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A BIT OF NEW YORK IN AUSTRALIA
An interview with John Tranter
by Leonard Schwartz
John Tranter, Berlin, 2002
Australian poet John Tranter is the author of many books of poetry including Parallax, The Alphabet Murders, Late Night Radio, Borrowed Voices, and most recently Studio Moon (Salt Publishing, $13.95). He's also the author of a work of fiction, Different Hands, co-editor of The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry, and the editor of Jacket, one of the world's leading web literary journals. In our conversation below—originally broadcast on Cross-Cultural Poetics, the radio show I host, and transcribed by Nick Perrin—we talk about his poetry, Australian poetry, and his connection to the New York School, forged over a distance of 6,000 miles.
Leonard Schwartz: Can you tell us a little bit about Studio Moon?
John Tranter: It's a collection of poems which I wrote over the last fifteen years. It was designed mainly for an audience outside of Australia. I had a couple of books published in Australia before that, and when I got the chance to bring this book out in England, I thought I should include some work from those two earlier books I had out in Australia because the English and American readers would not have read them. So it's around 114 pages long, and it has a lot of poetry in it.
LS: It certainly does, and a lot of a very rich kind of work, opening with a poem that intrigued me entitled "Five Modern Myths"—a poem that's not only a lot of fun, but that plays with our expectations of the exotic and of what myth ought to say or ought to do. Could you say a little bit about the poem?
JT: Sure. It's a poem I wrote about four or five years ago in five distinct stanzas; the word 'myth' in the title is used in a loosely anthropological sense. I had a six month residency at Jesus College at Cambridge a year or so back. I had a lot of time to write there, which was the idea of the residency. And I was casting around for things to write about. I guess I had in mind a book of anthropological observations by Levi-Strauss, which came out in English in the sixties, I think.
LS: Tristes Tropiques?
JT: That's right. Tristes Tropiques was one; I think there was another one as well, The Raw and the Cooked. Then there was a book by Roland Barthes, Mythologies, which talked about different cultural representations like soap powder and wrestling, looking at them from an anthropological and linguistic perspective. I thought maybe I could write a poem on that theme, but makeup the things I am talking about, as it were.
LS: Barthes's Mythologies depicted mythology as something close to ideology but implying an image. In terms of your work, you invent the myth in order to debunk the notion of the exotic, in a way.
JT: Yeah, that's right. I figured the Guarani Indians of Paraguay would have dishwashers by now. How would they regard them? Well, most likely differently from the way I view my dishwasher.
LS: No doubt "the stockbrokers of Lakeville, Connecticut" have some myths by now as well.
JT: I guess they'd have their own little myths, when you think about it. In fact I met a fellow who knew the town of Lakeville in Connecticut and he said, "You got that exactly right, you must have been there." I said no, I'd made it up. Little-known fact: the poet and critic John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974) taught Latin in Lakeville, Connecticut for a year in 1913, though I didn't know that when I wrote the poem.
LS: Sometimes you make it up and it turns out it's true. Could you tell us a little bit about Australian poetry? You are a co-editor of The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry (with Philip Mead), and you've been involved in many ways with an Australian literary scene, which we don't necessarily see or hear too much about here in the States. How would you characterize that poetry world?
JT: It's one I know well because I belong to it, I guess. I was born in 1943 in Australia and I started to write poetry when I was about 18 or 19, in my last year of high school. Fairly quickly I became interested in poetry from the rest of the world. We have our own poetry in Australia, but I grew up in a little country town and I wanted to look outside Australia. I'd go to the movies and see films from England and America and they presented a world very different from the little country town I grew up in. And when I came to read poetry, the first poets I read were D.H. Lawrence and Gerard Manley Hopkins—both poets from Britain—and some old Chinese poetry. I guess right from the start I was interested in poets from outside Australia: America, Germany, France. After a decade or so I found myself involved in editing poetry magazines in Australia and compiling anthologies. Looking at the difference between the United States and Australia, I guess it's a little like the difference between the United States and Canada, perhaps; except that ninety percent of Canadians live within 100 miles of the United States, whereas all Australians live over 6,000 miles away from the U.S. It's a long way away, down at the bottom of the Pacific. And the kind of poetry I read as a schoolboy and a young man was much more British than American—because Australia never had a revolutionary war, because we never actually became independent of Britain, we always tended to look towards Britain as the place we'd come from. Like most Australians, when I left Australia to explore the world in 1966, I went to London: because it was easy to do, they spoke English, I felt as though I knew the place from all the books I'd read and all the movies I'd seen, and it was easy to get a visa to get into Britain at that point. So the poetry scene was a bit like that too. Most of the poets we were taught in school were British poets like Tennyson or Browning.
When I discovered the poetry that was emerging from the United States, it was with a sense of discovering this wonderful exuberant land that had been concealed from me for all my life. Two anthologies impressed me very strongly. One was a Penguin book edited by Donald Hall, which was very similar to an anthology you had in America of contemporary American poems by Hall, Pack, and Simpson, I think. The Hall book was mainly a selection of very academic poetry from the forties and fifties; it was very craftsman-like and well done. And at the same time an anthology appeared called The New American Poetry edited by Donald Allen, which was exactly the opposite; it was a collection of poetry that had been more or less ignored by the establishment for the decade of the 1950s and it emerged into the light in this anthology with more experimental writers like Ginsberg, Kerouac, Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and so on. It seemed very interesting to look at these two anthologies. When I met the poet Mark Strand about ten years afterwards he mentioned--he's about my own age—that when he started to write poetry there were two anthologies in the air at the time, the Donald Allen for experimental verse and the Hall, Pack and Simpson for the more traditional. He said he took a boat to Europe and one day while he was walking around the deck reading an anthology of poetry he bumped into a man who was doing exactly the same thing. They said hello and looked at each other's anthologies—one was reading the conservative anthology, and one was reading the experimental anthology—they nodded and went on their ways. They never spoke again for the duration of the voyage.
LS: And that's the story of American poetry.
JT: That's how it was in those days. That interested me because in my perspective in Australia the two anthologies were equally valuable, I enjoyed them both and I got a lot out of each one. So I think that extra distance gave me a perspective that an American might not have had, being inside the cauldron as it were.
LS: Certainly looking at Studio Moon I feel the influence of the Donald Allen anthology. That was the book that brought together for the first time the Beat poets, the Black Mountain poets, the New York School poets, and other poets like Gary Snyder and Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) that are hard to categorize. Throughout Studio Moon there is a kind of homage, a kind of dialogue or conversation with certain poets from the New York School; there is a wonderful poem called "Elegy, After James Schuyler."
JT: He's a writer I never met. Of course I never met O'Hara either, but I met Ashbery. In fact, we get on pretty well. I must say that I tended to enjoy the work of the New York School a lot when I read it because it seemed so much a remedy for the poor verse I was taught in Australia as a young boy. It seemed very exuberant and lively. But my James Schuyler poem actually is an elegy for O'Hara, which is based upon his (Schuyler's) own elegy for O'Hara called "Buried at Springs." That is the name of the little town on Long Island where O'Hara is in fact buried. What I did with that poem, as I did with a lot of other poems during a phase of experimentation, was that I found a poem that I liked and took the end words of every line and wrote them down; and I put the poem away and wrote my own poem, which used the end words I'd borrowed from the original poem. So the last word of each of the lines in this poem is the same as the last word in each of the lines in Schuyler's poem about O'Hara. So it is also about Frank O'Hara too, or my imagining of what I would have written had I been James Schuyler forty or fifty years ago. It's an experiment to imagine what I would have done had I been another writer altogether. Every now and again I like to get out of my own skin as it were, and think like another writer for a while, to see if it can do my own writing any good.
I've re-titled the poem since its appeared in that book. It was called "Elegy After James Schuyler"; I have since re-named it "Radium" because the word appears in the poem, and the glow that radium has seems to me to be like the glow that the writing of Frank O'Hara has. The last time I had heard it read aloud was by John Ashbery for a book party I had to launch this book in New York. I asked him to help launch my book and I thought he'd just get up and say a few words, but instead he said "I want to read a poem out of this book and it's an elegy for Frank O'Hara." And here was John Ashbery reading my words, which also included the words of his friend James Schuyler, a poem about the death of his friend Frank O'Hara. It was very spooky hearing that, because two of those men were dead and the survivor was there in the room reading this poem. The other weird thing was that he read the poem in his own accent, of course, which is an American accent. But when I think of the poem, I think of it in my accent, which is Australian. It was a very weird experience.
LS: Do you consider Sydney now a borough of New York City, or is New York City a borough of Sydney?
JT: I think Sydney is still fairly individual. I remember when I was a young man I was talking to the Australian poet and novelist David Malouf—he's now better known as a novelist, in Australia. He's a little older than I am, in fact he taught me at the university. I was saying that I thought Australians had to become more international. You know, we had to read more American, German, and French poets because the work we had here was a little parochial. This was about thirty years ago, and I remember David said, "Well, yes, John that's true, we do have to do all that, but you'll find that whatever you write and wherever you go you'll still think like an Australian. You'll still talk like an Australian." I guess that's true really, when you think about it.
LS: What would you suggest is the quality of Australian thought that would distinguish a writer writing in English in America from writing in English in Canada, or there in Australia?
JT: I have thought about that a lot because I have been to the States many times—seventeen visits to New York included—and I have done a lot of poetry readings in the United States. My wife also organized reading tours of groups of Australian writers through the States in the 1980s. So I am used to thinking about the distinction there; and one of the things that struck me once appears in a small Australian poem by a friend of mine that I would occasionally read in the United States. It seems to me to exemplify a characteristic of irony, or what I call the 'laconic mode', that we have in Australia. It's a little three-line poem, a haiku. It is by a friend of mine called Laurie Duggan. It talks about the urge that young people had in the seventies, the counter-cultural urge to drop out of society and go and live close to nature, get in tune with nature, on the coast of New South Wales in Australia. It goes like this:
drips through the tin roof
missing the stereo.
And I read that to various audiences in the United States and some of them would burst out laughing (it's meant to be funny). Other audiences would sort of sit there and look at each other and you could see they were thinking, "Well, naturally you'd move the stereo, right?" So some of the audiences didn't get the laconic tone that underlay the poem. And I think that is generally true of the way Australians think, they have a laconic way of viewing the world; partly I guess because of the fact that Australia was a fairly tough environment. I often by comparison like to think about the Lewis and Clark expedition, which in 1804 in the United States set out to explore the interior of America. There was a big expedition of thirty or so men, very well funded and took a year or two and went right out into the middle of nowhere and came back and said it's all out there: there's gold in the ground, there are fish in the streams, there are prairies you can grow wheat in, there's timber for cutting down and building housing, go and get it. An attitude of immense justified optimism.
We did exactly the same in Australia. In 1860 we had an expedition called the Burke and Wills expedition, which set out to explore the middle of Australia, and they hoped to find exactly the same thing, this great unexplored land: they hoped to find gold in the ground, fish in the streams. What they found was this immense desert that stretched for the entire width, and breadth, and height of Australia. And they got right across it, and they got halfway back, and they died of starvation. So what kind of attitude can you have in the face of that? All that's left is a laconic "well, too bad."
But when I think of Americans I think of them as being very optimistic. Even Ginsberg and his poem about America where he says 'go fuck yourself with your atom bomb', at the end he says "I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel," in other words: I'm with you, I'm optimistic, I'm part of America. Whereas Australians don't have that enthusiastic communal optimism you find occasionally in Americans. I think that is the difference.
LS: John, you also edit a very acclaimed and successful web journal called Jacket—one of the best places anywhere, and certainly the best place on the web, for finding out about what's going on in American poetry. It's certainly quite unusual that it's coming out of Australia. So the relation of Australian and American poetry is an ongoing meditation for you.
JT: Thank you Leonard, it is. Actually I had applied for funding for the magazine in its first year of operation—it began in 1997—after an issue came out I felt I should apply for funding to pay the contributors. I applied for this grant from the Literature Board of Australia Council, which is an organization rather like the NEA in America, and they declined to give the grant. And I thought well, maybe that's not a bad thing, because had I accepted a grant from them I would have to, according to their rules, make the majority of the magazine Australian work. And while there is a lot of good work in Australia, I didn't want it to be an Australian magazine, I wanted it to be a more international thing. I think in it you'll find a lot of American work, you'll also find a lot of work from Britain, and from Europe, and South America, Australia too. So in a way when I think of Jacket I think it doesn't really emerge from Australia. Of course I'm the editor and it does, but it seems to me to emerge from cyberspace, an area out there outside the planet somewhere. And it's free too.
LS: I wanted to ask you about another poem, just to follow through on your connection to the New York School. There is a poem in Studio Moon entitled "Three Poems about Kenneth Koch," who is one of the major New York School poets, recently passed away. I wonder if you could discuss that poem for us.
JT: Again, that's another one of those poems I write where I use the end words of another poem by another writer. And again there is a link with Frank O'Hara here because I use the ends words of a poem by Frank O'Hara called "3 Poems about Kenneth Koch." I've known Kenneth for quite a while, we met in New York from time to time while he was alive, and actually there is an issue of Jacket—#15—which was a tribute to him. Quite a large collection of contributors sent in work to him or relating to their relationship with Kenneth Koch when he died last year. I'm glad I was able to show him the issue before he died; he was really delighted with it. It is also the most visited issue of Jacket; I think it's had something like 16,000 visits.
LS: You do wonders with Koch's poetics and your own ability to transform O'Hara and the New York School into your work and this poem. John, this has been really wonderful. There are so many things I would still like to talk with you about, we'll have to do it again sometime very soon.
JT: I'd like to. Anytime you'd like to call me out here in Sydney, just pick up the phone.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005