Interview with Pam Brown



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

Pam Brown: When I was around seven or eight I was ill and confined to bed for a little while. A visitor gave me a tin box with a glossy painting of a glorious reindeer in a dark green forest, craggy blue mountain peaks in the distance, on the lid. When I opened it I saw my swollen face fuzzily reflected in the golden tin – it was all blown up and round. I was shocked to see it. I had the mumps. Although I was sick in bed I wasn’t bored. I was cutting up lots of magazines and gluing pictures into a big sketch book and, in an exercise book, I started to write lists of things I would like to have if my parents were well off. I think these were my first poems. Motivated by a desire for material possessions, like a bicycle, a new Little Golden Book title, a pair of moccasins and so on.

Later, I wrote poems in my first year at high school. First, I wrote a poem imitating one of Judith Wright’s poems that was on the curriculum, I think because it was a set task. Then I started writing poems to my boyfriend (the motivation being kind of obvious) and I just kept going from there. Because I discovered that I liked to write I also wrote a play at high school and various things other than poems for the school magazine. I wrote hundreds of poems in the thickest school exercise books. They had cobalt blue cardboard covers with a big capital ‘Q’ in white (I think that was the logo of the Queensland Book Depot) and that blank square where you write your name, class and topic. On one of them I wrote “The City’s voice itself, is soft like Solitude” – from some poem Shelley wrote in a state of “dejection”. These 300-page, blue ruled books were perfect bound with fabric binding tape on the spines. I filled quite a few of them.

I spent my teenage years, up until I was twenty, in Brisbane. It was a very repressive place. The police would confront young people and record your personal details if you were out in the city after 11 p.m. If you couldn’t prove why you were there they would charge you with vagrancy. The Vietnam war was taking place. My father was in the army. I lived on a military base. I was opposed to Australia’s involvement in that war and to conscription. So you could deduce that I might possibly be looking to develop a different way of living. My best friend was a folksinger and a communist. Her father had travelled to Indonesia, Russia, China. Her mother was Jewish Viennese and, as a World War Two refugee, she’d chosen communism. My parents believed in protecting Australia from the communists. But I found the communists very interesting. They seemed to have a pretty good philosophy. Well, at least they had some ideas about how to live, how to organise society.

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

Pam Brown: Gradually, I became a melancholy, existential teenager ripe for beatnik-hood and political activities. I read the usual high school poetry. At high school, for me, everything boiled down to English, French and Art. I discovered Alfred de Vigny, Lamartine, du Bellay and so on to Guillaume Apollinaire, Jacques Prévert (Paul Valéry and Arthur Rimbaud were extra-curricula interests). Old stuff like Beowulf, the English Romantic and Victorian poets, and Yeats etc. and then the usual contemporary Australian, British and South African curriculum poets in a set text called Off The Shelf. Then things began to alter once I discovered Vladimir Mayakovsky at the East Wind communist bookshop in Brisbane and Ginsberg’s Howl and ‘Plutonium Ode’, Diane di Prima, Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, in that neat pocket-sized series from San Francisco’s City Lights, at the American Bookstore on Edward Street.  I also read some eastern Europeans, Vasko Popa and Miroslav Holub being two favourites. My maternal grandfather liked T.S. Eliot. We read him together. So it was an eclectic beginning. And I’d say music had a big influence on my early poetry too – Dave Van Ronk, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Cisco Houston and rock music, surf music, and blues as well. I went to concerts by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Arthur Big Boy Crudup, Ray Charles, Little Stevie (Wonder), Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells – they all visited Australia between 1965 and 1971. All of this went into my big round teenage melting pot, alongside Sartre and de Beauvoir and a pinch of communism.

Now. In Australia, I read everyone. I read to find poetry I like and what I like or dislike about what’s going on in poetry here. There are so many poets. I also read many, many North Americans, some Canadians, British, Irish, New Zealanders and poets like the Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano, some Italian and French poets – Pierre Alferi, Jacqueline Risset, Anne Portugal and I still read the old guys; Cendrars, Apollinaire, Lautréamont, Mallarmé, Valery Larbaud, Baudelaire, Aragon, Genet, Queneau, but I don’t read Rimbaud these days. Although I’ve read four biographies of that sooky, mum’s-boy scalliwag.

Years ago, I also read those great Penguin classics Li Po and Tu FuPoems of the Late T’ang, and others,  and some of the Japanese zen poets in the same series and elsewhere. The only Chinese poets I read now are usually introduced to me by poets like Kit Kelen who lives in Macau, or in Ouyang Yu’s projects and recent Singaporean anthologies. I have read some contemporary Vietnamese poets too.

I love US contemporaries like Rachel Loden, Claudia Rankine, Susan Schultz, Jennifer Moxley, Susan Stewart, Lisa Robertson, Matthea Harvey, Rachel Blau Du Plessis, Alice Notley, Rae Armantrout. Eileen Myles is one of my favourite poets, as is George Stanley and the late great James Schuyler.

I think something that’s changed for me over forty-five years of writing poetry is that I am now fully informed about the use of the first person in poetry and I’m bored to the back teeth with discussion about that. I have also tired of  ‘the quotidian’ as both a descriptor and a topic. I am interested in ‘the poetic’ – that is, in language play, in unpredictable word use and in the eccentric use of text on the page (rather than left justified, regular or formal stanza poetry – although I do do that occasionally and I like to apply a few constraints to my poems every now and then, as a personal challenge). I am not averse to an intended lyricism, but one accompanied by some kind of self-conscious or critical irony, as a relief. What’s also changed is that I write more slowly these days. I’m not driven by an urgency to get to the notebook or keyboard and start scribbling and I take longer in making a poem. Often I’ll have three or four poems on the go simultaneously, although that’s not new to my practice.

Music and songs influenced my early poetry writing. As a youngster, I liked Bob Dylan and I read his terrific poetic novel Tarantula. (Do I sound like Bob Adamson?) Later, I became a fan of Patti Smith, a poet and a rock punk. In the mid-seventies, I played bass and rhythm guitar (not terribly brilliantly) and I wrote songs. I was in the all-women group, Clitoris Band. Yes, music can be intrinsic to poetry. Songs especially. Of course, reading poems and hearing songs are entirely different actions, although they can be done simultaneously. But song is synaesthetic. I do think that poetry and songs are  interconnected. But I think poetry is the more contrived, more intricate and precise in its fabrication and, probably, even has possibilities to be a more complicated form than a song. A friend of mine, lead singer of another girl band, ‘Sheila’, once said to me “anything too silly to be said can be sung”.

I hope to ‘BE poetic’ without being ‘rarefied’; that is, to say what I mean rather than obfuscate with some over-embellished line or phrase. I expect a critical engagement that even while using apparently fairly straightforward words,  doesn’t exclude language play or surprising, unexpected use of language, or,  say, the elision of odd and exciting concepts and images, and digressions from the general drift in a poem. I guess, like my early influence, Mayakovsky, I’m not ‘TIED’ to it but I can’t deny that the poetic is very much a part of social and cultural critique.

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

Pam Brown: I suppose there’s some kind of flux. Some days everyday life and poetry writing are indistinguishable, other days they’re far apart. For my poetry it’s a mix that probably errs more on the side of the everyday than on lofty cerebral abstraction! But whose everyday? As I said earlier, I’m weary of the quotidian as a descriptor and as a modus operandi. I like to make things up or leave them hanging even if I start from a place in a poem – the street, that hill over there, that fridge in the convenience store, this movie, this paddock, this building, this motorbike – who knows whether I’ve actually seen these things? And does it matter? Making the poem is the thing.

When I first read Mayakovsky as a teenager – ah, that poem ‘Cloud In Trousers’! – his poem ‘Brooklyn Bridge’ (written in 1925) was a liberation to me, although his tone (in translation of course) was a bit Saroyanesque, that tongue-in-cheek Armenian, William Saroyan, whose stories I read around the same time. Many of Mayakovsky’s poems cascaded down the page, something I’d not yet encountered, and I loved that.

But he also talked about the way major social phenomena personally affected him as a writer. I hadn’t come across this outright personal connection to the social in poetry in modern English before. There was Pope and there was Milton but Mayakovsky made sense to me.

Allen Ginsberg, the Beats, Diane di Prima, Frank O’Hara (then, just that one little book Lunch Poems) all influenced my development of persona, of style, of thought, of attitude in poetry. Before reading them, and before Mayakovsky, I wrote a kind of foggy, overblown, adolescent poetry steeped in feeling and confusion. Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters was pure politics, of the times. I also read LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka) – The Dead Lecturer, Gregory Corso’s Elegiac Feelings American with its handwritten sections and little cartoony drawings, and other Beats.

Of course, later, in Sydney I went to hear Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and Andrei Voznesensky read at the Conservatorium. This was the night the painter Brett Whiteley became very excited and noisy in the back stalls, wanting some attention. When an attendant tried to bounce him he bit the attendant’s ear and was eventually jostled out of the theatre by the police. A really cheesy gay poet called Adrian Rawlins, dressed in a full-length white caftan, was dancing in a hippy trance on one side of the stage. He and Brett have both gone up to Afro-hairdo heaven now. The readings though, were excellent – very performative. A few days afterwards my boyfriend sat next to Allen Ginsberg on a plane flight to Darwin. He got him to sign the back of a book for me – it says “Like John a’dreams”. Don’t know why.

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

Pam Brown: I take it by “subjectivity” you mean something like personal feelings about an issue, or thing or person or place – a personal point of view. I’d say then that subjectivity is present in my poetry but it is not something I consciously set out to include or pursue. I’d probably call it self-consciousness or awareness. So its place is informative, but it's from the background even when apparently foregrounded in a poem. Not sure of  “subjectivity’s function” in my poetry – that’s a highly literary, almost linguistic question.

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

Pam Brown: All of the above. It seems impossible to write anything uninformed by tradition, though you can always go beyond tradition. It’s impossible to write outside of broad cultural and political movements, which are, inescapably, one and the same thing. So my poetry is placed right there – in amongst all the political and cultural complexities of whatever hubbub I happen to be engaging with and thinking about.

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

Pam Brown: How to begin a poem. Then, actually being able to discern whether the poem I'm assembling is working. It's also a challenge to know whether I'm heading towards pretentiousness or grand wordiness and to be ready to cut it out. Then, the work is to make deliberate pretensions into the jokes they should be. Into a kind of cascading linguistic debris – “Sydney noir comedy debris”.

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

Pam Brown: Other than poetry, I read mostly non-fiction – philosophy, poetics or poetry ‘theory’, art essays, critical political books – I guess that's still called ‘cultural studies’. And I read offbeat prose by Oulipians, Juan Goytisolo, Julia Leigh, Jacqueline Risset, Michel Butor et al. I’ve read Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, Brecht and the French experimentalists and many other 20th-century classics. But I haven't tended to re-read prose, so I think I'm ready to cull some of the prose paperbacks that fill my shelves and have made my living space impossibly cramped.

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

Pam Brown: Well, I do live in Australia. I use Australian-English language and spelling in my poems. I'm not, however, investigating Australian identity or poetic identity and sometimes my imagination lives in Hellbourg, La Réunion or Zlin, Moravia rather than Sydney, Australia.

MB: 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?

Pam Brown: I think it was John Forbes, referring to the early 1970s, who described encounters between poets as “a knife fight in a phone box”. I think he meant male rivalry. But it's not anything like that now, nor is it as energised or dynamic as Don Anderson’s “bloodsport”. Australian poetry has become very polite, and institutionalised in some ways, but there are small groups of  enquiring and publicly-engaged poets who come together socially, at launches, readings or symposia, and who publish each other in independent imprints. Poets who may disagree with and challenge each other without being motivated by schadenfreude or envy.

MB: How do you think Australian poetry and discussions about Australian poetry might best develop in the future?

Pam Brown: It might have been better to have avoided the current ‘festivalisation’ and ‘boutique-isation’ of poetry that available government and private foundation funding seems to have produced. Most of the people involved in working on popularising poetry via funded institutions aren’t practising poets, but they do have administrative salaries and often think up the most banal events and topics to hitch poor old poetry to. I prefer poetry symposia, seminars and conferences to the overtly celebrity-questing entertainment of festivals and themed poetry events. Although, at most literary festivals it is the same audience that comes to hear the poets as at any other poetry event – mostly, other poets.

But I am not sure how to “develop” Australian poetry. Does it need developing? Poets could continue reading each others’ poetry, talking to each other, reviewing and writing essays and papers about each others’ poetry, editing magazines (online and print) and small presses, and possibly seek support from teaching institutions that provide a living to those who teach their poetry. The main problem for a poet is always how to earn an income – in that context poets do have to be idealistic.

MB: How is poetry relevant or valuable to contemporary society and culture in Australia or at an international level? Is it after all a defensible form of cultural practice?

Pam Brown: It doesn’t need defending. I think poetry writing and publishing has strengthened as an art form in my lifetime. And, obviously, tertiary writing degrees and the internet have facilitated some of this flourishing.

I’ve worked locally for five years as poetry editor for Overland at the beginning of the 21st century and now for over six years on Jacket, and currently I am associated with Jacket2 online magazine. There is a global network of English-language poets and many poets-in-translation that keep poetry relevant to contemporary society. I’m not talking here about corporate forms of sociability like Facebook and Twitter (although those networks are useful for poets), but about an exchange of poetic writings and ideas –with the space to range that the internet offers.

In a world that is structured via economics rather than political or organisational thinking and planning, poetry provides an invaluable critical relief from the incessant pressure to see cultural and societal value in terms of how much everything costs.

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