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Interview with Adam Aitken



Michael Brennan: When did you start writing and what motivated you?

Adam Aitken: I started around age 15. My parents had recently divorced and a friend of my mother offered her the use of his flat. He is a writer, and his flat was stocked with books, including early issues of New Poetry and Poets Choice. I read a few anthologies of European and Australian poetry and felt I could contribute to the art. My mother also shared a love of recital and we shared many evenings reading poetry aloud. The fact that my mother’s friend was a successful poet and good friend motivated me. I bought myself a typewriter.

MB: Who are the writers that first inspired you to write and who are the writers you read now? What’s changed?

Adam Aitken: David Malouf was my first inspiration as far as Australian literature was concerned. After reading Michael Hamburger’s anthology of German poetry, I found a kind of voice that was serious, surreal, but precise, even though I didn’t read German.  Robert Adamson and the poets he published in New Poetry were also important to me in the late 1970s. Michael Dransfield was also influential, though I was too young to enjoy his drug poetry. In the early 1980s, my English course at Sydney University introduced me to American poetry, and the lectures of James Tulip and Don Anderson were wonderful inspirations. I began to attend informal poetry workshops which had been hosted by Dennis Haskell, a lecturer at Sydney Uni. There I was probably closest to Dipti Saravanamuttu and Susan Hampton. I was also encouraged by the wonderful poet and editor of a magazine called Compass, Chris Mansell. In my final year I met John Forbes, Gig Ryan, Pam Brown, Phillip Hammial and John Tranter, and I felt they kind of ‘adopted’ me in some way. Judith Beveridge was also an early acquaintance, and as a peer she was unstinting in her encouragement. Although I had joined ‘the wrong club’, I was on good terms with Judith’s friend Robert Gray, who was very encouraging. I read all these writers now.

MB: How important is ‘everyday life’ to your work?

Adam Aitken: Not very. That said, I am interested in ‘everyday language’, you know, whatever’s on the radio, in the news, the local paper, shopping lists etc. I have a very ordinary everyday life and don’t write about it much. I seem to write more after I have travelled or lived outside of Australia. Everyday life is after all different wherever you live. Perhaps I could say that other people’s everyday lives offer much more interest than my own. Perhaps I should also say that ‘everyday language’ is important, insofar as it reveals as much about life as it obscures. To recycle a cliché, poetry is a means to uncover the mysteries behind everyday life, but the mysteries can’t exist without the everyday.

MB: What is the function or place of subjectivity in your poetry?

Adam Aitken: I have always struggled with the place of ego in poetry, which is not to be confused with subjectivity. Ego refers to the sense of self-identity that is as much a part of how I think people see me. Subjectivity is less about representing my self – my image – to the world. Subjectivity is more akin to consciousness beyond the sense of identity, self-pride, and my distinctiveness in the world. For me subjectivity is phenomenological, a consciousness of what exits in the mind. I try to evacuate my own ego, but at the same time I am suspicious of poets who want to claim a universal objectivity. I feel that a poem can offer a humanistic understanding of life only by digging through the layers of subjectivity that condition our thinking. Perhaps the German poets like Rilke and Trakl encouraged me to think inwardly, and Rilke’s short lyrical poems on artworks and animals were especially influential. When I was very young, I read Rimbaud for the first time and was struck by his great destruction of bourgeois ‘common sense’. My training as an English language teacher and linguist has also taught me that language is a code and that we are all trapped to some extent by language and its limitations. I am very interested in bi/multi-lingual consciousness, where a state of experience can only be expressed by one language and cannot be translated into another. Hence my interest in languages like French and Thai.

I also don’t think poetry can address subjectivity as philosophy can. Poetry is a different discipline to philosophy, and thus subjectivity can be understood ‘poetically’ as well as philosophically because subjectivity is sung into being by poetry. Philosophy tends to deconstruct what poets prefer to leave mysterious.

MB: Do you see your work in terms of literary traditions and/or broader cultural or political movements?

Adam Aitken: I no longer struggle to fit my work into traditions or broad cultural movements, but in the 1980s I was keen on the New York School of O’Hara and others. That said, Ken Bolton once wrote that there was an Audenesque voice in my poems, which hints at the influence of a kind of ‘British’ voice. I did read a lot of Auden when I was young. My second book In One House actually contains examples of quite formal verse, but that’s a direction I think I have abandoned. At university I was after a voice that grew out of the urban environment of inner-city Sydney, and I still want my work to represent something of the environment in which I live. But going to London and living there between 1987 and 1988, I found I lost my voice! What was American-East Coast Sydney didn’t fit there. Throughout the 90s I read fairly widely, travelled and worked in Indonesia and Malaysia, and became interested in another way of expressing my experience. In the last 10 or so years I’ve been working on my non-fiction, memoir, and historical narrative pieces. Recently I have done more work of deliberate ‘sampling’ texts, raiding them for interesting fragments of texts and displacing their styles into something new. In that sense I have moved toward a response to the work of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers. I am interested in language as a source of power, but also history as language’s other. I mean, there’s language, and there’s action, events, deed, memory. I have to say that doing my MA in Applied Linguistics from 1992 until 1994 gave me a heightened awareness of language grammars and language as functional discourse. Now I am reading modern French poetry in translation and also in the original, and am fascinated by the comparisons between French and English poetic traditions.

It’s interesting to read commentary by editors on my work. The most pertinent comment is that I am concerned with questions of ‘identity and place’, which is a persistent concern for Australian writing. I would modify that and say I am concerned with language, identity and place. In my last book of poems Eighth Habitation, I include a fairly long poem that includes the character and voice of my Thai mother, and her English is idiosyncratic. In my prose pieces about my Anglo-Australian father, I've been exploring his letters, and the voice that comes through them is that of a 50s Australian struggling with a colonial legacy. Which brings me back to the question of my poetry being a kind of postcolonial writing which brings together my parentage, and my literary parentage as well: i.e. influences of all kinds.  And there’s no doubt that most my writing has addressed my own Asian-Australian identity with varying degrees of self-consciousness and ambivalence, a theme I explore in my PhD thesis.

MB: What aspect of writing poetry and working as a poet is the most challenging?

Adam Aitken: For me, motivating myself to keep going. It’s more of a metaphysical struggle with the question of why write poetry anyway if it makes nothing much happen? On a very personal level, I have struggled to come to terms with my own mortality and vulnerability, after I was nearly murdered on the street in Kuala Lumpur in 1999. Writing did help me get through that trauma, however. Another problem is writing in a way that’s relevant to younger readers and poets. Having something new to say and getting started on a new book are the hardest of all challenges. The other challenges are the same as for most other writers. I once wrote these lines in a poem (‘In Hermes’ Hands Again’) about being a poet:

But really
it’s what poetry turns you into –
a black military installation
where hundreds of daffodils sprout
in a thermal warming
of the soul, with gymnasium and garden
where the cat disappears
like a prowler, but comes back
with a ugly family it didn’t want.
And the words you want
queue like a line of buses, creeping
behind schedule
in the dark outer orbit of this winter.
For your times are getting
slower by the day.
And you remind yourself
to iron the uniform, the medallioned
vest your education has prepared you for.
The way
anyone can just do it, as the banner
says, a decathlon of emotions
none of which you are master of, the course
arduous but getting shorter and I know
you are there, waiting for me.

MB: What reading, other than poetry, is important to your work as a poet and why?

Adam Aitken: I read a lot of non-fiction. For my last book, Eighth Habitation, I read over a thousand pages about Indo-Chinese history and archeology. In recent years I have read filing cabinets full of articles on postcolonial literary theory.
MB: What is ‘Australian poetry’? Do you see yourself as an ‘Australian’ poet?

Adam Aitken: Yes, it exists and I am living proof. But what this question is leading to is a discussion of what is Australian about my poetry. I suppose if you see Australian poetry as being very much concerned with what cultural inspiration lies outside of our borders, then I am a good example. I cannot wait to escape our endless discussions about drought, suiciding farmers, upward suburban house prices and the pros and cons of negative gearing, or the continuing anxieties about illegal immigration. It’s also a relief to live in countries where people don’t aspire to spend their weekends drunk. Much as I admire sportspeople, I yearn to escape grand final season. Of course, Australia is more than the sum of its clichés.

MB: Don Anderson once described Australian poetry as Australia’s only “blood sport”. More recently critics have seen Australian poetry in terms of a “new lyricism” (David McCooey) and “networked language” (Philip Mead). What is the current state of play in Australian poetry? How do you think Australian poetry and discussions about Australian poetry might best develop in the next ten years?

Adam Aitken: I admire skilful poetry of any kind, but to be honest I do not want (and I haven’t got the right aesthetic) to compete to become a great Australian lyrical poet. Lyric is a means to an end, and there’s too much swooning over the beautifully crafted object, too much yearning after a poem that can sum up its own performance of a final effect of beauty and harmony. Kate Fagan describes these perfectly: “poems that strain towards a kind of historically-sedative acceptability. In such works, ‘representation’ applies equally to museum-piece versions of literary eras, and to a (fake) transparency between world and voice (or reality and vision, to riff on some of those judging comments)” (See For me to make a beautiful poem out of the world’s ugliness is a greater challenge, as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon did in their war poetry. Yeats’ poems about the Irish Civil War and Auden’s elegy for Sigmund Freud are lyrical public poems. Middle-class, privileged, well-fed and protected, I am grateful to have time to think about poetry and beauty, but the following poem pretty much sums up my perennial suspicions about lyric:


First there is the picking of a rose,
then the theory on what it means;
or, if there is no rose
there is no symphony,
just empathy, a deeper
arresting of the sense, call it
epiphanal, rather than digitised

indolent gestures,
an article of clothing so loose
a breeze blew it into a pool of swans . . .

Light will not do – it must be
cultivated light
inflected through
a mild cloud of darkness . . .

like the first tentative attempt to say “I would like”
in French or Italian
brings a faint blush to the neck . . .
but there is never quite enough time
to see all of the Uffizi
and like Keats there is the threat
of an early consumptive death
but not before
he teaches you everything you need.

There are the interiors,
then the interiors of the interiors

and what comes between us
is precisely the subject of the poem:
be it a sword or hesitation:
more interiors
padded with medieval tapestries,
perhaps the mineralised torso
of a God,
or even a country that can’t address us
as it lacks
a studio or eerie and so
needs no mention of us,

or, perhaps, no shared lingua,
no roses either
no half-buried garden shed
at the back of Regents Park
in which to skimp on our portraits
(nude) in an unfinished poem in October.

A great deal is about to happen
but not yet.

I might sound too anti-lyrical – I am not, but it is a particular kind of use that lyric is put to that I don’t respond to: the excessive melodiousness, the outpouring of personal emotion which often becomes the only justification for the poem; the straining for moral justification – that somehow the poet has transcended the world’s ugliness and his or her own limits. The bathetic collapse of the triumph into despair: that the world is NOT overcome! It’s hard to say what I do like about lyrical poetry – perhaps I will never reconcile the oppositionality of lyric and a poetry that has grounding in historical reality or public speech – but certainly I DO respond to intimacy.

As Sarah Holland-Batt defines it: “the defining characteristic of the lyric is its apostrophe, and therefore its potential to elide time and history with the intimacy of its address” ( I also respond as Apollinaire and the Futurists did to the lyricism and sensuality of machinery, science, the modernist dream of a new world. Jill Jones provides a pertinent definition of what I try to do, which is attend to the detail out there: “Zukofsky wrote that sincerity is the expression, posture or intent behind a poetics attuned to the ‘accuracy of detail’ or that that ‘writing occurs which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with things as they exist’. So, I take it he is talking about the ‘now’”.

. . .

I have been experimenting with aubades, a typical lyric genre, example:


My sleeping can’t disguise
my absence of effort.
The more you read on the train
the more I slept on the boat.
Bones still sore,
the scar throbbing.
You who hardly sleep
(I have stolen your soma)
are a kind of light
seeping through a
line of text and error:
how you'll be home –
like your dream had said –
when the network's
not too busy.

To echo Maggie Nelson’s blurb on Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, “I am interested in a poetry whose speaker is a sort of collaged nobody/everybody first person, speaking in a language which is somehow informational, limpid, despairing, and consoling all at once, it seriously challenges all three definitions of ‘lyric’ offered by Ron Padgett.” (Maggie Nelson, Women, the New York School and Other True Abstractions, University of Iowa, 2007).

But a comment of American literary critic and academic Charles Altieri might shed more light on this whole lyric question. The lyric speech paradigm “places a reticent, plain-speaking, and self reflective speaker within a narratively presented scene evoking a sense of loss. Then the poet tries to resolve the loss in a moment of emotional poignancy or wry acceptance that renders the entire lyric event an evocative metaphor for some general sense of mystery about the human condition . . .”

In Opposing Poetries: Issues and Institutions
(pp. 20–21) Hank Lazer glosses the rest of Altieri’s description of lyric being a kind of disguised, unobtrusive craft, with the burden of form attending to “elaborate vowel and consonant music”. The poet is searching for something ‘beyond words’ (see Holland-Batt above), which is considered more poignant than language or experience. But what this lacks for Altieri (and Lazer) is the evidence for dialectic thinking, or for L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, a lack of thinking about rhetoric and language. Poetry that lacks ambition or self-consciousness contributes to a cult of sincerity.

So I suppose what I aim for is the very self-consciousness of language and rhetoric, but a sense of the poem working its way from language and form to the edge of what it can reveal and poignancy and affect. But that edge or limit of lyricism addresses culture, politics, the reader, and anything that is “non-poetic, and non-lyrical in the traditional sense. I am still a kind of Futurist who looks for meaning in rubbish, bus tickets, scraps of speech overheard, snippets of Internet chatter.”

29th December 2009

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