about Graham Lindsay
A Conversation with Graham Lindsay
Originally published in Complete With Instructions, ed. David Howard (Christchurch: Firebrand, 2001): 49-52. The eight interviews with Christchurch poets which appear in the book were commissioned by David Howard and conducted by Jack Ross in February 1998.
Graham Lindsay is married, with two children. A former resident of Dunedin, he moved to Christchurch ten years ago. His books of poetry are:
‘Silence and movement and colour.’ At Graham Lindsay’s house, little silence, much movement and colour, as I met his wife, two sons, and mother-in-law collaborating in complex dinner preparations. We retired to his study at the back of the garage.
JR: Could you tell me something about your own writing methods?
GL: I started writing and publishing when I was in my late teens, and that’s twenty, twenty-five years ago. Over that period of time I’ve been using a kind of notebook process. When something occurs to you, you have a notebook handy so that you can actually put down some approximation of that idea or thought or feeling at the time, whilst you’re hot, whilst you’re familiar with it. So, having adopted that approach, I’ve found that I don’t really know at the time that I’m writing something, whether or not I’m going to be able to do anything more with it. I’ve got to go through it, perhaps months, years later, to see what is of interest there, what I can do something more with.
At this point Graham got up to show me the notebooks in his desk. The bottom drawer was packed full of red, hard-backed 4B1 notebooks. Above was another drawer, perhaps slightly less full. There were, he told me, 132 of them.
JR: Taking up again this idea of the moment when you’re hot, I’m afraid I actually do tend to take a mystical view of the creative moment.
GL: Why do you laugh?
JR: Oh, just because it’s a sort of reflex to laugh whenever you say anything that goes out on a limb of belief, asserting the existence of anything.
GL: Why is that? Because you’re absolutely right, all sorts of people make these remarks, and then they’re ambiguous about it, as if they were somehow embarrassed and ashamed to make that reference, to let that kind of idea crop up.
JR: Well, I’d simply be theorising, rationalising, but to me it’s because we don’t live in an age of faith, and therefore asserting faith in anything becomes a difficult stance.
GL: I’m inclined to think, too, that it’s quite difficult to talk about those things other than in art – other than in, say, a poem, or a piece of music, or a painting, because there’s a very real sense in which that’s the only way you can say it – in that particular form. Getting back to the process of selection, deciding what you’re going to keep working on, or what you think is worth working on – if it does have a source or an impulse in notions of the ‘mystical,’ then you’ve got to be careful how far you’re going to go, how much you’re going to say, what you’re going to let out.
JR: Yes, it’s difficult, you want to assert love for the cosmos, and all sorts of things, but you can’t say ‘I love the universe and the universe loves me,’ because it sounds silly, and yet you can – by extraordinarily adroit craftsmanship – create a context in which it works.
GL: That’s exactly right. And it seems to me (since we’re supposed to be talking about regionalism), that an ideal regionalism would be one where people were passionate about the landscape in which they lived, and were passionate about the people they lived in proximity to – friends, family – and were passionate about the works that were produced by their colleagues living in that same vicinity.
JR: Which brings me to the question of what Christchurch means, in these terms, to you?
GL: Yes, well, unfortunately the short answer is that it doesn’t mean a lot. I’m sorry to say that, because I would like it to mean a lot. I actually haven’t been able to get terribly moved by it, certainly in terms of the physical nature of the place. I love the people I live with and work with of course. And I like attending the meetings of the local poets’ collective – which is a bit like going to church, except that the congregation is the preacher.
I did use to be quite drawn to, very taken with the landscape – probably too much so – when we were living in Dunedin, prior to coming here about ten years ago. But now I’ve been here for that period of time – and I’ve spent a lot of that time going out and actually looking for interesting parts of Christchurch which could engender some response – but I haven’t been able to crack it.
It does figure in some of the things I write. I do have these little pieces of information which I write down from time to time, which are probably fairly directly about my environment, and they do find their way into the pieces of writing that I am spending time on, but they’re not touchstones. I frankly don’t find a lot of magic in the landscape here. I mean, there are interesting buildings to look at, and the light in the southern sky is interesting. Sometimes in Spring you get a low cloud cover, and the light coming down through this partial cloud cover can make the landscape look rather intriguing.
There’s a very good diorama in the Canterbury Museum of one of the bays out the back here. I don’t know if it’s an actual bay, but someone has tried to recreate pre-European Maori life and what it might have looked like. And it looks quite paradisal. There are intimations of something here, but it never seems to amount to much.
JR: Do you think that’s because it’s not your birth landscape, or in the blood?
GL: I’m not sure, because I wasn’t born in Otago. I was born in Wellington, but while I was living in Dunedin I did become very moved by those sorts of things.
JR: The Subject certainly strikes me as a very Dunedin, Otago book.
GL: Oh yes, that’s correct. It really did strike me then that it is one of the places which, for some individuals, enables them – and this sounds a little over the top, perhaps – to actually have a sense of universal in the particular. If I were to use another word, that word would be ‘wellspring.’ It seemed at the time very much like a wellspring.
This is probably getting into my more quirky territory, but I have this sense of people, and things generally, being manifestations of an eternal upwelling – and of writing as well being a manifestation of it. And I feel that if you are able to be in a place where you can achieve this coincidence between your self and that place, you can almost have something spoken through you. I don’t mean that literally; I mean it figuratively. But because you feel creative all the time, this upwelling of ideas – which almost anything can touch off – you feel you’ve noted down something that’s potentially quite exciting, because it seems to be saying something about who we are, what it means to be human, where we came from …
JR: The place is endlessly assisting …
GL: Yes, the void eternally regenerative …
JR: That was the case in Dunedin?
GL: Oh, yes, absolutely. No two ways about it. That’s why when we arrived here I went looking for it, hoping I would find something akin to that. Initially when we were looking for a house here in early ’88 we went over to Lyttelton to look at a couple of houses over there, and Christchurch on that particular day had been really very overcast, but it was apparent there was some sort of break in the clouds to the south, and when we got over to Lyttelton, sure enough, the clouds were lifting, still very low and very fog-like, but the sun had also dropped in the sky – it had gotten later – it was coming through underneath, not exactly a northwestern arc, but certainly an arc, that was allowing light through, and it really did seem very possible. And again, there was a harbour configuration to the landscape – almost like the jaws of heaven. I didn’t actually get a piece of writing out of it, that particular occasion, though I did try. That was probably the most enlivening moment I’ve had here.
JR: Clearly one can imagine a Christchurch poetry which exists at a distance in time and space. But when people are thinking or talking about your poetry, would the term Christchurch poet seem to you to have any meaning at all, to be useful?
GL: There was this anthology which came out from Dunedin a few years ago, called From the Mainland, and I had to laugh really, because in the biographical note I was described as being a Dunedin poet currently living in Christchurch. I think now that it’s actually a fairly good description, because I certainly do have a hankering to get back down there as soon as possible. But by the same token there are all these other things that start happening when you’re in a new place which may not happen in the old place. I’ve also got to be taking into consideration the value may not be as great.
JR: It is stepping twice into the same river, isn’t it?
GL: You do wonder if it’s possible. Smithyman’s quite clear about that. ‘Way back is way forward.’
JR: Yes exactly, and of course he’s someone who’s a very potent presence for the north of the North Island because he’s endlessly fed by the landscape in a way that hardly anyone else ever has been.
GL: It’s wonderful the way he gets himself around the landscape of Northland, and talks about it at the same time. I do admire that kind of writing that gives you this sense of someone just going through a process, doing something.
There are lots of people in this country who have an inability to let themselves down (so to speak), into a poem of that detail – that sort of thing, that kind of presence. And you do have to read hard, but not only that, you’ve got to be in the mood to read hard. You’ve got to have something happen. And an act of reading, an act of close reading is as much a stroke of luck as an act of writing.
JR: Yes, that’s right, because your life’s involved in the reading, just as your life’s involved in the writing. It can take twenty or thirty years to read something right, or just read it in a way that works for you.
GL: Teaching gives you a good reason to actually get around to doing that hard close reading. If you have to talk about something to a group of students you feel it’s important for you to know what you’re talking about; it can be a good impetus.
JR: I think Nabokov says that the work only gives up its essence when it’s crushed in the palm and inhaled like a fragrance.
GL: Not a bad metaphor. I do sometimes think of writing as being a bit like crushing a whole load of quartz in order to come up with a couple of ounces of gold to a tonne of quartz. A sort of gold mine process, where the words are the rock, the quartz, and you’re just punching words, just looking for that little slip of gold.
You’ve got all this language experience, all these words going into you, from all your reading and all your listening. And it’s hard to claim ownership of the group of words because you never quite know where you got them from, who else you got them from, if it’s not just a community of all the reading and listening you’ve done. And therefore it’s probably impossible not to be a regional writer.
JR: I was kind of struck by the thing you said on the back of The Subject, about getting away from language to the Otago Heads. Actually you said ‘getting way from – and to – language.’ And yet, getting away from language in order to talk about it in language is this awful bind that everybody’s caught in, isn’t it? I mean, you want to talk about silence and you can only do it by talking.
GL: Yes. Sure, and as a result of having felt or in some way participated in that silence … It’s a difficult thing to get your head around: that paradox. It was probably rather awkwardly written on that blurb, which was in fact part of a letter to an American poet living in Kyoto whom I used to have some correspondence with. What’s involved, I suppose, is a kind of escape – of putting behind you your habitual ways of thinking, especially the daily environments – and interrupting it in order for the cessation of patterns of thinking to occur, and out of that for new combinations to arise that may be more interesting because there has been a cessation of your habitual ways of thinking and of brain-chatter. Not that it’s impossible for those things to contribute also, they’re both feeding into each other.
JR: Is what you were saying earlier about having got tired of worrying about line divisions and precise arrangements on the page related to that? They are a way of gesturing towards silence, aren’t they? – stopping and breaking line-noise.
GL: The effort towards lineation primarily is to sing the song, or have the tune sound the way you want it to, given all the things you have to think about at the same time: the semantics of the words, the logical patterning of the groups of words, that whole sort of juggling act. But silence I think of as being something quite other.
I think of silence in a very literal way, where you get this utter cessation of thinking, of thoughts, and – harping back to what we were talking about earlier – where you may get moments of presence. There is this utter cessation that enables this new thing to arise, and it’s the shedding of anxieties, of worries, of thoughts, of the whole sort of cacophony of thinking. And it’s this refreshment (that wellspring notion), in those very minor, very small moments of not thinking where you are perhaps able to achieve this kind of relationship with things, you are able perhaps more clearly to get that insight. So, having allowed that moment of silence to occur, inevitably of course you’ll have a thought come along, but in all likelihood that thought may be a good deal more interesting than it would otherwise have been had you not had that silence, that non-thinking.
Which is why I have been practising Buddhist meditation for quite a long period of time now. And I do my sitting breathing activity a couple of times a day. Every now and again, perhaps once a week, you just get that brief moment of silence, that wellspring thing, where you’ve just got the water just bubbling up over the lip.
JR: And you recite a mantra?
GL: No, no mantras. The meditation technique I employ is simply the controlling of one’s breathing, accompanied by the letting come and letting go of whatever thoughts that arise, as well as the posture; you’re concentrating on your posture and concentrating on your breathing. For up to an hour; there are many thoughts that come and go, but eventually they just go.
Daubing the belly with radioactive blue
Then cocks her head at the screen,
paintbrush handle minus bristles –
a lampshade-shaped room – inquisitors
for the image of an ancestor
an Anzac kipped down in the cobwebs
an underwater shot of a stricken aircraft’s
That black dot there is baby’s stomach.
An arm here coming up to a hand.
Measuring across now through.
And here’s the heart.
keep in touch
What, other than memory,
Back on stream with a bowl of pasta,
An especially lovely day. Enough to make anywhere
Keep in touch – as if we could ever not. Earth’s tectonic plates
Keep in touch ticks the metronomic title.
© Graham Lindsay