Introductory note: This piece is 7,500 words or about seventeen printed pages long. It was first published in Southerly magazine in Sydney: Kate Lilley: ‘An Interview with John Tranter’. Southerly volume 61 number 2, 2001. pp 6–23. The Internet address of this page is
Kate Lilley: What made you start Jacket magazine?
John Tranter: In 1997 I explored the Internet to see how email worked. My wife Lyn Tranter manages a firm called Australian Literary Management, a literary agency, and I figured the business would benefit from being able to use email. I had been on the net briefly about four years earlier when I was a member of Compuserve. I used to take part in discussions about poetry and literature occasionally, but I found that unsatisfactory for several reasons, one of which was the cost. I think the World Wide Web got going in about 1994 and that was about when I was first on Compuserve. By 1997 the Internet had improved tremendously. It had become faster and easier to use and less expensive.
When I started exploring the Internet again in 1997 I discovered to my great surprise that I could already understand the code that’s used to make HTML pages. In the late 1970s Lyn had a typesetting business called Pavilion Press Set and it used Compugraphic computerised typesetting machines; I’d learned to use them. In those days you couldn’t see what you typed as formatted text, you just saw alphabetical characters on a very small black and white screen, and to change the font or the type size you had to type in codes. As it happened those codes were derived from SGML, Standard Generalised Mark-up Language, which was developed in the United States decades ago as a basic way of describing marked-up text, and Compugraphic had adapted that to their typesetting purposes. HTML on the Internet is also a subset of SGML and the code used to build HTML pages is very like the code I learned on the Compugraphic typesetter. [SGML had its beginnings in a paper written in 1971 by Charles F. Goldfarb. See this site: “The Roots of SGML — A Personal Recollection”.]
I’ve been involved in publishing literary magazines all my adult life. In 1961 and ’62 when I was at Sydney University I got involved part-time in working for honi soit, the student weekly paper, editing and writing reviews and doing illustrations and so on, and then I was involved a little later, around 1969 or 1970, in helping to edit the Sydney University Union Recorder. (I dropped out of university for five years in between.)
Around that same time I edited and published a little poetry magazine called Transit which lasted two issues. Lyn did the typing and I did the layout and design and platemaking and printing. I had a job in the Australian Broadcasting Commission print shop at that time. You can see the cover art and contents pages for two issues issue of Transit on my research site at the Sydney University Library’s SETIS site, at http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/tranter/docs/docs-links.html
Then I was connected with Poetry Australia in the late 1960s and with Aspect Art and Literature, a magazine edited by Rudi Krausmann, in the 1970s. So all my life I’ve been involved with publishing and editing literary magazines.
Once I realised I could code HTML pages I thought, let’s see if I can do a literary magazine on the Internet. So I put together half an issue and it seemed to fall together very easily and very well, and I just kept doing it.
How long did it take to catch on?
I don’t really know — probably eight to twelve months, which was four issues. The responses came in fairly quickly, and after it had been up for about a year it had had something like 30,000 visits. The thing about the Internet is that it acts like a gossip network. If there’s anything of interest out there everybody gets to hear about it.
Jacket’s known and respected now, praised by Britannica.com and profiled in a recent Australian edition of Time. How has its reception has changed and how does its contributor-base work?
It hasn’t really changed, it’s just grown. It’s now [in late-2001] had over 300,000 visits to its homepage, so it’s going somewhere. I have a note on the homepage to say that I can’t accept unsolicited contributions. If I did I’d probably receive about a thousand every week and I can’t handle the amount of email I get as it is. I solicit all the contributions. And the interesting thing is I’ve never had anyone say that they would rather not appear in Jacket. [Well, with one exception, who shall remain nameless.] Everyone I’ve asked has said yes, and I hadn’t quite expected that because in the beginning I wasn’t sure whether anyone would want to contribute to a magazine that didn’t pay them for their work.
The reverse side of that coin is that when a piece of writing appears in Jacket it reaches a lot of readers, and that can help publicise a writer’s new book or a writer generally.
At the same time I don’t mind republishing material that has already appeared in print elsewhere and I don’t mind if people later send things that have appeared in Jacket to other print magazines, whatever. It’s very non-exclusive and in that way a little like the Reader’s Digest, I guess. I don’t mind that. It seems odd to me that magazine editors traditionally insist on exclusive rights. Why bother?
You can also go back and add material, so the issue itself is not static.
Yes, you can correct things or rewrite and improve them and you can also add material — although I don’t really like doing that. Once they’ve read an issue, people expect to be able to move on to the next issue. If they discover a year later that there’s some new thing in an earlier issue that they hadn’t been told about, they might feel exasperated.
With most magazines the publication date is when it first appears. With Jacket, the publication date is when it closes. The corollary is that each issue appears piece by piece throughout the year until the date when it’s complete, and it stops being added to at that point.
It’s fun to see the issues under construction and to have some sense of a transparent process. I always read through a new issue and then later I’ll go back and might follow links to earlier issues. That’s so available as a possibility with an online format.
Yes, all the issues of Jacket are always there all the time, and it’s all easily accessible.
What other online or print journals matter to you?
I used to read a lot of books and magazines when I was younger. The older I get the less I read. I tend to browse through two or three discussion groups. Jacket has a page of links to about sixty other Internet magazines, but I don’t get much time to read them myself. Jacket keeps me very busy and then there’s my own writing to think about and my own life to get on with. The two Internet sites that I visit most often have to do with computer technology rather than literature. There’s a site called Byte magazine I look at to see what’s happening in computer technology, and C|net which has daily news bulletins about the world of computers.
You’ve got collaborations happening between Jacket and two print journals, Salt and New American Writing.
Yes, that’s a new thing for the magazine. I’ve always felt that Jacket links to other things quite easily, and one day I thought, let’s extend that, and do a co-production. Issue 14 is a co-production between Jacket and Salt magazine in Cambridge. Most of what appears in that issue of Jacket will appear in print in Salt 13.
Jacket 13 is not so much a co-production as a clone of an issue of New American Writing published in April 2001. The editors of New American Writing, Maxine Chernoff and Paul Hoover, have compiled all of the magazine, a special issue to celebrate their thirtieth year of publication.
The co-production with Salt is different; there I’ve done about two thirds of the soliciting for material and John Kinsella and Tracy Ryan from Salt have done about a third. The advantage to both magazines is that they’ll get all the readers of Jacket for an issue, and I presume if the readers like it they might subscribe to the print magazine. The advantage to Jacket is that at last I’ll have an issue of the magazine in print.
In the sense that you solicit all the material yourself Jacket works by patronage.
Well, I think the patronage flows from the contributors to me. After all, they give me the work for nothing.
You rarely include your own writing in Jacket, but I wonder how its existence might have affected the reception of your poetry?
I think the magazine has probably found a larger audience for my own poetry, in that everyone who reads Jacket knows that I’m the editor, and also that I write poetry. I choose not to print much of my own material in it because I think it would be ill-mannered to do so. There are also links in Jacket to a couple of Internet sites which do feature my own writing, so I suppose if people want to see what kind of writing I do it’s not hard for them to do that through Jacket by following the links to the University of Sydney library site which is an archive of my early work (mentioned above), plus a site on the Australian Literary Management page which has a hundred or so pages of my own more contemporary poetry and reviews and interviews. [Author note, 2005: That’s now moved to a permanent home at http://johntranter.com/
You’ve done a lot of important editing work of different kinds over a long period of time, notably the anthologies. Do you think of yourself in the modernist tradition of the poet-editor?
I’ve only realised that clearly since I’ve been thinking about Jacket, and the fact that the work I do on the magazine is exactly the same as the work I was doing thirty years earlier. I’ve edited four fairly large collections of other people’s poetry, totalling over a thousand printed pages. One was the Selected Poems & Prose of Martin Johnston, a friend of mine who died in 1990, and then there are the two anthologies, The New Australian Poetry and The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry (which I co-edited with Philip Mead, and which is published as The Bloodaxe Book of Modern Australian Poetry in the United Kingdom).
Then there’s one that’s hardly talked about but was perhaps more enjoyable to do than any other. It was a collection of a hundred or so poems selected from all the entries to the 1988 ABC and Australian Bicentennial Authority Poetry Competition, which was published by ABC Books under the title The Tin Wash Dish. It was very enjoyable to discover so many poems by people I’d never heard of at all, and there was a great variety of material, not what you normally see when you’re a magazine editor.
How it came about was that I’d been asked to be one of the three judges of one of the subsections of that poetry prize, and when it was over I suggested to the ABC, who had a book publishing division, that they commission me to select poems for an anthology, and they agreed.
That meant I had to go back and read all the submissions to all the sections which amounted to over 6000 poems — and I did read every word of every one of them. I ended up with about a hundred poems that I thought were really very good. They were arranged alphabetically by author. The book wasn’t promoted very strongly and I don’t think it lasted in print all that long, but I thought at the time it would make a very good text to study in school.
That would be an interesting project for electronic republication.
I’d love to do it. The problem is the files have been misplaced now and it would be extremely difficult to obtain copyright permission from all of the contributors because most of them would be hard to track down.
The work you’re doing with this University of Sydney Library site is putting back into circulation some of your own out-of-print writing.
Yes. It struck me very early in my understanding of the Internet that it formed a very valuable solution to a problem that’s only recognised intermittently. The Internet makes up a more-or-less permanent and easily accessible archive. With time, every type of computer storage we use — eight-inch floppy disk, 5.25-inch floppy disk, CD disk, magnetic tape — these will all become unusable eventually, which is a horrifying thought. Books aren’t like that, they last more or less forever and as long as you can read you can decipher them, but that’s not so with computers.
But the Internet stores material in a very basic form — HTML is basically plain vanilla ASCII text — and the Internet is backed up and duplicated in all kinds of ways. If I had stored my very first computer writings on the Internet they’d still be as available today as they were then. But no one makes a computer today that can read the 5.25-inch floppy disks I was using then, in 1984.
Going back to the anthologies, The New Australian Poetry was and is a significant document, also now out of print.
I suggested to the publishers (Makar Press, and the University of Queensland) years ago that it be put back into print, and I believe Martin Duwell (the publisher of Makar Press) has plans for doing that at some point in the future. It would be very worthwhile, I think. It’s a kind of time capsule.
Anthologies are polemical by definition, some kind of bid for notice. How does The New Australian Poetry look to you now?
Let’s have a look. (Reads from the cover) ‘The work of twenty-four poets from Australian poetry’s most exciting decade’. Well, that may have been the case in 1979 when it appeared, but it’s now twenty-two years later. Looking back on it I think it’s a very interesting document. It has a fairly wide range of different kinds of poetry, from Bruce Beaver to Jennifer Maiden, from Ken Taylor to Martin Johnston, from Rudi Krausmann to Laurie Duggan. I think it encapsulates a range of different kinds of poetry that had been around for about a decade, and that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to collect and preserve a good range of material that I thought wouldn’t otherwise be anthologised, so part of the aim I had in mind was this same conserving mode that I think the Internet can do so well, preserving things that would otherwise evanesce.
And that really is the case: it includes a long poem of Robert Adamson’s, for example, titled ‘The Rumour’, which I felt would become unobtainable unless I anthologised it there, and that was the case. Apart from its appearance in this anthology ‘The Rumour’ has been out of print for twenty years or more now.
I wanted to present the work of a range of writers that the average poetry reader might not come across. And it tends to focus on experimental work rather than traditional poetry.
Its title is an allusion isn’t it?
Yes, it refers to the Donald Allen anthology, The New American Poetry [Grove Press, 1960]. It collected about twelve or fifteen years of poetry in the US from about 1946 to 1959, and most of the work was from out-of-the-way journals. It wasn’t exactly underground poetry, but it certainly wasn’t mainstream. I think The New Australian Poetry did something similar for Australian poetry.
You said in another interview that you first read Ashbery in the Allen anthology.
I think I first read Ashbery there, but I also read him in the Penguin anthology edited by Donald Hall, Contemporary American Poetry , and in some ways I prefer the selection in Hall.
Mark Strand said he went to Europe on a boat in the early ’60s and, walking around the deck, he was reading an anthology of poetry that he’d just bought and he noticed that another man was doing the same and they stopped and talked, and it turned out that one was reading the Donald Allen, and the other was reading the Donald Hall, and they nodded politely and walked on and didn’t speak to each other for the rest of the voyage. It really was a dividing line in America. But I do prefer the selection of Ashbery made by Hall, who was his classmate at Harvard. Hall selects some very lyrical poetry from Ashbery’s first book, Some Trees, 1956, which I still do prefer to almost anything else he’s done.
I’m interested in the milieu represented in The New Australian Poetry. Were these all poets you knew, and knocked around with?
To some extent, but there were some I’d never met or corresponded with at all; most of the writers from Melbourne, for example. Some of the writers I asked — Kris Hemensley was one — wanted to know who else would be in the anthology before they would allow their work to appear, so I guess they had a much more anxious, politicised view of what an anthology would do than I did. I tend not to have a very acute political understanding of anything, frankly, and I generally want to include as many things as I can in anything I do.
I’d say that is a political understanding. Were there people who refused to be in it?
No. There were people who insisted I ask their friends to be in it before they would be in it and on one or two occasions I felt rather pressured by that, but it made me read more widely, and in the end all of the poems that appear in the anthology I’m glad to have there. So, while at the time I felt a little resentful of that kind of pressure, I also realised it was a good thing and I was glad to go along with it.
Nevertheless, it’s quite a concentrated list of contributors.
It’s a small list, twenty-four poets. I desperately wanted to avoid it looking like the average school anthology with one small poem from everyone who’s ever written a poem in Australian literary history. What I wanted was to have almost all the writers in it, or as many as I could, represented by a wide range of work, so that you could read back and forth in a particular writer’s work. And that meant I had to exclude a few writers I had wished initially to include.
One example was Robyn Ravlich, who’d published a collection titled The Black Abacus with Prism Books (published by Robert Adamson and Ken Quinnell). Initially I had assumed that I would be including eight or nine of her poems, but when I went to read through the book carefully I could only find one or two that I really liked, and then not all the way through each poem. I found a lot that I remembered having liked when they first appeared in magazines, but I thought most of them fell down at some point in their development on the page. With considerable regret I had to drop a few writers simply because they didn’t have a range of strong, successful material to show in the anthology. Robyn’s become a very talented and successful radio drama and features producer and creator at the ABC, so maybe my instincts were right when I felt that poetry was not what she might do best.
Quite a few women who were involved in that circle stopped writing or publishing after one or two books.
There are very few women in that anthology, only two (Jennifer Maiden and Vicki Viidikas), and I’ve often wondered why that was. It seems to me that people who were writing poetry in the late 1960s, which is when most of the writers in that book started writing poetry, were the product of a society which had encouraged young women to take cooperative roles, and encouraged young men to take competitive, individualistic roles. If you look at the people on our currency — for years we’ve had male figures who are individualistic loners like Lawrence Hargrave, a man who stubbornly tried to invent things that would fly and didn’t ever succeed particularly well, and he was held up as a role model for young Australian men, whereas the women on our currency are all nurses, or so it seems.
Did growing up in the country make you a loner?
I grew up an only child on an isolated farm. And my parents were fairly non-communicative and inward-looking, and that didn’t help.
How do you think the Australian poetry scene has changed from The New Australian Poetry to Jacket?
I don’t feel the poetry world has changed dramatically in Australia. It’s become less polarised. I guess what distinguished ‘my’ generation was that when we were young poets we had access to a vast range of interesting new material from around the world, and yet when we looked around at the Australian poetry publishing scene we saw a fairly dull and conservative range of publications. That’s all changed now, partly because of the work my generation did.
One of the reasons Grace Perry resigned from the Poetry Society and took her magazine away with her (until 1964 she had been the editor of the Poetry Society’s Poetry Magazine) was that the Board of the Poetry Society objected to her publishing contemporary poetry from America, and French poetry in English translation. That attitude of not wanting to open up was what drove Grace to break away and create Poetry Australia magazine in 1964.
If you had to do a map of the Australian poets you’re most connected with now, there’d be quite a few women. It would look very different from the line-up of 1979. Do you feel that you’ve been very affected by feminism?
I’m sure feminism has had a gradual effect on my attitudes — I hope so — although I’ve always regarded women as having the potential to do whatever they wish to do, really. My mother had a strong influence on me, and my grandmother and my three aunts as well — and it seems to me when I look back on my childhood that I looked up to those women as very strong-willed, independent people. They also did a lot of reading all the time, and I picked that up naturally. My mother read three or four books every week of her life. She taught me to read when I was very young, and I could read quite well before I ever went to school. She did the same for my two children, baby-sitting them and teaching them to read.
So for you, editing The New Australian Poetry and publishing books by Gig Ryan and Susan Hampton in the early 1980s were all of a piece?
Yes, in all those instances I was looking for poetry I liked and trying to get it into print. I also published books by John Forbes and Alan Jefferies. The Penguin anthology was different — if you are going to edit The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry you have an obligation to be as inclusive and as fair as you can be, because it will become the basic textbook in its field, if it’s any good at all.
With The New Australian Poetry, the publisher Martin Duwell asked me if I would like to compile an anthology; I said, ‘What sort of anthology?’ and he replied ‘Do whatever you like, because the kinds of things you like are more or less the kinds of things I like, so whatever you do will be okay with me’, and it was. I didn’t have any constituency to be responsible to.
With the Penguin anthology I had a responsibility to the whole of Australian writing. Then again, that was a co-production; it was my idea to ask for a co-editor and I think it was a good thing to do. Philip Mead helped to extend and balance the range of poetry we looked at.
Jacket is quite often cited in American and British publications, sometimes in print, sometimes online, as proof of the vitality of Australia as some new centre of avant-garde poetics. On the other hand, you’ve quite often said that you don’t regard it as an Australian publication. There’s a certain irony there.
I suppose from the outside that it does look like an Australian publication. From Britain or New York the names you won’t know will be the names of Australian writers, so they’ll be noticeably different and new, and you’ll remark upon it. From an Australian perspective, you know all of the names, the Australian and American and the British, so it’s all homogenous to me. I don’t feel it’s particularly Australian. On the other hand, I’m Australian, whether I want to be or not, and I have an Australian tone of voice, and an Australian attitude to life which I suppose could be classified as laconic, and that affects the magazine to some extent.
Much is made of the new internationalism sponsored by the web. At the same time, there’s still a very strong measuring of national literatures going on. Have you got a general sense of where the material comes from in Jacket?
I have a feeling that about two thirds of it is North American, about a quarter from the UK, and the rest from all around the world. In Issue 14 there’ll be a supplement of French-related material, and I’ve published writers like Hans Magnus Enzensberger from Germany, whose work I’ve always liked and respected.
Your work is being published in Britain now.
Yes, I have four different publishers in Britain, three of them in Cambridge, oddly enough, and one in Edinburgh. Nothing of mine is in print any more in Australia, not a single title, which is an unusual position to be in; it was the other way around for many years. I have a new title coming out in June 2001: Ultra, from Brandl and Schlesinger [in Sydney].
You haven’t had a book out in America.
I have found it very difficult to get published in America. I’m not an American, and I’m not on the circuit there, which inclines publishers to be a bit wary. It’s expensive to bring out a book, and they all have to sell, for the publisher to get his or her money back. I think the internationalism of the Internet depends upon the fact that it’s ubiquitous and it’s almost free.
There’s been a revived argument recently about the distinction between poetry and prose. Ron Silliman’s term ‘the new sentence’ has gained a certain currency.
I have a clear distinction in my mind between writing expository prose on the one hand and writing creatively on the other, which can either be in prose or poetry, or a blend of the two. One of the earliest influences on my writing was Arthur Rimbaud, who was famous for developing the prose poem in unexpected new directions. To me, poetry and prose, if they are creative writing, tend to be the same kind of thing in my mind. My collection of seven prose pieces Different Hands is fiction — creative fiction. The Floor of Heaven began as a novel. I wrote a chapter of it and decided to turn it into narrative verse. It wasn’t just a matter of breaking up the line lengths, I had to rewrite every line to make it work as verse.
What about your experiments with various kinds of intertexts?
I remember reading some poetry in New American Writing a year or so ago. To me it seemed clear that it had been composed using the ‘Brekdown’ computer program, which I used to write the first drafts of the material in Different Hands, though the American writer had not bothered to clean up and redraft the material. I could have turned out dozens of books of poetry using ‘Brekdown’ if I’d been prepared to leave every word as it was when the machine first churned it out. But I couldn’t do that. Why? I guess because Brekdown’s raw output is unreadably dull and confused, and there’s no narrative or wit in it.
There’s an important distinction between the kind of recycling, striking out and rewriting which characterises your work, and the flat incorporation of prior texts. You also tend to source your materials and often include quite detailed footnotes at the back of your books.
I think you have a responsibility not to conceal what you’re doing, and not to pretend that there is more there than there is, or less there than there is on the page. The sources aren’t that important in themselves, which is why I think it’s important to get them out of the way and leave the poem to do its work.
Some of the forms you’ve experimented with, like the seventeenth-century Japanese form the haibun which you adapted in your 1993 collection At The Florida, combine prose and poetry in an interesting way.
That’s a function of the original form. I first came across the haibun in John Ashbery’s book, A Wave, where he writes half a dozen orthodox haibun, which are a page or so of prose followed by a haiku. In At the Florida I reversed that order and reengineered it, ending up with twenty lines of free verse followed by a short paragraph of prose. I was interested in the different feeling of flow and movement that you get as you read each of the different halves of the poem. They’re strange little things, some of them are quite conventional, and some of them are weird. I had a lot of fun writing them.
There are very distinct lyric and narrative dimensions to your work knocking up against each other.
I found that interesting to work with. It’s a zone of energy in a poem, where you move from one to the other, or incorporate one within the other.
You’ve worked a lot with set forms from the start of your career.
I can remember very early in my career — 1963 — writing a very strictly formal poem which was a version of A. D. Hope’s poem ‘Australia’. T. S. Eliot said ‘No verse is truly free for the man who wants to do a good job’.  That’s a very masculinist statement, but it has some point.
There seems to be an ongoing conversation in your work with Ashbery, and perhaps the New York School in general.
I think that approach to form is what interested me about the New York School. On the one hand they’re so liberatory, and they break all the rules. On the other hand they’re so interested in the rules they’re breaking. That appeals to me.
In the new collection that’s coming out in the UK, Heart Print, there’s a poem called ‘The Beach’ which you describe as a ‘superhypermetrical sestina’. What does that mean?
Well, even though it looks like an article in prose, about 2,500 words long, it actually follows the rules for the form of a sestina, except for the one fact that the lines are all far too long. A sestina has six six-line stanzas and a three-line envoi. The formal rules for the sestina state that the end-words of the first six lines are repeated throughout the next five stanzas as the end-words for all the other lines, but arranged in a different pattern in each succeeding stanza. That is exactly the form I’ve used in ‘The Beach’. It’s hypermetrical because it has more feet in each line than it should have to be metrically correct (though the sestina has no metrical constraints as such), and superhypermetrical because it has thousands more feet than it should have, or so it seems. The sestina is a strict form and I’ve followed all the rules except for the one about line length, which I’ve broken.
How did you come to write the book-length sequence of one hundred sonnets, Crying in Early Infancy?
I guess it began when I was in Singapore in 1973. I stopped writing poetry for about a year. As far as I knew then I’d stopped for all time — I was sick of poetry and so I wrote a novel instead. (A very bad novel, since destroyed.) Poetry appeared disgusting and overwritten to me at that point, and I read a lot of Graham Greene, a writer whose work I like mainly because he has a style that appears to be invisible, no style at all, and I wrote this bad novel, a kind of spy story. Then when I finally came back to writing poetry I realised I could write whatever I liked, so I did that for months on end, not thinking any of it would appear in print. When I got back to Australia in 1973 I got a job with the ABC as a radio play reader/editor, and a selection from the poems I’d been writing in Singapore and later in Sydney became my next book, The Blast Area, published by Martin Duwell in Brisbane in 1974.
Then I got a grant for a year, in the first round of grants that the Literature Board gave out. They gave out 138 grants in late 1973, for the 1974 calendar year. I spent that year writing a sequence of related poems titled ‘The Alphabet Murders’. When I handed the manuscript in, it was a larger collection, containing ‘The Alphabet Murders’ and another thirty or so pages of material. The poetry readers for Angus & Robertson, Rodney Hall and David Malouf, liked ‘The Alphabet Murders’ but not the other stuff, so Angus & Robertson published The Alphabet Murders as a booklet a year or so later, in 1976.
I went to Brisbane in 1975. Martin Duwell said he’d like to do another book of mine, and asked what I had available. I had all the poems that hadn’t been used in The Blast Area or in The Alphabet Murders, about 25 or 30 half-page things. Martin said he needed 64 pages to make up a full-sized book. So I sat down and wrote seventy or so more poems over about eighteen months, expanding what I already had and turning them into sonnets. This became Crying in Early Infancy — 100 Sonnets, published in 1977. Martin decided on the order of the poems, as I couldn’t seem to see any order or pattern in them. I heard later that Ted Berrigan had done a book of sonnets but I never got around to reading it, as far as I can recall.
You often use proper names in your poems to produce an enigmatic effect of characters being shadowed. Among other things, it seems to be a way of blocking or jamming autobiographical reading.
It lends an air of authenticity to something you know is not authentic.
Your work is very much engaged with affect, feeling, and in that sense is traditionally poetic or perhaps metapoetic. That’s an important part of what readers respond to, that access of feeling.
Almost an excess . . . .
There’s a kind of magnetic attraction between the sentimental and the anti-sentimental in your work.
They’re two sides of the same coin, cynicism and sentimentality.
Recourse to a rhetoric of character is a way to channel and mediate that.
Yes, it displaces it.
There’s also an ironic and nostalgic memorialisation of modernity in your poetry.
When I was a teenager things seemed very modern, and the older I get the further away that appears to be. Poetry seems to me inherently elegiac because it’s a displaced and apparently unimportant part of life, always on the margins and behind everything else.
Cinema can be thought of as inherently elegiac too, simultaneously modern and nostalgic. You’ve said that Buñuel’s 1972 film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie was an important model for the embedded narratives of ‘Gloria’ in The Floor of Heaven and you’ve often written about the relation between poetry and cinema, for instance in your long poem ‘Those Gods Made Permanent’.
In my own experience the cinema has a powerful and very direct effect. I actually believe everything I see on the screen is happening. I know that’s not true, but emotionally I believe it. The very first film I ever saw — I was about five — was about Scott, the Antarctic explorer. I can still remember lying in my cot the night before my school class was due to attend the film, trying to stifle my sobs. My mother came in to say good night and asked what was wrong. I said, ‘I don't want to see the man die!’, and burst into tears. I knew we were going to be forced to watch this man — a real, living human being — die!
I haven’t changed much. If it’s happening on the screen, I think it’s real. I still don’t like films where the man dies.
The films I remember liking as a child were westerns; somehow the shootings and the deaths weren’t ‘real’, they were just acting, and that was okay. I remember the feel of the average western colour film, this being 1952 to say 1958 — the colour and the way things were filmed and the dryness of the air and the clothes people wore. Also the fact that they were all about guns. I owned two guns, a rifle and a shotgun.
Have you written formal elegies?
I wrote an a elegy for Martin Johnston, but it hasn’t been published. I found it a very hard thing to do. I felt that my emotions were getting in the way of my critical ability, and it needed a lot of re-writing before I felt that a certain gushy and selfish mournfulness had been washed out of it. The first drafts were awful. [This poem is published in Southerly magazine in late 2001.]
I must say that John Forbes’s elegy for Martin (‘lassu in cielo — i.m. Martin Johnston’) is a much better poem — deeply moving and very tactful. It does everything I was trying to do, indirectly and effortlessly, or so John makes it seem.
Perhaps you found a more comfortable, pragmatic way to express those feelings in the collection you edited of Martin’s work?
Yes, the compiling of that book was a form of elegy in a way. I wrote the Introduction twice. I showed the first draft to Rosanne Bonney, Martin’s widow, and to one or two other people including Nadia Wheatley, and they made it clear that they thought it was overwritten and over-emotional, over-dramatic, so I put it aside for a month and then rewrote it.
At the time — in 1992, a year or so after Martin’s death — I was still very angry that he’d decided to drink himself to death, and that he’d apparently not bothered to consider what effect this would have on the many people who loved him.
That was a very important relationship.
It was. Martin had read so much, and he remembered everything he’d read. We wrote a number of poems in response to one another’s poems. I called around to visit Martin one time when he was living in Gilpin St, Camperdown, and something about the visit caused me to write a poem which I sent to Martin, and he wrote a poem in response and mailed it back to me, and together we wrote about 8 or 10 poems, each one commenting on the one before. We made up rules about what we might and might not do with these poems. One poem, for example, had to use all of the end-words of the previous poem in reverse order. They’ve never appeared in print — well, one of them has, the first one I wrote and sent to Martin titled ‘The White Hole Paradox’. It was written on March 22, 1979, and published in New Poetry magazine, in the May 1980 issue.
And it’s available here: The White Hole Paradox, on this site, as part of a group of my poems which have remained fugitive, or uncollected I book form. I also produced a little booklet of these uncollected poems and bound them up myself as an exercise in book-binding. Just one or two copies.
You bind books?
I did a bookbinding course a year or so ago. Every few years I develop an interest in an obscure hobby. At one stage I studied etching for half a year and learned enough to get fairly good at it and then I abandoned it. I learned photography and I’ve kept up with that to some extent. I’ve been interested in technology since I was a kid on the farm. I like to build things and make things and knock things together. I seem to have a talent for it.
I can remember quite clearly doing an aptitude test when I was eleven years old. The results indicated that I had high verbal ability and high spatial ability. Tests for spatial ability typically present you with a diagram of a simple machine with interconnected parts — wheels, connecting rods, levers — and you are asked to work out what happens if the knob on the left turns clockwise, what happens to the lever in the right hand corner, for example. I can remember looking at these diagrams and thinking, well, obviously it goes to the left, and onto the next problem. It’s not that I was working out or calculating what was going to happen to the lever; I only needed to look at it and I could see the thing operating, like an animated illustration.
There’s a technological narrative in your work, an interest in a timeline marked out by changing technologies and their interrelations.
Like a lot of boys, I enjoy thinking about technology. When I was a kid — in the 1950s, if you drove a car from Moruya to Canberra you had to go up the Clyde Mountain behind Bateman’s Bay. You had to make sure you carried enough water to refill the radiator, because the radiator would boil before you got to the top of the mountain. But now you don’t have to think about that, and I sometimes wonder, what did they do to make the radiator work so much better?
I used to drive very fast when I was young in the bush, like an idiot. I learned to drive when I was about 11 or 12, driving tractors and trucks on the farm.
What is it about poetry that has held your interest for so long?
When I was a young man I thought I might be an artist. I did a lot of painting and got quite good at it, though really not good enough. I was interested in music, I wrote short stories, I did drawings and illustrations, and by the time I was 25 I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. Over the next decade or so it seemed more and more obvious that poetry was a thing that I could do well, I seemed to have a gift for it, and so I kept on doing it.
I started writing poetry when I was about eighteen, and it’s always been connected in my mind with leaving the country town I grew up in and all of the values that town had, and moving to another world altogether, which I did at about that time. I think that’s probably the most important thing I’ve ever been through in my life, the fact that I left the town I grew up in and I never went back. It’s as though that whole universe disappeared and was replaced by a totally different universe, where I lead a different kind of life than I would ever have lived had I remained in that town, on that farm, in the bush. That’s what my father wanted me to do.
So it seems to me that poetry is emblematically related to the change that I went through, going from a country town to an agricultural boarding school near the city, then to university, and then overseas — England, Europe, Iran, Afghanistan, India — all of these things were absolutely different to anything I might have done had I not made that decision to move. Going to parties, listening to jazz, performing my poetry at a reading in a café in Brooklyn, drinking a glass of wine — as a kid I had never seen anyone drink a glass of wine or eat an olive — writing poetry and reading a lot of books — all these are part of the weave of my new life, they’re all inter-related aspects of a new and different life from the one I left behind.
I sometimes think that my poems are elegies for that lost life.
In some deep way we all want to go home, but I know I can’t. Both my parents are dead. My father died when I was 19, and the farm where I grew up was sold a year or two after that, so it appears to me my life has two halves. I wasn’t brought up to be who I am, I was brought up to be a farmer or a schoolteacher in a small town; and I never became that person. That point in the middle where one thing turned into its exact opposite, I think poetry occurred at about that time too.
What is the ‘heartprint’ or fingerprint of a Tranter poem?
That’s for others to say, not me.
 ‘As for “free verse”, I expressed my view twenty-five years ago by saying that no verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job.’ — T.S. Eliot, ‘The Music of Poetry’, in On Poetry and Poets. London: Faber and Faber, 1957, as reprinted, p.37. In fact, in his 1917 essay on vers libre, Eliot says no such thing. The closest he gets is this: ‘We may therefore formulate as follows: the ghost of some simple metre should lurk behind the arras in even the “freest” verse; to advance menacingly as we doze, and withdraw as we rouse. Or, freedom is only truly freedom when it appears against the background of an artificial limitation. [....] And as for vers libre, we conclude that it is not defined by absence of pattern or absence of rhyme, for other verse is without these; that it is not defined by non-existence of metre, since even the worst verse can be scanned; and we conclude that the division between Conservative Verse and vers libre does not exist, for there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos.’ — T.S. Eliot, ‘Reflections on Vers Libre’ first published in 1917 in the British magazine New Statesman.
E N D