Adam Aitken Interviews Martin Harrison

By and | 1 November 2014

MH: Some years ago I felt that the state of the country began to worry me enormously. In the poem being able to see again for the first time was given – not as something different, but as something fresh. It’s a sense of things renewed. It doesn’t have to be about things in nature.

AA: In the fourth poem of that series ‘Portrait of True Republican’, ‘True’ is used in an ironic way, and the voice seemed nostalgic to me; the poem’s not advocating anything as modern as a republic in Australia.

MH: The word ‘True’ is both ironic and not; obviously it doesn’t fit the bill as a republican poem. It’s interesting how few republican poems have been written in spite of all the talk of a republic. My republican poem is about the nature of memory and how memories are what you grow from and they are what mark a particular path in life, they are what you grow from and also what you grow into. So whatever a republic is going to be about it is going to be based on a genuine openness to our memories. It’s not going to be about inventing an idyllic republican Australia, but about what we treasure at a personal level. It’s about the memory that is necessary for a republic.

AA: The original title of the book was The Bestiary. I remember hearing you reading one of your ‘animal poems’ – I especially remember ‘The Platypus’. As you introduced that poem you mentioned The Bestiary as a possible title.

MH: The Bestiary was originally the title for a sequence of poems, not the whole book – but I decided that I did not want a title poem.

AA: Why was that?

MH: I wanted the whole book to add up to the title of The Kangaroo Farm.

AA: ‘The Platypus’ is a very important poem in this book. The platypus is that quintessentially Australian animal adapted to its environment. You say ‘The platypus combines worlds in its metaphor of doing several thing as well.’ I saw this an icon of your poetry – it’s well adapted to different environments. It’s clever, a hybrid as well!

MH: Yes, that is what I’m interested in – that ability to cross media and to be a composite, but also an animal that is extremely lithe and extraordinarily acrobatic and elegant. In that poem I make a rude comment about postmodernism, to say that this is something that occurs in nature, not something you have to invent – not a ‘strategy’ a ‘tactic’ – all that awful language people use.

AA: ‘Positions’ …

MH: Yes, that’s right – ‘positions’.

AA: You write that the platypus is ‘no postmodern, it benefits from natural history’. It’s interesting to see how European naturalists are finally realising that Australia is not a primitive country low on the evolutionary scale and one which stopped evolving millions of years ago, but is a place of highly adapted flora and fauna.

MH: Yes.

AA: In the poem ‘Poetry and Paperbarks’ you write that some Australians still live in imported European fantasy, and we’ve writers who’d rather live in yesterday’s New York.

I, too, use images as linear as TVs, and don’t insist on the past
or upon the way the land intrudes its myths of ownership. For me this raises two questions – firstly: what is this imported European fantasy and secondly: who are these writers living in yesterday’s New York. I mean, do these writers still exist?

MH: Yes, they do. They exist in several different ways. We could not have an age in which there is more European fantasy than we have now. Some forms of European theory have become extraordinarily well-adapted to the Australian intellectual environment. There are also the kinds of hankering that people have for the kind of artefactual and institutional culture that defines Europe, which does not necessarily define anywhere else in the world, and may be inappropriate for this country. Earlier you talked about the term avant-garde and I immediately asked the question: is this the place for the avant-garde, or is this anything other than a foreign idea? There has been an enormous investment in American poetics of various sorts that has detracted attention to what the construction of a local poetics is all about, which I think is a much more exciting adventure.

I am sometimes puzzled by the amount of time spent arguing about theory and methodology that has entirely to do with European ideas and concepts that exist only in European languages. This is at the expense of trying to discover ontology here – a sense of being which is to do with the relationship between inherited cultures, indigenous cultures, and contemporary cultures. In other words, it’s a form of up-market cringe. A lot of theory is look-a-like to what was developed in the very local circumstances of Britain or Germany in the 1960s that seems to undergo no transformation. Marxist theory, or Economic rationalism for example … is it appropriate to this country?

A better way of talking about this regards a lot of the poetry around at the moment, particularly the younger poets who are writing in a form of ‘translationese’, in a state of absence from local histories, local origins, where people feel they can just pick up a Spanish poet or a German poet or a Swedish poet or an East European poet without any sense of the language or the history, then take it on board as a way to write in this country. I’m not saying to ignore everything outside the local instance, but it’s just vague soft-edged internationalism that thinks it can pick and choose everywhere but doesn’t know how to pick and choose at all.

This entry was posted in INTERVIEWS and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work: