NL: Can you go into that metamorphosis a bit more?
JS: I was one of those people who had a print of Salvador Dalí’s Metamorphosis of the Narcissus on my wall (and the Persistence of Memory on my watch face) in my late teens and early twenties. I remember around the same time being captivated by the way Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 60’, on the theme of continuous change, totally rips off a passage on Pythagoras at the conclusion of Ovid’s Metamorphosis (‘Like as the minutes hasten toward the pebbled shore / So do our minutes hasten toward their end / Each changing place with that which goes before / In sequent toil all forwards do contend’). So ‘Sonnet 60’, which concerns change and time, is an example of a poem that arguably enacts a kind of change (to or on the Ovidian text); but in doing so, it establishes an exchange, a conversation.
On a basic thematic level, the book does register a wide variety of changes, from matters of deeply personal upheaval to geopolitical tectonics (and sometimes it explores the bearing of the latter upon the former). Beyond that, I seek to examine and represent change mimetically in some ways too – the anagrammatic form of the ‘Biometric’ poems, in which I substitute end- and internal-rhyme for anagrams, are an attempt at this. There I’m testing the limits of repetition and variation – the same letters cycling back, but in a way that doesn’t provide the music of half-rhymes – and probing a possible juncture between the lyric mode and a more procedural or conceptual poetics.
NL: Reading those anagrammatic poems reminded me of an exchange between David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo, where Wallace (if I remember right) professes to write via aural rightness, whereas DeLillo, who uses a typewriter, goes by the pictorial / ideogrammatic look of letters on the page. We’re always hearing about the ‘music’ of poetry but it’s written as well for the page (in a non-concrete sense), for the eyes – and I love how this new (to me) form of yours really foregrounds that.
JS: Exploring that tension between aurality and visuality was absolutely at the core of my process when writing those ‘Biometrics’ poems, and I’m even more aware of it now that I have to read them aloud at readings. I mean, no one is going to hear that ‘surveillance’, ‘unclear lives’ and ‘unlace: silver’ are anagrams of each other, for instance, at least not in these poems, where I’ve tried to make the anagrams almost disappear. At the time – I started these in Paris in 2014 – I wanted to test what happens to the human ear when, instead of rhyme, anagrams are used at the ends of lines. Does the phenomenal pattern-recognition machine of the brain recognise the shuffled letters on some level?
NL: I think it must.
JS: I suspect so too. I’m by no means the first poet to explore an anagrammatic poetics – there’s something of a niche lineage here that runs from Unica Zürn (German poet, artist and associate of the Surrealists in Paris) in works like Hexentexte (1954), through to K. Silem Mohammed’s Sonnagrams (which rearrange the letters of Shakespeare’s sonnets to make new works), which I’ve mentioned, Luke Kennard’s Cain (2016) and Australia’s own ‘Kanganoulipian’, Dave Drayton, in his work P(oe)Ms (2017), which anagrammatises the names of Australian Prime Ministers, and many others who have worked with anagrams more occasionally. These works broadly take the same procedural approach: each line or stanza of the poem forms an anagram of its title or a particular prompt-text: often a proper name, an existing work, or some other lexical objets trouvés. The process is computational and bears aleatory semantic effects. I’m trying something slightly different in the ‘Biometrics’ poems: to fold the computational, semantically aleatory element into what is still essentially a lyric poem (or at least, of the weirdo-coastal-gothic-bogan-expat Savige type), by deploying anagrams at the end of the lines only, as substitutes for conventional end-rhyme (and sometimes internal rhyme). So one of those, ‘Credo, Décor, Coder’, is written in what would be terza rima, but uses anagrams instead of rhyme, so is really in a kind of terza anagrammatica. To conceptual and other radical poets, I imagine this process could perhaps seem like a retrograde step – why bother resuscitating the ghost of the lyric – but I’m genuinely interested in the possibility of incorporating a computational, recombinant poetics, within the lyric mode. I think of the ‘Biometrics’ poems as an exploration of a cybernetic poetics: equal parts computational machine and old-fashioned human. (Philosophers like Daniel Dennett would probably say there’s no difference). But then, it could also be a complete dead end, aesthetically, or in my own case, and maybe I won’t ever write another one.
NL: It occurred to me, hearing you invoke the ‘lyric mode’, that I’m so used to ‘lyrical’ existing versus something else – conceptual, procedural, aleatory, experimental, documentary, hortatory, protest, language – that I’ve kind of forgotten what it actually is. (I suspect the lazy part of me defers, as with the sonnet, or the novel, to its maker: if that’s what you say it is, that’s what it is.) What does ‘lyric’ mean to you, and where does it end?
JS: One typical answer invokes the lyric poem’s association with the lyre in Ancient Greece, which is fine for historical context, but seems hopelessly anachronistic and doesn’t get us very far today (and also tempts those of us sceptical of language’s representational powers to recast the lyre as a liar). I’m inclined to think of the lyric poem really as a limbic poem, by which I mean a poem that sprouts from or attends the workings of the limbic system, the ancient part of the brain associated with memory and emotion (and olfaction), which you get to when you peel back the cerebral cortex; for me, the lyric poem is one that goes spelunking in that dank limbic cave, and tries to lasso what shadows it finds there into language somehow.
So I’d offer two personal perspectives: first, the lyric poem acknowledges that we have a limbic system, and that art’s attempt to convey what it is like to be a creature with memories and emotions remains viable, however debased our language has become by politico-commercial abuse (propaganda); and second, that the terrible bargain struck by the lyric poem for this presumption is that it must at times participate in the lurid, onanistic performance in a hall of mirrors known as the narrativised ego, the Self, the first person pronoun, ‘I’ – every iteration of which is different from the last (I is an I is an I is an I, to retool Stein; or, ‘I, I and I. I.’, as Joyce has Stephen Dedalus think of the problem of self-identity: the I as both continuous and periodic; wave and particle). Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that either (affect or ‘I’) is necessary in art; I write and enjoy reading poems that have neither, and that begin from a radically different viewpoint. But I’ve never been able to shake the limbic poem; when the universe has properly kicked me or someone I care about in the guts, I still want, need, expect my art to be able to convey some shred of what that kicking was like – which it can only do inadequately and belatedly, but nevertheless.
And to be sure, in the 21st century, it’s a kind of zombie lyric I’m talking about. The lyric poem was declared dead long ago, by the younger me, and by many. Long live the limbic poem. Even though propaganda has probably always existed, the relative innocence with which a Sappho or a Basho or a Keats approached the representation of the self and ‘its’ emotions has surely long-since soured with centuries of the manipulative abuse of language by political and commercial interests that has had lasting historical effects. The lyric poem today seems to me like a kind of zombie role-playing game. Or maybe it’s a zombie the way Jesus Christ was: essentially profoundly benign; the spawner of much bad poetry; and with hundreds of millions of adherents to this day.
NL: I really like this idea of lyric as limbic, and part of me (the cerebral cortical part?) digs the sense of order it imparts. But consciousness, to me, feels nothing if not disordered. I wonder, in fact, if that’s not what makes a poet – a deranged limbic response to language. I guess it, yes, feels to me that no grey matter can escape limbic bleed: that everything’s mixed up in consciousness; that time, in any event, turns all to memory. I think of music – that expression, through time, of higher order mathematics – invoked sometimes as a telos of anti-lyricism – which also feels purely limbic: a mainline of emotion. Which brings us back to the lyre, to the lyric as zombie, the poem as machine …
JS: Music has the most limbic resonance of all the art forms, I agree. And as I say that, I realise I’ve taken that phrase from a thought bubble of Elon Musk, of all people, in his infamous interview with Joe Rogan (where they smoke a joint), where he refers to ‘limbic resonance’ being at the core of the social media giants’ business model. It seems self-evident; that limbic soup of social media, a tardis of feels, but of a very different kind to music. I can’t do the former and write poetry too; when in a crotchety mood, and thinking of art as a process of sublimation, I fear I saw some of the best lines of my generation mortgaged for social media updates. (Gee, that makes me sound old.)
On the ‘machine’ part: we’re taught that the Industrial Revolution (or its first two stages) ended with the First World War. But for me, it ended at some point during our lifetime; and by ‘our’, I think I mean Generations X and Y. (I believe I’m at the very tail end of the former). More precisely, though more fancifully too, I sometimes think the Industrial Revolution ended with the appearance of the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. The original T-800 (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) was something we could understand: its exposed endoskeleton was recognisably machine-like, with moving steel parts and hydraulics and so on. But the T-1000’s ‘nanomorphic’ liquid metal form was not recognisably mechanical; if you remember the moment we see the T-1000 pass through the prison-like bars of Sarah Connor’s mental asylum, the standard issue police handgun he picked up gets caught on the steel – the weapons technology of the Industrial Revolution is revealed as suddenly clunky, obsolete in this new paradigm. The T-1000 seems uncanny because it seems more organic than mechanical, but is it? Perhaps. In any case, I’ve taken this longer view in this book; I’m conscious that the ‘machine’ in the title is in some ways instantly anachronistic. And I’m comfortable with that. Poets sometimes like to think that we’re visitors from the future, but we’re not, are we.