A CONVERSATION WITH JOHN TRANTER
John Tranter has published more than twenty collections of verse. His collection of new and selected poems, «Urban Myths: 210 Poems: New and Selected» (University of Queensland Press, and Salt Publishing, Cambridge UK) won the Victorian Premier's Prize for 2006. In 1992 he edited (with Philip Mead) the «Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry», which has become the standard text in its field. He has lived at various times in Melbourne, Singapore, Brisbane and London, and now lives in Sydney, where he is a company director. He is the editor of the famous internet magazine Jacket (jacketmagazine.com).
John, our readers know very little about you. Please tell us about your childhood and early memories, your family and your parents.
I was born in Cooma, in the southern highlands of New South Wales, Australia, in 1943, a distinction I share with the poet A.D. Hope. My father, Fred Tranter, taught at a one-teacher school in the small village of Bredbo, some 36 kilometres (20 miles) north of Cooma. My mother had been married before and had two teenage children, a boy and a girl, when she married my father. Her first husband, partly in response to his distressing experiences in the First World War, became an alcoholic, and his wife left him in the late 1920s, taking the children.
When I was about four we moved to the coastal town of Moruya, some 320 kilometres (200 miles) south of Sydney on the coast of New South Wales, where my father had spent part of his childhood, and where he now took up a job as a school teacher at the large public school. He eventually became deputy headmaster before resigning to take up farming and to establish a successful soft-drink factory. During my early school years I developed an occasional stammer which troubled me for decades.
At the Intermediate Certificate exams in 1957 I did well enough to be selected to continue my high school education at Hurlstone Agricultural High School, a selective state farm school at Glenfield on the south-west outskirts of Sydney. I repeated my third year of high school there in 1958 to pick up Agriculture, a fruitless exercise, as I failed the subject dismally in the Leaving Certificate exams in late 1960. This was a great disappointment to my father, who for complex reasons of his own had wanted his only child to take over the farming business he had worked so hard to set up. I did get an honours pass in English, though: the first Hurlstone pupil to do so in a quarter of a century, or so I was told. My father’s response: ‘What bloody good is that?’ My father died in August 1962.
AS: Why did you start writing poetry? When did you write your first poem?
JT: A high-school teacher, John Darcy, encouraged me to begin writing poetry, and one of the first two poems I wrote won a prize in the high school annual magazine The Harvester in 1959.
AS: You visited India in the sixties. How was it? Any memories that stand out in your mind after more than forty years?
JT: I was in India for a month or so in the autumn of 1967, mainly in Delhi. My wife Lyn and I were hitch-hiking across Asia. We stayed for a few weeks with a family in their flat in Nicholson Road, Old Delhi. They were very hospitable. I sometimes misunderstood people’s politeness. In Australia, I was used to people speaking the plain truth, no matter how rude or painful it might be. Not in India. I felt disturbed to hear of the sectarian violence during Partition. Idealism and religious differences can lead to violence. Indians seemed to me to be bright and hard-working. They seem to take to computers and technology naturally, which is perhaps predictable, since they practically invented the structures of modern mathematics hundreds of years ago. India struck me as very crowded... of course now there are twice as many people occupying the same space, so it is twice as crowded again, I guess. There seemed to be a vast variety of distinct languages, lifestyles, cuisines, dress codes (from strict purdah to occasional naked sadhus), political beliefs, philosophies, religions and social circles. Compared to the immense variety of India, Australia seemed uniform, dull and plain by comparison.
AS: Is India in your writing? Did India affect your writing?
Not directly, no, though I had studied Vedanta and Buddhism informally for some years in my late tens and early twenties. India seemed too rich and various to capture in verse.
AS: Who were your favorite poets when you started? Who influenced you most?
When I was a teenager I read a lot of Chinese poetry in translation, mainly Tang dynasty. Then Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S.Eliot, Ezra Pound, H.M.Enzensberger, Robert Desnos, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, John Ashbery, and Frank O’Hara. I should also add Shakespeare, Hazlitt, Coleridge, Keats, Robert Browning, Matthew Arnold, Dostoyevsky, Henry Miller, Dylan Thomas, Vladimir Nabokov, Jack Kerouac, Howard Nemerov, Robert Bly, fellow-Australians Kenneth Slessor, John Forbes and Gig Ryan, and many hundreds of others. Arthur Rimbaud (French, 1854-91) was perhaps the strongest influence.
AS: Much has been written about Rimbaud, Ashbery and O'Hara being your inspiration. Can you talk a bit about each of them?
JT: I responded to three things about Rimbaud. First, like me, he came to the big city from a rural background when he was seventeen. Second, he renovated a rather enfeebled and bourgeois poetry in a deeply radical way; I felt the same kind of thing needed to be done to the British and Australian poetry of the 1950s. Third, he was a widely-read, intelligent and remarkably brilliant lyric poet. His selfishness, his arrogance and his foul temper aren’t visible in the poetry, thank goodness. And he gave up poetry before he was an adult, which is an interesting mystery. Ashbery I liked for the range of his learning, his intelligence, his humour and the lyric beauty of his early poetry. I took a little longer to like O’Hara, whose poetry seemed merely glib at first. It took a while to catch his tone of voice, to appreciate his serious intelligence, and also to realise how important his lack of portentousness was. I compiled a one-hour radio anthology of his best poems in 1974, and reading through all of his 600-page «Collected Poems» taught me a lot.
AS: What is Australian poetry? How different it is from other poetry? How Australian is your poetry?
JT: . I guess it’s like most post-colonial poetry in English, a pale shadow of British poetry mixed in with a lot of US and European influences. Our seasons are upside-down compared to British seasons: Keats’s Autumn melancholy has to take place in Spring in Australia. Our Christmas has no snow, but often has raging bushfires and man-eating sharks. I guess the distinctive difference is a laconic tone. Australians like and embrace irony and fatalism. I’m not sure why; I guess it has something to do with our history and ancestry: half Irish convicts, half British gaolers. We’re a mixture of a larrikin disregard for authority mixed with an uneasy conformism. I think my poetry has all of that.
AS:Were you influenced by Australian poets? Who and how?
JT: I’ve mentioned Kenneth Slessor, John Forbes and Gig Ryan. Among earlier poets the ‘hoax’ poet ‘Ern Malley’ was an important influence: you can read all about him in Jacket magazine at http://jacketmagazine.com/17/ Also A.D.Hope and Kenneth Mackenzie. Quite a lot of writers from my own generation; I put most of them in an anthology «The New Australian Poetry» (St Lucia: Makar Press, 1979).
AS: What was your experience in working for the Radio? Is radio a good medium for poetry in your opinion?
JT: Ideal. Even though a radio broadcast can have an audience in the tens of thousands, it’s still an intimate medium, and usually one-to-one. And poetry is such a vocal art. I worked as a radio drama and features producer-director for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation at different times between 1973 and 1990; I produced or directed over forty radio plays and a dozen or so interviews with poets, and around a hundred two-hour arts programs. To me, creating a radio program was a lot like writing a poem, but it had the added advantage of being a cooperative team effort. It was great fun.
AS: You have edited several anthologies.of Australian poetry. Most memorable is the Bloodaxe or Penguin «Book of Modern Australian Poetry» that you edited with Philip Mead in 1991. How hard was the job? How controversial was the process? Please tell us about your experience.
JT: The book was commissioned by Susan Ryan at Penguin Australia; they gave us carte blanche and a page limit of 300 pages. It took two years, reading through hundreds of books of poetry, and we ended up handing them a manuscript of 480 pages, which they very graciously accepted. I don’t recall that we looked at any anthologies; we both know most of them anyway. We started with Kenneth Slessor, born in 1901, and we aimed for a wide-ranging, inclusive collection of poems that focussed on a modernist approach rather than a traditionalist approach. We included all of ‘Ern Malley’, for example; you can’t get more modernist than that. I don’t recall that we had any strong disagreements. The book has been very well received. You can teach from it in dozens of different ways: young women poets, old male poets, prose poems, rhyming poems, poems about the Australian countryside, poems about the city.
AS:You started «Jacket» magazine in 1997. What made you decide that another literary magazine is needed? And, why on internet?
JT: Oh, I didn’t do it because I felt another magazine was needed by anyone in particular. I just felt like doing it, and it seemed that it might be fun. And it was. I just happened to have all the skills one might need for that job; I’d worked as an editor and as a typesetter, I’d studied lettering, design, photography and computers, I had interviewed dozens of writers all over the world. And I knew that the two main problems faced by literary magazines were the cost of production and the difficulty of international distribution. The Internet solves both those problems at one stroke: they both come free. Well, free, as long as you are prepared to work fifty hours a week for no pay, that is.
AS: You have been a politically active poet all you life. What do you think of George W Bush's policies all over the world? And your government's attitude towards him ?
JT: In some ways Australia owed its survival in the Second World War to the Americans, and we are conscious of that debt. I had two uncles who died in the Pacific War. But many Australians were ashamed of our role in the Vietnam War, and are horrified by the cruel blunders of the current US administration, and also ashamed that our Prime Minister is so subservient to the Americans. I have a feeling that Australia will have a different government after the next election. I hope so.
AS: What are you reading these days, specially poetry? Who are your favorite young poet in Australia? What about other poets writing in English? What about poets in other languages?
JT: There are so many good young poets writing now in Australia that it would be unkind to single one or two out for praise. There’s also a lot of energy in Britain (though a lot of reactionary writing too; Britain has a very splintered poetry scene), and of course the same is true of the USA, only on a much larger — one might even say grosser — scale, where far too much poetry has been produced over the last thirty years. Perhaps we should bring in a rationing system: each US city is allowed only two poets, who are each only allowed to publish three poems per year. That would bring it down to about a thousand new poems per year, which is almost manageable. I regret that I don’t have any languages other than English, though I do read poems from other languages in translation.
AS: Anyone in Australia from the new Diaspora, that's writing good poetry, in your opinion?
JT: Most Australian poetry grows from the cultural background of the Old Diaspora: the flood of Irish, Scottish and English to the Americas, Asia and the Pacific. English is the only official language in Australia, which means that a poem by anyone in Australia’s main language can be read by almost anyone else in Australia without needing to be translated — and also by many people in India, Canada, Jamaica, South Africa, New Zealand, the USA, Great Britain and other places. But Australia has been a consciously multi-cultural nation for a long while now, and the non-Anglo migrants have had a lasting and generally positive impact on every aspect of life. Like most Australians, unfortunately I can only read English.
AS: What are you writing now? Can you have a few sample of your new writings for the readers of Kabi Sammelan?
JT: . I’m half-way through a Doctorate degree at the University of Wollongong, in Creative Arts. That involves writing a manuscript for a book of poetry, then a 30,000 word exegesis that explicates the strategies used in writing the book. A dozen poems are discussions of various Hollywood movies.
AS: Any final message to the readers of Kabi Sammelan? That includes many young poets in villages and small towns. We take poetry quite seriously!!
JT: . I've been writing and publishing poetry for forty years. Here's some advice.
1) Read widely and if you can manage it, travel.
2) Write a lot, and - more important - rewrite a lot.
3) Seek feedback from others and pay attention to it, and publish widely and persistently in a wide range of poetry magazines for at least ten years.
4) Give up the idea that you will ever be famous or even well-known. Do it now. Prepare yourself for a life of relative obscurity and learn to accept it with good humour.
1) Read widely and if you can manage it, travel. Unless you read other contemporary poets' work, you will have no idea what is going on out there, and you are likely to write stuff that is immature and out of date. Also read the great dead: they were bright young things just like you when they wrote their best work. Do a good English degree (not Creative Writing: English) for several years, and read all the set texts. Apart from half a dozen plays of Shakespeare, you should know the best work of most of the main poets of Rome, the English Renaissance, the Romantics, the French Symbolists especially Rimbaud, and fifty poets in English from 1920 to 1970. Seek to understand why Coleridge was such a brilliant success. Seek to understand why Coleridge was such a tragic failure. Seek to understand why Wordsworth was such an inspired and radical young poet (did Communard politics have anything to do with it?). Seek to understand why Wordsworth was such a terrible old bore (did success and old age have something to do with it?). Find a neglected writer whose work you like and read the work enthusiastically. Travel sometimes broadens the mind, though I've seen it do the opposite.
2) Write a lot, and - more important - rewrite a lot. When you've written a good poem, put it away for a week or two and then rewrite it. A good poem usually goes through eight or ten drafts.
3) Seek feedback from others and pay attention to it, and publish widely and persistently in a wide range of poetry magazines for at least ten years. (That's what I did before I published a book.) It takes more than ten years to turn out a good concert pianist, and fifteen to twenty to turn out a good composer.
Now and then I get inquires from people who say "I've got this manuscript of poems, how do I get a book produced?" I usually ask "Have you appeared in many poetry magazines?". Usually they say "Oh no, I don't want to appear in magazines, I just want to bring a book out." This is a fatal misunderstanding of the publishing and book-buying process.
No publisher can afford to bring out a book by a writer who is unknown. Publishers know that it's hard enough to get a bookshop to stock a poetry title by a well-known writer; at least the bookshop owner knows that a few of his customers may have heard of the well-known writer and may buy a few copies of the book. For an unknown writer, there's no point even asking the bookshop to stock the book.
By the time I published my first book of poetry I'd written about three hundred poems. That's after a decade of writing. Most of them were rubbish, as it happens, but I had about 70 of them published in twenty or so different magazines by that time. That's what you have to try to do.
And you learn a lot from publishing in magazines. On the one hand it helps you to find a readership, but it's also interesting to find out how much you can learn from a poem when you see it in print in a magazine. Before it's published it belongs to you, you know what it's doing and how it works. But when you see it in print, in a different context, suddenly you see all the things that are wrong with it. Then you can think about what to do better next time.
It's also vital to get feedback and to pay attention to it. Often writers aren't aware of what other people see or hear when they read their poems. This is an important point: you might think you know exactly what your poems are doing, but you will be amazed to find out how little of that actually gets across to a reader. It's useful to join a poetry discussion group, or to take some classes in writing poetry. Your local Writers Centre will have a list of these. Look them up on the Internet and join one and go to some poetry classes. Stay away from academic Creative Writing classes. They don't teach you to read, which is what you need to do first.
4) Give up the idea that you will ever be famous or even well-known. Do it now. Prepare yourself for a life of relative obscurity and learn to accept it with good humour. Dentists are more important to humanity than poets, and dentists don't lie awake at night wishing they were famous. Do the training that will enable you to get a good job, one that will ensure you mix with other people and which gives you a reasonable income without eating up all your energy. Fit your writing around that. Try to be a good person: there's no better way to make sure you never have any friends than to act like a conceited, whining pain in the neck. Develop an interest in other people and in other people's writing.
The interview was first published in Bengali script in Kabisammelan (Issue February, 2007). English-printed here with permission from Shyamal Kanti Das, Editor, Kabisammelan.