Interview with David Eggleton
First published in Glottis 7 (2002): 25-36
David Eggleton is a well-known poet and reviewer. He is notable for writing in and for an increasingly expansive number of formats – he has written for dance, landscape photography, for installations, walkways, and film. As a reviewer he has covered the gamut of the arts – theatre, music, exhibitions and literature. He has been celebrated as a performance poet, particularly in Britain, where he lived, toured and performed (including a gig at the Glastonbury Festival) – he will soon release a third LP, Versifier (Yellow Eye Records). David Eggleton has written four books of poetry: South Pacific Sunrise (Penguin, 1986), People of the Land (Penguin, 1988), Empty Orchestra (Auckland UP, 1995) and last year’s Rhyming Planet (Steele Roberts). Nick Ascroft conducted the following interview by email.
NickAscroft: How do you write? What would be a prototypical genesis for a poem? They often seem to have come out in one long & unceasing blurt. As though your fingers hit the keypad and didn’t stop rustling until the final full stop. (Or is that an effect? Is it more tortured, scribbled out, written over, or collaged, assembled?) It reminds me, second-hand, of Allen Ginsberg – the scene in David Cronenberg’sNaked Lunch where the Ginsberg-like character attacks the Burroughs-like character for his need to edit, preferring instead the purity of the initial impulse. Although your language is quite distinct, I see this dimension of Allen Ginsberg in your poetry, stylistic, the highly and happily tangential stream of rant – are you-slash-were you interested in the beat thing, even second hand?
DavidEggleton: I write late at night, in the hour of the wolf, when, visited by the brazen hussy of Poesy, inspiration strikes … I write by the daylight hours, crouched foetus-like inside a haystack of paper. I write as I stroll by harbour’s edge or high in the hills, stopping to scrawl a line and a moment later stopping to strike it out. Scribble, scribble, scribble – my ballpoint poised, I stalk my mind: where is it at? – and so on. This random but constant flow of afflatus may account for the hiccuping oddity of my style, though not for that curdled cynicism of which I am often accused, and which I prefer to see as healthy scepticism. That comes, I think, from our national tendency towards self-deprecation, which I’ve exaggerated into a kind of self-mockery.
I scrape my poems together, sweating over their vintage hour by hour, fingers crossed for vintner’s luck, and trimming back the linguistic buzzfuzz to which I’m prone, and polishing the homely vernacular to a dandy shine. If I do employ the catchphrases, code words and vogue words of the moment, it is always by way of trying to catch them out, subvert them, convert them, make them confess. The unconsidered phrase can always be made over. I work as a language renovator, cliché exterminator, word geneticist. And of course like all poets – like all artists – I ransack my neuroses for themes and energies. The best of us will always manage to grab hold of the zeitgeist and swing it by its tail, simply by focussing on who we are and where we are: give me a place to stand and I will move the world.
Writers, however ingenuous, are always descendants of other writers. I got into the Beats in early youth, attracted by their general air of delinquency and deviance in a bland, conformist world (nowadays, youngsters have exactly the opposite problem). What I took from old- timey Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg back then was the spirit of populism, the down-home, hoe-down wish to write poetry in ordinary language which reached out and engaged an audience without a convoluted theory of poetics to justify the praxis: stuff the bureaucracy, let’s boogie!
Allen Ginsberg seemed to have the performance shtick down pat – and I saw something similar reflected in the last of the living Baxter and in the bodgie known as Sam Hunt. Here was the poet as seer, as sayer, in trance-like total emotional immersion, with the shamanistic voice intoning to the amphetamine beat of the bongos, the siren-like wail of the sax: and almost animistic performance thing where the audience grooves while walls begin to bend, the ceiling buckles and the carpet too is moving under you. A lot of that was maybe Sixties hubris – certainly the sour Seventies suggested that – but one sometimes feels that poetry styles are like recessive genes: their turn will come again. More voodoo child exorcisms with multiple exclamation marks.
Specifically to your question: I found the Cronenberg movie a mannered, fussy disappointment, its myth-making emerging from an enervated, dispirited, late eighties context. Much more interesting was the way people I knew were into celebrating this new take on the Beat myth. There was this need to somehow recontextualise the literary artefact for the post-literate age.
Much fuss is made of the fact that ‘now no-one does a whole lot of reading’ etc. etc. – all people really care about is the movies, even book page editors and reviewers. Poetry carries on, but the new factor in the poetry equation (writer/reader) is the custodial critic/curator / reviewer. Poets are used as counters between warring ideological tribes intent on rehabilitation or demolition. Which leads me to your next question …
NA : Who do you admire in New Zealand poetry? You seem to be quite outside any other NZ poetry reference point. Does it affect you, your writing? Does it interest you at all? I read an old Landfall review of South Pacific Sunrise where Dylan Horrocks definitely wanted to construe you as being outside the demarcation line of NZ Poetry. Have you met much of such resistance? And though it’s fifteen-odd years later would you like any reply to Dylan Horrocks? I’m thinking of his distinction of literary & ‘performance’ poems, performance poems being less suited to a page reading and having less literary clout.
DE : … requiring a certain diplomatic tact. No, hell, let’s go for a busted flush: a glut of good taste can be bad for you. I see an advancing armada of young Anglophile amazons, each with several books under her belt, like wet scalps. I see a parade of Colonel Blimps harrumphing past, respectfully praised volumes cocked against their heads, saluting our glorious war dead. I hear the piping tones of piety masquerading as therapy. I see the intellectually-chic bound in Derridean bombazine, gagged with Foucauldian fustian and dropped into a postmodern echo-chamber to utter muffled cries of incomprehension. I see the aggressively frugal neo-puritans toe the party line, and the soft and fluffy given soft and fluffy hugs. In turn, I admit to a soft spot for cranky and folly-bound losers, and acknowledge there’s something reassuring in this generally unreassuring age about the Mateship of Kiwi Scribes.
Let moulting culture-vultures swoop from lofty empyrean down to the dungeons and gutters of our nation’s castle keep. I prefer to pick over poems rather than pick over the bones of poets. I’m always riffling over pages of middle, parish-watching Baxter, early lyrical Tuwhare, later philosophical Curnow, plus scraps of Glover, Wedde, Mansfield, Bethell, Duggan, and more recently a few faux-naïve early poems by Robert Sullivan have sounded a different note. The big problem now is post-colonial tone – the sound of the local voice: what is it? Not more dreary Presbyterian hymn-singing plus pioneer- woodchopping, surely?
As for Dylan Horrocks who arrived out of nowhere and now seems to have gone back there, his yellowing review rehearses the tired page versus stage debate on an unilluminating level. His is the voice of a certain kind of academic fundamentalist agenda which I still recognise in reviews of my work as recently as this week. It’s as if they’re waiting for me to recant and wear a hairshirt or something – perhaps a dunce’s cap as well, so much does their tone smack of the Plunket baby classroom.
These cardboard cut-out culture cops and fairweather gatekeepers are the petty jobsworths who bedevil our journalism, maintaining the mediocrity. Their cheap-shot vending-machine reviews misunderstand the word criticism. They vend vinegary spleen, spotty bile. That is because, as you point out, they perceive my outsider status but don’t know how to correctly contextualise it. They fail to analyse adequately; instead they proscribe, further confusing the muddled majority. Literature is the noise of a culture, as well as its information.
NA : In your gestures towards the perfect couplet, do you like a bad rhyme as much as a good rhyme?
DE : Rhyme is a form of making, implying the idea of order (in the Wallace Stevens sense). Rhyme hatches paradox. Rhyme relieves stress; bad rhyme creates anxiety; true rhyme is its own justification. And a tin ear is a tin ear is a tin ear. W.H. Auden could rhyme like a nut, but after his amazing early flowering his rhymes, though technically deft, are boring and sludge-like. However we cherish Philip Larkin’s poems. Why? Larkin, a ruthless self-editor, released only a few slim volumes in which almost every rhyme sings: rhymes to be traded for bread, to use Vachel Lindsay’s deathless phrase.
Rhymes are magical and mysterious things at their best, when they cast a spell. When they don’t, you can hear the machinery grinding. I like to explore lines of tension. Listening to Bob Dylan’s dusty ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, I still hear echoes of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale’ – a reverberant collision of jingle-jangle rhymes. Reading Nabokov’s rendition of Pushkin’s rhyming ‘Eugene Onegin’, I want to hurl the book against the wall in frustration at the old stager’s mad, perverse pedantry, but picking up Nabokov’s Ada, its musically patterned brocade always takes me plangently back to the place I first encountered it as a teenager: it makes the world rhyme and chime again, metaphorically speaking.
NA : Do you travel as a means of inspiration, or is the inspiration a by-product? Many of your poems, especially in Rhyming Planet are like little Lonely Planet books, Travel Guides, encapsulations of specific places. One of your poems has been grafted on to the place it was addressing. In a long one line plaque on the promenade ‘ Waipounamu: The Lakes District’ has become part of the Queenstown lakeside. Having become physically part of a place was it tempting to rest on your laurels?
DE : Pinned in place, I examine the paradox of wanting to be elsewhere. I had a nomadic childhood, which is part of the answer. Landscape poetry is a genre or convention I’m presently very much attracted by. Place poems for me fill a kind of metaphysical void and I also use them as signifiers of time. They are my ‘spots of time’ in the Wordsworthian sense – the specific goes into their making and is preserved there.
On another level they arise out of a New Zealand tradition: that of exploration, of making and naming a poetics of space. Paul Carter talks about this colonising phenomenon in The Road to Botany Bay. I regard Australasia as one geographical entity, and as one cultural entity with minor variations within it. And that’s the place where I live. This is pragmatic: the world has shrunk, plus there’s fun to be had in this Lilliput. Dunedin has become convenient shorthand for the much larger area I roam through. I am elsewhere. I, as Rimbaud (nearly) wrote, am another.
NA : Drugs appear liberally and with laissez-faire in your poems. Is New Zealand in the closet about the depth of its pot-head culture? Are you politically moved towards rehabilitating drug laws? And more importantly, why does poetry read better when you’re stoned?
DE : A ticklish set of questions. Drugs appear in some of my poems. There are therefore a number of reasons. Demonised by the ever-reductive media and by the legal system, they have a transgressive, euphoric aura that I find symbolically useful. But let’s be specific (and immediately matters become ambivalent, open-ended, anthropological. Listen to Susan Sontag: ‘There is only so much revealing one can do. For every self-revelation there has to be a self-concealment’). ‘Electric puha’ – if I lived in say Mexico, my chosen signifier might have been red hot chilli peppers. ‘Just as colonial baroque set no limits on the profusion of ornament and display, in which God’s presence was identified in a closely calculating delirium of brimming excessive sensations, so the curing of the hundred or more native varieties of hot peppers carefully selected for each dish opened vistas of flaming ecstasy.’ (The words are Italo Calvino’s).
I concur with William Burroughs about hallucinogens: extremely unpleasant physical reactions (excepting perhaps the acid landscapes of Pink Floyd’s ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’). And let us not forget that line of Nietzsche’s: ‘Every philosophy is the rationalisation of a temperament.’ In my earlier days there was heavy drug use, there was self-destructive behaviour, but you live through that and your priorities change. I was so much older then: I’m younger than that now.
NA :Although perhaps less so recently, your poems avoid autobiography (generally the meat and two veg of poetry), they avoid human touchy- feeliness. Why? Might you ever jump ship and write memoirs? Does private life writing of others interest you?
DE : I am the poet of chance and mischance, of what drifts past, and write in sing-song measure, loosely prattling on. (The subconscious murmurs unceasingly.) In general I think of the Sylvia Plath confessional mode as being our besetting vice. This let-it-all-hang-out windbaggery ethos is where I part company with Ginsberg and his ilk. Autobiography is a form of myth-making that I’ve always found difficult to reconcile with my own make-do historical circumstances. Has anybody seen my self-possession and presence of mind. My wherewithal? If so, let me know and I’ll make a poem out of it. Time will tell, as it’s told on Emily Dickinson – that is, hardly at all. Only the need for poetry endures – impure, tragic, hopeful.
One works by paradox, as if engaged in a symmetrical guerrilla warfare, travelling, as itchy-fingered parodist Dylan Thomas didn’t quite put it, crab-wise by altar-light from half-way house – employing a vocabulary of excuses, while Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon rap their orisons to the cannon beat of Big Bertha under a rain of red poppies.
NA : Your writing seems primarily about pleasure, word-pleasure, comedy, satire, but also (bear-trap question), do you think of yourself as a political poet? Is that an oxymoron? Does New Zealand writing reflect our political apathy?
DE : Gossip interests me, but only insofar as it’s almost always misleading and inaccurate. Obviously it thrives by frustrating the truth of the matter. (William Randolph Hearst: ‘True history is the final fiction.’) Society interests me in all its aspects; so do egregious individuals, their psychology. I’ve always got diaries and biographies on the go – Kenneth Tynan, Anthony Blunt, Tamara de Lempicka just now – it’s a personal taste thing, but I find autobiographies tend to be too self-serving (though comparisons are useful e.g. King / Frame). Poems? Check out Robert Frost’s depiction of a Hollywood hag, entitled ‘Provide, Provide’. Check out Robert Lowell’s ‘ Harpo Marx’. Check out Roy Fuller on Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympiad.
Politics interest me, but not in the conventional sense. Politics which empowers people is my concern. Liberal humanism – human rights and self-interest – is the thing: the establishment of a Darwinian left, to use ethicist Peter Singer’s phrase. I’m preoccupied right now by what I regard as a central issue of the day: media supremacy, media degradation – its pervasiveness and its invasiveness. Some say poetry has no business here. I disagree. The Spanish Nobel laureate Cela claimed that ‘Literature is the denunciation of the times in which one lives.’ I’m attracted by that idea. I observe the cheap and cheapening narcotic of the TV commercial flooding the nerve circuits of our nation’s citizenry with bliss, with sloppy day- glo cruddiness. TV’s become a ubiquitous cultural slum, a dispiriting ghetto of knowing manipulation and glib persuasion. I hate its ad-addled entropy, but how can I not watch it – to adapt Philip Roth: everything I hate is here.
NA : & a great limp penultimate question: seen any good films recently? Which segues into the recent Oscars, as flummoxing and arbitrary a night as ever. I’m a fan of awards ceremonies, the Montana Book one is always a good sizzle, but they’re all a bit dubious, from Cannes to Nobel there’s something really fickle about the choices, which then magically become gold and gospel. For the Oscars it’s a giant bankability stamp for a film and the near-futures of its actors and directors, (likewise Montana) (to a colossally smaller degree). What do you think?
DE : I’ve only seen bad movies lately: The Time Machine, Ali, and worst of all A Beautiful Mind. This last features R. Crowe doing a sub- Brando impression as if with a bagful of marbles in his mouth. It has an excruciatingly tedious trick-story line, not redeemed in the slightest by being about someone with a disability. It won an Oscar because it is pure schmaltz with a carcinogenic artificial cherry on top. It tells the kind of genteel untruths well-insulated people want to hear.
I saw the 2002 Oscar Ceremony in the top storey flat of my American-born niece at Bondi beach. The storm blowing out to sea was way more fun, but the Americans (ha!) always make a thing of Oscars night, with popcorn and stuff around the TV. The occasion has event-glamour, I suppose, and watching these telegenic winners and losers at the moment of the announcement has a touch of schadenfreude to it. (As John Updike says, ‘celebrity is a mask that eats into the face’.) Cheap voyeurism, then, though perhaps if you loved a movie, vindication. Larry McMurty, the Texan novelist, (I think he had a movie of one of his novels nominated once, maybe it won, who cares) writes in Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: ‘The media not only supplies us with memories of all significant events (political, sporting, catastrophic), but edits those memories for us too … makes them ordered and effective.’ Well said.
Awards (and their ceremonies) are inherently absurd. We all know that (but then as Dostoevsky puts it in The Brothers Karamazov: ‘If everything on earth were rational, nothing would happen.’) Awards are generally the product of the tyranny of consensus: the least offensive, least challenging often win. But not always, so there’s a lottery element. It’s the best we can do. I won’t dwell on it. Well, perhaps I will.
Fearful of offending the canons of good taste, timid publishers may not bring out the book that could spin us all in a new direction. An award to a certain book, however, may start an epidemic of copy- catting. Also, in an era of desktop publishing, bolder publishers are able to emerge. The problem in publishing as in other culture industries has become how to keep up with everything. Awards can help establish a media presence for the lesser known but worthy. However, awards can sometimes be hijacked. I don’t want to elaborate on this too much, but skilful public relations work can result in a flurry of ‘ Awardism’. If you want to talk about the Montana Book Awards in particular, I think from personal experience there are checks and balances to stop the process being skewered excessively, but you must also remember that a prize here is the end result of a lot of factors, including a certain amount of subtle lobbying.
NA : In an interview in JAAM 4, when quizzed on whether American culture had doused our Nationalism, you said ‘To me, American culture is just part of the landscape, it’s up to you if you want to visit McDonalds or not’. I inferred a sense of our connection with America being distant, our own invented version not in itself demarcatable, or objectionable. With the USA’s recent warmongery and our complicity in it, however impotent, the spotlight falls on the neo-American element of our culture, our yank-wannabe-ness. What is America to you now?
DE : America to me is a nation made up of nations. It’s an empire-builder. Its drive is monetarist, its corporatism is fascist, its dream factory is Hollywood. It’s also crazier and there’s more of it than we think. I am in awe of its energies. John Dos Passos wrote: ‘America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have bought the laws and fenced off the meadows and cut down the woods for pulp and turned our pleasant cities into slums and sweated the wealth out of our people and when they want to they hire the executioner and throw the switch.’
Andy Warhol portrayed America as an empty electric chair. America lives inside our heads. We dream American dreams. We are all Americans now – by proxy. The Act Party’s desire to adopt the Yankee dollar is a logical outcome of that. As John Berger has pointed out: all nationalisms are deeply concerned with names. We are covered in American names and logos. Should this bring on panic attacks? Jean Baudrillard doesn’t think so: ‘The cities of the world are concentric, isomorphic, synchronic. Only one exists, and you are always in the same one. It’s the effect of their permanent revolution, their intense circulation, their instantaneous magnetism.’ Enjoy the spectacle, then. Hollywood disaster movies are there to reassure us that humankind shall ultimately emerge victorious, even against overwhelming odds. This visual triumphalism is of course trademarked, but cultural pollution masquerading as American largesse? We’ve moved on from such suspicions.
Camille Paglia put it this way: ‘There are no accidents, only nature throwing her weight around. Even the bomb merely releases energy that nature has put there. Nuclear war would be just a spark in the grandeur of space. Nor can radiation “alter” nature: she will absorb it all. After the bomb, nature will pick up the cards we have spilled, shuffle them, and begin her game again.’
Meanwhile in little old New Zealand nothing is foreign any more: we are free to enjoy that planetary feeling – as when you glance in the window of an internet café and see a mini-United Nations of backpackers communing with the world, fingers rustling over keyboards.
To shift the focus a little: if you look at Maoritanga, it has been subtly commodified, packaged and marketed using the best American business practices. Note the way Maori actors and movie directors have rushed to embrace Hollywood. Thus the last redoubt falls: perhaps only pockets of faded British genteelness still hold out, still resist Yankee know-how, Yankee showbiz.
The Islamic question, which you touch on, is however an interesting one, as strict followers of Islam proscribe visual images. (Their iconophobia stems from the Koran’s edict that the highest forms of divine revelation are communicated through the power of calligraphy – of the arabesque – alone, and the Taleban’s destruction of the Buddhist statues a couple of years back represents the fanatical extreme of this opposition to representational art.) This fundamentalism is the direct antithesis of so-called globalisation, which is based on secular iconography of visual glamour. To jump ahead a bit, we see a metastasised symptom of this clash in occupied Palestine, where Ariel Sharon is currently a slobbering Slobodan-like butcher maddened by hate, perpetrating atrocities on the demonised Other. I’m interested in fabricating a poem out of this impasse, which joins the roll-call of vicious civil wars that have erupted since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The vilification of Osama Bin Laden is also contestable territory. How did we get there?
Christopher Hitchens’sThe Trial of Henry Kissinger provides one point of entry (and neatly segues into another of my interests, which is the surreal giant to the north of us – Indonesia.) Hitchens is glib and a somewhat erratic weathervane, but in this instance it seems to me his apocalyptic nose is pointing in the right direction and the wind is carrying an awful stench – or is that just the Otago hospital incinerator across the road, burning its daily quota of bloodied used bandages?
I’d like to finish by quoting, apropos of nothing except I like it, one of my favourite American rhapsodists – no, not Hart Crane this time, but surprise, surprise, William Carlos Williams: ‘Among the rain and lights, I saw the figure 5 in gold on a red fire-truck moving tense, unheeded to gong clangs and siren howls and wheels rumbling through the dark city…’ – But what happens next?