Friday, August 21, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with John Kinsella

John Kinsella's recent poetry books include Peripheral Light: Selected and New Poems (WW Norton, 2003), The New Arcadia (WW Norton, 2005) and Divine Comedy: Journeys Through a Regional Geography (WW Norton, 2008). He has written numerous books of poetry and prose, and edited many others, including The Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry (Penguin 2009). He has lived and taught in Australia, England, and the USA. He is an environmental activist, a vegan, a pacifist, and an anarchist.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

I published a chapbook when I was nineteen - my family and a friend got that out and about (a little). Fifty copies. The Frozen Sea typed up on an IBM typewriter, laid out on a kitchen table, and printed at the local printers. I carted a couple of copies around Europe with me and gave one copy to a very old woman who'd been a lover of the linguist Jakobson. My first full book, Night Parrots, had a weird publishing history, which I have written about elsewhere. My mother submitted it to a publisher in an attempt to save me from my world of substance and alcohol degradation. What happened next is a long story. That was in 1986 and the book appeared in 1989. I didn't 'get straight' until 1996.

My most recent book of poetry is The Divine Comedy: Journeys Through a Regional Geography and is a 'distraction' on Dante's Divine Comedy. It is the work I've done that matters most to me, and took a few years to write. My previous work, Shades of the Sublime & Beautiful (some of it written concurrently with the other work, though in the main written before), uses Edmund Burke's treatise re sublimity and beauty as its template and point/s of departure, so there is a similarity in approach there, and the 'place' it explores is the 'same', but they are vastly different works.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

My mother was a poet. But she was also a short-story writer. I wrote poems and stories from early childhood. I favoured poetry because I could make it do things I couldn't (yet, maybe) make prose do. It was my default setting. I thought in poetry. I heard it every day. My fascination with science as a child and teenager was linked with this - scientific nomenclature was like a poetic language. I write in all 'genres' (see comments further on), but poetry is at the core of all my practice.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing intitially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

I most often write or take notes by hand, then work on a manual typewriter, then onto a computer, though I am going to give the last one up. Sometimes it's direct on to keyboard, but not really that often. Drafts can change a great deal, and go through many versions, but sometimes change little. There is no fixed outcome. When I start, I start. The lead-up time can be agony, though. Days, weeks, months, even years cogitating, but once I start, I am usually 'with it'. And often more than one thread of writing at once.

4 - Where does a poem or piece of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

All methodologies seem to have worked or failed for me at some time or another. Sometimes it's an A-Z process, other times it 'composites'. Many of my books were written with the entire book in mind, allowing for derivations, distractions, and tangents. Some are the end result of a cumulative process. I am always open to new ways of approaching 'writing' (though I have problems with this term - it's just a catch-all for textual activity).

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I have done hundreds of readings but although I really throw myself into them when I do them, I actually loathe the process. I am aiming to end reading in public and am doing fewer and fewer, I am glad to say. I find them quite psychologically destructive. I do like hearing poets read their work, though.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

All my concerns are ultimately a congruence of praxis and theory. See my book Disclosed Poetics: Beyond Landscape and Lyricism, among others.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I am an environmental activist. My writing means nothing outside that.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I have had some great editors. No problem. I have edited the work of many other poets as well - sometimes it is difficult, sometimes rewarding. No set rules.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

I think all advice is suspect. Even the best motives for giving it are often dubious.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I wrote a 'novel' entitled Genre, which was an unfixing of genre (or an attempt to unfix genre). I love 'genre' fiction - Dick, Highsmith, Tolkien and many others. But I don't actually believe there are genres. There you go - I read them, I talk about them, I write about them, but I don't believe in the categories.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
In winter - lighting the fire. In summer - watering the vegetable garden if there's water available to do so. Writing comes at all times.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I have no room for stalling. I just move on to another piece of work - such as a review. I have four due in at the moment. Deadlines are missed but in the end they get you. Part of my living.
13 - What did your favourite teacher teach you?
To finish a task within the time allotted.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
My writing is a composite of everything I've experienced. Nothing is excluded.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Hundreds and hundreds. It's impossible to name them. At the moment? Pushkin, Stendhal, Muriel Rukeyser, Philip K. Dick, Delmore Schwartz, Khlebnikov, Patricia Highsmith, George Eliot, Pynchon...

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Well, I have done it, but not for twenty-five years. Go back to entirely living without the trappings of capitalist consumer society. That is, everything homegrown, no car, no factory clothes, no electricity, no phone, etc. I have been a vegan anarchist pacifist for almost twenty-five years and that's the path I am continuing down.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Well, by the end of my high-schooling, I was heading in the direction of the sciences, so would have probably ended up a research chemist developing horrendous chemi-luminescent 'organics'. But I didn't keep going that way.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Necessity. That's the way I'd learnt to communicate. We all have to communicate - that's my 'speech'.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. Pandora's Box with Louise Brooks and directed by G. W. Pabst. A silent film - less technology. That appeals to me (if we have to use such technology).
20 - What are you currently working on?
A book of poetry arising out of Thoreau's Walden set at Jam Tree Gully ('our' place). I also have a critical book on activist environmental poetics I am tidying up for publication some time next year. In the long run, I am looking into hand-made paper options. I am trying to encourage my various publishers to do my books on recycled paper. Most use so-called sustainable 'forest products', but there are many contradictory ecological issues connected with these sources. It is a slow process but an important one. Because I will be going offline soon, the printing of books becomes an even more 'relevant' issue to me. I want to know what physically goes into the books I publish.

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