‘Beware! This is not a real biography!’: Ali Alizadeh Interviews Jessica L Wilkinson

By and | 1 November 2019

AA: The Amazon comment about Marionette not being ‘a real biography’ is quite funny, but I wonder if that sort of thing is to be expected in a case like this. If one had written something like, say, a conventional poetry collection, then one could expect to be read by poetry specialists who wouldn’t question the ‘realness’ of one’s work, but writing books that could appeal to other, broader readerships – to fans of Davies’s films, or of Grainger’s music, for example – could produce some unexpected responses. Have there been other, unusual responses to your verse biographies? Do, say, musicians get your poetry?

JW: I should have done a better job cataloguing responses from people so that I could better answer this question! Any resistance that I feel is probably a resistance that most poets feel generally, of public reactions to or acceptance of their poetry. I mean, I’ve had conversations with several poets who tell me that they are making a conscious shift into fiction or nonfiction precisely because they feel that poetry gets little airtime or exposure in Australia, and that if they want to ‘make it’ as a writer, they need to be taken more seriously.

I don’t think I could make the shift – who knows, maybe I will – but partly that’s because I feel that poetry at the moment provides me with the most space for experimentation and play, a necessary outlet. A space to be mischievous and to be free from the pressure of what is sanctioned as ‘serious’ literature. I take my writing seriously, but it’s more about serious play, as a way towards something … else. Speaking of ‘play’, each of my books has a sort of absurd theatre script at its middle. Just so readers can’t get too comfortable with knowing anything.

George Balanchine

AA: What was it specifically about George Balanchine that drew you to him and his art?

JW: Well, as I noted previously, the trigger for the project was that postcard – which may be disappointing information if readers were thinking I was in some way spiritually, emotionally, artistically or otherwise drawn to Balanchine and had to write his story! However, once I started some initial reading, I found him more and more intriguing as a character.

People often like to frame historical figures through a reductive, singular perspective – for example, it’s really annoying that when people talk about Percy Grainger they go straight to the whips and flagellation. With Balanchine there are a lot of comments tossed around about his treatment of women, that if he didn’t get his way with a new ballerina or love interest then he would get huffy. Suzanne Farrell is the famous example, and he apologised to her when they reconciled. Not to excuse bad behaviour! I would never endorse that. But life stories are always so much more complex than those kinds of narrow perspectives allow. I think it’s important to consider all angles.

Now, when it comes to Balanchine’s art, well, he was pretty phenomenal. And not just for all those beautiful choreographed works – what most fascinates me is the eclecticism of his oeuvre, from the classical to the romantic to the avant-garde to the purely bizarre. Compare Symphony in C (possibly his most well-known ballet) to the long-lost work Pan-Am Makes the Going Great (or PAMTGG), which was an airplane-themed ballet from the 1970s, set to an orchestrated version (which he commissioned) of the Pan-Am advertising jingle. Or a work like the original version of Square Dance – set to Vivaldi and Corelli and overlaid with hokey words from a square dance caller positioned on one side of the stage – to an astonishing piece such as Variations for a Door and a Sigh or the breathtaking Symphony in Three Movements.

Mr. B also had a dry wit and a penchant for fine-tuning the words of others to suit his own purposes. Taking Tchaikovsky’s saying: ‘My muse must come to me when I call her’ he stated: ‘My muse must come to me on union time’. He wrote little ditties and enjoyed watching Westerns. And he loved cooking, and ironing! The more I read, the more deeply involved I became.

AA: I agree with what you say about the complexity of the lives of great artists. Would you agree, though, that by writing about the lives of three artists who have each been, in their own way, somewhat infamous (I’m thinking, in particular, of Grainger’s rather risqué pastimes, or of his views on race) you’re in a way compelling your readers to go beyond a simplistic moral judgement and respond to these lives differently?

JW: Yes, I think that’s right. But also, it’s about a reader’s responsibility, and how we might encourage that through the biographies we write. By which I mean to ask, is there a way that we authors are able to instil a responsibility of critical thinking in readers so that they might bear some of the burden of judgement (rather than taking our word for it)? Could this possibly contribute to a society of deeper thinkers with a more attuned social conscience? Blue-sky thinking, maybe?

Dealing with Grainger, for instance, I was troubled by the task of confronting his racist views. To give an example, he thought that blue eyes, blonde hair and rosy cheeks were the preferable human complexion, and that blue-eyed composers were superior. I mean, that just reminds me of Hitler! He even took photographs of the eyes of composers (with their names written on small rectangles of paper, stuck to their foreheads) as a way to prove or document this theory. Ridiculous. What does a biographer do with this material? Ignore it? Say, ‘well this is awful so I must abandon the project’? I think both of those options are too easy, and not taking responsibility for a past that has happened. It is too easy also to set out the information and then cast moral aspersions to save one’s PC arse.

When I come up against this kind of material in my research, after the initial disappointment settles, I first like to try to understand where these world-views or behaviours might come from. When you set Grainger’s view against the context of his strange childhood – how his domineering mother, who was hugely influential in shaping his thoughts, raised him as both ‘genius’ and ‘blue-eyed angel’ and who had very strong views of her own – you get a broader picture that gives some explanation. Not an excuse, of course (there is a huge difference between the two).

I think poetry’s affordances offer something unique in grappling with these difficult facts. A line break can jettison us into silence or fracture information; irony can raise its brow or shock, goading the reader to think for themselves; metaphor unsettles, prods at the void at the heart of the knowable. In the archive section of Suite for Percy Grainger there is a poem called ‘Blue-Eyes Best’ that is obviously not pushing ‘proof for/ blue value’ but sets out instead an image of a boxful of eyes. They’re looking at you! What do you think?

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