On January 1st, 1901, the Commonwealth of Australia was established and since then we have had twenty-nine Prime Ministers, starting with Edmund Barton, with Malcolm Bligh Turnbull the current incumbent.
Kanganoulipian poet Dave Drayton has used the twenty-nine Prime Ministers as the backbone of his new collection of poems, “P(oe)Ms”. Each of the Prime Minister’s names anagrammatically make up the poems about their era at the head of Australian politics.
All of the classic Australian references are contained here, riding on a sheep’s back, gambling on horses, and the political moments are captured using the constraint of anagrams, of the leader’s names, to present an historical document of our country.
Robert James Lee Hawke
Smash a beer O Robert
Set the hawk to “walk”
Smash a beer O Robert
A wet beak breaks the talk
This is a small section of the nineteen-line poem dedicated to Bob Hawke, a Prime Minister known for his drinking.
Every one of these poems, although constrained by anagrams, captures the political thought of the time, with more recent examples being Anthony John ‘Tony’ Abbott having the line “A boat, not a bathtoy.” In reference to his ongoing mantra about refugees “Stop The Boats”, our only female Prime Minister Julia Eileen Gillard…”Rare gendered ruler”. A very clever use of language, to bring the idiosyncrasies of the leaders, and the political climate of the times flooding back.
This is not all political speak though, with many humorous references, John Gorton on the grog, Malcolm Fraser with his pants down, Harold Holt “He had held a towel”. For overseas readers, John Gorton was continually questioned in the press about his drinking habits, Malcolm Fraser wandered into a Memphis hotel lobby without his pants claiming he had been drugged, Harold Holt went missing whilst swimming on Portsea Beach, assumed drowned.
Each poem contains a sketch of the accompanying PM and these are also humorous, Tony Abbott playing in the bath, Malcolm Turnbull taking a selfie…
An enjoyable collection that personally recalled a number of political moments in Australian history that I had forgotten, as well as giving me a lesson on a number of Prime Minister’s I knew nothing about, and their idiosyncrasies. A great accompaniment to Amelia Dale’s “Constitution”, who I interviewed here, and it is very heartening to see the young Australian poets challenging the literary boundaries, as well as the political establishment.
Only a short review today, but the interview with Dave Drayton is very educational indeed, as always I am very grateful to the poet for his time and the thought that he has put into his answers. I hope this interview enlightens you on the use of Oulipoen constraints.
And I am very pleased that he has made mention of today’s NRL (National Rugby League competition) Grand Final and the appearance of Macklemore, overseas readers may not know that Australia we are currently undergoing a hurtful postal survey about same sex marriage and Macklemore’s song “Same Love” has become a political hot potato for the extreme right soothsayers.
Q. Your bio says you are “Kanganoulipian”, can you explain?
To quote the official history of the organisation (as penned by Dr Ryan O’Neill), “The Kanganoulipo, an experimental writing collective that has been described as “the most exciting, audacious and talented group of authors to emerge in this country in the last hundred years”, owes its existence to the life and works of Arthur ruhtrA (1940-1982).” After a failed/foiled attempt to write a biography of ruhtrA (in which my person was sabotaged, and my research stolen) I was recruited by Kanganoulipo as an archivist.
Q. Scott Esposito and Lauren Elkin in the “preface” to their book “The End of Oulipo?” say; “The concept of potential literature is founded on a paradoxical principle: that through the use of a formal constraint the writer’s creative energy is liberated.” Is that a fair assessment for yourself?
In regards to my own use of constraint, absolutely. Though underpinning that concept is the idea that all writing is written to constraint – there are rules and requirements that govern the composition of a shopping list or the email sent when chucking a sickie, much the same as there are rules and requirements that govern the composition of a sonnet or a pantoum. The liberation comes from an acknowledgement of these rules: if the constraint is self-imposed the author is more conscious of the rules, and as such more capable of breaking/bending them.
For me personally another aspect of that liberation is the distance it allows between myself and the work in assessing and editing it. If I were to write a poem with no restrictions placed on myself and then assess that poem, my means of assessment are limited and more esoteric: Is it a “good” poem? But if I were to write a poem with restrictions in place these not only provide a guide or structure for its composition, but also its assessment – whether or not the poem is “good” (a difficult and subjective assessment to make at the best of times, and a harder one to make if you are given to excessive self-criticism) becomes a secondary concern; instead I have objective markers that can be considered in this self-evaluation: does the poem use only these letters/this many lines/this rhyme sequence/this particular pattern/etc.
Q. You capture the Australian sporting obsession in a number of your creations, “Edmund Barton 1901-1903” appearing as a cricket scorecard and “William Morris ‘Billy’ Hughes 1915-1923” as a rugby league formation to name just two examples. What’s your take on this sporting obsession?
We’ve just had a bunch of dunces in politics get up in arms about Macklemore singing Same Love at the NRL Grand Final. It’s conceivable the number of Australian that have watched footage of Bob Hawke necking a plastic schooner at the cricket outweighs the number that would have watched footage of him delivering any sort of parliamentary address. I think the sporting focus, particularly of these two early prime ministers, in a way highlights the origins of the links between sport and politics. I mean, that his ability to adjudicate a match of cricket was a contributing factor to the selection of our first prime minister is not insignificant…
Part of it as well I think is a response to the kind of person that dismissively refers to any significant sporting event on social as media as “sportsball” or something similarly disparaging. There are aspects of sporting culture that are problematic (toxic masculinity, nationalism, etc.) but these can be found in any subculture, and the kind of elitist posturing I mention above is dismissive of the important and significant social and cultural functions of sport in building and sustaining communities. The “sportsball” mentality positions sporting culture as something lesser than the arts, which is idiotic. So these poems, bringing the two together, is a small contribution towards closing that gap. More significant (and tremendously enjoyable efforts) have been made by the likes of Nick Whittock, with his cricket poems, and Jeff Parker and Pasha Malla’s “Erratic Fire, Erratic Passion”, which finds poetry in the post-match interviews of professional athletes.
Q. Recently I interviewed Amelia Dale about vandilisation of the “Constitution” and now yourself playing word games with Prime Minister’s. As Amelia said in her interview “Being an “Australian poet” with all that entails it seems to me that the starting point has to be to try, as much as you can, to undo and damage “Australia” the nation state.” Do you have similar motivations?
I was motivated in part by a desire to know more about Australia’s political history, the research required for writing “P(oe)Ms” was also a way for me to try to be better informed. Given my privileged position in the country I also feel I need to address and acknowledge what has contributed to that, but at the same time did not want simply to pay lip service to issues. The constraint underpinning the collection I suppose provided me with a justification for this approach as something that felt authentic to my practice.
In a similar way to the sporting poems this was an attempt to close a gap, or to remove politics and politicians from a pedestal, an act that can be read as undoing or damaging – the poems present the PMs as people, flawed and dirty and real and problematic and sometimes loving and always trying and occasionally doing so for all the wrong reasons…
Q. Poet Oscar Schwartz in his recent interview at my blog spoke of the intersection between technology and culture, saying “Throughout the history of this practice – what I call computational poetics – I found that boundaries become blurry: boundaries between the sciences and the arts, but also boundaries between the human and the non-human. It is the limits of these boundaries that I am interested in exploring.” Do you have a view on the role of the computational and poetics?
Early in “Many Subtle Channels”, his personal recount of co-option by the Oulipo, Daniel Levin Becker says, “What I want to talk about is how the Oulipo, and the principles it incarnates, can make unlikely pairings [my emphasis] – of people, of ideas, of ways of life – seem not only plausible but also promising, not only interesting but also indispensable.” I think of these unlikely pairings – variously between poetic materials and mechanics – as similar to blurred boundaries mentioned.
Q. I ask all my interviewees this, it is helping to build a great reading list, what are you reading at the moment and why?
I have just finished reading Eula Bliss’ “Notes From No Man’s Land”, a collection of essays looking at race in America that seemed to dovetail brilliantly with Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen” and the OJ documentary “Made In America”. And Elizabeth Tan’s incredible “Rubik”, which is tremendously enjoyable but also unsettling for how it documents the ease with which we can contort narratives.
I am currently reading Jordie Albiston’s “Euclid’s Dog”, for inspiration and for awe.
On the to-read list currently are a bunch of books about time (Simon Garfield’s “Timekeepers”, Lee Simolin’s “Time Reborn”, Andrew Benjamin’s “Style & Time”), research for a very poorly defined but unshakeable idea; Xiaolu Guo’s “Language”, from the very nice looking Vintage Minis series; and Brian Castro’s “Shanghai Dancing”, because I can’t find/afford Bernadette Brennen’s critical study of his work but am desperate to know more about this author who keeps blowing my bloody socks off.
Q. Finally, another question I ask all interviewees, what’s next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?
I have recently finished the American equivalent of P(oe)Ms, Beaux Pres(id)ents – arguably the visual pun in the title works even better for this batch. A few of them have recently been published by Angry Old Man (https://angryoldmanmagazine.com/dave-drayton/).
I’ve just started a new project, tentatively titled State Of Origin, which hopefully will play around an intersection between cartography and poetics, using postal codes in Australian states and territories as fodder for making poems.
And I continue to chip away at a weird novel-in-voices called Wifthing, which is in part inspired by Anne Garétta’s “Sphinx”. It details an ungendered couple trying to procure an inheritance that is contingent upon their completion of an archaic yearlong wedding ritual.