Glen Phillips on the Work of John Kinsella

Roland Barthes in the concluding pages of The Pleasure of the Text describes his idea of ‘writing aloud’ as: ‘throwing, so to speak, the anonymous body of the actor into my ear: it granulates, it cradles, it caresses, it grates, it cuts, it comes: that is bliss.’ If we were looking for an apt description of the power of the words of John Kinsella, whether as ‘writing aloud’ to us in person – his engagement with fellow writers as well as with his international audience today – or through the pleasures his texts have provided for readers in his native Australia (or in Asia, Europe or America); if, as I say, we were looking for such an apt description, the words of Roland Barthes could hardly be more appropriate. As a risen star in contemporary Australian writing, Kinsella has been and is the continual winner of awards, prizes and other significant public acclaim. Yet a great deal of his energy is expended on other people’s writing through his indefatigable editing of the renowned Salt magazine and anthologies and collections of the work of other contemporary Australian authors. And there is his vigorous promotion of Australian literature through conference papers, residencies and as a By-Fellow at Cambridge University’s Churchill College (where he has just been elected a Fellow). But to meet up with John Kinsella has something of the challenge of surviving one of the notorious cyclones which descend on the Western Australian coast every summer. They call them ‘cock-eyed Bobs’. John’s personal energy levels are stupefying on first encounter. Someone who sleeps only two to four hours in every twenty-four must have biorhythms bordering on the frenetic. His conversations refect not only a multitudinous network of literary and other contacts maintained assiduously but also a dazzling list of continuing and forthcoming projects. John Kinsella has in some senses reached ‘the middle way’, in the life of a writer. Behind him is already as much as many would hope to achieve in a lifetime: twelve volumes of poetry (including Poems 1980-1994), his novel Genre, a play (Crop Circles) and three edited books. Coming over the horizon are The Hunt, his latest collection (a Poetry Book Society Recommendation), another novel, experimental poetry, works on aesthetic and literary theory, the eleventh number of the periodical Salt, three additional edited volumes of British and Australian poets for Folio Press, collaborations with Australian author (and his wife) Tracy Ryan as well as an MA thesis on the pastoral in Australian literature.


But of course it’s not very helpful to merely parade lists of Kinsella’s projects. To have some idea of what they really signify it is necessary to examine certain of these remarkable achievements more closely. And perhaps it is appropriate to satisfy the curiosities that such energies arouse. What circumstances of birth, education or first evidences of future talents lie behind the quantifiable output? What considerable influences does this author draw upon from his thirty-five years of existence? John Kinsella was born in 1963 in Western Australia, in the South Perth Hospital. His antecedents were comprehensively Celtic – Cornish, Scots and Irish. His mother is a senior English teacher in state secondary schools. His father was a motor mechanic and a farm manager in the northern wheatlands but John’s upbringing was mainly in suburban Perth. Here he went to school and to the University of Western Australian. However, the family has always had strong connections with the pioneering farming areas sixty miles to the west of the capital city, in the so-called Avon Valley. During childhood and later, John worked on the wheat-growing and sheep-farming properties of his uncles and of his brother, who is also a contract shearer.


These landscapes, away from the largely conformist and bourgeois suburbia of the 60s and 70s, somehow established themselves as the touchstone of external reality to which Kinsella’s work returns again and again. Indeed, his most widely published (and translated) volume, the prize-winning The Silo: A Pastoral Symphony, uses the wheatland south-west of Australia as its fixed point, about which all else in the universe, as he sees it, turns. Yet, like another celebrant of much the same geographical region, Randolph Stow, he also presents this particular pastorality as a ‘bitter heritage’. For as he grew up and travelled, as a teenager, to Asia and Europe, Kinsella had to grapple with the deeper ironies of his country’s colonial appropriation, its racial exploitation and the cataclysmic ecological consequences of the white settlement of this wheat-belt region of Western Australia. John Kinsella as a boy clearly signalled the talents which his literary career has subsequently borne out. At seven his drawing of a horse won a State award for child art. In elementary school he was consuming a book a night by torchlight under his bedclothes. By thirteen he was writing poems which could still stand publication today. And by the age of fifteen he had completed a fifty-thousand-word science fiction novel. At the same age, an abiding interest in science emerged. In addition to conducting serious studies in applied chemistry he was establishing a life-time interest in astronomy. In graduating from senior high school in Geraldton (Randolph Stow’s home town) Kinsella won the final year prizes in literature and history and fixed his sights on studying law at university. His first-year Arts results were the highest achieved. By half-way through second year, having switched to a degree in history, he was invited to enrol in the honours course. Inexplicably, however, he dropped out of university and began to travel, first to Sydney in 1981 to meet up with poets Dorothy Hewett and Robert Adamson, among others, and then on to Europe, visiting Sweden, Finland and Greece. His first book of poetry, The Frozen Sea, was published by Zeppelin Press in the same year. Two years later on his way back to Europe he worked his way through South East Asia, almost losing his life in an horrific bus crash in Nepal.


In Australia he was living as a semi-recluse with his first wife, taking itinerant rural work after the fashion of many others of his generation of the 70s and 80s. But the poetry was still flowing and his mother, Wendy Kinsella, persuaded him to assemble a manuscript and offer it to Fremantle Art Centre Press. Thus Night Parrots began his long association with this enterprising Western Australian publisher. It also marked his emergence, or more accurately his explosion, onto the Australian literary scene. For John Kinsella there were suddenly new encounters. Principal among them was meeting Tracy Ryan, and the two worked together to sustain Salt magazine, now in its multi-lingual 11th issue and publishing an outstanding range of international as well as Australian writers. They are now partners by marriage and currently living in Cambridge where their editing and publishing continues unabated. To go back to Night Parrots will give us an opportunity to actually look at Kinsella’s creative powers at first hand and detect, if possible, what the poet and critic Tom Shapcott has called, ‘a lean and quite characteristic sort of lyricism, the bones beneath a more assertive muscularity of style’. Certainly the poems in Night Parrots, many deriving from The Frozen Sea (1983), exhibited these identifying characteristics of Kinsella’s instantly recognisable style. In ‘Moon, Trees and Desert Wind’ he writes:


Forget the impropriety of trees
of their fixed leanings and predictable shadows.
The moon, strange places, and a cold desert wind
present a visage that too easily can be taken
from place and carried amongst the worthless
symbols that adorn your kit – the few obsessions
that have come to comfort a knowledge of survival.

Yes, we have here perfectly the keynote of Kinsella’s style – no excess of artifice or embellishment; a lean and hungry world of the poet’s making but with credible connections to natural landscapes we can believe to be every bit as humbling as Wordsworth’s ‘huge and mighty forms, that do not live/like living men’. Derrida has put it another way in Psyche: ‘An invention always presupposes some illegality, the breaking of an implicit contract; it inserts a disorder into the peaceful ordering of things, it disregards the proprieties. Apparently without the provision of a preface – it is itself a new preface – this is how it unsettles the givens.’ Kinsella has an uncanny sense of ‘unsettling the givens’. It comes not only from the absence of closure; the constantly elusive prospects that dance across each poem like some rare enticing species that moves more quickly the more you pursue from bush to bush. This, of course, is inherent in the search for the legendary night parrots themselves – an appropriate title for the volume.


On the heels of Night Parrots came Eschatologies (1991). The categories in this collection are like seedburst explosions. From ‘The Millenarian’s Dream’, which links a semi-desert pastoral workscape to the gazing eye of orbiting cosmonauts and millennial promises, to the essential fact of water conservation in a dry continent in ‘Catchment’, and then on to other contact points with Western civilisation’s created works of art, philosophy and religion, we have a dazzling panoply, as in ‘Strange Metaphors’ or ‘Lilith’. Harold Bloom’s simple phrase, ‘astonishing fecundity and splendour’ describes what set readers back on their haunches when this book appeared. But this was just the pipe-opener to Kinsella’s nineties. In 1993 two contrasting publications showed the bifurcation of John Kinsella’s poetic talents. Full Fathom Five might have begun with the aura of ‘wheatbelt gothic’ but its range of landscapes, both natural and human, is constantly changing and challenging. In ‘The Phenomena that Surround a Sighting of Eclipse Island’ he shows that the place where the Southern Ocean meets the extreme south west tip of the Australian continent can be an equally useful and ironic site for the poet – ‘Place where phenomena/ shape themselves like/the vertebrae of whales’. In another poem in this section, ‘Ballade to this Country’, he writes:


Despite holding my body in the cradle of its love
this country does not hold right of tenure over me.

As if to assert this particular statement, Kinsella produced the astonishing collection Syzygy, also in 1993. To his readers this was a dramatic departure from landscapes at least in one sense. Influenced by the ‘language poetry’ movement, Syzygy is very definitely the book which alerted American, British and European readers of poetry to the major talent of Kinsella and this is also the book which, according to Bettina Keil, is not appreciated in Australia as being the basis for his ‘overseas reputation as an important new experimental and avant-garde poet, independent of the Australian context’. In Volume IV of Artes Kinsella himself has explained this additional preoccupation in the following terms:


My interest in linguistically experimental verse has evolved from an intense interest in what it is that constitutes a particular language. There are certain codes that go across not only all language groups but all artforms. This is the language between the lines, between the notes, or hidden in the folds of a sculpture, or within the frames of a painting.

It isn’t difficult to see the exemplification of this in the poems in the Syzygy collection. Perhaps the tour de force is number thirty, titled ‘re (con) structure ing/damage control’. This poem uses visual and aural (when recited) effects in a profusion of challenges, matched only by the cryptic crossword-like dartings hither and thither of the lines of narration, depiction or argument in the stanzas. In a way it’s like The Waste Land‘s Pound-battered final version where, despite Eliot’s ghostly flitting through his sacred woods of objective literary references, there are startling contact points with the naked flesh of his failed (failing?) marital relationship. In Kinsella’s Syzygy poems, perhaps not always perceptible to American and European readers, there are in fact myriad points of contact with the raw landscapes of his Western Australian ‘wheatlands’. But while the use of these references in the neo-pastoral poetry of his ‘other’ poetic trajectory and primary, these Syzygy images and references are secondary (if not incidental) to the methodology of the ‘language poetry’. Yet they are there and to those, like me, who share the intimacies of the same landscape they are a haunting presence.


The ‘Wireless Hill’ section which closes Kinsella’s Poems 1980-1994 is drawn from poems written between 1992 and 1994, concentrating on the city, suburban and south coast locales of Kinsella’s years in Perth. The Swan River and the Indian Ocean are frequently the framing images for this series, which is not to suggest that subject or theme suffer limitations of ambience compared with the earlier collections already mentioned. From the puckish comedy of ‘The police busted me with a chilli in my pocket’ to the violence of his ‘Dennis Hopper – Eulogy’ or the blare of the Warhol poems, the range of reference is never diminished by the particularity of the locales. And where did the coruscating meteor go from here? One answer is, on to his most successful volume so far, The Silo: A Pastoral Symphony, published in 1995 in Perth, then by the Writers Workshop in Calcutta, India, and subsequently by Arc in Britain in 1997. It has been a stunningly successful book and has already been translated into German. A Chinese translation is in preparation. As Rod Mengham says in the introduction to the UK edition: ‘All of Kinsella’s writing is deeply antipodean in every sense, since it tugs in opposite directions at one and the same time.’ The comment confirms what is emerging from the above consideration of the phenomenon of John Kinsella’s career. It is no accident that he is now working out of the location of his forebears, Western Europe. It is also no accident that a book like The Silo examines the role of the artist in the landscape which is the touchstone to almost everything he writes – these central southern Western Australian wheatlands. Whatever the importance of The Silo in terms of the literary career of Kinsella, as an Australian writer, it also marks another and perhaps inevitable phase of the blossoming of talent in his native land. The critics have begun their scurrying from darker places in the woodwork. Whereas John seemed to enjoy a charmed life in the eyes of his contemporaries – Premiers’ awards, Adelaide Festival John Bray Prize, Literature Board grants, a special Prime Ministerial Creative Fellowship – as well as seemingly having everything published as fast as he could write it.


The cultural insecurity which surfaces so readily in countries as young as colonised Australia was predictably prompt in scuttling out onto the kitchen floor of the Australian critical arena. In the July edition of the 1997 volume of The Australian Book Review, Dr Ivor Indyk boldly leapt forward to seize the trousers, if not the legs and body of the ascendant John Kinsella. His now infamous character assassination made almost no reference to the newly published Poems 1980-1994 but with colonially correct paternalistic fervour attempted to bring the would-be-Icarus abruptly to ground. Before melted wings would produce an impact that might embarrass the ranked custodians of Australian literary culture. In 1995 he had also published Erratum/ Frame(d), once more in the language poetry idiom, and in 1996 had managed three more volumes: The Radnóti Poems, The Undertow: New & Selected Poems and Lightning TreeThe Undertow has subsequently won the Grace Leven Award and the William Baylebridge Memorial prize for poetry in Australia. It would therefore seem clear that in the poetic arena, at least, Kinsella’s star (or is it better described as a sun?) has waxed ever more vigorously. The classic response to detractors! There isn’t room to detail these more recent publications but they do not represent significant departures from the established lines of his neo-pastoral and language poetry work.

Genre bender

In 1997, John Kinsella, even if divested of his Australian-made trousers, continued his parabola, apparently only temporarily dismayed. As if to rub the noses of his critics in their own dirt, Kinsella followed his dozen collections of poetry with an astounding first novel. Recent headlines in The Australian newspaper announced it as ‘GENRE BENDER’. The novel is called Genre and predictably challenges concepts of the novel in English. In reviewing the book, Dr McKenzie Wark of Macquarie University, himself the author of the controversial Virtual Republic, concluded Kinsella shows us that writing can have a life outside of genre, outside the conventions that police and constrain it, that limit literature to middle-brow, consumer entertainment. Perhaps it’s the only life writing can have, now that the literary scene is increasingly just pop for snobs. The question is, will Kinsella turn Australian prose-fiction on its ear as he has wittingly or unwittingly done, in one sense or other with the nation’s poetry? As mentioned earlier in this summary look at Kinsella’s career, one of the inevitable topics of conversation with this writer will be his continuing or incipient projects. He certainly does have an awesome ‘busy list’ arising in part from associations with his new publishers, Bloodaxe Books. The Hunt will maintain a momentum in this domain of his work. Already he has another collection of experimental language poems. He has his second novel with its post-colonial setting nearing completion, as well as a twenty-page article on avant-garde visual art. Projects on ‘codes of landscape’ and a television documentary about his life and work are being finalised. Melbourne’s Playbox Theatre production of Crop Circles, his first major exercise in writing for the theatre, is also incipient. If this were not enough, his own publishing entity, Folio Press, has a string of books in final stages and there’s the eleventh edition of Salt magazine coming out. In all of this we should not fail to mention his work with partner Tracy Ryan – they have collaborations in hand on a number of critical articles as well as collaborative poetry. Tracy is production editor of Salt and shares the work on the Folio publications. By the way, there’s just one other project we’d like to feel Kinsella is not neglecting, and that is his MA/PhD thesis jointly supervised by staff from Edith Cowan University in Perth and Cambridge University. Hope it’s not actually the last on the list of ‘things to be done’!

– Glen Phillips for the Bloodaxe Catalogue, 1998

Glen Phillips has taught English studies at tertiary colleges in Australia since 1962, and has been Associate Professor of English at Edith Cowan University since 1992. He has published four books of poetry, with the latest, Spring Burning, due out late 1998.

For an article by John Kinsella on the potential of the avant-garde in poetry in Australia – Spatial Relationships, see next page.