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An interview with Brendan Ryan - (February 2002)

Brendan Ryan lives in the city but grew up on a dairy farm at Panmure in Western Victoria. He currently lives in Melbourne where he teaches in a secondary college. In 2001 he received an Emerging Writers' grant from the Australia Council. He recently became a father for the first time, and hopes to move back to the country to live in 2003.

1. Brendan, several of your poems deal with the more brutal realities of farming life in rural Victoria, where you grew up. Are there things you miss about life in the country?

Yes, there are thing I miss about life in the country, but they are not really the brutal realities of farming life. I suppose the poems I've written that deal with dehorning cows, cows giving birth and sheep-killing poems were written out of a desire to write about the country life I had experienced, and one which I wasn't seeing as being represented in much Australian poetry and fiction. I also wanted to explore those areas of experience and the effect they have on people, as sometimes moments of extreme action in life - like hitting a calf on the head - can stay with you. God knows how people who work in abbatoirs and knackeries deal with the things they see and do each day... As a general rule, the poems that I end up writing are often a result of a nagging urge to write about that topic/subject. This urge may often begin as a line, an intuition of the tone of a poem I'd like to write, or it may also be inspired by what people say around me. I'm also conscious of writing about the country from a rural perspective, even though I have lived in a city for 18 years. Writing about the country from an urban perspective goes back to Theocritus and the whole pastoral tradition, which often glorifies the country or idealises life there. There is a huge history to notions about rural life from an urban perspective, and Australian poets have generally written about the country with urban perspective. Instead of idealising the country, I suppose I try to depict the reality of dairy farming - stuff you don't see on television.

2. Which poets have influenced your work most, or has 'influence' been a more amorphous process for you?

I'm not sure which poets have influenced me the most, and maybe other people can answer that better than me. I can talk about poets whose work I have found influential at one time, which also doesn't mean to say that I will write like them. Oh, I suppose you do initially. I didn't read much poetry at school, (most kids don't), and it wasn't until I was in my early twenties that I started reading poetry. I grew up in a family of ten children, on the farm. Our parents read the local paper and The Sun. Books simply weren't around. I started reading for myself when I was living in Mildura, picking fruit, books were a way to pass the time. I moved to Melbourne in 1984 and started writing as a means of trying to deal with the culture shock I was experiencing. I guess books became a part of that process, of teaching myself to become literate. I remember reading The Beats, Kerouac, Ginsberg etc, and really getting into their tales of drugs and life in the U.S. At the same time I was doing Arts at Swinburne Uni, and I remember coming across a book of Michael Dransfield's poetry - Drug Poems. It had literally fallen out of the shelf before me. I read it and was amazed that people could write poetry about such things. After finishing that book, I raided the poetry section in the library and read whatever I could find. Through this process, I discovered Off The Record, an anthology put together by PIO and published by Penguin, and then I discovered the 'poetry wars' of 1968 in Australia and came across John Tranter and Robert Adamson. From this period on, I began reading more; authors I had read suggesting different authors in their books. I still didn't know anyone in the poetry scene, but I began writing my own dirges and received some credibility when I went down to the pub to impress local girls. Anyway, to cut these autobiographical ramblings short, since then I have probably been influenced by countless poets. Some that I can remember wanting to write like, and may have are - Dransfield, John Forbes, Gig Ryan, Frank O'Hara, Philip Hodgins, Phillip Larkin, John Ashbery, Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Gluck, Robert Adamson, Les Murray, Bruce Beaver etc.

3. What books are you enjoying at the moment?

I've been reading Summer by Martin Harrison, and have enjoyed much of it. Song of the Earth by Jonathan Bate has been interesting for its discussion of ecology, poetry and the Romantic poets.

4. You recently published an essay in Heat on the poet John Forbes, who was your tutor. To what extent do you feel the so-called 'generation of '68' has cleared the way for poetry written now in Australia?

I think the generation of 68' poets laid much of the groundwork for poetry being written today, by steering the focus of Australian poets from England toward America. I think their experimentations with layout, free form poetry, and of taking on a more casual voice in their poetry has probably helped many younger poets realise that poets don't have to be academics or swear allegiance to England in order to write. It is difficult to speak about these periods of time without generalising, so perhaps I will focus on the influence of John Forbes.

As a teacher, John Forbes didn't necessarily go by the book. In class he could be blunt and direct with students, yet his love and knowledge of poetry was extensive. I think it was his immersion within poetry that had an influence on myself and other students. He made poetry accessible by demystifying the poems and process as much as possible. He hated capital P poetry, but was encouraging of people's poetry that was different to his own.

The poetry that was published during the late 60s and early 70s in Australia coincided with the beginnings of feminism, rock music, student politics, the La Mama poetry readings, Vietnam protests, the flourishing of alternative lifestyles. All of these forces could only help to make writing poetry a more liberal art practice than it had been before.

Not all that poetry stands the test of time, yet it still reflects something of the modern era in poetry: turning away from Christianity and invocations of Greek mythology. Subject matter for poems became wider as people sought to include themselves and the everyday in poems.

In the 90s, there seems to have been a phase where younger poets have reflected upon much of the poetry of the generation of 68 and have written under its influence. I think it is easy to imitate John Tranter and Forbes, and I have seen quite a few pale imitations of them. However, I would also argue that these days, poets take their influences from many different sources, including music and tv, as well as many different types of poetry. Also, I think the term 'generation of 68' has been much over-used since those times. Apart from the well-known poets of that generation - Forbes, Wearne, Duggan, Tranter et al - I would also like to know what other poets in Australia, outside Sydney and Melbourne were writing then. There is an English joke that Australia only has five actors. Anyone finding out about this period in Australian poetry might think there were only five poets writing in Australia then as well. So what about the poets who were excluded from the popular 'schools of poetry'?

5. Your poems deal frequently with rural landscapes - but the cover of Why I am not a farmer depicts a cow superimposed over a cityscape.

This suggests to me that your poems cannot be simply divided into 'city' and 'country' poems, but that a more complex overlap of past and present has occurred.

To what extent does the old city/country binary seem relevant to you, and to your poetry?

The divisions between the country and the city seem to be themes I return to again and again. I think that if you have left a country way of life for the attractions of the city in your early twenties some of the country stays with you. Others may disagree, but it's worth remembering that there are a lot of ex-country people living in cities, people who left for various reasons, unemployment probably being a major reason. Some of these people I know, and whether they retain a love or hate of the country, they do seem to be able to understand country attitudes and ways of viewing the world. I think a lot of people brought up in cities don't understand some of the fundamental differences between the city and country; of being attached to land, to weather, to a world where everybody knows each other, and of having a close understanding of animals. In answer to the last part of your question, the city/country binary will always be relevant, because the places are simply too different to each other to be the same. In some ways, the poems I write about either locale become answers to each other. I've just finished writing a series of poems about the paddocks on the farm I grew up on, and more recently, I've been writing poems based on the streets around me. Often it's simply a desire to write something different from the poem before, but I also hope that yes the poems do have something about the city or country in them. The cover photo for Why I Am Not a Farmer was chosen in connection to the narrative that seems to underlie that book - a life in the country, a trip to the city and then looking back at the country from a city perspective. Opposites attract they say.

6. What are you working on at the moment?

Poems for the next collection which I hope to finish this year. No title yet.

Where can people find your work on the net, or in bookstores?

On the net, there are poems in:
-Divan issue:4... www.bhtafe.edu.au/divan/divan4
-Thylazine... www.thylazine.org/index
-the latest Jacket, issue16...
-Shampoo issue 8... http://Shampoopoetry.com/ShampooEight
-Cordite, issue 9... http://cordite.org.au/index
and two poems from a 1997 chapbook, Mungo Poems published by Soup Publications, copies of which are still available, are at www.netspace.net.au/~cgrier.souphome.html .

There are poems forthcoming in Overland, Famous Reporter, Coppertales, and an essay on Philip Hodgins appears in the latest issue of Antipodes. The John Forbes essay is published in Heat 2: From Fitzroy to Freo, available in book stores. People can either order Why I am Not a Farmer through Five Islands Press, or through any bookstore, as FIP are handled by a major distributor.

7. One last question - the title of your book is a reference to Frank O'Hara's famous poem, 'Why I am not a painter.' This interests me as it seems an example of how New York 'school' poetries have been integrated into the requirements of Australia's very different landscape and culture.

Would you agree with this assessment, and what made you choose that title?

Yes I agree with your assessment, not that I set out to do such a thing when I wrote the poem. Ever since I had been opened up to US poetry through John Forbes and Alan Wearne, I suppose a lot of those poets had stayed with me. Like a lot of poets, I was really swept away by Frank O'Hara's playfulness and seemingly contradictory casual style. He seemed to make writing poetry so effortless, so exciting. I guess the generation of poets post -68', have been fortunate in that we have been able to take our influences from across the world, and not just from England or Australia, where they seem to have been shaped prior to that period. I suppose writing a poem under the influence of O'Hara just seemed so normal when I did it. The poem was largely written at a Five Islands Press workshop in Wollongong. I was listening to the US poet Carol Frost speak, and she mentioned something about O'Hara in her talk when I had an intuition to write a poem about why I didn't become a farmer - a question most farmer's sons who don't become farmers have to answer at some point in their lives. I knew O'Hara's poem, but thankfully didn't have it with me. The poem was written in about three drafts. Alan Wearne persuaded me to use it as the title for the book, to whom I'm extremely grateful. I guess he knew it might catch the public's eye.