Adam Aitken has been shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards, more specifically the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry, for his book “Archipelago”, the winner being announced on 30 April. He also has a chapbook, “Notes on the River” that has recently been published by Little Windows Press in Adelaide. You can buy the hand printed chapbook here, I suggest buying the collection of four books as the other writers are Jen Hadfield, Kathryn Hummel and the recipient of the 2017 Yale University’s Windham Campbell Prize Ali Cobby Eckermann, these chapbooks having a limited edition print run of only 111.
Adam Aitken’s “Archipelago” is a poet’s journey through France, an outsider observing the culture of another nation, however not purely as a tourist, more a world visitor observing the minutiae of small villages. The opening poem “Tributaries of the Seine” is rich with metaphor:
Hypothermic, I become obsessed with thermometers,
the way a red line rises, correlates, and falls
with the price of belief,
just like firewood, wool, or
fresh beetroot in summer…
This wonder of new surroundings, the connection to the environment is a theme throughout, with an underlying current of the human relationship hovering slightly out of view. You know the poet is travelling with a partner, and is staying in local’s house, however it is the connection to the place that always bubbles to the fore.
Using a harsh juxtaposition to inland Australia “Yuendemu” (sic) with dismantled chateaux’s looking different in the light “unseen in England or Australia”. And referencing Wollongong in “The Revenant” “a ghost looking over my shoulder”, the Australian is still not far from home. The passing through a foreign territory, it is an experience but one that is not the poet’s alone “- of the region – / of you and your territory” (from “Maruejols”) there are also the observations of others ways of life “These are mudflats of someone’s youth / small town genealogy…” (from “Tributaries Of The Seine”).
Very early on in the collection I found myself referencing the places on a map, following Adam Aitken’s journey, getting a sense of the places, and then delving further into information about the places (Google got a real workout as I worked through this collection, a plethora of places that I knew nothing about, their monuments, the architecture…)
Thank you for letting us stay so long.
Last night a bowl of water
froze overnight on the kitchen windowsill.
The digital thermometer I planted
seized in its small frost-frilled bowl.
A Siberian polar vortex
is putting us to death.
Mt Aigual is Raybans sharp in the alpine distance.
We have bought new wood
though it is green and won’t be usable till next year.
I am yet to cough up blood.
The other day I found a dead thrush in the letterbox.
I swept a few frozen comrades off the driveway.
Every day they are falling out of the sky.
Bud-sap of faux-spring in retreat
going back into the roots.
But not Danielle’s pintards
– they’ve all been plucked and eaten.
Young women in short skirts
are flagging down trucks
on the frosty road to Nimes
working hard, even in this weather.
A thank you note to the person whose house the poet is living in, a familiarity but at the same time anonymous and filled with calamity.
There is a poem where snippets of caught conversations at the Allicance Francaise are presented back to us, showing a cultural breadth and depth, all the time while attempting to learn French. There are also three ekphrastic poems, again I’m getting online looking at the artworks/photographs and getting a richer understanding of the artwork through the eyes of a poet.
The chapbook “Notes on the River” uses a number of research style techniques and presents the Meekong, the fish and both sides of the banks, yet another cultural separation, another “border” that the poet has identified.
Both assured and environmentally connecting works, poems that have a real sense of place, vividly painting out a view for the reader to interpret, a poet moving through but a world weary one, a poet who has travelled far but still has much to learn and observe, and us as readers can learn plenty from him too.
Over to the interview. I am very grateful to yet another poet who has agreed to an interview and I hope these insights into the Australian poetic works demystify the art a little.
Q. You use a wonderful Geoffrey G. O’Brien quote to open “Maruejols”, ‘…begin / with reference to the territory…’, and your work has a real sense of ‘place’, but it is someone else’s ‘place’. After the immediacy of the connection to where you were did the poetic process take some time to gel or was it an instantaneous process that happened throughout your travels?
Adam: The places referred to in Archipelago are almost all in France. The collection grew out of a project I began when I was selected for the Keesing Studio in Paris in 2011. I wanted to write a book of poems that were responses to Europe and France, and to write back to Australian poets who had written about Europe, like Kenneth Slessor, Pam Brown, Martin Harrison and many others. Previous to this my poetry has been concerned with Sydney, Indonesia, Thailand, Central Australia and Hawai’i. I have been a travelling teacher and academic, but I prefer to stay in a place for long periods of time, so as to learn about it deeply.
Q. You were the Poet in Residence at the Keesing Studio in Paris, were these poems written whilst you were a resident or during another visit to France? Can you tell us a bit about your Residency, the travels themselves?
The Keesing Studio is in Central Paris is a rather imposing 60s complex. It’s rather a lonely place with hundred of rooms full of artists. The Australia Council sublet the Keesing Studio and offer a 6 month residency to Australian poets and other writers. After my term was up I stayed on for three months in the South of France, wintering in a small village called Maruejols. The change in context could not have been starker. In Maruejols I read the Romantic English poet John Clare and essays on the archaeology of the region. Maruejols has a population of about a 20 farmers. I was also learning French. My English mother-in-law literally lived in a farm house down the road, so many of yhe poems in Archipelago are about her life as an expatriate rural person.
Q. The book “Archipelago” contains three ekphrastic poems, can you talk a little about that process for you?
Adam: I studied Art and Fine Arts at uni and I’ve always been interested in describing visual art and am a keen photographer. I think I’ve been doing ekphrastics for a long time. I have certainly been a fan of the New York School of poems like Frank O’Hara and his poems about his friends, who were often painters. I also studied Auden’s Shield of Achilles, and Keats Ode on a Grecian Urn. I read about the New York photographer Alfred Steiglitz and was fascinated to learn about how much time he spent in a darkroom, and how he had waited for hours in a blizzard, just so he could photograph passing traffic in that atmosphere. I wrote the ekphrastic poems for a themed issue of Axon, a University of Canberra publication, and for a themed issue of Cordite. They were accepted and so I put them in Archipelago. Les Wicks had also invited poets to write about a collection in the Manly Art Gallery, so I Ashton’s Notre Dame, as I had already been trying to write my own poems about Notre Dame (which are in Archipelago also). For a few months I had been walking past Notre Dame three times a week on my way to a French class, so it become part of my neighbourhood.
Q. In an article you wrote for “Southerly Journal” in 2013 you spoke about cultural hybridity and that theme is prominent in both of your collections. Can you explain that a little more in relation to these two books?
Adam: Actually Archipelago is my fifth collection. Are you referring to the memoir One Hundred Letters Home? All my writing refers to hybrid identity, as I my mother is Thai and my father was Anglo-Celtic. In the early 80s I spent some months living with my Thai family, and I became acutely aware of how I was Australian, but I also felt a bit Thai. I am fascinated by the experience of “being not one, but both”. this is not always a positive situation to be in, especially in societies that fear the ‘contamination’ of other cultures. But cultural hybridity is for me a normal part of modernity – especially in a multicultural society like Australia’s. it is no longer exotic to be Asian-Australian, but I still write with this in mind. With the memoir of my parents, the subject is their original attraction to each other, and their subsequent drifting apart. The “hybridity” could describe the way each influenced and changed the other, and how my father, especially, overcame a very Anglo-Celtic upbringing and came to appreciate Southeast Asian cultures. The story is also about my mother’s own story of becoming a ‘Europeanised” Asian migrant in London, and then in Australia.
Q. The title, “Archipelago” brings to my mind an extensive set of islands, are your poems travels at a micro-level and is that how the title came about?
Adam: Archipelago references geographic sets of islands, the nature of our fragmented sense of self, and also the philosophy of the French-Caribbean scholar Eduard Glissant. Glissant was interested in what we thought of as the origins of an archipelagic network of cultures. He thought about the centre of a culture, and about where it might evolve to. The archipelagic metaphor is also Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome – that cultures grow and spread laterally, with not central root systems or vertical power hierarchies. Archipelagos are often sets of linked cultures, but each part of that set is individualised, not homogenised. Empires have always sought to control their heterogeneous colonies, but people at the margins always influence the centre. Also, the archipelago on the cover is a photograph of a French cemetery map, Montmartre. The numbers are islands of the dead, each a tomb or grave of a celebrity who died in Paris. I thought it was a funny conceit to compare the map to an archipelago. On a deeper existential level I feel that an island is our subjectivity, and the network that connects us all depends on the poetics of ‘living together’. As Barthes ask: “Comment vivre ensemble?” – how do we live together, or how does it all come together? In 1976 Barthes was lecturing at the College de France, and his first lecture was about how to find the right distance between yourself and your neighbour? He invented the term the “idiorhythmy” to refer to one’s own rhythm of life, a rhythm that allowed you to live with others. I have to say that my friend musician and naturalist Alex Chapman introduced me to the term.
Q. In “Notes On The River” we have separation, different tribes to the east and west, the left and right sides of the brain, do you see borders in every subject matter?
Adam: Yes, I tend to be analytical, and as a child I almost decided to become a biologist or a geologist. I love categorising things. The evolutionary tree of life fascinates me, as does anything to do with archaeological timelines. But also, I really think that my brain and thinking processes are quite clearly divided into intuitive and analytical. With my writing I think as a linguist and as a poet. I love grammar and studying narrative patterns. But I want poetry to have emotional impact.
Q. I ask all my interviewees this, and a great reading list is building up by doing so, what are you reading at the moment and why?
Adam: I have been reading writing by George Saunders, Marguerite Duras (again), Joan Didion, and Helen Garner. They are all on my MA Writing subject which I teach at the University of Technology Sydney. I just finished a book of poems by the Polish writer Adam Zagajewski, and a novella by Suneeta Peres da Costa, Saudade. I am in the middle of Martin Edmond’s biography of New Zealand expatriates. There’s a ton of recent Australian poetry I am reading too, too many new volumes to mention. On the “theory” front I am about to read John Kinsella’s monograph on pastoral poetry Disclosed Poetics. The French experience brought me to a deeper contact with the land and with farming (in all its traditional and modern aspects) and ecology, and I hope to keep going with this subject when I go back to France later this year. John’s insights will be very inspiring I think
Q. Finally, another I normally ask all my subjects “what’s next” is there something you are working on that you can tell us about?”
Adam: I have a body of poems that didn’t make it into Archipelago because they didn’t fit the “place” constraints. I hope to bring them together for another collection. I will be spending a few months in France, in another village, and a very different one and far less rural, but still a village. I really want it to be a collective portrait of the people there, but also a kind of poetic treatment of the current social politics of that part of France. Unfortunately, the village is a bit right wing and suspicious of foreigners. I hope to understand that better, but also to uncover the less well known lives of the Algerian and Moroccan immigrant community who work in that region.