Interview: Pam Brown, January-March 2014
- At the Wall
- This world / this place
- stack level too deep
- By Claire Nashar on May 2014
Why do you write poetry?
That really is a tough question. I doubt that I'll give you a very interesting answer - I can only sound glib. For me writing poetry might be a habit, or a disorganised ritual. I've done it all my life, since around the age of seven - I started with lists. It's partly a way of notating my thinking. I suppose it's also a kind of irreligious vocation - one with hardly a skerrick of remuneration.
How do you read?
Diversely, but very consciously. I usually have three or four things that I'm reading in parallel - books of poems, some political aesthetics, poetics, pop science, very occasionally some fiction, and I regularly read a number of magazines. I'm a busy reader. I pencil mark whatever interests me for future reference. If an online article or some poems look good then I'll often print them so that I can make notes. I don't read many longer things online. I have an ipad but the backlighting is too bright to comfortably read anything at length on it - so, on public transport I'll read a book instead. I've been carrying the bilingual poems of Pierre Reverdy around and reading them on bus stops and train stations for a couple of months now.
How do you make poems?
By accretion and assembly. These days, I make fragmentary yet often longer works. Mine is a fairly normative practice - I scribble notes on whatever's to hand - newspaper/magazine margins, offcuts of printing paper, bookmarks, a notebook, post-its, the back of bus tickets - then I assemble the notes, mostly on the computer but sometimes written onto a sheet of paper. Then I rearrange, add, alter, cut and so on - this process can go on for days, weeks, months. I 'finish' poems quite slowly now.
Once, and for some years, I used to publish faster. Now I'm not concerned by that. My intentions have also changed over the years. My early poems were written by a different person - 'Pamela Brown' or 'Cocabola' - she was different women. I think that 'Pam Brown' began a fresh orbit towards the end of the 1990s and the poems have been evolving since then.
Do you make other things too?
I've made films and videos, theatre/performance pieces, silk-screened posters, websites, books and collages. I'm making a book of bilingual (English/French) poems at the moment, it will be hard copy and electronic, and I continue to make collages. The only films I make these days are short ones made using my little ageing pocket camera. I have also made gardens - currently it's a small courtyard garden that requires almost daily attention in spring and summer.
Poetry is often described as ‘difficult’ or ‘challenging’, both to read and to write. What do you think? Is difficulty important to the pleasure of poetry?
I like that about poetry, that it can be complex or problematic. My own earlier poetry was not 'difficult' but I renounced aiming for intelligibility some time ago (not that I replaced it with deliberate ambiguity or anything like that). I realised how 'out there' poetry is to central culture - and I decided to enjoy the weirder zone rather than render poems 'intelligible' every time. If my poetry has a narrow appeal I don't mind - it's been a long time and if my small audience isn't a 'general' one then that's ok. Though of course it would be nice to be read by as many interested people as possible.
I do think that poetry is 'difficult' to get right - to have it look, sound and read as you intend. I can spend ages adjusting punctuation and spacing and lineation. Also on keeping things clear. Sometimes having my fragments connect to my meanings is really a challenge. I live in my own private metonymy. I guess, with indirectness, which is how some of my poetry can operate, that good old representation is the best solution sometimes.
I'm not a formalist. I don't work within particular poetic forms. Although, of course I've tried various forms. I do think that it's difficult to have formal poems retain a looseness so the content can work freely without being obstructed by the form. I don't want that kind of structural difficulty.
Part of your bio on the rear flap of Authentic Local (2010) reads: “In her imagination Pam Brown lives in Zlin, Moravia. In real life she is currently living in Blackheath, just west of her chosen home city, Sydney.” How do you see imagination and reality working in your poetry?
And now that I also live in Alexandria in Egypt, Virginia and Sydney, it's even more disconcerting to imagine what might make its way into a poem.
But really I think I often imagine situation and action and reality, or the literal, is sometimes where I start from. You know, the fridge over there, the bus stop, that aluminium can lying on its side. Real things interrupt the poems in the way thoughts and phrases butt in. It's difficult to say - even after four decades of putting poems together I can't describe how it happens literarily. I generally only think about it when someone like yourself asks me to.
What’s your relationship to critical writing about your poetry? You mentioned earlier that you renounced aiming for intelligibility some time ago, has that shift changed the way you respond to outsider opinions about your poems?
I'm always surprised by the publication of a review of my poetry. And I'm always pleased to receive the consideration, even if the reviewer reads slightly away from my intention or perhaps mixes up the references. For instance, thinking of 'Marcel' as 'Marcel Proust' when I'm thinking 'Marcel Duchamp' or, in the poem 'Peel me a zibibbo', thinking my reference to Mae West's 'Beulah, peel me a grape' (from the movie 'I'm No Angel') is alluding to Charmian Clift's travel book 'Peel Me a Lotus'. I enjoy those kinds of interpretations.
I'm not sure what an 'outsider opinion' is. Generally, I don't hear many opinions, insider or outsider, about my poems. Though in recent reviews no one has said that my poetry is 'unintelligible' so perhaps my renunciation isn't working!
Is the idea of who publishes your books important to you? What about the material qualities of your books, do they interest you?
Yes. I've really appreciated being published by Little Esther Books, Ken Bolton's imprint. I admire his kind of offbeat aesthetic, and his persistence in publishing work that he wants to read. It can only make him poorer (financially) but he's done a lot to provide the Australian poetry realm with idiosyncratic books, his magazines, and poetry that's at a tangent to aspirational high diction (or however you might describe the 'romantic').
I published two books with Salt, which is run by Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery in the U.K., because their reach was so broad and that offered my work an airing in the northern hemisphere. Then when Salt was unable to continue publishing Australian titles, Paul Hardacre's distinctive Thailand-based independent press, papertiger media, published 'Authentic Local' in its 'Soi3 Modern Poets' series. My most recent collection was published by Tony Frazer's Shearsman Books. It's another wonderful independent press that publishes work in translation as well as a magazine and, again, it's U.K.-based. As to one aspect of materiality - Shearsman's printer has a branch in Melbourne so the books are readily available in both hemispheres.
It's important to me that a book looks good (according to my taste) and I worry about cover images and typefaces. I also don't really enjoy 'house style' where a publisher might want to normalise my poetry. For example, sometimes I'll specifically underline or use single quotation marks where the convention would be to Italicise. I also dislike the use of dropped lines when my spreading line lengths don't fit the width of a book page. And you might have noticed that I'm fond of dashes, not semi colons - I loathe semi colons. Where possible I try to get things looking fairly close to what appeals to me and simultaneously represents the collection.
Would you like to pick one of your poems from the Australian Poetry Library to revisit and share a few thoughts about?
I wrote 'At the wall' twenty-three years ago, when I thought 'intelligibility' was a factor, and so the political angle in the poem is overt. It was written in the time of wars in Bosnia and Somalia. It's interesting to me now, in relation to a current crisis between Russia and Ukraine, that I had included 'Moldova', which was involved in the Transnistrian conflict with Russia at the time. It's similar to what's happening now with Crimea and Ukraine.
When I've read this poem in public I've altered the countries and substituted the original line with 'Sbrenica, Rwanda, Kabul, Palestine' and so on. I think now, in 2014, the countries could be changed to Syria, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Waziristan, Yemen and the list continues ..
In the poem there is frustration moving towards rage that in Australia, in general, the daily concerns seem so indulgent, so materialistic. In the poem artists are trying to shock through S&M (remember, for instance, the little scandal in Melbourne around the 'blasphemy' of 'Piss Christ' - that contention and outrage had happened first in the U.S. before I wrote the poem - though I wasn't thinking of that artwork in particular). I also attempt to critique the unthinking kind of nationalist pride in the idea of Australia as a 'gambling nation'. Meanwhile, the world is at war.
Because my approach, method and style have warped in the years since, I don't think I'd write something as direct as 'At the Wall' these days but I think the poem still stands up.
At the Wall by stack level too deep
“I'd written myself into a wall”
our soft little lives
sarajevo moldova somalia
a half-empty bottle
of old formalities
thrown in the mud
“we are all of us in the gutter
but some of us are looking
at the stars”
said o. wilde
not another twenty years
of that, I hope
our feckless little aspirations
require the lowest
so show me the book
that shows me
rows of terrariums
growing horrible viral cells
stuck with lumps
lost as well
they invite you
to a “private viewing”—
where you see
and hear vacuous flatteries
and the S&M pose
hit hurt ooh ahh
looking like petals
acting like engines
making minor contributions
to the “cutting edge”
(80's talk 90's clothing)
will anyone ever
when will they occupy
the privatised academies ?
all talk & theory
older & older
less & less wise
statues are toppling
before they are built
and, at the bar,
my pal remembers
from Mark Twain or someone
“the means have become
but the goals are lost”
I write it down
on the back
of a blank
TAB trifecta ticket
here, in the country
when will the menacing,