SK: Does a kind of spiritual imperative compel your work? I’m thinking here about the poems ‘Syrian Desert’ and ‘We thank the clouds’ in particular. Would you like to comment on the notion of a ‘spiritual’ reality?
LF: The spiritual is a central concern of mine and has been for many years. I don’t think I can do justice to the theme in the present context but I will try to shed some light on the matter. There are, of course, many poets whose works engage deeply with spiritual concerns – Blake, Novalis, Hölderlin, Rilke, Yeats, the Eliot of ‘The Four Quartets’, Sikelianos, Denise Levertov, to name a few – poets for whom poetry and spirituality are deeply intertwined (with regard to Australian poets, Toby Davidson has recently published the study, Christian Mysticism and Australian Poetry). This is also the case for my own poetic aims.
I don’t think that dogmatic faith and scientific reason (in its agnostic and atheistic forms) exhaust the possible perspectives on the existence of the spiritual. I hold the view that it is possible to transform one’s sensibility and understanding such that one can acquire genuine insight into the numinous. Here I will limit my consideration to two pertinent angles: the significance of imagination and what I would like to call ‘the difficulty of transcendence’.
In Neoplatonic, Romantic, Symbolist and esoteric traditions (see the scholarship of Antoine Faivre), one finds the view that the symbolic figures of imagination can, in certain instances, mediate insights into spiritual reality (Blake, Coleridge, Yeats, Sufism [see the works of Henry Corbin], Rudolf Steiner, Owen Barfield, and Kathleen Raine, all hold this view). The imagination can present a sensuous-like image (akin to a dream image) in which a super-sensible reality intimates itself. This can be brought to bear on the poem, ‘Syrian Desert’.
In 2008, before the devastating war, I was deeply fortunate to travel in Syria. My wife and I, my mother-in-law and a good friend, visited a number of monasteries and had engaging conversations with monks and nuns, which got me thinking about early Christianity and the ‘Desert Fathers’, as well as connections between the heat and barrenness of the desert and spirituality. ‘Syrian Desert’ describes the wrinkled face of an imagined male figure as follows: ‘… from its furrows rise vast trees / abundant with flowers / and gliding the blazing gusts / firebirds alight in their branches.’ This was my attempt to evoke a visionary dimension in the experience of the desert winds. What are the ‘firebirds’? I’m not sure entirely, perhaps they are angels (which Rilke called ‘…almost deadly birds of the soul’), or perhaps they are symbolic of some other numinous sense in the hot winds.
I will only touch on ‘We thank the clouds’, which is a simpler poem. In line with what I said earlier about poetic attunements (moods) to the natural world, I see this poem as a sequence of ‘atmospheric’ attunements and symbolic relationships to cloud phenomena. The anaphora of ‘We thank …’ gives the poem a hymnal quality, which could be related to the significance of gratitude within various spiritual traditions.
Now to the ‘difficulty of transcendence’. Within the context of the ironic post-modern condition, there is a widely held suspicion towards elevation and ‘transcendence’ in poetry. There is a tendency to view lofty poetic sentiments as pretentious and inauthentic. In certain respects, this suspicion has a positive role to play, in a similar way in which, I think, anyone with spiritual or religious convictions should read Nietzsche (as a test of conscience). The post-modern ironist is probably right to critique certain instances of poetic claims to transcendence. However, the often associated view that all such claims are disingenuous, is, I think, completely mistaken. Moreover, genuine transcendence is an incredibly difficult achievement. Think of all the practices that are undertaken within authentic spiritual traditions in order to arrive at some degree of enlightenment or insight (meditation, prayer, asceticism, moral development, etc.). As far as my own poetry goes, I aim to take into account the circumstances of contemporary post-modern existence at the same time as seeking genuine forms of imaginative insight.
SK: Let’s now move on to another area of interest to me – that is your Poetry and Music Salons. These are unique and have become very important in the Sydney poetry scene – and nationally of course because many of the poets featured have been from interstate. What I’m particularly interested in is why you and Dalia (Dalia Nassar, Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Sydney, author of The Romantic Absolute) decided to host these events in your home. What was the imperative behind this decision? Also, perhaps you could explain how the salons are structured, so that readers can get a grip on how they work.
LF: The Poetry and Music Salon (aka POEMS NB) – which is in its fourth year and in addition to the (mostly) monthly private soirées has included two public Salons at the Sydney Writers’ Festival – emerged as part of a larger idea. For a number of years I had considered the possibility of founding a transdisciplinary institute for poetry and philosophy (that would host lectures, workshops, events, etc.). I had also been interested in the capacity of art to mediate meaningful experiences of community. In the secular world of today, it seems to me that art can in certain respects assume the significance previously held by religious rituals. Rituals tend to be rather rigid in their forms and to exclude anyone who is not part of the given faith. Art can draw together a wider community and is freer in its forms. These are two aspects behind the Salon. Another aspect is my view that the experience of artworks can inspire more creative and individuated approaches to life and society (this is, in part, how I understand Joseph Beuys’ claim, ‘everyone is an artist’).
The prospect of founding from scratch a transdisciplinary institute for poetry seemed too large, so I decided to begin with the Salon (due to the amount of time required to organise events, I am no longer sure whether I will aim to found an institute). As you mentioned, these events have become significant within the Sydney poetry scene and beyond (international poets have also expressed great interest in the Salon).
There are three main components to the Salon: intellectual discussion, poetry, and music. The Salon usually begins with a piece of music – we have had performances from a wide range of outstanding musicians, including students and professors at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Music immediately transports us into an artistic space beyond our mundane affairs; it for this reason that I like to begin with music. This is followed by a discussion of a topic pertaining to poetics; the topics have included: poetry and politics, poetry and music, poetry and the environment, poetry and sexuality, poetry and mysticism, etc. I generally ask each of the three guest poets to prepare a five-minute talk on the subject matter. After these talks there is an open conversation involving the audience (which generally consists of poets, musicians, artists and intellectuals). It is important to me that everyone has an opportunity to participate in the discussion (this breaks down the common hierarchy between performers and audience members, and enlivens the dynamic). There is usually a short break (including snacks) after the discussion. The rest of the evening alternates between poetry readings by each guest poet (usually 10-15 minutes each) and musical performances (10 minutes each), and another interval (including dessert).
I have somewhat esoteric reasons for the structure of the event. Whereas it is common at literary events for a discussion to follow a reading, I place the discussion before the readings. In my academic writings, I have argued that intellectual understanding is inferior to imaginative and artistic insight, and that thinking needs to become more poetic. For these reasons, apart from the opening music, the Salon begins with the intellectual discussion – which also fosters a mood of attentiveness – and then moves into artistic experiences of poetry and music. The audience is also attuned to the poetry in certain ways as a result of the preceding conversation. The various elements of the Salon seem to enrich one another.
I’d like to add that the Salon has featured established and emerging poets of every stripe. I am not interested in affiliating the Salon with one school or movement within Australian poetry. Rather, I am interested in facilitating conversation between poets with different approaches to writing.
SK: Have the salons had any impact on your own writing?
LF: There are at least two ways in which the Salon relates to my own poetry. Firstly, I conceive the event itself as a kind of practical poetry. A friend referred to the Salon as a Gesamtkunstwerk, which pleased me. Secondly, I get to hear the views and work of a wide range of poets, which contributes to my sense of what is happening in Australian poetry. Of course, other poetry events in Sydney do the same, such as the Sappho poetry nights and Rhizomic in Glebe. I don’t think the Salon directly influences my writing practice, but as a writer it’s good to be aware of what other writers are doing.