Interview – Debate with Leigh Davis
Originally published in Landfall 155 (September 1985). 310-19.
Leigh Davis is a founder-editor of And magazine which has made a considerable impact on contemporary New Zealand literary studies. He is also a poet and won the national competition for first poetry books with Willy's Gazette. As a critic he has written on the poetry of Allen Curnow, his best known essay being 'Solo Curnow' which was published in And/3. He is also noted for his trenchant reviewing of contemporary New Zealand poetry. Because of the controversial nature of And and Leigh's provocative style of reviewing we thought it important to get him to clarify his views on literature and society.
HUGH LAUDER Can you tell me a bit about And.
LEIGH DAVIS And is both a serious and comic project so it has some fun while getting serious ideas across. And was aware there was a massive technology change which would enable it to re-enter the world of New Zealand literature. The idea was a subversive one of employing the technology to come up with new readings of familiar texts, ones which would be interesting to text producers. To summarise, And began at a time when you had to argue for the use of theory in NZ literature and it's finishing at a time when you have to argue the opposite: that's quite extraordinary. Though the change is not solely due to And; it's just that it carries an idea whose time was due. But now the paradigm's been worked out people's interests are changing.
HL Can we talk about the idea that you've got the paradigm worked out because it's not clear to me And had got the paradigm worked out in any coherent way. And it's not clear to me people outside And fully understand, even now, what it's on about.
LD To the extent there is a programme it's with a small p. Initially it was fun to characterise NZ culture in terms of being inside or outside it and to be the enfants terribles of the time. But the programme was simple, to see what NZ poetry, films, culture looked like from the point of view of the new technology. And the new technology was an appreciation of the ways language produces texts, where texts operate in a world of arbitrary signifiers.
HL In terms of your political objectives you've obviously done a good job in alerting people to the necessity to think theoretically about literature and to relate literature to the wider culture. Now you talk about the new technology but there's a lot more to be said about the world-view underlying the use of the technology.
LD The question we asked ourselves is do we have the time to work out the full implications of a theory that goes from post-structuralism to a post-Lacanian view of texts or do we extend that theory in the New Zealand context? For us the And programme is a noisy eruption type programme—a signalling device which says there's a whole new technology for literature. So And is a noisy vehicle which is still registering the impulse rather than developing the theories which underlie it. But we did realise we didn't have the time to develop the sophisticated theoretical discourse we wanted for And; that was too much work and the information exists elsewhere.
HL I wonder, though, whether we have to take the theory underlying the new technology more seriously because I do detect a chauvinistic tendency underlying And in the sense that you want everyone to think and write in terms of your programme?
LD I don't recognise that formulation right off hand. We wanted to develop a voice in the market rather than take over the stage. There is a difference for me, the market's ordinary while the stage is a bit fascistic. I like to locate myself on the ordinary side of things.
HL Well the chauvinism and the fascism go nicely together so let's pursue that a bit by talking about cars.
LD I'm not going to let you get away with that. You've said And's chauvinistic. . . .
HL Yes. I want to develop that idea and then respond to it. . . .
LD Well let's not get into motor cars while that hot issue's around.
HL Well the motor cars will lead us back into it.
LD I'm not sure I like being steered quite so obviously.
HL OK. You can come back. Let me explain what I mean by chauvinistic. There's a sense in which you (in particular rather than the other And contributors) have gone into the market place to review established poets like Wedde, Stead and Harlow, and rather than paying attention to their specific texts you've criticised them a priori for working with an outmoded model, like a second hand car. And to support your view you've made arguable claims about the reading habits of the New Zealand public.
LD What you've said needs to be handled very carefully. What's happening here is that I'm finding ways of coping with my own boredom when I read these texts. My primary response when reading NZ poetry, any book off the shelf, say when I'm free— reading in Whitcoulls, I case the first couple of sentences and the last and 1 know the book and put it back. That sounds presumptuous but I think NZ literature has got to the point where the conventions operating are so massive that when you see a book of poems it's recognizable—that's an important word in my vocabulary. In essence what I'm about and what Alex Calder and Roger Horrocks are about is the simple political point of saying this genre is recognizable, i.e., we know about it, it's getting close to exhaustion and we're interested in the unrecognizable, the emergent.
HL But it's more than just giving an ear. I've no argument with giving the emergent a hearing and I have some sympathy with what you're saying about poetry with deep conventions but where I take issue is with the claim that the dominant genre is exhausted.
LD But I have a very positive meaning to the word exhaustion and the word genre. When I read Paris (by Stead) it was immediately recognizable but it's got changes, it's a new book and I appreciate it—the real test for me is whether I get bored reading it—why read NZ poetry if it's boring? If you like, for the purposes of this interview I'm prepared to concede that such texts (from the dominant genre) are rich and meaningful for the NZ public and that it's just me that happens to be skewy—I'm happy with that.
HL I'm not happy with that because I think you're working with an objective theory and I'm much more interested in the theory's construction than I am with your particular view. The moment you move back and say, 'it's my particular boredom, you're making subjective something which is objectively based. You don't have a right to do that, it's a kind of cop out.
HL Because you've got a theoretical structure which instructs you on how to read a text.
LD Sure, that's right. I like texts which are dyslexic. If I find
a text which has no resistance, it's like pushing on an open door
and I don't find it rich and significant. And if you don't find
it significant it leaves this strange aversion reaction—almost
physiological. A lot of NZ texts are very confessive and they
LD What I'm trying to do is to expand the appreciation of difference by suddenly appearing as a difference. Now coming back to Curnow and to Stead, one can appreciate those as rich and interesting texts, texts with a density of accumulated behaviour. They are the texts of a highly evolved tradition and one can see them in this light (one can watch an advertisement campaign and one is also given a richness and pleasure from that). So one describes what Curnow and Stead do to put them in their set so as to produce a different set (a non Curnow set); I like pluralism, a world of differences.
HL The separation of author and text is ok but I want to keep hammering the evaluation point. You now say that evaluation is something you want to play down. But can we look at the metaphor you use in your Curnow article where you say his work is like. . . .
LD A 1957 Chrysler.
HL Now Curnow might be in good condition as 1957 Chryslers go but to you his poetry is not fundamentally different to a Chrysler. So what's the difference between a 1957 Chrysler and a Ford Laser. What makes the Ford Laser somehow better? There's an implicit evaluation lurking there. . . .
HL Could I just say the reason why it's important to dig this out is because I think it's connected to your view of the relationship of art to society.
LD I take your point. The primary signifier of that metaphor is that Curnow is a cultural and historical product. As one reads a 1957 Chrysler the progress is from the year it's introduced when it's a new development and not recognizable because it's strange and new (read the Barthes essay on the DS Citroen) but as we get used to it, it becomes familiar and then it becomes historical. It's that sort of complex of emotions that I have when I read Curnow. There are people in NZ who'd read You'll Know When You Get There as if they'd seen a '57 Chrysler for the first time—as if you dropped the car in India, but there are other people for whom their primary sense when reading Curnow is that it's a well developed late phase product but it's not my kind of product. It's regarding itself as operating in a world which is no longer the world I or my colleagues work in. A Curnow text comes across as not-us. Hopefully we can keep that kind of judgement neutral but there is a sense in which I think you're right. One begins to regard it as an oddity or a quaintness in the way one regards a'57 Chrysler.
HL Since you mention the historical could we now talk about the wider relationship of art to society. For all theories which look at society and its products historically, when they come to literature they always have that problem of how to understand the continued value of texts like those of Shakespeare, Tolstoy etc., when the societies which produced these texts have undergone such a radical transformation. And the typical answer to this problem is that these texts still have something of insight or value which speaks to us in a way which remains relevant. Initially, when you were talking, it seemed that you wanted to deny that absolutely. To use your metaphor a poem is like a hamburger— a throwaway article but now you seem to be pushing a weaker thesis.
LD I'm a victim of my own rowdy metaphors. What I mean by saying that, for instance, Paris is like a McDonald's hamburger is that it's a highly evolved type of product, it hasn't got there overnight. One of the interesting things about reading Paris is to watch the evolution, to see the judgements being formed; so that's primarily what I mean by the McDonald's association. Now you have this highly developed product which has come about as a result of a lot of R & D (research and development) and a lot of decision-making of a rich kind and McDonald's hamburgers are rich in implications. So I mean to develop a discourse capable of exploring those implications and locating the richness. What I'm not trying to do is to go about making the latest and greatest type judgements.
HL I think I've probably been misled by your 'rowdy metaphors' because
LD No. Let's get back to the Shakespeare question.
HL Let's do that because for anyone with an historical analysis of art and society, from Marxists rightward, Shakespeare is a test case—you have to handle the problem of cultural products which have enduring value.
LD How silly I'd be if I was saying once a book has been out for two years or longer it's no longer of any interest. I think this is a rich area although I haven't thought a lot about it. The most interesting way of reading Shakespeare is to go through any play and read it fifteen times; then it becomes better and better until it becomes perfectly recognizable. And then it starts becoming weird. The language becomes unstable. What you thought was a recognizable set of meanings first off proves under closer inspection to subdivide and become mesmeric.
HL What about Othello—jealousy?
LD One is jealous, one has frights, one has tragic times in life but I think they're fed into a dramatic framework which keeps giving off these weird signals the further you get away from the sixteenth century. That's the way I appreciate Shakespeare. I read Shakespeare differently from the way he wrote Shakespeare and I would have done that five minutes after he'd written it. So I guess the way to think of Shakespeare is like a sunken galleon that's continually changing shape as it gets encrusted. And to an archeologist it's of ever increasing richness. My dominant metaphor for this is to put myself in the shoes of those discovering Tutankhamen for the first time. They have an inkling of how fabulous an other Egypt was but when they get into the tomb their experience is of the other. One in which they'd be asking— what sort of culture produces such gilded shapes in this particular way, what sort of magic is there about these sorts of artefacts— and you can transfer that sort of experience to reading Shakespeare. What I appreciate about Shakespeare is not that it's telling a human story but it's telling a literary and cultural story. And it's rich in information of that kind; it's blurred over and impossibly dense and, therefore, becomes richer with time rather than weakening.
HL Can I throw a curly one in here by coming back to New Zealand poetry? From what you're saying 1 may have got you wrong in my editorial (Landfall 153) but I just want to make sure about that. There I suggested you were both a foundational and judgemental relativist and while we both agree there are no foundations in certainty regarding knowledge of either a scientific or literary kind I would insist there are practical judgements we can make that one literary work is better or more interesting than another (and indeed that one theory can be judged better than another in a given context). Now it seems to me you are saying we can make comparative judgements about Shakespeare's plays—they are still interesting and rich for us today. So I now want to return to NZ poetry and talk about what you see as an exhausted genre (actually the way you talk about it, it's more like a clapped-out car).
LD I never regard them like that.
HL It seems from talking to you that the implication is just that the writing is not very good and indeed you are bored. But that's not because you have an impatience with the particular genre as such but rather with the way it's been worked out in these particular cases.
LD Yeah. In my vocabulary exhaustion has both a positive and negative meaning. I've given you some of the positive senses but in the negative sense it's a spent impulse. Now New Zealand literature needed a New Wave. There were new possibilities, a new technology, a non-NZ type of poetry could now be produced here. New Zealand poetry was being constituted by its own conventions so relentlessly that it was becoming a recognizable product and (to use a noisy metaphor) ripe for a takeover. I still regard NZ poetry with tremendous affection but there is a time when the literature is changing and one is fascinated by participating in the change, constituting the change, creating the change and thereby watching the change occurring. Change which is pooled around the devices of And and Splash.
HL Leigh, could we shift to your writing and the relationship of
HL And it seems as if you're pushing together the two things.
LD It's difficult to recognize a distinction. It's an enormously subtle distinction and I don't want to kick my way through it at this point but I'd like to say I'm unhappy in a theory-practice world because practice is always theoretical.
LD Like Keynes said, every politician is the victim of a defunct theoretician. But my interest is in language's capacity to become opaque, to foreground itself, to take over the stage and it will do that when I'm trying to put down a good clean non-problematic critical expression and that's perhaps what you're reading in the Curnow.
HL I enjoyed the Curnow article but there's a serious question underlying the conflation of theory and practice. While I accept that our understanding of practice is always theory-impregnated, we can, nevertheless, use theory as a form of critical reflection on practice. To put this in the context of the debate on the role of theory in NZ literature I think there have been three positions which have been taken. Firstly, that theory drives the practice, it's used as a blueprint for what as a poet one writes. Secondly, theory can be used to guide practice in a looser sense by enabling us to critically reflect on practice and thirdly there's what I take to be Curnow's view, that theory has nothing to do with writing poetry whatsoever.
LD I think with Curnow it's not theory as you and I talk about it. These guys caricature the term. They mean critical theory, i.e., they're operating in a value judgement world and they're using the term theory in the sense of the New Criticism where they make judgements between poems. So when Curnow sets up theory as a straw man and aggressively defines himself as against it, he's a foxy foxy person. But he's out foxed himself completely. His idea of theory is critical theory which tells you which is the most perfect text and I don't want to operate in that way whatsoever.
HL You're talking about theory in terms of explanation and description.
LD Explanation yes, in terms of richness of explanation and of predictive power—how will I recognise another NZ book when it comes along—well it will have these features.
HL Well, my next question then is this. I think theory is best understood as a form of critical reflection on practice (the second of the options outlined above and that needs to incorporate both practical judgements of value and an historical-structural perspective). Now it's important to have a distinction between theory and practice so that critical reflection on texts can be made possible. But the other way I see a thoroughgoing relativism in And is that, in fact, you do tend to conflate theory and practice.
LD Just picking up the term relativism. It's a term which has absolute on the other side of things—so there's absolute plus relative and I'm not operating in that world. Plural is a similar word where there's mono or non-plural at the other extreme and I'd rather work neither in a relativist or pluralist world but a world of differences.
HL But in a world in which one can critically reflect upon differences with the help of theory?
LD Or one can accurately delineate the differences and what makes up the differences. Right at the bottom of it what is difficult for readers of And and Willy's Gazette is the thoroughgoing working through of Sassure's notion of the arbitrary signifier.