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Interview with Michael Farrell



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

Michael Farrell: I started writing at about seven or eight. I just wanted to get down what was going on in my head.

I remember having thoughts – not thoughts really – just composing lines about “I being me” etc. Also being enamoured of my descriptions of leaves in the river (I think) – we crossed the river a couple of times daily at least – to go to school, the shops, the farm, my grandparents . . . The image I have of myself is wandering around under the cherry trees at my grandparents making up poems; or sitting on the wooden step outside the end bedroom.

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

Michael Farrell: I’m not sure that writers inspired me at that age. The first writer I remember as any kind of example – well, actually hymn and other songwriters probably influenced me before then – I published a poem based on a hymn in the Catholic Weekly in second grade – was Agatha Christie. My teen years were all about murder stories (I remember a kind of novel or series of stories I was writing in sixth grade – very Hardy boys – with perhaps a touch of Enid Blyton? (Googling, it seems The Hardy boys was a collaborative project: there wasn’t one writer behind them.) It seems a bit arbitrary to say who I read now because I’m being asked this now . . . when I’ll be reading different writers by the time this is published. I’m still interested in the crime and mystery formula, but get it more from TV now. I’m always looking for new writers / books – but because I write more critical stuff lately I return to reread things I’m interested in writing about. Apart from my PhD this includes John Ashbery, John Forbes and Judith Wright at the moment, Lorine Niedecker, Ted Berrigan, Robert Creeley – but this makes it sound like I just read big names. Recently I’ve also read and enjoyed Daphne Marlatt, Rosalie Moore, Lauren Fairbanks and Bill Griffiths (I think three of those were CA Conrad recommendations on Goodreads). PhD-related material includes Mallarmé, Anglo-Saxon and Chinese poetics (now reading a lot more Aboriginal material like Songs of Central Australia, the Heiss/Minter anthology and oral history). I read much less fiction. I haven’t written any fiction for years. But I’ve vaguely promised myself to write another novel if I can publish one that I am trying publishers with at the moment (no success . . .) Jack Spicer and Lorca. Zukofksy. Ezra Pound and Jerome McGann. Robert Duncan.

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

Michael Farrell:
I don’t think I can separate those two things . . . Reading and writing are everyday life. If I don’t write about having tea it’s because I already have many times. Watching TV goes into my poems quite often. So do films (but they’re more ‘everyweek’ life than everyday). Songs on the radio – but more often songs on the stereo. A new everyday, which happens when I’m travelling, has more effect. But that’s what I like to create when I travel, a new kind of everyday. I prefer to live in a new place for a while rather than tour around. But I don’t write specifically about Fitzroy or Melbourne Uni much; they filter in though, and I could do it at any time.

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

Michael Farrell: It’s in the way I think about writing poetry, as much as the writing of it. All the things I’ve read – my experience of them – and the time that I’ve read them are different to other writers. My interests in art, music and film are also my own and I put them into my poems in my own way. I think the way people approach language differs a lot also, but we don’t, I think, often recognise this. We come from different language cultures, and it effects the way we relate to language the rest of our lives, even if we live in the same suburb as someone who comes from a different culture (and I mean here a different kind of family as much as ethnic difference: different education, occupations, religions, general family life etc). It’s perhaps tonal – cadencial – as much as anything.

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

Michael Farrell: Yes, but not in any particularly committed way. This is more about the way I make sense of things critically . . . but writing poetry is going on at the same time. I think my writing is related to pop – as Warhol said, “it’s about liking things” – though post-Facebook I’m not sure if that means very much any more. Duchamp and conceptual art generally (and Cage) are an influence, this connects me to conceptual poetry. I was learning about radical feminism and gay activism when I started poetry: there’s an attention to gender and sexualities at play throughout my poems, but it’s play mostly rather than message – or the message is, why not this way? I’m also concerned with racism more than most other political issues . . . it’s harder to deal with, I think – you can make gender appear with a pronoun. There’s a bit of sticking it to white people in my poetry . . . it’s tricky to make characters, for example, deliberately read as non-white without sounding contrived.

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

Michael Farrell:
The financial is the most challenging. Getting attention for books without being a salesperson . . . which I am at times . . . but I don’t have the personality for it. I think books should get more attention – they are where most of my work and energy goes. One poem is no big deal, despite all the poem prizes.

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

Michael Farrell: At the moment I’m interested in textual criticism. It helps me think about making a book from my work. Poetry criticism – especially stuff I disagree with – is stimulating. I used to read a lot of novels and biography – which both went into my poems, but don’t seem to have the time now. I’m reading more histories, including literary histories. They provide material. I find art criticism stimulating in terms of making poetic equivalents – ditto music criticism.

MB: What is ‘Australian poetry’? Do you see yourself as an ‘Australian’ poet?

Michael Farrell: I don’t think it can be defined in general. Rather, it’s a matter of the context: whether that’s a journal, like Jacket, or the editing of an anthology. My response to the second is, “of course” – but that also means different things in different contexts. If you’re travelling it depends where and what the exact circumstances are. I’ve had government sponsored travel, so that emphasises my Australian identity: but if the people you meet know nothing of Australian poetry, then they can’t read you in the context of Australian poetry. I think all my poetry is an effect of being an Australian, whether it reads that way or not. Increasingly it has become a conscious theme, because of my critical research. But the way for example, gay culture functions here, and the way that race politics operates, are Australian products however much we appropriate from the rest of the world.

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?

Michael Farrell: I’m not sure. I think that visual and concrete poetry continue to be neglected. I’m writing a paper at the moment about biodiversity – wondering whether that has value as a poetry model. Any kind of emphasis means other things get left out: poetry written in languages other than English, for example. Anthologies have to limit their frameworks – but so often they seem to keep to a fairly similar model. Im optimistic about new critical ideas, about conceptual poetry, for example. More critical exchange between here and other poety cultures. There’s a fairly recent development of increased contact with New Zealand poets – a positive sign.

MB: How is poetry relevant or valuable to contemporary society and culture in Australia or at an international level?

Michael Farrell: Poetry – like most art – signifies something that resists the concept of ‘use value’. It’s the making of culture. Unlike many corporations, poetry networks aren’t making a huge effort to destroy the planet. Poetry entails a thinking about thinking that opposes the thinking in order to wield power of both governments and business. Poetry can also be a valuable irritating element in the blandness of Australia's literary culture: its festivals, its pseudo ‘good’ publishing and (non) ideas. In other words, even if poetry isn’t valuable in itself, I think irritation is!

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