John Kinsella is the author of over thirty books, and recently won the Prime Minister's Literary Award for Poetry for his 2012 collection Jam Tree Gully. He is the founder of the literary journal Salt, and international editor of The Kenyon Review. He is a consultant editor to Westerly and poetry editor to Island. In this interview he speaks about his approach to writing and the three poems published in Griffith REVIEW 41.
Your poetry is deeply rooted in the Western Australian landscape, where you grew up and live today. They often read like love songs to place, or manifestoes of place. Yet you often talk of the importance of 'international regionalism' in your work, and you're widely thought of as an international poet. How do you resolve the two seemingly contradictory perspectives?
International regionalism is a way of discussing and viewing the local in an international context. It's a means of exchange, of sharing knowledge and awareness. The integrity of the immediate, of the regional, is my primary concern – if you can't respect the ecology of the place you're in at a given time, the biosphere as a whole will suffer. I feel the regional is enhanced by an understanding of what happens elsewhere, but in the end it's what happens where I am standing that seems most vital to what I have to write. But it doesn't exist in a vacuum, and there are many ways of seeing. In essence, I like to look at things up close, over a period of time, from different angles, but in wider contexts – social, historical, cultural, political – as well.
In your introduction to The Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry, you say you are interested in poetry that is conservative in form but radical in content. How does that intention relate to the three poems published in Griffith REVIEW 41?
I am interested in all approaches to prosody. What I meant was that I am also interested in conservative form that has radical content. One could argue that radical content alters the nature of that form anyway, but what I mean is the poem observing at least some of the 'rules' we associate with what makes a poem, including lineation, rhythm, the use of audio-visual devices and so on. The three poems of mine in this issue all work in fairly obvious technical ways, but I hope that the language-usage and how that relates to meaning, and generates meaning in itself, is at least occasionally surprising. The politics of the poems are clearly pro-environment, concerned with cruelty and exploitation and also the incidental side of human 'landscaping', but also reach into the 'unutterable' we associate with spiritual connection and some kind of ontology. Many poems operate like this. Really, it's what the poem triggers in any given reader that matters, rather than what it's saying.
On your website, you write: 'I believe that the 'control' of language is the most significant factor in resisting colonisation, invasion, and oppression.' Could you speak more about the idea of control and its role in poetry?
It's a matter of who controls language. Access to language of authority is much more limited than we might think. The web is not a vehicle for language liberation. It might lead to authority using and adapting language that's 'out there' for its own purposes, and bending that to its 'own purposes'. Language used in official documents, in media 'conversations' and so on, is inevitably about directing people's thoughts and behaviour while, often, convincing the people it is 'their' language at work. It's not. It's the language of control. Poetry should recognise and undermine this, to my mind.
As a poet, one may imitate – mimic, parody, ironies – modes of presentation, and simultaneously offer new ways of seeing and/or undermine that authority. This fits with the notion of conservative form and radical content. I happen to believe that the 'arc of the diver' or the moment of perception is not enough: it comes with the baggage of implication and fact. What takes the diver to that point, how does he or she live, what are cause and effect. The moment itself is never perfect.
The poet is in the bind of being caught between sincerity and absurdity: the self is never independent and unique, but connected with all the damage being done. The self needs mocking, but in the end it also has to be cherished because 'self-respect' and respect for a world-at-large are interconnected. For me, poetry is a paradoxical act, I do not believe in objects d'art, in pieces of art that go on display. Poems have a purpose. For me, that purpose is to draw attention to the damage being done and to show that we are all implicated.
What is your method of working when you first sit down to write poetry, or a book of poems like the recently published Jam Tree Gully?
A book usually forms over a few years. My books tend to build out of responses to particular placses, to the issues of being in that place, the consequences. I am interested in building patterns of close observation and investigating the process of witness. There's no real unified self in my work, though 'I' appear in many forms and ways in the poems. I am rarely content with myself.
The visual idiom you use is often both regionally and scientifically specific. For example, in 'Carnaby's cockatoos at New Norcia' you refer to 'a gilgie aerating' and in 'Harvey Poplars' you mention 'the fated poddy/bellowing in its lone stall'. As a reader, that language can feel like a challenge to seek knowledge outside the poem. Do you have a purpose in mind when you draw upon that sort of imagery?
Detail is relevant to 'truth', or, rather, getting the complexities of any given 'picture'. I am interested in glimpses, but glimpses as informed and illustrative as possible. I feel an obligation to collect data and register it. 'Harvey Poplars' works with Gerard Manley Hopkins' 'Binsey Poplars' in mind, but this knowledge is not essential to a reading of the poem. In the 'Carnaby's Cockatoos' poem, the fact that the cockatoos are suffering from forest/tree clearing and general loss of habitat (and nesting sites), is stated in the poem, but the connections between that and what might be termed a 'concentration' of spirituality through there being a monastery at New Norcia are 'twisted' in the poem through the subtext (or maybe overtext) of dispossession of indigenous peoples, but their persisting/insisting spirituality (note the local name for the Moore River being the 'Maura').
The irony of registering loss in terms of habitat (the 'surveyable') is part of the poem's pain, its trauma, but obviously it is also resisting habitat loss (which is an ongoing colonialism). The specific details are part of the greater picture: the micro makes the macro. The two examples you cite may be case-specific but their implications can be applied to other animals in other environments.
In 'Harvey Poplars', you describe a landscape 'redacted to pasture and ditches/orchards and dairies'. I'm particularly interested in your use of the word 'redacted', because it appears to allude to the relationship your poetry has to nature and landscape. Would you also see that relationship to nature as being in some sense political?
Entirely political. I think humans should leave places untouched and undamaged. People don't have to occupy every square metre of the planet. Some places should just be left to do their 'own' thing. As a vegan, I feel that all animal life is equal, and as an environmentalist, I feel that all living things (and plenty of inorganic things as well) should be left intact and respected as much as possible, One can live without eating and using animals, and that's my starting point. But I also acknowledge in my poems the complexity of human interaction with 'place' – my decision-making is privileged in many ways, and/or my decision-making is particular to my own experience. I accept and respect others have different co-ordinates for making such decisions. But ultimately, I feel the less damage done the better. Industrialism, consumerism, greed, and general rapacity seem universal wrongs to me, regardless of background and experience of the world.
You are the only poet published in the anniversary edition. In some senses, that reflects the way poetry has lost its central role in literary culture. How do you think poetry can still make things happen today?
I don't accept that poetry is less or, for that matter, more central than any other time. Of course, it functions more directly in cultures at different times, but it is part of most things we do. Consciousness of poetic language informs reading the newspaper as much as it does listening to songs on the radio. Poetry does make things happen. I feel rather than the poet having to illustrate how this happens (though I have in numerous articles and essays), it might be worth people identifying for themselves how poetry affects their lives and influences it. Poetry is a very, very broad realm. Its definition need not be rigid.