I started my first ‘epic' when I was seventeen. It was a retelling in poems of the Samson story. I think that's in an archive somewhere as well – I haven't seen it in twenty years. Once again, it took an original (Biblical) story and wandered with it – it was to do with my own issues of masculinity (and the failure of this in many ways), and crisis of a faith I didn't know if I had or did not have. But what took it out of the reflective and ‘insular' lyrical personal (it is an error, I believe, purely to equate the lyric and the self – the lyrical I is also a general social I, especially given songs of the self are all potentially songs of public/group utterance and sharing), was that I tried to build a social and cultural inter-narrative: the story of where I came from, if you like. Samson was obviously a heroic vector, but ‘I' in the poem (transposed self onto the figure of Samson) was very anti-heroic and liable to fail at a moment when a hero would succeed. I have been very interested in this notion of hero all my life (Prince Planet was my favourite child hero, along with Gigantor), and a couple of years ago wrote a long poem entitled ‘Hero' that deals, in part with Akhmatova and the hero motif, and Cid:
3. Cid 89 Oranges of Valencia, that our Cid planted The doubters are checking the trees, they have picked the fruit. This story tasted by Our Cid. 98 Near the base of the Hill, the range and river, they reach the property where the farmer cultivates. A text was sent by the CEO and president desiring an opening to spring festivities for Our Cid of oranges now the gift of olives.
The poem plays with form a great deal. In this case, the caesura (and its relationship to the hemistiches). It's an epic to be sung; I wrote this with singing in mind, as I did my Samson poems. Probably the work most influential on my writing life has been Homer's Odyssey, with the Iliad running a close second (I have been particularly interested in issues of guest-host relationships and spiritual ‘pollution' in my own work). The Epic of Gilgamesh I rewrote in part for a musician friend. In my ‘Hero' poem, I also experimented with lines ‘as long as the Harbour Bridge'; the artist Ruark Lewis actually made some large canvases of words from the long lines. In the poem, they were intended to be reinvestments of the heroic line and couplet. The point I am making, to link it back to the Comedy, is that the epic for me has always been about form. The hero, the cultural narrative, and form. If there is a hero in my Comedy, it is, much the same as in Dante's, my Beatrice figure (also merged with the Virgil figure), Tracy, my partner. The guide isn't necessarily hero though, and the textual Tracy is inscribed with the vulnerabilities and hesitation the ‘I' is also transcribed with in the text In some ways, the sheepdog ‘Shep' is the most heroic, battling blindness and defining his territory through memory and fading senses. Politically, given the work is entirely anti-State, one would expect an anti-hero configuration, but that's not really the point. It's more an egalitarianism of status: ‘we' all share the hero status and the anti-hero reality. I consider the hero'/es' ‘honour' as ecologically dependent: honour is respect, honour is custodial. It's about sacrifice, but not of the living: rather, of the technologies one clings to, one fetishises. The epic possibly becomes the liberation of consciousness from the confinements of consumerism and the damages it brings.
AA: In your introduction to The Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry, you declare an interest in a poetry that is conservative in form but radical in content. Is your interest in the epic an aspect of this poetics, in which innovation and tradition have a symbiotic relationship?
JK: Yes, as above. My aim is to push against form, not to redefine it. I wish to redefine how we think about what is an aesthetic and what is agitprop. I reject aesthetics. Form has come about as aid to memory, as aid to visualisation, not necessarily as a vehicle for confinement and imprisonment. What is being said in the context of how it is being said is what matters. If you are trying (at least) to say something ‘radical', you must give a reader access at some level, some way of decoding what you are saying. I can't, for example, expect my readers to understand vegan ethics when they aren't vegans, but I can expect them to understand repetitions, refrains, anaphora, rhyme, rhetorical devices, alliteration and so on, even if they don't know the names for them. I am particularly interested in extended similes and epic, and they play their part in my work. Also metonymy is its various guises.
One of the challenges for readers of my Comedy is to construct a narrative for themselves as they move through scenes and vignettes – reflections of the original cantos are one point of reference in the journey/s (though there are a few twists to the sequencings and the introduction of ante, sub, and other ‘in-between' or subtextual layerings), but so are the personal interactions posited in the poem/s, plus the spatial, cultural, and ‘historical' backdrops they are configured through and against. Although this might seem a grim work in many ways, there are certainly many moments of the ‘I' as mock-hero, ironising the position of the self. It is rarely the family group (a kind of anti-comitatus) that is ironised. It is certainly ‘de-militarised' or de-hierarchised in the face of a world at war and in the context of a pacifist ethics.
AA: Are you planning any other book-length poems in the near future? I'm aware of your fascinating collaboration with Louis Armand, Synopticon.
That's interesting for me in the context of the epic. Its ‘epic' qualities, if it has any, are built by default, as Louis and I constantly rewrote our (and each other's) texts. The qualities likely arise from a resilience of language and meaning in the face of two poets trying to undo each other's intentionality (I think). The time frame was epic as well, almost! Done over ten years, cumulatively, in fragments, and sometimes larger movements. It has a psychology, it has a linguistics, but it often has ‘competing' politics and certainly a struggle of aesthetics.
I am working on a book of poems based on Thoreau's Walden and set in our local space of Jam Tree Gully. Again, it's a very different work. Its heroes are kangaroos and a three-legged goat, along with all other animals and plants and soil types and rocks and so on, in a specific space.
And a big task for the next few years is the collaboration I am embarking on (I have taken a lot of notes – I often begin that way) of a ‘version' of Farid Ud-Din Attar's The Conference of the Birds. In part translation, entirely digressive, and done in collaboration, and with an eco-political dialogism, it could go anywhere! I hope so – I have always been keen re anywhere within the specific.