John Kinsella interviews Peter Porter (1993)

Interview with Peter Porter re: Collaborative work with Arthur Boyd

JK: Okay then. First just with a general statement of the intent. How did the collaberation come about in the first place?

PP: Well as general example of an only begetter in this Arthur has been a close friend for years of English publisher, Tom Rosenthal, and Tom collected a lot of Boyd pictures and at some point - must have been some point in the late sixties - Tom suggested a kind of collaberation between Arthur and myself. I've known Tom, not all that well, but I have known him mainly through English Literary activities of one sort or another - we've both done reviews on the radio and that sort of thing. And Arky Arthur's approach . . . His general approach . . . had at that time, been approached by a quite a number of people to work with him. You can never tell when an artist really will take up someone's work and work with it happily. At the time I don't know if I was very surprised when I first collaborated on Jonah because I had met him a couple of times and we hadn't really got on very well because I, in a show-offish way, said something nasty about Michelangelo which he thought was in the worst possible taste. Not only that, but he also thought it was just typical of a litery man sort of showing up and talking about something which he didn't know anything about.

In fact, I had very strong opinions about Italian Rennaisance paintings but it doesn't mean that my opinions were worth anything in particular but thats how I do feel about them. But then when we came together and Tom - Tom was very amusing about this - I have recorded some of this in an article I wrote for Wo Brutees Brennet? but so, one of the stories, this story I will tell you now is a recapitulation of that and it's perfectly true. Tom thought it a good idea to so a sort of William Blake collaberation. In fact, Wiiliam Blake collaberated with himself!

And we would use a biblical story because Arthur had already done his illustrations, not to the original poems, but to . . . I think . . . its the Book of Daniel, isn't it? But anyway Nebuchadnezzer, he had already done Nebuchadnezzer; he has actually done some Christian stuff in the form of St. Francis of Assisi, which Tom wasn't so keen on, but what Tom said to us on this occasion - we'll do the Bible. He suggested Job, but I said no. I couldn't possibly do Job, not only because The Book of Job itself is remarkable and so peculiar in the original biblical text, but after Blake had really made almost impoosible to do Job, I mean Blake had finished Job off for good. And I said what about the nice short Book of Jonah which is sort of . . . nobody knows much about but I said there is something nice in The New Testament, perhaps in the Acts of the Apostles and Tom said No, no, we've got to keep this Jewish . . . and so we went back to the Old Testament again and Jonah seemed an excellent subject. It divides so neatly - its a very short book only four chapters, divided neatly into two parts:- the part of the whale and the part of Nineveh where he's menaced by the worm, the gourd and the West wind. It's a very obviously a picture booky story; at the same time, it's very interesting because it is a story of the obsessional nastiness of God; the Jewish God , or the Christian God, whichever God you liked to deal with.

JK: It lends itself to frequency of tone of?

PP: Yes, and this you can afford, when the book first came out - when my english reviewers recorded Auden and water, I think, probably, the tone of that book is part of my poem of Jonah . . . is the closest I ever got to being . . . I wasn't conscious of imitating Auden but I think it was the closest because it is like, in some respects Auden's most loose-limbed kind of concotion - the book Auden called 'For the time being' which is a Christmas Oratoria and but the poems in this are obviously, to some extent, pastiche but they're also - I don't know how to put this but they're also . . . I saw each poem as a kind of woodcut or vignette and thinking that Arthur would be able to see them that way. Perhaps, but in fact he released the whole cornucopia of images for the book. How these images are put together in the book is another matter, of course. I think one of the problems we had in the collaberations we had together is Arthur produces a . . . produces the first book of Jonah and the last book of Mars as kind of multifarious collection of images, some of them mere sketches, whereas in the two middle books: Narcissus and The Lady Unicorn: the other way round, The Lady Unicorn and Narcissus: his reaction was to set pieces to . . . and the set pieces: what Arthur tends to so is to concentrate on one particular image, one set of images and the poems and the pictures are not directly illustrative of each other. What happened in this, is that you are to read, to read I think,these books . . . at least how I see it, these books as counterpoints, not as harmonies . . . that is to say: What goes on in the poetry and what goes on in the pictures contraputively - one point against the another. Rather than felt harmonically, where one thing reinforces and underwrites another thing. In other words the pictures are in a kind of relationship witheach other which is touching only at points rather than pictures being illustrations of poems or poems extrapolations of the pictures.

JK: Just a? In terms of . . . once you decided upon a subject being Jonah, did you sort of sketch ideas,if you like, then Boyd gather together a series of images or archetypal requisites and then worked from there?

PP: I'm not quite sure what stage Arthur created the pictures. I do know that in general, he wouldn't really start work until he had the poems 'en bloc'. It wasn't a question of sending, as it might, as it might, be said with a poet working with a composer, who might send some passages and he(composer) can compose and set them and say what the next passages . . .

JK: Were you conscious of, obviously you were, conscious of his work generally, but were you conscious of his particular archetypes that might be inserted into . . .

PP: Absolutely not!

JK: Absolutely not.

PP: And of course, what he had done, this is unfair to Arthur to say this, but what he has done is tended to bring into all four of these books, his obsessional archetypes which you can trace all the way back to the early pictures that were sone in those areas around Melbourne and which . . . the sort of funny looking muzzled dogs . . .

JK: Stoats, four eyes? RatsŹ.Ź.Ź.

PP: And thats perfectly true because if you were to take, I mean there's nothing wrong with it but if you werre to take say - I can always get examples from music than I can from illustrative art, if you take an opera which is about Ancient Greece or an opera which is set in sort of Italy or Spain about an amoreuse, Mozart style will be the same for both. You donÕt have an archaic Greek style for an archaic story and have a sort of sexy, you know, Italian style for a sexy Italian story. The artist has his own style.

And I do think what has been, I would even guess, to say been helpful to Arthur, in these books, is that while, on the whole, he's been able to bring in his obsessional archetypes and his/its ikons. Now, the meed to satisfy the story has liberated and brought him a whole lot of other imagery which might not have otherwise been dealt with.

JK: After Jonah, having said that you had no preconceptions as to what Boyd would so with your poetry . . .

PP: Not at all.

JK: After Jonah though, did you expect certain things to happen and in the way that you that you have and that affect the way you . . .

PP: Yes, I expected that these things to happen but I was always surprised that in each case of the further three collaberations, of new departures which I hadn't expected and, . . . I mean, take the next one; 'The Lady Unicorn' That had a rather odd origin. The story was not to me, in any way, attractive, at least, the legend that I had heard. The reason the book was written the way it was written, was that, there was a chap in Melbourne who ran a gallery, called Georges Mourer? Š originally a Frenchman, afrench Jew, who was in the French Resistance Š who ran a gallery. And he was a great admirer of ours and there was also a mystery about the finance of these books which I donÕt know anything about. As to whether the people who were supposedly to put up the money and did put it up or whether it was ArthurÕs own money is something which I shall never know. But I supposed I could ask Arthur but I donÕt think he would tell me.

But the . . .

JK: He can confronted? that one of ones mentioned that there was generous assistance?

PP: That was Georges Mourer?

JK: Yes

PP: Georges actually had, as a young man in Paris, he frequently dropped into Musee D'Eclely which is on the Left Bank. And inside the Musee DÕEclely there are wonderful,late medieval, early rennaissance tapestries of The Lady Unicorn and what Georges wanted was a modern development of that. Now that . . . so then I had to look out for the original story, I found it almost impossible to find any real references to this story of The Lady Unicorn I knew the general outline - that the Unicorn was left out, was the only animal that didnÕt get into the Ark etc, and I knew that the way to catch the Unicorn was with a virgin - but I manged to find an account of the legend in a strange book edited by a man who is better known as a Victorian hymn writer called Zabai? Baring Gould who . . . which is all about . . . he took a lot of medieval legends, to my surprise, the Lady Unicorn is about the legend of the same calibre, and same time as other better known ones such as the one which appeared in the Francescue? Illustrated in Noets as the story of The True Cross. And there's another famous one of The Seven Sleepers of Eversness? which is mentioned by John Donne in one of his poems. So I looked at this but I had to really fill out lot of the stuff myself. And Jonah had been, I thought, too discursive, so what I wanted to so with The Lady Unicorn, do it in depth, right from the start. I was going to do 20 poems and thats it, you know. And Arthur would then do 20 plates which would go with the 20 poems. And so that was right from the start. Besides it would be more formal . . .

JK: . . . epigrammatic books of the . . . ?

PP: And that's what we did and I think Arthur excelled himself, of course, in the actual shere exfoliation. You take the cover picture which is also the No 10 in the course of the - yeah - it is, I think, is beautiful an example, I mean, its got Arthur's obsessions in it, its got the cast of shoe, its . . . the appearance of the picture is not unlike a modern without the sense of pastiche. It's not like a modern version of say a very famous picture like Boticelli's Prima Vera. Its got the idea of the flowering. What Arthur's so good at doing is metamorphosis. And metamorphosis, of course, is the basis of much of the European culture. I mean Ovid was Shakespeare's favourite writer and the whole idea of people turning into things, the whole relationship of Nature; Daphne de Lourieado turning into a laurel bush, you know, that sort of thing. Well, this book,The Lady Unicorn enable both Arthur and myself, I think, to try in a slightly sophisticated way, to try to do a modern novel? of it, to so a modern - both sensual and sophisticated, both mocking and serious. If you look back . . .

JK: The mocking/serious time, Mars, the . . .

PP: Tommy Mandeville . . .

JK: Was he a poet?

PP: No, Mandeville was a famous, weird . . . the sort of Baron Munchausen of his day

JK: The . . . ? I'm talking about.

PP: He's the man who did the Mandeville's Travels.

JK: Not Mandeville's Travels.

PP: Not Mandeville's Bees.

JK: Not Mandeville's Bees.

PP: No, not him. I've never read Mandesville's Bees.

JK: Because I was wondering in Mars, there are certain sections which have very very distinct rumbling overtones,almost a wistful playfullness of something incredibly serious in intent. I was wondering if that had been . . .

PP: I think that had been the start of all the books really. I mean, I've never, I'm a great believer in mixed modes. I have no fondness for pure form at all. I like things to be, I mean, It always - this is, of course, very grand examples - but I always contrast say Shakespeare with Racine. If you take the end of Anthont and Cleopatra; Anthony is already dead; we have had one great sort of crisis and then Cleopatra is going to kill herself with an asp. Shakespeare interpolates a scene where this vendor from - comes in with an asp in a basket and there's a sreies of what can only be called dirty jokes and then comes the grand scene. Well, Racine would have regarded that as appalling. Because it is a mixed mode. But it is the English style, is the mixed mode. I don't see why . . . I mean, I think there is a lot to be said for the old?Algerno? proverb which they used to have in Vienna, I think, which said the situation is desperate but not yet serious. And one of the notions of seriousness is not the same thing as solemnity. And that - I would admit that perhaps too much paradoxical sort of sliding out and tangential kind of reference in all 4 of the books. To some extent, it fits Arthur's style as Arthur can be both extremely intense as he is indeed in The Lady Unicorn, but some of the pictures are most elaborately drawn, they're mostly etchings.

JK: I was wondering, actually, is the more elaborate ones seem to coincide with the more elaborate forms you have used.

PP: Yes, I think that's probably true, though I don't think Arthur takes much notice of the forms of poetry except sublimary.

JK: When the poems are indicational - he takes a lot of notice

PP: Yes, I think he does. But Arthur does also have, what I call . . . I mean, one of the great problems of the 20th century has been that the poets recognising that there's a lack of seriouness in the world and turned themselves to a certain degree, to be stand up comedians, even the best of them. Now in the 60's and the 70's in England anyway, I'm not sure about Australia and America, the poet as a stand up comedian became practically, the sort of style of the time. And I think we are all tarred with the same brush to a certain extent because we do want to hear laughter in the hall and we do want to be loved by our audiences and such like and I think that no writer should ever be dull but of course, if someone is prepared to be dull, there can be a lot of good come out of that and can actually really, I mean, someone like a poet like Geoffrey Hill for instance, though in his book, Mercy and Hymns, he can be witty, he's basically serious to the point of po-face solemnity and he gets the high prize eventually because people take him seriously and they do accept this extraordinary didirambic? style and where for example, someone like myself, of a more demotic kind of writer, I suppose. I mean, it amuses me that in australia, people often think of me as a great formalist in the sense that . . . I find it odd that in Les's bit where I am supposed to be the esternia?and Les is the, supposed to be, the beretian . . . God help the Athens? which has to have me as its chief - chief representative.

JK: It all helps to get girlfriends.?

Tell me, in interpolation, you mentioned earlier, after Boyd - you referred to Jonas to start with, that Boyd had gone through interpreting poems or reacted against the poems, or whatever you want to say, how much interpolation, on your part afterwards did you do any . . .

PP: No never and . . . What did happen in the case of making them up in books. In the case of the 2 middle books, Narcissus & Lady Unicorn, there was no question of any editing having to be done because I only did a piece to each poem, there was not a great, great scattering of other . . . ikon - I could

JK: Would you have liked it to work that the other way, - have -

PP: We were almost going to do that because after Mars, Arthur was involved with Barry Humphries, Geoffrey Dutton in a project which I thought was going to be a total disaster. I wasn't involved with it but you could say, that my thinking that it was going to be a total disaster, was pure sour grapes on my behalf but Geoffrey was doing his new translation ot the libretto of the Magic Flute, and Arthur was going to do the sets, and Barry was going to sing Papa Galanio. And the whole thing was going to be an Australian Magic Flute which struck me as being a very atiest concept but . . . I think there was going to be abos (sic) and all sort of things . So, anyway the idea was I would then start writing some poems not based on the libretto but possibly based on the original story? . . . of the libretto, not on the translation which was done by Dutton, but based on Arthur's pictures, because Arthur did quite a number of backdrops and things in one of his exhibitions, in Sydney about 1988. I had a number of these. Magic Flute, Queen of the Night features in some of them. But as it happens of course, nothing came or this so I got,,I did . . . lay down a few possible ideas but nothing came further. However, there was sets in which, Narcissus, particularly is a book which was written, more or less, more from the poems, written . . . this doesn't make sense. but poems in Narcissus are more like a collaberation based on the pictures which then lead onto the poems. it did actually happen that way but what did happen was that Arthur and I had been talking about 'Shell Haven River'? and I mentioned to him that I consider that some of his pictures in Shell Haven . . . ? I want to say, interpolation here, that I'm no expert on Australian painting, I think that Arthur's Shell Haven pictures, not necessary anything to do with things done with me but there are many, many pictures he has done of the rivers, the River - are the greatest breakthrough in Australian pastoral, landscape paintings since the Heidleberg school. I think that he's really found a new way of representing Australian landscape, not just in the bush but particularly, I suppose, the river landscape. I pointed out that some of his 'Shell Haven' pictures looked like the famous painting in the National Gallery in London, of Pierre de Cose - which is called, usually called 'Mythological Scene' but is sometimes called 'Zephyrs and Crocress and it just shows a nymph lying dead on the ground with a dog &?pelican? doing up? it's a Florentine painting & I think what Arthur and I then began to think if we . . . we were talking about how well Australia would fit in with the concept of Narcissus; how Nature looks at itself and . . . so basically, Narcissus was the one book where the origin of the material was jointly conceived from the beginning. Narcissus had a long . . . . unlike the other three which were all written very fast and the pictures done very fast . . . . Narcissus had almost about, a 10 year gestation in that I was staying with him, in 1975, when I had gone back to Australia for 5 months, while there I wrote the origin of the Narcissus poem. But published it seperately before the rest of the Narcissus poems & I called it 'the PainterÕs Banquet'. And it is a poem about my own vision of what painting is. Painting is like eating & when you go into a gallery - you let your eyes eat & you eat the landscape & it is interesting how many of the voluptous paintings, I don't mean voluptous sexually, but I mean the most richly entitled paintings like Beranaise, how they love to paint/eat banquets. I mean, in the Academy in Venice, there is a magnificent Beronnessi called 'the Feast at Canaan' which was one of Christ's activities, I can't remember whether it happened before his resurrection - no, it happens before - & it's done in whats namely called the most opulent style of Beronessi. I wanted to develop the 2 ideas in Narcissus & I think Arthur liked this too and Arthur did a whole series of Narcissus type pictures based on the Sherry Haven which . . . it is not just looking into the water and seeing the reflection of yourself, it's seeing, it's much what I call the upside view, of what Puskin calls pathetic fallacy'. Ruskin seems to think,if I understand him correctly, that Nature reflects us back, in the sense that we see in Nature semblance of ourselves, we see how, I mean he used the phrase really to describe techniques in, for instance, Shakespeare in 'MacBeth' has elements behaving weirdly at night after the death of King Duncan, kind of interpolation, intervention - intervention is the word, on the Natural world, of the Moral world. But what Arthur & I was trying to do in Narcissus was sort of turn upside & like the rest of us when you look in the water we are turned upside down. that we wanted to produce, of really really how the Natural world doesn't . . . we don't see ourselves in the Natural world. The Natural world, in fact, enters us and becomes ,well, becomes really a kind of life, it has a pilgrimage through us.

JK: Sort of against the dictum, of Dr Berkely dictum - someone said to him at a dinner party once - We forget you are here, you cease to exist

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