|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.
How do you feel about the downgrading of the humanities that's occurred in universities and generally in schools in the last little while? As a teacher of the humanities and someone whose work is also studied, how do you feel about all of that?
Well, I'm naturally appalled. I don't believe that the downgrading can possibly be justified, and I'm thoroughly on the side of those who've represented the humanities in various ways, in discussion, in letters to the editors and so on in various newspapers, and I thoroughly agree with them. I think it's a disastrous thing. If the humanities mean anything, they mean the capacity for us to go on being human in the widest and most intelligible ways, and therefore the downgrading of that area just doesn't make sense to me and never has, and never will. I think it's been on the cards ever since there's been a narrowing of the definition of what a university is for in the minds of some people, and especially in the minds of politicians, who are looking ... I can still remember in fact the Democrat senator speaking at our university, and saying to us, to the staff association members, that education is ... while it's often spoken about, it's rated very, very low down in the list of priorities in surveys, and while it has this low rating, then politicians are not going to do very much to pick it up, and it's really up to educators themselves to put forward their case very vigorously and very militantly, in order to register, not only in the public mind, in the mind of the public's representatives, the politicians. That it deserves more attention and more ... and more respectful attention than it's getting and until that happens, then it will continue to suffer, simply because it's got a low rating.
How did you react personally, when you were first ... when ... when this first became a very fashionable view, working as you were, as a fairly senior person in that area, how did you feel?
Well, in the case of the tertiary institution I was working at, the proposal was that literature, for example, should become a minor option study. I thought this was a nonsense. I still do. And since then of course, it's been redefined as a major study, and now has its own sort of full professor. And these are things which I'm ... I'm personally delighted with because I think they're absolutely essential. The other thing that, more recently, horrified me again, and made me feel that after all we were certainly not protected fauna in any sense, but rather an endangered species after all, was a recent analysis in the Courier Mail, suggesting that there was some ... on the books, there was some proposal that history units should be grouped under some generally vaporous title, such as Time, Continuity & Change, which the author of this article saw as being, in fact, a polite way of doing away with history as a ... as a serious discipline. Now, if that ever becomes the case at the secondary level, then it will obviously have terrible and irreversible ramifications for the tertiary level, and it will immediately signify, I think, that literature itself, as a discipline area will be under similar threat, because history and literature are, in my view, indivisible, and especially for a relatively ahistorical people such as our own. So I view all these things with the utmost sort of alarm and concern, and I'm not sure where the dove that's going to bring our rather endangered art to the land is going to come from. But I think a lot of people in Australia have to think again about what their priorities are, or we're going to live in a very different and very much more hostile and, I think, degraded world than the world we presently inhabit.
Can I ask you now about your other writing, the writing that you've done that is not poetry. You've written essays and you wrote for the local paper and you're also an inveterate letter writer.
Well, I ... inveterate until the last year or so. Once I started to do a television review column for the Chronicle, which I did for two plus years on a weekly basis, I decided I wouldn't also enter the fray in any other form. So ... and then at the same time I was, and still am, poetry editor for the Courier Mail. So again, I excluded myself from participation, not out of any ideological grounds, but simply because I thought I had enough on my plate. Now I no longer do the television reviewing, but I enjoyed it while I did it, but in the end I found it harder and harder to find the grains of wheat amongst the chaff, in the commercial stations in particular. There are so many repeats of repeats and so many things which are put together from the cutting room floor, you know: the best of this and the worst of that and so on, that in the end it made reviewing, in fact, very - for a person who saw himself as a kind of loan ... a sort of ... what shall we say? ... a lay man's Clive James - a very limited sort of territory. And so at that point I gave it away. But it was enjoyable in itself. And I particularly admired Clive James's television viewing, which at times was marvellous. I think it's the best thing. In fact, I'd written to him I think at one stage, and said to him that I thought it was wonderful and it really throws a new light. And some of the things that he did, I think, as working principles, were eminently sensible. For example, he always said that he should simply not get stuff from the television networks, but actually treat himself as a sort of private viewer, and write from that perspective, which is very honest I think, and a very worthwhile one, because it puts him in the same frame of mind, of course, as most of his readers, who as you know, are sort of ensured that those collections of his television reviews have gone into reprint after reprint. So that was my initial kind of point there. And I took up television reviewing immediately upon completing my sort of teaching career, my full time teaching career, so that was one of the ways in which I tried to fill in one of the gaps. But in the end I found myself ... It's a bit of a kind of trap, because you think well I'll just review this and that, and I'll do a few more bits and pieces, so that the features editor can choose the ones that she wants, but in the end, you find yourself with notepad and pencil in hand, watching too many things, hoping to pick up the odd sort of slow swimming ... you know, that actually beats your net anyway. But you say, 'Well is it all worth it?' And as I say, I never saw myself as a threat to Clive James or Philip Adams, or Errol Simper, or any of the other television experts and critics. So in the end I decided, no, no, I really wasn't ... It didn't pay very well. I didn't mind that so much, but since the time seemed inordinate to the recompense I was getting, I gave it away at that stage.
Were you asked to do it in the first place, or did you suggest it?
No, I volunteered to do it, I think.
It's an interesting thought, a poet as television critic, because Clive James was an example of that, but it was interesting that you would. Do you like television?
I have a kind of hate-love relationship with television, as I have with lots of other things. I find it fascinating, compulsive, irritating in the extreme, loathsome, demeaning, and at times very instructive and very moving. It depends on what the programmes are, and who's running them. And I mean, you know, all the kind of things that Jacques Costeau used to do, the David Suzuki, and Attenborough, the wildlife things generally, apart from when they're showing things about how many creatures can be cruel to each other, I'm sort of ... I'm usually watching, fascinated by. I love for example, the segment in Burke's Backyard - the one segment I did love, because I can't stand Don Burke - where the woman comes on with the insect section. I forget her name now. I thought she was wonderful.
Yes. I thought they were marvellous. But there've been lots of other wonderful series on insects and so on. Those, plus some historical ones. Some of the American ones, like The West, and The Civil War and so on, are marvellous things. And although I gather that the American Visions is better as a book, I'm a great fan of Giles Auty, the art critic of The Australian. I think he's a wonderful writer, and very perceptive and very, very honest, which seems to me unusual in an art critic. He sees right through the pretensions of the age and of the ... especially the artistic aspects of the age. And so I like those kind of ... he mentions that ... he thinks the book of American Visions is better than the film version. But no, there are things I like about it and things I don't. There are shows which show great insensitivity and stupidity, and they seem to abound, and there are other shows which have, you might say, a more modest basis, such as, for example, Australia's Most Wanted, which shows much more - both my son and I both agree ... show much more sensitivity to the victims of crime, than the shows which are supposedly the current affairs oriented shows, which are often tendentious and presumptuous about their own position, and they position themselves in relation to the victims in a way that makes the victims, victims twice over.
Your interest in television seems to be part of that whole sharing of the interests of middle Australia, of ... of the suburban, and so on. It's something that you are really quite happy to be involved in.
Oh yes. I kind of ... I don't feel guilty about it. And I don't feel I should be necessarily doing something else, although I do know that I'm going to be, in any one night, unless it's watching football or tennis, probably disappointed in some of the offerings I ... I get. I tend to sort of surf channels rather than stick with one, so that means you're trying to get what suits you - what suits you or what appeals to you best. But you can often be mistaken about that. And there are particular kind of series I like. For example, I like the Inspector Frost series, but I couldn't stand Morse, because of his - I thought - boorishness. And I can't stand Wexford, whom I find incredibly sort of dull, and the stories, you know, usually on the psychopathic side of right. So there you are. I love The Simpsons, though we don't always watch it. But I love The Simpsons. I, in fact, used to urge students to watch The Simpsons long before they became part of cultural studies.
What makes you write a letter to the paper, rather than a poem, when you're moved by something?
Well, I mean sometimes, one poet called his poems Letters to the World and I think, in fact, whether it's a letter or a poem, is sort of a matter of relative sort of indifference, personally. It may be that it's a letter ... although I'm not writing letters at the moment, but letters are just ways of saying things that I might try in another form when writing less poems. But I don't have a kind of ... I don't say this'll be a letter, that'll be a poem. I write and it'll turn out to be a letter in one form. Sometimes it's being engaged by somebody else's letter, or somebody else's position which I want to have a go at. But as I say, I ... I'm not in a letter writing mode at the moment. Haven't been for some time and I guess I've left the Courier Mail off my list, because of being a poetry editor for them, and I've disengaged, to some extent, from the Chronicle, I guess because, in a sense, if you take up those things, you may have to run them through a whole series, and I've had that happen to me, where I've had a series of letters on a particular point. There was a person in Toowoomba, for example, who was clearly a conspiracy theorist of a fascinatingly extensive kind. So I wrote, purporting to be the chairperson of a panel called the Conspiracy of the Year Award, COTY for short, and awarding him the prize for the year. And he got furious with me and got my terms of reference wrong, and I congratulated him in a following letter, saying that getting the terms wrong is another proof of the wisdom of the committee in choosing him and he was then abusive. And I said, 'To be abused is further proof that the committee has chosen well' and that however he must realise that you can't win the award two years running and he must now sort of desist from this. So playing that kind of end on game is one way that you ... you can do it with a series of letters, which are kind of like a ping pong game. But I'm not into that at the moment.
You're a terrible tease to do that to him.
Well, yeah. I think he felt I was just an idiot, and that's okay. I mean in the eyes of anybody, anybody else you can appear to be an idiot, and if it pleases them to think you are, then at least you've given some pleasure to their lives. And I don't mind that. I mean I don't expect everybody to take me seriously. I don't take myself seriously all the time. And I would enjoy ... There's something about the cut and thrust of that sort of thing, which ought to be a sort of pleasure. Unfortunately it isn't. One's worry is that often letters to the editor become merely kind of [an] ideologue's personal battleground, where they ... and often not their own battleground, but actually they're serving up material, whether it's the Sir John Birch Society, or some other group, which countless others have manhandled before them. So it's not even ... not even original, though in the local newspaper there are often witty correspondents, who know how to turn a phrase and strike some sparks of wit from what seem unlikely stones. And I think that's a very pleasurable part of the ... any editor's mail bag.
Do you find now that you're very much a public figure since your awards and your public recognition and so on, that you get asked to do a lot of public speaking and so on, that actually makes it hard for you to stick with doing your poetry?
No, not very much. I don't get asked very often. I think ideologically I'm off-centre in various ways to various people. And I accept that that's ... that's the necessary cost if it is a cost, that you pay for not being middle of the road. And ... and if I can use that abused term, 'politically correct' in every way. If you're politically incorrect, then you're going to be offside to this group or that group and you may not ... Besides which, at my advanced age, I'll be seen as part of the past. I'll be included with sunset clauses rather than anything else. So I don't get ... I don't get asked a great deal. And sometimes after I've done a reading, it may be years will pass and I'll realise ... I remember doing a reading in Sydney, in which my two sons were present, and probably the first time they'd ever seen me read. And they're both now fully grown. And they said when I read, 'Oh you lost them Dad, you lost them on that', and I knew I'd lost them. I didn't intend to keep them actually. But I was reading things that were important to me, but they obviously were found to be potentially offensive to others. Well, that's ... that's their privilege. But then, when you get asked ... Another writer said to me once that one thing he liked about me was I didn't always read things that flattered people, and I always imagine that one of the things an audience should be able to depend on, is that not everybody will try and, as it were, sleep them down and cuddle up to them with everything they do. You have to be yourself first and foremost, and without going out of your way to gratuitously insult everybody, you know, there are ways in which you still have to observe certain sort of primary sort of principles.
You've said that you feel that a poet ought to be more a blue heeler than a lap dog.
So what did you ... what did you actually mean by that?
Well, I think for a start, there are all sorts of cattle that need to have their heels nipped. And all sorts of sheep that need sort of turning around, and, or having their backs run over, as often happens with cattle dogs. And I think that that kind of ... blue heelers are not the most aggressive dogs, but they can be aggressive. And there's a certain sort of Australian need to be aggressive where it's an appropriate thing, and I don't think it's a matter of ... a matter of sort of, as I say, cosying up to everybody. There are ways in which you have to be yourself, and one way is that you ... is that if things matter somewhat to you, you shouldn't down play those concerns, simply because you're in the presence of others. After all, if you've gone public with them, then you must expect people to have various reactions. So I've never kind of, as I mentioned earlier, expected that every audience will like everything I do. I'd be horrified if they did. Probably everybody liked Tiny Tim, not Dickens's one, the one who played the little instrument. But then by the time they liked him, it was all over in ten seconds. And I accept Andy Warhol's definition of fame in the Twentieth Century. But [laughs] you know, I think I don't have to kind of work that hard for so little reward. So I ... You have to go your own way, and I think most artists do that. They recognise that they have to do their own ... do their own thing, and that if they're invited to read or speak, that somewhere along the line they have to say things that may not be to everybody's liking, otherwise they don't get invited. Now this is an age, in my view, where there are lots of you-beaut things, and lots of things which are not considered on the agenda, and I don't altogether agree with the agenda. So I'm not surprised that I don't get as many invitations as I should. But then if I had all the invitations, which another age might have given me, I wouldn't have been able to take them up anyway, and I may have simply disappointed more people.
What does an issue where you were, as it were, a blue heeler, spring to mind? Was there ... Is there one example you could give us?
I suppose - well, one obvious one, one is taking political figures. For example, to attack Paul Keating wasn't always considered, in artistic circles, a wise thing, the Labor Government,the Federal Labour Government, being seen as greater sort of patron to the arts than most Liberal governments, and most Labor governments before it. And he himself, seeing himself, for reasons best known to him, as something of an art connoisseur, it was a sort of a natural thing, that I think it would be expected that people would leave him alone. But I don't ... I didn't have that line and I wasn't a great admirer of his way of doing business at all, and so I took it ... I took it as being a natural thing for me to attack him and attack his personal foibles as much as anybody else's. It didn't ... I ... I'm sure it didn't worry him one little bit, and if it did, well that's just tough luck, because that's what public figures are there for, to have critics. And I think a smart person will realise that many of the critics have the target's best interests at heart as well. And I've taken the point at times that critics that have attacked me have done so out of their and my best interests, and I've respected that. And I think any political public figures, as well as poetic figures, should sort of take the same line. [INTERRUPTION]
When you've read your poetry publicly, has it always been appreciated by the audience?
Mostly, I think by most audiences. Sometimes people may walk out, but as I say, if they walk out, that's their privilege and it doesn't distress me. I guess if I was in their position, and I had the views they had, then I would probably walk out too. It's a way of making a statement. And at times others have written to me, or contacted me and said, 'Look, I'm sorry about that', but there's nothing to be sorry about. I mean if they started throwing things, I might kind of ... if the fruit and vegetables weren't usable, I might kind of be annoyed, especially if it was my best shirt of something. But apart from that, I don't mind. It's ... I understand the problem with going public. You know, if you go public, then you expect the critics will express themselves in various ways, and I understand that. And so it's not a matter of great concern to me. I remember years ago, going to a speech and drama society reading and a lady approached me before the reading and said, 'There may be a certain person here tonight who'll ask some awkward questions. I hope you don't mind and just don't take any notice of him'. Well the person was there. I found him a charming person, who kept on asking me questions. He always called me John and asked me had I got a job yet. And he used to haunt the university. I was then a ... shortly after a writer in residence at University of Queensland. He'd come bounding up in the walkway or something and say, 'Have you got a job yet, John?' And I kind of would say, 'Nah, still working at it'. Or you know, and keep him happy. And he used to appear everywhere apparently. He was a kind of ... I wrote a poem about him called A Certain Person because he apparently appeared also sometimes at very important conferences of academics, and would sit up the back and ask serious questions, but questions which bemused the visiting dignitaries, you see, who weren't quite sure where he was coming from, or what his qualifications were. But his qualifications were that he was just the kind of interesting, if slightly sort of off-centre, person. So you know, that's as I say, I wasn't put out by, and I'm not usually put out by those kind of things. Though there was a question asked of me, did I ... When ... when you're the speaker, you're in a position of power, and I think that always makes you very wary of, you know ... of being the nasty person who wants to kind of exert your power. And when people have put their neck under your heel, actually sort of putting pressure on the heel. When I was at ... in Adelaide once, on a week's reading, and the week's reading ended with a reading in a very large assemble hall with a pulpit, which is part of the story. And from the pulpit I started to read, and there were about 800 students pooled in from various schools. And when I finished reading - I read Homecoming, that elegy about the Vietnam dead - and when ... which I read in a kind of fairly lugubrious tone. When I'd finished reading, a senior lad slouched up the front, directly underneath the pulpit, put his hand up and asked the first question of the day. And he said, 'Mr. Dawe, do you always read in such a boring and monotonous tone?' And there was a dreadful hush, presumably people at the back identifying him, starting to codify the series of graven punishments that would follow and so on, and nodding between themselves, saying, 'Yes, we knew this would happen. We dreaded this'. And in that situation, I paused for a moment, just to let the kind of, let the possibilities, as it were, develop. And then I said - bearing in mind I was speaking from the pulpit - 'Well, some have called it boring and monotonous, others would rather call it liturgical', and you see him sort of slouch there thinking: Is that an answer? Have I - is that all there is to it? And thinking, I must try and look up the word - what was it again? Liturgical. So that was the way to do it. And I think that there's a certain sort of ... if I was more pretentious I'd use the word grace, and say that grace under pressure is a very important thing. And I think most people should aspire to it, even if they don't always succeed in it, because when you're in that position, you hold all the cards, and it's not appropriate at all to sort of deal them as though you're playing in a even handed game.
Returning now to your personal life, to your private life, discovering your wife, and settling down at sort of beginning at middle age, gave you a kind of stability that continued with you. Did the arrival of your children have a similar sort of effect?
Oh, yes, in a way, though I must say I wonder how I ever got through it all, when I see how difficult it can be. I mean the point was that I didn't get through it, my wife did most of the work. And it was her wisdom and my good luck that the two worked together. It certainly ... I don't think I was any better equipped to take on parenthood than anybody else. In the case of most men, that means rather poorly equipped, but depending a lot on speed and native cunning [more] than anything else. And I think I may have had just sufficient of those to get me through, though looking back now, I wonder how I did it. But that's again, what happens with lots of things that happen. We say later on, 'How did we manage to do it?' If in the process of doing the things you were to think about them, or reach for how to manuals on how to do it, then you'd probably be lost, because the manuals are really often no substitute for personal experience. And as I said, speed and native cunning. So those are the attributes I suppose that seem to me to have got me through it. Plus, perhaps, low form of humour that helped me to kind of bluff my way through certain sort of difficult patches.
What has being a father really meant to you?
Oh, it's meant a great deal. But I have to say from this point of view now, when my children ... or, one boy is already a father, and the other sooner or later will become a father. The older girl is a mother. Then fatherhood to me is a sort of ... is one removed, if you know what I mean. I'm looking at them going through the same process and we have that sign in our kitchen, as you will have noticed, that many people have in kitchens, or similar ironic signs about 'avenge yourself: live long enough to be a burden to your children', and I think that's very wise advice actually. And it's the one way in which parents can feel that they can make up for all the misspent years of toilet training and early childhood development.
But all this difficulty in raising children inspired a few of your most memorable poems too, didn't it?
I suppose so, yes. I must have written about it somewhere. I just can't think of any at the moment.
You wrote ... you wrote a poem to your son, Brian.
Oh yes, that's right, yes. Condolences of the Season is in that category, and that's very much a ... because he was the first. I mean your children are like your first students at school. I used to say when I had my first class as a teacher, 'You realise that you're kind of experimental animals. You die that others may live'. And whether they approved of the use of rabbits in testing cosmetics or not, they used to give a kind of ironic 'ha ha, you know, terrific', that they were being used, but that's in fact what happens. You have to start somewhere, and you have to start with others of the human species, and so you learn by ... you learn by your mistakes. You just hope that your mistakes are not fatal ones, for you or for them. And if you survive your mistakes, in many cases, that turns out to be at least the best you can go ... get out of it, you know. We can't ... We don't all rush around saying, like Cornelia, 'These are my jewels'. But in fact if they've survived. They've shown their own sort of value and obvious some of the things that you've done haven't been wrong.
You feel, though, the degree to which you care about them when they're at risk. And you've had that experience, haven't you?
Oh yes, very much so, yes. Especially when the ... when we came back from Malaysia, the twins contracted gastroenteritis. Rather I think the ... it may have been only the girl twin and she then spent a month being stabilised in hospital. So that was a very anxious time for us. And one doesn't always write about these things at the time, but we had nothing else to do except sit there and wait to hear whether she was going to live or die. So that was a very critical time. And I wrote about that in the poem Katrina and she's still alive and still kicking and has her own little baby now. So again, she's going through the process of anxieties, not of quite such a serious extent, as we went through in her case, and I think those kind of things make you part of the human ... the human chain.
You also wrote about her wedding.
Yes, that's right, which was one of the occasions where ... I mean one of the few times when I've really felt a part ... well, I don't know if one feels at home in one's own wedding, too much is happening. But in the case ... in this case - I've been to various other weddings of relatives and so on - but in this case, I was thrilled by the very way in which the wedding went off so well, and I felt very elated. And that's not my usual situation. But it was a wonderfully sort of managed wedding and it started with the Trumpet Voluntary, and I really felt, for a person of my age, weight and disposition, as light as a feather. Metaphorically speaking.
You'd grown up, yourself, with a father that was very much absent. Did you feel that in your own family you'd discovered the sort of family life that you hadn't really had as a child?
I think that's very true. And I had a kind of, you might say, a semblance of that in the families of people that I knew elsewhere. For example, the Cooney family. I met the Cooneys. Barney is a Labor Senator at the moment, and I met the Cooneys when his mum was running a little shop in South Melbourne. And the other family, also of Irish background, were the Phelans. And I knew, again, the boy through university studies, as I knew Barney through Melbourne University, and got to love the whole family very much. The older boy, Peter, flew up to Toowoomba to marry us. Barry I've kept in constant contact with, and of course I've had poems dedicated to both Peter and to Barry. Barry's poem is about a dreadful haircut he gave me once when I had hair, and poems of course to his mother, Tess. A poem about their father, and a poem dedicated to the father, too, which is the football poem, called Life Cycle. So that family's been - not just because they give you the opportunity for poems ... they're a pleasurable bi-product of in fact a very, very healthy, very effective, very living family tradition, which I value immensely. And I'm the last person in the world to ever believe that whatever Frederick Engels might have said in the Nineteenth Century, that families are a sort of you know, a drug on the market or a waste of time, or a passing phase, I think the family is still the basis on which any society ... and one of my terrible, or great concerns that I've written about often, in terms of the unemployment, is how much it impinges on family: happiness and family hopes.
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