Image from Granta
John Kinsella’s most recent book Divine Comedy: Journeys Through a Regional Geography is an incredibly ambitious and meticulous rewriting of that great epic poem of the Middle Ages, Dante's The Divine Comedy. Our guest poetry editor for Epic, Ali Alizadeh, interviewed Kinsella recently, via email. Their discussion ranged from traditional notions of the epic form, and Kinsella's relationship with it, to ecological manifestoes and collaborative projects, and the concept of 'pushing against form'.
Ali Alizadeh: Your most recent book Divine Comedy, as its title suggests, is a complete rewrite of The Divine Comedy. Yet you've called yours a ‘distraction' on Dante's epic. Could you speak to that?
John Kinsella: Dante's Divine Comedy has been a long obsession for me. I came across it as a child, but only in a generic kind of way. I read Penguin editions of Inferno and Purgatory in my late teens and then reread Inferno (Ciardi translation) while living in a commune situation, and with a major drug and alcohol problem, in my early twenties. I mention the conditions of reading here because they were relevant to the way a personal mythology overlaid literary tropes for me – not an uncommon process for readers of Dante to impose. The Inferno started appearing in undeclared snippets in poems I was writing at the time – but in abstract and distant ways. But mostly, in pieces of artwork I was doing at the time (though long since abandoned, artwork was an integral part of my early poetry creativity). Those drawings and paintings are still in an archive somewhere. I hadn't seen Doré's images then (possibly a frame here or there, but certainly not in their entirety) but having since become saturated in Doré (I had the plates stuck up round the room while I was working on ‘my' Comedy), I would now find it impossible to work on anything visual without some subtext of reference to those amazing works.
When I came to writing my autobiographical work Auto in the late 90s, I drew on Dante's La Vita Nuova (‘And the sonnet was this…', for example: that is, exploring the links between poetry and prose regarding personal explication), and started to think about the entire Comedy. I reread Paradise around then. I had also read Paradise on Happy Valley Farm in the early 90s – the Sayers translation I'd picked up cheap in a secondhand bookstore somewhere. I was in a bad way then and suffering a lot of blackouts, so I read Paradise against the backdrop of the great Dryandra Forest and personal decay. But I re-read it in Cambridge in the late 90s.
For a long time, I have written cycles and movements of poems using pre-established models to highlight disjunctions in the way language, location, and attendant spatialities function. For example, by using Beethoven's Sixth Symphony as the template for The Silo: A Pastoral Symphony, I attempted, on the most basic level, to show the disjunction between European Romanticism and the introduction of European farming methods into Australia and their disastrous consequences in terms of country/land. Most of my work has an ecological basis, and in reconsidering pastoral motifs, especially in the way they do or don't transfer from place to place, I attempt to highlight how broader systems of discourse inevitably break down and damage the local. Local knows what works locally, in essence. Or, at least, has more of a chance.
In around 2003, I began to think of issues of the local and the broader local and the non-local in the context of Dante's Comedy. I was working on a book of poetry entitled The New Arcadia around then; that book was templated on Philip Sidney's Old Arcadia, and was very much in dialogue with his work. I was thinking of how far away from an original model one might go while retaining certain structural and linguistic elements of that original. When it came to considering a ‘take' (some critics have called it a ‘riff') on The Divine Comedy, I felt that I didn't want to create a dialogue, I didn't want to use it simply as a ‘model', bur rather wanted to take on the fundamental notions of what we consider to be ‘good' or ‘bad' in any given place at any given time and to set up a way of comparing personal response to place with historic and cultural tropes. I wanted to ‘distract' readers from their knowledge of the original texts but encourage them to reinvest their interpretations in the place and time of their reading. My work was to be an ‘up-close' work, an intense examination of five-and-a-half acres across three years (a year, roughly, for each of the canticles), but contextualising it in the greater world, and the discourse of location that surrounds all ‘places'. The distractions are what's happening outside the place you live in, as much as the distractions that happen daily where you live (seeing a bungarra or a rare bird, or even watching the familiar patterns of songbirds played out each day).
I like the idea of epics being about the micro – an accumulation of detail, of the ‘small', against the larger backdrop. Sometime in 1997 I wrote in a poem:
What use if we can't note some of Dante in his epic diva comics, climb down a few rungs of his sorry internal workings, extricate around the footnotes like revivals, enthusiastic resurrections of the roman à clef? (Graphology, Canto 7)
So the idea of the larger work departing from Dante's idea of the epic was finding its feet for me, and also the disturbance with the ‘entertainment' aspects of the big allegory. This is a question of reading, canon, and presentation, more than of Dante's specific intentions as writer. A cosmic performance, sure, but a cosmos in which we separate our own ecological impacts from what we read. Implication becomes moral and purely ‘human': it is not.
Furthermore, however epic a single writer wishes to be, s/he is writing the self. Interpolation comes in the form of anecdote and participation (through family largely, in the case of my Comedy), but as author I am still mediating. I am always flummoxed when critics point out, regarding the anti- or counter- pastoral I inhabit, that evidence of the anti is already well established in, say, Virgil (say from Eclogue VI), because they're missing the point of what I feel is the issue behind pastorality: that recognition of intrusion and decay of ‘country' or ‘rural' values is neither here nor there. What I see as the point of contention, apart from exploitation of people for profit, is the abuse of the land (especially in good husbandry and neat, ordered terraces), the damaging of ‘bushland' (in all its forms), and the agricultural use of animals for human profit. So my base model isn't the social issues of pastoral, but issues of ecological exploitation no matter how ‘rural'-authentic it dresses itself up as.