Introductory note: John Tranter was interviewed in May 1998 for The Poetry Kit, an Internet site in Britain, by The Poetry Kit’s editor, Ted Slade. Sadly, Ted Slade died in 2004. His website The Poetry Kit at http://www.poetrykit.org/was carried on by his friend Jim Bennett. This interview is about 12 printed pages long. The Internet address of this page is
Poetry Kit: When did you start writing poetry?
John Tranter : In 1959, in my last year at high school. A History teacher noticed my talent at writing school compositions and gave me various books, including The Catcher in the Rye by J.D.Salinger, and some poetry books: Chinese poetry [The Penguin paperback selection edited by Professor Davis], of which I liked Li Po (Li Bai) and Tu Fu especially; Gerard Manley Hopkins, D.H.Lawrence. They were clever choices on his part: they look easy, none of them rhymed, and they’re full of gorgeous images and lovely verbal music. I distinctly remember thinking to myself one day ‘Hey, I could write something like that!’
I just kept on at it. Eventually I read more widely, of course, and the more I read the more I learned.
I did other things: painting, writing stories and reviews, photography, trying to play the trumpet. I studied architecture for a year, then dropped out. I can’t remember when I realised that I did poetry better than those other things. In my late twenties, I guess.
What were the books or events that most influenced your beginning as a writer? What earlier poets most attracted you?
Well, those books I just mentioned. Then when I was about seventeen I read a paperback version of James Ramsey Ullman’s 1958 book The Day on Fire, which was a rather lurid novelisation of Rimbaud’s life. It astonished and intrigued me that anyone might take poetry with such deadly seriousness. I read Rimbaud — I still think Oliver Bernard’s translations for Penguin are the best available — and Enid Starkie’s critical biography of Rimbaud, published by Faber in the UK in 1961. I’ve been wrestling with his influence ever since.
Then the Beats and the New York School, and the slightly older slightly more academic Americans popular in the 1960s.
The mid-twentieth century French poets, in translation. And Hans Magnus Enzensberger. The poems of his in the Penguin paperback Selected Poems knocked me out when I read them in 1968. And I was delighted to be invited to read on the same platform with Enzensberger at the Poetry International in London in November 1996. I dedicated my current book (Late Night Radio, Polygon) to him.
Travel was important. You get a surge of energy, a jolt of understanding, and a marvellous change of perspective when you first encounter a civilisation totally different to your own. It really opens your eyes in a way that no amount of reading, or movies, or television, ever can.
How does that work? Is it just that it gives you more experiences to describe, or do you absorb different cultural styles into your poetry?
No, I meant that it works on the simple level of giving you a valuable culture shock. When you travel overseas (you say ‘abroad’, we say ‘overseas’) for the first time, you realise that your culture, which you somehow always assumed to be the ‘normal’ and universal culture, is in fact a tiny and almost irrelevant fragment of the human experience. Everything from the most insignificant culinary habits to the most vital issues of freedom and democracy suddenly seem to be frail and contingent things, that could blow away in a breath of wind.
For example, I always assumed that it was a vital principle in a democracy to have free, compulsory, secret voting, as we have had in Australia for a century. That way, everyone has to take responsibility for the government that gets to control their lives, and a majority vote means ‘a majority of the people’, period. But try to explain that to an American, and he’ll tell you that he’s prepared to fight to the death for the inalienable right to have his life controlled by a gang of corrupt political thugs who have been given their mandate to rule by less than a quarter of the population. And these people are otherwise intelligent beings! The first time you run into that kind of thing face to face it’s a shock, but it’s a shock that makes you think.
You mention music and film a lot in your work. How do these manifest themselves in your poetry?
When I was a teenager I loved rock’n’roll, which — fortunately — was invented about that time, 1955–56, when I turned thirteen. Later, I suppose you could say Bob Dylan’s music and words influenced me, though I don’t believe his words work on the page. When he shucked off that earnest folk-singer role and went electric and surreal it made me yell with exhilaration. And I love modern jazz from say 1950 to 1960.
But I imagine things visually, very strongly. I sometimes think that my poems are what I do instead of making movies, which I’d rather do, if I could handle the economic and personal logistics that go with it.
Film has had a tremendous influence on me. From Picnic (1956) to Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, from The Maltese Falcon to American Graffiti. Though I have this unfortunate tendency to believe that what’s happening on the screen is real and actual. When people get shot in a crime movie, it makes me sick for days. When some poor hobo wins the lottery, I have to blink away my tears of joy. Pathetic.
What sort of poetry did you begin writing — what were its main themes and techniques?
I spent the first ten years trying to write just about everything. I tried Elizabethan sonnets, I tried moody French-influenced prose poems, I copied Dylan Thomas, I tried to write like Jack Kerouac, I imitated Alexander Pope. In fact I handed in an essay on Pope to my university English Honours class in the form of heroic couplets. That’s how poets learn to write poetry: by copying other poets.
The themes were melodramatic and the tone was often gloomy. Melodramatic, because I think young people are generally melodramatic; it has something to do with hormones. Gloomy, because my father died when I was nineteen, and that knocked me around badly. It took me twenty years to get over that. There were some rather exhilarated poems there too — sex and alcohol can be quite a blast when you’re just discovering them.
Can you describe your most effective working method? Do you wait for inspiration, or sit down every day with the intention of writing?
I used to write whenever I could find the time, day or night. Life has become much more crowded and busy now that I’m middle-aged, so I write when I can. I find that I usually write in a burst of a few weeks, writing maybe twenty or thirty poems, ignoring all the other things that fill up my life, and letting my routine go to hell. Then I spend months catching up with the mess that’s piled up on my desk, writing cheques, and not writing poetry at all.
Inspiration? You have to put in the perspiration first.
I’m always trying to find ways to surprise myself with a first draft that I normally wouldn’t have written. My main aim seems to be to keep breaking new ground for myself, to find fresh ways of writing. I hate to see myself settle into a style, a rut.
One problem I have is knowing who I’m writing for. Do you think there’s such an animal as an educated poetry audience in these days of novels, block-busters, movies and soaps?
That’s a hard one. I guess I feel that my best audience would be people interested in poetry who are also, like me, interested in novels, block-busters, movies and soaps. So I put in all those things as references, if they seem to suit. I mean, landscape poetry... the landscape I inhabit, and which most of my readers inhabit, is a modern urban landscape. There’s a television set in the corner, there are magazines on the kitchen table (right now, the computer pages of the local paper and three unread issues of the TLS, God help me!), there’s a movie playing down at the local cinema, there’s some cool jazz on the radio... that’s the ‘setting’ if you like for my actions as a human being, so it’s generally the setting for my poems. All that stuff goes in, if it’s useful. I suppose I’m writing for people like me, if I can find them.
Talking of fresh ways of writing... let me give you an example. I’ve just published (with Folio/Fremantle Arts Centre Press) a slim volume of prose pieces titled Different Hands, which began their lives as the output of a computer program called Brekdown, a PC version of Hugh Kenner’s Unix program Travesty. I’m not so much interested in getting a computer to write things — that’s a trivial problem. What I got out of the program was a very rough first draft which was unlike anything I could ever have written. That’s about as fresh as you can get, without stealing someone else’s drafts.
How important to you are formal workshops, or getting the opinions of other poets about your work-in-progress?
I don’t like the idea of formal workshops, perhaps because I’m a very private sort of person, and I’m embarrassed at the thought of people seeing my awful first drafts. Although it does help any writer to hear what other people can and can’t see in your writing. It’s amazing what people just don’t get, things that you imagine you put into the piece and underlined in red ink.
The shy poet is not exactly the popular English view of the Australian male!
Right. Though I grew up on a farm, and can shoot a gun and drive a tractor and drink ale with the best of them, I’m no Bazza Mackenzie. In fact I was an only child, and grew up on a little farm miles from the nearest neighbour. My parents were both quiet people; my father self-absorbed, my mother rather shy. I had a stammer as a child. I love socialising and human company, though I find it a strain.
The hardest thing for me to do is to get up in front of an audience and talk, and here I am, in a career that practically forces me to do that for a living. Over the last fifteen years I must have given readings and talks in more than fifty venues across Australia, South-east Asia, the USA and Europe.
I must be mad.
But to get back to workshops, and the opinions of other poets... when I was younger I felt part of a generation of young Australian poets who were all trying to do new things. Say from 1968 to 1978. We would often show each other our new poems. And then we would often publish each other’s new poems in the little magazines we founded. That kind of feedback can be helpful. It’s important to get your work out there where people can read it. When your new poem is sitting in your desk drawer, it looks wonderful. It looks totally different when it’s in print. Its mistakes stand out, and you know you can’t take the poem back and change it, and you know that everyone can see how awful your poem really is. You have to go through that. Like cod liver oil, it’s good for you!
I can’t stand it when someone asks my advice about how to get their book of poems published, when they have never submitted a poem to a magazine and therefore no one’s ever heard of them. Who do they think they are: Shakespeare?
I’m sure Shakespeare thrashed out every line he wrote with half a dozen actors and theatre managers, changing this, adding a little something, pruning a bad line. You don’t write a poem, you re-write a poem. At least I do. Dozens of times, mostly.
Talking about when you were a younger poet, in the introduction to his The Faber Book Modern Australian Verse Vincent Buckley writes ‘(1969) was also one of the years of supposed revolution as sponsored by John Tranter’. In the same passage he cites you and Les Murray as leaders of rival camps. What was that all about?
Well, that was history, I guess. I don’t think people in the U.K. realise how active Les is, in a political sense, quite apart from his poetry. Here’s a bit of history. In any culture at any time you’ll find a spectrum of opinion from experimental to conservative, though the link to politics is often ambiguous. It should be known in the Northern Hemisphere, as it is Down Here, that Les Murray is — and has been for many years — the Literary Editor of Quadrant Magazine, which was funded in its early days by the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States Government through the Congress for Cultural Freedom’s office in Paris, via its executive director Michael Josselson, a CIA operative.
That source of funds also kept Encounter magazine in the UK afloat for quite a while. Encounter’s editors resigned when the CIA’s hand in its funding was revealed. Quadrant’s editors did not.
The kind of poetry that Quadrant has published over the years tends to be life-affirming, in a domestic kind of way, and fairly conservative in technique and — obviously, given the initial purpose of the magazine, to oppose international communism — conservative in its underlying politics.
In the late 1960s in Australia, people who held those attitudes were usually old men and women. Most young people then felt we needed a revolution — a democratic revolution through the ballot box — if we wanted change, and especially to stop young men being drafted into the army and sent overseas to kill people in the Vietnam War, which Quadrant magazine wanted to keep our army involved in. We got that revolution, minor and democratic as it was, with the election of the Whitlam Labor government in 1972, and they took our troops out of Vietnam. People in Britain and Europe don’t know or care about these things, and I don’t blame them.
The Vietnam War is history now, thank God, but Les is still at work. He recently provoked a quarrel that resulted in the then editor of Quadrant — a man of moderate and conciliatory views — being forced out, and replaced by a more strongly conservative editor. Les is still the Literary Editor. He did the same with Poetry Australia magazine in the 1970s: joining to help out, then taking over for a decade. He did the same with Angus and Robertson’s poetry list — in the 1980s they were our major poetry publisher, but not any more — joining first as one of two poetry advisors, and ending up single-handedly running the poetry list, which eventually consisted of his friends. He’s a talented poet, but in Australia he’s much more importantly an astute and tireless public figure with strong conservative political views.
If there’s a ‘rival camp’ to all that, please let me know, so I can join it.
Which of contemporary poets do you most admire?
Oh God, now I’ll offend everyone I leave out. I admire Enzensberger and Ashbery, and a dozen other older poets. Maybe enjoyment is more important than admiration. Admiration can be a pain in the arse for both parties.
This year I have enjoyed reading work by Peter Riley, Mark Ford and Jeremy Prynne in the UK, Lisa Jarnot, August Kleinzahler, Elaine Equi, David Lehman, Jennifer Moxley, Lee Ann Brown, Charles Bernstein and Andrea Brady in the USA, Michele Leggott in New Zealand, and Joanne Burns, Pamela Brown, Gig Elizabeth Ryan and the late John Forbes in Australia. But I could go on for pages. And these are just some of the people I’ve been reading this year, mainly because of the Internet magazine I edit, Jacket magazine. Last year it would have been a different list, and next year, who knows?
You mentioned four Australian poets... Is there such a thing as Australian poetry?
Oh, yes. Australia is a multi-cultural society — though not as much as say the contemporary USA, where Spanish will be the language spoken by the majority of its citizens within twenty years. We are also part of the international world: our television is a quarter Anglo-Australian, a quarter British, a quarter American, a quarter ‘foreign-language’ multi-cultural. What makes us Australian is not so much the content but the style, our tone of voice, or rather the mode we speak and think in — the Laconic Mode. That grows out of our complicated history: the white invaders two hundred years ago were half convicts, half gaolers. So we’re half obedient authoritarians, and half rebellious larrikins, all at the same time.
As you say, Australia is an increasingly multicultural society, with poets writing in other European languages. To what extent do these linguistic groups interact?
Well, not all that much, in my experience, except with Australian English as the lingua franca, or lingua aussie, perhaps. For a few years I worked as an editor of subtitles at our multicultural television station, the Special Broadcasting Service on Channel 28. There were seven poets working in the editing room at one point back there in the mid 1980s. That was fun, but the interactions were informal, not literary. We interact in culinary ways — thank goodness. Australian food in the 1950s was awful, like the English food of the time — chops and three boiled vegetables, rice pudding, and so on. We’re more cosmopolitan now, thanks to the migrants who brought their ways of life here, which means there’s more variety and more choice.
As far as foreign languages affecting English-language poetry in Australia, I think Rimbaud and Enzensberger are more important than most local poets, simply because they emerged from a much vaster cultural background. To be the most significant poet in France in 1872 is much more important in obvious ways that to be the most significant French-speaking poet in Australia in 1998, for example. But of course that opens the can of worms labelled ‘provincialism’, if not its neighbour labelled ‘colonialism’, and we’d better shut the lid on both of those right now!
What about Aboriginal poetry? Does it have an effect?
There are some strong poets writing out of that area — the ones that interest me currently are Archie Weller and Lionel Fogarty. I published them both in the Penguin anthology (the Bloodaxe Book of Modern Australian Poetry in the UK and in the USA), and I published a long interview with Lionel Fogarty in Jacket magazine, by Philip Mead. It’s a difficult area to talk about though, because of the basic problem that English is the white culture’s language, and the white culture is — historically speaking, and we’re in the middle of that history now — the white culture is the aboriginal culture’s problem. It must be almost unbearable, to have to write poetry in the language of the oppressor.
Though I guess the Anglo-Saxons must have felt that about the Norman French too, back in 1100 A.D., and where would Shakespeare be without his partly French vocabulary?
Perhaps the most important current issue revolves around so-called ‘Language Poetry’. I think the Language poets have refreshed the scene wonderfully, though I sympathise with those who find some of the products of that scene occasionally awful. Most of the poetry produced at any time in history is mainly awful.
And until a couple of years ago it would have stayed in desk drawers or editors’ waste bins. Now its spreading like weeds across the internet. Is that a good thing?
Well, yes and no. I think it’s a good thing that anyone can publish anything. On the other hand, what the average reader craves is an editorial filter.
You go into a bookshop and look at the shelves of poetry: there might be a lot of stuff there, but at least it has been sorted for you; it has all been through the filter of agent, editor, publisher, printer. You might not get exactly what you want, but you will get something professional. By the time it gets to the bookstore, the millions of amateur manuscripts that people write have been sifted through by professional editors, at vast expense, at no cost to you, the idle browser. ‘The fish that John West rejects...’ [‘...makes John West’s fish the best!’]
Now it’s good to be able to bypass the gatekeepers, and publish your wild, free ravings. But from the reader’s point of view, why do I have to wade through all this rubbish? That’s where editors come in. That’s where the Internet’s gift for rumour is a handy thing. You get to hear about good sites, good magazines. That’s where you go. The gossip is the filter. You pray you won’t end up in a tar pit of bad writing, knee deep in sticky stuff, down by the bayou. I think Frank O’Hara once said that poetry is a kind of higher gossip. He was right.
A moment ago you mentioned the Language poets. Who are the Language Poets? What is Language Poetry?
Well, I’m no expert on Language Poetry, but for what it’s worth it’s a very loose movement that started in the States a quarter of a century ago, partly as a reaction against the ghastly debasement of language by the Nixon administration during the Vietnam War. A collection of essays from the magazine L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was published as a book of the same (rather bullying) name in 1984 (edited by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein). Let me give you the ISBN — here it is — ISBN 0-8093-1106-2. It’s worth looking up in a library, because it’s full of very clever thinking and some passionate views.
Here’s an extract from the blurb:
‘This selection of texts from the first three volumes of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine discusses a “spectrum of writing that places its attention primarily on language and ways of making meaning, that takes for granted neither vocabulary, grammar, process, shape, syntax, program, nor subject matter.” (Bernstein and Andrews) The various writers shun labels, slogans, or catch-phrases; their exploration of the ways that meanings and values are revealed through the written word is intended to open the field of poetic activity, not close it. The common thread of these essays is the multitude and scope of words’ referential powers — denotative, connotative, and associational; and studying these powers is ultimately a social and political activity as well as an aesthetic one.’
Okay, that’s their story. Many poetry readers find so-called Language poetry impenetrable and anti-poetic and disgusting. They have a point. But the poets who have been linked to the movement are individual human beings who are passionate about writing poetry, not theory-driven clones. Let me throw out a few names: Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalopino, Rae Armantrout, Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten, Robert Grenier, Jackson Mac Low, Steve McCaffery. There are lots more. You can find most of them in or around the Electronic Poetry Center site attached to the State University of New York at Buffalo, at this URL: http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/ That’s a huge and generous site, and worth looking at.
How do you make a living? How does this influence your writing?
In two ways. First, by working at various jobs over the years: printer, publisher’s editor, teacher, radio features producer and businessman. Second, from grants.
The working jobs are important for getting you out of the house and mixing with other people. You learn a lot from all that. You learn, for one thing, that your being a poet is relatively uninteresting to the rest of the human race, and unimportant in the long run. Other people — doctors, garage mechanics, nurses, petty criminals, aircraft pilots — generally have much richer lives than poets do. That’s good for balancing your ego. I know some poets who could do with a dose of that from time to time.
But a good job takes energy from you, energy that you would otherwise use to write.
The grants have been very important to me, in giving me time to write. Since 1973 the Literature Board of the Australia Council has offered thousands of grants to enable hundreds of Australian writers to buy time to write, and I’ve had a number of these fellowships, from one year to three years each, on a very modest but reasonable wage.
What do you have planned for the immediate future?
God knows. As Frank O’Hara said, you just go on your nerve.
The main thing occupying me now seems to be Jacket magazine. That’s a free quarterly Internet magazine I started up in a rash moment in October 1997. Four issues are up now, and it seems to strike a chord among readers — it’s won four awards in the USA, and I didn’t even enter it. Issue # 2 mainly focusses on John Ashbery. Issue # 3 is dedicated to the late John Forbes, an Australian poet with immense talent who died suddenly — he had a heart attack — in January 1998.
Who funds the magazine? Does it earn its way?
I wish it did! No, it’s free, as things seem to have to be to succeed on the Internet. I do all the work, for nothing. I pay most of the bills myself, and the magazine gets some support from the business my wife and I own, Australian Literary Management, a literary agency.
This is perhaps a delicate question, but how do you manage to pay the contributors?
Well, I don’t. Jacket can’t afford to pay its contributors, unfortunately. I wish we could. We did apply for support from the Literature Board (now the Literature Fund) of the Australia Council, but it seems they had better things to give their money to. The Fund has changed since the accession to power of the conservative Liberal Party government in Australia, in predictable ways.
People don’t seem to mind. Ashbery sent a poem, Marjorie Perloff sent an article, Charles Bernstein sent a curious rhyming poem with a Blake etching to go in the background, Elaine Equi, Enzensberger gave four poems, Peter Riley, Johanna Drucker, Drew Milne, Karlien van den Beukel, Harry Mathews... dozens of people, who could have published anywhere, but who chose to give their work to Jacket. They’ve all been generous. In fact I’ve been very touched by people’s generosity in that regard.
Where do people go if they want to find out more about you or your writing?
Well, if they’re on the Internet, they can order my various books from a bookseller like Gleebooks in Sydney, at http://www.gleebooks.com.au, or from, say, Amazon in the States. Here’s a link to a list of my books.
Here’s a list of other Internet sites that feature my writing (the list is part of this site). The links on that list take you to thirty or so poems and interviews, and to an article I wrote about the Brekdown program. All that stuff’s free.
The Bloodaxe anthology is now available in the UK and the USA, and for the first time — at long last — I have a collection in print in the UK through Polygon, Late Night Radio. It’s a selection of some of my best work over the years. Most good bookshops should have that.
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