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Judith Wright

Spitting out poems: an interview with Geoff Page

1 March 2013

Geoff PageGeoff Page is one of Canberra’s best known and most loved poets. He’s lived in this part of the world for almost 50 years which means he’s got a story or two to tell about the region’s literary goings-on. He is one of 75 writers included in an anthology that I recently edited, The Invisible Thread, and he’s appearing at a forthcoming evening of Thread readings, which all seemed like a good enough excuse to ask him a few questions. His responses were rich and insightful and I particularly enjoyed his recollections of time spent with Australia’s late great poets.

Irma Gold: Geoff, over the course of your career you’ve published a very significant body of work. What is it that drives you?

Geoff Page: Mainly the enjoyment of doing it — though there can be painful stretches when things aren’t going well. Initially, writing requires self-discipline but quite soon it becomes an obsession. After that it’s a matter of quality-control.

IG: I was speaking to Alan Gould recently about Canberra’s vibrant poetry scene in the 1970s when you were both putting on readings with writers like Alec Hope, Bob Brissenden, David Campbell, David Brooks and Rosemary Dobson. What stands out most for you about that time?

GP: It was a halcyon period in many ways — and certainly essential to my development as a poet. To meet the standard set by Alec Hope, David Campbell, Bob Brissenden and Rosemary Dobson was no small consideration. David Brooks was in the younger generation, along with Alan Gould, Kevin Hart, Mark O’Connor, Philip Mead, et al. They also had the effect of driving me forward. One way or another, the latter group ran the ANU Poetry Society, produced a nationally-distributed magazine called Canberra Poetry and issued quality broadsheets from the Open Door Press. In age, I was conveniently between the two groups and both were an incentive for me to keep writing and become more serious about my art.

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To be a Canberra poet in those days (as opposed to a Sydney or Melbourne one) marked you, to some extent, as an aesthetic conservative but I had no trouble making connections with other differently-inclined poets in Sydney and, to a lesser extent, in Melbourne. Back before he published his first book in 1965, Les Murray had worked at the ANU as a translator and his influence was (perhaps coincidentally) strongly felt by most, if not all, of the younger generation of Canberra poets. These, too, were the years of the Australian ‘Poetry Wars’ in which, like Switzerland, I tried, in my reviewing and other activities, to remain neutral—although my own poetry did, I concede, suggest a loyalty to one side rather than the other.

IG: What was your experience of the ‘elder’ poets?

GP: Alec [Hope] was the first of them to read any of my work, well before I published a single poem. A small selection was sent to him via a mutual friend and Alec replied generously saying something to the effect that ‘this poet may have something; he seems to spit the poems out of the side of his mouth’. I took that as a favourable reference to what I considered my ‘minimalism’. It was perhaps even more generous when one considered Alec’s notorious essay on ‘free verse’ — which he condemned absolutely while being more than kind to its practitioners. Perhaps, even then, he noticed my verse was less ‘free’ than I thought.

David Campbell was another who took young poets seriously. I can remember his showing me a few of his as yet unfinished poems and seeking my opinion, not the action of most poets 25 years one’s senior. David was also a considerable lunch companion and inviter of poets to lunch at his small station called ‘Folly’s Run’ (where he would say: ‘Come about ten and we can do some work on the yards first.’)

Judith Wright I came to know better towards the end of her life when she was living in a flat in Lyons. I recall her launching a book for me in 1980 and having the distinct feeling that she had accepted me by then as the ‘genuine article’ — not someone who was merely dabbling at the edges of the art. Rosemary Dobson, who died only last June, was comparably inspirational though in a rather different way. Unlike Judith, Rosemary was not political and perhaps rather like the Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges, had a more transcendent approach, as well as a more familial and domestic one. Her very presence at the readings I ran from 1994 in successive Canberra cafés (now Poetry at the Gods) was, in itself, encouraging — not only to local poets but to those who came from Sydney, Melbourne and elsewhere. Hers was a quiet presence but an indispensable one.

Other poets of that time, who are perhaps undeservedly less well-known, include RF (Bob) Brissenden and the diplomat JR Rowland — one rather wilder than the other but both encouraging by their sustained presence on the scene. Bob, in particular, was famous for his parties (the like of which are rare these days, I’m afraid). Bob, like Alec Hope, was deeply learned and reminded us that the twentieth was not the only century with any merit. The age of Doctor Johnson was also of interest.

IG: How has Canberra’s poetry scene changed since then?

GP: That’s a long story — suffice to say that the ‘scene’ now is more diverse, with performance and slam poetry playing a role, too. ‘Literary’ poetry, on the ‘page’ rather than ‘stage’, is my preferred genre — even though I think the ‘oral’ dimension of poetry is crucial. It’s interesting that we now have more than 20 ‘literary’ poets in Canberra (and surrounding regions) with some sort of national profile. It can make it hard to fit them all in every second year or so at the Gods readings. I organise — which, of course, have many poets from all around the country (and even overseas, on occasion) as well.

IG: Your poem ‘My Mother’s God’ is included in The Invisible Thread. Can you tell us about what sparked it, and what it means to you?

GP: It came from arguments I used to have with my mother when I was about 19. I was a member of the Student Christian Movement at the time but have long since been an agnostic. My mother recognised the poem as one of my best but she still felt embarrassed by it (probably because it was too ‘close to the bone’). I suspect it’s a definitive version of what I call ‘secular protestantism’, a tendency which I have not altogether escaped myself.

IG: Religion is one of the major themes of your work, what keeps bringing you back to this theme?

GP: Religion is not ‘going away’ as rapidly as atheists would wish. It’s a potent force in the world (quite often for ill). We need to understand it (in its many different dimensions) and recognise its long role in our intellectual history. Most of our current secular values originate in Christianity (particularly Lutheran protestantism) but it’s more than fortunate the eighteenth century enlightenment came along too as an ‘antidote’ to its excesses. I don’t really like certainty in any form, religious or secular, but metaphysical questions continue to intrigue me. My partner, Alison, (who grew up in a manse) assures me I have written too many religious poems and she’s probably right.

IG: What book has had the most significant impact on you?

GP: That’s hard to say; there are so many. I’d certainly mention William Carlos Williams’ Selected Poems and Judith Wright’s The Moving Image as two crucial ones in my formative years.

IG: What books are currently on your bedside table?

GP: It’s a big, unread pile threatening to ‘brain’ me in the night. At the moment I’m reading Patrick White’s first novel, Happy Valley. I would like to read more fiction and philosophy than I do. Of course, I read a lot of contemporary Australian poetry as a reviewer and a certain amount of history and nonfiction as ‘research’ for my poems.

IG: What are your literary plans for 2013?

GP: My New Selected Poems (Puncher & Wattman) is due out in October and my ‘horizontal narrative’ in verse, 1953, (UQP) will be launched at the National Library Bookshop in April. At the moment, I’m working on individual poems rather than any longer project.

Geoff Page will be reading his Invisible Thread poem at an evening of readings on 14 March, 6 pm at Paperchain Bookstore. Other readers will include Bill Gammage, Marion Halligan, Susan Hampton, Suzanne Edgar and Julian Davies.

The Invisible Thread series: Barbara Blackman

19 January 2013

The sun is out, it’s school holidays, and I’ve slowed down a little, which is to say that I’ve neglected these posts. But I’m back today with Barbara Blackman.

I interviewed Barbara in winter, heavy with a flu I couldn’t shift. At her home, I traipsed upstairs and down with Dylan, the camera man, looking for a spot to film. The light in her house was peach-coloured and the walls were full of art. It had the feel of a gallery. For 30 years Barbara was married to painter Charles Blackman, one of Australia’s finest artists, and spotting one of his Alice and Wonderland series hanging above a side table I felt a small thrill.

Barbara Blackman and Irma GoldIn the end we settled on a couch downstairs where Barbara often sits to listen to music. Indeed in our interview she spoke about the importance of music in her life and why she has been dubbed ‘the patron saint of audiences’. Her role as a philanthropist is well known and last year she was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in recognition of her support for the arts.

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Among other things, we also spoke about her 50-year friendship with poet Judith Wright and their first meeting at a life-altering lecture by Judith’s partner, Jack McKinney. ‘I was greatly moved by both these people,’ she told me. ‘Although I was 15, a schoolgirl, and Judith was 30 and a published author, we somehow clicked. We got on very well and she big-sistered me through a lot of life’s narrow passageways.’

The post-launch blues

9 December 2012

The Invisible Thread launch3It’s taken me a while to write about The Invisible Thread launch (others have already beaten me to it here and here). Why, you might ask? Well, launches are funny things. You build towards them — in this case for three years — with great anticipation. The event itself zips by, a blur of faces and book signings and congratulations. Usually you eat and drink nothing. You don’t spend more than five minutes with any one person and yet you don’t manage to talk to everyone. And then — suddenly — it’s all over. The End. Of course it’s just the beginning for the book, but the launch is like a line in the sand. It’s the end of a long and involved creative process, of bringing The Invisible Thread into being.

At the launch, artist Victoria Lees gave me a pep talk. ‘Now, you’re going to feel depressed,’ she said. ‘You’ve been working so hard. Just expect it, go with it.’ At least I think that’s what she said. In retrospect those two hours have taken on a dream-like quality. She was right, of course. I’d been madly planning and organising the launch while also doing publicity for the book and finalising the ACT Writers Showcase website. I’d been running on adrenalin for weeks; a crash was inevitable.

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CakeBut let’s take a few steps back, to when the adrenaline was still kicking.

On the morning of the launch I drove out through Queanbeyan, past fields of yellow flowers, the spike of the Telstra Tower in the distance. I collected the cake, a replica of the book, and placed it carefully in the boot of my car. It was already 30-something degrees and I worried about it melting before I reached home. Yet I drove slowly, also worried that a sudden slam of the brakes would splatter it everywhere. I made it back without incident. My nine-year-old thought it was the most amazing thing she’d ever laid eyes on and took a gazillion photos of it. (Later, at the launch, one person thought it was a cloth version of the book and actually tried to open it, a testament to its authenticity.)

After I’d dropped the older kids at school, Advisory Committee member Clare McHugh phoned and asked if I had heard that electrical storms were predicted for the afternoon. I hadn’t; cue mild panic. The stats revealed a 40 per cent chance that it would rain. That meant a 60 per cent chance that it wouldn’t. I had to bank on the 60. We had a wet weather contingency plan but it wouldn’t have been nearly so atmospheric as the courtyard with its grand 100-year-old oak tree, stripy deck chairs, orange umbrellas, wood panelled stage, and the thread artwork we commissioned Victoria Lees to create.

By afternoon rain still hadn’t struck and, as anticipated, the NewActon Courtyard proved to be the perfect place for our celebration. Around 150 people packed the space, creating a real buzz, as the Wicked Strings ensemble set the mood. Alex Sloan was a warm and gracious MC, and as guest speaker Underbelly writer Felicity Packard made personal and profound connections with the anthology. Four of the Thread writers read their work: Blanche d’Alpuget, who flew in for just a few hours to be there; Meredith McKinney, Judith Wright’s daughter; Advisory Committee member and poet Adrian Caesar; and Francesca Rendle-Short who flew in from Melbourne. I got to stand up and thank everyone who helped make the book and its associated projects a reality. It was a big moment for me. As I explained, it’s been a privilege to work with so many dedicated and talented individuals. I also launched the ACT Writers Showcase, a comprehensive website of ACT authors and the first site of its kind in Australia. Conceived by the Advisory Committee, I’ve been developing it with Greg Gould of Blemish Books. It’s been a massive undertaking and I’m so thrilled that we’ve been able to create such a terrific resource.

Irma Gold and Anne-Maree BrittonChair of the Advisory Committee, Anne-Maree Britton, presented me with flowers — a lovely and unexpected surprise (this was not in the launch rundown that I had so meticulously planned!). Alex Sloan wrapped up and suggested everyone buy the book as Christmas presents (now there’s a brilliant idea), and Wicked Strings played again while everyone ate, drank and were merry. Victoria’s Invisible Thread artwork captivated, and the Thread cake was demolished. It was all pretty damn wonderful. As one guest proclaimed, it was ‘the best atmosphere at a literary event ever’.

That night I came home, kicked off my heels, ate left over Thread cake (the tastiest book I’ve ever eaten), drank a cup of tea and thought, ‘Oh.’ The flat feeling took hold. The remedy, I told myself, was to spend the next few days reading books and drinking tea, strictly no work.

leftoversOf course this didn’t happen, but as I worked a stream of complimentary emails about the launch and the book began arriving. Words like ‘spectacular’, ‘inspiring’ and ‘very special’ helped a little in shifting the post-launch blues.

There’s still work to be done. Lots of it. But I’ve promised myself a break over Christmas. A real one, without email and Facebook and Twitter. I’m telling myself I can do it.

For fabulous launch pics by ‘pling click here.