The conversation took place at Bruce Beaver’s apartment in the seaside suburb of Manly, in Sydney, Australia, on Monday 15 June 2003. Bruce Beaver was in his mid-seventies. His wife Brenda has not long before been hospitalised with appendicitis, and Bruce was alone in the apartment.
Sadly Bruce died less than a year after our interview, in the early hours of the 17th of February 2004. You can read my obituary article on this site.
This interview was first published in Southerly magazine. It is about thirteen printed pages long.
— John Tranter
We began by talking about out mutual friend Grace Perry (1927–87), poet, magazine editor and medical doctor, who had published my first book of poems in 1970, and many volumes by Bruce Beaver.
Bruce Beaver: … Grace asked me what’s your next book, if you’re working on one? I said, “I’ve got one ready”. And that was… I think Seawall and Shoreline was the next one. Under the Bridge was the first one, the first book Grace Perry published.
John Tranter: That came out in 1964. That was the year Grace started Poetry Australia [and South Head Press], wasn’t it?
Yes, the first South Head Press publication was my book. And she published another three after that: Letters to Live Poets, Open at Random, and…
No, she didn’t publish that. I left the publishing house for that book. I dedicated that to David Malouf. He was pleased with that… he’s a damn good poet himself.
He was then. He writes mainly prose now. So you had a long association with Grace Perry.
Yes, it started in 1963 when I met her at the Poetry Society of Australia. [Grace was then the editor of Poetry Magazine, published by the Society.] She was on the verge of kicking her heels up at them and leaving, and starting her own magazine.
What was the reason she gave for leaving at that time? There was something about an issue of Poetry Magazine she was about to edit, that the committee of the Society disapproved of.
That’s right, yes. And she got in a huff.
Was it because it had French poetry in it? Or American poetry?
I do believe it was a selection of French poetry, which she later brought out as an issue of Poetry Australia. A very nice book; I still have it and read it. After that she did an issue of Italian poetry in English and she was thinking about a Dutch issue. They were all good.
She was a very independent person, wasn’t she?
Utterly independent, yes. You couldn’t cross swords with her unless you were prepared to get wounded. And she was always ready to have a tussle with anybody, and she was argumentative by nature. But I liked her very much because — she was a damn good doctor as well and a very talented person. Her last book, I thought, was Black Swans at Berrima, and I thought it was perhaps the best thing she’d done. She was not —
I wasn’t that impressed with her poetry —
She wasn’t a first-class poet, no, she was a second-class —
And the sad thing is that in the 16 years since she died [in July 1987] her work seems to have fallen into neglect, hasn’t it?
I’m afraid so, I’m afraid it’s gone into oblivion. Nothing much one can do about that. I looked at Black Swans the other day, and liked it better than the other books. They were too strident.
I remember when I was going to Singapore in the middle of 1971, I went to see her about something or other; in fact I think I tried to talk her into doing another anthology of young, new poetry, which she agreed to do then. That fell apart later. I remember as I was going she came out onto the lawn in from of her doctor’s surgery [at 350 Lyons Road, Five Dock, in Sydney] and said to me “John, I must say I’m not happy with the direction your work’s going in. It’s getting all experimental and way-out, you know. You should really think of going back and reading William Carlos Williams again, he’s really the best example you can have as a poet.” And I said “Well, that might be so for you, Grace, but I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do. I’m still developing, I have to do what I think is interesting.” That was really the last conversation we had for a long time.
When she was very young she won a prize or two as a schoolgirl [she was 15], and got a lot of fame. And she didn’t come back to poetry until she had got a degree and become a doctor and been married and had three kids. And I think it was then that she discovered Williams, and it impressed her very much.
You know I first met her when she was very young. I was working at radio station 2UE. I went down the hall one day and I looked through at the announcer [in the studio] and I saw a young girl sitting with him, giving an interview and talking about her plans for the future. I thought, so you want to be a poet. I was just on the verge of starting to write poetry myself. I didn’t start until I was 17. Anyway I met her and I said: “How nice to meet you; you started when you were twelve, did you?” “Oh, yes,” she said, and we talked. This is all historical now, isn’t it?
This is Grace Perry? What a wonderful coincidence!
At 16! And I didn’t meet her again until — she was my age — until I was about 34, 35. Isn’t that a fantastic coincidence?
Extraordinary, Bruce. I can’t get over it.
I frequently think of it. We were meant to meet, and be friends. That was 1944, in 2UE.
I was one year old.
[laughs] How marvellous… you were on earth…
Just beginning. And Ern Malley’s work had just been published. [You can read about the Australian hoax poet Ern Malley in Jacket magazine.]
Yes, yes, which I have over there in those shelves. I thought you’d be tickled by that because I can’t understand why she said don’t be experimental, because she encouraged me when I was at my most experimental, leaving out the capitalisation… James Dickey [the American poet] said “Oh Beaver, he’s not that much, he’s copying my style.” Well, that’s quite true, I was copying what he started doing, but I did a whole book, he only did an occasional poem here and there.
He came to Australia, didn’t he, and stayed with Grace…
Yes, we were at her place at Bilgola [on the Northern Sydney beaches] seated fronting the ocean, and I said “Tell me, what do you think Robert Lowell would feel if he were here?” And Dickey said, [deep slow voice, American accent:] “He’d be embarrassed.” That’s all he said. In other words, the ocean would make him feel small.
I don’t think much made Robert Lowell feel small.
No, because he was naturally… he was like me, he had the bipolar occurrences, manic-depressive psychosis. I’ll show you an interesting book. [Gets book from shelf.] Manic Power. Faces up to the fact that half a dozen contemporary American poets, all of whom you’d know, because they’re all famous… Sexton, and…
Were all manic-depressives.
They all drank too much, too.
So did I before I went on dialysis.
Oh hell yes. I’d drink a bottle of wine a day. It was too much for me, because I couldn’t stop, really. I’d go out and start getting another one after that. I was greedy. But now I’m forbidden alcohol, on kidney dialysis. It has too much potassium in it, and you poison yourself by drinking it. I started nibbling, about two or three months ago, and I’d take Brenda down to Manly to a well-known pub, The Ivanhoe, and I’d have a couple of glasses of spirits. And my potassium reading got too high. They [at the dialysis clinic] asked me what I’d been doing, and I said that I’d eaten some banana sandwiches. I told a lie. And they said I mustn’t do that again. It wasn’t much, but it was too much for me. Unfortunately, because I love it.
I believe you spent some time on an uncle’s farm on the south coast of New South Wales. I grew up down that way [at Moruya]. Where was it?
It was at Berry, north of Nowra [about a hundred miles south of Sydney, near the coast.] You’d know that area. He began on a small place on the Shoalhaven River. He only owned 30 cows. But at Berry he had his farm, and I went there when I was 19, for about a year, to work with him, as a therapeutic thing, to try and check the bipolar occurrences that were rattling me.
And I got very healthy and strong. I loved working for Uncle Reg, he was a lovable man. I did a bit of everything, a bit of ploughing, mainly milking cows by hand. He didn’t have any machinery. I could do all the work that my cousin Raymond, Ray, would do. He was a couple of years older than I was.
How many cows would you milk a day? About 10 or 12?
Right on the dot! Ray and I and Reg, the three of us, would get up at about 4.30 or 5.00, and I’d go out and bring the cows in, on Lass, a lovely horse. Uncle Reg made me very angry a few years later, because instead of pensioning Lass off and letting her live in a nice paddock, he sold her for dogs’ meat.
Oh dear, that’s upsetting.
Well, this is the strange callousness that many farmers have underneath their loving natures.
They can be very hard underneath.
They’ve got to be tough. Everything, money… and Lass went. I didn’t sever relations, because he died himself, shortly afterwards. But that was a good time of my life.
The other good experience in my life was working for the railway survey camp in the Hunter Valley [north of Sydney] at Singleton, on a plan to create a new railway line from Newcastle over the range at Murrurundi, to by-pass the flood areas. I worked on that for five years. For five years I lived in a tent, from my 24th to my 29th year I worked as a surveyor’s labourer. I was all muscle and bone then. And I’m only skin and bone now [laughs]. I was writing poetry all the time, getting it published.
You’d have time to write, too, in the evenings. Nothing much to do.
Yes, I’d pump up my Tilley lamp, and I’d write from about 7.00 till about 10.00, writing poetry. Yes, I’ve had a mildly adventurous life.
Have you ever been overseas?
Only to New Zealand and Norfolk Island. I would have loved to visit the America of the Beats. I wanted to go there as a kind of pilgrimage when they were writing. Kerouac and Ginsberg and the saner ones. I liked the bad ones very much; the saner ones sort of kept them in line. One of them owned a bookshop called City Lights.
I met him when he came out to Australia, in the early 1970s. I met him a few times, rescued him from Grace once, and took him back to Kings Cross where I was living, and showed him around. “Now,” he said, “I’d like to go home and write.” I said “I know exactly how you feel. That’s why I rescued you. She’s a good woman, but she’s hard to get away from, if you’re as famous as you are.” “Oh, I’m not famous.” “You surely are, and you know it,” I said, “The whole bunch of you are. Beautiful poets.” [deep voice, slow American accent:] “Well, so long, Bruce.” I never saw him again. He went back to America. He was a nice man. I think they all would have been good to meet, especially Ginsberg.
I never met Ginsberg. Although I went to a poetry reading he gave once, in Florida. I was there on a three-month writer-in-residency, funded partly by the Literature Board of the Australia Council. I gave a reading; he gave one the following night. I didn’t get too many people come to mine; he got a lot come to his. [laughs] It was a wonderful reading. He was in good form. He had a little harmonium with him, which he played, and sang, and just enthralled the audience. It was a fabulous evening.
You were connected with a lot of younger writers, weren’t you? Like me, and others, towards the end of the ’60s, Nigel Roberts…
I met Nigel first apple picking in New Zealand, down at the top of the south island. I had two seasons of apple picking: 1959 and 1960, and I met Nigel Roberts when he was 17, a student teacher. He was already writing poetry. I was well into my poems. We had a lot to say to one another.
When he [Nigel Roberts] came over to Australia he introduced me to — not to you, I don’t remember how we met — I was living at Kings Cross. I remember you were about 22, 1966 perhaps. You came to our place up from Rushcutters Bay, just up from the park. You were only 21, I think. You reminded me of a poet, a German poet, and I mentioned his name. And you said, “Oh no, Rimbaud is my favourite”. Even then. And I thought, “I haven’t read enough of Rimbaud”. So I immediately went out and bought this poetry. I thought, “My God yes.”
You’ve both got the same “shock treatment” approach. And even then… you were not writing like Rimbaud, you were writing like yourself, only you had the same appreciation of “shock them awake” feeling… wake them up.
I’d actually got onto Rimbaud when I was 17.
You told me.
A friend from my hometown, Moruya, Jan Hutchison, gave me a copy of a biography of Rimbaud by James Ramsey Ulmann. It was rather bowdlerised, but it was a very intense book, and it got me absorbed in the idea that anyone could actually devote their life to being a poet. It seemed a very strange intense thing to do.
And so young…
So young. That’s what impressed me too.
About your own age.
That’s right. I was about that age — the age he was beginning to do his good work — when I first heard about him. Of course I didn’t write any good poetry for a long time after that, but it was a very interesting experience, to run into that work.
You started being yourself. You weren’t many years going, and you had attained your own thing, your own feeling…
Well, I was always borrowing from other people.
So was I.
I think Eliot said that you work out who you are by going through a whole lot of writers’ styles…
Laforgue and the others… it’s very interesting to read about the lives of other poets who have become famous and have impressed one and made one feel… well, I’d love to be myself, but I’d wished that I could have his or her approach to life. I loved Elizabeth Bishop. When I read Lowell I got onto Bishop.
I took a long time to come around to Elizabeth Bishop. I think when I first looked at her work it seemed too quiet to interest me.
It’s not immediately approachable. When you seek to meet her half way, you like her. I like her very much.
The prose is very good too.
I met Denise Levertov, she was quite interesting for a while.
I think I met her at your place.
Yes, she came over here and sat on the floor, and I sat on the floor with her. And Brenda was in the immediate offing, so I’m glad we didn’t lie on the floor. [laughs] We just sat and talked. She told me about meeting Lowell and being impressed. She was taught by him. She had this contact. And we had this great distant contact with Americans, about every 10 years, they’d fly over here.
They’d fly over, and fly back! Did you meet Robert Duncan when he came out?
Yes, I did.
I didn’t meet him here. He stayed with the Adamsons, didn’t he?
He stayed with the Adamsons, and he wasn’t very approachable, he was distant always, but he liked my poems. I showed him a book of mine, the one that James Dickey said the form was plagiarised, and he said: “I like him, in fact I like him more than I like Jim Dickey.”
Well that’s nice to hear.
Wow… coming from Robert Duncan, whom I idolised at the time, along with Olson… I would love to have met Olson. I loved his work. Of course it was on from Carlos Williams’ style of writing letters to himself and to his public. Which again was taken from Pound’s Cantos style. I loved these American poets because I wanted to write about Manly like that, and I’ve always written about Manly. I’ve got it in the new book that I’m just finishing.
What’s your new book about?
It’s called “The Long Game”. That’s the leading poem in it. It’s… I tried to copy the Persian Rubaiyat, only I copied the two-line stanza and used three rhymes. I’ve got away from FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which I liked very much and am very fond of.
[Looking at the typescript, astonished tone] This is rhymed verse, Bruce!
Yes, it’s all rhymed, the whole thing, it’s about six pages of rhymed verse.
I think you’d be interested in this one. I find… I speak haltingly now, because of this ageing memory of mine. I have to give myself a second or two before the thought formulates, and then I turn it into words. It’s… ah… it’s an annoying experience. Brenda and I are both in the same boat, and when I go up to see her this afternoon [at the hospital], we’ll be saying “You’re about to say so-and-so, let me say it for you,” and we help one another [laughs].
How long have you been together?
Forty years. I met her… I went to New Zealand in 1958 because I wanted to meet James K. Baxer and Alan Curnow, and all the other big poets… I called them big poets because they appealed to me, frankly, more than the contemporary Australian poets at the time. I was reading them in Meanjin. They were amazingly colourful poets, lively living poets, and I thought I’ll go over there and I’ll meet them. Instead I went over there and met the two leading prose writers, Frank Sargeson and Rod Finlayson. They became close friends, but I never met the poets.
That’s odd, isn’t it? They were the ones you’d gone to see.
Yes… I’d gone to meet them in ’58…
How long were you there in New Zealand?
Till ’62. Between four and five years. I went in May, and in October I went to a friend’s place and saw this lovely woman sitting there with her little son. That was Brenda. And our eyes met and we immediately had the feeling “I want to be your friend.” “Cheng Yao, I want to be your friend,” says the Chinese poet 700 years ago, Po Chu-I [AD 772–846.] We — of course we were friends for a few months, and then the natural thing happened, and we became lovers. And she was married, and I broke up the marriage —
Hell yes. I was a naughty boy. She said no, I want to be with you, so I said all right, we’ll go off and live together. And she left the home, and she had to leave her son, which nearly broke her heart.
That must have been terribly hard to do.
It was a terrible shock. I said look, I’d love to have the two of you with me, but they won’t let us take the boy. I said, now you make your choice, and go back to them if you must do. I said we’ll always be friends, but I want to be more than a friend, I want to be your husband. And she said I want to be your wife. And she made that sacrifice for me, which is the uttermost sacrifice I can imagine a woman, or a man for that matter, making.
And I thought — we were under such a dark cloud, there, that I thought I’ll go back to Australia and take her with me. I did that, and as soon as I got in Australia, the bipolar experiences happened, and I was in an asylum again within three months.
And so it was almost a tragic setting for her to come back to.
She must have felt very bewildered and —
Bewildered and lost, but… she lived with my mother, and my mother liked her very much. And I said as soon as the divorce comes through — when I got out of the asylum in about three or four weeks, about a month — I said if — if you feel up to it, and still knowing what I am, feel like marrying, we’ll get married. And we got married.
And I knew that I’d have these attacks throughout my life. I told her what to expect, but she still wanted to marry me, so we got married, and went to live away from Mum, because… Mum got a bit rattled when I got married. She was a possessive mother. But the life was crazy and mixed-up and rattling. And Bren put up with — let me see — 1966 we married, that’s about 37 years, I think. We stayed married.
And a couple of years ago, with the help of my analyst in Manly… he said I’m going to try a new pill that’s called a wonder-drug, like other pills… seemingly it stops manic-depressive occurrences. Would you be willing to try it? I said I’ll leap at the chance. I take one a day after breakfast and I haven’t had a bipolar experience for two years now. The analyst I had 12 or 13 years ago put me on lithium. I had 12 years of lithium and it ruined my kidneys, but it doesn’t affect other people so much. That’s what started me on kidney dialysis. I’ve been on it for 12 years now.
It’s very hard to go on dialysis, but you’ve survived quite well.
It’s a drag. It’s approximately five hours, three times a week, on a machine.
Oh Bruce, that’s awful.
Two needles in your arm; you’re watching your blood circulate through a machine. I get by, by taking over books of poems.
You’d get a bit of reading done!
I sure do. Five hours straight. And Brenda hasn’t been well lately, so I’ve been seeing that she has a good night’s sleep every night. I’ve been virtually looking after her. And she has been looking after me. We’ve been helping one another fully. If anything, these illnesses have brought us closer together. I’m very fortunate in that aspect of my life.
Brenda has always been there, hasn’t she?
Always. Always giving. And I’ve tried to give as much as she, but I could never catch up with her. I’m afraid I’ve been about 49 per cent poet and 51 per cent husband. Now I’m about 80 per cent husband and 20 per cent poetry.
But you’re still writing…
Yes, it’s still continuing. It’s my 58th year of writing.
When you knew Nigel Roberts and other younger poets, your work often appeared in their magazines. Free Poetry, for example, edited by Nigel.
Yes, I often offered work to Nigel to consider. He wouldn’t take it if he — he knocked back some of my work. But I understood. He gave good reasons. And I had to put that work aside. I never destroyed anything. I kept things. So I could look and see what my second-rate stuff was like. Check it with my newer work. I was my own critic.
To see if you were improving rather than degenerating.
… degenerating, yes; because that can happen.
Now, did you know Michael Dransfield when he was on the scene?
I was very close to Mike. He was like a sort of surrogate son for a while. Well, he was on drugs, and I was like my father, an alcoholic. In my nature. Alcohol was dangerous for me. But I couldn’t drink too much, because it would make me sick. I couldn’t hold it. That probably saved my life. And when I met Mike, he was — not getting sick on the drugs, but he was going out of life.
He was getting farther and farther away from life. I remember Mike coming into the old home one day, and he’d woven a necklace of clover. He put it around my neck and kissed my forehead. I said, “Oh, Mike, don’t think I’m that good”. And he said, “Yes, you are”. I said, “No I’m not,” I said; “I’m in the same run as you are. We’re both trying our hardest”. He said, “You’re established, you’ve made it,” and so on. He’d go off into adulation, and this always embarrassed me for one reason or another.
I felt the same. He was over-enthusiastic about things. I felt it was often play-acting to pretend it was real, and then it might become real.
Yes it was play-acting. That sums it up completely. I could see this, and I’d try to get him back to earth, but I couldn’t do it. And he waltzed in one day with his girlfriend… and they went straight to our refrigerator and [laughs] and ate us out of our food for the next two days. He was like this. I couldn’t stop him. I said Mike, leave something for us, will you? [laughs] But he knew it was a climate of love, love and friendship. He knew that he could do what he liked.
He had a lot of friends, Michael. He was very likeable.
They came over en masse one night… as you would probably remember we had huge parties in the daytime with 60 or 70 people on the lawn at the back. And Mike knew he could come at any time he felt like it, and stay the night if he wanted to. We’d give him a bed. If he was too high I wouldn’t let him go out.
I’d say, now you just lie down and turn it into sleep.
But it was too much for him. He just didn’t have the stamina, and he died. Very young. [Roland Robinson’s name was mentioned.] Roland Robinson was very close to me for some years.
[surprised:] Was he?
Yes. He liked my work and I liked his.
He was in some ways a rival to Grace Perry, of course, wasn’t he, because he remained with the Poetry Society and edited their magazine, after she’d gone off with her subscriber list which she stole from the Poetry Society.
And turned into Poetry Australia. So they would have been competing a bit.
Yes… they came to see me, one day, from the Poetry Society, and said, “Look, Grace has taken our list”. And I said, “I helped her.” “Oh. I didn’t know that. Oh, I understand. Goodbye.” “Goodbye,” I said. It was Ella Turnbull. All these things are in the past now. But Grace and I were quite naughty. We severed relations with the Poetry Society and I became a contributing editor to Poetry Australia.
Later on in the day she got Les Murray in to become the chief editor of the magazine. And I must say that… I… I can’t make a statement that denigrates Les, because I think he’s a wonderful poet, but he and I somehow… had a sort of rivalry going on. I don’t even understand it now. It wasn’t for who’s better than whom. It was just… not completely understanding each other’s poetry. Each knew that the other was quite good at what we were doing, but he didn’t like the direction that I was going in, being too much of a confessional poet I think. I didn’t regard myself as a confessional poet, I just wrote about people, and about my attitude to them and their attitude to me. And he was more distanced; while remaining excellent. Good descriptions, but… we were on the wrong sides of the track, and could never come across and be friendly.
You don’t feel it might have had something to do with the fact that you had some influence with Grace, and Les felt he wanted the magazine for himself?
Yes, utterly. That sums it up. That’s exactly what I felt. Because I left Grace’s side. I didn’t stop being her friend, I’d visit her and see her. But I ceased to be an editor when Les took over the reins for a while. But she, being similar to me in some ways, us, argued with him and he left. After some months.
Oh, after some years, I think. He was there for a long time.
You see, there’s my memory again. I couldn’t remember because I wanted to wipe it out of my mind.
Possibly, yes. Grace did ring me after ten years — I’d been overseas and come back. While I was in Singapore in 1971, she’d refused to go through with the publication of an anthology we’d agreed to do. I only discovered decades afterwards that [one of the contributors], who was a little bit bipolar himself then, had on his own initiative written her an angry letter saying: why don’t you bring out this anthology, it’s been months, I’ve been waiting to see it, if you don’t bring it out I’ll get the lawyers onto you. Grace thought that I had something to do with that, and that was the end of the friendship for a decade. Very strange.
But she rang me after ten years and asked me would I come back and do some work on the magazine. This was in the early 1980s, maybe 1981 or ‘82. And I said… well… I’d rather not, Grace, because the magazine’s not read by anybody any more.
No, it’s finished.
And she said “I should never have let Les Murray take it over.” She said he ruined it.
Yes, well, she said that to me too, and… I didn’t agree with her. I didn’t think he ruined it. I think it just petered out.
Well, these things sometimes have a lifetime, don’t they. They come and go.
I thought it only had its lifetime to live.
And the same thing happened of course to New Poetry magazine, after some years it faded away too.
I can’t explain why these things happen. They’re used as an outlet for a number of years by the poets, and then the poets get onto bigger, better magazines, like Southerly and Meanjin and…
Well, they also change, too, and… I also think that what’s happened in our society is that there’s not as much interest in poetry as there used to be.
You’re quite right. This year is what I call the year of the non-poet, or the poets’ non-year. I wouldn’t try to get published this year in Australia. I have a new book ready, my 15th. I’m thinking of offering it to an overseas publisher who has expressed interest.
 I had edited and Grace had published an earlier anthology of forward-looking poetry, Preface to the Seventies, in 1970.
 William Carlos Williams was also a busy medical practitioner.
 Robert Lowell published a volume of poems titled Near the Ocean in the Australian autumn of 1967.
 In a later conversation, Bruce told me that Brenda had kept in touch with her son, who eventually came to visit her and Bruce in Sydney, and that their relationship had been warm and loving.
 Michael Dransfield, 1948–73.
 Les Murray was closely associated with Poetry Australia for seven years in all. His name first appears as one of three associate editors in issue 49 of the magazine in late 1973. In the March 1978 issue it appears as one of two editors, with Grace Perry, who was too ill to do very much for most of that decade. His name only drops off the editorial masthead in 1980, with issue 74–75, a combined issue edited by Grace Perry’s long-time friend John Millet.