An interview with Laurie Duggan conducted via email in January and February 2008.
Laurie Duggan’s hiatus
In the summer of 1970 a tall, long-haired young man wearing a headband and carrying a backpack arrived on the doorstep of our rented share-house in Barcom Avenue, Darlinghurst. Citing a recommendation from a household friend, he asked to stay. He was from Melbourne and he stayed for a month. That’s how I met Laurie Duggan. We have been good friends since then.
Laurie was a student at Monash University. He was friends with poets, John Scott and Alan Wearne and through them read people like Ted Berrigan (The Sonnets). These three poets’ own works were quite different but they shared interests in broken up narrative, collage and other things.
In the early 70s, I often spent long periods of time in Melbourne. I remember one typically grey winter day sitting on the floor with Laurie in the tiny, messy spare room of my theatre friends’ house in Carlton listening to the latest Long Playing record by The Band. There were many other similar days. Laurie has an enduring interest in rock music and an eclectic music collection.
In 1972, Laurie moved to Sydney, initially staying with Cynthia Dyer-Bennett and myself in our flat in Crown Street, Surry Hills. I was involved in counter-culture. Laurie got to know the poets John Forbes, John Tranter, Robert Adamson and others on the Sydney scene. He would bring me news of the internecine struggles of a group called the Poetry Society of Australia and the troublesome incorporation of ‘Poetry Magazine’ into ‘New Poetry’. More importantly though, Laurie introduced me to John Forbes.
In the mid 70s Laurie met Ken Bolton, Anna Couani and others around Magic Sam magazine, as well as Gig Ryan in Melbourne. He says that he was reading a lot of Philip Whalen then, and losing interest in Gary Snyder (just as he was getting more interested in Allen Ginsberg's work - at least up to and including The Fall of America). Poets he picked up in those years include Gilbert Sorrentino and Joanne Kyger and Charles Olson.
In the late 80s Laurie travelled overseas for the first time and made contact with American poets (August Kleinzahler, Michael Heller, Basil and Martha King, Jonathan Williams and Tom Meyer), British poets (Gael Turnbull - with whom he'd been corresponding - Roy Fisher, Tony Baker, Christopher Logue, Peter Porter, Ric Caddel) and New Zealand poets (Greg O'Brien, Jenny Bornholdt).
Laurie had written nine books and compiled New and Selected Poems 1971-1993 (published in 1996) before he lost the impulse to write poetry. Laurie says, in the introduction to a later book Mangroves, that he felt he couldn’t ‘push my own poetry as far as I would have liked’ and ‘Rather than retreat from [the poem] “The Minutes”, I felt it better to stop altogether.’ During this break from poetry he worked on a doctoral thesis.
The years of not writing poems were not always intellectually comfortable (especially for a self-described ‘relentless empiricist’).
Laurie returned to poetry after moving to Brisbane in 2000. His subsequent poetry publication, Mangroves (2003), is a kind of transitional book. Like a combination of a Benjaminesque ‘restless cosmopolitan’ and a rhizomatic Deleuzian, Laurie moves from a big city to an open field or a bush track to an airport to a marshland to an art gallery and the poems range broadly as he moves. The resulting approach in his poetry is more critically imagined documentary than impressionistic notation.
We begin with a discussion of Laurie Duggan’s non-productive period in the following interview conducted via email in January and February 2008.
(the balsa glider lifts into the near sky and then
(Threatens to halt, falling, then catches its
(Breath again before crashing into the field)
(That is the place given us, as poets, to reconsider
(The next word we put upon the page, the next
(Poem, the next book, the next. *1
This is Susan Schultz’s metaphor for what she calls the ‘stall’.
PB: Laurie, you stopped writing poetry for six years. However, you managed to complete a thesis during that period. Some writers stop because they realise they have nothing to say and they have the grace to shut up and wait. Some, like the archetypal psychologist and poet Patricia Berry, see stopping ‘as a mode of animation’.*2
When you first stopped writing poems was it unexpected? When you’ve talked about it afterwards in ‘A Note’ at the beginning of Mangroves*3, your first collection of poetry after what you call a ‘hiatus’ (and I’ll keep trying to find terms other than ‘block’ to describe this non-productive period), although you say the reasons for stopping are ‘complicated’ it sounds as if it was a conscious decision ?
You also have the degree of self-interest and self-containment necessary to the daily writing habit. You keep a journal and you’ve published extracts from it in Meanjin magazine and on the APRIL*4 site. But, and here I’m getting a bit forensic, you broke from journal writing for a year at various times; in 1993, and when you moved from Melbourne to Sydney in 1998, when you moved from Sydney to Brisbane in 2000, and again in 2004. You were writing your doctoral thesis (on early Australian modernism in visual art) during much of that time - so perhaps the thesis became an impasse to both your journal and your poetry writing? (A friend of mine said that she couldn’t even write a postcard after finishing her PhD thesis). You say in your first poem after the long interval:
I seem, somehow, to thrive on disruption:
the kitchen dismantled for fumigators
as the floorboards in my last flat
when I wrote my poem ‘Ornithology’
unaware its elegiac tones were for poetry itself (mine)
You completed the thesis in 1999 and, interestingly, your single diary entry in the middle of that year is the poem from which I’ve just quoted, called ‘A false start’
Reading Hart Crane
I find myself in tears
– an impossible Man of Sentiment –
‘the chained bay waters’ of a Bridge
other than the one I can’t see but know is there;
a hopeless empiricism.
The gulls ‘dip and pivot’ as in the poem,
this ‘lovely world’ made by men and women
against which the radio and the all-ordinaries index,
cardboard boxes in the park below.
The great crane catches the sun:
not Hart, a device used to lift gun turrets,
an inverted Bridge,
useless now, the first thing to light up
before the bookshelf turns orange
then everything else takes on its shade,
the water, still; a brown rowing boat
that would (in summer) shuttle to a moored vessel.
Hart (he is always addressed personally)
not a popular poet when I grew up,
too florid for believers in ‘the objective correlative’
yet I loved him in high school, able to leap from drunken longshoremen
to Shakespeare in a single bound.
Around 1973 (before dope had totally
undermined a streak of high-seriousness)
I wanted to write a poem about the Bridge
– or the Harbour – assembling fragments
of lurid description, a figure – the Engineer –
who was supposed to double as poet/creator,
influenced, I fear, by the New Romanticism
(I’d also written a sequence about the White Goddess:
abandoned, because – I later realised – I was
‘making it up’, a deity cobbled
from books. The Harbour poem
was something more than this, though it went nowhere,
a false structure holding together things
which were otherwise too ‘lightweight’
(I later saved the heaviness for satire
preferring to float – like a butterfly –
when not stinging – like a bee.
Would Hart have appreciated Mohammed Ali? I don’t know.
in my old poem, the drop to the Harbour,
imagining a place on the north side, say Kirribilli,
a mix of industry and residence
where now the expanse of water shrinks to a pond under development
and I watch the economy: containers enter full
and leave empty. Maybe John Forbes was right,
it should be concreted over. Idealism became empiricism
became something else: a wave pulse at night;
a pragmatist lurking in the park,
strolling through the ruins of narrative (like a Rick Amor painting
mixing charm with menace). It’s that Man of Sensibility again.
I seem, somehow, to thrive on disruption:
the kitchen dismantled for fumigators
as the floorboards in my last flat
when I wrote my poem ‘Ornithology’
unaware its elegiac tones were for poetry itself (mine);
at least they were for John Forbes;
and now, water taxis blinking across the Harbour,
once more I come upon passages from Wordsworth’s ‘Prelude’
which seem right, but could I try again
to read the book? Romanticism itself was always
impenetrable to me, though Wordsworth was
somehow different (impenetrable all the same,
not so devoid of pleasure as Shelley,
though I guess he would have been more in Hart’s line
– that name, Hart Crane, a funny amalgam of sentiment
and technology. Who’s our Hart?
Bruce Beaver I’d guess. I wrote in a diary once
of ‘shoals of light’ thinking: fishing vessels,
the Andaman Islands (somewhere, approaching India
on an Italian airliner en route to Rome
from the plane circling to Fiumicino (the airport),
security with its submachine guns (benign however).
I stayed in Rome for a few days
but did not enter a church, much less the Vatican,
though a kind of Protestant sense of honour
– a false respect for things I didn’t believe in?
– at least for an idea of religion
reality didn’t live up to. Now I’d accept
the interiors as places to enjoy: pure tourism I guess.
In England I wanted to go to a Quaker meeting house.
Couldn’t, in the end, do that either;
the form always a disappointment after the spirit,
or spirit missing from the form… etcetera.
This tiny writing (mine) like the poetry copied onto card
by my great-uncle: a mean-spirited man
who’d felt himself above my grandmother’s forced marriage
to a Jew: for him poetry equalled parsimony,
his snippets of Tennyson were spins of a prayer wheel,
little items of commerce which paid for grace
– a sensibility some distance from Hart (around that time
falling off the back of a boat). The heavy boots
of a neighbour hit the floor; the water laps
in the dark outside, the clink of masts
all too literal to be Matthew Arnold.
No God, no poetic, so the position of the moon,
thin crescent or new, above these lights
connotes neither certainty nor doubt.
Car doors shut, gears grate up the hill,
Friday night in Sydney, midwinter 1999.
Wordsworth was like some horrible stranger
on a long train trip who began to tell you
the story of his life; fragments of landscape
when concentration failed on the winding periods.
I have no such confidence beyond ‘behold the Harbour’,
descriptions of cockatoos in palm trees,
distant trucks climbing from the Bridge,
lit at just this moment, invisible otherwise
– it’s morning again: days and nights
of no coherent monologue. The Crane stands
unmoved and unmoving for how many years now?
a shed perched on top of its structure
housing the winding mechanisms, as large
as a small block of flats. There will be News and Weather
in ten minutes, the rumble of a garbage truck
seven floors up; sunlight on books
‘till elevators drop us from our day’
to breakfast up the hill with Don and Pene
and a glimpse perhaps of Hart Crane in a striped French navy shirt
heading south for Oxford Street.
The poem is followed in your journals published on the APRIL site by this note – '[In January 2000 we moved to Brisbane. No entries for that year either.]'
So ‘A false start’ was written after you’d been reading Hart Crane’s poem ‘The Bridge’. Hart Crane lost confidence in himself and in his poetic tradition. He spent seven years writing ‘The Bridge’ and then, after the poem was published ‘…he was in a state of deep depression, declaring that he could never write a line of poetry again. The well had gone completely dry’.*5 Hart Crane wrote very little in his last years. Was that the parallel inferred in your ‘false start’?
LD: It certainly wasn’t, or didn’t seem to be, a mode of animation (the break began and ended with what were more or less nervous breakdowns)! The start of the break did almost coincide with beginning the thesis, but it had long been written by the time I began again. The last thing I wrote before stopping was the long prose piece ‘The Minutes’. In fact I wrote much of that while I was doing a Masters Preliminary. It was midwinter and you can see some of the sections were done in Carlton, near the University or in the Common Room even. It’s a poem I like but I felt, even as I was writing it, that it was about as far as I could go. I think basically that I’m a relentless empiricist, even if I’m aware of the strangeness of language. But I didn’t feel I could just go back to the kinds of writing I’d been doing. Engaging in intellectual argument at an intense level can often leave people feeling incapable of moving on (the post PhD thing), so this probably had something to do with it. But I think overall that it was a problem at the level of poetics that preceded then coincided with the doctoral work.
The diary ‘breaks’ don’t really reflect what was going on. The material that’s up on the APRIL site is only a fraction of what I’ve written, believe me. But I hadn’t kept a journal with any consistency since the early 1980s and indeed only wrote continuously while travelling. I did write things there during the break as well however, and the ‘false start’ poem should really, I think, be seen as part of the journal rather than as a ‘poem’ in its own right. At the time it seemed to be a ‘mistake’, written out of a misplaced desire to be operating again. It’s a curiosity rather than a poem; a kind of thinking aloud. Funnily, I didn’t remember that Crane had hesitated after ‘The Bridge’. I didn’t really start until late 2000. Then I made up for lost time. After a couple of short pieces I wrote ‘Louvres’. It’s as though ‘The Minutes’ and ‘Louvres’ bracket the break.
One thing I should probably add here: When I stopped writing, John Forbes was still alive. He probably had the clearest view of why I’d done it and was not about to encourage me to return to the task. Partly the break involved doubts about the efficacy of poetry. I’ve always operated from doubt, but this time it was a bit more serious. John noted how much of the audience for new poetry in the 1970s had moved elsewhere: into the academy and especially into theory, so that in a way I was noticing where my bread might be buttered. Of course it wasn’t. And I think poetry was then still on the cusp between being something totally reliant on reviews and notices in the print media and something that escapes these things to a greater or lesser extent. The funny thing was that when I began again, John was no longer with us, and for a long while I felt like I was ‘getting away with’ things that I couldn’t have before. But then I realised that I had often written things in the past that he didn’t initially like but later came around to.
PB: I can understand that. Although he was a close friend and fellow-poet of yours, I think John Forbes had that effect, in some ways, on the poetry-scene-at-large. He was such a good poet with high poetic standards (yet never pretentious about it, just serious about his vocation). When John turned up at poetry events in Sydney I often felt the tone lift with the participants smartening up their acts, pulling their socks up. You’d always notice John’s arrival, even at the back of a crowd because he was just that bit taller.
I wonder why you placed ‘The Minutes’ at the end of your first collection after your break from writing poems, considering that it was the last poetic writing you did before that break, and, as you say, it formed the bracket between it and ‘Louvres’.
LD: It was just that Mangroves was put together as two books in one. And I put the second book first so that the whole thing began with the new beginning.
PB: ‘The Minutes’ seems to me to continue the kind of post-modern fragments you foregrounded earlier in your 1987 book about Gippsland, The Ash Range.*6. Although ‘The Minutes’ are more fragments from the videated world (or what Paul Virilio calls a ‘telecracy’*7) than from the kind-of Reznikoffian historical documents like the ones that comprise The Ash Range.*8
Across the stitches, over the Divide. Sunlight breaks up the paving. The grid of letterboxes, pigeon-holes. A sum of everything till now. Photocopied maps, illustrations. But the thread rising like a graph. As though a group of coloured
templates slid around and created a new world. Those fragments of tree which once described a geometry. The furled lines of text abandon their disposition. Now everything is put into the cabinet of the dishwasher,. A man looking like Billy Thorpe crosses the road. You step outside into the televised landscape.
‘The Minutes’ ticking away, each paragraph chock-full of semiotic observances and quips, your own percipience in minute grabs. These tight sentences read more densely than the way you write now where you leave so much more actual space on the page. And there are traces of those ‘nervous breakdowns’ throughout this long poem –
‘Writing that imagines it is telling the truth.’ I bought no newspapers today; have hardly left the house. And now have closed the window and hear only the breath of the gas heater. ‘…an enormous hole, in which many people had been buried.
Dark days. Washing hung in the kitchen. Telling the truth about what? This heartache of a nation? This bottomless state? It could be Tasmania. Dumped by a caucus of incumbents. A snow dome of poetry. Pipe-smoking figures in a rustic shelter. A disappointing day on the Australian share market.
I know that you were quite deeply affected, and probably offended, by what Jeff Kennett, the then-premier of Victoria was doing to that state and it seems that this period was probably as elegiac as your writing ever became. So my question is – how personally did you take it? The frustration and disappointment with Victorian politics coinciding with that observation about poetry’s audience having moved into academia during the 1980s?
LD: Firstly, yes, there’s evidence of things not being ‘right’ in the piece. And there are various Kennett references in it to: the ‘bottomless state’ and, in particular, ‘Mussolini’s idiot grandson’ and the ‘roulette Duce’. Around that time Kennett put up billboards over the freeways featuring his profile with jutting jaw. It seemed as though anything could happen. ‘The unkilled workers’ is of course a ‘typo’ that just might not have been one. When we moved to Sydney at the beginning of 1998 we left Victoria thinking that Jeff would be there for years. Not long after he lost an election. But we never moved back! Funnily, we left Australia when it looked like John Howard would be on the throne forever, though it wasn’t the reason for our leaving.
PB: The poem that brackets the end of the hiatus is ‘Louvres’. It is shorter and freer than ‘The Minutes’. It seems more assured. By now I think you’ve completed your thesis? And the title indicates that you’ve moved to the sub-tropics, to Brisbane.
LD: Oh, the thesis had been completed by mid 1998. It was published in 2001. We moved to Brisbane at the beginning of 2000 and the first ‘new’ poems date from later that year.
PB: Your thesis (undertaken at Melbourne University) was a cultural history engaging with painting, architecture and photography of early C20th Australian modernism.*9 Various Australian artists make an appearance in ‘Louvres’ – Vida Lahey, Bea Maddock, Ian Fairweather, Leah King-Smith, Jennifer Marshall, Lin Onus, Mostyn Bramley-Moore. Can you talk a bit about what took you back to studying Fine Arts and Art History some time after you’d completed your undergraduate degree? And could you perhaps extrapolate a bit on how your interest in art might have led you to write your thesis?
LD: I studied initially at Monash, from 1968 to 1971 then did two years of Fine Arts at Sydney to complete the Monash degree. I’d decided not to do a fourth (honours) year in English. But I’d always been interested in visual art and had been reading art magazines and various critics. I was one myself briefly in 1986-7 when the now defunct Times on Sunday wanted a Melbourne reviewer. I’d also taught Media at Swinburne (1976) and the Canberra CAE (1983) and both of these had some visual art components. I might well have been part of that rush in the early 1990s to abandon poetry for theory. It was a serious attempt to make myself employable though that largely came to nothing. I did some more teaching: Art History at UWS, Cultural Studies at UQ, then there was the long residency at Griffith, but none of these were continuing or full-time positions. Now, living in another country (and at my age) the possibility of an ongoing position anywhere is pretty negligible.
PB: So that leaves you more of a window for boredom (only joking)? But I did want to ask you about ‘boredom’. In ‘Louvres’ you quote Arthur Schopenhauer and go on to write a brief method on how to write and you take a position on ‘authenticity’ –
Boredom as self-recognition (Schopenhauer). As a kind of authenticity in an age of appropriation. When déjà vu incorporates déjà vu. You have to name those boats on the river; find words to describe the pattern of water surfaces, the variation of clouds, shoppers moving according to plan down the Mall. On a tape I can hear my own voice, aged five, reciting segments from a school play. But I am now a different organism: not ‘the author’ of those books, a cursor moving slowly down a page.
– and later in Mangroves, in a suite of ten poems written ‘after Ardengo Soffici’ there is the actual poem ‘Boredom’ which is, in fact, a vibrant, ironic kind of poem.
Between 8.45 and 10.10
I have watched the bloodstained world
through a rectangle of red glass
with white lettering:
“Biseri – sparkling digestive mineral water:
gout cure and uric diet.’
What else should I hope for ?
Our fate is death by retail,
our calendar scheduled by economists.
The modernist dream is as dead as Rameses II.
The big cities don’t even notice spring
returning each year like an usherette with a tray of cigars,
though the moon’s electric crescent promotes itself:
‘founded anno one – still going strong’;
and the stars always find some muddy pool to wink at
like the smacked-out eyes of streetwalkers.
Trams, yellow housemartins, dip into the streets and are gone;
buses scatter for the suburbs like magnetised filings;
car headlights whirl in primitive blizzards
(the pigeons? … the pigeons are mass-produced
like pigeons everywhere else).
The sky – full of signwriters –
looks like a lunatic has been loosed with an icing gun,
but the banknotes smell like almond blossoms.
The Town Hall clock is several minutes slow
(what a symbol to live under!).
Everything else repeats itself:
each house, shuttered, as though the apocalypse were forecast;
each room holds secrets too dull to mention:
bidets, mauve shirts, sweaty skin, suggestive notes, dirty postcards.
The heart closes its hatches, like a bank teller
on the dot of 3.30 p.m.
Our lives bump together in a gossip-column
assembled by cadet-journalists on the Great Daily.
Imagination belongs only to window-dressers.
The universe, all that tiresome cosmology, disappears with a stroke,
A new alchemy welds daylight to dusk;
a seasonless glow of artificial fire and mellow acetylene.
must have clown-suit, powder and paint,
scarlet quiff, scarlet heart.
Green eyebrows essential.
Should be able to dance,
be a masked god on a highwire
stretched from alpha to omega
over this fleapit, waiting for encores.’
The poem, especially the ending, has a cynical tone that’s unusual in your own writing. The poet here seems more pissed-off with the poor quality of city life than bored with it.Schopenhauer’s idea of boredom seems pretty complex to me. In general though, perhaps your experience of boredom is connected to the poet’s all-too-familiar ennui of having to crank up, to self-generate in order to write or is it more to do with a simple lack of stimulation?
LD: Soffici was an Italian Futurist poet. The original poem was written around 1915. Soffici lived in Florence which would explain his boredom: it wasn’t Milan! As for me, well I do seem to spend an inordinate amount of time doing nothing! ‘Louvres’ and ‘The Minutes’ both worry about this, if they’re not revelling in it. What else can I say about boredom? Are cats bored when they stare at walls? Am I?
It is a serious question though and I don’t want to brush it off. Writing often enough comes out of periods of inertia, though in my case it also comes out of periods of change – like moving to another city or country. But once I’m there I need to soak up the ambiance and that often involves just sitting around: on the sofa, in a bar or cafe, on a train, wherever. Silence is also important – the absence of static. It’s a diminishing commodity.
PB: Let’s look at translation. Of course, translation is said to be impossible! Yet many of my own favourite writers I’ve read mainly in translation. I’ve done some translating from French, the only language other than English that I have more ability using than the usual ‘get-by-in’ Italian or Spanish and so on. I mostly translate-to-read, by which I mean that I want to know what the poem, essay, article or book is actually saying. I’ve also been motivated to attempt my own by reading various translations of the one thing – four different versions of Apollinaire’s ‘Zone’ in English for example. Fortunately, my translations have become braver over the past twenty years since I began living with my partner, Jane, who is fluent in French and can advise on my final choices of word.
You translated The Epigrams of Martial in the late 1980s and many of those became transposed maxims and parodies of Australian situations and poets. (The Sydney critic, Don Anderson, said ironically, in a review praising your Epigrams of Martial, they are “doubtless ‘quite unscholarly’”.) Around the same time, or perhaps a little later, you translated Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Italian poets like Soffici (as we’ve already said), Eugenio Montale and others. You also attended Jeremy H. Prynne’s ‘Poetry in Translation’ seminar in London recently. I wonder how you’ve approached translation and why, when you’ve done so, you’ve wanted to make translations. Why you’ve translated from German and Italian (ancient and modern) – have you studied those languages at all? And Laurie, could you tell me something about your response to J.H. Prynne’s seminar?
LD: The first poems I translated were by Rimbaud and I came at these with high-school French and the prose crib in the Penguin edition. My idea of translation was already a Poundian one. Translation was a way of invigorating your own poetry (and by definition English language poetry). The idea of doing the Martial poems came from Michael Heyward who was then teaching in the Classics Department at Melbourne. He thought my comparative brevity and whatever skills I had at satire might work. I think he wanted a handful of them for Scripsi (the magazine he co-edited), but I ended up doing a whole book which, with good grace, they published. I worked with Edwardian prose cribs (Loeb Classical Library) and the occasional word from Michael (the three Enzensberger poems were also done from a crib). My take on translation here was that a literal version wouldn’t work as satire; that the whole thing about ad hominem satire – and there’s a lot of it in Martial – is that it has to hurt someone’s feelings or it isn’t really satire. So you have to decide whether you’re more interested in Roman social mores or in satire itself. I left the mores to the scholars. Of course in some instances I went over the top, but Martial himself doesn’t seem to have been the most level-headed person on the planet! One of the nicest comments I had about the poems was a double-edged one. John Bray, the Judge and classicist, turned up to an EAF reading in Adelaide. He later said to me ‘of course Martial was a bad poet, but you’ve got the tone right’.
Soffici was another matter. I had just done a year or so of night-classes at the Centre for Italian Studies in Melbourne and had, prior to this, bought Eduardo Sanguinetti’s big two-volume anthology of modern Italian poetry when I was in Rome. I translated a handful of poems from other poets but I found the Soffici pieces congenial. They’re very visual, which makes them not so difficult to translate, yet I didn’t know of any existing English translations. I did these by myself with the aid of a dictionary. They’re fairly free and, mostly, a deal shorter than the originals. Martin Johnston once said of the modern Greeks that, having not had Ezra Pound or Imagism, they tended to go on a bit. Soffici’s the same.
I was curious to see Prynne partly because I’d had indirect dealings with him. Ian Friend, an English artist who’s been living in Australia for some time, had done a series of works with reference to Prynne’s book The Oval Window, and I wrote the catalogue essay for the show. Ian has been corresponding with Prynne for some while but, as yet, neither of us have met him. He was impressive, one of those people who can make a carefully structured argument that goes on for some forty minutes without a prepared text. I made a note of one thing he said about the communication he’d had with his French translator. Prynne had suggested a meeting but the translator had refused, saying (and this seems very French) ‘if we meet our acquaintance will become anecdotal’. Prynne is meticulous with things like translation and feels that as much fluency as is possible in another language is important. This is very idealistic and who wouldn’t agree in principle, but in practice (my own) I’d want to make an argument for amateurism too. At the same time Prynne is very much aware of the odd things that can happen in the to-and-fro of translation, like modern Chinese poets internalising and then reproducing the mistakes Ezra Pound made about Chinese poetry.
PB: I think you began writing the serial poems ‘Blue Hills’ in the late ‘seventies or around 1980. They read to me like postmodern, or semiotic at least, pastoral poems. This series has continued over twenty-five or twenty-six years and a set of them are included in your most recent collection The Passenger*10. Do you have any unpublished ‘Blue Hills’ poems that you’ve written since then? I imagine that your moving to live in the U.K. means that you have left ‘Blue Hills’ behind.
LD: I got the idea for a ‘discontinuous series’ from Robert Duncan, strangely enough. Though he was never one of my favourite poets I kept (and still keep) trying to read him from time to time. I liked the way he would have several series of things running at the same time and these series like, for instance, ‘The Structure of Rime’, would reappear from book to book. You’re right to say I’ve left the ‘hills’ behind. Well at least until or if I come back to Australia. They ran to 75 and the last dozen or so will appear in a book that was half-written before I left the country. They’re strange poems, very hard to read aloud in public, partly because they’re ‘quiet’. But a lot of people are very fond of them. I think Martin Duwell probably likes them the most of all of my work. I’m often inclined to agree. The ‘series’ thing has let them off the hook of having to justify themselves in any way. They are allowed to be ‘slight’!
PB: I want to ask you a bit about influences. I know that you credit Patrick McCaughey, who was an early university tutor of yours, with introducing you to William Carlos Williams. Williams’ influence threads throughout your poetry from then (the end of the ‘sixties) and continues until now, forty years later. You said “it’s the crazier Williams – the avant-garde one – that I keep going back to, not the ‘writing school’ Williams.” I know that you're persistent in remaining independent of poetic coteries or scenes of literati, so I take it that when you say ‘writing school’ this is the kind of thing you mean or is it more about Williams’ experimentation. Could you clarify that for me Laurie?
LD: An English critic, David Trotter noted that the new kind of school anthology that began to appear in the late 60s would often combine things like a William Carlos Williams poem and, say, a close up photo of a dandelion together with exercises in ‘describing things’. He maintained that these anthologies were responsible for the confusion of ‘poetry’ with extravagant simile and that this lead directly to the work of the so-called ‘Martians’ in the UK in the 1980s.*11. I think this is fairly astute. Williams’ poems, like ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ have, in situations like this, been taken out of context to present him as a kind of miniaturist. Williams himself was partly to blame. When he put together the two volumes of collected earlier and collected later poems he took pieces that had been part of books like Spring and All and The Descent of Winter out of the matrix they were originally embedded in, making them slighter on the whole (if more ‘coherent’), and consequently attractive to writing school professors. The current two volume Collected Poems restores these pieces to their original context but, worryingly, leaves out altogether Kora in Hell presumably because it is entirely ‘prose’.
Williams is such an interesting case because he wrote all those things that escaped even the boundaries he’d set himself. Paterson started off with a kind of clunking structural device: that it would show the river in four stages, moving from childhood to old age. But then he wrote section five and he’d begun a further section before he died. The poem could have gone on, like Maximus maybe. But in the 1940s and 1950s no-one much would have been encouraging him to do this. In the 1920s he was really doing stuff, pretty much on his own. Astute as he was, even Pound probably had no idea what was going on in WCW’s head. The best book to see all this happening in is a New Directions volume edited by Webster Schott called Imaginations (this came out long before the current Collected). Most writing schools choose to ignore this work.
PB: In the run-up to this interview I asked you for a list of influences – here it is:
– and at the end of the list you wrote “(all blokes I’m afraid)” – a commendable perception! Are most of these poets influential for you these days?
LD: Well Williams is (he should fit in between Pound and Berrigan in the list); and Dorn still – his sensibility. Funnily, though I like Dorn’s earlier Geography type poems I’ve never really liked the poem the academics seem to admire – Gunslinger – whereas I do like a lot of the later ‘slight’ work, from Hello La Jolla thorough Abhorrences. I met Dorn in 1987 and we hit it off. He liked the Martial poems a lot and printed a couple in the journal he was involved with at the time, Rolling Stock – except he attributed them to Catullus! Roy Fisher I’ve stuck with too. I love the work of most of the others though these days they’re not an active influence. Now, I’m mostly influenced by those around me.
I should clarify things a bit here about the list being so male. ‘Influence’ is perhaps not a strong enough word. These are all writers whom I’ve directly modelled work on. Other writers like Joanne Kyger and Lorine Neidecker have ‘influenced’ me too, but it’s a less direct thing.
PB: Ern Malley is an interesting inclusion on your list. An Australian poet famous as an invention, a hoax.*12 The moment you realized, via Ern Malley’s poems, that you could just ‘make it up’ was a kind of fundamental release for you as a poet. In a paper you prepared for a conference at Curtin University in 2004 you wrote:
In 1967, my last year of high school and into my second year of writing poems that owed more to Keats than to anyone `modern' I discovered Ern Malley in my local library. Malley's work was a revelation, suggesting a way out of writing poems that were just expressions of adolescent gloom. In a culture where poets and poetry seemed hopelessly distant (dreary bush ballads or exercises in academic morbidity) it was strangely liberating to come across a poet who had never even existed. I mean by this that if it was possible for somebody to invent a poet then it seemed possible to invent yourself as a poet. Malley's example meant that maybe you could just put things together and it would be poetry. There was no need to dig deeply into your `soul' or `psyche' for poetry: you could just make it up. What this really meant for a young writer was that instead of relying on `experience' you could take the process of reading as experience in itself.*13
I know you are friends with Australian poets Ken Bolton, Alan Wearne, John Scott, Angela Gardner, Cassie Lewis and myself and that you were also a friend of the late John Forbes. Have these friendships also influenced your writing? And, if so, then how?
LD: My friendships are all important. I grew up with John Scott and Alan Wearne. We were at Monash University together. When I look back I’m aware that I didn’t realise at the time what an amazing hothouse that institution was. As a working class kid I went to university thinking that this was what all tertiary institutions were like. Only in the later 70s did it become clear that our little constellation was really special. Monash, like other places had by then reverted to the degree factory most such places are. Some of our teachers should take credit for the scene there, even if they may have bewailed the results. But our little poetry club was, in retrospect, an exciting thing. Partly this was because John and Alan and I all had our own ideas about writing, though we shared enthusiasms – like Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets. The influences weren’t direct, but we liked each others’ work and trusted each others’ judgements. God knows what Alan must make of some of my stuff these days, but he’s still in there, and he still gets students to read it. You were the next person that I took on board, though, being fairly ‘academic’ at the time (as well as being a hippy – paradoxically!) I took longer to see where you were going. Then when I came to Sydney I met the trio of Martin Johnston, Terry Larsen and Andrew Huntley. Again, people with pretty different ideas about writing to my own, though I respected their perspectives. Then I met John Forbes. One of the stupidest things ever said about my poems (by a certain Melbourne poet) was that I was ‘John Forbes the Second’. I don’t think, for starters, that either of us knew how the other one worked, but we liked each other’s poems greatly. Then, in the mid 70s I met Ken Bolton. And what’s happened since then is that you and Ken have become the closest poets for me. I do feel that there’s common ground, though the way we manifest it can be pretty different. Sometimes I don’t know how to describe this. My attention shifts possibly faster than Ken’s (the work’s certainly more fragmented), and you are more to ‘the point’, more ‘concise’ than either of us. Then recently Cassie and Angela have appeared on the scene. I think Cassie’s work is closer to what we do. Angela I just trust to write things that will be interesting – and she does it. Approaching age 60 all these things are important.
PB: Final questions Laurie. After a six and a half year stint living in Brisbane, Queensland, you and your partner moved to live in the UK in late 2006. You already had two books published there by Shearsman Books.*14 I'd think that the UK might be perhaps more socially conducive to your life-in-poetry than tropical Queensland. Have you found some like-minds in the contemporary UK poetry world?
LD: Brisbane was kind of mixed. It’s a very interesting city in the light of what’s happened there since the Joh Bjelke-Petersen government*15. Probably the best book written about that period is Pig City, by Andrew Stafford.*16 It’s a book about the music scene though it deals with a lot more. Of course we arrived in Brisbane some time after Joh’s government had gone and the excitement about the place was all to do with the fact that he was no longer around. You would have experienced the early part of the Bjelke-Petersen period yourself, but what we got was the openness that the new government felt it had to have once the dictator had left the scene. Where this was most noticeable was in the visual arts. But – and I know this will probably get me into trouble – the poetry scene has remained provincial. I don’t mean that there aren’t any good poets in Brisbane. Angela Gardner is there, and Jaya Savige, and Bronwyn Lea among others. But the arts establishment took forever to even realise I was there and then, one felt, they resented it. It was ok to be a writer from Brisbane who had left and had come back, it was ok to be an interstate writer invited up for a festival gig, but it was not ok to be one who had moved up there: at least that was my feeling. Some people felt threatened, funnily enough. At the same time the University of Queensland Press, who’d picked me up sometime before the move have been terrific, really supportive. They are the first publishers who have done more than one of my books and I couldn’t have wished for more than what their editors gave me.
Britain, of course is somewhat different, though Kent, even as one of the ‘home counties’ is surprisingly devoid of a poetry scene. This is in all probability due to the fact that it’s so close to London (I’m only an hour and ten minutes away). I had made contact with writers in the UK some time ago: the late Gael Turnbull in particular. But I’d also met people in the London scene, like Harry Gilonis, who works with Reaktion Books. Since arriving I’ve met numerous other people whose work I like and who I get to see often: people like Jeff Hilson, David Miller, Frances Presley, Lee Harwood, Gavin Selerie, Geraldine Monk, Alan Halsey, Kelvin Corcoran, John Welch and others. But the scene here is even more fragmented than the Australian one. There’s a permanent standoff between the authors who get published by Faber and a handful of other presses (whose works get reviewed in the newspapers) and the people whose work happens outside this area of officialdom who will never be reviewed in the press – even the ‘left-wing’ press where, for example, the old ‘Martians’ even seem to run their reviews of each other in the Guardian. The LRB and the TLS are pretty much unreadable. Print-on-demand books are almost always not reviewed, partly for an old-fashioned prejudice that they are not ‘real’ books, though this ends up being a convenient strategy for literary editors who don’t want to deal with the kinds of poetry they mostly present. Of course the web has made an immense difference. One could have accused the Cambridge poets (in particular) of insularity once, but not any longer.
There’s an endless debate here, as in the USA, around what constitutes ‘mainstream’ poetry. I tend to agree with Peter Riley who maintains that the sort of writing he does and those around him do is ‘mainstream’. The Faber crew, like the School of Quietude, see themselves as the unmarked marker, ‘invisible’ but all powerful. There really ought to be an equivalent here of ‘whiteness studies’! (Actually I used to joke that each generation of Faber poets is worse than the previous one – and with only the odd exception I think it holds.)
Amongst all this I’m really an outsider, and the risk for me is that just as I’m forgotten in Australia (and this is almost bound to happen if I stay here for too long) I won’t be remembered here to any extent either. I have had some things published in web-based journals and have done a few readings though. It’s ‘life on Mars’ as David Bowie said.
PB: Apart from geographical references, do you have some idea of the way this major relocation has or hasn't affected the way you write now? Has it been invigorating, disappointing, dislocating, stimulating &c &c or is it mostly a matter of maintaining direction in a different country.
LD: At the moment: maintaining direction! I planned a long poem (part poem part journal) that I would begin work on the moment we arrived here and that would occupy a calendar year. It’s now completed and awaiting a publisher’s verdict (the working title is ‘The Skies over Thanet’). I do tend to take on the colour of my environment so that’s happening, though what the locals will make of this I’m not really sure.
At present I’m toying with some short and fragmentary things hoping to make a book that will include sections of work from before the move and after on either side of a gathering of aphorisms (working title: ‘One-Way Ticket’). We’ve been here for eighteen months now though there are still moments when I can’t believe people are talking in these strange accents! At the same time other things – like the seasons, as warped as they may be by global warming – are a pleasure. Kent isn’t the worst place on the planet and the local beer is pretty good.
1.Schultz, Susan M., Introduction to A Poetics of Impasse in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry, University of Alabama Press, 2005, p24
2.Berry, Patricia, ‘Stopping : A Mode of Animation’, Spring, 1981
3.Duggan, Laurie, Mangroves, University of Queensland Press, 2003
4.Australian Poetry Resources Internet Library, this online site was replaced by Australian Poetry Library in 2011. Laurie Duggan's material is no longer included.
5.Blume, Peter, ‘A Recollection of Hart Crane’, Yale Review, 1987, v76, 2, p156
6.Duggan, Laurie, The Ash Range, Picador, 1987
7.Virilio, Paul, Ground Zero, Verso, 2002, p.30
8.see Reznikoff, Charles, Testimony: The United States (1885-1915), 2 vols, Black Sparrow, 1978-79 – a 500 page verse made of a series of thematic fragments and stories taken from court transcripts. See also Laurie Duggan’s poem ‘Urban conspiracy theory (after Charles Reznikoff)’ in Mangroves, p 33
9.Duggan, Laurie, Ghost Nation : Imagined Space and Australian Visual Culture 1901-1939, University of Queensland Press, 2001
10.Duggan, Laurie, The Passenger, University of Queensland Press, 2006
11.Trotter, David, The Making of the Reader, St Martin’s Press, 1984
12.In 1943 two Australian poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, invented 'Ern Malley' and wrote poems intended as modernist satire, in his name. They were published in 1944 in the literary magazine Angry Penguins, edited by Max Harris who proclaimed him as “one of the two giants of contemporary Australian poetry.” See: Heyward, Michael, The Ern Malley Affair, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane and Faber and Faber Ltd, London, 1993
13.Duggan, Laurie, Impostures: Nationalism, Modernism and Australian Poetry of the late Twentieth Century, presented at the Curtin University symposium ‘Modernism and the Modernisation of Australian Life’, Perth, September 2004, published in ACH: The Journal of the History of Culture in Australia, 25/2006, (‘Antipodean Modern’).
14.Duggan, Laurie, The Ash Range and Compared to What: Selected Poems Shearsman Books, 2005
15.Pam Brown note : I have no experience of living under the Bjelke-Peterson premiership. I left Brisbane for Sydney in 1968. The Queensland premiers in my time were Vince Gair from 1952 until 1957 (Gair lived across the road from my grandfather in Manly) and Frank Nicklin from 1957 until he retired in 1968.
16.Stafford, Andrew, Pig City: from the Saints to Savage Garden, University of Queensland Press, 2006