Apologies for the tardiness of this - I took off with my kids for a whole month with no internet. That's as refreshing as jumping in the sea and just as energising, too. It's taking me a while to catch up with my life online, to read what's been written and see what's been happening.
Having said that, life online is real and perhaps it's meta-real when you connect with your community and share something as strong as poetry together.
Thanks to the poets on 365+1 I felt a strong sense of community that is missing in the daily act of writing poetry. Others have said it well; the thrill of being read; the challenge of writing even though the baby wasn't sleeping and no ordinary tasks completed; the wonder as words and work appeared from unexpected dark, delightful places; the excitement of seeing work translated; the full belly feel of reading all that fresh work. I cherished my three months along for the ride. Thanks Sarah SVW for inviting me. Thanks Kit for all the work involved. Thanks to the poets to commented and encouraged and read and fed me with your poems.
Sunday, January 22, 2017
Kit's 366 metablog comments in January 2017
Project 366 was an on-line community of practice that ran for the whole of 2016 (a leap year, hence the 366). Over that time, about 120 poets and artists contributed, some daily for the year, some daily for a month, and some more occasionally. The project involved the posting of about 7000 draft works throughout 2016 and had about 300,000 visits to the blog. And it's still going (though at a slower pace) at http://project365plus.blogspot.com.au/ (because some people just can't help themselves). It also has a meta-blog, where people have been discussing the experience.
While we're giving the vital statistics: for me personally, posting to the 366 blog involved putting up more than six hundred pages of drafts from a word file that had more than a thousand pages of rough notes by the end of the year (and which is still growing, in both ways, at the time of writing).
Daily practice might be a hard thing to get going, but once embarked upon, it has a way of insisting on its part of your day, its place in your head, its trace in the records you keep.
In terms of the geo-political context, 2016 was the year of Brexit and the Trump ascendancy; a seeming definitive end to the possibibility of positive politics – i.e. of electorates actually voting for someone or something. As if the true believers of the political landscape had finally and definitively come under the water level. 2016 was of course the hottest year ever again, so we witnessed the rise of climate-change deniers, like Trump, just as the truth of global warming was becoming even more undeniable. Among all the various horrors entailed in making Trump the most powerful person in the world, the most horrible, for me, was the feeling that democracy had simply given up on the planet.
Why did I start this thing? What was I thinking?
(Play with the supra-segmental tone here to have some irony or not.)
I proceed in a sort of a haibun style.
And note that in this piece I deal almost exclusively with the poetry side of the project, on the basis that it was billed as a poetry-centric activity.
I think poetry, and art more generally, should be a community, rather than a competition. I think poetry is, most essentially, a process. Poetry is a thing we do, especially if we're poets (which I suppose means, if others come to think of us this way). Regularity is a key for me though. You can't be a street sweeper if you don't sweep streets. It's not just a lifestyle thing.
I think poetry has no natural geographical or political borders, though it has obvious language borders. I say this because it bugs me that poetry is arranged on so much of a national basis in the world today. Because of funding, because of academia (and the academic reception of poetry as an artform), because even the most creative and cosmopolitan of wordworkers find it hard to see beyond the national context in which they are forced to imagine themselves and their work. Poetry does come from somewhere and hopefully has destinations in terms of readership, but as far as borders are concerned, poetry has the function of getting through them, slipping under or over, breaking them down. The something that doesn't love a wall is poetry, or ought to be. There's a lot of fun and a lot of poetry in the crossing borders, in lifting a leg on the wall. And there's important work in recognising the presence of borders others cannot, or choose not to see. As Auden wrote: 'The greatest writer cannot see through a brick wall but unlike the rest of us, he does not build one.'
Yes, folks, poetry has functions. Because it is, again most essentially, a form of speech. And speech is for getting things done, for making things happen, for bearing witness as well. Poetry is a way of speaking with the world. With, about, of and for, under and over – every preposition is in on the act. And poetry should make you re-think them – the positions and the pre-positions – among things, among processes, actions, acts.
Poetry is as spoken as it is written, though this is not something our blog has been able to demonstrate.
In the circumstances of our community of practice, poetry inscribed on the screen is a kind of pseudo-speech. As is the commentary and the q and a that follows. Speech is full of echoes.
at the turn of the tune
know all these things
were in the years
always a voice
the waking comes
as if it were only mine
a voice uplifts
even sotto voce
an orchestra sawing itself off a limb
with only a violin bow
that's my beautiful civilisation
writing is always descent
the mind's a thinking up
the heart is where we find it
a story tells no tales of its telling
a song is just this voice now
So poetry is process, is community, is something we do and something we say to each other. All of this is more important than being in a book, however important it is for us that poetry has a past (as most commonly available to us in the form of a book's pages or their virtual approximation).
We live in an age where every form and instance of thought finds some computer analogy, as if the human (and every other) brain were striving to attain the level of complexity of a human-made machine. This paradoxical (perhaps nonsensical?) wishing to understand ourselves as machines has been going on for a few centuries now (especially since Descartes) but seems to have reached a fever pitch with the current mania for cognitivism, and the making of a science from everything creative, for every kind of brain entertainment. Witness – the future is the prime atavism we face. Witness – the resurgence of nationalisms, their burial in pseudo-religious rhetoric. Witness Trump. The impossible future is with us now and this seems to be a more dangerous place than the one we inhabited before.
Where is poetry in the 24 hour news cycle? With facebook? In the post-truth world? With so many threats to the idea of democracy, with democracy itself an apparent global threat, popular will seems like a shaken idea. Is poetry in these circumstances a store of fixed wisdom (a corpus open to the work of interpretation)? I do think that is true. And the same can be said of philosophy and the novel and music and Shakespeare and painting... And poetry is also a thing we can do. What sort of a power is it we exercise by doing poetry, by spending time with poetry – trying to understand it, trying to respond to it? Is it a still centre to our lives, a place that can hold in the chaos, a meditative space for reflection? I hope it's a space in which we can look again, think again, and not simply accept the world-as-given. See ourselves as part of a dialogue, as part of the process of contention as to what the world can be.
I hope that poetry is more like a forest than a factory. A garden would be a good compromise. What makes the garden go? Not one or five or a hundred plants but all the different shapes and sizes, colours, rates of growth, ways of going. What makes it go is that it's going, growing. It's always at once, you'll never see the whole of it. That's why the birds come and after the insects. That's why you see, because the eye was made for it. Start counting it all, start getting it all into files and folders – you're just having fun with more mind-forged manacles.
Let's have some wonder for wilderness, some wonder for the garden, some wonder for being where we won't know ourselves. That has to be where we are.
I don't know what you'll write tomorrow. I don't know what I'll write either. I think that's a good space in which to be together.
What sort of an eco-system was/is 366?
The flowers blooming and the schools contending? Where are we in all of this?
And I was in Europe, and in Australia and in Macao. And back in Australia again. And now I'm writing this back in Macao. Just for the record. Apologies for the carbon footprint. But I did get the solar panels on my roof in 2016.
That was just me. Others were elsewhere. But more were in Australia than anywhere else. A case of who you know.
Poetry in Australia is in a very healthy state, and it has been for some time. Healthy in the sense that lots of good poetry is being written. And it's getting healthier and healthier; it's already so healthy no one can read it all. Take a look each year at Best Australian Poetry or, for longer poems, The Newcastle Prize anthology. These very limited and (probably necessarily) biased snapshots show you just how healthy things are. You'll especially notice the contrast if you compare annually with Best American Poetry. Often a lot of wading through the shallows there.
In poetry in Australia – there are in my estimation about 500 people seriously doing it and who have been doing it over some length of time. A few dozen (a significant number) of them were involved in Project 366 during 2016. Some still are as I write this. By doing it seriously, I am speaking mainly of lives – one way and another – devoted to poetry. True believers. (Now and then a ring-in wins a prize and all are shocked but not as shocked as when a true-believer wins too many prizes!) Outside of the 'serious', many more dabbling here and there. I should say the serious poets + the dabblers outnumber the serious readership (as opposed to the dabbling readership [Henry Lawson on the shelf]). Meaning the readers of poetry in Australia are by and large poets. Meaning among other things that to speak of commercial viability of poetry as an artform in Australia is a joke (or rather a powerful delusion, from which an extraordinary number of people, not least of all, poets, suffer). Let me be clear – there are various command economies entailed in poetry's reception in a country like Australia. So money can be made by or for poets/poetry, associated with school or university syllabuses (i.e. compulsory encounters with poetry), grants and prizes. Little livings can be made in the short term through residencies.
Making a living out of poetry is something I suppose I've in fact been doing for years, though not in any way my employer would have condoned or considered as such, and certainly not by selling poems to anyone. I would be a lean and hungry fellow had I been waiting for that ship to come in. Rather I have been able to coordinate a number of inter-related poetry-oriented teaching and research activities in order to keep an academic career afloat. National anthems and poems about children and animals have been my most recent objects of interest. I think a sizeable minority of poets have been able to patch something like this together for themselves by way of a living. A living from poetry is a life path full of contradictions and accommodations, compromises. That said, I do believe anthems and children and animals are of great interest and deserve more attention.
How to get the money side of the poetry business into perspective? I think there are some theoretical tools that may helpfully guide us here. Robert Graves is famous for saying something like there may not be much poetry in money but there's even less money in poetry. Poetry and money are a great ambivalence generating combo. Why should we pretend things could or did or do run on a commercial basis where poetry is concerned? But why shouldn't people get paid to do it? Should the union be onto 366 participants for giving the stuff away? (Ah, halcyon days! Remember when we had a union?)
But on the other hand, why should poetry be limited to any kind of money economy? Should poetry not be created if no one is paying for it to be created? We could find ourselves downing tools for a very long time were we to follow that principle.
In a capitalist economy, and in some other economies before capitalism, labour is alienated – the process of performing labour for others divorces the one working from her/his own potentials and vital energies and life choices (in the immediate as in the longer term). The practice of art is the opposite of alienation. Making art you reclaim your life. Let's say it's what we're here for. So-called 'primitive' people spent a lot more of their time doing art and culture than so-called industrial and post-industrial people have been able to do. I think they had a better lifestyle overall, at least in that regard. If you can feed yourself, keep a roof overhead and the rodents out, stay warm in winter, then why do you need to work in a dull job? Time for art is time for self-realization, paid or not. If that means that work and play ought ultimately to be indistinguishable then so be it! I'm not really sure if that was what Herbert Read was teaching but it's what I learned from him. I call my creed anarchist hedonism (which is really just a contemporary take on the doctrine of Epicurus – which I take as being, we should all have a good time). The way we have a good time is by making what we will of the world, making our world together, within the limits given, with due consideration for the wishes of others. With peace and with friendship as our highest attainable goals. Making this our art. Making art from this.
So the necessity of doing art presents us with political struggles of a kind that are far more fundamental than the question of whether particular instances of art work are paid for or not. And still, inherited wealth aside, whether by being paid for doing art, or by being paid to do something else, we do need each to make some kind of treaty with everyday economic realities of the kind that pay the rent and put food on the table. While many of us have worked out practical day-to-day accommodations (enabling us not to have think too much about this stuff), I do not think that the questions about art and money mentioned above are easy questions with obvious answers.
Pierre Bourdieu's idea of an avant-garde artworld as the economic world reversed is a useful construct for thinking this through. Bourdieu writes that the 'economy of practices' in his 'autonomous sector of the field of cultural production' amounts to a reversal of the economic world – 'in a generalized game of “loser wins”, on a systematic inversion of the fundamental principles of all ordinary economies' Poetry, is in these circumstances, for Bourdieu 'the disinterested activity par excellence'.
How to reconcile these lives lived partly in the economic real-world, partly in its reversal in the world of art-making – in an outside of that normal space in which money is the measure of everything.
Michel de Certeau's idea of the perruque is a helpful for thinking this through. The perruque is a kind of bricolage, but it is more specifically what de Certeau thinks of as 'time stolen from official consciousness' – the love letter written by the secretary in the moments she can steal, the wooden toy the carpenter makes in the workshop for his kid when the lathe is otherwise unoccupied. The poem. The poem by pretty well anyone anytime (as long as they're not a poet lorikeet or on a grant or something). That's to say the poem when it's at home is generally some kind of a perruque. It's the thing you're doing when you might been doing something you were meant to do, when you might have been gainfully employed..
I think one of the hard things for poets when they retire from their otherwise gainful employment (aka day job) is that they are suddenly and unceremoniously deprived of their perruque. From whom should they steal time now? They can only steal it from themselves. And this might seem not quite right, or at the very least it might take a little adjusting to.
Let's consider in a little more detail then this question of where the time for poetry comes from. I think more than anything else it has to come from a kind of self-belief, again, the opposite of alienation. I think this self-belief (close relative of self-regard/self-esttem) can be encouraged. I think this is a function of community, likewise of family, likewise of a school that is a place where real questions are asked, as opposed to being merely an institution for the reproduction of existing ideological conditions.
There are all manner of ways in which poets and poetry might be encouraged. As far as the presence of poetry is concerned, we should be no more surprised at the disappearance of poetry from newspapers in recent years than we should be at the disappearance of the short story from the tabloids in the sixties. Consider who owns newspapers and why. Consider how newspapers compete for market share. (Note that in Macao there are papers that publish poems every day [in Chinese of course] and this is a great encouragement to young poets, of whom there are many in Macao, likewise across the border on the Mainland.)
On the 'level playing field', in the 'open market', exceptionally, a notional peak product like Best Australian Poetry might turn a profit, but this is a very rare thing (aside of collections able to set as class texts). And of course one can and should see that kind of product as enabled by the various command economies of poetry in Australia, that do, among, other things, create poets and readerships (even if these categories of person do largely overlap). Likewise judicious print-on-demand might be profitable on very low volumes, if the books are expensive enough and if authors and their close cohorts come to the aid of the party. Rob Riel pioneered this and David Musgrave is a master of the art. Long live Newcastle and the Hunter!
But there aren't many punters out there (ones who are neither makers or critics of the stuff), collecting and keeping up with the latest thing in Australian poetry, when for instance there are many many such punters in the case of popular music or popular culture, or sport, more generally. I personally think that's a great shame, simply because there is so much and such varied great material being produced (so unprofitably, if not selflessly) by the noble 500 I mentioned before. And of course it's easy to be involved and to follow in the case of popular culture: simply turn on the telly or the wireless. You won't get very much poetry out of these machines. We're supposed to believe that that's because nobody wants it. I'll leave for the moment the question of how spontaneous, or to what degree manufactured, such opinion might be.
And let me interrupt myself to say again – it pains me to write of Australian poetry, as if poetry were something of this national construct to which I belong and in part adhere. It pains me to write of newspapers and mass media and punters and livings when my theme is the making of poetry and the making of poetry's community. But here we are in media res. Eyes open to the objective conditions.
And to our objective conditions.
For a long time I believed that poetry should be banned in schools in Australia, that driving it 'underground' might give it a chance of acceptance, of finding the enthusiasm it deserves. I'm much more ambivalent about poetry in institutions of learning now, having been involved with it for so long, having made a living out of it from time to time (albeit generally overseas), and seeing how many people do get to discover poems and poets and poetry through institutional means.
Making Poetry Possible
You see, all along, I was a believer in poetry. Which of course means that I was (and still am) a believer in the traditions that make poetry, that make the making of poetry possible. That's to say, I do not believe that poetry is some moveable feast or signifier floating about for the convenience of an elite culture. I think that those who make poems in an intelligent way, on the basis of reading as well as feeling, are connected with a knowledge of all the pasts of poetry. Like Freud's all the cities that were Rome co-existing to illustrate the idea of the unconscious (in 'Civilisation and its Discontents') – all the poetries of the past and of elsewhere are with us here and now – we only have to read. We have a duty to read. People who tell you they don't read because they're worried it might influence them in some way are kidding themselves that they're poets. On the other hand, those who decide to be highly selective in their reading might be quite sensibly honing their best intelligence for the task they see as theirs. I wish I were better at that, less omnivorous. In every case though, there is a kind of canonic (so highly mediated) knowledge that allows to be who would choose to be as poets. Academic training might help you along here, might also be the death blow. Poetry's true believers are at heart all auto-didact though: they read there for themselves, however awful or wonderful or lacking the guidance on the way.
However one comes by it, canonic knowledge is inevitable, a knowledge that is to say of the corpus of work surviving from other ages and cultures, and constituting the totality we understand in common as poetry (however much, and however justly, one struggles against totalities). Harold Bloom tells us – who reads must choose. But the more apposite observation would be that who reads without the advantage of immortality must have their reading largely chosen for them. That's where cultural and educational elites show their dirty hands. How could they not? Even the auto-didact only gets to read what's been organised to survive on the shelves somewhere, Dark Ages notwithstanding. (One happily notes that in the case of Chinese poetry, there having been no Dark Ages in quite the way we know in the West, the extant archive is immense [and often largely untranslated]).
How dark is the Age now? Who darkens our doorstep? Let's leave the obvious answer, Trump, for the moment. (I'm finishing this piece on the day of his inaurguration.)
I also believe that there is deep disrespect for poetry in Australian culture, and it is a disrespect that comes from a kind of cultural/intellectual laziness, an unwillingness to think or feel further than necessary, a reluctance to think or feel further than one has thought or felt before. The same sort of thing applied to soccer when I was a kid, so there's some hope that things can change. A large part of the population fiercely resists this barbarous condescension of living culture and a large part of the population practises it with a vengeance. The disdain that is dished out to effete and often congealed culture (opera, ballet) is equally applied to the vanguard of word work in Australia. Those at the cutting edge of how we express and so see ourselves are seen to be pretentious posers, putting on airs. Are there among us any who feel that they could comfortably give their occupation to anyone asking, as 'poet', without being thought of as wankers? Without a high probability of being thought of as a wanker. Without oneself suspecting that one might be a wanker to think of oneself this way? Few sneer when they turn past the page with the cryptic crossword. That's not because they're comfortable with the cryptic crossword, it's because it's not a category of activity they've ever noticed. There's no tall poppy there. And so on our tombstones will be engraved 'Poetry was the main thing s/he did, but s/he dared never call herself a poet'. Actually the cringe is somewhat worse than I'm suggesting. Just to pick two persons I mentioned earlier on – David Musgrave and Rob Riel. Or 366 participants for that matter – Susan Hawthorn and Anna Couani, Phil Hammial, Chris Mansell – I don't want to go all national on you, but why are they not at least OAMs for their services to Australian poetry? I humbly submit that if they had done as much for the All Australian Topiary Guild or the Gem Collectors' Society they most certainly would be. So there's a big self-esteem issue here. For some reason we've collectively allowed ourselves to be convinced by the philistines of the relative worthlessness of the cultural form we hold dearest and devote ourselves to, body and soul.
The Noble 500 and the Enemy Within
Other shadows loom over the practice of poetry in Australia. Enemies within the citadel. The canonizing instruments of the here-and-now of high culture, for instance. Not so much prizes. Although turning poetry into a competition (despite the precedents in ancient theatre, despite the slam delights today) is a bit of weird idea. The idea that a poem should be thought of in terms of better or best, winner or loser, is a little infantalising, let's say. But prizes at least carry the benefit of helping the unknown of the Noble 500 be discovered, at least by some of their brethren/fellow travellers. Prizes can offer a huge moral boost and they can bring people into a conversation from which they were otherwise excluded. Likewise residencies and grants, and sometimes even teaching positions. Darker and darker territory.
Beyond the general idea that ballet and poetry are the anathema of sport, the prime culprits casting the shadows over poetry as practice are grants (as in Australia Council Grants), school and university reading lists and definitive anthologies. That's because each of these canonising instruments is, however it pretends otherwise, based on selection and so exclusion, as doled out by persons (whether poets or not) with position in hierarchies – those cultural elites that right wing morons (press and parliamentary wings) rant on about, knowing nothing of, but assuming sentences shouldn't end with prepositions.
Let's take these in turn. The grants.
OzCo grants (and others) typically find their ethical pivot in the illusion of peer review: the idea that you can't complain about the results because they are from judgement by your peers. There are no peers. Everyone thinks their stuff is better than every one else's and they're waiting for the others to get off the stage so they can have their place in the sun (as brilliantly expressed in Rae Desmond Jones' great 70s poem, 'The Poets'). And there are other senses in which peer review is a fiction. As we saw with the money side of things in terms of book sales, there is no level economic playing field in the here-and-now creation of literary value (a kind of cultural capital). Poets, academics, reviewers – how wildly the headgear circulates! – are persons with position and disposition. They are from somewhere in a system of value. They are of tribes, they swim in schools, they look after their own and the rest had better look out for themselves. You have to be from somewhere to get somewhere. That's not to say that talent isn't continually being discovered. It is. If there were enough funding to go around to foster the available talent, none of this would matter. But there are piddling amounts to go around and there is a lot of talent. So tribalism tends to win. Tough for those who are not the tribal type.
'Peer review' is one of the more pernicious shams that has been perpetrated on an artistic community
Based on the lie of a level playing field of peerdom, it involves your creative types, in a degree far more than is necessary, in a culture of judging each other. So it puts people who ought to be sparking off each other, collaboratively, in the position of rotating from and to the judgement seat. Let's be clear – judgement is a necessary, an inevitable, part of the individual process of finishing one's work to a publishable standard. It is also an inevitable part of the process of magazines and publishing houses (of which in both cases there are sadly too few). But how necessary is it to the process of deciding which poets ought to be able to set aside the day job for a spell to focus on the making of poetry? And how much of a poet's time should be spent performing that sort of labour?
The problem with the reading lists is more fraught, because this tends to entail judgement by lit crit academics (who are typically not poets). Speaking with high school English teachers (and having been one for quite a while myself) – and particularly the ones who don't write poetry – I get the feeling that they find it perfectly reasonable there should be a first eleven in Australian poetry and a second eleven, and leave it there. And they find it perfectly reasonable that a bunch of non-poet academics would be making the call because it seems reasonable to assume that poets would be too biased to do it themselves. You can't really have a democratic cricket team, or footy team, can you? And while we're at it – why not have a top poet, and maybe a runner-up and some highly commendeds? One can see where these ideas come from. But here's the thing. One might easily argue that without Creative Writing in the academy there would be just as much good writing going on as there is with it, and that one might be dealing with a corpus overall less obscurantist, more communicative, if the academic types got their paws off it. I can countenance that critique, but I cannot countenance the idea that there would be the flourishing state of Australian poetry we have today if it was just Kinsella or Beveridge or Murray or Adamson or Tredinnick or Tranter, and a little first and second eleven gathered at their side. (Which of you won't have gasped at the mention of at least one of these names?) This thinking is, not to disparage the fine works of these folk, horrible – an anathema of poetry. Of poetry as practice and as a community – of poetry as a community of practice. And I would like to point out that it is not the fault of high school teachers who don't write poetry or participate otherwise in poetry's community/ies, that they should see it this way. They get their impressions from somewhere. Nor is it the fault of the fine few they cannonize.
As for Creative Writing in the academy and the general utility of this well-burgeoned industry: yes there are sound existential doubts to strew in its path, and what does not kill it might even make it strong. Essentially, beyond the idea that it ornaments the university, there are two reasons for teaching Creative Writing in the academy – what I would call the canonic reason and the therapeutic reason. The first, canonic, reason is the idea that poetry (in the keep-able sense) has to come from somewhere and if you don't teach it then where will it come from (?). (This is along the lines of if no one learns how to build houses there won't be any, if no one learns how to do brain surgery, then our brains will never be mended.) The second is the idea that doing Creative Writing is good for you – spiritually, morally, psychologically, however. It might even mend the brain or some dark region thereof. Personally, having taught the stuff for a long time now I find the second reason a lot more plausible than the first. But I would like to insist on one point before conceding anything to the doubters. Cast whatever doubts you like as to efficacy of Creative Writing pedagogy – is it less justified than the whole faculties devoted to the praise of capitalism or military hardware or the indoctrination of the young or the justification of all sorts of normative nastiness as goes on throughout academic institutions in a fairly generalised way (along with lots of good stuff, of course – white hats and blacks and many more grey)?
One remembers Allen Ginsberg's famous 'word on the academies': 'poetry has been attacked by an ignorant and frightened bunch of bores who don't understand how it's made, and the trouble with these creeps is that they wouldn't know poetry if it came up and buggered them in broad daylight'. Nietzschean! Even though I still have a dayjob as an ignorant frightened bore, I never manage to get offended by this challenge of Ginsberg's. But you see how opinionated poets need to be.
Reading lists tend to be tepid and timid and are frequently geared to give the impression that the canon they can't help but represent was brought down from some mountain by some biblically bearded bloke who just knew. When in fact Matthew Arnold invented the whole business not so long ago. And Aust Lit is really not much past the teenager stage (I don't mean the writing, I mean the academic discipline.) Not to say that there aren't some great poems on those reading lists. (Some of my best friends have been set, etc.) Not to say that there isn't some great scholarship directed at some of the good stuff. But most of the good stuff is well under the academic radar at this stage of the game. Next hat!
on first looking into the latest anthology
every canon is a clique
a garden tended
won't need mended
For instance there's a recent anthology that might better have been titled My White Friends – Some Living and Some Not So Perky. Of course it's sour grapes to tell such truths in or out of school. But dammit, life is short. Why not simply call your anthology A Book of Me and Me Mates? Or Me and Me Mates and a Few of Us Gone to Ground? What would be wrong with that refreshing kind of honesty? The point is that it wouldn't be hard, especially in on-line form, to really include everybody – that's to say, all of the Noble 500. But it's never been done. Musgrave and Co may have come closest with their recent effort. But opening that fine stopper of doors, anyone who knows Australian poetry and poets runs out of fingers and toes for the missing persons in no time flat. Okay, it takes paper to publish a book in book form. But what about the Webby/Tranter job on-line? No excuse there. The reason it's never been done – the reason there has never in any format been a properly inclusive anthology of Australian poetry, one that reflects the reality of poetry on a national basis at a particular moment – is that the selectors feel the need to exclude. They can't think too much more democratically than putting together a cricket squad. If someone doesn't lose then nobody's a winner. This is, I think, the unconscious assumption at work. So I fancy myself as the rebel anthologist – the one who puts between the same covers those who'd rather not pass time in the same room.
When I first started thinking poetry shouldn't be allowed in schools, climate change denial had not been thought of. That's to say that generic kind of anti-intellectualism had as yet no hold on the popular and political imagination. But the loathing of poetry had long been in full swing in Australia. I think it's entirely possible that disrespect for poetry has given rise to climate change skepticism. (I thought I should make an effort to get into the post-truth swing of things.)
Summinng up then. Peer review, reading lists, national anthologies. Canonic knowledge is necessary to poets. We write from where we've read to. We read from what has survived to us. But the star systems produced through so called peer-review, through the force feeding that happens in literature classes, through the production of national anthologies, through the selection of poems for those venues (like the few papers that publish or like Australian Poetry Journal (the ones who can only take 2% of what's submitted) – however fine their intentions, these institutions stifle poetic practice, they homogenize (quite unwittingly I think), they make everyone aim to fit on a page that every poet must picture. I truly hope that projects like 366 are the opposite of that. Communities of practice may necessarily be cliquey, but they are honestly so, and, to the extent that they are open, have the capacity to liberate poets from constraints of expectation.
Staging One's Disappearance
Those who've read this rant thus far are probably wondering why he needed to cover so much territory. It's simply because there is a need to render in words, for the record, an attitude to the territory from which so many of us have carved so much time to spend together this last year. (And I know quite a number of us are neither poets, nor Australians. Nevertheless, Australian poetry was at the centre of things and I hope that my analysis might be useful to those participants who are not from this neck of the generic woods.)
In truth few will have read to here. I feel like that naughty schoolkid, writing something filthy in the middle of the essay, with the 'I betcha stopped reading ages ago' tag. If I were on fb there'd be some infantile dare and pass it on at this point. The joys of not being read! Yes, I've been hard on the fantasists of poetry's economy. But what of the joys of pretending readers who simply are not there?
life's towards a disappearance
we should temper our moral outrage for suicide with this recognition
obscurity is the garden I tend
in which I'm growing ever in
the unknown artist to his love
I have found the vanishing point
come, take my hand and let's be there
first thing and last and in between
an hour painting – there goes the day
not just this but ages in it, same
with book, or a few lines
point to the boards, the canvas, tell
that's where they were, in there, last scene
the whole historical tribe – brushtailed
poets spilling out of the frame
seeping through to what's under, making
impression of the thinnest air
a wonderful thing so few have noticed
I have found our vanishing point
come, take my hand and let's be there
first thing and last and in between
you won't put a price on it, though they
feed somehow, these creatures
it's like pond life
to the casual observer
ducks take off so there's nothing
but our days go on
first thing and last and in between
I have found our vanishing point
come, let's just be there
It's not just going up the country. Among poets, one has the chance of perfect anonymity. There was a time when the letters of dead authors were returned in neat little bundles tied up with string, and archived somewhere, possibly published in some chest-crushing tome. Not any more. Now that poets write more and write more to each other (and more good, interesting stuff) than ever before, it's basically all e-mail and blog and messenger and text and so totally lost to posterity (as this little diatribe will be). Poets are the ideal lost tribe of our time. Names writ on water? They inscribe thin air. Do we all fully appreciate the freedom of the invisible we enjoy as poets? A poem is a perfect place to stage one's disappearance.
Who Wants to Practise in a Community?
You'll probably also have noticed, if you're still with me, that I've not quite yet solved all of the problems of Australian poetry, although removing the word 'Australian' from most of the vocabulary most of the time might go a good way to helping.
I had a solution for the reading list problem – which was simply to ban poetry altogether from institutions of learning. But, as I said, I've had to re-think that one in order to gradually become less of a hypocrite. I have suggested a solution for the anthology problem – The Book of Me and Me Old China Plates. There is a very simple solution for the pernicious culture of so-called 'peer review'.
The ideal solution to the problem of funding writers to write and artists to make art – and the ideal solution to so many other problems of inequity/iniquity in our economy/labour market – is a guaranteed universal income. I'm not going to rehearse the arguments for the economic viability of such a proposal, relative to stratospheric CEO salaries or multinational mega-profits (these inevitably matched with dole-torture); I would simply say that the cultural benefit of de-stigmatizing the parts of the population currently accused of sponging and bludging, would in fact be nation building, would lead to improved productivity and innovation in many many areas of the economy and would bring on a cultural golden age, by removing from everyone willing, the most fundamental excuse not to follow their creative star – that being the need for subsistence.
'You may say I'm a dreamer'... Until such time as universal minimum income can be introduced however, I recommend the peer review procedures of the Australia Council be replaced by
a lottery with clearly defined levels and qualifications. These will of course be squabbled over
(numbers of poems or books, numbers of reviews, the kind of citation quantification crap that drives humanities academics mad) but will not take much bureaucracy to administer. There would also be fairness measures alongside, to ensure for instance that poets in particular categories do not get awarded consecutive grants before others eligible in the lottery have had a turn.
Do I paint a contradictory picture? Then surely it's useful to try to work through the contradictions, to understand one's ambivalence?
In the world where poetry endlessly proliferates because more of us have access to the means of becoming poets, because more and more of us have the time and resources to produce the stuff, there yet remains no convincing suggestion that there could be more readers. Not in a country like Australia at any rate. Where could they come from? Even for those poets in Australia who are interested in reading each other's stuff, it's pretty near impossible to keep up. Even in Project 366 – how many of the participants were able to read everything every day, or over all?
The simple fact is that there is more good and more bad poetry being written in the world today, and in Australia for sure, than there ever has been before. I prefer to see the cup half full.
Surely as process becomes the focus of poetry's appreciation (in slams, on blogs, in the hearts and minds) – as the emphasis moves from the text on the shelf to the making of the stuff, we will see the withering away of the canon? This may be the case, but I'm not myself capable of either seeing this future or of wishing for it. Rather in my ideal world, editors and publishers pursue the mid-career poet for the good stuff they can be sure she and he are churning out on a daily basis, on the basis of the form for which they are known, because there is a readership at their beck and call who care about their culture and are hungry for this manna. This is what I try to do with my little meand as an editor/publisher. I want to encourage through respect.
And it's why I dreamt up Project 366 – as a kind of a show and tell thing, I suppose. Project 52, the follow-up project, happening this year, as I type, is more of a workshop thing – about finishing work towards publication. But I suppose Project 366 was something of a dare – to see if you could indeed post new draft poems every day for a year. I kind of had an inkling I could do it myself because I'd done a few months worth when on a residency in Norway in 2015, and then later, on a smaller scale in Cyprus. Still, a year of it was always going to be a challenge.
Early days yet, but I think Project 52 might be easier because it's more focussed (or has that potential). One of the problems with 366 was the feeling (self-imposed of course) that one had to keep on being spontaneous: one wasn't writing a series (or not mainly), one was simply producing a new poem possibility every day. The pile of wreckage after a full year of doing this is, shall we say, daunting. So much so that's actually easier to go on making daily drafts than it is to really get stuck into tidying up the mess. But it takes time to turn around a ship at sea. And maybe that's what we're looking at here?
Reasons for delight and disgust.
Vis-à-vis Project 52, in 2017
where am I now?
do I ever catch up with myself
I doubt it
but I do do it every day
I have arranged my life that way
Phil Hammial (happy 80th!) once told me
that he was so disgusted with the way poetry was run in Australia
he decided to just give it up for a bad joke
(my words not his, so the paraphrase may not be perfectly accurate)
but he found after trying this for a a bit
that he actually felt physically ill
… and so he went back to his writing practices
and with a new perspective on them
I'm not planning to get sick either
I'm planning to go on forever
I know about the best laid plans too
I know all about that
But in any case, questions arise at the wrap-up, including not only 'what was I thinking?' but 'was it a good idea?' in the end, 'did it have the desired effect?', 'was it worthwhile?', 'did it result in the making and the preservation of more good poetry than might otherwise have been produced/preserved had the project not happened?' I leave these questions to the competence of the reader (who, knowing the work of at least some participants, might browse the blog to make up their own mind). I don't think my own experience is anything to go on really. Poets come in various temperaments and while I think all of them, however reclusive, participate in some kind of 'community of practice' that's be no means to say that doing it together on a daily show-and-tell basis is for everyone. There's a reason there's yet to be (to my knowledge) a slam named for Emily Dickinson. (Although I have to admit that I discovered, in checking this apparently outrageous claim that the Emily Dickinson Museum at Amherst does indeed conduct slams.)
Many poets of my long acquaintance declined an invitation to join 366, quite a few others accepted but never really got it together. A few climbed on board but quickly ran out of steam. All of which leads me to conclude that the whole thing was a little outlandish to some and a tall order for many.
Doing it and showing it every day is odd, I think, for many who haven't been teachers of a creative practice, and I believe a lot of us who made it through the month or the year were indeed from that kind of background. For people who've expected students to show and tell in every class, participating in something like 366 might simply feel like a personal demonstration of how one wasn't a hypocrite after all – I mean, of how one could in fact oneself do what one was asking students to do. Many of us were probably making this a late-career activity too, so probably it may have been a safe bet at this point. Beyond that I do think creative persons of every artform can probably be placed somewhere on a sliding scale from precious to prolific (most probably find it more like a see-saw than a continuum), but in any case a project like 366 clearly isn't for everyone. Very many poets are nervous about letting (especially early) draft work see the light of day. Others worry that there's something poserish about exposing one's process, or that it's simply not helpful to them for anyone to see their private work business. It's neither why nor how they do poetry.
All of this is fair enough. But seeing poetry as something precious in one's life or in the world more generally need be no excuse for preciousness. And I think there's a strong argument for projects like 366 on the basis that the precious assumptions about poetry are the ones most generally prevailing in 'serious' poetry circles today. Many people see poetry, and other artforms, as something they could not do themselves. And possibly they couldn't, but how could we or they know if they didn't have a go? This could just be what you'd expect in the way of self-justification from a Creative Writing teacher.
In any case it's good to shake up some of those precious assumptions – and it's good to run with that key hypothesis common among teachers of a creative practice – namely that, in this case, poetry exists as a product to consume because people do it, and people might learn to do it better or more easily if they can watch and also participate in the process. Opportunities to do this outside of the classroom are I think rare, dare I say precious. And what happens inside the classroom is rarely as egalitarian I think as what we've been doing on Project 366.
Hobby and Vocation
Star systems are great killers of creativity, because they encourage people working creatively to believe that greatness is some kind of religious singularity mere mortals might not attain. When in fact acknowledged greatness in letters is more obviously limited by the capacity of readerships to take on the available material. In the case of Project 366, now that it's more or less over, are we trying to find a winner? In beginning to put together the anthology to represent the project, the editorial group begins by asking each participant to self-select a best work for inclusion (somewhat in the manner of Phil Roberts' Poets' Choice in the seventies). Community is to encourage. Encouragement is an act of faith. Let's at least try to have some faith in each other's ideas about the worthiness of our own works.
Who's interested in what we're doing? Who cares? There really are enough of us doing it seriously and well these days for us to not need to care about whether or not anyone else sees or cares. Ukulele orchestras don't devote a lot of time to worrying about their audiences (however nice it is to have one) – and neither should we.
A community of practice, like Project 366, is an instance of participatory culture – it's like a bushwalking group, or a gem collecting group or a ukulele group. It's different from a book club because it's about making the stuff, not simply soaking it up. Back to the perruque, to stolen time.
Let's admit it – poetry's a hobby. Let life consist of hobbies! If we poets think that poetry is more interesting than cricket or bird watching, it's not because we're better than cricketers or twitchers, it's because this is our thing. And poetry is also a vocation. By some means we are called to it. We never elude the possibility that we are kidding ourselves. We never know if this splendid raiment we don is from the emperor's closet or prêt-à-porter or really our own invention.
Poetry. A hobby and a vocation. By contrast, 'professionalism' as it is understood today is a curse on creativity from the economic world the-right-way-up. I think we need to embrace hobbyism, to de-professionalise this métier. We need to accept our calling to turn worlds upside down (or show how worlds are that way and might be righted). To do this with the words at our disposal.
Poetry is at once hobby and vocation.
because we care for
in the heart
in the voice
like a hand held out
to save the one drowning
never too late
never too late
and it is so
in all the art
my poison too
in the storm
I take it
take all the heart offers
all that will save me
art my raft
to which life clings
a season of love is coming
it's not a kingdom
it's on Earth
and we won't say republic
the whole of the world will be out of doors
we'll call our polity the picnic
and we'll continue afternoon
as long as suits
and we'll imbibe
freely but wisely
we'll each of us
be muse and mentor
standard bearer, hack
who is there won't anthologize,
while days away in praise of skies?
we'll cut our purse to suit the cloth
once money's from the picture
poems will be our currency!
Ginsberg wants to pay with good looks
but some of us are godawful ugly
still sing like angels
(better, cause we're real)
poetry's the precious thing
not so for rarity
but for abundance
poems in the letterbox
every magazine's for poetry
and every poem's accepted too
not because standards have fallen
far from it
no, because every poem is good
everyone knows how poetry's done
cause poetry's for everyone
and rings in the air when read aloud
and though still chock with mysteries
every poem is understood
because in the time to be
poetry will be the way of things
poetry will rule
ubiquitous poetic spirit
as wise as worldly
before the fact concise
made popular, particular
but hark I hear a blowfly drone
there is a smell of something rots
was creature once as we
it seems a long way to the light
when you sing from the foot of the well
yes poets, we write from dark times
this last was a year of darkness coming
we may be playing with ourselves now
we have that old defence
we're doing the best we can
we write now for the time when
truth has set all free
for the world come green
we're to observe
make paradise our paean!
we're bringing truth back into the picture,
with justice, with freedom, with right
but we must compose a way there too
a way that can't be known yet
begins with some simple words
they won't swallow manifesto
if you call it that these days
o brave new world that we're beginning
no church could be as broad as ours
the hundred flowers are blooming
the hundred styles and modes contend
poets, on our collective tombstone
these LED lights coloured, flashing
BEWARE WHAT YOU WISH FOR
fair enough, she has a point
and there's Zarathustra
railing from heights
but let's not let that get fascistic
Blake weighs black with joy
Whitman wags his tail
Dickinson's still working in doors
Sappho's on the way
we live for such a time
Last Word from the Sacrificial Altar
I suppose it behooves me – as he who cooked this up – to end with a rousing call to pens or keyboards somesuch, but I should reflect briefly first on how it's been for me personally, as a participant. Was it a good thing to do, to be actually doing each day? Did I produce good stuff as a result? Probably it's not for me to judge that and it's certainly going to be hard for me to judge my overall effort till I've actually worked through the year's drafts. Nd that might be a year or more away yet. But poets do need to make some judgements in order to get works finished. So that's all ahead of me, one way or another.
I guess another serious issue is – was it a distraction to be working on little things every day – things that might not amount to much, things that might not come together convincingly – when probably there were major works I could have been focussed on instead?
A personal note on process here. I tend to have fairly distinct phases in my work – collecting, drafting, revising/editing/polishing, leaving well alone, bouncing back to with fresh eyes, generally piling up and failing to despatch... drifting into the next thing and forgetting what was before...
I also have several distinct modes – especially the peripatetic (I walk and collect lines with a pen or pencil on paper) and the annotation mode (I read and I write in the margins of other poets' work [I love blank space!] and then I type up the marginal notes later and see if there might be any poems in there… For a long time I thought of the annotation or marginal mode as a kind of poetry of response (and I was actively hoping for poems I could bill 'after …' [and I do have a lot of those]), but now I realize what I was doing all along was simply following the principle – in the presence so a poem comes – i.e. when in the presence of a proper poem you have a good chance of making one. I came to the conclusion that I wasn't really necessarily in response mode by doing what I was doing, because so very often my marginal notes had absolutely nothing to do with the poem printed on the page – no thematic, structural or other connection I could discern. It was simply a case of having a good idea because of being in a conversation worth being in. And often feeling perhaps a little rude about it, as in – had I really been invited into the conversation (?). Well, the words were there so I thought I'd have my say too.
This annotation mode is I think similar to the principle on the basis of which I think translation is excellent training for poets – work with a structure and a whole that works in one language to try to make something in your language: if you succeed you have a good translation and a good poem; if you fail at translation you might still have a good poem with a sound structure. (If you don't have much in the way of other-language skills to get yourself started on such a path, you can always dabble with google-translate or something like that [and I mean this not just for having fun coming up with crazy stuff, but seriously... think of Bloomean misprision – out of mistaken-ness great new conceptions come! Or can come! Or might be worth giving a burl at least]).
Stephen Spender wrote a wonderful essay, ‘The Making of a Poem’, in which he contrasted what he called the Beethoven and the Mozart methods of creative effort. Essentially the difference is that Beethoven composed from fragments whereas Mozart worked organically. Beethoven jotted down ideas and then later assembled catches of tunes and ideas for orchestration into a whole work. Mozart, by contrast, seemed invariably to begin with a complete conception of a work and then to fill in the details as he finished it. I think a lot of us naturally or unthinkingly tend to work one of these ways or the other. Or we might work one way in one phase of life (or the day) and another in another. For those who do seem to be in the one mode mainly it might be good for you to shake things up a bit in your practice, by making yourself work the other way for a bit. For myself, I think I'm naturally in the Beethoven mode, but I need more of the Mozart approach – in order to do larger coherent works. I do indeed worry that with 366 I was indulging the Beethoven side too much, allowing things to be a bit too bitty. On the other hand the pressure to daily come up with a complete coherent poem-draft entity – well that's a pretty Mozart thing to be attempting. But I'm ambivalating out loud again!
I have to confess that I have indeed been putting off what I see as major things (more in the prose line) for years, also work on some of my dad's 'legacy material'. But I've always put that procrastination down to the academic life. And now, is it the case that I have simply elaborately tripped myself up, just when I might have started to find the clear air to get on with the big stuff? The irony there would be that that is exactly what I saw my parents doing with their lives from the point of retirement (retirment from gainful employment) on.
There's yet another way I might have tripped myself up, and that's by going too far and too consistently into a draft mode of working. I think this at least partly disturbed my normal writing rhythms of collecting and drafting and revising – i.e. it favoured the early over the later stages of the cycle. Had I engineered the kind of trap for myself in which one cannot see the wood for the trees? I hope not, but it does feel a little that way right now. Maybe I just have to follow that moonlight cast through the forest in order to find the exit?
Or have I sacrificed myself and my art on the altar of pedagogy? At least that would be suitably dramatic.
A more positive way to look at things would be to recognise that it is good to shake things up in terms of one's practice and also to realise that teaching (like translation) has been an important part of my creative practice and that creating an on-line community of practice was not just an interesting role model for students and others I'm mentoring, but was a great inspiration for me personally. It was a great thing to feel that I was working with others on a daily basis and surely the pressure to produce on a daily basis will have got me some personally worthwhile results. Attempting to make a coherent work each day, however heroic the failure, might yet be a helpful kind of Mozart-push. I'll probably know more about that in a year, more or less.
Let me leave these doubts here to resolve or heal or fester or whatever doubts do and leave you with a little medley based on my Day 310 draft
the words and their poem
no one knows where words are from
those who say they do
have simply not dug deep enough
all credit to them though for digging
no one knows where words go
the ones who pray are merely wishful
we take those horses for a run
it must have been the heart let them out
words once and upon a time for all
but whose and why?
and how far back?
no one knows
why a word means
how it sounds
you can wow
each word had its own tune to begin
some are still scribbled into air
even to clear up a doubt
words are with us
though not to start
they may not be there at the end
no one knows how it is we are spelled
the sound and the sense
we have by convention
nobody knows where they're from
but mainly in falling together's the magic
with words as with us all
I prefer no punctuation
it's just the words rub up, abut
range freely on the page
as they were wont in air
words always wish a way beyond
they're forever getting over themselves
but we're still stuck with them
a next and a next
and the one before's
always still echoing after
we'd be less than lost
I'd like to get my words stuck in your head
without even a tune
… I'm doing things the hard way
I scratch around a poem
hoping to bring its shadows to light
I fall into the thing
will I be more than found?
words show a pale imitation of life
but it isn't life I want to show
words in their own deep down
some days do my head in
the house is electric in that nest
it's every limb's extension
and what I think, how far
it's as if the poem were deeper in the page
far below the surface seen
as if these signs were
traces of another journey
(long since and yet to come are one)
as if the map were scratched with truth
scraped over with all the terrors to it
so the land lay waiting
for orders to make mean
I call to words
and will they come
some lie in wait
and some will run
and with or against
just like the truth
lies under paint
when a picture is revealed
like your face as I caught it once in a dream
and never in the ever after
have to get out and breathe with the trees
let the page be blank again
let me cast this coda
bugger the rest of the world
it's off to buggery all by itself
requires none of our help to buggerup
this last year was ours too
I wrote for you
you wrote for me
isn't that what counts?