Thursday, June 29, 2006

interview with michael farrell by richard lopez

richard lopez: your poems depend upon so much speed and enjambment. i also think they are damn funny. would you describe the processes of your poetics, how the comic factors in to your poetics.

michael farrell: my processes arent countless, but there are a lot ..ill stick to talking about the features youve mentioned, specifically relating to ode ode. speed: beginning poets seem to think short lines are fast, but short line after short line can be slowing & dreary – especially if theres no enjambment. (i mention beginning writers because i take workshops, judge prizes, and edit manuscripts..) my early poems came out of a practice of writing prose poems (very stein influenced). then i started dropping fullstops, writing a continual prose (another beginning tendency). i was also influenced by the monologue of rap: not just in rap music, perhaps more so as a part of dance (were talking early 90s) – say technotronic as an example. the rhythm of the voice is less emphatic(?), more about movement than rhetoric – the timings not just about the rhyming. in a sense i was starting to use enjambment within a line: i mean starting a new phrase with a new sense instead of resolving an old one. paratactic. because i was obsessed with titles, less dependent on them now, though ive mostly written my poems with the title first, the title contains the idea, the feeling, the motivation for the poem,& if that title happens to also be a song title, then im using the energy feeling that the song gives me. id write phrases that related to the title, rather than flowed from the previous phrase/line (titles from this time include ‘punk up the jam’ and ‘balds have more fun’). i think this accounts for the speed. (in later poems ive tried to approximate – thru using line breaks – and punctuation – electronic music of the mid 90s). a lot of the enjambment is arbitrary & comes from another musical direction: john cage. thru him (& also from reading (about) georges perec & oulipo) i became interested in chance procedures, & in using limitations, to escape a reliance on instinct (which often means convention). most of my poetry uses linebreaks based on using dice: human but not too human. it gives my work a sense of control i think. humour is trickier, not being so obviously technical, yet it partly comes back to titles again, to puns which were a big thing for me for years, too much reading nme (new musical express) – which relates to the ambiguity (increased possibility) which comes with enjambment and a phrase-based poetry. i like to make jokes, perhaps it comes from being bored at school trying to make something out of / against a teachers words. (or from my fathers sense of humour which often stems from deliberate mishearing; i used to find it very annoying but think ive perhaps have been able to use it.) stein can be hilarious; oscar wilde .. i loved catch 22; little britain. its a form of protest. theres an element of the country (the rural) in there, the lax attitude towards violence, the satire. its about cramming too much info into a line, the comic as well as the serious & trying to balance the tone ... its a juggling act sometimes.

rl: ah technotronic! i recall the lead vocalist, i don't remember her name, using a kind of drone that nevertheless carried forth the beat of its noise. you mention electronica and oulipo, and it seems to me that what a good d.j. does is use some of the techniques of oulipo, mostly unconscious of doing it i gather, to use mechanical and mathematical means to cut and paste new work from existing structures. but even so yr work is what i would call nervy, almost spontaneous. is there no, what the surrealists would've called, automatic writing used in creating yr texts?

mf: no. though people think there might be, or ‘stream of consciousness’, but i think theyre more like orgasms than pissings. maybe im being too emphatic here? its not the image i have of myself, though i tend to write fairly quickly – its more of a stop-start process. i think of baudelaire and his phrase: ‘the flowing style beloved of the bourgeoisie’ – i generally prefer to avoid that. theres a definite point around 2000-2001 where im interested in dj practice as a model for poetry: the ‘school’ poems in particular; theres a couple of remixes of poems by dorothy porter & laurie duggan in my next book – they were in cordite – i just tried to find them in the archive but it was too hard. ive read about the surrealists practice of automatic writing, but i dont know those surrealist texts – were they rhythmic or disjunctive – were they like or unlike stream of consciousness? im conscious of what my writing sounds like – though not completely – the amount of internal rhyme & half rhyme that creeps in surprises me – i havent examined my poetry over time to see if thats something ive learned gradually. are you thinking of the earlier, more story based poems like ‘john ashbery impersonator’ or ‘person with a flute’, the sampled poems from ‘school’ or others youve seen online?

rl: i am. but even more recent texts, such as ‘toxictoxictoxictoxictoxictoxic’are almost like pop-gertie-stein, pop-in-stein perhaps, but read to me rather like o'hara's poems in that they spontaneously appear to do this and that as well. now that you've brought up 'john ashbery impersonator' would you talk a little about it. i've just reread it a couple of times and love it's paranoid humor. the poem is a kind of script from a noir film where the speaker is bloody obsessed with his idol. it is also one of a handful of yr poems that is narrative and nearly snaps shut with the penultimate line of it's speaker asking 'who did & were you like when young. ' every young poet perhaps wanted to ask that same thing of a favorite living, or dead, older writer, a form of wanting the poet, perhaps to be that poet.

mf: this poems ten years old, its interesting to be writing about it... when john ashbery came to the melbourne writers festival i wasnt in the loop, wasnt an emerging enough poet to know he was here, was too new to melbourne.. so this poem is a compensation, you could say. i suppose im working out how to break down narrative: the shirt colour possibilities make the reality ambivalent. who is the impersonator? if its not the narrator but ‘the one not wearing a red sash’ does the narrator know this? if so why is he so interested? to get at a kind of truth the real couldnt afford? camberwell is a bourgie melbourne suburb. ‘the aim of this government cattleprod’ is an allusion to boy georges ‘no clause 28’ nme single of the week in ’88 while i was in london. clause 28 was a thatcher measure to prevent government bodies from funding anything that promoted homosexuality. (for a brilliant portrait of this era see alan hollinghursts the line of beauty). in the song boy george samples joan rivers as thatcher “the aim of this government is to make everybody miserable”. ‘the best place to see eclipses’ – bombala, the small town i grew up in, was a favoured solar eclipse sight in about 1972, people with telescopes on the fields near the caravan park. ‘in amourous ... today’ (oops just found another spelling error, shd be amorous) is a parenthetical statement, still working out what i can do with syntax, when ive got no punctuation. the last 3 lines contain sexual innuendo, im not sure id noticed it in ashbery before writing the poem... he seems to have been explicitly sexual since, i mean in my reading trajectory at least. when i actually met him at bard in 2004, i couldnt think of much to say. he admired the title of ‘ode ode’, that was gratifying. he shared a fried oyster with me – that could almost go in the poem.

rl: you would have one mean title at least with ashbery and fried oysters! but to back up a little, i'm a fan of electronica music. i've nearly worn out my aphex twin discs, and i admire the d.j. digweed in how he can manipulate different beats and sounds into a fractured whole. what was it about electronica that persuaded you to try to approximate its sounds in yr texts.

mf: it didnt persuade me exactly. ive been obsessed with pop music since i was ten or so; at some point electronica was the new pop. i marvelled that songs with words were the convention for decades and suddenly it seemed songs without words dominated – though if i looked back at the charts this probably isnt so – but still there was suddenly a lot of it around – of course it didnt last all that long and words came back with a vengeance. i suppose i should say lyrics as electronica does use words sometimes but theyre generally abstracted, taken from samples. often id been getting ideas from words in songs & using the tunes to take me somewhere. i liked the challenge of just having music to work from (never having voluntarily listened to much classical – or jazz). it tied in with my interests in abstraction, language poetry and its relation to abstraction, and to collage: a lot of electronica uses sampling. i realise theres a lot of generalisations in this answer. i started practising with dj shadow; tried to think of the poems (the ‘school’ sequence from ode ode) as having a conceptual relationship with the shadow tracks. i listened to them over and over while writing – while at the same time sampling words from two different texts. so the music wasnt inspiring the words as such but there was some relation between the music and the word choice – im not sure how youd describe that relation though: rhizomatic? id already been working with ideas of sampling (the ‘living at the z’ sequence) – but i wanted to take it further, further away from the literary: though mine are more abstract, the ‘z’ poems still bear a relation to those of marianne moore, who had been a model. (she would have made a good model?). (i published a story about hanging out with marianne moore in verse a few years ago.) (there’s also one about me and allen ginsberg in masthead, me and anne sexton in meanjin.) aphex twin was a mindblower. i didnt actually try and approximate what he was doing directly, but it did get in my system: how do you blow peoples minds like that? – and the distortion, the anti-sentiment anti-humanness. its not all about form (he adds) its about feel or texture.

rl: that coldness, and abstraction, in electronica is precisely what i find most appealing. i've also been writing while listening to electronica, especially the ambient works of aphex twin, who is indeed a mind-blower, and trying to get that kind of abstraction in my work. since lately i write late into the night i find electronica the perfect complement to that feeling of being the only one left in the world alive and conscious, most powerfully at 3:00 a.m. which leads me to switch gears a bit, and ask when did you discover poetry. when did you know that poetry would become the work of yr life?

mf: (i usually prefer electronica thats warm.. what appeals to me about aphex twin is the surprising disjunctiveness of his sounds.) i started composing poems in my head when i was quite young – i think i must have been 7 or 8 – i published my first poem soon after: a poem about animals and god, i took the tune for the poem from a hymn – id shown it to a nun who sent it off. it seems incredible now (that it happened) – but i waited a long time for another publication! i dont know the how ... i picture myself wandering around my grandmother’s place philosophisinging: poems about i/me; then walking over the bridge – leaves on the river; even then i didnt like metre – i thought the poem the nun chose was the weakest. ive often thought it (my composing) somehow came out of my grandmothers talking & singing to me but now i wonder if its as much to do with being a dreamer-loner child & just allowing poems to come through – & having space to do that, and the stimulation of a range of environments: farm/town/river (plus all the reading i was doing – nothing impressive in a literary sense though). i remember around this time or maybe earlier, we had to draw in class a picture of ourselves as the thing we wanted to be – i drew a writer. it was the cliche of being surrounded by lots of screwed up paper. coming to be an adult writer was not that simple though. i had no concept of a writer in reality – least of all a poet until i made it to a city and finally to university. i started to wake up at about 21, shaking off the repression of being a country boy, of catholicism, of horrible years in the bank, dull months in the public service .. & then the public service trapped me again later for eleven years. at uni a lecturer said my stories were more like poems: image-heavy, unconcerned with character.. that was the beginning of my crawl back to poetry. i had to discover what it was (no poetry classes in my writing degree) by practice. finding frank o’hara was another boost. i was writing stories all the time. then publishing became an addiction ...

rl: growing up nominally catholic myself, i find that it has remained a lasting influence in how i think and perceive our varied realities. there remains a sense of the luminous in both the internal and external life, and the word as the source of such light. catholicism is rather baroque in its ceremonies, centered as it is with the suffering of the fleshly, which in kind can develop into guilt for being a mortal, carnal creature. in a piece published in fulcrum 3, 'poetry as resuscitation / a portrait of john the baptist', you compare and incorporate the texts of gertrude stein and the techniques of john cage to examine yr own poetics. you write: 'Maybe there's a connection between stein's & cage's homosexuality & their head over / heart engagements, with the beauty of their writing. . .Maybe homosexuality is their john the baptist'. further along in the text you wonder whether 'there's a connection between "my" homosexuality & the poetry i write'. personally i think textuality and sexuality are intimately linked, and take great delight in their admixture. care to expand on yr text a bit?

mf: lights a tricky subject … ‘enlightenment’ aside as a (contradictory) scientific, religious colonial enterprise, theres a (related of course) racist discourse of dark/light that im interested in reading – in australian poetry in particular. but to get onto yr question. recently i sent someone some poems to draw on for an article in a gay mag, i thought how queer they all were in different ways: explicit and implicit phrasing, the titles, the very concepts of the poems. doing it was gratifying, it made me think of my audience in a new way – i dont think ive reached a gay audience. sometimes i can feel quite selfconscious about reading my work – suddenly realising how queer it sounds – sometimes this selfconsciousness is about style – other times i think ‘oh, im coming out..’. its not i think a coincidence that the 3 biggest influences on my writing in terms of style are stein, ohara & ashbery. firbank, genet & ginsberg, also lorca & pasolini have their importance (keeping it literary) – but the pop obsession is quite a gay thing as well. i think idol (u.s. & australian) is stupidly homophobic in having 2 straight male judges when pop music has such a gay audience. my mother recently referred to my grandmother as being very private (the context was my uncles tapes about his upbringing) – & i said i was too – why did she think i wrote the way i did? she thought this was very funny ‘oh i didnt realise you didnt want people to understand your writing!’. but ive always been quite secretive and coded – even in behaviour – secret games – of course some people get the code – they see the personal in the poems.

rl: i'd think that it is impossible not to read the personal in poems, for texts are not computer-generated (well, not a whole lot of them, tho tranter has done interesting experiments with computer-assisted texts, so has mac low), but written by creatures clothed in flesh. it is telling that three of yr influences, ginsberg, genet and pasolini, were not only out in their sexuality but rather political in their character and their writing. you speak of being 'secretive' and 'coded' in behavior yet some of yr subjects, for example the poem 'after jim showed his bum the evening slid' i read as rather open in its sexuality. yr poems are not overtly political, but even in code they seem to be gesturing toward a sexual politics.

mf: i think my poems (like anyones) could be graphed in terms of its personalness, it peaks, ebbs ... some poems in my next book are pure code – but still not purely impersonal – context says a lot ... the three writers you mention – have influenced me in various ways, but i dont feel particularly close to them politically – or sexually. ‘after jim ...’: yes its open in a way, but presents a discreet scene. its far from being an ‘ode to anonymous sex’. you could say its political in the contrast between the hetero-goons/ the narrator, q; jim & debbie are named – jim moons the world – open & ironic. again you (i) could graph my poems in terms of their explicitness. i think the politics operates (& again this is not unusual) in the kinds of things that arent said – that are refused; & in saying things in new ways. our current pm is currently condemning the notion of plural truths & postmodernism – the more conservative the climate, the more anything becomes political. suddenly a lot more people, sayings & actions seem subversive, seditious. there are explicit political statements in my writing, but ive perhaps made it difficult for myself (ie with my poetics) to say them. i used to be more concerned with gender politics, thats still there, but im more concerned with racism, not surprisingly given the climate. it takes some invention to say i hate the howard government & all it stands for in new ways ..

rl: you've mentioned yr concern with racism as it exists in australia. i live in california, have a hispanic name, where there are a number of gender-types and ethnicities. it is a pretty liberal state, yet racism, homophobia, are rampant. there is a truck parked frequently in the center of our city garlanded with graphic images of torn fetuses and men kissing, badly quoting scripture, and topped by graffito on how those issues, abortion and gay marriage, are abominations of the holy. that sort of narrowing hate relates to racist thinking. it produces so much righteousness which in turn breeds so much anger. often i think poems, poetry, and poets are sort of an antidote against hatemongering and thinned-down ideas that give rise to feelings of being absolutely right in those that do the hating, because writing, honest writing, exists / do their work in uncertainties. how do you think yr texts, yr poetics, are confronting such hatemongering

mf: (sounds like those christians get off on the images.) this morning i had a poem accepted by the age (melbourne’s daily broadsheet): ‘goodbye statues’. it’s written after the movie goodbye lenin set in east germany after the wall comes down. the grandmother has been in hospital & missed the change, but her family work to make her think things are still the same (dumb idea but good film). the poem imagines an indigenous government getting rid of all the statues which are a part of white colonial pride & conquest, and some people in hospital being protected from knowing about this. i think now of yoko ono’s ‘goodbye sadness’ also, not sure if i did at the time i wrote it – but probably. probably also influenced by the public enemy title: fear of a black planet. its more interesting & perhaps more productive to think about how things might be than to complain about how they are (to paraphrase jfk). i dont have an anti-racism project or anything, but a black presence does recur in my poems – if only so the poems arent read as being pure & undifferentiated white culture, which something that was purely critical would be. i assume not all my readers will be white. often – especially in activist contexts or semi-activist – like political conferences – whites address the issue of white racism as a ‘we’ thing, assuming a white audience (always a big assumption) – or despite a ‘mixed’ one. now of course anti-muslim feeling is the racism du jour – its a problem to be addressed – but im also aware how this is convenient for the government in relation to indigenous issues, theyve become passe. i come to issues slowly .. i have to find my way rather than adopting a political convention of protest – & my way in relation to australia & muslim culture is to slowly learn more about it – this will come into my poems in one way or another. i have met some sudanese poets writing in arabic, & am working with one. im also writing an essay about an anthology of detainee literature (‘another country’ tom keneally and rosie scott eds., halstead, 2005). im impressed by some of the poems, & want to meet the poets. the most important thing for me is a practical one – to bring poets writing in languages other than english into the poetry community (if theyre interested) – our culture can only gain. its exciting because im coming to the realisation that some of our best poets are unknown, because theyre refugees from iraq, iran etc. ask me in five years how it affects my poetry. basically theres a community building arm to my poetry practice, and to me this is more valuable, & more suited to me than rallying. or even writing. (this is my catholic upbringing coming out. ) oh, briefly another thing im doing is working on a chinese colonial text – a very interesting poetic diary that has no literary profile – this disrupts the reductive image of white vs indigenous in the fight for australia. i guess my writing aims to complicate the picture. though slogans can be effective i think – if theyre a bit imaginative.

rl: i agree absolutely that including poets of different languages and poetics into the poetry community is exciting and necessary. i gather yr translating the chinese text and the arabic poet. how is translating important to community-building. say it is five years from now, give me yr thoughts on how the poetry community might develop and change.

mf: (im not translating the chinese text – it was written in an experimental english; it has already been translated into a bowdlerised version of english though.)

translating theoretically – if given some context – brings new approaches & cultures to the local poetry; it brings the poet to the local poetry. if the translators are poets themselves it could have profound affects on their own writing. it breaks up the monolith of english. the most important thing, if its a translator working with the poet, is the relationship between the two, for both of them.

five years on: perhaps thats not enough for a major change – depends, for example on anthologies coming out ... e.g. id like to see writing in translation appearing in the best of anthologies ... or an extract of the chinese text appear in an anthology. a raised profile for poets in australia writing in languages other than english, because theyre pretty invisible now. this may also encourage poets writing in indigenous languages: there’s some of that around, perhaps therell be more. (were far from the example of new zealand. i read a major anthology of nz writing with a substantial amount of maori writing. personally id hope to have friends from, for example, arabic cultures, what a gift. its hard to say what that might mean: im not going to be aggressively mining them for the centuries of arabic poetic tradition – i think – but who knows?

rl: what role do you think the internet has in changing the notions of local writing?

mf: im not really sure what to say about this. there is a local feeling about blogging and some online magazines. tho ‘local writing’ isnt something thats ever existed in my sense of locality (tho sometimes it seems worth aspiring to – if only to create a local audience; i think my suburb is something of a post-artist one – others are more promising): unless by local you mean a whole city .. (reaches for c.o.d.) .. it does seem kind of contrived (in my experience) – so why not contrive an internet scene to be local .. writing which has the local as subject often has an eco-political motive perhaps more so in nonfiction – fictional local writing often seems to have more of a marketing focus .. as in isnt this a cool city .. wouldnt u like to visit? the internet conceivably helps connect different sites of local writing – im thinking of ecopoetics journal in relation to the way local strategies may be useful in other places (it is a print journal but has a website with free pdfs .. )

rl: yr blog is certainly a way to connect to different sites of the local. you focus on one poetry book at a time, and so far the discussions from yrself and the emails and comments you've received have covered a wide topical swath. it is obvious reading is very important to you. i'd like to conclude by asking what books, whether poetry, theory, what-have-you, are most important to you. in other words, can you divulge a bit of yr reading life?

mf: i think perhaps the value of my reading suffers from mostly reading new things rather than re-reading .. i dont treasure books as such – but as vehicles for reading. i do enjoy nice design etc but thats a (necessary) bonus. design can make me like books more than i should. its an interesting question because it makes me think of the presence/ aura of books because of their content – i dont mean its not in my head – but i experience it. auras of old favourites – almost stevensian? but they wd be no news to yr readers. my blog (and my literature board grant) gives new impetus to finding new books – australian ones for the blog – but ive also started swapping with bloggers in other countries. what id like to mention/conclude with are the great (new) books of poetry ive read this year:

ngarla songs [20th century aboriginal songs translated into english] – alexander brown/ brian geytenbeek [fremantle arts centre press] – this book is the second book of my blog

fragmenta nova – alan loney [five islands]

australian passport – s.s. charkianakis [brandl & schlesinger]

evening brings everything back – jaan kaplinski [bloodaxe]

logicalogics – ronald palmer [soft skull]

the ancient capital of images – john mateer [fremantle arts center press]

three regrets & a hymn to beauty – ian wedde [auckland university press]

where shall i wander – john ashbery [ecco]

the goldfinches of baghdad – robert adamson [flood]

oh dear .. its a very male list.

2 notes:

~ after electronica: i was excited by the new rock sounds of bands like the strokes, jet – and – especially the white stripes. how could i write poems as stripped down and punchy? some kind of punku (=punk haiku). i was stuck on this for ages before a form of cartoon poems started pouring out. id been writing long complex allegorical poems on war. they were a reaction to that. i hope to publish a book of them.
~ i hope to interest readers outside australia in my blog. - its a bit like a course – the workloads pretty reasonable – 4 books a year. it would be great to have other perspectives on australian poetry contexts – especially as ‘australian poetry’ as a force circulates through (australian) versions of american poetry. i mean theres a shared history to an extent. perhaps the different directions of american influence on australian poetry have something to offer to american poets? also, indigenous poetry has an interesting history and presence in australian poetry. i havent seen much critical conversation regarding the place of native american poetry on blogs. reading revival 2 will look at a book of aboriginal songs.
rl: thank you, michael.


Blogger Unknown said...

good interview, appreciated Michael's thoughts on engaging public & political issues. "i come to issues slowly .. i have to find my way rather than adopting a political convention of protest – & my way in relation to australia & muslim culture is to slowly learn more about it – this will come into my poems in one way or another."

2:39 AM  
Blogger Kevin Killian said...

Thanks a lot for posting that interview Tom! I have never met Richard Lopez as far as I know, crazy eh, when we live so close by together, and yet I have admired his work from afar for years (or what's the opposite of "afar," maybe it's "a-near") Michael I have actually met, a connection I treasure. It seems to me that Richard asks Michael some important questions about gay sexuality and how it translates into the kind of postmodern vision that Michael is working out of, questions very few straight people ever think to ask the GLBTQ poets they know, well, I can imagine why it just doesn't come up, nobody wants to put their foot in their mouth; but however look how productive the exchange here is! (Along with many other interesting comments on both sides.)

11:14 PM  
Blogger totalcardboard said...

At times my understanding of this interview was pretty marginal - I think that working with books has gradually started to dumb me down in some way... words just become a blur in which I only see the grammar.

I loved the poem toxictoxictoxictoxictoxictoxic, in my own dumb way

3:39 AM  
Blogger Stu said...

Fantastic interview... open and inclusive in its questioning... adding many items to a sort of checklist of pertinent questions to be asked of current poetry and its situation amidst politics, the net, "Australia"... and offering some promising ways forward in terms of non-English (language), indigenous and GLBTQ poetries.

I loved the discussion of electronica also. Thanks!

6:50 PM  

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