JB: You can see that popular and mass culture is never far away. The word ‘gap’ is currently being thrown around a lot by Australian politicians, but it’s an example of a confusing if not slippery word (it has to do with Tube platforms for Londoners, concerns many university students, and is a clothing shop for Americans and fashionistas the world over). Most words have a ‘slippery’ quality to them, something the Surrealists, Futurists and proponents of all 20th-century literary movements, including the Language Movement, were keen to exploit.
Melbourne – and its environs – has always been a centre of experiment and small press activity, and we are so lucky to have Collected Works, the best bookshop in Australia, in my opinion, where you’ll find books unavailable anywhere else and whose motto is ‘Poetry and Ideas’. (Maybe the Internet has changed things, but you can’t beat personally perusing Collected Works’s bookshelves and talking to the poet behind it, Kris Hemensley, or his partner, Retta. And where would we be without their support of small press?)
CW: In ‘German consulate in Melbourne’, the Giorgio De Chirico connection through the quotation from the painter’s novel, Hebdomeros, suggests too a connection of surrealism with contemporary American poetry, with John Ashbery translating that novel from French into English, and his use of Di Chirico’s painting The Double Dream of Spring as the title for his fifth book. Like our discussion of autobiography, such a connection to me seems to be about memory and perspective, surrealism famously offering a new aesthetic mode for expressing the psychologically unseen and nonsensical, with Ashbery in his way perhaps suggesting further in a post-surrealist mode the linguistic constitution and linguistic madness of perspective itself. In this sense, it is worth considering Ashbery’s mode as a deconstruction of surrealism. It would be easy to read your work in both ways, surrealist and post-surrealist, but I think a broader and more interesting picture is suggested by your work, suggested by the way that you have debated the soundness of pun and neologism’s relations with sensibility, memoir and memory. To some, possibly your work might appear to conceal a clarity of perspective and enjoy phonemic derangement in and for itself, but perhaps what becomes visible in your work is something else, a double dream of Spring, if you like, or flaws in the glass, ‘levitation’ discovered by ‘levity’.
JB: I read Margaret Crosland’s translation before acquiring the original Ebdòmero. Surrealism, and especially Dadaism (Marcel Duchamp is one of my favorite artists; it’s worth reading his ‘Creative Act’, originally a talk he gave in New York), was formative to my early reading and I suddenly felt a kinship. I don’t like manifestos, however, so when I came to read the Deuxième manifeste surréaliste, I was appalled: ‘The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd’. I don’t find that funny, thought-provoking or any kind of solution, just as ‘humanitarians’ and warmongers alike whose answer to world problems is to ‘kill people’ is no solution. I deplore violence and refuse to be a part of it. Yet, while Breton was a bully, homophobe and generally a brute, I love his Mad Love, Nadja and Communicating Vessels. Chirico, like many others, was not very edifying during the Second World War. And questions remain on Gertrude Stein’s apparent immunity from the Nazis, for example. I could go on. This is why I’m not a big fan of biography. Jean Paulhan wrote about this just after the war (I read Richard Rand’s 2004 translation, dedicated to Jacques Derrida), saying in a nutshell that you shouldn’t conflate actions with words.
Arthur Koestler, in his Act of Creation, wrote that the ‘prerequisite of originality is the art of forgetting’. (Proust again! Another groundbreaking book from a psychological point of view is Art and Artist by Otto Rank.) Koestler goes on to say, not dissimilar to what Jolas was getting at, ‘If forgetting can be an art, ignorance can be bliss – in the limited sense, of course, of procuring for a certain type of mind freedom from certain types of constraint.’ Nin, too, approached Jolas when she differentiated between realism and reality.
Which brings me to movements, activism, politics, propaganda and the power of art. To my mind, activism is best left to non-fiction prose, where an argument can be nurtured and sustained. (I don’t believe in the ‘political rôle of the poet’, for I see two different rôles here.) Politics, religiosity and messages of any kind in art so easily lead to kitsch (sex in art also leads to kitsch – I’m guilty there!), which probably explains why I was never a fan of or influenced by Blake. (I agree with Robert Creeley, when he wrote: ‘No man [sic] can work free of the influence of those whom he may respect in his own art and why ‘originality’ should imply, in any sense that he should, is hard to follow.’) Politics is so temporal, whereas I believe that even contemporary poetry lasts, or at least has the potential to endure. I share much of activists’ views, but I prefer to express them outside my poetry. (There are, of course, exceptions, such as my Timorese poem, ‘island of blood island of marrow’, ‘the Moloch heap of history’, and the cento ‘plus ça change … 1981–2011’.) Mayakovsky, part of the Russian Futurist movement, was a marvellous poet for the Soviet Union, but surely his nadir was the long poem he wrote dedicated to Lenin. Perhaps the most famous painting to come out of the twentieth century was Picasso’s Guernica, resulting from the incendiary bombing of the Basque village of Gernika, in 1937, but I would argue his painting did not put an end to or contributed to ending fascism in Spain or elsewhere. (Europeans were horrified that innocent people were slaughtered, but isn’t that what Breton advocated, ironically or not? And, is it too simplistic to say Vietnam, Cambodia, Bosnia, Iraq, Syria, etc.?) That’s not to say I don’t find Guernica, now in New York, a masterpiece, nor do I underestimate how much of an indictment it was and is and what an influence it has been on modern art. Trouble is, others, especially politicians, use the ‘power of art’ for their own ends.
Simone Weil wrote an essay just after the Second World War that Melbourne publisher Black Inc. recently issued in book form: On the Abolition of All Political Parties. It’s well worth reading. Another local publisher, Scribe, also brought out a translation of Stéphane Hessel’s Indignez-Vous!, which inspired the indignants in Spain and perhaps even the Occupy movement. While these two books were polemic, John Kinsella’s latest book, The Vision of Error, subtitled ‘A Sextet of Activist Poems’, is no less so, but its playfulness amid the serious messages works: ‘Brando in y-fronts’ juxtaposing ‘BP in the Gulf / of Mexico and their sell, use by truth / moment dispensed etiologic gas-guzzling’; ‘tag er staaaaa ggggggggggggggg (r), hakea PROstrate’ juxtaposing ‘explosición […] / of Taliban’; ‘I type by qwerty’ juxtaposing ‘my protests on paper, appeals to town planners, / addresses to council, poems of witness’; ‘Mispronunciation is a joy as great as fog’ juxtaposing ‘apocryphal / fear- / mongering’; etc. (Not to mention, ‘that opens debate new mines new policies / of nation-making – conservatism / the slower application / of extremism’ or ‘Narcissism is the child / of invention. We speak out against / governments / and foreign policy.[…] // They’ll come with bulldozers and bridle trails’, etc. I think Kinsella’s commingling of politics and what I call ludicism is successful. Even so, Hemensley, who launched Kinsella’s book in Melbourne, quoted the author as saying that ‘I have grave doubts that an ‘ecopoetics’ can be anything but personal.’ Or, as Ann Vickery has said, ‘Temperature, not temperament’.) Perhaps Picasso should have the last word, when he said in 1949 that ‘artists are indestructible, even in a prison or a concentration camp’. He added: ‘I would be almighty in my own world of art, even if I had to paint my pictures with my wet tongue on the dusty floor of my cell.’
CW: You and I talked on a different occasion about the censoriousness of Australian culture, and you mentioned to me how much worse it once was. However, I notice in your collage poem ‘plus ça change … 1981–2011’ it is precisely the persistent cultural censorship of gay rights alongside the fetishisation of homosexuality as a brand and as kitsch which is its subject. Without explaining the poem necessarily, I think it would be valuable to hear your account of changing values in Australia as you have experienced them, in Melbourne, but also, importantly, their interpolation in art and culture as you perceive it more broadly.