Interview: Martin Duwell

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Martin Duwell is one of our most prolific critics of Australian poetry and publishes a review every month on his widely-read blog, Australian Poetry Review. In this interview, poet and Foam:e editor Carmen Leigh Keates asks Duwell about his writing, his reading, and how poetry – and the reading of poetry – has changed during his long career.

 

CLK: You once mentioned to me that readers of your reviews would sometimes ask in exasperation whether a book ‘was worth buying’ or not, in response to your style of reviewing which is very involved, close-read and discursive in a rich and highly developed way – not offering up any quick evaluations or, god forbid, star ratings. This type of writing is becoming rarer and rarer. Indeed, most creative and critical writing covered today in Australian universities is subject in some way or another to the journalistic and managerial paradigms that I can’t help but think used to be at least a little more separate from literary studies.

Taking this analysis to the actual poetry, do you think more poets are aiming for a market now? Is there a decline in ‘originality’, or at least poetry that does not have an eye fixed so obviously on how it might be sold?

 

MD: It’s a complicated issue and it really means that we have to think about what criticism is actually doing and what it feels it should be doing. And anybody who thinks they have the answers to those questions is fooling themselves. I think there is an evaluative component in criticism, especially reviews-criticism: I don’t want to make fun of the knots that people get into trying to argue that one poet is better than another. I think of it as running parallel to something like the evaluations art-dealers and antiques-merchants make. There you have to have the confidence and courage to pick something out among the piles of junk which you think has presence and will sell. I don’t think of Ezra Pound as a critic but his ability to pick people who could become great writers was sensational – as was the generosity with which he supported them. For Pound it wasn’t a remote observation that a particular writer ticked boxes that he had already worked out and was thus worth following but rather a complete commitment, a matter of putting what little money he had where his mouth was!

Although I’m ok with this aspect it’s very far from my personality. I come out of an intellectual tradition and so my initial impulse is not to evaluate but to try to understand, to ask “What is this poet doing?” or even “What is this poem doing, what does it think it is?”. If you can’t make an attempt to answer questions like that then canny evaluations that one particular writer might be really good are built on sand. It reduces criticism to a matter of vague sensations and auras. My own image of what I do is not one of browsing through poets looking for a “hit” but of being a linguist dropped into one of the continents of a new planet where a few hundred languages are spoken. I try to give a brief summary of the grammars of all the languages I can by immersing myself in each language for a couple of weeks. Having people back at base complaining and saying, “Yes, very good, but which language is better than others, which should we follow up and get established in Earth school curricula?” would just be irritating and, when you think of the complex issue of what value means when applied to a language, pretty silly.

How this ties in to the middle part of your question is a bit complex and I’m not really well-enough informed about it. In my crude “child’s guide to Australian literary criticism”, critical writing in Australia was dominated by journalism until the post-war period and the rise of the universities. There are certainly a lot of tensions between the two but it’s good to compare the critical writing of, say, Douglas Stewart, with that of Vin Buckley. It’s not as though one is simply evaluative and the other more interested in what the work actually is – what you might think of as an intellectual’s approach.

 

Judith Wright wrote one of the most sophisticated analyses of

the poetry of Australia up to and including her own time and

she wasn’t based in a university.

 

And then, as you hint, there is the change in universities themselves over the last half-century whereby they seem to be infected by that dreary managerialism that means that good work gets done despite the institution rather than because of it

As to the last part of the question, it isn’t something I’m really qualified to talk about. All I have is the poems and any inferences about motivations would be speculative and unhelpful. I do think that if you are worth publishing and worth reading then financial rewards are going to rate fairly low on your list of priorities though poets, not necessarily always the best at having a balanced, sane outlook on life, have been known to fantasize that the world will buy the book they are working on in such numbers that they’ll pay off the mortgage (and then go on to win the Nobel Prize). In my experience the only way a book might make any money through sales is by being a school text. For most poets, any money is going to come from winning one of the major prizes of which, it’s pleasing to be able to say, there are a large number. There are problems with this, of course: the judges are fellow poets and the whole system might be said to be no more than poets taking turns to allocate portions of the large “prize-purse” to fellow-poets knowing that their time to be recipients will eventually come round. That would be a jaundiced view, though: I think, at heart, it’s a good system and no doubt the early Greek playwrights moaned about the patently biased judges who had probably been suborned to put their rival’s works first.

That applies to books. There’s no doubt that prizes for individual poems (of which there are also many) have encouraged poets to write extended sequences.

 

CLK: Something of a cult has developed around the minutiae of writing behaviour, and this discussion is especially active on social media. On Twitter, there is a particularly infuriating hashtag (in my opinion) – #amwriting – applied to material in which people tell us what they are diligently working on (so diligently that stop writing to tell ‘followers’ that they are, indeed, writing). But before this kind of impatient reporting became common, there are of course many examples of writers’ and artists’ daily routines being shared – not for their own edification, I don’t think, but because of a genuine curiosity in the audience as to how individuals settle into their particular grooves of productivity. You write a review every month, among other commissions, which is quite prolific given you are officially ‘retired’ for more than 10 years now from being a Lecturer in the old School of English, Media Studies & Art History at The University of Queensland, and you handed over the Queensland Literary Awards judging reins in 2015. Can you give us a brief run-down on how you keep across your writing and reading these days?

 

MD: I’m glad you said “writing and reading” at the last moment there since I don’t really consider myself a professional writer but I do think of myself as a professional reader! I think it’s good to be interested in others’ practices both in writing and reading. Yes it is all anecdotal and probably exaggerated and perhaps is driven mainly by a gossipy sort of interest but I think it does have a lot to tell us. I read Douglas Stewart’s Fire on the Snow in school and can remember – more clearly than I can most of the text – his “advice to young writers” in his preface that, when trying to write an extended work, you should break off work for the day at a point where you know how to continue at the beginning of the next day. Simple and obvious but very helpful to hear!!

As a writer I’m driven mainly by self-imposed disciplines. If I had undertaken to upload a review when I felt like it, I’m sure I would have produced precisely nothing. I have a little hump of dis-ease a few days before I start to write that I have had to learn to overcome and it’s the knowledge that something must appear on a certain date that drags me across it. I try to read something from whatever I’m reviewing every day of the month, rather than coming to it with a few days to go and working intensely (the way all those amazing writers from Dr Johnson to Shaw and beyond did). Either my way is just better or it’s better for me.

 

I tend to think of the month in roughly three parts: the

first devoted to reading and rereading the poems in the

book, the second to reading the author’s other books or

reading other contextual material (while still rereading a

poem or two), and the third to roughing out and then

rewriting the review.

 

This must seem ridiculously self-indulgent to those with full time work who have to write minor things like reviews on the run, but I console myself that the beneficiary is more likely to be the poet than myself. I don’t find the act of writing especially difficult but it isn’t, at the same time, at all pleasurable. It’s a bit like marking essays – the only pleasure you get is when you see that you’ve finished it.

That’s why I think of myself as mainly a reader. Reading is an immensely pleasurable act, it’s where I am “most myself”. And that isn’t because it’s somehow passive and thus easy: it’s a lot more hard work to read Finnegans Wake or Ariosto than it is to write a two and a half thousand word review or a five thousand word essay.

 

My reading practices are very complex and probably

slightly mad. I have half a dozen slots that are on the go

at any one time.

 

I try to read all the books of Australian poetry that come my way (that was easier when I was a judge than it is now that I’m reliant on review copies), I have a non-fiction slot (very often biographies), I have a light fiction slot (I’ve read through all of Wodehouse, some of it several times, all of Agatha Christie – not so rewarding – all the Rebus novels of Ian Rankin, all the Fred Vargas novels etc etc), I have a couple of “discipline reading” slots where I force myself to read four or eight or ten pages of something that isn’t exactly a “page-turner”: Proust, Ferdowsi etc etc. And then I have various projects. I spent the first half of last year reading (and rereading) all the translations of all the medieval romances that I could find, not only French and German but Norse, Hebrew and above all, Persian. At the moment I’ve got a system for reading contemporary English poets based on a list of receivers of the Eric Gregory Award: two books by each poet. If I tried to look at my practices from outside and see any sort of pattern I’d say that there’s a pleasing tension between randomness – most books are chosen from a slight suggestion of some sort, perhaps a mention in something else I’m reading – and a desire for completeness – so that once I read one book by one writer I want to be able to say that I’ve read them all.

 

CLK: To finish off, I wonder what it means to you that your     website,  australianpoetryreview.com.au, recently surpassed 1 million views. To me, this is another possible point of dissonance – these numbers indicate that poetry and poetry criticism is being accessed more than ever, but I don’t know if this manifests in the mainstream — even the arts mainstream. How do you see this milestone?

 

MD: There is more criticism written than we might have predicted but I expect that the problem is that there are almost no critics – it’s usually a matter of poets doubling up to write reviews as well. At any rate, online journals like Cordite can keep up a very wide coverage of what’s going on. It’s a lot different to what it was a half century ago when print journals would squeeze half a dozen new books into a single review. Although you get lots of opportunities for interesting comparisons in this system, I’ve always thought that a book under review should be treated as a self-contained entity and get its full allotment of time on stage in the spotlight. Whether this criticism is good or bad I can’t really say because I don’t read much of it. That isn’t being snooty.

 

Many poets know that they have the sort of mentality

that needs to work alone to develop what they are doing

and it’s the same with me in criticism.

 

As to the website’s recent milestone, it did come as a bit of a surprise. I should rephrase that since I’ve had plenty of opportunity to look at the growing number of page views: when I started I would have been very surprised if I’d been told that it would go on to be used as extensively as it is. And if I’d known then what I know now about the extent to which it’s used, I might have done things differently. It’s clear, for example, that many of the readers are students looking for information and criticism which will help them with their essays. It’s only been accidental when the website has been useful for these students – there are reviews of texts that are part of their study program that turn up in the stats time and again and attract an incredibly high number of page views. If I had my time over again I might well have sought out what texts students have to read and tried to devote one review per year, say, to one of them. It must be a bit disheartening for a school student to have to search through pages of critical prose in the hope that a poem they have to write about might be looked at. And then they’ll probably find that I deal with the poem in a way that meshes with some overall point I’m making and doesn’t quite satisfy their needs. What I hope, of course, nowadays, is that students who read my work might get an experience of what an engagement with poetry might look like and be influenced and encouraged by it. I know that when I was in the last years of high school I understood at some deep level that if you loved poetry then you loved the contemporary poetry of your own culture, you didn’t spend your entire time exploring the wonders of Shakespeare and Milton. I would have loved to have had access to something like the Australian Poetry Review – I think it would have been both a model and an inspiration.

 

 

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