Though I’ve known the poet, artist and musician Luke Beesley for ten years, I only recently visited the home he shares with his partner Zoe and son Ari in Northcote for the first time since he moved to Melbourne from Brisbane four years ago. Walking in the door of the apartment I was greeted by bookshelves stuffed with much-thumbed-through literature, and a guitar in the corner of the room. Luke fixed coffee for us, and we sat on the couch acknowledging how strange it was to conduct this conversation so formally about things we had been discussing for years; nonetheless I realised that there were many questions I had never asked him.
You’ve recently had a solo exhibition of drawings, and you also have been working on music over the past few years. What drives you to create in different art forms?
It arises out of the necessity of the creative workspace for me. When I’m writing new work, I often do it in blocks—I go away on a retreat, for example—and I’ve also nearly always had a studio space to work in outside of my home. So while I’ve been writing, to keep the energy of creativity moving along, I’ve always done other things. If I’m fatigued after writing, I draw or scribble with some pastels. By shifting over to a different art form I find I can get my energy going again, but I always thought, until recently, that the drawing was just a silly thing I was doing on the side.
Then, too, about three or four years ago I figured out a way to write a song, which I always thought was an impossible thing. I discovered that a lot of drafts of my poems, if I just picked out a few lines, could be songs. So now that has become part of my creative process of writing new work too. It’s a way to sustain energy.
Can you tell me about the drawing series of your recent exhibition: what was the genesis, and how did the exhibition come about?
When I moved to Melbourne in 2007 I got a studio space near where I was living. So I was working in this little room during that year when I was finding my feet, having moved to a new city. I had all my books in the space, and then the writer Nick Powell, who had the space right next to me, moved to Finland—so suddenly I was looking after all his books as well. For some reason, then, I decided to start doing some charcoal drawings.
I thought, as a form of practicing the craft of drawing with charcoal, I would draw these authors from the backs of these books, with their slightly eccentric poses. I liked the idea of trying to draw faces. I was drawing hundreds of authors, and I kept these drawings. I did that for about a year, and then over time I realised it was an interesting thing to be doing: being an author drawing these authors, the word author, and the idea of authorship… there’s a lot of layers there. I was also writing text on the drawings. Amongst this, I had moved to a different studio, then come back to the original, which has a gallery attached. Suddenly it didn’t seem too crazy to have an exhibition.
About a year and a half ago I got a grant from Arts Victoria to write a manuscript of poems and drawings together, and for this show I was able to show a lot of those pieces too.
Speaking of manuscripts, I’m interested in the critical response to your first book. In his review of your debut, Martin Duwell takes you at your word, quoting one of the poems from Lemon Shark to suggest that the project of that book is the ultimate aestheticization of the poem—the word—as object, but not necessarily as vessel of meaning. How do you feel about that interpretation of the poems of that volume?
In some respects I was quite excited about that interpretation when I read it, because it seems so provocative! This idea that one could pull the meaning so far away from the words, to leave just the surface, the aesthetic texture—a slightly emotive texture—is an idea I find really interesting. And that was something I was working away at in Lemon Shark, but at the same time when I make references to individual words in those poems, I am stepping outside of the poem, and wondering whether that aestheticisation is even possible. I’m almost trying to have a giggle to myself—or else mocking this attempt. I appreciated that Martin picked up on that, and when he held it up in his review I sat back and thought, “wow! I wonder what that means to try to do that?”
That aside, I don’t think I could ever begin poetry with that goal in mind—it’s something you can whisper, or contemplate, question, within a poem. But I certainly value meaning!
I personally find in your poems that even if there’s not a strict narrative meaning there is still a clear emotional meaning…
Well, in the other part of that review, Duwell talked about the poem “Happy Together,” where I write alongside the Wong Kar Wai film In the Mood for Love, and he pulled out a review of the film itself. That film review said something like, “there’s not much said, but there’s a lot felt.” So Martin recognised that there’s a lot of emotional things going on below the stylised surface. I feel that that’s very important to the poems—I would never set out, personally, to destroy that, to destroy meaning.
Do you think that, consciously or unconsciously, you continue in this approach in your more recent work?
I’m definitely still drawn to this aesthetic interest in letters and words in the recent work—I’m still putting words in italics, circling around the sound of them, circling around my own eccentric aesthetic reaction to individuals words.
The manuscript I worked on following Lemon Shark is set in India, from my time there on an Asialink Residency. So while I’m still looking at words and the textures of words, I’m in a different setting, and trying to write whilst experiencing a different landscape and culture. I think that’s good for the work.
My more recent manuscript is based in Melbourne, and was written very quickly over the course of three or four months, writing every day. As a result, there’s a sort of diary-like feel to the recent prose poems. So though I’m still thinking about aesthetics, and the surfaces of words and letters, there’s more of the everyday coming in as well.
Can you tell me about the process of putting together Lemon Shark?
A lot of the poems of Lemon Shark came out of my Masters in Creative Writing, which was mentored by Bronwyn Lea. The bulk of that work was completed in the most productive three weeks of my life—sadly, I’ve still not been able to replicate this time! It was three weeks spent at Varuna, when I just wrote hundreds of poems. I spent the next year trying to shave and polish these pieces. Though Lemon Shark includes some earlier poems, the majority of the book comes from this extraordinarily productive residency in late 2004.
In some ways it was a relief that the book came. The publisher at Soi 3 was keen to publish the collection, and then the time at Varuna gave me so much material to work with, and Bronwyn’s extra set of eyes to help me. So it came together with all this support.
More recently you have been working on two new manuscripts, among other projects. How has the appearance of your first book helped you think about what will happen with your second collection? Has the way you think about a book changed or developed?
I think like a lot of poets after their first book, there’s an initial honeymoon period—and then you realise there’s a lot of things you’d like to pull out! I remember at the time, there was originally talk of the book being published earlier than it was, and back then it probably already seemed like it was so long coming. But with more and more time, you’re better able to get a sense of the manuscript as a whole.
So while I’ve been waiting a while, now, for the next book, it’s been good to let the individual poems of the new manuscripts to settle.
Bringing a manuscript together as a whole is interesting. An individual poem can read one way, but when you put it next to another poem it can slink back or gain strength depending on the placement.
In the vein of poems “belonging” together, or “speaking” to each other, you have been the recipient of various grants and fellowships: I’d like to ask you about the projects you’ve undertaken as a result of these, but first I want to ask you this. Do you feel that the process of undertaking these types of fellowships affects the writing you choose to do?
I’m careful, now, to allow myself enough space to “stretch out,” if you will… I did a fellowship at the State Library last year, working on a manuscript of poems and drawings. I was very careful in my project description, I was very detailed—but I left space to say, “I’m going to continue to work on similar themes that I’ve been working on in my poetry until this point.” In that proposal I talked about the structure of the book, and how it would relate to the fellowship in the library, but I gave myself space within the actual writing, the themes, of the poems to take in whatever happened at the time.
I’ve done a few public art projects in which I’ve had to be quite specific about the poems I write—for instance, writing poems from transcripts and stories from local residents at Eleanor Schonell Bridge in Brisbane—I know that it can be quite tricky. The more conscious I am of having to write something particular, the more difficult it gets. As a result, I think the only way I can make connections between the project and the new writing is after the fact. So, for example, I did an enormous amount of writing and drawing during my period at the State Library of Victoria, but I never really stopped to think too much about the connection between the writing and the drawing, or whether I really wanted to be writing this or something else. Instead, at the end I just waited to see what I had—for me that’s a better way, so I don’t feel restricted when I’m writing the new work.
Are your ideas about your work changing now as the result of those types of fellowships?
I’m in the process of “building” an artist’s book for the State Library, working with George Matoulas, who’s a bookmaker, a print maker. He’s been telling me: This will be your book. I mean, besides whatever other books I might write, publish. I like the way he talks about it, the book-making process, as something aside from books as we know them in bookstores. I’m looking forward to that, as he’s generously allowing me to be involved in the process.
I spoke with Allan Loney last year—he’s a poet and printer in Melbourne, from New Zealand—and I know he doesn’t feel like a poem is finished until it’s printed on his letterpress. So he’s even writing the poem as he’s printing it—it’s part of his creative process, which I find so interesting. He’s spending so much time with a letter and a space and a letter… It’s the last part of his drafting, I guess. I don’t know exactly how these thoughts will show up in my work, but it’s given me a different kind of mindfulness of what a book is.
You have talked about the two epigraphs you have to one of the new manuscripts you are working on—by Kevin Hart and John Ashbery—and you have mentioned how important both are to the way you think about the book in progress. Could you talk a little about the importance of epigraphs?
I find epigraphs pretty tricky. For Lemon Shark, there was a Clement Greenberg quote I used—“The intuition that gives you the colour of the sky turns into an aesthetic intuition when it stops telling you what the weather is like and becomes purely an experience of the colour.” I think that epigraph works nicely with the book. Then the manuscript I’ve been working on from the time in India doesn’t have an epigraph—I’ve never found anything that popped up, and spoke to the work. Unless something comes to meet me, I don’t think there will be an epigraph for that book. But then this recent manuscript, which is currently called New Works on Paper, has two. I didn’t plan to have those epigraphs in the beginning, but I came across the line “Leaves around the door are pencilled losses” from a poem in John Ashbery’s collection Where Shall I Wander? Something about that line was very exciting for me, and it sparked something for me. I wrote a number of poems as a reaction to that line. The same thing happened with Kevin Hart’s poem “The Word,” which I first saw in Best Australian Poetry 2006—and then it’s in his collection Young Rain, that came out soon after that. It’s the line, “Say ‘wood’ and everything is clean again.” Again, something about that poem really affected me, perhaps again touching upon word aesthetics, a relationship between timber, wood and words, something just below the surface of language. So I wrote a whole bunch of poems out of that particular line as well. So there were poems that grew out of Ashbery, and poems out of Hart—and those poems all met somewhere. Perhaps because I was drawing at the same time—pencilled losses. I like the idea of them too, because I think I’m influenced by John Ashbery, and by the generation of poets who were influenced by him—that appeals to a certain voice in my poetry. Possibly something more playful, almost silly. I think of it as a bit of a Fellini voice. And then there’s a softer, quieter voice as well, which makes me think of Kevin Hart’s voice a little.
When I look at Lemon Shark now, one of the things that makes me feel a little uncomfortable is that I feel I can see these voices quite distinctly. Something I hope I have done in these newer poems is find a voice that consolidates these voices, that finds a balance between them. So that’s why I like the idea of this manuscript with these two epigraphs, because they remind me to try to find this place between the two. We’re all bringing together influences as well as our own idiosyncracies.
What are you reading that’s exciting you right now?
I recently bought the Best American Poetry collection for 2010, and the 2011 one, which I pre-ordered, also just arrived. I’m finding the 2010 edition incredible. I don’t know if it’s just that the editor’s taste is somehow in line with my own, but I’m finding the selection very exciting—even down to the titles of the poems, which are so interesting! I almost feel like I need to go back to the drawing board with some of my titles, because some of the titles in the anthology are so bold, and funny, dense, but accessible. They have so many layers to them. And some of those titles—and the poems themselves, of course—I’m seeing as pieces that could sit alongside contemporary visual art…
That’s something I often think about: contemporary poetry is working in such interesting areas, and I often think that if you could just sit a poem alongside a piece of visual art, both work on a concept in a particular way.
I also just finished Michael Ondaatje’s recent novel, The Cat’s Table, of course, because for me it’s always a special year when he brings out a new book. He’s been a long-time obsession of mine.
Are there things you’re noticing in the Best American Poetry that you don’t see, or would like to see, happening in Australian poetry?
I’m really surprised by how the collection as a whole seems highly contemporary. Some of the poems almost function the way contemporary films, or contemporary visual art do. They do things playfully, emotively, experimentally, visually. Reading this collection, I got this feeling of a great depth in the field of American poetry, a greater variety, on the main stage, than we see here. I guess what might be more fragmented poetry, or poetry that’s called “post modern”, or, arguably, simply contemporary, doesn’t seem to be as much in the forefront in Australia, at present, as it is in this Best American Poetry collection.
For the past two years you’ve been running a reading series at Readings in Carlton: How did this come about? And what insight has it given you into contemporary Australian poetry and poets?
Again, I moved to Melbourne, and that opportunity popped up. Because I was new to Melbourne, then, I knew there were a lot of poets I loved living here, but I didn’t have any idea what they looked like, even—I just knew they were there somewhere.
So you didn’t have their author photographs!
Maybe some of them! But the series just started out as my realising I could ask all these people who I knew through their work to come to a reading, though I was nervous about asking some of them. It turns out, though, that everyone was keen to read, and was open to it.
I suspect a lot of poets identify with this, but when you’re writing poetry, and thinking about the world of poetry outside your own work, you’re usually interacting with text on a page, interacting with other poets through the poems they publish in journals, or collections. But you know that there’s a person floating around all this as well, so it’s been nice to feel genuinely more connected to the poets themselves.
Finally, what is coming next for you?
I don’t know. I’m in that position again of writing a bit, drawing a bit, playing on the guitar—but the reality is that if you want to bring things along, it’s very time-consuming. To record songs for instance, or the recent exhibition, these take up a lot of time. And while I’ve been writing poetry all along the way, I’m just trying to learn what comes next.
Poets invariably speak to other poets, living and dead, through their work. In collaborating on these interviews, I have asked the authors I interview to provide two short texts: one, on a volume of Australian poetry that has meant a lot to their practice, and the second on a non-Australian volume of poetry.
On Luke’s Bookshelf
I often return to Sydney poet Kate Fagan’s The Long Moment from 2002. To begin, such an attractive book - Salt Publishing’s slightly elongated collections with their sandy coloured paper stock. And here I was introduced to the incredible Rosalie Gascoigne (her Hung Fire, 1995, is on the cover), and The Long Moment is a gorgeous title, too. It opens with a number of airy prose poems which are followed by a long poem “return to a new physics” containing small, delicately shaped verses with rare, strange and musical vocabulary. Then a section of poems called “Anti-landscape” with poems always aware of themselves and the act of writing: “surprising and licked/as the word/turquoise”. At the time I was particularly looking for poetry that could work like visual art or film.
Rat Jelly by Michael Ondaatje
I have always had an affinity with Canadian poetry, and the language, art, oddity and surprise in Michael Ondaatje’s poetry knocked me out when I came across it in 1998. Take the poem “Philoctetes On the Island” from his collection Rat Jelly (1973) which begins “Sun moves broken in the trees/drops like a paw/turns sea to red leopard”, and continues describing the cuts on a dead shark … “the blurred grey runs/red designs”. (See his widely available The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems if you have trouble tracking Rat Jelly down).