RW: Early on in your career you achieved some recognition – both from Creeley and in winning the NZ Book Awards (1977) with your second book dear Mondrian (Hawk Press 1976). But now you are by no means part of an established poetry coterie (unlike say the LANGUAGE poets, of which you are almost contemporary) – how has your relationship changed with the poetry world?
AL: It’s hard for me to say. I suspect it is very difficult to separate out my New Zealand reputation as a printer/publisher of the work of others and my work as a writer. And in that country, my alignment with something like an avant-garde meant that I was doubly disregarded by the mainstream – not only did I write unacceptably, but I was a primary publisher of others who also wrote unacceptably. But new generations of writers have emerged since, and the older avant garde rarely gets published these days. The divide between mainstream and avant garde in New Zealand is no longer sharp, and may in some respects have all but disappeared.
In Australia, I remain an outsider. I am aware of some interest in my work here, and that awareness is formed mainly by people, like yourself, who I know personally. I have been privileged to have some writing on my work here (reviews by Gig Ryan, Barry Hill and Marion May Campbell), and I think that is the full extent of it. When it comes to the northern hemisphere, again I have some fine supporters in the US and Canada, and since I have been in Australia (2001) I have been published more often in North America than in Australia. And most of those books have been published by fine press, limited edition book artists, most of whom commissioned a text for them to print. In New Zealand, I think I have disappeared as a writer, but there is still some activity and interest there around my work as a printer. All in all, it’s hard for me to propose a relationship with the poetry world, and perhaps that has also been influenced by my own somewhat hermit-like life at home, writing & printing and not having time to ‘get out there’ as they say, or keep up with what is happening in the scene at large. On that score, I have often been reduced to claiming ‘I’m here to write poetry, not read or study it’ – which is a poor excuse, I admit, but it’s also how things have been with me, and I have often felt bad about it.
RW: Given that elsewhere, you have claimed not to be a poet of any specific place so how do you relate to ideas of the universal? Is it a materialist response – that the book as material instrument has, if not a transcendent quality, then an ability to create social relations that are not necessarily bound by nation, class etc?
AL: One difference of approach to ‘being-somewhere’ between Maori and non-Maori in New Zealand is that the city-based European will talk of ‘landscape’ and Maori will talk of ‘land’. It’s not absolute, of course, but it does point to a specifics of living in place as distinct from living in space. For Maori, ‘place’ tends to be thoroughly historical, tribal, and where one’s body/heart was formed out of one’s living engagement with and in the land – these trees, this river, those hills or mountain, that area of swamp, and so on. These realities of terrain are then linked to genealogies which stretch back always to the gods, and from there to the original dark out of which the universe came, known as Te Po. The land is thus as peopled with the gods as it is with the members of the tribe.
I grew up in the middle of a town, above a shop, and have no sense whatever of the family being located in a tribal context, and not a god in sight. The trees I climbed as a kid had no part in my family or social history – they were non-historical, located in a space which it appeared we could enter or not as we wished. The river I grew up alongside was the same – if it had a history, I did not know it. But I did know that river, intimately – I swam in it, threw stones into it, fished in it, picnicked beside it, and stared at it for hours in my childhood distress. But since childhood I have spent countless hours looking at things with a notebook in my hands, looking, listening, and trying to describe my perceptions as accurately as I can. I’ve written elsewhere, ‘to focus is to avert the gaze’, and I believe that, and I think I have practiced that, all my writing life. An intense focus on a thing diverts one from its context, and vice versa. Even here, indeterminacy is present. I have even developed something I’ve called ‘an ethics of perception’, as if all prior readings of any thing, event or circumstance must be expunged from the record in order to be seen correctly or accurately, ‘as if’, as the saying goes, ‘for the first time’. For many people, this is anathema, and I can hear them now telling me that context/history is everything, and one cannot abstract anything from the cultural, socio-political context in which the thing addressed has emerged. And I cannot argue with that – I even propose it in relation to the artist’s book (in Australia, not elsewhere) which often ignores the 2000-year history of book-making in the West, a history as much of craft as it is of art. But there is, for me, a sense in poetry, and a sense in art, in which part of its most intimate & intense purpose is to bypass, to outwit or outsmart (I’m using terms from Roland Barthes here) mediation to the utmost of my endeavour. I cannot tell you with what pleasure I discovered Lawrence Weschler’s great book on the art of Robert Irwin: Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees. In my case, it is often not only a matter of ‘forgetting’ but also that I often simply don’t know the name of something (a bird, or tree, e.g.), and I have found that useful as it means I have to use words for what I see rather than name the thing that is seen.
RW: I have recently been reading some of your work with the painter Max Gimblett. He has been a collaborator of yours for quite some years. There have been other collaborators too, including Bruno Leti and Miriam Morris. What has led you to work with visual artists and how do you think poetry can benefit from such collaboration? Is Bryon Gysin’s statement that ‘poetry is fifty years behind painting’ true to some degree?
AL: This is complicated for me. I have no expertise at all in literary theory, art theory or art history, so my response can only be personal, tho I can try to be clear as I can. One of the things I love about the art I like is that it a) has no interest in telling a story, and b) does not set out to be part of the commentary of art, and c) does not set out to exemplify or critique any aspect of current art theory. I like art that wants to make a thing, object, clump of matter, and that takes its place among what Buddhists have called ‘the ten thousand things’. I have written about this in detail in an unpublished essay on Max Gimblett’s circle paintings, titled Circling Max Gimblett. For Max, this is complex. At the start of his career he avoided literary titles for his work, as did Piet Mondrian before him and as Pierre Soulages has done all his painting life. Later, because of Max’s interest in spiritual traditions and the language that goes with them, he has turned to literary titles, especially those attached to Buddhism in which he has become a lay monk. But my initial interest in Max’s work began in the 1980s, when I found myself in front of his large circle paintings (the tradition calls them ‘tondos’ but Max doesn’t use that term and neither do I), and some of the early quatrefoils. These pictures can take a lot of sheer, empty-headed looking. They repay attention. They give back to you for your giving to them. I have two of them at home, a 10-inch circle, and a 25-inch quatrefoil. And in our first conversation we talked about doing something together in a book, but it wasn’t until 1996, and Robert Creeley’s second visit to New Zealand, that we did. Working together was not firstly about artistic cooperation, but about friendship, and the same is true of my working with Bruno Leti. Not long after I arrived in Melbourne, the ex-pat New Zealand painter Caroline Williams introduced me to Chris Wallace-Crabbe, and he took me straight to Bruno Leti’s studio. Bruno and I hit it off immediately, and it wasn’t long before our friendship proposed a book together, a work which became Imago Mundi, and I wrote the first poem for it on the day, in his studio, when Bruno raised the prospect. Miriam of course is my partner and after looking at some of her drawings I suggested we work on a small book. I have recently written poems for two sets of wood engravings by American artist Richard Wagener – in both cases the prints came first, the poems after. What am I getting at here. I think artists may well be ahead of poets in a general sense. All artists I have worked with have always been more open, more quickly responsive to fresh possibilities than I have, more able to see prospects ahead that they hadn’t seen before, and I have had to work at keeping up. Prior agendas, or notions about ‘what I want to do’ are of little help, and can actively hinder. In all cases working with artists I have found myself doing things I would never have come to otherwise. Now that will be in part because the circumstances are not entirely of one’s own making. But a painter can do what almost no poet can do – speak the unspeakable, and all poets, whatever their intentions in that regard, lag behind the artist, simply because, as T S Eliot put it, ‘I gotta use words when I talk to you’. Can I quote John Yau, writing about Pierre Soulages: ‘… it is worth noting that Soulages, who is roughly contemporary with the Abstract Expressionists, was never interested in making work that reflected his inner being or changing self. Rather, by using tools that are akin to floor scrapers, many of which he devised, he makes work brimming with a deep silence and mystery that evokes a collective history rather than a personal one’. It is in this way that painters can be well ahead of poets, as I would give anything to be able to create a poem which was a thing that sings, instead of a bunch of words that wanted to convey something, some semantic, some meaning, some story which could be conveyed by other means. From the unparaphraseable to the unsayable – that’s the kind of poem I want to make, it’s the kind of poem I want to print.