Thursday, April 05, 2007

Interview with Javant Biarujia by Sheila E. Murphy

SHEILA E. MURPHY: QUESTION 1:

It is a privilege to conduct this online interview with you, Javant. You are widely known as poet, playwright, editor, and inventor of the hermetic language, Taneraic, in 1968. At this moment in the calendar, how do these various roles inter-relate to comprise your poetic vision?

JAVANT BIARUJIA: ANSWER TO QUESTION 1:

Thank you. The pleasure — and privilege — is all mine. After all, being an Australian writer with limited exposure in the US, and when compared to your extensive publishing history, it seems an odd choice to have me as interviewee! But I’m entering into the spirit of it all, and now, having finally moved into my new home, I am able to sit in my new office and devote myself to the task, after a hiatus of five very frustrating months. (I was taken aback when the builder said to me one day I was feeling this way because I was missing my “environment”. He had astutely recognised that, with all my books still in boxes, I was living in an exile of sorts.)

You have neatly encapsulated the observation that I am a writer. Period. I am also a prolific correspondent — the old-fashioned way, on paper sent through the post. I started as a poet, but also published essays, and then a decade or so ago I wrote a couple of plays, both of which won prizes. The second went on to be translated into Dutch and performed in The Hague, developing an independent life of its own. Something you don’t see so much with poetry. I’ve worked most my life as a writer, but I’ve always needed other jobs from time to time, to make ends meet. I started my working life in a Persian rug shop, which I ended up managing, after dropping out of university to do so (and to travel). I mention this because the “Persian experience”, and especially the tutelage I received from its proprietor, Alison Vala, as well as my travels to Japan and South-East Asia, and my life and loves on the island of Java, have become a great source of creative pabulum in my life’s work.

My hermetic language (or, “langue close”, as I call it, calquing the term on maison close, French for brothel!), Taneraic, has been with me since I was thirteen. I wanted to be able to write a diary, but without the fear of its being read by prying eyes. (I come from a large family!) A lock would easily be picked, and a hidie-hole would soon be discovered. (Do you say “hidie-hole” in America? That’s my Scottish side coming out in me.) Although Taneraic began its life in a mathematics class, while studying codes, my private language blossomed as I discovered a talent for languages, as well as language. I was studying French at school, but Russian at home at the time, and later, at university, Indonesian. However, it was when my French teacher introduced me to Esperanto that Taneraic really came into its own. I began my diary four days shy of my fifteenth birthday, and have kept it continuously ever since. I wrote it faithfully in Taneraic for seven years, until I considered I had written thousands of pages in a language no one else could understand, and yet I considered myself a writer, whose aim it is to communicate with a public. When I returned from a year’s sojourn on Java in the late 1970s, I put aside my Taneraic dictionaries and started to write my diary in English. By that time, I was living in my own apartment, and no longer felt any fear of discovery. I wrote in English from then on, over most of my writing and publishing career (I ran a small press called Nosukumo for fourteen years with my sister Susan Rachmann and my life partner, Ian Biarujia.) After a decade or so, I found that if I neglected Taneraic any longer, it was in danger of becoming lost even to me. I set about reconstructing the language, for I had burned the original handwritten dictionaries, and, with the aid of a computer, writing a comprehensive Taneraic–English dictionary, which I plan to publish in 2008, Taneraic’s fortieth anniversary. Also, starting with Volume 80, I have returned to Taneraic as my language of choice for the diary. So, it is alive and well again! It has also developed a life of its own: a friend has devoted a Web site to it; I correspond in it with poet and linguist Michael Helsem, for whom I prepared a series of lessons; and it has come to a wider audience through such efforts as those of Charles Bernstein, who, calling Taneraic a “poetic experiment”, quoted a dream in Taneraic in My Way, Speeches and Poems (University of Chicago Press, 1999), adding that while “[n]o more a poet of the Americas than Bunting or MacDiarmid, Javant Biarujia, an Australian poet, has embarked on the most systematically and literally idiolectical poetry of which I am aware” (p. 135).

I went further. In 1978, I legally changed my whole name by deedpoll, encapsulating the essence of Taneraic into my new name, and almost immediately, in this new guise, I found the courage to send my work out to publishers. Within six months of having adopted my new persona, three poems I had written on Kenneth Anger and Anaïs Nin were accepted for publication in Sydney’s main gay monthly magazine. What’s more, I was paid for my very first appearance in print (five dollars a poem!), which spoiled me for the many years of unpaid publication to come. Of course, people are intrigued by my name for its very exoticism. Needless to say, no one can guess at my nationality or ethnic heritage, for it doesn’t quite fit anything people are familiar with. On the other hand, I have never tried to conceal the origins of my name, or tried to jump on the multicultural bandwagon.

None of this, however, has really answered your question, for, au fond, I don’t know myself how these disparate entities interrelate. David Bowie, after changing direction in the late 1970s with his largely instrumental work, Low (my favorite), called himself a “generalist”. I think this word best describes me, too, for I don’t think I can be pinned down. I’ve written and published poetry for twenty-five years, yet an Australian reviewer a few years ago dismissed me as a “visual language” or “concrete” poet. Juliana Spahr compared my use of Taneraic in a long “bilingual” poem with the “fake language” poetry of David Melnick. The City Library here in Melbourne issued my book Calques with its own, unique Dewey category, for they couldn’t recognise the contents as poetry. And theatre reviewers have no idea who I am. I do see these instances as external problems — my creative vision, such as it is, is unhindered by other people’s notions of assignment or classification. Although I would have to say poetry is my first love, it is interesting to note that my play Comfort has been the most financially rewarding, earning me the right to call myself a professional writer. Yet I have written just two plays, one of them quite short. I have translated a novel from the French and adapted it for the theatre, but directors are not banging down my door! In fact, now in my fiftieth year, I no longer feel driven to succeed, when, in strictly commercial terms, I have failed. A succès d’estime, never a put-down in France, no longer feels that way to me here, at the bottom of the world, in Melbourne, Australia.

SEM: QUESTION 2:

Attaining the stature of unclassifiability seems to me to be the highest compliment, but one that brings with it complications, as you clearly point out. The potential for missed understanding by others is considerably higher. You referenced correspondence of the old-fashioned kind. Can you talk a bit about letter writing and its importance as art, or am I taking this point too far?

JB: ANSWER TO QUESTION 2:

My friends all look for the quill when they come to visit, but that is to misunderstand my resistance to the brusquerie of so-called modern communication and preference for what you call “correspondence of the old-fashioned kind”. Now, I am treating this interview in the form of a letter, not only because of its being an online interview, but also because I find the style more congenial — I’m not out to proclaim any truths, to unearth any profundities, or as, O’Hara himself said in his manifesto, to “improve” anyone.

So, if you want to know more about letters, I suggest you search the attics! That seems to be where the best letters are, mouldering away like Hart Crane’s grandmother’s love letters or the ones Rozanov found. Rozanov declared that the “postmaster who peeped at private letters (in Gogol’s Inspector General) was a man of good literary taste.” And a few lines on (Rozanov: Fallen Leaves, p. 64): “Writers’ letters are on the whole tedious, colourless. Like misers, they keep the ‘bouquets’ for print, and their letters are faded, dim, without ‘speech’. They ought not to be published. But private people’s letters are indeed remarkable.” Though what Mayakovsky undoubtedly cherished about letters was the freedom in which he could write whatever he liked without having to consciously think of style or the demands of the public, I must say I find his poetry far more interesting than his love letters to Lili Brik.

Writing letters is an act of friendship, not a literary activity. Often, it’s the intermediaries — editors, executors, the Bachelors of Arts — who strip the bride bare by publishing even the most insipid of letters. For profit, of course. (Vian satirises writers’ hunger for publishing and publishers’ hunger for profits beautifully in Froth on the Daydream [an oblique way of translating L’Écume des jours].) Delacroix, painter, writer, diarist and correspondent, believed in the value of letter writing as a critical tool for his painting, where he could range, discourse and evaluate his visual art with others as much for himself. There is a close relationship between writing and painting, word and image. And there are bleeding edges, where art gives way to craft and both are imbricated with the activities of the non-artist, hobbyist or amateur. It is the untutored eloquence of Van Gogh’s letters to Theo that puts them on a par with his painting. Both his writing and his letters, it seems to me, qualify as great art — I never cease to weep before Starry Night, and I read his letters with tears in my eyes for the solitude, the misunderstanding, the depression that lie au fond. Miller wrote, reinforcing Rozanov’s case, that “Van Gogh, without having any literary pretensions whatever, wrote one of the great books of our time, and without knowing that he was writing a book” (Miller: The Books in My Life, p. 35; emphasis in original).* Correspondence is a confession to others, whereas a diary is a confession to oneself. (Like Miller, however, I could never manage to get past the first few pages of Rousseau’s Confessions. By the way, Miller also pointed out that deception was more likely to occur in letters than diaries, for lying to yourself is surely a sign of madness. He meant deliberate lies — as, according to Vidal, in Nin’s Diaries, both edited and unexpurgated — not self-deception, or an evolving understanding of oneself, which may occasion contradictions, contrary revelations and reversals of belief.)

It all boils down to what O’Hara called Personism (which I’m inclined to misquote as “Personalism”, a complete “missed understanding” of what O’Hara was on about).† The letters I write are private, not literary, though many of them are addressed to other writers. And they are usually addressed to one person. I don’t consider structure or rhythm or field when I write letters (unlike Olson’s Letters for Origin, which acts as a bridge between his poetry and prose), but, unlike my poetry, I am concerned about their reception. I never write Letters to the Editor (well, I did a few times when younger, on points of grammar), but I love reading them in The Age. Such letters give a democratic voice to people who might otherwise have no avenue open to them.

I’ve got about forty books of letters still on the bookshelves — but it was this category I thinned out the most when I moved house last year (Blake, Butor, Cézanne, Pound, Shaw, Mead, Plath, Simenon, Symonds, Weill, etc. — all products of a young enquiring but undisciplined mind). For I had moved on. That said, correspondence permeates our literature, our psyche, from biblical epistles to a plethora of Collected Letters down through the ages. There are letters as letters, and then there are letters as artefacts. Letters may act as catalysts, generators, architects, prime movers. Peruse any library’s shelves and you’ll find works titled “Letter(s) to, from, of or by …” or “Correspondence with …” (e.g., “Carrier Letter”, Letters to Unfinished J., Four Unposted Letters to Catherine, Letters to a Young Poet, etc.; you’ll find my own “Letter X”, a parodic cut-up, online at slope’s Web site). For that reason alone, letters form a major part of our appreciation of art, if not art itself, though it now comes to mind that Nin saw letters as an intrusion: the choice was to write letters or write novels. (This from someone who slavishly wrote letters back to people who wrote to her, even when she was ill with cancer, for she mentioned often how hurt she felt when she wrote Djuna Barnes an admiring letter early on in her own career, only to be met with silence. Vidal sent Nin’s “weakness” up in Two Sisters (p. 14): “her pen-pals now range across the earth and her fame increases with each passing year”. Nin, it is to be noted, also started her voluminous Diary as a letter to her absent father. And O’Hara variously referred to his “manifesto” and “statements” as a letter or “little diary”. It all gets mixed up!)

The whole basis of the “Mosque Masque” section in Low/Life was based on love letters written to me by a young Muslim girl trapped in a traditional family overseas — put as vulgarly as possible, I think she saw me as a “ticket” to the West. But that is not to deny the depth of her feelings, or the pathos of her letters. In one letter, she spoke of a dream she had, which, unbelievably, I found almost image for image in Loti’s Désenchantées (I am not so cynical as to think she fabricated her dream after coincidentally reading the same book!), and this sparked a whole series of poetry for me. But apart from that, and “Letter X”, turning letters into poems has proved a failure for me — I think for the reason that you don’t find very much of me in my poetry. I am not an “I” poet as such, and have always favored abstraction. O’Hara called it the “choice between ‘the nostalgia of the infinite’ and ‘the nostalgia for the infinite’ ” (O’Hara: Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, p. 498; emphasis in original). His “Personism” was for the latter and against the former, but I’m very small-c catholic when it comes to prepositions. That’s what I meant by being a “generalist”.

Sorry, I have to leave off here — I’ve got letters to write!

* Haiku Review have just loaded up my essay on Dessaix’s first book (“Dessaix in Venice: The homotextual dissimulation of Robert Dessaix in Night Letters”), which opens with a quote from Miller’s “Letter to Lafayette” and goes on to comment on the nature of published letters:

“ ‘It’s like a grand sickness,’ said Dudley, speaking of the Letter which he had at last begun. ‘I want to wash up my own life and literature too. The book opens with a nightmare, an evacuation, a complete waste of images’ ” [quoted in Henry Miller, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, 1947; p. 153]. Night Letters, too, opens with a nightmare. In many ways, dreams — or nightmares — resemble letters: be they destined for a private drawer, publication or the waste-paper basket, letters constitute the least structured genre of writing, often the least professional; they are free-flowing, unformed, held together merely by a thread of arbitrary memories, thoughts and associations, full of non-sequiturs and blind alleys. In literature, however, all the non-alphabete idiosyncrasies — the loops, the curlicues, the dashes, the scrawls, the cross-outs, the exaggerated exclamations — are cancelled out on the printed page. For this reason, printed books of letters should be viewed with the same scepticism reserved for memoirs and diaries: that is to say, with utmost suspicion.

† A note bene, before leaving this Question, on “missed understanding” — an obvious pun on “misunderstanding”, but so effective, nonetheless. It allows for a new interpretation of an old complaint. I like that. I take it that it was yours. I have a keen ear for idiolect, especially that which transmigrates beyond borders and continents. For example, it was not until riffling my French dictionary the other day that I came across an American definition of “pabulum”, which I used to mean nourishment of the mind in my answer to your first question — as “mindless pap”! I understand how dangerous dictionaries can be in leading us astray, so I don’t know if my Robert has deceived me or not. I love what mishearing (“missed hearing”!) can do. I listed a few of my own in “Homo’Hara”, my poem on Frank O’Hara, and have even written a poem round a “mondagreen” of mine of a David Bowie song.


SEM: QUESTION 3:

You’ve led us perfectly into a discussion of the books Low/Life and Calques. Please talk about these in context of the larger scheme of what you are doing and discovering.

JB: ANSWER TO QUESTION 3:

That’s to presume I know what I’m doing! As a high-school student, I thought I was an existentialist, and so I envisaged my future books to be spare — as in Flaubert’s desire to write a book about nothing. Hardly did I know it then that Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld would surpass anything I — or Flaubert — could have imagined with “Seinfeld”, the quintessence of our era. Warhol started the clock ticking, but as Vidal said (paraphrasing Socrates), “A life untelevised is a life not worth living.”

I soon found out, despite clinical depression in my youth, that my outlook on life errs on the side of optimism; existentialists’ gravitas was not for me. (I couldn’t possibly write a book called The Plague without satire.) Voltaire’s Candide is one of my favorite books, which I have in the original, as well as in English, Indonesian and Italian, and reread every year. It’s alternative subtitle is Optimism, not the everyday optimism I just mentioned, but Leibnizian, which I’m not about to get into, except to say that Voltaire’s tool of choice was satire, and it was this genre of criticism that greatly appealed to me. That said, I try not to descend into burlesque or caricature, but to concentrate on the ludic elements of satire in my work. This quest has led me to Pataphysics, OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or potential literature workshop) and Italian and Russian Futurism, culminating in my small magazine for such, taboo jadoo (1989–1984), a “journal for multilinguistics amphigory interlinguistics écriture d’ombres langue close lettrisme zaum kubofuturizm (both written in Cyrillic) jasyan kachathatapagajadhadaba (a Sanskrit word written in devanagari, defined as ‘an example of a meaningless word’ [Macdonell])”.

Calques, for the benefit of those who don’t know it, is a book of poems of “pataphysical interpretations” of Queneau (Q), Éluard (E) and Derrida (D) — Q.E.D., the result of a line from Zukofsky(s): “mulled in my mind it’s velleity or levity” (“Catullus 72: Dicebas quondam”; the pluralising “s” on Zukofsky here is to signify Celia as well as Louis as authors of their “translations” of Catullus, for she is almost always left unacknowledged.)* As I said in a Note at the beginning of Calques, “I have gone beyond translation, through the various ploys/plays of amphigory, paronomasia, mistranslation, dislocation, collage, etymology and ‘extravagation’ (i.e., wandering beyond proper bounds), in order to test poetry”. (Australian poet Chris Edwards has recently done the same — marvellously — with A Fluke: A mistranslation of Stéphane Mallarmé’s [reputably untranslatable] “Un coup de dés”.) I gave credit to Zukofsky at the time of publication, in 2002, but if I had thought about it, Prévert, one of my earliest influences, who led me to poetry as I write it and whom I epigraph in Low/Life, could be said to be behind Calques as well.

Calques has an as yet unpublished companion, Confexions (another French word, this time for “making” — especially off-the-rack — rather than for “tracing”; the irregular spelling is to ward off monoglot English speakers from associating the title with confectionary, that is, chocolate or candy). In it are found poems, ready-mades, cut-ups (like “Letter X”) and constructions, such as “plus ça change”, composed entirely of newspaper headlines, like Wright’s “Hearst Headline Blues”, except my dada is not revolution or racism but the headlining of homosexuality over the past twenty-five years, starting with the year America recorded its first official case of AIDS, in 1981 (the same year Ian and I met — we celebrate our silver anniversary in June). If there’s a message, it’s in the title: The more things change (plus ça change), the more they stay the same. (Whalen made this point forty-six years ago in Like I Say!)

Normally, I turn away from “message” poetry, bald manifestos, propaganda politics. Perhaps it’s because protest poetry does not have the kind of history in Australia as it does in other parts of the world. Certainly in many non-English-speaking cultures, art is elevated to such an influential level in society that artists have helped to change society (and even become presidents; think of Vaclav Havel’s “velvet revolution” in Czechoslovakia). The rights movement in the US, with troopers killing students on campuses, Martin Luther King, the Black Panther movement, Stonewall, etc., simply has no equivalent in Australia. (To give a current example, while George W. Bush is taking more and more flak over America’s invasion of Iraq, Australia’s prime minister, recently given a reception in Washington fit for royalty, has emerged completely unscathed from any criticism, much less condemnation, from his Australian constituents for his wholehearted commitment to the “Coalition of the Willing”. Even Tony Blair is envious.) It would take a lot more than poetry to wake most Australians up. Voices that do speak up are quickly marginalised by the Murdoch press empire here, that controls most of the country’s media. (Remember, Rupert Murdoch was an Australian before changing his nationality for tax purposes.) So we don’t have a tradition of Ginsbergs or Reeds or Joplins — or even Dickinsons or Whitmans — here. So, when political commentary or sexual politics has entered my work, I try to imbue the language with complexities, to give depth to it, in order to “spread the word”. Occasionally, however, I find starkness beautiful, as in the dispersed-field arrangement of the anagram “atom bomb”, “a tomb”, in “let om bhodi land”, in Calques. (And no one but me would probably guess that my Joycean pastiche, “nisi prius shem about the prima facie”, also in Calques, is a censuring of our conservative government’s scuttling of the 1999 referendum on becoming a republic — our head of state is the Queen of England, you know!) So I subvert the political in my poetry. In a recent chapbook, Anagoge of Fire, I printed my poem on René Crevel, titled “crève-Crevel” (crever is very informal for tuer, to kill, while a crève-cœur is a heartbreak and a crève-la-faim is a miserable wretch), in which I expose how blind politics and prejudice corrupted surrealism; it ends:

LANGUAGE, THAT GRAND, IRRATIONAL, AUTONOMOUS, EXPLOSIVE, COLLECTIVE, SUBVERSIVE, CAMP, UNRECONSTRUCTED SOUL! FAR FROM BEING A COMMUNICATING VESSEL, HOWEVER, BRETON WAS TO RENÉ AN EMPTY VESSEL, AS HE WITNESSED HIM ASSAULT SOVIET GUEST WRITER ILYA EHRENBOURG AT THE WRITERS’ FESTIVAL (ANOTHER PUNCH-UP!), FOR REFERRING TO SURREALISM [that is, FAKE REVOLUTIONARY FRENCH LITERATURE] AS “PAEDERASTIC ACTIVITY”.

Ginsberg could get away with stark declamatory verse because America — and the world — needed to hear/heed what he had to say. The sheer nakedness of the poetry (and sometimes the poet!) was transforming and transcended much of the Beat production. (Bukowski, for instance, was just nostalgie de la Bouekowski.) Waldman’s Iovis, too, is transcendental. For me, too much of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E School is marred by cant and rant, which is okay in a conscious work of art but unforgivable in rhetoric. At least Bernstein knows how to combat “official verse culture” and win; he is inventive, satirical, witty, insightful and a pleasure to read. The danger is in “counter-official verse culture”, which can be stolid and indigestible. Jolas’ transition’s Proclamation is valid, because it confines itself to language, and the S.C.U.M. Manifesto was only effective against Warhol, but what do we make of the Second Manifesto of Surrealism’s “dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd”? This may have been the apotheosis of Ern Malley’s “Culture forsooth! Albert, get my gun!”, itself a paraphrase from Hanns Jost — and appropriated by Hermann Goering — but in the light of current events, its literary provocativeness is lost. Too many times artists have been hijacked by politicians. Just ask Nietzsche.

So I shun causes and categories. Having said that, Low/Life contains some of my most politically aware work, with poems on recent political events in Indonesia and East Timor, distant terror in Italy and a long “romanticised” suite of poems on Islam (a commingling of my Indonesian life and Persian influence). But, as I wrote to Michael Farrell a couple of years ago, when he sent me a poem on domestic politics: “I feel direct political messages have only worked for a handful of poets (Neruda, Mayakovsky perhaps); political pieces without the persona(l) of the poet date fairly quickly. That’s just my bias, I guess. I still feel quite uncomfortable about my ‘overtly’ political poem on East Timor [“island of blood island of marrow”], which I think stems from the fact that I ignored my own deeper feeling”.

Therefore, if not to politics (the external realm), I look to beauty (the internal realm, psychology’s interior). Russian exile and artist John Graham, who privileged the unconscious in his work and writings, wrote that there were two necessary elements of beauty: “perfection of form and surprise or rarity.” My work is far from perfect, and my form is “unmeasured”, not measured as in most poets’ work, but I intuitively understand what Graham is aiming at. It must come down to defining what I — we — mean by beauty. The word “beauty” is an empty vessel — as all words in and of themselves necessarily are — and so, as I said in a letter to Italian lettriste Betty Danon, we must infuse words with meaning through our actions, thoughts and states of being. “I have experimented with a whole language of ‘empty vessels’,” I wrote in my letter to her, “and sought to fill them with meaning in my life. I wrote in ‘baqain/purges’ [in Calques] that it’s not a necessarily certain or known path — ‘Vego, antareudiyo ai veqomaqaizetten’ (‘Perhaps it was mislaid in translation’) — we can become confused or lost”. It may seem strange for an atheist to talk like this, for many people have the mistaken belief that atheism equates to an absence of values and ethics. “God (tat),” I wrote in an essay once, “may have created the world but it — yes, lower case and neuter — did not create the word.”† I went on to say that it “is no paradox that Taneraic radicals have no intrinsic meaning — how could they, when they have been ‘created from nothing at all’ [linguist Johannes Aavik asserted this when he created ‘new’ words in Estonian for modern-day exigencies, such as ‘crime’]? No word has intrinsic value. When I am asked where the vocabulary for Taneraic comes from, I answer, ‘From beauty’. Epeolatry supplies the sounds and maybe a little algebra (topology), too, but I am speculating.”

Now, just as I feel about politics, so, too, I feel about religion. I don’t go along with the assertion that the world today wouldn’t have the architectural, sculptural and art masterpieces — or that the world would be a lawless and unethical place — if it weren’t for Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and the rest. Humanism, as Goodman described it, would have produced those same masterpieces — and our best laws. I am suspicious of artists who wear their religion or their cause on their sleeves — and I’m even more suspicious of people who co-opt artists to bolster their own arguments for them. It’s the Voltaire in me, I suppose. (I should also mention I’m a sceptic. Tzara, for instance, was supposed to have come up with the name Dada by randomly opening the dictionary and hitting upon the word. I thought I’d try the same with my own Littré, but somehow Dodécaèdre doesn’t have the same brio.) That Australia’s supposedly greatest living poet, Les A. Murray, for instance, should circumscribe himself as a “Christian poet” simply points up his limitations as a poet of any abidingness, in my opinion. (But I am grateful to him for his early promotion of John Kinsella, whose integration of Australia’s tradition of pastoralism with postmodernism has created a new identifiably Australian poetry.) I think attributives are limiting to an artist — so terms like “Christian poet” or “gay poet” or “protest poet” have no appeal for me. I would never call myself an “atheist poet” or a “gay poet” or an anything poet, except, perhaps, an “Australian poet”, in the biographical notes at the end of a foreign anthology. (I suppose I should mention here that although I am Australian by birth, Australia is completely absent from my work, at least consciously, and if unconsciously it’s present, it’s also unrecognisable. My landscapes are other, foreign or interior.)

Notwithstanding Calques — and Barthes and Breton and Crevel and Derrida and Éluard and Prévert and Queneau and Tzara et al. — I am not a theoretician as such, and eschew isms, mainly because I largely fail to comprehend them.‡ I confuse O’Hara’s personism with Mounier’s personalism; I’m still coming to grips with what epistemology and phenomenology are; heurism evades me as much as mysticism; I misinterpreted existentialism; semeiology, semiology and semiotics have sown their seeds of doubt; and hermeneutics is an on-going process. I do love instinctively the interiority of surrealism (though repugn its machism[o]), oulipoetics (the games poets play), and, contradictorily, I prefer the mortar-board academicians’ dadaism to just plain dada, which is, after all, a hobby-horse that’s been flogged to death (un cheval crevé).

This is perhaps what I satirise in a lot of my work. The refrain “I have mislaid my documentation” in “baqain/purges” — itself a “comment” on paralleling texts in different languages — pointedly shows up artists more interested in being “written up” than in creating their own work, or in laboring on grant applications with funding bodies controlled by the “official verse culture”. It is why I found pataphysics — and the oulipian tradition — the perfect vehicle. Play is essential to my work. I am what Huizinga called a “homo ludens” (well, a homo, anyway!). So I’ve coined my own ism for it: Ludicism (not lucidism, which would be its antithesis; and certainly not Luciferism, which brings to mind a certain nun, who wrote to me when I published Pete Spence’s 5 Poems, back in 1986, telling me in all seriousness it was the work of the devil). Tyuonyi’s anthology Patterns/Context/Time (1990) was perhaps my earliest exposure in America of my brand of ludicism, with the (part) publication of “The Logos Discursus”, with prose poems titled “pattense” (the conflation of pattern and tense), “in the status of texts (hubris)” (echoic of Houston, Texas), “hope spurs etypic” (you know!) and the rest. What I look for in other poets is their ludic play, and heartily recommend James Taylor’s Smoke Proofs, Peter Minter’s Empty Texas, Geraldine McKenzie’s Duty, John Kinsella’s New Arcadia, Michael Farrell’s ode ode, Chris Edwards’ utensils in a landscape and A Fluke, and Berni Janssen’s Mangon (I know I’ve forgotten to mention others here), which should all be available in America but probably aren’t. (With the exception of Kinsella, who’s published by W. W. Norton — a major publisher for a major work.) To sum up ludicism in a catchphrase: Through levity to levitation.

And so my Marseillaise is, if I must march to the beat of a drum: L’Art Pour l’Art!, in this world lurching to extremes.…

* A friend of mine cited a deluxe limited edition of an early twentieth-century poetry book in an antiquarian bookshop in Paris recently, titled Calques. (She was going to buy it for me, until she saw the price!) All she remembers is that it was poetry with illustrations of a famous artist of the period. I’ve made enquiries — even visiting the bookshop in question — but have drawn a blank. So, if anyone can solve this little mystery, I’d be most grateful.

† “Tat is ‘godhead’ in Taneraic but demonstrative ‘that’ in Sanskrit, which Barthes says ‘suggests the gesture of the child pointing his finger at something and saying: that, there it is, lo! but says nothing else’ [Roland Barthes: Camera Lucida (p. 5)]. That is indeed tat, which has said nothing since it was invented” [from my essay “A + B = Essence”, HEAT # 4, 1997].

‡ Barthes’ Pleasure of the Text brought me back to Flaubert, discarded since high school:

"Flaubert: a way of cutting, of perforating discourse without rendering it meaningless. Of course, rhetoric recognizes discontinuities in construction (anacoluthons) and in subordination (asyndetons); but with Flaubert, for the first time, discontinuity is no longer exceptional, sporadic, brilliant, set in the base matter of common utterance: there is no longer a language on the other side of these figures (which means, in another sense: there is no longer anything but language); a generalized asyndeton seizes the entire utterance, so that this very readable discourse is underhandedly one of the craziest imaginable: all the logical small change is in the interstices" [pp 8–9; emphasis in original].

SEM: QUESTION 4:

Your work is replete with sophistication, fluency and pleasure in language and thought occurring at progressive levels of depth within intervals that subdivide into what seems the definitive infinity. I am interested in learning what you perceive to be the most interesting current trends in any of the arts you may care to mention.

JB: ANSWER TO QUESTION 4:

I don’t know how to answer this question. You have revealed an inability in me for recognising such things as trails to the future, which is another way of saying “trends”. (By the way, I really like your term “definitive infinity”, not only for its echoic qualities, but also for its contradictoriness, a form of antisyzygy where sparks may fly.) I recently saw an interview on television with a much loved Australian author, best known for Storm Boy, Colin Thiele, who died in early September, 2006 (around the same time as Naguib Mahfouz), who replied to a similar question put to him by the presenter: “That’s one of the lovely things about human beings: you can’t predict what they’ll come up with [next].”

While the future (prediction) is slightly different from the present (current trends), you will agree they are inextricably bound. I have simply gone my own way … blindly. I do not see myself as a modern or postmodernist; I don’t care about the pursuit of the “new”, as innovation or revolution. Nor do I care about any prevailing thought or imagination-catching theory, for I have always written only with private considerations in mind. I am like a jellyfish ensnaring passing plankton purely by chance and just by being there. On my bleaker days, I would say I write in a void — another name for Australia, for the English republic of letters is decidedly transatlantic. I am not at all obsessed with death, either of the self or the established order. I do wrestle with my conscience, which is another way of saying I am a poet of the interior. (It is interesting to note that the words “ambience” and “ambition” derive from the same Latin root.) And I read blindly, too, everything from Gide’s Fruits of the Earth (my favorite prose poem) to Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows. The current I found that carried me away was Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, Steiner’s After Babel (though not all his views), Barthes’s Camera Lucida, Breton’s Communicating Vessels (though the man is repugnant), Pasolini (essays and films — surely I am the only customer to have bought an Italian light fitting simply because it was called Teorema!), Daumal, Davenport (poetry and essays), Derrida, Sontag, Mabille, Tournier, Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (from which I coined “ludicism”), the Fluxus and Oulipo experimenters, and so forth. Not to mention poets!

The presiding mood, though, if not a trend, is millennialist, apocalyptic, the end-is-nihilist (religion again!). Arthur Danto wrote a book called After the End of Art, for instance, while Frank Lentricchia and Jody McAuliffe capture the current mood in Crimes of Art + Terror, which appeared a couple of years after — and perhaps in response to — the atrocities of September 11, 2001, in America. For living memory, we have lived with the notion of the end of…, and especially since we as a species have become aware of our power to destroy all life.

Currents can be dangerous; there are undertows and rips that can be fatal. And it’s so easy to get it wrong. I couldn’t believe that McAlmon ridiculed a writer “who believed himself the modern of moderns, because he filled five pages of his last novel with x’s, line after line of xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx, as a symbol of dead soldiers and their graves” [Being Geniuses Together, p. 191 (original 1938 edition)]. This is the conflation of personality into disposition. Personally, I find such repetitious symbology as poignant as Prévert’s “Familiale”, Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth” or Levi’s “Buna”. (McAlmon must have had a selectively low opinion of the avant-garde of the day, for, seemingly contrarily, he published Mina Loy, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, H. D. and others through his Contact Publishing. Or perhaps he just didn’t like the “heavy-witted” author of all those Xs. On the other hand, I can’t imagine McAlmon deriding Sterne for his solid black page at the end of Chapter 12 of the First Book of Tristram Shandy, a little bit of avant-gardism two hundred years before McAlmon’s — and definitely before Sterne’s — time.)

The art I would have liked to mention is architecture, for it has always been of great interest to me, and it, perhaps more than any other art, has a power over us great enough not just to stir the emotions and engender opinion but to affect the quality of our lives in a material way (no pun intended). It is the only art which has a purpose, a use. An art which is also a technology and a science (as opposed to art which aims at incorporating science or technology into it, or art born of technology). But I don’t know that I have anything useful or interesting to contribute on the subject. Besides, no matter what I do say, it’s of no consequence — and I think such inconsequentiality works as an impediment. (Oh dear, another pun!) One thing I do know, and that is: the margin cannot be anywhere else but on the margin, for any shift (seism) is to change its nature (seity).

SEM: QUESTION 5:

As a final question, Javant, please share one or more artistic projects you plan or anticipate taking on in the short- or long-term future.

JB: ANSWER TO QUESTION 5:

A deceptively easy question — that may explain why it has taken me so long to answer it — on such a complex issue as the future. I’m not even sure there is such a thing as the future, just a perennial present. But here goes:

Next year, in 2008, Salt Publications is bringing out pointcounterpoint: new and selected poems, edited by John Kinsella, that will introduce my work to new audiences in Britain, where my work is unknown, and promulgate it in Australia and North America. I look forward to this book very much, which brings together the various strands of my work over the past two decades, from the romanticism of Thalassa Thalassa of 1983 (critiqued in Tim Rood’s 2004 book on the famous cry of the Ten Thousand) to the absurdist, Oulipo-inspired Calques of 2002.

Now, Calques brings me to the other MSS languishing in the desk drawer, for I have at least two companion works in mind: Confexions, a book of readymades, and Reprises, a book of “covers”, in the sense of Bowie’s Pin-Ups, or, closer to poetical home, Lowell’s Imitations. Confexions is all but done — as are the other three MSS (I can’t put the finishing touches on them until I have a publisher; it would be too hard to bear otherwise) — but Reprises is still germinating as an idea of interpreting my favorite poems by favorite poets, starting with Mallarmé. However, such a project brings with it the vexed questions of imitation, mimesis and even plagiarism; suffice to say I haven’t worked it all out in my mind yet.

The other MSS at various stages of completion are Warrior Dolls, a Whitmanesque reworking and enlargement of my 1981 book, credited by Paul Knobel as the first “openly gay” book of poems in Australia; Imaginary Lines, an “oneiricon” or book of dreams written as prose poems (something between, say, Burroughs’ My Education and Leiris’Nights As Day, Days As Night); Virilities, for which I received a writer’s grant for one year from the Australia Council, our equivalent of America’s National Endowment for the Arts (a Sydney publisher requested the MS. two years ago, albeit unfinished, and I’m still waiting to hear back if they’re going to publish or not — what other professional could be pushed around so much as the artist, he asks in a disabused tone?); and Logos Discursus, which started out as a contribution to Tyuonyi’s Symposium on Contemporary Poetry, in 1990, but which has since developed into a book of prose and poetry. I also bandy about Linea Alba, a collection of homoerotic poems taken from my other books (the dark line of hair that snakes down from the navel to the pubes is called linea alba; paradoxically, a white line) and Calculus Incult, which was Calques originally, or something like it. And I’d like the whole box and dice (the “Complete Works”) to appear under the umbrella title, Vivimus Vivamus, perhaps with its two Vs somehow interlocking Perec-style on the frontispiece. In full, the Latin phrase is dum vivimus, vivamus, let’s live while we’re living, a phrase I first used in a poem I wrote when I was 19, but reprised for a poem in Low/Life almost twenty years later. Then there’s Tabula Rasa: Uncollected Poems. This is not a project at all, but just a dream. I just like the title, and I like Arvo Pärt’s composition of the same name (which I’m now going to put on the turntable, if you’ll forgive the anachronism).

I have another life as a playwright, too. Comfort, my 1996 play about the plight of a comfort woman interned on Java during the Second World War is about to have another season, in a provincial but artistic town in New South Wales. (It was pure serendipity the issue should hit the headlines again so prominently, with the Congressional Hearing in Washington, and Japan’s public intransigency on the matter.) I’ve written two plays so far (the first, Afternoon of a Fawn Cardigan, a short radio play on AIDS, was actually banned in Queensland), and I’m expected to write more. Perhaps a comedy. I put ideas down at the back of my diary. At the back of Volume 79 (2002–2003), for instance, I noted plans for three (short, à la O’Hara) plays: Fair Enough (based loosely on Georgina Beyer, the first transsexual in the world to be voted into a nation’s — New Zealand — parliament); Merton & Morton (based on a friend whose two favorite authors are Thomas Merton and H. V. Morton); and Crux (based on a ballet dancer). I see I also penned a paragraph on Imaginary Lines:

BOOK: Imaginary Lines: Oneirocritical poems. A grammarian in Trajan’s and Hadrian’s time, Hermippus, wrote a work of five books titled Oneirocritica.… Like Leiris, I think of my dreams as poetry — but a book of dreams; is that the book of an old man? I envisage a note on the back of the book: “When Javant Biarujia, as a young man, was asked to describe himself in just four words (a word game in which the participants conventionally listed off four adjectives), he replied without hesitation: ‘Dreams are my perfumes’.”

Plus I have numerous ideas for literary essays, which I enjoy writing. (In fact, my last essay on Anaïs Nin, “Potential Paradises”, at just under 39,000 words, is a good chunk of what could become a critical work on Nin — it would have more chance of a wide audience than poetry, I’m sad to say.) And for a decade or more now, I’ve pondered the question of choice, which I’ve come to see more and more as an illusion, and definitely a propaganda tool of capitalism. Choice has increasingly become a weapon against someone’s sensibilities or a way of absolving oneself of responsibility (“That’s your choice!”). On page 14,238 of Volume 78 of my diary, I sketch the following note: “What I react to, when everyone nowadays is saying ‘I chose’ this or that action, this or that way of life, is their living on the surface. Making choices for every waking moment, is to live on the conscious level, all the while denying the unconscious.” I haven’t written the essay yet, for it strays from the literary to the philosophical and psychological, for which I’m not qualified, and I may just be wrong. (For example, I saw on television the other day how an MRI scan of a Buddhist’s brain “showed” that he could will — or choose — happiness as a state of being.)

Before I close my diary, I note I once had another idea for a book to be called Addictionary, a sort of poetical Ambrose Bierce. I don’t think I ever got beyond the entry for “prose poetry”: “The same as for electricity. Without the meter. (Cf.,. Volt[aire]; vid. Baud[elaire].)” No … wait! In Volume 68, which covers late 1997, I just found two others: “asymptote n. Rule of thumb at the end of a draughtsman’s (rain)bow. orator n. Someone who gives talking head.”) It’s not me — too cute by half. Not me at all.

And this is not to mention my life’s work, my langue close, Taneraic. I had hoped to publish next year, on the occasion of the private language’s fortieth anniversary, the definitive Nainougacyou (dictionary), but I’m hopelessly behind in my work. Like most lexicographers (if you’ll permit me that term), I’ll be dead and buried before the task is done.

So, you see, I’ve got my work cut out for me! I don’t know how much of the above, if any of it, will see the light of day. It doesn’t really matter. It is the work I live for, contrary to what I hear most workers say. I live for this work, for it is the work of my imagination, poured out onto paper. I’ve long ago shrugged off the fact that I’m never going to be a success, that most of my work will never be published, that I’m cursed with that lovely Baudelairean word guignon (what my friend Johnny Kesselschmidt, the subject of my most oft republished essay, “The Colossus of Melbourne”, calls shlemazelkeyt or unglick). Self-doubt looms always, as Rorem said (I’m currently reading his interviews, after having read his diaries). Perhaps Burroughs, in his book of dreams, sums it up best: “Writers tend to be bad luck. No trouble … no story.” Or poem. Or play. Who knows how long we have or what the future holds? Mallarmé said somewhere (I read it as an epigraph in Balakian’s book on the poet): “To end up in a beautiful book, that’s what the world was made for.” Ain’t that the truth!

[END]

2 Comments:

Blogger EILEEN said...

There's a LOT in this to ponder and enjoy. Thanks to you both for sharing. For now, was curious as regards this one moment -- when Javant Biaruji sez:

"I had burned the original handwritten dictionaries,..."

Wondered what caused those flames to rise...?

Anyway, wonderful reading!
Eileen

7:05 AM  
Blogger Nada said...

Agreed -- I learned a lot from this fascinating interview. Brava!

7:34 AM  

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