Playing with Light and Dark: Amy Hilhorst Interviews David McCooey

By and | 1 November 2016

AH: Aside from lyric poetry, you have experience as a musician and sound artist. How have these distinct yet related forms influenced your poetry?

DM: After the last book, Outside, I did an album – called Outside Broadcast – of what I portentously called ‘Poetry Soundtracks’. I’ve always been a musician but I’ve never really done anything with it. I’d thought of myself as a failed musician, in fact. And I thought, ‘well just do it; you write poetry, you want to do music, why don’t you bring the two together?’ That was partly based on – and I’m not sure I should really admit this – a dissatisfaction with ‘straight’ poetry readings, whether recorded or as live events. Although having said that, I was at a poetry reading last night that was fantastic. But getting back to Outside Broadcast, I was very interested in seeing what more you could do with poetry and the voice in a sonic way. So I put together these poetry soundtracks, which included music and sound design and poetry. But they were after the fact; I didn’t write the poems thinking this is what they’re going to sound like as a sound piece. But I’ve done very little in terms of sound for this latest collection; the texts of two of the tracks from Outside Broadcast appear in Star Struck, but I don’t have any plans at this stage of doing an album based on other poems from this latest collection. The poems don’t really seem to be soliciting that approach, because in this collection I’m far more engaged in narrative poetry than I ever have been before. The last two poems are narrative poems, as I said, and the pastorals are dramatic monologues, which are kind of narrative poems, while the hospital poems are both individually and collectively narrativistic. Even the shortest poems in the collection usually have a micro-narrative built into them. The poetry that I used for Outside Broadcast tended to be moodful, lyrical stuff, rather than narrative poems. They were also, perhaps paradoxically, more tonally neutral. I found that the more neutral poem could take on the additional weight of the sound design and the music, whereas for very complex or satirical poetry or baroque imagery, it didn’t necessarily work. At the moment I’m working on another sound project with Paul Hetherington, my stablemate at UWA Publishing, and again I’m dealing with the text after the fact. He’s giving me completed texts and I’m transforming them into sonic artworks. His poems, it turns out, are very moodful, but also have a kind of implied narrative, so that pretty much undoes all my theorising on the subject of poetry and music. I do, though, feel really liberated using someone else’s texts and recordings of other people’s voices. I’m loving it, in fact.

AH: Your former collections Blister Pack, Graphic and Outside, often evoke a dry sense of humour. In Star Struck, there is a poem called ‘Cardiac Ward Poetics’ where you seem to be self-consciously making fun of the poetic process. In other poems (‘Georges Perec: A True Story’, and ‘Night Squibs’), you take a humorous approach to the subject of literary festivals, or trying to remember an author’s name. Can you comment on this sense of making light of the world, and making light of poetry?

DM: I suppose the obvious answer is that I’m a profoundly unserious person, I don’t know … I was being interviewed by Will Yeoman, the Books Editor of the West Australian, the other day, and he said something about this collection being quite accessible. It was as if that was surprising or even possibly something that I should apologise for. And I don’t apologise for it; I don’t think I should apologise for it. I don’t want to sound too polemical now, but if you want to write for a coterie of other poets, that’s fine. I’m very laissez faire; I don’t believe in taking a proscriptive or prescriptive approach about things like this. But for me, personally, I guess the thought of not writing for a potential audience that can get into poetry who may not have in the past, would be unduly limiting. But that’s only part of it. Perhaps a more accurate answer is that, for me, the greatest ‘capital-L’ literature’ is comic or has comic elements. Don Quixote, the stories of Borges, the novels of Roberto Bolaño, the stories of Lydia Davis, the work of Tove Jansson (to cite diverse works that are important to me): they are all programmatically or incidentally comic, often with regard the condition of literature itself. Talking about very serious subjects does not, of course, preclude comedy. Robert Sullivan, a poet I admire a lot, often writes about the dispossession of the Māori in Aotearoa with great comedy. Generally speaking, I think creativity and a sense of humour go together, though there are a few notable exceptions to that.

One of the things I don’t want to do is pin myself down too much. A lot of my poems are very serious, sombre and dark and so forth, but I don’t want to just do that. And I don’t want to just be satirical or comic either. I don’t see why a poet or artist has to write or paint or whatever in a particular way. At the risk of being ridiculous I might evoke a long-held cultural hero of mine, David Bowie; he famously had no style loyalty. I don’t think I have any particular style loyalty either, though hopefully I put my stamp on whatever style I’m working with. I like being funny and I like being amusing, but in a typically contrary way I don’t want it to be merely mockery. I do take poetry seriously. I suppose in a poem like ‘Cardiac ward poetics’ I’m being gently satirical about a certain type of lyric poetry that for me, at any rate, is a little too factitious, or precious, when it comes to the realities of the world. Not that I’m espousing a realist project either. But there are certain things that aren’t pretty, and why not say so. You might, I suppose, think of it as another way I shift between light and dark.

If I am a ‘literary’ writer it is probably inasmuch as wanting to write something that has both an immediate impact, be funny or whatever, but also encourages a second or third reading in which other things can be seen to be going on as well. There’s a very long literary tradition of that, as I’ve already suggested.

AH: What you’re reading seems to make its way into the poems e.g. Muriel Spark and Tomas Tranströmer, Italo Calvino, and your former collection Graphic explored Kubrick films. How do you find the process of weaving your experience of other texts into your own poetic texts?

DM: One of the reasons that the ‘Documents’ section of Star Struck (which deals with the health issues), was called ‘Documents’ is because every poem has someone else’s document, whether that’s a novel, or whatever, referred to in there. It was initially going to be literary texts all the way through, so there’s Calvino, Spark, Tranströmer. I relaxed the rule a little bit to include other types of documents, references to, say, popular film or something like that, but in every poem there is some kind of reference to the textual world. And this was, I suppose, to highlight the fact that even the most visceral, everyday, intense or bodily experiences – being unwell, being in hospital and so forth – are still mediated through other texts. We don’t bifurcate our life into the world of culture and the world of the body; the two are dyadic, they go together. Though having said that, there is a moment in the sequence, when I, or the poet, is recovering from major surgery, where I, or he, doesn’t feel much like a cultural being. But that moment aside, what I wanted to illustrate in ‘Documents’ was how even this really intense and difficult experience was one that was continually mediated by other literary – usually literary – texts. It is the case, for instance, as I say in one of the poems, that I obsessively re-read Muriel Spark’s novels, and I suppose one of the reasons I put an experience like that in there is because those novels resonate ironically and appropriately for the sequence. Spark is known for her so-called black humour and she’s very much concerned with last things and death. (One of her novels is called Memento Mori.) And she’s another writer who suggests, at least to me, that the literary is almost by definition attracted to the comic; she can seem very flippant and very serious simultaneously.

The Kubrick poems were more programmatically ekphrastic; that is to say, they were responding to another art form. Like a lot of writers I suppose, I tend to be a fairly obsessive person, and some years ago I went through a Kubrick phase with Maria Takolander, and she wrote a number of Kubrick poems too, and that was fun. One of the great privileges of being married to another writer is that you can have these conversations that you couldn’t have any other way.

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