Friday, October 09, 2009

Critical Animals panel discussion

I have plenty to say about my weekend at TINA, but in this post I’ll talk about the Saturday morning panel on the place of the experimental in contemporary Australian poetry. The panelists were Jill Jones, Derek Motion, Michael Farrell and myself. Aden Rolfe was facilitator.

The night before the panel, I’d only managed 3 hours sleep in my tent (which, funnily enough, wasn't soundproof... nor entirely waterproof), so found myself mildly delirious, scattered, running on adrenalin.

Having contested the claims John Kinsella makes about experimentation having become ‘the expectation rather than the departure’ in his introduction to the Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry (2009), Jill Jones contacted Kinsella to elicit a response from him. Jill read excerpts from his response. He more or less stuck to the arguments he makes in the introduction, which can be read here.

There was some agreement amongst the panelists that the ‘dominant mode’ of contemporary Australian poetry is a mode dependent upon the sincerity of a lyric ‘I’.
A recent blog post by Pam Brown on the resurgence/prominence of the 'Aussie lyric' is very relevant to this discussion. After further reflection on this, I’d say that the lyric mode is definitely prevalent, though to call it dominant ... well, it depends on the territory. It’s dominant in certain publications (both print and e-journals) and venues, and in certain circles and organisations with a stake in poetry in this country. I think it's fair to say that it dominates prizes and awards. This mode has also tended to dominate the ‘Best’ anthologies (i.e. Black Inc’s Best Australian Poems and UQP’s Best Australian Poetry), although I look forward to reading Robert Adamson’s selection for the Best Australian Poems 2009 – which, if the list of poets is anything to go by, appears to provide a balanced and diverse cross-section of current work.

The ‘dominant mode’ I’m referring to is certainly represented in Kinsella’s anthology, although Kinsella urges the reader to reconsider the work of particular poets who might be labelled mainstream or conservative (e.g. Peter Porter) and reflect on the transgressive impulses that inform the poetry he's chosen to anthologise.

The panel included readings by all four poets. I read ‘post-rock’ and ‘reproduction infinitum’. I spoke about the composition of the unpunctuated collage-poem ‘post-rock’, where I sampled words/phrases from music journalism and other sources. My rule of thumb: it’s not theft if the appropriated material is not recognisable. Which entails the manipulation of samples (e.g. logical and word-order reversals, transliterations, swapping prefixes and suffixes, etc, etc.). ‘Post-rock’ is a term and music genre ‘invented’ by music journalists and critics to pigeonhole bands such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Sigur Ros and Explosions in the Sky. So-called post-rock music tends to be instrumental, dynamic, emotive (but not ‘emo’!). My poem was an attempt to put words to that music, but also to brainstorm around the term ‘post-rock’ and to mine the ‘poetics’ of existing writing on this form of music. The poem is a case of ‘dancing about architecture’, as Elvis Costello put it.

‘reproduction infinitum’ was introduced in the context of failure, which happens to be the subject of Derek’s PhD thesis. As Derek has indicated, when it comes to experimentation of any kind, failure is still a legitimate result, and potentially a very useful one. If all poems are experiments, then all poems admit failure. All poems fail to a certain degree (by which I don't mean to imply that failure in poems can be quantitatively measured). I spoke of how ‘reproduction infinitum’ fails from my point of view, because if anything it’s too comprehensible. Or maybe parts of it are too ‘instinctive’? Michael Farrell has spoken about using chance procedures to ‘escape a reliance on instinct (which often means convention)’. During composition I sometimes find myself seduced by narrative flow, or the urge to ‘tidy up’ the meaning of the poem – seduced by precision, you might say. I’m sure some poets would see precision (and perhaps also narrative flow) as necessary in the construction of a ‘successful’ poem. In the early stages of composition, the possibilities may seem endless. When working with collage, a phrase may glow with potential, with multifarious referentiality. It may seem to magnetise with certain other phrases in the ‘pot’, and to repel others. I usually find there’s an instinctive urge to ‘match’ phrase with phrase along narrative or thematic lines, but often the more interesting links are forged via a certain amount of randomness.

Aden asked whether we consider ourselves experimental poets, and whether others had described our work in this way. At the time I said I couldn’t recall my work being described in this way, although on reflection it probably has been. Not that there’s a voluminous body of criticism on my work (in fact, this ‘body’ is pretty much limited to the comments on this blog)! I added that I don’t introduce myself as ‘Stu Hatton, experimental poet’ (and like Derek, at times I hesitate to even refer to myself as a poet – depends on the context). But when the conversation goes along the lines of ‘Oh, you’re a poet, what kind of poetry do you write?’ I’d probably use the e word in there somewhere, although I’d probably add that my work is fairly eclectic (another 'loaded' e-word). And I should note that I’ve certainly flirted (at length?) with the lyric I / the sincere subjective mode. All of this may become clearer if/when my book surfaces. Having said all that, people are more likely to ask, ‘What do you write about?’ to which I’ve been known to half-jokingly reply, ‘sex, drugs, rock & roll’. But if there’s a one-word answer it may be ‘desire’ – that’s the theme of How to be Hungry, at least.

I went on to say that I found the concept/metaphor of experimentation useful in terms of understanding my poetic practice. I gave a provisional definition of ‘experimental’ within this context: poetry where anything/everything is permitted/admitted – or better: poetry where any form of constraint is permitted. (Cf. OuLiPo). This is a broad and somewhat unsatisfactory definition, but I think it serves a modest purpose in terms of understanding the range of poetic practice, and the openness of outlook which I see as critical to an experimental approach. That hinge of unrestricted/restrictive poetics is important to me. Such a definition isn’t really helpful when looking at individual poems, though. More needs to be said regarding intent.

Jill’s ‘notes for a talk’ come in here. The quote from Gertrude Stein and Jill’s emphasis of certain words within it lead me to the one of the 'lessons'/reminders I've taken from the panel: the convergence of the experimental and experiential. At some point the question of the etymology of ‘experimental’ was raised. A member of the audience responded that it was from the Latin experientia. The history of the word ‘experiment’ aligns it closely with experience. I noted that it may be interesting to substitute the word ‘experiential’ for ‘experimental’ in our discussion, and see where that led/left us. I believe that Jill’s, Michael’s and Derek’s work could be profitably read through this tension (if indeed it is a tension) between experiential and experimental.

Talk of the experiential/experimental immediately led me to mindfulness and awareness, and the admission of the environment, noise and ‘the random’ into the poem at the time of composition. Also admission of the ‘meta’ – the poet’s thoughts during and about compositon, for example, but this covers reflexivity in general.

So far in this post I’ve talked about composition as if it were a discrete time, a cordoned-off period or activity, as if composition doesn’t occur at all times. But the poet is always composing, in so far as the poet is always being composed. Composed by and of. How does composure relate to composition? Back again to mindfulness...

The question of audience came up, namely: who makes up the audience for experimental poetry in Australia? I listed the obvious: other poets, creative writers, artists (particularly those with an experimental bent), literary critics. Beyond that I’d say the audience is largely unknown – but the audience can (and does) exist beyond these confines. Off the top of my head, there are readers of my blog who don’t fit into any of the aforementioned categories. And when we consider experimental poetry beyond the private reader and the public reading, in realms noted by Kinsella, such as installations, multimedia and performance, I believe the potential audience becomes wider. I see multimedia, visual and video poetry as ways forward – by engaging audiences on a audio/visual level that goes beyond perceived ‘limitations’ of poetry as language-art. I’m thinking media and performances which incorporate but are not delimited by the written word, the voiced word, the performative body of the poet.

Thanks to facilitator Aden Rolfe and my fellow panelists for an engaging discussion. At the end, asked to sum up, I said that I still didn't know what 'experimental' meant. I guess I was being flippant. If I were to arrive at a settled definition, maybe my own experimentation would cease at that point. Provisionality is important.


  1. Hurry up, Stu. Bloody hell, this is not what we are paying you the big bucks for.

  2. The big bucks... haha, that'll be the day!

  3. Cool, it's all happening. This will require careful study. Thanks for all the work you have obviously put into it and sharing it with all of us. Talk about an Education Revolution,

  4. Thanks Stu, All well said. Look forward to more thoughts (or thoughs) coming in. Great to meet you in Newc.

  5. hi stu

    i arrived late to this panel but took away a few ideas which i then forgot, so thanks for reminding me of them in this post.

    the connectedness of experience and experiment was useful for me too. it's something i'll keep thinking about.

    the poems were a highlight, and the best proof for the need to keep experimenting. really liked 'post rock', and your idea of music reviewers as frustrated poets.

    good to talk & see you around town sometime


  6. Thanks all for taking the time to read this.

    Tim: 'the best proof for the need to keep experimenting' - agreed, the poems. Speaking of which, really enjoyed your readings at the breakfast collage session. See you round. :)

  7. So far this is it, Stu. Maybe there are some outcomes from TINA that aren't reported on the internet. But it's all a bit sad. That conversation over at Pam's about the new lyricism demonstrates one thing clearly, as does this tiny trickle of info about TINA. Most writing about poetry is irrelevant self-justifying codswallop that serves absolutely no purpose.