A conversation with John Tranter

John Tranter is one of Australia's most highly acclaimed poets, known for his association with the 'Generation of '68' poets, whose work he anthologised in The New Australian Poetry in 1979.

At the time of this interview, Tranter was working on another anthology with fellow poet Philip Mead (then editor of Meanjin) compiling The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry, which appeared at the end of 1990. The web was still everyman's dream and Tranter's wonderful Jacket Magazine (ISSN: 1440-4737) was not yet born.

This is the original transcript of the interview. A shortened version appeared in The Saturday Mercury on 10 February 1990 (p.18).
Venue: The Writer's Cottage in Hobart in February 1990.

Note: The AUSTLIT database lists about 22 other interviews with John Tranter, and the primary source for information about this poet is his own home page.

Anne Kellas began by asking him what he felt about the fact that whereas actors get reviewed or criticised by people who aren't actors, poets get reviewed and criticised by other poets.

You're right, it's generally poets who review other poets' work. Journalists and the people who run literary pages in newspapers and magazines tend to think poetry is such a complicated thing that they'd better get a poet to do it, because only a poet can understand it. And that leads to all sorts of problems because poets have feuds and arguments and different schools arise and pass away...

When the literary editors sit round and think about reviewing an anthology they obviously can't get a poet who's in it to review it because that wouldn't look right, so all the reviews of anthologies are by poets whom you haven't included in that anthology ... so there's always a little bit more fireworks there.

All writers resent criticism and yet we all need it, I mean that's just one of the difficult facts of life being a writer. No one likes a bad review and we all like to be praised for our work -- - we work hard at it and don't get paid much, so that's fair enough.

Peter Schjeldahl, the American art critic and poet, says provocatively that fashion in the contemporary art world in New York is a vital part of the scene, because the spotlight of fashion picks out the interesting works from the mass of things that are there to see. If there weren't art reviewers, we'd never know what to look at, because there's just too much to see. And he's right. You wouldn't know where to start looking to find the interesting things.

The flaw in the argument is that critics have to do that anyway. If we can't do it, they can't do it; if they can do it, we can do it. But it's still a persuasive argument in some ways, that fashion picks out the poets it requires. I've just realised that that's a quote from R.D. FitzGerald -- - he said in a prose essay many years ago that tradition sorts out the poets it requires, and I quoted that line in a poem I wrote fifteen years ago ('The Alphabet Murders number 20') as a kind of parody of that style.

Tradition doesn't sort out the poets it requires. In a way, fashion sorts out the poets it requires. That of course can be a very meretricious thing. There were poets in the late sixties who were briefly fashionable and everyone read them, but no one reads them any more because all they were was fashionable, they weren't very good.

Who are the arbiters in poetry now in Australia?

I suppose the magazine editors. They're the ones who decide which ones to print in a magazine, and I think most editors do a good job.

How do you know when a poem is going to work?

I've just written about four poems in the last two or three weeks, and each one only got good by about the tenth draft. But in an interview in Paris Review, they included a photograph of a page from a notebook of John Ashbery -- - a poem, and it just had one word altered and another word changed a bit.

I said to Ashbery, about this poem in Paris Review, surely they must have asked you for a poem that you'd done a lot of revision on?

He said yes, that was all I could find.

And I said, what do you mean, do you just sit there, and write a poem and it's finished?

And he said, well, when I was young I used to have to rewrite a lot, but as you get older you get better at what you're doing John, so now if I begin a poem and I know it's just not going to work, needs revision and stuff, I throw it away and start a different poem, and usually I can tell when I get half way through and can say, ah, this is good.

And I said but do you do this every day?

And he said, yip.

I said how do you do it?

He said well, it's like television, there's always something on...

I can't work like that. I usually do my first draft by hand, then type it up and have a look at it. I'll show you my drafts actually. I'll try and find you a particular poem as it staggers through its various drafts, yes this is a good one.

Tranter produced what he called an average poem with five drafts, each with small alterations, a word here and there changed, bits cut out and reworked.

A lot of poets have the idea that whatever comes out of them first time round is 'it'.

They must be very gifted poets...! Michael Dransfield was the only one I know who could get away with that approach, and he wrote a lot of terrific poems, I don't know anyone else who could do that -- - first drafts, so he really had a terrific gift. But he didn't have the other side of it, to refine things.

The opposite is a writer who gets a poem down and three months later has written it ninety-five times and it's still not quite right...

The only thing wrong with Michael Dransfield was he didn't rewrite enough. I've read them over and over again to select for this New Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry. So many were really terrific but the last line's bad and you think come on Michael. That was the kind of poetry he wanted to write. He thought that he had a role as a bardic, inspired writer, and to drudge and drudge over a poem, that would have made him think oh I'm not really an inspired writer any more, I'm just a hack rewriting stuff all the time, only the professors do that, I'm a free spirit, whatever floats through my mind is already a poem ... and he wrote much too much and he wrote a lot of things that should have been rewritten and improved really, lots of them.

If he'd lived he would have had to face the role he was playing which was a bit flawed.

I'm interested in what you have to say about the job of the poet, and the poets who see themselves in a prophetic role.

Yes. That's a romantic interpretation of the poet's role. Really when you look at English Romantic poets, they were on the one hand a reaction against the neo-classical poets that went before them. That's all very well in terms of theory, but in fact, the Romantic poet was taken up and published and promoted and consumed by the bourgeoisie that the Industrial Revolution created in England. The role of the romantic artist really grew out of all those economic and cultural contradictions that are connected with the Industrial Revolution.

John Tranter said that some poets might think the romantic poets were inspired directly by the Greek gods and that that's all you need to know about them, and that the person who is inspired in that way is a kind of holy figure and has things to say that ordinary human beings will never understand.

I think it's completely phoney actually, the need to adhere to that pose, and reconstruct it over and over again in your own work and in your own life.

In our contemporary Australian society the artist is not held in as high esteem as for example an advertising copywriter. You don't get paid any money for what you do basically.

One way to resolve it is to create a fantasy world and a fantasy role for yourself within that world where you're very highly esteemed and regarded. That's one way of doing it, and if you have to do it, do it, but I don't feel I have to believe that any of it has anything to do with reality.

I wanted to ask you about post-modernism. Art and poetry are the two art forms where post-modernism is most evident --

Well I think they're the most interesting ones because those two areas are where the actual practitioners of the craft did the developing of the ideas. In other words it wasn't imposed on them by a university.

So that aspect I quite like because I think of myself as a writer more than as a thinker, and the writers I enjoy reading -- people like John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, for example -- in their way they're all post-modernists. Ted Berrigan too, very much. They're doing all those things, but they're doing them not because they have to, because it's the new thing to do, but because it's fun. That's the best reason you can have for doing something in poetry. If it's fun for you, it might be fun for the reader and that's a start isn't it?

I think if I have a poetic theory, quite high on the list of the things that I think poetry is about is having fun, I think. Yea. Not everyone believes that I think that, but it is so.

I think my earlier work was often quite gloomy and dark and unhappy and as I get older I think I'm less like that. Why I'm not really sure. I don't really know why these things come about. I think people often suffer psychologically more when they're young and they gradually learn to come to terms with themselves and the world around them as they get older, I guess that's obvious.

When you were first starting to write, how did you break out of the kind of writing that surrounded you, and grow into your own voice?

It's a very hard thing to do, and I don't think you ever do it really, you're always learning from other writers and you're always picking things up from what's around you in the literary culture. You develop more of your own way of speaking as you grow older, but it's a very slow and gradual thing really. The younger you are, the more you tend to be influenced by other writers.

But in my case I had quite a strong break. I had been writing for about ten or eleven years and I'd developed all these kinds of rhetorical gestures in my work that I didn't much like and I couldn't break out of them very easily. I went to Singapore for a couple of years to work for Angus and Robertson. While I was there, I was away from the poetic subculture in Australia and I was very isolated, and I started reading Graham Greene. His style as prose writer is so very plain, he's a very subtle stylist. And then when I turned round to start to look at poetry, it seemed terribly complex and artificial and overdone to me. I felt quite disgusted by it. The very thought of verse made me feel sick. So I didn't write or read any for about a year.

And then I thought, well, I'm a poet I suppose I'd better start doing some poetry again. A very hard thing to do. The way I came back to it was that I realised that actually you write garbage all day, and if it's no good you don't show it to anyone, you throw it away. What a liberating thought! I'm going to write garbage all day, and I did, for months, anything I wanted. The more of that you write, the more you'll get back to what you were doing before, and the more you'll learn how to write again.

Eventually a few good little poems popped out, and eventually I got back to being a poet again, but in a slightly lesser way than I had been before and I think that was a lesson I learned. It's an obvious thing to do -- nowadays if you go to a writing class it's the first thing you learn to do. We didn't have writing classes in Australia then, I had to learn it the hard way.

I've just realised now that if that's true, then writing classes are a good thing. That's one thing they teach you that's very hard to learn to do by yourself. I have doubts about them, but still, why not, if you're going to learn to write.

They're too common in America. Kenneth Koch teaches writing at Columbia University and I said to him, you must have taught a lot of people to write poetry, what do you think about writing classes? he said, well I know people say it produces thousands of mediocre poets, but I look at it like this -- it creates a big audience for your work!

You've said before that you like to give good value in poems. They're multi-layered, and they're an art form?

I put a lot into them. One way of looking at that is to say, he likes to make them so complicated that no one can understand them ... but I think that the more you put in a poem the more value it has and the more fun you get out of it in the end.

My friend Martin Johnson said, if you want to communicate, use the telephone, because that's what it's there for. The American poet Richard Hugo said the same thing. Martin has this theory that for him poetry is just pure art, you make a poem much as you make a cross-word puzzle -- if you make it beautifully, well that's enough, you're not supposed to communicate feelings about life or death or anything. It's just a beautiful object that you make, like a bit of glass that you might carve into an interesting sculpture.

That's an interesting way to look at it because it gets rid of a lot of moralising that you get in a lot of literature where poetry is supposed to be deeply meaningful -- that can be a bit depressing, to have to go through it every day at school or university.

But that's not what I think poetry is about -- that's part of it, but the other part of it is what extra stuff you can put into it. Also, the reasons you write poems a lot of the time have to do with your emotions and the desire to express them in some way. Why not? It's just as interesting as talking to a psychiatrist, and occasionally you can get paid for it by having your poem in the paper.

A lot of very bad poetry is written from the best motives, as though the motives -- or the ideology -- justify the poem and that's not the case. You get it in Stalinist Russian and you get it in contemporary Melbourne and Boston and where-ever. It's natural for a person, if they have strong emotional or ideological feelings about a particular theme, to write a poem about it. But then to think that the poem's good because it has strong and interesting emotions in it -- you're only half way there. That's not really what makes a good poem in the end.

What makes a good poem is that it's a good poem. If the language is good, it's interesting, it does interesting things with the reader, it faces its own background as a work of literature interestingly too.

You have to know where you come from and be able to do something new with your own background as a writer. You can't go on writing as though you were living in 1850 for example -- that's ridiculous, why do that?

Going through all the Australian poetry, with this anthology in mind, it interested me how strongly Bob Adamson's work emerged out of the field of all the writers around him. He's a powerful poet, and one of the most important Australian poets in the last two decades. I think he's as important in many ways as Les Murray.

I've read hundreds of Australian poets for this Penguin anthology, and I found that a very illuminating experience. I'd read them all before at various times in my life, but going through them all again, I was surprised to find out how much I like James McAuley.

I though I would respect his writing and in fact I do, but I didn't realise I would enjoy it as much as I did reading through it. I found that very interesting, because as a person living in a culture and as a practising poet, he's about as far from what I stand for as you can get without falling off the edge... But in fact I do like his work a lot, and I think it's because he allowed himself from time to time to admit there was a lot of ambiguity in his own makeup. As a very young man he was an anarchist and a communist and then he turned against it and went right the other way but it's interesting that those two things were obviously there all his life even though one half of them was suppressed as he got older, and that tension I think is what gives his work its energy.

I must say the older I get the more I realise the most important early influence on my poetry was Matthew Arnold, even though I didn't know it at the time. The language is so good, the lovely rolling phrases. He's the first poet I read and really understood what 'poetry' was doing. So that influence has been with me all my life. I've got a little parody of him in my selected poems -- called 'The great artist reconsiders the Homeric simile'.

Some English poets I haven't come across before I've enjoyed too, like Peter Reading. I found his work very interesting. I don't know what sort of future his verse has, like a lot of English poets he's a very self-contained poet whose verse grows out of its own interest.

Auden you can keep going back to forever because he's so resourceful and gives out so many things into the language. You get a writer like John Ashbery who is not at all like Auden really, drawing a lot out of Auden for his own use without it being really clear that he's doing it.

Geoffrey Hill is very impressive but so self-implosive that he can't do much for anybody else as a writer -- as a reader yes. I tend to read other writers as a writer -- what can I get out of that, how can I use that?

I don't read very much criticism, it's interesting, people like that work hard and their theories are often very interesting. I get more enjoyment out of reading novelists and short story writers. I wish there were more interesting literary theoreticians in Australia. There are a few whose work I like, it's part of the day to day debate in the community and I think that's very important.

I read all sorts of people, anyone I can get my hands on really. I tend to read more American poets than anybody else, bust because they're more various and more interesting to me. But what I read now is usually contemporary American poetry because there are lots of interesting contemporary American writers I haven't heard of and they keep popping up.

I like discovering new writers all the time. You read a writer thoroughly, you get to know his work, and then, you can never read it again with that feeling of surprise you had when you first discovered it, and I keep looking for that feeling of surprise.

I would have said five years ago that there was hardly any poetry being published in Australia at all. That would have been an exaggeration but partly true -- now it's extraordinary how much of it there is.

With The Tin Wash Dish which you edited, was the criterion you used for selection a certain Australian flavour that you were mirroring or being a window for?

Both of those things, a mirror and a window. A reflective window perhaps. The book was my selection of the best hundred or so poems from the entries in the poetry section of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation / Australian Bicentennial Authority Literary Awards competition held in 1988, published by ABC Enterprises in 1989. I read them all -- over six thousand poems. It's unique because it has very sophisticated poems in it by well-known writers like John Forbes and Les Murray and Gig Ryan but it's also got poems about a dog and poems about doing the washing up and poems about being a migrant and not talking English properly, and that's what I really liked about doing the compiling of it, was collecting those little poems that otherwise would have dissolved and gone away for ever.

You said in the introduction you felt there was an authentic Australian voice coming through?

Yes and it's made up of all different kinds of accents. I'm not an historian but I feel this is a point in Australia's history where we actually become a particular nation with an identity rather than an English colony. We haven't quite been that thing before. I think we're almost at that point now. And it's the variety that helps to define what that is. It's not one kind of nation, it's a kind of nation with a lot of variety in it so it's hard to define exactly what it is. Whereas before you could say it was an English colony -- Australia was like a wet English seaside town on a wet Sunday afternoon.

When I left Australia in 1966 I felt I was getting away from a horribly boring narrow-minded culture that was very English, but now I think it's a wonderful culture with a terrific diversity and openness, a bit more like America. Not that it's like America in its pursuit of profit or the dollar, but it's like America in the variety, the accents -- the melting pot side of America, and I think that's very valuable.

There are lots of poets in Tasmania. I don't know what it is, it must be the damp air that makes them grow fast or something. Like the pine trees. I think a cold climate encourages poetry. There seems to be more literary activity in Melbourne than there is in Sydney -- no performance poetry comes out of Sydney, and no literary journals.

The other thing is that in Melbourne there's a sense of social responsibility in the air, it's always been there, since 1850. There you get institutions like the University of Melbourne funding and supporting a magazine like Meanjin and then you get an organisation like Ormond College which support Scripsi -- very considerably too. All the magazines in Melbourne we can appear in them from time to time...

Journals have never been as good as they are at the moment in Australia. There are lots of smaller magazines with different tastes and attitudes, together with the newsprint outlets. Australia is unique -- nowhere in the United States or Canada will you find a newspaper that publishes verse the way we do here. Only in Australia and to an extent in England does that happen. In Australia you get poetry in all the daily capital weekend arts editions. We don't realise how well off we are, really, with that kind of approach to poetry from journalists. You wouldn't expect them to support it so well and it's terrific that they do.

I have a theory there's a new generation of fresh Australian poets every twenty-four years -- I'm partly joking when I say that, but if you look at 1896, and then 1920, then 1944, and then again in 1968, and at each of those period you had a burst of poetic energy and you got a crop of new writers. It's not entirely true of course. I can't see the evidence of a new generation of Australian poets -- it's very disparate at the moment -- that's a good thing, I like that.

Tranter is cautious about saying the new wave hasn't happened yet, or it happened three years ago or it won't happen until 1994:

'You don't really know until it's already happening around you.'

(Interview appeared in Famous Reporter 4, July 1990).