NL: That poem’s one of my favourites. It does so much with such seeming ease. There’s an authority to it –as with many of the poems in Change Machine – that feels, to me, newer in its looseness and lightness. Compared with ‘Flash Bang Baby’, for example (from your 2011 collection Surface to Air), a poem which might be said to exist in the same atmosphere, ‘Tips’ feels longer-leashed, more admissive of ‘flow’. You’ve got me thinking of that concept because of these lines: ‘free-soloing the sheer face of our loss / without a carabiner for the crux’ – which catch my breath every time I read them. If that’s not a straight-up, nowhere-to-hide ars poetica, I don’t know what is. Climbers crave flow; they might study a crux every which way, strategising and perfecting technique, but when the moment comes that they want their bodies to forget themselves – which is precisely when they’re most fluently themselves. Change Machine seems to me steeped in this dialectic of skill / surrender / self – am I way off here?
JS: I really like the way you put this: the rock-climber’s dialectic of ‘study > forgetting > flow’, and its reformulation in artistic terms as one of ‘skill > surrender > self’, resonates pretty strongly with my experience of writing the poems in this book – though ‘skill’ is a less stable concept in art, and ‘self’ as the synthetic term would be tricky to tease out. I should add that I am not a rock-climber; the climbing imagery in ‘Tips’ forms a triumvirate in my mind with two other physical activities referenced in the book that blur the line between physics, biomechanics and aesthetics: surfing (in ‘Hossegor’) and wingsuiting (in ‘Wingsuit Lessons’). Of the three, I’m only proficient in the second; but what you say about flow and the dialectic of skill and surrender holds there too in my experience.
You’re right of course that climbers, surfers, as well as musicians, rappers and so on must develop technique, or ‘chops’ let’s say – while at the same time, they know that being too cognisant of technique can lead to disaster (by interrupting ‘flow’, as you say), and so they aspire to a kind of forgetting when it comes time to act. Athletes and performers talk of ‘muscle memory’ here, don’t they, which allows them to be ‘in the moment’ or ‘fully present’ when committing to action – forgetting about technique and trusting to skills they’ve grooved. But this ‘forgetting’ is paradoxical: a kind of forgetting that permits traces of memory. The concept of muscle memory makes sense intuitively as physical habituation, but it’s rather strange to park memory somewhere in the body yet outside of consciousness. (We’re approaching psychoanalytical territory here perhaps; and we would also need to factor in the remarkable developments in neurobiology in our lifetimes.) As with all analogies, there are limits to the parallels of the rock-climber’s craving for flow and the poet’s; what constitutes the techne of art is highly contingent and debatable, for starters. But I’d agree that Change Machine is probably steeped, more than my previous books, in the trace-memories of poetry’s techne, the artefacts of its half-forgetting in the service of something like flow.
Broadening this out, I do happen to think of my writing process as an inherently dialectical one; antithesis and negation have a generative power in my work, I think even more so in this book. W B Yeats’s notion that we make poetry ‘out of the quarrel with ourselves’, and John Keats’s foregrounding of the ability to remain in states of uncertainty and contradiction without the need for philosophical resolution or moral certainty (negative capability) both ring truly to me. I recently came across Peter Porter’s 2002 lecture, ‘The Survival of Poetry’ (in the Australian Book Review), where he recognises Les Murray’s compulsion ‘after finishing a poem…to write another poem which would be the first one’s opposite’. I recognise that too; it’s probably most evident in a poem like ‘Below the Line’, which is in a voice that trolls one of the previous poems in the book (and even trolls the lyric mode of the book as a whole). I’d add that this dialectical movement is at work within poems too, not just from one poem to the next. I sometimes wonder whether the quality of ‘tension’ in literature or art is simply a way of pointing to the generative power of the dialectical processes that give rise to a work –
NL: Or works, right? The individual talent can’t but work within a tradition, no matter how standard or bespoke. (Or even involuntary – a writer might choose to not read Shakespeare, say, but they can hardly sterilise themselves of his influence.) How would you say these dialectics relate to artistic traditions?
JS: Yes, I suspect artistic traditions develop dialectically too. It’s a fascinating question. I think here of a remark of Judith Wright, in her 1971 essay ‘Australian Poetry after Pearl Harbor’ (first published in Southerly under a different title), on what she called an emergent ‘anti-poetry’ in the post-war years (obviously referring to the 68-ers, the New York School, Black Mountain etc.). But her appended prefix, ‘anti-’, wasn’t pejorative; rather, for her it indicated ‘a necessary criticism of the Symbolist-Romantic style; not a denial of the past but a new development of it’. From someone who epitomised a suddenly passé mode, that seems to me a remarkably clear-eyed, dialectical conception of how artistic ‘tradition’ works.
It holds in the longer view too, I think. Take the relatively straightforward example of the sonnet, that old chestnut. Does the world need another sonnet? In a cynical mood, I’d say most definitely not! But I think of it here because: a) I duel with it for about 30 rounds in the opening section of Change Machine, albeit a little furtively; and, b) the sonnet has a dialectical mechanism at its core, the volta – which makes it something like a piece of portable dialectics, the kind you can carry easily in your pocket, wallet, or memory (I suspect this, more than anything, is behind its enduring appeal). When you look at its importation from Italian into English poetry in the 16th century, you see that the poets are frequently doing something like a Monty Python number on the form – they’re properly taking the piss out of conventions and expectations. In one sense, they’re writing anti-sonnets. There’s a huge irreverence there. This seems obvious in the work of obscure Elizabethans like John Davies of Hereford, but even in Shakespeare (‘My mistresses’ eyes are nothing like the sun’ – e.g. though you expect me to say that they are) and John Donne to an extent. Of course, we now think of the ‘English’ sonnet as the epitome of convention, but it started out as a dialectical urge, the English antithesis to the Italian thesis. When Harlem Renaissance poets like Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Gwendolyn Brooks turned to it in the 20th century, they injected it with a different kind of critical tension, just as vital. Whether the contributions are radical breaks – like Ted Berrigan’s, John Berryman’s, or more recently, K Silem Mohammad’s Sonnagrams (2009), or Keri Glastonbury’s Newcastle Sonnets (2018), say – or tributaries of the so-called mainstream (e.g. Seamus Heaney, James Merrill, Don Paterson and so on), they all seem to stage this dialectical process involving both memory and forgetting.
In another direction we run into Frank O’Hara’s dictum that the poet should ‘just go on your nerve’: ‘If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, “Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep!”’ I admire O’Hara and enjoy reading him, but while there are moments in this book, and in my voice, that probably wouldn’t exist without what could be called the Australian Gen-68 O’Haran inheritance, no one would consider me to be working beneath his portrait. I mention his famous ‘go on your nerve’ in this context because I find it to be something of an overstatement of this ‘forgetting’ principle. At least in practical terms, for me. The idiom suggests going on ‘instinct’, which is defined as behaviour that is not learned; yet the nervous system is not only the sympathetic nervous system (which governs ‘fight or flight’ responses), but also the limbic system (memory and emotion) as well as the prefrontal cortex (higher-order planning). Comparing the artistic act to being threatened by a knife-wielding maniac is alluringly intense, but art doesn’t quite work like that in my experience. It seems to me you’re never just going ‘on your nerve’, e.g. on autonomic instinct, but that some higher order operations, and limbic ones, are always working too, which for better or worse shape or channel your instinct. Flow is a kind of freedom, isn’t it; but it cannot mean ‘nerve’ or ‘instinct’ only. Flow requires its opposite, resistance, to make sense; it would require a praxis that is somehow assured yet free, which in poetry is tricky due to the competing urges toward techne and forgetting, constraint and liberty, chops and surrender, sonnet and anti-sonnet.
NL: The collection’s title – Change Machine – can be read a zillion ways but I want to explore the idea of the poem itself as a change machine, capable of infinite inputs and outputs. Take ‘Tips for Managing Subsidence’ again: it turns conversational anecdote into confession, confession to cosmology; abstraction to gut-punch hurt to new abstraction. Or maybe that’s not right. Maybe the poem’s more like a Schrödingerian box where all these things coexist, awaiting readers to settle their properties. If it makes sense at all to think of your poems as machines enacting change, can you tell us a bit about how they work? And what you consider their intended work / use to be?
JS: Mutability is one of those perennial themes that art grapples with isn’t it. It’s so broadly interpretable we run the risk of seeing it everywhere; even language itself, whether considered as a straightforward representation of the world or semiotically as a differential system, seems to subject ‘the world’ and our experience of it to some kind of metamorphosis.