Sydney, Social Poetries and Writing around Robocop: Q&A with Astrid Lorange

1 May 2012

Astrid Lorange: poet, phD student and Sydneysider, is Cordite’s guest editor for our Sydney issue, which launches next week. She kindly agreed to answer some hot-coal questions for me about living Sydney, writing poetry and curating for Cordite. Read on!

What kind of a place is Astrid’s Sydney? What are your key coordinates?

I was born in a house on the headland at Newport Beach, and spent my first five years around the northern beaches. Then, I moved to Byron Bay, where I stayed until I finished school. I knew as a teenager that I wanted to live in a city as soon as I could. And it turned out that Sydney became the object of my desire, for reasons now unknown. I moved here ten years ago with my best friend. I went to university (where I have, in fact, remained), but that was never the sole focus of my life here. I was much more interested in the experience of actually carving out a context in a new place, and I still am. I learned Sydney by walking, working, drinking, swimming, writing, reading, eating, and speaking. It sounds trite, but it’s true; the city has emerged for me over the decade as a site of many and often incommensurate memories and feelings. I love this place, but I am also sort of exhausted by its capacity to make me feel like I’m barely hanging onto everything. It’s a place that makes me manic, and unsure. Which I think is a good thing.

As for my co-ordinates, I’ve mostly found myself in the inner west orbit. I have patchy psychogeographical knowledge of the beach (Gordons Bay, Bronte, the ocean baths at Newport, Pittwater and the Basin), the western suburbs (Penno and the lower Mountains), the southwest, and dots of the north shore. Otherwise, I am usually somewhere between my house in Ashfield and the State Library of NSW. When I moved here, my aunt gave me a 1984 edition of a Gregory’s Street directory. It was uselessly out of date and had some spreads missing, but I would study it religiously at night when I first got here. I’d watch TV and look up all the suburbs listed on ads for mattress factories and electronics outlets. I’ve always been keen on building my mental archive of this place — as unwieldy and enormous as it is (and as unreliable as my archive often proves to be!).

I’m realising as I write this that I have always lived in a sharehouse: which tells you two things about me. I’m broke and I’m social. I think this has made the city for me. I don’t like what’s being branded and sold as Sydney; but I love what I can make and find here. Being mostly broke means you miss a lot of the bullshit that a city trades on. And living in a sharehouse is in many ways as intensely intimate as living at home. So I guess that’s been a big part of my Sydney, too.

How did you find the experience of selecting and curating a set of poems for the Sydney issue?

Selecting poems for this issue was an amazing experience. I’ve previously not done any editing other than smaller-scale projects, in which I ask people to give specific things for a specific reason. So this was new. Also, I am not a particularly ‘representational’ poet or thinker. I was nervous about editing an issue that was ‘about’ something. Would I know how to choose according to a theme, and would I be able to re-imagine the terms of representation and referentiality, etc? I lived in Philadelphia for a year and a half, and when I returned a year ago, I found myself suddenly writing around and through Sydney. So this seemed like a timely task, a way of re-immersing myself in the poetries of my home.

When I came to reading through the submissions, I was really struck by some of the constant themes. Sydney seems to arouse descriptions of drinking, fucking, getting high, and feeling lonely. The poems were stuffed with language, cited and appropriated and misremembered and quoted and fragmented and erased and stuck back together. There were very few that rhapsodised the harbour, and those that did, managed to have a macabre whiff, even if unintentionally. They really were a noirish and grotesque thatch of poems, and I mean that in the best possible way!

Having said that, there became a clear sub-set of poems that were the poems I wanted to publish. These were poems that demonstrated the total disorientation of finding yourself in language in a city, in a city of language. They didn’t try to explain the oddities of Sydney, but they experimented with language such that it made that oddness manifest, it showed how the oddness is constructed through the rabbling action of language. I was thrilled to recognise in these poems a kind of deeply social anarchy that I experience as I encounter the city. When I followed this tug through the submissions, an arc emerged, and I feel like it’s my Sydney — not one city but a set of minor players.

When I read your most recent book, Eating and Speaking, I consumed it on the move, on the train, over coffees and soups in cafes, alone with beer while waiting for mates. And of course while eating chips! I’ve found that this kind of kinetic reading practice often nets more rewards for poetry than it does for other kinds of texts. I’m interested in the environments in which you read and produce poetry, given that your work is so sort-of meshlike, wiring up physics with body with colloquial jargon with syntactic jambs…can you tell us a little about where the poetry happens for you?

I am so happy you consumed Eating and Speaking on the move and with meals! Perfect. Yeah, I mean, poetry is something I do in the middle of everything else. It’s very different from my critical writing and research, which I need to do in a quiet and lonely place. I like to write poems while also cooking dinner, talking to my lover, reading a book, cleaning my room, and looking through Robocop fan-fiction sites. I see poem-making as a tremendously social activity. I want to bring all the language of my daily living into a space, and I want to let the emergent relations and dissonances drive a poem into a shape. I usually write according to a rhythm or structure of syntax. I guess, you could say, I write with my ear. I arrange language as I find it and then go back and fine-tune the arrangement until it has a distinct form. Often I will have an organising concept or wordlet in mind, other times I have a much vaguer theme mobilising the composition. But, whatever I do, I am interested not just in finding language and putting it in a poem, I am interested in how the language settles into signifying relations, and how this very process (and its resultant meanings) make a really critical point: language is not naturally or neutrally meaningful. We tend to think, in this cultural context, that meaning is intrinsic to the things we find meaningful. Our lives, for example. On the other hand, I am quite pleased by the idea that meaning is something made. So much banks on naturalised ossifications of language, and poetry is way of pointing out such sedimentation. This is what makes poetry political, in a literal sense: poetry examines the way language functions in order to construct a politics.

As such, for me, poetry is a methodology: a way of dealing with the world. I write poetry because my experience is intensely languaged, and I find it necessary to have a meta-praxis that examines this fact and tests its limits. Writing poetry is ‘erotic’ in the sense that it affords a particular experience of encounter, denial, resistance, and unexpectedness.

Which artists/writers/performers are you currently digging?

I am constantly amazed by my prolific and exceptionally talented friends and peers. They are, from Australia (and this is by no means exhaustive): Sam Langer, Michael Farrell, Ella O’Keefe, Tim Wright, Oscar Schwartz, Corey Wakeling, Tom Lee, Stuart Cooke, Kate Fagan, Peter Minter, Nick Keys, Joel Scott, Sam Moginie, Andy Carruthers, Gig Ryan, Martin Harrison, Jill Jones, Ann Vickery, Pam Brown, Toby Fitch, Derek Motion, Aden Rolfe, Nathan Curnow, Jaya Savige, Chris Edwards, Robert Adamson and many more. In the USA: Eddie Hopely, John Paetsch, Gordon Faylor, Trisha Low, Diana Hamilton, Steve Zultanski, Aaron Winslow, Josef Kaplan, Lanny Jordan Jackson, Andy Sterling, Andy Martrich, Cecilia Corrigan, Marie Buck, Lawrence Giffin, Lauren Spohrer, Kim Rosenfield, Rob Fitterman, Kristen Gallagher, Chris Alexander, Kieran Daly, Laura Neuman, Gregory Laynor, Steve McCaughlin, Corina Copp, John Coletti, Arlo Quint. For example.

Writers I come back to (again and again) include: Jack Spicer, David Melnick, Kenneth Koch, Bernadette Mayer, Hannah Weiner, Kathy Acker, Mina Loy, Tan Lin, Renee Gladman, Lyn Hejinian, Joan Retallack, Harryette Mullen, Myung Mi Kim, Maria Damon, Robin Blaser, Christopher Brennan, Michael Dransfield, Leslie Scalapino, David Antin, John Forbes, Frank O’Hara, CA Conrad, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Monica De La Torre, Jena Osman, Stacy Doris, Juliana Spahr, Lin Dinh, CA Conrad.

Since I am at the end of my PhD slog, my references at the moment are all poetry and theory. I’ve had not much chance to enjoy other media in a while. And since my PhD is all about Gertrude Stein, she is the top of the list, always. She is truly an endlessly generative resource for my thinking and writing. Her work demands, at every instance, that the one who reads reconsiders every habit, reflex, assumption and desire about the way that language works and moves. My engagement with poetry is entirely rooted in my conviction that this continual reconsideration is the necessary condition of philosophical inquiry. As such, the work I read is read by way of this original demand: what Stein impels me to do I take to all events of thinking, speaking, writing, and reading.

As a lady producing experimental and critically engaged work, what are your thoughts on gender within Australian poetry — both in the kinds of writing being produced and how the ‘scene’ itself constellates?

The question of gender is always an enormously important one. To begin: I do not take gender as an essential category, nor as a biological fact. Like many others, I take gender as a fact of one’s identification. At the same time, I am wary of identity when taken as an essential category, also. So I guess you could say I am firmly anti-essentialist. This is a philosophical answer to the question of gender. But I live in many realities, and one of my realities is a reality in which I exist in social conditions and among a complex situation of power relations. As such, I live in a reality in which the category of ‘women’ is constantly under attack. The lived reality of being a woman immediately means many things, and these things are actual and their consequences are dire. So even though I don’t ‘believe’ in gender per se, I certainly ‘believe’ in the real effects and corrupt structures of a patriarchal society. And so it matters how the category of ‘woman’ is defined, made legible and illegible, etc. Gender relations and instances of sexism and misogyny are never isolated and always symptomatic: symptomatic of a culture that is thoroughly sexist and misogynist.

The question of gender in a specific community, say for example, the community of poets in Australia is tricky to negotiate. We have to make distinct the issue of an author’s biography and an author’s social context. The former need not inform a reading or judgment of a work; the latter is invariably important. It’s important because an author’s subject position necessarily affects the writing and reading of a text. And it’s important because the issue of who is speaking and who is listening is always important. Texts are gendered not simply because the authors who make them are gendered, or perceived as being gendered. They are gendered because our culture demands that people, texts, practices and discourses are designated one way or another. For the poetry community (if we can imagine such a thing in the singular), the same is true as for every community: issues of gender correspond to structures of power reproduced elsewhere. It is thus necessary to be always asking, of one’s community and one’s engagement with that community, in what way assumptions are being made and power is distributed.

I consider myself a feminist more importantly than I perceive myself as ‘female’. Or, I am a woman and a feminist and both of these things are conscious and engaged methodologies; they are not absolute identities. By methodology I mean, again, literally, a way of dealing with the world one finds oneself in and with the relations that make the world and bring about its many meanings. Since poetry, too, is a methodology — a practice of making and testing — it is a site for the interrogation of and interference with the kinds of habits of signification that produce normative categories, which are naturalised and affirmed as fact. So to me, being and feminist and being a poet are entirely related methodologies. And they are the guts of what I do and say.

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