Poet Tina Giannoukos has been extremely generous, allowing my intrusive questions and then providing detailed and enlightening answers. In my attempted review of her collection, “Bull Days”, I can’t do justice to her in-depth answers and explanations of her multi layered work, therefore I am presenting a simple short review. I think it is best you read right through this post and contemplate the poet’s answers below. You’ll learn a lot more from her than my humble self.
It is not often that contemporary Australian poetry throws a sonnet sequence your way, Tina Giannoukos’ “Bull Days” is a sequence of 58 sonnets. When the sonnet form is mentioned, I am sure quote a few of you will hark back to your schooling days and think Shakespeare and “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”, beyond the fourteen lines, do you know a lot more about the sonnet? Let’s refer to the excellent “The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms” by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland, and their explanation of the ‘sonnet’, given Tina Giannoukos has given an explanation of the history of the form in our interview, let’s jump straight to Stand and Boland’s “Contemporary Context”;
On one level, the sonnet suits our world. Despite the fact that its origins are in the formality and decorum of Italian court poetry, it has kept pace with some of the most important developments in modern poetry.
To start with it is short, easily comprehended and its historical structure still opens the way for living debate and subtle argument. One of the characteristics of recent poetic history, on both sides of the Atlantic, has been a tension between lyric and narrative. The sonnet is able to take its place in the debate: to suggest narrative progress through its sequence structure, while, in single units, it is capable of the essential lyric qualities of being musical, brief, and memorable.
I can assure you that we don’t need to only include “both sides of the Atlantic”, given this ephemeral collection by Tina Giannoukos, the form is alive and well here in Australia as well.
Each of the sonnets are numbered in roman numerals, and from the opening the metaphysical of creation, a fractured world born from the big bang;
The astrophysics of our encounter,
this dark energy of love, are unknown.
In a singular moment the explosion
that drove all things apart drove us too.
But don’t be fooled that this will be a simple sequence of sonnets, where love and creation are debated throughout, the alignment to the moon and stars is not only a romantic one here, as we learn in sonnet XXVI “The woman knows the articulation:/ the heart is a murdering beast and then / the tired references to moon and stars / creep in.”
Using a multitude of voices, it is not clear if our poet is male, female, the lover the loved, clutching at the remnants of an emotional experience or letting them go. The argumentative form shifting each page we turn. In sonnet X our poet is surrendering;
I forget myself, forget I’m yours.
The body trembles in its urgency:
the promise and the vision I drink from.
I forget myself and she knows I will,
knows my hand will glide over flesh
with the urgency of a labour that will undo itself
with the passion of your entry
into this sphere of love and play.
My whisper is overheard, caught
on a breeze that blows itself out
before this heat of summer can undo me.
These breasts are honey to your eyes,
nipples harden as lips close around them.
This is the fire you want, the tremble you seek.
Two sonnets later the voice appears a mirror;
My body shakes off its paralysis.
I don’t care if I’m yours.
This is the promise and the vision.
My lover knows resistance.
Her hands glide over flesh.
This dyad cannot last.
I want to bar your entry, my fall
into this sphere of love and flesh.
I bow before this white heat.
Her breasts are honey to my eyes, nipples
harden as lips close around them.
This is the fire I want, the tremble I seek.
It’s too late, the time is past for
loving too loose to count as song or praise.
Many styles are used throughout the sequence, with the sense of urgency being brought home in sonnet VI, where no punctuation or capital letter are used, our poet blubbering whilst the subject has “a lover in every port”. This style is again used in XXV where “my love is one continuous take/no jump-cut no freeze-frame no edit”.
We have a bull speaking to the matador that’s in the process of slaughtering, this aligned to sex and adoration from his sweetheart, the sexual and slaughter combined, through to alternate line rhymes in XXIX, until the last two lines;
What insurance company sets its carriage
by the obfuscations of love or marriage?
Sonnet XXIII advises us “It is in contemplation that I know us best.” And with this collection it is through contemplation that you’ll get to know this poet best. A work that demands slow reading, multiple readings, revisiting and pondering, it is a complex work with many layers, many more questions raised than those answered, a work that contemplates love and its many shapes and forms.
Why this work should win the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize
Of the three collections shortlisted this is the most assured and detailed, with all 58 poems interlinked, as the poet says the poems “spill into each other” and therefore this is a more “complete” than the other two works. Using a traditional form, albeit in a contemporary context, “Bull Days” shows that Australian contemporary poetry can tackle the broader metaphysical themes, and is not simply a stage for “bush poetry”.
Why this work will not win the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize
Is this too esoteric for a main gong? We do have a street poet, slam poet on the judging panel and will the more formal approach not appeal to those tastes? Only time will tell.
Over to the questions and answers – enjoy.
- Bull Days contains a sequence of 58 sonnets. Why the sonnet and the sonnet sequence in particular?
I have always been fascinated by the sonnet and in particular the sonnet sequence. I was lucky to study Italian at school. Although I don’t claim fluency in it, I am able to read poetry in Italian even if I have to use a dictionary. The sonnet originates in southern Italy in the 13th century, when Giacomo da Lentini invented this love poem of 14 lines. But it’s not until Petrarch takes up the form in the 14th century that its stronger possibilities materialise, including the philosophical. When I first read them, I found Petrarch’s sonnets to Laura in Il Canzoniere incredibly beautiful. A great edition of the Canzoniere is Mark Musa’s 1996 verse translation that also has the Italian text side by side. It’s the one I keep going back to. I enjoy Petrarch’s vernacular and Musa’s excellent translations. Much has been written about what Petrarch is doing in the sonnets. But we might say that in Western literature, the philosophical discussion of love begins with Plato while love poetry in antiquity reaches its apotheosis in Sappho. In Petrarch, Laura is idealized; there is this idea in the sonnet tradition that the beloved is in some way unavailable. I play with that in Bull Days. An important question to consider is how do women write in this tradition? The idealization of the woman begins with Dante in La Vita Nuova, when he writes of Beatrice: “Behold, a god stronger than I; who coming shall rule over me.” The Australian poet Gwen Harwood undoes the idealised female in “Suburban Sonnet”, when she writes: “Once she played/ for Rubinstein who yawned.”
The sonnet tradition that many English speakers are most familiar with is the Shakespearean or English sonnet. Shakespeare did not introduce the sonnet to England, but he did give us one of the most beautiful sonnet sequences in the English language. A famous modern sequence is Pablo Neruda’s 100 Love Sonnets. Another equally fascinating sequence is Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets, which read so freshly they may have been composed yesterday. Another amazing collection is Bernadette Mayer’s Sonnets, who says of the sonnet: “How serious notorious and public a form”. Over the centuries, the sonnet and the sonnet sequence have emerged as an extraordinary way to explore all sorts of questions, including philosophical, political, ethical, etc.
In Bull Days, I wanted to engage in this complex tradition of the sonnet in all its modes and the sonnet sequence in particular. I wanted to do so both on a thematic and formal level. Is there one or multiple lovers? Is there even a lover at all? Even the speaker’s identity is fluid. It’s not even clear that the speaker is always gendered female, in the sense that the speaker is multivoiced. There is a thread of a narrative, which does seem to imply a certain lover or lovers, though the narrative seems to digress down all sorts of byways. I also wanted to explore what possibilities there may be for love on a poetic as much as philosophic level this late in the tradition of love poetry. I do so by often ironising the question. Shakespeare himself ironised the idealised Petrarchan beloved in his witty “My Mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun”. But I also wanted to ask post-everything, what place idealised emotions? In other words, what possibilities of connection are there in a fracturing or fractured world, a world that has become multiple? Post-Freud, post-everything, how might we write love? Bull Days is one way. It is replete with ironies. It refuses to resolve into one mode. But Bull Days is not only about love. This would be a reductive reading. Love is only one of its modes. It picks up on the philosophical, existential and ethical domains of the sonnet tradition to think of being more broadly. If our world is fracturing, so is the natural world. Sonnet XLVII highlights this in its closing line: “Mines, rigs, towns and roads engulf the tundra”. In its reflective modes, such as the bird poems or even within individual sonnets, Bull Days seeks to ask questions about our connection to the broader world. But these more reflective poems are also the speaker’s way of performing the necessary turning away from the other to be in their own space, which has not always been a space women have been allowed. These poems also speak of other longings, desires, griefs that do not necessarily pertain to the other.
- Is there any specific meaning in having LVIII (58) sonnets?
Given that poetry is a highly determined art, this is a good question. However, the short answer is no. The long answer is that as a poet one needs to know when a collection has achieved all it can possibly achieve. Any more poems would have been mere repetition of what has already been explored multiple times from different aspects and perspectives. This revisiting of themes from poem to poem is critical in Bull Days. It allows for interconnections between poems to emerge. In this sense, there is a creative reiteration of language, themes, and forms. In rejecting titles for the individual poems, I wanted poems to spill into each other. In this way, poems speak to each other, revisit each other, and open up form and subject matter for interrogation. Individual poems are suggestive of form, Shakespearean or Petrarchan, even as others mould to their particular theme. A related question is whether the sonnet has to have 14 lines and rhyme. Well, not necessarily. Working in a sequence especially allows for a great deal of play in this respect. Again, Bull Days deals in explorations, in the sense that individual poems call up the sonnet form only to deviate from expectation. Bull Days enacts the shifts and turns in relating, in being, in moving in and out of the world. It also complicates the question of what a sonnet is by having individual poems write their own poetics, which encourages the collection’s multiple ironies. In this sense, the oft-repeated notion that a sonnet has 14 lines and rhymes does not stand up to scrutiny in the long tradition of both the sonnet and the sonnet sequence.
- You use a lot of mythological metaphor, lyres & albatross, for example. Can you explain a little more about your use of metaphor?
In Bull Days, I wanted to do my own thing. I didn’t want to be contained by the conventions, as others have seen them, of the sonnet or the sonnet sequence. I wasn’t especially interested in producing perfectly carved imitations of what had gone before or what others might think the sonnet is. Nor did I want to reproduce others’ experimentations in the form. Yet from the beginning the sonnet and sonnet sequence have tended towards the complication of form and themes. Even the notion of 14 lines is questionable; many poets have played with line number. But they have also played with form in other ways. I often repeat a word across poems and within poems but with different effects. The poems in Bull Days are mimetic of their own particular themes: they enact on the level of form whatever is going on in their subject matter. The tradition of love poetry in Western poetry also predates the medieval period of Dante’s or Petrarch’s idealised lovers. I wanted to reach back before that into the Sapphic tradition, which I make explicit reference to in Sonnet XVIII: “Is this the Sapphic line? O Sweet! O Love!” By allowing myself to ignore the conventions, which have essentially settled into predictable patterns, I was able to draw in whatever I needed. In this respect, contemporary reworkings of the sonnet are very interesting. The consciousness in Bull Days is a contemporary one(s), exploring ways of being and of relating in a world of proliferating images, sounds, and liaisons. But our world is also a mirage of all that has gone before and may come again or rewrite itself anew.
- Your collection includes humour, irony; at times there are games being played with the reader, for example sonnet XXXI: “I’d like to write a poem in which guru / was in the first or second line.” Do you enjoy playing games with your readers?
I’m glad that you make reference to the collection’s various ironies. Bull Days is a serious investigation of its subject matter and form. But it’s also shot through with irony. The reader is invited into the play of the work. Sonnet XXXI is as much about the art of poem-making as it is about fractured relationships. To write is, at least to a certain extent, to aestheticize experience. Sonnet XXXI is indirectly commenting on this. To invite the reader into the play of the work is, among other things, to open up possibilities for the exploration of the “I”. Especially since the Romantics, we think of the lyrical “I” as being one and the same with the flesh and blood poet. In its ironies, Bull Days critiques this notion. To read autobiographically is to miss the sharper questions being posed by Bull Days: Who are we when we are in love? Are we ourselves, whatever that means, or some concoction of ourselves, a shadow self or selves? Who is the object(s) of our desire? Again, are they some version of our imagination? These are deeply philosophical questions. In refusing to answer these questions in any definitive way, Bull Days allows for the play of the conjectural and of the entry into the philosophical. Moreover, in its twists and turns, which also mimics those of the sonnet form, Bull Days enacts the conjectural, the contradictory, the ineffable.
- A tedious question I ask everyone as it can help create a wonderful reading list, what are you reading and why?
Actually, as a poet I am also highly influenced by music, film and art. I am still thinking about a performance I recently saw by the Chinese classical guitarist Xuefei Yang at the Melbourne Recital Centre. I’m also still thinking about John Olsen’s exhibition at the NGV’s Ian Potter Centre at Federation Square, his The You Beaut Country exhibition. I was fascinated by his journals; they seemed replete with a poetic sensibility. Bull Days is a sequence. My first book of poetry, In a Bigger City, was also a sequence. I love film. I often escape into film where sound and image also come together. I think the sequence and film share something. My reading ranges across languages. I am fluent in Modern Greek, so I enjoy reading contemporary Greek poets. Of course, I remain a big reader of Cavafy. When I lived and worked in China, I immersed myself in the sound of Mandarin Chinese. Once I understood how the language works orally, I fell in love with Beijing Opera. I enjoy reading Chines poets in translation. I am always reading Australian poets. I think there’s some amazing poetry being written in Australia. Currently, I’m reading Peter Boyle’s Apocrypha and Ghostspeaking. I’m also reading Antigone Kefala’s Fragments.I also read contemporary American poetry. One of my favourite works is the poetic memoir by Eleni Sikelianos of her father, The Book of Jon. In terms of memoir, another favourite of mine is the Australian writer Dmetri Kakmi’s Mother Land. I try to discover new poets in English translation all the time. I sometimes read a poet in both Greek and English translation. I find comparing translations across languages fascinating. I also read in theory and philosophy.
- What’s next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?
I’m always thinking about poetry. In the early stages of a work, I tend not to discuss it. It allows images, ideas, sounds to come without forcing them. There is a moment to talk about a work more formally, when some of its key images, ideas, sound structures have started to evolve. Of course, nothing is ever set in stone, so things always change.
Thanks again to Tina Giannoukos for being so open with her time and her answers and patient with my questions. I purchased my copy of “Bull Days” directly from the publisher from their webpage, here.