|Poet, critic, lecturer, editor of Westerly since 1985, currently Associate Dean of Arts at the University of Western Australia, Dennis Haskell wears a variety of metaphorical hats throughout the year. In this interview he talks about his poetic inspiration, his vision of the future of poetry and his relationship with FACP.|
As a poet and academic, you must, in a sense, have one foot in both camps - do you find that the two roles complement each other?
I suppose they mesh together and don't mesh together in some ways, especially doing administrative work as Dean. In some ways that's very separate from even teaching, let alone writing. Oddly enough I find it's easier to keep up creative work, writing poems while doing administrative work, than when teaching. Teaching somehow seems to tap the same kind of psychic area, and administration taps a different area of your head. The hard thing for anyone who tries to do what I do - write creatively, particularly poetry - is just to get time. You not only need time to write, but you need time to renovate your head, so to speak. I can write criticism by just having time, but to write poetry, you need more time. Wordsworth's phrase about emotion recollected in tranquillity makes a lot of sense to me. You have to have time to sink within yourself - it's a different field of being that you're tapping into. The other thing that I've found (and I find this to be true of more or less everyone) is that I can't write critical stuff and creative stuff at the same time.
But the two things aren't mutually exclusive?
The kind of mental, emotional, intellectual qualities that come into play in writing criticism do come into play in creative writing and vice versa, but obviously in different doses. They do fit together in as much as there is a certain amount of creativity involved in critical writing and there's certainly a lot of critical thought involved in creative writing. You have to be able to stand outside your own drafts and conceptions and see them as others might see them and judge them. Which is one reason why, in order to write decent poems, you usually have to have a go and then leave them to cool off in the drawer. Especially when you're writing poetry you're trying to get right inside an object, or an experience, or a state of being and trying to write it from the inside which means you can't judge it - and that is what you're trying to do. Then there's an intuitive, critical judgemental mind which comes into play. This is one of the things you learn through experience. You don't have it when you start off as a creative writer.
So the literary critic is the enemy of the poet?
I think there are significant dangers for someone like me who teaches, writes criticism and then writes poems and I always try to stress this to students in creative writing classes. Our whole education system is oriented towards teaching people to think rationally, abstractly and conceptually. But what you want to do when you write creatively is dump a lot of that. Picasso said he spent all of his adult life trying to see with the eyes of a child. You want to develop that empathising, feeling, in-touch-with-your-senses part of your being. Our whole culture is oriented towards moving us away from all that. Also, as a teacher, you spend all your time explaining, and when you write a poem, to a large extent, you don't want to explain, you want to embody things and let them explain themselves. You want to give the readers room to move. Whereas, as critic, you're trying to lay things out; you're explaining, giving details. Getting that balance between abstract, conceptual thought, between judgement and just free-wheeling imagination and empathy and sensory evocation - that's what you're trying to do when you write creatively.
Do you find yourself applying critical tools to your own creative work?
Probably, but not consciously. There have been times in writing that I know something's not working with a poem, but you're not thinking with that conscious mind. If I get down to thinking consciously say about the rhyme or metre in a poem, that's when I know I'm in trouble. If you're not able to do it through an intuitive process, and you find yourself hunting through the thesaurus for words and searching for rhymes, then that's the sign that you're desperate. It just doesn't work that way. Once you get to a certain level in creative writing some things will seem intuitive to you; you know them like the way you drive or the way you swim. Once you're in there, if you actually start thinking about how you do those things you crunch the gears, lose your rhythm and you drown.
Has creative writing always been a part of your life?
I started relatively late, at about 21. Poets usually start much earlier than that. The first things I wrote were short stories - they were terrible, but I did get a lot of encouragement for them. I did an adult education course in play writing. I wrote some bits of plays which weren't too bad - probably. Poetry was the third thing I came to writing, but once I got there I was hooked. I went to poetry workshops and would have had a couple of pieces published in individual magazines. I actually could have published a book a lot earlier than I did, but I wasn't sure of myself and I wasn't sure about the people who were asking me about the manuscript - I wasn't sure that they were good judges of it. I delayed it a long time, which in retrospect is probably a good thing. A lot of poets publish very late, but that's always forgotten years later; Alec Hope was 50 or so before he published his first book of poems. I was 36 when my first book came out. You just build up a collection until you have enough to make a book. My first book of poems was published by Angus & Robertson - all the work on it was done in Sydney, but I got it after I'd moved to Perth in 1984.
So your association with FACP began after that time?
I guess I became aware of FACP after my move to Perth - you do if you're interested in writing when you live here. I've published four books with them now: Wordhord is an anthology of WA poetry; Tilting at Matilda, my second collection of poems, Abracadabra, and The Ghost Names Sing.
Was publishing with FACP a smooth process, say with your two latest works?
With Abracadaba I sent in a manuscript, they went through a process of reading it and said: "Yes, we like the look of this, we'll make our decisions in March". So I had to wait till then. Finally, they decided they'd like to do it, probably, and they sent it out to a reader. I got the reader's report. To this day I don't know who the reader was. I didn't agree with all the comments, but there were quite a lot of good ones. It was a manuscript that I had worked over and over and I was surprised to find that there were things suggested which were quite good. It was a very good reader's report, I think. I actually went back and worked on the manuscript again, then sent it back to them. They accepted it. It had to fit in with their publishing schedule, then it was delayed. At that time, they were publishing three books of poetry a year, of which one was by a new writer, so I wasn't in that category. Altogether it took about two years, so it was a long time in the making. The Ghost Names Sing was remarkably quick. I just looked around and realised I had nearly enough poems for a full manuscript. So I rang up and said "If I wanted to give you a manuscript, what date would you want it by?" - thinking of the last process. Ray Coffey said to me: "We actually had a meeting just yesterday, wondering who might have a manuscript and your name came up, so we'd like to see it early January. I worked on it solidly between Christmas and the New Year. It was a good experience. This was one occasion when I did go back to journals, where I'd scribbled down things, so I dug those out and some old poems. I reworked them, worked over some of the notes, and came up with a few poems. So some of the poems in this book are older than the poems in Abracadabra. The chronology is totally out of whack. Anyway, I got it into them in early January: lo and behold they said they'd take it and would publish it in late 1998. Later on they rang me up and said something had happened and would I mind if they published it sooner? - which is like ringing up the Pope and asking him would he mind being a Catholic. It all happened so fast.
So the publishing experience was quite different for each book. Are you generally happy then with the association with FACP?
I've worked with a number of presses; Oxford, Angus & Robertson and others and I think FACP is the best press I've ever worked with; partly because they're here, partly because they're non-profit, because they have a genuine interest in books, a genuine interest in literature and they consult you about most things. That's quite different to dealing with a large non-descript remote company.
Returning to The Ghost Names Sing, it really is an unusual title, where did it come from?
One thing I'm lousy at in individual poems and books is titles. So when you're at a loss for them you go looking in the poems. With my first book which is called Listening at Night, the title was suggested to me by a poet friend, Robert Gray. It's the title of one of the minor poems in the book; he said it's good to use one of the minor poems for the title because it throws the critics off. With The Ghost Names Sing there wasn't a title of an individual poem I wanted to use, but there is one poem about an uncle of mine who lived in Adelaide. He died quite suddenly and I hadn't planned to go to the funeral, but when I found Mum was going from Sydney, I decided to go. It was actually the third trip I'd made to Adelaide in six years, each time for a funeral. It was just as I was sitting on the plane, hearing the engines whirr, thinking about making these trips and the ghost names - the names of people who have gone - sang inside my head. My uncle, my father's brother, was quite a character. "The ghost names sing" is actually a statement made in the poem about my uncle. He was a P.O.W.; he was in Changi, on the railroad. He suffered for the rest of his life for what he went through there. He used to abuse the Japanese, so they used to beat him up. That was just like him. FACP like having single word titles like Margins or Portraits - which I hate. I certainly never wanted that, although Abracadabra did have a single word title. This is a sentence on its own. Interestingly a lot of people have said to me that they like it. The title is always the last thing I get for a poem, and the last thing for a book. I don't like clever titles or things like Portraits which sound either pretentious or a non-event, or both.
Some have said that poetry is a dying art form in contemporary society. How do you feel about poetry's current status?
Poetry has had its troubled times and it's in one now. A lot of publishing companies have been pulling out of poetry because it has such a small market. I think it's a great thing that FACP are sticking with it, as a commitment. I think the situation for poetry is just as it was in T.S. Eliot's time. He said that it doesn't matter whether there's a big audience or not in your own time; what matters is that you have a committed audience. Poetry lives on despite the small print-runs and the limited audience. The number of people who write it is quite substantial, but not so many of them read it, or buy it. It's the classic niche market. It lives on because the people to whom it matters find that it matters absolutely centrally. It's the central passion in their lives, in a way that isn't true for fiction or drama. It's a specialty market. For all that I deplore the way poetry has become associated with the universities and study.
So how would you describe your own work given this context?
I try to write poetry that remains accessible to people, to anyone. I think poetry in our time has become cerebralised and intellectualised and the association with the university has been very bad in that respect. The underlying values in poetry are emotional, and there is a common reader who doesn't want super-fancy language or donnish poetry like T.S. Eliot's. I try to write a poetry of lived experience, and the reader goes through the experience in reading it. Poetry can do that better than any other form of language. I think poetry has reached its diamond element and won't get chipped away any more.
But many publishers feel that television and the Internet are threatening their livelihood - mightn't books disappear altogether?
The worries about the book at the moment, in this visual culture, are more worries about the future of fiction. Using language in a way that seems to give it meaning beyond language, whether on a religious-spiritual level or an emotional level - is what poetry can do. The danger with the visual culture is that it encourages laziness. There's a shallowness to the spectacle which is an indulgence of the senses rather than an understanding through the senses. It can encourage a degree of mindlessness. Poetry can dive beneath the surfaces. Language is 98% of the way we understand ourselves and the world. Poetry is the supreme form, the supreme use of language, the testing, stretching, pushing, prodding of language. That's why it's difficult.
So what sort of audience do you hope to reach with your poetry?
I always imagine an intelligent, interested audience who is just moved by the poems; people who just happen on the books, people whom you don't know, people who have never been to a university or studied poetry as such. There is someone in India who's writing a thesis on my poems, but the best comment anyone has ever made on my poems was something quite recent. There was a review of Peter Porter's Oxford Anthology of Modern Australian verse in which I have two poems. And the critic for the Times Literary Supplement, wrote "this is hardly literary criticism, but two poems by Dennis Haskell almost make me burst into tears every time I read them". I thought, bugger literary criticism, that's just fantastic. That's what I want.
Wordhord. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1989.
The Poetry of John Keats. Melbourne: Sydney UP/Oxford UP, 1991.
A Touch of Ginger. (Poems by Dennis Haskell and Fay Zwicky) Perth: Folio, 1992.
Abracadabra. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1993.
Kenneth Slessor: Collected Poems. ed. Dennis Haskell & Geoffrey Dutton, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1994.
Tilting at Matilda. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1994.
Australian Poetic Satire. Townsville: Foundation for Australian Literary Studies, 1995.
The Ghost Names Sing. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1997.