Ali Alizadeh Interviews John Kinsella

By and | 1 December 2009

That's not to separate social concerns from ecological outcomes (not at all) – and I am not questioning need (which is going to over-ride everything, of course), but I am questioning the literary discourse around this. There is no idyll and never was an idyll. There was, and is, however, a literary idyll that even builds in commentary (and correction) of the rural. That's very tied into my motives for distracting the original and looking at what ‘is' in a very specific place, warts and all. But not just warts and all for the sake of it. Inferno and Paradise walk the same lines for me.

AA: One of the most fascinating aspects of your epic is what strikes me as a mischievous reorganisation of the sequence of Dante's narrative. Instead of replicating the Florentine's journey from Inferno to Purgatory and then to Paradise, your poem starts in Purgatory, takes the reader to Paradise, before concluding in Inferno. Could you explain your thinking behind this structure?

JK: I simply don't believe one can separate these states, not even allegorically. Purgatorio is the most inclusive ‘category', and that's why we start there. Paradise is a delusion and the idea of being rewarded for goodness repels me. It's only goodness if you expect no return: even spiritual after-life pay-off. And Inferno, well, that's what we're working hard to turn our Purgatorio into. That's where it's all ending up. Ironically, the apparently free choice of those who damage the biosphere impedes the free choice of those who work to avoid this. Of course, there are degrees: even those who try hardest are usually inflicting some degree of wilful damage even when they believe they are doing otherwise. It's when one knows (that annoying thought or guilt pushed aside) and keeps doing a damage because it's easier to pretend it's not a damage, that really concerns me.

AA: In your revision of Canto VIII of Inferno, you have replaced the wrathful and lost souls drowning in the river Styx in Dante's poem with ski boaters and evocations of early Irish settlers in Western Australia. Could you speak about this and other interventions of contemporary society and history in your Divine Comedy?

JK: On one level it's a logical shift in the components or referents in an allegorical structure. To contemporise or make familiar to a readership is an easy ‘device'. But I hope it's more than just that: it's a genuine belief that text and place are intimately connected: that is, where a text is created and what it refers to are in a symbiotic relationship (sometimes constructive, often destructive). The wrong and right of a given socio-political situation are given to interpretation and point of view (in Dante's sense, maybe which family you belonged to!), but in the end there are basic wrongs and rights that overwhelm personal point of view. These ‘universals' allow us to read texts from all periods and empathise and reject a given scenario or react towards the plight of a group or individual. I am very interested in the idea of empathy and in my interpolations and re-allegorising of Dante's use of stories and even personal associations, I am dialogically interacting: giving ‘my side' of the story. I distract from this through my inability, as much as anything else, to empathise completely with his worldview or position on any given issue. Some feel one should worship great writers; I don't. I can admire and even be in awe, but my experience and often my politics are different. I don't have to agree but I feel I do have to dialogue, and extract and distract my own co-ordinates. As said, it's the local that interests me, backdropped against all human social interaction, or as much as I can textually access. The micro against the macro. The ski boaters and the Irish settlers (caught in their irony of escaping persecution and often persecuting local peoples in turn), are facts and stories, are allegory and ‘history' from where I am writing.

AA: Also in your revision of Canto VIII of Inferno, in place of Dante's fallen angels you present us with a striking image of blue-tongue lizards, who, in ‘Their armoured bodies / appear and retreat. They blink and extrude / their tongues as warning, drinking eviscerated air.' Could you speak to the place of nature and ecology in your Divine Comedy?

JK: My work is an ecological manifesto on one level, and really a set of observations on another. The two obviously share ground. I have always been fascinated by what makes the image, and what constitutes the figurative. I've been equally fascinated by empirical data, how one ‘factually' records what one observes, and lists. The nexus points between these components are where my Divine Comedy operates. Maybe that's what poetry is anyway, but for me it's a conscious process. I deplore ‘nature writing' because often, in it there's a certain satisfaction in the efficacy of ‘nature' that I can't share (humans are of ‘nature', after all; and the binary of humans versus nature seems absurd to me), and also the moment one ‘nature-writes', one separates out of the very bio one is seeking to evoke. Actions speak louder than words – sure, but words can also be actions. I prefer agitrop to a nice picture of nature (which is always subjective). On one level, the work requests a ‘getting one's house' in order; on another it questions the need for the ‘house' to exist at all (to work out of the prefix ‘eco', from oikos). The irony of the book, so set in one five-and-a-half-acre area, is that this world is massive, and within that space, systems establish and break down, and the greater actions of the planet are performed. Certain birds move as territorial groups, bobtails reappear each year after their winter sleep, pairs of eagles circle over head year after year. But the land is being damaged and breaks down from external intrusion (as well as internal pressures): the communications masts like the legs of Satan, or the poisonous spraydrift from neighbouring properties, war in another part of the world. Local doesn't mean denial. In fact, it becomes a lens for the broader ills, not an escape. There is no escape, no possible eremitism. Each day I spent writing this work, I'd go out onto the block with my notebook, observing and recording. I'd observe the same features day after day, watching for minute changes. Those small shifts I was capable of observing fostered a slippage in the concrete details that anchor an image. Even the known became susceptible. I countered with more fact, more detail. I fed the poem science and data. There's kind of a history of post-Poundian imagism at work in this book.

AA: Divine Comedy is of course not the first time you've rewritten a canonical poet's epic in the form of an epic of your own. In 2005, for example, you published The New Arcadia, which was based on Philip Sydney's Old Arcadia. Could you speak about your interest in the very ancient, and some might say ‘conservative', form of the epic poem?

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