new zealand electronic poetry centre


Alan Brunton

essays, interviews


First published in brief 19 (formerly A Brief Description of the Whole World), March 2001.

[The following sequence appears much as it occurred in an email exchange. Modest apologies for the jackhammer nature of the questioning; it is hoped that the richly textured responses that have been given will more than compensate. John Geraets/Editor]

First place, ever, what was the impulse to use language in a writerly way?

My memory is too framed by theories, books, to give an answer that would not be contaminated. I think my first impulses were documentary. Most people's first memories are of movement, mine too. There was a journey by boat, some images of it that are just out of reach. If I focus on the first world of my senses, it was smell that was primary; the smell of fruit, ripening, putrescent, drying out. There was an orchard behind our house, forty acres of fruit trees; some playground. So what if it was sprayed occasionally with something evil and blue? You never knew what you would find there. I would return from daylong adventures in that orchard and write them out. Where this connected with reading, I don't know, but I was not Sartre! Not precocious. At a certain moment, I did come to inhabit two characters, Robinson Crusoe or The Man In The Iron Mask, the first books I bought myself. At Woolworths. Versions of those books for kids; odd how we start reading revisions, books cut down, classic comics. At high school, when I began writing in a conscious way, it was the lives of outlaws, ballads; going down that road, the first exotic poetry I read was Francois Villon. It's that da-de-dah, scansion, that's the really intriguing thing about poetry.

I think I had trouble distinguishing the living world from the inanimate. I believed too many of the signals, maybe Freud's 'fort-da' phase missed me out. There was only my grandmother to talk to. Every night, she dozed over books. There was lots of time to write things down; I classified them by secret codes-went through that whole stage of invisible ink, messages in trees: furtive, illicit communications, secret 'drops'! Then that orchard was bulldozed away, turned into a suburb. Chekhov, mate! The symbol is obvious!

On the wall in our main room was a tapestry from Egypt, invested with magic because it had been sent by an uncle in 1941, before he was killed in the Mediterranean. My orchard was beside the 'Nile'. I was a clumsy writer, a fountain-pen was a bizarre object to me. My scribble was perhaps a reaction to my grandmother's elegant copperplate, the one thing she was most proud she could do. She was old, crazy things happened. One day I walked to school and there was nobody there. I went home. This went on for a couple of days. She asked around, everybody said yes, school was in. She beat me for telling lies. Everything was screwed up. Then she found out she'd set her clock two hours fast. 

I can remember a puppet show. I don't know which troupe it was, the Burtons probably. I was seven or eight. The puppets talked, I was taken away; I wanted to do that. I wrote scripts for things from this parallel universe to speak, writing words for trees and gloves; writing, I didn't know it then, allegory. Art is instinctively baroque. You start with squiggles, trying to write your name, making the sign of yourself, as if your autograph is somehow you. Your moniker. The sign of a dream, all attention is given to it, not to what it represents-something like stone circles.

In the tapestry, a man on a camel was riding in front of the pyramids. There were stars in a blue sky. What would that nomad have said, if I was able to hear him speak? I wrote a language for him. It was made-up but it was real, because you could talk it. What was he doing in that emptiness? What was that desert called? Beyond the Oxus-do you know that book? There has to be a reason why one weeps for the Kurds. That must be it.

First place, publicly, I got pages worth of you, was in the Baysting(?etc?-ed) young writers anthology. How big a push did you have in that. My recollection is that you were quite strongly Olson-ised (forgive this crass roughness, I haven't a chance to closely update myself at source!) in that you had theory, conceptual thought, figure strongly in the practice of you on the page. 

I was elsewhere when Arthur made The Young New Zealand Poets. It was his deal, inspired by The Young American Poets, a fat anthology that gave us Ted Berrigan. I was in Bali when I got my copy, 17 June 1974. I remember I was surprised; there were some names and poems I didn't know. The poems were lyrical, Metaphysical-that was our education. Olson was important because he wrote history, anthropology ... he was a shaman. Pound spoke to you through a funnel. Olson wrote about harbours, drunken boats; he talked right into your ear. For a year, I wrote poems towards an epic construction of the Waitemata and the port. There are fragments of a similar 'border' impulse all through Arthur's anthology. It was the subject of New Zealand poetry, Baxter's 'matrix' ... suicide under desolate blossoms. In the end, Olson was more useful to the old guys-Curnow, Smithyman eg-who believed in those kinds of symbols, than to the young writers. Curnow's Trees, Effigies, Moving Objects, Smithyman's 'Reading The Maps' ... 

But Olson did finally come to believe the real mysterium of poetry was rhyme, words that sound the same but have different meanings. Rhyme is fate too, being stuck in that scheme. Schemes that never end but are simply abandoned. The thing that was weird about Arthur's anthology was that by 1973 there was already a retrenchment from the poetics of FREED, a quick trot back into the lyrical. I was impressed though. Collins published the Bible after all! 

What was the apparatus involved? To what extent were these poets--and I remember what felt to me like a continuity--and the group of writers appearing in FREED sharing a common concern, common impetus.

The machine was created by alliances; sympathetic figures could be found in every context, signalling like freemasons ... there was the thrill of the clandestine. It was playtime (!)-Huizinga of course, Homo Ludens; we were poetry hooligans. The whole FREED improvisation lasted about 18 months, from, say, January 1969. Poetry was part of the struggle between good and evil. I don't exaggerate. The old guys had the big guns, like M K Joseph teaching us Paradise Lost, Curnow The Faerie Queene, Don Juan. So, we were thinking in the mode of allegory! We had the adrenalin. We were marching in the streets most days as well.

The group was loose but emotionally intense, you could go too far; insults were taken that hurt for years. R D Laing was saying reality was schizophrenic-madness was the prerequisite for making art. Alliances for fragile-everything you said was suspect. People would just leave the room; goaded. There was J D Nuttall's book from England, Bomb Culture, which covered the aesthetic-political dimension of those years; I don't regard them with nostalgia, you always had to justify everything you said to some sect or other. 

How did Smithyman figure--it was he, no, who did an Afterword for the anthology?

Smithyman had presented what looked like a coherent theory, A Way Of Saying. His point was immediacy, poetry instituted by a present moment, finding inspiration in empirical reality. What he conceded to us was the discovery of 'open form', the field thing ... we started with a x, anything-any x-cuse!-and filled the page with ys. Smithyman required something that could be analysed at the centre of a poem, some sign of its origin. Poetry as anecdote. He was a solo act. We were a group, no doubt. We generated excitement in each other, each discovery was an opportunity for shouting, boasting ... a calypso time. Splendour in the grass! It wasn't a Movement, it was 'movement', all over the country. Each city was expected to produce a magazine, readings, events. Alongside it, there was a kind of entrepreneurship involved. And beyond us, there was an even more distant lunatic fringe. Crazy people living in trees ... Smithyman was not naturally generous, maybe his disappointments were too many by then. 

How did you experience your singularity, or commonality for that matter, as a poet.

The space was common, geographically contained; sociologically coherent. You could cover the whole scene walking. From the university to the Kiwi at the top of Wellesley Street, say, 4 in the afternoon, to pass around the new poem; from there up Grafton Road, to Boyle Crescent, to Newmarket: Morgan Street, Maungawhau Road; side-step to Remuera Road, stop at the bakery at the top of Parnell Road that sold bread after midnight, to Birdwood Crescent, take FREED proofs to Kisler in St Stephens Avenue-and get home to Earl Street sometime around 2.00 am. You had seen everyone in the collective, done whatever negotiations were needed. Going out of doors as other people went in. It was Ulysses: Daedalus-days, Joyce-daze. Pass out for a few hours then write the next poem. That's why you find so many poems begin around 10.00 am. Midmorning aubades. 

What sense of futurity was, implicit or explicit, in that action of the late 60s, early 70s. Was there any sense of achieving a structure that extended in time, or a practice that others would relate to going forward.

We were from the future. I thought everyone else was anyway. Temporary visitors. There was a rediscovery of Futurism itself through Pound and BLAST. Contemporary with Marinetti, Freud was writing the idea that to hold onto heritage, the canon, was a neurotic thing to do. From the Futurists came the attractive idea of a group of dudes going from town to town making rude noises. We felt some catastrophe was imminent. There were assassinations, dissidents dousing themselves with petrol and lighting matches, the end of Easy Rider, 'Waiting for the End' ... that was what made us privileged, we didn't have a future. It was like smoking marijuana-you had to learn to hold your breath, forget the future, Do It Now. The catastrophe, as it turned out, was economic: the massive inflation of the 1970s; and of the body, STDs ...

Your own writing, how did the events and publications of that time form an investment in what you wanted to do or achieve? 

You mean doing good works? Or, theory? There was Marcuse, Eros as revolution. Through him, around 1968, to another Californian, Norman O Brown, Life Against Death: speech is shit, all symbols are repressed representations of the body. Trying to understand that, working through the implications, took a long time. Until then, I had been studying 'forms', we were still being taught literature as myth, the cycle of the seasons-summer was comedy, winter was tragedy; that line from Eliot to Northrop Frye. Literature as fertility myth. I went for that stuff, Frye making Nature the ground zero of literature, poetry made order out of chaos; writing as pushing around immutable sub-sets. For Frye, literature was inevitably classic, it was impossible to be original! Then Brown blew that all out the window: art's function was the formation of subversive groups! This was the way out of the lyric, to dream utopia, resurrection: big subjects. The exhilaration of the 'death instinct'. You can see, I was heading into pastiche as a strategy; collage, cut-ups; I carried around the anthology by Barnstone, Modern European Poetry. Then, it was time to make the journey. I went to Asia. Barnstone I left in a taxi trying to get to Sydney Airport from Nigel Roberts' place. I travelled around the sub-continent for a year, totally ascetic. Just a copy of the  Dhamma-Cakka-Pavattana Sutta ... the foundation of the Kingdom of Righteousness; the last sentence: 'Thus he won his name, The One Who Understood'-getting ready for the thousands of life-times it would take to attain that state.

To what extent did this period establish the writerly relationships that have continued since? etc

For a while, there were a group of people you could turn to in an emergency. And some you were estranged from, just because that period came to an end. The areas for conversation narrow as prejudices become more precise; some ancient slight ages into antipathy and you get disappeared; the group starts to diminish each other's achievements, erase the absent as they make careers from the inspiration of others. To have a career, to maintain ambition, you have to repress the past, memory, otherwise you're happy with the way things are. The more you want to live in the real world, the more there's a fanatic devotion to work, to keep it real. The new devotion represses the old community where you first revealed your desires. You repress that, and people associated with those desires. This is, of course, the everyday level of paranoia. Either you think someone has the job that's rightfully yours or else, they want your job. Everything dissipates, especially friendship, isn't that the truth? 

How do (ad)ventures like Big Smoke and your Bumper Press work for you? Where was/is the stimulus? intended gains? likely audiences? Satisfactions for you?

I got to Marxism so young, I most likely never reconstructed my way out of it. The ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange are instinctive with me. Also, it's not a new idea, history belongs to those who write it. In particular, Big Smoke meant the recovery of displaced voices, the crazy babble of the 1960s when life was a beach and the beach was under the pavement, and poetry ripped it up! Hundreds of voices sobbing into eternity. They had all been left in the limbo of repression, as the period was covered up so was its poetry, as a kind of extravagance or excess that threatened order. But, it was all for the hell of it. Big Smoke is like reading the Purgatory of a divine comedy that was global for an instant and then was extinguished. Limbo, poets out on a limb. Some of them crawled back, ended up in School Publications or The Listener just like the generation before them. Some got lost. What was most satisfying, as we did Big Smoke, was finding those who had never stopped. They didn't publish but they still made marks, still lived on that edge, some Tertium Organum ranch in California, the wastelands of West Sydney, Otahuhu, several on Waiheke Island! Big Smoke is very joyous, and a collaboration of course. Think of 'gain' in the sense it's that button on a mixing desk you turn up to overcome electrical impedance. 

Actually, my Marxism was Spartacist. Rosa Luxembourg was my belle dame. Do you know the novel, Chevengur by Platonov? It's about that fascination. Yes, Rosa ... what gets me are the moments when the walls of the ghettoes fall, the dispossessed break out, exceed their civic limits; irrationality it's called by the authorities. There's something essentially human in this sort of revolt, that madness, possession. The consequences can be terrible. Here's today's newspaper. In Afghanistan, they're destroying two great statues of Buddha at Bamiyan. I saw them in 1970. The European Union accuses the Taleban leadership of 'an act of cultural barbarism.' Mullah Mohammed Omar, replies: 'I ask you whether Afghanistan's pride in the world would be to be called statue-sellers or to be called statue demolishers.' It makes you wonder what it means to be 'civilised'. We used to think ours was the era of a new Renaissance, but it looks more like the Counter-Reformation. Yes, Big Smokes everywhere. 'You don't know how lucky you are, boy ...' I do. Sometimes it is enough just to make people think again. There's satisfaction in directing the traffic, bumper cars. 

What does it mean to you in this day and age to practice as a poet? 

I wanted to write stuff, once, that was so dangerous it would have to be destroyed. This was my fantasy. I thought I was making magic; look-I came out of small group of sectarian Presbyterians, The Book of Martyrs; very evangelical. There was a feeling that your faith had to be so complete you would die for it! I was scared most of the time. Then you get Plato: 'admit no poet into the city'. Then Rimbaud: make your mind be like you're standing at the gates of Eden. There was a book, The Outsider, by Colin Wilson; he is despised now but he wrote this book in 1956 when he was only 24 years old. It was a digest of the insane, Artaud, Van Gogh, Nijinsky. I was 14 when I read it, in Hamilton. At the same time, I'm being thrashed in high school by sadistic wretches, beaten with rattan canes. A couple of these guys had been prisoners of the Japanese. They'd scream as they hit you. You're bent over with your hands on your ankles. This is what's going on as I discover I want to write.

We had a couple of teachers, dandies exiled from Prague; they'd say, You've got to get out of here. One of them taught us Rilke. What I am saying is, this is where I first came in. This is the context. And at the same time, finding Shelley, Blake ... 'just my imagination, running away with me'. If I have any aesthetic at all, or 'practice', it's 'impure'. In my mind, I live in luxury. But at the same time, I walk down the street too, I go to the supermarket, read newspapers, do commissions. My work is hardly ever reviewed; when it is, it's attacked for lack of refinement. But, as Wystan Curnow said once, refinement is a provincial virtue. That sensibility that admires 'quirky', the kind of art the state funds; what reviewers in the daily papers mean when they use the word 'delicious'. Art as sherbet, a taste for the insipid. 

The answer to your question lies somewhere between the idea, when I first write 'I', of poetry as sharing a space with 'wound' or 'violation', the invasion of another 'I' (as with Keats) and the present idea of poetry as 'nothing much'. In fact, it took a long time to write 'I', to begin to understand what that 'I' meant, what sort of construction that involves. Sometimes I'm nervous that that 'I' is unstable and other times I don't care, I invent another name. Rumi, the mystic dervish poet, signed his poems 'Shams of Tabriz', as if his best friend had written them. It's that possibility of connection / disconnection that keeps me intrigued. Rumi says, 'Try to be a sheet of paper with nothing on it.' How do you write that? A taste for the insipid could be the simplest way out. If there wasn't Rwanda, or Kosovo, or Gaza ...

You mentioned the 'good and evil'--but poetry can hardly claim to have much at stake in such a contest nowadays?

From where we are today, it does seem the barbarians Cavafy saw at the gate have entered the City; the frontier has been crossed and the Other has arrived. We're all in the same camp, we should just take orders and relax into the Abyss. But the idea of 'good and evil' does not go away. We have replaced it with the lesser idea of 'right and wrong', justice, recompense for something taken from us, or not given to us, that we have some title to. And even the right to appeal against decisions we don't like. Nietzsche, of course, laughed at 'good and evil'-anyone who accepted that possibility was a slave, good things turn out to be evil, evil turns out to be good. This was a contradiction the strong person had to break through, by making up their own rules. This is not necessarily fascism. After 1946, the Nazis claimed they just followed orders, adhered to the rules. Okay, something happens, shit happens ... especially in the kind of extreme situation we have now, for example, the sense that our waste products will kill us. Is this the limit? And yet, no matter how exceptional we think contemporary life is, we expect honesty from people, we accept people should have their own life, some kind of dignity, and they should be buried or cremated with some appropriate ceremony. There is a point beyond which we cannot imagine, a film we can almost not believe, like Kisangani Diary. At some point, we are all disgusted; with what's happening, and with ourselves as passive bystanders. Death is the silent word between 'good' and 'evil'; Heidegger's the 'possibility of the impossibility'. He fouled his own nest of course. But 'good' and 'evil' are somewhere in there, with possibility, impossibility, the limit, life, death, memory ... speech. 

To do 'poetry' means to do speech. It doesn't make a thing, anything essential in terms of our biological needs, or as property-owners, or money-earners. It is abstract; in Modernist terms, it makes a field. You get to the end of the line and then turn back. It's the field for thought, communication, Borges said the poem was only complete once it was spoken. Film, painting, they make objects that fade away though at first they might seem titanic, Nietzsche's will to operate on a superhuman scale. But speech doesn't disappear. It comes back to us. Even a minor like Sappho survives in fragments. Speech is being alive, where love happens, from where death removes us. You know when things are 'good', you're in a conversation. You know when they go bad, the talking stops. Why does the talking stop? Something 'evil' ... some guy beats his wife and child to death with a tomahawk. That's evil. It didn't have to happen. That's what poetry says, it didn't have to be like that, it could have been like this. Nowadays, people only hear poems (or even the Bible) at weddings or funerals. Poetry is ambiguous, impersonal, almost meaningless but what it says is: there's something else, there's more. Like Lao-tse, there is A Way. 

What (to you) constitutes a preferred (they used to say 'ideal') reader/s of your own texts?

Birds, trees, valleys, rivers-what I mean is, the 'preferred' reader is reading my text aloud, taking it along in space. Or, as texts, like fragments of writing found in ruins, in ancient honey-pots, under stones on mountain passes. Poets to come ... who knows. I have some good readers here, the question of isolation does not come into it. Of course, any reader will do. But the word 'text' is a problem I think; I'd hate to come down ex cathedra; they used to say 'common reader', didn't they, the guy on the bus? Anyway, to begin any sensible response would mean starting with tradition, paranoia, language, myth; and these things lead to identity, and then, narcissism. But politically I believe in the possibility of human communication, we can listen to strangers, we must ... because of this, and because your question implies an order of difference that, ideologically I do not accept, I can't really answer it. 

Why do you continue to be involved in a magazine like _brief_? What do you think it contributes--or should contribute--and to whom?

I go where I'm asked. I don't push in. We were talking about civilisation: not pushing in, waiting with patience and care for the others who are waiting too. See Akhmatova's poem about waiting, 'Requiem'. What happened with brief was Alan Loney asked for a contribution, and then another; and then you did; invitations that helped me recover myself, I can say that. Not that there's been much response to that effort. A few whispers, the odd footnote in a conversation ... But then I don't really know what to expect. Some of the talkback has been painful. But maybe you're asking why keep your magazine going. It's a witness to faith, faith is a total thing. In the midst of all this sleaziness, corruption, theft, bankruptcy - you have to have that faith, that you're engaged in something absolutely incorruptible. Because there's no money in it. Brief opens onto an area that is parasite-free-how's that? 

Influences? Recent years? Who do you measure your writing by? write for?

Bloom claims influences are repressed, any poem is a psychic zero ground between the poem you think you're writing and the poem you are, actually, re-writing. This is the limit you come up against, a dark situation, loaded with fear. He was talking about the influence of Milton on the Romantics. You are afraid of the past, that anything you say has already been said. Also, a fear for the future. The future cancels the past. Poetry is hostage to what has happened before and what will happen in the future. Influences are torture. Post-modernism came out of this, écriture-torture. Thoughts as torts. As taught. Strange isn't it, that when you are beginning, you wear your influences on your sleeve. You want people to know how to read you, to read you against one of the Great Ones. To show by example what you think you're doing. You show the platform you are leaving from, Platform Olson. John, we're going round in circles ... 

Influences should remain unsaid. Until you win the big prize and you have to thank somebody. I can look at poems in my millennium book Ecstasy, and say, Here's how this happened. I like Tuva music, shepherd songs from the steppes. Some of the poems in Ecstasy are about riding horses, the lover as a horse, the breath as a horse, the poem ... 'Folksong' is about riding a horse, it took a long time. I wanted it to feel like it had already been endlessly repeated, a variation within the genre. Some of it is bits of other songs, but it's written here, instead of vast grasslands there's the ocean. One of the poems in the book was commissioned and I was given much information for it. It was to be read aloud, with a band, Jonathan Besser, everything about it was influenced, circumscribed by desires I had to make my own. I had to find the symbol, or metaphor, that got me over the limit of those influences into the joy of my own devising. Finding the Sumerian word 'AN.BAR' was what happened. I translated it as 'sky on fire'. But the 'I' in that is not identical with me; it's an impersonation, if it has to be, of the guy who runs cancer research at Wellington Hospital.

Bloom developed his theory of re-vision just at the moment it ceased to matter. Post-modernism picked up on Modernism's great discovery, collage, put it together with Benjamin's art-as-(inescapably)-quotation idea, and said, Who cares? Why, for hundreds of years, are figures in Greek vase-painting always in profile? The total influence of the past, ie the tradition. The only character not seen in profile is the Medusa, man's fear of impotence confronted with the direct gaze of the lover, mother, accuser. Origin, perhaps. Under the Influence ...

What has really interested me recently, are song-cycles. I bought a book in Colombia last year, Cool Tobacco, Sweet Coca. Song cycles from the Huitoto Nation about getting stoned. Some of them take eight days to perform. Tobacco is Life as the word, the Word of life. Like Derrida, every thing is a text. I loved the Huitoto I met; totally unhurried. One night, the wife of the leader visited me. We were in the hotel in Medellin. Graciela wanted to write a poem. We talked about possible subjects for a while, how to start. After a couple of hours, and tobacco and coca!, she improvised quite a long piece. I asked her what she thinking about while she did it. She said she wasn't thinking, she was just a vessel that the Word of life happened to pass through. Graciela wouldn't sign it because she didn't write it, the Word wrote itself. We talked about that and, slowly, she got intrigued by the idea of signing a poem. We sat there a long time, Henry her translator rolling joints. Then suddenly, she said, write this. She started dictating. It was very exciting. She was elevated. And she signed it! The sort of ecstasy that should be there making any poem. Just like the very first time. That's how I'd like to measure whatever I do.

Who do I think it's for? Anyone who stops long enough to listen; yes, pour les autres ... let's have a glass of water.

Do you read, re-read, your own work? 

All the time, out loud. You know you've got the poem when you are happy to read it out loud. I have been spending time going through some folders, finding old ideas that are still interesting, writing that is interesting. Not for any archival purpose but to lessen the load. It's not difficult to be objective about old stuff, it's like editing a forgotten poet, yourself when elsewhere. Sometimes, it all looks like a bunch of misprints and I have no idea what I was thinking. As a performer, I still do pieces I wrote maybe twenty years ago. Especially with Sally, pieces we created together. Nothing is more levitating than doing that!

How do you value and regard the work you've published or written and how do you continue to relate to it?

I don't know. It's all precarious. Does anyone read it? My epic-construction Moonshine is probably better known on Alpha Centauri than it is here, one big medicine ball I threw into the air that never came back. After a long apprenticeship. Chaucer spent twelve years getting ready to write. I like the fact that I have published, kept writing. It's what I wanted to do. Milosz says it's never possible to be sincere. The value is, I acted these parts, I wrote from these hearts. It's disconcerting when people do discuss it. I want to say No, no ... There are times when the gap between the aspiration and the accomplishment is immense, you have to feel some shame. What's shame? When you are yourself, there's no mistake, this is you. Well, it's enough to know I was alive then. What is liberating is not having a career, to use a word. I have only my own image to live up to. Poets are like stars, most visible when they collapse. And then there's just absence. The poet's big time is coming out of that absence. That's the fortune you are hostage to. I have no thinking about that. Gender, genetics-the masculine desire to leave a 'trace' is in me no doubt, given my time and place. But there's nothing sadder than a book that's WITHDRAWN. In a sense, you're asking about fate. We burn offerings every day but we still don't know if there's a god. Value comes from altars. We all worship at one. 

Where does Red Mole fit in? How are words and bodily activity, expression, related in your art?

Red Mole was an idea of a community that happened when action from all angles gathered into one of those decisions you make for life. I was a callow actor, uncertain-it took time to discover how I wanted to perform. I knew the text would be poetry but there was a desire to make images too, to actually construct the signs of the images, the two sides of the metaphor. At one of the avant-garde cabarets in Auckland in 1969, I hammered bits of wood together to make the word POEM. I talked a lot at that time with Bruce Cavell who was into Robert Venturi, buildings as performance etc. We were banging into the post-modern, that American idea. I liked the way Venturi talked about a sort of 3-D poetry, art as Las Vegas. For a long time I didn't write scripts, but scenarios, imagining my life in bizarre locales. Poetry went to one side for a few years because I went travelling, to perform. The things I saw! Some other time. The thing is that when Red Mole started, I was writing scenarios, which the actors filled in for themselves. It was some time before I was confident enough to write complete scripts. 

Drama is two people talking. That's how Red Mole began. And few years later we did the desert, a show called The Excursion, shadows and masks on Second Avenue in New York. I took it from Flaubert's letters from Egypt, and we projected Maxime du Camp's photos, he was there with Flaubert. So Red Mole let me work that out. And from The Excursion, I went into Moonshine, 'thinketh she of Egypt, always Egypt' and so on; the physics of the contraction and expansion of the heart. I guess it's no wonder nobody got it. Bodily activity ... how do you say that? 

Words are a bodily thing, what we make with our air. We exist in the single place in the universe where breathing is possible. We expand, we contract; heart, lungs, lips-switching between palates. Poetry is physical in that sense, simple joy in using the equipment. The throat-singers of Tuva, the Hindu vac, chant that brings us near to the numinous. Of course, we make decisions. We don't say everything at once. Where are those decisions made? Soul? Mind? Somewhere in the spaces between the nodes, the little collections of experience in the synapses ... it's mysterious. We can't live without the temptation to metaphysics. Making our bodies do what our minds demand they do. The great achievements have to do with lung capacity. Lucia's mad E-flats; climb every mountain. As New Zealanders, we are taught to be reluctant to make gestures so we are always amazed, when we travel, at cultures that accompany speaking with extravagant hands. You know those merchants in the Middle East who conduct negotiations under a blanket, using hand signals. I suppose I wanted to investigate that sort of communication. Can words be tactile? Some sort of phenomonology needed here, I guess. Although I have always preferred notions of transcendence to those of immanence. 

What importance would you as a writer place in writing within a sense of community--and how might this have changed over time?

The community. I wrote about this in my essay in Big Smoke. When New Zealanders talk about their society, someone will invariably mention a time when nothing was locked, all doors were open. They say times have changed. Now we lock our doors and windows every night, every time we leave the house, and yet how many times are our houses broken into? We fear too much. It's the strategy of the global thing that's happening, making us afraid. The right wing trades on this, 'They'll come in through your windows, destroy your family, take away your credit, increase taxes, leave the nation vulnerable, scare away investors, write obscure poetry'. Detestable people but we live among them. What to do? 

Poetry's space is only half of the page, there's blankness on the other. Because poetry never finishes the line, it turns back, it drops down, leaves you a space to write in for yourself. That's the community the poet lives in. The white space of the thought, the event of the poem; Theocritus sitting in the library at Alexandria, thinking about Sicily, writing an Idyll. It's where you are, what you're thinking, what you write-that's the community. From the root 'common', which means no fences. Perhaps there is the idea of 'immune' also. I write inside that, on that green sward. They're wonderful, the people you meet there. 

Do you write collaboratively? 

Yes. There's nothing more uplifting than thinking with somebody who is simpatico. You collaborate of course with the Muse, god, the source of inspiration-poets of the past, poets to come. 'I is another'; you write for that other person, inhabiting them. Yeats, Pound, they both saw the poet as a set of masks. Writing for performance is where this is most obvious. The actors take your words and do anything with them. You have to make changes to cope with their difficulties, idiosyncrasies. You collaborate with the audience too. There's no option finally, although I resisted for a long time, to making yourself clear, or sensuous; clarity is not a concern. The new technology of writing, electronics etc, make collaboration easier, require collaboration. There's work with artists too. The book I did with Ric Killeen, Ephphatha, an intense experience. After the book, he turned the poem into one of his works. It's like the Rosetta Stone, three tracks saying the same thing but in different alphabets. The Stone is in the British Museum, amazing object. It's a code, ciphers. Which is the way I think of poetry: a shorthand for present experience alongside memory. 

Memory is selective, some names are temporary. The 'tribu' may not think much of this work at present, but some people do. You find each other and exchange information, privileged information. It's that sense of privilege the tribu dislikes, that a few people share a secret that's not available to them. Other art forms have found a way to ally themselves to the capitalist enterprise so that this doesn't matter. We don't worry about conceptualist works because there's always a catalogue, an explanation to go with it. Painting, sculpture, film-there's room to hustle. Not with poetry. Intimacy is maintained, it's a private experience. But more fun when there's two. The Orgy at the Scene of Writing ... something poets dream about. 

Are there ways in which your language and performance productions overlap and urge each other?

We have circled around this already. Language is a performance. The pleasure is in speaking, that's where life is. Writing is a kind of death, the plague, a dis-ease. The School of Paris has shown us that. Performance defies the odds, and instigates the same feeling in what I write. I can posit my writing for performance as a public voice, and that leaves me room for a private voice, the poetry. Operating this way, I can keep my urge (a word!) towards hermeticism without having to open up the notebooks. And yet maintain an existence as a writer. Red Mole performances are complex and incomprehensible if you don't know how to watch. The difference is between two non-commercial possibilities. 

What I like more and more is doing video, documentaries of existence. This is technically complex, and the post-production is close to impossible in terms of time (which means money), and video tape decays, but I find that the attempt to catch the totality of a moment is rewarding. Oh, it takes huge energy. I couldn't do it except in the partnership I have with Sally as Red Mole. Yes, it seems to have worked out just fine.

Is it worth writing poetry? writing poetry in little nz?

You're always picking up from where you left off. Keep going on, the road you should be on is the next one, 'the journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step'. One step at a time, up and down-iambic walks. In the meantime, the variations are endless. How much can you make out of thin air? You just have to grin and bear it. I try to be open. There is a destination, I've convinced myself of that. It changes, doesn't everything, but it's something to do with talking to a friend, living in a thought that is also a thought for two, or three ... or anyone. A destination you will want to return to, and though it is Not Yet, it is Almost. That's what I wanted to say. But let me put it another way ... 


© Alan Brunton 

Last updated 11 May 2001