I first met Kent MacCarter in 2005 when we shared a dinner of rabbit together at a dinner party hosted by a mutual friend. It was my first rabbit, and also my first exposure to the names of a number of American poets Kent threw out during the conversation that evening. We were intermittently in contact after that, but my recent return from studies in the USA—Kent hails from Montana (by way of Minnesota and New Mexico)—has given us much to talk about.
When I met up with Kent to conduct this interview, he had recently begun moving with his wife and child within the suburb of Preston. Not quite settled into his new home—an email followed a week or two later celebrating the arrival of furniture—we met at the High Street café Umberto’s on a Sunday afternoon, where we shared piccolo coffees and the following conversation.
As your publisher notes in the blurb of your collection, the poems of In the Hungry Middle of Here are international in flavour. What struck me, however, was how much of the Australian idiom is present in the poems. How conscious have you been to make use of Australian phrases?
For the poems in that book, I was very conscious of doing it, as I was enamoured of Melbourne and Australia immediately. I didn’t really start writing seriously until about a year after I came to Australia—until about 2005—and I’ve always thought of Melbourne as a bit of a muse. I can’t exactly say why, though if I could it would probably be inaccurate.
I’m geographically minded, so I’ve been exploring place in my poems. The one thing that is hugely different about Australia and America is the language—the idiom, the bend and the pitch of voice, Living here, I’ve found the sound of Australian English fascinating. So making use of that voice was very intentional through In the Hungry Middle of Here, though I’ve pulled back on it a lot now. It adds flavour to that book, but I suppose it has a limited life span for me.
Can you tell me about what limitations you might find in deliberately seeking out that Australian tone?
Like any gesture, if I keep doing it, it seems like I could write myself into a cul-de-sac.
I’m always a little paranoid about beginning provincial in some way. Whenever I read anywhere, and they come to introduce me, I always hear, “And the American…” So that gets you couched a certain way. And when I read at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, I’d say that three out of four comments that I received were along the lines of, “You write very Americanly…”
When I hear that, I say, “Okay. That’s a fair assessment—but can you tell me what you mean?” And people say, “Well, I can’t really tell you what I mean, but it just sounds so American. I just don’t want to get forever mired in the linguistic of slang: it can be a cheapening effect, whether it’s Australian or American slang. It can certainly be used to good effect at times—but if it’s too big of a footprint in your work, it really can look shoddy. So the Australian slang probably made a slightly bigger footprint in the third of the book that is set in Australia specfically—but I’m still proud of most of the book.
In relation to that comment, then, that your work is “American,” do you think there are ways that American literature—especially American poetry—influences your work? And in a similar vein, do you ever see a particularly American language coming through in your poems?
I don’t know if I do see a particularly American language in the poems—do you?
In terms of major influences, my first poetic influences were from my last few years living in America, in Chicago—I was studying with Thom Gunn. And he’s very “San Francisco,” but he’s also very English. I didn’t really know how lucky I was at the time to be reading and studying with him.
Gunn was effectively shunned by The Movement—and English school of poets he helped define—after he went to San Francisco and never came back, because his work totally changed. His writing went from this formal writing to open, beautiful free verse, which I like very much. And with him as one of my biggest early influences, I don’t think I have a particularly “American” voice. But then Philip Levine is a big influence, as is Richard Hugo, on whom I did my Masters thesis, so there’s definitely an American influence from them.
Hugo was probably more renowned as a teacher, rather than as a poet—and now I get the impression that his stock has really dropped. In the Norton anthologies he used to get about four pages, and now he’s down to one poem! Pretty soon he’s probably not going to be included at all. When I did a lot of reviews of his former peers and students, they reinforced the idea that he’s probably going to be largely forgotten.
That’s interesting. When I was in the US, a few people brought him up, and even brought poems to classes.
I’m so glad to hear that! Though it’s still clear his influence has faded.
Yes, he was mentioned as a more peripheral figure…
Right—whereas James Wright, his best friend, really hasn’t faded at all. I’d say he’s permanently in the canon of American poetry. And I love James Wright very much, but originally I was more attuned to the landscape and the smalltown mystic that Richard Hugo really relied on. I don’t think he was actually limited by that “mysticism” and landscape the way some people find it limiting—it’s applicable anywhere. For instance, he wrote a lot about Italy…
Yes, you can be both cosmopolitan and write about landscape!
Yes! And I think poets can forget about that fact. I think he does that quite well. But then some of his poems are almost simpering—he had a book that was called 31 Letters and 13 Dreams. It had, for instance, a letter to Carolyn Kizer, and a letter to John Berryman. They’re just stream of consciousness—and they’re a little bit “emo,” very heartfelt, but they’re still quite powerful. I think that they still stand up—that they shouldn’t be simply discarded.
From my own time in America, I know that very little Australian poetry crosses into the American market—and vice versa: do you keep up with both poetry “scenes”? And do you think there could be more crossing of boundaries?
I think there definitely could be more crossover, but do I keep up with any “scene” in America? I really don’t. I have a few friends in the States who write poetry, but the community is so vast there, I just wouldn’t know where to start. As for me, to date I’ve only had two publications in America. I’ve already had more than that in Canada!
With Australia—there’s a lot of great work in a small pond. It’s easier to keep up with what’s happening in a lot of corners. Not every corner, but you can find yourself on the map a bit more here than in America. The quality is, I think, every bit as good as in America, but everything in the writing community is on a smaller scale… and I’ve found myself a part of the fabric here. But I never had any plans for that to happen—when I came to Australia, I planned to stay for about a year and a half… and I’m still here.
Were you aware of much Australian poetry before you came to Australia?
No, I wasn’t at all aware of Australian poetry when I came. I’d never even heard of Les Murray when I came here!
The very first poem I had published in Australia was in The Age by Gig Ryan. I go back to that poem now, and eight times out of ten I think, “Oh man! Why did you publish that?” But from that publication, Gig wrote me back a few lines asking, “Have you heard of the poet John Forbes? Your work kind of reminds me of John Forbes.” So I went to check him out. And if I was to get that comment now, I would be flattered to the point of levitating, really!
But to couch my ignorance of Australian poetry a little, I’ll say this. I didn’t come to academic writing until I was nearly 31. I got my original degrees in finance and accounting. Then I found myself at the University of Chicago working for their press, and getting more and more interested in books and literature from there. From that, I took a long shot and applied to study creative writing with Mark Strand, then eventually Karen Volkman and Thom Gunn. The school said to me, “If the conveners of the course like what you’re doing, then we’ll let you into their courses.” So I lucked out, and that’s where I started. So I haven’t really been writing very long, and I forget that. I’m 37 now, and I really feel like I’m only just getting going.
When you came to Australia you studied poetry, undertaking an MA at the University of Melbourne. The subject of your thesis was the American poet Richard Hugo, and while at the university you worked with the poet Chris Wallace-Crabbe. Can you tell me about this experience?
My first advisor was Tony Birch, who remained my advisor on the critical side of the work. In fact, when I came from the University of Chicago to Melbourne, they changed their mind about me, and didn’t want to let me into the Masters program in the Creative Arts school. So I found myself wandering around, asking myself, “Am I going to stay, or am I going to go?” Then I ran across paths with Tony, who ultimately—I think—lied to the admissions area of the English department (or should we say “prevaricated in my favour?), because at that time there were still two creative writing degrees at Melbourne! And that’s how I fell into that Masters in English, focussing on creative writing.
Then at my first meeting with Tony he said, “Well, there’s this friend of mine—my buddy Chris—he’s a poet. We’ll see if we can get you under his tutelage for the creative part of this degree.”
Well, I had no idea who Chris Wallace-Crabbe was at the time! But I thought, “Okay, that’s fine.” Little did I know that I got extremely lucky about five or six times in a row, being able to do the program, being able to study with Tony, and then also with Chris. And Chris Wallace-Crabbe has lovely digs in the Australia Centre, where there’s an oil painting of him, there’s his library. It’s a very comfy roost—and one he deserves!
I remember meeting him for the first time, and I was shit-scared, to be honest. I’d never met that kind of literary figure before. But he was very kind. We met once a fortnight, and went through the poems I was writing. We had two or three hour discussions about other poets’ work, we’d drink wine or go to eat pizza with Peter Steele, and things like that.
He saw nearly all the poems that are in The Hungry Middle of Here—maybe all but five. Every so often he would point something out and say, “This is not good.”
Studying with Chris opened me up to a lot of Australian poetry. After I submitted, Telling a Hawk from a Handsaw came out, and that is one of my favourite, favourite books. I very much like it, because it’s a collection of poems, of really great poems. You could jumble up the sequence, and the book would still work. He would always tell me that he liked poems on an individual basis, and he thought that every poem in a book should work independently. That shows in that book. He taught me a lot of patience, a lot about the minutiae of words—and he helped me distil why I liked the sound of words.
He was really meticulous about punctuation, he was great on syntax. He said, “If you can’t write a poem with the punctuation as it ought to be, then you’ve really got no business doing all lower case letters, or no punctuation. You’ve got to know how to use syntax first, before you can stop using it!” That hadn’t really occurred to me until then, but I agree with it now. You’ve got to know what you’re not doing, as well as what you are.
Thinking about what you’ve said about Telling a Hawk from a Handsaw, and the way you went through so many of those poems with Chris, can you tell me about putting together your first book?
Well, as I said earlier, I think that all but maybe five of the poems in In the Hungry Middle of Here were written during my Masters degree. The manuscript came into focus very soon, that I was writing about place, again going back to that “Melbourne is a muse” thing. I was writing about the texture of place. And I’m still really fascinated by place as subject now, though I don’t want that subject to be my “signature” for my whole career.
Anyway, all of the poems that passed the “workshopping” phase with Chris I would keep in a pile, which slowly grew until there were about forty or forty-five things. In one of the last meetings we had, Chris and I discussed how to sequence a collection, and it ended up looking like the book that was taking shape was in three parts: there were poems about this new land, Melbourne, Victoria, poems about homelands, like Montana, America and then there was the “everything else” bucket, with poems on places like Peru or Vietnam or Malaysia—so a “the rest of the world” section.
I was talking about the book with the girl I was dating at the time, who was writing about food, and she came up with the idea of my writing the recipe introductions to each section of the book. So I wrote these poems that were recipes, and everyone liked that. I thought it a great way to introduce each section—people single that gesture out a lot more than everything else in the collection.
From there, I worked with the editor, Barry Scott, at Transit Lounge. He picked out a few he didn’t like, I brought one or two back. He really wanted to have the title In the Hungry Middle of America, and I said, “I’m not sure if that’s a great idea—let’s make it a bit more general…”
It’s now two years since your first collection was published: are you working on a new collection?
I am. For the past year, I’ve wanted to do something completely different, and I’ve wanted to work with forms. Sonnets, and I’ve also been fascinated by the pantoum. I wrote a series of about twenty-five sonnets, the “anachronistic” series. I’m trying to shoehorn in sonnets about smog, about skyscrapers, about urbane, contemporary themes in old forms. Some have been successful, some not, but I’m really enjoying the writing.
When you say “sonnets,” how closely to the poems adhere to traditional sonnet forms?
Some much more than others. I’ve written some that are in the Shakespearian pattern. I’ve also tried, with a number of them, to jumble up the rhyme patterns quite a bit. Some follow the standard ABAB CDCD etc. sequence, but I’m looking for a new angle to do maybe ten more.
I’m not really schooled in this stuff, so I’m learning about the sonnet as I go, as I write them. That’s great. I’m always aware when I work on one that nothing may come it, but in writing these sonnet variations I’ve been inspired to write a lot of other poems as well. It’s been a good “trigger,” to borrow one of Richard Hugo’s terms…
So yes, I am working on another collection, but there’s no rush. I imagine it will be another two or three years in the future when I’ll have a full manuscript. We’ll see.
Can you say anything about your method of writing a poem?
I will have a small germ of an idea, and I fuss over that for about a fortnight. Those poems—I think of them as the “host” poems. They never wind up being very good, none of them are published. But as I’m working on those laborious host poems, I have other tangents that spark while I’m working on the first. Those side streets, that may have nothing to do with each other, besides being influenced by the one poem, are the pieces that I really relish.
With the host—I’ll start this long poem, it’s usually quite shit, and I can fuss and fuss over it, but it always the work that comes from that first poem, yet isn’t that first poem, that I find really engaging, that lasts. Along the way I see those tracks going up into the mountains, and I follow them.
I don’t have a writing regimen—I tried when I was starting out, but now, being a new father and having a nine-to-five job I just write when I have time, and when I have the inkling. It’s not glamorous, but it’s what has to fit for now.
Can you tell me about your association with SPUNC?
Well… it’s not a men’s pornographic magazine! SPUNC is the Small Press Underground Networking Community. I have the “sexy” executive position of being treasurer, and also, by default, the Chief Financial Officer—so I find myself going back to those early degrees in finance and accounting! They keep bubbling up to the surface.
It’s an association through which I’ve really met a lot of people—there are about a hundred small presses involved, from Scribe on down to the level just above zines. It’s been great to see what publishers of poetry are doing, what’s being published, what’s not, what the trends are, how many books can actually be sustained in Australia… sadly not as many as everyone would like. It’s been a great “meet-and-greet” session. More importantly, especially with our new Digital Distribution Service, being in the mix on how to keep small presses alive as going concerns in a period of great transition has been very rewarding. It’s not a paid position, but I get to meet publishers, meet writers and meet festival organizers. It’s been pretty helpful.
And what’s coming next for you?
I have a few projects on right now. Turns out that a chapbook of those sonnets will be coming out in early 2012. They’ve been pretty well-received in some Canadian publications, and some here too. It’ll be good to have them out as the series I wrote in. I’m also editing an anthology – in a collaboration with a small press and Melbourne PEN – of non-fiction essays and memoir from expatriates now living in and writing from Australia (on the theme of precisely that). Hopefully that’ll be out by August, but the project is just ramping up in full now. And I’m well stuck into selecting 100 poems from an equal number of Australian poets that SPUNC’s member presses have published over the years … not only for online features but, hopefully, a collection that might also become a promotional print collection and eBook – but there’s a few hurdles on that project yet to go. It’s really a nod to and spotlight on the small presses that still publish poetry with no other agenda … so that’s more of a curatorial role.
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.
Kent went above and beyond in introducing two books that have meant a lot to him: in these short pieces, Kent gives readers a feel not only for the poems, but the poets too.
Telling a Hawk from a Handsaw by Chris Wallace-Crabbe
Nervous, I felt misspelled and shorter than I am – about 175 of my typical 178 centimetres of stature – upon stepping up to the second floor of University of Melbourne’s Australian Centre for my first thesis advisor meeting with Chris Wallace-Crabbe (emeritus professor in the Centre at the time). It was mid-ascent of the staircase that I could smell laurels and certificates garnishing the walls. And I could taste the mastery of words hanging pungently in the air like barbecue before I even got up to the floor Mr. Wallace-Crabbe genially lorded over. I shrank further, to about 170 cm, feeling like an unnecessary bottle of budget brand tomato sauce the grand picnic of poetry didn’t at all need more of. Dead horse, indeed.
The receptionist had told me that my new advisor would meet me in the … library. Upstairs. That seemed official.
‘He’ll be right back’.
I peered into his library; its perimeter was pronounced by shelved poetry books and sported an appropriate academic haircut of loose papers and drab-coloured volumes occupying corners and flat surfaces . A box of Tasmanian cherries – each stone fruit packed in perfectly to form a brick of scrumptious prose – adorned the room’s centrepiece table. Down to 165 cm. I then noticed a large oil painting. It was a portrait of Chris Wallace-Crabbe hanging at the fore of the room, absorbing lasers of morning light from the opposite window the way crevices and dimples in a Rembrandt painting photosynthesize to tell their pocket story. 100 cm at that point. I filled a seat to wait and quaked. 85 cm. 80 cm. Thankfully, my wait was short or I might’ve disappeared altogether.
Fast-forward five years to the publication date of Telling a Hawk from a Handsaw (Carcanet Press, 2008). I snapped up my copy the day I saw a stack lurking in Collected Works Bookshop. One of the numerous things I adore about this collection – and a ‘thing’ that calms me when I’m finding sequencing my poems for a reading, submission or various drafts of an MS difficult – is that it is a collection of poems. Full stop. Stating the obvious here, yes, but the book reads to me as simply, effortlessly that: a collection of poems … and very much unlike Wallace-Crabbe’s terrific The Universe Looks Down, a densely intertwined verse novel.
I’m certain there was much care in sequencing the poems in this book, but the final arrangement is not some grand, fusty ‘project’ nor is it a modern one of the same ilk (I still fail to locate the tiniest inkling of what Allen Grossman is on about in his book How to Do Things with Tears, said to be his grand Tada! from a life’s work). Ambitious thematic collections, inspired by haunted places, cricket, Borobudur Temple in Java, even the Abbotsford Convent, have been published recently in Australia; their fulcrums tilting and swivelling from a single subjective point-of-movement. But, Handsaw skips from acute observational poems like ‘Mitsubishi Moments’ – a poem I cheerily admit to using as template and inspiration to underpin the mechanics of my poem ‘Reasons for and Against the Quitting of Smoking’ (to be published in 2012) – to poems on infinitesimal mortality as addressed in ‘At the Bionic Elephant’. Scattered throughout the line-up are rapier ruminations on personal history such as ‘Oh Yes, Then’ or this arresting, gorgeous opening stanza from ‘The Land of Motionless Children’:
Funny phrases, the oldies had in stock.
‘Treat him with the ignore he deserves’,
my Dad would say, then head into the dunny
for a smoke, too often leaving a butt
floating unsightly there, like a German sub.
So, I concede there is a precision in how this collection was built to flow as the final book it is. Each poem reverberates independently in my head, not requiring a neighbour or adjacent subtext hovering nearby to glue disparate parts together (which, when done well, is also an amazing feat). There are long poems, short ones, rather short ones, numbered ones, a few bricks of prose, you name it. Monotonous this book is not.
All the poems are fabricated meticulously: to extent that a Q’s curlicue tail or the ladle of a J dips below lines that engage them at precisely the right point, drawing attention to the word(s) that house them (note, we did actually discuss this in our meetings) – just like those cherries and their stems in that crate. As if any further evidence was needed at this stage of his career, this collection is irrefutable proof that Wallace-Crabbe’s winning an Order of Australia was a very wise decision.
In an interview he did upon receiving that prize, he mentioned of his work, ”I read a remark about W.H. Auden that said, like Picasso and Stravinsky, he tried to do a bit of everything. I thought I’d like to do a bit of everything.”
I have to remind myself that I actually received tutelage from this guy! On occasion I wonder: from which of my ears did all that guidance seep out of? It’s during these panic moments, especially, that I return to Telling a Hawk from a Handsaw. Rereading this masterpiece collection assuages my niggling fears of wall-to-wall insufficiency: using the book as a totemic example that, perhaps in some future decade, I might chisel my words into a collection half as good and with an even distant trace of kinship.
At times, when reading this book, I feel ten metres tall. Giddier than white balloons in blue typhoons, I am blown about its ebullient-then-sombre-and-back-again barrage. Reading some of these poems feels like you’re zooming a camera lens deep into math, penetrating fractals that lead you and your viewfinder spiralling on and on. What’s mindboggling is that this sensation of enormity and complexity is administered by poems that read effortlessly.
The sizes and shapes of my poems are all over the ‘map’ and, occasionally, off it. Wallace-Crabbe helped me identify efforts that have fallen – or are in danger zones of doing so – off said map; flagging them for the scrap heap or slotting into my re-work bin. But, as Handsaw displays so well, this collection and its author have taught me that it’s okay to try variety, at times fail spectacularly in so doing and learn from attempting a bit of everything.
Green Sees Things in Waves by August Kleinzahler
August Kleinzahler’s poetry collection, Green Sees Things in Waves (FSG, 1999), more than any other I can think of, taught and constantly reminds me of an imperative tenet in my writing of poetry: look closely at the nuts, bolts and minutiae of a poem. Then, do it again. Get metallurgical. Then, even closer. How tight are the threads? Closer than the enjoined twins of a diphthong?
Kleinzahler’s treatment of his poems’ lexicon, their enunciation, how lines are enjambed and the manipulation of pace and accentuation never fails to awe me. At times, I find reading this collection downright acrobatic.
Swooning, I tiptoe. The collection somersaults and cannonballs, slapping me in the face with a bratwurst just when I’m not ‘looking’ and was unaware that a meaty uppercut to my ‘literate face’ was the ideal act to come next in his show of words. There’s nothing like a well-place spondee, lingering on the precipice of a line break that ushers in a harrowing next act.
I recently gave a paper, Calculated Enjambment: Continuity and Discontinuity in August Kleinzahler’s Poetry, at Deakin University’s Poetry and the Contemporary Symposium. In submitting my initial abstract to co-convener, Michael Farrell, he wondered, “But isn’t all enjambment calculated?”
Well, yes. And, no, I proffered.
There is a natural fluidity in words – how they appear and in X, Y or Z order, how phonemes and fricatives crowd up against each other – that creates a natural (in a given language) flume for context and lyricism to race down. Reading this collection reminds me that a successful poem, in my realm of taste, must have a sturdy framework of sound and infrastructure for lyricism to move. To this, Kleinzahler is the consummate cowboy in the Wild West or Woop Woop Outbacks of The English; lassoing steers going completely apseshit with definition, grazing sheep when wild grasses need mowing in a leisurely drone. A showy mastery of words, his.
Anybody who has read my poems will find, quite quickly, that I do not always apply thick, gooey layers of lyricism or narrative (gasp, I hate this term) on top of such scaffolding. This has certainly kept me out of many publications. It is my natural approach to work on and fuss over a structure of sound, getting that as ‘right’ as my ears want.
In a review of The Best Australian Poems 2009 (Black Inc, 2009), my contribution, alongside one other, was singled out specifically as one “not creative or lyrical enough” for inclusion: a lazy observation, but so it goes. Blame it on Robert Adamson for selecting it. I thanked him. One of the finest compliments I’ve ever received was from novelist, short-story writer and poet, Tony Birch. “Reading your poetry is like listening to jazz”, he once told me. Now, I am not even distantly a jazz aficionado, but Kleinzahler is (see his music writing anthology I-LXXIV (Pressed Wafer, 2009)). In Green Sees Things in Waves, that acumen shows. I can only strive to live up to such a comment.
Kleinzahler also appropriates fine detail of ‘place’ in this collection; another major attraction for me (and influence). Okay, yes. Many poets do this and are similarly influenced by it. Simply, I argue that Kleinzahler’s poems work this angle with a greater success than most poets’ stuff. The poem ‘Snow in North Jersey’ rivets me each time I ski through it. I call it a survey poem – as in, a poem that surveys a scene, locating objects and totems in view that provide a geographic place its unique texture and history – but the poem works in the way chemical reactions do ala the mad scientist motif. When fifty elements that, independently, are inert become placed in a mischievous order, with atypical mass and in a foolhardy proximity to each other, a magnificent kaboom occurs.
I don’t know how much Kleinzahler, notorious curmudgeon, would enjoy being compared to a cowpoke and a chemist, but his antics in this collection have held my attention at cartoon gunpoint (or bratwurst point) since its first publication.