The Poetry Kit

Competitions Courses Events Funding How-to Books Magazines Organisations Poets Publishers Who's Who Workshops
Home Search

The Poetry Kit Interviews John Kinsella

John KinsellaJohn Kinsella, your recent Bloodaxe collection covers the dates 1980-1994. Not many poets would be happy to have poems they wrote at 17 in the public domain - can you say something about how and when you began writing?
Well, my mother was a poet - I say "was" because she stopped writing when I was about 12. I was brought up with poetry - memorising poems at a very young age, having Wordsworth and Milton read to me at bedtime when I was seven and eight. But I was also interested in lots of other things, especially science. These other interests fed into my poetry and it's still pretty much like that. I've always been fascinated by landscape but also with what can't be seen - poetry became a way of expressing the phenomenological in a way that my field notes couldn't. I took myself pretty seriously I suppose. Though I was writing poetry from around seven it wasn't until I was about fourteen that I wrote a poem I was really "happy" with. It was called Strike and was about marlin fishing. From an ethical point of view I'd stand by the sentiments expressed in that poem today. And there were a few lines in there that have found their way into more mature work. At about fifteen I wrote a quatrain which worked metrically and thematically. It was called Beasts of Burden. It was heavily influenced by the Australian poet Judith Wright, as was much of my verse of that time. I still greatly esteem her. She's a major poet in anyone's terms. So Poems 1980 - 1994 actually begins with poems that were written a long time into my "writing career", for want of a better expression.
I published my first poem in a recognised literary journal at around the time the volume begins. I suppose that fact as much as anything else determines the "starting point" of the collection. Obviously one could rewrite such poems to better technical effect now (I resisted rewriting poems - other than the odd line here or there and some grammatical improvements), and obviously they're not "mature" poetry, but they satisfy me in a way that those very early poems I mentioned did. I still get something out of them when reading them, and their existence allows me to do things with language that couldn't have come about by any other means. And what they have, in addition to this, is the eye of youth, which is not something to be dismissed. Though I was a skeptical seventeen-year-old and something of a cynic, there is definite sincerity and a deep conviction in the validity of the writing process. Poetry was, as it still is, the great passion of my life. And what I liked most about it were words, or "the word" maybe. The science of language. The dynamics of "meaning" and interpretation.
You mention Judith Wright. Who and what were your other main early influences? Were they primarily Australian?
No, they were primarily English, American, European, and Chinese poets in translation. I really discovered Australian poetry beyond Judith Wright in my last two years at school - particularly through an anthology edited by Alexander Craig called Twelve Poets. I've written elsewhere on the influence this anthology had on my poetics and worldview in general, but suffice it to say it introduced me to poets as diverse as Les Murray, Gwen Harwood, Francis Webb, and Michael Dransfield. A wide range of styles. Another poet in this volume was the West Australian Randolph Stow - it was a great surprise to discover a poet not only from my home state in a national anthology (a rare thing at that time) but, even more surprisingly, from the town I was living in - Geraldton. Stow had also, it turned out, written a novel about his childhood in Geraldton (a coastal-country town about five hundred kilometres north of Perth which I lived in with my mother and brother for three-and-a-half years) which was on the syllabus as well: Merry-go-round In The Sea. In combination with the immediacy of English poetry through my mother, and the fact that I had grown up with her writing herself, it became clear to me that poetry was an international language and that place was a plus and not a hindrance. Language was universal but each place had its own specific dialect if you like. It was the seemingly paradoxical notion that focussed my interest in landscape and what I've come to refer to as international regionalism over the years. I recall wandering around Wheatlands farm reading Dransfield's Courland Penders poems as well as Keats. I also recall reaching a point where I realised neither belonged to wheatbelt Western Australia...
As far as a check-list of poets goes from, say, the ages of 12 to 16, I would have to include Milton, Pope, Blake, Wordsworth, Colderidge, Keats, Shelley, Eliot, Pound, Frost, WCW (a poet I tend not to read now but whose Paterson, along with Wordsworth's The Prelude and Milton's Paradise Lost, drew me to the long poem), WH Auden, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Hart Crane, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Rilke, Villon, Li Po, Tu Fu, and the Australian quasi-symbolist, Christopher Brennan, whom I read closely at 18 but discovered on holiday in the city, down from the country.
In spite of its range and variety, your work remains deeply rooted in the West Australian landscape in which you grew up, and to which you still maintain strong links. Yet you are thought of as an international poet - you talk of 'international regionalism'. How do you resolve these seeming contradictions?
In the last couple of years I've embarked on a project to read the landscape I now live in - the Cambridge fens - through the landscape of wheatbelt Western Australia and vice versa. Distance clarifies and introduces new ways of seeing. I've written a piece for the forthcoming Imagined Commonwealths: Cambridge Essays on Commonwealth & International Literature( Ed. Tim Cribb, Macmillan, late 1998) called Fens, River, Droughts that explores this project both critically and poetically. International regionalism is respecting the integrity of place, of a region, and at the same time opening avenues for communication and discourse. I argue that regional identity is enhanced and best preserved by being part of the global community. Mutual understanding, mutual respect, and a willingness to tolerate difference best comes out of understanding what it is that makes and/or informs difference. Therefore, I don't find it a problem writing about place specifically and championing internationalism. My poetry has always been about a blending of the two. A work like The Radnoti Poems (published by Equipage at Jesus College, Cambridge) is very much a "hybrid" work that brings the language of place into contention with the "evolution" of a primary English (an Australian English and an international English that is the language of critical discourse). All of this read through a Hungarian poet who was murdered during the Second World War. A poet who was both classicist and innovative. Some have called this blending of landscape and internationalist critical discourse (urban construct?) "radical", or "neo", or "post", or (even) "poisoned" pastoral. This final description arises out of the bleak picture I paint of human destruction of landscapes and the external dismantling of indigenous cultures. Be they the Australian Aboriginal peoples or the early fenlanders colonised by drainage engineers and farmers.
Can we discuss your method of working? You seem to be a very disciplined writer, thinking carefully and exactly about what it is you want to do. Many poets, especially less experienced ones, find this approach difficult, even 'unpoetic'. Just how does a new poem of yours begin life?
Poems begin in all sorts of different ways. In a sense, I've been working on one long poem right from the beginning. Each poem is a kind of instalment. I suppose this is what's called "voice": something that makes a poem identifiably the author's. A signature. Occasionally a piece will almost "write itself", but this is rare. I'm a determined drafter of poems - and believe that each draft is a valid piece of work in its own right. Which is not to say I necessarily want to make all of these "valid" pieces available to the reader. Though sometimes I do. Most often a poem begins as an idea which I churn over for days, months, even years. I've a poem sequence coming out with Equipage in August that I began in 1988. Ten years of revising, reinventing. Thinking about consciously every now and again, unconsciously - well, continually. I'm very interested in poetic form so I work ideas over until they reveal their appropriate shape. It's a questionable process fitting an idea to a prescribed form (though, as a thing-in-itself, it has the potential to produce interesting results) - I prefer to let the idea dictate form itself. There's a flaw in this of course - the idea may have been, subliminally or otherwise, developed with a specific form in mind.
As I write fiction, criticism, plays, and a lot of cross-genre work, I work in a reasonably disciplined way. But you can't really do this with poetry. It has its own timescale and most often determines its own path. But this is not to say that you can't methodically revise and scrutinize the work-in-progress. In fact, I think that is essential.
Are you a particularly private writer, or do you prefer to share your poems with others as they develop, through workshops, circulating among friends, or posting on the internet?
I'm quite happy to discuss a work-in-progress but I don't workshop things. I'm involved in a lot of collaborative projects so there's a constant process of consultation and interaction going on there. I'm happy to circulate drafts, and as I've said, see each as a separate piece. Something "interesting" in its own right. Most often, however, I work in a fairly reclusive way.
On my Electronic Poetry Centre author's page I've got some work that's still in development - in theory at least; maybe it will end up staying that way. A draft that becomes the end result. I find the internet a fascinating medium because of its potential for interaction and dynamism. It informs what I've called "hypermodernism" - which is closely connected to international regionalism - a process of moving through and into the many "modernisms" that exist side by side in the global village. I reject the idea of there being a single homogenous "Modernism", as I do a condition called "modernity", which, in different parts of the world, in different societies, has come to represent very different sets of conditions. Hypermodernism is a science of communication. Maybe it's a movement that actually moves!!
You've recently been published in other literary forms - a play, a novel. Does this mean that you are coming up against the limits of what poetry can do for you? Or are you taking poetry into the 'enemy camp'?
I wrote my first novel when I was fifteen. I don't know what happened to it. It was a science fiction novel. I wrote a fantasy novel a couple of years later, The Staffs of Kwarn, and a serious "literary" novel, Morpheus, when I was 18. Morpheus is in the National Library of Australia so it may surface one day. I was writing plays too around that time, including The Chimney Sweep (also in the National Library manuscript collection). So, other genres have always accompanied my poetry and explorations of poetic form. I question genre division, and my recent novel, Genre, is an example of this. It challenges our preconceptions regarding form and prescribed reading patterns. Poetry is limitless, but so are other forms. I'm never not a poet, no matter what I write. But then, maybe I'm always a playwright, a novelist, a critic and so on. The enemies of poetry tend, in my mind, to be internal rather than external - those who attempt to define exactly what constitutes poetry, and more worryingly, what doesn't. For me, a poem must achieve what it sets out to do in its own terms. I recognise the "limits" of tradition - of line length, rhythm, metre, rhyme, etc - and employ them regularly, but only to explode what it is I should or shouldn't be doing.
Maybe that's the way all writers should work, across genres rather than tightly fenced in. Nevertheless it has to be acknowledged that poetry has long since lost its central role in literary culture - at least, in English-speaking culture. Paul Celan described it as like writing messages in a bottle. Can poetry still make things happen?
I disagree with Celan on that. I think poetry is central to English-speaking cultures as a general rule. It's just that it makes its presence felt in a variety of fugitive ways. "Found poems" are everywhere, novel and dance and music and even visual arts are decribed as "poetic". True, this is often something to do with a particular tone, but it's also about technique - about concentration, a succinctness of form. In fact, a poetics is essential to all artistic endeavour. People often resort to essentialist platitudes when it comes to poetry - that it is an artform that is so pure that it must be respected and so on. Above and beyond everything else it is about communication. It is the most concentrated, distilled form of communication we qualify/recognise/define. It's when we manage to override the limitations of genre - when words sing, when the music forms images, and so on. That's why things are described as "poetic".
So yes, it does still make things happen - both on the fugitive and the direct levels. Recent examples of "political" poetry that's worked directly would include Tony Harrison's Bosnia war poems published in the Guardian, or the many Gulf War poems, and the Tiananmen Square poems that appeared around the world. These help raise a consciousness that lifts us out of the MTV immunity-by-immediacy factor - the numbing quality of war-by-video/film which had shocked us with Vietnam but had come to entertain us by the time of the Gulf War. John Forbes wrote a poem on the Gulf War called Love Poem which begins "Spent tracer flecks Baghdad's/ bright video game sky// as I curl up with the war/ in lieu of you..." finishing with the wonderful lines "...Instead I watch the west/ do what the west does best// & know, obscurely, as I go to bed/ all this is being staged for me." I think it speaks for itself.
But war poems are just one example. Poetry is a very "moral medium". Recently I've been working with the Australian poet and animal rights activist Coral Hull on a project called Zoo Poems in which we've been exploring the moral implications of caging and keeping animals. It's a project close to both our hearts - both of us are vegan, incidentally. The movement from the private to the public space is effectively facilitated by poetry. For example, a childhood memory of a visit to the zoo is re-experienced through the discovery of an elephant that has gone mad - swaying constantly back and forth, turning in circles - on a Zoo Watch visit to Taronga Park Zoo in Sydney. The wonder of the child is the anger and frustration of the adult and so on.
I also think poetry has something to say about the evolution of the language itself. It is a litmus test for growth and enrichment. Poetry discovers, consolidates, reinvents. It is the life of the vernacular.
But doesn't this raise the question of the audience for poetry? After all, MTV v Bloodaxe is surely a no-contest.
This is true, but I don't think they're really doing battle! And when "poetry" does find its way on to something like MTV ("performance" poetry, poetic lyrics, rap, etc) it undergoes a transformation into a more digestible form. This is most often to do with the way the material is presented and promoted. But there's poetry there. There has been some wonderful cross-over material that's breached this imagined gap between "literature" and the potential receptiveness of "popular culture". The Last Poets, Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith, and indeed the anarchists Crass are just some examples. Leonard Cohen makes for a more popular sample, and there are any number of introspective lyrics floating around on cd liftouts with maudlin-moody pictures of their authors on the front cover.
But as I've said, I think the boundaries of what constitutes poetry are pretty fluid so the interactive nature of the pop-rock video often creates a poetic structure in its own right. MTV late at night - on the odd occasion - can work just fine. I recall seeing a Cramps special on one of the German satellite music channels on a television in Coimbra, Portugal, at about two in the morning a while back and thinking - amidst the tackiness, the Lynchesque colour codings, the swamp lyrics, Lux Interior and Poison Ivy getting right off - yes, this is poetry. Poetry of filthy sublimity.
Isn't this about as useful as saying that what Bach and Kylie Minogue do is the same thing - it's all music? How does that view fit in with your own publishing programme - with SALT for instance?
Well, it IS all "music" and taste is taste. Depends what you want. My taste lends itself to Bach on an aesthetic level but I think Kylie Minogue an interesting social phenomenon! Especially when she teams up with Nick Cave. Can't stand her music, but think she's a rather bizarre creation. And poetry feeds on opposites, so I like the juxtaposition! Kylie is also interesting from a post-colonial perspective - what British culture "allows" Australia to represent itself with. Her adoption as gay icon, her manipulation of this image (and her support for the community which is genuine in itself I believe), the projection of minority into a public space, etc., are also worth considering. Also, the whole idea of Stock Aitken Waterman is fascinating - capitalism's version of the second-rate "Master" artist's studio - churning paintings out for the gentry. Jeff Koons has done the same thing with visual art in the late twentieth century - his assistants churning it out for a ready-made market. Warhol did it of course, but he ironised the process in a way that made the process itself "high" art. I've used Koons in my poems, but not S.A.W nor Kylie - yet - they will appear! My poem Nature Morte: Oh, Rhetoric deals with this process. It's dedicated to John Tranter - a poet who really understands the discourse between popular art and perceived notions of high art. Another great ironiser of this was another Australian poet - John Forbes - who died in January 1998.
Salt publishes a wide range of poetries - from the radically innovative to poems that are strongly formalist/traditional in orientation. A poem has to succeed in its own terms and, regardless of approach, must demonstrate control over its subject matter. This said, ambivalence is a strongly creative force so tensions between form and content often produce the most exciting work. I'm not interested in imitations unless they're done ironically, or as part of some meta-textual process. Getting published in Salt isn't an easy thing, but belonging to one "style" or "camp" of poetry certainly won't mean rejection. The poetry just has to work in its own terms, particularly on a technical level. In many ways I see it as a venue for hybridising, for breaking down barriers, and so on.
The thing that annoys me most about the MTV variety of the "poetic" is the "digestibility" I mentioned - but this is the stuff of popular culture. Too much Salt may prove indigestible and is likely to give you a coronary (despite recent "research" suggesting this is not the case), but you require at least some to live.
Oh, my next book of poetry is called The Visitation, and is poetry about UFOs and associated phenomena - a wonderful cross-over area...
So what next? You're known as a man of many projects - what's about to appear over the Kinsella horizon?
  • Kangaroo Virus - cd-book collaboration with sound engineer and photographer Ron Sims - due for release in October
  • Grappling Eros - volume of short stories due for release in November 1998
  • Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poetry - due for release in May 1999
  • Special poetry issue of Kunapipi (English language poetry from around the world) - due for release in December 1998
  • Special issue of Australian poetry for Poetry Review - co-edited with Peter Forbes - due for release in April 1999
  • Special Australian issue of The Literary Review (USA) - due for release in 2001/2
  • Crop Circles - a play in five acts to be performed by the Marlowe Society in Cambridge in October 1998; being negotiated for release at the Playbox in Melbourne in 2000
  • The Visitation - a volume of poetry - due for release in 1999
  • Rodney Hall's New & Selected Poems - as editor - due for release in 1998
  • Robert Adamson's Selected Poems - as editor - due for release in 1999
  • Zoo Poems - collaboration with Coral Hull - due for release in 1999
  • Salt 11 - due for release in 1998
  • Post-Colonial - a novel - nearing completion
  • an anthology of science and literature - being developed
  • numerous collaborative projects including working with composers, visual artists, and other poets
  • I've recently joined the editorial board of Arc publications and am reviewing for newspapers and journals on a regular basis
  • a book on the pastoral

© John Kinsella, Ted Slade 1998