|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.
When you actually come to write a poem, do you work it out in your head before you write it down? Or how do you go about it?
I usually know ... now the only thing, if it's a formal poem I may work out what the form is. But I'm not even then quite sure that this form will suit. I always call it a sort of ... it's like a mix and match outfit. You don't know what goes with which, until you try them out. So you may start something in one form and then move to another form, because it doesn't seem to be working. Very often, if you're working with direct speech, then of course it may be free verse and it may end up being some kind of dramatic monologue, or mixed monologue, such as Enter Without So Much As Knocking, where you're cutting in a sort of cinematic way from parts of the voice to parts of some other sort of action or image. But apart from that, the way in which the form determines the thing, I kind of leave open, because I've seen enough examples in other people, quite apart from my own, where if you start to get hooked on rhymes, or hooked on some particular form, it may take you away from what your original intention was. And you can often end up writing about something quite different from what you had in mind, not necessarily something better, but something different. So you have to be ... and I've tried to be fairly free and easy about what form it is. And sometimes people say to me, 'But look, is this poetry?' whatever their definition of poetry is. And I say, 'Well I'm not terribly concerned as to whether it's poetry or not. It's something that I simply want to write in this particular form'. And if somebody turned around and said to me, 'Look, that's poetic prose', or 'It's not poetic, it's just plain prose', I say, 'Well, so what? That's what it is'. And at times, of course, I've written prose monologues, and again, had I wanted to, or had I tried to, I may well have cut them up into some free verse form, and served them up as poetry. But again, it's not an issue that particularly worries me one way or the other. I'm not a kind of purist about form. But it will often be ... The images or the metaphors will often determine the form. Sometimes the form will determine the metaphors. It's not really a closed or simple question at all.
How important was it for your confidence, for you to feel that you had a really good grasp of the craft of poetry?
Well, I [laughs] never thought ... I've never thought that I had such a great grasp actually. I mean I could point to people that I think are far better, far more skilled practitioners of verse forms than myself: Les Murray, obviously, for one. Alec Hope for another. Gwen Harwood is a third. Rosemary Dobson is a fourth. Judith Wright of course. Not necessarily all in that order. I'd put them all within ... they're all in a first four or five of my sort of Oz Australian Eleven. But ... and I think all of them are probably better practitioners of various forms than I am. But I've had a go at a lot of forms. I've never been particularly tempted to attempt many villanelles or forms like that. Or ballads for that matter. But I don't let form become a kind of determinant in a sense, whereas some people may decide that the form determines the ease of which, or the effectiveness which, they'll be able to go ahead. I'm not ... I'm not stuck on that.
Do you write regularly?
Not regularly at all. Weeks, perhaps months, may pass and I don't write anything. And other months may come which I'm writing a lot of different things. Things often trigger other things, and not things that are necessarily closely related. Sometimes though, forms contribute something. There was a month in Melbourne where I wrote about twenty sonnets on all sorts of subjects: about visiting an ideal homes exhibition and finding somebody using the loo was the subject of one sonnet. Various ... some of those, but not that one, are in the collected edition. And various sonnet forms: Shakespearean, Spenserian, Miltonic and so they're ways of ... they're five finger exercises. Sometimes just to take particular forms and work your way through them. They're ways of keeping your ... I always believe that a person should have some skill with form. If they don't ... I mean I don't think everybody can be a Bradman and be unorthodox in making big scores, or hitting enough runs to justify inclusion in that Australian Eleven. I think you've got to kind of have some skills behind you. Even behind what, you know ... you may be writing in free verse. You have to be ... I mean Bradman practised with a cricket stump and a golf ball I believe in Bowral, and that seems to me to be demanding, a very demanding skill in terms of eyeball sense at an early age. So then if he wanted to be unorthodox later on, behind the unorthodoxy would lie a lot of very formal skills that he could call upon, if he needed to.
Looking back, do you see that there was any particular time or any particular kinds of times that produced a lot of response from you? The times that you were writing well, was there a particular reason for it that you can see now?
Yes, well sometimes a person, if you're fond of someone, it may be something that triggers a number of poems, or somebody you're particularly unfond of may trigger a number of poems. There've been politicians that have entered both categories. There are politicians that I'm particularly fond of. John Kerrin, for example, I liked very much as a Minister of Primary Industry in the Labor Government at one stage, and I thought he was a great man for the job. So great a man for the job that in the end they kind of got rid of him. But I admired him very much as a sort of, as a person from, you know, the distance that of an ordinary voter. Other people I detested thoroughly, and wrote a number of poems, working through my detestation. And it's not a matter of whether they're going to succeed or not. You simply, you're doing in your own way what other people do, is expressing your beefs and dislikes and working them out of your system. And I think that's good for you. It may be unfortunate for your friends who have to put up with the results of it, but they don't all get into print, and they don't all get to hear all of them. So there's a certain amount of sort of tamping the wind to the shorn lamb, as far as other people getting to know about it. But again, that's part of the sort of process of working through. I've never been a kind of purist in the sense I have to choose some great subject. It can be anything. And I ... But if I work through and something occurs to me, I'll try it out. As I say, it's like the mix and match thing. A particular personality, some particular approach may work, others obviously won't. And I've written plenty of failures, where I attempted to do some sort of thumbnail sketch. I'm particularly fond, for example, of political cartoonists. And Australia, as you know, from the last hundred years, has been very rich in political cartoonists. I love their work, and the Pettys and the Patrick Cooks. I mean Cook is also a fine satirical writer as well as a cartoonist. And Leahy [?] and obviously others who are not so much political, like Leunig, who is a particular favourite of mine. You can see on the wall here, various things from various cartoonists at various times. Larsen at times. He is an American. And they all sort of trigger particular ideas, and express in a short and very pithy way, things I would loved to have been able to do myself.
But some of your poetry is a little bit like verbal cartooning, isn't it? Some of the shorter work that you did, or maybe what people have referred to as your less serious work, has nevertheless been quite serious in terms of lampooning people.
Oh yes, sure. Yeah. I usually take the position I suppose of the little man who looks up at the ... at sometimes the effigies and the great statues and imagines himself having the wings of ... not of a dove, of a pigeon, so that he could kind of express his sort of disdain for them from a suitable height. [Laughs] So, that's part of the fun of being at all satirical. And I think it's very important that public figures should get used to the idea. I mean the idea, for example, that ... I think I wrote about this once, that pigeons should be banned from public edifices, seems to me a horrendous notion, and one of the ... surely one of the functions of pigeons is to express the people's contempt and concern for those they, that, you know, stand beneath them.
Especially the Joe Bjelke-Petersens of this world.
Well, to name one, yes, though, I mean in a way, Joe's a kind of ... you can live in a world of Joes, but there are others who are far more kind of ... far more worrying than Joe. And I think of the ones that other countries have seen in operation. We've been very lucky that way, that we've had ... We may have had kind of aspirants to tyranny, but we've had no tyrants in the sense that other people have had them. And I particularly admire the work of writers like Herbert, the Polish poet, who lived through the kind of communist occupation of Poland, and had to take a very subversive sort of ... and indirect ways of dealing with the kind of ... with the oppression of the communist authorities.
They physical act of writing a poem, do you have ... Some poets have very particular ways in which they want to do that. What's your approach to writing it?
Pretty ... pretty haphazard actually. I ... well I get a ... you know, I don't line up pens, or pencils in a neat line and ... not like Rowan Atkinson, doing an exam. I don't do that kind of thing, I take it as it comes. So I'll try something out. And I may be sitting at the dining room table. I've never had a study. So even when I did studies as a formal sort of activity, I did them either in the kitchen or in the dining-room. And the television's usually on, or the radio may be on, and it was often when the kids were home, activities. And they seemed to me to be a natural, and nobody ever got shushed or told the master is creating or that sort of nonsense. So things went on with their activities and dogs and cats wanted to be fed and tickled under the chin and so on. And you accepted that as part of the free flow of demands that you had to meet. And so I've never kind of taken it ... it's never been a kind of sacrosanct activity. You know, whisper, 'Who dares, little Brucie Dawe is saying his poetic prayers', is not the sort of ... is not the way I approach it. I can appreciate others might find that as the kind of circumstance in which ... and I hope you know what I'm talking about - where they have to go bush or meditate or contemplate their navel, or go through some yoga exercises in order to come to terms with their inner self or the inner child or whatever the particular fantasy is. I don't have that kind of approach to it. I just take it as it comes. For me, poetry is a kind of ... is a common sort of daily activity. And even when it comes to recognition, I always think you have to go ... you have to leave the recognition, whatever praise or condemnation you've received, and go out into the workaday world and justify the rest of your life. So life comes first, art comes second, and I think that's the way it always has to be for me.
So you choose a really sort of offhand approach?
Does that mean that your work's fairly variable?
Well, yes, yes. And people have pointed this out at times. And I can remember a very early critic, David Martin, being spot on when he said in relation to my first collection, that I'd often be blamed for not having an authentic voice, though some have managed to find some sort of authentic voice since then, but that I shouldn't let it worry me, because there was enough of the poetry in me anyway to survive such criticisms. Now that seemed to me to be a fine enough sort of encouragement in itself to say, 'Look don't worry'. And young people often say, 'How did you get your voice?' I don't think you get voices. I think people who get voices end up being taken carefully away by somebody else and put in a padded room. I don't get sort of voices in that sense. You are what you are and if it occurs to you to, that from your memory bank, some things pop out and suggest themselves as tones and expressions and terms, then that may be so. But voices, no. And to aim at a voice, it's like those kind of fantasies they have when they do the lives of musicians: the bloke who's trying to hit that top note that always mysteriously alludes him, but he seeks it as a kind of, you know, holy grail. That may be true with saxophonists and trumpeters, or Glenn Millers or other sort of musicians, I don't know. But it's not something that occurred to me as being worthwhile. It seems to be will o' the wisp. You are what you are. And if no kind of discernible voice or approach comes out of that, well that's ... that's your problem.
Do you think that some of the strength, and particularly the humour of your poetry, comes from the fact that you won't take the whole thing too seriously?
That could be so, I think. I mean I ... I think it also matches up with something in the Australian temperament which says it's a big country and we're kind of thinly spread here, and epic voices and monumental kind of percussions are not really not going to be ... amount to much. So let's try and do what we can with a certain sort of modesty, as to how much we'll achieve and whether, if we sound a note in Toowoomba, they'll hear it at Uluru. That's the kind of approach I have. And so it never dismays me to know that people say, 'Oh, look I've never heard of you'. I say, 'That's fine, the world's full of people who have never heard of people, and it doesn't do either of them any kind of harm'. And I appreciate that. That suits me fine. I like that approach.
I get the feeling that worst thing you could be called is pompous or pretentious.
Well, there are worse things, but offhand I can't think of them. Yeah. It's ... I mean nobody wants to be pompous or pretentious, I guess. It just turns out that some have a natural affinity for it. And others, it comes a little hard to them. And I never kind of ... I never sort of work at that sort of thing. But I'm aware that it can happen. And the problem of being any kind of talking head for any length of time is that, you know, pomposity or pretentiousness can sort of creep in. You know, it's a bit like they said about the person who studied philosophy. That the person said, 'I always tried to study philosophy, but humour would keep on breaking in'. And there's a worry about thinking too consecutively and too long about any one thing, that in the end you'll end up turning it from something serious into a farce.
Could you describe the sort of subject matter that you've mostly been preoccupied with?
[Laughs] Well, I can't think of ... I mean, as you know I mixed in politics, as a ... I vote like other people, and I don't believe in being an informal voter, even though I can see the temptation is often there. I write about people, who interest me more than anything else, because I'm one of them. And in writing about others I'm, I suppose, at least part of the time, I am trying to come to understand myself. But it's a more gregarious way of coming to the understanding than simply kind of immediately and directly delving into the inner person, which seems to me to be one of those frightening things that Tom Wolfe writes about in the Me decade. And we've had these Me decadent people around for several decades now, and I think they're the most boring and terrible people to deal with. So I'm not that interested in the inner life as a permanent subject. So people become the kind of way in which I try to come to terms with myself and the world. And other things: animals. Dogs, I particular like.
Yes, dogs feature in your poems, not so much in poems about dogs, but very, very often dogs pop up in your poems in very key moments.
I think they're kind of ... I think they're sort of, you know, people creatures, in a way. I mean they're close to us. There's a kind of anti-dog movement at the moment I think that's because I think feminists feel that men like dogs because they like creatures who are quiescent and subservient. And I think that ... I don't think that's the only reason why men like dogs. It may be one of the reasons, but of course, it's something that tends to sort of ... and I don't want to get into questions about whether men relate to dogs as women do to cats, though I can see why that kind of connection was made. But dogs are just kind of friendly creatures and I think they're idealised selves in way, too. They're what we ... and many people have made the point I think that they're Edenic creatures. They're us before the Fall. They're us when we still believed in trust and loyalty and faith, and devotion. And in those ways, I think having dogs ... and the point has been made ... I mean it's one of those kind of curiosities, isn't it, that people have to do Ph.D's and vast research to find out that dogs and pets are good for people. We knew that. Anybody who had pets knew that long before researchers decided they would put dogs in hospitals and in retirement homes and so on, and that people who had such creatures, were often psychologically and physically the better for it, no matter what, you know, potential diseases they might catch from cats or dogs. I think a world without either would be a dreadful place. So I'm not in favour of ... I'm not in favour of ... I meet people that I think should respect the fact that you can't have dogs everywhere or cats everywhere. You have feral ... you have a feral world, and we've got enough of those with feral kids. So I think, you know, I think you have to kind of you know, keep the vets.
Is it important to you when you're writing your poetry, to think of it as read? What about reading poetry aloud?
Oh, I think that's very important. And I ... I'm very pleased to see now that poetry readings are assumed to be part of the normal way which people come to poetry. The poem on the page, seems to me, after all, is a script. It's still waits for actors to read it. And without going into the question of performance poets, I think every person who reads is a performer - and it's not just waving your arms around and doing back flips, or one and a half gainers or something that proves that you're a performance poet, not like the other dreary readers. I think every reader is a performer of poetry. Every person who looks at the poem on the page and hears that poem in their head is a performer of the poem. And so I see poems as sort of scripts on the page, for people to take up and read. And if there's more than one interpretation, within reason, then that's fine. But I'm not an absolute relativist about it. I don't think every poem's about anything. But I still think that a great advance has been made in coming to terms with the possibilities of language, when people can readily take up and read and make sense of, and share some of the experience of the original creator of the poem, or whatever the work is.
When you read your own poetry, do you ... do you enjoy doing that? Do you like being the one that reads your poetry?
Yes, I do. I mean I don't mind other people reading it too. It's not that I have a kind ... I don't want to have a kind of, you know, a copyright on it in that sense. I don't mind who reads the poetry, as long as people are reading poetry. I kind of ... I'm always tense before a reading and that's they tell me the normal thing to me. And I've hyper-vented once or twice, which helps to keep you in your place too, to think it can happen again, which you hope it won't. Audiences are mostly kind of supportive, and most readers find this. And once you have a supportive audience, then nothing really can go wrong. But I don't read from ... I don't read ... I don't ... Like performance people I think usually perform. I always read from text not from ... I've seen tragic examples of what happens when people thought they'd remembered the poem perfectly, and suddenly forgot half-way through. I ... I ... And I also like to have the book in front of me because it's a reminder to the audience that you have actually kind of got a book. You've reached that stage of definition.
Have you always had everybody in the audience appreciate your reading?
Oh no, no. I've had people walk out on readings. And it's ... and I accept that. If I'm reading a poem which is about abortion and there are women in the audience, it's almost kind of a necessary thing now for some women to walk out, feeling that first of all, as a man I shouldn't have an opinion about it. And secondly, if I have an opinion, it should be the same as theirs. Neither of these things I accept. But I defend their right to differ. And as long as they don't completely disrupt the reading, I don't mind them absenting themselves in felicity a while.
You've written quite a lot of poems that come out of your religious beliefs. Is that a very important element to you when you come to be inspired to write poetry?
If so, yes, of course, I'm a practising Catholic in the way that some people are goof golfers. You know, [laughs] I'm not ... I don't, as it were, carry a kind of halo round with me or anything like that. I sort of ... I see myself always as a kind of converted pagan. And I think that's a ... probably a healthier way to be. So I've got over the first sort of enthusiasm, which is pretty frightening to everybody else, of being a convert to a religious faith, and have reached the stage now of finding what I have in common with other people who don't happen to share my particular beliefs, as well as with other people who do share them. But I still believe in beliefs, and I still believe in doctrines, which many people these days would like to think don't exist. They want everybody to be equally woolly and vague about everything, so that we can all be sort of together in some nirvana, where nobody believes in anything much except each other, which is a pretty dreadful thing. I don't hold with that. I'm a traditionalist in religion. That makes me a conservative. And I'm very happy, in fact, supportive and argue for a conservative approach to religious belief. I don't think people should change their doctrines, and accept or modify teaching simply because they think the young people will be fooled by that. That's kind of coffee-in-the-cathedral-crypt religion, and I don't happen to believe in that. Though I know there are people in many orthodox religious bodies who do think that way: to get the young in is to add to the number of tambourines, or the number of slide shows or something or other ... which will lure them in. I don't think that's possible. I think good imaginative teaching of basic truths is the way to get people to believe in faiths. It's the way anybody ... Otherwise they'll be seen for what they are: con men or con women trying to sort of lure the innocent into things without really believing that themselves.
What kind of a god do you have in your head that you worship?
[Laughs] Well, I don't have a god ... I don't have a god in any kind of anthropomorphic sense at all. I've got past thinking about elderly gentlemen with flowing beards. I think, as a kind of orthodox believer, I think that the ... It has to be a god who can accommodate what we know of the life of Christ, and the intentions of Christ. And so it has to be a god who's larger than many people's gods, but still one who was ... had a sufficient sense of humour to create us. And I think that's got to be a god with ... a fun-loving god in a way too. I mean, there's been some rather tedious debates about the fact that there's no humour in the Bible. That's absolute nonsense. Anybody who goes no further than to study the parables of Jesus will sort of know that they're full of irony and full of humour. It's just that people like to think that the Bible is a ... is a dead serious text. It's not. It doesn't start serious, and it doesn't end serious. It's got lots of, you know, highs and lows in it. There's a lot of chiaroscuro there. And I think that's the sort of god we have to create out of our understanding of the one time when, as far as we know, he took on historic form, in the life and person of Christ. And through various sacraments, which depend upon which particular denomination you ... or even as to how seriously and in what form they take.
Was there anything in particular that moved you to write poetry about abortion?
Well, let me first point out that I had been writing about abortion long before I became a Catholic. It's something that went with my belief in the sacredness of life, and so it's consistent with a generally anti-nuclear view of the world, and a pro-environmental view of life. So ... and I think that anybody who thinks about it, and steps outside their ideological position, would find it very hard to believe that a person, for example, according to the law, can be had up for manslaughter or murder for killing an unborn child, as a person was charged, I think a few years back in Brisbane. But if they do it when they've got a hospital gown on with the right documents, then it's okay. I don't believe that's possible. There seems to me an intense conflict of perceptions there, and I'm all in favour of the unborn having rights too. I don't believe that simply because the unborn happened to be located where they are, gives the woman all the rights and the unborn child no rights, and that's irrespective of Rowe versus Wayne.
It's been commented about you that it's very ... you're very hard to pigeonhole ideologically, because you have quite strong, what would be called, Leftist views in some respects, and in other respects, as you've described, you're really quite conservative. Do you enjoy the fact that you're so hard to pigeonhole?
Not particularly, no. I mean again, it's not one of those things I sort of ... if you start to think about ... Ellicoat I think once said, in another context, that more people are destroyed by other people's opinions of them. And I've always kept that in mind: that you mustn't let other people's opinions of you be a determinant of what you yourself can make of yourself. So I don't let perceptions of myself as leaning to the Left, or leaning to the Left with a strong bias to the Right, and some kind of confusion in the middle, be a determinant of who I am. I'm always grateful that I had some Leftist leanings, because I admire the Left for their involvement and concern with social issues and political issues, and with the defence of certain rights. On the other hand, I'm aware also that the Left has been a great ... The extreme Left, in particular, but also perhaps the centre Left, has been a great sort of haven for self delusion, and the Soviet experiment was a classic example of that. So I was very early disabused of any kind of simplistic view of what your ... of what your political orientation should mean to you. Stalin and Lenin, two of the monsters of the Twentieth Century, stand sufficiently sort of out in my ... so much highlight in my imagination, that it wasn't possible for me to kind of go along with any party line. And that goes for, of course, conservative party lines too.
So a cut and dried world doesn't have much appeal for you?
No, it doesn't. I mean, I believe in ... I believe in original sin, especially the bit about not being original. [Laughs] But ... and I think that we're basically imperfect creatures. And those who lead us one or another to Utopia, through something we smoke or something we kind of get into our heads one way or another, through socialist Utopias, or Aryan Utopias, I think are kidding themselves and I think they're often very dangerous people, and have very dangerous thoughts. Now I defend their right, within reason, to have those thoughts, but I don't want to share them. And I've seen enough of Twentieth Century history to see how dangerous some of those perceptions can be.
[DISCUSSION OF TAPE POSSIBLY RUNNING OUT] You've earned your living, for the major part of your life, from teaching. How do you like teaching?
Oh, I thought it was wonderful. I was again lucky in that I stumbled, as it were. Remember that when I first went to university, it was in the guise of, or under the guise of a teaching scholarship, though I believe I wouldn't have been very effective, very useful as a teacher at that stage. But coming to it later, another fifteen years later, at least I'd learnt. There's a saying in the services, when you get your long service good conduct medal. They always say fifteen years of undetected crime, and in a sense that kind of sardonic view of what you may have acquired through experience, not through native intelligence, was something I think I may have picked up to. Sufficient years of undetected crime between nineteen ... when I was twenty-four to when I was thirty-nine, those fifteen years. I didn't get a long service good conduct medal, [coughs] but it did fit me into more for covering my deficiencies as a teacher. And I started at a single sex school, which is always a lot easier, in a very kind of convivial and supportive atmosphere. The common room was very supportive of me, and I was always very grateful for the men and women that I taught with, because they made me feel at home from the start. And those two and a half years at Downlands were immensely important to the twenty plus years that I then went on to spend at a tertiary institution in the same city.
And teaching English Literature, did that ... do you feel that that was helpful to your poetry, that you actually found that role?
Yes, I think so. There's always one kind of problem about it, though it's a kind of two way ... it works both ways I guess. That is, the very fact of being a teacher means that you're a metaphor user. Your metaphors, your analogies, the inevitable bridges that teachers make between their experience and that of students, so that some traffic can sort of go both ways across whatever dark and troubled waters there are. And so in a sense, I often thought using metaphors in the process of teaching, I was possibly running the risk of exhausting my sort of ... my reserve bank of metaphors and images and so on. But the other thing is that I think you get a lot back. Incidentally, you get back the forced education that you have to give, as ... you have to get it as well as give. And I think that was important for me, because I think I may have pointed out before, I was undisciplined as a sort of reader in my early ... in my teenage years. And university studies forced me to read things and think more consecutively than I would have otherwise, and then teaching also forces on people, however undisciplined they are, a certain sort of formal requirements. And that again I think was good for me. It kept a bit of - if I can use the term - tone in my intellectual muscles. So that was good for me. It may have been not quite so wonderful for the students. But they were ... were very kind of ... they were very forgiving. And I enjoyed those early years. But also all the other years I spent at the tertiary institution, which is now the University of Southern Queensland, were equally kind of rewarding.
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