The University of Western Australia Publishing (“UWAP”) has this week released six new poetry titles, the second release from their new “Poetry Club” imprint. Before I get to these titles I still have two from their October releases to look at, Bruce Dawe’s “Border Security” and David McCooey’s “Star Struck”.
A few months ago I looked at J.H. Crone’s “Our Lady of the Fence Post” and Alan Loney’s “Melbourne Journal: Notebooks 1998-2003”, both reviews also including interviews with the poets.
Today I have a wonderful extensive interview with David McCooey and thank him for the amazing effort he put into answering my questions, the full interview is at the end of this short review of his collection.
“Star Struck” opens, and closes, with “This Voice”, not forming part of the four sections of poems, these 2nd person poems act as parenthesies for the whole collection, the sounds of “phantom traffic, and the/enduring noise of a goods train” letting us know that the everyday noise drowns out our voices. Although the tone is isolating, removed, the reader knows that the singular multitude of voices throughout the collection are being amplified over the mundane.
Section 1 “Documents” opens with an epigraph from Renata Adler’s “Pitch Dark” (1983), advising us of the innocence of children, with the fifteen following poems, again using the second person, relaying the poet’s experiences whist in hospital for cardiac surgery. Clinically removed, the poems open with a family reality, the possibility of being entombed in a labyrinth, this juggles against childlike play where the realities of the impending critical surgery loom.
The human connection is brought home in “Music for Hospitals” and “Cardiac Ward Poetics” where numbered catalogues and lists suddenly move to “The Hunter” where the ‘male nurse’ shows photos on his phone. From “1. Hospital light, like any other/light is rarely ‘lemon coloured’” and “v) Everything happens at once;/a nurse with a needle;/the synaesthesia of breakfast.” to “ Then he turns to the other patient/who is sitting in bed in his striped pyjamas/and too far away to see anything./He holds the phone aloft like an offering/or a promise.”
“Second-Person”, although isolated, removed, explores the post-surgery rebirth, a new future:
Delivered by green-clad
medical staff to this place,
you enter the realm
of second-person singular,
a new you
to ghost the old,
the one on the other side
of a recalibrated life:
a body lying in
a bed, alive to
the homespun sounds of
each unprecedented sunrise.
Section 2, “Available Light” explores extremes, not simply light and dark, but man and woman, space and underworld, shouting and silence.
A collection peppered with literary references including Calvino’s “Invisible Cities”, Muriel Spark’s “Not to Disturb”, “The Takeover”, “Territorial Rights”, “The Driver’s Seat”, Tomas Transtömer’s “Selected Poems”, Roberto Bolaño and Georges Perec. Readers will be digging into their bookshelves with renewed vigour, looking for the references, and enjoying another reader’s view on them.
Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities uses a rigorous mathematical structure, and McCooey touches on these themes in his poem of the same name, also using the Oulipo approach to his poem “Georges Perec: A True Story”.
Section three, “Pastorals (Eighteen Dramatic Monologues)”, a collection of poems using pop culture, music (Mick and Bianca Jagger, Brian Eno, Tori Amos, Man at Work to name a few) as well as movies (Easy Rider). Who would have thought William Blake’s “Oothoon” could be compared to Kate Bush’s “Never For Ever” album?
The collection closes with “Two Nocturnal Tales”, with a Tove Jansson epigraph (from “The Summer Book”) these longer poems exploring romance, identity, the supernatural and, again, returning to the innocence of the child’s observations.
A very assured, enjoyable and varied collection, that contains a plethora of layers to explore.
Over to the interview I conducted with David McCooey via email, again I thank him very much for his time and efforts in putting together such extensive and interesting replies.
Q. Two poems titled “This Voice” act as parentheses to your collection, and the work contains a multitude of voices, for myself the use of the 2ndperson in these two poems creates a feeling of isolation, alienation. This also becomes very apparent in the opening section “Documents”. What is your attraction to multiple voices and forms of voice?
A. Yes, there are plenty of voices in Star Struck. The third section, ‘Pastorals’, is made up of dramatic monologues; that is, poems in which the speaker is not me. This was largely a reaction against writing autobiographical poetry, which I was getting a bit tired of. It was fun to pretend to be another character (including real people such as Joni Mitchell and Jim Morrison), and it allowed me to do things that I had never done before. It also allowed me to be a bit more expansive at times. By taking on a persona, I inevitably became more interested in narrative. My first book of poems, Blister Pack, is full of very short poems, but in Star Struck I struck out a bit more, and I enjoyed the prospect of a poem going past 20 lines!
But to get back to the use of the second-person address in ‘This Voice’ and ‘Documents’, I think there are a number of things going on there. In ‘This Voice’ I consciously wanted the use of second-person perspective to be alienating, and to undermine simple ideas of my poems simply expressing ‘my voice’ (whatever that is). In ‘Documents’, which is made up of poems that deal with my time in a cardiology ward and having surgery, I used the second-person because I didn’t want the poems to be too much about me. The poems are in part about the experiences (including some observations about the oddness of hospitals), rather than how I felt about those experiences. I wanted a sense of distance to avoid ‘confessional excess’, if I can call it that. Also, at some level, one does feel somewhat estranged from difficult or traumatic events as they happen to you. I guess I also wanted to put the reader in the position I was in, so that might account for the feeling of isolation that you mention.
Lastly, I am interested in the voice from a sonic point of view. My album of audio poetry (or ‘poetry soundtracks’), Outside Broadcast (2013), is in part a response to my frustration with the limitations of the poetry reading or the ‘straight’ recording of a poet reading her or his work. As in Star Struck, I wasn’t interested in my ‘real voice’ per se. Rather, I wanted to use audio technology (and music and sound design) to process, distort, and ‘stage’ my voice in ways otherwise impossible.
Q. When I interviewed Melbourne poet Michael Farrell about musical references in his work “Cocky’s Joy” he said “Pop music is a big part of the way I think about words/phrases, and to some extent poetic form…. I want to write equivalents of great songs – the feel as much as the form.” Reading section 3 of your collection, “Pastorals (Eighteen Dramatic Monologues)”, and with your musical background, I have a sense that you have a similar view. Is that correct?
A. Absolutely, though the poems in ‘Pastorals’ are mostly responses to my life-long immersion in popular music, rather than attempts to find a way of writing song-like poetry or to compete with the last 50 or 60 years of song. Many of the poems in ‘Pastorals’ are about finding a place somewhere between the lyric and narrative poetry. But in all cases, the song or musician evoked informs the imagery or architecture or concept of the poem. ‘Before and After Science: Brian Eno in Hospital’ is a good example; quite a few ‘tropes’ from Eno’s songs (as well as the liner notes from one of his records) inform that poem. I wanted it to be, perhaps, the poetic equivalent (impossible though that is) of Eno’s album, Before and After Science, which has been one of my favourites since I was 14.
Q. Who would have thought Roberto Bolaño writing about gazelles could be linked to Manus Island and Australia’s refugee policy, can you explain how you came up with that link?
A. The poem in question, ‘Election’, was written for Writing to the Wire, which was an anthology edited by Dan Disney and Kit Kelen. The anthology is a collection of poems about, and in some cases by, those seeking asylum in Australia. I very strongly wanted to be part of that project, but like a lot of poets, perhaps, I was struggling with writing a poem about such a charged political issue. My anger was making me inarticulate. I was re-reading Bolaño’s By Night in Chile, which is a short, powerful novel about how writers can and can’t write of, and against, repressive regimes, and how they can be complicit with those regimes. (Obviously, despite the contempt I feel for our current Federal government, they haven’t yet, thankfully, reached the criminal depths of Pinochet’s regime, but nevertheless, some of what is going on here is criminal in a literal sense.) Anyway, I came across the line about gazelles in Bolaño’s novel—‘We move like gazelles or the way gazelles move in a tiger’s dream’—and it seemed to open up a way of thinking about these things that retained the anger, but was also poetry. Of course, the epigraph (the translation of which is by the Australian translator and poet Chris Andrews) is the best thing about the poem.
Q. “’Whaling Station’ Redux” has vivid imagery and the story a child being shown the whaling industry as a “tour”, this is now too shocking too graphic to show a child. Is this simply a reflection of progress or a reflection of different generational sensibilities?
A. Hopefully it’s both. In 2017 it can sometimes be hard to think of progress, but it still shocks me to think that in the early 1970s it was considered acceptable for an operational whaling station to also be a tourist attraction. That’s profoundly shocking. And equally shocking is the fact that my parents thought that this was something appropriate to take their children to see. I have now written two poems about that experience, which suggests I have really struggled with the awfulness of that experience, in part (as you suggest) because of what it says about the assumptions people had in the past.
Q. You are obviously extremely well read with a large number of literary references throughout this collection (Italo Calvino, Muriel Spark, Tomas Transtömer, Georges Perec, Roberto Bolaño to name just a few), there is an attraction to the OulipoSchool, do you use any Oulipean constraints in your work? And I always ask this question, what are you currently reading and why?
A. Well, my day job is an academic in literature and writing, so I suppose it’s not surprising that writers and writing should feature in my poetry. But all literature, one way or another, is a response to other people’s writing. The writers who are named-checked in Star Struck are there because they fulfil a function in any given poem, though it’s true that they are all writers I admire a lot. Perhaps I’m trying to get a little bit of their magic by evoking their names. Evocation is an ancient poetic form of power, after all.
The Oulipo poem (‘Georges Perec: A True Story’) was another case of a writer fulfilling a function. I wanted to tell quite a banal domestic story, but I wanted to do it in an interesting way, so I simply gave each member of my family a letter (‘A’, ‘B’ etc). When I realised that my daughter, who now lives out of home, could be ‘E’ and therefore absent (like the missing ‘e’ in Perec’s lipogrammatic novel, La Dispiration, which was written entirely without the letter ‘e’), I thought that was a nice joke. It also seemed like a happy Oulipo outcome. But no, I don’t usually use constraints like an Oulipo writer would (though I am very interested in writing programmatically to a degree; that is, to have a project and write to it, rather than wait for ‘inspiration’, which I largely don’t believe in.)
I’ve just finished reading Rachel Cusk’s latest novel, Transit (2017), which is quite simply one of the best novels I’ve ever read. It’s one of those books that makes you think, ‘I’d happily give up writing’ if this is what one has to aspire to. I’ve also recently read Rod Jones’s first novel, Julia Paradise (1986), which is part of the Text Classics series. I was completely bowled over by that, too. I think Jones’s work breaks down the boundaries between prose fiction and poetry. I’m currently reading the Selected Poems of the New Zealand poet Jenny Bornholdt, whose work I admire enormously.
Q. Finally what is next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?
A. That’s a good question! I haven’t quite got into my next poetry book yet. I’ve written a few poems, but I’m not sure what shape a whole collection will take. Meanwhile, I’m finishing off my second album, which is called The Double. It isn’t audio poetry this time, but it does use samples of voices and some text-to-speech synthesis. I’m very interested in the way the spoken word—which isn’t a poem or rapping—can work within music. I think that interest comes out of my love of the complex soundtracks of movies, which mix together music, voices, and sounds. I love the observation by the French film director Robert Bresson, who writes the following in his Notes on the Cinematograph (1975, as translated by Jonathan Griffin): ‘The eye (in general) superficial, the ear profound and inventive. A locomotive’s whistle imprints in us a whole railway station’. That almost gets us back to the beginning, and talking about voices.