Sunday, June 22, 2003


Too depleted of words - even my logorrhea can't cope. The Riddle will be finished in a week, barring acts of god or influenza, and I feel myself taking a deep breath before I write the final chapters. But I no longer feel as if I am flagging in an endurance race, with the hardest part still to run. In the past few days I have solved the book; its metaphors make sense now, and its emotional truths. But it has been very tiring: I think this has been harder to write than The Gift; but then I guess its journey is more gruelling, in every way.

As a holiday, I spent last night reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which every sentient being in the western world must know was released yesterday. It kept me up until 1am, when I finished it, from which its addictive qualities might be concluded. Still mulling over it; but there's no denying it's a good read. Obviously the narrative is compelling as the others; it also strikes me that Rowling has taken on board some of the criticisms of the ideology of the books. In many ways it's a book that an adult will find impossible to read without being aware of the context of current international politics, and its weight falls behind the Imperium; nevertheless, I couldn't quite decide whether it was simply conservative, since its moral argument is becoming nicely complex. There's also a wider world in this one, and an insistence that the denial of anyone's humanity (probably the wrong word in this book) is the great evil. It insists on good old fashioned decency and fairness, and I'm not uninclined to think that decency is one of the things this world is rather short of.

and other prose

One reason I can't wait to finish the book (The Riddle, I mean) is that my head will be free, for almost a month anyway, until I begin the next one. I usually have the sense that my head is full of loose threads, maybe it's an occupational hazard, but following the warp and woof of a single work means more than usual are dangling. There are a number of books hanging around looking very unread, and a few arguments with myself that I haven't had the chance to pursue.

Not entirely inconsequentially: Someone on poetryetc mentioned Sir Thomas Browne, (I want to say, the Good Sir Thomas Browne), which gives me the excuse to quote him, especially as I feel unable to write anything so eloquent myself, on the perils and rewards of discourse, and which seems a private pointer to what might eventuate, if I ever get around to it, on this blog. It seems to me the comments he makes are as applicable now as they were in the 1700s.

I could never divide myself from any man upon the difference of an opinion, or be angry with his judgment for not agreeing with me in that from which perhaps within a few days I should dissent my self. I have no Genius to disputes in Religion, and have often thought it wisdom to decline them, especially upon a disadvantage, or when the cause of Truth might suffer in the weakness of my patronage. Where we desire to be informed, ’tis good to contest with men above our selves; but to confirm and establish our opinions, ’tis best to argue with judgments below our own, that the frequent spoils and Victories over their reasons may settle in ourselves an esteem and confirmed Opinion of our own. Every man is not a proper Champion for Truth, nor fit to take up the Gauntlet in the cause of Verity: many from the ignorance of these Maximes, and an inconsiderate Zeal unto Truth, have too rashly charged the Troops of Error, and remain as Trophies unto the enemies of Truth. A man may be in as just possession of Truth as of a City, and yet be forced to surrender; ’tis therefore far better to enjoy her with peace, than to hazzard her on a battle.

Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici

Thursday, June 19, 2003

Thursday already...

How did June go by so fast? June 1 seems like yesterday. Ten days to the end of the month and my theoretical freedom, but now I really feel that I am hacking away at the coalface of the imagination. I suppose it's good for the book that I feel so drained, since my character is too, but I think method writing is going too far (it makes me think of Laurence Olivier and his comment to Dustin Hoffman while they were making that famous dentist drill scene together, and Hoffman turned up unshaven, exhausted, at the end of his tether - "My dear fellow, why don't you try acting?")

Basically, aside from the labour of writing a ridiculous number of words, at this point I have to work out what this novel is actually about. So it's one step at a time, and it's like walking through sand.

I have promised myself a July of poetry.

Mind you, I'm not really complaining, even though it sounds like it. Beats any other job I've had.

I forgot to say that the rough covers for the UK edition of The Gift and The Riddle arrived from Walker Books the other day. They are really beautifully designed, in the best tradition of contemporary fantasy books, and it makes it all the more real. But maybe what gratifies me most of all is that they've used my map in the design. Though that's just a personal pleasure.

I guess I should stop procrastinating. Back to work.

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Found poem

Step 1. Insert the Locking nuts (3)&(8) into the pre-drilled holes located in board (B)(C) and board (O)(N)(S), then screw the Connector (4)(9) into boards (A) and (M)(N)(O), when join board (A) to board (B)(C) lock the Locking nuts into position, please note that it's important to make sure the Locking nuts is securely locked into position and the two panels are securely attached.

Step 2. Screw the Slider (17) onto board (B)(C).

Step 3. Attach Caster (16) into board (B)(C) by using (6)(7).

Step 4. Join Kick Board (E) to board (B)(C) by using Screw (1).

Step 5. Join Bottom Board (d) to board (B)(C) by using Screw (1).

Step 6. Joine Back Board (G) to board (B)(C) by using Screw (1).

Step 7. Join Desk top (A) to board (B) (C) as Step 1.

Step 8. Screw the Keyboard Drawer (F) on Slider (17).

Step 9. Fasten the Stationery Tray (18) into board (A) by using Screw (10).

Step 10. Screw CD Holder (14) and (15) onto panel (KL)(L) by using screw (5).

Step 11. Attach both panels (P) onto panel (L) using screw (1) then slide Back Thin Panel (Q) into the pre-cut grooves of panel (p)

Step 12. Join panel (K) to both panels (P) by using screw (11).

Step 13. Join drawer panel (N)(O) to back panel (S) by using Dowels (11) and Connectors (9) and Locking nuts (8) following the Step 1, then slide the bottom board (r) into panel (N)(O) and place the Knob (13), wooden knob or metal knob, on the face Board (M) by using screw (12) then join board (M) to board (N)(O) following the step1.step13-1. Slide drawer into board (L)(K)and(P).

Step 14. Join Back Panel (I) into board (J)and(L) by using screw (1).

Step 15. Place the Top Board (H) onto panel (J)(K) and lock the locking nuts (3) into position following the step 1.

Step 16. Put the Upper of Desk onto Main Desk, then attach Upper of Desk and Main desk by using screw (1).

Step 17. Completely desk.

Monday, June 16, 2003

Ho hum

So much for big resolutions about writing reams of prose - not a word today. Various domestic distractions like desk building and rearranging the boys' bedroom and so on and so forth got in the way. And my head is too full of other stuff. Well, there's always tomorrow... or maybe this evening. Who knows? Maybe I'm leaping ahead of myself, I just want this book finished so much that I can't think about what's happening now; a common human vice. And writing novels takes patience, almost more than anything else: that ability to remain in the moment you are supposed to be writing, rather than looking over to the lighthouse. Maybe I'm just bored with the waves.

Also I discovered all these poems I'd forgotten about on the computer, so poetry's coming to bother me, somewhat prematurely. I told it to go away until July, but as usual poetry pays no heed to convenience. Here's one:


To describe
the behaviour of light
on a pavement of stone
alive with rain

one seeks
a certain imprecision:
the moon’s smashed fruit
wetting your feet

say, to indicate
the methods by which joy
might choose to dazzle
a solitude.

Sunday, June 15, 2003

Artist, wanker, traitor

Liz Jones, artistic director of La Mama Theatre, sent me two newspaper articles in the post a couple of days ago. One is an article in the Weekend Australian, from May 24, about Stephen Sewell's new play at Playbox, a derivation it seems of Brecht's Fear and Misery in the Third Reich, in which Liz is quoted as saying, of the general political attitudes of the hundreds of local scripts she sees each year, that "the predominant emotion of artists in the present climate is one of national shame and opposition to war. Our artistic community is not at one with popular attitudes."

The other is by Andrew Bolt, the right-wing columnist in the Herald Sun, in which Liz is also quoted. Its tone can be gathered from the intro par: "Duplicitous, grant-gobbling artists are making national shame an export industry in Australia, and we pay them to do it". He launches into a scurrilous attack on former diplomat Alison Broinowski's study of cultural attitudes in Asia towards Australia, About Face. From this, he widens his attack on the "drivel" coming from "so many artists" - and here he lists the play Stolen and the film Rabbit Proof Fence as further examples - which is nothing less than a libel on this free, tolerant, great nation of ours. He followed it up a few days later with an attack on Marion Halligon, again belabouring her for wasting "your" money.

Well, so far, so predictable. And what is to be said about Andrew Bolt? His transfiguration into a right wing media pundit, from the mediocre and not especially intelligent journalist I knew when I was a cadet twenty years ago, has been nothing less than amazing: now he is invested with the authority of his column, and his inflexible bigotries pass for "opinion", in much the same ways that Howard's brown nosing of George Bush passes for "strong leadership". There's nothing that can be done about this tripe: Bolt is well-paid for writing it, and the more howls of outrage he elicits, the more his bosses are pleased. Journalism is amoral that way, as in many others. But aside from being a controversialist, he is a handy mouthpiece, and it's no accident that he has risen so high in the local castle of the Murdoch empire. Like a weary photographer said to me once of News Ltd, "Shit floats". He's there to deflect resentment, to direct it away from intelligent questioning and towards a range of troublemaking scapegoats - refugees, Muslims, lefties, greenies, intellectuals, Aboriginal activists and, of course, artists.

And it would not be a bother at all if he was, as would have been the case a decade ago, merely the voice of a lunatic fringe. He is now the voice of central government, and Howard's view of artists is so not far from Bolt's. The role of the artist/intellectual as dissenter has seldom been an honoured one in Australia, but to be an artist at all is now one step away from being called a traitor. There are little pools of light: NSW, for example, has a premier who actually reads. But I have no doubt it's going to get a lot, lot worse. I can't believe Bolt's campaign is not a softening up towards savage cuts in arts funding: the last thing this country needs, according to his lights, is an artistic imagination. And, given what Howard wants this country to become, he is right.

Saturday, June 14, 2003

More about feeling

Margie Cronin (some of whose poems can be seen at the current Shearsman) sent on this quote from Peter Boyle. It's from his translations of Montejo's Fragmentario, and is almost another phrasing of what I was wondering below:

"The crime against life," Archibald MacLeish said, "the worst of all crimes, is not to feel." Not to feel the world, not to feel life in its numerous mysteries, in the constant simplicity it shows, forms in truth a deeply serious mutilation. Nevertheless, it's important not only to feel but to learn to feel, to learn to define the boundary between true feeling and simple arousal of emotion which is its most common and spurious substitute. "In the fully emotional man," W.B. Yeats tells us his father advised him, "the least awakening of feeling forms a harmony in which every chord of every feeling vibrates. Excitation is by itself of an insufficiently emotive nature, the common vibration of one or two chords alone." To learn to feel: this task alone, which is nothing small, would do more to form a young poet than all the apprenticeship devoted to knowledge of literature, rules, fashions, etc. The manuals frequently forget this essential fact, without which every creative attempt is useless. Through feeling you can validly conquer the language which expresses it; feeling itself, when it is legitimate, creates its own form or the possibility of inventing it. The opposite, in contrast, is less probable. How to get down from the web of formalities to the simple nakedness of the world?

Which also makes me think of Wilde's assertion, in De Profundis, that the worst sin is the lack of imagination. Much more to say about all this; but there seems to be a common conviction that to feel, to imagine, is a deeply moral act.

Me me me memememememe

One of the advantages of writing a blog is that I can talk about me with perfect justification (who's to say I can't? yah yah! And I can be unfair if I want to!) Well, there are those who maintain that I talk of nothing else, and perhaps they are right, though I think it's unfair (well, I would, wouldn't I?): you could as easily say Aime Cesaire talked only of himself, or HD, or Pablo Neruda. That might be simply a reflection of the fact that I am, whether I like it or not, a writer who sparks off from a romantic tradition (which is not, I don't think, quite the same as being a Romantic writer). But this is by way of warning: here I am talking about me, and anyone who lucks here and feels the yawn factor gathering in their jaws can just, well, hop onto some other page.

This morning, as I was contemplating having a shower and then deciding that I could stink, I thought about all the "me's" out there. There's quite a few, and many of them don't seem to bear any relationship to the actual me who is typing these words at 11.23 am on Saturday morning. They are small mes, not big ones, these strange distorted doppelgangers: some of them I've deliberately created, just as I'm creating another me who is writing this blog. Others have been created for me, and they're the ones I generally have problems with. Mind you, that's happened all my life, just as it happens to everybody else: labels start happening the moment you are splotted out onto the delivery table and the doctor, the author(ity) if not the agent and means of your delivery, announces: "It's a girl!" And so it goes, along that long meandering road which is the creation of a self.

But I've made things more complicated for myself, for a long time now, by letting my writerly self, who is a different author of my being to my quotidian self (the one who is listening involuntarily to Smash Hits at the moment and thinking how I ought to be going to the doctor in a minute to get some drops for incipient conjunctivitis, and is momentarily invited in to jostle with the blogger me - you see how confusing it is) - by letting my writerly self wander off in a lamentable disorder in various directions, many of which are, I find, supposed to be mutually exclusive. Kris Hemensley, poet and proprietor of Collected Works, everyone's favourite bookshop and the one I never dare visit because it's always so full of desirable objects I can never escape without a pain in the wallet - well, as Kris said (when he launched The Gift at La Mama Theatre, an event which brought various disparate activities in my life together under one roof, however temporarily) - writers who range across a range of forms and genres are apt to disappear, because nobody can quite see where or why they are. So I've written operas, and I've written texts for actors, and I've written poems, both in conventional and unconventional forms, and I've written novels, literary and generic, and I've written criticism, both conventional and not, and now I'm trying to write a really popular novel. And while this permits my escape from the stifling end of each of the activities I've involved myself with, it also means I flicker in and out of view in that strange, hallucinatory world called literature, perhaps like a progressively more hysterical neon about to go on the blink. And sometimes some of these different mes collide, until I am beside myself. (I am rarely above myself and often beneath myself, but I think a democracy of mes is preferable).

Maybe lately it's even begun to confuse me. I realised a long time ago that to try to control other's perceptions of what me is or what me does is a hopeless and futile exercise. Others will see whatever they will, and for their own reasons, and sometimes what they see is somewhat unflattering and sometimes it seems to the me (who has now been to the doctor) that what is perceived is totally mistaken. This is only a problem (to me) when it begins to infect those other pure mes, those mes with the high moral valency and impeccable motives - oh, yes those, have you seen them? - those other mes start scratching, and before they know it, if they're not careful, they morph into their own reflections. And so me tries to stop them, by injecting a corrective antibiotic. And what does me do? Me invents another me. Very smart.

Why am I talking about all this? After all the bother on British Poets, in which me started morphing into a dumb monster, I've felt somewhat distressed, in the way that Is get distressed when their mes become something they don't recognise. And I've mainly been thinking about how the me that is a Woman is a real, bad problem. (Most of my mes are women, and even the ones that aren't get morphed into women because, after all, I am a woman, though I used to think naively that being a writer could let you be either if you wanted, or neither, or both at once). It's not a problem to me, you understand; it's a problem because there are all these ways women are supposed to behave, and a bunch of confused mes like me always gets it wrong. Bad me! And then I hear that I sort of ask for trouble, because of the mes I am: because I'm "successful" (yeah, right) and because I'm argumentative and outspoken (if politely so, on the whole) and mostly and especially because when I read poetry I have this "sexualised persona", which people agree is very shocking and un-intellectual, and that means that I deserve what I get. ESPECIALLY if I want to talk about as something as provocative as an EROTICS.

Sounds like I do poetry readings in fishnet stockings and a g-string. I don't remember those particular details; at the reading in question I wore a pretty sort of mediaevalish dress, which went all the way down to my ankles, though I did say a couple of rude words, and I was reading this poem called Specula, which is about the eroticism of mysticism. But perhaps me really does that: and even if me does, well, so what? Why is it a problem? Why would it license me getting attacked, and why would it mean that me couldn't write "serious" poetry, or talk in a text-only forum in a non-sexualised and sober way about poetry? I remember John James (and I've seen many other male poets do just this) walking up to a podium with a most unapologetically sexualised persona, or so it seemed to the me watching, and nobody seemed to think it was worthy of comment; rather it attracts this admiring glow, from men I think even more than women. Maybe because he's big enough to punch any such comment right in the nose, as it deserves. But what's a plus for men is, it seems, a minus for women. Unless you do the don't-mind-little-old-me routine, and have-a look-at-my-lovely-cleavage while I do this little-girl voice which won't threaten anybody, and I'm so sorry to take up this space but I'm doing my best because really I'm just a toy for y'all and me won't EAT YOU. Or maybe I really could go buy those fishnets and g-strings, although I'm a little old for that, because it fits that ideal of the whore and will make everyone more comfortable; or maybe it's just that I should find some sensible shoes and a hairy twinset and send the worst photos I can find if I am asked for a picture, so as no one can sit there and say, "she asked for it!"

Oh, I get it so wrong. It's all too little or too much.

And yeah, I'm angry.

Friday, June 13, 2003

The illusion of progress

I spent the day with the Winterking in the Ice Palace, slow going but going right, I think. I keep hoping that the story will pick me up by the scruff of the neck, as it sometimes does, and then it will just get written, or write itself; but at the moment the story is giving itself to me with a lamentable miserliness. Which shows that the plotting is the least of it: I already know what's going to happen, but that makes no difference at all. It often is puzzling to me, and not only in writing prose, that sometimes writing is just there, as if you simply had to write out what was already in your head, as easily as if you are taking dictation, and at other times it's like hacking at a coalface, every word hard won. There seems to be little predictability in this, although I have noticed with The Riddle that when I am coming up to some difficult emotional climax, everything becomes more difficult. Times like that the house gets very clean, I want to tidy up everything except my desk. And at other times I just have to write as fast as I can, and as much as I can. But I have found that it's best, in writing something as long as this, to be obedient to the whims of my mind; often I have to push past a barrier of reluctance which is simply laziness, but at other times that barrier seems to be there to permit other things to happen below the conscious part of writing. All very mysterious.

Anyway, in theory at least there are only four chapters to go. I could write them in a week, if I had a good week. I'm beginning to feel that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Thursday, June 12, 2003

Erotics 2

"I have grown weary of the poets, the old and the new: they are all seem to me superficial and shallow seas.
They have not thought deeply enough: therefore their feeling - has not plumbed the depths...

The poet's spirit wants spectators, even if they are only buffaloes!
But I have grown weary of this spirit: and I see the day when it will grow weary of itself.
Already I have seen the poets transformed; I have seen them direct their glance upon themselves."
- Thus Spake Zarathustra Friedrich Nietzsche

"Instantly we know whose words are loaded with life, whose are not."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

"We do not have too much intellect and too little soul, but too little intellect in matters of the soul."
- Robert Musil

"...in the end, consciousness begins as a feeling, a special kind of feeling, to be sure, but a feeling nonetheless."
- The Feeling of What Happens, Antonio Damasio

"...poetry is the language art. Readers continue to come to poetry because...it contains language charged with meaning."

- Dialogue on Evaluation in Poetry, Marjorie Perloff

I've collected this ragbag of quotes to map out an area to begin thinking. I have always thought that poetry is most deeply about feeling. And yet to talk about feeling leads into such dangers, such vaguenesses of expression, such ever-present perils of cliche and sentiment, that intelligent discussion of poems often elides this factor: it is treated like a shameful secret, which is permitted to peep through a door and then banished to a back room, where its anarchies and disruptions cannot derail proper adult conversation. I would like to argue that the meaning of poetry collects precisely in the area of feeling; that, in agreement rather than argument with Perloff's quote above, readers come to poetry because it is language charged with feeling, which is its meaning; but I am very conscious, even before I begin, of my lack of abilities to do so. My speculations are just that: speculations. And there is another, in this case salient point, that to speak generally is to lose the whole point, for feeling is always, and without exception, particular. But I am not trying to write an essay here. Fortunately. And all I can hope to do today is lay out some very schematic and brief beginnings, which might lead elsewhere.

The problem with talking about feeling is precisely its vagueness. What is it? I am quite aware that in the context of an aesthetic object, like a poem, to speak of such an unstable and vague concept as feeling being the basis, or indeed the crux, of its existence is full of pitfalls. So I will narrow my terms. I am not speaking of sentimentality, which is the cliched representation of feeling, and which is so often its opposite. To represent feeling in the broad and general terms of, say, nationalistic sentimentality, or the sentimentality which attends the notion of motherhood, is in fact to erase the representation and consciousness of feeling. Wallace Stevens said that sentiment was a "failure of feeling"; but Milan Kundera claims that it is in fact an absence of feeling. And I incline to Kundera's claim. Which is why, for example, it is totally possible to bomb civilians with great sentimentality, but not with great feeling: in fact, sentimentality might well be necessary, to get rid of the feeling which might otherwise empathise with the civilians. To complicate matters, I am also quite aware that sentiment can be expressive of real feeling: the poems that are published in the death notices of newspapers, for instance, are no less felt for being clumsy. I don't wish to denigrate those sorts of expressions of feeling, which must be respected; but at the moment I do not wish to discuss them. I will also note in passing that often artists who make works of great feeling - say, James Joyce, Igor Stravinsky, Henry James - are accused of being unfeeling: their expressions of feeling do not fit the mold of sentiment, or seriously challenge it, and so are not recognised as being feeling at all.

I am also speaking of feeling as distinct from emotion, emotion being the raw experience of an emotional state, and feeling being the awareness, the consciousness, of experiencing it: a useful distinction of the neurologist Antonio Damasio's, which I will distort to my own ends. "Feeling an emotion is a simple matter," he says in his book The Feeling of What Happens. "It consists of having mental images arising from the neural patterns which represent the changes in body and brain that make up an emotion. But knowing we have that feeling, "feeling" that feeling, occurs only after we build the second order representations necessary for core consciousness [which are] representations of the relationship between the organism and the object (which in this case is an emotion) and of the causal effect of that object on the organism."

Feeling, then, depends on the presence of a self to feel, however primitive that self might be (the "core consciousness" which Damasio speaks of is barely above a basic physical awareness). In the making of an artwork, that self is a complex entity, and the concept of feeling becomes concomitantly complex. And in an artwork, a poem say, feeling is what is, firstly, expressed, and secondly, communicated - to another self, with its own complexities, its own biographical and historical particularity. It is a process at once totally mysterious and totally obvious. And this is where generalising becomes very difficult, because feeling, in a general sense, is almost meaningless: it occurs in time, in specific circumstances, in particular bodies, and is, in a real sense, beyond language. It is also something which cannot be separated from corporeality. This is where, to me, the idea of an erotics of poetry as a way of imagining these complexities through the mediation of poems begins to be quite attractive.

To speak of poetry being about "feeling" is instantly to raise the objection, in one form or another, that poetry is supremely an intellectual art, a shaping of language. And of course it is: language and the shaping of language represent one of the great expressions of human intelligence, and poetry one of its most focussed expressions. But the immediate assumption that to speak of feeling is to banish the intellect, as if the presence of one pushes the other out of the mind, or permits the mind to be swamped by primitive and barbarous instincts or a wash of sentiment, appears to me to me no more than a prejudice. Feeling has always seemed to me a matter of intense intelligence. When Eliot says on the one hand, for example, that in order to write poetry one has to be "very intelligent" and on the other, that "only those with personality know what it is to want to escape it", I assume that he is speaking about an experience of feeling so strong, complex and painful that it can only be approached and expressed with intelligence. But intelligence does not erase feeling. It may, rather, be essential to its existing at all.

Well, I have done little more here than to say why it is impossible to talk about feeling. But also, I hope, why I think it necessary to try.

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Moral Hazard

A quick aside - yesterday I finally read Kate Jennings' novel Moral Hazard, which has been on my "to do" list for longer than I care to remember. Interesting that the review in Salon also feels it has to excavate this novel from a niche of "smallness", as I felt necessary, rightly or wrongly, with Mairead Byrne's work: there is clearly a weight of discourse which presses against works which concern themselves with the "personal", that realm construed as "feminine". It's a fine novel indeed, and I don't have much to add to what's been said, except to recommend it: it has a spare pitilessness of observation which permits writing of true, unsentimental compassion. It's not irrelevant here to note that Jennings is a poet.

Some letters

All hail to osteopaths, those competent hands gently ribboning the spine so everything goes crrrrick and back into place. May they be blessed forever, amen. Yes, my neck is back where it should be, and that means no more procrastinating. I am now 12,000 words behind my quota, so I better get on with it.

Today I'll post a couple of interesting responses from Anny Ballardini and Rebecca Seiferle, which I might get around to discussing if I'm a good girl; though maybe my proposed post on "feeling" might be the way forward. Though this is beginning to be as full of good intentions as Coleridge's notebooks.

First, Anny:

-the felt world of that person is secret-
(I don't know if I would have written something similar, we know that empathy if processed - the fact that someone knows how to is another chapter - opens the doors to all perception)

Yes...and no. I was thinking about Elaine Scarry's book The Body in Pain this morning (for obvious reasons); it opens with a discussion of the difficulty, even impossibility, of communicating physical pain, which is sometimes a question of crucial importance in, say, medical diagnosis. We are forced to use various systems of rules of thumb: it is like a needle, it is a dull ache, on the scale of one to ten - but here where subjectivity rules supreme, language hits its real limits. Empathy (love) is the imaginative attempt to bridge that gap, the only recourse we have being that of language (of all kinds: here I include the language of sobs, cries, screams, gestures). But, no matter how much we try to imagine, we cannot actually know what the other person is feeling: any more than we can know whether the colour "red" that we perceive is the same colour that anyone else does. We simply agree that this shade which we both see is red. Which is not in the least to devalue empathy or love; maybe the reverse. I don't see what else is going to save us. I probably value it higher than any other human quality: but it does have to be untangled from simple projection, which is the enfolding of the other into ourselves. Love is also greatly a matter of tact: which sounds a whole lot more prim than what I actually mean.

Yes, here Alison there is material for me. And it all sums up with my refusal in toto of the medical science, not to mention psychiatry, psychology even worse (sorry Mark, don't take it personally, as a matter of fact since poetry IS above the other sciences, and you being a poet, there are great possibilities for you to be an excellent psychologist). Unluckily in order to be a good doctor one needs, besides the technical information university provides, an enormous knowledge of the human being. Arts usually give this opportunity to those who are able to understand/approach them. And yes with you Alison, empathy is love. And that is why a person who loves can be a guerisseur, someone who cures, wins the dis/ease, which has so many causes: spiritual, psychological and finally shows itself on and inside the body. And yes again, it has to be untangled from our projections, that is why it is so difficult for an empath to carry on with an ordinary life, and also why some artists or poets were considered the "mad" of our society, or at their best, treated as outsiders. And another big applause for your mentioning "tact", which has not to be confused with "good manners" even if they are useful to refine children to the knowledge and perception of it.

-the I is what a person makes when translated into feeling which is released from the constraints of exterior gaze-
(will there ever be a freedom from the constraints of exterior gazes?)

Even in our most private selves, we are witnessing our selves. But I think it possible to think of the possibility, even if it is impossible. And there are degrees of freedom from the constraints of gaze, from the total imprisonment that leads to narcissism (for narcissism seems to me an emptying of the self into the gaze rather than engorgement, a self-poverty) to the freedom of unselfconscious solitude. Which may be, when I think about it, when we are all gaze, all eye/I.

Yes, I like this turning around the concept of "seeing". It was Virilio, if I am not mistaken who spoke consistently about the "régard" (gaze), should refreshen a little what is by now all forgotten.

And now the inestimable Rebecca:

Dear Ms. Alison Croggon,

I hope it is not untactful for me to say, I am so sorry to hear that you suffer from headaches, as I do. And you may be right that headaches are mystical experiences, I'm thinking of Simone Weil and her migraines and how it was during a particularly blinding migraine that she said Christ first possessed her. And I think her emphasis upon an exacting attention, that so directed gaze, as being the gaze of God, as well as the only ‘real' gaze that one person can give another, an attention which she said was like a prayer, is partly a gift of migraine. Though I guess too headaches could be experiences of derangement, bringing hallucinations and odd liminal states of being, or so they have seemed to me as long as I have had them. Anyway I hope my sending some sporadic and unfinished reply that your thought- (not headache-)inducing that your blog today prompted in my already overcrowded mind isn't itself something of a headache.

I am wondering about your comment "we cannot actually _know_ what the other person is feeling... we simply agree that this shade is red." Doesn't it depend upon how you define ‘knowing'? By emphasizing the quality of agreement (occurring in a conversation) you seem to identify knowing with a particular activity of mind, connected to reason and thought and enquiry? Perhaps the most customary way of using the term. . To say I know the way or I know how to fix this or I know the equation is to claim a kind of possession by apprehension and perception. And surely part of your preoccupations with the witnessing of oneself even when so privately within oneself or being free of the exterior gaze (as Anny Ballardini questioned) is based upon that idea of knowing as a kind of possession by apprehension and perception. By apprehending and perceiving, one possesses not only knowledge within oneself but in, a sense, the thing itself, knowing how to use it or append it to one's own purposes--one can use it correctly or find the right route or solve the math problem, etc..

But this seems to me merely an aspect of knowing, pragmatic, reasonable, the "sense" of knowing and it is an agreed upon, assumed, communicated, sense. But beyond this, I think there is a bodily knowing. Here's this short quote from the Compact OEDtalking about how "know" has roots in several verbs:

From the fact that _know_ now covers the ground
formerly occupied by several verbs, and still
answers to two verbs in other Teutonic and Romanic
languages, there is much difficulty in arranging
its senses and uses satisfactorily. However as the
word is etymologically related to Gr...(and Latin
etc) "to know by the senses," it appears proper to
start with the uses which answer to those words
rather than those which belong to the German _wissen_
"to know by the mind."

That knowing by the senses is often subsumed in the "sense" of knowing by the mind, in that the actualities and realities which are perceived and apprehended by the senses are then known in the mind. But I think there's is more to that knowing by the senses, a knowing through them, a kind of bodily knowing, which is both private and related, and not a possession by apprehension and perception. This sense of knowing by the senses seems to be essential to the sort of knowing that happens in poetry or the sort of knowing in relationship or the knowing of pain. Scarry in The Body of Pain notes, as you say, the _impossibility of communicating pain_ but this is impossibility of knowing within the definition of "communicating." It doesn't seem to me that it necessarily follows that one cannot know the pain of the other, merely because it's impossible for the other to communicate it, in words, in screams, in facial expressions. The pain and difficulty that is often associated with medical care by someone suffering greatly is the pain and difficulty of incomprehensibility, not being able to communicate what one feels, the inability of the other to perceive or know it, either by mind or by the senses. But this is why many prefer health care from those who have similarly suffered, there is no longer incomprehensibility, communication is no longer so necessary for knowing, one knows and the other knows one knows.

And mysticism, as well, which is a knowing of what one cannot know. A different kind of knowing. When Vallejo writes "There are blows in life so powerful...I don't know!/Blows like God's hatred," there is the knowing of that blow in the bodily sense, though one does not know how (the Spanish conveys this more strongly, of not being able to figure it out, to not know how is to not be able to put it to use or sense or to possess it). That "I don't know" has, as you say, a knowing within it. Just as the line it echoes from Saint John of the Cross "in whatever they relate of you/ an I don't know what remains behind their babbling." It is an I don't know what because it is impossible to communicate it, to render it into a word, or a series of words, but still there is knowing of that I don't know what; the stammer simultaneously suggests the impossibility of communication and the knowing of the other presence. This other knowing is both absence and presence. It's not really a gaze, it's not really an I, I am and am not in that I don't know what.

Thanks again for a most interesting blog.

Tactfully yours,

Rebecca Seiferle

Tuesday, June 10, 2003


I woke this morning with a head which felt as if someone was sticking knives into it. So much for grand ambition: humbled by the body once again. Today I was going to sketch what I meant by "feeling", starting with Nietzsche's dig at poets in Thus Spake Zarathustra and heading towards Antonio Damasio, but such grand ambitions are utterly beyond me today. Not to mention writing The Novel: my deadline is beginning to look a little parlous, since writing at all has been impossible the past few days. I should have gone to an osteopath on Friday; now I'm paying for ignoring my body. So apologies up front if none of this makes sense: bad headaches are I suppose almost mystical experiences, because by driving you into your body they drive you out of your mind.

Harriet Zinnes and Anny Ballardini asked me some questions about the extract from On Lyric I posted yesterday, so I'll address those and see what happens. If, as is often the case with me, the answers sound certain, it doesn't mean that I actually am certain.

Anny asked:

-lyric is the same question as "I am"-
(to which I am commenting, who am I?)

By which I mean, it seems to me that to assert "I am" is the same as asking "who am I?" Or even that to say "I am" is to ask if I am another.

-the felt world of that person is secret-
(I don't know if I would have written something similar, we know that empathy if processed - the fact that someone knows how to is another chapter - opens the doors to all perception)

Yes...and no. I was thinking about Elaine Scarry's book The Body in Pain this morning (for obvious reasons); it opens with a discussion of the difficulty, even impossibility, of communicating physical pain, which is sometimes a question of crucial importance in, say, medical diagnosis. We are forced to use various systems of rules of thumb: it is like a needle, it is a dull ache, on the scale of one to ten - but here where subjectivity rules supreme, language hits its real limits. Empathy (love) is the imaginative attempt to bridge that gap, the only recourse we have being that of language (of all kinds: here I include the language of sobs, cries, screams, gestures). But, no matter how much we try to imagine, we cannot actually know what the other person is feeling: any more than we can know whether the colour "red" that we perceive is the same colour that anyone else does. We simply agree that this shade which we both see is red. Which is not in the least to devalue empathy or love; maybe the reverse. I don't see what else is going to save us. I probably value it higher than any other human quality: but it does have to be untangled from simple projection, which is the enfolding of the other into ourselves. Love is also greatly a matter of tact: which sounds a whole lot more prim than what I actually mean.

-the I is what a person makes when translated into feeling which is released from the constraints of exterior gaze-
(will there ever be a freedom from the constraints of exterior gazes?)

Even in our most private selves, we are witnessing our selves. But I think it possible to think of the possibility, even if it is impossible. And there are degrees of freedom from the constraints of gaze, from the total imprisonment that leads to narcissism (for narcissism seems to me an emptying of the self into the gaze rather than engorgement, a self-poverty) to the freedom of unselfconscious solitude. Which may be, when I think about it, when we are all gaze, all eye/I.

Harriet wrote: Why, for example, do you suggest that "each lyric has negations which are particular to itself." Isn't it strange that you see negations in a lyric, and you yourself explain a lyric quite affirmatively. And I suppose you were getting a bit ahead of yourself or becoming drunk with words when you write: "Lyric is not reality. It is real." I do get the symbolism involved in the statements. Still ...

I do see lyric (perhaps I see all poetry) as an art of affirmative negations, or negative affirmatives: poetry always operates in contradictions. And it does seem to me more generally that to affirm is to call up a negation, and vice versa. Which perhaps makes things unnecessarily uncomplicated for myself. Is silence a negation of language? Or language a negation of silence? And does a negation erase what it is negating, or paradoxically invoke it, making it more rather than less present? Perhaps I am talking a kind of theology here, wondering what is absent in presence and present in absence. I find reading Beckett calls up all these sorts of questions within me, and I find Beckett among the most lyric of writers. Still...

And it's quite possible I was getting drunk with words. There is a ghostly "but" in those two sentences. I was defining "reality" (perhaps earlier in the piece) as the temporal, corporeal realities of the reader or writer, and making a fairly banal distinction between those realities and the reality of lyric, which, for all its not being the actual physical reality of the reader or writer, is nevertheless "real". (Sometimes I use "real" to mean "emotionally real", and I mean that sense here as well). The only truth I think possible in poems is an emotional truth; the truer a work seems to me, the more real it becomes in my reality.

But now I suspect I'm getting my realities in a knot.

Monday, June 09, 2003

An Erotics 1

I have been embroiled in a fierce argument stemming from my speculative suggestion that an erotics of poetry might be a fruitful way to read poems. If it can be dignified with the term "argument", since the abuse I've attracted has been, to my mind, the reverse of argument: incurious, ungenerous (my insistence on speculation, for example, being read as my not really having thought about anything) and carelessly aggressive, misreading and in some cases totally inverting what I have said.

However, the outrage the idea of an erotics has poetry has generated of itself suggests it may be more fruitful than I originally imagined: it clearly challenges some dearly held received ideas about the necessary "judgments" that must be made about a work of literature. So over the next few entries I thought I might try to outline what I mean by the term "an erotics of poetry", if I can do so without being too awol from the novel. Because of the nature of blogging, it will inevitably be partial, but I might be able to develop it in a way which is impossible under fire. Here I just wish to sketch an introductory outline of how this idea has evolved, which perhaps I can discuss and deepen as I continue.

I have borrowed the term "an erotics" from Susan Sontag's 1964 essay Against Interpretation, which ends famously with the statement: "In place of a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art". By an erotics, Sontag meant a way of responding to art which attempted to bypass a certain kind of critical interpretation that interrogated art solely for its "meaning", and valued art for the "meaning" which the critic could uniquely reveal within it, thereby bypassing the sensuous and formal properties of the work itself.

Here's a scrap I wrote five or six years ago, in which I attempted to express something of my experience of reading poems:

I have this image of every poem as a musical instrument, the silences functioning as resonant spaces, like the space inside a violin or a drum or a flute, with the words behaving like the animal hide or wood or metal an instrument is made of. The reader comes to the poem and breathes into it, or touches it, with her own consciouness, - an immediate act which exists in time, transiently, and isn't atemporal, or ahistorical, or impersonal.

This analogy falls down in several crucial places, because I'm imagining a musical instrument that partly behaves as if it was a score as well. Words and musical notation do not behave in the same ways, and I'm not even entering the question of "meaning", although that is part of the complex shape of the instrument. But it's how I imagine the active aspects of reading, the way a poem is transformed from a lifeless artefact into the dynamic of lived experience. The shape of the instrument remains constant, but the dynamic between the reader and the poem is governed by an infinity of variables. And I like the importance it places on physical presence and interaction, because poetic language is for me inescapably carnal.

So I imagine translation is something like rebuilding the instrument with different materials. Somehow a translator is attempting to build a trumpet out of wood. And if the translator is crafty and intuitive and enough of a poet, the wooden trumpet will be the same shape as the brass trumpet, and the reader will breathe into the trumpet and release the noise it was built to make, which will never be exactly the same as the brass trumpet but will have the same, or parallel, ... co-ordinates, the "truth of feeling" Rukeyser talks about.

Probably the place where I have most articulated this notion so far is in the poem/essay On Lyric, which is in my collection Attempts at Being (Salt Publishing). The poem/essay is in 11 parts; these are parts 6- 9:


lyric is a metaphor for feeling

the truth of lyric is particular to each poem and resides in the accuracy of its relationship to feeling

this truth may only be evaluated in the present in which lyric is encountered

it impossible to predict or control

feeling is our vibrational responses to our relatednesses to our world

it is as incorrigible as pain and encompasses the totality of our responses moment to moment

it is the consequence of the corporeality of each of us and as complex and mortal as our corporeality

a poem seeks to inhabit our corporeality but knows it cannot express it


lyric is indefensible

it neither seeks nor answers an argument but exists in the vibrationary exchange of feeling

the incorrigibility of feeling within lyric breathes unease into all totalities

even if all a person’s thoughts were legible to another that other would still not understand the felt world of that person

the felt world of that person is secret

lyric does not disclose its secret its secret is enclosed and retreats as lyric is interrogated

it exists as a resonance which may resonate in the present in which it is read or heard

a poem may not be paraphrased or explained it may only be read again

it is the dimension of lyric which cannot be paraphrased

its meanings reside acutely in the relationships of the parts of lyric each to each other

lyric is the same question as “I am”

lyric is neither rational nor irrational as the rational has no ability to explain the incorrigibility of feeling

feeling is not irrational although its consequences are sometimes expressed in irrationalities

it has this in common with reason: that reason is forever without ground


the I of a lyric is neither a self nor a not-self

the I is lyric’s protection against totalities for the I is aware of its incompletion

the illusion of the totality of the self was always a misunderstanding

it is the mistake of those made uneasy by the lyric’s assertion of feeling

the I is what a person makes when translated into feeling which is released from the constraints of exterior gaze

lyric is made when that feeling is translated into language

the relationship of words within lyric are the means by which it mimics the reality of feeling, which is how we know our relatedness to the world

the translations of lyric are always made in the humility of approximation

the metaphor is the most precise means of approximation

to unite two different things in one metaphor is to make a third thing which is at once neither and both of those things

a metaphor can resonate across probabilities in a directed way which mitigates the self’s control in either the writer or the reader

each lyric has negations which are particular to itself

a lyric’s negation is simultaneously an assertion

the existence of what is negated is felt in the present of the one whom lyric’s presence inhabits

the gaps or the silences in the lyric are as important as the words

they notate the relationships between the words and indicate the lyric’s relationship to reality

reality is what always lies beyond the lyric

it is the corporeality of the people who encounter the poem and the details of their relationships to their worlds

reality is what the lyric encounters when it enters the present of another person in another time or when it emerges in the present of the poet

the reality of a particular poem is always changing

lyric is not reality

it is real


lyric is the eroticism of language

the consciousness of lyric is the consciousness of love

in lyric the subject and object relate equally

the subject is a consequence of the object and the object is a consequence of the subject

as the distinction between subject and object is dissolved in the embrace of lovers whose discrete selves dissolve on a tide of sensation

in love the self embraces the otherness of the other but the other remains unknown

in lyric the poem embraces the feelingness of feeling but the feeling remains unknown

the feeling is the secret of the poem just as the otherness of the other is the other’s secret

feeling may only exist in its other presents when it resonates within the present of the person who reads the poem

this resonance occurs independently of the conscious desire of the reader or the writer of the poem

a relationship of power is negated in the lyric

being negated it is simultaneously asserted

the assertion of power in a lyric is the assertion of the power of feeling

it is a tautology, just as the statement “I love you” is a tautology

lyric is radically redundant

Clearly what most concerns me is what "feeling", that experience so often and easily dismissed as sentiment or primitive corporeality, might be in poetry.

This will do for today. The novel calls!

Sunday, June 08, 2003

Nelson & the Huruburu Bird

I spent a good part of my day off from The World of Prose browsing Mairead Byrne's collection Nelson & the Huruburu Bird (Wild Honey Press). It is like a slap in the face from a cold river: a thoroughly enjoyable plunge into a mind of fluid muscle, that leaves you tingling and alive. Byrne writes an erotic poetry that pleasures in everything: riding on a bus, the bureaucratic language of academic course-speak, alphabets, children, and streets, streets, streets: in this case especially the streets of Dublin and the streets of America. It's difficult to characterise the charms (by which I mean, literally, a kind of magic, en-chant-ments) of this work; I feel that I have to fight off the dimunitions which attend so much discussion about "women's" writing, writing which concerns itself with the mundanity of the everyday, which speaks about life, fertility, childbirth, change. This is not small poetry, but as big as it gets; it looks at everything with a kind of Whitmanic democracy and explodes it open into coruscations of semantic pleasures. It is far too anarchic in its generousness to be framed in a metaphor of domestic needlework. Byrne's is an imagination which sees that

Gloves sprout on sidewalk, grass,
like sudden marrows after rain,
they're shocked and shocking …

or parodies the competitive notions which underlie so much writing in the poem Thoughts on the Olympic Sentence Team ("75. You have to remember that the indefinite articles on the Olympic Sentence Team were absolutely the best, competitively speaking. But there was very little reward in working with them.") But it is also an imagination which is capable of employing a direct address which can take you aback:

Yes, I am happy here, I'm happy.
The people in the next apartment moved
before I met them. Now the painter's in.
I smell his cigarettes and thinners, catch
the jolting sound of radio…

And most especially in Grooming, a poem which begins with brushing a child's hair, using that childish neologism, "smoothen", to such serious and beautiful effect:

I brush with your father's silver brush,
which you love, for its smoothens the surface,
asks no questions, like his hands, hurriedly
settling, before lighting a cigarette.

and finishes in Paradise. (Oh, I say to myself, you just say that; why do I puddle around the edges? But of course it is never that easy.) And what can I say about The Pillar, which towers over this book, with its grand and intimate ambitions? I'm sure I’ll think of something one day.

I guess the word which glances up at me all the time as I continue to leaf through this collection is wit: it is wit which turns these surreal phrases, a formal wit which undermines presumptions about what is literary and what is not, what is proper and what is not. It is a wit which seems as close to the archaic definitions listed in the OED ("to have congizance or knowledge of; to be aware of; passing into the sense") as the more conventional "quickness of intellect or liveliness of expression; talent for saying brilliant and sparkling things, esp in an amusing way". Profundities felt in the deep caverns of the body, dazzled over with light. A big river.

Films &c

Last night was the wrap party for Missing Tom, the film Daniel Keene (my husband) wrote for Alkinos Tsilimidos. The party was a blast: it was held at a pub in Port Melbourne (with a very loud Greek band) and it was great to be among a bunch of people, talking to friends I haven't seen for ages, and not sitting on front of the computer wondering what was going to happen next to Maerad... So I finally got to meet Colin Friels, who plays Tom and is therefore the only actor who was vouchsafed the entire script, as he was in every scene. Alkinos was very strict about his process: he had so little time to film he had no margin for things to go wrong, and so the whole shoot, 365 setups, was meticulously planned, and done at a ridiculous pace. They shot the whole lot in four weeks. Each member of the cast was only allowed to read the part of the script which they were actually performing. Clearly this generated enormous curiosity, human beings being what they are: but anyone who sneaked a look would have been sacked. So even Syd Brisbane, who had two lines, only knew what was happening in the two lines, and the film he was making was otherwise a complete mystery. The actors didn't even know who else was cast. The point of all this secrecy was that no one could perform in any context except the context in which they found themselves; they couldn't imagine their part into the larger story of the narrative. The idea was to invoke a performance which was immediate and specific, as it would be the case if those events were really happening; an extension I guess on the documentary feel of Silent Partner. The other technique Alkinos used was what he called "acts of god"; interruptions which the cast was not expecting and which were not rehearsed, thrown in so they could not settle into a performance. For example, in a scene in which somebody was taking money out of an autobank, a car screams up and the actors are pelted with eggs by some strangers... or a madman unexpectedly appearing in another scene and launching into a poetic monologue about god. There was a general feeling of exhilaration at the party, a sense that something really amazing had been achieved, and against all odds, though it's going to be months before any of us get to see what it actually is. (Film is very strange that way, and not only that way...) But I can't wait.

It makes me think, though, about a parallel discussion about technique/craft which is happening on the British Poets mailing list. I'll paste my post, a reply to cris cheek, rather than rewriting it:

At 1:31 PM +0100 7/6/03, cris cheek wrote:
so the point is what is the craft?

Hi cris

Well, it was a throw-away comment, and deliberately calling on poetries which might be construed as conservative. And I was conscious as I was writing it that to speak of a concept like "craft" as separate from other aspects of poetry is to raise the whole style/content dichotomy, which hovers around waiting to pounce. I had a half conversation with Christopher Walker about technique on another list where I was forced to step back and acknowledge that I was calling on that false division, and that technique is as much of the intellectual and (if you like) emotional genesis and construction of the poem as in the shaping of words, by which it is commonly understood. There is a kind of rule of thumb workshop idea of craft, which I don't especially find helpful: this is where rules come in and stamp over the actual expressiveness of the poem. You work language to do what it is you want it to, or are used by language to do what it wants you to do, or perhaps more accurately something in the middle; the language leads the writer (the footfalls of words for pages ahead, as Flaubert said) as much as the writer leads the words.

I know that our poetics are widely divergent, but I also see quite a lot of commonality in a sense of a text as as unstable thing, probably because of both of our different involvements in performance. And also that consciousness that what might be called a poetics is in continuous evolution. However, when you talk of rewriting, and your desire for precision, you are operating what might be called a craft (sailing into the unknown and not sinking); so is Cage in his variations on Ulysses, say, because his workings were never entirely chance-led, and his own sense of appropriateness fed into the work, which is why a work by Cage is always unmistakeably by Cage. And I guess I mean by "craft" not the kind of macrame application, but the careful attention to the language, the being accurate and precise in the service of whatever it is you want the writing to do. In that sense, I do think it's something that ought to be taken for granted, and it's a problem if it can't be. If I could find it, Stein had some interesting stuff about that idea, which is really about infinite patience.

Daniel has often said that writing film bores him: firstly because the film is actually made by the director, not by the writer; and secondly because it is more than anything else a question of technique, which is to him a pretty banal process (the director gets to do everything interesting). Many of his derogatory comments about film have to be taken with a grain of salt; but it remains true, nevertheless, that a film is principally authored by the director, and that making a film is a hugely technical exercise. Quite apart from the practical problems of getting the financial backing in the first place, which is a whole other topic, once you have the money you need to organise and co-ordinate literally dozens of people to do dozens of things to make a single shot possible. Alkinos' aim seemed to be to make all the organisational tasks as efficient as possible, by employing, for example, a highly competent crew and then planning every single shot in as much detail as possible, and rehearsing actors and crew, so everyone knew technically exactly what was expected of them. Once he didn't have to think about that, he could concentrate on actually making the film: on the performances in particular, so that actors were not merely "warm props" nor the script merely an excuse for a lot of expensive fuss, but so the emotional realities of the film could be expressed and exposed. And you can transfer that to writerly ideas of "craft", even given the problems with the whole notion outlined above; it is that aspect of writing which should be prepared and supple, so you don't have to think about it, and which then permits the actual business of a poem to occur. That "actual business" is much harder to define, although I always return to Pound's quote about poetry: "what remains is feeling".

Saturday, June 07, 2003

The Riddle

At the moment I am supposed to be writing the next instalment of my fantasy series. It's now at Part 4, or page 320, whichever seems more impressively long. The Gift, which came out last year in Australia and will be published in the UK next May, was the first, and No 2, The Riddle, has split like an amoeba into two parts, after it became very clear that the book I was initially proposing was about 900 pages long. So it is now The Riddle and The Crow.

It's the first time that I have ever written anything with the idea that I would like lots of people to read and like it. Writing The Gift was not interesting merely for that, although I found that it threw into relief the fact that my other writings are not motivated by that impulse; I have never much worried about the issue of publication, figuring it would take care of itself, or not. Which is not to say that I write so that people will dislike my work; it is more that there are other reasons. (A friend asked John Ashbery once if he really "wrote not be read", as was posited by her teacher of contemporary poetics, and he said, "well, I always hope that people will like my poems..." - I always hope that people will like my poems, but that is not why I write them). I would not have written The Gift if I had not known it would be published, and if I did not hope to make some money from it, and I certainly do not write poetry for publication or money.

But I am being a little simplistic in dividing between "exterior" and "interior" motives; nothing is that clear. Perhaps I ought to distinguish between writing which uses widely recognisable tropes and conventions, and writing which uses less widely recognisable approaches. It is perhaps a difference in emphasis: I am writing the fantasy series in the hope that it will be popular, and so am writing it in a style which I understand to be popularly understood, with a strong narrative focus, and with attractive characters. But I could not write it if I could not invest it with my own personal desires.

It's been interesting, and somewhat liberating, to write a long work which is working with recognised, generic tropes - clear, descriptive prose, a strong narrative, empathetic characters, archetypal mythic narratives, and so on. Liberating, because I can attach my egoistic impulses to this work - why, I'm even getting fanmail - and thus release my other work even further from my own vanities. (In theory, anyway.) Liberating because this work exists in another literary world than poetry, which gives all my work different perspectives; sometimes the world of poetry seems very stifling and repressive, and full of aggression. And also for more profound reasons which are more difficult to articulate. Although I think of the fantasy writing as a different activity, I don't think of it as less worthy, or take it less seriously. And writing it has returned me to some early feelings which have reminded me why I write in the first place. Modern fantasy stems from an ancient desire, the desire to make myths, and its genealogy goes back to the Odyssey and even further back to Gilgamesh. It's challenging trying to handle such large metaphors, and attempting to work in an epic mode. Fantasy offers another way of understanding the world, in the freedom of storymaking which bears a different responsibility to the world as it is; my only actual responsibility is to make this alternative world real, and I have taken Tolkien's advice on secondary reality in his famous lecture Tree and Leaf to do this: the stone, the stars, the bread must be all absolutely credible and recognisable to nurture that willing suspension of disbelief, although I have consciously extended that necessity for credibility to the emotional lives of my characters. I have found that writing fantasy in fact requires an absolute attention to realism, much more than most other writing. I feel other responsibilities too, to do with the conservative ideologies of the actual tropes with which I've chosen to work, the conventional binaries of Good and Evil, and my deep suspicion of these binaries. I have always believed that conventional tropes are uniquely open to subversion, and in part these books are an exercise to see how these generic tropes can be subverted. But that is another issue; I am yet to see whether my ideas will work or not.

What effect this huge investment in this kind of prose will have on my other work is something I don't know yet; I do know that I am not worried. Even when I was writing poetic prose and expressing my interest in doing more, there were concerned friends who were worried that I was being unfaithful to poetry and "wasting" my "gift". But that seems a very parsimonious way of approaching life. I am looking forward to finishing the next two novels, which I am supposed to by the end of October, because suddenly a whole lot of empty time and mind will open up, and I do not know what I will find there.

An Introduction and Excuse

This is all Trevor Joyce's fault. Some months ago he suggested I leap on the blogging bandwagon, and formalise slightly the thinking about poetry and its many associated issues (everything) which appears in bits and pieces on mailing lists. I demurred, for a number of reasons: I am writing two novels this year, and so the thought of anything more formalised than a post dashed off to a listserv was too frightening to think about. And my computer was so ancient that I couldn't load weblog pages in less than about twenty minutes, so writing one was unthinkable. And maybe it was just plain cowardice; weblogs, after all, seem more to the purpose than a list, where so much of the writing is simply reactive. Since I discovered listservs about six or so years ago, I've (mostly) enjoyed the to and fro of argument, and it's mostly been useful to me.

But lately I have begun to feel a little like a lightning conductor on lists, and I have started wondering if they are as useful to idle one's thoughts around in, if all one does - I'm sorry for the "one", perhaps I am feeling a royal isolation in writing this - if all one does is repeat what one says again and again until it sounds nonsensical and defend oneself against arguments which have nothing to do with what one said.

Some years ago I interviewed Loe McKern for a newspaper. He was very pissed off about being interviewed. He therefore pretended to be deaf. It was the most difficult interview I have ever conducted. It improved only after he fixed me with a gimlet eye and demanded to know what books Samuel Johnson had written, in full expectation that I had never heard of Samuel Johnson. I was able to say "Rasselas", and he was so surprised that his hearing came back: the only miracle cure I have ever witnessed. But his pretending to be deaf meant that every time I asked him a question I had to repeat it several times, each time louder, until I was shouting at him and what I said sounded like complete tripe. I have never forgotten it. Well, the point of that divagation is that mailing lists have begun to feel like that to me; and I am interested to see if there is any profit in sending my excessive doodling, which are overspills from what I am really supposed to be doing, onto a webpage instead.

I have no idea what will happen here. It's been years since I kept a journal, and it will be interesting to see if this develops in any interesting way. I will probably post whatever thoughts occur to me about whatever I am reading or writing, and perhaps it will help me to refine them in a more ordered way. Or perhaps not.

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