Interview with Laurie Duggan
- Angela Gardner January 2009
Hi Laurie. I know that music has been an important part of your life but could you could talk about that and the relationship between your poetry and music. And as a separate issue where do you see a place for song or ‘the lyrical’ in poetry?
I was going to write something about music (and music lyrics) on my blog. Obviously music is referred to a lot in my work – all kinds of music really – but with popular music in particular people often think the words must be important because I’m a poet. In fact I can’t remember all the words of most of my favourite songs. Obviously if the words are really tacky (and I have a high tolerance for ‘camp’) or if they’re ridiculously pretentious it’s off-putting. But otherwise what I remember of a song might be no more than a couple of lines. ‘The north side of my town faced east and the east was facing south’ was enough to convince me that the Who’s ‘Substitute’ was a work of genius! But, Dylan and a couple of others aside, most of the ‘poets’ leave me cold. I don’t like rap or hip hop because there are too many words. When I hear that kind of music I just feel like I’m being lectured to. With music in general I’m thinking of space because it’s through the use of space that structures of rhythm come about. The early progenitors of rap were good in that regard, but then it became formalised and measured by a drum machine. Funk can be boring but at least it’s elastic: something can be just behind the beat and tension can be created in the music itself. The feeling is that there’s a human body in there somewhere. So – space. In poems I think that metrical structures often defeat the music they’re supposed to support. It’s rhythm that’s the important thing. I’ve read some metrically inclined poets who have absolutely no sense of rhythm. One writer I won’t mention used to move between what he thought were structured poems and ‘free verse’. Neither of these approaches worked for him because he didn’t seem to have a clue about rhythm and consequently the poems were either constipated or boringly prosaic. Sometimes the way things hang together can be very tenuous, but I like it when it works. One thing I know is that I could never be a songwriter though like a lot of people my age I once thought it would be great to be able to write songs. As for the ‘lyrical’, I guess the closest I come to this is in some of the ‘Blue Hills’ poems. Mostly my writing units are either too long or too short for me to ever be considered a ‘lyric poet’.
So this is an aural space - do you think about how this translates visually on a page as you write or is that something that is by a process of editing"?
It’s both really. The matter of space on the page can be contentious, like punctuation which it’s a form of. I wouldn’t want to get mystical about it: some things can work in more than one way. For example the last section of my book Memorials, a piece called ‘Ornithology’, appeared more or less simultaneously in that book and in a UQP selection. Owing to the smaller format of the UQP book I had to more or less rehang the poem. It was no good leaving it like it was because the number of lines that would need to run over would have made it look messy. The only option was to go through the whole thing and re-space it so that it would work. I do think of space as a cue for reading though some poets who have spoken about visual structure don’t always take account of their own theories when reading aloud (William Carlos Williams is a good example of this, compared to, say, Robert Creeley who is very aware of lines and spaces when he reads).
This is less a question and more an open ended musing I’d like you to add to! I have been thinking about the experiential nature of time as an actual reality (something Henri Bergson wrote about) and I’d like you to talk about that with regard to the Calendar project that you undertook as part of your Australia Council Fellowship. Calendars after all are strict and calculable! What was your experience with the calendar?
The Calendar project is now called ‘Crab & Winkle’, subtitle: ‘East Kent and Elsewhere, 2006-2007’. It runs from the end of August over a whole year. It is an arbitrary structure for something which is pretty loose, and this is what I thought of before I started writing. I wanted something that would ‘end’ somewhere but that would give me (and the reader) plenty of room to move about in. Additionally calendars have been used in the past (as in ‘The Shepherd’s Calendar’) because they emphasise continuity – things will change but things will return. In the age of global warming and ecological catastrophe there’s an irony in even using this structure, but I wanted that too.
Time is what it’s all about for me. Time is rhythm and space. I seem to be a person with an endless capacity to ‘waste time’, but then I’ve gone and written all those books. I spend an awful lot of time just ‘waiting’. For what? I don’t know mostly. But it inflects everything I write.
George Bernard Shaw wrote “The moment the dramatist gives up accidents and catastrophes, and takes ‘slices of life’ as his material, he finds himself committed to plays that have no endings. The curtain no longer comes down on a hero slain or married: it comes down when the audience has seen enough of the life presented to draw the moral, and must either leave the theatre or miss its last train.” (I enjoyed reading this - in Against the Well-Made Play) Does this have resonance in terms of your own work? And how do you look at beginnings, middles and ends, at narrative flow?
Well ‘slices of life’ and ‘accidents’ aren’t mutually exclusive. I think a lot of what happens is out of our control. It can be horrible, but it can also be beautiful. I think a lot of what I write begins accidentally. A number of the long things continue that way like scroll paintings. I mean they do ‘end’, whether purposefully or accidentally, but in another world they could, in principle continue. I’ve written other long things that start off very openly but that seem to take the shape of a cone or vortex (moving from the widest to the narrowest point). The ‘New England Ode’ did this, and so does ‘Ornithology’ or, indeed, the whole book that poem is a part of: Memorials.
Last year when you were already living in England I asked you if you were still writing poems for the Blue Hills series. At that time you told me that you had probably finished it. I have always read those poems as part of a quintessentially Australian landscape, and I don’t just mean in a narrowly geographical sense. But is being away from Australia the reason for calling that series complete? Will we get to see all the Blue Hills poems in their own book one day?
‘Blue Hills’ is being published (by Puncher & Wattmann) any time now. It’s pretty loose as a series, but one thing I decided on was that (even though sections of it are about art from elsewhere) the guiding principle would be that the poems were all relatively short (only a couple run to more than an A4 page) and that they would be written in Australia. It’s an artificial distinction really. But if I write similar kinds of poem here they’ll need another title. ‘Blue Hills’ was the long-running Australian radio serial that ended in the early 1970s. Britain has ‘The Archers’ (still running) but I don’t think I’ll be using that as a title. It lacks resonance.
You are currently living close enough to London to be able to attend poetry readings there without too much hassle. What is the poetry scene in London like? Can Australians make an impression?
The big question (about the Australians)? In short I’d say no. The thing about this place is that it is extraordinarily hierachised – but I knew this before I came. I get to read with a couple of groups of people who could all be categorised broadly as ‘post-Poundian’ or ‘post-avant’ or something in that line if you need to categorise. Within this grouping there are people who are more or less interested in Language poetry or political writing or various other things under the general umbrella (and there are similar ‘cells’ up North, around Cambridge and elsewhere). The London people tend to work in the academy as teachers of writing or in broader theoretical areas. We’re not uncritical but tend to like each others’ work. It’s a grouping almost completely shut off from the ‘official’ verse culture of Britain as purveyed in the TLS, the London Review of Books, or the bigger publishers like Faber and Bloodaxe (Carcanet has actually crossed the boundary, publishing writers like Peter Riley or the American Stephen Rodefer, but this is an unusual occurence). There’s no way on the planet that the LRB, for instance, would publish anything of mine (for them, Australian poetry inevitably means Les Murray). But I can appear in online journals like onedit (edited by Tim Atkins) or print ones like Shearsman (who also publish my books). Just before moving here I came over for the last of a series of Cambridge Contemporary Poetry conferences. At the end of a busy night I read (or sang) my jokey ‘(Do the) Modernism’ poem. Most people were amused but I did get a stern rebuke from one seriously Cantab. gent for pandering to the populace. This seemed really funny to me because while our small gathering occupied a space in a College, elsewhere in Cambridge was a massive Poetry Festival for which there were posters everywhere, featuring people like Carol Ann Duffy.
I would have liked to have been there for your performance of (Do the) Modernism. Poetry should communicate and not all communication needs to be 'serious'. I've been enjoying nonsense poetry recently. I spent a full day transfixed by the idea of a Vorpal sword! . . . You have taken up blogging and there are few more interesting or stylish sites out there than Graveney Marsh. Where does blogging fit in to your life? Why Graveney Marsh?
I live in East Kent about a mile inland from where a channel called the Swale meets the North Sea. There are a number of marshes along the coast around here but Graveney Marsh just sounded better than Nagden Marsh or Ham Marsh. I wanted to try a blog several years back but at that stage, unless you could do web design yourself, the templates seemed daggy. Now they’re much better and more user-friendly. But why a blog? I’d had experience of poetry chat sites like Cassie Lewis’s that I would sometimes post mini-essays on as well as the usual shorter interactions with other poets. When I started the Marsh I just thought I’d give it a run and see how it went (one of my old friends said ‘how could you?!’). I know there’s a lot out there in blogspace to wade through but basically I like the formal potential these things have. It’s a bit like editing a magazine to which you are the sole (almost) contributor. I like the way you can post visual images, poems, art and music reviews, mini-essays (occasionally full-length ones) and interact with other blogs or with people’s responses, and that the form of the whole thing gradually finds a balance.
My final question is about what you are doing at the moment and where you think that will lead.
Ha Ha. Next to nothing right now. Housework. Blogging. Going for long walks. Partly it’s because I’ve had a very creative period and now have three manuscripts awaiting publication (there’s the Complete Blue Hills book, written before mid-2006; a selection of work done partly in Brisbane and partly here called One-Way Ticket; and the big Crab & Winkle manuscript which is due from Shearsman in April 2009). I think sometimes you need to get the backlog out before ploughing ahead. Where will it all lead? Dunno.
Thanks for talking with me I look forward to reading these new books you’ve been working on.