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A conversation with Dan Disney

Dan Disney currently teaches in the English Literature Program at Sogang University, in Seoul. He is the editor of Exploring Second Language Creative Writing -- Beyond Babel (John Benjamins, 2014), and is completing a book of villanelles (some of which were recently shortlisted for the Blake Prize). Forthcoming books include Report from a border (co-devised with graphic artist John Warwicker), and Writing to the Wire (co-edited with Kit Kelen).

Dan Disney

At what age would you say poetry first entered your life? Was there a catalyst?

I remember spelling the word 'elephant' when I was four years old, and perhaps have been looking for the same buzz since? My childhood homes (there were a few) were filled with books that looked interesting but nobody ever read them. I remember sitting in lecture halls, an earlytwentysomething and hung over (usually), watching tenured men expound on Modernity etc. One class we listened to Eliot’s affected reading of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’; that slightly absurd and wholly alarmist canonized noise did something – another elephant moment perhaps – and the world’s angle changed, slightly but tangibly.

US poet Cate Marvin speaks of her initial poetic attempts as writing a very ‘pared down kind of poem’ in something of a post-confessional mode, ‘My aim was to distill the poem. I didn’t understand that I was distilling my poems into a state of near-nothingness.' Did you have any set ideas about what poetry could or should be when you began writing? Have your processes and notions of the poem changed much over time?

My feelings are that there are ways not to get the poem wrong but the difficult trick is to get things right. For me, the whole invention/discovery nexus is largely exploratory/heuristic; in the best poems, every line is a dramatic and sudden arrival. I write during semester breaks, and try to travel while writing, and feel like I’m doing something similar to John James Audubon, who emigrated from France to America to spend the first half of the 19th century drawing birds + discovering new species. My texts are audubons from deep in the field, slanting toward the humans therein.

I'm interested in learning a little about the time you spent alone in the Victorian hinterland, left to your own devices for three months … was it a Henry David Thoreau moment? What books did you take with you? Was it a productive time, creatively speaking?

One winter I spent three months living alone above the snowline in a shack, half a year after massive bushfires swept through the district. It was like living in a black and white photograph … everything became dull except my nostalgia, an often-sharp feeling of distress: fear of missing out in a pre-Facebook era. I read Foucault, Kristeva, and a few others, and spent a lot of time running through the mountains trying to crunch through their nutty ideas. Otherwise I planned a PhD, wrote nothing of lasting worth, and fell into a low-grade depression. An experience never to be repeated …

You’ve spent years teaching at a university in South Korea.... I hear Seamus Heaney spoke of a quality of ‘in-betweenness’ – apparently describing himself as in between Catholic and Protestant, England and Ireland … and I wonder whether you see yourself similarly?

Ever since Plato’s agon, haven’t liminal states always been good for poets?

Environment obviously plays a key part in the development of a poetics…. How have the years of living in South Korea affected your own?

I feel like South Koreans may be an emergent variant in the human project – and I say so respectfully – but these hyper-connected, pressurized and often sleepless, industrious people use time in such particular ways: I have never seen a group so prepared to train, practise, work … those efficiencies are persuasive narratives, and part of me has been swept up in the industriousness. I sleep less, write more, and use time differently to when I lived in Australia. And living in a non-native language context helps me hear (or mishear) the clear weirdness of English. The other day I thought I heard friends telling each other “I love you very ugggh” … some of these mishearings are making their way into my speedy new texts. I seem to be writing lots of aphorisms and epigrams at the moment.

You say you ‘use time differently’ to when you lived in Australia, which sounds as though you're adapting well to your surroundings, will you carry this with you if and when you leave South Korea or are you likely to relapse into familiar patterns?

Time will tell :) none of my ex-pat colleagues (who have been keeping up this rate for longer than me) have had nervous breakdowns … yet!

Is South Korea a country that appreciates its poets more than we appreciate ours in Australia?

I am friendly with poets who have spent time in jail for speaking out against the military dictators. I am also friendly with poets who are active non-participants and opting out of the instrumentalized, commodity fetishized interpellations that have swelled greater Seoul to around 50% of the South Korean population. I know one poet whose first book sold 20 000 copies; another, an older poet, sold enough copies of one of her books to retire and turn to writing full time. Culture connects us to places in ways that enable poetry, and despite the monumental changes across the 20th century, Koreans seem to know well enough what (who, how) they are, to be able to listen adeptly to their best poetic voices.


What’s been the most rewarding aspect of your South Korean experience? And what difficulties have you faced, for instance have you managed to learn the local language?

Seoul is an ugly megalopolis with poisonous weather, and part of me loves it. In terms of learning the Korean language, that remains my anti-elephant moment (or at least the elephant in the room). The temples, mountains, and poets remain my favorites; of course I adore my students too. Korean culture is 5000 years deep, and the Korean peninsula had one of the planet’s strangest 20th centuries (Japanese colonization in the first 40 or so years; a civil war which razed many of the main cities and caused the deaths of six million civilians; the ensuring ideological schism; thereafter in the south, military dictatorships, massive industrialization, and a paradigm shift into the first world; now, hypercapitalism). I admire my poet friends for their courage, activism, and ethical commitments, and have started to wonder how to use their actions as examples or guiding principles.

Is that how activism develops, in your case? It's not a matter of growing older and maybe stronger in your convictions … ?

Perhaps so; but in my case it wasn’t until leaving Australia and finding these astonishingly principled Korean poets that my intuition that there may be ethical imperatives attached to creative production found its subjects: living, engaged, active poets. Of course the personal is political; I suppose I felt inculcated into a passive mode in Australia, more or less. Also, it is hard to know how to begin … the anthology I am preparing with Kit Kelen, Writing to the Wire, is for me the beginning of an engagement I have long wanted to make. Kit suggested the anthology, by the way; he is a remarkable man and a wonderful poet - prodigiously well-read, energetic, and engaged: perhaps as we age, and rather than accept that which maybe passes as inevitable, there are imperatives to find ways to speak up … ?

Your anthology project sounds hugely worthwhile, but I can't help thinking of the countless examples of poetry's political ineffectiveness, Auden's admonition 'poetry makes nothing happen' comes to mind - yet here you are, embarking with Kit on a deeply political poetry project centring on asylum seeker issues: good for you! When it comes to considering the plight of refugees and asylum seekers, the immediate issues for some are those of children in danger, children in custody ... while for others - the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, for example - it comes down to biblical interpretations of hospitality. What’s your view?

My view is that when colonization happened in Australia, deep cultural connections to place were irreparably severed: one reason I felt no desire to stay in Australia is that I understood that if I could not find a way to not be part of a silent majority, then I was being part of the problem. Leaving Australia was a compulsion, and I have been striving to find ways of becoming unsilent in the face of historical and political narratives that often seem so strikingly wrong-footed (literally anti-podean). Those who are entitled a voice have had their languages broken; meanwhile, it seems newcomers are not welcome. I’ll never subscribe to politicking which dresses everyday brutalities in rhetoric to disguise policies resembling human waste management; whatever we are, Australians are better than that, and the anthology project I'm editing with Kit understands this as a fact.

Do you have any thoughts on the ‘Australian Solution’ which Prime Minister Abbott has offered as an answer to refugee migrations in the Mediterranean?

I’d prefer to talk about the possibilities of an 'Australian double dissolution' … and the sooner the better.

South Korean prosecutors initially asked that the death penalty be given to the ship's captain involved in the 2014 South Korean ferry disaster which lost more than 300 lives. Did the recent executions in Indonesia of Australians convicted of drug smuggling gain much attention in South Korea and if so, was there a mood for or against? Or was there ambivalence?

I think there may be too much local, regional, and international news (and news mongering) happening here for the murders of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, alongside the six other foreign nationals killed by Indonesia on April 29, to garner headlines. Of course what happened in Indonesia is reprehensible.

In terms of the sentencing of Lee Joon-seok, the captain of the Sewol ferry who received 36 years in prison in the aftermath of the sinking of the ferry in which more than 300 people drowned, the fervor for a result was running at fever-pitch for weeks … and included no small amount of political interference (which seemed to amount to scapegoating). There were a number of high profile suicides in the aftermath of the tragedy.

South Korea has the death penalty, but it has not been used since the late 1990s.

Reflecting on the executions in Indonesia, there seems a contradiction between - on the one hand - abhorrence of capital punishment, while on the other - to refer back to statements attributed to Australian politicians at the time - a welcoming of the death sentence for Amrozi and his two accomplices for their part in the 2002 Bali bombings. Might that inconsistency lead to political repercussions, do you think, for example for the future of Australian political representation on behalf of death row prisoners held in overseas jails?

Remember when Van Tuong Nguyen was executed in Changi Prison in 2005? John Howard is on record claiming his death should serve as 'a warning' for other Australians; where does this language come from if not a position of feeling threatened (or wanting to engineer that feeling)? For the most part our politicians seem white, privileged, rich, and their discourses accordingly framed by particular worldviews. Two decades after he left the political arena, Keating’s vision of Australia as a part of south-east Asia keeps making lots of sense. If these conversations are stagnating now, then what hope (when no empathy exists) for our pleas for mercy to receive a sympathetic hearing?

You mention Keating's vision of Australia.... Has living overseas these past years affected your perception of Australia? What do you miss most about the country - and, I suppose I could ask - what do you not miss?

I don’t miss the myopias, the drear politics, the endless sport, or the suburbs smearing themselves across the landscape. I do miss friends. Not so long ago, Australia was a great place if you had energy/ideas/ambitions but I wonder how much neo-liberalization and the mindless push toward privatization is robbing us of our best characteristics. The unionized workforce in Australia is one of our strongest assets, and I say that after looking at the eviscerated prospects for graduates entering the workplace in most of Europe, and the unregulated conditions people work under in Asia.

Have you heard of the government's intended budgetary cuts to foreign aid? Apparently Australian aid will fall to the lowest level of Gross National Income ever, which might prove a little out of character with the self-mage we hold of ourselves as generous.... Is this the kind of policy decision you refer to when you speak of Australia 'losing its best characteristics'?

I despair that neoliberalism is such a pervasive discourse in Australia; the so-called 'trickle down effect' vs 'a fair go for all' … though even the mythological 'fair go' is a construction, after all - perhaps the lesser of two evils. Have the indigenous peoples of Australia felt they’ve received a fair go in the last two hundred years? I think Abbott may be Howard Redux, and is aiming (as Howard was) for a mono-valent, monopolized discourse around what/how/who Australia is … and perhaps Howard was Menzies Redux? Remember the sedition laws, the AWA awards, and the attempts at de-unionization and depoliticizing of university campuses? Contrary to being generous, I fear there is a current of conservative mean-spiritedness in Australia; for those who refuse to accept politically expedient rhetoric, the job is to not become anesthetized.

You mentioned earlier that 'Koreans seem to know well enough what (who, how) they are, to be able to listen adeptly to their best poetic voices', so could I take that as my cue to ask you to name some of the poetic voices you most admire yourself? As well as who you're reading at the moment?

These are the books I am reading at the moment –

Charles Simic’s essays, poems, ephemera, The Life of Images
Roberto Bolaño’s poems, The Romantic Dogs
Michael Hoffman’s essays, Where Have You Been?
Paolo Freire’s theories, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Jackon + Prins’ anthology of essays, The Lyric Theory Reader
Mark Hutchinson’s translation of René Char’s poems, Hypnos
some Spinoza and Adorno (for the next batch of research papers I’m preparing)

and am reading new books to review: Ko Un’s Maninbo: Peace & War; Lee Si-young’s Patterns; the four new books from Cordite Books; Michael Farrell’s Cocky’s Joy. In terms of poets from the late 20th century, I love reading Geoffrey Hill, Wislawa Szymborska, Peter Reading, Czeslaw Milosz, Anne Carson, Robert Hass …

Thank you.

Dan Disney & Ralph Wessman. April-May, 2015.