mine. I took my (as I said) permission from Duncan, and used myth, mythological language and romantic language and modernist language. When I was working on the last one of them it was called “Camelot” and Duncan actually got here, I showed it to him (I was halfway through it) and he picked up my pen and wrote the rest of the end of the poem. So I looked at it, put it through my typewriter; he did another version of it, I did another version of it. The next day we had a co-written poem.
But I didn’t put his name on it. I just thought, because I was already getting heavy very heavy criticism from Tranter and company for writing like that, that this would give them ammunition that they wanted. Tranter’s thing was, “Bob’s been taken over by Duncan and he’s just lost it, doing imitations of Duncan.” I didn’t realise at the time I’d made a mistake; I should have put Duncan’s name on it. Which I did, finally, when I published it in the Selected. I put “with Robert Duncan” and the date when it happened. I think I changed the poem and it went back to the Duncan version. So the version that’s in my Selected is taken from the manuscript with Duncan’s handwriting on it.
That’s how influenced I was. But then when Duncan went back to America I finished “The Grail Poems”; that was only one of them, and he’d only seen two of them. I wrote about twelve of them, and I sent them to him and he wrote back and said, “Look, Bob, I think you should protect yourself; you’re so influenced by me and I think it’s great, but it’ll turn out to be an Oedipal thing. I’ll be your father and you’ll be rapt in me, we’ll go along and then someone will review your book and say you’re imitating Duncan, and then you won’t like me anymore. It’ll be an Oedipal backlash and we’ll lose our friendship.” I couldn’t understand what he meant at the time but in fact that’s what happened eventually. When the reviews came out of Cross the Border, they were savage, really savage.
JK: Was it well accepted by the readership?
RA: No. It was accepted by people like Dorothy Hewett. She loved it, she absolutely loved it. Tim Thorne loved it. A lot of American poets loved it. Michael Palmer liked it.
JK: When you are composing your poetry, do you have a notion of the reader? Palmer is actually asked by the interviewer about “creating a reader”, like creating a text, and he replies, “there’s no ideal reader”.
RA: Yes. That was really interesting.
JK: “One doesn’t even want an ideal reader. One projects a possible reader or set of readers who have no outline, a readership of potential who have the generosity to complete the meanings of the work, and to complete the circuit.” Now to me, that’s the core of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry: that the reader does the work and in doing that is influenced and illuminated . . .
RA: I only wish that interview had come out before I finished “The Sugar Glider”, because when I was writing “The Sugar Glider” I actually referred to searching for a perfect reader. When I read that interview I went back to the poem and I looked at that particular part and thought not only that I hadn’t thought that through it was sloppy writing, that particular stanza. and I thought: yeah, Michael Palmer’s right. But I wasn’t thinking like that as I was writing “The Sugar Glider”, because I was still in this state where, when I’m writing poetry that is influenced by L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E-centred poetry, or poetry without reference whatever you want to call it I’m in a semi-defensive state, combative sort of state, knowing there’s this audience in Australia that will savage it. That you’ll have enemies, that you’ll have savage critics of it because it is poetry that’s threatening to a lot of Australian poets, I think. Either that, or they don’t like it . . . What they call L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry is like this vague, strange, demonic beast to them. As soon as they hear that word or they think they recognise a poem that’s influenced by it, they close down and attack.
JK: I would argue, when we talk about “poetry without reference” as being integral to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, that there is always a core of references which are distorted, decidedly and distinctly distorted, and that although it’s non-referential, and it’s not apparent where the associations came from, they are always there. Because the core of a notion, if you are politicising something and you have a particular value you’re trying to instil in your reader . . . be it everything or nothingness, it must be based on some point of reference. So I would argue that L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry is distorting those references to make a point.
RA: I’ve got a reference for that . . . What’s interesting to me in this whole discussion about L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry is I’ve just discovered that I’ve got an ally. He’s not so much an ally as a figure in their group who is not dissimilar to the way I think about it. There’s an essay in the book In The American Tree edited by Ron Silliman, published by University of Maine, an essay by Jackson MacLow and he says this very interesting thing which I’ve thought of but I didn’t put it in these words. Here it is: “Indeed some practitioners and sympathetic critics call such works non-referential and one of them has mounted a brilliant, seemingly Marxist attack on reference as a kind of fetishism contributing to alienation, but this is a dangerous argument easily turned against its proponents.” This is the bit that interested me: “What could be more of a fetish or more alienated than slices of language stripped of reference?” He says, “Of course as other practitioners and critics have realised and stated, no language use is really non-referential. If it’s language it consists of signs and all signs point to what they signify.” All signs have significance of course; then he covers that with reference to the French critics.
JK: Could you comment on that regarding your own work and the use of reference? Very obviously in the material in The Clean Dark and in that tradition right through your work the centrality of reference is there. In poems like eThe Pepper Mill’, which are also referential poems, there’s still a consciousness of the way reference is being used. You would always argue that, as we’re being told here, you can’t deny reference, and it’s a very dangerous thing to do so.
RA: Now that’s a very interesting thing and it brings a circle around. First of all when I started writing eThe Pepper Mill’ poem, I thought I’d do a version of something like Cézanne’s Mountain. I’d just take eThe Pepper Mill’ and do versions of it. But then I realised what I was doing was something that I’d found in (of all people) a W. S. Merwin poem where he writes about pineapples. It goes on for pages: what do you think of a pineapple, what does the reader think of a pineapple, what do the visitors to the pineapple plantation think of the pineapple and what do they think of the pineapple company’s advertising material which promotes pineapples.
JK: So there’s a constant process of removal.
RA: Then I realised that was an early interest of mine which was connected to a thing that the Zen Buddhists call the “no mind”, and again Jackson MacLow says, “when such works are comprised of words and strings the attention of the perceiver is indeed centred on such language elements in themselves rather than on anything the authors wish to say or imitate.” What he is saying is, is there any sense in bringing such a non-linguistic and non-literary term as the “no mind” into this, because it’s a religious thing, of course. The Buddhists refer to it as the deepest layer of the mind below the conscious ego and the psychoanalytic unconscious. It’s an impersonal, untainted by ego. Some of us who have used chance operations to produce works of art have seen these works as embodying or expressing “no mind”. “When such works are comprised of words” now that’s MacLow again and this has given me such a sense of freedom again now what’s happening is these L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets are giving me a permission in the way Duncan gave me a permission to go ahead, and it’s taken it a step further, so I’m getting back to this thing, basically a religious concern . . .
JK: In the same way as the modernists . . .
RA: And so I’m still using my religious interests, and can do, in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry. MacLow is almost talking about . . . To use another example: a debased version of that would be a Surrealist method, automatic writing maybe, but that’s not at all what L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry is. The Surrealist automatic writing is bringing things out of that “no mind” state, below the conscious ego sort of thing, but they’re not aware of the language. So you have the Surrealist automatic writing which isn’t really conscious of the fact that it’s being made with words. It’s an exercise in religious or social or political freedom.
JK: You talk quite often in notions of liberation and freedom in thought and in poetry and you actually said something about them giving you permission. Is this because you see poets and poetry as being part of this multi-directional continuum, this collage of poets and notions, that you need to have some point of reference with other poets to validate what you’re doing? Or do you see that it is possible to exist in total isolation? Do you need a point of communication, or are you working towards eventually denying all points and that of course would be the absolute?
RA: That’s an interesting question, because when you’re writing, no matter how sure you are of what you’re doing, there’s always the question hovering above you, “Is there an audience for this?”
JK: Thank you for coming back to that! Or should we be making an audience?
RA: This is the freedom that language poetry can give you. I think this is based on something that Steve Benson and your friend Lyn Hejinian say. I’ll just paraphrase what they say. To me it was a worry, and it is also exciting; “the truism that the only people who read poetry are themselves poets, is thus understood rather as potential than as limitation. The reader is presumed not as a consumer of the experience sustained by the poem but as a fellow writer who shares conscientiously in the work and can willingly answer the uses of the medium which the writer feels impelled to undertake and so extend the generation of literary work without indulging the pretentious fireworks of avant-gardism for validation with its tendencies of short-sightedness, of enthusiasm and blindness, of shock effect” . . . The thing that worries me there is “the fireworks of avant-gardism as validation”. That’s a bit of a worry, I think, because I wonder if that’s just another excuse not to use your technical virtuosity if you have it.
JK: Aren’t they putting down “the fireworks of avant-gardism”?
RA: Yes, they are but it worries me that this could lead to a lessening of the quality of the work.
JK: In terms of concept, not in terms of technique though?
RA: Yes. No, I thought they were talking about technique, but maybe they’re not.
JK: Do you think that suppressing the fireworks of avant-gardism is dangerous conceptually because it basically reduces everything to technique?
RA: Yes, but the thing that I understand from this type of poetry is that in fact it eliminates the possibility of bullshit even more, because what you’re looking at is a poem and what you’re working on is the poem and it isn’t necessarily reliant on whole cathedrals of work that went before it. The words themselves are like . . . it’s like loading up a paintbrush and painting on a blank canvas. Your using the paint is what’s important, not what you’re painting, not the subject of what you’re painting. Brushwork. Painterly qualities.
JK: Regarding the comment you made earlier about Duncan giving you permission, and Shelley, and Zukofsky: that all these people can exist at once, the great chain. Does that link with that in any sense whatsoever or is that a contradiction?
RA: It could seemingly be a contradiction but it isn’t.
JK: Could you explain why it isn’t?
RA: The danger with all that, and I’m sure what Silliman would say about all that (say Silliman for example) is that that leads to elitism, and that could lead to sitting in your ivory tower.
JK: I remember seeing an essay with Robert Duncan’s comments down on one of Ron Silliman’s essays and he actually called him “silly man” and he wasn’t too keen on it and Silliman was questioning these very notions.
RA: The thing that Duncan did there was very interesting because he wasn’t even criticising Silliman for questioning Duncan. Duncan was looking at Silliman’s comments and saying this guy is a bit illiterate, he’s not connecting at the same level of . . . you’ve got to be careful here. He’s correcting Silliman’s linguistic mistakes in his essay, he’s saying this is not a very well written essay. Coming from someone who puts language as the most important thing, now he’d better polish up his language.
JK: You steered through that very carefully! This guy can actually pilot his boat down the Hawkesbury river so he knows how to steer through the troubles of language! The point I’m getting at is, do you think that these notions can exist with this Duncanesque view?
RA: Yes, easily. I think that you have an advantage if you don’t have to jettison all that.
JK: So you’re appropriating from the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement. You’re not saying, hey, I want to be a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet, you’re saying, hey they’re interesting and their observations are interesting, and that can be added to the things I’ve learnt from Duncan, and the things I’ve learnt from all these others.
RA: And they explain to me, just as a phenomenon, explain to me what’s been happening. The eighties were a blinding nightmare to me because of what happened in the world, you’ve got the recession in America, England and Australia, because everyone was broke, because the people who weren’t broke were full-on materialists and raging around in a world that was so material that I just couldn’t imagine that such a thing could be real, but it was so real. I was just knocked out of existence for that whole decade. In that time these people have come up, your generation have come up, and when I was in my twenties and thirties, which they were then in the eighties . . . a lot of them looked around and saw they didn’t have the luxury of thinking: “are we being ethical about producing poetry that may eventually be a consumer good?” because there were no consumers any more.
Back in the sixties we used to say, well, we’ll do an exhibition and we’ll make sure that none of the works in the exhibition are saleable so that we won’t contribute to the capitalist system. So we’d do auto-destructive paintings and things like that. One of my friends used to do paintings where when you picked them up, it would tip a bottle of acid over them and the acid would dissolve them; things like that were a great luxury because we had the choice. But in the eighties there are no consumers so there is no choice, these people had no audience and, as we said before, instead of saying it’s a limitation that the only people that read poetry are the poets, lets make a positive thing of this. It’s great there are all these poets, we can all write to each other . . .
I’m sure they wouldn’t see it as easily as I’m seeing it now, but I didn’t experience it, I just got drunk for that whole decade it was just so painful for me, I couldn’t handle it. And in the midst of the eighties, instead of following up the wonderful inspirations and foundations that were set for me by people like Zukofsky, Olson and Creeley and Duncan, instead of building on that ground work, as Duncan calls it, I was reading Mark Strand. That’s how powerful that decade of materialism, sort of destruction, affected me. I was reading this poetry of emptiness and in fact trying to write poetry of emptiness like The Lighthouse Desire(?). I wasn’t worried anymore about all the imaginative investigations of language and of mysteries or of God or the possibilities of God. I was looking into, like Mark Strand standing next to me, staring into a bathroom mirror wondering as we shave are our strokes of shaving as aesthetically pleasing as our lines of poetry, that will offend nobody, but they are beautifully written. I mean talk about L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry that’s the ultimate poetry of emptiness.
Just getting back to that idea of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E-centred poetry and the strategies involved in it. I think I was talking about Bob Dylan before, but these L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, as far as I understand them, came out through the World War II protest movements with critiques of authority and arguments for rights and prizing an “awkwardly marginal status” this is a quote now from Steve Benson this is more or less a paraphrase of him but it really reflects what I think about it too. The wonderful thing about L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, or so-called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, is the strategy that these writers have developed. They test people or poets more markedly than they indoctrinate. They resist things rather than seduce or assure you like, say, Robert Duncan or Creeley could seduce or assure you with love poetry.
Now coming back to something he’s written recently, I think the most brilliant thing Creeley has ever written, in fact, is the most wonderful selection of Charles Olson. It’s Charles Olson’s Selected Poemsedited by Robert Creeley. What Creeley’s done here is made Olson accessible to a whole new generation. He’s written a preface which is the most beautifully written and intellectually rigorous essay on Projectivist or Black Mountain poetry ever written, but it starts out from Ezra Pound and Zukofsky, and talks about Olson. He starts it off by saying a characteristic of our time has been its insistent preoccupation with system, and then goes on to look at Olson’s work as a system that envelops all systems, and goes back to seeing the first defining poets of our century as heroic; almost necessarily so. Ezra Pound’s epic attempt to make a long poem including history to give us the requisite tales of the tribe this is loosely paraphrasing Creeley and in the end finally if he cannot in his own words make it cohere he has nonetheless entered the apparent chaos of existence as a surviving witness through his own errors and though his own errors and wrecks lie around him.
That’s the Maximus poems and Olson himself saying “these are my errors and wrecks”. And so does Pound, Pound said it couldn’t cohere. Then he says it makes a lasting order although with Pound, the fascism he trusted failed him. It left only art; but you know what art, what great art. Then Eliot’s determinations, his conviction that order, again talking about system, is carried by tradition from a past where all values are defined. Then he goes through Eliot and talks about William Carlos Williams. Only the imagination is real. This is just loosely looking through it and that leads him into an idea where “one will hardly regret that an active agriculture can feed us, at the endless provisions, for thus predetermining wars cannot be so simply agreed to. There are imaginations that differ absolutely in their use of legitimising purpose yet each defines a potential” and that leads on to D.H. Lawrence; D.H. Lawrence and the phenomenal world which is raging and yet apart, as Lawrence wrote in eThe Escaped Cock’, a work that Olson very much respected. In that work Jesus says to Mary Magdalene “the day of my interference is done”, and then a little later “the recoil failed the advance”. Then he talks about Objectivism, then he goes though Whitehead, talks about those ideas that Olson took in from Whitehead, and then into what he calls Williams’s life-long dilemma with his social fact as a poet. Then, getting back to Olson, he says, Olson says, come into the world, take a big bite, he admonishes the people who can take no risk that matters, the risk of beauty least of all . . .
JK: Referring again to the Palmer interview and taking this into consideration, do you think that it’s essential that poetry has a social referent? I want to take into consideration what you’ve just been talking about. I want to get to the poem, or back to the poem, should I say, “The Rumour”, which is your major early work, which would probably have to be seen as an end in itself, regarding your modernist influences. I would like you to discuss the idea of a poem being conscious about poetics with its dialogue with poetries and its dialogue with technique and the whole chain if you like. And also whether a poem such as that has also a social responsibility and what that is or if that’s an absurd notion. And finally to tie it into this quote from the Michael Palmer interview that we’ve been talking about, which I’ll read: “It is symptomatic of what would be quite literally deconstruction when all discourse becomes qualified.” And I’m going to ask, is “The Rumour” about qualifying concepts, about qualifying symbolist ideals? And then he goes on and says there’s nothing wrong with all discourse coming into a framework of doubt. But then you do wonder at what point is “The Rumour” about qualifying these symbolist notions, or is it about setting them out and looking at them in a world of doubt?
RA: It is.
JK: Is it talking about one positive thing in a world of such massive interrogation, such massive sceptical interrogation, which is surely what The Rumour is considering? This comes into the social aspect again, and into the lit. crit. aspect of poetry. Does poetry exist outside the lit. crit. aspect of reading? (and I think that’s much of a problem now). Sorry, this is going back to the quote now “reassert the force of the words themselves”. So does it exist as a thing in itself?
RA: Well, that’s very much what “The Rumour” is dealing with. There’s a couple of springboards that I use to jump into “The Rumour” from. First of all the Bible is very important. I’ve taken from the Bible, from Ezekiel, the wheel within a wheel thing, but then there’s another thing in Revelation where John the Divine says if any man shall add words to these words, add another word to this book, he’ll be condemned forever to eternal hell. So I start off “The Rumour” by using the word wormwood, which is a biblical word that means corruption and evil, and I say, the star is called wormwood, and I use that star instead of the star that signifies Christ that leads you through to heaven, as the star to follow. So instead of a new star bringing in a new Christ I see a star that is in fact the embodiment of corruption and evil and doubt, and it’s called wormwood. Then I say, not only that, I will add unto this book. Here is the work. “The Rumour” is the part of which John said “if you ever add to this you will be condemned”. So by writing “The Rumour” I’ve condemned myself to eternal hell. Because I say that, I literally say that in the poem and that was exactly about the idea of doubt, irony and questioning.
JK: This is the modernist aspect of that poem then. So it’s playing against the romantic notion and also the symbolist notion, quite a separate thing. The modernism’s playing against these traditional . . .
RA: Exactly, it was a postmodern poem. I was consciously doing that because that was at the same time that we were using poetry as prose(?). We were saying, we were talking about it at the time. I mean Michael Wilding spoke about this for years. During the writing of “The Rumour” Michael was writing a similar thing with short stories, The West Midland Underground Stories(?). But what we were saying is our writing is the process, it’s about process, it’s about exposing the bones of the poetry and they become a part . . . the writing of the poem becomes a part of the poem.
JK: In this poem also things exist, whereas L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poems exist theoretically in themselves, this requires very very much the great movements of literature, if you like, the conflict between “men and modernity”.
RA: You really have to be very well read to understand “The Rumour” for a start. I mean, it requires you to know the references. I mean, it’s as loaded with references as The Cantos, or as anything, as any of those modernist poems.
JK: Do you see it as a poem of reconciliation or a poem of out-and-out conflict between concepts?
RA: It’s a poem about rumour, it really is. It says we start out with a word and this can be related to the biblical sort of words, but also the words we are using ourselves as building blocks.
JK: So this is all about building blocks.
RA: Massively, as Mark Pearlman (?) says, they are massively questioning every single thing I’m doing. I’m riddled with doubt about the very fact that I’m writing a poem which possibly isn’t a poem but only a rumour. One of the interesting things is halfway through that poem . . . it was really like a letter to Duncan, then halfway through it I was talking to John Forbes, and John Forbes was completely overtaken by Ted Berrigan. I stopped half-way through that poem and read Ted Berrigan very, very thoroughly and I couldn’t get from it anything that John could get. I couldn’t really see what was so good about it or why it was so important to that generation of poets, John Forbes’s generation. But then luckily for me, halfway through that poem who should turn up in Australia but Robert Creeley, and in fact I spent three nights with him. This is when he broke up with Bobby, he came here and he was open to this big discussion about . . . he was questioning life itself, as well as poetry.
One of the first things I said to Creeley was, “What is all this stuff about Ted Berrigan, why is Ted Berrigan so good?” And this was one of the most interesting revelations of my life. Creeley sat me down, we had a bottle of whiskey and he said, “Listen I’ll read you a poem.” He reached up to the shelf, grabbed the Tambourine Light (?) and read it. Now, it was one of the greatest lessons in my life because I was reading that poem in English, and it was written in American, and when Creeley read it, it was all in the inflection of his voice, it was in the music of the language and I saw it. Halfway through I saw it was the most wonderful, savage, political poem I’d ever read. It was full of social criticism. It was just as alive as a Dylan song, but it was poetry and it was in American. And then I said that to Creeley, “Ah, I understand, I understand,” and he was laughing. He said, “Okay, okay that’s fine to understand it. I’m glad I can help. But now what you’ve got to do is write your poem in Australian.” I said, “What are you talking about?” I had versions of poems, and that would have been early versions of “The Rumour”, especially that one I wrote before “The Rumour”. Because it’s a bit like Hart Crane, “The Rumour”. I started it at the beginning and the end, and then filled in the middle. So one of the first things I wrote was that section called “Everybody Gathered in Objection”. That was an early version. I showed it to Creeley and he said, “Okay, what you’ve got to do now is write like Ted Berrigan, only you’re Australian so . . . ” He looked at a lot of poetry in my house and he couldn’t find anything that sounded Australian. I grabbed Bruce Dawe and Bruce Beaver and he said, “Yeah, they’re getting there, they’re getting there as far as using the language”. He said, “I hear this language, I’ve never known it before but I hear it in the air, I’ve heard it for three days and I can hear the tune you’re all playing.”
That’s the way he put it. He actually said to me take the high art and put in the language of your everyday conversation. “You’re talking to me in poems that are much better than the poems you’ve got down here on the page.” It sounds so simple, it really does, but he taught me how to write down the rhythms of conversation and couple that with this is just technical but it wasn’t just technical couple that with the language of high literature or high modernism, whatever you like, and play that off against it. So what will happen then in the technical exercises, you’ll find this is Creeley saying to me you’ll find that steeped in language like that, your subject will arise out of the language. You won’t have to worry about where you’re taking it, it’ll come out, or you know, it’s just that when you find the right form you’ll have the content. So you know, the thing about that was that, in a strange weird way, Berrigan came into that poem, although there’s no traces of it in there.
JK: There’s a rumour of it.
JK: A fact, something we know, a scientific fact for example, can be bent, can be altered to a certain end, can be propaganda-ised if you like. A rumour inevitably will be because it can’t be reconstructed as fact. How does that notion fit in with the definitive poetics that you’re trying to explore?
RA: In the book it’s very important, that quote from Wallace Stevens at the beginning “In the long run the truth does not matter”. Now that’s really the first line of the poem. So I write, “In the long run the truth does not matter”, and then go on to investigate that. Because truth will be poetry and poetry is the one thing that cannot be corrupted.
JK: But truth is also what you want it to be.
RA: That’s what I’m saying. If it truly is a poem, if you actually write it. The challenge was for me to make that rumour into a poem which will be incorruptible because it’ll be so good if it is good, if it works as a poem.
JK: This is the sense of purity we’re talking about, the notion of an ultimate, something that is achievable that we can keep striving towards we can’t actually grasp but we can see in the distance.
RA: Yes, I said it somewhere before but maybe not as clearly, that you can write a lie into the poem, like you were talking about a scientific fact. You can write it, but the poem itself cannot lie because if the poem lies it just doesn’t work.
JK: But the rumour moves quickly and the truth comes slowly. How does that reconcile?
RA: That is exactly what I’m talking about. That relates to the use of imagination in the way Shelley did. The way Shelley used it was that he would write a whole string of rhymes down the right-hand margin of a page. I’ve seen the manuscripts, it’s unbelievable. I can’t remember exactly, I think “Ode to the West Wind” he certainly did do it, but also in poems like “To A Skylark”, he wrote rhymes, he was very facile at writing rhymes; he would write them all down without knowing what the meaning of the poem was going to be, then he filled out the poem. His imagination: his idea was that if he trusted the imagination it would be true, it wouldn’t be corrupted by the world around him, because it was a pure thing, it was a given thing.
JK: Does something pure in your mind contain all the deceits, all the lies as well and that makes it pure because it has a knowledge of them?
RA: It’s like a melting down of it all. The poem itself is hell, is a version of hell and whatever is in that hell, whatever is part that hell will melt down and purify it like an alchemy into something which is purified by going through that hell. Out the other side comes everybody gathered in objection. At the time I got that image from the Buddhist monks burning themselves on television. You’d turn the news on and there’d be this monk pouring petrol on himself igniting himself. That’s the flame I talk about all the way through that poem. “The Rumour” was very much a poem that contained my anxiety about Vietnam.
JK: Yes, I think that’s quite clear in lots of ways.
RA: That came through even though I didn’t want it to. That’s what I’m saying about the truth.
JK: So because poetry must be true and truth must be honest, then it must be political by extension and therefore it comes through regardless of your intent.
RA: Yes, that’s right.
JK: I’m fascinated by the position of what I’ve heard various L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets refer to as the ego self that occurs in the lyric, in a lyric poem. I think Michael Palmer refers to it as the small self or something along those lines.
RA: Yeah, another poem about the little me.
JK: The little me, that’s it.
RA: Well, you know you’ve got to be careful with this, because the greatest example of that kind of work, in lyricism especially, the greatest lyricist I think of our age, of course, was Robert Creeley. Now Robert Creeley was one of the first poets these L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets attacked, and also this guy Grenier attacked him by writing . . . I don’t know whether it was a parody, but he took apart that book called Pieces and he was a prime target in a way, really, because he epitomised the romantic mage, the sort of magician figure, the oracular kind of love poet . . . The reason Creeley can do it is that he is also the greatest technician, the greatest American user of language, he uses words more carefully.
JK: He knows “Rumour’s design” maybe.
RA: Yes, he does, he does know “Rumour’s design”.
JK: Just to quote you here from “The Rumour”, “Rumour’s design a pressure extending those propositions of freedom’. Then you go on, “my appetite for absurdities in language that broods and has no sense of humour exceedingly easy my muse’. When I asked about “we” as Palmer refers to the “small me” how does the your “my”, how does your “I” and “I’ve” and “my”, the personal pronouns . . .
RA: It’s simply a device.
JK: It’s a thing to play against the ideas?
RA: It’s nothing other than a technical device. It’s not a persona. It’s not me.
JK: Is it making a comment about that though, about that idea of the “small me”?
RA: Yes, of course.
JK: Can you explain?
RA: Well, here’s a poem that’s sort of trying to encompass the Vietnam War and still at the time, you know, I physically could see the pointlessness of even protesting, because I am a very practical person, and to think that by going out and demonstrating you would achieve something . . . My friends were doing it, they were going out demonstrating in the streets of Sydney and coming home, watching themselves on television and thinking they’d done something. Well, maybe they did in the long run, but I don’t know, I really don’t know. At the time I was also writing to Robert Berthov(?), a professor who was at Kent State University he was in a library buying manuscripts through Robert Duncan and company and he was also a very important editor during the seventies and eighties, Credences was his magazine. He wrote to me the day the students were shot down in front of his room at Kent State University. These were the times we were writing in. He said, “Today Robert, some of my students were shot down in the campus outside my room.” I mean, that was a letter I got in the midst of that poem. These things were going on and I was writing to him, “Dear Robert, here I am in Brooklyn, the river’s calm today, there is a mist on the tide, I am studying Robert Duncan’s complete life’s work and reading Plato.” I mean, what a far remove from students being shot down outside your window. But I turn the television on and there are my friends in Sydney risking their lives and sanity, thinking that they can stop this war in Vietnam.
These things were in the air around that time as it was being composed and there was no way in the world that there was any vestige of an ego in there, of my ego, because really I was so impotent as a person and as an individual in society against these evil forces of the times that always exist anyway. Palmer says a wonderful thing in that poem, the interview, where he says there is no poetry of witness anymore.
JK: That’s one of my later questions. You’ve asked the question.
RA: It’s pertinent to this because turning the television on, seeing monks burning didn’t reach me. I mean, I knew obviously what was happening but I was not going to write about that and that’s simply because I didn’t know why, I didn’t know how, but I knew it wasn’t the way to write about that situation. I just had a sense that it just didn’t work for me, so I was taking the poetry, the process of poetry, taking modernism itself and turning it inside out, trying to find out what I thought about the world, what I thought about this corruption, and the corruption of language itself, in fact.
JK: What’s your view of the straight polemical poem, the didactic verse that says: this is right, this is wrong? In the classic old communist worker journals you used to get; do you think that has a place? Do you think it’s valid in any way?
RA: Yes, but the only person who can do that anymore is Bob Dylan. He says he is looking at the industrialists, he is looking at these fucking arseholes that manufacture these bombs, and he stands over their graves and says, “Do you really believe that all the money you made will ever buy back your soul?” And that really works, at the end of that ballad, “Oh You Masters of War”. That’s taken the place of didactic poetry, Dylan’s protest song.
JK: Do you think a singer like Billy Bragg, or to a certain extent Leonard Cohen (but not very much) Billy Bragg, anyway does the same sort of thing?
RA: He tries to do the same thing, and he’s got wonderful good intentions and he’s very talented, but Dylan is a genius. He is a genius like Shakespeare. Now it’s something that takes a genius, to be able to transform a mode of writing, the protest ballad, into something more.
JK: So that in a sense his voice has the the cry of the era, has the wail of the age in it.
RA: Yes, and it universalizes it so that this is even more potent and more interesting, and more revealing to me than the poetry of Ted Berrigan, of whom people might say that he is much more sophisticated than Bob Dylan, but in a way he’s not . . . maybe I was hearing Bob Dylan’s voice. I was reading Ted Berrigan on a page; I didn’t actually hear Ted Berrigan reading his poems until Creeley read them. Then I heard Berrigan’s voice. So . . . it’s connected to what I was talking about, using the language of the day, the language that we speak, and making poetry of that.
JK: Do you think it’s possible in this era, in this age let’s say the post-holocaust age the era in which Adorno asks the question, “Can there be poetry after Auschwitz?” Do you think it’s possible to be whimsical in our social commentary, say, as Michael Palmer refers to the whimsy of John Ashbery?
RA: Yeah, well there has to be whimsy after the holocaust, otherwise there’s no life. If you really consider what all that means, you just have to kill yourself, as Paul Celan did. He was the greatest Symbolist poet of that period, the greatest poet of that period, in my mind, and after the war he had to keep writing. And he did keep writing, but he also killed himself, along with a couple of other people. But who survived of that era? The ones that survived were strange people like Beckett. Beckett taught whimsy, the blackest whimsy of all, and that’s where it ends: Waiting for Godot.
JK: So instead of the world ending in a whimper it ends in a strange bizarre laugh . . .
RA: Beckett, of course, is the original Language Poet.
JK: Absolutely. Do you know that he was actually James Joyce’s secretary?
RA: That’s right, yes. And he was playing with the language, like writing it in French . . . I don’t think it was just because he didn’t want to compete with Joyce because Joyce had already written in English. There was more to it than that.
JK: I once wrote to Lyn Hejinian and said that Finnegan’s Wake is a disappointment to me because it represents the death of modernism and it’s not the birth of Postmodernism, and that the birth of Postmodernism came with his secretary, good old Beckett who learned the techniques from Joyce but reinvented them. Do you think that’s true?
RA: I certainly do. Beckett was the writer who, when Robert Duncan died . . . there was a period when Robert Duncan died . . . the result of that, aside from my grief for him as a person, was a strange emptiness in my life, and I didn’t quite understand what it was, but of course my correspondence with him stopped. And as Tranter so triumphantly says, there’s no us writing an elegy to him, Bob, don’t you realise the dead can’t hear? He’s not going to answer you now. Well, I don’t know. I don’t agree with John on that.
JK: You not agree with John fancy that!
RA: But there was this emptiness in my life, and in my intellectual life as well as my physical life, and I couldn’t work out what it was, and who filled it after Duncan. It was Beckett. Beckett was the one who gave me the substance that I couldn’t find in the poets. I should have known because when I mentioned Mark Strand to Duncan, he just shook his head in bewilderment and said “Forget it”. But that was the poet I ended up reading when he was dead. I got around that by coming back into poetry through Beckett, which led me to The Clean Dark. There’s a poem in The Clean Dark, the first poem in that book, called “What’s Slaughtered’s Gone” which is directly from Molloy, taken from Molloy the language is taken, that fractured broken sentence. That was the first poem that got me back up into an alleyway that led to something, Law at Heart’s Desire is led down a blind alley by Mark Strand, but I followed Beckett down a blind alley and it came out into The Clean Dark.
JK: You were talking about elegy: you’ve recently been working on some elegiac pieces on Brett Whiteley, which I find particularly interesting because they’re working in the traditional linear fashion, and they’re also looking at linguistic versions or linguistic interpretations of the linear poem. Could you comment on both the method and also on the writing of elegies and particularly that elegy or piece?
RA: I think that’s really at the centre of everything for me. I didn’t know at first, for the first ten years of my writing poetry, that the elegy itself as a genre was the thing that I could do. I don’t know why or how, but thinking back on it, it’s not as surprising really, because the first poem that I understood was “Adonais” (?); it was the first poem that I really understood. I did so many close readings of that poem; and I felt after living with it for so long that it was really a part of me. In that sense (this is before I met Robert Duncan), I knew that there was such a thing as links in the chain. And then I just got so much involved in all this when Michael Dransfield died. I think I say in the poem, “You would have loved an elegy or so from from me”. Because we used to talk about this romantic shit that people go on with. The Australian poets that were established at that time, which me and Dransfield used to knock and ridicule, were the poets of whom Michael used to say: when so and so dies X will finally take out the elegy that he’s been writing for the last ten years and publish it. Michael wrote a poem once called the “The Colonial Poets”, and he really believed bitterly that the establishment of Australian poetry was so corrupted that they would do things as calculatingly as that and who knows, maybe they did. We seemed to believe it. We didn’t have any evidence but that was the impression they gave us, that’s how impressed we were by them, except for Dorothy Hewett, Randolph Stow and Francis Webb, Judith Wright. Aside from that there weren’t many people that seemed to be out of that decadence, out of that delusional sort of state of being the poet. People might think this funny because Tranter’s convinced that I’ve taken on that mantle or that so-called role as public poet and John Forbes has even said in Cross the Border at my peak I was nothing more than another version of the socially integrated bard like Brett Whiteley. He also thinks that Brett Whiteley is full of shit.
JK: He did go on to say that when The Clean Dark came out that you were the finest lyric poet in the country, though.
RA: He did say that, but he didn’t really get it right there either, because I don’t think that The Clean Dark is at all an example of my poetry that is important.
JK: It is lyrical.
RA: It might be lyrical but it was a book I had to write to establish myself in this country. It’s almost like they want you to write a proper poem before they’ll accept you. I was sick of not getting fellowships. I was sick of not winning any prizes and not being a part of the . . .
JK: . . . fetishized commodity driven . . . ?
RA: Whatever it is. There were all these other people getting grants and fellowships and I thought well if Tranter can get one, why can’t I? There’s not much difference between us. But I knew I had to play the game to do it so I did. I played the game and wrote that book and it worked, but I’m not all that happy with it. It’s like an albatross around my neck in a way. It’s a much heavier albatross than . . . the Grail poems and Tranter calls them “Robert Adamson in Disneyland”. They mightn’t work, but they had much more integrity, as far as I was concerned anyway. I was trying for something a lot more difficult.
JK: With regard to working on the Brett Whiteley stuff, were you more attracted to the notions of the visual artist or to the notions of the artist regardless . . .
RA: No. It was just that all these things happened. He was a friend of mine, so he is a person who died and whom I miss tremendously.
JK: Peter Porter called him “that difficult artist” in an interview I did with him. He respects his ability and so on, but considered him a difficult person.
RA: He wasn’t a difficult person. He was a very easy person, but his art is another thing again. His art was as to important to me as Robert Duncan. Before I met Brett in 1972, I don’t think I’d even seen a real painting. I mean I might have looked at a few paintings but they didn’t really affect me much, and I’d looked at art books, and I’d loved Mondrian and Van Gogh and Max Ernst. They were my favourites at the time. But I was walking along the street in Paddington, and I walked into an art gallery, and I didn’t really even know what was on then and there was Alchemy on the wall. Again, it was like one of those things that gave me permission to continue in an area that I wasn’t sure would be accepted, or whether there was a point to it, because there was no audience like these L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets are saying: the only people who read poetry are the poets, so let’s make a positive thing out of it, not a negative. There was just that element to it, that I recognised something in Brett’s work that I could relate to. It was a triumphant thing. Someone had done it and succeeded, and there it was up on the wall. It was really a revelation to me as well that someone could paint like that. In fact what it was to me was a visual version of a Bob Dylan song stretched across three massive walls, and yet you could walk up to it and touch it. It really was alchemy. I went home and started writing Swamp Riddles . . .
JK: As a direct result of that.
RA: No, sorry it wasn’t Swamp Riddles it was The Rumour. That was one of the main kick-offs that coincided with the letter from Duncan, Alchemy and whatever record Dylan had out at the time all came together. Without them I just couldn’t have written The Rumour. They were three people; Duncan, Dylan and Whiteley that were doing it, what I wanted to do.
JK: Were they the actual kick-off point or were they things that came along and were immediately integrated into the poem? So did the poem start with them or did they feed the poem? Chicken and egg thing, or egg and chicken . . .
RA: I don’t think you can know, because it’s all part of the same thing. I was writing a poem. I wanted to write a very good poem. I didn’t know what it was. So I get letters from Duncan. I read Duncan’s books. I see Alchemy. I hear Bob Dylan, and that all just inspires you. That’s what it is. You’re in a desert and then suddenly you’re not in a desert.
JK: Seamus Heaney has said something to the effect of: it’s all a mystery. Poetry’s all a mystery.
RA: I agree with that.
JK: I don’t. I see poetry as quite a specific thing and I believe that you have, even if the inspiration is mystical . . .
RA: Poetry or what’s behind it.
JK: What’s behind it is a mystery, but the actual poetry is very specific. I separate the inspiration from the formal side of it. I heard someone say recently that the process of writing is wondrous because you don’t know what’s going to come out. For me I know exactly what I want to come out. It doesn’t always come out the way I want it, but I know what I want to come out of it. I have an impression of what the poem’s going to be. Would you not say that something like The Rumour must have had that, because it is such a structured thing?
RA: When I read the opening of “The Field” and “Roots and Branches”, I read them, there they were on my desk, and I said to myself, I want to write a book like that. I wanted to imitate it and so I did it. It becomes more oblique when Dylan comes into it and Whiteley comes into it, because they’re not the same . . .
JK: They are part of the mystery of inspiration?
RA: Brett’s using paint, not words. Dylan’s using music mixed with language which is another thing again. He’s also using a persona. He is the ultimate postmodernist, he created himself. Dylan is postmodernism. As a person that didn’t exist he became his own construction.
JK: Have you ever collaborated directly with an artist or a musician? I know you’re working on the book [The Language of Oysters] with your wife, Juno Gemes; it involves visual images and photographs with text.
RA: I’ve always worked with artists. In fact I worked with Brett. There were a couple of things we did. There was an auction to raise money for the anti-nuclear protest, so a lot of Sydney artists got together and created artefacts to be auctioned off. I wrote a poem and Brett illustrated it . . . Talking about collaboration, and how things lead to it: with each book, it’s very specific, there’s always an artist involved. The first one there was David Perry, who was a film maker and artist. The second one there . . . actually The Rumour is the one where there is no artist, because I didn’t know anyone. I literally didn’t know an artist when I was writing that book. I hadn’t met Whiteley. I didn’t know any visual artists; there’s no cover on it. There’s just that thing on the cover which is a paintbrush.
JK: So you had a spiritually “significant other” in The Rumour but for the rest you’ve had literally significant others.
RA: Yeah; literally there in my life. When you look at them, there’s Canticles and The Rumour, then there’s Swamp Riddles. With Swamp Riddles there was Robert Finlayson who was a painter, who was a friend of David Rankin, who was the painter that taught me about Mark Toby and Rothko, and all the things that led from Mark Toby right up into Rothko. He educated me in that sense. Then after that, after Swamp Riddles , was Cross the Border, and that’s when I met Gary and Brett, and what’s on the cover of that: a painting by Gary and Brett, and Gary’s etchings in it. Gary was coming to my house each day as the Grail poems were being written, drawing Grail paintings. He did an exhibition of Grail paintings that were exhibited at the same time that Cross the Border was published. And after Cross the Border, there was Storia. I would go to Storia’s studio every day and talk to him. They were always great debates. I’d go to Brett’s, we’d have this big debate. Brett wasn’t such an intellectual. I never had intellectual discussions with Brett. We had raves together, mainly about Bob Dylan, but he wasn’t so articulate. He’d want to hear stories about Rimbaud, and he’d want me to read Season in Hell. But Storia was more tough. He would talk about postmodernism and things like that. That was Law at Heart’s Desire. Then after that I met Juno. Juno was the first artist that I actually lived with, the first artist that I had a love affair with. They were friends and illustrators.
JK: Does that make a significant difference to the creative process?
RA: Gary Shead was closer than any of them because he was more a really close friend, more of a campaOero; again, he wasn’t a lover.
JK: Did it make a significant difference, that closeness?
RA: Yes, a huge difference. To live with someone that was also an artist gave me a different dimension to my life.
JK: Now, if we can move on to collaboration and the idea of working not only with another artist, but with the concepts of one artform interacting with the concepts of another art form can you make any general comments, and then lead into talking about your collaboration of the moment? That is the Hawkesbury River book, The Language of Oysters, with your wife, the photographer Juno Gemes.
RA: I love the way Palmer talks to his interviewee where he says, I’ll bracket that thing you bracketed. I’ll go right back to where I was talking about collaboration with Duncan; remember where he writes the lines on the poem? That scoops up the thing you’re talking about, about “no poetry after the holocaust”, because it’s got to do with the second World War. In Creeley’s introduction to Olson’s new book, he talks about what changes immensely in the few years that separate Williams’s Paterson from Olson’s Maximus. What Creeley says it is, is the literal configuration of the world which each attempts to salvage. “All the previous epistemological structures and even more the supporting cultural reference were displaced significantly if not forever get this, John by the political and economic transformations following the second World War.” Now this comes into the thing about collaboration, or this is how I want to do it. The underlying causes were well in place at the turn of the century, but by 1950 the effects were even more dominant. There could no longer be such a father-son disposition of reality as either Pound or Williams tacitly took as a given of their situation. Olson’s displacement echoes painfully in his own undertakings and nowhere more so than in the quote. “I have been an ability, a machine.” Then Creeley quickly says it was Pound’s proposal that “Points define a periphery”. So Creeley says his notes in this introduction, however inadequately, propose that possibility. Were they worked [with?] a determination of fixed reference and stable content it all might be plotted with secure conviction and assurance, but if our time can claim this is about the language stuff if our time can claim any securing sign for its passage it is absolutely chaotic, entropic, one wants to say malfunction of all its vital activities, whether political or economic, which prove finally to be the abiding rule. And then he ends it all by saying “each of us must find our own way by ear”, which is a quote from Olson. Getting back to that thing I was talking about, the language that’s in the air. So I had no idea what collaboration could possibly mean until that accidental collaboration where Duncan picks up a poem of mine and adds a few lines and rewrites my imitation of him.
JK: That’s like an incidental collaboration, though, isn’t it? Not an accidental collaboration because he intended to do that, but it was an incidental one because he was there at the time.
RA: Yes, that’s right and that’s why I quote that thing about the father-son thing, where Creeley is saying Williams and Pound had this, and that’s where I quoted Duncan’s letter where he said he didn’t want any Oedipal situation to occur in our friendship. Really what I was doing was taking on Duncan as a father, as a symbol to that legacy . . . I guess it is a legacy.
JK: That’s really not a collaboration, but a fraternisation . . .
RA: That’s right, and then there is the reaction to it, which I couldn’t predict, but what the reaction was, was the ultimate casting-off from Duncan was Where I Come From because I went straight from that high-toned Modernist rhetoric of, say, the Grail poems. Within months of the first couple of reviews of Cross the Border, I went and came out with Where I Come From, which was stripped of all rhetoric, like . . . a plainness. That was where I was collaborating with Jeffrey Proud [?] who did the drawings on the cover and inside.
I’d moved from Elizabeth Bay and I had the early versions of Where I Come From, and then Jeffrey turned up. That just coincided with it. He loved it. He loved it more than . . . well Gary and Brett were his friendly rivals, like me and Tranter. So Brett was like Tranter was to me. Jeffrey took it up with great gusto and did those drawings as I was doing the final versions. So in that sense it is a collaboration, but it’s a parallel kind of thing . . . I don’t know whether you’d call it collaboration. It is, I suppose but you live and work together, and the artist does the artwork; the drawings were Jeffrey.
JK: It’s a parallelism. It’s not even a playing against each other; it’s a linear occurrence or something.
RA: They back each other. It goes all the way back to Cross the Border; when Gary did an ad for Cross the Border, which was that sketch which turned up in my Selected Poems. That portrait was sketched as an advertisement for Cross the Border. Because of the horrible drawings at Queensland News, I said, “I don’t want one”, and . . . you wouldn’t believe how difficult it was. That was the first book in that series not to use that artist that they had. You know, those dreadful kind of photos, and to Gary on there was quite a big thing and from then on they’ve let artists do different books. [David] Malouf, and Fay [Zwicky]; they all got artists from that day on, which was a breakthrough.
JK: How about Where I Come From?
RA: With Jeffrey Proud.
JK: Yes, we’ve just done that.
RA: And then after Where I Come From there was The Law at Heart’s Desire, which was . . .
JK: Tim Storrier. So now we come to The Clean Dark . . .
RA: We started in Paddington. I started writing in Paddington and then we moved up here after about six months, and Juno’s introduction to the Hawkesbury, by living here, simultaneously occurred with the putting together of that book. So she started taking photos of the landscape with a mind to coming up with a cover. But as her photographs gradually appeared I started to write poems from them, or off them. I’d put a photograph on the desk. “Speaking Page” was one that came off a photograph. It’s very strange instead of looking out, going out into the landscape, I found it much more manageable to write a poem about the Hawkesbury from a photograph. It’s like a perverted version of the way Wordsworth used to say, you have to hold up a frame to the landscape; they used to look in a little mirror and this is a version of that, but it’s different.
JK: They also used a claude glass.
RA: So having the photograph on the desk emphasises to me that I’m not writing poems about the Hawkesbury. I get upset when people say, you’re the Hawkesbury poet, you write about the Hawkesbury. I really don’t. That could be any river in the world. It just happens to be the Hawkesbury. I love it as a physical thing in my life. I love living here, but I’m not writing about it. It’s a symbolic river in my work. I call it the Hawkesbury, I name it the Hawkesbury, but it isn’t. A lot of the Hawkesbury poems were written when I was living in Bermagui. Most of them were written in Paddington and Mosman. But with Juno coming into it, it turns into something else, because there’s the photograph of nature. So there’s the art and there’s the nature and the two things exist separately, but it’s more manageable to me as an artwork than as a river. The Hawkesbury as an artwork is more inspiring to me than the actual Hawkesbury. Juno’s photograph of the Hawkesbury changes it from the Hawkesbury into a river in a photograph, which is enough to tilt me.
JK: That’s interesting. So when we’re talking about the small me, the “ego-I” type thing, in a sense it’s playing against that. It’s depersonalizing the personal. Something that’s mythologically apparently a part of you is in fact an object. It’s something physical that can be removed as well. So you’re playing against that notion of it being you; it’s you looking at it as an object, it’s a separation.
RA: When I started to do that, I literally called one of the sections “Rewriting the Hawkesbury” and I put the word Hawkesbury there because I knew it would be easy for a lot of people to relate to it. If I put “Rewriting the Styx” they would spin off and not be able to handle it. It wouldn’t make any difference to the poems.
JK: Then post-Clean Dark you were also working on this river book that I mentioned earlier. Also there was some interaction on the cover of Wards of State.
RA: Yes, that was very important. Wards of the State in fact wouldn’t have existed if it hadn’t been for Juno’s photograph: that photograph on the cover of that girl. One day Juno was going through her files and going through her print drawer, and that photograph slipped out from underneath a couple of others, and I saw that image, and it vaguely reminded me of my first girlfriend. But that was just an emotional thing, it wasn’t anything to do with the book. And I said, “I like that”, and she just gave it to me, and I put it on my desk . . . I woke up the next morning and thought, “I will write a book using that as a cover”. I didn’t know what it would be, and I think at the time this woman Vicky Viidikas, this is when we were living in Paddington, came around. I was at the beginning of the Clean Dark when Vicky came round, and I had started to write Wards of the State. I wrote three or four of those poems about street kids, and Vicky was very dismissive of the Clean Dark. She saw straight away what I was doing. She said, “You’re finally writing your classic Australian book, you’re kowtowing to the whole thing.” She was disgusted with it: “You’re doing the straight scene. I knew you’d finally do it. I knew you’d settle down in the established world of Australian poetry. You’ve finally sold out.”
And I said, “I haven’t”, and I pulled out these poems about the street kids, and she loved them, and that’s when I thought, “Okay, I’ll do a book. This will balance The Clean Dark. This will be my conscience.” It’s a bit like an early version of what now are the language-centred poems. I wasn’t into that type of experimental writing at the time. That was more social-comment vernacular poetry. So I put the photograph there and then I wrote the words Wards of the State, and it just looked like a book, and I had absolutely no idea what was going to go in it. Tom Thompson came around and I said, “What do think of this as an idea for a book?”, and I showed him that photograph. And he said, “Wonderful, what about about those old pieces of prose you wrote back in the seventies, autobiographical stuff?”, and I said, “I don’t know why I wrote those, but I don’t think they’re much good.” And then he reminded me that I wrote them towards a film script that I was doing with Dorothy Hewett. We wrote a film script, and Dorothy asked me to do some sketches of my teenage years, and I wrote some of them as an outline for the film script, and eventually those did turn into a film script that then Dorothy wrote.
JK; So there is collaboration-on-collaboration here.
RA: All that is a poetry of social activity. It wasn’t then poetry as research. That’s what I call my new poetry. It’s research into language. They were possibilities for books that might be more broadly read. In fact there were about three thousand copies of Wards of the State.
JK: You sold three thousand copies.
RA: Yeah. But see, it’s accessible. And then . . . in the middle of that, because I was still worried about it being seen as an autobiography I didn’t want it to be seen as an autobiography I called it a novella, which didn’t really work. And then Juno went through some old family photos that my mother gave her, and we mixed them with some of her photographs so that anyone that really did a close reading of that book could see that I wasn’t . . . I mean, it was so blatant they put that quote from, what’s his name, Bataille on the cover. You know the French writer that the theorists love. Bataille. In one of his novellas he said, “I have to kill the real Robert.” It’s about these two brothers. So I made it quite clear by quoting him that this was a constructed book. It wasn’t really meant to be literal because it’s an experimental; if you wanted to call it anything you could call it an experimental collaboration towards a biography that’s fictional. A fictional autobiography, that’s it.
JK: Do you recall any of the things Michael Palmer said about collaboration in that interview? He’s talking about dance, and he’s asked, “And so, is your work the boundaries of genre or its stasis?” [?] And he says, “To raise the boundaries and pull things over from one into the other I have been pulling some images from my own work into this dance, and then I started to pull them back from the dance into that section of passages called eUntitled’, which has a poem that says eat passages we peer out over such and such’”.
RA: That’s when he’s working with Margaret Jenkins. Yes, again, all through the years, I’ve had this connection with Michael Palmer. When Duncan came to Australia, when he came to my place, as he left, he said, “I’ll put you in touch with this fellow in California who is in the same generation as you, your age. He was born in 1943. His name’s Michael Palmer.” I said, “Oh, I know his work, I published him in New Poetry.” And I hadn’t written to him but I think I got his poems via Kris Hemensley I did, Kris had sent me some poems for The Ear in the Wheatfield, and then did a special issue of New Poetry.
JK: Because of Kris I heard of Lyn Hejinian.
RA: So he actually got the poems and I published them in New Poetry, and I loved them. But Duncan said, “I’ll be gone and this will be your connection. This guy, Michael Palmer will be the guy most like you in the world when I go out of the picture, or when you go off me, or when I finally perish, or whatever.” I can’t remember the exact words but he was really saying, this’ll be your American connection when I’m gone. He said it that literally, and I’ve never followed it, I never picked up on it. The poem that I published in your latest issue of Salt is about that; from then I tried to write a letter to him in fact it exists, I’ve sold drafts of it. There’s probably twenty drafts of it in the National Library of my letter to Michael Palmer and it all ended up in the poem, and I sa, “I’m still writing you that letter.” When I was working on it, on yet another version of the letter, I was tearing my hair out, and Michael Wilding came over and said, “What are you doing?” I said, eI’m trying to write a letter to Michael Palmer.” He said, “What a strange activity, why is it causing you so much anguish? Why don’t you just write on a postcard?” I said, “It’s turning into a poem.” Then Michael said, “Why don’t you write a poem?”, and that’s what I did. But still, I will have to write the letter. Often he writes poems called letters.
JK: Yes. Speaking of Michael Wilding, he’s been a seminal person in your writing life. Have you ever maybe, not collaborated literally, but collaborated conceptually with Michael Wilding? It would have reflected in your work and in his work. Has there been association? What is the difference between collaboration and association?
RA: Michael’s been very important to me for thirty years. He was up here last week and I said, “I’m going to have an interview with John Kinsella and we’ll talk about L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry. Poetry without reference.” Michael laughed. He said, “Oh, we did all that in 1975. We’ve already investigated that, and it didn’t lead anywhere.” Well, it mightn’t have led Michael anywhere, you know, in prose. . .
JK: When prose loses its reference, it becomes poetry . . .
RA: Michael has written quite a few prose-poem-like pieces. They’re not poetry, but they’re almost poetry. They’re two, three-page lyrical or satirical pieces of prose, I suppose you’d call them. He calls them stories, but they’re getting very close to poetry.
Michael has been important to me from the start, because when we met I hadn’t read much at all, and of course Michael was already teaching, a senior lecturer at Sydney University. He came from Oxford on a scholarship not long before he came to Australia, and he was going to go either to Australia or to California, but he came here. Two years after he got here I met him, and he’d just finished a book on Milton who I loved, and at the time we were in Balmain, and that whole thing with Frank Moorhouse and Nigel Roberts . . . It was coming out from the Donald Allen anthology. It was this new freedom that we’d all found. They called it all different things . . . vaguely Balmain writers, but we all just happened to be there at the time. Out of those people . . . they were all writing about their lives, and me and Michael weren’t. Me and Michael were writing about literature. We were writing about the lives that were going on in our reading. I was doing that more then Michael. Michael was trying always to refer to reality because he was coming from Burroughs and Kerouac. I was coming from Ezra Pound, Zukofsky via Duncan and company. But Michael’s reading, his professional reading, has always been a great resource to me, because whenever I needed to ask about any specific area I was dealing with, I’d ask Michael and he’d give me a two, three-hour lecture or tutorial, as we sat around on the river or at the Point at East Balmain. So really he has been my education. Really my personal tutor has been Michael Wilding. My personal professor. There’s two things; Michael the teacher, Michael the scholar but also Michael the writer, the radical writer, the sort of experimental writer. And Michael’s prose has been more experimental than any of those people, much more experimental than Frank Moorhouse.
JK: Working the other way, your influence on him as part of the associative collaboration we were talking about?
RA: Well, Michael writes these stories that incorporate this character called Sam, which is based on me, and he’s a poet. So out of these discussions and adventures in the imagination comes source material for Michael’s stories. When these things come up, we’ll both read a book and we’ll discuss it. [It’s] better than seminars you’d have in a university because we’re sharing the activity of writing and the activity of scholarship.
JK: Sharing the activity of writing and the activity of scholarship. So it’s an interactive association. In this relationship we’re talking about, (moving on now to The Language of Oysters, having worked through all of those) how important is that emotional association to it, or is that not relevant to the process? We have the intellectual one with Michael Wilding; with Juno you have . . . ?
RA: Well, it’s a similar thing; it’s the same thing. What happened with Juno is, I didn’t know, until I met her, the language of photography. I didn’t know that there was a language of photography. I didn’t know that you would look at a photo in a different way to how you would look at a painting. I had been educated through my associations with the painters, with Whiteley, Gary Shead, Jeffrey Proud, Tim Storrier mainly, and David Aston, who is an abstract painter quite different to those other painters. So I had a balance. And also I had a very deep education in Greenberg’s philosophy through Ron Robinson-Swan(?).
That was very interesting to look at; as a poet I didn’t see how that affected art till the last ten years. All the things I learnt about Greenberg via Ron Swan helped in my understanding, ironically, of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry and of what I’m doing at the moment. With Juno, she actually said, “this is how you read a photograph”, and talked about the way to read a photograph rather than the way to look at a photograph. The difference between looking at a photograph and looking at a painting, and the way she works as a recorder. She does a social-comment type photography out of her interest with Aboriginal people. Years and years of her documenting the Aboriginal struggle. It’s something I was very sceptical about, not in terms of Juno, but in terms of a political movement. That I really am very cautious of any political or overt behaviour, because I always see it failing unless you completely become a part of it, unless you really take it up as a cause. Poetry is my cause, not a political one. So we’ve had this intense political argument about content and form.
JK: But also, looking at Juno’s work it’s as much about impressionist statement. Getting back to the Michael Palmer interview, there is something that I think is quite relevant to this process. He says, “I was looking for a means of representation that I could feel honest with. In other words, I think one of the problems of overtly political poetry now is something that Octavio Paz has brought up, and so much of it has to do with newspaper reports and so little of it has to do with witness.” So they’re pictures of witness and they’re not pictures of reportage, and in the same way I would then extend that to your poetry. The Vietnam thing in The Rumour is not a statement as in a newspaper, it’s not reportage, but it’s witness, it’s the feeling of being there and seeing and appreciating.
RA: Yes, that’s how I finally dropped my cynicism and sceptical attitude toward what Juno was doing. Because after getting to know her and talking to her for over a year, it was photography of witness. She had been with those people, she had followed the struggle and documented it, and also made articles from it. And that’s how it became a whole field of experience that I wouldn’t have known about. And out of that came Canticle for the Bicentennial Dead, a poem I definitely wouldn’t have written. It’s funny because I didn’t get that from Dylan. You’d think I would have written some kind of poem, remember, when we were talking about the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and poetry that dealt with political protest poetry, it didn’t ever come out of Dylan. What came from Dylan was Symbolism and postmodernism. But from Juno I had this direct connection to a real struggle that was . . . again, it wasn’t the struggle, it wasn’t the people, it was the art Juno’s art that I could see it through, in the same way as I said before, when I put the photograph of the river on the desk, Juno’s photograph of the Hawkesbury was more the Hawkesbury of the poetry than the real Hawkesbury.
JK: What of the oyster poems and collaboration?
RA: Well, again, that’s a bit like political poetry. Again, poetry that I wouldn’t have written. Juno was doing a section of The Language of Oysters and went out with the oyster farmers, and I’d grown up with those people. Over fifty years I’d been coming and going and associating with them and looking at them and seeing them. But I didn’t know or see what they . . . I hadn’t taken their lives into my poetry. Again, because I didn’t witness the struggle or the lives that they had directly. It wasn’t transformed from real politics into the politics of the imagination. Once I could look at the photographs, it became a politics of imagination rather than the politic of reality, and that’s how I could write about these people. I mean, I got to know my family through Juno’s photographs rather than through my family. It’s pretty good.
JK: It is pretty good.
RA: I didn’t understand my grandfather until I saw a portrait Juno did of him . . . When I say I didn’t understand such and such because of this, I’m always saying as Michael Palmer’s interviewer keeps saying “bracket that.” But I’m saying it in terms of “understand it in terms of poetry”. I’m not talking about life, I’m not talking about “the poet of the little me” as Palmer says. I’m talking about just poetry.
JK: I’m going to flash back through Where I Come From and through notions of the archetypal image, the primary images as well that we inherit and that become our poetry, or become part of our poetry even if we try to dissolve reference, that still the building blocks are there, the original language is formed around them. Michael Palmer said, “Until a certain point, through most of my schooling, I imagined poetry more than I wrote it.” What do you think this says about where we take our poetry from, and also about what poetry is and how poetry manifests itself?
RA: That’s so interesting: I’d read that interview thoroughly, and that slipped by. Now you mention it I keep getting these . . . I don’t know why it surprises me anymore, but this is a thing that’s been going on for probably fifteen or twenty years, these flashes of recognition I have with Michael Palmer. I’ve always understood his poetry effortlessly. I’ve shown it to people, even well-read and educated erudite people like Kevin Hart. When he first looked at it he said, “Well, he really is different.” And Kevin isn’t surprised by much. See what I think happens . . . it’s got some connection with Mallarmé. I think if Mallarmé was alive now, living in this century at this time and place, and he wrote in English, his poetry, the poetry he would be writing, would be very similar to what Michael Palmer’s writing. Now that’s just an imaginative leap, but there is a connection, also there is a lineage there anyway . . . Michael Palmer isn’t a Symbolist. He says so, he says he’s not a Symbolist. But in fact he does something remarkably like Mallarmé. When Mallarmé was grappling with his idea of the death of God, not long after Nietzsche’s madman ran through the city announcing that God was dead. Mallarmé was sitting in the centre of all that, knowing it was all pretty much what would happen and philosophically anyway it would take a lot to get around that. So finally Mallarmé’s sitting there saying to himself, “Okay, there’s no God, I can handle that. I’ll create . . . ” as he says God’s poems are stars and the black universe. My poem will be the black marks on the white page, the white abyss. But what happened then was his son died; his son dies, and he suffers terrible grief and then starts to write a poem called “A Tomb for Anatole” which is his major work. Which has been translated by Paul Auster and published in America by Northpoint Press, Michael Palmer’s publisher.
JK: Before New Directions.
RA: Yes, but that’s his new publisher. Northpoint Press have gone out of existence. What happened was, Mallarmé was saying, “Now I need a God. What does it mean? My fucking son is dead, gone, it can’t be the end, it doesn’t make sense, it can’t be the end of him.” So there was a need for a God finally. And this whole poem is this agonising quest for a God at a time when philosophically God is dead, and Mallarmé accepts intellectually that existentialist proposition, and deals with it by creating almost a religious poetry, which I think isn’t too far away from what Michael Palmer’s doing. I think Michael Palmer deals with belief through dance. His poetry dances in the same way as I imagine his choreography dances. It is a dance with cosmic forces.
JK: I mentioned Where I Come From and your early life, and the statement that he made, “I imagine poetry more than I write it.” Can you say something on that?
RA: Yes. That spun me right off . . . I like that. Well, that’s exactly what happened with Where I Come From. I imagined my childhood, instead of remembered it, through the poems of Where I Come From. I went back and lived a childhood in my head which didn’t exist. I mean that isn’t about me, those poems aren’t about me. When I was writing them they were in no way autobiographical and when I showed them to Dorothy Hewett she read them as autobiographical, brilliant autobiographical. As she said she thought they were brilliant autobiographical poems, and it amused me, and I played along a bit with that. At times I would argue with her about it and she would get infuriated. She really doesn’t believe me when I say that. She doesn’t believe they are not autobiographical poems, but they were made up, totally imagined, totally fabricated. It was a whole life that I invented for those poems. Not for me, not for the world, not for anything else other than to make them work. I just imagined this life of hell with a person that happened to be growing up on a river, the river Styx in this mythological country. I mean, how can I call it the Hawkesbury River in Australia? but that’s what was in my head when I was writing those poems. And maybe in some way or other I got closer to a possible biographical writing, autobiographical writing than I might have if I’d tried to write one directly; I don’t know . . . Who was it that said it’s a mystery Seamus Heaney says it’s all a mystery. That’s what Seamus Heaney’s talking about there, when he says you don’t know really where it comes from where what makes you write them comes from. You know where the words come from. They’re like little pieces of stone or bricks that you build up.
JK: Is this the imagined poetry more than the written? Is this what “I imagined poetry more than I wrote it” means, that the mystery is in the spirit of it, and once you start writing it, the poetry is in some way defeated? L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets would disagree with that. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets would oppose that.
RA: No, not all. I don’t think they would, because it’s like Jackson MacLow said, when he compared it to the Zen thing of no poetry. You have a mind and there’s nothing in it whatsoever.
JK: Or maybe they would say, that’s the end result of poetry, that’s what we will eventually theoretically work towards the no poetry, the purely imagined poetry, rather than it being a starting point.
RA: Here it is. “What I think those who’ve used this term enon-referential’ have meant to point out is the lack of any obvious object of imitation or subject matter. No situation, action, suffering, wave of emotion or argument seems to be conveyed. Or where some situations, actions, seem to be conveyed, the work as a whole doesn’t seem to have any unifying subject. The attention seems to be centred on linguistic details and the relations among them, rather than on what they might point to.” But then he goes on to talk about: is there any sense in bringing in such a non-linguistic and non-literary term as the no mind. This term used by the Zen Buddhists to refer to . . . I talked about it before, where they refer to the deepest layer of your mind and that’s the layer of your mind below the conscious ego, below the psychoanalytic unconscious where you imagine poetry. And the thing is, how do you get the poetry up out of that place? And that’s what this type of verbal composition has its roots in . . . Jackson MacLow originally called it concrete poetry, because he resented people saying that the poems were abstract. He compares it to John Cage’s chance poems in the seventies. Here it is, this is what I’ve been looking for. “Empty words”. That comes from Thoreau. It’s all in that. You imagine empty words, so you empty all of it, all of it out of it. When you have nothing in your mind, how can you imitate something? In a perceiver’s mind . . . is the object of imitation. So it’s not as difficult as it sounds. There’s certainly a sense in which perceivers are perceiving their own minds at work when they sense meanings in these verbal works, so it might well be proper to call the perceiver’s mind the object of imitation. That’s the mind itself. But this may not be the case with many of the non-aleatory works.
JK: Taking that quote in a more literal sense, not in the persona that wrote Where I Came From, but the persona, the child-person, the young person, how do you think the notion of poetry becomes conscious? Accepting that it’s something that is there regardless, how is it brought into consciousness? What is the process that transfers poetry from the imagined to the concrete, into language?
RA: I think it’s very similar to drawing. But you’re trying to draw something that doesn’t exist.
JK: And drawing is the first thing a child will do, usually, to express that. You are talking of how one can mimic something when there’s nothing there, in much the same way as you’re saying the child’s mind produces something that’s always original in a sense, because there’s nothing there to base it on that is true inspiration in a sense. Do you think this is so?
RA: Something along those lines.
JK: You see, that’s non-referentiality. That’s pure poetry, if you like. The word is a word-in-itself as the Russians said. I would argue that we need a notion . . . I see a difference between drawing and the word, because a drawing is something you require no knowledge to put down, whereas the word . . .
RA: In the beginning was the word. That’s where we get into trouble.
JK: Well, you see we’re running into trouble here. We’re talking about the difference between expression as a thing-in-itself and the idea of the inspiration which comes from nowhere, and it’s a huge gap between those two, and I find it hard to reconcile. In your work, you do reference very distinctly. Even in those new poems on Whiteley you move between a linear series of references into a more timeless series of references, one where the references interact and move, and they’re not bound by the narrative imperative. That’s not L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry; that’s poetry with reference that is not hindered by concepts of time. It’s more the Duncan thing than it is the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E thing.
RA: That’s where I’m struggling with all this at the moment, with this interview at the moment because I’m struggling with those poems with, for want of a better word, those elegies, for Brett Whiteley. I wrote them and I knew they weren’t finished but I’ve sent them out. Now I want them back again because I’m very unhappy with . . . the elegy, which is quite a long poem of maybe twenty pages, written in a fairly conventional mode not dissimilar to some of the stuff in the Clean Dark. It’s a fairly conventional response to a person’s death. About halfway through it I crack up because I realise I’m not dealing with it. I’m just writing poetry. An elegy about, an “elegy”, that is covering up what I really think and feel. It’s become such a clichéd response. Such an easy way to deal with grief. Looking at the poems now, taking those first ones and making other poems out of them, the poems that cannibalise them, I’ve come up with something that’s influenced by L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry but as you correctly say, it isn’t L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry. I am still unhappy, so there’s another step to go. There’s another step to go with those elegies. It could be the way Zukofsky wrote that poem over and over until it worked.
JK: Michael Palmer said, and he’s actually talking about nonsense and Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll and so on, “And of course as in Carroll there is fascination with logic, counter-logic, syllogism, false-syllogism, that logic has trouble meeting itself. But we can have all of it in poetry.” In the end, after all the theory which he says can be fetishized, and all the rest of it in the end all of it’s in poetry. So we can sit and talk about all this sort of stuff. But in the end it’s what’s on the page or in the air or in our imaginings or whatever. The word poetry, the concept of poetry takes all these things in. It doesn’t have to be anything more than an imagining but that state of imagining can accept all these things. It can absorb. It’s greater than the component parts. It’s greater than the word, so this is a contradiction for the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poem because it’s’ not just the word as a thing-in-itself. It’s many, many, many things coming together as things-in-themselves and under that umbrella called poetry they exist. Do you think there is any wisdom in that?
RA: I love it. That’s why I love Michael Palmer so much. I think in that sense (you have to be careful saying this) but that’s why we’re poets and not painters, because poetry is, because of language, the one art that can encompass all those things. But this is very important. It can also encompass what we have to drag around with us, with our egos. That ego or that self or that consciousness or that person or that imagined person who is writing the poem doesn’t have to be us. It doesn’t have to be the poet. It doesn’t have to be the ego that taunts me as I try to create these works of imagination rather than myths of an existence that I may have left.
JK: And these works of honesty, of truth, which is what you were saying earlier when you were talking about The Rumour.
RA: Yes. Honesty and truth, not because I’m baring my soul or any of that nonsense. Because it simply will not work as poetry if it isn’t good.
JK: Well, Michael Palmer also says, “Music and poetry can so easily become cultural decor.” It can become a thing that is pretty to listen to, and that’s not the intent of this music . . . The point is, if you’re honest you can’t become just decor, because decor is something that belongs to that commodity-fetishized world which is all about the market place, and it’s about exchange, and what things are worth, money and so on.
RA: That’s why Schoenberg doesn’t sound like Mozart and that’s why Bob Dylan doesn’t sound like Byron.