The Cortland Review


John Tranter
An interview and poetry. Guy Shahar talks with Australian poet John Tranter.

Bruce Canwell
Writers on Writing 3: Preserving our Future.

John Tranter

Interview | Poetry


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Interview with John Tranter

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What do you think of American Poetry? I imagine that living outside of the United States would give you a unique perspective on the poetry that goes on here. Do you get the feeling that Americans sometimes walk around with blinders on?

In Britain, Australia, Germany, Poland, France, the people in each of those countries are generally interested in what's going on in Britain, and in Australia, and in Germany, and in Poland, and in France and in the USA. In the USA, people are only interested in what's going on in the USA. Period. Visitors to the USA get a shock when they see the television news and realize that the average American knows nothing about the rest of the population of our planet, and doesn't seem to care.

Poets are a little different, I guess because most of them are fairly well educated. Also they know that British poetry existed for hundreds of years before America had any English-speaking people, so they are conscious of being a younger branch of that linguistic family. As well, French poetry has had a strong influence on US verse.

Partly because of the two World Wars, there was a rich period of interaction between America and Europe from say 1920 to about 1950. And I believe that the writing—novels, movies, poetry—produced in the USA between say 1940 and 1970 was as strong, varied and vigorous as any produced in the Elizabethan age, or during the Romantic period. You had some very strong talents working in poetry, and it seemed to be overhauled and renovated from decade to decade, almost from year to year. Auden. Lowell, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Ashbery, O'Hara, Stevens, Pound, Creeley, Bly, Schuyler, Koch, Hecht, Hugo, Wilbur, Nemerov, Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan... the list goes on and on. No other culture had half that vigor during that period. In fact its danger was that it was simply too overwhelming. Many British poets for example, to protect their sense of their own worth, felt that they just had to turn their back on it and pretend it wasn't there. Because it was a one-way street.  American poetry influenced every other English-language poetry, but it didn't work the other way around.

I know you are a fan of American poetry from the beat generation. Would you elaborate on that and tell us some of your favorite works of the time?

I think Ginsberg's A Supermarket in California is a really wonderful poem, and of course "Howl" is a knockout. I like Kerouac's prose more than his poetry, which I feel is sometimes sloppy. I used to like Snyder more than I do now. I like Duncan's book, Ground Work, but not much else. I like the New York School more than the Beats, actually, and I like many of the younger poets around the New York scene now. And some older ones, like Carl Rakosi, who's about a hundred and fifty and much younger and fitter than I am. An old poet, James Laughlin, told me to read a young poet, Lyn Hejinian, and I'm glad I did. I guess coming from outside the culture, as a kind of visitor, I have a more eclectic view than most Americans. I mean, I like some poems from the 1950s by Howard Nemerov ("Storm Windows") and Louis Simpson ("Walt Whitman on Bear Mountain" . . . is that the title?) just as much as many Ashbery or O'Hara poems, and I feel that not many younger American poets would allow themselves to think like that.

Do you see yourself as an international poet?

I used to when I was young, and in a sense I guess I am. I've learned more from Rimbaud and Auden and Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Ashbery than from any Australian forebears. Though I think my tone of voice works in a laconic mode that is peculiarly Australian. If American boys have a bit of John Wayne in them, then Australian boys have a bit of Crocodile Dundee, and perhaps a bit of Dame Edna Everage (a Barry Humphries stage persona), however much they might deny it.

Describe to me your writing experience...

I usually start with a phrase or a tone of voice or a bit of dialogue. Sometimes I start with a first draft produced by a computer text-scrambling program called "Brekdown". I've written a number of poems recently using a technique that John Ashbery used for his double sestina in his book Flow Chart. He took the end-word of each line of a double sestina by Swinburne and then wrote his own poem using those end-words. I asked him what he liked about the Swinburne poem and he said "Oh I didn't read the poem; I didn't want to be influenced by it. I just copied out the end-words."

There's a poem of mine that uses the end-words of "Twilight Polka Dots" by Barbara Guest, that I titled "The Twilight Guest". I read that at a poetry reading recently. Before I read the poem, I explained how I'd taken Miss Guest's end-words, and a lady in the audience sniffed "Well, I don't like that very much!" and walked out.

Most of my work goes into rewriting. Often I don't know what a poem wants to do until it's been through a few drafts, then you see it falling into a pattern. I go through a lot of drafts. At least five, often ten, and twenty is not unusual.

Do you write with a theme in mind?

I don't unless I'm writing a sequence of poems. I have a tone of voice in mind, I suppose. Currently that's rather rushed, aggressive, self-questioning, discursive, where the voice of the poem is almost a character that's quarrelling with or devouring its own material. 

In your book, The Floor of Heaven, the poems seem more like stories: there are characters with experiences. Even the cover looks like a scene out of an old Technicolor movie. Do you tend to imagine the poet as storyteller, or filmmaker in a sense?

I've always loved film, especially American movies. My favorite period is from about 1945 to about 1960. I'd love to have the talent to make movies. I see things in very strongly visual ways, and I guess my poems are the films I can't make.

Do you feel that your poetry is influenced by film?

I think I see the visual aspect of my poems as filmic episodes. The way narrative works in film is not like reality; the events are compressed, and as a viewer you have to be able to jump from one time and place to another, from one point of view to another, and back again. That's the way narrative works in dreams. And that gives us a clue to the meaning of poetry: I think the kind of meaning a poem has, is like the kind of meaning a dream has - not a logical meaning, but a kind of symbolic and psychic meaning, a blend of bright and dark, shadow and glare.

The films I remember strongly are—well the earliest is a late 1940s film about Scott of the Antarctic. My school was taken to it I must have been about five years old and I was upset for days beforehand, because I knew I would have to watch poor Commander Scott die. Talking of watching people die, a lot of American Westerns; film noir movies like The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Fallen Angel, the 1950s US remake of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, Picnic in 1956, This Island Earth in 1956; anything with Marilyn Monroe in it; just about any Bogart movie—even Now Voyager, where he plays an Irish groom very badly; Doktor Mabuse by Fritz Lang, Black Orpheus; most of Fellini though I can't stand the mid-period Fellini now; The Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion—heaps of others. There was a little abstract-art short color film in around 1963 called "N.Y., N.Y." I liked—a jazz score, with distorted reflections of New York City in car hub-caps. Oh, and Jazz on a Summer's Day by Bert Stern—a film record of the 1956 or 1957 Newport Jazz Convention.
[actually, 1958 -G.S.] You can almost see Frank O'Hara in the crowd. (Or so I imagine.)

Do you ever go through a dry spell?

It's strange, but about every eleven years I go through a dry spell for a year or so, and hardly write any poetry. I get sick of the sound of poetry, and I feel that it's precious and artificial. I don't know why I do that. The first few times it happened I was quite worried, but now I look on it as a kind of holiday from the responsibilities of the art. Sometimes in those dry spells I write a novel, and become enthusiastic about my new role as a fabulously rich writer of best-sellers, but eventually I realize that what I've written is mostly drivel and throw it away.

I wanted to be a painter once, and worked at that for a few years, but I realized I didn't quite have what it takes. I've always been interested in photography, but I'm not really dedicated to it enough to be really good at it. I wanted to make movies when I was young, inspired by Fellini, mainly. I wrote a couple of really awful pretentious sketches for film scripts which—thank God—never got made.

Do you have a day job (aside from Jacket) with which to financially support yourself, or are you one of those scores of people who are independently wealthy living the high life off of their poetry careers? (smiles)

I grew up on a farm; my father died when I was nineteen and left everything to my mother, and she died a decade ago. I had a small inheritance then, but not all that much. I've had various jobs over the years to pay the rent. I did a lot of menial work, like driving vans and delivering mail and slinging hash and cleaning floors and darkroom technician work. Then I completed an arts degree and moved up the ladder somewhat. I was a senior editor based in South-east Asia for an Australian publishing house for a few years.

I produced over forty radio plays and features for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, our national broadcaster. I've written a lot of book reviews, but they don't pay so well anymore. I was the poetry editor for The Bulletin, a leading Sydney weekly news magazine (rather like Time or Newsweek) for three years. They've published poetry for over a century, which must be some kind of record, though it's fallen off lately. I've done some teaching (mainly writing and radio production subjects.)

I helped out when my wife Lyn had a typesetting business some years ago, and for the last five years I've worked with Lyn running a literary agency which we own here in Sydney, Australia. I mainly do the computer maintenance and bookkeeping work and check that the contracts are in good shape. Did you know that "bookkeeping" is the only word in English with three double letters one after the other? At least I think it is.

You seem to have your plate full: a plum from every pot.  Does this sometimes detract from your writing?

I wish I had a spare four or five hours in every day for writing, though I'm sure I'd just fill them up with other stuff. Yes, making a living does get in the way, and I've been grateful for the various grants and fellowships I've had over the years, mainly from the Literature Board of the Australia Council. We've had a generous grant system here in Australia for writers, for about a quarter of a century now. On the other hand, it's good to get out there and get a job and live like other people. Just sitting in your empty room writing to yourself can become desocializing and claustrophobic.

Could you talk a bit about your infamous radio days?

I worked as a radio play reader (editor), radio drama producer, and radio features producer for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation — they're rather like Radio Pacifica, or the public broadcasting network in the US, though they are the major national radio and television network in Australia with a huge audience, as the BBC is in the United Kingdom.

Writing and producing a radio play or feature can be as creative as making a poem. And your audience is usually one person listening, alone. Its a special art form, still alive in Australia, thank God, with a weekly audience of some five to ten thousand. Imagine writing a poem, and having five thousand people listen to it at the same time....

...And yet individually.  It is precisely that intimate connection of poet-to-reader that we try to accomplish with our audience using audio.

That's where radio is especially good for poetry. It's cheap to make, compared to television or movies, and it's easy to listen to in the kitchen or in your car or wherever. It's both casual and intimate, like good poetry. And I guess when the bandwidth of the Internet widens and we get hi-quality sound that's easy to play on a standard browser, it will have something of the same feel. Your computer can be playing the radio in the background, or maybe showing you a multimedia recording of a poet reading his or her work. But I guess, as with radio and television now, it will be mostly filled with the cultural equivalent of junk food.

I did a number of interviews with poets while I was there, at various times. Half a dozen Australian poets whose work I liked, as well as Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, Robert Duncan, a few others. The Ashbery program ran for two hours, with his readings, my interview, some music he liked, a review of his books . . . can you imagine CBS running two hours of John Ashbery? In Australia, we sometimes don't realize how lucky we are.

You have been around when radio was at the height of its power; you saw television slowly push it out of the spotlight; now you have stepped onto the forefront of the Online revolution with your magazine, Jacket

How do you scale the impact of the Internet compared to the media shifts you have witnessed, and what do you predict for its potential future?

Well, when television came to Australia in 1956, they said it would destroy the cinema. And it did, in country towns. By about 1980 most small town cinemas had closed. And yet the cinema is very lively right now: in Sydney cinema complexes are being built at a great rate. They are different devices now, though: you find a complex of four small cinemas where once you would find one large cinema.

I think the Internet will change things, too, but exactly how, I don't know. It's clear that it helps book sales, rather than damages them. The Internet finds a whole new readership for books, people who would never go into a bookstore to browse around. A lot of people are actually intimidated by bookstores. They're not afraid of the Net, though, and when they see an extract from a book they like on the Net, they can order it by credit card right from their home computer and have it delivered to their door a few days later.

The Internet is especially important for poetry publishers. The insurmountable problem for poetry publishers is not typesetting, or printing, or even binding and warehousing—all that can be managed somehow. Distribution is the killer. The bookstores don't like stocking poetry titles because they sell so poorly.

But the Internet reaches everywhere, and for free, more or less. In most public libraries in Australia, for example, you can rent time on the Internet fairly cheaply. I mean, it's not utopian less than one in ten human beings alive today have ever made a phone call, let alone an Internet connection, so it's not genuinely universal. But in the affluent West, there are literally hundreds of millions of people with Internet access. They come to you.

Each issue of my free quarterly Internet literary magazine Jacket is around the size of say a copy of the Paris Review or the New York Review of Books. It's in full color. Jacket has had over twelve thousand visitors so far. For me to print twelve thousand copies of the magazine and distribute them to Sydney, New York, Paris, London and Berlin would cost me about a hundred thousand dollars a year, and I'd be lucky to sell half of them. As it is, I reach every city and town on earth, and it costs maybe a thousand dollars a year.

There seems to be a very positive response.

Get this: I had a letter (well, an e-mail) from a reader who wrote to thank me for publishing an interview I did in 1985 with English poet Roy Fisher. "It's hard to get Fisher's stuff up here in Nome, Alaska," he said. Now how could I ever distribute a literary magazine to ensure it reaches as far as Nome, Alaska?

And for free!

I liken the way capitalism works on the Internet to pulling a right-handed rubber glove inside out — one of those pink washing-up gloves. It turns into a left-handed glove, and changes color.

With classical capitalism, you survive by making a profit, and you make a profit by selling something for more than it cost you to make and distribute it. On the Internet, if you charge, nobody comes to visit. You achieve success by giving things away. It's a gift culture, in the anthropological sense of the phrase.

So what is next for John Tranter?

I never know. I mean, I really don't have any idea what will come down the pike next. I'm writing a few poems, one at a time, and they almost make up a book by now. But I don't have a particular publisher in mind. I've published a dozen books of my poems in Australia over the years, and a couple in Britain recently. I'd like to find an outlet in the States. And I'm playing around with a text-to-speech program that reads poems aloud in a robot voice. Well, in a half dozen different robot voices, some male, some female. There's an example of that in Jacket #4, linked to the article titled "Mr. Rubenking's Breakdown" about robot poetry. So that might go somewhere.

And the literary agency my wife and I own is going through a period of turmoil, so I'm pretty much buried in bookkeeping and computer systems design right now.

And then there's a reading tour I should do in November and December, 1998, through the States and Britain.

And then of course there's the siren temptation to just give the whole thing away. I don't know where I'll be next year. I never have.

If you were stranded on a desert island and could only bring three things with you, what would they be?

A distillery, a manual of Zen Buddhism, and a boatload of friends.

Any advice for budding young writers? 

What did Pound say, in his poem "Mr. Nixon"? ". . . give up verse, my boy, there's nothing in it." But he was sniping at Hugh Walpole, I think. Advice? Read, and then read some more, and then read some more again. Write, and rewrite, and rewrite again. Learn all the history you can read. Have as much fun as you can, and be prepared for a lifetime of cheerful poverty and amiable disappointment.



2002 The Cortland Review