The author of Totem talks about his latest book of poetry, the differences, similarities, and comparative difficulties in writing processes between novels and poetry, the spread of concerns in Totem, the overall conception of the book, the importance of “the one art form which is not threatened by not having an audience,” the relationship between reading poetry and writing good poetry, on the luxury of having an editor working with him on Totem, new work on the horizon, and lots more.
Interview by Magdalena Ball
Magdalena: What are the origins of Totem?
Luke It literally exploded upon me, in northern Thailand in early 1999. A few encounters with real animals (pythons, monkeys, elephants) formed the conceptual basis for this grand love poem in which totemic animal figures, including the mythological, would visit and inform.
Magdalena: You’ve published novels, and collections of long, and short poems. What are some of the differences in the writing process between these 3 genres?
Luke: At the core there’s a great similarity: one way or another, I’m telling stories. But there are big differences. I like my prose to be simple and transparent: let the story emerge. With poetry, there’s a greater density: sometimes the story IS in the language. Certainly language is at the forefront. Though the novel I’m trying to finish right now is an exception to the rule; I wouldn’t comfortably call it “simple and transparent”.
Magdalena: Which genre do you find most difficult?
Luke: The long poem (“Totem Poem”) was physically demanding — perhaps because of the sustained nature of the construction. But it all has the potential to be an equally difficult — as well as equally joyful — experience. I like the Richard Hugo quote “I never worked hard in my life except on a poem”; so maybe poetry is the most difficult.
Magdalena: What are some of Totem’s main themes/concepts which you explore?
Luke: It’s very simple in the spread of its concerns: it’s about love in all its manifestations, from the physical to the mythological. It’s about how to live, and how to face death. “How best to taste the plumness of today.” How to enter “the gap in things.”
Magdalena: The love poems seem to be connected – lines repeat from one poem to the next, and the structures are identical. Did you write them together as a set?
Luke: The whole book, the big poem and the 40 small ones, was conceived as a single interlocking, echoing, reverberating work. The book took four years to write but, yes, the poems were all written consciously as a set.
Magdalena: What is the relationship between the love poems and Totem?
Luke: They inform and interract with it. Lines are recycled and morphed between the two sets of work. There’s a lot of repetition. The effect is incantatory.
Magdalena: Poetry has long been considered the non-lucrative ‘high art’ cousin of prose. Has this been your experience? (eg do your novels sell better than your poems?) If so, why do you think this is?
Luke: Yes, thank god for the novels. You can’t make much money from poetry, but of course, you don’t do it for money. In fact, you can’t make all that much from novels, so maybe I should say, thank God for the film options of the novels. I think it’s always been this way. Poetry has been described as a “difficult pleasure”. It’s a respite from the labours of mediocrity. But not everyone wants that respite. In any case none of this matters: it will always be there, it survives across the millenia, and it is, as Peter Porter has called it, “the one art form which is not threatened by not having an audience.
Magdalena: 8. It’s a paradox – poetry remains one of the most popular forms of self-expression, but it doesn’t tend to be commercially viable. Why do so many people write, but not read poetry?
Luke: Too many people write but don’t read poetry. It’s why there’s so much bad poetry around. Poetry is not the outpouring of the contents of your head. But you wouldn’t know that from reading a lot of it. It’s an arrogant (or ignorant) attitude, but a whole lot of people feel the need to “express” themselves as poets, but have no interest in or knowledge of the form, the tradition, the structures.
Magdalena: Do you think that this is changing? That poetry is undergoing a renaissance, at least within Australia?
Luke: News of its renaissance is probably about as exaggerated as news of its imminent demise.
Magdalena: What was it like to have an editor working with you on Totem? Tell me about e process you went through and some of the bigger editorial changes which were made.
Luke: It was a wonderful luxury, and a rare thing in the world of poetry publishing. I won the inaugural Dorothy Hewett Memorial Fellowship from the Varuna Writers’ Centre in the Blue Mountains. The fellowship included money to pay an editor of one’s choice. Peter Porter made some general contributions and comments. Judith Beveridge did the close work in the trenches. I literally “invited” her into the poem. I didn’t want someone pussyfooting around. people get funny about editing poetry. They steer clear of the details. Not Judith. I asked her because I really admire her work, and yet I think we’re doing very different things. So I imagined it might be an interesting clash of tensions, of different sensibilities. And I think it worked well! She got very specific: about things that were tonally wrong, about lines, even words, that didn’t work. I didn’t agree with every suggestion; but the changes I made as a result of her editorial input were significant. (You can see the difference between the pre-Beveridge edit, as published by Ivor Indyk in HEAT magazine last September 2003, and the final version as it appears in the book.)
Magdalena: Is there a new work or works on the horizon that you can give us a hint about?
Luke: Various. Two books of poems, one mixed, one a specific theme; the third novel which I’m trying to finish; a couple of scripts; even a play hovering on the horizon.