Adam Aitken Interviews Martin Harrison

By and | 1 November 2014

AA: What do you mean?

MH: Everything is available, but you don’t know why you might prefer this one to that one. You have no authentic reasons for getting engaged with one work as opposed to another work.

AA: Your poem ‘Leeches’ starts off in that naturalist mode but the last line is great: ‘text-book leeches right now though I see them as false climbing friends’. You’re talking about the shape-shifting organism. Is that a problem with internationalism or poets who appropriate any other foreign body perhaps and live on that?

MH: I wasn’t thinking of any poets or other writers in that poem. I actually do have a strong aversion to leeches! A lot of people who have read that poem say to me, ‘But don’t you think leeches are very good, very nice!’ But, to me, they’re not. I have an aversion to parasitism of various sorts, that parasites are killing an organism. The leeches in that poem fasten on to you and deprive you of life source and life energy, and they are amorphous, shapeless, have no form, and by definition, are uninteresting.

AA: … but highly adapted to their function!

MH: Yes. In that poem, highly adapted to their economic rationalist function, they do nothing, believe nothing, say nothing, a do-everything function.

AA: I found ‘Tasmanian Tiger’ to be an interesting poem …

MH: ‘Tasmanian Tiger’ is one of those poems in the book reflecting on creativity in various ways. I started writing it in Sorrento during the winter. Again, it’s a poem I did literally spend a year or so trying to get to work. There were two things in that poem. One of them was to do with the nature of the feeling I was trying to express which I had enormous difficulty getting there into the language, and the second thing was trying to find a way of talking about this simplest and most natural of things, of looking up at the window in a particular sort of late winter light and seeing these Casuarinas against the window and the particular effect of that light. I really did spend a lot of time trying to get that detail vivid, the many-sidedness of it, and ultimately to try to acknowledge the intensity of what that was about, that movement, as the object comes into view. There’s a particular energy, a drive that occurs at that point, exactly at that point. It’s there, and then it’s gone. Which is why the tiger could not be a living tiger roaming in the jungle, it’s got to be in some way extinct, it’s dead in some way. It’s about trying to compose in microscopic detail. I’m trying to get that very detailed everyday moment, to have it there and not to overlook it.

AA: The tiger poem is adjacent to another set of poems, the ‘Closeups’. You’re trying to do what the Imagists were trying to do – to get inside the object – but what’s interesting is that you use a completely different syntax to do it. Your lines go right across the page. I noticed that when I was listening to some of the lines, the actual object and subject of the sentence disappeared or was lost, but it didn’t seem to matter. Robert Adamson mentioned to me that, when reading that poem, he tried to get you to edit down those very long lines.

MH: I did go through the book after Bob had seen it the first time and it was in a somewhat different state. It went through a lot of change in that process. I’m not trying to be obscure. I went through the book to ensure that every line was clear, and that there was not a single line I did not agree with.

But, yes, your comment is a good one. It’s hard to ignore the nature of the Imagist image – that specificity, that precision and openness to sensation, that sense of immediacy, that up-front-ness, the colour, the vibrancy of it. You need to have that. But I also think I am interested in connectives – in how things connect, how the eye wanders from here to there. How when you’re looking at someone having a coffee in the street and at the same time you’re having a conversation with someone else. Maybe the radio is on in the background. They are ambiences as precise as the Imagist image. Therefore, you have to go about them in a different way.

It was a breakthrough point for me between this book and the earlier book, Distribution of Voice, to realise that though I agree that a poem must be precise, highly economic, and all the things we are regularly told about poetry that what a limit it was not to be able to go for length and put in all of those details. If we believe the story, Ezra Pound, carefully after weeks and weeks, deleted in the making of the two line poem ‘In a Station of the Metro’. I felt that the poetry I was reading and writing was less rich than what was going on around me. I wanted to put in as much as I could, so that they’d have that energy resource.

I am a sort of Imagist who lives seventy or eighty years after Imagism in a completely different intellectual and cultural environment and a different poetic environment.

AA: We could say you’re going back to pre-Imagistic poets like Apollinaire – not in the sense that you’re writing about what you see in the city – not even celebrating Australia as fecundity.

MH: The poets I particularly admire are poets of that generation. Apollinaire is one of my favourites still. I also feel so close to Blok and Machado. I find Browning interesting too. Writers who are still able to tell stories, who are not totally obsessed with modernist purity and fragmentation, interest me a great deal.

AA: You want to get everything in there, but you would reject certain L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry strategies, where putting everything into the poem is a gesture of egalitarianism I suppose. Why would you reject the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry aesthetic?

MH: Because I think such statements confuse politics and aesthetics. They try to make language theory do what politics should do. The idea that, if you use language anarchically or chaotically, you are in some sense contributing to social change or anarchy. It’s a delusion, a category mistake. I want my poems to communicate to ordinary people. I feel that if you have to have a theory before you open a book you are immediately excluding the reader.

AA: The book’s first poem ‘Eels’ has the lines ‘myth gets us nowhere’, and ‘the mythos of peninsula light is that it drifts rich as snow’. I wasn’t sure what you were getting at here.

MH: It’s a controversial line. It’s saying that myth will run out, and realities won’t.

AA: It’s ironic. Or in ‘Australia’ you write ‘Call it Australia, call it perhaps a well off, liveable Argentina with its shards of myth set up in export mode’.

MH: Yes, and again, there are shards of myth constructed media-wise for tourism. I have nothing against tourism, but I think the business of trying to make a local art will have to bypass that stuff. I also think genuine politics will bypass that stuff. I wrote a lot of that book during the early nineties when it seemed there were too many convergences between political movements and mythic belief systems.

I find your question about Imagism really interesting because one difference between anyone writing now and an Ezra Pound or the other Imagists is to do with scientific theory, that the Imagists live in a period where the notion of atomic structure, and the refinement which gets you the kernel, but a kernel which operates in a relativistic system, is very much what you expect in the age of Einstein. I think the age now is of living systems.

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