Never Be Alone Again: Hip-Hop Sampling as a Technique in Contemporary Australian Poetry

By | 1 May 2020

This brings us to samples as landmines. A landmine is a reference or sample in a text that you don’t recognise at the time – you might not even recognise it as a sample – but then, at some later point, you come across some new information or the original text, e.g. step on the landmine, which then recontextualises or enhances the original reading. I call this The Simpsons effect after the frequent experience I used to have of encountering information that would suddenly explain obscure references that had sailed over my head on first watch, during the show’s mid-90s glory days. Like learning, years later, that as well as appearing in ‘The Moon of Earth’ in Season 8’s ‘The Secret War of Lisa Simpson’, Adlai Stevenson had an incredibly storied career that included serving as Governor of Illinois, two unsuccessful runs as the Democratic Presidential nominee and playing a pivotal role during the Cuban Missile Crisis as US Ambassador to the UN.

One of the most rewarding landmines I’ve stepped on is the monologue that opens Genius/GZA’s Liquid Swords:

When I was little, my father was famous. He was the greatest Samurai in the empire, and he was the Shogun’s decapitator. He cut off the heads of 131 lords for the Shogun. It was a bad time for the empire.

I trod on this in 2005 reading one of the many movie website explainers of the film references in Kill Bill Volume 2. Towards the end of the movie Uma Thurman’s character Beatrix Kiddo, aka The Bride, is in bed with her daughter watching TV. We can’t see the screen, but we can hear the audio. It is the same piece of narration at the beginning of GZA’s album. It was, the explainer revealed, taken from Shogun Assassin, a cult 1980s samurai film. That landmine detonated a decade after I had encountered the sample. If nothing else Liquid Swords laid the groundwork for the joyous moment of recognition. It also lead me to Shogun Assassin, a grindhouse classic, and because that film is actually a dubbed edit of the first two films in the Lone Wolf and Cub series, to the career of Kinji Fukasaku.

Here I should draw a second distinction, this time between a sample and a reference. They can have similar impacts but the distinction matters (I think). The title of John Forbes’s ‘On the Beach’ would be a landmine for many contemporary readers. While the title clearly refers to where Australians – as the national myth would have it – spend their leisure time, it also refers to Neville Shute’s postapocalyptic novel, and its Gregory Peck-starring big screen adaptation, of the same name. In the novel the world has been decimated by nuclear war. A submarine is despatched from Melbourne to look for signs of life, while the lucky Antipodeans’ isolation has gifted them some additional bittersweet months of life, as they wait for global air currents to usher in the end. This ironic isolation seasons Forbes’s consideration of ‘what model of Australia as a nation/could match the ocean’. But you only get this if you get the reference. Last year the book was republished by Text with a new introduction by Gideon Haigh, and the movie, while it isn’t on Netflix, does star Fred Astaire, Ava Gardner, Gregory Peck and Anthony Perkins, so it is still out there for people to stumble upon. It might, for instance, show up on a podcast where people talk about films that depict societal collapse. Firing pin, meet detonator.

But it’s not a sample. There is no distinct part of that work of art, of either the film or book, that is re-enacted or repurposed. The entire text is pointed at. A sample, by comparison, is a direct bit of text, a specific line from a poem or a novel or a song. Like the landmine line in Ken Bolton’s ‘An Empty Space’: ‘there is room in the room I room, in’. The line is Ted Berrigan’s, from his first sonnet. It isn’t clearly signposted – there are snatches of conversation throughout the poem so it isn’t clear it is quoted – but it is from the first poem in Berrigan’s well-known The Sonnets. However, poetry is a wide land and we can’t read everything. In Bolton’s case though it is easy to imagine many of his readers have, or will at some point, read Berrigan, so it isn’t unreasonable to imagine a reader encountering both texts at different times and recognising one in the other. And thus, the landmine is stepped on. A moment of connection is forged. The reader experiences the pleasure of learning a thing, identifying one thing in another.

And sometimes samples are simply raw materials. A Bunnings to shop for the wood and nails you need to build your poem. This is an approach favoured by Toby Fitch whose work frequently employs a variety of techniques including mistranslation, cut-ups, erasure, rewriting, samples or other methods to write his poems. Almost every poem in his most recent collection, Where Only the Sky had Hung Before, is the product of some type of refiguring of another, often literary, text. For instance, the poem ‘All The Skies Above Girls on the Run’ is comprised of all the skies featured in John Ashbery’s long poem Girls on the Run. Martin Duwell, in a perceptive review of Michael Farrell’s edited anthology Ashbery Mode, in which the poem is included, discusses Fitch’s work alongside Corey Wakeling’s and A J Carruthers’s. Duwell declares his ambivalence, as a critic, about what he labels, ‘text-generated poems’ like ‘All the Skies Above Girls on the Run’ but speculates that they are ‘probably enjoyable and rewarding to write’. Duwell is one of Australia’s leading critics, but he’s not a poet, which is unique in Australian poetry. I’m barely a pimple on the arse of a critic but I did spend a month of Saturdays cycling through my favourite OzRock songs on YouTube to write my sample poem ‘Sunburnt Jukebox’ and I can confirm, they are fun to write. My poem takes a line from all of the bands in my Golden Age of Oz Rock (1972-1991) canon and lines from Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘My Country’. The poem was inspired by Australian Poetry’s ‘Transforming My Country’ project in which Fitch commissioned a number of Australian poets, including Alison Whittaker, Justin Clemens and Stuart Cooke, to write responses to Mackeller’s infamous poem.

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