John Kinsella interviews Alison Croggon

JK: You work in a variety of fields, moving comfortably between genres. Robert Gray has referred to your prose work Navigatio as being poetic in its orientation. How do you view the “constructs” of poetry and prose? What defines a specific kind of work or are such decisions matters of critical convenience?

AC: I used to think – probably because I trained as a journalist – that prose and poetry were entirely different uses of language and drew a big black line between the two. As a journalist I used language to communicate a “story” as quickly and efficiently as possible and I understood fairly early that this devolved on a kind of shorthand, certain tropes that, if you used them, told everyone who read your stories that you knew what you were talking about. This was how, as an industrial reporter, I managed to cover industrial relations for a year without having the faintest idea what the issues really were. I was regarded as a good, informed reporter by other reporters, but I knew that my ignorance was profound. (This is why so many journalists are paranoid). I still have a nostalgic twinge now and then, because a part of me is still idealistic about the possibilities of journalism; people like Ryszard Kapuschinski have lifted it to an artform. But I don’t believe it is possible here, partly because of the concentration of media ownership:ÊÊI’ve worked for every major newsprint company in the country already. I used to think that the years I spent working for the Herald were a complete waste of my early 20s, but I guess it’s given me a valuable scepticism about the uses of language and the way certain networks of power operate.

Since then, as I said, I’ve revised my view. Ulysses, in particular, is still one of the most radical texts ever written and makes such distinctions nonsense. Being a poet, I’d call it a poem, although perhaps Joyce would take exception.

Of course we make arbitrary distinctions for the sake of argument. But I suppose I think of poetic language as language that is very conscious of itself. It is language formed in a way that is aware of all its properties simultaneously – its meanings, its etymologies, its music, its silences, its formal and informal usages, its material qualities and so on. And of course this language can occur in poetry, or plays, or prose or in critical writing.

Working in all these different ways could just be a sign of indecisiveness, of course. I sometimes envy people who do just one thing.

JK: You’ve worked extensively in theatre – how much has your poetic practice influenced your work as a playwright?

AC: I don’t feel that I am a playwright, although I’ve sometimes written things that look like plays.

It’s probably more true that my work in theatre has greatly influenced my work as a poet. A lot of the things I think about the perception and experience of art in general comes from my work in theatre, as a member of an audience, and as a writer. Perhaps the main thing about theatre is its undeniable temporality: the fact that a work of theatre exists in time is absolutely foregrounded. From that understanding, it’s a short step to seeing how all our perceptions of art exist in time, that the experience of a painting, or a poem, no matter how permanent these things appear to be because of their materiality, is as fleeting and durable as a performance. In theatre, the tensions between the interiority of perception and the exteriority of action are literally dramatised in front of you.

Writing for performance is an interesting act, because it focusses attention on the fact that the words written down are to be physically uttered. The first time I sat down and attempted to write a play, I came face to face with this rather difficult fact Ð I was writing screeds and screeds of dialogue that I knew was absolutely terrible. After a few appalling drafts, I tried writing it all in blank verse, and then it began to work. That experiment demonstrated to me that plays are inescapably poetic. People forget that Ibsen, the great exemplar of naturalism, wrote his first plays in verse, and you can mount a good argument that he never stopped. A common laziness in contemporary Australian theatre is to assume that naturalism is transparent Ð it isnÕt, it is as much an artifice as expressionism.

Theatre is in many ways a crude art form, incapable of certain subtleties inherent in prose or poetry. I think that’s one of the reasons I really like it. It’s an intensely pragmatic art, because ideas have to be physically realised. But it has the enormous virtue of highlighting the importance of the gestic nature of language. In theatre, language is what people do to one another.

When I write texts for theatre, I start from an assumption that theatre is an inherently poetic medium – that as soon as an actor is on a stage, you’re immediately in the realm of metaphor. I love that artifice, and what can be done with it. I also love the collaborative nature of the art.

JK: Music is obviously a significant factor in your work. Could you discuss this with specific reference to your opera The Burrow and your experience as librettist in general.

AC: I’m fairly illiterate as far as music is concerned. I started listening to new music when I was first met Michael Smetanin, who was then doing some work with the Elision Contemporary Music Ensemble – we met through Daryl Buckley, the artistic director. I find music fascinating, but I have only the most schematic knowledge of it – probably about as much as Michael has of writing. I admire Michael’s music immensely, and he writes very well for theatre; heÕs a very intelligent composer with a sure dramatic sense. And he says he likes the break from that plinkety plonk avant gard stuff he does.

The Burrow was my first commission, and looking back, I was incredibly lucky. I was free to do anything I liked. That’s the kind of freedom I want from any collaboration, and it really is a matter of trust. The Burrow had two different productions in two years, which almost never happens with new operas. It was a fantastic experience, and I guess I was a bit spoilt. I expected theatre to be like that all the time.

Since then, Michael and I have written another opera, Gauguin, which will be (finally) produced next year in Melbourne – it’s taken four years to get to the stage. It’s our idea of a popular opera, and I can’t wait to hear the score, because I can’t read music. A little bit of it has been played as a separate piece, but that’s all. And I’ve just finished the libretto for our third opera, The White Army. God knows when that will be on stage, although it mightn’t take so long, because it will be cheaper to do – it won’t need two ensembles and dancers and 11 singers like Gauguin.

What interests me most about opera, more than a pure interest in music, are its possibilities as theatre. A libretto is an uneasy text, even more so than a play, because it exists as a blueprint for a score as well as a performance. Libretti are generally considered to be very secondary as far as operas are concerned. Gwen Harwood makes herself invisible when she talks about her libretti; the composer is God. But the librettist is responsible for the dramatic dynamic and the textual images that are reflected in the staging, the performances and the music – for the ideas that are made manifest in the whole production. At its worst, opera is the most conservative, dead artform there is, and certainly the world of opera is horrendously conventional, which is sometimes a bit dispiriting. But it’s fair to say that’s pretty true of almost all Australian theatre.

Opera at its best is total theatre, but that kind of experience is very rare. I am really most interested in the possibilities of a kind of bastard opera, what is often called lazily “music theatre”, in which music, performance, design, direction and text exist together equally as part of a larger experience. When you see that happen, which occasionally it does, it’s tremendously exciting:ÊÊthe whole really is more than the sum of its parts.

JK: You seem to respect and enjoy a wide variety of poetries and avoid being attached to a “school”. Could you discuss some of your influences and how you view the process of categorising and labelling that seems to be so in vogue at the moment?

AC: As far as influence is concerned, I don’t know where to begin! Dr Seuss? Lewis Carroll? How do you trace influence in your own work, really? It’s always more elusive than it appears to be. I guess an early major influence was Eliot, and it took me years to crawl out of that shadow. Judith Wright, Pablo Neruda, Muriel Rukeyser. You just end up making lists. I’ve copied almost everybody I’ve read. I’ve always read a lot of different poets and have never really understood how it can be maintained that one kind of writing is intrinsically superior to another, or why, if you admire Frank O’Hara or Charles Olsen, you can’t also admire Robert Frost or George Herbert. It seems ridiculously limiting of your own pleasures and possibilities, and strangely incurious. I didn’t read at all outside English until I was 25; when I did, it was a revelation. Poets who have become very important to me since then are Paz, Rilke, Bonnefoy, Akhmatova, Mandelstam and Celan.

I’ve thought quite a lot about why most of the poets I like happen to be men. Sometimes I’ve worried about it. Navigatio is in part an examination of why that might be so.

The “process of categorising and labelling” you mention makes me very depressed, especially when poets participate in it. It’s a way of not reading – x does this, and y does that, and now that’s fixed up we can get on with something else. It seems to rule out the possibility of change, and reading and writing are so much more dynamic than that.

I am beginning to think reviewing is an almost completely corrupted form, in which it is impossible to speak without being compromised in one way or another. When I read reviews, I realise that almost no one is interested in discussing poetry as an art form or in thinking. Hence the pigeonholes. I have read very few authentically interesting responses to my own work; some people appear to have barely read the book. I am interested you say I manage to avoid being part of a school – I’m certain that I’m placed in ways that are beyond my control. There’s nothing that can be done about that, of course, apart from hoping that maybe some people will read your work for themselves and have some kind of true meeting.

JK: Do you perceive your poetry has having a specific voice or is “voice” something fluid from poem to poem? Is the perception of the poet central to the construction of a poem or does the language of poetry itself dictate meaning outside the poet’s “intention”?

AC: I don’t know what I am when I write. I listen to something. I wish I knew what it was. Lately I have started to recognise myself in my poetry, which makes me feel incredibly bored and frustrated with my work – I don’t want to see me there. What other people see I can’t possibly say, it often astonishes me. People often say that my poetry is intensely personal, and in a sense that is true, but in another way I have never felt it is, because quite clearly a poem isn’t me. Maybe it’s me in advance of myself. I do think poetry is more about destabilising the self, exploding the self, than reinforcing one:ÊÊto me the experience of beauty is annihilating, in that it breaks the expected, consciously consctructed self and reveals something else. I’m never quite sure what that is . . . But you asked about voice, and perhaps voice and self in poems might be the same thing. I have my own tropes, like everybody, and I’m currently trying to get rid of them. I guess a voice in a poem is something you’re born with, like your vocal range, and is as multifaceted and contingent and fluid and full of contradictions as a self is, also.

My conscious intention has never been much use to me in writing. More often, if it’s there, it effectively stops any poetry dead.

My only intention in writing a poem is to write a poem. The subject has never struck me as of major importance – it’s only the pretext for a kind of inquiry into form, and the form is a way of creating some exterior equivalent of an inarticulate but strong interior necessity. Poets often talk about a feeling of dictation, but I’m not at all sure about the idea of language writing itself. Language is very complex, but it is still spoken by people.

JK: Do you consider the “role of woman poet” being specifically different to the “role of the male poet”?

AC: No!

JK: How political should poetry be? Is poetry always political? How central is gender to a poetics?

AC: I didn’t hit the idea that writing poetry as a woman was problematic until relatively late, when I was in my early 20s. I was at first surprised by the idea, but after I had children I began to see the point of feminism. I found the idea of a female poetic initially empowering, but I discarded it pretty soon because I found that ultimately it took away from me a kind of natural right to poetry itself. There are all kinds of traps: the idea of Lacanian joissance, for example, where the female is relegated to a kind of prelingual gobbledegook, a state that doesn’t seem very different from traditional Western placings of the feminine. There came a point where feminism seemed absolutely suffocating. In the end, I simply wanted to take my sex for granted and get on with writing poetry: it seemed the most feminist thing I could do. Poetry is erotically charged language in which gender is a very fluid concept. All really good poets of either sex fuse and subvert conventional ideas of masculine and feminine.

There’s a sense in which every writing is political. But politics seems a very reductive way of discussing writing.

JK: You are a respected critic with a reputation for being of an independent mind. Does your critical self interact with your creative self or are these necessarily separate functions?

AC: The two are completely intertwined. It’s the same consciousness working in different modes. I’m not entirely sure, however, how they relate!

JK: You were born in South Africa. At what age did you migrate to Australia and how has this movement influenced your worldview? Navigatio is of specific interest here.

AC: There were two big sea voyages during my childhood – from South Africa to England and then, three years later, out here. I was seven when I arrived in Australia. Seven is a very interesting age – it’s when children suddenly develop very rapidly and take their first real steps towards adulthood, the age when they start to lose their baby teeth. I suppose that sense of complete dislocation at that age has determined much that followed in my life.

It’s certainly given me a very dislocated sense of language and place, and is perhaps why in my own work I have placed such a high emphasis on artifice. Stravinsky, who spent most of his life in exile, said his country was music, and I suppose there’s a real sense in which I feel that about writing – although I guess my question is, exile from where? Childhood? I wasn’t born in England, and I am certainly not British. South Africa is a dim memory and my being born there was an accident of my father’s career. Despite almost thirty years living here, I don’t feel especially Australian, either.

JK: How do you view the formalist/traditional versus “experimental” debate?

AC: Probably mainly with puzzlement, to be honest. I’m not that familiar with the ins and outs of the debate, so these responses might be way off line.

To cite a few random problems: Modernist adventures like Futurism or Pound’s Fascism give the lie to an easy assumption that the avant garde is allied with the left, the formalists with the right. At best, one might point to tendencies, but they’re highly vexatious. “Conservative” is a word now linked to the largely anti-capitalist conservation movement; people speaking out in favour of humanist values – which still seem to me the most durable ideological defences against the kinds of state tyrannies that the 20th century has produced – are often as much from what used to be called the right as the left. Some of the most tyrannical thought systems we have produced are those that have allied themselves with the ideal of human freedom. Marxist thought was behind Stalin and Pol Pot. And so on and so on. I know these are truisms, but that doesn’t mean they’re not serious questions. How do you place yourself politically on a spectrum like that? The simple solution is to say that writing is apolitical, but I know that begs the question, since I do believe that writing is political.

I have an abiding suspicion of certain kinds of abstractions. I suppose a crude example is militaryspeak like “collateral damage”. The abstractions of economics in particular seem to have replaced the social authority of traditional religious abstractions. For instance, Royal is a word etymologically linked with Real: in 16th century Spain the King was Reality and synonymous with God. Economic dogmas seem a contemporary equivalent to that – economic imperatives override any other kind and act as complete justifications of otherwise morally indefensible actions (I’m thinking, say, of the environmental and social impacts of the defence and chemical industries). The Economy is our Fate.

These days I’m becoming more and more convinced that the really radical arena is that of feeling. I suppose I’m thinking of something a little like Havel’s “politics of conscience”. I get sick of reading right wing writers quoting Yeats (The best lack all conviction etc – ) to place the realm of feeling out there with the dumb blind beasts. Or of a blanket mockery of the “sentimental” that masks a fear of the dilemmas that occur when you do engage with feeling. The sentimentalising of feeling is one of the big problems of the 20th century, it’s a mainstay of the mass media and one of the major tools of democratic politics. I have no idea what it’s possible to do about it, except to persist in pointing out, whenever it’s possible to do so, that things are much more complicated. Robert Musil argued for a quality he named “precision of soul”, which more than an integration of intellect and feeling, suggests that they are the same thing. And I really believe that poetry can be a locus of resistance to the poverty of feeling that characterises the worst of Western thought. I don’t believe in any kind of solutions. The questions are the important things.

Of course, you have to abstract in order to think at all and all abstractions necessarily are exclusive. One hopes ideally a number of models of thought come into play in speculating about anything, to create gaps rather than elisions, so a necessary doubt can be summoned into a conversation. I guess I’m thinking of the differences between the rehearsals of dogma or received realities and immediate, fluid thought. You can find either quality in both “formalist” and “experimental” poems and in my view the best of both “camps” (if they really exist) absorb aspects of both.

JK: What impact is the internet having on both the “production” and presentation of poetry?

AC: I think it will have a continuing impact, because it contributes to a decentralising of poetry that I can’t help but find interesting. It attracts me because it allows an unprecedented autonomy in presenting my own work, if I wish:ÊÊI can just put up what I want, to please myself, on my own page, and it’s available for others to see if they wish to. Poetry mailing lists allow conversations to occur that simply weren’t possible 10 years ago and that’s stimulating and interesting. I have little doubt that internet publication will soon be as respectable as print publishing. I hesitate to project forward what it might mean, but I do think it’s technology that especially suits poets writing in Australia. I still like books best.

JK: Is it important that Australian poetry is read outside Australia?

AC: Well, why not? I don’t know how important it is. I do think that Australians have produced some fabulous poetry that should be read alongside the other poetry available in the English language.

JK: Are you interested in poetry theory?

AC: I’m interested in thinking about poetry. I’ve always been fascinated by how people do things, the process is as interesting as what eventuates (but only I think in the sense that mechanics are obsessed by cars, while most people just drive them).

I read a fair bit of Lyotard, Jameson, Beaudrillard, Bernstein, Derrida and others a few years ago – a friend of mine was doing a course in contemporary poetics and I borrowed her reading list and read the lot. I had varying reactions, from fascination to incredulity to repulsion. It culminated one day when I was reading Kristeva and started feeling incredibly impatient – she was taking pages to say what Ungaretti (who I was also reading) said in three lines.

Much theoretical writing seems an incredibly cumbersome way of thinking, and so often ends up making the kind of statement that you read three times before you realise something like Oh! is that all it means? But also, I’ve often sensed a kind of bullying in the language itself. It seems to deny in advance, by the kind of vocabulary it uses and the kinds of definitions and arguments it mounts, the possibility of poetic language. Poetry needs no justification, it isn’t an argument that can be refuted. I have a sense of much poetic theory that poetry appears in that context, if it does at all, in an emasculated (disovulated? clitorected?) state, under false pretences, as if it’s a law abiding citizen, the eunuch of theorising. It’s not true of writers like Blanchot, whom I admire for his tact in writing of writing, you never have the feeling he is appropriating anything. I sometimes think philosophers are jealous of that unjustified quality – that Heidegger perhaps tried to make a philosophy that had the kind of groundless authority of poems.

JK: Could you outline a brief “poetics”?

AC: Will all this do? With the caveat that I reserve the right to change my mind?