Melbourne Journal Notebooks: 1998-2003 – Alan Loney PLUS bonus poet interview


Earlier in the week I reviewed the debut poetry collection “Our Lady of the Fence Post” by J.H. Crone, a publication which forms part of a new initiative by UWAP (“University of Western Australia Publishing”), the “Poetry Club”. The Club was established last year “in response to the reductions in poetry publishing nationally”, with eight collections published each year, released as a set of four. Today I look at another book from that collection and feature another interview, this time with Alan Loney and his “Melbourne Journal : Notebooks 1998-2003”.

Last year Loney won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for his book “Crankhandle: Notebooks November 2010 – June 2012” (which I reviewed here), the third part in his notebook series, at that stage the second part was yet to be published, this work is that missing piece (Note I will review “Sidetracks: Notebooks 1976-1991” the first of the collection at some stage soon).

Very similar to “Crankhandle” this collection is a meditation on fragments, a collection of what appear to be scattered thoughts and contemplations, but rest assured, there is plenty going on one each page:

all my writing life I have regarded poetry as heightened language, in every way. I want the writing to be technically sound – no, better than that, I want it technically brilliant whatever one’s imperfections. Of course we get labelled ‘clever’, as if there is nothing else happening on the page. And decorum, always (page 8)

This quote forms part of the opening section “October 1998 – May 1999” which opens with “nothing’s familiar” (p8), Loney moving from New Zealand to Melbourne, part of his journey taking him to the country town of Daylesford:

/can you hear the quiet

/can you see the dark (p9)

These are statements, not questions, Loney playing with every fragment, each statement lingering on the page…in your mind…

Unlike “Crankhandle” this work contains a lot more detailed notes about the writing (and reading) process, the poetic form, his current reading, the qualities of printing and binding.

to what extent can one have access to deep cultural information without reading? Or, what access does the culture already provide to deep cultural information outside of reading? (p14)

Poems that form from statements, dipping into locations, roots, culture, native soil with possibly a hint of nostalgia…of jingoism? As you digest Loney’s “notes” (poems) a question about his sense of place comes to the fore, he is an “infinitesimal / flare / in / the / inconceivable / fire / of / creation” (p16), this statement broken up with each word appearing on a separate line. As always with Loney’s work the space on the page playing a role, but once you’ve read the words the form has changed, the space has vanished, and reading these works aloud it becomes altogether something else. You ask; is the “white page”…”a mirror to the self”? (p16)

Another feature is the open parenthesis, as a reader you are to muse on the gaps, the possibilities that are unsaid, unwritten.

Masterful in creation Loney’s background in printing shows through his appreciation of the printed form, as opposed to the written form on a screen. When you read the interview at the end of this post you will notice Loney has an opposition to his works appearing in electronic format, a whilst I was going to attempt a “review” without referring to any of his poetics, to give you a feel for what is happening on each page is impossible without some references.

Section II of the book “New Zealand, May 1999 – May 2001” opens with the epigraph “Grief keeps watch” (Maurice Blanchot) (p28) and muses on death and mortal existence, as well as alienation in one’s own territory, again a hint of the nostalgia coming through. Loney then returns to Melbourne in “May-December 2001” (p36) and a confession about the enormity of moving away from New Zealand. In 2002;

for a long time now I have wanted, at times desperately, to begin again. It’s impossible of course. But some kind of nostalgia for a beginning, a new beginning, as if I could clear the mind and start all over. As if the past was no more than a weight, not the accumulations of past experiences, thoughts, feelings, events etc, but simply a weight, a great stone slab on the back or shoulders one might simply throw off in a single shrug (p50)

As mentioned the written work, books, come in for Loney’s observations, as well do random people, are these observations or are they imaginings? Poems that are “experiments in manner, and thereby bad-mannered, improper” (p62)

“December 2002 – July 2003” reflects on ancient Chinese and Japanese poetry, Heart Sutra, Zen, Yamata no Orichi and includes Greek Sappho’s (and the space again leads to the question; “what’s missing?”).

The book closes with “New York London” journals “11 November – 7 December 2003”, the notebooks containing thoughts on the plane trip, the night time, the day time, the clouds, the reflections in windows, as the physical form of a book is a reflection of Loney’s thoughts, a collection of observances and awareness of current time and place, the periphery plays an important role, words are signs, as you read you are frequently outside of yourself.

Another wonderful revelation of Loney’s work, as was “Crankhandle” this is a book to be revisited many times, mulled over, these are jottings without an end.

I have become an unabashed fan of Loney’s work, also buying his novella “Anne of the Iron Door” and have been attempting to source his latest book “Beginnings” published in the United States by Otis Books but their distributor won’t send to Australia!!!

I know a number of followers of this blog who would adore Loney’s work, can I suggest you find one of his books, you will not be disappointed.

Again, I would like to thank Loney for taking the time to answer my questions, as per all of the poets who have been appearing here recently, I really appreciate their support and time. Hoping their replies are providing you with a nice reference site for understanding the poetic works in a little more detail, I’m hoping to expand on this feature over the coming year – stay tuned, more interviews to come.

Here are the unedited questions and answers from my email exchange with Alan Loney, as per his wishes, this interview is presented as he sent it to me, spacing, and line breaks all included.

Q. The “notebooks”, Sidetracks (’98), Melbourne Journal (’16) and

Crankhandle (’15), are, in your words, preparatory gestures, “on the

way to…”. Can you explain this concept a little more and how that

approach impacts the finished poems?

A. First, I think I should apologize if I gave the impression that the

Notebook pieces were ‘preparatory gestures’ – for me, part of the point

of the Notebooks is that each ‘piece’ is complete in itself. I’m aware

it is usual to think of notebooks or diaries being records of stray

notes, jottings, observations etc, that might later lead to finished

works, but I have never thought of the Notebooks in this way.

In this sense, the Notebooks are full of ‘finished poems’. The only

rider to this is that there are occasions when a piece in the Notebooks

has been incorporated into another larger work, and that has always

been the work of memory being triggered rather than any deliberate

compositional process from note to poem. There’s a wonderful precedent

in the Notebooks of Joseph Joubert (1754-1854, and translated by Paul

Auster). Auster writes : ‘At first, he looked upon these jottings as a

way to prepare himself for a larger, more systematic work, a great book

of philosophy that he dreamed he had it in him to write. As the years

passed, however, and the great project continued to elude him, he

slowly came to realise that the notebooks were an end in themselves’.

Q. Space is something that you use, your works created over a whole

page, the blank space having significance. I feel it becomes more

prominent in later years, do you think that is a fair assessment?

A. I think so, altho the question of space was critical in my first

book of poems, “The Bare Remembrance” (Caveman Press, Dunedin 1971). I

discovered space as a compositional process when I first read Charles

Olson’s “Maximus Poems” at the end of 1970. I had an initial

fascination with the formal mechanisms in e e cummings, but Olson

showed me that space could do two major things – 1) register how the

work was to be read, that is, what to sound, and when, somewhat like a

musical score, (or, if there’s a big space between words, then shut up

for that space), and 2) space, along with the open parenthesis,

permitted the introduction of new material into the poem by way of

juxtaposition (Pound had said somewhere that placing one thing beside

another thing can make a third thing) and Olson learned a lot from

Pound (in the Cantos) about the use of space. As I read my work aloud

very slowly, and in as neutral a fashion as possible, I can read the

spaces as I go – they also serve to allow a variety of reading options

– where to begin, where to continue, etc – in Crankhandle is the most

radical use of space I have come up with, I suspect.

Q.Your three “notebooks” have appeared under three different

publishers and not in sequential order. Can you explain why?

ANothing deliberate. Kent MacCarter had been asking me for some time

for work for the online Cordite Poetry publication, which I regularly

declined on the grounds that I had no interest in publishing online at

all – I write to see the work in a book, and my small experience of

publishing online in Jacket was not satisfying to me, so I decided not

to do it again. I did, however, send him “Crankhandle”, simply as an

index of what I was up to these days, but with a strict prohibition on

publishing any of it online. It was with this that he decided he wanted

to publish poetry in book form, and “Crankhandle” became one of the

first four Cordite Books. It was only after “Crankhandle” was

published, and the flurry of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards

had settled, that I sent “Melbourne Journal” to Terri-ann White at UWA

Publishing. There is a final work in the Notebooks, titled “Heidegger’s

bicycle”, which has just been accepted by Matthew McKenzie (son of the

great bibliographer and textual critic D F McKenzie, who also ran the

Wai-te-ata Press at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand

for many years). Matthew runs the Paekakariki Press at Walthamstowe,

England. “Heidegger’s bicycle” will be the last of the Notebooks for a

long time as my attention has now turned to a new and rather longer

work. As Don McKenzie has been one of my literary and printing heroes

for many decades, it’s fantastic for me that I will be printed

letterpress by Matthew.

 Q. Your move from New Zealand (Sidetracks 1976-1991) to Melbourne

(1998-2003) sees unease: Melbourne opens with the words “nothing’s

familiar”. Tell us a little more about the move.

A. In a small literary community like New Zealand’s, it’s very hard to

change one’s image in a field that has generally already decided who

and/or what you are. One problem that had been occurring to me in the

1990s was : How might I continue to grow as a writer when I had already

become something of a fixed identity in a small environment.

The answer came : move out, and Australia seemed to be a good place to

go. I knew other New Zealanders who had come here and did well, and

beyond the identities they had acquired in New Zealand. As it happened,

it was the best thing to do, and I have since been able to develop and

write things I would never have written if I had remained in New

Zealand. I also enjoyed the multiculturalism of Melbourne, as one who

has never identified with place or culture or class or ethnic

background at all. And yet it was true : nothing was familiar, even to

the sheer sound of the voices around me. If one was ‘at home’ in an

alien environment, then this was a great place to be. So, part of the

impetus of the early stages of “Melbourne Journal” was to register that

unfamiliarity so it stayed unfamiliar, yet it also became recognisable.

I have never had, and still do not have, any sense of ‘belonging’


Q. Traditionally printing is dear to your heart, however you have given

the art away, does that mean Gutenberg will no longer appear in your works?

A. Well, ‘many of my best friends are printers’ – and I will not

abandon the talking that we ordinarily do. I will occasionally teach

letterpress printing, certainly here and possibly  New Zealand. And the

book itself, as it says somewhere in “Melbourne Journal”, ‘remains an

issue’. I was a printer of poetry for forty years, and printing ink

still occupies my sense and senses, and while the printing press will

no longer figure in my activity, printing ink and paper remain deep

attractions for me. At this stage of my life, who knows what that

attraction will bring. But both for me and for the culture at large,

the Gutenbergian revolution is a long way from over.

Q. What are you currently reading and why?

A. I hope you will forgive me if I bypass this question. My life in

recent years, with Electio Editions, Codex Australia, and Verso

magazine, has meant I have had little or no time for reading at all.

Now that those three activities have come to a close, the question of

reading has become a serious matter, and I am still in process of

working it out. It’s not that I haven’t opened any books over this

time, but I have merely pecked at them, like the sparrows that haunt

our city cafés.

Q. Can you tell us what you are currently working on?

A. Two works. One, a long poem titled “The Unpermitted”, which will

occupy me for ‘the foreseeable future’. Two, a long prose work on an

aspect of  ‘the book’ which has come to interest me a great deal over

the last few years, and I expect this work to be completed by the end

of 2018.


One thought on “Melbourne Journal Notebooks: 1998-2003 – Alan Loney PLUS bonus poet interview

  1. Pingback: Flute of Milk – Susan Fealy PLUS bonus poet interview | Messenger's Booker (and more)

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