‘The amorphousness of meaning-making’: Elena Gomez Interviews Toby Fitch

By and | 1 February 2020

EG: It seems like in what you do with those materials, there’s still a thinking about them poetically as opposed to simply making a facsimile. A shopping list isn’t a poem, but it can be, and there’s a difference between ‘reproducing’ a shopping list versus ‘using’ a shopping list to say ‘this is a poem’, like, do you see a difference?

TF: Yeah, all of the results can have value as poetry but then how does that fit with the other poems you’re writing and have written, the various themes you return to, and the themes you’re yet to explore, and in the bigger picture you might be thinking of a plan you have for a book – all those sorts of things. And you think about the kinds of aesthetics that appeal to you, and the music of the language. That’s always there: poetry as the language of art, or the art of language. I’ve got some poems that are directly found poems – no editing, just placement on the page – but I rarely use or publish them. I usually take such material a step or two further, try to combine it with something else, because then you get this weird juxtaposition that’s more interesting or productive – to me anyway – but there’s also that aspect of collage and bricolage where you’re repurposing everyday objects as language like real things on a canvas or board. They retain the resonance or hum of their original context but they’re immediately decontextualised and that’s what gives it poetic value.

I try to go to a point where the found language still has some resonance of the original so I’m not completely losing that. But I tend to push it, with various techniques of enjambment, rhythm, tone, and more, to the point where some readers might not know or even think it might be found text, let alone knowing the allusions that are there, and that’s not to obscure but to bring something new into being and to make it my own, stylistically, simultaneously. The doubling quality is the most important thing in this process.

EG: Where Only the Sky had Hung Before also includes notes on those starting points of the poems, which I really like.

TF: I don’t know whether I go too far with that sometimes. I know John Tranter goes to the nth degree with that and it’s quite hilarious. He went so far, with his creative doctorate at the University of Wollongong, as to write his exegesis about his own work in the third person – it’s a piss-take of that process, of course, of justifying the work that you’ve done. Whereas I try to leave it as simple as possible while also giving a poetic clue as to some of the themes in the work. But sometimes I think, ‘why?’ Why not take it all out and let people work those allusions out themselves? That’s an area in my work that I’m conflicted about.

EG: Returning to what you said earlier about poetry being the language of art. Your most recent book cover is a Robert Klippel, and coincidentally I recently saw his exhibition at the TarraWarra Museum of Art. I was hoping we could just talk about Robert Klippel for a bit. What does he mean for you? Tell me about the cover for Where Only the Sky had Hung Before.

TF: I wish I could’ve gone to that exhibition! The drawing/sketch on the cover of my book is untitled but it’s also got a nominal title that someone (maybe Klippel himself?) added: ‘Untitled’, followed by, in square brackets, ‘curved dynamic sculptural form’, which was something that, when I found it on a deep internet search for random abstract images. This work of Klippel’s made me think of poems, especially visual poems, the kind of pattern/shape poems that I do myself, which I’ve done intermittently since my first book, Rawshock. There are some poems in Where Only the Sky had Hung Before that are more amorphous in their shape than in previous books. My previous pattern poems have been ambiguous in their shapes but have generally alluded to something elemental (like a cyclone or whirlpool) or are representational (of, say, an hourglass or tunnel), but these new pattern poems in a particular sequence called ‘Argo Notes’, after Maggie Nelson’s book The Argonauts, are designed to look as though they’re shapeshifting, in part to assist the poems’ explorations of gender, subjectivity, and identity. So, the Klippel drawing alludes to one of the central sequences in my book – and the amorphousness of meaning-making in my poetry in general – but I’ve always just loved the physical sculptures of Robert Klippel. When I see them not ‘in the flesh’ but ‘in the metal’ (sometimes wood too but mostly metal), they make me think of industrial waste, futuristic sci-fi movies, dystopias, nightmares, toys and building and inventing them, but also bodies; they make me think of the stuff all our forms and technological devices are made of and so, you know, poems are also made of all these things, or certainly in the way I put together poems. I feel a bit like that, cobbled together (the self and the poem), and the act of making them is then – hopefully – giving my thoughts dynamic shape.

EG: There’s a common thread between yours and Klippel’s approaches. Art’s not a mere mechanical reproduction but there’s something that transcends that, and that’s what makes it art. Klippel was always pushing towards that. Seeing all of his drawings, and studies, all up in a room, and you talking about all your poetry games and exercises … it’s making art or poems constantly as a practice. It’s not ‘work’ but it’s not strictly play, even if it’s ‘playful’.

TF: It’s a kind of labour that is difficult at times but also meditative, and sometimes it can take days to even start something you’ve got on your mind and then you do and it accumulates, you have hundreds of pieces of language, dozens of poems, and you can pin those drafts up on the wall and then make other connections just by looking at the whole, comparing all the work as it builds, and recombining. That’s one of my favourite parts about writing poetry, that stage of shaping and reshaping the work.

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