NL: For me, it makes sense in the reading. I’ll confess that my first reaction to the title fell along that fault: that there was some contrarianism at play: that you were moving poetry from its customary self-conception as ‘organic’ into the column of the ‘mechanical’. I’m thinking of Vaucanson’s uncanny automata which can be seen to pose the question in almost grotesque clarity: machine or élan vital? But what you’re doing, in my reading, is agitating that dichotomy. Would this be fair to say?
JS: I think so. Though the title of the book actually came quite late. At different times all four of what became the section-subtitles of the book (‘Mean Time Between Failures’, ‘Biometrics’, ‘Hard Water’ and ‘There There’) took turns as working titles for the whole manuscript. So, the title Change Machine wasn’t programmatic – had I settled on it earlier, I might have spoken with you about it sooner, and who knows, could have attempted a poetic genealogy from Vaucanson’s automata to the T-1000! It’s the title of a small poem in the book that has its roots in me basically kicking cans at my lowest in London, not having enough money to use the bathroom at Waterloo Station, but then becomes a bit of a pandemic poem. But although the book isn’t as sci-fi as it might sound (or I’d like it to be), the title does speak to and for it in myriad ways, as you say.
On the poem as a Change Machine, it feels obligatory to mention William Carlos Williams’s conception that ‘A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words’, in his introduction to The Wedge (1944), a book I allude to in one of the poems. He says a bunch of other relevant things there (e.g. ‘There’s nothing sentimental about a machine … [by which] I mean there can be no part, as in any other machine that is redundant’). I’m drawn to his remark that, ‘As in all machines its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character’. The idea that poetry has a ‘physical more than a literary’ character is intriguing; perhaps it speaks to your previous question, and to the climber’s pursuit of flow. The idea that a poem is a ‘machine made of words’ seems a useful one: I’d be comfortable saying that a poem not only registers and represents change, but also potentiates it (e.g. hermeneutically, for readers).
Maybe even more than to Williams, I’m drawn to Marianne Moore’s pretty wild description of the armoured pangolin as having the ‘not unchain-like machine-like / form and frictionless creep of a thing / made graceful by adversities, con- / versities’. I wouldn’t typically associate myself with a poetics of ‘grace’, but find Moore’s ascription of grace to a ‘machine-like’ creature here alluring (and I read ‘The Pangolin’ as something of her ars poetica, which I don’t think is uncommon).
NL: I’ve been stuck with her real toads in imaginary gardens for so long I’m more grateful than you know for this totem sub! This is closer to what I was trying to say that your poems are trying to show: that ‘madeness’ (or its look) is no impediment to grace, and that grace need not look ‘graceful’ …
JS: It’s funny you say that, because Williams also says in that piece that ‘it’s not what the poet says, it’s what the poet makes’ (I’m paraphrasing now). In the Moore poem, the pangolin’s ‘frictionless creep’ seems counterintuitive as a description of a ‘machine-like’ creature, which would want oiling to move in a frictionless manner but then we see that its grace is its oil, in a sense, which it has earned by confronting ‘adversities’ – and these then become ‘con-/versities’. This last shift from ad- to con- seems to me a profound one, another dialectical move of sorts, from the idea that adversity is something extrinsic to an individual, to it being intrinsic and even constitutive of individual organisms and communities alike. I’d like to think Change Machine is in tune with this idea.
Lastly on the poem as organic machine, the input-output model you mention verges on casting poetry as something like a function in mathematics; I’m quite interested in this sort of possibility, though I’ve forgotten even basic calculus, and can sense my one or two mathematician friends raising a massively sceptical eyebrow. But look – calculus is the study of continuous change. Perhaps Change Machine is my calculus. Or maybe art more broadly is a calculus of sorts, and poetry merely a particular function whose inputs consist mostly of lived experience, quiddity, language and reading. Apropos of your Schrödinger reference – I do make two subtle references to quantum mechanics in the book, though don’t presume to understand it – I’m tempted to suggest that poetry exists in a state that is analogous to a quantum one; that it requires concepts not unlike superposition and entanglement to make sense of its function; and that poems are indeed both dead and alive at the same time – but this would be to (ab)use words that have precise meanings in their field in irresponsible, metaphorical, and dare I say it, poetical ways.
NL: We’ve talked about our common experience spending long stints overseas. If my maths is right, we were both in our 20s when we first decamped. I remember rocking up in the U.S. and feeling both blindsided and buoyed by how out of it I was: outside common knowledge, outside context, miles behind the conversation. I realised I’d have to start a new education pretty much in toto, have to read rather than just intuit and assume attitudes. But I hadn’t published anything by then. You had two acclaimed collections behind you. What was it like for you creatively, arriving in Europe at that phase in your career?
JS: Blindsided and buoyed would be a fair description of my experience too. My arrival, via Rome in 2007 (on an Australia Council residency), a European reading tour in 2008, to Cambridge in 2009 was definitely exciting – all that stimulation. Cambridge is not only intensely cerebral but encourages creativity; it was a privilege to experience that first-hand. My creative output there wasn’t a major problem, though I don’t think it was terribly good. The fact that I had published at home didn’t count for much. I remember coming home after a graduate seminar on Gerard Manley Hopkins, and having a mini nervous-breakdown as it dawned on me that a fair chunk of my literary knowledge and passion for Australian poetry virtually counted for nought, and that I could never be as conversant with English and European literature as the English and Europeans are. (I took great comfort in the fact I was working on an Irishman in James Joyce, whose art encompasses related questions.) On reflection, I’d say there’s a classic Australian defense mechanism for this, that at its best offers an irreverent yet grounded critical perspective and at its worst manifests as a kind of insufferably cocky impertinence – and I was sometimes guilty of both.
Over time, the fact of being transplanted out of my root system – the poetic ecology of home, if you like, where I was a tiny part of a conversation – and into a larger and quite different one, began to take a toll. If I were to list the first ten ‘influences’ on my first book (Latecomers) that spring to mind – say, Michael Dransfield, John Forbes, Laurie Duggan, Anthony Lawrence, Judith Wright, Emma Lew, Samuel Wagan Watson, Liam Ferney, Virgil and Ovid – very, very few of my American or British colleagues would know who any but the last two of these were. Being cut from the conversation that I’d laboured to join in even the smallest way basically set me adrift for much of the last decade. This was exacerbated by moving out of the comforts of Cambridge to London, when I was swallowed up by the work and also by the metropolis. Whole years went by when I either didn’t finish a poem at all, discarded everything I wrote to a wrecking yard of fragments, or at best finished a single poem only at the request of an editor. It got to the point that I was actively telling people I shouldn’t be called a poet in the northern hemisphere. As I alluded to earlier, Australians have all kinds of defence mechanisms to deal with their marginality.
NL: I cracked up reading ‘Coloratura’ where you’ve got – in strikethrough font, no less! – Les Murray at Magdalen College explaining the ins and outs of a camel toe …
JS: That bit is struckthrough for a reason! But it was a pretty unforgettable spiel, in a packed, old room, where as part of his pre-reading banter he outlined what a camel toe was before launching into a tangent about the dark web, and he just … Kept. On. Going. That’s one of only two explicit references in the book to my time in Cambridge, which is kind of strange, given I was there four years.