For Dorothy Porter, writing librettos is a natural extension of her desire to “open things up” with her poetry; to discover the realms in which it can move. However, renowned as the woman who writes with rock music playing (the final sections of her latest verse novel Wild Surmise were written with P.J. Harvey on the stereo), the shift into opera in recent years doesn't mean Porter's CD collection has altered too much.
“Librettists are, internationally, pretty scarce on the ground,” she says when I meet her in the courtyard of her local cafe in Clifton Hill. “Jonathan Mills approached me back in 1996 to see if I'd be interested in writing a libretto for him based on a short story called 'The Chosen Vessel' by Barbara Baynton. And I wrote a libretto called 'The Ghost Wife'.”
The chamber opera premiered at the Melbourne Festival in 1999 and also played at the Adelaide and Sydney Festivals, as well as at the Opera House and in London. Then last year Porter and Mills entered an international opera competition run by London's Genesis Foundation. Their opera, The Eternity Man, was one of three winners.
The opera is based on the life of reformed alcoholic, Arthur Stace. For 30 years from the 1940s, Stace in the night chalked the word “Eternity” in copperplate script on Sydney's footpaths as a celebration of his faith in God. After the word lit up the Harbour Bridge it became almost the signature symbol for the Sydney 2000 Olympics. In July this year, Porter heads to London to begin work on the opera's international debut.
“I turned the Arthur Stace story into a kind of an hallucinatory tribute to Sydney, my hometown. I look at the history in the 40s, 50s and 60s, using Arthur Stace as a ghost-like figure.”
Mills saw in Porter's verse novels (The Monkey's Mask and Akhenaten) an operatic quality in the way the poetic works are constructed; a view shared by reviewers when the novels have been translated into Italian. Porter says she didn't know much about the art of the librettist before Mills asked her to work with him, but she went into it with a “spirit of adventure”.
“I'd never thought of my novels as operatic before,” she said. But now she's worked with Mills she says the libretto form “does appear to have a relationship with my poetry.”
In the same way that writing opera doesn't mean she's turned away from rock, writing with Eternity in mind doesn't mean she's turned to religion. However, there's no doubt her recent poetic works, Wild Surmise and Other Worlds, have been part of a making-sense-of-why-we're-here motif in her work . . .
Both books take as their, dare we say (well, we're going to!) launch pad, astronomy, the planets, moons, stars, comets. All things spacey and far away. For Porter it's a case of the outer worlds affecting the inner worlds of the mind and soul.
“It's kind of a micro/macro thing,” she says. “There's the illustration on the cover of Wild Surmise which shows this skull with a kind of 'buzzingness' – world within the skull. And then there's a world outside the skull . . . There are images inside the book where I talk about the brain being a neural galaxy. And, also, what do these places [in the solar system] represent to us as images and in belief and so forth?”
It's widely known that Porter shifted from individual poems and collections to the verse novel out of a frustration with poetry's position in the literary world. After Akhenaten there came The Monkey's Mask, a lesbian detective narrative which has rated its gun barrels off and has been adapted as a play, radio play and film.
“I had nothing to do with those adaptations,” she says. “I was consulted . . . Sometimes I was listened to and sometimes not, but that's what a consulting role is all about,” Porter adds. However, she's been excited that people have wanted to adapt her work and she sees them as works in their own right to be judged separate to her poetry.
“I'm intrigued by what other people do with my work. A work of poetry can be a springboard for other people to do other things. The most dazzling example of that is Pushkin's verse novel Eugene Onegin [adapted for, among other things, film] which is still the greatest verse novel . . .”
As far as new work goes, Porter's just finished writing a song cycle for composer/pianist, Paul Grabowsky, to be premiered at the Brisbane Musical Festival. And she's started sketching a verse novel about a serial killer. She laughs and says she wanted to write another thriller.
“After Wild Surmise, which is very dense with these images of the cosmos, I wanted to do something more terrestrial,” she laughs again. “I wanted to get back to the idea of poetry and narrative . . .”
She says poetry has become trapped in the idea that the one page poem that is “difficult, challenging and demanding” is the only way to go. While she says some poetry works on that level, her desire has always been – and will continue to be – to move poetry away from being a “precious, esoteric hobby”.
“The most positive role I can play in the poetry community is just to open things up a bit and to present other possibilities. That doesn't mean everyone is going to follow my path or even want to, but just to say there are other ways of doing this. We don't have to be trapped in this particular cul-de-sac which I think poetry has become.”
Paul Mitchell is a contributing editor of Cordite.