It is not my custom to weave any kind of fantastic plot about the figures I amuse myself in contemplating. I just see them, and their value lies purely in the fact that I can see them. Anything I might add would diminish them, because it would diminish what I term their ‘visibility’.
– Fernando Pessoa “The Book of Disquiet” opening to Fragment 125 (translated by Margaret Jull Costa)
Fernando Pessoa’s “The Book of Disquiet” sits on my bedside table, I dip in and out of the fragments quite regularly, it is not a book one reads from cover-to-cover, a collection of artefacts that add to/take away from your daily mood. I read Fragment 125, above, soon after finishing Luke Beesley’s latest collection of poetry “Aqua Spinach” and I thought it was utterly relevant. Into my notebook it went “Use Fragment 125 opening for Luke Beesley review”.
Scrap that thought….start again.
I quite often visit the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (‘ACMI’) where they screen iconic films. Recently I’ve seen movies by Tarkovsky, Antonioni, Bergman, Breton…there are so many movies to see.
Luke Beesley’s “Aqua Spinach” closes out a trilogy of books that explore the intersections between poetry, music, the visual arts and cinema. The epigraph coming from Leo Charney’s “Empty Moments: Cinema, Modernity, and Drift”:
In the empty moment, what you call identity ceases to be continuous,
It’s hazy and insubstantial, a jumbled, fragmented surface.
It skips around from one time to another, from one place to another.
It refuses to respect the need to keep one moment consistent and con-
tenuous with the ones that precede or follow it.
It’s a film.
And this collection of prose poems is a “jumbled, fragmented surface”, skipping “around from one time to another, from one place to another.”
Scrap that thought….start again.
“Aqua Spinach” is broken into three sections, “Ink”, “Paint” and “Film”, writing, visual arts and cinema being the points on a three pronged surrealist compass, the sixty-four poems seeping into your awareness, leaving scar tissue memories and setting off synapses of past experiences like miniature firework displays in your brain. Ah yes, the lobster telephone, I saw that at the ‘Salvador Dalí: Liquid Desire” retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria back in 2009…or did I, maybe I thought I saw it? I’ve definitely seen Dalí’s collaboration with Luis Buñuel, “Un Chien Andalou”, hasn’t everyone who is into film? You know the one, the dissected eyeball, or am I thinking of “Le Voyage Dans La Lune”? No definitely not that, it was made in 1902, Georges Méliès made that, something to do with the moon and eyes…
Scrap that thought…start again.
Luke Beesley’s final instalment, following on from “Jam Sticky Vision” and “New Works on Paper”, has just been released, by Giramondo Publishing. Get your bus ticket organised as you are about to board public transport, head to work, view several exhibitions, watch a film or two, however it is all going to take place at once.
Incomprehension came to mind as I started reading this new collection of poems, I was attempting to make sense of the surreal. Once I let go and allowed the journey to just unfold, the seemingly disparate images began to build a story of an artistic life alongside mundane everyday actions. Just as watching a single star in the sky of the city, polluted with light haze, is not as magnificent as seeing the same star as part of the the Milky Way in the clear skies of the desert, it is still the same star.
A Century of Poetry in English
Over pottery in the language inherited a century of prose
and lilac Iliads. The Iliads by binoculars and binoculars by
lower lake and the century in English against the French or
Spanish soccer grace, Keatsean anticlimactic brilliance,
William-to-William, wheeled in on bright cuts and English
lessons. The sentence flosses the Armadillo mountains in the
east and the sun reaches out of atmosphere like a sneeze,
centuries. We work around the spine.
The above poem appears in the “Ink” section of the collection.
The front cover features a still from Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”, the 2010 Palme d’Or winning film at the Cannes Film Festival. A movie that explores past lives and is the final instalment in a multi-platform art project centred in Thailand’s northeast. The mystical use of various media and the subject matter aligns nicely with Luke Beesley’s work that uses art, objects and humans to transform. The exploration of literature, visual arts and film through small bursts of comprehension creates a hybrid questioning of absurdity in the everyday. A collection that lingers and haunts your dreams…or your reality.
Yet again, I pass on my sincere thanks to the writer for taking the time to be interviewed and Luke Beesley’s answers and engagement with my high-level questions is really appreciated.
You can buy “Aqua Spinach” direct from the publisher here (where you can also purchase the poet’s earlier books).
Q. “…dust motes float around verb in all literature, the dust motes float.” Are your thoughts dust motes?
I like that idea. Rings of Saturn Sebald-ish and dust-like. Part of what my writing process might cause, I think, is a dust-like illustration of distracted thought. But also none of the metaphors in the poems are achingly mulled over with the full weight consciousness – they swim up out of somewhere during the fast first draft and, to me, this anchors them to something deeper, or they’re easier to trust.
Q. You reference Apichatpong Weerasethakul”s film “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” in the poem “Wild Thing” and the cover image is taken from this film. The Director in an interview with the Bangkok Post says it is primarily a film about “objects and people that transform or hybridise”. Two questions here, (1) were you involved in the cover design, and (2) are your poems about “objects and people that transform or hybridise”?
1) Very big yes! The book cover is something I’m really into, as I’m sure the very patient staff at Giramondo Publishing will tell you. Whereas New Works on Paper’s key focus was the visual arts (hence a drawing for the cover) and Jam Sticky Vision’s a little more on the side of music (hence the detail from a Pavement record on the cover), this book was always tipped to the side of cinema. Apichatpong’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is the film that has had the most transformative effect on me over the last few years. I didn’t go out of my way to reference it; it was just a big part of my imagination around the time Aqua Spinach was written. I did a whole series of drawings based on the film, too. I was fortunate to be able to track Apichatpong down, via a friend, and he was really responsive and lovely. He provided that beguiling image. I love the way the cover turned out and am grateful for Giramondo for including me in the process. (2) I guess everything’s moving and shifting in the writing, in the world, in the way we see each other. The film is mysterious and darkly aesthetic: bringing in photography, playing with formality, day-for-night filming, humour, banality, surprise – it’s the stuff of contemporary poetry. It’s the kind of film that puts me in the type of alert daydream place that is productive for writing.
Q. The collection is arranged into three sections, the nouns “Ink”, “Paint” and “Film”, can you talk a bit about the “Film” section, your influences by Éric Rohmer, Stanley Kubrick, Luis Buñel, Joanna Hogg for example?
Embarrassingly perhaps, I discovered Rohmer only a few years ago. I’ve since watched nearly all of his 25 or so films. It was so great to re-watch Full Moon in Paris on the big screen at MIFF. Actually, today I happen to be watching A Tale of Springtime which is one of the few films of his that I haven’t seen. I enjoy his use of colour, but I love that you spend time with a thoughtful, sensitive, hesitant, indecisive character and you gradually grow very close to them. And Rohmer will show his characters thinking while folding clothes or walking or reading or just popping back to an apartment to pick up a couple of books. He’ll show the whole sequence so that you as the viewer have time to think and you understand that the character’s mind is busy in thought while they fold or walk or read or eat or stare at a view (a view which more often confounds expectations by being either disappointing or unexpectedly interesting). Joanna Hogg, who is influenced by Rohmer, is probably – along with Apichatpong and Suwichakornpong – my favourite filmmaker of the last few years, and I’ve watched her three films over and over. I write while watching films – that dream trance they put you in – so it’s natural that they appear in my daily writing. Image-wise, I like the idea of the book springing up out of Un Chein Andalou (maybe minus the eye scene which I can’t watch, more ants, armpits, absent mouths and moth eyes). I like the following question: What has Un Chien Andalou got to do with inner-Melbourne?
The trilogy – New Work on Paper, Jam Sticky Vision, Aqua Spinach – ends with film, which goes back to the book’s epigraph. In the end, film wins, I think, concerning its relation to its influence on the moment.
Q. “Ink” being writing, “Paint” being art (painting) – you have an active cultural life – can you talk about some of your major influences from the poetic, painting arts?
If you went through the visual art references over the three books and took down names my obsessions at the time of writing would all be there. It’s more than the actual art, too. I like the names of artists and the way their names work in poems and how the name moves out, almost topographically, beyond the art, or rhymes visually with other names. A writer can be linked to a musician or painter via this visual rhyme.
I feel I always have a pool of artists I’m focusing on, and then those artists will lead me to others. I could probably trace this movement, via hundreds of artists, over twenty years. In my 20s it was Rothko, Coltrane, Ondaatje, Lee Ufan, Malick, Egoyan, Pavement, Silver Jews, David Brooks and Leonard Cohen. Then later it was Kelly Reichardt, Cy Twombly, Helen Frankenthaler, Bill Callahan, Carlos Reygadas, John Ashbery, Gerald Murnane, Helen Frankenthaler. My favourite-pool of the moment is probably Joan Mitchell, Cesar Aira, Aldous Harding, Anocha Suwichakornpong, Lydia Davis and Enrique Vila-Matas. I also just finished a forty-odd-thousand word exegesis on the enthralling and elusive writing of poet Barbara Guest, and I’m in no way willing to let go. Her ekphrastic poetry has led me to many other painters, too.
Essentially the story of Modernist painting and the innovative writers of the 20th century are significant influences.
Q. The poem “The Lobster” uses André Breton and surrealism as a theme. Is your work surrealist automatism at play?
Yes, the lobster is a double reference to Breton and also a contemporary artist such as filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, who is trying to work today with what the surrealists offered up. Regarding automatism, it’s hard to say. My process is to write fast in pencil every day, and I’ve built up an improvisational approach by doing this for about eight years. There is a calm centre to it. I try not to think, that’s very important, but then it’s maybe, over the years, been honed to control the levels of pure automation so that I can have a poetry mode and a more narrative short-fiction mode. I like the idea of calling the writing surrealist, though.
Q. Individually these poems may appear incoherent, but as a whole the reader can see your day to day activities, catching a bus, in an office, reading poems, sitting on a park bench and all of the associated random thoughts that go with these activities. Can you explain a little about the timeframe where these poems were written and the writing process itself?
I feel I’m with you with this Q & A, in that we’re anticipating each other. It’s really pleasing to know that there is a shape to the book when you step back.
I’ve written a bit about my process. Perhaps I could add that the handwriting is important. I can’t read what I’ve just written – it can only be deciphered afterwards – so all my attention is focused on the associations thrown up by the what is going on around the point of the pencil. One phrase – its shape, images and sounds – leads to another, not unlike the way one author leads to another, below.
Concerning the timeframe, the poems were drafted in 2014 and a little bit in 2015 (there are one or two poems from my Barbara Guest research trip to New York and New Haven in early 2015), and edited from 2015 to 2017.
Q. I ask all my interviewees this, and it is building up a nice reading list, what are you reading at the moment and why?
Hmm. I generally have about 2-3 long Modern classics on the go, on the bedside table, that I’m re-reading. And I tend to move between a number of books at the same time. I’m reading Woolf’s Jacob’s Room just because I love her writing and that novella had escaped me. I’m also reading Lydia Davis’ recent short story collection Can’t and Won’t which came out of reading her novel The End of the Story. I walked into a secondhand bookshop and saw the novel and picked it up and it helped me finish a long prose piece I was working on.
I’ve been in an Anita Brookner phase – her books are so crisply written and deceptively dark and sad. I sped through Look At Me and then A Start in Life but I’ve slowed a little to modulate the sadness. I’m now reading A Private View. I’m also reading the new Ondaatje, Warlight, but I’m disappointed with it, as I was of his last novel, in comparison with his earlier books, or I’m arguing with my younger self. Who’s changed? Him or me? His poetry and fiction were my first major writing influences, way back, and so I’m kinda sulking about this novel and only reading a few pages at a time. I guess I’m being a bit melodramatic.
I’m reviewing an Australian poetry collection, and I’m also re-reading the fabulous poetry collection Knocks by Emily Stewart. I’ve been reading Harold Brodkey’s wild and bold short fiction: The World is the Home of Love & Death and Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, and I’m always moving through Cesar Aira’s books in translation – am about to start Conversations. I’m also reading Czech novelist Michal Ajvaz’s bazaar Borges-like The Other City. Also Julio Cortázar’s expendable-chapters novel Hopscotch just arrived in the post.
I mostly read what might be termed contemporary experimental fiction/short fiction, and Modernist classics. And it leads to the next question.
p.s. for more on my reading habits go here
Q. Finally what is next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?
One of the reasons why Aqua Spinach is a full stop – the end of a trilogy – is that since I finished drafting it a few years ago, I’ve mostly only been writing short fiction and fiction. Having written that, sometimes stories come back from literary journals with a note from the editor saying hey this is poetry. Anyway, I’m writing what I love to read most at the moment, and I’m really into it. Ahead of me is a lot of crouching over my terrible handwriting, trying to transcribe it to the computer, but I have more than one manuscript that is getting close to completion.