NL: London, Cambridge, Paris: for Australian artists, these places were, for so long – and still are, for so many – the metropoles (as you say) of empire – cultural as well as colonial. The poles around which our cringe has revolved. Your experience there feels almost archetypal in its unavoidable sense – inherited, anachronistic, vestigial, coercive, ironic or arch – of movement from satellite to centre. Would you agree that the metaphor of centre versus margin is a major engine of Australian poetry / poetics? If so, how does that metaphor inform your work? Is marginality a motive tension for you?
JS: It became clear to me pretty quickly after arriving in Cambridge that my perspective on certain things was marginal. My nationality was a big part of that, I’m sure, but not all of it. Even as I relished the brilliance in the cool air, passing Darwin’s and Milton’s rooms every day at my college and so on, I remember being overwhelmed early on by a sense that the stunning architectural wonders of the colleges were bound up in part with the spoils of empire mean, it hit me hard: at times I almost visualised the blood seeping out of the stupendously imposing old buildings, like that scene in The Shining, when the blood spills out of the elevator. That was before such questions were as prevalent as they’ve become recently.
In my own case, yes, the tension that comes with being a postcolonial satellite-creature transplanted to the European imperial mothership has been unsettling, despairing at times, but ultimately artistically generative. Some Australians take to British culture as though they always belonged; but that was never so in my case. I’m not from one of those families who have strong ties to the UK; I was never going to slot in the way, say, Peter Porter or Clive James did, or strove to do. I think of this book as me waving at that possibility of occupying the centre on the mainland, while skurfing behind a dinghy off into the sunset.
But without wanting to sound pathetic, I’ve honestly felt marginal my entire life; as a half-Indonesian kid from Sydney I was an oddity growing up on Bribie Island in Moreton Bay, where one boy who found my name too challenging decided that ‘China’ would do. My brother’s and my Australianness itself was always in question for us – we invented an alternative version of the Weet-Bix jingle: ‘Aussie-and-Indonesian kids, are Weet Bix Kids’; and now I have to deal with the fact that it’s ‘Weetabix’ over here! As a coastie moving to the capital of Brisbane I felt marginal, and at uni there too (as the first in my family even to get the HSC); then, as a Queenslander publishing my first book, I felt marginal to Sydney and Melbourne; and likewise as an Australian in Cambridge and London. I think I might’ve only realised just how working class and Australian I really am while living in the UK. This could all sound ridiculous, given that I have, as you say, occupied spaces of privilege and perceived centrality, but from lived experience, that friction has been my daily bread, it’s part of who I am. ‘Divided to the vein’, as Derek Walcott put it, I’ve never felt at home or in the majority anywhere (which is why the death of my mother in my early twenties has played a role in all of my books); I’ve found myself at or near many centres, but have no inkling of what it must feel like to belong there.
To your question about Australian poetry generally, I definitely do not think that Australian poets still consider ourselves as marginal to a European culture centre, or even a North American one. No doubt this was once the case, but the casting off of this view was I think historically inexorable; we have older generations of poets to thank for this. Ever since John Curtin turned away from the UK to the USA as our chief strategic partner in the Second World War; and Gough Whitlam returned the red dirt to the Gurindji people; and Paul Keating turned our attention to East and Southeast Asia, our artistic culture has followed, and we have long since decentred our conversations both nationally and with the rest of the world as a result. Even if there’s still a vestige of this old sentiment, I think we all know that margins tend to be more fecund places for artists, in any case. From what I can see, Australian poetry in the 21st century is confident and vibrant and diverse, and in ways that the UK can only ever hope to be; and we certainly no longer take our vital signs from our art’s reception in some mythical Anglophone heartland elsewhere.
NL: In a way, I see this book as staging the interplay between the diverse ‘poetic ecologies’ you’ve encountered during its writing. Hence the formal voracity and variation of these poems.
There’s also, in these poems, tremendous formal sophistication. If (to hijack your earlier metaphor) it takes an expert dendrochronologist to properly read the tree rings of a poet’s growth, isn’t there a danger that non-‘expert’ readers might feel daunted by this aspect of the poems? (Plus: to read the rings you’ve got to fell the tree; what better parable of local boosterism than that of Victoria’s Cornthwaite Tree, which was cut down to be measured and confirmed as the world’s tallest?!) What I’m asking, I guess, is how form figures into how you make poems – and how you expect / hope those poems will be read.
JS: Well, if these poems have any sophistication, I also hope they puncture the pretension somewhat too (my dialectical dance again). That’s something I’ve come to feel is, well, Australian. I’ll always be most comfortable in boardshorts and bare feet than in a tuxedo and pointy shoes, that’s just a fact of being a coastie by upbringing; it’s also a fact that I’ve had to wear the latter far more frequently during my time in the UK.
On how form figures into the way I make poems, for me the key word there is, again, ‘make’. We’re back again at that piece of Williams – it sounds like I’m some big Williams devotee, when I don’t think that’s so. If I feel something strongly, or am struck by a piece of text and the way it works in the world, that’s only enough for a response in the form of notes and jottings; it’s not until I discover something that I’m interested in making – or more accurately, that I’m interested in trying to make – that I’m able to seed my jottings into a possible poem. Frequently in this book, that making has happened to involve some formal constraint of some kind, however minor or sometimes, idiotic. Sometimes it’s not until I see a challenge that I could be bothered taking up; for instance, the ‘repeater’ line-endings of two of the poems (where the lines all end in words and phrases like ‘pawpaw’ or ‘murmur’) was born out of the thought of how ridiculous a challenge that would be; could I do that? I thought I’d try; then a couple of almost random ideas that might’ve been floating around for years gets squeezed out when trying to meet that challenge. That’s in part why you’ll find metre used occasionally in this book too. But in using a strict iambic metre (which I only do in a couple of poems, with sprinkles elsewhere), I found I had an urge to subvert the ordered nature of the form by writing about dark and subversive content, so what came out was a poem about a young woman cutting herself (‘Ladybugs’). If you’d told me ten years ago that I’d be knocking out a few iambic poems, I’d have laughed and said you had me confused with someone else. But there you go.
Philosophically, I take the view that the formal aspects of a poem’s making should be a bonus for the reader, not an entry fee; something to discover by the inquisitive reader, rather than a bar to an appreciation of what the poem is saying. I take Williams’ view from a practitioner’s perspective, but not entirely from a reader’s perspective, if that makes sense.
Tracing the clamour of my influences is perilous at the best of times, and even more so in the case of this book, for me. Even single words or phrases can have long and complex histories in a poet’s thinking. I have this habit of falling hard for a poet’s work and embracing it passionately, only to nick their phone in the embrace and sort of flip the bird as I run off while thanking them. I’m a shocker that way, and it happens whether I’m reading an orthodox priest or a rebel angel. If I start naming names I’ll never stop. I nicked Boris Johnson’s (a bad poet) awful use of the word ‘spaffed’ for one poem. James Joyce, especially Finnegans Wake rules the final five poems, and one or two others. I curled up inside the iambics of John Burnside during some dark hermit-like years. I’m that weird person who is stimulated both by Paterson and Prynne – sacré bleu! My use of rhyme is influenced by dozens of poets, but I only rhyme Maroubra boys / Ouroborous or Marrakech / miscarriage because of Muldoon and Michael Robbins and Vona Groarke and Byron and … I really won’t stop, if I don’t.
As you note, felling the tree is part of the vivisection of criticism. I didn’t know about the Cornthwaite Tree, which is a remarkable parable. I do remember a Moreton Bay Fig on Bribie that had a plaque indicating it had been honoured in the International Year of the Tree. That bothered me for about a decade and was the start of this thing I have about the sadness inherent in all municipal signage.
NL: On that civic note and given the ‘propaganda’ theme of this issue, here’s where I bring up The Australian. You’ve been poetry editor there since 2010. Having read your work, and having talked to you, I don’t think it’s possible that you would agree with its increasingly racist, sexist, white nationalist, climate-change-denying politics over the years. Association is not complicity. And none of us have clean hands. But as Richard Cooke writes, ‘It is the unhinged propaganda outfit that is central to the identity of the company. It is the core that is lunatic, not the fringe’. Have you had to square your taking of coin and clout from this masthead? And, if so, how?
JS: I might say first that the editors of the Review in the Weekend Australian and the literary editor Stephen Romei especially have a longstanding commitment to publishing new poetry, and as far as I’m aware have editorial independence to do their jobs. In turn, I have never once encountered a problem when selecting poems that swim salmon-like against the editorial tide on, say, climate change, refugees, consumer capitalism or prejudice.
But it’s a fair question, and one I know well. My old mate, the giant squid. To try to cut to the chase: my job is to ferry a candle in the cold shadow of its colossal beak; to convey a flame from its careful maker up to the Review editors and thence to the retinas of those especially who buy the paper for the Review – and maybe even of those who wouldn’t normally bother with the poems, until one day his brother dies or his daughter gives birth or his house catches fire and someone happens to leave the Review open on the page and he glances at it and the title or a phrase catches his eye and even if it is about asylum seekers or climate change a line or image lodges for a moment, a day, a week, a month, years. The act of ferrying the candle of a poem to readers is one worth doing; I do not seek to weaponise the candle, but let it speak for itself. I take the job very seriously and aspire always to improve at it. I’m tempted, but not so naive as to suggest, simply, that poetry is propaganda’s antithesis – Virgil’s Aeneid was a classical piece of propaganda, commissioned by Augustus to prove his divine lineage; while Slavoj Žižek has pointed out the structure of a military-poetic complex. But a good poem is a cupped flame in the ubiquitous maws of ideology, language’s graveyard, which stretches far beyond even the poem’s immediate setting.