Adam Aitken Interviews Martin Harrison

By and | 1 November 2014

Image by Juno Gemes

I’d known Martin Harrison since 1985, when I first met him in Newtown, New South Wales. I had been an undergraduate and aspiring poet at the University of Sydney, and we were neighbours. I hung out with a group of poets who often gathered at the Courthouse Hotel, on Australia Street a few blocks north of Martin’s house; a group that included John Forbes, John Tranter, Pam Brown, Gig Ryan, Laurie Duggan, Dipti Saravanamuttu, Jan Harry, Joanne Burns, Rae Desmond Jones, and Chris Mansell among others. Martin was someone from another literary scene, but I was not put off by that as I found him immensely intelligent, warm, witty, and encouraging to young poets.

Twelve years later I was commissioned by Cordite Poetry Review to interview Martin at home in his Darlinghurst flat. By then he’d already moved to Wollombi, two hours’ drive north of Sydney. His second book, The Kangaroo Farm, had just come out with Robert Adamson’s and Juno Gemes’s Paper Bark Press and I was struck by where it sat in relation to the discussions various poetry people were having at that time. Martin had by then established himself at the University of Technology, Sydney creative writing program. Prompted by the Cordite editors, I sought out Martin and asked him if he would like to do an interview piece. He was enthusiastic. I wasn’t to know at the time, but I found myself studying at UTS from 2000-2006, and from then on employed as a part time lecturer in creative writing – even teaching on a course with Martin for one or two semesters. For most of that time I would run into him regularly until his death in September 2014.

When I last saw Martin the Arts faculty was in crisis; his health was terrible and he was wheelchair bound but in the loving care of his PhD students. The UTS Arts Faculty was in financial turmoil. He was, nevertheless, incredibly cheerful. Martin’s last words to me were counsel – to hang in there and that there would always be teaching work for me at UTS. That mattered hugely to me.

I attended a memorial service for Martin Harrison at the NSW Writers Centre on September 14th and, unable to sleep that night, I remembered the interview. I searched the Internet and found it archived in Pandora. Reading it again I was struck at how fresh it seemed, and so full of the enthusiasm and informed opinion (and polemical frisson) that Martin was capable of. He was able to talk about poetry at a highly technical level, and to apply his considerable understanding of language, painting, sound, science, and modern philosophy to a somewhat Romantic poetic of vitalism and transcendentalist mysticism. Martin’s work was at a slant to Les Murray’s and Robert Gray’s, poets he respected. It was grounded in a different kind of cosmopolitan life, in pleasure and matter, in an emotional and perceptual experience that is not constrained by any Australian nationalistic poetic … all of which makes sense to me. I must admit that in 1997 I was quite ignorant of his interest in ecopoetics, so it’s fascinating to reflect on how far Martin’s poetry and Australian poetics have come since the interview. I had the feeling at the time that he was critical of where I was in poetic terms, but that made our exchange all the more interesting. At least, it did for Martin – it had to be interesting.

This is one of only two published interviews, at odds with a poet who loved to talk. What follows is a cut-down, edited version of our conversation recorded with a Sony Walkman.

– Adam Aitken, Sydney, 14 September 2014

Adam Aitken: How has your work in radio influenced your thinking in poetry?

Martin Harrison: I’ve always been interested in electronic media and I also realised early on that I would work in radio – it has all sorts of connections in my life to do with childhood; radio is often a childhood experience for people. Your love of things starts there. Also, because I feel that a lot of writing is just not for the page. Writing is something that goes on in film and television, and other forms of electronic media as well. It’s part of the environment I live in.

AA: You seem to use images in a linear way, as TV would.

MH: Yes. I am trying to write poetry that lives in the same world as watching TV, listening to radio and watching movies. And I’ve been thinking a lot about what the poetic image means these days – the classic Horatian definition of pictoria poesis has to be rethought from generation to generation. I’m trying to make my work coexist with contemporary ways of perception. I’m interested in the kind of detail that the camera can provide that the writer can be intimate with. If you take a room or a scene or a person there is something about the way those images cover the object, and something about the lingering attention you can give to what’s produced there. It defines a contemporary sensibility. I like that kind of attentiveness.

AA: People think that the way TV and radio influence poetry is a very contemporary phenomenon but in fact in your work you owe a lot to Roland Robinson’s aesthetic. He says ‘the thing is to keep moving’. I’m thinking of your poem ‘Moon Gazing in Sorrento Dusk’. You call the moon a ‘break-through moon’, ‘moon of eternal knowledge’, and you also say that ‘everything about it was the opposite of how I felt’. How are these ideas sourced in Roland Robinson’s poetry?

MH: I wanted to write an elegy for Roland. He published some of my first poems. I admired his work and I enormously liked him. He was one of those great generous human beings basically … a man of incredible memory and resource. He was someone who, in a subtle way, changed your mind about the nature of local experience. In the poem I wanted to bring out the aural and the hearing basis of Robinson’s own work. I regret never having managed to record him, to do what we’re doing now and record his conversation. He would move from talking into poetry and poetry into talking. He spent a lot of time travelling up and down New South Wales – the south coast and north coast and some of the inland areas – during and after the war, travelling and meeting mainly local Aboriginal people and writing down their stories.

AA: There’s a sense that in your poetry the ‘I’ – the poet – is on a pilgrimage through various landscapes – a pastoral surface – but not in the way David Campbell writes pastoral. What’s your sense of writing the Australian landscape as a certain unravelling of myths rather than a reinforcement of, say, the country-city divide?

MH: That dialectic has worn itself out. I’m not denying that there are regional differences in Australia, city Australians underestimate that. City-based Australians have very little understanding of what the place looks like from some of the bush areas. I agree I’m not interested in arguing that the country is a kind of idyllic space. I’m interested in talking about the country as no less a technological invention than an urban space. It’s an aspect that’s constantly underestimated, its importance is not understood. It seems to me that in this country you have got to have a many-levelled sense of place. I know this can be very troublesome, because memory and attachment is many levelled but not in the sense that there be several different stories running side by side. I mean your attachment to a house or a room or a view is yours and it resonates in a thousand different ways. But that is a little different form what I’m saying; that you have got somehow to have this double vision of spaces and places. They do have multiple histories – they have Aboriginal histories, early settler histories, contemporary histories and so on. You’ve somehow got to keep those sides of things together. And so I try to keep that possibility open in the poems.

You mentioned the elegy to Roland Robinson. That is one of the reasons why the moon became important in that poem. I was trying to tell a version of the moon. It is in some ways an Aboriginal story. I’m trying to have two moons in that story – the moon of Diana and the reincarnational moon of many (not all, but many) Aboriginal stories of the moon.

I do not think that I can write for everyone. I don’t believe in the notion of ‘the core’ or writing of the core of the country or a sense of the land. I am trying to write poetry that is very much that of the person I am – an essentially European Australian. But I am trying to write a poetry where anyone, particularly indigenous Australians, could actually read that work and not feel that what they’re reading is a colonising work. And that might be one of the differences between much of the pastoral poetry that I’ve read in the past that I admire, and what I think I’m trying to do in The Kangaroo Farm.

AA: I’d like to talk about your version of A.D. Hope’s ‘Australia’. You’ve re-written Hope, critiqued Hope, but also there’s a sympathy with Hope’s poem.

MH: I’m a great admirer of the poem. It’s one of the most politically expert poems anyone’s written. But clearly, it’s a poem that, from a contemporary viewpoint, looks like a poem by someone who is still standing in a virtual space, mapping the country externally. The whole trope of the poem is about going ‘over there’ to this foreign space and then being gladly able to return. You can ask where exactly does Hope return to? He returns to an imaginary philosophical space … this other, this third country, neither here nor there. My poem is not just a parody of that poem, I’ve tried to re-situate it. I literalised it. I put myself into the plane as a sort of intellectual art critic flying out, thinking about the abstract effect of landscape beneath you, and wondering if you can look at natural form in Australia with a traditional realist eye – whether it will actually ever add up.

AA: The ‘Australia’ poem is definitely an aerial view. You pay a debt to the sixties painters. In the poem ‘Rice Fields Near Griffith’ you take a ground-level view but the aerial view is an Aboriginal view of landscape that you were playing with.

MH: Yes. In fact my own travels in areas where the antipodean painters travelled gave me a completely different sense of the land. And I became puzzled as to why they decided to get in the air to look at it. It took me a while to realise that their way of looking at the land was as artificial as anything else and is as influenced by international trends in flat surface painting and in abstraction as it is by anything you can encounter.

AA: Back to the ‘Australia’ poem for a moment: you write ‘a realist wouldn’t have it that way’ which puzzled me because your poems are chock full of literal detail, but you wouldn’t call yourself a realist.

MH: No, I wouldn’t. The poem is written to Robert Gray, who would call himself someone who was interested in the object, and in a certain kind of realism. I was saying look there is so much that occurs up front that seems not to fit any of these categories. You have to find
 the most bizarre and extraordinary ways of talking about what is literally going on in front of your eyes. I talk about it as the ‘odd perspective of 20th century travel’. I’m not saying that this way of looking at things is better or worse, but it has to be acknowledged. I always have a problem where the ‘obvious features’ are left out like the way we see things from a moving vantage point or like the fact that we have this way of looking that lingers over detail, but at the same time is extremely rapid. Other forms of moving image like TV and film actually do influence our perception. We don’t see the world in the same way as people who live in a primarily painterly or static print image culture.

There are also the questions of accuracy to what is there in front of you, to movement in space relationships, between small and large, and in this sort of country that occurs nowhere else … it’s totally specific to itself. Everywhere is literally different and you learn to look at things.

AA: Your poems seem to revel in the facts of the place – especially the dryness of the country which Australian poets find difficult to do, as they’ve idealised a certain European ideal of the land. In the ‘Icons’ series of poems especially the poem ‘Prodigal Son’, a farmer comes back to see the land in a state of decay, and you finish the poem by concluding ‘unblinded he saw the place again’.

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