Interview with John Kinsella



Michael Brennan: When did you start writing and what motivated you?

John Kinsella: As a child. My mother was a writer who had some success placing poems, stories and articles in Australian journals and magazines, won the main poetry prize in the West in the late 1960s (the Thomas Wardle Prize), and not long after, gave up writing. I was as much impressed by her giving up as I was by her writing and publishing. I grew up listening to Milton and Wordsworth. After spending some time in advertising after she and my father divorced around the time I started school, she went to university and eventually became an English teacher. This, crossed with the influence of Wheatlands farm (owned by my uncle and auntie and where I spent a great deal of time), and a deep fascination with ways of expressing things outside direct speech (I was fascinated with science and scientific nomenclature), worked together to lead me to poetry at a very young age. I was motivated by the fact that nothing I said, or others said to me, seemed to express what was at the core of things, the essence of things. Figurative language worked in that respect, and shaping poems gave satisfaction to my child-urge to construct, to make. The same drive led me to design computers, work on chemiluminescence, to invent ‘things’. It also led me to reject the structured – to shoot parrots, rabbits and foxes, to start drinking at an early age and to smash (literally) everything around me. As environmental and social politics took hold of me, I rejected violence in all its forms. I gave up hunting as a teenager, though I still remained an aggressive person (engendered, I’m afraid, from many years of being severely bullied at school for an academic orientation, among other things) as a drug addict, but then shed that as well. Veganism and animal rights, but never as a weapon against others. And even my activism poems aren’t ‘weapons’, they are declarations, resistances, exclamations, and undoings. Even when they express extreme violence, they are not intended to be violent. In that journey, so journeyed my poetry and poetics.

MB: Who are the writers that first inspired you to write and who are the writers you read now? What’s changed?

John Kinsella: When I was a kid (and still now): Milton, Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Dickinson, Frost, Judith Wright, Brennan, Rimbaud, and Hart Crane; Homer, Dante, Hardy, Austen, Rilke, Radnoti, Delmore Schwartz, Joyce, Beckett, and Emily Brontë. I read a great deal, and influence is an open and ever changing thing. Beethoven, the Bachs, Black Sabbath, Crass, Alkan, Velvet Underground, Nina Hagen, and Cage were every bit as relevant poetically when I was a teenager. Poets like Lionel Fogarty, Susan Stewart and J.H. Prynne are always with me. Susan Howe and Vallejo are there as well. So is the work of my partner (Tracy Ryan), as we’ve spent a long time now in dialogue about poetry and activist issues. The novels of Philip K. Dick – they matter to me as a poet as much as poetry does. And many others. I don’t think we can ever separate ourselves as writers from what we read. In a sense, a list of names is futile when it’s the whole language and attendant sensibilities which make the language we ourselves use.

MB: How important is ‘everyday life’ to your work?

John Kinsella: Entirely. I record what happens around, especially in environmental terms. A poem is not a precious aesthetic artefact for me, a piece of potlatch in the sea of impressions and artistic utility that will “reward my journey through life” (or a reader’s), but a piece of activism – an item that lives in its moment and acts as an amplifier or possibly mirror for a crisis of belonging. My personal crisis rests in the cost of my occupying space, of my contribution to the erosion of ecologies. This is not convenient conscience appeasement such as you find around ‘carbon footprint’ zeitgeist (the ‘offsetting’ mentality; more effectively, if people just reduced there’d be less of a problem, fewer carbon emissions), but a recognition that humans so often take more than they give back. For me, living is an exchange: I get and give, and vice versa. The equation has to balance. So much art is about greed: a greed for attention or just a deluded belief that one is actually ‘giving’ some aesthetic or spiritual or even material satisfaction that compensates for the cost of making the ‘art’ in the first place. Bullshit. Art is nothing. Poetry is nothing. In themselves, at least. More important is looking after the land, respecting indigenous knowledges and rights to country, working to prevent damage, helping to look after my family. Giving up flying mid 2008 after a life of too much flying is part of a poetics for me as much as travelling (I have lived in three countries ‘at the same time’ for many years) has been a way of enhancing my view of the local, of localities. Instead of the ‘further you move away the closer you get’ I have valued via Lao Tsu for so long, it’s now more ‘the closer you stay the closer you get’. The criss-crossings of comings and goings are part of me, but so, increasingly, is the notion of less rapid movement, of valuing every piece of ground (or water) I move across.

MB: What is the function or place of subjectivity in your poetry?

John Kinsella: I have always been considered a poet of ‘place’. Or a ‘landscape’ poet. The ‘self’ has always been an extension, appendage, or complication in terms of exploring those ‘places’. Of course, it’s built into the definition of ‘landscape’ (even if indirectly – by association at least), but people don’t think of that when they use the term in what they often intend to be a neutral way. It is about humans and intervention: it is not neutral. Subjectivity and place are synonymous for me. How I define self and how I define human presence is not simply an internalisation but a reflection of my impact on the world-in-itself. Subjectivity is not conceptual but concrete. In a sense, place is more internal: it’s the manifestation of self-presence or group-presence in an ecology. When I write the self in a ‘landscape’, it’s about the complexities of presence. In a sense, subjectivity over place equals erasure. And erasure is a political ploy, a convenience once we know how it works. And we do as poets, we do. The page isn’t filled or overlaid, it’s erased: the materials that make the page, their ‘costs’. I am going offline, I am reverting to handmade paper, I am asking my publishers to do my books on recycled paper. The ironies can’t be sustained. Neither can computers. Time will tell and tell.

MB: Do you see your work in terms of literary traditions and/or broader cultural or political movements?

John Kinsella: How can it not be? I need to understand and work through them to dismantle or reinvent or rework them. I ‘template’ works of creative orthodoxy (orthodoxy in terms of contemporary presentation and ‘value’), rewrite myths: from Lilith through to Sidney’s Old Arcadia through to explorer journals through to the Divine Comedy. All my work comes out of and ‘resists’ tradition. We are what we inherit, even when we’re not supposed to inherit. Poets are like the death taxes on literature: a disturbing analogy, but an accurate one, I fear. As soon as you focus literature through a vegan anarchist pacifist lens, the possibilities of how something might be read change dramatically. In trying to de-map text and place and subjectivity (if you like), I need to know what the maps look like. Of course, maps out of Western traditions are re-mappings and occupations anyway – they rewrite the desire lines to suit the imperialists. It’s these re-mappings I wish to ‘de-map’.  The thing is, I don’t want to write neat poems – I don’t want to write the workshopped item. I want slippages and ambiguities, I want ‘flaws’ and substitutions to break the bounds of order. The poem and its reception operates so like the state: it begs for approval while imposing its rule. I aim for a decentralised poetry and a fragmenting poetics. I am opposed to nation and nationalism, and write about region – no, less than ‘region’, I write about immediate place set in a broader lexicon of internationalism (to create comparison and engender respect for the integrity of the local) in order to resist nation.

MB: What aspect of writing poetry and working as a poet is the most challenging?

John Kinsella: I guess this varies from poet to poet and some or all of these factors might (or might not) be part of it. For me, writing is about necessity – I would be articulating an activism regardless of what my life’s needs and circumstances might be. Even in the lock-up, an expression of my resistance would be (as I wrote when I was seventeen), writing on the walls with a “smuggled pencil stub”. I suppose from a purely pragmatic point of view, making a living is the big issue. Poetry often has to work in conjunction with that reality. For me, it’s a matter of working out how to achieve this with minimum contradiction between the ethical and political aims of the ‘message’ and intent behind a piece of writing, and a process of deriving income from this. Of course, I don’t believe money and profit are a desirable way of conducting human interaction – other means of exchange are far more affirming and have better and more egalitarian outcomes. A poem for food? Well, why not? But a level of co-existence with the horrors of market and/or state economies necessitates a level of participation even if it becomes part of an articulation of resistance.

MB: What reading, other than poetry, is important to your work as a poet and why?

John Kinsella: Reading is a large part of what I do. Reading is more important than writing for me. I read across a vast field of content, really covering all of the above and much more. I often have three or four or sometimes many more books on the go. And I find writing on what I read both generative and creative. At the moment, among other things, I am working on a small book on the fiction of the novelist and short-story writer, Philip K. Dick (of ‘speculative fiction’, but I challenge this and ‘science fiction’ as labels for what he does). That book comes entirely out of being a reader, not a writer, despite how seemingly inseparable these components are.

MB: What is ‘Australian poetry’? Do you see yourself as an ‘Australian’ poet?

John Kinsella: It’s a construct like all other national poetries. An effort to homogenise, to nationalise difference. To create a collective rubric that stands for a people rather than persons. I am within it, I anthologise ‘it’, but I also wholeheartedly reject it. I am a poet of the region I write. I am a poet who comes from the continent that people term Australia. That does not make me an ‘Australian poet’. What I am of is not what I necessarily identify with – which is not to say that I don’t identify with people and issues of where I come from, but rather that I refuse to be drawn into a marketing of nation and hegemony I resist in every way. I have much in common with other ‘Australian poets’, but that doesn’t mean I have to (or they have to) identify with this or any other label of nation.

MB: In reference to the heated debates around poetics and poets, Don Anderson once described Australian poetry as Australia’s only “blood sport”. More recently critics have seen Australian poetry in terms of a “new lyricism” (David McCooey) and “networked language” (Philip Mead). What is the current state of play in Australian poetry in your view? How do you think Australian poetry and discussions about Australian poetry might best develop in the future?

John Kinsella: I wrote about a personal new lyricism years ago coming out of French models. David’s take is an acute (and independent) one, but I am not sure if it relates to what I do personally. Maybe it does. Phil’s networked language is also relevant in terms of a broader debate, but I am caught in the irony of one who has so much fostered and been involved in electronic community (the net), and yet has chosen to leave it. I go off email and computers at the end of October 2009. When I first started using email almost no poets were on it, certainly in Australia. Actually, there was a lot of controversy over it as a means of communication and literary dissemination. Now it is the norm and to do otherwise is considered odd. The currents of communication are always essential to notions of community – be it the coffee shop, snail mail, the net, whatever. You know, getting outside that garret! But that’s about poets affirming their acts among poets or, if they’re lucky, a public. It’s the affirmation they require. I don’t care about the affirmation. Maybe I did once, but I don’t now. I am interested in end results. I have no interest in the persistence of my identity as writer, only in the cause and effect of the work. A forest gone is the poems gone. Makes you think a lot about paper, means of production, the energy and materials in computers and so on. I am only interested in how we address these problems (wherever we might be). An ecology of presentation, of poetry.

MB: How is poetry relevant or valuable to contemporary society and culture in Australia or at an international level?

John Kinsella: As activism. I’ve pretty well said what I have to say about this in my responses above. Someone recently wrote in a review that I harp on about the ‘trinity’ of veganism, anarchism and pacifism. Well, I do, and will continue to do so. They are where my poetry comes from. They are a world view and a reason for writing. Aesthetics are increasingly irrelevant to me.

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• Australia Council For The Arts (Australia)

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