14 July – Eileen Chong
On Thursday 14 July, Justine spoke to Sydney poet Eileen Chong about how she came to poetry, what it means when a poem happens, the current audience for poetry and heard some poems from her too.
We also heard James Whitington’s ‘Speechless’ and Nathan Curnow’s ‘If You Want to Flee the City’.
The podcast for the show will go up soon. The feed to subscribe is: http://www.cpod.org.au/feed.php?id=308
Eileen spoke about her journey into poetry, her time spent under Judith Beveridge’s tutelage at the University of Sydney, her time spent in New York and the slowed-down time of poetry.
I must confess I am not the most neutral of interviewers – there are questions I ask that link back to broader questions about writing and poetry that I have. One of the things I have learnt over a year and a bit of talking to writers and hearing their work is that there is a lot of wonderful poetry being written out there but I know very little about what the audience for poetry outside poets. Of course this probably indicates nothing – most people do not go on and on about what they are reading unless they are: 1. Trying to accumulate cultural capital (Have you read the latest Murakami/Foster-Wallace/pseudo-memoir-sensation-about-white-girl/guy-who-almost-kills-self-plus-takes-drugs?), 2. Part of a book club or taking a literature class and discussing books in that context or 3. Teenagers (I miss being in high school groups waiting until all your friends have finished the latest Harry Potter or Obertnewtyn so you can start talking about what happened or in the case of His Dark Materials, cry in each others arms…damn you Phillip Pullman you magnificent bastard). Poetry is probably no different so my thoughts and questions are most likely moot but something niggles and I wonder what other people think about this matter.
Eileen talked about the way that poetry reading changed for her after she had studied it and I wondered whether a kind of poetry literacy was necessary to appreciate poetry.
On the one hand I know that you don’t and there is poetry out there that is immediate and gets you to go along with it in the way that a great song will. Melbourne poet and slam champ Emilie Zooey Baker recently sparked off a debate about the value of slam when Trinity Grammar School head English teacher, Christopher Bantick, took issue with her suggestion that we put competitive poetry on television like Masterchef. The Australian Financial Review did a feature article on slam, focusing a bit too much on hip-hop perhaps but nevertheless showing that some forms of poetry are on the ascent in the wider public consciousness.
On the other hand the act of reading poetry feels like it is becoming increasingly esoteric – an activity where it means something to engage in it, like playing chess or going swimming at dawn every morning during winter. I’m not sure when the last time was that I met a person who read poetry but who did not also write poetry. I wonder if this has always been the case (or if it is the case at all). I wonder if Australia is a less poetic place whilst I romanticise America, which through sheer numbers and through the unbridled poetry of Southern and Midwestern speech and through its epic and crumbling dreams surely trumps us for possessing an undercurrent of poetry. I wonder also about the failure of post-modern poetics and whether the dominant poetics is difficult to understand and impossible to enjoy. Breaking down language was once perceived to be something that all could engage in. Instead we now have university courses dedicated to deconstructing the deconstructionists. It turns out what the downtrodden and marginalised needed was not a theoretical new language that no one could understand but what they have always needed – to take possession of the language they had and expand their horizons of expression using that as a start.
What horizons are poets writing to today? And is there an audience in view?
Perhaps the answer is, don’t worry about these things. They will sort themselves out as history will sort us out without even asking, in the end. I am comforted by this thought. It gives me the freedom to read (and listen!) and write simply and to simply read and write.