Jaydeep Sarangi in conversation with Philip Salom
Philip Salom (born 8 August 1950) is a poet and novelist whose books have attracted worldwide acclaim. He has published fourteen books – twelve collections of poetry and two novels – notable for their originality and expansiveness and for surprising differences from title to title.His novels are Playback. (Fremantle Arts Centre, 1991; 2003) and Toccata & Rain: A novel. (Fremantle Arts Centre, 2004) His awards and honours include Commonwealth Poetry Prize for a First Book (The Silent Piano), Western Australian Literary Award for Poetry (The Projectionist),South Australian Biennial Literary Award for Poetry – official Second Prize (The Projectionist),Writers Fellowship, Australia Council,Commonwealth Poetry Prize for Overall Best Book (Sky Poems) and Australia-New Zealand Literary Award, NZ Arts Council.
J.S : Who inspired you to write The Silent Piano(1980)?
P.S : In the late 70s I had become a friend of the older Australian poet William Hart-Smith, who was living in Western Australia at the time and at some chosen distance from the poetry world. We would meet and talk about poetry and mysticism and humour and, well, his life. The latter might sound odd, but Bill was good at anecdotes and had lived a maverick life as a young man and poet. He was my example of the poet as a genuine artist, more concerned about his work than the fame game.
J.S : Who are the poets you read in your childhood?
P.S : None. I lived on a farm and though my parents read a lot they didn’t have any poetry books and read genre fiction, mainly, what Grahame Greene happily called ‘entertainments’. I knew about narrative poetry from teachers reading it aloud but I never read adult poetry until my mid 20s. In that sense I was something of a late starter.
J.S : Why did you choose the title Feeding the Ghost(Penguin, 1993)?
P.S : There’s a small poem in that collection which goes like this:
Looking for a title
then seeing what the hunger is
and what all art is:
feeding the ghost.
I hope that answers the question! It would be a shame to expand upon it.
J.S : What according to you is a ‘good’ poem?
P.S: I have just seen the following question so can pre-empt some of it by saying that I expect good poetry to have an essential inner element I call the imagination, which works on us and changes us. Imagination, for me, also includes the inventive. This, in turn, must work through linguistic freshness and precision and strike me with the poem’s insights, its knowing. All these in a strong relation between feeling and form.
J.S : Can there be a poem without emotion and imagination?
P.S : Not really, though I tend to use the term feeling (as above) because it is more subtle than emotion. There are many times that a poem, a work of art, can move us without it being clear what is happening and what ’emotion’ we are actually experiencing. And then there is compassion as a quality… So for me ‘feeling’ is the surer term, a wider reference… and imagination is the transport, that which moves us as readers into the space of the poem’s power.
J.S : Can writing poetry be taught?
P.S : It can certainly be shown to advantage! An insightful teacher should reveal some of the secrets of how poems work and how a student might write similar things. There is a limit though and for many the penny never drops – they just can’t get there. I had this eperience myself, trying for about 18 months without being satisfied with the results, fairly sure they weren’t poems at all, more little poetry-looking artifacts. Then I simply broke through, wrote several and amazed myself. The penny had dropped. Once through, it’s a given. Thereafter the poems were poems, widely different in manner and success … but poems, nevertheless. You may not be able to teach that break-through.
J.S : Did you ever attend a course on creative writing?
P.S : Yes. That is where I met Bill Hart-Smith. He was doing some casual tutoring at the University. I also met other poets in Perth and saw what they were up to, listened to them, got to know their work. And I read a great deal of poetry and thought about it, I did that crucial thinking about thinking, with poetry as the form.
J.S : Performance poetry is gaining momentum in many parts of the world. How do you view this very special trend in poetry?
P.S : It is a phenomenon, just as comedy and TV talent shows are. And social media as self-performance is. Honestly, I couldn’t care less. Performance of poetry as entertainment and stand-up comedy and noisy show-off may attract some people to more demanding poetries, but is more likely to encourage audiences to try it themselves as the model of poetry, naively then, and even put down what they then see as literary or ‘academic’ poetry. The shallowness is the problem.
J.S : Who are the important reviewers of your books and poems in the early part of your career as a poet?
P.S : I received most support from Tom Shapcott, as poet and reviewer but also through his role as reader for my first publisher, Fremantle Press. He gave me advice on my writing and made significant editorial suggestions, and he also dropped my name in more active poetry circles. This was important because I was, by living in Perth, in Western Australia, not really part of the poetry scene, which is centred on Sydney and Melbourne.
J.S : Do you have any dilemma in expressing beauty and truth?
P.S : I do my best, and have a complex view of what beauty might be, or beauty of perception, of poetry itself as a mode, as an art form. Each form creates its own kind of beauty and knows beauty differently. Truth is as subtle as beauty, more varied perhaps, more rhyzomic. It takes many forms and many of these are not obvious, whereas beauty often creates consensus, and shallow beauty to me is not much in the way of truth. As in sentimentality, say, in poetry.
J.S : For P.B. Shelley, ‘poets…are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting; they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society…’…Do you that think this quote still holds truth in this age of cyber mania?
P.S : Not really, if it ever did. I consider Shelley’s was a bold claim, more rhetorical than true.
J.S : You have performed as a guest poet and lecturer in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Italy, Yugoslavia, Singapore and New Zealand. Could you share your experiences?
P.S : The performance poets conveniently forget that the rest of us often like reading/performing and I have been called a moving reader. I do like it. I enjoy placing the poem in and on the voice and giving it resonance, tone, mood, an aliveness of meaning. Each city and occasion and venue calls up some common elements and some different ones: which poems to read, will any humour carry, how long a poem, what tone to use? It can be depressing giving it your best and knowing it didn’t work. In another country this is especially galling because you may never return! My strangest and in retrospect most exciting reading moment only lasted one poem. I read at night in Skopjie, in a public square, along with about 30 international poets, to a crowd of about 2000 people. My poem had a dramatic build-up to a Polish song which concluded the poem, and with the benefit of my earlier interest in operatic styles of singing, I sang this full voice, in a high baritone. It was thrilling to risk doing this – the vodka probably helped – but the crowd gave me a huge ovation. They loved it. So did I.
J.S : Can the age of Facebook produce a poet like John Keats?
P.S : Sure. If there’s enough time. We forget how astoundingly prolific Keats was and the time spent on writing and reading may seem impossible to find for keen social media people. The new ‘Keats’ may simply be found among those who don’t indulge. But who knows?
J.S : Why do you write poems?
P.S : Once I realised I could write genuine poems, as against the imposters I mentioned earlier, I felt a bit special – it was always a thrill to know how and to experience (among the pains) the deep pleasures and honour even (sound soppy, but still…) of bringing off a strong poem. But I write for more than that, for the knowings I receive as I write, for the inventions and achievements, which I believe all good poetry must possess. It’s hard not to. And because I haven’t finished yet.
J.S : What are your seminal volumes?
P.S : This is a tough call. I have two essential areas of style. My central works, like Sky Poems, The Well Mouth and my forthcoming book Alterworld, are each a single book as an imagined world, and together they make up a cosmology. A trilogy, far from Dante, but as Heaven, Limbo and Hope. These are sweeping but also ironic claims!
The other style of poem I write is more personal, to do with family, people, more directly about common experiences and wonderings and feelings and what I call hauntings.
J.S :What are your seminal issues in poetry?
P.S : To see and understand the world as much as possible and do so within the mode and frames of poetry and poems. This is ontological. The nature of being, existence, the old thing. To relate the hauntings, apprehensions, the energy of being, of consciousness. Which has to acknowledge the unconscious, the intuitive, the imagined, of course.
J.S : Are you familiar with contemporary Indian poets in English?
P.S : Not many, I must say. But then, nor am I familiar with contemporary poets from Canada or Germany. I have met Jayanta, of course, some years ago, also Keki Daruwalla and Nissam Ezekiel and I have read poets piece-meal, sometimes not recalling names. I met a group of Indian writers and poets just before I left Perth to live in Melbourne, in 1997, but generally there is not much traffic in either live or printed form. I also read with interest the poets (Keki included) in the Southerly special issue
J.S : In a poem for Jayanta Mahapatra’s 80th birthday(published in Southerly, Vol 70,Nov., 2010) you wrote “Your poems have called up Wordsworth in the readers(.)”Could you please share your views on his poems?
P.S : Some poetry hits you immediately with its authority and its power of perception and tone. Jayanta’s is like that. There is a worldliness that lives in the local, a strength that acknowledges weakness, a seriousness that is full of compassion. He is true. And he is fully himsef, not some echo of Wordsworth, which is part of what my poem considers, and yet he has the power and sadness perhaps of Wordsworth. I think my phrase was ‘sad and secular’. His lyric is able to be informed by the personal for its knowing but also speak out to readers as something more wide-reaching and impersonal, and by that I mean, his lyric poetry is never turned inward for any gratification or self-mythologising. This last is characteristic of too many poets, sometimes quite brilliant poets, but it’s very off-putting for me. Jayanta is often solemn but he is never boring as old Wordsworth could be! He has a strong social conscience too.
J.S : During 2009-10 you worked in collaboration with Maggie Hegarty, a Melbourne photographer, to create a lucid and freshly imagined art book of poems and images. How is this book received?
P.S : We created the ‘book’ before we realised we couldn’t afford to produce it! Too idealistic. I think the images and poems are strong. However – the costs for such an ‘art book’ were too high unless we could guarantee some sales for what becomes itself a very expensive item. Collectors and archivists and libraries used to purchase such books and display them. They no longer have the budgets to allow thus activity. Sadly.
J.S :What is the future of poetry in the world?
P.S : Same as always – there will be people who must write it, and people who must read it. Some poets will attract big readerships, and listeners, and careers, the others will just get down to the endless business of writing it. Some will excel. It is a deep activity and such activities, unlike library budgets! always survive.
J.S :Where do you live now? Do you have any other serious engagement other than writing poetry and novel?
P.S :I live in North Melbourne with my wife and we keep three cats. Our two children are adults and have lives extremely unlike ours and do nothing that is in any way close to poetry! I resigned from my lecturing work at the University of Melbourne to write full time. My wife is now the bread-earner and luckily we both enjoy this arrangement.
J.S :Did you write social/personal satires? Could you please mention…..
P.S :In 2012 I published a book called Keepers which is a kind of hybrid verse novel, based around an academic art institution. My approach is generally satirical, a lot of mockery and exposure of the foibles and indulgences of staff and wannabe students, as well as some more serious issues being explored, questioned… After that I created another two books written through heteronym: one lyric and rather melancholic poet who is also sardonic and who grew from the satirical voice of Keepers, so this book The Keeper of Fish is his collection (as a closet poet) of poems. Then I wrote another poet with a style and personality utterly unlike my own. His name is M A Carter and Carter truly is a satirist, an outrageous misanthrope and eccentric who writes much funnier poems than mine but whose words are much more biting and critical in manner and attack. He’s a worry! His book is called Keeping Carter. I am all the same very proud of him. My next novel Waiting is about people who have very little in life and if this makes them figures of satire they are also mouthpieces for a larger critique of society, which means they get all the best lines.
My poem is over the page, and an echo of India…
A Night-long Performance of Peter Brook’s Mahabarata
Ceaseless going over and going over swayed
her voice back into millenia, the millenia in her throat
swayed inside us, its sad and ceaseless zaftig of tone
rose and fell under the violins chugging, in unison.
Yes, chugging, not romantic. The Pandava brothers.
Lament here, the drum-spats, the harmonium’s square
book of the Vedas opening and closing.
Earth. Death. When you wake from it millenia
have come and left. Timelessness is greater time.
At dawn in the local quarry we usually ignored
the cliffs were cut open by Vedic wars:
gelignite has nothing on this. Opened I was/we were.
Peter Brook was a thousand years old in this new
Sanskrit English International Cast
His Arjuna seized us, he was handsome and epic
and everyone fought beside him, side against side,
but no victory a victory: we were dying to know
of epic knowing and to mourn for what is real
in what is not. Nine hours and centuries
is a lot of dying and of the not really real.
But at six am the sun stood up amongst us
and threw the rug from its shoulders.
Mahabarata. Just the sound of it is glorious.
We had done right and been wrong, been honourable
and weak, loyal and venal, heard the tragedy of the wise
and the foolish, and felt big quarry tears, the terrible,
compassionate arrows of a real Mahabarata
plunge through us.
So filled and fooled, now we were filing home
into the next world.