A conversation with Grant Caldwell (May 2012)

GRANT CALDWELL has been writing since the early ‘70s. His work has been published widely in Australia as well as in numerous other countries, often in translation. Glass clouds, his 6th major poetry collection, was published in 2010 by Five Islands Press. From 2007 to 2010 he was the managing editor of Blue Dog, which was the national journal of the Australian Poetry Centre (which has since merged with The Poets Union to become a new body, Australian Poetry). Besides poetry, Caldwell also writes stories, memoirs and novels. He has represented Australia at international poetry festivals and writers’ residencies in New Zealand, Ireland, Japan and Columbia. He is a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Melbourne. This interview was conducted via email during his recent period of study leave in the USA.

ANNE: I heard you read the poem below at the Goolwa Poetry Festival in April 2010: your line “I no longer care what you think of me”, really struck me. It is one of the reasons I wanted to interview you. It seems to me a very liberating approach, a very necessary approach, for a poet to take. Perhaps a risky approach, a defiant approach, but maybe the only approach – to me – if one wishes to retain an individual voice:

I am not the trick of the flower

I am not the trick of the flower
I am the flower
I no longer care what you think of me

I am effort and idleness
I have earned this claim
I am not the trick of the flower

I eat dirt and sun, drink the rain
I am larger than my circumference
I no longer care what you think of me

I am not what you have captured
I am beyond analysis
I am not the trick of the flower

I am not practising to be a flower
I am the flower
I no longer care what you think of me

I am the earth and the sun
and the rain
I am not the trick
I no longer care what you think

I’d like to start by asking: Where do your poems begin? In an idea or a feeling? For instance, your sonnet on evangelism:

sonnet on evangelism

outside the newsagent’s
I came across
two schoolkids
jumping up and down
and spitting on
one of m’s
poetry signs
chalked on the pavement
and I thought about
all the people
who have contributed
to their resentment –
coming back later
I spat on it myself.

This poem subtly presents lots of ideas and ends in strong feeling – which is the esence of a sonnet. The poem told me of so many things without exactly saying too much: it lets me, as a reader, imagine a grey city pavement, careless or ignorant youth (depending on the prejudices I as the reader might or might not have about youth). It tells me things about our transient and disposable culture. But more increasingly and importantly it lead me to thinking about the Eternity Man and Christianity; and of chalk lectures and dusty religion. It also made me think about the travesty of an education system that is not educating our youth properly. And then there are the issues a poet faces: inclusion/exclusion, and all the unwilling resentments – allowed here their justified expression. That’s very brave. So, back to my initial question: Where do your poems begin: in idea or feeling? It’s a question novice poets often ask, but as I also teach poetry, I am really curious to hear your answer.

GRANT: I suppose it’s the idea that urges me to write but the idea or image or memory or whatever it is, must have an associated strong feeling or I could not be bothered. Or worse, if I were bothered just to write from an idea, without any sense of feeling or emotional movement, the poem would be a dead one.

ANNE: Your poetry strikes me as deeply authentic, not invented. How does a poet go about working authentically without deliberately “inventing” something to write about?

GRANT: That “sonnet” … was a kind of a joke, for a close friend, but its content is not an in-joke. I am serious about the content, and I did see those boys doing what they did, and I did ‘feel’ that way about it.

ANNE: It felt like something that you’d witnessed. I distrust the process so many poets adopt, of setting off to research a topic and then writing a whole swag of poems on it. It’s like “workshopping poems” —

GRANT: Yes, those “exercise poems” … I try and open the walls for ideas for students, rather than close them in. Each person has to find their own avenue(s). What did Basho say? Don’t follow what the old men did, but seek what they sought. Something like that.

”Hows” are problematic. Attitude is everything: open.

ANNE: Is this a time of flourishing in Australian poetry? We all know there is not much of a flourishing of poetry publishing, but I recall Chris Wallace-Crabbe saying something to that effect, that we are living in a time of tremendous abundance in Australian poetry. I have been wondering about that statement. To me, while there is certainly an abundance of Australian poets, I wonder if it is in fact a time of abundantly excellent poetry. I don’t mean to pit you against Wallace-Crabbe, and maybe “Australian poetry” is too broad a church for anyone to be able to make anything more than a generalisation about its nature. However I would like to hear your thoughts on the overall quality of contemporary Australian poetry.

GRANT: Well I agree with Chris. I have just guest edited the poetry for the 30th anniversary edition of Going Down Swinging and they received 1,000 poems. I don’t entirely agree that publishing opportunities are not flourishing, there is plenty of space for getting work published in magazines in Australia, and to have your work heard in venues, but I do agree that there are not enough publishers of books and chapbooks to match the amount of writing; and most of the major publishers have abandoned poetry because they are run by marketers and accountants now. This will eventually mean true prose literature will become isolated, like poetry, and whenever this happens small, independent presses take over and publish the exciting and daring and truly contemporary writing. This is happening in poetry, has been happening for the past 40 years in a fluctuating manner.

The question of “quality”, like taste, is problematic: judging one’s own work is part of the art, just as judging others’ work is, especially the work of one’s contemporaries. I think the overall, general quality of work is higher now because of the growing, turbulent, mass of poetry writers around Australia, the concentrated learning that has occurred among poets these last 40 years. The number of live venues and small presses and magazines has been a huge influence in this, and latterly the numerous creative writing courses in tertiary institutions, where contemporary Australian poets’ works (as well as work from other countries/cultures) are studied, where students are required to write their own work, and have it critiqued, has also contributed, continues to contribute.

Of course there is bad poetry published. There always has been and there always will be, as long as there are bad judges editing. This is why the big awards often do not go to the “best” poetry. Australian poetry seems to be caught in a cycle of conservatism (but this may be true for all western cultures). This may be due to the scant attention it receives, so what does receive recognition is often the safe, same old same old kind of work that is just a notch more sophisticated or language savvy, but really is somewhat trite and turgid. The fresh, innovative, ground-breaking work isn’t recognized. Maybe this is the way of art, but it is more so in the current poor child of art, poetry because so much depends on the funding of journals and awards, etc., and these things must justify their funding, which precludes anything that might challenge the status quo or be at all controversial. Poetry in Australia is thriving, but this is due to the number of people writing it, not reading it. I think this surge has been driven by the growing live readings since the 70s, and it’s true there are many poets listening to other poets. But the readership is still low, and I can’t help feeling that this is due to the basic conservatism. How many young minds are going to be turned on by the recognised mainstream of contemporary poetry? I am not pushing for popularism here: poetry can be great art and have a broad appeal. Ferlinghetti sold 900,000 copies of Coney Island of the Mind, Jaques Prévert sold 600,000 copies of Paroles...

ANNE: Ah Jacques Prévert. Sadly, none of my contemporaries talk about him, but a very well-read young poet friend of mine here is a huge fan of Prévert. (And the same young man never comes to poetry readings…)

GRANT: These were fresh, new works for their time that spoke about their time and place in a language that people related to, no matter how innovative or odd the poetics of its form or language.

There is work around in Australia today that has this freshness, but it is not recognized adequately, it is not given adequate space in the mainstream; it is pushed aside by the conservative mass, and sadly the general reading public who might be turned on by it, never get to read it. As a result this general reading public is wary of poetry, and with some justification.

I sometimes get the feeling that non-poets who sit and listen to the live readings of supposedly good poems must be thinking, well, I don’t get it, I don’t get any sense of movement or life from this poetry, but this is so-and-so, so there must be something wrong with me. And the same thing happens when they read these poets’ works. And so they never come near poetry again. And this is why the readership does not grow; why it is mostly other poets who are the audience. I want to add that writing good poetry, even good conservative poetry, is a tough ask: not many people can do it, or if they do, they cannot do it consistently.

ANNE: Well, it’s not like going out to paint houses every day… Do you think there is some lost voice from the past we need to reisit for inspiration, a voice that has been overshadowed by the current wave of new poets whom we need to rediscover? I went through a time of being allergic to contemporary poetry, and what cured me was going back to the poets I had originally fallen in love with … Yeats and Blake. And I think this question has its converse: Do you think there’s a case for doing a bit of forgetting? For me, I perceive the ubiquitous flavour of Mary Oliver in a lot of Australian writing and the quirkiness of arbitrary line-breaks gets a bit sickening to me.

GRANT: Of course there are poets who get “lost” from time to time, but they are always rediscovered, as long as people like yourself ask these kind of questions and go looking for them. I don’t know if I want to name you my lost poets: this is so subjective. I think we in the west are west-centric: there are probably poets, past and present, from South American countries, China, Vietnam, Africa, etc, whom we should be reading more, and who will be read more once someone who can translate them well, does so.

If you are fluent in another language I think it is your duty to translate your favourite poets from that language into English. If this sounds chauvinistic. I am saying it because English is the ligua franca, for now anyway.

ANNE: Yes I so agree. It’s interesting to me because I have been tinkering with translating a Georg Trakl poem, “Im Winter”, because I can’t find a translation that matches the impression in my head imprinted there from either the original, or an excellent translation that I simply cannot find. I am not fluent in German but I “get” the poem and want to share it… But I want to get back to what you said earlier about poets who get “lost” from time to time. Who do you have in mind?

GRANT: It is often the contemporary poets who have died that I think might be forgotten, at least initially: John Anderson, John Forbes, Jas H. Duke come to mind. Generally, I would say we need to be more adventurous in our reading and not presume the so-called experts know what they are talking about, including me of course.

ANNE: I’d like to ask you about your attitude to revision. Are you of the Michael Dransfield school – I think he did not do much revision, and his Collected Poems is notoriously mixed in quality. Your poems seem carefully crafted. Do you do a lot of revision, or do you first think them out in your head and then they just come out ready-made?

GRANT: When I get an idea/feeling, I sometimes have the lines forming in my head and I quickly realise that this idea has “legs” so I hurry to write it down, and it often comes in a concentrated rush without looking back, without revision. This could last for one page or five. I then put this “draft” away for as long as I can: a few days, a week, a month, three months. I used to call it harvesting: when I felt I had not looked at my notebooks for some time, and I went around and collected them and went through them. Of course most of the stuff is rubbish, but every now and then there is something there, even almost complete (this is rare but it does happen), or else that I can see I can work into something solid. This secondary work is almost as enjoyable as the first.

I don’t understand people who say writing is hard work. The time when you are not writing is hard work. Surviving, financially and emotionally and psychologically, is hard work. The reworking does not necessarily save the poem: this secondary process also has a high rate of attrition: a lot of poems get tossed at this stage too. John Forbes told me once that he wrote about four or five poems a year. I think he meant, four or five poems that were any good. That’s about how it is with me. The new book has taken about six or seven years, and there are about 45 poems in it, not counting the haiku.

ANNE: It’s been said in many contexts, that poetry is an art that works both at the surface and in the depths. But so much of its art happens at the surface, in the visual appearance of the poem: where its line-breaks fall, where the stanza-breaks fall – these things are something essential that help the poem become “poem”. At least that is what I think. What are your thoughts on this?

GRANT: As you say, poetry works at the surface and the depths, but it is the visual appearance that makes it seem to be a poem. Prose poems are an interesting exception, but once the reader understands that this is a poem they are reading, they read it differently to prose, and they take the line breaks, stanza breaks, structure, into account in the reading. But of course there is much more to this reading.

As with any art, there are inferences, meanings, references, allusions suggested by the surface, the material, for poetry, the words and phrases, the structure of the poem. But of course there are also less obvious, connected, deeper inferences, allusions, etc … and sometimes these are not even apparent to the poet: they are coming from the unconscious. Mostly, I suppose, they are known and deliberate, but they are hidden or made subtle or even obscure because the poet doesn’t want to be too obvious or didactic, sometimes they don’t even want to be understood, although this is different from the concept of ‘clarity’. In most cases, the poet is expressing the emotion, and/or they want the language to be prominent, either reflexively or merely for the love of it. All of this is part of the play that the poet engages in, with themselves, and with the reader/listener.

(Published in Famous Reporter 43 – May 2012)