Wednesday, 30 April 2008

yesterday and tomorrow

Here is a photograph taken around 1910 of shearers at the property known as Ensay Station (in the eastern part of the state of Victoria, Australia) enjoying a tea and smokes break. The slight man standing with a metal cup near the left of the picture is my grandfather, Michael Frederick Duggan. He was born in 1870 not far from the location of this photograph in a small settlement called Hinnomunjie. My father was born in 1909 and I was born in 1949. It still seems strange to be able to claim something as early as this as a part of my own life. My grandfather lived until 1962. He worked as a general farm hand though he had also been a postman. This term hardly does justice to what he must have had to do: deliver mail in rugged country where there were few roads as we know them and not a lot to navigate by. He happened to be an expert horseman and won many races as a jockey (I used to joke that as time went by what my family gained in physical size, they lost in equestrian skills). Tomorrow I vote for the first time in British council elections. Our local representatives, like those of most of Kent, are entirely Conservative. Labour are a different beast, I know, to those idealists of the early twentieth century. But when I go to vote I will be expressing my distant solidarity with the people shown half a world and a full century away in this photograph. OK, so Gordon Brown and Ken Livingstone might not be the perfect representatives of the politic I espouse. But would you want our (inept) council running Faversham, Boris Johnson running London, or, ultimately, David Cameron running the country?

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Ian Friend

Ian Friend has just posted me details of his upcoming retrospective exhibition in Brisbane. The Murdoch Press (Courier Mail) have risen to the occasion, giving the show a good write-up. A book is to appear shortly. Ian works mostly on paper, a very thick, almost indestructable variety that can withstand the blast from a garden hose. This is essential since he reworks his surfaces constantly. I find that his work renders meaningless any distinction between 'abstract' and 'figurative'. There is great play of surface and depth in it. A few years back Ian made a series that took off from JH Prynne's book of poems, The Oval Window, for which I wrote a catalogue essay (this catalogue and the cover of an edition of the Prynne book featuring Ian Friend's work are reproduced above). I only wish I could be in Brisbane to view what will be a marvellous show.

Friday, 25 April 2008


Reading David Caddy’s most recent piece on literary celebrity had me reflecting on my own brief moment in the spotlight. It is probably an unfamiliar experience for British poets unless, that is, you’ve been published by Faber, but partly because Australia has a smaller population, partly because for long periods there hasn’t been a single dominant (and financial) poetry publisher, it is possible for a poet in certain circumstances to be widely publicised. It happened to me in 1987 when my book The Ash Range was published by Pan/Picador. Four earlier books had appeared from small publishers to mixed reviews and I would have been lucky to have sold as many as 100 copies of any of them. The Picador book came out in a modest (for them) edition of 1000 and was shortly after reprinted.

The Ash Range was a documentary poem, an ‘epic’ perhaps in the Poundian sense of the term (‘a poem containing history’) about a region called Gippsland. It consisted largely of edited down letters, news accounts and other materials together with some bridging work of my own (in all it was about 90% from outside sources) and it contained some old photographs and a couple of maps. I had embarked upon it with no clear sense of how it could be published or of who might be able to do it and want to do it. It would probably have been too expensive an exercise for a small publisher and I felt it was too eccentric for a large publisher to be interested. Some sections meanwhile had appeared in Scripsi magazine and one of the readers at the time also worked as an editor with Pan Books. She suggested that Picador could do it but I was sure that once the project reached the suits they would take it no further. To my amazement it went ahead and the problems I felt that the text would occasion were easily dealt with (I’d thought, for example, that the book would have to be done in a large format - like The Maximus Poems – just to be legible, but the designers fitted it with ease into the standard format).

Then came the media blitz.

I can’t remember how many radio interviews I did but I do remember that the first one was the most prestigious: ten to fifteen minutes on Terry Lane’s ABC program. I was pleasantly enough surprised that Lane had clearly read the book himself. His questions and quotations were well informed. Unfortunately for both of us I didn’t understand that the point of chat shows is chat. I gave the kind of monosyllabic answers that must have had the producer groaning (I did gradually become better at this kind of thing, even as the occasions for it diminished). In January 1988, the national journal The Bulletin had as its cover story an article entitled ‘High Flyers of 88’. My photograph appeared alongside, I’m now amused to note, figures like John Hewson, Alexander Downer, Warwick Fairfax, and Debbie Flintoff-King (two politicians, a media magnate and an athlete).

In the course of all this the book was often misrepresented. Some reviewers wrote of it as though it was a unique phenomenon, though I had never concealed my debt to earlier twentieth-century writers (Pound, John Dos Passos, Charles Reznikoff, Williams). The world of publicity has no time for fine distinctions or non-Australian writing (and it was amusing to note that when another poet, Geoff Page, brought out a book utilising documentary techniques a couple of years later it too was seen as a totally original production).

After 1988 it was downhill all the way. The editors at Picador thought I might do another book like The Ash Range and there was vague talk about releasing it in the UK. Even better, I might write a travel book. What they didn’t realise was that The Ash Range was strictly a one-off. It wasn’t just the result of two years research and writing, it was the result of the concern with a region held since I was old enough to think about it (my father’s family came from Gippsland and I had visited the area frequently since I was four or five years old). After a further book (a volume of poems), my experience with the big end of publishing was at an end.

When I was still at school I had naively thought that fame and money were things that would happen if you simply persisted as a writer. Acclaim was like the gold watch the automobile factory gave my father when he retired (they don’t do that anymore!). But the sudden increase in status (and its equally rapid decay) illustrated only too graphically that this wasn’t really the kind of career curve I was after. Now, as an older writer, my books do get reviewed in the Australian print media, usually sympathetically. I have also received the odd literary award, and for the last two years my work has been funded by the Australia Council for the Arts. I feel fortunate that this is so though I am also sure that if the average Australian poetry reader was asked to name ten poets my name would probably not appear on the list. Since 1990 all my books have appeared with small to middling publishers. Ken Bolton’s Little Esther press did one of my favourite volumes, Memorials, in the mid nineties. University of Queensland press have stuck with me through three books of poems (including another favourite, Mangroves) as well as a work of cultural history. And Tony Frazer’s Shearsman Press published a selection, Compared to What, in 2006 as well as (bless his boots) a new edition of The Ash Range.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Mountains and Rivers Without End

I was probably introduced to Gary Snyder’s work by the Donald Allen anthology. The first book of his that I owned was the New Directions volume The Back Country, followed by the earlier volumes Riprap, Myths & Texts, and Six Sections from Mountains and Rivers Without End. All these purchases would have occurred in 1970. In 1971 I took part in a festival held at the Australian National University in Canberra (Alan Wearne had been invited but couldn’t go so he’d given them my details). Despite its academic location this festival was the precursor to an altogether more ‘counter-cultural’ one held at Nimbin two years later. As well as reading my own work I took part in a session where people read their favourite poems. My choice was from Snyder’s newest book, Regarding Wave.

By the mid seventies I had moved away from this work, put off by the more overt ecological agenda in books like Turtle Island (I agreed with the ecopolitics but felt that the poetry had lost out to these concerns – much as it had with the very different Australian poet Judith Wright). I also moved away from Snyder’s variety of Buddhism. On Bread and Poetry, the book in which Philip Whalen, Lew Welch and Snyder chew the fat about poetics and the right way to live seemed to me symptomatic of what had gone wrong with Snyder’s work in particular. The Zen thing in this volume is mediated by a very American kind of enthusiasm that the writers seem unaware of. Their philosophies come across with a kind of boy-scout earnestness while the sexual politics are still those of unreconstructed beatniks. Jack Kerouac’s novels dealing with the San Francisco scene of that time had also exhibited attitudes that would be considered naive by anyone from a culture that wasn’t irony-free. The Dharma Bums in particular seemed more cartoon than documentary to me (I can still imagine toon images of a cross-legged Japhy Ryder explaining ‘yabyum’ to his friends).

Nevertheless I bought Snyder’s selected volume No Nature when it came out, placing the earlier books in the archives (a limbo somewhere between the shelves and St Vincent de Paul). Mountains and Rivers, a work I still liked, seemed destined to be added to sporadically and quite possibly never finished. That could have been its nature, but it wasn’t. In 1996 it came out as a completed volume. And in the last few months it has appeared in a new edition from Counterpoint, Jack Shoemaker’s press. It’s an impressive book with an overall shape the earlier instalments mightn’t have suggested. A painted screen or scroll may extend a scene depicted in time as well as space. It may suggest the endless but it does this within limits as does this volume. Some of the work contained in Six Sections has been lost in transit. Other pieces, like ‘Bubbs Creek Haircut’ and ‘Night Highway 99’ have been shifted around as the whole work’s composition abandons a chronology that might have seemed arbitrary in any case. Strangely Mountains and Rivers Without End reminds me at times of the cinematic structure of Hart Crane’s ‘The Bridge’ with its movement across a continent (in Snyder’s case continents) and it’s shifting registers.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

political quote of the week

Dr Nelson, who has a single-digit approval rating, told the Victorian Liberal Party state council meeting in Melbourne that people had underestimated him for 20 years and still did.

"I am very determined and I will keep fighting and speaking up for everyday Australians," he said when questioned about the leadership. "I can assure you I am going nowhere." (The Age 13/4/08)

Friday, 18 April 2008

tuesday or thursday

Lisa Samuels (above), read with Avik Chanda at the Shearman reading on Tuesday. Nina Zivancevic and Vahni Capildeo (below) read with James Harvey in the Blue Bus series at the Lamb pub on Thursday.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Bring Back W E Henley

Never mind the School of Quietude. There are still people out there who want us all to return to rhyme and regular metre. Only a couple of days ago a Queen’s English Society spokesperson (and I would be jumped upon for using this term) came on Radio 4’s breakfast program to urge this practice upon us. The arguments for seem to be (1) that this is how it has always been done, and (2) this is the way to write if you wish your verse to be memorable. I don’t think it’s at all clear that the first argument holds; what you get through history (and I’m only thinking of English language writing here) is a variety of forms, some quite ‘loose’. As for memorability, well, yes I can remember some lines from a John Masefield poem that my mother recited to me at some stage (‘I must go down to the sea again/To the lonely sea and the sky/And all I ask is a tall ship/And a star to steer her by’), but it is memorable to me in the same way that anything chanted uniformly by a class of primary school children is memorable. I carry nothing else away from these lines. They have not made me want to write or indeed to read any more of the same kind of work (even the same poem) again. I came away with more from John Keats but this was very much to do with the density of his language, and though Keats made use of rhyme and metre neither of these tools seemed responsible for the sheer compression of the poem. When I first read TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ it struck me immediately, though its overall form is far from regular. Its vividness has stayed with me, though many of the modernists whose work I love have loathed Eliot for supposedly returning poetry to the classroom.

I think the QES argument about what is memorable and what isn’t is not entirely what it seems to be. Memory is a useful tool (where would we be without it), but there is a distinction between rote learning and culture. Things that seem to exist purely as memorials, like the statues in public gardens, are often things that we disregard (or, to use a term the QES people would loathe, ‘de-notice’). Of course you can structure memory through the use of rhyme and metre (it was invaluable – and practical - for Osip Mandelstam and his circle), but memory can work in other, subtler ways. I return to certain poems not because I remember them line-by-line, but because I know I am returning to something whose overall movement has affected me to the extent that I wish to go back there again. There’s nothing vague about this either. Re-reading is reliving to an extent rote learning can never replicate.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Chanctonbury Ring

A blurry cellphone image of Chanctonbury Ring, West Sussex, taken on Friday. The track to the right is part of the South Downs Way. A strong westerly was blowing up there though nothing like what the ridge must have weathered in the Big Storm of 1987. This flattened some of the trees inside the ring. These had been planted in the eighteenth century and have, since the storm, been replaced with new growth. At least the storm damage meant that the area inside the ring could be excavated before replanting. The ring dates from the Iron Age, and a Roman temple was built inside it at a later date.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Ern Malley

In an earlier blognote (March 31) I spoke about the transmission of Surrealism abroad from its French sources. I noted that its origins were shrouded for Australians in a blend of fashionable psychological theory and advertising. It was, unlike earlier twentieth century art styles, seemingly inseparable from the world of high fashion. In upmarket magazines like The Home, the photographer Max Dupain would combine the social round with touches of the uncanny, often with the enthusiastic participation of the subjects themselves. In the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney a fancy dress party might have a Surrealist theme.

I think this is what turned poets like James McAuley and Harold Stewart against the whole modernist phenomenon: a world in which the distinctions between art and commerce seemed to have blurred without many people caring or even noticing; a world too, in which women seemed to play a dominant role. McAuley at least had started his career in a manner that might have had him jump the other way. An early poem called ‘The Blue Horses’ (title taken from Franz Marc) hints at this. But by the war’s end he had turned to Catholicism and the right, and in the fifties he was yet another one of those Australian poets producing long dreary poems about explorers (‘Captain Quiros’ in his case).

The great paradox in Australian literary history is that McAuley and Stewart should now be best known in the guise of an invented poet, Ern Malley, whose work was designed to destroy modernism. There was indeed a period when you could buy the collected Malley in three different publications while McAuley, dead for several years, was not generally available. One of these sources was the anthology edited by John Tranter and Philip Mead published by Penguin (Australia) and Bloodaxe (UK). To install Malley in toto early in the volume certainly annoyed some people on its first appearance (1991) but it made complete sense to me. The story of the Malley hoax is now well documented. You can find it (together with the poems) in an issue of Jacket as well as in Michael Heyward’s book The Ern Malley Affair (University of Queensland Press, 1993). Malley’s work was to have included visual pieces like the collage reproduced above, but by the time the furore had erupted over the poems there seemed little point in continuing the exercise. Of course the poems had just the effect the authors had desired though even they were overwhelmed by its force, just as scientists must have been when nuclear theory was exemplified by the bomb. Australian literary modernism was not to recover for two decades. But even before the recovery, Max Harris, the journal editor who was the prime victim of the hoax, had decided to keep the faith by republishing the poems. I encountered a 1960s edition of this book when I was still at school and, in reading it, began to figure how poems could be made (poems that were not the usual record of adolescent angst). I’ve said elsewhere that the discovery of a poet who had never existed in effect gave me permission to exist as a poet.


Lee Harwood, or maybe Paul Evans, described the sea at Brighton as being like a wall at the end of the street. It is.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

postcolonial identities

Here are two booth photographs of John Forbes doctored by him sometime in the late 1970s or early 80s. Written on the back of the left photo: ‘I am the founder of the Pan-Slavic Revolutionary Street Poets Union & three time winner of the S_____ award for migrant weirdness. Give me some moneys!’. On the back of the right: ‘Vietnam, man? I fucking loved it man, it was fucking unreal. Now I teach math at Colorado State’.

A few years on John and I were both at an Adelaide Festival, hanging around the fringes. We amused ourselves by each pretending to be the other when we were introduced to local big wheel Graham Rowlands. Over the years we had attempted to write in the style of the other and I still keep finding lines in John’s poems that he borrowed from me at one time or another. They’re his lines now and I’ll probably be the only one to know their origins, not that I’m at all worried by this. The wonder of it is that it was at all possible, given our respective poetics. It was odd in the seventies when reviewers like Jamie Grant seemed to think that we were interchangeable, especially since my writing had largely derived from Pound, the Black Mountain folks, and the San Franciscans, while John’s drew its strengths mainly from the New Yorkers (and the French Surrealists whom they translated).

Being an ‘Australian Poet’ wasn’t, at the time, an easy option. Certainly a lot of the conservative poets like Grant didn’t think of us as being Australian at all: we were ersatz Americans. It was strange years later to read my poems in America at a number of venues and have people comment on how ‘different’ the work was from anything they’d heard. We did feel ‘of our place’ and ‘of our time’ but this hadn’t translated for the poetry neocons. They were the ‘lords and masters of their faces’; we were the ones who couldn’t pretend to fit the popular view.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

cigarettes in the snow


Tate Britain’s exhibition ‘Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group’ attracted some bad reviews when it opened in February. The line was that though Walter Sickert was undeniably good, most of the other work was undistinguished and that the only reason for putting on such a show was some kind of residual Littlebritainism. This is a gross simplification but it’s enough to reveal some basic premises that I don’t think really hold. Granted that Sickert is a singular case I nonetheless found many of the paintings by Spencer Gore (above), Harold Gilman, and others impressive and could name several for which I would happily make favourable aesthetic argument. The newspaper critics seemed to want more than this however. Their pieces reflected the old avantgardist philosophy that if it isn’t the first it needn’t have existed.

For a long time now I’ve been interested in what I call ‘provincial modernism’. I mean to use this as a neutral term, referring to the art of various countries at different moments in their histories when they were not perceived as ‘centres’, for example, the USA before the 1940s, Russia before 1910, Germany before 1907, Britain for most of the century, Canada and Australia and most other places for the whole modernist period. Once this is spelled out it’s apparent that the classic modernist discourse is (mostly) Eurocentric and has a great deal to do with imperial power of one sort or another. As an Australian I grew up with an art history that mightn’t mean a lot to someone born elsewhere though it was, and still is, my history. At the same time I felt the undeniable draw of the New American Poetry as evidenced in Donald Allen’s anthology and subsequent others. In the early 1970s I felt that New York and San Francisco were the centres of Anglophone poetic activity. Then, sometime in mid-decade, I felt this was no longer the case. Good poetry continued to come out of the States but, for me, it was no longer absolutely essential. I felt for a few years that there were no longer any ‘centres’, though, paradoxically, with the advent of the internet (decentred as it is in some respects) some of the old ideas were reviving. However, as the web expanded and the blogosphere became an undeniable world of itself, the process of decentring resumed. And if recent art history with its cyclic revivals has taught us anything it should be that the linear model of the early avant-garde is no longer of much use. In the world of popular culture some complain that the young should be out making totally new music instead of listening to (and borrowing from) the 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond. But as one perceptive critic noted, if a fourteen year old is exposed to, say a Small Faces track, it doesn’t necessarily register as a piece of rock history: it’s another new sonic experience. And to be honest, when I go to a gallery and see a work by Titian my initial reaction is towards something that’s there in front of me at that moment. I am aware of art history but the business of working out the strict order in which various artworks of that time (maybe any time) were done seems a useless exercise.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Crossing the Line at The Leather Exchange

A reading last night at The Leather Exchange, an excellent venue in Leathermarket Street Southwark, featured Martin Corless-Smith and Tom Raworth. Corless-Smith read from three books, the most recent being Swallows (Fence Books, NY, 2006) while Raworth read mostly new material (his Collected Poems, published by Carcanet in 2003 is apparently no longer available). The audience were a healthy mix of Londoners, some Cambridge people, and others from the provinces (Kent, I mean, not Australia!). I think this underlines a shift that has been taking place among the ‘post-avant’ or whatever you like to call them/us. Robert Sheppard’s blogzine Pages has been running a debate about new modes and the current scene in the UK. Some of the exchanges address various ‘off the page’ poetries along with work that has often enough been fenced off in various ethnic apartheids. My own take on what’s going on would pay more attention to the media of distribution because I think these might underlie the kinds of ecumenical gathering that last night’s reading represented to a small degree. To an outsider at least, in the 1970s and 80s ‘Cambridge Poetry’ (and I know some people will say there was never any such thing) seemed exclusive in terms of its distribution. It was difficult to find out much about many of the writers; difficult too, to obtain their books. Journals seemed designed to be seen by the few. The web has completely changed this in that it’s no longer possible to ‘control’ your audience. The mode of book distribution (and production in the case of POD) means that while there are no warehouses stacked with printed copies, your book is potentially an unlimited edition. On the web there’s no preventing people you’ve never heard of in ‘out-of-the way’ places from reading and commenting on your work. The newspapers with their trickle of reviews (mainly of books published by Faber, Bloodaxe or Carcanet) are increasingly irrelevant in an online age. Which is why talk of a ‘mainstream’ seems less and less plausible.

Thursday, 3 April 2008