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John Tranter: Interviewer

interviews Robert Adamson, 1978

Half Doctor Who

“…there I was at Elizabeth Bay, with my IBM typewriter: half Huckleberry Finn, half Doctor Who.”

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THIS INTERVIEW was conducted at John Tranter’s house in Annandale, Sydney, in October 1978, recorded onto audio compact cassette. It was transcribed and revised by John Tranter and then revised substantially and retyped by Robert Adamson. It was published in Makar magazine volume 14 number 1, and then collected in A Possible Contemporary Poetry, edited by Martin Duwell and published by Makar Press, P.O. Box 71, St. Lucia, Q. 4067, in 1982, National Library of Australia Card Number and ISBN 0909354359


John Tranter: Bob, your latest book Cross the Border went to press about a year ago. And for most of the time since then you haven’t written much, except in the last two weeks when you’ve written about fifty poems. Had you stopped writing for that year?


Robert Adamson: Well, it’s not that I haven’t been writing, it’s just that I haven’t published. In fact I’ve been writing an autobiographical novel of some kind — there were some excerpts from it published in the last issue of New Poetry [magazine] — I think there’s a cross-over from this autobiographical fiction into these new poems from a manuscript I’m calling ‘Where I Come From’.


Are they autobiographical?


Well, I’m not sure what an autobiographical poem is, but these poems do contain facts that have been drawn from events in my personal history that I have selected from memory. And I stick to that, to what I remember, fairly closely without embellishment.


Quite a change from your last book.


In Cross the Border I was still obsessed with Mallarmé. I was interested in an almost totally imaginative world, and bound to the idea that my personal life was not of interest. I have always had great difficulty in trying to write about what happens to me in actuality, or what I think happens, or imagine I remember happening. It has to do with some kind of basic insecurity. I don’t know exactly what has changed this, but it has changed and in a drastic way. What I’m writing now I don’t necessarily see as my life. In fact it’s more likely to be a fictional life than the life I discovered in the Grand Fictions of Cross the Border. In these new poems I am more interested in what happens in my language outside of rhetoric, symbolism and so on. I’m testing the tensions between my own idiosyncratic idiom and the subject of the poems — or rather what the poems take up as their ‘subject’. And when I say ‘subject’ I’m not being dismissive of what you might call a ‘story’ now. In fact in [the poetry collections] The Rumour, Swamp Riddles and Cross the Border I was consciously expunging any narrative element in the poetry’s syntax.


I think a lot of critics felt that with Cross the Border you had moved away from your own experiences of life into a realm of imagination. How do you see your earlier books now?


Well, you could say The Rumour was autobiographical, in the sense that it was my interior life, the life running parallel to the outer life that I was leading at the time. It was an immediate kind of progress report from ‘the dark scenes in the gold mine’. You know, what was happening psychically, lyrically and in truth. And here, for once, I will qualify that word for you — the truth I know, the blood of me. The Cosmos. At the time I was writing The Rumour I had only really been reading poetry for six or seven years. It was still a new and exciting thing. There was a childlike kind of fascination with any kind of newness, and the most immediate newness that I had access to besides the poetry I was reading, was the awareness of imaginative experiences in me that were something other than intellectual and physical.


Would you call The Rumour the autobiography of your learning, and Canticles on the Skin the autobiography of your adolescence?


Yeah, for you I would. And, to simplify it even more, my new poems are perhaps the autobiography of my childhood. I seem to be travelling backwards, foraging through my personal histories towards the womb. It reminds me of a line in Jackson Browne: ‘Forget all your sad histories and meet me in the fire.’ But, to get back to it, Canticles [1970], which was my first book of poems, was meant to be a record of my adolescence. That was my intention. I thought at the time it was a fairly accurate record but now, of course, I can’t trust the records we make that are pulled out of the part of the brain where memory works.


How do you see that book now?


I find it very difficult to look at, to read. When I compiled my Selected Poems, I re-wrote most of the poems in it. I don’t know whether I’ve made a mistake in doing that, but I can’t really think of them as final things. I don’t think of anything in my work as a final thing, and I like the idea of a continuing state of flux in my work whether it’s published or not. But I think I may have spoilt any kind of unique quality the first book had, in its idiosyncrasy of phrasing... it’s as though I was struggling with just trying to hold a syntax together, simply because I had never written and I was — well, semi-literate, I guess. It was a great battle for me. I was trying to write normally, I wasn’t trying to be weird or strange or anything. I was trying to write, at the time, very straightforward, normal poems, and any surrealism or oddness is to do with the fact that I wasn’t able to cope with the syntax.


Yet Canticles on the Skin seems more dramatically literary than the latest work you’re doing.


That’s got to do with maturing and, as far as I can see, the first sign of my poetic maturity is a lack of self-consciousness in these new poems. And I’m learning not to be self- conscious. It isn’t so much just a letting-go. It is happening technically, step by step. In my early stuff, especially Canticles and The Rumour, where I was writing the ‘Great Poem’, I was the complete evangelist, unacknowledged legislator kind of thing. Now I don’t have the need to make a conscious act of belief in Poetry as a thing that exists outside myself.


I think that’s the crux of the change between Cross the Border and your new poetry. It seems to me that Cross the Border tries to invest poetry with a magical transforming role, and your new work sees poetry as taking the reality out of ordinary life and transforming it into another kind of reality, but not a magical one, a more ‘actual’ reality. Do you feel that your newer work is an admission that poetry can’t do magical things, or have you found a stronger role for it?


I certainly hope that none of my poetry is an admission of anything. But if you see the reality of my poems as being an admission of anything like that, that reality has certainly been drawn from actuality — not from an imaginative abyss. If I can get one feather or a precise — no, a lucid — verbal picture of the longest tail-feather of a Burdekin Duck into a poem: well, then I would say that poem has done a magical thing. For me the idea of contriving the Mallarmé-esque artefactual poem is fascinating. There is a part of me that would be a dandy if it could. I thought that maybe my ability to tell stories and amuse people so well indicated I might have been better off writing prose. But then it occurred to me — why not combine these qualities and simply write. One of the things that has trammelled my ability and imagination all these years has been the idea that you must cast yourself either as Poet or Fiction Writer.


Is your strong use of condensed narrative a going back to the story framework ?


Yes, I guess the [fiction] books of people like [Frank] Moorhouse, with his discontinuous narrative and, even more so, [Michael] Wilding, with his conceptual novels presented as stories, have been influential in this. And therefore, narrative is necessary in this new book as a run-down on my family, my life — or the life and the family that I choose to select. Where I come from.


The interesting thing is that all of the events that happen in the ‘Grail Poems’ [from Cross the Border]for example have never happened in real life, they only happened in the imagination. The events in the new poems have all actually happened to somebody within the last fifteen or twenty years. It seems to be a major shift of focus, stepping away from one thing completely into another.


The interesting thing to me is that you have gathered that the events happening in the ‘Grail Poems’ have never happened in ’real life’. They happened in my imagination. What is that if it isn’t ‘real life’? And, even without the semantics, what makes you think the events depicted, the monologues spoken, weren’t happening around me at the time of composition? The ‘Grail Poems’ mean what they say: literally and in every sense.


The events in the new poems, in fact, are more removed in time and space. They are vignettes drawn from remembered experience. However, composing them has done terrible violence to my head. I’m not quite sure yet, really, what I’m doing to myself writing these poems. I really sat down and hammered them out without thinking too much of what or whom I was writing them for, or anything. It was impulsive. It wasn’t so much an inspired thing but I did feel an urgency. It was as if I would lose poems each minute I wasn’t writing. I had never consciously thought about my family in my writing and after writing down a line about my mother — ‘I looked at my mother again after four years / I guess you’ll die soon I said’ — I started to recall and actually got back to the time of the poem. Most of the poems I feel were written back there, around the ages of six to twelve. I mean I was there physiologically, in the instant they occurred.


And yet, there I was at Elizabeth Bay [a Sydney harbourside suburb], with my IBM typewriter: half Huckleberry Finn, half Doctor Who. When your reality gets splintered like that and you can still write, you are still capable of writing, you always seem to go for radiance. It’s like a bowerbird. It’s the bright pieces you want, even though you can’t be sure your bower isn’t just straw after all. Okay. Fuck it. That thing Poe said: ’Everything we see and seem, is but a dream within a dream’ — It‘s like what Johnny Goodall says: ‘Every day is an El Topo day’. [El Topo (1971), a surrealistic Western gunfighter movie made in Mexico by Chilean director Alexandro Jodorowsky. — J.T.] But the angels are older now, they look over my shoulder now... It all sounds good, doesn’t it? The only way I can tell what’s happening these days is by reading what Terry Gillmore says about cucumbers.


So it’s not so much the time thing like, ‘now it’s come to distances’ or something — though you’ve touched on it when you mention the shifting focus. As I was saying about fractured reality and through that an awareness of what I have called ‘brightness’. Light, colour and every vital thing about radiance itself. What I’m talking of is written about by [Carlos] Castenada, Ed Dorn and Neil Young. Maybe it’s not so much LSD or Mescalin but the ability to find or use those experiences about ourselves, about me.


Talking about drugs gets us to one interpretation of the difference in your work from book to book. We could look at Canticles as a type of heroin poetry, and the latest work as a type of LSD poetry, if you wanted to do that. Which doesn’t explain very much, but the difference in function of the two drugs is quite interesting, in that heroin takes you out of the real world, and LSD (if you’re lucky) brings you back into it. Do you think that has anything to do with shifts through each book you’ve written?


I’m sure it has. But what makes you think heroin takes you out of the real world, and where are you for LSD to ’bring you back into it?’ As you said, it’s dangerous to use these kinds of analogies, but I don’t make a secret of the fact that I have used drugs. They occur in the life that I walk through. I take what is offered to me. I am a very sociable person.


There’s a line in one of your poems, ‘An Elegy for Michael Dransfield’, that goes ‘ideas of ourselves as poets was addiction / more terminal than any opiate chemists could re fine’. That portrays a particular attitude to poetry that I think you may have grown away from in the last few years. Why is that? I mean it was obviously a very fruitful philosophy for you.


I have no one to share my adolescent hero-worshipping Pollyanna head with anymore. All my friends that are poets or interested in poetry have grown older, not wiser now. They’re pissed off with those kind of dreams, and the ones that are still writing poetry — some of them very good poets — aren’t troubled by it anymore. I can’t go around pretending that Percy Shelley is going to pull us out of it now. It’s simple. There’s no one to share it with, and the ’particular attitude to poetry’ that you think I may have grown away from, if it did exist outside the obvious irony of those lines of mine you quote, was cremated with the body of Michael Dransfield. I want to, I have to make a real gold out of all that alchemy.


I think there’s a basic contradiction in there somewhere, that revolves around the idea of an opium-related view of the world; that it’s essentially personal. Poetry, on the other hand, is about communication with people. If you are writing poetry out of a personalised opiated view of the world, you can never really use it as a means of communication with other people. The attempt often goes something like this: ‘I have a vision, I’ll present it to you, but you won’t understand it because you’re not stoned.’


Well that’s a pretty limited kind of attitude for an artist, whether he’s a drug addict or not. I don’t have opinions about these things anymore. I am very uncertain about the counter-culture, about what individual artists do to separate themselves from society. You can be incredibly opinionated about this kind of thing. It’s so easy. I could rattle off answers to these kinds of problems once, but maybe now I don’t think they are problems. And besides, if art works, it communicates with you.


If you like, I see the counter-culture as a three-dimensional living and breathing book. And you know what that book is? It’s Pound’s Cantos. It’s collage. We’re bowerbirds, like him. The difference between ’us’ and ’them’ is that when we pick up a coloured piece of glass, we know that it is a coloured piece of glass and not the world’s biggest necklace.


If there is such a thing as ’an opium-related view of the world’ that’s something that will haunt you, John, not me, and, without being bardic on my part, it’s a phrase among others that you use to placate, as far as I’m concerned, your ‘average reader’, your editors, your imagined status quo, whether it’s counter-cultural or not, whether it’s for Aspect [a small magazine for art and literature] or the National Times [a ‘classy’ weekly newspaper].


As far as I’m concerned I’m content to trust the feeling that I can actually write poems that do come out-of — what is it now?... fifteen years of very solid, conscious learning in the art of making poetry. And now that I’ve learned to write I seem to have shocked myself into realizing I don’t need to make a collage of the Moderns anymore. I can write on my nerves, trust my own abilities and, most importantly, my readers.


The three aspects of your poetry that stand out to most people have to do with role enacting. That is, the role of the criminal, the role of the drug addict, and the role of the poet; and they all have one thing in common: they’re essentially sub-cultural and private things, and they all involve a great difficulty in communication with most people in our society. The criminal because he’s an outcast, the drug addict because his visions are essentially private, and the poet because of the great effort needed to communicate insights to a mass of people who don’t want to have insights communicated to them. Do you see your own poetry in terms of explicating a role to others?


Okay John, we’re either talking about the way I look or where I’m standing, my position. If you think one of my most basic qualities is a game, or to put it more generally, playing out a role that allows me access to the various worlds of criminal, drug addict and poet it’s a shame, because you’ve known me fairly closely for ten years, and this gives you an insight that people who read my poetry don’t have. Maybe, even on such a small scale as the poetry scene in Australia there is as much shying away from the Song in preference to the Singer, the personality, as there is in the pop music industry.


If I play roles, and I am acutely aware of my chameleon-like personality, then it has to do with living up to expectations. As Jackson Browne says in relation to this kind of shit ‘it’s not who you are, it’s who you look like that really matters.’ In social situations maybe some of the personas out of the solitude of my poetry are encouraged to loom larger than who I actually am. And it is for the social situation, for the mobility, that I have this kind of working-class reverence for education, like, you know, ‘improving’ myself. One of my favourite stories is Pygmalion.


Education is learning, and learning is the reading of books. You mentioned collage a while ago. How important have influences of other writers been on your work?


Terribly important. In fact, what I do, and this is connected with that role-playing thing, is to mimic and imitate any poet that I happen to seize on. And the poets I prefer or that become heroes have no apparent similarity. To take one obvious example, Robert Duncan became an enormously important figure in my consciousness and also my social life. I have no idea really why he became so important. Suddenly I’m telling somebody that Robert Duncan is a great poet... whether or not I believed it probably wasn’t important, but if that person said no, he was not, I would have to prove to myself and to anyone who’d listen, to the sky, that Robert Duncan was indeed a god, feeling that if I couldn’t do that I would vanish. It’s been a whole progression, Percy Shelley, Bob Dylan, Robert Duncan, Neil Young and so on. And about my obsession with Mallarmé, where does he figure in my pantheon? Well, he does. They are all connected by my mind and in my work. You will find them there.


That’s one of the things about the new poems that interested me, that in all of them — and there are a great number of them — nowhere can I find the influence of a particular writer or style or attitude drawn from writing.


Yeah, there’s nothing of that in them. These are the first poems I have ever written in my life without another book of poetry open on my desk. It had become a security blanket thing. When I was writing Cross the Border it was mainly Duncan, Creeley, and the ‘Black Mountain’ poets. I always had one of their books open, Olson, say, on my desk. With Swamp Riddles it would have been Merwin, Mark Strand, you know, that mob; with Canticles it would have been Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Co., but I always had a book and looked, and consciously tried to copy the poems. They came out different to say, Lowell, because I wasn’t that good at copying, but if I could have been that good, I mean, that clever, I would have imitated a Robert Lowell poem exactly; that’s what I was trying to do. And if somebody ever said to me ’That’s like Robert Lowell’, it was a great compliment.


You’re saying it was your lack of cleverness that preserved your originality ?


Yes, but I have been talking back to ten or twelve years ago. Now my problem is that I have become too clever by half. So to balance this I have forced myself to write without a dictionary or thesaurus. With these new poems, the first few I wrote using a thesaurus, simply because I can’t spell — I mean literally can’t spell. And then for the rest I had no thesaurus, no dictionary, no other book of poetry, but in a way I narrowed my form down by using the limited vocabulary that is available to me when I am writing, as opposed to when I speak.


You will notice the limited vocabulary in these poems. The discovery of this is that I no longer find it necessary to show off, or display the fact that I have read a great deal. This comes out of the constant embarrassment of having no formal education. The amazing thing is, these poems I feel are closer to wisdom than some of my flashier work like The Rumour, flashier as far as literary allusion etc., like look at me, I’ve read more than you.’


Why do you think your approach has changed so radically at this stage of your life?


I think it’s a severe case of self-preservation. I was just too shaky to keep living that life. I mean, this is not seeing the light, or a reformation, or anything like that. I’m still as wretched as ever. But I want to live a bit longer, and I started to think, well, I might die. Not because I’ll die of drugs or anything like that; I just thought ‘Fuck, we’re mortal, and eventually I’ll die. I’d better spin it out a bit more.’ But at the same time I don’t want to lessen the pitch of my life, I want to heighten it; but I don’t want to wear my liver out so quickly. Something like that. And it’s got a lot to do with my private life. I’ve never let myself be loved before, and now I’m being loved and can accept love and give it in return, and it’s strange and exciting. And that changes things a lot.


How does that change your poetry?


Well, I think in my poetry I have to watch what you call role playing. I can’t delight as much now in virtuoso skydiving antics, or just mimicry and lyrebirding. [The Australian lyre bird is a famous mimic. — J.T.] I really do think that what I’m doing in my work affects my life, and vice versa. I mean, fooling around with the occult, whatever you think of the occult, it’s odd, and it can be disruptive. to your private life. I’m as drawn to that as I’m drawn to these worlds of the criminal, visionary and poet.


I was tampering around blindly and haphazardly during Cross the Border, but I did occasionally feel a little frightened by what I was doing. And it wasn’t a spooky or a psyched-up thing, it was a very deliberate conscious fear. I had affected a couple of people through these weird books and people I’d met, Robert Duncan, you know, having him live in my house, told me stories and gave me information, that’s a bit scary. But he was very careful to discourage me; and I think, reflecting on it now, he may have been terribly important in telling me to stop copying him, that ‘Black Mountain’ had finished years ago, and start to write your own poetry. He more or less said that to me.


T.S. Eliot talked about the importance of a young writer having to learn his style through imitating a number of other writers, so that eventually he comes to a stage in his work where he finds his own voice. Do you feel you’ve reached that stage?




The writers that have influenced you were Romantics and outsiders, all of them; and the archetypal figure is Shelley, an atheist. In his own time it was a very hard thing to do. Shelley, Blake, Duncan, Dylan; they were all poets who stood against the accepted authority of their time. Is that why they influenced you, or is it their works? The two things are often hard to separate.


I wonder if I ever separate them. I still find Shelley a greater poet when I’m not reading him — I mean his poetry. And Shelley was of course only an atheist in the scheme of his own and Godwin’s ideology; not in, say, ‘Adonais’ and ‘Mont Blanc’. Shelley is a religious poet in any sense. Often when I’m talking with Kate... when I was trying to explain some feeling I had about her, in bed, and I said: ‘Just a minute, I know what to say’ — I leapt out of bed, opened up Shelley and said: ‘Here it is. This is what I wanted to say ’, and read it out. It wasn’t what I wanted to say. When I was lying in bed I saw the whole page there. I mean, I made the poem up for him, for Shelley. I put it back on the shelf, and I got angry with myself. And with Kate. I could see her face, she thought it was silly too, and I couldn’t admit it but I knew it was.


So now I’m apprehensive about opening up Shelley after writing these new poems. I still want him to be terrific, I still want to have to convince people that he is more than a god. He is, John. I know he is, but it is all of Shelley that’s great, no individual lines or phrases. There is this weird book he’s written. His Collected Poems, and it is a great book to me because of its energy and anarchy, its poetic anarchy as well as the anarchy that went along with the person that created it, the poet who wrote it. As for his life... I am fascinated by Shelley’s life, I try to have a life like that myself. I’m not sure why, I just think it would be a full way to live life.


I often think that the Romantic poets’ use of poetry is basically a means of reinforcing their identity as a person, as an ego.


Yeah, I agree with that. Look, what happens with me is that I run around the city for a week and do pitiful acts of vandalism, wake a few people up, get thrown in gaol overnight for being drunk and disorderly or something like that, then I go home the next day and I feel absolutely terrible and riddled with guilt. I sit down thinking, ‘Well, I won’t be able to see anybody until I write a new book, but once I write this, they’ll all forgive me.’ So I work my guts out, to prove that I’m not too bad after all. But often I can’t write until I get myself into a situation where I need to write my way out of it.


It’s like when I first started to write. I thought ‘I’ll write a poem or two and I’ll be able to get girlfriends.’ I’d say ’Look at this, I’m not that absurd, I wrote this.’ I use all those weaknesses, I suppose, but then it gets a bit hairy, reinforcing my ego — often I don’t know who I am.


During the times that may have been seen as me playing out a role, I was adopting particular characteristics, certain traits, depending on my latest friend or latest ‘partner in crime’. Dransfield’s as good an example as any, isn’t he?... At that time, the time I spent with him I don’t think I was consciously playing ‘a role’.


There have been times, and here referring back to the thing I said about expectations, when I either slipped into one or was forced into one to either placate or please the person I was with. Fully realising the obvious things, all the implications of what it means. And then not at all realising it.


If your poetry could do something to alter your life, what would it be? If you could write the ultimate best poem? What would you get out of that?


I would get out of that the ability to be satisfied and fulfilled by writing poetry.


Is that an action you have to live out every day, continually?


Yeah, each time I write a successful poem I see it as another step toward getting to the state where I’ll be able to sit in my room and not want to go out, but stay there and enjoy and love writing. You know, writing has never been a great life for me, it’s been a terrible task. I’ve had to use the small amount of self-discipline and everything in my power to say ‘Look, sit down and write!’


I think most writers have felt that about poetry, and yet they keep on doing it.


Yeah... there’s no such thing as the virgin white page for me... it’s a white abyss.

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