Sunday, August 12, 2012

Poetry and Internationalism
Sydney Writers Festival Panel 20.05.04

This is a broad topic isn’t it ? I suppose one of the main things poetry has going for it in “crossing international borders” is that it’s a condensed form – so to make a corny analogy it’s light luggage - no excess baggage fees imposed.

The drive or desire to engage on an international level is, fairly obviously, informed by curiosity and an interest in or acceptance of, or even a fascination with difference and a need to know “foreign” poetries (my/our/your influences) as tangible (if that’s possible) and to know the place they come from. When you read a few lines like

“… America gets composed of our clouded selves,
a car coming down the dusty road
and we drink a coke overlooking the sea”
              (Tony Towle: Starry Night)

“This Paris sky is purer than a winter sky lucid with cold –
I’ve never seen nights as starry and leafy as this spring’s
Where the trees along the boulevards are like shadows from the sky…”
              ( (Blaise Cendrars :To the Heart of the World)

– you want to go there, like when I first read the Beats or, later on, Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems – I wanted to go to New York or Madison Avenue in particular…imagining James Schuyler at the Chelsea Hotel or looking at some wild flowers on Long Island...the poems take you there, but if possible, you want to go there, actually

I’m not so sure that what I’m going to be saying here is about “internationalism” – “isms” imply belief in something, or movements, but the “international” in poetry is something with which, to quote the publicity for this panel, you can also be “vitally involved” whilst staying put and sitting still. This is pretty obvious and of course we know about the universality of the internet and it’s indisputable influence and resulting effect of internationalising poetry, so I won’t talk much about that.

In Australia, everything poetic and practically everything else, apart from the indigenous, comes from somewhere else. As everyone knows, we have very few poetry publishers, hardly any means of distribution and we certainly have very few magazines in which to publish poems. So it’s natural that Australian poets look elsewhere for publication opportunities.

Most of us begin hearing English language poetry at school. I happened to like the French language when I was at school – in those days we learned by doing lots of translation. And later on, as I read further, I found lots of European favourites. I’ll list some poets, quite randomly, (and not only European) from my own progression - Guillaume Apollinaire, Vasko Popa, Miroslav Holub, Paul Eluard, Arthur Rimbaud, mingling with Coleridge, Chatterton, Donne, Shelley, Keats, Swinburne …a little Yeats, and some Joyce – Pomes Penyeach - and Mayakovsky…and the Yankees…Emerson, Walt Whitman, Mina Loy, the Beats, Elizabeth Bishop, English imagists, then, maybe, Tom Clark, maybe Eldridge Cleaver, New York New York, Patti Smith, the moderns, Black Mountain, proto-post-moderns, the radical women Robin Morgan, Marge Piercy, Diane di Prima, Bernadette Mayer, the language guys, Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, & Ron Silliman and so on… and Charles Baudelaire – following him off to Mauritius and La Réunion in books and then making a trip to those places myself years later, Gertrude Stein, Blaise Cendrars, that brilliant inventor, self-inventor, virtualist and perpetual traveller.

Here is one of Blaise Cendrar’s poems -

En Route for Dakar
The air is cold
The sea is made of steel
The sky is cold
My body is made of steel
Good-bye Europe which I’m leaving for the first time since 1914
Nothing about you interests me any more not even the
Emigrants on the lower deck Jews Russians Basques Spaniards
Portuguese and German buffoons who yearn for Paris
I want to forget everything no longer speak your languages
and sleep alongside black men and women and Indian men and women     animals and plants
             and take a bath and live in the water
 And take a bath and live in the sun
In the company of a big banana tree
And love the fat bud of this plant
To segment myself
And become as hard as a rock
Drop straight down
Sink to the bottom

And, to continue my irregular list, Raymond Queneau, oulipo, the Italy of Pier Paolo Pasolini or Antonio Porta… …or New Zealand - Bill Manhire, Michele Leggott, Murray Edmond, the Pacific, New Caledonia, Hawai’i …but always – Old Europe & England & the U S of A…there’s the local identity, you could be a Bay Area Poet, an Irish poet, an indigenous poet, a Melbourne, Sydney or Canberra poet, a Vietnamese poet, a Chinese poet, a multi-culti hybrid poet, a German poet, a transnational European poet, a refugee poet, a think-global-act-loco international poet.

Which all leads to the yearning, for every Aussie poet, to visit the elsewheres of their dreams…to enter international dimensions…driven by a strong desire to flee national treasurism, little Johnny and his polls and the perverse provincial media, daily saturated by Canberra politicians. In the northern hemisphere, last year in Old Europe in SIX months I heard & /or read only four or five very brief reports on Australia - of course, there were reports on the International Rugby tournament being held here, but for the rest – I heard that Melville Island was being moved off the map, that Bob Brown stood up & protested when George Bush addressed the federal parliament (I cheered ! at the little portable short wave radio) that Australia was stealing East Timor’s oil and that Mark Latham was the new opposition leader. All the local political hoodwinking that goes on here just doesn’t figure anywhere else. Making it all seem a bit tragic. The ex-publisher and former head of the Australia Council for the Arts, Hilary McPhee said, in a recent speech, that the literary scene here currently, in the face of this political hoodwinking and lack of cultural support, is a bit like “a desperate ghetto with all our systems pointing inward”. A few weeks ago an ex-Labor senator and minister for industry John Button said, on national tv, that Australians are “intellectually placid – almost dopey”.

Anyway, so we want to go somewhere up in the northern hemisphere so we can realize what Paul Keating famously said about Australia, that it is “at the arse-end of the world”

As a result we have many many travel poems in the Australian repertoire. You could be a “mobile” kind of poet, writing poems about and from wherever you find yourself, or if not - like say the collaborators John Jenkins & Ken Bolton whose “The Ferrara Poems” – a long narrative poem, also made into a film – is entirely international, set in Italy, yet Italy is a country that Ken had not visited when they wrote it. Or maybe you’re a tramp, a hobo, a flaneur, a swagman, a Benjaminesque rootless cosmopolitan tromping around Gippsland or a vagabond like the peripatetic Michael Brennan – usually with no fixed address, who quotes in the front of his recent first collection, The Imageless World the US poet Michael Palmer -

You would like to live somewhere
but this is not permitted You may not even think of it
lest the thinking appear as words
and the words as things
arriving in competing waves
from the ruins of that place
And here’s some Michael Brennan -

All evening he marvelled at the Idea of a plane travelling
Through the air as though it was the idea alone that got it there.


Wherever you are now it was a day in the
Future, a foreign country where we didn’t
Know the language or the customs, one
Foot in front of the other, a day yet to
Arrive, yet to depart the lines on the hand

Or, perhaps you are an analytical self-conscious internationalist like John Forbes - always examining, in a kind of Edward Saidian way, your “Australianness” in contrast to the other culture - something that probably originates from a desire to remain fresh - a naïve, a novelty, an ‘other’ - eternally conscious of Australia’s distance from everywhere other than Oceania & Southern Asia. Really though that’s too old-fashioned for the twenty-first century or even since “we” Aussies went to war alongside the big boys, from 1914 onwards. We’ve all been rooned, irrevocably awoken from our pure untravelled, isolated, pioneering, colonial state. Reborn as republicans. We might live in a country where the parks, streets, suburbs and cities have European names but they’re inhabited by a vibrant mixture of peoples from practically everywhere in the world. The dominant poetic language is English. You could be a poet (possibly like John T to an extent) whose “Australianess” smooths out and blends in to a kind of mildly-morphed North American style – (a poet who renounces the “u” in “color” and the “y” in “tire” and takes up the “er” endings on, say, “sombre”, “centre” & so on…)

So we travel there, wherever it is , often, only to discover, as sound poet Amanda Stewart says,

When you’re at the movies, you think you’re there
And when you’re there you think you’re at the movies

Here is a generic travel poem I wrote – about a place I’ve never been, travelling in the age of activist hijackings and hostage-takings and bombings

beyond recognition
flesh deteriorates
in  brochure paradise
tropical heat
you imagine yourself
cynical   and turn out
to be authentic
once was paradise
discount drinking
discount dancing
a permanent
aching to become
emotionally  vacant
in a kind of
discount soup sea 
discount surfie
or stoned
discount sunset
where giants
their t-shirts

I once wanted to make a t-shirt that read “Authentic Local” – a t-shirt you could wear anywhere.

I’ll read the end of Adam Aitken’s “The Anti-travel Travel Poem”-

That moment when a bird drops seed
of grass & trees on nowhere-in-particular’s
shady undergrowth & the poem’s farms & gardens
revert to shaggy Edens where no-one is a stranger
in a Kingdom of minute-by-minute ritual
where we know belonging, we know how.

Last year, I lived in the Australian poets’ flat, in Rome for six months - where I did my duty and lined up for a couple of interludes of cultural exchange. I guess partly to show my gratitude for being granted the privilege of being there at all. But I was not concerned to “put myself about” in a foreign culture– I can’t see the point of doing that if you’re not properly conversant in the language. (Although I also went to Barcelona and gave a reading, hosted by the Australian Studies Centre there, to a fairly large audience of English speakers ) Translation, of course, is another issue, and a truly complicated issue, that I think is being covered on another panel this week.
But now, in English, I’ll read one of the poems I wrote in Rome -

Ultradian rhythm

       I think that’s
  Finnish for ‘made up’

places to go    like Sarcadia
  or Sfax
      or here,    just across the tram-track
from Bingo 
       on the top floor next door
                             to Blockbuster
(a kind of
             pre-cognitive landmark)
under the antenna-nest
         of the dream bird 
   that hatches the egg
                      of experience, boredom.
 also ‘made-up’
          & performed - 
  optimism,                like
peacetime’s modern luxury -
     having a grave
                           all to yourself

down below 
                     the traffic
    sounds like the sea,
like the Pacific          (perhaps)
   rising under
                   a pall of poison,
           islands sinking
as morning’s white moon
     still dangles 
in the sickly blue
               behind the mobile phone tower.

            fizzily beginning to feel
    like Nietzsche spake –
                    nothing is worth anything

insects frolic
            in my hairs,  
I open another dusty book 
            in the weak Roman shade

seems like    Brisbane
             summer grey      
and I’ve come so very far
             to make this small comparison

And then, of course, there are the international literary tours of various cities – where you can become “acculturated” by “following in the footsteps” of Charles Dickens, Proust, Goethe, D.H. Lawrence etcetera. This extract from another of my Roman poems mentions another self-inventor (a precursor to Cendrars) Henri Beyle a.k.a. Stendhal - whose ‘haunts’ you can visit in Rome and in Grenoble and, I’m not sure, but probably in Florence as well -


 “suggestive cloud” 
he called  ‘crystallization’     
                        a term henceforth abused,
just as ‘poetry’, as a term,
       is used 
                      by inarticulate dance reviewers
and food writers.

                    I sound so snob 

but not –
        as I visit every public memorial
& monument
                as does every visitor to Rome,
&, like everybody,
       I photograph         the headstones
of dead poets
                       and Marxists      (romantics)
and am edified
                      or never.

       died apopleptic on a boulevard 
in Paris                 -      his is a grave         
          I’ve not 

Now for another transit lounge, another change of country…
Fingerprint me ! I’m going to the U S A…

Well, I have been to Hawai’i. What took me there was a connection made initially on the internet with the poet and academic, and editor of Tinfish magazine, Susan Schultz.

As members of ICOLS – International Corporation of Lost Structures – a virtual network of artists and writers, Susan and I had collaborated on a writing project.

In Hawai’i they have something called a “747 poem”. Here is Susan’s explanation of a “747 poem” – ‘namely one written by someone who swoops in on a plane, leaves soon after, and then goes on to write “Hawai’i poems” that incorporate all the clichés and/or debunk the place for its “brainlessness”’ I wrote a poem about Hawai’i and poems about other trips I made around that time to La Reunion, Mauritius, Montreal, Brittany, and Paris. These poems were later published by an Irish press, Wild Honey Press, and I called the suite eleven 747 poems. Having discovered the genre in Hawai’i, I saw some irony in my own practise although my intentions are not to “debunk” any place for its “brainlessness” (something I might not even notice). I try to reverse that and, for instance, comment, in a poem, on how ‘the absolute function/ of oceanic cultures’ is perceived as being to provide a holiday. But to the people who live there, daily life can, obviously, be as ordinary, as difficult, as anxious, or, in other words, as socially complex as any other place. I guess that applies to anywhere in the world.

I know this has been a bit of a hotch-potch montage of a talk, I’ve looked at the topic, a little scantily, in terms of ‘travelling’ but were I to make any big conclusions about the “international in poetry” I’m sure that rather than being animated with process it’d be dead-on-arrival –So here is an open end - a few lines that end Susan Schultz’s long poem “Holding Patterns” –

‘             …the unknowing 
cloud glimpsed from a plane window
as this holding pattern makes another
circle of its incompletion. ‘

Return to Extras - selected writings or web site.