Toby Fitch interviews John Tranter

John Tran­ter has pub­lished more than twenty col­lec­tions of verse, and has edited six antholo­gies, includ­ing The Pen­guin Book of Mod­ern Aus­tralian Poetry (with Philip Mead). He stud­ied for and received a Doc­tor­ate of Cre­ative Arts from the Uni­ver­sity of Wol­lon­gong and is an Hon­orary Asso­ciate in the Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney School of Let­ters, Arts and Media, and an hon­orary fel­low of the Aus­tralian Acad­emy of the Human­i­ties. He has given more than a hun­dred read­ings and talks in var­i­ous cities around the world. He founded the free Inter­net mag­a­zine Jacket in 1997 and granted it to the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia in 2010. He is the founder of the Aus­tralian Poetry Library at http://poetrylibrary.edu.au/ which pub­lishes over 40,000 Aus­tralian poems online, and he has a Jour­nal at johntranter.net and a  detailed home­page at johntranter.com.

                                              Pho­to­graph:  John Tran­ter, Cam­bridge, 2001, by Kar­lien van den Beukel.

 

 

Toby Fitch was born in Lon­don and raised in Syd­ney. His first full-length col­lec­tion
of poems Raw­shock was pub­lished by Puncher & Wattmann in 2012. He was short­listed
for the Peter Porter Poetry Prize 2012 and has pub­lished poems in antholo­gies, news­pa­pers
and major jour­nals, nation­ally and inter­na­tion­ally, includ­ing Best Aus­tralian Poems2011
and 2012, Mean­jin, The Aus­tralian, Cordite, and Drunken Boat. He is poetry reviews edi­tor
for Southerly jour­nal, and is a doc­toral can­di­date at Syd­ney Uni­ver­sity.
 http://tobyfitch.blogspot.com 

 

Toby Fitch: Let’s start by talk­ing about your most recent col­lec­tion of poems,
Starlight: 150 Poems (Uni­ver­sity of Queens­land Press: 2010), which to me
presents the cul­mi­na­tion of a num­ber of text-generating tech­niques in your poetry.

For the 83 poems in the sec­ond sec­tion of Starlight, ‘Speak­ing French’,
you cre­ated these by read­ing poems by Charles Baude­laire, Paul Ver­laine,
Arthur Rim­baud and Stéphane Mal­larmé into a speech-to-text com­puter pro­gram,
read­ing the poems in French, though the com­puter pro­gram only had an Eng­lish
dic­tio­nary. The com­puter then spat out an ini­tial kind of mis­trans­la­tion that
pro­vided you with a com­pletely new set of words, sounds and phrases to shape
into your own poems. How did you sift through and choose what to use from the
texts that were spat out by the computer?

John Tran­ter: The speech-to-text pro­gram pro­duced a page or two of prose
in each case, mainly gib­ber­ish.  I worked through each piece throw­ing out things
that didn’t seem to fit, and mov­ing pieces of text around until some kind of nar­ra­tive
emerged. I did a lot of rewrit­ing, until I had about a page of reworked writing.

Fitch: Did the speech-to-text pro­gram pick up much of the orig­i­nal French
and the orig­i­nal writ­ers’ concerns?

Tran­ter: No, what it pro­duced was almost totally dif­fer­ent. It only ‘under­stood’
Amer­i­can Eng­lish, and it was tinted with con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can­isms, nat­u­rally
enough: CIA, CD, spread­sheet, vot­ing, mar­ket, com­pany, fax, and so on, phrases
you would be likely to find in a let­ter dic­tated by a busi­ness man­ager in
con­tem­po­rary Amer­ica – which was the tar­get audi­ence and pur­pose for the pro­gram
– a lingo I some­times played riffs on. It’s inter­est­ing how often ‘CIA’ occurs, for
exam­ple. Those phrases don’t occur in the originals!

Fitch: Of course not. What made you struc­ture these mis­trans­la­tions as son­nets,
as opposed to writ­ing them in freer forms, or with no pre­scribed line count?

Tran­ter: Per­haps my pas­sion for neat­ness. At some point I saw that these drafts
could be turned into fourteen-line poems, give or take a few lines, so I turned them
all into sonnets.

Fitch: Writ­ers often start to write a son­net plan­ning that it will be a son­net, from
the start. Had you ever done any of this kind of thing before, just turn­ing a whole heap
of dif­fer­ent short poems into son­nets? Was this how your early book Cry­ing in Early
Infancy: 100 Son­nets
came about? 

Tran­ter: Yes, that’s more or less what I did with the forty or so short pieces of poems
that I brought back from Sin­ga­pore in the early 1970s. I lived in Bris­bane from 1975
to 1977, and Mar­tin Duwell (who also lived there) asked if I had a book man­u­script he
could pub­lish. He had already pub­lished my chap­book The Blast Area in 1974 as
num­ber 12 of the Gar­goyle Poets series. There are quite a few fourteen-line poems in
The Blast Area too.

I thought about what I had lying around, and pro­posed a book of one hun­dred son­nets,
and worked on those forty short poems until that is what I had to give him, which
became the book Cry­ing in Early Infancy: 100 Son­nets (Makar Press, St Lucia, 1977).
I asked Mar­tin to choose an order for the poems, as I couldn’t see much pat­tern in them.
Most of those ‘son­nets’ are not rhymed.

Fitch: A lot of read­ers might feel that much mod­ern poetry is kind of form­less. But the
son­net form is quite old, older than Shake­speare, and most son­nets are very intri­cately
struc­tured. Is it the sonnet’s neat­ness that appeals to you?

Tran­ter: You’re right. I do seem to have a psy­cho­log­i­cal need to make things look tidy;
to clean up the kitchen, which I do first thing every day, to do the wash­ing up and the
wash­ing, to iron a creased shirt. With me, I guess it has some­thing to do with grow­ing up
on a farm. I like trac­tors, and learned to drive one at age ten or twelve – and with a trac­tor
you turn a pad­dock full of old dead plants and weeds into some­thing ploughed into neat
rows and sown with shiny new plants – say peas or beans – then you har­vest them, sell
them, and make some money. There’s a process there: you work at trans­form­ing
some­thing wild and chaotic into some­thing neat and ordered, and if you’re lucky, you
make a liv­ing. That process is older than cap­i­tal­ism: it began with agri­cul­ture, tens of
thou­sands of years ago. Except we now add fer­tiliser, made from moun­tains of bird shit
in Nauru.

And that’s how poetry works: you turn the jun­gle and chaos of talk and speech and action
and his­tory into ordered lines of verse, neatly set up with rhyme and stock epi­thets to be
mem­o­rised and repro­duced, over and over again. The inco­her­ent mess of phys­i­cal and
emo­tional expe­ri­ence is trans­formed into lit­er­a­ture: sto­ries that have (an arti­fi­cial) shape,
pat­tern and meaning.

I was talk­ing about these more recent French-derived poems in Starlight with poet
and radio pro­ducer Robyn Ravlich for an ABC radio pro­gram a year or so ago, and
men­tioned that some crit­ics had objected to my call­ing the Cry­ing poems son­nets,
because they lacked rhyme (well, some of them had rhyme, but none of these so-called
crit­ics noticed or men­tioned that.) ‘Per­haps I should call these new ones Non­nets,’ I said:
‘Non-rhymed son­nets.’ Robyn quite prop­erly reminded me that the word Non­nets was
already taken: for nine-line son­nets. ‘Okay,’ I said, ‘Let’s call them Ron­nettes:
Rhyme-Free Son­nets’. So that’s what these poems are, Ron­nettes. (I also like the vocal
group of that name, a big-hair 1960s girl group from New York City pro­duced by Phil
Spec­tor: they had some really big hits.)

Fitch: Yeah, so they don’t use rhyme, but they are divided into eight and six-line
stan­zas. What other organ­is­ing prin­ci­ples are at work?

Tran­ter:  I had the idea of link­ing them some­how to John Ash­bery, a friend and
long-term influ­ence on my work. The poems were orig­i­nally writ­ten as part of a Doc­tor
of Cre­ative Arts the­sis at the Uni­ver­sity of Wol­lon­gong, and one of the pur­poses of the
argu­ments buried within the the­sis is the influ­ence on my writ­ing of the poetry and lives
of Arthur Rim­baud, ‘Ern Mal­ley’ and John Ash­bery, who, as it hap­pens, are linked in
other ways too.

So I read through Ash­bery again and selected a hun­dred or so lines and phrases from
his work that I liked, and took each frag­ment and wove it into the fab­ric of each of the
hun­dred or so ‘Ron­nette’ poems I had writ­ten. Well, there were over a hun­dred,
orig­i­nally. I dropped many of the less suc­cess­ful poems for the book pub­li­ca­tion. So if
you have read all of John Ash­bery and have a good mem­ory, as you read through my
‘Ron­nettes’ lit­tle flashes of recog­ni­tion will occur to you and will help to make your day
more var­ied and interesting.

Fitch: What was your cri­te­ria for choos­ing cer­tain Ash­bery lines, how and where in the
poems did you decide to splice them in, and did all the Ash­bery lines sur­vive the edit­ing
process?

Tran­ter: I chose the lines I liked, that seemed strik­ing or strange or orig­i­nal. It was just
a mat­ter of per­sonal taste, really, or per­haps whim. And I looked to match the con­cerns
of the Ash­bery lines with what my poems seemed to be about; or per­haps con­trast them,
depend­ing on my mood at the time. If a poem men­tioned the sea­sons, I inserted an
Ash­bery line about the sea­sons or the weather; if a poem con­tained a line like ‘You will
find, in that vista, all you could have been’, say, I would add this Ash­bery line (about a
vista) just ahead of it: ‘From where I sit I can see hun­dreds of freight cars.’ Here are some
of the Ash­bery lines I used, together with the poems they appear in – you’ll see I thought
of drop­ping some, though I can’t remem­ber why – per­haps the poems they were in failed
to work:

Men appear, but they live in boxes. / Rim­baud: Shames
Behind the steer­ing wheel / Rim­baud: Story
Turn on the light / Rim­baud: Depar­ture
Advanc­ing into moun­tain light / Rim­baud: Vil­las
It’s true we have not avoided our des­tiny / Mal­larmé: Wild Swine…
The dis­tant box is open / Rim­baud: The Fixer
But hungers are just another topic / Rim­baud: Genius
You who were always in the way / Rim­baud: Pronto
To tell the truth the air turned to smoke / Mal­larmé: Bracket Creep
There was calm rap­ture in the way she spoke / Rim­baud: Bot­tom of the Har­bour
Per­form­ing for thou­sands of peo­ple / Rim­baud: Child­hood
the vine­yards whose wine tasted of the for­est floor / Rim­baud: Win­ter Maps
There is no pos­si­bil­ity of change / Rim­baud: Flow­ers
I pre­fer ‘you’ in the plural / Mal­larmé: Whis­tle While You Work
The whole voy­age will have to be can­celled. / Rim­baud: Hor­ti­cul­ture
Silly girls your heads full of boys. / Rim­baud: Move­ments
Barely tol­er­ated, liv­ing on the mar­gin / Rim­baud: Lives
This was our ambi­tion: to be small and clear and free / Rim­baud: Mar­t­ian Movie
night after night this mes­sage returns / Rim­baud: New Beauty
but the fan­tasy makes it ours / Rim­baud: Mari­nara DROPPED??
the promise of learn­ing is a delu­sion / Rim­baud: Metro
It was rain­ing in the cap­i­tal / Rim­baud: Phrases DROPPED?
she thought she had seen all this before / Rim­baud: Tenure Track DROPPED?
you are the har­vest and not the reaper / Rim­baud: Ornery
the pre­sumed land­scape and the dream of home / Rim­baud: Parade

Fitch: Did some Ash­bery lines get sub­sumed into your writ­ing so much that you
for­got which ones were yours and which were his?

Tran­ter: Oh yes. In fact I was dis­ap­pointed to dis­cover, on read­ing through the
poems months later, that some very clever lines that I had grown to assume were mine,
in fact had been bor­rowed from Ash­bery, whose clev­er­ness is more effort­less and
abun­dant than my own. And vice versa, per­haps: when John read the col­lec­tion he
said ‘Some of its lines felt as though I wrote them.’ He has a very dry sense of humour.

Fitch: The issues of influ­ence are very impor­tant to your poet­ics. Can you talk
about the influ­ence of Arthur Rim­baud on you and on your atti­tudes towards writing?

Tran­ter: Sure: it was an early influ­ence, and felt impor­tant to me. I have already
talked about that at length in my long poem ‘Rim­baud and the Mod­ernist Heresy’
and in book reviews and inter­views: I sug­gest the inter­ested reader search Google
for ‘Tran­ter’ and ‘Rim­baud’. Kate Fagan and Peter Minter have a very clever essay
on the topic in Jacket mag­a­zine (1) which is also pub­lished in Rod Mengham’s
Com­pan­ion to John Tran­ter book from Salt Pub­lish­ing in the UK. (2)

Fitch: Yes, that’s a fas­ci­nat­ing essay which reads your poetry as hav­ing, via Edward
Said, a kind of ‘“Ori­en­tal­is­ing” force in Aus­tralian poetic reflec­tions on the Euro­pean
and… the Amer­i­can’, i.e. an ‘otherness’.

Tran­ter: To me, Rim­baud, being French (cul­tur­ally dis­tant) and his­tor­i­cally dis­tant,
was always strange and very ‘other’.

Fitch: Of course, Rim­baud made it to Java dur­ing his trav­els after giv­ing up poetry…

Tran­ter: Yes, he trav­elled obses­sively, often by walk­ing. He was what the French call
a Fugueur’.(3)  After he gave up poetry around 1873 he vis­ited sev­en­teen coun­tries and
trav­elled more than fifty thou­sand miles. In many ways his life after 1873 was more
var­ied, strange and inter­est­ing than the rather pre­dictable ear­lier career of the
smart-arse gay poet in Paris in his late teens.

Fitch: One of his biog­ra­phers, Gra­ham Robb, even sug­gests he might have made it to
Darwin.

Tran­ter: I think that’s quite pos­si­ble. In fact – well, let’s back­track a lit­tle. When I met
Sid­ney Nolan over din­ner at Man­ning Clark’s place in Can­berra in the late 1980s I was
alarmed by Nolan’s story about his vis­it­ing the Rim­baud museum in Charleville, in
north­ern France – decades before. In a mar­gin of Rimbaud’s diary, or per­haps
note­book, Nolan said, some­one – prob­a­bly Rim­baud – had pen­cilled the words
‘Wagga Wagga’. Of course he could have vis­ited Wagga Wagga in 1876, between
desert­ing from the Dutch army in Java and return­ing to Europe some months later,
but to any rea­son­able mind, the evi­dence is against it. Years ago I searched the Wagga
Wagga Adver­tiser for clues as to the pres­ence of a young French­man there in the
lat­ter half of that year, but alas, the search has been fruit­less. So far.

Fitch: I think the pen­cilled words might actu­ally have been “Wagga Wagga berry“
(see foot­note on p.283 of Robb’s biog­ra­phy), which I guess Rim­baud could have tasted
at some stage in Dar­win, or any­where really, if such a berry exists.
Though, there’s also a Berry Street in Wagga Wagga…

Tran­ter: That’s odd. The main news­pa­per in Wagga Wagga for over a cen­tury has been
the Wagga Wagga Adver­tiser. Frank Moor­house, the Aus­tralian nov­el­ist, worked on
that paper as a jour­nal­ist in the early 1960s. His great novel tril­ogy is based on the life
of an Aus­tralian woman diplo­mat named Edith Camp­bell Berry, prob­a­bly named after
a town called Berry, near where Frank grew up, in the town of Nowra, on the south coast
of New South Wales.

Fitch: Like Rim­baud, you became dis­il­lu­sioned with poetry at a young age, trav­el­ling
in the late 1960s/ early 1970s to live in Sin­ga­pore, but then you returned to Aus­tralia.
Can you tell me a lit­tle more about the ‘oth­er­ness’ of your work, and how that might
have sprung from your early disillusionment?

Tran­ter: When I left Syd­ney for Europe in 1966, it was partly to see the world, but also
partly to get out of Aus­tralia, which was suf­fo­cat­ingly dull and hideously author­i­tar­ian
in those days. No one under fifty can imag­ine how bad it was: petty rules and reg­u­la­tions
every­where, cen­sor­ship, police cor­rup­tion and thug­gery; it went on and on. So if that
was nor­mal, I wanted some­thing ‘other’. Any­how, I returned to Syd­ney in 1967 and
even­tu­ally fin­ished a degree.

Being posted to Sin­ga­pore as Senior Edu­ca­tion Edi­tor for Angus and Robert­son in 1971
– they had been a major pub­lisher, espe­cially of poetry, for a cen­tury, believe it or not
– pre­sented a won­der­ful oppor­tu­nity to expe­ri­ence a very dif­fer­ent cul­ture. (I’m look­ing
for­ward to vis­it­ing Sin­ga­pore again for the Sin­ga­pore Writ­ers Fes­ti­val in Novem­ber 2012.)

The vari­ety of food was and still is won­der­ful; but the cul­ture of Sin­ga­pore in those days
was very repres­sive. They even forced you to cut your hair short by mak­ing you go to
the end of every line (wait­ing at a bank, or shop) if your hair was long. Vis­i­tors with long
hair were not allowed to dis­em­bark from their plane. And so on. Need­less to say I had
fre­quent haircuts.

At one time when I had rather long hair, and I was fol­lowed by a gang of chil­dren
call­ing out ‘Char­lie Man­son your Leader! Char­lie Man­son your Leader!’ That was
the level of debate.

While I was there from 1971 to 1973 I read lots of nov­els, and no poetry. But this
dis­taste for the arti­fi­cial­ity of poetry occurred every eleven or so years, I even­tu­ally
realised. Much later I asked a psy­chi­a­trist how that could be, when there was no nat­ural
or social phe­nom­e­non which occurred in eleven-year cycles. ‘Oh, there is one,’ he
replied. ‘Sunspots’. Well, that floored me. I don’t believe in the effect of sunspots on
human behav­iour, but it looks as though I may have to.

Fitch: My crises, for want of a bet­ter word, tend to hap­pen every three to four years,
though I think of them more as flips of a mag­netic field, like a rever­sal of the north and
south pole (which I guess is relat­able to the sun). When was the last, most recent,
sunspot for you? Did it hap­pen before Starlight:150 Poems, or around the time you
pub­lished your Urban Myths: 210 Poems: New and Selected, in 2006?

Tran­ter: I should look it up. Uh… 2005, accord­ing to my Maniac’s Almanac. What was
I doing in 2005? Not much. I fin­ished ‘Urban Myths’. I had failed to obtain a grant
from the Lit­er­a­ture Board, which was not uncom­mon. I had failed to obtain a grant
from the Uni­ver­sity of New South Wales, but then I always have. I was pretty mis­er­able,
as usual. (Don’t be a poet!) I think any dis­taste I felt was for the peo­ple who inhabit
the world of lit­er­ary bureau­cracy as pub­lic ser­vants or ‘advi­sors’. I was soon to enrol for
my doc­toral degree at the Uni­ver­sity of Wol­lon­gong, which was fun. I had the good luck
(or good sense) to end up with John Hawke as my super­vi­sor. He was immensely helpful.

Fitch: Your mis­trans­la­tions of Rimbaud’s poems from Illu­mi­na­tions aren’t at all an
act of copy­ing, but could your mis­trans­la­tions be con­sid­ered a post­mod­ern con­tri­bu­tion
to the long tra­di­tion of artists paint­ing stud­ies (or writ­ing ver­sions) of their favourite
artists’ works?

Tran­ter: Oh yes, indeed they could. I’m con­scious of that long tra­di­tion, and of my
place within it. I think that is how any artist learns her or his craft. The Aus­tralian poet,
Robert Adam­son, talked about his expe­ri­ences with that process to me once, in an
inter­view we did in 1978 for Makar mag­a­zine. (Reprinted in A Pos­si­ble Con­tem­po­rary
Poetry.
St. Lucia, Qld. : Makar Press, c1982. 160 p., and avail­able on the Inter­net at   
 http://johntranter.com/interviewer/adamson1978.shtml).
It’s com­mon in graphic design, in typog­ra­phy, in paint­ing (Bacon on Velázquez, Picasso
on Velázquez) and in music (think of Bach’s ‘Gold­berg Vari­a­tions’ or Beethoven’s
‘Dia­belli Vari­a­tions’) as well as in lit­er­a­ture. With  Shake­speare, his every sto­ry­line was
bor­rowed from some other writer.

Per­haps it is not talked about so much in writ­ing these days, because writ­ers are often
ner­vous of accu­sa­tions of pla­gia­rism, and then there’s the morass of hoax and fak­ery
to make one self-conscious.

Fitch: Do you still get excited when you read early mod­ernist poetry, specif­i­cally
the French?

Tran­ter: Per­haps ‘get­ting excited’ is what you expect from drugs or sex. With writ­ing,
at least at my age, it’s more a kind of quiet glow. Yes, those writ­ers from Baude­laire
to the mid twen­ti­eth cen­tury Euro­pean poets faced up to the mod­ern world with some
extra­or­di­nary cre­ations; you see it in music too in Fauré and Debussy and oth­ers, and
in art with Impressionism.

These artists were there on the ground when the Indus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion, the French
Rev­o­lu­tion, the Napoleonic Rev­o­lu­tion, the Sci­en­tific Rev­o­lu­tion, the Social­ist
Rev­o­lu­tion and the Roman­tic Rev­o­lu­tion all crashed head-first into the mod­ern world
one after the other in slow motion, all of which took most of the nine­teenth cen­tury
to work out. The French Rev­o­lu­tion occurred over the decade 1789 to 1799, the fax
machine was patented in 1848; Baudelaire’s day (1821–1867) saw the steam
train, pho­tog­ra­phy and the tele­graph rev­o­lu­tionise all the world.

I was delighted to dis­cover an obses­sion with those inven­tions (and with the tele­phone
sys­tem and auto­mo­biles and air­planes) in Proust’s later auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal novel, look­ing
back over his youth, from the early twen­ti­eth century.

Fitch: All that machinery…

Tran­ter: Yes, first trac­tors, then Proust. Like Auden, I find machin­ery inter­est­ing; as
much so as I do lit­er­a­ture. What did he write? When Auden was nearly thirty he wrote
“Tram­lines and slagheaps, pieces of machin­ery, / That was, and still is, my ideal
scenery.” Gosh, what a clunky dactyl­lic rhyme. Rimbaud’s friend and fellow-poet Charles
Cros (they worked in a cardboard-box fac­tory in Lon­don together) invented the
gramo­phone and demon­strated his device before the French Acad­emy in 1877, four
months before Edi­son demon­strated his machine, but Edi­son (not a dreamy poet, an
Amer­i­can entre­preur!) was the first to take out a patent. So poets and machin­ery can go
together.

Fitch: Can you speak French? Can you speak pig Latin? Can you speak in HTML?
What role does the multi-lingual have in your poetry, and do you think there are enough
deal­ings with other lan­guages in con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralian poetics?

Tran­ter: Just Eng­lish. I have always felt that Aus­tralians are lucky to have the Eng­lish
lan­guage, with its extra­or­di­nary reach and com­plex­ity, most of which comes from the
cross-fertilisation with other lan­guages, because of Britain hav­ing been invaded and
con­quered by the Celts in 600 BC, by the Romans in 43BC, by the Anglo-Saxons in AD
450, by the Vikings in 793, by the Nor­man French in 1066 and by the Dutch under
William of Orange in 1688. The last is often over­looked, but it was a mas­sive inva­sion
of 53 war­ships bristling with 1,700 cannon,which for­tu­nately was not resisted and in
many cases wel­comed, at least by those of a Protes­tant persuasion.

Other lan­guages are inter­est­ing, but I don’t feel they are nec­es­sary. But that may just be
me jus­ti­fy­ing my own shame­ful lim­i­ta­tions. I can speak enough poor French to find
myself in seri­ous trou­ble in a restau­rant. Latin, no; my daugh­ter learned Latin
(thor­oughly) one sum­mer in New York. I’m very­im­pressed by that.

I went to school in a lit­tle coun­try town, where no one taught any lan­guages. It was felt
that Aus­tralian farm­ers didn’t really need French, for exam­ple. It’s hard to argue with
that view. I had never heard any­one speak any­thing but Aus­tralian until I was an adult.
What a shame!

Fitch: I guess you hardly need French to talk to pigs. What about the com­pli­ca­tions
of pub­lish­ing on the Inter­net? Did you have to learn that language?

Tran­ter: Yes, but I was lucky. I had learned a com­put­erised type­set­ting code that was
more or less the same as HTML when I helped my wife Lyn to run a type­set­ting
busi­ness in the late 1970s. So when I taught myself HTML and Cas­cad­ing Style Sheets
from books, in the late 1990s, it felt fairly easy. I wanted to make Jacket mag­a­zine
(1997–2010) look attrac­tive and also pleas­ant to use: that is, easy to nav­i­gate, so I felt
I should learn all that stuff.

Fitch: Back to those ver­sions of other writ­ers: why did you choose to write
mis­trans­la­tions and ver­sions of these par­tic­u­larly well-known French poets? Why not
choose more obscure poets? Is it to do with access to the orig­i­nal foreign-language
poems, i.e. so that a reader can com­pare your ver­sion to the blue­print of the orig­i­nal
poem, or is it to do with some­thing else altogether?

Tran­ter: Partly the pub­lic access, and the com­par­i­son, yes. Mar­tin Duwell
has a good account of my poem ‘Rot­ten Luck’ in a review of Starlight: ‘This is not only
a bet­ter, tighter, and more intense poem than Baudelaire’s “Le Guignon”, it makes a
point of trans­form­ing its orig­i­nal humor­ously.’ What a kind reviewer!

The dis­tance between Baude­laire, say, and one of my ‘ver­sions’ of his work, is really the
150-year gap between 1860 and 2010. We can never really recap­ture what it felt like for
Charles Baude­laire to go for a walk in the Paris of 1860. We can take the same walk today,
but every­thing is dif­fer­ent, even the street map, the pave­ments (less cob­ble­stones for
peo­ple to throw at police, and that’s not an acci­dent), and the shoes. And then there’s
what Paris went through in two World Wars, which Baude­laire could not have imag­ined
in his worst nightmares.

He didn’t even live to see the first of the three great German-French wars, the Franco
–Pruss­ian war of 1871, when the Ger­mans prac­ticed invad­ing the rest of Europe.
Rim­baud saw it up close: it ploughed across his back­yard in Charleville. Once the rail­ways
were prop­erly set up, the Ger­mans did it in earnest in 1914. And by 1939 they didn’t need
the rail­ways, really. They had Panzer tanks and a good air force.

But to be hon­est, the orig­i­nal mate­r­ial is not impor­tant, and any­way it’s so man­gled
when I fin­ish with it that it’s only my lit­er­ary savoir-faire that can turn the sow’s ear
into the silk purse that my read­ers demand. So per­haps the whole process is merely
a meal for my ego.

Fitch: Have you used com­put­ers for com­pos­ing other cre­ative writ­ing texts
before this?

Tran­ter: Yes, on and off for decades. For exam­ple, I com­piled a book of seven prose
texts titled Dif­fer­ent Hands back in 1998. They are all blends of two dif­fer­ent orig­i­nal
works. As an exam­ple, one of them,‘Room With a View, Spa Bath, Many Extras’ is
derived from the com­put­erised blend­ing of part of the extremely lit­er­ary novel Room
With a View
by E.M. Forster, and adver­tise­ments for prop­er­ties for sale in Sydney’s
East­ern sub­urbs, hardly a lit­er­ary source at all. From that lin­guis­tic domain we have
the phrase ‘decep­tively spa­cious’, one of the great non-sequiturs of mod­ern Eng­lish.
So it really is a blend of dif­fer­ent reg­is­ters. But the point of those pieces was to start
with some­thing delib­er­ately lack­ing in mean­ing, and by dint of much hard work to
drag it in the direc­tion of meaning.

Fitch: You’ve pro­vided exten­sive notes on your web­site for all the poems of Starlight.
Some poets who write ver­sions or mis­trans­la­tions don’t pro­vide any notes whatsoever.

Tran­ter: Maybe they want to hide where their inspi­ra­tion really comes from!

Fitch: ‘Inspi­ra­tion’ doesn’t sound like a word used in rela­tion to text-generating
poet­ics, or is it just unfash­ion­able at present to use that word for fear of its align­ment
with the Romantic?

Tran­ter: I’m too old to fear much. To me ‘inspi­ra­tion’ is not so much a gift of breath
from the gods of verse, but more like the kind of men­tal spark that might occur to a
bio­chemist or a math­e­mati­cian: a kind of ‘Eureka!’ moment where a pos­si­ble solu­tion
to a prob­lem leaps into the mind.

When some writ­ers use text-generating tech­niques, they let the com­puter con­struct
the text and leave it at that, as they lack any fresh ideas about deal­ing with the new
mate­r­ial, or per­haps they just lack con­fi­dence in their own tal­ents, or per­haps they
have been told that any empha­sis on the ‘I’ in a poem is naughty and dis­cred­ited and
thus they fear to intervene.

Edgar Degas was dis­cussing poetry with Mal­larmé; ‘It isn’t ideas I’m short of… I’ve got
too many’ [Ce ne sont pas les idées qui me man­quent… J’en ai trop], said Degas.
‘But Degas,’ replied Mal­larmé, ‘you can’t make a poem with ideas. … You make it with
words.’ [Mais, Degas, ce n’est point avec des idées que l’on fait des vers.… C’est avec
des mots
.] (From Degas, Manet, Morisot by Paul Valéry (trans. David Paul), Prince­ton
Uni­ver­sity Press, 1960.)

Fitch: Some of your notes were part of your doc­toral the­sis, so they have an aca­d­e­mic
pur­pose, but what are their impor­tance to more gen­eral read­ers of your work? Do notes
limit the pos­si­ble read­ings of a poem, or do notes pro­vide extra lay­ers for pos­si­ble
read­ings? You seem to have used them a lot, over the years.

Tran­ter: I like notes, true. Per­haps too much. A story I like, by J.G. Bal­lard, con­sists
only of con­densed notes: the detailed and richly com­plex Index to a non-existent novel.
The reader has the very cre­ative task of rebuild­ing the story of the novel from the strange
(and often humor­ous) clues in the Index. The story is titled ‘The Index’, and was writ­ten in
1977 and pub­lished in The Paris Review, vol­ume 118, (North­ern) Spring, 1991.
Of course the novel of ‘The Index’ that you rein­vent in your mind is dif­fer­ent for every
reader, and each reader is join­ing in with the writer to cre­ate it.

But the notes are meant to pro­vide exten­sions to the text, like hair exten­sions, I guess,
not lim­its. I don’t like to limit how my read­ers under­stand my poetry. I have always felt
that a poem belongs to the reader, and they can do what they like with it. With my book
of nar­ra­tive poems The Floor of Heaven, writ­ten in the 1980s and some­times set as a
Higher School Cer­tifi­cate rec­om­mended text for study, a school pupil called Olivia T
wrote to me just this year with the sug­ges­tion that a par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ter in one of the
inter­linked poems, San­dra, was really the un-named nar­ra­tor in one of the other poems
titled ‘Glo­ria’. I hadn’t thought of that, in all of the quar­ter cen­tury that has passed since
I wrote it, but it’s a very clever sug­ges­tion, and it’s prob­a­bly true. I thanked her.

The Span­ish anar­chist film direc­tor Luis Buñuel said in the 1950s that films work in
the same way as dreams; and I believe that poems work in that way too. And often
some­one else (a trained ther­a­pist, say) can under­stand your dreams bet­ter than you can,
because dreams are often dis­guised specif­i­cally to pre­vent you from see­ing just what
they mean. Some­times other peo­ple can see through that dis­guise, as they don’t need
to have those truths hid­den from their con­scious minds.

Fitch: I think you men­tioned Buñuel and that quote, and the idea that poems work
like dreams, in the Intro­duc­tion to the anthol­ogy The Best Aus­tralian Poems 2011, which
you com­piled. Do all poems have to work like dreams?

Tran­ter: You’re quite right, and as well I drew all those ideas from my doc­toral the­sis.
And no, poems don’t all have to work like dreams.  Of course not. In fact in my Intro­duc­tion
to this year’s Best Aus­tralian Poems 2012 anthol­ogy I state the oppo­site, by show­ing that
most of the poems I chose have sto­ries to tell, and work like brief nar­ra­tives or con­densed
sto­ries. They don’t work like dreams at all. But then, most dreams and most movies are
built on nar­ra­tives, how­ever dis­torted. So I guess I can have my cake and eat it too.

Fitch: Talk­ing of Buñuel, you seem to love movies. Many of your poems in pre­vi­ous
books men­tion movies, or deal with images or scenes from movies in inter­est­ing ways.
Can you say a lit­tle bit more about the rela­tion­ship between cin­ema, i.e. the mov­ing pic­ture,
and poetry? The sec­tion of poems in Starlight called ‘At the Movies’ is placed between two
other sec­tions of poems that out­lay dif­fer­ent modes of trans­la­tion, as dis­cussed above.
What can you say about the ‘trans­la­tion’ of cin­e­matic scenes, char­ac­ters, and images,
into poems?

Tran­ter: I do love movies. They give you thou­sands of dif­fer­ent uni­verses to explore,
each one like a dif­fer­ent dream­scape. In fact the book of  nar­ra­tive poems I men­tioned,
The Floor of Heaven, was inspired by Buñuel’s 1972 movie, The Dis­creet Charm of the
Bour­geoisie
, where the plot is dri­ven entirely by peo­ple recount­ing their dreams.

When I was a boy, grow­ing up on a remote farm in 1950s Aus­tralia, the big event of the
week for me was Fri­day night at the local town cin­ema. The fea­ture movie rep­re­sented
every­thing for­eign and dra­matic and won­der­ful. Cin­ema had a magic glow that the
every­day world lacked. Peo­ple actu­ally drank cock­tails, in the movies. I had never seen
a real per­son drink any­thing but beer or sherry. Per­haps that was the begin­ning of my
lik­ing for martinis.

Also, bas­ing a poem on a movie is a kind of trans­la­tion: the movie exists in its own
world, a world qual­i­fied by the enter­tain­ment econ­omy, by machin­ery, chem­istry,
tech­nol­ogy, act­ing tal­ent, writ­ing tal­ent, and direct­ing tal­ent. Tak­ing the movie out of
that world and insert­ing it into the world of poetry is a lit­tle like updat­ing Beowulf into
a West­ern movie plot (Ronald Rea­gan as Beowulf, ) or like blend­ing Freudian the­ory
and Shakespeare’s The Tem­pest into a science-fiction movie, which is how the 1956
movie ‘The For­bid­den Planet’ works.

A poem about a movie can be a kind of film review; or it can be a kind of remake of the
movie, or it can be a social or polit­i­cal cri­tique of the con­ven­tions that appear in the
movie. 

Talk­ing of remakes, did you know that the famous Bog­art movie vehi­cle The Mal­tese
Fal­con
was in fact the third movie based on Hammett’s story? What hap­pened to the
other two? What gave the third ver­sion, with its iden­ti­cal plot, its spe­cial magic?
The direc­tion (it was the first movie John Hus­ton had directed)? The act­ing?
The moody lighting?

Fitch: Maybe it wasn’t the right time, when the first two came out. Maybe peo­ple
weren’t ready till the third.

Tran­ter: Per­haps you’re right. I believe the sec­ond one was a rather fee­ble com­edy,
believe it or not.

Fitch: Speak­ing of tim­ing, who would you rather date: Kim Novak, Lau­ren Bacall,
and Dorothy Gale, each of whom make an appear­ance in your ‘At the Movies’ poems?

Tran­ter: Wow. I feel Lau­ren Bacall would eat a man like me for break­fast, so no to that
one. And no, I don’t think I could be a friend of Dorothy Gale, clev­erly named after the
tor­nado that swept her over the rain­bow into the Land of Oz. Her role was acted by
Judy Gar­land, a woman I never liked that much. But when I was thir­teen, my hor­mones
just begin­ning to cause trou­ble, I saw Kim Novak in the movie _Picnic. She seemed like
a beau­ti­ful, inno­cent god­dess to me. And then in Ver­tigo… god­dess again. I wanted to
marry her. So Kim, definitely.

Though decades later I read an inter­view with a much older Kim Novak where she
talked about how won­der­ful trees are: ‘For one thing, I’ve always admired trees.
I just wor­ship them. Think what trees have wit­nessed, what his­tory, such as liv­ing
through the Civil War, yet they still sur­vive.’ Ouch!

Fitch: So what other painful order­ing tech­niques do you employ to write other poems,
not sonnets?

Tran­ter: Dozens; every­thing I can think of. But the reader shouldn’t have to suf­fer;
let the writer do that! There’s rhyme, of course, though I pre­fer half-rhyme and
allit­er­a­tion. Mak­ing your end-words rhyme is one device; repeat­ing them unrhymed in
a var­ied order is what makes the ses­tina so strange and inter­est­ing. To take that one step
fur­ther, I like to take a poem by some other writer and use the end-words in a dif­fer­ent
poem of my own; I call that device ‘ter­mi­nals’. Brian Henry has a detailed expli­ca­tion
of the tech­nique on my web site.

A Chinese-born woman jour­nal­ist was inter­view­ing me recently and I described how
I took end words from other poets’ work. She looked fright­ened. ‘But are you allowed
to do that?’ she asked.

Fitch: And here’s a kind of super-terminal: the 253-line open­ing poem of Starlight
uses the first and also the last cou­ple of words of each line of John Ashbery’s poem
‘Clep­sy­dra’ as a scaf­fold­ing tech­nique, and then you’ve filled in the mid­dle of each line
to write your own poem, ‘The Anaglyph’ (one can read about what an anaglyph is, and
about the process of writ­ing your poem here:
http://johntranter.com/notes/starlight.shtml#notes). By the way, was Ash­bery
annoyed by your steal­ing his end words and rewrit­ing his poem?

Tran­ter: Oh no, I asked – I didn’t want to offend him – and he gave me per­mis­sion to
do that. I think he liked the idea.

Fitch: You’ve described the process of writ­ing ‘ter­mi­nals’ as ‘replac­ing the meat in the
sand­wich’, which struck me as a rather mas­cu­line way of think­ing about it.

Tran­ter: Maybe so, but I think it’s a pretty good image. The start­ing word and the end­ing
word of each line, from Mr Ash­bery, are like the two slices of bread; my fill­ing is like the
fill­ing. I saw the process as being like turn­ing a ham sand­wich into a turkey sand­wich. Not
that John’s a ham, or I’m a turkey! And, for my first fif­teen years, my mother always made
the sand­wiches for my school lunch, so I have always seen that as a fem­i­nine act. But I’m
wan­der­ing… go on…

Fitch: (I was think­ing of the sex­ual innu­endo, sorry… but you don’t need to answer that
if you don’t want to). The poem itself puts it more neatly, I guess: ‘like gut­ting then
refur­bish­ing a friend’s apart­ment.’ Why do all these apart­ments, i.e. the poems of Ash­bery,
Rim­baud, Baude­laire, etc. that you’ve reworked, belong to men? (I don’t mean ‘apart­ments’,
lit­er­ally…) I like to think of them as poetic theme parks.

Tran­ter: That’s a good metaphor. With John Ashbery’s apart­ment, John hap­pens to
be a male. And with the line about ‘refur­bish­ing a friend’s apart­ment’, I was prob­a­bly
think­ing about those tele­vi­sion shows where some­one redec­o­rates a friend’s apart­ment as
a sur­prise. Well, every­one pre­tends it’s a surprise.

And it is true that most of the strong influ­ences on my work have been male poets, but
then I think male poets make up a vast major­ity of the most influ­en­tial poets in his­tory, from
Homer to Frank O’Hara, and you can hardly pre­tend otherwise.

Though there are dozens of women poets whose work I like, from Sap­pho to Emily
Dick­in­son to Eliz­a­beth Bishop to a whole bevy of younger US Amer­i­can women writ­ers,
too many to name. (Now ‘bevy’ is a nice col­lec­tive noun.) Many younger Aus­tralian
poets are women, per­haps more than men.

I’m cur­rently writ­ing a ‘Com­men­taries’ blog for Jacket2 mag­a­zine in Philadel­phia, and
I am delighted that the edi­tor I deal with there is a woman, Jes­sica Lowen­thal. My first
book was pub­lished by a woman. I set up a small press and pub­lished four poetry books
in the early 1980s: Gig Ryan’s first book, Susan Hampton’s first book, and books by John
Forbes and Alan Jef­feries. And the Pen­guin Book of Mod­ern Aus­tralian Poetry, which I
edited with Philip Mead, was com­mis­sioned for Pen­guin by Susan Ryan. It con­tained a
higher pro­por­tion of women poets than any gen­eral anthol­ogy of Aus­tralian poetry had,
up to that time.

Fitch: Have gen­der pol­i­tics influ­enced your method­ol­ogy and your poet­ics over the years?

Tran­ter: I guess I have always had a sup­port­ive atti­tude to fem­i­nism, but that’s more
instinc­tual than polit­i­cally informed. My mother, her sis­ters, and her own mother were
strong women whom I respected, and I was always aware that they should each have been
able to make more of their own intel­lec­tual lives, par­tic­u­larly my grand­mother. She should
have gone on to uni­ver­sity, but the expec­ta­tion of the times – this was around 1890 – and
her role as a mother of a series of chil­dren con­strained her. They all felt bound by
society’s expec­ta­tions to be just a woman, a mother, a sup­porter of men. Though my Aunt
Bar­bara became a trained school­teacher, just as my father did.

And though I gen­er­ally sup­port fem­i­nist think­ing, like any good phi­los­o­phy, it can be
taken too far. Decades ago I worked with a woman with strong fem­i­nist views who
insisted that in a job appli­ca­tion sit­u­a­tion, given two appli­cants – a man with the exact
tal­ents and skills to do well at the job, and a woman who just hap­pened to be incom­pe­tent
in that field – that the job must be given to the woman, because women have been
down­trod­den for so long by men. That atti­tude is a recipe for feather bed­ding cor­rup­tion
and the reward­ing of incom­pe­tence, but that does hap­pen. Even in the world of writ­ing,
unfortunately.

Fitch: You men­tioned the high pro­por­tion of women poets in the Pen­guin Book of
Mod­ern Aus­tralian Poetry
. What about the recent Thirty Aus­tralian Poets, edited
by Felic­ity Plun­kett, which has more women in it than men?

Tran­ter: It’s good to see things chang­ing. When I reviewed that book in The Aus­tralian
I wrote ‘though edi­tor Felic­ity Plun­kett doesn’t go on about it, 60 per cent are female,
mak­ing this the first gen­eral anthol­ogy of Aus­tralian poetry with fewer men than women
in its pages. This mocks Les Murray’s 1968 remark in Amer­i­can Poetry Review that
“women are writ­ing less well because fem­i­nism is there to absorb the ener­gies that
oth­er­wise would have gone into lit­er­a­ture”. This myth was always a self-serving untruth
and this col­lec­tion shows fem­i­nism empow­ered women to write poetry — and more and
bet­ter poetry than that writ­ten by men, in many cases.’

Fitch: In an ear­lier anthol­ogy of yours in 1979, ‘The New Aus­tralian Poetry: the work
of twenty-four poets from Aus­tralian poetry’s most excit­ing decade’, you included your
own poems and you coined the term ‘Gen­er­a­tion of ’68’, refer­ring to a cer­tain group of
Aus­tralian poets who emerged around 1968 and who had an eye on the pro­gres­sive
devel­op­ments of Amer­i­can poets of the 1950s and 1960s. The term is now used quite
widely in cur­rent antholo­gies and reviews, and a num­ber of other poets of the 1970s
are being lumped in with this gen­er­a­tion, for con­ve­nience I guess, who aren’t nec­es­sar­ily
happy to be defined as such. What was your inten­tion when you coined this term? Did
you realise at the time the extent to which it would mark out a generation?

Tran­ter: Yes, I included my own poems. I could hardly pre­tend that they were not
rel­e­vant to the topic, and the anthol­ogy was a delib­er­ately polem­i­cal one, not like later
more gen­eral antholo­gies I com­piled. And no, I didn’t realise then how the phrase fit­ted
so well to a jour­nal­is­tic view of cul­ture. Nobody was happy to be labelled like that, and
very few were happy to be in the book, even though it brought their writ­ing to thou­sands
of new readers.

When I men­tioned to Tom Shap­cott, who had edited a few antholo­gies, that I was about
to com­pile an anthol­ogy, he sug­gested that in his expe­ri­ence I would lose all my friends.
But why? I asked. Surely those whose work I include will be pleased?

Silly me. He laughed, and explained that those I left out would hate me, and those I
included would hate me because I had not cho­sen their best poems, because I had put
their work next to X–- whom they hated, and because I had not included their best
friends Y–- or Z–- . And in any case, why hadn’t the pub­lisher asked them to com­pile
the anthol­ogy? I’m remem­ber­ing this from the mid 1970s. Sadly he was right.

You don’t believe me? When I told my friend John Forbes I had been cho­sen to edit the
Pen­guin Book of Mod­ern Aus­tralian Poetry, which I thought would be won­der­ful news
– wasn’t he a friend? – he smacked one fist into the other and said ‘Ah, fuck! Why didn’t
they ask me?’ And when it came out he gave it what I felt was a very unkind review,
though per­haps I was over-reacting in feel­ing that.

As for the label ‘Gen­er­a­tion of ’68’, I think Tom Shap­cott first coined the phrase, back in
the early 1970s. I was happy to use the phrase because I had in mind the Indone­sian
‘Gen­er­a­tion of ’47’, those mil­i­tary men who grad­u­ated from the Dutch mil­i­tary acad­e­mies
in 1947 and later fought to expel the Dutch from Indone­sia. I had met some of them in
the early 1970s in Jakarta, Gen­eral Abdul Haris Nasu­tion for exam­ple, a thor­ough
gen­tle­man. 1968 was of course the year of the ‘eneve­ments’, the Euro­pean and
Mex­i­can and US student’s revolt’s ‘hap­pen­ings’, so that fitted.

Fitch: Any­way, let’s get back to ‘The Anaglyph’, a poem of yours which may well see
itself in antholo­gies of the future.

Tran­ter: Thanks for the thought, but it’s a long and dif­fi­cult poem, too long and too
dif­fi­cult for the aver­age anthol­ogy, I fear. 

Fitch: I think it pushes your Starlight exper­i­ments with text-generating tech­niques
and with ‘trans­la­tion’ (in this case from one English-language poem into another) to a
new limit, and cre­ates a shape-shifting, organic form to mir­ror, or to talk through, the
move­ment of your career as a poet and the influ­ences that have shaped it.

Tran­ter: That’s per­cep­tive. Yes, those ideas were cer­tainly in the back of my mind
when I was writ­ing it, though the fore­most plan was to do some­thing with the Ash­bery
poem ‘Clep­sy­dra’, some­thing clever and mov­ing, that would live up to the original.

Fitch: In Corey Wakeling’s review of Starlight for Cordite, he describes ‘The Anaglyph’
as imper­illing ‘the chameleonic bastard-experimentalist enough to name (you) as such.’
Do you also see this poem as a sig­nif­i­cant moment, or a rup­ture, in your work? Will it
see a shift to some­thing uncom­pro­mis­ingly exper­i­men­tal in your next book?

Tran­ter: That’s a strange state­ment from Corey Wakel­ing. It’s a lit­tle dif­fi­cult to work
out quite what he means, though it’s an ener­getic moment. Am I a chameleon? Am I a
bas­tard? Am I an exper­i­men­tal­ist? I sup­pose so. 

As usual, my next book will be a rad­i­cal depar­ture from all my oth­ers, or so I fondly
hope and imag­ine at the time, though in hind­sight all my books are some­what the same:
they’re all by me. Since we have lived in the age of free verse for over a cen­tury, per­haps
the only really rad­i­cal and dif­fer­ent thing to do is write rhymed verse. And yes, I do see
‘The Anaglyph’ as a sig­nif­i­cant poem, but then I would say that, wouldn’t I? But it is
not a rup­ture, no; more a devel­op­ment of trends that have been there all along.

It was the open­ing poem for my doc­toral the­sis, and in the Intro­duc­tion to that I wrote
– excuse me for quot­ing myself – ‘This the­sis is made up of a col­lec­tion of 113 poems and
an exe­ge­sis. The poems are writ­ten in a mode that has become more promi­nent through
my writ­ing career, in which the lin­ea­ments of another art-work, usu­ally a poem or a
movie, are bor­rowed and trans­formed in some way, rang­ing from a sim­ple imi­ta­tive
exer­cise to homage to satire to cri­tique to an exper­i­men­tal rework­ing of a genre
and its var­i­ous exam­ples. The exe­ge­sis exam­ines this use of bor­row­ing, mask or dis­guise
in the the­sis poems, then steps back in time to explore this theme as it weaves its thread
through my twenty vol­umes of pub­lished poetry.’

If any­one is inter­ested, they can down­load and read the entire the­sis in PDF for­mat
(for free!) from the web­site of the Uni­ver­sity of Wol­lon­gong:
http://ro.uow.edu.au/theses/3191/ But be warned: it took three years to write, and
it goes on for hours.

Fitch: Do you have a fix­a­tion with Ash­bery? Is there some­thing about obses­sion
that goes hand-in-hand with poets and/or writ­ing poetry?

Tran­ter: No, not a fix­a­tion. He’s one of the best poets around, and when I dis­cov­ered
his work, when I was a young poet, his influ­ence was a very lib­er­at­ing one. I have
always been grate­ful for that. He is also very cour­te­ous and a good friend.

And he’s very smart. He has an extra­or­di­nary intel­lect and a vast cul­tural appetite.
When he was a teenager he was a nation­ally suc­cess­ful radio quiz kid – you have to be
really bright to do that – and he has degrees from Har­vard and Columbia.

Once when we were hav­ing lunch in a New York restau­rant he cocked his head on one
side and said ‘Hear that?’ I could hear some dis­tant music, though I had no idea what
it was. ‘It’s the score from Les Para­pluies de Cher­bourg,’ he said, ‘the 1964 movie by
Jacques Demy. The music’s by Michel Legrand.’ I winced: I had seen the movie when
it came out forty years before, and had dis­liked it, and I had for­got­ten the music.

I men­tioned that the three main lit­er­ary mod­els for my poetry have been Ash­bery,
the mid-twentieth-century Aus­tralian hoax poet ‘Ern Mal­ley’, and the nine­teenth–
cen­tury French poet Arthur Rim­baud. They were each rad­i­cal inno­va­tors, and as a
writer who grew up in Aus­tralia in the 1950s I felt that rad­i­cal inno­va­tion was very
much needed here.

They were also each very smart. I’ve men­tioned Ash­bery; when Rim­baud was six­teen
he topped the Latin class in his school so over­whelm­ingly that the Impe­r­ial Prince wrote
him a con­grat­u­la­tory let­ter which his Latin teacher was delighted to read out to the
class. Harold Stew­art and James McAuley, the joint cre­ators of the hoax poet ‘Ern Mal­ley’,
were both bril­liant young men, full of promise. Not fully realised, alas, but who could
tell, then?

And here’s an odd fact: a Triv­ial Quiz ques­tion, per­haps. ‘What do these three poets
have in com­mon? Arthur Rim­baud, John Ash­bery and John Tran­ter.’ Answer:
‘They all grew up on remote farms.’ I believe we were in fact triplets, acci­den­tally
sep­a­rated at birth. And of course the spirit of Ern Mal­ley, who died the year I was
born, passed into me through the process of metempsy­chosis, a favourite theme of
James Joyce, who just about built Ulysses on the idea of metempsy­chosis. In the
same way that both Bazza McKen­zie and Dame Edna Ever­age are dis­torted embod­i­ments
of Barry Humphries – ecto­plas­mic ema­na­tions, almost – I have always known that
I am a rein­car­na­tion of Ern Mal­ley. It’s quite a responsibility.

As for obses­sions, well, it seems that you need to be obses­sional to con­tinue with this
ill-rewarded career for a life­time. It helps if you are clever, tal­ented, well-read,
hard-working, obses­sional and deeply stupid.

Fitch: Have you ever writ­ten and pub­lished poems under another name? Ever been
part of an attempted hoax?

Tran­ter: Oh yes, lots of other names. But hoax – well, almost, but not quite. I had seen
the dam­age the ‘Ern Mal­ley’ affair caused. The inter­net data­base Austlit gives my sev­eral
pseu­do­nyms: ‘Also writes as: Bre­shan, Joy H.; Dedalus; Hawthorn, Dorian; Heaslop,
Jen­nifer; Kruger, Chris; Kruse, Peter J.; Lynch, Patrick; Moore, Jo; Pal­las, Mark; Simp­son,
Rona; Smith, Tim; Thomp­son, Rupert’.

Those mostly come from the hoax mag­a­zine I wrote one morn­ing in 1968, Free Grass.
You can read it here: http://johntranter.com/poems/free-grass.shtml. As a hoax, that
is gen­er­ally good natured, I hope.

Joy H. Bre­shan’ is an ana­gram of ‘John Ash­bery’ and comes from some com­puter
exper­i­ments I did a decade or so ago. ‘Rona Simp­son’ was my dis­guise as Ron A. Simp­son,
a Mel­bourne reviewer, when I wrote a piece on the late Michael Drans­field for Play­boy
mag­a­zine. I don’t know why I did that. I guess I had writ­ten far too much on Drans­field,
and wanted to give the reader the illu­sion of read­ing some­one fresh.

Fitch: And ‘Mark Pal­las’? Where did that come from?

Tran­ter: Ah, ‘Mark Pal­las’, another of my pseu­do­nyms, is a more inter­est­ing case, named
after the Pallas’s Cat, Felis manul, a smaller ver­sion of the Snow Leop­ard, a unique feline
whose pupils are cir­cu­lar, and whose pho­to­graph I had liked in an ency­clopae­dia when I
was ten, partly because it looks as though some­one has flat­tened his head with a blow from
a brick. Mark Pallas’s brief and slightly crazy poems appear in Tran­sit mag­a­zine once or
twice.

      Pallas’s cat, Felis manul, from the Ency­clopae­dia Bri­tan­nica
      11th edi­tion, 1911.

Fitch: ‘Slightly crazy…’ Was he a pro­jec­tion of your own per­son­al­ity? He didn’t exist as
a per­son, is that right?

Tran­ter: I made him up. Yes, I feel he may well have been a pro­jec­tion of a slightly
strange aspect of my own per­son­al­ity, emerg­ing through poetry. And even stranger,
I had the odd expe­ri­ence of talk­ing with my friend and fel­low poet Bruce Beaver once
in the late 1960s. He had met a young poet in a cof­fee lounge in Manly one night, Bruce
said, who chat­ted on at length about writ­ing poetry. His name was Mark Pal­las, he said,
and he had some poems in Tran­sit mag­a­zine, pub­lished by that John Tran­ter fel­low.
Very strange. I felt as though I had con­jured him into exis­tence, a ghost emerg­ing out
of the darkness.

Fitch: Here’s a dif­fer­ent kind of imper­son­ation. The 56 poems of ‘Contre-Baudelaire’,
the last sec­tion of Starlight, present ‘rad­i­cal revi­sions’ of Charles Baudelaire’s poems.
To me, there’s an extremely relaxed sense of fun and play in these poems. Is this
some­thing that’s devel­oped from years of writ­ing? I’m reminded here, again, of a few
lines from your poem, ‘The Anaglyph’: ‘You hope your opus will be taken for
leg­erde­main, but your effort sinks / Deeper into the mulch of his­tory, while I adjust
the mask that / Just fits more loosely every decade…’

Tran­ter: I’m glad you felt that sense of fun. I guess it partly comes from the tech­ni­cal
ease that I have devel­oped over a life­time of writ­ing, yes. Partly. But I sus­pect it has
more  to do with how I came to write those Baude­laire ver­sions. In 2008 and 2009
I was think­ing about how to fin­ish a new book of poems. I had about a hun­dred poems
that were derived from the work I had done for my doc­toral the­sis, most of them
relent­lessly exper­i­men­tal. I felt I needed about fifty more poems, and in a dif­fer­ent and
more relaxed tone of voice. I had writ­ten a few poems about movies, which you
men­tioned, and I shall prob­a­bly write more, one day, but I wanted some more vari­ety
for this book. Then I started think­ing about Baude­laire, whose work I had liked a lot as
an ado­les­cent, but which I had more or less ignored since. And I was hav­ing trou­ble
find­ing the time and the moti­va­tion to write much.

Then I received a sur­prise email from New York. A friend, the poet and edi­tor David
Lehman, had put my name down for a schol­ar­ship to a writ­ing retreat, with­out telling
me. The com­mit­tee of the Ursula Corn­ing Foun­da­tion chose me and a dozen other writ­ers,
painters, and musi­cians from all around the world to attend a six week retreat in a
Renais­sance cas­tle in Umbria, in Italy, the Civitella Ranieri. You can look it up on the
inter­net. They spon­sor four such gath­er­ings every year. Did I wish to take up the offer?
You bet!

Fitch: Was that like a Writer-in-Residence thing?

Tran­ter: God, no. This was a real writ­ers’ retreat. Your sur­round­ings were
com­fort­able, and you had no oblig­a­tions of any kind. If only the bureau­crats who run
things here could under­stand how vital that is.

With the last res­i­dency I did in Aus­tralia, I had lit­tle time of my own to write any­thing,
and lots of talks, read­ings, events and lec­tures to get through. I asked the organ­iser why
there were so many oblig­a­tions, and he said that the bureau­crats wanted a good ROI
Return on Invest­ment – and that the Writer had to meet cer­tain KPIs – Key Per­for­mance
Indi­ca­tors. Spare us from such self­ish generosity!

In late 2009 I flew to Italy – they reim­bursed the air fare – and I had a huge stu­dio and
a bed­room to myself high up in a tower in the cas­tle, and two excel­lent meals were pro­vided
every day. You fixed your own break­fast. The com­pany was good: a dozen tal­ented cre­ative
artists, each cheer­fully doing their thing. The din­ing room was always loud with laugh­ter
and talk. The fall weather was per­fect. There was lit­er­ally noth­ing to do, if you didn’t want
to. So I wrote, all day, every day.

Fitch: You wrote all day every day for six weeks? I’d get dis­tracted by the new
surroundings.

Tran­ter: I was too, for a while. And they had a few bus trips to visit local churches and
look at won­der­ful old paint­ings, which most of the other artists went on. I usu­ally said no,
partly because I’m a bit shy, and partly because I had so much to get done, and like Arthur
Schlesinger Jr I felt I had seen enough won­der­ful art to last me.

When Schlesinger turned 60, he became more aware of his age. After a trip to the cathe­dral
in Flo­rence, he wrote: ‘As I went into the Duomo, it occurred to me that I have been
vis­it­ing churches in Europe for 45 years, and that they have really done very lit­tle for me —
my fault, not theirs, of course; but there it is. Why should I waste my declin­ing years going
into churches?… I will sim­plify life by aban­don­ing the inspec­tion of churches, as in ear­lier
years I have aban­doned bal­let, meta­physics, lin­guis­tics and other sub­jects that, how­ever
estimable, are, alas, not for me.’  He lived to 89; a good innings.

And to be hon­est I didn’t write every day. I took a week to set­tle in and to do some Jacket
mag­a­zine edi­to­r­ial work that was urgent, and a week to wind up, when Lyn joined me and we
drove around Umbria. And I did go on one ‘out­ing’, with a bus­load of fellow-artists, on
dan­ger­ous wind­ing dirt roads at night, to a remote restau­rant in the moun­tains where they
fed you masses of truf­fles. Truf­fles in every course! It was their spe­cial­ity. I can’t say I
learned to love truf­fles, but it was a won­der­ful out­ing. I loved the sense of cama­raderie
and fun.

Fitch: So, in such seem­ing lux­ury, were part­ners allowed?

Tran­ter: No, only for the last week. And that seemed fair enough: it’s not really a
‘Roman Hol­i­day’. You were there to write, and the less dis­trac­tions the bet­ter. I think
most peo­ple write bet­ter when they’re on their own, and I like soli­tude. I grew up
some­what iso­lated, and soli­tude was the norm.

So for four weeks I wrote and wrote and wrote, tak­ing Baudelaire’s poems from his Les
Fleurs du mal
(in French and in var­i­ous Eng­lish trans­la­tions) and work­ing them into more
or less con­tem­po­rary poems only dis­tantly related to their orig­i­nals. I ended up with
fifty-six poems, about half of the total in Baudelaire’s book, which was just what I wanted.

Some of his poems were too depress­ing for me to want to spend much time with, clut­tered
with tomb­stones and graves and rot­ting ani­mal car­casses and peo­ple with awful dis­eases
and so forth, so I left many of those out.

The atmos­phere I was work­ing in was full of sun­shine and play and lim­it­less free time,
and the flavour of that ended up in the poems. I took lots of pho­tos while I was there.
You can see them here: 
http://johntranter.com/photos-by/index-umbria.html

Fitch: The poem ‘Goats and Mon­keys’ begins: ‘Top exec­u­tives and poets alike, when /
they grow old, keep pets…’ Do you have a pet?

Tran­ter: Yes, I had cats and dogs as a child. And Lyn and I have always had cats, from
the day we mar­ried in 1968. And once we became more set­tled – from say 1980 – we kept
dogs, includ­ing Cleo and Bis­cuit, both Basen­jis. Bis­cuit is fea­tured on the cover of the Salt
Com­pan­ion to John Tran­ter.

And more lately a Man­ches­ter Ter­rier, then another Man­ches­ter Terrier.

There’s a poem – a rather sad poem – about a lit­tle dog in Starlight. It was loosely
based on a poem by Baude­laire about a cat, but I didn’t want to write about cats just then.
I grow very attached to pets, but they just don’t live long enough, that’s the awful thing.
They all die, one after the other, and I find that really hard to bear.

I should like to have a capy­bara, but I guess I’d have to live in Argentina for that to
happen. 

Two capy­baras anx­iously dis­cussing Wittgenstein’s appar­ent rejec­tion
of some of the key propo­si­tions of his Trac­ta­tus Logico-Philosophicus (1921).

Fitch: They’re larger than they look. Why the capy­bara? They’re preyed on by ana­con­das
and jaguars, right?

Tran­ter:  And caiman croc­o­diles. You’re right, they look like ner­vous guinea pigs in
pho­tos, but they are actu­ally the size of large dogs when adult. They are giant rodents,
innocu­ous her­bi­vores with no real defences, except to dive under the water. They spend
their time pad­dling around in shal­low rivers, look­ing about anx­iously and trem­bling.
They remind me of poets, I guess, only harmless. 

Fitch: In a past inter­view, you said that you loved rock’n’roll as a teenager. You’ve
devel­oped an inter­na­tional renown as a poet, and as founder and edi­tor
of Jacket mag­a­zine, and you cer­tainly know how to put on a show when read­ing /
talk­ing in pub­lic. Do you think a sense of rock’n’roll has influ­enced your poetry
and your career and, if so, how?

Tran­ter: It’s nice that you feel I know how to put on a show when I give a read­ing.
I’m always aware that peo­ple have a choice as to how to spend their time.

Rock’n’roll? Yes. With my writ­ing, I think I have been look­ing to cre­ate an art form that
could maybe give an audi­ence a sim­i­lar feel­ing of exal­ta­tion that good pop­u­lar music
does. And rock’n’roll did shake things up: you only have to lis­ten to the 1940s ver­sions
of ‘Blue Moon of Ken­tucky’ – a mourn­ful cow­boy waltz in slow three-four time, with
acoustic gui­tar accom­pa­ni­ment, and then lis­ten to what Elvis Pres­ley
did to it in the fifties: very fast, very elec­tric and very exu­ber­ant rock’n’roll in four-four
time. Look it up. The Inter­net makes that possible.

Of course with print pub­li­ca­tion, you can choose to present poems that are dif­fi­cult
and com­plex or very long, and that may require two or three read­ings to give up most
of what they have to say. A reader curled up with a good book can browse back and
forth as they wish.

But with a live audi­ence I try to choose poems that com­mu­ni­cate most of what they
have to offer at one hear­ing, and it helps if they offer some audi­tory plea­sure too, like
say rhyme or allit­er­a­tion, or tell a story with a sur­prise end­ing in some way. Each poem
has a tem­po­ral dura­tion, a dura­tion the audi­ence can­not guess at until the end hap­pens,
and you can play with that. With a poem in a book, the reader can see right away if it is
a short or a long poem, and you can’t sur­prise them with a sud­den abrupt ending.

I have per­formed a very long and dif­fi­cult poem, but only once – actu­ally the one we
were talk­ing about, ‘The Anaglyph’ – at a con­fer­ence in Mel­bourne in 2008; it ran for
over forty min­utes. And it was read in Paris in 2011 by Antoine Cazé and Olivier
Brossard, and in Cam­bridge UK in 2012 by Jaya Sav­ige, Michael Far­rell and J.T. Welsch.
In my read­ing I tried to empha­sise the humour in it, to help the audi­ence get
through the thing. But as most of the audi­ence were aca­d­e­mics, per­haps I may have
been try­ing to make them suf­fer. You know, tenured aca­d­e­mics have sab­bat­i­cals,
and long ser­vice leave, and hol­i­day leave load­ing, and real hol­i­days: all the things
that poets sadly lack. Not to men­tion a salary. Then again, the tenured aca­d­e­mic is
vir­tu­ally extinct these days.

There’s a poem by John Ash­bery (him again!) that works beau­ti­fully read out aloud,
and I believe he read it for an audi­ence in Bal­larat in 1992, titled ‘We Were on the
Ter­race Drink­ing Gin and Ton­ics’, and which reads:

        When the squall came.

You can imag­ine the chuckle from the audi­ence there.

Fitch: What about poets who explain their poems at length, prior to read­ing them?

Tran­ter: Yes, that can be awful. There’s a lovely par­ody of just such a writer by British
poet John Lucas, titled ‘The Next Poem’, which begins:

…which is called ‘Quick as Foxes’ and which can be found on page 479 of my Shorter Selected
for those of you who have the book will, I hope, in the words of T S Eliot, ‘com­mu­ni­cate before
it is under­stood’, although as there are sev­eral allu­sions that may not be at once appar­ent but
which affect the over­all mean­ing, I should like to note them, begin­ning with the title which some
of you will recog­nise from a minor poem by Wal­lace Stevens (who remains a major influ­ence on
my work, and whose use of ‘quick’ to mean not merely ‘rapid’ but ‘alive’ and in a per­haps
Lawrent­ian man­ner ‘preg­nant with foe­tus’) per­mits an impli­ca­tion that abuts on ‘this­ness’
or haec­ceitas – a word my com­puter quite failed to rec­og­nize, and so repeat­edly changed to
hair­cuts  – the piquancy of which would of course have appealed to Stevens’s sense of the
fortuitous…

That kind of self-indulgent per­for­mance can be embar­rass­ing, when it’s not hilar­i­ous.
But it does help the audi­ence to grasp what’s going on if you give a brief – brief, not
ver­bose – intro­duc­tion to each poem. Though some peo­ple say you shouldn’t explain
your work to an audi­ence. Mal­larmé wrote ‘Too pre­cise a mean­ing / erases your
mys­te­ri­ous lit­er­a­ture’. I usu­ally ram­ble on for a few min­utes between poems, about what
I thought I might have been try­ing to do. Maybe that just helps me and the audi­ence
become less nervous.

And of course I try to read well, that is, to use my voice well. The Ancient Greek
and Roman poets stud­ied rhetoric and voice train­ing and the art of mem­ory and
every­thing else that you need to present speech pow­er­fully, whether you are
attack­ing a polit­i­cal rival in a law court, or pleas­ing your friends with a poetry
per­for­mance. Up to a hun­dred or so years ago they taught Rhetoric
in Euro­pean and US uni­ver­si­ties. Not any more. We seem to have lost all that.

Fitch: You men­tioned being ner­vous. Do you like attend­ing or read­ing at poetry
events? As a shy per­son myself, I find that get­ting up in front of peo­ple — to talk, read
poems, give a paper or a speech, sing a song, what­ever — is a kind of aver­sion ther­apy.
You said to me once in pass­ing that you’re a shy per­son. How do you see this, this act
of get­ting up in front of people?

Tran­ter: I found it very hard, at first. I am shy, I was an only child, I had a lonely
child­hood, blah blah. I used to stam­mer, and read­ing aloud for an audi­ence was tor­ture,
and I used to read too quickly. But as actors know, you dis­as­so­ci­ate when you act a part
– some­how you’re not your­self – and you can make a read­ing per­for­mance work for you
like an act­ing per­for­mance. And the more you do it, the eas­ier it gets.

I even­tu­ally reached the stage where I enjoyed read­ing poems aloud, and that relaxes
the audi­ence too. And a read­ing is more effec­tive when the poet rehearses the
per­for­mance. I recall that when my wife Lyn and I put on a poetry read­ing at the PACT
the­atre in Syd­ney in April 1969, I per­suaded all the dozen or so poets to come to the
venue the day before and get the feel of the stage and the micro­phone, and do a
rehearsal. They all did, and they all read well on the night, except Bob Adam­son. He
didn’t or couldn’t attend the rehearsal, and he fum­bled the micro­phone
and didn’t read very per­sua­sively. But we were all young then, and that was long ago.

It helps if the poet knows the poems thor­oughly, and also knows how long the read­ing
of each poem will take. It’s irri­tat­ing for the audi­ence when a poet reads for a while then
anx­iously asks the MC ‘Do I have any more time?’ It cer­tainly breaks the spell.

And I try to learn my poems so I don’t need to keep look­ing at a script. It’s hor­ri­ble to be
at a read­ing where the poets read quickly and inar­tic­u­lately and keep their eyes fixed
on the page like fright­ened rab­bits, and never look up at the audi­ence. I used to do that.
Ugh!

Fitch: Of course not all good poets can read well on stage. I’m think­ing also of some
song­writ­ers whose fear of per­form­ing inhibits, even crip­ples, them, and who are often
bet­ter off as, sim­ply, record­ing artists …

Tran­ter: Stee­ley Dan, for one. Though per­haps the com­plex­ity of their orches­tra­tions,
and their use of great ses­sion musi­cians, makes the thought of live per­for­mance
unre­al­is­tic. And Dame Judy Dench con­fesses that even this late in her career (2012)
she has an awful recur­ring night­mare where she steps out onto the stage and her mind
goes totally blank: no lines, no words, noth­ing! That hap­pens to me occa­sion­ally,
for­tu­nately for a brief moment only. And I always have a script just in case.

I think per­form­ers owe it to their audi­ence to learn how to do it well. Prac­tice. I once
heard Geof­frey Hill read on stage on Lon­don. God, it was hor­ri­ble. He was like a man with
a toothache or a migraine. He had a dron­ing, com­plain­ing voice, and he started out by
say­ing how he hated read­ing out loud to an audi­ence. Excuse me: we had all paid to be
his bloody audi­ence, to hear him read, and we had all given up some of our pre­cious
leisure time to do so. We can learn a lot from per­form­ers like jazz singer Anita O’Day.
Have you ever seen the 1959 movie Jazz on a Summer’s Day? It’s exhil­a­rat­ing. Rent
a DVD. When she sings her songs – that is, reads rhyming poems set to music – she never
looks down at a script, and she engages her audi­ence all the time, clearly lov­ing what
she does. You can see the smile – those big teeth! –and you can hear the smile in her
voice. She makes sure she looks good – new hat, gor­geous frock – and you can bet
that she rehearses and rehearses and rehearses. Of course there’s money in it, for
singers, and that con­cen­trates the mind; not so for poets.

Fitch: Rim­baud liked erotic books full of mis­spellings and lit­tle children’s books,
if we’re to read his poem ‘Alchemy of the Word’ from A Sea­son in Hell bio­graph­i­cally.
Do you have any unex­pected read­ing habits?

Tran­ter: I think there’s some­thing slightly creepy about ‘erot­ica’. There seems to be
a flood of ‘erot­ica’, or semi-porn, e-books lately. Erotic books… but who can bother
to read, these days? Mil­lions of porn videos are avail­able on YouTube and other
Inter­net sites.

Fitch: Maybe it’s the way a reader has to use their imag­i­na­tion to pic­ture some­thing… 
Maybe that’s what still piques a good read­ing session?

Tran­ter: Yes, the audi­ence needs to have their imag­i­na­tions exer­cised by the poems
they’re hear­ing. I sus­pect that’s why good come­di­ans are suc­cess­ful: the images and
events they cre­ate in the imag­i­na­tion of the audi­ence are vivid and bizarre. The
mis­spellings that Rim­baud liked are some­how appro­pri­ate, though: lex­i­cally incor­rect
and polit­i­cally incor­rect all at once.

I am a com­pul­sive reader, like all my mother’s side of the fam­ily, and like most peo­ple
of Scots descent. The Scots invented the Ency­clopae­dia Bri­tan­nica, in Edin­burgh,
I sus­pect so peo­ple would have some­thing use­ful to read through the long Scot­tish
win­ters. I’ll read any­thing, really; a road atlas if that’s all that is avail­able. I dis­cov­ered
I share that with the Ger­man poet H M Enzens­berger: we both like atlases.

I seek out and enjoy pho­tog­ra­phy mag­a­zines and arti­cles about com­put­ers and
type­set­ting. I used to buy two or three mag­a­zines every month. Now I spend hours on
the Inter­net each day, look­ing at things like that. And arti­cles about foun­tain pens, and
sta­tionery and book­bind­ing. My Inter­net jour­nal has a list of links to sites I like, at
johntranter.net. Take a look at the foot of the right-hand side of the front page.

Fitch: You men­tioned com­pil­ing the last two volumes/years of Black Inc.’s Best Of
Aus­tralian Poems
anthol­ogy. You must have read a great deal of con­tem­po­rary
Aus­tralian poetry. What would you say are the trends, if any, at the moment? What
turns you on and what doesn’t?

Tran­ter: Oh God yes, I have read over two thou­sand poems in the last two years, for
those antholo­gies. I don’t really look for trends, or care much for them. Trends tend to
be selec­tive in any case. Some writ­ers fol­low this trend, some writ­ers fol­low that other
trend, whereas a good poem doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily fol­low any trend. Per­haps it cre­ates
one, like Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’; but you don’t know that at the time. 

And edit­ing those antholo­gies is not like edit­ing my first poetry anthol­ogy, the very
polem­i­cal The New Aus­tralian Poetry (1979), that we’ve men­tioned already. With these
‘Best Of’ col­lec­tions, you are asked to select the best – what­ever that is – from among what
you’re given, over a thou­sand poems which peo­ple send in from that year’s pub­li­ca­tions.
You can’t add any­thing, and the vari­ety is vast. That’s the good thing: each year you
come across a thou­sand dif­fer­ent poems, as dif­fer­ent as fin­ger­prints, from peo­ple you
have often never heard of. And you pub­lish what you feel are the best. And thou­sands
of peo­ple read them. That’s wonderful!

Fitch: But what do you look for?

Tran­ter: I seem to do things by instinct, so I’m not aware of what I’m look­ing for until
I find it. What pleases me is tech­ni­cal skill, humour, clev­er­ness, sin­cer­ity, pas­sion, pathos,
the whole thing. Dif­fer­ent poets offer dif­fer­ent things. A good poem usu­ally jumps out
at you, if you’re recep­tive. And if you have a ‘pro­gram’ you’ll miss out on some
won­der­ful pieces of writ­ing, so I try to let myself be guided by the poems themselves.

I don’t care about names or rep­u­ta­tions when I’m com­pil­ing these antholo­gies: that
wouldn’t be fair on the reader, would it? In fact I often cover over the names of the poets
as I read, so as to sur­prise myself. I like the fact that so many of the good poems are by
writ­ers I don’t know.

For exam­ple, to me one of the loveli­est poems in this year’s anthol­ogy (Best Aus­tralian
Poems 2012
) is ‘My Town’ by Meg Mooney, a writer I had never heard of. It’s out­wardly
a casual poem, about a per­son walk­ing down the main street of a coun­try town, say­ing
hi to some friends, maybe hav­ing a dif­fi­cult day. That’s all. But the last line con­tains a
brief and touch­ing con­fes­sion of loss and grief, all the more effec­tive for being so lightly
drawn, and being placed right at the very end. I would give my right arm to have
writ­ten that. Casual, mov­ing, beautiful.

Fitch: Who are some Aus­tralian poets whose work you read and reread? Why do you
return to these poets and whose books are you look­ing for­ward to read­ing in the com­ing
months?

Tran­ter: If I name a few names I’ll offend all those I don’t name, so I won’t. Of course
I like and read writ­ers from my own gen­er­a­tion, but also some older poets and lots of
younger poets. Well, there are many more younger poets. Most Aus­tralians are
younger than thirty-eight. And I am glad there are so many good younger poets, all
with fresh ideas and new things to say, so I like read­ing them.

And over­seas there’s a new anthol­ogy of young British poets just out from Salt
Pub­lish­ing, The Salt Book of Younger Poets, that I’m look­ing for­ward to read­ing, and
Paul Hoover’s 1994 anthol­ogy Post­mod­ern Amer­i­can Poetry has a larger sec­ond
edi­tion just out.

Over my life­time I have read far too many poems by other peo­ple, most of them
not first-rate, inevitably. For exam­ple, when I read through the six thou­sand entries
for the Tin Wash Dish anthol­ogy in 1988, over five thou­sand of them were not all that
good, as it hap­pens. Which is fine, in the end; that doesn’t bother me. But for plea­sure
I some­times like some­thing quite dif­fer­ent. A good road atlas, say.

Fitch: Who are some non-western poets or, should I say, non-European and non–
Amer­i­can poets that inter­est you, past or present? Can you say a lit­tle about why and
how these poets appeal to you, as opposed to, say, your French and Amer­i­can
influences?

Tran­ter: When I was young I read a lot of Chi­nese poetry in trans­la­tion. Li Bai (Li Po)
and Tu Fu are won­der­ful, but every­one says that. I was greatly impressed by Robert
Payne’s anthol­ogy of Chi­nese poetry over the last two thou­sand years, The White
Pony
(Men­tor, New York, 1960). Other Chi­nese poets whose work I like include Wang
Wei, Po Chu-i, and Su T’ung-po. There’s a lovely clar­ity and colour to their work, and
a strange link­ing of phi­los­o­phy and nature, and they’re free of the roman­tic
indi­vid­u­al­ity and boast­ful­ness of many west­ern writ­ers. But I am nat­u­rally more
inclined to read among Euro­pean and Amer­i­can writ­ers, because of the cul­tural issues
I find I can relate to there.

Fitch: Any con­tem­po­rary Asian poets?

Tran­ter: I’m look­ing for­ward to dis­cov­er­ing some in Sin­ga­pore, where I shall be soon,
for the Sin­ga­pore Writ­ers Fes­ti­val, Novem­ber 2012. There seem to be thou­sands of them
attend­ing. And Ouyang Yu has trans­lated some very inter­est­ing mod­ern Chi­nese poets
which appear in the Best Aus­tralian Poems 2012 anthol­ogy I’ve just edited: De Er He,
Shu Ting and Shu Cai.

But I am for­get­ting a Singapore-born prose writer whose work I loved as a boy and
young man: Leslie Charles Bowyer Yin, born in Sin­ga­pore in 1907. Like Lee Kuan Yew,
whom he vaguely resem­bled, he stud­ied law at Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity, but unlike Mr Lee
he threw it in to become a writer, after try­ing box­ing for a while. He con­structed a hero
fig­ure, a kind of debonair free­lance detec­tive, and from the thir­ties until the eight­ies
he pub­lished short sto­ries, a spe­cial mag­a­zine of sto­ries, nov­els (all widely-translated)
and movies and tele­vi­sion seri­als, all based on this char­ac­ter. But when he began writ­ing
he changed his name to some­thing the British would feel eas­ier with, so now we know
him as Leslie Char­teris. The char­ac­ter he invented was called ‘The Saint’. I used to watch
episodes of The Saint on tele­vi­sion in Sin­ga­pore, in 1971. Roger Moore, dubbed into
Can­tonese. In that ser­ial he used to drive a lovely Volvo sports car, a white P1800.
John Mil­lett, one-time edi­tor of Poetry Aus­tralia, also had one. I had a Volvo in
Sin­ga­pore, but a fam­ily sedan, not a sports car. That’s the dif­fer­ence between me and
the Saint, I guess.

Fitch: We’ve hinted at the influ­ence of the New York School of poets on your poet­ics.
They brought the art world and mod­ern poetry closer together, in terms of sen­si­bil­ity
and in terms of employ­ing more inter-disciplinary approaches to com­po­si­tion. How
have paint­ing and the visual arts affected your work?

Tran­ter: Well, they have. They have affected my life and the way I look at things quite
strongly. I stud­ied Archi­tec­ture I in 1961, and was taught art by Lloyd Rees. His ‘Road
to Berry’ at the Art Galleryof NSW inspired White­ley, and is a remark­able paint­ing.
I painted on and off for another decade, and stud­ied etch­ing at East Syd­ney Tech­ni­cal
Col­lege for a semes­ter, and later pho­tog­ra­phy at the Aus­tralian Pho­tog­ra­phy Centre.

And more impor­tant to me than any poem I might have read was see­ing the Brett
White­ley exhi­bi­tion titled ‘Recent Works from Lon­don’, at Kim Bonython’s Hun­gry
Horse Art Gallery in Padding­ton in Syd­ney early in 1966, just before I went to Lon­don.
That early White­ley stuff was a knockout.

And I worked for Barry Stern art gal­leries for a year in 1965–66, sweep­ing the floor
and dri­ving the old Bent­ley. So art and design gen­er­ally is immensely impor­tant to me
as a per­son, but I’m not sure how much of that gets into the poetry. The two fields are
so dif­fer­ent in the tools they use: form, line and colour that are almost iden­ti­cal across
cul­tures, ver­sus ver­bal lin­guis­tic struc­tures that vary dra­mat­i­cally from cul­ture to
culture.

Fitch: Since the late 1960s, you and Robert Adam­son have had par­al­lel paths in the
Aus­tralian poetry com­mu­nity, paths that have often inter­sected. Your work can be
aligned with cer­tain aspects of the New York School and John Ash­bery, whereas
Adamson’s work is more in tune with Pro­jec­tive Verse, or Robert Dun­can. Cer­tainly,
those influ­ences are evi­dent in both your work, even if not as defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics.
Forty years on, how would you describe your rela­tion­ship with Adam­son and his
influ­ence on you per­son­ally and on Aus­tralian poetry?

Tran­ter: Those are inter­est­ing com­ments about US influ­ences. As for per­sonal
cross-currents, I would say that Adam­son has had lit­tle influ­ence on me per­son­ally
and in terms of the kind of poetry I write. Per­son­ally – in my opin­ion – we’re almost
oppo­site: he’s the naughty boy, I’m the goody two-shoes. He’s fas­ci­nated by Mal­larmé,
the cere­bral goody two-shoes of Sym­bol­ism, and I find Mal­larmé tedious; I’m more
inter­ested in Arthur Rim­baud, the naughty boy of Sym­bol­ism. Oppo­sites attract.

And once you know where his poetry comes from, you are tempted to feel that you
might as well go to the orig­i­nals for your inspi­ra­tion, rather than to a local ver­sion of
them. Let me explain. In a 1978 inter­view he did with me (cited ear­lier: Reprinted in
A Pos­si­ble Con­tem­po­rary Poetry. St. Lucia, Qld. : Makar Press, c1982. 160 p., and
avail­able on the Inter­net at
http://johntranter.com/interviewer/adamson1978.shtml),
he talked about where he went for his inspi­ra­tion. He said ‘When I was writ­ing [the book]
Cross the Bor­der it was mainly Dun­can, Cree­ley, and the ‘Black Moun­tain’ poets. I always
 had one of their books open, Olson, say, on my desk. With Swamp Rid­dles it would have
been Mer­win, Mark Strand, you know, that mob; with Can­ti­cles it would have been Low­ell, 
Sylvia Plath, and Co., but I always had a book and looked, and con­sciously tried to copy
the poems.’ That’s a very frank out­lin­ing of a writer’s apprenticeship.

We sup­ported each other’s poetry and edi­to­r­ial adven­tures in the early days. We were
friends and col­leagues, part of the younger gen­er­a­tion. And I think we were each inspired
by mainly US poets, as Adam­son has men­tioned, rather than inspired by each other’s
work. We would enthuse about a new dis­cov­ery – Ash­bery one day, Cree­ley the next.

But over the decades I saw his poetry voy­age into an area I have lit­tle time for, and
as a warn­ing not to go there, it has been use­ful. Let me quote from a review of his
book The Clean Dark which I wrote in 1989:

Post-modern the­o­ries are attacked in one poem (‘Lady Faith’) that sets up the reli­gious
role of the poet — ‘the faith that pure song must employ’ — in oppo­si­tion to these
inhu­man, com­plex fads; though any poet who writes ‘The heart of language’s desire
wants to see / its blood back on the page’ is fight­ing a los­ing bat­tle, in my opin­ion.
These operating-theatre hero­ics have about as much to do with the actual pro­duc­tion
of mod­ern poetry as Kirk Dou­glas with a ban­dage on his ear has to do with mod­ern art.
(4)

I’m talk­ing there about Kirk Dou­glas play­ing the part of Vin­cent van Gogh in a movie.
When you are young, almost any­body you meet is inter­est­ing; less so as you become
older and more experienced.

I had been friends with Adam­son and many other young poets in the late 1960s,
when I came back from work­ing in Lon­don and trav­el­ling through Asia. Around 1970
he wrote an ambi­tious 20-page poem, ‘The Rumour’ pub­lished as part of his sec­ond
book The Rumour in 1971.

Many poets were writ­ing long poems at that period: my own ‘Red Movie’, Mar­tin
Johnston’s ‘The Blood Aquar­ium’, John A. Scott’s lyric sequence ‘A’, Alan Wearne’s
‘Out Here’, and others.

Adam­son brought a draft of ‘The Rumour’ to show me in 1970. I gen­er­ally liked it,
and said so. I thought it was very adven­tur­ous. Though it did have one prob­lem, to me:
it was full of first per­son pro­nouns: I, me, my, and so on. I felt that Adam­son was a
pro­found nar­cis­sist, and so (in my opin­ion) he hadn’t noticed that the poem was about
him­self: his thoughts, his expe­ri­ences, his read­ing, and so on. I sug­gested turn­ing some
of those pro­nouns into sec­ond or third per­son pro­nouns: you, they, he, she, and so on,
just to make the poem a lit­tle more var­ied and less self-centred. He agreed, and did so,
and I think the poem is bet­ter for it.

Per­haps, in hind­sight, the poem is a fail­ure over­all – it is hardly talked about, and has
not been anthol­o­gised, per­haps because of its length – but if so, it is a brave and
won­der­ful fail­ure, and I’d rather have that than a mod­est suc­cess. We have had too
many of those.

And while he seemed to me to trade on his rep­u­ta­tion as a wild free thing when he was
young, Adam­son is more than his mis­be­hav­iour. When Philip Mead and I came to look
through his poetry to select for the Pen­guin Book of Mod­ern Aus­tralian Poetry in the
early 1990s, I was sur­prised and pleased to dis­cover just how many really good poems
he had writ­ten over the pre­vi­ous twenty years, in so many dif­fer­ent styles. Some of
them bor­rowed, per­haps, but so what? That’s how artists learn their craft. Philip and I
ended up choos­ing many more of his poems than I had imag­ined we might.

You asked about Adam­son, but in many ways I’d rather talk about other poets who
have had a more impor­tant influ­ence on my writing.

 

Fitch: Well, what other poets have affected you and your poet­ics? What other events
occurred in the 1970s and since, that have been sig­nif­i­cant for you?

Tran­ter: It goes fur­ther back than that. I began in my twen­ties by being impressed
and amazed by poets like Rim­baud, Desnos, Michaux, Enzens­berger, Robert Bly, Louis
Simp­son, John Ash­bery, Bob Dylan. They were all impor­tant to me through the six­ties,
when I was try­ing to work out what poetry could do. It took me a long time to work
that out.

More recently I have been impressed by poets like John Forbes, to my mind one of
Australia’s most orig­i­nal and tal­ented writ­ers, whose sec­ond book I pub­lished. Now he
was a very con­flicted char­ac­ter, who trained to be a priest then gave it away. Any­thing
he wrote was inter­est­ing, and his best work com­bines a bril­liant grasp of the­ory, art,
mil­i­tary his­tory and phi­los­o­phy, and his pecu­liar gift for sur­real and pow­er­ful images
deliv­ered with a dash of cynicism.

Or Gig Ryan, whose first book I pub­lished over thirty years ago. In a recent poem she
writes ‘She frills his omen, doily to the chair / as a film amps decrepitude’s feast /
… two-pot screamer /hinged to the bar / … though your chook wings fleck the foot­path’
Very few poets have that alarm­ing lin­guis­tic vigour, and have man­aged to pro­duce so
much strong work over decades.

Or Ken Bolton, with his seem­ingly casual but sharp and wide-ranging view of art and
many other cul­tural arte­facts. He stud­ied Fine Arts and it shows, to good effect, and he
makes some very pointed obser­va­tions in an appar­ently cool and dis­in­ter­ested tone
of voice.

Or Pam Brown, my co-editor at Jacket for some years, whose work has steadily grown
and become more assured and complex.Pam is care­fully aware of just how much we
read things into the ‘land­scape’, and how all our responses are polit­i­cally and
eco­nom­i­cally con­di­tioned, how­ever inde­pen­dently orig­i­nal we may think we are.

These are all poets with a clear yet sub­tle polit­i­cal aware­ness, and unlike Adam­son,
whose flex­i­ble tal­ent can ven­tril­o­quise a dozen dif­fer­ent voices per­fectly, they have
each strug­gled to find and develop their dis­tinctly sep­a­rate and per­sonal poetic voices
over a lifetime.

Forbes will be read in a hun­dred years’ time – he is already a hero among the edu­cated
young, as a recent piece of graf­fiti in a Mel­bourne hotel toi­let attests: “Forbes is fuck­ing
awe­some”. And there are per­haps half a dozen oth­ers who will be the Great Dead of the
dis­tant future. And most of them are alive right now, and you can go and hear them read,
and buy them a drink! Please do!

        (Graf­fiti in the men’s toi­let of the John Curtin Hotel, 29 Lygon Street, Carl­ton,
         VIC 3053, just oppo­site the Trades Hall, circa 2011.)

Other poets I have met whose work has marked my own would include Bruce Beaver,
an old friend. His tol­er­ance and gen­eros­ity, his unabashed roman­tic enthu­si­asms and
his will­ing­ness to make it new was an inspi­ra­tion to a whole gen­er­a­tion of younger poets.

Or Peter Porter, a much more for­mal writer, whose Euro-centred poetry was all his
own and whose immense per­sonal gen­eros­ity still aston­ishes me. I didn’t always agree
with Peter’s themes and  his plen­ti­ful his­tor­i­cal and cul­tural allu­sions, but I learned a
lot from his poetry, and I’m grate­ful it was there. And we need some­thing classy and
pow­er­ful to bal­ance the gib­ber­ish of the howler mon­keys of the Open Mike. Those two
older poets, and John Forbes, are not with us now, sadly.

                   Howler mon­keys: Cre­ative Com­mons photo by ‘Steve’ at sherseyva@me.com

The Amer­i­can philoso­pher George San­tayana (6) once wrote ‘Those who can­not remem­ber
the past are con­demned to repeat it.’ Most of us have already for­got­ten poet Grace Perry
(1927–87) who died a quar­ter of a cen­tury ago, and how she cre­ated Poetry Aus­tralia
magazine.

In 1962 she began edit­ing The Poetry Mag­a­zine for the Poetry Soci­ety of Aus­tralia.
In 1964 she started her own mag­a­zine, Poetry Aus­tralia, and founded the pub­lish­ing
firm South Head Press. She spon­sored dozens of poetry read­ings and com­pe­ti­tions
(the Farm­ers Poetry Prize – remem­ber Farm­ers? A huge depart­ment store in what is
now the Myer Syd­ney City build­ing on Mar­ket Street between George and
Pitt Streets, in those days with its own restau­rant and art gallery, now gone) and
con­fer­ences at Mac­quarie  Uni­ver­sity when it was mainly scrub­land. She pub­lished
her first two poetry books as a teenager, then grad­u­ated in Med­i­cine from the
Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney in 1954 and went on to pub­lish seven other poetry titles and a
play. She was mother of sev­eral very bright chil­dren, and a gen­eral med­ical
prac­ti­tioner in the Five Dock area of Syd­ney for many years. She was awarded the
NSW Premier’s Award for Spe­cial Ser­vices to Lit­er­a­ture in 1985, and an AM in 1986,
not long before she died. She seems to be for­got­ten as a poet, now.

(Grace Perry, 1 July 1964, at the third birth­day party for The Poetry Mag­a­zine founded
in 1962. Even as she was prais­ing the assem­bled crowd of mainly older poets, she was
plan­ning to take the mag­a­zine away from them. Photo cour­tesy Alan Wearne.)

So, early in 1964 – as you can see in the photo – she was the ener­getic edi­tor of
The Poetry Mag­a­zine for the Poetry Soci­ety of Aus­tralia. She struck many peo­ple
includ­ing me as a a bit of a bully, and the Poetry Soci­ety should have been more
care­ful. When she wanted to pub­lish an issue of Poetry Mag­a­zine with some over­seas
con­tent in 1964, the Soci­ety remon­strated with her: they wanted more Aus­tralian
poetry, and less of this mod­ern over­seas stuff.

Enter the machine. In those days address­ing envelopes was a real prob­lem. I
men­tioned that I worked for Barry Stern Gal­leries in the 1960s. One of the tasks I
dreaded was the fort­nightly address­ing of sev­eral hun­dred envelopes, by hand,
for the invi­ta­tions for the next week’s gallery open­ing. More recently, com­put­ers
have spared us that drudgery.

But in the old days you could save your aching wrists by employ­ing a machine
called an Addres­so­graph, which used clever metal plates with embossed name
and address fields to stamp envelopes with their addresses more or less
auto­mat­i­cally. It worked rather like the old (1980s) credit card frank­ing
machines: you used some­thing like an inked roller, and an enve­lope was
stamped. The plates cost money to have them made and to store them, but for a
reg­u­lar mail­ing list, where you could use them over and over, sev­eral times a
year, for decades, the time they saved was worth it. That’s how Grace took the
mag­a­zine away from the Poetry Soci­ety: she stole the Poetry Soci­ety mail­ing
list.

To quote Bruce Beaver (7) in my 2003 inter­view with him: ‘Yes… they came to
see me, one day, from the Poetry Soci­ety, and said, “Look, Grace has taken our
list”. And I said, “I helped her.” “Oh. I didn’t know that. Oh, I under­stand.
Good­bye.” “Good­bye,” I said. It was Ella Turn­bull. All these things are in the
past now. But Grace and I were quite naughty. We sev­ered rela­tions with the
Poetry Soci­ety and I became a con­tribut­ing edi­tor to Poetry Aus­tralia.’

                     An Addressograph-Multigraph address plate and the stamped image it makes.

Grace chose a for­mat iden­ti­cal to the old Poetry Mag­a­zine, and even used the same
print­ers, Edwards and Shaw, for both the new Poetry Aus­tralia mag­a­zine and her new
poetry press, South Head Press, and of course the same sub­scriber list and Addres­so­graph
plates for both. So when the first issues of Poetry Aus­tralia went out to the sub­scribers
of Poetry Mag­a­zine in1964, with the same look, the same size, and the same edi­tor,
most of them assumed it was just a new ver­sion of what they were used to.

In my belief, there is an inter­est­ing com­par­i­son to be made between Grace Perry’s
trans­for­ma­tion of the old Poetry Mag­a­zine, on the one hand, and the way Adam­son
and his allies took over the Aus­tralian Poetry Soci­ety and their mag­a­zine five years
later, chang­ing its name from the Poetry mag­a­zine to New Poetry, by using patient
and quite legal branch-stacking tac­tics learned per­haps from the Labor Party and
(in my opin­ion) from Bob’s friend, Bal­main left-wing lawyer, the late Mur­ray Sime.

Both Grace Perry (as a strong indi­vid­u­al­ist) and Bob Adam­son and his friends
(a loose group of allies will­ing to share power and respon­si­bil­ity) had sim­i­lar
pur­poses: to force a mori­bund poetry mag­a­zine to pub­lish new inter­na­tional work.
They each achieved sim­i­lar results: an ener­getic and pop­u­lar international-leaning
mag­a­zine, but these sim­i­lar results were achieved by using very dif­fer­ent tactics.

From those cru­cial years from about 1965 to 1970 Poetry Aus­tralia was a very
impor­tant mag­a­zine, the only Aus­tralian out­let really for forward-looking verse,
and one with a con­stant inter­est in poetry from over­seas. I pub­lished there, and was
dra­gooned into help­ing with the office rou­tine from time to time. So did lots of my
young friends. And Grace agreed to let me edit a spe­cial issue of the mag­a­zine filled
with the new Aus­tralian poetry in 1970, the ‘Pref­ace to the Sev­en­ties’ issue. I
included a two-page poem of Adamson’s, ‘Your Mag­a­zine Hus­band’, and when Grace
saw it she asked me to take it out. I threat­ened to walk and take the issue with me,
and she relented.

Around the same time she pub­lished my first book, Par­al­lax, in June 1970. So she had
faith in my early work, and I’m grate­ful for that.

Grace was a remark­able woman and many of her friends refer to her as ‘Amaz­ing Grace’.
As Lyn­don John­ston remarked on another topic, bet­ter to have a per­son like that in
your tent piss­ing out, than out­side the tent piss­ing in.

She was attracted to the poetry of Amer­i­can poet William Car­los Williams, also a med­ical
doc­tor and gen­eral prac­ti­tioner. She was inter­na­tion­al­ist, and forward-looking, but only
up to a point. Just before I left for a few years in Sin­ga­pore in 1971 she took me aside.
I remem­ber we walked out onto the front lawn of her surgery at Five Dock in Syd­ney.
As best I can recall she said ‘I have to say I don’t like the way your writ­ing is going, John,’
All this exper­i­ment­ing. It’s going too far. You should look at William Car­los Williams.
He’s a mod­ern poet, but he’s not way out, and he’s not a wild experimentalist.’

I replied that I felt I had to do what was right for me, and we parted amicably.

Maybe I should devote my retire­ment to writ­ing a mem­oir, or per­haps a Lives of the
Poets, like Doc­tor John­son. Let me quote John Mul­lan, in the Guardian of 12 Sep­tem­ber
2009:

At the open­ing of his life of Sav­age, John­son talks of the ‘mourn­ful nar­ra­tives’ of
‘lit­er­ary heroes’. The Lives of the Poets are ‘mourn­ful nar­ra­tives’ in a dou­ble sense.
They chron­i­cle ‘the mis­eries of the learned’, the thwarted ambi­tions and the gnaw­ing
doubts of even the best writ­ers. They also speak for some­thing deeper – Johnson’s
own par­tic­u­lar melan­choly, his mourn­ful sen­si­tiv­ity to human disappointment.

Fitch: I read in Jacket mag­a­zine a cor­re­spon­dence between Robert Dun­can and a
young Chris Edwards. In one let­ter, Dun­can describes his encoun­ters with Aus­tralian
poets and their poetry. He men­tioned, with regards to your poetry, a “refusal of the
glo­ri­ous”. I  know this was in the 1970s, and that you’ve writ­ten many books since then,
but what do you think Dun­can meant by this? Is ‘the glo­ri­ous’ some­thing that’s been
lost in some con­tem­po­rary poetry, or is it not as rel­e­vant to cer­tain forms of poetry
as Dun­can makes out, the same way land­scape, or reli­gion, or the con­cep­tual, say, are
not nec­es­sar­ily rel­e­vant to cer­tain poetry?

Tran­ter: Dun­can was a very smart fel­low, and that com­ment of his is very sharp.
The near­est to the glo­ri­ous I’ve met with in a poem is Larkin’s ‘The Whit­sun Wed­dings’.
That’s a lovely poem, and embod­ies the deeply glo­ri­ous built out of com­mon human
mate­ri­als almost in defi­ance of the poet. I’d like to achieve some­thing like that, but I
think you just have to write your best and hope. It’s a mat­ter of grace, I think. It is
given to you. You can’t claim it, as Dun­can did, or make it up, as I believe Adam­son
did from time to time. But per­haps I’m being too negative.

Unlike Adam­son or Chris Edwards, I didn’t meet Dun­can at the time he vis­ited
Aus­tralia in the mid 1970s; I was liv­ing in Bris­bane, work­ing as a radio pro­ducer
for a liv­ing, a long way from the cen­tre. I did meet and inter­view him in Cal­i­for­nia
a decade later, in 1985, not long before he died.
You can read the inter­view here:
http://jacketmagazine.com/26/dunc-tran-iv.html

Of course Duncan’s own atti­tudes grew out of his own life expe­ri­ence and his attempts
to come to terms with the his­tory of poetry as he saw it, and con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can
cul­ture. And he was gay in a time when that was very dif­fi­cult. I remem­ber lis­ten­ing
to John Ash­bery launch a book of poetry by Howard Moss at Dalton’s Book­store in
the Vil­lage in Man­hat­tan  in New York in the 1980s, and idly notic­ing that Ekbert
Faas’s book Young Robert Dun­can: por­trait of the poet as homo­sex­ual in soci­ety
had been filed under the ‘Sex Edu­ca­tion’ sec­tion. How strange!

And Dun­can can’t really be blamed for the young hero-worshippers who turned his
imag­i­na­tive con­struc­tions into idols.

To get around to your ques­tion, I think I can see and per­haps agree with what he means
by my ‘refusal of the glo­ri­ous’, but to my mind he man­u­fac­tured the glo­ri­ous too often
when he claimed to have dis­cov­ered it. I would call it, in my case, not ‘refusal of the
glo­ri­ous’ but ‘refusal of the bull­shit’. It’s a par­tic­u­larly Aus­tralian atti­tude, and per­haps
it lim­its what you let your­self see. But it does pro­tect you from enthu­si­asts and
evangelists.

Too many local poets in the 1960s used a for­mu­la­tion like that to jus­tify their Leav­is­ite
poetry, with its ‘felt sense of life’, chock-a-block with ‘life-affirming val­ues.’ They remind
me of Philip Larkin’s church-going cyclist, who (‘hat­less’) takes off his bicy­cle clips ‘in
awk­ward rev­er­ence’ at the sight­ing of an East­ern Spot­ted Epiphany scut­tling off into
the underbrush. 

Fitch: Among Aus­tralian poets of an aca­d­e­mic and avant-garde incli­na­tion, I’m
notic­ing a slight shift from their being focused on mostly Europe and Amer­ica, to their
being more con­cerned about what con­sti­tutes an Aus­tralian poetic with regards to
sur­round­ing regions such as Asia, but also with regards to Indige­nous ideas of poetic
think­ing. Peter Minter’s keynote speech at the ‘The Polit­i­cal Imag­i­na­tion: Con­tem­po­rary
Dias­poric and Post­colo­nial Poet­ries’ sym­po­sium laid out a vision of Aus­tralian poetry
not as sim­ply an island nation, but as a col­lec­tion of arch­i­pel­a­gos which poets each
write from, of, or res­onate with/in. What do you think about this refo­cussing?
Is it pos­si­ble to talk about what might con­sti­tute an Aus­tralian poetic think­ing for the
twenty-first cen­tury with­out feel­ing anx­ious or apolo­getic? Is there really an ele­phant
in the room when it comes to Aus­tralian poetry?

Tran­ter: Last ques­tion first: yes, there was an ele­phant in the room, and it used to be
called Jacket mag­a­zine. It has left the room. See my paper on that topic, on the web­site
of the Jour­nal for the Asso­ci­a­tion for the Study of Aus­tralian Literature:

http://www.nla.gov.au/openpublish/index.php/jasal/article/view/2244

Peter Minter is a good thinker, and gen­er­ally I agree with his for­mu­la­tions here, which
are very adven­tur­ous: it is impor­tant for Aus­tralians to get out from under the weight
of the dead hand of Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture, or Mod­ern Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture, and find some
other way to see ourselves.

But the more you travel, the more this obvi­ous truth strikes you: accord­ing to the
Aus­tralian Bureau of Sta­tis­tics, in 1994, Australia’s share of the world’s pop­u­la­tion
was 0.3%. In com­par­i­son, the United King­dom had about 1%, the United States of
Amer­ica about 5% and China 21%. There are eigh­teen times as many poets writ­ing in
the US today as there are in Aus­tralia. And when you add the British, we make up only
one twen­ti­eth of the poets writ­ing in Eng­lish in Britain, the US and Aus­tralia.
That imbal­ance is crippling.

Maybe Peter Minter’s think­ing will help us out of that bind. But I’m not sure.

Peter Porter’s solu­tion to the prob­lem was to go to Lon­don and live in the belly of the
beast. Many other Aus­tralians of his gen­er­a­tion did the same. But is being patro­n­ised
as a colo­nial an answer? Who wants to be the Rolf Har­ris of Aus­tralian poetry?

But to Indige­nous poet­ries: poets like me were raised on early Eng­lish allit­er­a­tive verse
and Sir Thomas Mal­ory and Shake­speare and Keats and Coleridge and Wordsworth and
Byron and T.S. Eliot and Pound and O’Hara and Ash­bery, not to men­tion Homer and
Sap­pho and Cal­li­machus and so on. That’s where mod­ern poetry in Eng­lish comes from:
we can’t pre­tend that it is not.

I some­times reflect on the fact that we are cit­i­zens of an Aus­tralian democ­racy based
on an Eng­lish sys­tem of gov­ern­ment that devel­oped over a thou­sand years, on an island
twelve thou­sand miles away. Most of us know very lit­tle of Indige­nous ideas and soci­ety,
and the Abo­rig­i­nal poetry we might come across grows inti­mately out of a com­plex
cul­ture we know noth­ing about, unless we’re anthro­pol­o­gists. For the Indi­genes ‘poetry’
was always ver­bal (they didn’t develop writ­ing), and cen­tral, and took on the role of
seri­ous his­tory in many ways, in the same way that Homer– writ­ing for the ear not the page 
– was a his­to­rian of the Tro­jan Wars. It was never what John Forbes satirises so beau­ti­fully
(his own role) in his ‘Monkey’s Pride’: ‘soci­ety has elected me / to dec­o­rate / its falling
apart with a use­less panache’. That self-reflective cyn­i­cism, for good or ill, is lack­ing in
Indige­nous verse. 

Fitch: Finally, what’s next for you?

Tran­ter: I’d like to become a wealthy stock­bro­ker, like Paul Gau­gin, and go and live
on Tahiti, but I am stuck with the career of poet, I guess. I try to see it as an oppor­tu­nity
for a kind of spir­i­tual exer­cise: some­how you have to go on writ­ing and pub­lish­ing the
best poetry you can, and some­how you have to keep up a pos­i­tive and kind-hearted
atti­tude, in spite of the deceit, cor­rup­tion and incom­pe­tence that make the arena of
lit­er­a­ture in Aus­tralia so con­temptible an envi­ron­ment to work in. It’s hardly pos­si­ble,
but I feel I have to try to do it. Day by day.

Fitch: And what are you writ­ing at the moment?

Tran­ter: I am writ­ing a few small, rhyming poems.

  ~ ~ ~

 

 

1.  http://jacketmagazine.com/27/faga-mint.htm

2. Rod Meng­ham. «The Salt Com­pan­ion to John Tran­ter» (Salt Com­pan­ions to Poetry). Ful­bourn CAMBRIDGE UK 2010. Salt Pub­lish­ing. EAN13: 9781876857769 ISBN: 9781876857769

3. ‘A suf­ferer from Fugue, a Fugueur /Fugeuse, would typ­i­cally reside in France at the end of the nine­teenth cen­tury and would suf­fer from the occa­sional irre­sistible desire to travel long dis­tances rapidly, appar­ently aim­lessly, and, cru­cially, with sub­se­quent par­tial or, more usu­ally, total amne­sia.’ From a review of Hack­ing, Ian. Mad Trav­ellers: Reflec­tions on the real­ity of tran­sient men­tal ill­nesses. xii, 239pp., illus., maps, bib­li­ogr. Lon­don: Free Asso­ci­a­tion Books, 1998. In Source: The Jour­nal of the Royal Anthro­po­log­i­cal Insti­tute, Vol. 7, No. 3, (Sep., 2001), pp. 600–601. Pub­lished by: Royal Anthro­po­log­i­cal Insti­tute of Great Britain and Ire­land. Sta­ble URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/31344460

4.  BLOOD AND GUTS — poems from the bot­tom of the river. John Tran­ter reviews The Clean Dark, by Robert Adam­son. Paper Bark Press, 1989; ISBN 0 9587801 2 9. First pub­lished in «Edi­tions» no. 4 Novem­ber 1989 (p.31), and avail­able on the Inter­net at http://johntranter.com/reviewer/1989-ra-clean-dark.shtml.

5.  George San­tayana. The Life of Rea­son (1905–1906). Vol. I, Rea­son in Com­mon Sense.

6. This inter­view was first pub­lished in Southerly mag­a­zine, and is avail­able on the Inter­net at http://johntranter.com/interviewer/beaver-2003.shtml.