This interview, proposed by Jane Joritz-Nakagawa to Pam Brown upon the publication of Brown’s book, Home by Dark, was conducted via email in late 2013.
Jane Joritz-Nakagawa: Shall we start at the beginning? Perhaps you could tell how Home by Dark began, came about? Can you remember the first impetus or first poems created for it? What set the book in motion?
Pam Brown: The poems were written over four years, from 2008 until late 2012. I can’t recall a specific impetus to make a book, but I suppose it could be that by the time I’d written “Closed on Mondays,” I’d gone as far as I’d wanted to in that period of time, and thought I could present that particular series of poems and then move on to whatever else I might do. “Closed on Mondays” isn’t the final poem in the book but it was the last poem written in that group. The book’s not arranged chronologically.
JJN: Now I’m wondering which poem was written first! “Closed on Mondays” seems to make a sublime ending, doesn’t it, beginning with: “too nice / & when you leave / everything is white noise, / no traffic, / no music, no muffle, just thick air / whirring.” And ending of course with “the neighbour / who died / on boxing day.”
At a conference, somebody asked me if I wrote poems or books, and it was hard to answer. What do you think about that? Initially, I only wrote poems. After putting together a couple of books of collected works, I wrote some books that started with an overall plan or concept, like incidental music, where I set out to write a book of poems written in form. My fourth book, The Meditations, had poems chronologically sequenced (mostly, maybe entirely). In other cases a concept, or group of these emerged later.
Is Home by Dark typical for you, then, as a collection of poems versus a book that began with a central concept? Since it’s not chronological, can I ask what principles you followed and what thoughts were in mind when sequencing the work in Home by Dark? I imagine you may have noticed interesting threads pulling the poems together into a book as you worked on the manuscript, even if the book may not have started with a central concept. What seems to pull things together, ideas you were preoccupied with during that period or something else?
PB: I think your book notational can be read as both a conceptual long poem and a collection of standalone poems. That’s partly because of the absence of titles and sections.
I can’t remember which poem came first in Home by Dark. Yes, I write individual poems and then, after a few years, when I’m tiring of the folder I keep them in, I start thinking about compiling them as a collection. Sometimes the poems can run to six or seven pages. These days some of them are becoming more fragmentary. Of course, some of the poetry in the folder never leaps into a book.
I suppose, rather than anything thematic, my poems are often agenda-free. Many of them start somewhere locatable (on a street, at a table, looking out a window, going for a walk, on a plane, at the kitchen sink, catching a bus and so on) so they’re basically “in the world.” And then they move along, cinematically, often accompanied by a kind of soundtrack of questions or small observations. So there’s an accumulated multiplicity of imagery, thought, feeling, jokes and so on by the time the notes become a poem.
At first, I assembled the poems as a group to be read straight through without breaks. I sent the manuscript to a friend, the poet Ken Bolton, to see what he thought of it. He wondered if the whole thing might be “too much” all at once. Ken is always right. So I looked at it again, discarded some poems, and then decided to break it into sections as an attempt to be kinder to anyone who might read it.
“Closed on Mondays” is, I guess, typical of what I do. It’s a kind of sometimes tough-minded, elegiac thing, wandering about in a realm of bricolage. It includes literary comment sometimes—like, say, the manuscript of drafts left fortuitously open by the “well-polished” poet who calls the manuscript “my stuff,” waiting there in supposed nonchalance for its critic or its admirer. In real life I would find that kind of supposedly casual situation or set-up very amusing.
Home by Dark is my seventeenth book of poems, so I did have a four-decade habit of intermittent yet continuous poetry-making (and I always hope that there’ll be some kind of fresh trajectory or tone to whatever’s happening with a new poem). I should say that I was preoccupied during two-and-a-half of the four years of writing those poems with the effects of a dire treatment I underwent for a condition I’d had for a long time, but that was only diagnosed by chance in 2009. It had a huge effect on my life but not really directly on my poetry, though of course the thread or trace of that experience is there in some of the poems—”Spirulina to go,” for instance. I don’t care for “illness poetry” as a genre. I just kept on with my process of compilation, the accretion-method of making poems, whenever I had the energy or had something to notate. I also continued my work editing for Jacket Magazine. I just didn’t “socialize” much for a time.
JJN: I can’t detect the treatment underwent in the book! It’s interesting what you say about some of your work becoming increasingly fragmentary, and about “illness poetry.” I recently participated in a panel where I talked about the relationship of Marxist-feminism and cultural relativism to avant-garde writing by contemporary female poets, while one of the panelists discussed poems about cancer. I believe Bernstein has said or written (I refer to this in my interview with Eric Selland, published in The Conversant) that a difference between experimental and traditional poetry could be that, in the latter case, one sets out to write about something, while in the former one writes and then discovers what the something is. And then of course the reader discovers whatever she discovers (i.e., poems lead to new discoveries each time one returns to the work). For me that is an important distinction: the readers’ and the writer’s discoveries are variable, and this discovery and exploration are part of the reading and writing.
With notational and the book that followed (FLUX, published in 2013), I removed all the titles. The pieces in both books had been published individually with titles in journals and anthologies, but then sequencing them and so on led to revisions. When working on the books I saw my project, especially with FLUX, as one large piece, though neither book was entirely conceived of that way to begin with. Each book has been a little different for me, but I’ve only completed seven books compared to your seventeen! I thought of putting sections and divider pages into FLUX, but I had the idea that I wanted it to be messy and kind of overwhelming, like being lost at sea. Of course the final format of a book dictates many aspects of its appearance, such as layout and the book’s overall vision, but I wanted the pages to overlap and not be in tidy boxes—a mirror of my “true” mind, so to speak.
When I wrote The Meditations, I had a back injury and was stuck at home a lot, and I think those circumstances account for that book’s introspection. The poems, though, are not traditional lyrics and the backgrounds for many of them are not going to be obvious.
So your comment about the personal circumstances surrounding Home by Dark is interesting. I could not find any “illness poetry” in Home by Dark, and there is a lot of the urban/urbane in it for me. But there’s also a balance between inwardness and outwardness, and, as you said, a kind of shifting between the observable outer world and reflection—with, for example, “poets perceive language/directly,” which follows on the heels of “sympathy card envelope” (in “Haywire here”).
A fun coincidence: you told Michael Brennan in an interview, published on the Poetry International Web, 2011, that your first artistic efforts began when ill in bed at the age of 7, or 8?
PB: Ha, I’d forgotten that. But, introspection: I think there are tinges of introspection in Home by Dark,too. Yes, you just become generally more self-involved when you’re incapacitated and can’t get around the way you usually would.
JJN: Silliman’s essay “Asterisk,” which is on Rae Armantrout’s poems in We Who Love to Be Astonished, describes her work as poems that don’t tell too much, and which leave “the reader with a sense of incompleteness and awkwardness.” I think this is pertinent—that both the writer and the reader are left with interpretive options, which requires understatement in poetry (or a “light touch,” as is said about Home by Dark on the back cover). So I guess when we talk about work that is “agenda-free,” it can be related both to process and to post-editing result. Although a poet’s poems may be agenda-free, the poet him/herself may have agendas elsewhere. I read Alice Notley’s recent interview in Boston Review, where she said:
Everybody’s sexist. Most women are sexist. It’s a tremendous fight and it’s totally ongoing. Men have all the prestige and all the power in the poetry world, still. Women have space now, they have space but it’s not the same as prestige or power. It’s as if I’ve had to re-write all of the history of poetry so that I could be as great as I want to be. My “project” is to be a great poet. I’m not interested in poetry schools; I have absolutely no interest in any of that.
PB: Yes, I read that interview with Alice Notley, too. I like the way she says, after instructing the interviewer not to ask about her “project” (apparently a term she despises), that her project is “to be a great poet.” I recoiled at the words “great poet,” because I know male poets who take being “great” for granted (often when they’re not), but I think Alice intended that to mean being really super good at writing poems, which she clearly is. She’s right about everybody being sexist.
But what I mean by “agenda-free” is that a poem isn’t being written to an agenda, and often ends without concluding, or without a fanfare, if you know what I mean. I don’t mean that there’s absence of politics or critique.
JJN: Absolutely. As in Home by Dark, the camera that is spinning around, so to speak, in the cinematic book may fall upon sociopolitical objects and ideas.
I like how the dividers in Home by Dark have quotations. As I’ve just finished two books without titles or dividers; I think the next book will be only dividers and titles. Actually, the next book is a chapbook-length poem coming out soon, all left-margin justified, written entirely in quatrains, so a bit tidier than the last two. Since then I’ve started something that is like haibun but not actually haibun.
PB: Ah, the haibun. I once wrote a poem I called a ‘low-bun’ to parody the haibun. I’m generally hopeless with form. I’ve tried villanelles and sonnets and pantoums and so on but they always seem so contrived. One of my sonnets wouldn’t get past being twelve lines in length and it grew wider as I wrote it. A failure. It was included in The Reality Street Book of Sonnets that Jeff Hilson edited in the U.K. back in 2008.
JJN: The sestina is the most difficult form I’ve tried in terms of being satisfied with the result, and I find that the three I’ve finished/published ended up being written in an unusual “voice.” A friend of mine told me she liked the obsessiveness of pantoums. I think when I write in a form, if I do at all, it’s usually with a very deep sense of irony. This is also true if I write something resembling a more traditional lyric, as it tends to become tongue-in-cheek, a lyric with a wink. But it’s also fun to start with a form, and then totally subvert it or allow yourself to depart substantially from it.
You mention that some poems start with something on a street or table, etc. I remember hearing a musician/composer talk about how some songs had begun simply with a sound he had heard. Poems may begin in a similar way, too, with a word or phrase. Certainly that’s true of how I begin to compose. Often it seems to be in part a poetry of coincidence. Much of what painters, sculptors and musicians write about in terms of their creative processes appeals to me as a reader/listener, because it’s a parallel with what I’m doing as a writer. Their comments become a “companion.” Most of what I have read written by poets about poetry concerns the result more than process, though I’ve also found discussions of process in interviews with poets.
PB: Process. I have written process into many of my poems. I suppose I’m very conscious of what I’m doing when I’m making a poem and very conscious of its probable irrelevance to most people other than poets. Though I wouldn’t want that statement to be received as an absolute.
JJN: How would you characterize the poetry scene, so to speak, in Australia now? What effect does international poetry have on you and your work? What thoughts do you have about critical writing about poetry, its importance or non-importance?
PB: The poetry scene seems pretty vital here at the moment. There was a lull for a decade or so from the mid-1980s until the late ’90s. There didn’t seem to be many younger poets “arriving” (if that’s what a poet does). But recently a plethora of younger poets has shown up.
The current Australian poetry scene is diverse. It’s not as fractured as it once was, though there are coteries within it and there are various mini-movements I suppose—like groups of poets concerned with ecology, land and its ownership, ethnicity; others concerned mostly with experimentation (I know that’s a broad term); and then there are always the lyricists, which probably includes most of us in some often-complicated or even conflicted way. Plus a few old and new romantics are still hanging on in there. So there’s a healthy variousness—many different angles, which is positive, if frustrating for me, because there’s possibly too much going on. Who can read all of it and maintain interest in all of it?
As well as local work I read a lot of contemporary English-language and translated poetries from the U.S., U.K., Canada, Europe, Asia, all over, you know. It is important for Australian poets to read internationally, but not exclusively European and North American writing. We had a nationalist thread in the culture here for a long period, and then the complications of indigeneity and multiculturalism interrupted a thriving cultural cringe that looked north rather than inward and east towards Oceania. Anyway, to get back to the question, international poetry is incredibly important to me and has always been an influence on my writing.
Poetics or critical writing is important to me, too. I don’t read a lot of fiction so I tend to read critical books when I’m not engaging with poems—poetics, philosophy, politics, art, ecology. It’s a source of enjoyment for me. And I like to think about the context in which I write, and the insurmountable problem of how to live in a super-capitalist world. Somehow this material gets filtered down and informs a few short phrases or lines when I write poems. That “somehow” indicates the mystery of the process.
JJN: I have the same reading habits as you mention, though I may possibly read less poetics written by poets (though poetics written by non-poet philosophers is another story—their agenda is different), and I don’t read a lot of poetry book reviews. Currently I’m re-reading Heidegger. I don’t fit into the super-capitalistic world at all. I’ve never been very materialistic but rather attracted to the spiritual, artistic and intellectual, the theoretical. As you say it’s useful to read outside various Western poetries as well too, and of course the reference list in Home by Dark includes non-Australian poets. From being in Japan for so long, of course Japanese and other Asian poetries have become increasingly influential for me.
PB: No I’m not “materialistic” either (anyway, by circumstance, I couldn’t afford to be). But everything I do, including making poetry, is done within the strictures of a capitalist system. My general response to the inequities of the system is to shout at the TV news, deface newspaper images, attend certain street demonstrations, letterbox for education reform and for The Australian Greens political party, and so on. But I’ve stopped signing online petitions—there are so many of them and I no longer think they’re very effective in Australia. This world is, basically, fucked up.
I haven’t really read Heidegger, not seriously. Though I bought The Graphic Guide to Heidegger at the Auckland University Bookshop when I was in New Zealand for a month last September. That and the graphic Continental Philosophy.
JJN: I read a lot of philosophy without feeling like I’m some kind of expert in that area. But it has always appealed to me (or at least, some works, as with poetry), and many philosophers have respect for poets and poetry. As far as materialism, I left a tenured university faculty position for no job at all. It’s been almost two years now. And part of my dissatisfaction with that job was related to Alice Notley’s words above related to sexism in the world. To be without a regular steady income is new territory for me. In any case, I’m aware of almost everything I do from a gendered perspective.
PB: I admire your action of leaving an unsatisfactory job. That’s a courageous move. But about reading theory: I suppose, alongside “philosophy,” I read a lot of what might be called “political aesthetics”—for example, work by Susan Buck-Morss, Esther Leslie, Meaghan Morris and so on. And, of course, I read many poeticists too.
JJN: When people talk about philosophers, it often ends up being a list of dead white men, so you know, I often need to bring up great women who are alive, well and influential. Life without Cixous, Irigaray and Kristeva would be hell, for example! And all three of them so literary.
The literary comment within Home by Dark is of huge interest to me (something Catherine Walsh does too in her book Optic Verve, a book I focused on at the aforementioned recent literary conference). To be thoughtful about what one and others are doing is important and interesting. Your comment about poetry’s lack of relevance to people who don’t write poems is of interest as well (and, I might say, lack of interest for those who write in different styles). Sometimes it all reminds me of the Democrats and Republicans back in my native U.S. That is to say: some people may feel they can’t read and write outside certain stylistic parameters. Though to have broad tastes can be an advantage in certain respects, of course. The person who introduced me at the Irish literary conference said Walsh is one of Ireland’s most overlooked poets, and when I asked somebody about it he said that’s because she’s female and avant-garde.
PB: I don’t mind poetry’s irrelevance to the world-in-general, Jane. Perhaps I did when I was younger, though I never regarded it as a world-changing art form.
And, of course, I think it’s OK that different styles and tastes exist. If and when poets start getting dogmatic about their preferences (you know, “conceptual-poetry-R-us!” or “formalism entirely stinks!”), then that kind of positioning seems limited to me. If poets feel or think they have to conform to whatever they perceive as the latest in new, then that’s going to be restricting.
JJN: I agree. And actually I’d probably more often wish to share what I like with interested others, than trample on what others may like but doesn’t appeal to me. So far if I review a book or interview a poet, it’s because I like the work in question versus because I don’t like it.
As far as poetry’s small audience, it would be nice to make money from doing the kind of writing I like to do, but since that’s not possible, I’ve come to terms with it. I think if poetry changes you then you change (your change is within) the world, so in that small way, you know, when we interact with others or do poetry (and even non-poetry) related things in the world…
As you’ve noted, you’ve had a long career in poetry already. I wonder how you view your earlier work and midcareer work in comparison to your recent work, including Home by Dark. What fluctuations and what sort of continuity do you note?
PB: I love that word “career.” If I review my four decades of writing and publishing poetry I find a distinctly different woman in each decade. There are threads and traces that connect through the years—minimalism, say, or skeptical humor, a certain cinematic method perhaps, and inferred political critique. But yes, so far, it’s been a life of fluctuation, and my poetry has generally been “of the times” as the times have altered. I used to say that I aimed for intelligibility, but I freed myself from that in the 1990s—and although the poems haven’t become obscure I think, looking at the last 10 years, I have stretched them “poetically” and, as I said earlier, I have also released them from having any particular agenda. Recently, the poet and critic Justin Clemens said about what he called my “extraordinary mining of the vicissitudes of existence” in Home by Dark: “No cures or conclusions are offered, only ‘imaginary solutions’ in the pataphysical way, where the prognosis remains open and who knows what will become of the present in the future.”
JJN: In conclusion, we don’t write illness poetry but if the mainstream is allegedly healthy, perhaps we can happily call ourselves ill, and poetry is perhaps part of the form our (imaginary?) illness takes, as it is definitely not mainstream. I look forward to seeking out imaginary solutions (to an illness from which we don’t wish to be cured, apparently) in your next book of poems, Pam. Thanks so much for engaging in this conversation with me and congrats on your new book, Home by Dark.
PB: And one of the interesting questions is whether poetry is a side-effect of philosophy, inferring philosophy as part of the probable failure of treatment! Thanks for inviting me into this conversation, Jane—I appreciate the opportunity.
Pam Brown was born in Victoria, Australia. She grew up on military bases in Queensland and has spent her adult life living and working in Sydney. She writes poetry and reviews, and makes collages. Since 1971 she has published seventeen books, ten chapbooks, and an e-book. Most recently, she has published Home by Dark. A bilingual French-English edition of her poems, Alibis, is forthcoming in 2014. She has been an editor for Overland, Jacket and Jacket2, and is currently a contributing editor for Fulcrum and VLAK. In 2013 she edited “A New Compendium of Australian Poetry” for PennSound. Brown lives in the motley inner-urban district of Alexandria in Sydney. She blogs intermittently here.