Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Lyrics to Imaginary Songs

When I think about poetry, about my need to read it and reflect on it – and even express the odd poem here and there as if there were a more pure or direct voice in me that had somehow been switched on for a moment – I recall that it arrived in my life through pop music and rock ‘n’ roll when I was barely more than a boy.

The sounds of popular culture were never just a beat to me. They became a form of melodic literature as vital as Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays, or the poetry of John Keats, W.H. Auden, Robert Lowell and Kenneth Slessor that I was schooled in and ‘learnt’ to love so profoundly.

Indeed I see now that rock ‘n’ roll primed me for Keats’ romanticism and Auden’s rhymes, as well as Lowell’s confessional devastations and Slessor’s alienated urban shades. That I became so involved with Hamlet precisely because it was Shakespeare’s most rock ‘n’ roll work – for behind its iambic pentameters lies the rhythmic appeals of a young man in black, a grieving rebel who might well have been an Elizabethan James Dean in his day.

Flip forward to England in 1965 and what was Bob Dylan, really, but an electrified Hamlet come to life on those same old theatre stages, a hot soliloquist with a bad attitude and an acoustic guitar instead of a sword sheathed at his side? As the D.A. Pennebaker documentary Don’t Look Back reveals, Dylan even had his loyal Horatio (friend Bob Neuwirth) and an Ophelia that he tormented (lover Joan Baez), as well as a Polonius whispering in his ear (manager Albert Grossman).

Despite Dylan’s typically elusive response to a question at the time as to whether he was poet – “I think of myself more as a song-and-dance man” – the Beat writer Allen Ginsberg immediately recognized the young artist’s importance. In the Martin Scorcese documentary, No Direction Home, Ginsberg talks of Dylan’s arrival on the scene and what the older poet witnessed about his performing presence: “He [Dylan] became identified with his breath, like a shaman, with all his intelligence and consciousness focused on his breath.”

It’s a brilliant evocation of what Dylan personified from the very beginnings of his startling career: a shift in poetic life away from the page back into the ether of song. In Ginsberg’s word, Dylan transformed himself into “a column of air”.

Dylan himself was influenced by this same singing awareness – by what he called the “fearless” rhyming of Cole Porter, by the archetypal power and conviction of Woody Guthrie’s folk ballads, by country music and the blues as much as the literary work of the Beats or T.S. Eliot or Rimbaud. And yet despite this history and ‘breath’, an idiot wind invariably continues to blow in from another direction, debating whether lyrics can ever be regarded as true poetry? As if everyone from Dylan to Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed must submit, cap-in-hand, to the demand their songs work silently and alone on the page if they are to qualify. A matter not helped by those hard-cover editions of lyrics from rock stars that, yes, all too often, read as lifeless if not a little pretentious and gaudy in their packaging. 'Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy’: And Other Misheard Lyrics by Gavin Edwards and Chris Kalb probably hitting a truer note than most when it comes to the reality of how we appreciate lyrics day-to-day.

If a white page were the only acid test, however, one would have to argue there was no such thing as poetry before the advent of Gutenberg and the printing press. But of course the links between music and poetry are not so new at all. Virgil begins the Aeneid with “I sing of arms and the man…” because Latin poetry was written to be chanted. Homer would have sung both The Iliad and The Odyssey to a four-stringed instrument he plucked for rather atonal punctuation and mood – which may well make him the first rapper of note before Grandmaster Flash with The Message (1982) and even The Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron with Whitey on the Moon (1969/70). Yo Homer, Ancient Greece is in the house!

Early Gaelic and Welsh bards similarly sang of warriors’ brave deeds and perpetuated tribal stories that passed on into myth. Later these figures evolved into the minstrels of medieval times, the precursors of the folk singer and the pop artist. It’s precisely because of this history, and the musicality inherent in his language, that Shakespeare became known as ‘The Bard of Avon’, just as the Scottish poet Robert Burns – who gave us ‘Auld Lang Syne’ – is more simply known as ‘The Bard’.

To be called a bard was the highest praise such poets could hope for. Which is why it’s hard to disagree with Ezra Pound’s rather sweeping statement that, “Music rots when it gets too far from dance. Poetry atrophies when it gets to far from music.”
Yet as recently as 2008 various English newspapers were gleefully announcing that a final year English exam at Cambridge University had dared to ask students to compare ‘As You Came from the Holy Land’ by Sir Walter Raleigh with the lyrics to the Amy Winehouse song ‘Love is a Losing Game’. As if to rub salt into the wound, students were also told to compare Raleigh’s 1592 effort with Fine and Mellow by Billie Holiday and Boots of Spanish Leather by Bob Dylan (yeah, him again!).

Perhaps only a Nobel Prize winning poet like Seamus Heaney can get away with such acts of sacrilege. Asked by the BBC back in 2003 to name a contemporary figure comparable to Bob Dylan and John Lennon, Heaney said, “There is this guy Eminem. He has created a sense of what is possible. He has sent a voltage around a generation. He has done this not just through his subversive attitude but also his verbal energy.”

Most poets would kill for that kind of praise on their book covers. Inevitably Heaney was slighted for being a silly old man trying to keep up with the young. And yet Heaney’s words actually sound very similar to Ginsberg’s comments on Dylan. They likewise lean towards an appreciation of poetry rooted in breath, in something alive and not entirely pinned to the page.


My own enchantment with poetry begins with my second holy communion. It takes place in a suburban dining room with orange curtains and an over-large china cabinet, a place where I can hardly move. That doesn’t matter. There’s already a cathedral being built in my head. The Eucharist I am holding is round and large and black. It shines when it catches it the light, as if it were a dark and deep pool of perfectly formed water.

My altar is before me: a Rambler turntable with two walnut speaker boxes and quite a bit of pumping volume. The transubstantiation for me is not that of bread and wine into flesh and blood, as Jesus managed, but of my own being into song. As if I were becoming something mutable and flowing every time I turn on the amplifier and put a piece of vinyl under the needle.

Forget Coleridge and the opium-induced lines of ‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree…’ I was finding my own sonic nirvana at age thirteen, and anyone who tried to interrupt me was simply blown away.

I wasn’t just listening to the music either. I was digging the words, and with them every moan and jack-knife bit of phrasing, as if the accents and vocal contortions around a vowel were runes to be divined within the actual words themselves: “Hey Candy and Ronny have you seen them yet, Oooh but they’re so spaced out, B-B-B-B-Bennie and the Jets…”

It may not have been W.B. Yeats, but Bernie Taupin’s lyrics along with Elton John’s stuttering delivery in ‘Bennie and the Jets’ blew my mind as surely as Marc Bolan’s lines about a girl with “a hubcap diamond star halo” in T-Rex’s ‘Jeepster’. Language was something to be excited by, words were meant to bend and stretch into the ecstasy of sound as much as meaning. These were the lessons I was already learning from pop music.

By the time Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run’ was bursting out of my radio with a guitar stroke that reminded me of the rumble of a Ducati 750, I was well and truly a teenage goner: “In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream. At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines…” It was song that sounded completely untamed and foreign next to everything else being played at the time, as if Springsteen’s heart were exploding from his chest to deliver this mighty story to me: “This town will rip the bones from your back, it’s a death trap. We’ll run till we drop and baby we’ll never go back.”

The leather jacket, the lean look and goatee beard: if I’m honest Springsteen was the hip Jesus I was looking for at age 15, the ultimate cross-over man between religion and rock ‘n’ roll. He confirmed the possibility that my suburban life as a teenager, my here and now in the coastal steel-town of Newcastle, was the stuff of poetry – and that it was possible for me to see that life in the very grandest of terms and paint it in words as such.

Patti Smith’s ‘Piss Factory’ and The Jam’s ‘That’s Entertainment’ arrived later, re-iterating this same sense of working class poetics. That one could move stanzas like girders or spit a beautiful line out like a punch. Smith was actually channeling the nineteenth century French poet Arthur Rimbaud; Paul Weller was being inspired by The Who’s Pete Townsend: it all amounted to the same thing to me and in studying Smith and Weller I went back to both Rimbaud and The Who’s recordings too.

Of course I was already dreaming along to a hundred other songs as well and writing down my dreams in matching lyrical forms. Finding new eyes for my world, or if not quite that, feeling less frightened of how I felt about it and what I wanted to say because of these songs in my life.

In this writing inspired by music, as with in any art of imitation and mimicry, there was a sense of tagging along with other people’s dreams and experiences – because they connected with me in very explicit ways, or simply because there was a feeling below the words or experiences that I wanted to sing along with. Language became a kind of abstract freedom for me, a space to reach into, an accompaniment or mutual music.

So when I started to write poems at around the age of twelve, I see now they weren’t really poems at all but lyrics to imaginary songs. And that these songs of mine were mostly all beyond me: recycled bits of lyrics combined with my own feelings and free associations. Which meant I was writing about drowning with naked women and lions in a swimming pool (thanks to Marc Bolan), and neon horses (thanks to Bernie Taupin) like some jet-set teenage cowboy. I mowed the lawn for my grandmother when she told me too, but away in my own world I was the most unintentionally decadent kid in town – even if I didn’t know what I was talking about and the words were just vague semaphores for my own restlessness and dreaming.

At its most primal, the experience of writing poetry always begins as a note to the self from your unconscious. Words and descriptions that don’t always ‘make sense’, but sound good to you. Things that come ‘out of nowhere’, that are mysterious and compulsively ‘put down’. Later, perhaps, you interrogate these things when you develop into a serious writer. You see what is pretentious or false or meaningless or just plain bad. But at first, hopefully, there is a private joy and something you can’t help but say going on – even when you do not know what you are saying!

Words, phrases, ‘images’, they come like seeds to you and launch you into something that becomes a poem. Sometimes rhyming, sometimes not, sometimes completed, other times interrupted or abandoned or forgotten. But whether they rhyme or loosen in to unstructured verse, the truth is that I’m still always ‘singing’ them in some way to this very day, trying to find the tune of it all, if you like – which might well be little more than agreeing with my own ear that this is a true-sounding and good-sounding way for my voice to flow freely.


The processes of poetry in our life are certainly far more complicated than most cynics would have it. Much as I can appreciate (or try to appreciate) the craftsmanship of great poets on the page, I am clearly not a fundamentalist about what poetry is – I personally think it can be found in novels, in fine prose, in the way people speak, in our actions, and most obviously in the songs we listen to. I also think poetry is about an unlocking of the spirit within us, a freeing up of language and thinking that takes us deeper than we can fully grasp except in mere glimpses.

I’ve always liked the Walt Whitman phrase from Leaves of Grass: ‘I Sing the Body Electric’. It points to the idea of a tune in the voice, in the cadence of a poem that is most alive in the breath. It also points to something mystical in the nature of language itself, as if there is some great uniting web from which we take not only our own meanings and communications, but the values of the age and even its epochal fears, obsessions, hopes. From the brainless teenage jerk of “it’s all good” to the near trademark ring of “September 11” to far subtler resonances that sleep within the dream of language, as if language were a mystic plasticine one only has to reach in to and touch with your fingers to sense a shape already given, being born, commonly intuited.

Digital technology is certainly changing the way we communicate, learn, relax, and interact with the world, pulling us together into a strange new fabric. As we digest more and more information through the internet, through watching and listening, there a powerful argument emerging that we are becoming a post-literate society, no longer centrally dependent on the printed word.

Ironically enough the accelerating energies of global communications and modern life actually make the compacted nature of poetry on the page – as well as the short story and the novella – among the more ideal literary forms of the age. We can receive a poem in a single snap, or take in a suite of poems in one sitting like Bob Dylan’s proverbial “chain of flashing images”. The advantage of poetry in this situation lays in its song-like immediacy, and its gem-like endurance, which allows a reader to return to a poem again and again for pleasure and fresh light.

And so the enduring debate about poetry versus lyrics is just a distraction in the end. It’s actually the more dangerous and constantly parroted notion that poetry is irrelevant to modern life and all-but-dead which I am really arguing against.

Yes, we know mainstream publishing houses have dumped their poetry lists, while the sales of major poets’ works are embarrassingly small. Yes, we know that you are not likely see a book of poetry on the best seller lists today. But it may be people are looking for the health of poetry in the wrong place. That its power lies more than ever within rock ‘n’ roll as the bardic tradition continues to assert its vital place in popular culture.

I know when I hear Radiohead’s Thom Yorke telling me how he “woke up sucking on a lemon” or Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy talking about “the handshake drugs I bought downtown”, I understand – instantly – that I’m in the hands of a great lyricist. The same can easily said of Will Oldham, Lucinda Williams, Paul Kelly, M Ward, Patti Smith, Nick Cave, Conor Oberst, Tom Waits and U2’s Bono, while modern masters like Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell continue to cast a gigantic poetic shadow over contemporary song writing and, indeed, much of the literary world.

If that last comment sounds excessive, I think you would find plenty of novelists and poets who would agree with me. It’s common knowledge Robert Adamson was turned on to the possibilities of becoming a poet upon hearing Bob Dylan singing while he was doing time in jail, and I am sure Adamson would find time to discuss the refined intelligence in Jackson Browne’s lyrics any time you wished to talked about them. Luke Davies was similarly inspired by Dylan, as well as Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Loudon Wainwright. John Forbes leant towards more mischievous influences like the knowing ‘dumbness’ and spirited irony of The Ramones. There’s the beginning of a list if you need one.

So today when I hear Tim Rogers feeling broken up and peacock proud, or M Ward in all his insinuating dreaminess and humour, or Kings of Leon’s brand of sinful, sexual, lost-on-the-road hedonism or, yes, Bob Dylan in all his glory, I still feel alive to poetry – and to the act of writing poetry for myself.

Songs come to me from everywhere that evoke this truth: ‘Wide Open Road’, ‘Mary, Queen of Arkansas’, ‘This Charming Man’, ‘Down by the River’, ‘Sign O’ The Times’, ‘Everything’s on Fire’, ‘Cattle and Cane’… they don’t just make me feel, they make me act, make me want to put pen to paper and find new ways to ascend into my feelings and thoughts.

I have to work a little harder to bring actual poems to me that do the same thing. Songs often come of their own volition, too, which makes it easier: through the car radio, floating out a doorway onto the street. They live in the air. Whereas poems on the page must be sought out and found. Still, I’m surprised that so many poems and poets are still with me like ghosts that flare up in the mind: Les Murray eating ice from a hail storm in ‘Spring Pony’; Auden’s lonely soldier in ‘Roman Wall Blues’; the deep rage of Pablo Neruda in ‘The United Fruit Company’; Rimbaud consoling me, for reasons I don’t quite understand, as I read him by some ocean rock pools after a breakup in my twenties; Charles Bukowski’s humour and tenderness, as if he were a friend speaking to me; Rilke, early on in the Duino Elegies, when night and emptiness “feeds upon our faces”…

Leonard Cohen once said, “If you’re life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.” It may be that the great modern song writers are keeping that fire alight for all of us. Or to take it back to Dylan, who remains the pre-eminent example of the lyricist as bard of the people: “a poem is a naked person… some people say that I am a poet.” Don’t you know it?

- Mark Mordue

* This essay was first published in edited form in the politics and culture journal Griffith Review - Edition 23: Essentially Creative, January 2009.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

About this Life: A Conversation with Barry Lopez

On the back of his new book, About This Life , subtitled Journeys on the Threshold of Memory (Vintage Press), the author Barry Lopez looks straight out at you with all the glint of a hawk in search of prey. It's a stare that betrays the precision, the sharp eyed native detail, which marks all his prose.

Born in Port Chester, New York in 1945, he was raised in southern California around fruit orchards, beaches and the Mojave Desert, before being brought back to life in Manhattan as a teenager after his mother remarried. At college he began a course in aeronautical engineering (part of a lifetime fascination for flight that still colors his writing today with a sense of uplift) switching to an English major.

Lopez went on to work professionally as a landscape and nature photographer, but grew restless with the estrangement and invasion he felt as a 'taker' of images. This dilemma led finally to a career as a writer.

He married his wife Sandra in 1967, a year after his college graduation. Since 1968 they have lived in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon, where has written by longhand, then typewriter, in the same room for some 30 odd years now, largely about his global travails into the natural world.

Lopez is a regular contributor to Harper's, The Paris Review, American Short Fiction and Story and has built a powerful reputation as an essayist, author and short story writer rigorously fascinated by landscape. He is widely regarded as the America's foremost 'poet-naturalist', a man able to turn his hand to lupine habits and habitats in Of Wolves And Men (1978), or the cold and glorious north in what many still regard as his masterpiece, Arctic Dreams (for which he won the National Book Award in 1986).

Along with the airy poetic touches in his work, Lopez brings an acute sense of obligation to detail and integrity with his every observance, and something that can only be described as a spiritually driven, almost Zen-like regard for non-fiction.

His latest book, About This Life, is a collection of essays with an unusual degree of personal reflection for a writer studiously focussed on the outside world. It includes some phenomenal set-pieces like a history of his own hands as he gazes upon them in 'A Passage of Hands'; the mystically fractured obligations of a long-distance driver trying to deal with roadkill in 'Apologia'; and the strangely hypnotic drunkenness of worldwide materialism in 'Flight', his study of international airfreighters and their cargo.

In person, Lopez is a generous conversationalist, thoughtful and serene, much as his writing voice would suggest. A storyteller with a vocational commitment to awakening our appreciation of nature and landscape, he is writing at the peak of his powers today.

I was interested in this whole issue of 'voice' which I mentioned to you the other day. In your introduction to About This Life and in past essays like the piece you wrote for the Australian literary quarterly HEAT, you've talked about an American writing tradition which you've described as 'nature writing' or 'landscape writing' and 'a literature of place'. I'm wanting you to discuss this tradition with me. What you mean by it?

"Well the problem with this kind of an idea is that the definitions - and to a certain extent, the discussion of the definition of the genre - is really on the minds of critics more than it is on the minds of writers.

"What I was trying to get at in that piece in HEAT is that the incorporation of landscape - and by that I would mean not just line and color and contour and texture, but weather and the movement of landscape through time, in other words the flow of rivers and all that kind of material, everything occurring in the so-called non-human world - is not incidental to literature. It's integral.

"We have fallen into the trap of believing that to incorporate this material and let it reverberate metaphorically is... is unsophisticated I guess. In fact the history of literature, written and oral among the various human traditions, is that such material is always included - in part because it is so metaphorically rich.

"It's not instructive in the sense that a field guide is instructive. I mean the material is not in a story so that someone can learn the difference between one or another wallaby [Australian mammal], for example. The effect of that material is to cause the illusions and the historical references to reverberate more completely. So in the United States if you incorporate a particular landscape in a short story, it has historical reverberation if it's say, in the American West. That's a crude example.

"I believe something happened in the European imagination during what you might call 'the Age of Reconnaissance', when Europeans became aware of landscapes utterly different from their own. At the first level they tried to turn everything into another version of Europe. For example, a lot of early immigrants tried to turn Australia into England by tearing down the indigenous vegetation, peoples, etcetera, and reconstituting it as some sort of inferior, but fateful image of the home country.

"That has gone on in lots of places. You can track the same kinds of trees planted in colonial capitals all over the globe in an effort to turn those places into something like the European home.

"The resistance to that in all colonial literatures I'm at least aware of in English, is the insistence that the local place has an enormous effect on local behavior. And so it's only when you start to incorporate the place that you develop something distinct in a country's literature.

"[This is] what happened with Melville and Moby Dick - obviously the Pacific Ocean is not the United States - but Melville was using landscape to reinforce the moral drama that could have been there cast in another way in Paris or London. But instead of going to a city like that and casting his novel in those urban terms, he chose this huge canvas of the Pacific Ocean.

"That tradition in the United States continues all the way through the 19th and 20th centuries and some of the names now are quite obvious, like Thoreau and Steinbeck, down to the present. Probably the American writer who most embodies that tradition of fidelity to place, and incorporation of place in fiction where it is integral - and not incidental - is Peter Matthiessen.

"What I'm trying to get at is, look, what distinguishes literatures at the close of the 20th century? Probably the thing all English speaking literatures are after, one way or another, is a definition of community - and an elucidation of what has happened to community in the wake of colonialism, and, in contemporary terms, under the forcing pressure of capitalism.

"So a very disparate group of writers [are dealing with this] - lets say a handful of Australian, a handful of Indian, a handful of South African, Canadian, U.S.... And no matter what their educational background or their chosen metaphor might be, most of us are concerned about the fate of community. It might be of the fate of that essential dyad which is the man and the woman who form a family. It could be a concern over family and the disintegration of family - a lot of America literature is about that now. And at a larger level it could be about issues between the human community and the state, or the human community and the industrial world.

"I think nature comes into it because of the commodification of landscape - the level, the degree to which landscape has been commodified, turned into a scenery or one or another sort of thing that is bargained around or traded in or bought and sold. To my ear people who treat landscape like that are using the language and have the attitudes of 19th century slavers. It's that the land must do something and if it doesn't it's punished. It must produce and it must work in the fields and it must show up, in another way of thinking, like some sort of tart. As scenery on the arm of the aging plutocrat.

"So what I'm trying to get at all the time is the impulse to examine the big questions - which are, what is the relationship of the individual to the state, what is the relationship of the individual to society, what is the relationship of human culture to place? All of those questions now, at least in the United States, are being most rigorously addressed in this genre called 'nature writing'."

When you talk about this Post-Colonial literature, an obvious aspect - whether you are speaking about Salman Rushdie or the 'magical realism' of South American writers and figures like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the sheer poetic beauty in someone like Michael Ondaatje or an Australian writer like Tim Winton, and obviously within your own writing - always there is a sense of not just the elemental and the natural, but also of magic and transcendence within landscapes, within story, within language itself. And that dream-life in words, which these writers are stimulating, is, I think, very, very interesting today.

"You know I see reverberations of this quite a bit in [David] Malouf. In Imaginary Life and in Remembering Babylon. David is an urbane individual and he's perfectly at home in Sydney or Italy or London, wherever he happens to be. But I think David really gets what the connection is between culture and place.

"He's able to see that there's something daft about wearing a tweed coat to dinner when he's growing up in Brisbane on a summer day when it's a sub-tropical city, it's not London. And all of the business of trying to import a kind of clothing and behavior to Brisbane that's inappropriate to the climate - that registers in his mind and he sees the imposition of culture on a place and that it's inappropriate. At the same time I think he is able to see some of the true integration of indigenous people and place which comes through in some of his thinking in Remembering Babylon.

"Here's another turn on this - I don't know if it's interesting to you or not - there's a kindof... I guess there's a way of talking about Thoreau that isolates him within the confines of that book Walden. And when I think back on my reading of Thoreau, the piece that stuck with me wasn't Walden, but his essay On Civil Disobedience.

"And I have recently reflected that, at least in the United States, the most forceful arguments against government and industry, which were raised by people like Rachel Carsen, are carried largely by this group of people who are called 'nature writers'. So if there is going to be a voice flying in the face of business and government in the States, this is where it is going to come from.

"An interesting thing about Thoreau - and now this is just speculation - but it's worth looking at - I think Thoreau saw the end of American civilization. I think he intuited with the rise of capitalism in England in the 1830s and the development of the Industrial Revolution and the way it carried over in to the United States, that there was something essentially dysfunctional about the situation of a society in a place - in other words, the culture was poorly situated in the place.

"Emerson said once about Thoreau, 'Oh he just wants to live among us as an Indian' - and I think what Emerson meant was that that Thoreau understood that the relationship between indigenous people in North America and place had been so well worked out that those societies had been stable for hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years. And of course those societies faced the same problems as we do with corruption or infidelity or prevarication, whatever it is, all the human ills. But they'd stabilized.

"What Thoreau saw was that without another kind of mythology American civilization was going to collapse. And the mythology that he was trying to work out was a different kind of moral relationship between place and culture.

"I don't know colonial literature as well as perhaps I should - but I think that men and women writing in countries that have a colonial sense of identity - and America, though it pretends that it doesn't, to some extent does - I mean there was a great American Revolution 200 years ago, but America still looks over its shoulder at England and asks, almost as if England were the parent, 'Are we doing everything all right?...."

Yes, well Australia suffers from this as well obviously.

"Oh yeah, of course. Well I'm just saying that people don't think America suffers from it and we do. And I think what some of us are trying to say in our literatures is we have noticed that one of the ways we are failing is we haven't mounted a civilization that's congruent with the place. We've brought a civilization and in certain quarters, certain ways, it's not working well at all. And I'm one of those people who believes that whatever revitalization is going to come in Western civilization, its going to come from the periphery."

At the same time this is where I find myself in conflict - because there are writers who represent an extreme urban perspective, a very dark and violent perspective, and a very nihilistic perspective. And yet they offer a kind of shock which throws a mirror up to people and gives them pause to stop - it can be quite disturbing and maybe it's gratuitous, and destructive too. But I really do wonder what people like Irvine Welsh or Bret Easton Ellis, or a Bukowski even... how these people strip away hypocrisy and throw consumerism back in the face of people and horrify them and disturb them perhaps because they are horrified and disturbed in some way themselves...

"Yes, yes. Well you know Cormac McCarthy does that if you are in the States. But those wouldn't be writers I would ever dismiss. The essence of all art I think is to resist - and in many ways writers working on different sides of the issue, really what they are trying to do in your terms is strip away the mask and make apparent what is really going on...

"So the responsibility of the artists is to resist - and to undermine complacency. And there are many ways to do that. What I don't like is the intimation is that if you choose metaphors like natural history or anthropology that somehow you are not addressing modern problems or that you are being sentimental, when that's not the case at all.

"With a writer like Peter Matthieson or I would hope myself in certain things I am writing, the issue is social justice - or something allied to justice. I think a great impulse in so-called 'nature writing' is an impulse towards justice. And just relationships.

"The United States has a history of having to be explicit, finally, in legal terms, about all of its prejudices. And so you evolve a series of laws which make it explicit that women and blacks, for example, must be fairly treated - that it can't be just a country that works well for white men. And we're now at that stage where there is some restitution, some recognition, of the rights of indigenous people. The next step after that is, 'If you don't have a moral relationship with the place that you live in, you're a barbarian.'

"We're in the middle of a kind of second barbarism now. The first barbarism was Mongol invasions and the Vandals and the Huns overrunning Europe. The second barbarism is the invasion of world culture by American pop culture, which is all about reducing people to consumers - its diametrically opposed to the virtues of sharing, for example. And it is a kind of barbarism, because at the same time it promises infinite freedom - we will give you the kind of clothes you want, the toys you want and the look you want etcetera etcetera - it tangles you deeper and deeper and deeper in a system of purchase and debt. So you don't achieve freedom through all these purchases, you're enslaved."

In one of your essays you talk about indigenous people and the way they recognize 'the immanence of the divine in both man and nature.' What really struck me about that point was when you talked about it as 'a remedy for loneliness'.

"So many indigenous people, when you have a coffee or a beer or something like that and you're just talking as friends and you ask, 'What is it about us, what do you see when you look at us?', the answer often has something to do with what a hallmark of our culture loneliness is. I remember I guy said to me in an Arctic village one time, 'You know, whenever you come you come alone. You bring no family, you don't have any children.' We are profoundly lonely people with extraordinary skill to create a material culture, a kind of dazzling group, but very lonely."

Obviously an aspect to that need for connection is the whole matter of storytelling. You place a lot of emphasis on storytelling... Have you found that when you've had dealings with indigenous people - that there has been this sort of giving of the story to you? It's almost as if they know you can carry the story on.

"Yes. I think one of the most touching aspects of 20th century and now 21st century almost culture, is the willingness with which indigenous people will give away what little they have with the thought that it will be preserved. Or that they want it preserved. Time and again, white friends of mine will say - people I trust who've some kind of long term thoughtful relationship where they've gone through the romantic business of wanting to be, say, Pitjantjatjara [Aboriginal] - they realize that they'll never be that (laughs), they realize that they're going to be white and they've made their peace with it. And then stayed with it. Kept up their friendships. And then things are passed along and you feel a common bond with people quite different from yourself. And the bond has to do with keeping the stories alive because of the way stories take care of people.

"I don't want to put too fine a point on this, but I think it's good in a culture like ours where there's a commercial dimension to the work you do as a writer, to remind yourself that your real responsibility is to the reader. And that the idea is that your work will help.

"When you come upon a book and you realize that it's really all about the writer, you know things are less than good - what you want is a book in which the writer feels like someone who knows you are there. I sometimes think of this as the difference between the writer as an authority and the writer as a companion. And what I would put the emphasis on is the responsibility of the writer to be the reader's companion, not the authority.

"People who read your work are imaginative, that's a human trait, and it's absurd to think that you're there to instruct the reader. The reader is going to bring his or her imagination to the material you present, and your obligation is to construct something, the story, in which a number of disparate imaginations can range freely and widely and productively."

You've referred to geography as an alternative for you to Freud and psychoanalyses. Now I know you've also referred to coming from what used to be called 'a broken home'. I couldn't help but wonder, because there is obviously a healing desire in your literature and the way you talk about your writing, whether that childhood background, that family background, has nonetheless stimulated this healing desire.

"You know Mark, that's usually not the kind of question I entertain. But I would respectfully answer you yes, and that I've often wondered whether it isn't our individual exposure to pain that makes us compassionate about the pain that others have suffered. I had a certain amount of difficulty in my own early life with my situation at home, and then since then travelling around the world I've seen godawful things - incredible poverty and broken down lives and people succumbing to disease and the ravages of inner city life in the United States or anywhere else.

"And what I think has grown in me is a deeper and deeper sense of compassion for what human beings are going through. I think in the United States of one thing: the ravages of alcohol. I don't know what its like for you in Australia and for your friends, but in this culture I would say I don't have a single friend or acquaintance whose family has not been touched, often violently, by alcohol or drug abuse. That's an astonishing thing to say - that a dysfunctional personality has been made more dysfunctional and caused unnecessary harm and perpetuated cruelty because of an addiction to alcohol or drugs. This is incredible. And we're mired in this to such an extent no one is saying 'How could such a high percentage of American families be so dysfunctional?'

It makes me think about how when you are a child you glory, quite unconsciously, in your imagination. But you also as a kind of protective sphere, find you can retreat into it. I think part of the process of becoming a writer involves bringing that imagination out into the light. At the same time a writer's dilemma is that there is always an essential element of the solitary. I think this can separate you from those people who are closest to you. Do you find this as a writer? That this is a dilemma?

"I don't know..."

Because your voice is very serene, but your voice is also very solitary. And there's a love of the solitary in the landscapes you enjoy - obviously in something like Arctic Dreams, or your attraction the [Australian] Tanami desert. Personally I have a real love of desert landscapes - and I often wonder about that love of the solitary in me and how it relates to my voice as a writer.

"Well an analogous thing to me would be this - and that is, people say to me 'How can you write as often as you do about community and yet be a person who is traveling all the time?' And I think about all the traveling that I did for that piece about air freighters ['Flight', in About This Life], scattering myself all over the world.

"But the example for me here in my home in Oregon is how the house sits on a big river in the mountains. There's salmon in that river, and they spawn on these gravel bars in front of the house. And when the salmon hatch in February they go off down this river and then another river and finally the Columbia and into the Pacific and then they're gone for three or four or five years, and when they come back they're huge fish. I don't know, because the mathematics of it is always a trick, but you are talking about a fish that is two inches long when it leaves and 40 inches long when it comes back. And they spawn here and they die.

"It took me forever to make the connection. I was always after myself, 'Well how can I be writing about community and place when I am always going away.' But the salmon are born here and they come here [again] to spawn and then they die. And it's very like that for me as a writer. I go off to Antarctica or Australia or some place and try to sojourn intelligently and then return home and write a piece about it. And then I go out again. I'm not a recluse. Or a person who doesn't enjoy human company. I'm not a gregarious person, I don't think - I just prefer a few companions in a place like the desert rather than a 100 people in the city. It's just my metier - it's just a place where I feel comfortable. But I have these questions about society in my mind all the time.

"I don't want to make too much of this, but I think traditionally - at least among native peoples - the ones who end up being the storytellers... are... part of what they do is stay in touch with a world that is... (sighs) I don't know... difficult to stay in touch, I guess. I don't know what I'm trying to say here. There's an enormous energy loose in the world and it passes through all of us. And some people who end up being writers or photographers or painters try to shape that energy through the techniques they have mastered or apprenticed themselves to. And make out of that energy a story. And so they stay attuned in their lives to that movement of energy through them. And for most artists that attunement requires some degree of solitariness - either in the reception or the creation..."

Interview by Mark Mordue

* This interview was first published in the Australian literary journal Westerly, Issue No. 3, 1999 and later republished at 12Gauge.com in the USA.

- Close up photo of Barry Lopez accessed from www.simonandschuster.com
- Rustic portrait of Barry Lopez by Matt Valentine - www.mattvalentine.com/writers/

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Healing Steps: Bangarra Dance Theatre (2003)

When Stephen Page's brother committed suicide a lot of things happened. They're still happening a year later, almost to the day, as the artistic director for Bangarra Dance Theatre prepares for the Sydney season of the company's latest show, Bush.

"It's the kind of ceremony," he says, "that I wanted to have for Russell when he died, but somehow couldn't have, or couldn't make happen, I don't know."

The absence of his inspirational lead dancer, let alone his younger brother, is no easy thing to ignore in a company that has flourished with Russell Page at the forefront since 1991. This year's Helpmann Award for Best Male Dancer, awarded to Russell posthumously for his role in Bangarra's 2002 show Walkabout, acknowledged yet another memorable performance among the many that mark him as one of the finest dancers to emerge in this country.

It's a mixed triumph. As Stephen Page says, Walkabout was "almost a sign of Russell taking his own life", although he also feels "Russell was unhappy for the last two years really."

His brother's suicide at age 34, in the early morning hours after Walkabout's closing night, is nonetheless shadowed by that show's strangely premonitory energy. In focusing on the devastated culture of Aboriginal people, on past and present trade-offs - exchanging flour and heroin for what was once a Dreamtime - Page and co-choreographer Frances Rings exposed the colonising, suicidal and, ultimately, genocidal forces at work in the contemporary indigenous consciousness. At Walkabout's centre were some flickering performances from Russell Page that were as disturbing as they were impressive - times when he seemed truly lost.

"Did I cause it?" Stephen Page asks. "Did I take him too far?"

These are not questions the older brother dispenses with lightly. They come in rippling, unanswerable moments beside the cold, sunlit waters of Sydney Harbour. A lot of our conversation is actually a series of questions from him to me, rather than the other way round. "What do you think depression is?" he asks at one stage. "Do you think it's our spirit trying to talk to us?"

When we meet at Bangarra's studio a little further along Wharf 2, I'm not expecting such a frank interview, even though we've known each other well for years. Page is weary and preoccupied, burdened by the dual pressures of producing a new work for Bangarra and maintaining his other position as the artistic director of the 2004 Adelaide Festival. His major concern for now, however, is his son Hunter's 10th birthday that weekend. "He wants it to have this MTV dirty pop type theme," Page says. "He's really got me into Justin Timberlake."

Cheered by talking about his son, Page also remarks on seeing Deborah Mailman recently, who he jokingly warns "not to turn into a TV icon like Denise Drysdale". Then he quickly says, "Oh no, don't put that in the story, she'll hate me forever!" before going on to praise her acting and her beauty, as well as her talents as a director and a writer, expressing his gratefulness for her "calling straight away when Russell passed".

Along with Mailman, Cathy Freeman and director Rachel Perkins, Page talks passionately about the "sympathy" that exists between a rising generation of Aboriginal leaders who are "like cultural shields".

Among those "shields" is Senator Aden Ridgeway, who was at a small but exclusive preview for Bangarra's sponsors the day before. "He'd just been at a party meeting and when we said hello he told me, 'I need some energy, brother,'" says Page. "We shook hands but I felt like I wanted to hug him. When I think back, I realise he was reaching out to me. I should have held him closer."

Before long, our talk circles back to his brother. Page says some people who "think" or "feel" they knew Russell - or who "loved him for his beauty or his talent, or admired him and maybe felt close to him" and "some people who know those people" - have openly blamed him for the suicide. He has had heard the "gossip", the "whispers".

It hurts. Beyond the intense communal bonds of indigenous life, Bangarra has been a family-driven enterprise to the core for more than a decade, from Stephen Page's choreography to their brother David's atmospheric musical scores and Russell's dynamism on stage. From a working class Brisbane family of 12 children, Page explains that "Russy was the youngest, number 12. I'm number 10. David is number eight (at age 42)."

He says the family was "just blown apart" by the death.

"It was a shock, a real shock. It wasn't like we were expecting it to happen."

When Page finally says, "Russell was responsible for Russell", you'd think he was cradling a baby rather than making any judgements. He just wishes his brother had "given himself more time to ask the right questions. I think he would have asked himself those questions if only he had waited longer".

"I really thought he could have danced till he was 90," says Page, 38. "The saddest thing is I know Russell wanted to choreograph a work for children. I hope I have some of his spirit in me to do that one day."

He's especially distressed for Russell's three children. Though he has told the eldest of them "sometimes in our clans we lose our father-leaders young. But you have a second father. Your father's brothers."

After all this heavy talk you might imagine Bush to be a sombre affair. Instead it's a joy, as Bangarra returns to the early vibrancy of a show like Ochres, drawing on a typically modern interpretation of the Dreamtime creation stories of north-eastern Arnhem Land. The compelling presence of Kathy Balngayngu Marika from Yirrkala, as guest performer and cultural consultant, is a highlight. Water emerges as an important theme, partly because Page describes Bush as "a cleansing ceremony". The dominant and serene female energy that emanates from the show is another aspect to this "healing".

"Russell had a lot of problems with Western macho energy. It pissed him off," Page says. "He had no ego about it. He was always trying to defeat it."

This softness leads me to suggest that his older brothers were somehow better able to cope with the pressures of success than Russell. Page pauses, then says, "Russell always got mixed up with the wrong energy. He had sympathy with followers. And yet he had the energy of a leader."

Bush shows the ensemble at its peak, as if the whole company has heard the call to pull together. When Russell died, his brother made sure every member of the company was given counselling. Within two weeks they were performing at the funeral. Page says he felt it would have been wrong to "let them all go into their own little caves and grieve". Later he also admits, "I was in my full-on optimistic mode, but I was so angry, too. I was determined to make this big traditional ceremony happen."

You sense that every step of the way Page was trying to make things right. In some ways, his most meaningful moment during that time was taking Russell's body by car from Sydney to Brisbane. "Russell loved driving up the coast whenever he travelled home. I thought it was important to do that. We stopped at places like Lennox Head where Russell would have stopped if he had been driving. So we could let his spirit go surfing there for 15 minutes."

Throwing himself back into work, Page was in New York representing the Adelaide Festival a month after the funeral. He shakes his head. While there he had a breakdown, contracted pneumonia and spent a month in hospital after developing a severe allergic reaction to antibiotics. He was put on drips and lost 12 kilograms.

"I think now it was my spirit respecting me; telling me it was OK to stop and cry. I could feel Russell with me in that hospital room every day. He was always smiling. I feel him with me all the time, really. I just had to stop blaming myself. I know Russell would have wanted me to keep going. And now here I am, doing it again."

- Mark Mordue

* This story was first published under the title 'Healing Steps' in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 19th 2003. Together with his fellow choreographer Francis Rings, Stephen Page is about to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of Bangarra Dance Theatre with 'Fire', a retrospective selection from a vast body of dance work the like of no other in this country, or for that matter the world.


= All portraits of Stephen Page by Gerald Jenkins.
~ Above at Alice Springs, August 19th 1999.
~ Below in Sydney, September 30th 1995.