Today I complete the full suite of shortlisted and highly commended books from the 2017 Mary Gilmore Award, an award for the best first book of poetry published in the previous calendar year. As all of the poets shortlisted and commended for this year’s award, Aden Rolfe has participated in an interview about his collection “False Nostalgia”.
The interviews, and my thoughts on each book, can be found by clicking the links in the list below:
“Glasshouses” – Stuart Barnes (UQP)
“Sydney Road Poems” – Carmine Frascarelli (rabbit)
“Lemons in the Chicken Wire” – Alison Whittaker (Magabala)
“Lake” – Claire Nashar (Cordite)
Aden Rolfe’s book commences with quotes, epigraphs, by Drake and Georges Perec and before you’ve read a single poem you know you are in for an interesting ride.
I’m looking forward to the
memories of right now
the picture is cut up not only into inert, formless elements
containing little information or signifying power, but
also into falsified elements, carrying false information
A collection made up of poems, essays, notes, reflections, it is broken into four sections, “Anamnesis”, “Ars memoria”, “False nostalgia” and “Autoplagiarism”, and closes with a quote by Eliot Weinberger.
Immediately the reader’s own memory is called into play, in the opening poem “Anamnesis”;
We are who we are because of
what we remember —
The opening poem also advising us, “the trees out of breath”, the second poem “The woods/wet and not quite real, breathe us out”. A collection that needs to be savoured, the realities of the present moment are interspersed with the facts of the future, laced with the inanity of social media; “Instead we set the scene / take the photo, update our statuses.” (p16) preceding “but one day you’ll find a lump / with searching fingers // you’ll change your health cover / at last come to appreciate / the things you can’t buy your way out of // which is the dawning realisation / of our time / “ (p 19)
Similar to a number of the works featured on the Mary Gilmore Award lists, the spacing, the open page plays an important role, “a pause is a thoughtform”.
With snatches of Andrei Tarkovsky and David Lynch, the humour is also apparent, , for example a mnemonist and erratum appear only a few pages apart, the questioning of memory, the impact of time becoming all too apparent, is this a false nostalgia?
The wryness appearing to interrupt your immersion; “i’ve never / really known solitude / i even drove round all night looking for it” and “if I say apple / do you picture it as red or green? / With a worm or a snake or an archer?”
The same process underpins what Oliver Sacks calls ‘cryptomnesia’, a kind of unconscious plagiarism where you mistake a received idea for an original thought.
Through the poetry, essays and musings, the reader becomes trapped between the theoretical, the real and the present, and of course poetic licence. Masterfully constructed, your mood peaks and troughs as our poet waits, or reflects on the concept of time, or memory, I found myself bringing my own memories into the experience. Personally a playful work, thoroughly recommended.
As always I would like to thank the poet for their time and their honesty in answering my questions, and hope this series is continuing to inform you about the poetic art form and educates you about the work of contemporary Australian poets.
Onto the interview…
Q. I found your collection immersive, playful, so I’ve formed my questions along those lines, I hope you don’t mind…
And what if I said I did…?
Q. With references to Marcel Proust, Oliver Sacks, Plato, Socrates, Italo Calvino (to name a few) you’ve obviously been fascinated by time and memory for some time. Tell me about how that fascination came about.
The theme developed organically, or rather, unintentionally. It started with this concept of false nostalgia – the idea of looking back with fondness on something that wasn’t particularly great the first time around. I had a handful of poems that wrestled with this idea, poems that betrayed an interest in it, a desire to unpack it, but which had also come about as a result of the way I write. I tend to approach ideas sideways, composing by bricolage, sifting through notes and scraps and phrases until enough of them cohere into a poem. One of the consequences of this approach is that different parts of an idea can find themselves in different poems. At some point it occurred that I was returning to the same ideas about memory and forgetting – a kind of autoplagiarism about autoplagiarism.
My initial reaction was embarrassment. You can only write so many melancholy beach poems without seeming like a one-trick poet, right? It struck me as lazy – to keep going over the same territory. Only later did I think that this might become a sustained or focused investigation, later still before the pieces took on the shape of a collection
Q. Is this collection of your memories “a theory of your life, not a proof”?
Very little of the book actually stems from my direct experience. There are some autobiographic parts in “Ars memoria”, but the focus there is more on Simonides of Keos, who invented the memory palace technique, and Solomon Shereshevsky, the famous Russian mnemonist. They embody the idea of infallible memory, while I feature as their foil, as someone who forgets too much and recalls too little. I can’t even remember what I’ve already written.
Q. You wait a lot and contemplate whilst doing so, are you an overly punctual person? Did I make you wait too long before sending through these questions?
When it comes to appointments, yes; less so with deadlines, as you’re well aware. So no, you were not late at all.
Q. The opening section of your book is titled “Anamnesis” and we move through to “Ars memoria” straight to “False Nostalgia”, the unreliability of memory the theme throughout. Having said that you use a number of formats and poetic devices including argument, this “scrambles” the reader’s experience. Do you enjoy these “games”?
When I started work on the book in earnest, I was trying to find a form between poetry and essay. A space to explore the relationship between memory, identity and narrative more deeply than I could in poetry, but without losing its movement, the ability to jump between disconnected thoughts and images.
The different forms in the book – standalone poems, poetic sequences, essay, commentary – emerge from my failure to find such a form. In its absence the various modes and genres are a way to explore different aspects of the same idea. The title essay, for example, considers the concept of false nostalgia from a theoretical standpoint, but captures little of it as a sensation, a mood. This comes across much more strongly in poems like “How we tell stories about ourselves” and “We Watched the Waves”, which embody the concept without explaining it.
Q. The opening lines of the opening poem “Anamnesis”, “We are who we are because of/what we remember – ” leads to a blank space. Is there an implication that we aren’t who we think we are?
It’s not an implication, but it’s also not that simple. You are who you think you are, but only because of that thought. Or perhaps: you are only who you think you are. The idea of the objective self is a fiction. We build stories about ourselves to serve present needs and future trajectories, deploying memories as evidence. But what we leave out is as telling as what we include, what we forget and elide and edit.
Q. The collection is peppered with questions, forcing the reader to dwell, recall, add their personal journey. Is immersion part of your poetic toolkit?
The question is an important poetic – and rhetorical – device, don’t you think? In some senses all questions are rhetorical. So are compliments.
Q. Your collection includes a lot of pauses, and “a pause is a thoughtform”, could you explain that a little more?
Pausing is the active form of waiting. Both are loaded with potential, but while waiting is passive, pausing is always active. To hesitate, to think, to contemplate is to do nothing and everything. You arrest the flow, threaten a drastic shift, even if you end up resuming the course.
Q. Any reader can tell from your book that you are well read, I ask all my interviewees this, what are you reading at the moment and why?
In terms of poetry, I just picked up Melody Paloma’s In Some Ways Dingo, which I’ve been looking forward to for a while, and I’m revisiting Bella Li’s Argosy and Monica Youn’s Blackacre.
I’m also in the middle of a couple of series: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy and Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels, both of which have been on my reading list for a while.
I was reading Patrick White’s The Vivisector, in an attempt to finish it before the Centre for Deep Reading’s White Out weekend, but work got in the way. So it’s back on the pile while I have another stab at Roberto Calasso. I got nowhere with The Ruin of Kasch, but I’m finding The Marriage of Cadmus of Harmony more rewarding, at least so far.
Q. I normally ask my subjects “what’s next” is there something you are working on that you can tell us about?”, however I’ll ask it this way, are you continuing to “write to forget” or are you now an “empty vessel”?
Writing to forget, always. Both in the sense that an idea or a line, once written, ceases to tap me on the shoulder and ask to be remembered, and in the sense that it then risks being erased from memory altogether. How often do you go back through a notebook and find that a thought you had that morning is the same as one you had four years ago? But writing is also thinking, and I’m always reading to remember, so the important things come back eventually.
At the moment I’m working on a poetry and poetics project called the Heavenly Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, the title of which comes from a certain Chinese encyclopaedia uncovered by Jorge Luis Borges. In its distant pages, he writes, animals are not divided into mammals and fish and birds, but more creative categories like “those that belong to the emperor” and “those that have just broken the flower vase”. Each poem in my Heavenly Emporium corresponds to one of the encyclopaedia’s categories, proposing an Australian animal that could fit that particular classification.