An interview with Anthony Lawrence

Hobart : early 2001


Pete Hay takes the microphone as he prepares to introduce Richard Flanagan. The venue is Hobart's Republic Bar, where Flanagan is set to launch Anthony Lawrence's novel In the Half Light. Hay says that the two men about to appear 'can write the pants off nearly everyone in Australia,' and notes the passions they share which include a love of fishing. 'Though Flanagan's approach to fishing is somewhat more functional in that he's more interested in the size of the catch.'

Yet for Anthony, fishing isn't only about the catch: it's far more a lifestyle choice with the various shards of his experiences finding an inevitable way into his writing. Of his many pursuits, the passion for rod and reel is by far the riskiest. He recalls an incident off the Hippolytes.

'We found our boat surrounded by a school of dolphins. There were at least fifty of them, swimming, diving all around us. They were everywhere. I couldn't help myself, I stripped and joined them and spent an amazing half an hour in their presence. It was truly memorable.

'Suddenly, they were gone. Just ... took off, disappeared. I didn't know what to make of it. I began shivering. Felt cold. I swam back to the boat. "Help me in Richard". "My god mate, you're white as a sheet, what's the matter?" "I don't know."

'But we turned to see, a little behind us, what seemed maybe the dorsal fin of a sunfish. "Let's take a look.' It was this great white pointer, four or five metres, just lolling there languid. As big as the boat. He wasn't hungry, no threat at all. But I felt weak, thinking how I'd been treading water twenty-five feet away from a big white. No wonder the dolphins left, they weren't taking any chances.'

Six collections of Anthony's poetry have appeared since he began to write. The first followed fourteen years of perseverance as he read, wrote and soaked up the cultures of (in particular) Australian and American poetries.

I asked him about the poets he'd read in those years, the books he revisited, the ones he's reading now.

'The ones I go back to? ... there are so many. Robert Lowell's Life Studies, the selected poems of Philip Levine, Philip Hodgins' Selected Poems, The Gold Cell by Sharon Olds, W.S. Merwin's books, Robert Adamson's Swamp Riddles, Judith Beveridge, James Dickey's Collected Poems, and Richard Hugo's sprawling, breathtaking Making Certain It Goes On. At present I'm reading HMS Belfast, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities (Delmore Schwartz) and I'm dipping in and out of The Best American Poetry, 2000.'

As someone who deals with words for a living, I wondered about encountering unexpected words and phraseologies in the work of fellow writers ... does it bring him joy?

'Les Murray says something about being stopped in his tracks, while reading poems, and asking "Now why did the poet do that?" This happens all the time. It's part of the code-breaking. When a word or phrase appears that's arresting, it does two things: it challenges my perceptions of seeing/hearing/feeling, and it moves me into new territory. By this I mean an altered state of awareness that's akin to an extended daydream, where all my senses conspire to provide fertile and syntactically engaging words or lines. It happens rarely, but when I'm there I tend to make the most of it, for days sometimes.'

How does he compare his poetry of ten years ago with that of today?

'Ten years ago I was probably satisfied with the well-crafted poem. I still am, of course I am, but now I want there to be a little more light and air between the lines, more room (for a reader and for myself) to move around in. I'm heading for a book-length poem, and I'm looking forward to reaching that book. More risk, not with subject matter, but with form and rhythm.'

I mentioned something Vikram Seth once said, that people often have a picture of themselves that's about five years out of date -- not just in terms of their profession, but in the way they see themselves physically, mentally etc. Anthony agrees it's a fair point, and endemic among the literati.

'I guess a lot of people have a photo they feel is representative/attractive/... and they use it, no matter that it's ancient. W.S. Merwin was using the same photo for about twenty years. It shows a young man wearing a speckled pullover with wild curly hair and a broad grin strolling I think it was over a bridge. This photo appeared on the back of a book when the guy was about 60. His last collection reveals a man in his mid-seventies with short white hair, the same lovely smile, and a weathered face. I guess it's largely because we don't update our photos regularly. Also, where one photo is formaldahye, another might be acid.'

The release of his novel has enhanced a national, and international reputation. I asked if becoming a public figure interfered with the privacy of his writing by making him self-conscious about his work.

'I try not to let anything interfere with my privacy/my writing time. This has been a cause for alarm, where relationships and my own wellbeing are concerned, so I do have to be vigilant. It's a balancing act, and I've never been much good at it. I'm trying. Self conscious? I'm only in that space when I'm nearing the end of a poem. That's when I can sit back and employ my critical faculties with "a cold eye". These days, if someone asks me what I do, I say I'm a writer and teacher. If they dig deeper, I'm prepared to talk about it, but ultimately I find most discussion of my career, at least in general terms, quite tedious. I much prefer to sit around with writers or lovers of poetry and read our favourite poems, or talk about technique. That's a wonderful thing to do.'

Throughout his work is ample evidence of the centrality of poetry in his life.

'Neil speaks about / hunting and fishing the way I speak / about poetry: rapid fire, the latest models.'; and 'I've got a flask of tea, biscuits, / and a new anthology of Kiwi poetry.'

I asked about the thrill of the immediacy he finds in poetry, about what he typically seeks from within the covers of a new anthology or collection.

'The only immediacy I find is that amazing wave of recognition that breaks inside me when I read a wonderful poem,' he says. 'There's no immediacy when it comes to craft. It's a slow process. As to what I might find: I'm not looking for anything in particular. I'm hoping to find a new voice, someone who can amaze me, and I'm excited to be opening a new book. It's that simple. I'll never lose the thrill of scanning new pages. It's mainlining poetry, and that's a habit I don't want to kick.'

Novelist Suneeta Peres da Costa, living in Sydney a couple of years ago, said she'd little time for loneliness as she wrote her first novel. Surrounded by her characters' imaginary presences, her flat didn't seem that big and empty, '... there are so many characters here. From the novel, from future novels ... too many people sometimes.' I asked to what extent Anthony's characters inhabited his head as he wrote In the Half Light.

'They became a major focus, at various times, during the writing. The main character, James Molloy, was a constant presence, whenever I had to sit down and return to the story, mainly because he was central to the novel's theme, but also because I saw in him a human compass for the emotional and physical geography of the book. Through James, characters appeared and announced themselves. James was fairly perigrinatory, from an early age. He located people, in all sorts of situations, and they either remained in the story or faded quickly. Those that remained stayed in my head. I felt a responsibility and need to take them as far as I could. Although, as Anne Sexton said 'Need is not quite belief.' I saw them and heard them as if they were in a movie, and I wrote down what they did and said. It was a very strange, mostly wonderful experience.'

With poetry, he says, there's rarely an extended focus on character.

'I'm speaking from my own work here, of course. Many poets have written book-length poems or long sequences where character is crucial to the narrative. I'm thinking of Dorothy Porter's The Monkey's Mask, Les Murray's Freddie Neptune and Alan Wearne's The Night Market as three examples. There are many more. Working on a poem is completely different to working on a novel. With poetry, I work very slowly, word by word, line by line, with (mostly) absolutely no idea of where I'm going. I don't care. Direction takes care of itself, thematically and technically. I trust my imagination and love of language to get me there. Music is what I hear, and I go under its spell. I'll work on a poem for days or weeks, and watch as it reveals itself in stages. I think it's dangerous to establish a theme and then try to write to it. Endings are always difficult, though I know when it's over. The only similarity to fiction is in the rewriting. Crafting syntax is something I adore, but again, with poetry, the process is magnified and amplified, and very slow.'

Reviews of In the Half Light have been consistently positive. But increasingly, the role of reviewer - and the quality of reviews - are subject to criticism. Does he often come across a genuinely original response to his work?

'I've been fortunate in that I've had lots of positive responses to my work. But I think that the type of reviews you refer to are becoming an endangered species in Australian poetry. It seems that reviewers are often afraid to engage with the work on any technical level at all, and a lot of reviewers avoid being critical. They can be generous with praise, but use subterfuge to sidestep negativity. This does no-one any good. I've had bad reviews. I've had spleen-removers. There have been reviews which were transparent in their attacks on me personally, and others from which I've learned a great deal. Judith Beveridge, who is a friend, wrote a review of the New & Selected for Heat a couple of years ago. Judith wrote to me prior to the review coming out, and warned me that she'd said some things which I might find hurtful. She was right, but she was engaging directly with the poetry, and I found her comments to be salient to aspects of my writing which I've since focussed on: being too self-referential, as far as the actual writing-process goes, is one thing I'm being vigilant about. As a reviewer, I try to find a balanced assessment of the work. If I encounter bad writing, I want to talk about it, and define my reasons. I'm trusting that the poet will see my criticisms for what they are: the concerns of someone who loves poetry and cares enough about it to take a deep breath, break the meniscus, and swim.'

Critics and reviewers occasionally touch on a sense of 'religiosity' or 'spirituality' in the work of particular writers. John Kinsella in an article for the Sydney Morning Herald this year referred to Anthony Lawrence's 'almost spiritual dialogue'. I wondered at the qualities in the work deserving of the tag and whether he felt comfortable at his work being identified in this way?

'The word religion carries so much weight, and a lot of it's negative, especially when aligned with what we know of prescriptive Western religion. Personally, I'm comfortable with the term, when it's applied to my work. I have a sense that it's not defining the poetry in any narrow sense. I've heard it several times. Tom Flood thinks I'm a religious poet. Now, coming from Tom, I know that he's not labelling the work as being stamped with a Godhead or icons from the Gospels. And neither is John Kinsella. People have said, in reviews and in conversation, that there is a profound connection between landscape, fauna and human emotion in many of my poems - that they mirror each other, and reveal rhythms of the mortal creaturely life which we share with fish, snake, bird, fox.... If this is true, then I have achieved something special, and important, because this is how I feel when I'm in the bush, being vigilant and aware of its denizens, or when I'm at my desk, going back there in my head. Luke Davies wrote to me recently, responding to having read the New & Selected Poems. He said that he found '... the ability to create, side by side with the psychic and physical landscapes least amenable to human presence, a sense of comfort, and the pumping of the heart.' I'm not so sure about the sense of comfort, but the pumping of the heart is accurate. Writing poetry is a very physical act. I write with my whole body. I break bread with myself.'

It isn't only fishing and poetry that absorb him. Anthony's equally as comfortable in the kitchen, hosting a dinner party, relaxing to music. A year or two ago Andrew Sant threw a party with guests contributing, not a plate, but selections of music they held dear. Among Anthony's choices was a CD by The Schramms. His interest in their music is etched into his listening habits these days, stemming from a 1994 writing fellowship in Italy where he stayed at the B.R. Whiting studio in Rome.

'I found a CD called 'Little Apocolypse' by The Schramms at a local music shop. I overheard it while browsing, and had to have it. The singer/songwriter's name is Dave Schramm. He's got a voice that's a cross between early Mick Jagger and John Prine. His arrangements are quirky, captivating and often beautiful. They use guitars, Wurlizer and Hammond organs, drums, bass, cello, violin... I was so amazed, particularly by the lyrics, that I wrote to the band care of the address on the back of the CD. I didn't hear anything for about six months, and then a letter arrived, thanking me for writing. I sent Dave Schramm a copy of Cold Wires of Rain and then a box arrived one day with all their CDs and a Schramms t-shirt. These days we correspond occasionally via email. 'Walk to Delphi' and 'Little Apocalypse' are masterpieces of acoustic rock music.'

'I used to write to people a lot. James Dickey, Mary Oliver, Robert Bly, Philip Levine. I phoned James Dickey one night, from a phone box in Perth. I had no idea what time it was in Carolina. I had $20 in dollar coins. I went through international directories and found his number. It was some horrible hour there. He said 'You're calling from Australia?' 'Yes.' 'You a poet?' 'Yes.' 'That'd be right,' he said, and we talked until the coins ran out.'

In Katherine Gallagher's words, there's nothing lonelier than a poet without a book. Being constantly on the writer's circuit, Anthony's in a position to meet many an emerging poet. Does he identify with the difficulties they face?

'Of course I have empathy with those who are trying to find a place for their work. It's a tough climate in which to work, these days. In some ways it's harder than when I first started writing poems and sending them out to magazines. It seems there are many more young poets wanting to publish their work now. Of course, that may well be rubbish - I didn't have contact with anyone, in the mid-seventies, when I was hunting acceptance slips from editors. I simply believed that I'd be able to get published, and so sent things away. My letterbox was constantly full of letters and returned poems. I think I knew three poets, though we rarely met or talked. It took me fourteen years of serious practice and wide reading before my first book came out. That was a marvellous but frustrating time. People would ask me what I did, and I'd say 'I'm a writer'. What do you write? 'Poetry'. Are you published? And I'd talk about magazines and newspapers, and long for the appearance of a book. A published collection gives you the ticket. It makes things real. I knew that it would happen, I just didn't know when. These days, with so many people wanting to be published and with so few publishers willing to take on a poetry list, times are hard. Self-publishing is alright, but distribution becomes almost non-existent.'

'Among the newer poets in Australia, the work of Felicity Plunkett, Cassie Lewis and Michael Farrell stands out. Kate Fagan ... a wonderful mind. I also like a lot of what Luke Davies is doing. Kathryn Lomer's first book, when it appears, will make a big splash. I think she's a very fine poet with a remarkable ear for rhythm and for knowing just where to end a line.'

Scottish poet Roddy Lumsden delineates a difference between enjoyment and admiration: says there's a difference between liking 'poets' and liking 'poems', that there are many poets he enjoys but doesn't admire and vice versa.... I wondered if Roddy's views struck a chord.

'There seems to be two parts to your question. I've never thought about the difference between liking poets but not their poems. The two are completely separate. But when I think of a poet like Mary Oliver ... when I consider her work as a whole, over several marvellous books, the sense I have of her work is that I like it very much, for its calm observations of the natural world, for her ability to marry the workings of the body with the spirit, and place them into environments that can be equally safe and hostile. But there are many individual poems of hers that annoy and frustrate me; poems that make me say: 'I wish you'd stop doing that' or 'You're saying the same thing, but this time there's a crane, not a wolverine in the grass' '.

'I also think Roddy Lumsden is talking about enjoying or admiring the particular way a poet might take risks with language, creating something tricky from a string of ideas... I've heard and read poets say that they enjoy Seamus Heaney but don't admire a lot of what he's written. This may well be political. I don't have a stance on this. If I like someone's work, personality has nothing to do with it, and the words 'enjoy' and 'admire' go into the same fog.'

Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney's name often crops up when talk turns to delineations between 'mainstream' and 'avant-garde'. On the British Poets e-mail list in May 1999, the comment made was that mainstream seemed 'absolutely useless as a term of definition', reeking of closed mindedness. It struck a raw nerve with Anthony, who was moved to add a response of his own, two words: 'and bitterness'. I asked for Anthony's views on the mainstream / avant-garde divide, and where he felt his own work slotted in.

'In terms of the avante-garde, yes, I'm a mainstream poet. It's interesting to note that many of the so-called avant-garde poets who were/are/complaining about the mainstream during that heated debate have no publisher - or if they do, that publisher is very small with limited distribution. They say that this is not a problem, and I seem to recall at least one poet saying that they'd never publish with Faber or Bloodaxe. I thought that was fine, but there was an undercurrent of viciousness that was palpable. Personally, I don't care one way or the other. I'm interested in poetry, and poetics, not aligning myself with a particular group or faction. The (leading) mainstream poets in the UK and Ireland are those with Faber, Bloodaxe, Picador. They have a wide readership, and their poetry is largely accessible and lyrical. The avant-garde flies an ensign of experimentation and risk-taking with language. This is to be celebrated, but the audience is going to be smaller. It's just the way it is. But it's often only that way for a time. History reveals that what's seen to be outrageous or opaque for one generation can become the mainstream of the next. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry still has its exponents and disciples. It's not for me, because I find the whole notion of poetry that's against closure and to a large extent the use of metaphor perplexing and very boring. I've read the poetics and poems of Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman. Boring. These guys don't do it for me. But this is purely a matter of taste. Some people think they're brilliant.'

'For some, the mainstream means 'safe' and 'predictable'. I think this is a narrow view. Someone like Seamus Heaney or Les Murray - these poets are accessible, but it's the way they use language that sets them apart from most poets who write about similar (in their case often rural) things. The avant-garde can be a smokescreen for poets who deliberately set out to be experimental and ground-breaking. To write that way, and not be self-referential or clinical about it is great. To want to be seen/known/as an avant-garde poet because it's fashionable is to fertilise the page and reading public with bullshit. I'm a mainstream poet with the occasional spark of the avant-garde. At least that's what some people have told me. I don't think about it.

As I said, I'm interested in writing and reading poetry, not whether it's mainstream, backwater, or avant-garde.'

Anthony is one of a small number of Australian poets who manage to make a living from their craft. He's moved beyond the need to fall back on occasional teaching stints to keep him afloat. Most recently he won the lucrative Josephine Ulrich Award (Queensland). Financial independence comes as a welcome change. He taught creative writing within the NSW prison system some six or seven years ago, but it's not a job he'd willingly return to. I asked why he'd found the experience so negative, and for his thoughts on our increasingly privatised prison system.

'I don't feel qualified to discuss, in depth, the Australian prison system, or any prison system. Our society cares for prisoners by feeding them, giving them shelter and providing various forums for rehabilitation. Depending on the level of security, a prisoner's rights can range from watching television and playing pool to working in the garden or paddock. Private prison system? It's another name for incarceration, where the cells and recreation areas might be bright and spacious, but the razor wire's still overhead. Someone's going to be making a lot of money out of locking people away. The suits paying the suits to monitor the cages.'

'I worked at Lithgow gaol, teaching creative writing. I worked in the protection unit. Michael Murphy, John Glover, Rod Cameron and others were in my class. These men are responsible for some of Australia's most horrific murders. I felt safe in their presence because I was wearing a duress button - one press and I'd have armed guards in the room within seconds. I was worn down by the claustrophobic nature of the unit. Low ceilings, narrow corridors, bare-bulbed lighting. That, and being in the presence of unrepentant men really got to me. I had to quit.'

On leaving New South Wales some five years ago, Anthony settled in Hobart. He lives in a quiet, one-way street a block from Poets Road. Sarah Day, another member of Hobart's vibrant but relatively small writing community, lives a hundred metres down the same street.

Janet Turner Hospital, interviewed once, said 'there is a part of me which only feels at ease in transit, because wherever I stop briefly I am conscious of not fitting, of not quite belonging...' I asked Anthony whether he felt anchored here, or if he ever felt the urge to leave.

'I used to feel that way,' he said. 'I've moved around a lot, over the years, and I've lived in many rural and urban locations, here and overseas. The desire to move is ebbing. I'm not saying that complacency has hobbled me, it's more that I'm a father now, and my responsibilities are here, with my son, and with my work. I love Hobart. I do get the urge for going, as Joni Mitchell says, but this is a fleeting thing. Suburbia is what's frustrating me. I'm looking forward to finding a couple of acres by the sea somewhere, sometime. It might be in Tasmania. It might be on the south coast of New South Wales. There are things I have to do here. I'm slowing down, as far as being perigrinatory is concerned. The borders are open, but I'm not in a hurry to cross them.'

Be that as it may, I couldn't quite take Anthony at his word. I've occasionally heard him discuss the places Ireland ... Italy - he's keen to return to. In lieue of places, I asked about people. Who, beyond our shores, would he enjoy meeting?

'If I could head overseas again I'd like to sit beside Emily Dickinson's grave and read one of her own poems aloud:

ample make this bed
make this bed with awe
in it, wait till judgement break
excellent and fair
be its mattress straight
be its pillows round
let no sunrise' yellow noise
interrupt this ground

'I did that in the protestant graveyard in Rome, surrounded by rabid cats. I read a Keats poem to Keats and a Shelley poem to Shelley, although I prefer to call them Sheets and Kelly. A little touch of Ciaran Carson, who says 'Protholics and Catestants'. Seriously though, Carson is one poet I'd love to talk with. He's a wonderful, risky, musical genius. His book The HMS Belfast is one of the most incredible collections I've read in years. He's a storyteller with generous lyrical gifts, and he's written some chilling and simultaneously humorous poems about the British occupation of Northern Ireland. That sounds strange, I know, but they're small, finely crafted black comedies.'

'Other writers? That are alive? Seamus Heaney, Robert Creeley, Ai, Sharon Olds, Kathleen Raine. Of the novelists, there'd be Milan Kundera, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje. Those Canadians! I met and spent some time with Leonard Cohen, in 1981 in Greece. That was a major part of me becoming a serious writer.'