John Kinsella interviews John Tranter

JK: Must be 7 years-up since our first conversation. The web has come and is still here. You are there. Jacket, your internet literary journal, is considered by many to be the leading organism of its kind. Where did it comes from and where is it going?

JT: I’m very happy with the response it’s receiving. And I didn’t really set out to create a literary magazine in the first place; did it because I found I could.

I first investigated the Net mainly to set up an email account for the business my wife and I run, a literary agency. Then I looked into HTML code (Hyper Text Markup Language), which is the “typesetting” code that lies behind Web pages, and I found it was very similar to the typesetting code used in the Compugraphic computerised typesetting machines that my wife Lyn used nearly two decades ago as part of her typesetting business. I had learned to use those machines, typing in the codes manually, so transferring those skills over to HTML was easy.

HTML is easier, in fact, because you can see the pages you’re designing as you do them, step by step, and you can catch mistakes as they happen. On the Compugraphic, you typed the code blind, and only saw the actual type after you had developed the long (and expensive) rolls of photographic paper it was printed out on, an hour later. Sometimes what you hoped was thirty pages of delicate 9 on 10 point Garamond came out as a banner in 72 point Hobo Bold — huge thick black type – thirty linear feet of it! Lyn still has nightmares about those machines.

Over the years I’d studied lettering and drawing and layout and art and photography and colour theory and lots of other things that just happen to fit perfectly into the set of skills you need to create a magazine on the Internet, so that’s what I did.

The other thing is that it’s not all that expensive, compared to producing a print magazine.

JK: So where’s it going?

JT: Oh, I don’t know, I just keep doing it. There’s no program or direction except onward and upward! It partly depends on what people send me, so it has a self-regulating growth aspect to it, a kind of aesthetic cybernetic teleology.

JK: What is the nature of the web? Is it in fact “organic”?

JT: Yes, it’s growing, and it’s much bigger than both of us! In fact it’s bigger than the combined sum of all its parts, and at present that’s over two hundred million pages. I sometimes think of the possible different games of chess that theoretically could be played: that’s more than ten to the one hundred and twenty-fifth power; more than all the atoms in the observable universe. The Web is somehow mechanical – it’s basically millions of computer screens linked by the telephone system – but it’s also organic in the way it changes and adapts and grows.

I like to remember a remark of the Lord Gautama Buddha’s: “All we are is the result of what we have thought.” That’s so clever. And the stuff the Internet is made of is people’s thoughts reified. Nothing else.

JK: You’ve experimented with different text engines and written about computer programmes that group letter units. You’ve adapted them to “create” poetry texts. How does this differ to engines such as Babble? Where are you going with this?

JT: “Babble!” by Jim Korenthal, is a text scrambling program. It’s a further development of an earlier program called “Brekdown”, and it’s easier to install and more fun to use. It’s a DOS program, so it runs on DOS or Windows machines. Its disadvantage to me is that the size of the text samples it works with, and produces, are fairly small, and I needed large samples to do what I wanted to do.

The program I worked with for a while back there in the 1980s was “Brekdown” (it should be spelled “Breakdown”, because it breaks texts down into their component parts, that is, letter groups, but the DOS filename conventions of the time limited program names to eight letters.) It was written by San Francisco programmer Neil Rubenking, and he built it by adapting a Unix mainframe program he’d found to the home personal computer using the MS-DOS operating system. The program he found in the November 1984 issue of BYTE magazine was called “Travesty”. It was developed by Hugh Kenner (Professor of English at Georgia State University, and noted literary critic) and programmer Joseph O’Rourke. They in turn built on information in an article in the Scientific American of November 1983 by Brian P.Hayes, which described an elegant method of avoiding large and unwieldy n-dimensional arrays. They also refer to the work of Claude Shannon, who in 1948 – working with a pencil instead of a computer – developed a simple but tedious method of calculating letter-group frequency arrays, using the text itself as a frequency table.

The mechanism is too hard to explain here, but that’s not really important. Brekdown gave me interesting first drafts to experiment with, drafts that I would never have been able to write myself, with vocabularies I would not have thought of using. That was refreshing, and I like to break out of my stylistic ruts from time to time. Unlike some people, who seem comfortable there.

JK: You’ve published a book of “stories” _ “Different Hands”. How were the stories written? Generated? Have you taken this process into your poetry creation?

JT: No. I did that and left it behind. I feel you should always leave your experiments behind.

The stories . . . I got Brekdown to mix text samples by two different writers in a kind of conceptual blender, and produce a new text with the characteristics of both. I produced seven stories, about ten pages each. The drafts that Brekdown gave me needed a lot of reworking. The story “Howling Twins” was heavily reworked from a draft originating in a blend of two text samples, one from Allen Ginsberg’s notorious poem “Howl”, and one from a chapter of “The Bobbsey Twins on a Bicycle Trip.” The piece titled “Lonely Chaps” began as a sample from Radclyffe Hall’s febrile novel of pre-war middle-class lesbian passion, “The Well of Loneliness”, blended with “Biggles Defies the Swastika.”

As I hope my readers will see, I was having fun.

JK: What influence have these innovations and changes had on the narrative voice in your work?

JT: They kept me alert. There’s nothing worse than settling into a conceptual or stylistic rut.

JK: Your work with the “haibun” form is well known. Are you continuing with this? Are you still working with strict form?

JT: No, I flogged the poor haibun pretty much to death. I should explain that the “haibun” is a literary genre developed in seventeenth-century Japan, and usually consists of a prose passage followed by a haiku. I wrote about forty “reverse haibun”, where I wrote a twenty-line poem in free verse and followed it with a prose paragraph of about 200 words. Then I felt guilty about the damage I’d done to a venerable form, and wrote four classic haibun, titled “The Seasons”, with a haiku each in strict syllabics. That was published in Verse magazine, in the States.

Then I went through a phase of taking the end words of other poets’ poems and writing my own poems to fill in the gaps. I guess that’s another way of finding a fresh way of starting a poem. I borrowed the end words of Barbara Guest’s “Twilight Polka Dots” and wrote a very different poem I called “The Twilight Guest”. I borrowed the end words of a rather nice and fragmentary poem by Kathleen Fraser, I took the end words of Auden’s “In Praise of Limestone” and wrote a poem about Sydney titled “In Praise of Sandstone”. I even used the end-words of “The Man From Snowy River”, a ballad about a bushman and his plucky steed, to write a strange poem about post-modernism and academic conferences, titled “Snowy”.

I should admit here that both those approaches – the haibun and the borrowing of other writers’ end words – I borrowed shamelessly from John Ashbery. He always seems to get there first.

JK: Jacket is part of a globalisation of poetry. Is English dominating other languages in this “global market place”? What are the ramifications of other poetries outside the English-language?

JT: I read the other day that 79 per cent of traffic on the Internet is in English, which might be seen as an example of a cultural hegemony centered on the United States of America. Then again, 79 per cent of the traffic in the Roman Empire was in Latin, and that didn’t seem to do anyone any harm. A common language, especially one as diverse and flexible as English, can be a real boon to international communication.

And of course the Internet enables people in Norway, say, to set up valuable networks of communication with other people in Norway. They don’t have to speak English. I mention Norway because the Internet browser I currently favour, Opera, is made in Norway.

The most popular mobile phone in Australia is made not in Japan but in the town of Nokia, in Finland. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

JK: Has the net led to innovations that wouldn’t have taken place (eventually) without it?

JT: I my opinion, no. I may be wrong, but innovations can be a distraction. Technical innovations, that is. I find most hypertext artworks tedious, for example.

I wrote a technically innovative poem last year as an exercise: it took me about fifteen minutes to create an animated GIF image file consisting of a poem called “Yes/No”, in which a piece of text in green on a red background which says “Yes” alternates with a flashing piece of text in red on a green background which says “No”. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. Anyway, it flashes on and off: yes, no, yes, no, and so on. A moron could do it. Proust it ain’t.

JK: Is HTML a new language? A poetry in itself?

JT: No. It’s a set of typesetting codes, that’s all. HTML is just type. Movable type was invented over five hundred years ago. It had no effect on poetry, except to bring the Bible and the poems of Virgil to a wider audience, and I’m not sure that was a good thing.

JK: Have the political changes in Australia since I last interviewed you changed the conditions under which you work?

JT: The Internet censorship regulations which the current Australian conservative government has recently introduced are a terrible shame for normal Australians to shoulder. Non-Australians don’t and can’t be expected to understand the political horse-trading that led to this degrading state of affairs, where a religious bigot from a small island state, a senator who held the balance of power in Australia’s upper house, had to be appeased by a bizarre set of draconian censorship laws, so the conservative government could get his vote in order to make a huge profit from the public sale of Australia’s telecommunications carrier Telecom. People the world over now call us the “Global Village Idiots”, and they’re right; sadly, more right than they know.

Jacket magazine – if it wants to claim the right to free speech that other nations have enjoyed for centuries – may have to move to another country. That’s no loss to Jacket. It may be a loss for Australia, in the long term.

JK: Is Australian poetry still factionalised? Was it ever? Or is this a construct?

JT: At a poetry festival today – full of lots of different people from different poetic municipalities – I was told that the Australian poet Les Murray had refused to appear to read after saying he would (thus disappointing many ticket holders) mainly because a person who had written an unflattering review of one of his books was scheduled to appear at the same festival. That’s sad; but that’s factionalism for you – a flickering paranoid shadow in the back of someone’s head. Freud called it “projection”. He was so perceptive, despite his faults.

JK: What’s “new” and interesting in Australian poetry at present?

JT: I liked Peter Minter’s new book “Empty Texas”, and some poems I saw from Geraldine McKenzie. Gig Ryan is still doing fresh things. There are lots of young poets stretching their muscles. I heard that the young Australian poet and publisher Michael Brennan is going to Prague to teach. The Czechs know about censorship. Maybe they can tell us how to survive our degrading political situation.

JK: Where goes popular culture? Seen any interesting films lately? Watched any good television programmes?

JT: I saw a new print of Orson Welles’s “Touch of Evil” the other day. Reminded me of our conservative Prime Minister John Howard, and his various friends. Wonderful. Life is rich.

JK: What are you working on at the moment? New publications?

JT: I have a version of my collection of strange narrative poems “The Floor of Heaven” due to appear in the UK soon, along with a book of new poems called “Ultra”. My collection “Late Night Radio” from Polygon in Edinburgh seems to be doing well in Britain and the US. I seem to be beginning to find an audience for my writing outside Australia, which is very refreshing.

JK: Speak to you in 7 years.

JT: I look forward to it.