SD: I have this distinct memory of smoking a cigarette in the doorway and reading the same passage out of Kristeva, just trying to make sense of one sentence, and feeling like, ‘This does not come together in a sensible way for me, at all,’ and so I’d break it down, and I just kept repeating it over and over again. And then I had to let go of that way of reading, which was, ‘I’m going to master this,’ and I had to just read it without feeling like I needed to drill down into every unit, every sentence. But I wonder how much of that is about translation.
FH: Yeah, that’s even just happened to me this week and it’s just that same thing of having to relearn everything all the time. I’m reading Zizek on Hegel, and going, ‘What the hell? This is just obscure nonsense.’ And then you have to read a few different things around it until you cannot worry anymore, and kind of go, ‘Right, it’s not the letter of the sense, I just need the form of that thing.’
SD: Yeah, that’s right. It’s almost like panning out and getting a sense for the broader pattern or paradigm.
FH: Mmm, and there’s something about certain kinds of poetry which is like the opposite of that, isn’t there? Not in the reading, like I wouldn’t advise anyone to drill down in their reading of poetry, maybe.
SD: I’ve tried to do that sometimes. Where I try to scrutinise a poem, when I think I can detect a reference to something else. It’s the driving force or power of recognition, or something like that?
FH: Yeah, I always do that anyway.
SD: How do you read poetry?
FH: Fleetingly or scanningly, I just go over the top of it, and the things that are good to me, I linger on. I mean there are two things; one of them is there’s something reprehensible about being a reader in the sense that you are only interested in things that you need. So I write off millions of things, even people and conversations, because it’s not useful to me. And I don’t do it consciously; it’s just like what your interests are at that moment. You couldn’t not drag me to a film that did not have some importance. I was talking to a poet friend the other day and he was trying to get me to come down and see this church just off Gertrude Street, and I’m like, ‘I’ve been reading about Eloise and Abelard all day. The last thing I want to do is see a bloody church. I’ve been actually sitting in a convent reading about that stuff.’ And he said, ‘But you might find something that you didn’t expect …’ I was like, ‘I don’t want any unexpected interventions anymore today.’ So, there’s something about reading for me that’s like that because you don’t want to absorb everything. On the other hand you’re always getting distracted by things that you shouldn’t be reading. But the other thing is, poetry’s like, it’s almost like I can’t be bothered with it. I’ll scan over something and if it hooks me it’s going to, no matter what level of attention I pay to it, and that’s how I know that there’s anything in it, I think. I’ll never sit down and read a book of poems, it’s too much, it’s too intense. And everyone says this but I get scared of poems because you just don’t want to go there sometimes.
SD: Writing or reading them?
FH: Reading them. Writing, well yeah, I was going to say writing’s always a pleasure, but it’s the same thing. Sometimes, life can be quite pleasant without a poem. How do you feel about reading poems?
SD: I have a sense of fear about it too, but more like I’m a novice; that maybe I’m not understanding certain tricks that I ought to understand. Those doubts don’t seem to creep in if I’m instantly hooked. Sometimes a poem will grow on me as well, so I start out thinking, ‘Oh, fuck, I hate that. Oh, hang on. Oh, no, I kind of love it actually.’ So I’m always second guessing myself, and that’s a good poetry reading experience.
FH: Yeah, that happened to me the other day on Twitter, I saw an Anne Carson poem that was in the New Yorker. And I hate list poems, just please, and it started off going, ‘Nightshade, tree shade,’ and so I thought, ‘Okay, the whole thing’s just going to be different kinds of shade.’ And I thought, ‘Well, it’s Anne Carson. I have liked her in the past so maybe it’ll be okay.’ And then I got towards the end and it’s like, ‘The shade inside an apple core,’ and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s so awesome.’ It just got more and more and more awesome. So maybe that poem’s like a kind of template of what it is to read a poem, beginning with that initial disappointment and resistance and then pleasure …
I guess it’s like desire, there’s always some resistance. Where was I reading this? I think it was Lacan, again, in this book called Anxiety. There’s always anxiety when desire appears, and so there’ll be resistance, and then that will pass over maybe to the other person. I hadn’t thought of it in relation to writing a poem, but obviously Anne Carson has. So, it’s things like that, I mean I wouldn’t then go, ‘I’ll try and do that in a poem.’ I would have to forget that idea before I could try to implement it otherwise it would be doomed.
SD: What are your impressions of Australian poetry today?
FH: Well, I don’t have much to compare it to because I guess I’m kind of embedded in a different kind of writing at the moment and I can’t afford to think about it; Anne Carson talks about that expenditure of poetry in Economy of the Unlost, ‘poets are ones who waste what their fathers would save.’
So, I can’t afford to read a lot of poetry at the moment because once you do you’re gone. I have a bit of a practice of writing the thesis and then letting myself write a poem, but I can’t even do that at the moment because it’s too distracting. So, my impressions of Australian poetry are very narrow, and contained, just at the moment. I probably would know any poet that you named, and have read one of their poems; what impression am I meant to get? I don’t know. There’s particular poems; like if someone said, ‘What’s your impression of the Australian art scene?’ it would just seem so insulting to deliver the usual, parochial script. I’ve got so many issues, but one of them is I hate to see people pronouncing on things, like, ‘I’ve got this all sewn up’, even though I do it sometimes myself.
But one thing I have been thinking lately is that there’s a kind of propensity to write off certain poets for being too this or too that, and I feel like I am starting to feel differently. And I know lots of reviewers who think like this as well; it’s like it’s more exciting and challenging to find out what’s good about something you hate, or you thought you hated or you thought you would hate. And so that’s what’s happening for me in my head about Australian poetry; I’m feeling less inclined to write anything off as not ‘my thing’, and in fact, I’m doing so many different kinds of writing that what my thing is … is quite non-specifically poetic.
SD: Yeah, that makes total sense.
FH: Even though it can actually feel a lot easier if you just confine yourself inside poetry. At the moment, I’ve got a few different exercise books; one of them is for thesis stuff, one’s for another writing project, more like music writing. The other one is just like philosophy lectures that I went to and bits of poems. I’ve got stuff all over the place, and sometimes you put bits of the mess together and find out that it was a poem all along, just writing itself. And then I’ll be reading something for the thesis and I’ll be writing in all three books at once to try and organise it; it’s like fossicking through a garbage dump and putting everything in the container that it’s got to go in. And I’ll do that by writing out as well. Sometimes ideas will pop into your head, like words and lines that go together, and I’ve learnt that I need to just put them down in the body of whatever poem I’m working on, and worry about it later.