Interview with a poet: John Mateer

Author of The West, John Mateer, says the question of this place, of being in Australia where American-style suburbs have grown out of British colonial settlements on land taken from Aboriginal peoples, profoundly shapes anything a poet can say.

The title of this new collection, The West, opens itself up to layers of meaning. Can you explain the choice of title?
There is the initial impression someone might have here in Western Australia that it means this place, the expression ‘the West’as used here, in opposition to ‘over East’. As Martin Harrison elucidates in his introduction to the book: ’… there is a two-way process in play … you realizes that the psyche of these poems is local or regional only as a question of conscious choice, conscious perception. Sure, there are sunsets, bush, saltpans, surfies. But invoking a huge shift in dimension, the West is also that post–World War Two, socioeconomic project none of us anywhere has escaped from. To talk of ‘the West’ picks up this slightly dated, ex–Cold War connotation and shifts the ground.’ Of course he is right, but I differ from him in two ways on this: I am not so sure that the word is dated in the way he suggests – isn’t the current War Against Terror an extension of Cold War conflicts?; and also because I think Australians have tended to assume in a typically casual way that they are part of the West, of Western Civilisation, without always upholding key aspects of its tradition – in that Australia is in cultural logic closer to Britain than to Europe, the West proper. When I look at the insular world of Western Australia I am left wondering what this place itself says about ‘our’ being part of the larger idea of the West.

Many (though not all) of the poems in this collection reference particular places in Western Australia. To what extent do your poems arise from the physical spaces in which you find yourself?
Being in a place is, first, physical experience. All other experience and thought follows from that. The question of this place, of being in Australia, of being in ‘the West’, of living in American-style suburbs that have grown out of British colonial settlements on land taken from the Aboriginal peoples, profoundly shapes anything one can say: just the fact we speak English here is a product of certain historical forces and substantial violence. There is another side to this: being in a place in which language has had to be adapted rapidly and with a certain amount of inevitable distortion and innovation encourages new linguistic and cultural possibilities. On the one hand it is possible to say that this means very often we are using an alienated language. On the other, this kind of turbulence creates something as enlivening as Australian rock and rap music and the best of Australian visual and literary art. For poetry here this means there are always two tendencies: alienation, which can be manifest as imitation or failure, and hybridity with its often rapid evolution. But that is if one is looking solely at poetry within an Australian context. For me, my Australian work is also part of larger sets of circumstances; there’s the Asian, Portuguese and South African work, and also a long poem responding to Spinoza’s Ethics. As Harrison suggests, I am engaged with thinking about how an Australian poetry may be located within or against other poetries and histories.

Certain poems in the section titled ‘Exile’ have a sense of silence, of things held back. How important is this to the idea of exile?
First, there is the question of, as you put it, ‘the idea of exile’. But exile can be a feeling, a metaphor and fact, all of them different. In my case, as someone brought from South Africa to Australia due to my parents’ concerns for the family, at a point in time in which living there was like living in a certain kind of civil war, I was not literally exiled. I know people who have been. My feeling was, especially in the first years, that of exile, of living in a state of alienation. Yet that feeling didn’t dissipate over the years. Rather it changed and I came to see that in the broader Australian culture there is a profound desire to appear unalienated, to constantly affirm belonging to this place. That, inevitably, stems from a concern about the Aboriginal ownership of this continent as much as from the early British beginnings of this nation, a country established by transporting many people here against their will, something that was in turn a consequence of the Enclosure Acts which displaced them within England itself. So the silence, the withdrawal, can even be typically Australian! In Australia there is the very powerful desire to make things ‘fit in’, yet it is possible to see much of this nation as a product of a range of experiences of exile. Something that might actually be for the good, something that might make Australians treat one another, and strangers, much better here. There is also a crucial, metaphysical dimension to the notion of silence, an unspeaking, an unmaking, that can’t be easily discussed here.

In some of your nature poems, such as ‘The Scar-Tree of Wanneroo’ and ‘The Many-Faced Mountain’ sequence, the experience of being human is both tempered and extended by nature. What do you find can be said through images of the natural world?
I wouldn’t consider ‘The Scar-Tree of Wanneroo’ a nature poem. It is about a tree that I think stands as a discrete memorial to Nyungar presence in the far northern suburbs of Perth, one of too few memorials. As for ‘“The Many-Faced Mountain’, again, it contains aspects which commemorate Aboriginal history and continuing spiritual presence. I am not Aboriginal so I can’t claim to know that experience from the inside. Nevertheless, I believe other, non-Aboriginal, people can experience something of the realities of Aboriginal presence in the land. How this related to ‘images of the natural world’ and how images of the natural world might differ from an experience of place with Aboriginal and other histories of place is manifest variously in the poems. At base, an encounter with the Natural is a discovery of the limits of one’s own experience; to meet an animal, for instance a kangaroo, in the bush is to see how at home it is there. Whether you can feel a joy in that is dependent on your own experience and thoughts. Whether you can feel the presence of ghosts is similar. And because the Natural in Australia has been much less mediated over the centuries by those who preceded us, we sometimes have to quite quickly confront our limitations and expectations when we’re ‘out there’.

In ‘The Cockatoo’ you employ a wry humour, a tongue-in-cheek jibe at ideas of ‘Australia’. How consciously do you address the notion of what ‘Australia’ is?
As I was saying regarding the Natural, and also having the question of exile in mind, that poem – which, incidentally, is only one of several poems I have written about cockatoos, two of which were written in Asia – should have the reader pondering the absurdity of that kind of question on the subject of Australia, the kind of question that might be asked of poets: What is Australia? (One can think of A.D. Hope’s famous poem in this regard.) And a parrot is, probably, the right kind of being to ask that question of in that parrots can speak, they can repeat what they have been taught, and to them, as far as we can understand, repetition is not boring, especially the repetition of kitsch and comic statements. (Perhaps we could send parrots to writers’ festivals, just as one artist, Francis Alys, once sent a peacock to represent his presence at the Venice Biennale!) One might also say, and again we have to recognise the limits of our human knowledge on this, that to them human language is all about sound, a kind of poetic, a certain kind of music. Therefore, in its mind at least – this is the audacity of both the Nationalist and Anthropocentrist! – there can be only one kind of answer. Besides, even if it did say something politically incorrect, what rights would we, any Australian, Aboriginal or Asian-Australian – or even me, whatever I might be – have to exile that talkative bird?

Books discussed
The West: Australian Poems 1989–2009

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