I wonder how recent an issue it is, this question of the so-called right to represent, this concern for the integrity of the text, and the tendency many people have to misread wilfully out of context; how a particular text is read despite the author’s guidelines, markers, indicators, signifiers.
I believe once a text is made public it becomes the possession of the reader and it means only what they wish it to mean or take it to mean, so my qualms are largely irrelevant by my own definition. However, in dealing with something like the Cocos-Malay culture as the first section of my new book partly does, one must consider whether it is one’s “right” to “use” another culture’s “raw” materials in spite of their being offered.
I argue for interaction not integration. Let’s face it, there’s clear wrongdoing in the history of Cocos, you can see where the colonising went on even if no party was an “original” inhabitant. What worries me is that the terms of discussion seem to have (as in literary theory) become instruments of restriction, whereby a writer might actually avoid grappling with issues of racism and dispossession simply because whatever s/he says is going to be “incorrect” from someone’s point of view.
Isn’t it just as “imperialist” to sit back and say nothing, write nothing, as to risk falling into certain ways of seeing or not fully grasping the nature of a problem?
With regard to the “noble savage” idea, something I find particularly abhorrent is the cosy belief that a so-called indigenous culture should remain “pure”, that its being infiltrated by the scourge of consumerism will destroy its identity. Is this an identity that’s useful for anthropologists or tourist brochures? Or is this actually paying regard to the people themselves? Terms like “cargo cults” are still prevalent. This is the darkest side of “Westernism”: colonising not only physically but also conceptually. It’s like saying to a so-called Third World country that they can’t knock over any more of the jungle because it will cause an ecological disaster on an international scale, even using such patronising terminologies as the Amazon being the world’s “oxygen plant” and sending its rock gurus and ambassadors such as Sting (the tantric lover!) into its diminishing dark depths to converse with “lost” tribes.
I mean the idea that it’s o.k. for us to have our luxuries but no-one else has even the right to their subsistence. Not that I see destruction of the planet as a good thing, or that I’d condone invasion of the areas of “lost tribes”, but that these matters are more complex than they appear. And that their discussion usually involves a good dose of hypocrisy. Of course, a company like MacDonalds is, through purchasing large quantities of beef for the U.S. market, actually a major culprit in this destruction of the Amazon basin through the clearing of jungle for grazing, but a nation is going to supplement its national product by any means available to it, be that “First World” or “Third World” . . .
Let’s talk about the aesthetic and literary implications of things like this – not because I think they’re any more important, but because, since we are writers, they are clearly matters of responsibility close at hand for us. I was also concerned in my days as a student at the idea that literature equalled politics: that by being, for instance, an avant-gardist in one’s little poems one could say one was “doing something”. A bit of a cop out, I think. Not that the traditionalists were “doing anything” either. What do you think about this conflation of aesthetic form with political statement? As I’ve said in other places, I agree with Gig Ryan’s belief that all poetry is political; the very act of writing is a political act. Granted, but how far can one inflate this fact before it gets used for making unwarranted statements? I think that politics, other than in polemical verse which has no appeal to me, is more by inference in a poem: that even by writing an imagistic, almost still-life poem, you may be writing a statement on preservation, on the human relationship with time, with the environment, and so on. Anything that denotes a comparison between different states is political in my view. I agree with you. I was talking about the crude notion some people put around that certain kinds of formal acts or experimentations are inherently “good” (politically correct?) while others are Wicked Imperialistic (& usually Male Chauvinist to boot). I have problems with this straight away: what makes me suspicious is that it’s always the practices of those saying it that are said to be admissible, and everyone else is offending. There’s something too un-self-examining about this for me. But experimentalism is the supreme political statement in art because you are defining something against the accepted. I think it’s mistaken to assume previous modes of expression or creation were “accepted”. If they were, it was by a real minority of people. We’re skirting the edges of the Canon question here. If you could define on one level variations on a theme as being experimental because we have the set text and we are varying it to alternate and create new effects while retaining a core of reference, then even a piece like Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which is now of course accepted as a supreme light in the canon, is a political statement against its own existence. Yes, but you’re talking about the politics of aesthetics, which is not the same thing as conflating other activities in the world with the literary. Linguistic revolution does not necessarily coincide with, or even cause, political ameliorations. I see language and the machinations of human existence as being inseparable. Of course they are, I agree, but I can’t accept their interrelation as clear-cut and easily formulated. Yes, just because you’re “political” doesn’t mean you achieve anything. Well, what bothered me about the students was that this sort of conflation was inviting them to abdicate any active role in the world out there and to be rather self-congratulatory. When I say “achieve” anything, I mean of course in terms of what the artist sees as being progress or success. You could achieve the opposite reaction to that you’d intended, and consequently support an alternative politics. This is the privilege of the reader. Yes, a good example of that might be the way Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has, through its various reincarnations in film, been made to say almost its opposite from some points of view. I forget who originally argued this but it’s obvious from seeing any of the film versions.
I was confronted with a problem regarding intent and actual effect when I was working on a poem this afternoon called “The Publican” which without using a “woman’s voice” focusses on issues surrounding a woman “character”. It is ambivalent in that it neither is “for” or “against” her, but it can be read either way. Of course one fears that certain groups with extreme feelings either way could take it as a case-in-point in their arguments… I’m in an odd position on this matter because I “belong” to one of those “groups with extreme feelings” (but only extreme from their opponents’ points of view!), since I am a feminist. Why should it bother me that men represent women in fiction, poetry, etc? In fact, it doesn’t bother me at all, and I think that too much reductive thinking goes on about this. What bothers me is where the male writer (or female, for that matter) has been “lazy” in their writing and fallen back on received or narrow ways of seeing their women characters, i.e. done them less justice as human beings than they have the male characters. Representation is a sticky issue. Men have always written about women, women about men, one race or group of people about another race or group. I’m concerned that people are starting to think they can’t speak at all about these areas, rather than that they should be intelligent and sane in how they speak. At any time. I have problems with the words intelligent and sane, they’re meaningless words. Yes, but I think when you’re looking for words through which you want to invoke notions of humane and just behaviour, and let’s face it, making literature is a kind of behaviour too, they work in a kind of poetic sense: they mean, don’t be senseless and don’t be pointless.
The voice I’m working with in this particular poem and the poems I’m writing in this series are consciously and “intelligently” anti-intelligent. What do you mean by intelligent here? They don’t want to follow assumed systems; they would deplore the “word”; probably what I mean is that the people in there are anti-intellectual. That’s a different thing. I’m not being oppositional. What I want to do in this poem is allow the very distant narrator to “represent” the particular character whose trials and tribulations the reader is following. The poet really has no part in it. You mean at the diegetic level. Yes, because without being particularly linguistically innovative, the poem separates the ego-“I” from content but still retains an intense lyricism. And lyricism is something that many so-called avant-gardists associate with the ego-I. Yes, I’ve actually heard of someone saying, “Oh, the reason I don’t write poems nowadays is that whenever I write I can’t seem to get away from being lyrical. All that comes out is lyrics, and I know I mustn’t write them.” Who says you mustn’t? A big cop-out: an attempt to trump other writers morally and have an excuse at the same time for not writing.
I recently read Angela Carter’s fantastic novel Love (appalling p.c. Afterword for a very un-p.c. novel) and was intrigued by the way she was able to capture the more “mechanical” characteristics of the male identity. In the context of the novel this was adequate, but I wonder if she could have created a broader picture had it been within the novel’s design. This question of course is one that is frequently considered by feminist theorists with regard to the depiction of women characters in male novels. I’ve also been reading a lot of detective fiction and despite someone like Dashiell Hammett’s or Raymond Chandler’s extreme “maleness” and tendency to say things such as, “The blond laughed. A silvery ripple of laughter that held the unspoiled naturalness of a bubble dance. A small tongue played roguishly along her lips.” (Raymond Chandler, The High Window). I found far more problematic Sue Grafton’s C is for Corpse with her narrator Kinsey Millhone who seemed much more misogynistic than Hammett at his worst (or best?). Kate Millett says in Sexual Politics that it is impossible to distance the foul creations of Norman Mailer and their extreme misogyny from Mailer himself; same for Henry Miller. I remember reading an anecdote somewhere about Henry Miller and John Steinbeck falling out over who got to fuck “some woman” at a party once, and this is the kind of voice you find in Miller’s work. I get the feeling that this may be the case with Grafton but I’ll have to read more. Well, I think that to a great degree of course it is irrelevant whether the writer is also misogynistic in life; Kate Millett had big points to make at a time when few were making them, but what matters from the literary point of view is the text and what it does.
Fiction of course has a wider influence than poetry in many ways. But representation there is also problematic. It’s one thing to say you are sick of seeing women depicted as dumb, sensual, anti-intellectual and contingent beings; it’s a big leap from that to say, “You must not show any negative images of women: they must all be heroic and feminist” and so on. This is as bad as the dictatorial phase of socialist realism. I have written a novel in which there is a lesbian serial killer: shall I be attacked for this? There is another lesbian in the same novel who is not a serial killer, but perhaps in these prescriptive and proscriptive times nobody will notice that. I sent an email to Susan Schultz in Hawaii and mentioned New Laddism in it; she emailed me back today asking what New Laddism is. I replied that it was a particularly British problem but with wider implications and that in a nutshell it was: men “accepting” that they had less intelligence and less social relevance that women and had therefore resigned themselves to being slobs.
You mean a kind of feral masculinity? In essence, this means: staying home, watching the football, drinking beer and masturbating. You’re right to say “in essence” because that’s what all these notions are about. People working from “essences”: like de Beauvoir says, the Negro soul, the Eternal Jew, Woman, that sort of notion. When people write about others, it’s as if they’re putting down on paper a kind of dream about others; there isn’t, after all, any real accurate depiction. But is one conscious when one writes that this is a kind of dreaming, or does one mistake one’s dreams for reality? The sort of person the dream might claim to “represent” is usually indignant at it. That’s why I often read other women writers: it can come as a kind of relief to find dreams about women that resemble my self-concept as a woman, though there is no guarantee you’ll get this from women writers, Grafton being a case in point. You get tired of no-one ever talking to you. What I’d really like to find, and this is just a pet hope, and perhaps self-indulgent, though it has wider ramifications, is a male writer who can do that. Sometimes I think I find this in Thomas Hardy, and this is astonishing, because there are women who will insist he’s the most sexist and infuriating of novelists. So what can this kind of quest mean, except on a personal level?
My solution to these questions on a personal level has been to write with a degendered voice. Of course this is realistically unachievable, but can’t one attempt to create the artifice or impression of such? In Genre, and Grappling with Eros (still to appear) I have used fetishism as an expression of either sex rather than associating it with maleness as would usually be the case. The narrator defines itself as a thing rather than as a person: as an object to be fetishized. Just thinking back to the Grafton question, it should be said that a book like this in the late sixties or early seventies could have been seen as a piece of radical feminist literature. The “strength” of the female voice, its independence and assertiveness, would be unequivocally positive attributes. Which they may still be, but this is put into a greater subtextual theatre, if you like.
It’s that question of representation again. You mentioned earlier about Vamp [the murderous/non-murderous lesbian book] : one is examining as a male reader the question of complicity. This is of course the question every female reader asks when reading a male writer’s expression of violence towards women. Is the author using the violence to express social criticism? Or is there an enjoyment of the violence for its own sake? If this is the case, one would find it deplorable. This is slightly off the track but I am for some reason reminded of Simone de Beauvoir speaking on the Marquis de Sade, saying, “The supreme value of his testimony lies in its ability to disturb us. It forces us to re-examine thoroughly the basic problem which haunts our age in different forms: the true relation between man and man.” Well, I think there’s no ultimate control, if you are going to depict violence, over whether someone out there gets pleasure from it in a harmful way, but you do have the ability to some degree to position it… When I wrote Vamp I was thinking a lot about several texts I’ll mention now: Helen Zahavi’s Dirty Weekend, Diane DiMassa’s cult comic Hothead Paisan Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist, Plath’s Bell Jar and Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges… Also films like Thelma and Louise. I was thinking, “What does the discharge of women’s anger mean? How far can it go? What are its moral implications?” Zahavi’s book troubles me because it’s an out-and-out violent book, there’s no way around that, it wants you (as a woman reader at least) to feel exhilaration when Bella murders. I would like to talk to male readers who have read this book (I know there is at least one, as a friend of mine was given it by another friend’s ex-husband!). Bella is not shown as being sick for her actions, she is shown as justified, and I think that there are a few elisions going on there. I identified very strongly with the anger but the spilled brains and blood-and-guts still repulsed me. That was the point at which I thought, there are more books that have to be written about this, in a less simplistic manner. De Beauvoir in that quote is right on a literal level, when she says “man and man”. What about woman and woman, or woman and man? I think that’s Millett quoting De Beauvoir for her purposes.
Robert Fagels, in his introduction to the Penguin edition of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, regarding Agamemnon, says, “There is the original paradox of Fury, the memory that must avenge her children, and the matrix of her children who must avenge themselves on her – Fury, the muse of vengeance that will generate the future.” As for the generative force in such revenge literature, if it is pitched properly, accepting the non-contemporary implications of the word muse (not the flowery male romantic myth of the woman as she ought to be), there should be a sense of proteleia, which in the context of the Oresteia means the sacrifices preceding the wedding of Eumenides and Athens, but is equally relevant to the catharsis that comes with destroying the symbols of patriarchy.
The Oresteia ends with what Fagels calls a mutual victory, a kind of reconciliation. How pertinent is this to Vamp and to our discussion? Well, one of the points I was trying to make in Vamp was that the option of revenge, while understandably attractive in some circumstances, was less acceptable and less fruitful ultimately than the option of making one’s voice heard. That sounds almost a cliché now, and how exactly one achieves it you can’t stipulate. I am reminded of a piece Urs Jaeggi wrote on feminism in which he was quite clearly desiring, and prepared for, real dialogue. There’s been a lot of pretend dialogue, and a lot of venom on all sides, but real dialogue is still an exciting possibility. When Sue Woolfe’s book Leaning Towards Infinity came out I heard some trashing of it by men as “another mother-daughter story” and “not even getting the maths right, it doesn’t even really talk about maths,” and so on. Amid, I mean, all the accolades. Now that sort of attitude sounds too ready-made to have really engaged with the book.
However, one will also be policed by other women with (perhaps more refined) expectations of what one should have written. Some critics tell us the cop out of Jane Eyre, from a feminist point of view, is that Brontë marries Jane off to Rochester in the end, as if in spite of all the independent strength the book pushes for, it compromises in the end. I think this is garbage: why shouldn’t Jane have what she wants if she can? What was she supposed to do: go off and join the nineteenth-century equivalent of a separatist commune? Note too that she says, “Reader, I married him.” (just a joke… For those who really don’t want the heroine to get her man, try Villette instead.) I don’t want to say too much about how Vamp ends because it isn’t out yet and I want people to read it! But there will probably be those who think the ending is a cop-out simply because it tries to reach a humane perspective. I think this is the only option human beings have now. As Margaret Atwood puts it in one of her poems, “Survival is the only war we can afford.”
I have two points to make here: you may recall a few weeks back reading Alice Joannou’s short story “L’Enfer” in the wonderfully-named The Mammoth Book of Erotica edited by Maxim Jakubowski; the seeming complacency and complicity on the author’s part toward the murderous sexual tastes of the main character. Of course it’s a problem saying this, but it’s one of those short stories that lures you into feeling “safe” with the narrator/character despite his gradually obvious deviance and amorality. It’s almost as if she has become possessed by his attractions. This of course is open to different interpretations, but we both had that feeling. One wonders if it would have been possible for a male author to have “aroused” such sympathy for a female narrator with the same predilections. I can’t think of a case of this being so, though there are probably many attempts.
I have read much underground erotic literature from the last hundred years that attempts to do this through both male and female narrators but none so indifferently and detachedly as in this short story (which isn’t, as far as I’m concerned, particularly good literature in any case). There are plenty of authors around, including Kathy Acker, who take us on tours designed to shock, but there is a consciousness about style, text and technique, that makes that material consciously “art”. This consciousness seems to be lacking or maybe even avoided in the Joannou story. It’s intriguing to me that though we often differ on things like this, we reacted in an almost identical manner to that story; maybe it reached a moral bottom line? Questions of morality and sexuality have been obsessing me lately, I’ve just completed a story called “The Garden”, which parodies (if that’s the right word) the Victorian novels of procurement that feature aristocrats “entertaining” youths and even children in their “love gardens”.
It is of course a “moral” story about immorality but in depicting the sexuality one must utilise certain sexual tropes. I’m pleased with the work as a piece of literature but am constantly bothered by the writing of it. How do you deal with this kind of “guilt”? It must be something you’re particularly conscious of, post-Vamp. I think that, first unconsciously and then intentionally perhaps, I dealt with (or avoided!) that by splitting the murderer’s sexual pleasures from her violent ones. She only seduces men in order to kill them (her sex life is with a woman) and it isn’t clear how far she has to go to do that to the men. Also the violence is not represented in the novel until the very end, and then it is seen as if through another character’s postulation of it. So it’s at several removes, as in a sequence of mirrors. It’s probable the nasty spree that is depicted allows some enjoyment, but that is not unalloyed. Let’s face it, people do find enjoyment in bad things, and we’re not going to help anyone by denying this. However, I’d hate to think I incited anyone to anything… Literature is not the same thing as reality, even if we believe il n’y a pas d’hors-texte. Finola Moorehead seems to have made this mistake over The Monkey’s Mask (and was then challenged for it by, I think, Kathleen Fallon).
It’s more often a problem than you’d think… I think there are occasions where literature is obliged to interact with reality. Speaking personally, when I write a poem about injustices committed towards and upon animals, I’d hope it does incite the reader to change behaviour. That doesn’t mean, however, that my opinion is the “right” opinion; it’s just that this kind of poetry is impassioned and seeks to appeal to the same senses that motivated the writing of it. A good example of that would be your poem in The Silo, “Shootings”. It describes in detail a boy’s fascination with guns and death and then unfolds the story, if you like, of his revulsion from them and renunciation of them.
Now the depiction of the fascination is essential to the poem, or you’d just have a tirade from the outside. Only those who can find a potential in themselves can effectively criticise it. Maybe some readers begin by identifying with that, thinking, “oh good, this is going to be a poem about what I like” but the ambivalence and ironic self-examination pervade the poem too soon for that identification to be an unalloyed pleasure. The reader feels sickened too. Yes, you may recall that night we read at the Poets’ Union in Sydney, earlier this year, when the audience seemed stunned and slightly sickened as the poem progressed until the coda, which is a kind of litany of renunciation, before almost collapsing into relief and relaxation, breaking into spontaneous applause. This was an exciting moment for me as a poet, because they’d gone on the same journey as I had.
Peter Rose in his ABR review of The Silo, said of “Shootings” that it must have been influenced by Gwen Harwood’s “Barn Owl”. Although that is a poem I much admire, the influence would be an unconscious one. But it evokes a similar feeling for me as a reader. Yes; I think that’s a particular strength in Harwood’s poetry generally. But Harwood’s poem stops before the coda, though its brilliance is in the fact that it implies a coda of this sort must follow. Getting back to “Shootings”: none of that necessarily means the members of the audience will never use a gun or be violent again (if they ever did or were!), but there’s a possibility their experience and perception have altered. I know Harwood’s poem “Dialogue” did that to me when I heard her read it at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival in 1992. I have often gone back to that poem. It has to do with the notion of getting a chance to say what you haven’t been able to, and with unrealised possibilities generally. Accepting that living means losing certain possibilities. And certainties.
A lot of writing seems to be about establishing certainties, moral dogmatism, rather than accepting uncertainty. And yet we want a moral dimension to our literature, we want it to be really human. I don’t like the word human in this context. I know that, but I mean it as said. Who is the we to start with? (Well, I meant you and I actually! Literally!) And what is human? Here I mean it not as opposed to animal or opposed to divine, et cetera, but in the sense of not reducing to the robotic or the too-easy: to me a human is something resistant, in Hamlet’s sense, where he talks about those who wish to play upon him as if he were a musical instrument, “you may fret me but you cannot play upon me”! At least you resisted defining humans as “living creatures with souls”. I’ve been reading Aristotle’s work De Plantis, in which he says, “But we can describe it otherwise, and say that the plant has a soul and not say that it is soulless. But, even if it has a soul, we do not admit that it has any feeling. Anything that is nourished cannot be without soul. Every living creature has a soul. But the plant is an incomplete thing…” The problem I have with referring to things as being human is that so much of what we take unconsciously as being human traits are in fact as applicable to other “things” as they are to humans.
Can I tell you this: when I was putting Katherine to bed tonight, she was very puzzled about what made her lips move and her mouth form words. I explained to her about the larynx and about nerves and messages from the brain and so on. She still wasn’t satisfied about how the words got in there. She wanted to know who made the brain work. Then we got on to other subjects, stories and so on, and suddenly she said, “I want more information about the body.” Afterwards I thought maybe I should get her one of those children’s science-type books, and maybe at some stage I will, but even so, eventually I realised that wasn’t exactly the kind of information she wanted. Although it could help. But we all want “more information”.
You know, earlier I said that I had two points I wanted to make, and I only made one of them. The other was about the “Confessional” section of Lightning Tree. I am as satisfied with these poems as with any others in the book, but I must admit to feeling on loose ground emotionally here. It’s an unusual thing for me, and I think for most male poets, and some female, to discuss openly intensely personal matters. I don’t mean by this that poems aren’t generally personal, because most, for better or worse, reference themselves in the author’s experience; but that there is a consciousness of stating “hey I am doing this kind of writing”, a consciousness of textuality that leaves them somewhat vulnerable. Is this just me? What do you think about this?
You know those poems quite well. Most women I’ve spoken to who have read them have liked them above others in the book, whereas men generally tell me they like this sort of poem technically but feel slightly uncomfortable with the subject matter. I’m not talking Robert Lowell or John Berryman here, I’m talking… ? Well, you can guess what I’m thinking about this, but I’ll expand it a bit. First, when I began writing, it didn’t occur to me at all that I “shouldn’t” write those sort of poems, although they were not by any means the only kind I read. When you’re young, a child or teenager (as you know, because you read all kinds of things then) you don’t perhaps yet have that external imposed critic that says, this is acceptable and that is not; you make up your own mind (if you’re lucky and don’t get too much interference). You take what you want, and if you’re going to develop into a writer, you experiment with anything you please.
Then if you enter the adult publishing world you find there are schools of thought you’re supposed to adhere to or rebel against. The one I collide with is the one that says “all you people ever write about is yourself, . . . don’t you have any interest in the outside world?” That’s not always men speaking, but it’s true that people associate writing “autobiographical” poetry with women. What then if a man does it? I don’t have any problem or see anything untoward in those “Confessional” poems in Lightning Tree. To me they’re just written in one of the modes you work in, and perhaps the more interesting because you don’t do so many of them. Andrew Duncan said in a letter to me that people who oppose the personal aspect of writing are just very afraid of the emotions. I think that may be so cliché that it’s true.
Which doesn’t mean I advocate bad wallowing writing any more than you do. I suppose with “this kind of writing”, it depends on how appealing the hero is. If the problems that are confessed are something the reader can identify with, then it’s o.k., whether the reader is a male or female, with or without prejudice against “this kind of writing”. It’s worth quoting Deleuze and Guattari from A Thousand Plateaus, from “Memories of a Movie-Goer”: “I recall the fine film, Willard, (1972, Daniel Mann). A “B” movie perhaps, but a fine unpopular film: unpopular because the heroes are rats.”