JJ: I’m glad to hear that the poetry in A History of What I’ll Become seems fresh and speculative. After all these years I’m still tossing around new ideas, new for me that is. Indeed, my partner sometimes catches me staring off into the distance and says something like ‘you’re juggling words in your head again, aren’t you?’. Though I’m not sure if you’d call this book a ‘late style’ because there’s always been that ‘gritty gritty something’ happening in my lines (and those birds, which some people like to chip me about – why do people hate birds in poems, I wonder). Also, as Aidan Coleman recently noted in an article about A History of What I’ll Become, I don’t fit easily into the usual categories of Australian poetry (if there are such things), so I tend to wander where I will without worrying overly much about labels or outside directions.
Ah, the sublime, which I always think of as being a forbidden zone, a no-no, a thing we’re not allowed to talk about anymore. Considering again grit and linking that to the sublime, I realise that’s often a hinge, a polarity, or series of loopings or iterative moves or turbulences (incantations, spells, mobile voices, off-centre chorale?) maybe, that I try to work with. Maybe it’s a thing you could call the subgrime (grublime, perhaps?).
If I can make a musical allusion (music has been very important to me during these times of lockdown), the finale of Mahler’s 9th Symphony isn’t so much a climax – given – the last note is marked ersterbend (‘dying away’) – but rather, according to Theodor W Adorno, it ends up looking ‘inquiringly into the unknown’, because it does just die away rather than end on a big chord or crescendo. It blends into a silence that seems palpable but inexpressible.
I’m not a musician or musicologist but thinking about how a poem can move between themes, spaces and registers and/or until it heads out somewhere else – spectral, uncanny, if not sublime – does interest me. Indeed, even silence. And that’s not necessarily anxiety-producing, although it may well be unsettling or destabilising. Especially when the poem (or symphony in Mahler’s case, one could argue) is made of fragmentary material that plays off each in turn, which I’ve done a lot of lately. By the way, I’m absolutely not comparing myself to Mahler in any conceivable sense whatsoever. I mean, how could one dare! Nor would it make any sense. A poem isn’t a symphony. I’m simply thinking about modes of composition that have an air of the spectral, the unknown, even if in my case, they mix it with grit.
Actually, I’m not exactly sure what I’m trying to grapple with here except that I have no problem looking down at the ground among particulars while also looking up into the sky and some kind of vastness in the same piece. Though that can take you to difficult or strange places, with an effect that may feel like a deferral of outcome, or alternatively an emergence, a futurity. Or those terrors. But anyone can do it, just by standing where they are, in a yard, in a street, on an empty playing field, and doing that looking and feeling out of the senses. Thus, it’s not special or rarefied.
Quasi-spiritual is an interesting way to think about some of the recent work. It wasn’t exactly my intention – I haven’t suddenly ‘got religion’, for instance – but there are god and spirit type words or allusions in the book. I’m pretty ambivalent about the word ‘spirituality’, as it reminds me of new age religions and hippy dippy ideas, lots of candles and fake Buddhas. However, partly because I was referring back to older even ancient poetries, I decided to work with a sense of spirits as presences, as ways of trying to articulate the ineffable, the spectral, or with an idea of gods as somehow representative of something other than plain vanilla human existence. People can make of that what they will but I think, for instance, you can be a kind of materialist without necessarily giving up on what may appear to be the uncanny, magical, strange, numinous, even the chimerical or nightmarish. There’s plenty in experience I don’t understand, to state the obvious. And matter is pretty expansive in what it does, as well as tricky. Wave? Particle? Time? String theory, anyone? Also, I’ve been watching too many Miyazaki films.
I see what you’re saying about the performance on the page. Then, I go on to wonder whether hesitation is anxiety, or is it ambivalence? For me, it could be a queer effect as well, which, sure, can make people anxious – for some, it’s disruptive, disorienting. In my case, it also relates to the body’s spaces – also spaces between bodies (ah, could that be sex again) – the corporeal drift, along with the semantic space of the poem and the typographical spaces of the page. So, like a score, perhaps. Should I start writing things like pianissimo or rallentando into the poems. Hmm, maybe not.
Thinking of the page, and about the lines and spaces, if I look through pinky swear again, I see (it is a visual thing) that most of the poems are written in couplets and tercets, a couple of quatrains, plus a little play with page space. So as you’ve said, this new manuscript of yours is moving the words around in different ways, more space and more repetition, which could appear to be contradictory, or complementary. Given that Gertrude Stein claims there is no such thing as repetition in her work, rather it is insistence or emphasis, I’m interested to know a bit more about how repetition is working for you, or how you feel your way through the forming of it. How does it work as a kind of focus for either the writing process and/or the finished poem, and how might the senses be involved? Or are these questions that can’t really be answered? Yet, we still keep talking about poems, and how they are made, or how we think they are made.
CA: Well, I’ve been learning how to, basically, put a manuscript together. Pinky swear was a really quick turnaround and my first go at building a loosely themed collection. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot more about how motifs might run through a whole manuscript (like a musical motif through a symphony) and trying to take notice of this in other books. Particularly Suzanne Doppelt’s works (of poetry and photography) have been formative in the way they repeat – no, insist, as Stein would say – not only themes and words but whole lines in shifting iterations. All the reading and rereading pulls together her fragmentary, conceptual works into a kind of cosmic whole. I used to be scared of the same words or ideas turning up in multiple poems, but now I’m really trying to cultivate it. There’s a sense of self-discovery as I dig up themes I didn’t know were important to me.
I love your idea of the ‘subgrime’ (feels very Newcastle)! And I can see the relationship with Mahler. In fact, Mahler for me will always be associated with the film and thus the novella Death in Venice, which I think at its core is a treatise on aesthetics as well as a weird reflection of our current pandemic life. I sometimes feel like I’m sitting on a beach, slowly dying of the plague, makeup melting down my face as Mahler 5 plays. Don’t we all?
I suppose to wrap this up, I might briefly ask what you’re happiest with in the new book? Is it a particular poem, or the way it all came together?