Thursday, February 25, 2010

An interview with Adam Aitken

Our Distinguished Visiting Writer for Fall 2010 will be Adam Aitken, who lives in Sydney. You can find out more about Adam here. His blog is here. And his new book, Eighth Habitation (Giramondo, 2009), which includes an amazing sequence of poems based on Adam's time in Cambodia, can be purchased here. I recently sent him a flurry of questions and give you his responses here.

--What originally drew you to poetry and why have you stayed?

When I was eight or nine I had to write a poem about a class outing. The teacher chose my poem as the 'best', and it was the first and last time I ever came first in anything! When I was fifteen I started writing little poems in math class, as I had fallen way behind and couldn't keep up. I also had a crush on a girl and since I had no confidence at direct communication, and since I was in a segregate all boys college, I wrote a poem as a substitute for a "billet doux" or love letter. Around the same time my mother had been invited to look after a flat that belonged to my Godfather, and he was a famous Australian poet who was planning to move to Tuscany and write novels. While he was away, I read a lot of his collection of poetry books, and especially Australian titles. This gave me a real context for writing back to. I was also fascinated by his collection of Penguin European classics, and in particular a volume of German Contemporary poetry, a particularly dark and brooding collection of 20th century angst, edited by Michael Hamburger. It suited my adolescent imagination. I came to poetry by reading poetry, and when I got to University I was already writing regularly. This was back in the late 1970s and my Uni didn't have creative writing classes. Instead I attended a lecturer's informal lunchtime workshops. I was very happy meeting all these older people and a few of them mentored me. I suppose I have stuck to poetry because I have been able to see my work in print regularly, and feeling that I was always part of community of poets in Sydney.

--What are your central concerns as a poet? Have these changed over time?

All the philosophical questions - the big ones! In the mid 90s I studied linguistics and I have been interested in language, discourse and power. Poetry as social critique is important to me. I have always been interested in poetry as a domain of rhetoric, as a domain of emotion, affect, persuasion, but an interest in language as a social construction of meaning has always been balanced in my case by an interest in lyric, in questions about life and death, love, hate, hope, despair etc. All that German Expressionist poetry I read as a teenager still haunts me and I still believe poetry is an alternative to "normal" speech. I have become more interested in displacement in poetry, in translation, and in the liminal space that poems open up between language and the signified. I was always thinking about the function of poetry in society, but have moved away from thinking that poetry should express all that's 'good and noble' in a culture - those post-Victorian, Leavisite notions of literature's pedagogical role. I have moved away from what I learned about the English Literature canon. I have found that my education in literature was Oxbridge centred, and while I got a huge amount out of studying Renaissance, classical, and Romantic literatures, I am more interested now in what is produced elsewhere. I guess I am a postcolonial in many ways in the sense that my own education was so mainstream, but being Australian I was exposed to American poetry and now poetries in other Englishes. My own displaced ethnicity and connection with Thailand and my mother's first culture has also taken me into cross-border poetics, and into Southeast Asian contexts. I am VERY interested in how modernity and tradition interact, in Asia but also in the west.

--What forms do you employ, and how do they help you get where you mean to go (or don't!)?

I've written verse and used William Carlos Williams' staggered lines. I have written a few sonnets, a sestina or two, and a lot of free verse. I really favour epistles, and the casual note poem ( Dear Susan this is just to say / I put the crab / in the freezer / and it's gone to sleep / for good / Forgive me /... I also recently wrote a series of aubades for my book Eighth Habitation. I also have a poem based on my father's letters, which are like diary entries. I have never been able to stick to any form, or write a chain of sonnets, or series of elegies. I experimented with mock odes, and elegies.

--Travel seems crucial to your work. I remember you wrote a poem about Gilligan's Island after coming to Hawai`i, which was published in Tinfish's journal. Can you say something about travel poetry writing?

My father was a travelling advertising gun for hire, so between ages 4 to 11 I was already a transnational subject. My mother, oddly enough is happily settled in tropical Northern Australia, and doesn't travel back to Thailand often; but travel for me is a means of reconnecting and maintaining a diasporic connection. I also travelled for work, as an English teacher. I met my English wife in Indonesia, and she is a keen traveller, and she's encouraged me to keep moving. Members of her own family live in France, Britain, and New Jersey, so if we want to see them, we have to travel (they have family and find it hard to get to Australia). Gilligan's Island was my favourite TV show when I was a kid. I think I was fascinated at these frustrated white people displaced and stranded on a "tropical" island. Their making do struck a chord with me. I think that Australians have always wanted to travel as we get quite isolated, physically speaking. I have also travelled internally, to Central Australia, which is its own world. My father sent a few years working for National Parks and Wildlife in Alice Springs, a central Australian town, and I wrote a lot about my time staying there with him in the mid 80s. Recently my wife and I spent a year in Cambodia, where she worked as a teacher.

Travel poems can be about the superficial pleasures of tourism, or they can be about the way living elsewhere effect our own deep transformation and learning. For me travel and staying put is a dialectic I explore, as the need to put down roots is more powerful I think than the need to travel. It's a dialectic with gender issues, for my mother for example, is a homebody and I am too in many ways. Travel can be a lonely experience, especially if you don't know the language, and in most cases travel does not integrate you with the place and culture you are moving in. You are merely a "sojourner". I am interested in how migrants go through the process of putting down roots, but also in how they maintain, if they can, a freedom to travel back to origins. Also, at a very local level, travelling can involve a move into an unfamiliar part of the city you live in. Travel need not be imagined as international, and more often the other place is as familiar as home. For example, shopping malls in Singapore are not much different from Sydney ones in terms of the food and commodities you can buy and the language people use.

--The Cambodia poems, from Eighth Habitation, are particularly intense, as they engage the aftermath of one of the 20th centuries genocides. How did you come to write these poems? What are some of the poetic difficulties involved in writing about "someone else's" (truly awful way to put it) genocide? Can you compare your work, say, to Tinfish Press's Corpse Watching, by Sarith Peou?

As i said above, my wife got a job teaching disadvantaged women in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and I went along. I was always interested in learning more about Cambodia, as it is the neighbouring country to Thailand. I also had a personal investment as my mother once rented out a room to a Cambodian student in Sydney in 1973. I returned to Cambodia to be with his family just before the Khmer Rouge took power. We believe he he probably perished, along with his fellow students. In Sem Reap I studied some of the key histories written about modern Cambodian history, also studied French 19th Century Indo-chinese travel literature (translated), and studied Khmer. Living in Siem Reap we did meet Cambodians, and my wife worked in an NGO with an ex-Khmer Rouge cadre (her co-teacher) and her "boss", a Chinese-Khmer urbanite who was the sole surviving member of his family. I found it incredible that these two could ever work together at all, and in reality, they really couldn't bear each other. Everyone in Cambodia has been effected by the genocide, and everyone has some kind of story, even those born after 1990 who are not orphans have parents who remember something of the 70s.

Trying to write about other people's genocide requires a lot of sympathy, but that should come from quite personal encounters with witnesses, and at the same time one should be aware that memory is unreliable and that informants may have a vested interest in lying about their past, or in exaggerating it. Caution and scepticism need not detract from sympathy. For instance, I met an ex-boy soldier who's MO was to befriend tourists, ask for money for a "village school", then if the conversation called for it, he would tell about his experiences. In a sense genocide has become a business activity for him. Another challenge is to not fall back on the most frequently cited images, stories and symbols of genocide. The challenge is to ask yourself: what can I show or say that's new? I remember reading the visitors book at S-21, the Khmer Rouge killing camp. A European visitor had compared S21 to the Nazi concentration camps. I realised how misleading this was, and how "genocide literature" can distort particularities and differences. For a start Pol Pot's program was not about purifying the Khmer race as such, but was designed to crush political dissent among his own party members. Another difference was the methods of killing - the Nazis used gas, the Khmer Rouge resorted to drowning and bludgeoning - to save bullets. All of these specifics I mention in order to reveal something new about the subject. Emotionally, there's sympathy, but it's important to allow your subject to transcend the status of victim - how to let their voices through without editorialising them is difficult. Ultimately, the challenge is the same one that faced poets after WW2 - after the horror, what is there to write about and why bother?

With Sarith's work, I can say that he's closer to the experience in some ways than me. I feel I function as an interpreter, a conduit. I feel my work approaches the subject with a detachment that is intellectual and filtered through literature and history. I want my readers to think about their difference and detachment and the consequences of being outside of the horror. My poems at now point try to create that illusion of presence, of being on the spot. I am far removed from the scene of the crime, and the dead bodies have rotted away long ago. One similarity is the sense that we know how trauma is experienced as a visceral memory. Another similarity is that I know from personal experience (of being mugged in Malaysia) what it feels like to be a target of a murderer and to be close to death or mutilation. Perhaps I have displaced my own personal trauma onto the Cambodians in my poems, and that makes them intense and felt.

--You studied film, linguistics, and creative writing. How do these various interests inform your teaching?

I learned just as much about narrative from film as from reading novels. Film offered me different sense of the image and of mis-en-scene which I have tried to use in poetry. The duration of events in film is close to what you get in poetry, the zooming in, the jump-cut, the close-up. It's all there in poetry. Linguistics focussed my attention on the incredible power of language, the choices available in forming the syntactic unit, and the choices available in semantics. Grammar is for me a dynamic tool, and I do think about linguistic descriptions when I am trying to describe stylistic features of a certain piece of writing. Linguistics a very much about systems, but as writers know, language can't be imprisoned by system. It's a very interesting relationship between linguistics as a discipline and science, and poetry as the wild child. Creative writing is I think a field that tries to make sense of creative processes, and the various approaches have merits and drawbacks. I very much like to read narratology, semiotics etc, but I don't think I helps every creative writing student to write better. I am fond of learning new terminology (or techne) to describe writing, for example a flashback can be termed "analepsis", and "prolepsis" is foreshadowing. This only becomes meaningful in the workshop situation, when you want to suggest, for example, that a bit of prolepsis might make the beginning chapter more interesting. It really depends on the student's own level of knowledge of such things. I think of sport here: if you didn't know what "bunt it to center field" meant, you probably could still play baseball but you might not understand your coach or fellow players.

Linguistics certainly offers descriptions of formal and stylistic patterns, and I have consciously taken on L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E inspired ideas to create poems. For example, I wrote a poem based on a Malay-English phrase book of the 1930s, and each section of the poem follows chapters in the phrasebook. So, for example, a chapter on "verbs" offers phrases for the most common Malay verbs, like menjadi (to become). I write a poem using variations on sentences where every line includes a variation on "to be". Another section riffs on Malay adverbs.

On a more familiar level, the literary "genres" are all material to be played with, subverted, re-mixed, defamiliarised, and I suppose this describes much of the modern poetry I enjoy.

[Adam Aitken, Tinfish Editor, and Hazel Smith, Cronulla, November 2009]

I, for one, look forward to finding out what "bunting it to center field" means when Adam gets here in August!


pb said...

Interesting flurry of responses too.
Thanks Susan & Adam.

Jill said...

Aieee! I wish I was still in the English program. I want to take a class from Adam.