Interview: Alison Croggon, May 2013
- A unicorn
- The common flesh
- stack level too deep
- By Claire Nashar on June 2013
Why do you write poetry?
I’ve never been quite sure why. I’ve written it for as long as I can remember. I experience the desire to write it as a kind of pressure, an internal necessity that eventually emerges in a poem.
Is poetry important?
I don’t know how to answer that. The fact is that it’s not important to many people: they get by their whole lives without encountering it, and who is to say they are the worse for that? I’m reluctant to proselytise about poetry: why should anyone read it, if they don’t want to? It’s important to me. It’s an art in which language is placed under pressure and investigated in ways which question the assumptions that we make about it, as creatures who use language every day without thinking. Poetry is like contemporary dance in that way: just as dance takes the body and its gestures as material, and treats them in all sorts of investigative ways, poetry plays with the materiality of language, foregrounding attributes that tends to be glossed in everyday life: its sonic and sensuous properties, its manipulativeness, its expressiveness, the tensions between abstraction and representation, and so on. It’s important, I guess, as a way of thinking, in the larger sense in which thought and feeling are integrated. It’s a way of becoming more conscious, as a reader and as a writer.
Poetry is often described as ‘difficult’ or ‘challenging’, both to read and to write. What do you think of such assertions? Is difficulty important to the pleasure of poetry?
I don’t know any aspect of life that isn’t “difficult”, when you really look at it. Poetry is no more or less difficult than, say, raising a child or eating a passionfruit. People who complain about poetry’s difficulty tend to be expressing a pre-emptive anxiety that a poem might judge them, and that they might fail. Poetry is most usually taught this way, as a test of comprehension, which reinforces the anxieties and erases the pleasures. (And yes, I do think there is pleasure in reading poems, a complex pleasure, and that it is important.) Of course some poems give themselves less easily than others, and sometimes (not always) those poems are the more rewarding. In the end, with any poem, the only thing you have to do is to read it, to listen to it. If you don’t understand it, read it again. If nothing catches your interest or sparks your curiosity, find another poem. There are so many different kinds of poetry, after all.
In an interview with Kate Middleton in 2001 you said: “Poetry I only write when I absolutely have to, when I can't ignore the impulse. That's a decision I made about a year ago. So I write poetry less frequently”. Does that still hold? Why?
Yes, it still holds. I write in many ways – this year I’ve written a libretto, several essays, criticism of different kinds and most of a fantasy novel. I don’t need to write poems if I don’t want to, which is quite liberating: I don’t want to write poems simply because I’m a poet and that’s what poets do, because that seems like a kind of death. At the moment I’m not sure if there’s any reason for me to write poems, although I continue to read them and a poem does pop up every now and again. I’ve written quite a lot of poems already and in any case, I have never been very prolific. But if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that it’s impossible to second-guess yourself about your writing.
What and how do you read?
I read fairly promiscuously and chaotically, I’m afraid, and not with any particular order in mind, which is I guess the curse of the autodidact. Everything from poetry to literary and social criticism and theory, performance criticism, novels of all kinds, journalism, plays. Sometimes I’m writing something and just get obsessed following a particular thought. Sometimes I’m simply reading for relaxation.
In reviewing your Attempts at Being in 2003, Justin Lowe describes you as “[Michael] Dransfield’s successor”, and in doing so (it seems to me) places your poetry within a tradition of Australian lyric poetry. What do you think lyric poetry is? And what about the idea of an ‘Australian lyric’? Do you think either of these terms appropriate or useful ways to approach your poetry?
I can’t (and shouldn’t) prescribe how others read my poems, although of course I’d like people to read and enjoy them in whatever ways they find. I think of myself, for good or ill, as a lyric poet. For me, lyric is poetry that foregrounds the sonic values of language, rhythm and sound, and which claims the subject as a field of action in relationship with the world. Lyric poetry has become more or less conflated with confessional poetry, which is a misnomer. I am not a confessional poet, although sometimes I’ve been read as one, but even my early poems, which probably fit that notion most closely, use masks and fictions and stylistic borrowings that suggest other things might be going on. I’ve always found autographical readings of my work a bit impertinent, somehow imprisoning, but perhaps what bothers me most is that they miss the point. The poem is not the writer, and the poetry isn’t me. I don’t think of my poems as being “personal”, they are objects I make out of language, which may or may not exploit the circumstances of my life. After all, quite often I make things up. Whether poems are autobiographical or not seems irrelevant.
I think my poetry shares concerns with a number of contemporary poets, especially some women, who claim a lyric subjectivity as a fluid and multiply-voiced arena of language. I don’t claim a notion of the self as a stable unity, a “voice”. I write in no particular “style”; I’ve written poetry that’s formal in a traditional sense, terza rima or sonnets, and poems which emphatically are not, or which use found text, or even randomising things like a dictation program. I’m fascinated by form, how you can use it and break it, but mostly I am interested in the articulation of feeling, as an intellectual and formal problem. Thought and feeling are not possible without each other, although they are often artificially divided, and poetry is one place where they can become the same thing. Also, which is problematic for a contemporary poet, beauty matters a great deal to me. At the centre, making art for me is about making beautiful things. I am not quite sure how to reconcile that with living in a world that is full of terror and ugliness, because I also think art is an attempt to be truthful. Perhaps that’s a continuing and unresolved tension in my writing.
I don’t know what Australian lyric might be, although there are quite a number of Australian poets who use lyric – Tracy Ryan, Kate Fagan, Emma Lew, MTC Cronin, to name a very few – in very interesting ways. I’m not sure if I’m an “Australian” poet, in any objectively identifiable way, at all, except that I live here and am influenced by my experiences here. I’ve never felt that I fit, although I don’t know anywhere else where my poetry fits either. Admittedly, that’s a common problem with poets in general, but I’ve always felt it sharply. I guess I’m still very much a first-generation migrant, with that sense of discomfort with any singular identity.
You’ve just mentioned that some women poets especially share your concerns about lyric subjectivity, and the four examples you name of Australian lyric practitioners are all female. Do you think there is a connection between gender and the lyric? What about other forms and genres?
It’s fair to say that a number of significant contemporary poets both here and elsewhere – Anne Carson is a good example – employ experimental lyric in ways that interrogate the idea of the gendered subject, and the gendered structures of language itself. In doing this, they draw on lyrical traditions that stretch back to Sappho or Shakespeare, in which the subject has always been mutable and gender has long been problematised. These are traditions which obviously include the lyric poetry of many men. So, if you mean that lyric has long problematised gender, yes; but I don’t think that lyric is some kind of especially “feminine” poetry. That way madness lies! Equally, women have historically used epic form for their own ends: Sor Juana de la Cruz’s Primero Sueño, say, or Christine Pisan’s City of Women.
Early last month you tweeted: “I may be a poet who is really not interested in being published”. Could you explain why that is?
That emerged from a question from John Kinsella, who asked me about the circumstances around the publication of my first collection, This is The Stone, which was published by Penguin Books in the early 90s. It made me reflect on how I’ve approached publication over the years: and I realised that it’s always been a kind of accident. I’ve never, in my life, submitted a manuscript to a publisher: publishing has always come about through someone asking me, and if the circumstances have been right, and I have enough poems, a book has followed. In other words, as a poet publication has always been a very secondary concern for me: I’ve assumed it will happen if it is meant to, but have never been especially motivated to make it happen, and it has often felt problematic, as if publication immediately puts a poem in a false position. I’m not saying that’s a correct suspicion, just noting that it’s there. I’ve always had the nagging feeling that poems should be simply given away. (I feel very differently about my novels, which I want people to buy, but that’s how I pay my rent.) Of course, on the other hand, I would like my poems to be read, and publication is the best way to allow that to happen.
Would you like to pick one of your poems from the Australian Poetry Library to revisit and share a few thoughts about?
It’s hard to look at your own poems, and especially old poems. I don’t feel I have any particular authority to speak of them. However…
A unicorn is a prose poem, or at least a poem with long lines, which is a kind of collision of thoughts from Rilke, who I was translating and reading at the time, and a memory of Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie. That play has always haunted me, for its isolation of a certain point of irrevocable damage in a life, symbolised by Laura’s collection of glass animals. Rilke’s poem “This is the creature” is about a unicorn as something that doesn’t exist – “this is the creature there has never been” – an impossible possibility for which a space nevertheless is cleared. Both these things came together in this poem as an expression of human fragility, I suppose, how easily and casually possibility can be broken inside us and only exists thereafter as a scar, and even that might be scarcely noticed or forgotten altogether.
A unicorn by stack level too deep
each thing we are given is like glass it is almost invisible we do not have the knowledge to hold it and it drops onto the ground and without knowing why we are bereft
this unicorn for example you might hold it in your hand you might say it is a lie because it does not exist and it is perfect as it is entitled to be because it does not exist
even your gasp of astonishment might shatter it even the timbre of your dreams even a glance might unwittingly and the unicorn is gone as if it were never there
and you feel the loss because although it didn't exist it was real
later we might be wiser but by then everything has already happened and some have forgotten even that who is to say they are unlucky
others however hold a mourning as if they nourished a tiny gravestone
where something might have opened and shiningly refracted them but that the agony of beauty split them back
entirely themselves and wholly lost