|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: July 8, 1997
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
I suppose it's odd that some people at the time, given that you were a serving member of the air force, thought of you as a pacifist.
Yeah, I suppose so. I mean there seems to be often a natural connection with the two, but I've never been a pacifist in that sense. I've always made it quite clear, often when I'm speaking publicly, that I'm not an absolute pacifist at all. There are times, I believe, when people have to fight for what they believe, and fight to the point of ... even if it means killing somebody else. And so I've never been a pacifist in that sense at all. I don't believe it's a very practical sort of way to go. If the kind of pacifism that is advocated was really being practised, then the totalitarians would have had the world, not just part of it. I don't think the military elite in Japan would have worried about pacifism. I don't think the Soviet Union would have worried about pacifism, and I don't believe the Nazi Regime would have worried about pacifism at all. I admire people who take that line, but I don't believe it's one that I'd feel happy with at all. I've got great admiration - not just because I joined the services - but great admiration for people who decide that the way for them to serve the interests of peace is by fighting for it, and by fighting for it, if necessary, with weapons. And I don't care really so much what the weapons are. I'm not a sentimentalist about whether you drop napalm or drop any other kind of bombs. Military historians and military strategists and experts on military warfare, like John Keegan, have pointed out that the horrors of Twentieth Century fighting are no worse, basically, than the horrors of fighting a war where weapons are merely bows and arrows, or swords.
Did you find any difficulty in ... in being a member of the air force and holding some of the personal beliefs that you do?
No, basically not at all. It was never a matter of any sort of struggle with conscience. As I say, for the reasons that I've given, that I always admired ... I admired people who, in whatever service they were in, in whatever situation they were in, not just in the Australian services, fought valiantly. I've admired courage, I suppose, above everything else. And those ... I'm not saying that courage is peculiar to the services. Of course it isn't. But ... In fact most people's courage doesn't take them into service life at all. But courage is courage, whether it's in uniform or outside, and wherever it is, I sort of, I'm prepared to sort of honour it, by writing often about it too. I've written poems about serving men and their heroism in battle. For example, in the revised edition, I've even given further information about an American, who was in the first big American confrontation with the North Vietnamese in Vietnam in the Chu Lai Valley, in 1965. I wrote to the American Information Service, and they passed it on to the ... whatever the department was in America, and [they] gave me back the full details of what the award was and who was the person, so I was able to add his name, and the actual citation of the award to the poem I had about him, that's in the collected edition.
Probably your most quoted poem, one of your very best known, is Homecoming. Why do you think that that touched such a chord with the Australian public?
Well, I guess because it's analogy. It's not taking sides at all. I've said many times that had I known, or had I had it been my particular persuasion to write about the other side in the same way, I might well have done it. But I knew very little about the way in which the Viet Cong and the Viet Minh dealt with, or disposed of their dead. Often of course, if they were killed on the field of battle, they were bulldozed into mass graves. But the Americans have always been - and I honour them for it - respectful of their dead. And so I chose that kind of as the point of approach to the whole question about the cost, which is paid in war, by people who are prepared to sort of fight, or find themselves anyway fighting in a war. But I think it's because it's non-party, non-political. I've never, ever given permission, for example, for communists to use the poem. And I was approached some two or three years ago by somebody in Beijing, whether they could use the poem there, in some exhibition of art by Chinese artists. Now I've got nothing against Chinese artists at all. I'm sure I'd admire them as anybody else's, but I wasn't prepared to let a communist government use my work, and I never have been.
What is your attitude to communism?
I think it's a disaster, actually. And I'm sorry for every country that - understanding as it may be at a certain time in its development, it's tempted by it. I'm sorry for what will happen to them under it. But then I'm against totalitarianism per se. I think the Soviet experiment has been an absolutely disastrous one. And I think the number of people that have died in Gulags, in various other ways, have never made it to a term like a Gulag, far exceeds those whom the Nazis and their fascist sort of friends killed. But because the Left has always been rather more partial to the Soviet experiment, I think that's been forgotten. And I've always appreciated Orwell's attitude to that, as well as that of course of people like Solzhenitsyn, who've written about it, and people like Robert Conquest, who in his book, The Great Purge, reveals just how horrifying the true Animal Farm is, of the 1930s purges.
Because you were very much accused of having gone soft on communism when your opposition to the Vietnam War became so public.
Well that may be so, but I think my kind of history stands me, and my general sort of attitude, stands me in good [stead]. I mean if people ... It never worries me in one sense. People say what they're entitled to say and that's their ... I don't want to go around, and I never have gone around trying to correct false impressions, but I think that's a false impression.
During the sixties, too, and later, you took up the cudgels on behalf of free speech in Queensland, and found yourself in strong opposition to Joe Bjelke-Petersen. How did that come about?
Well, I think it comes naturally out of my sort general belief that in most cases, dissent is a healthier thing to have out in public, rather than underground. And I have the very same attitude for example to Pauline Hanson, in so far as she represents a dissenting voice, however much it may hurt various people, because her dissent seems to be an attack on their particular position. I think it's much safer to have it out, and I'm rather appalled by the idea that ... I said, for example, in the Right To March thing, Robin, that ... I remember in a letter I wrote in to the paper, [to] that person who was having a go at me over it, I said, 'At the moment we may be on opposite sides of the barricades, but some time in the future we may be on the same side', and I think that's often the case. You can only sort of take these things from where you see the need and I see the need is, in fact, for people to have the right of free speech, and that's a kind of right that's a very ... a very thorny right. And I think what we are experiencing at the moment are the thorns that go with the right and people don't like the thorns. Well I think that's tough. But I defended ... I defended in the Right To March, people whose views I abominate, and I'd still defend other people's views, and I think other people should defend them too, even though they may find those particular views abominable too.
And as a result of your being involved in the Right To March, you ended up in gaol. How did that happen?
Well, I led a march in Toowoomba, which was mostly composed of students from the college, and we were arrested, and I realised that as part of that, they would spend a night, at least, in ... in ... in the local watch house. And so I recognised that it would be rather foolish of me. I had the money to bail myself out if I wanted to, but I didn't think that was an appropriate position for a staff member, simply because he happened to have more money than the students, to take, so I shared the ... shared the cells with other dissenters of the same opinion, who weren't staff members.
So what was it like? Could you describe to me the demonstration and the aftermath? Tell us the story of it, because it was a time when people really actually got quite a lot of ...
Well, in Toowoomba of course, it was all a gentlemanly affair. There was no ... The police were very nice. And I remember telling the constable that he needn't grip me so hard, I wasn't going to run away. It was all very gentlemanly and it was very well conducted on both sides. And I'd like to think that that's the way most things should be. But then we weren't, after all, violently sort of making it difficult for the police. We went along peaceably, we didn't let them drag us around. So we didn't create the sort of difficulty and the will to violence that often takes over both sides. So it was a sort of as peaceful and gentlemanly as you could imagine. That's very different from how it often was in King George Square and elsewhere during that time. But I wasn't in King George Square, I was here. So I was happy enough to take it in that form. I wrote a poem about it which I've lost since, about it because I was very pleased to sort of actually be doing something. And I had a speech ready to make. But the magistrate was fairly quick off the mark with shutting me up on that. [Laughs] I understand that too.
So you didn't get your day in court?
Oh well, I got the day in court and I got to say part of what I said, and the rest of course, I handed in. And that was okay too. You do what you can, but I wasn't going to kind of do any more about it.
You've got a view of the importance of a poet being a public person, who engages with the events around him. Was that very much in your mind when you got involved in this?
No, I didn't have a ... I didn't have a view of the poet as a person. I mean I just had a view of the person as a person engaging in things. I don't generally think of the poet as some special kind. I don't put on a uniform and then act in terms of what the uniform dictates. That's not my way of doing it. I say, 'Well this is what a person would do'. I've often said that the greatest sort of ... the greatest claim anybody can have is that they're a citizen, and I think part of being a citizen is, at times, supporting the state and at other times disagreeing with and opposing the state, and I think that has to be the position. There's a marvellous line in one of the translations of one of the Greek plays, where the Persian empress, I think, asks of a messenger, what ... She says, because she's just heard about the defeat of the Persians, 'What is this Athens of which all men speak?' and the messenger, the Persian messenger, says, 'They bow to no man and are no man's slaves'. And I think that's a kind of definition of citizenship that I ... I hold very strongly to.
One of our best lines recorded.
Well it's not mine. It's somebody elses.
Yes but it's very much you. Yes but it's very much you. [PLAYFUL CONVERSATION ABOUT PRACTICALITIES OF FILMING]
When you finished your term as ... in the air force ... How long did that go on for by the way?
Nine years I was in. Six year term, and then they brought in three year terms and I took one of those, and by that time I was ready to ... ready to get out.
And when you got out, what did you get out to?
Well, to nothing basically. There were no jobs lined up or anything. So I came ... I was steadily going broke in Melbourne, but I came up to Toowoomba to graduate. Rather I graduated in Brisbane, but my wife stayed with her folk in Toowoomba. And I did a reading when I was up in Toowoomba, at Downlands Sacred Heart College, because again, good fortune. I was a fellow student with the then rector of studies there, when I was doing the first degree, and he'd said to me, when I did this reading at the time of graduation, 'What are you doing?' and I said, 'Well, I'm steadily going broke in Melbourne. I'm working as a temporary file clerk in the Land Tax Office in Queen Street'. He said, 'Look, we can fit you in here, now that you've got a degree, if you like it'. So, I didn't take him up on it straight away, but we did sell up the place we had and moved up to Toowoomba. But I tried for a ... I looked at a job as a clerk at one place that had gone, and I was interviewed for a job at a radio station, but I disliked the interviewer so much I thought I couldn't possibly stand that. So the third option was then open to me, and so I took up teaching within about the first week. Came up here that week they landed a man on the moon. But it's been a very handy ... a very lucky landing for me. [MORE CONVERSATION ABOUT PRACTICALITIES OF FILMING]
You say that your poetry began because your sister, Ethel, in a way, offered you a role model for doing it. But from your own point of view inside yourself, what gave you the confidence to feel, as time went on, that your poetry was really worth showing to other people?
Well I think it must have been having shown it to people, and that people said that they liked it. I mentioned I think earlier that my family had encouraged me. But I was always I think sufficiently aware that families do things out of love, that you shouldn't mistake [it] for being wisdom. And so I wasn't altogether you know, confused about that. And for really objective judgement, you often do have to stand outside, unless it's somebody who knows that you can ... you can take a bit of honesty as well. Like my wife always gives honest opinions and I think most of the people I know, whose judgement I trust, do now. But then it really did depend upon some acceptance. I had poems in Jindyworobaks Anthologies when I was seventeen, which is fairly young. And that was, what I considered, and consider still, reasonably good company for a teenager. And that was an early kind of, I suppose, sign of encouragement. But there were a lot of years in between seventeen and twenty-four, when I went to university, when I wasn't quite sure how much ... I mean, the world's full of people who have promise, but the promise is never realised for one reason or another, and I was sufficiently out of touch all the time, or most of the time, with any literary group at all, until I went to university, to really not have ... not have a very clear understanding. And I think I'd have still lost a lot more time trying to find out had I not been lucky enough to get to the university, so I've always been very grateful for the university backing ever since.
When you were working in labouring gangs and in this very rough, tough work that you were doing as a young man, did you tell your mates that you were a poet?
Oh, never. No, no, no. I used all the camouflage I could, linguistically. And I think some of that probably still shows. And I was grateful for it, because I learnt phrases, some of which I won't repeat on television, but which I found were quite unique to the people I was working with. I've never found them used by anybody else. I've tried them out on language experts and they've never heard of them either. So it's interesting that particular phrases and terms can become peculiar to one group, not just within a state, but within almost a locality. And they reminded me again, that I think there's something kind of interesting about being laconic, and I've always appreciated that aspect of Australian language.
And you've also liked using the vernacular in contexts where you don't usually expect it to be used.
Yeah, I think so. I mean I think it's part of ... A lot of people's style is to throw bits in here and there. It's a kind of smorgasbord in a way. If you don't like the roast pork, then you may like the you know, the roast beef, or some of the other smaller bits. So you cut bits off to suit yourself. And I've said once that I think most writers, and certainly most poets, are in fact journalists of a kind. They're vacuum cleaners. They'll pick up and run with all sorts of bits and pieces of language and find them sort of useful. My brother's memoirs, which are still to be published, uses a term that I applied to it when I was editing the collection of memories, which again is a piece of vernacular: 'beggar's velvet'. 'Beggar's velvet' is in fact the small rolls of fluff that you find under beds and under lounges and so on, where the vacuum cleaners don't get. This is the kind of thing that is a nice idea: beggar's velvet. And that appeal for using phrases, in particular poems, like for example, Weapons Training, was handed to me really on a silver salver, when I was in the air force, because I was always a kind of pretty awkward customer. Never knew my right arm from my left foot, so I got a fair bit of the drill instructor's abuse and took it in good ... good part. And was actually quite grateful for it, because I've made quite a thing out of putting it together. I always point out that in that poem, I didn't invent the metaphors. They come hot from the lips of the drill instructors we had at Rathmines when I was doing my recruit training in the air force. So again, [with] one's use of the vernacular, you really owe that to the people. It's the people's other world, I suppose, in a way. Or the 'vernacular republic,' to quote another of Les Murray's well chosen sort of phrases. And that republic, although I'm only a lukewarm republican, is one that I think that is a very valuable one. I often like to think that when you hear, for example, in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, or in David Williamson's plays, the language and the metaphor of people, [in] Don's Party, The Removalists, or the later plays ... when you hear that language being spoken, it's the language of the people. It's how people do speak: middle class people, working class people. And it's how the Elizabethans must have [been] thrilled to hear from Shakespeare, and before Shakespeare, and through Marlowe and the Jacobeans: their own language being preferred and chosen, exulted by the wonderful use of it. I think it's one of the great sort of things is to ... is to be in touch with that sense of the language as she's spoken by people who are not so busy coining phrases, or doing other than expressing themselves as expressively as they can.
When you began to be recognised as a poet, one of the things that was often said about you was that you had ... you were the first really strong voice of ordinary people that we'd had in Australia since the Henry Lawsons and so on. Did ... Were you conscious of that when you came to write? Did you have a feeling that you were giving voice to the ordinary man's view of the world?
Not ... not consciously. I wrote, you know, I wrote as I wrote. I didn't have any sense of it having a resonance beyond my immediate concern with expressing myself, and if the expression had never received any kind of recognition, I would have still attempted to keep on doing it the same way. I've often ... Randolph Stow pointed out some many ... well, many years ago, actually - that I was like various other people who moved around enough never to become babbitt baiting babbitts. Who, in other words didn't ... and even if they moved from one class to another, didn't feel like biting the class they'd left, or the class they belonged to in the backside, just to prove that they were free spirits. He was sort of making a general point, which I think it quite true. It's why a poem like Homo Suburbiensis is dedicated to Craig McGregor, because Craig McGregor, in an essay called Alfs and Anti-Alfs, that's A-L-F, who was as you know the predecessor to Norm as a kind of icon of the couch potato and the male slob, [saw] that the suburban person was intrinsically as interesting as any other person. And for all the Melvyn Reynolds and others who sing little ditties about little boxes, and they all live in ticky-tacky, and they all go to universities and they all end up just the same, in fact, as urban sociologists have proven in their studies, suburban living and urban living, is as varied and fascinating as any other form. And in the past in Australia, we've had more than our share of it. And I've been very grateful to actually become ... to aspire to the middle class. And I've had no kind of ... none of the sort of Marxist desire to la classé le bourgeois, that seems to be so popular with people of the Left.
You've been given quite a lot of formal recognition of your poetry now in the form of prizes and awards, haven't you? How did that begin to happen for you? And what did it mean to you as a poet, to have those awards?
Well I think one of the first prizes that I got was for a volume which had been rejected by the Commonwealth Literary Fund. And my publishers then ... and I was again, extraordinarily lucky in having a gentleman publisher, Andrew Fabiny, who headed F.W. Cheshire at the time, and when that particular book, my second book, was knocked back - the first had had a good reception, good reviews from people like Judith Wright and sold out quickly - then he was a bit taken aback as I was. And he checked with the CLF, and they said they'd subsidised enough worthy volumes for the year, and you know, that was it. They were nice about it, and I [coughs] was grateful for that. But the other ... and I wrote a poem called Glass Slipper for Sale, suggesting that I was like Cinderella, who would have liked to have gone to the ball, but just couldn't find the slippers to go in. And ... but that was my one kind of ironic response to the situation. Now he said, 'Well, we'll publish the book, even though it hasn't got any funding against loss', which was the important thing with poetry publishing. So that was a leap of faith for him, and it was rewarded, as I say, by getting the Myer Prize for the best book of Australian poetry for the year, which at least, to him, confirmed his own judgement, and cheered me up no end. And it was not ... I also won the prize for the next but one volume after that. So those two prizes were very important for sort of saying, 'Look!' and for establishing my sort of worthiness, at least in the eyes of a particular publisher, and an Australian publisher at that. So those prizes were terribly important. Then other prizes would come along, like the Ampol one, and the ... but even to the most recent one, which is the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal for Literary Excellence. I mean if you like a person, and like a person's work, then the fact that you've been chosen as the first winner of an award set up in their memory, is a very kind of ... almost a kind of sacred thing. And Philip, whom I never met, was a person who, when you read his work, you find yourself extraordinarily moved by it. So it's you know ... it's ... it's quite a mantle to carry, but it's an encouraging one too.
These recognitions from awards, given out by people who have fine literary judgement and have given you that accolade because they've evaluated your work as poetry, as literature, and wanted to give you recognition for it, does that mean as much to you as the fact that you are the most popular poet alive, and that your books sell to all kinds of people who would not normally buy poetry?
Well, I think the two recognitions are coming from very different [spaces]. One is a more amorphous recognition. It reflects itself basically in sales, and sometimes in receptions you get if you're reading your work personally. The other is a more formal, of course, recognition, and looks good on the covers of books and so on. So they inhabit sort of different territories. But the thing about both of them is, that you still have to ... Peter Porter once said, something which thought was absolutely critically important, as it is obvious, and he said it in Toowoomba, which is a fine place to say it too, because I managed to hear it then. He pointed out that there is no plateau to creative ability. You ... The assumption with younger people sometimes is that you climb for a certain extent, slip back on the shale, and you climb up again, and eventually you reach a plateau if you're lucky, or if you have the talent, at which it all becomes plain sailing. He said, 'There's no such thing. Everything you write has all the uncertainty, the peril of the first thing you ever did'. In other words, the whole of life is a climb, not just to a certain point at which suddenly you reach a plateau where everything becomes easy and if it comes that easy of course, the thing is, it's also becoming less worthwhile potentially, and less individualised, less full of that sense of taking a chance or a dare. And so I think it's a very important point, that isn't always made. There's some kind of assumption that when you reach a certain stage where you may be interviewed or your opinions are spread amongst others besides your private friends, that you know ... [cough] that you've learnt some secret. There's no secret. The only secret is that you must treat with respect whatever it is you're about to do, with the same sense of chance as the first thing you ever did.
It's often assumed that poetry, by definition, is not going to be popular. Just how popular is your poetry? How well do your books sell?
Well, I mean the major source of sales has clearly been text sales, so I wouldn't want to confuse that with the idea that you know ... but every book since the second book has been set somewhere, and that's an important thing because very often, very effective writers only get to appear in anthologies on a regular basis. But to have actual books set in schools or universities, is a big step forward. And I took that as a kind of benchmark, and also something to aim at from fairly early on. So that I did establish a kind of limit to the number of poems of mine that could be used in any one anthology. So that people weren't able to, for example, run off - use twenty poems and pay your reprint fee, and have something like a kind of mini ... a mini volume of your work at a cheaper rate for a school or university. So that it did mean it had some constraint, but it also did push people into sort of actually buying books. For example, one doesn't really expect that a playwright will give easy access to scene one, or scene two of his play. He'll want people to set and understand on the basis of a complete work. If you can take a collection as being a complete work, then that's the parallel that I made to myself early on, and tried to establish some sort of ground rule along those lines, that six poems was the normal permissible number that could be used in an anthology. And that's one way in which I pushed sales. It wasn't my intention so much to push sales as to establish a certain general point for writers. And I remember discussing this with Judith and other people once in Sydney. That while, you know, you can be enthused and think that you're being included, one or two of your works in anthology, at a certain point you may want to say, well, you can't keep on doing this without enabling or allowing your students or your audience to read you in a wider way. The same as you wouldn't expect David Williamson or Shakespeare or anybody else, to be happy to settle for just certain scenes of their work. Even, in one sense, a collection of poems can be similar to that in that it often has a shape, a form, it covers a certain period, and may well be often quite as dramatic as a ... as a ... as a play.
So a collection like Sometimes Gladness, which has been one of your more successful collections, how many would that have sold?
Well, over a hundred thousand copies so far and the sales will go up again with the forthcoming fifth edition. And so each edition has sold roughly between twenty or thirty thousand, which is an enormous number. The individual volumes, which appear in between the various editions of the collected, have each sold in the thousands too, which has boosted their sales. And then the selected edition, which predated the collected, has sold about thirty thousand copies.
This is sort of C.J. Dennis levels, isn't it?
Well, it's getting towards that, yes. And I mean it's not something that I kind of ... You were mentioning earlier about prizes. Whatever ... the thing is that by being to some extent isolated from the main cities for a good part of my writing life, it's meant that it's been ... it's always put the pressure on me to go on writing without necessarily thinking that the people are sort of shouting hosannas at the door. They're not. Most people in Toowoomba don't even know who I am and I'm quite happy for that to be the case. And I ... There's something also that Randolph Stow said in his article I mentioned, that the big cities do tend at times to establish coteries, cliques, claques and so on, where you find enormous pressure to negotiate between these as between various sort of rocks or reefs. Now having not been sort of, in a lot of my life, established for very long in big cities, I've been able to negotiate the reefs or not, or ignore the fact that there are such things, by being out of the big cities, even though, I must say, that big cities I still find fascinating places.
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