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Monday, May 2, 2011

Martin Langford: on Poetry

Martin Langford: on poetryInterview 
Martin Langford has published six books of poetry, the most recent being The Human Project: New and Selected Poems (Puncher and Wattmann, 2009). In 2009, he edited Harbour City Poems: Sydney in Verse 1788-2008 (Puncher and Wattmann). He has directed the Australian Poetry Festival three times, and was instrumental in initiating the Australian Young Poets' Fellowships and the Judith Wright Memorial Lectures. 

This week Jacqui Dent catches up with him about the love of poetry, beginner mistakes, the things he has learned and how to get into the scene. 

The Human ProjectJD: What is it you love about poetry?
ML: To begin with, I love the exploration of ideas. If science is an attempt to explain the world using external measures, then poetry - all literature - is an attempt to say what that looks like from the inside of the head. Beyond that, poetry attempts to express what we feel about what we think. If I just wanted the intellectual content, I would go to philosophy, or cultural studies, or some other discipline. But I like the way art says it isn't enough to find out what one thinks: one is human - one must also discover what that feels like. Beyond that again, I love the materiality and musicality of language - more than just finding out what I feel about meanings, I want them to be sung.

Another thing I love revolves around the difference between the way story and poetry operate. It is a legitimate thing for poets to explore narrative, and many poets do, but most verse is still grounded in the lyric. Whereas story leads only to its end, and does not attempt to imagine anything beyond it, poetry is interested precisely in what does lie beyond. If story looks back towards its beginning, or forward towards its end, then the poem looks outwards, towards the moment. There is a limit to my interest in stories - after a while, one gets the hang of them. But the moment is endlessly fascinating. I am not suggesting we can do away with story: we live in them - and we weigh and assess their meanings, and that is often where the real interest lies. But I do think we've got the balance between story and moment a little wrong: we are obsessed by our narratives, and their changes in position, and we forget to ask where we are. Poetry is one way of looking at things differently.

What are three common mistakes you often see in the work of beginner poets?
One could say that the commonest fault is getting an idea in one's head about what constitutes poetry, and then writing to conform to that. But the real issue is that beginners don't have enough ideas about what poetry might be, so that they set to work with too small a range of poetics to test their work against. An experienced writer has a head full of ideas about what poetry is, and applies them continually, both when shaping the poem - and, eventually, when conceiving it as well. Much of this is a reading issue: as people read more, they see there are lots of ways to construct poems, and start to build their own more complex poetic.

Second: beginners are often too precious about being prepared to let go of the parts of the poem that don't really fit.

Thirdly, and related to that, is the point that reading for necessity rather than effect is at least partly an acquired skill: one which must be mastered before people can work out what they are actually saying. Beginners need to develop this ability as soon as possible. Until one can reduce the poem to essentials, one cannot really set about shaping it - the extraneous stuff will keep getting in the way.
Martin Langford
Martin Langford
What do you do when you get stuck writing?
If the conscious mind isn't doing the trick, then I'm a great believer in leaving something alone for a while - sleeping on it, setting it aside for long enough to get out of the unproductive groove one has got oneself into, and coming back to it with fresh, forgetful eyes.

What's one thing you've learned, and one thing you still need to learn as a poet?
I don't think I've learned anything other people haven't figured out as well - that good readers make good writers, for instance; that reading, by itself, isn't enough. Sometimes I'm not sure I know anything definite. Trivial things perhaps: my preferred work habits, some craft things, the parameters of my tastes. But ultimately I'm not sure we know much more about writing than we do, say, about gestures of goodwill: we keep making them, they can go to the heart of who we are, but whether they are good, or effective . . .

One thing I'd like to learn is how to negotiate a relationship between the somewhat anarchic need to engage with the world around one - the world which sources all but the most cerebral writing - and the discipline required to construct a text. If one doesn't leave part of one facing outwards, away from the desk, then one grows stale very quickly. Equally though, one must be disciplined, or nothing gets written. I don't think there are any answers to this. At its heart is the difference between two worlds - one verbal and one not. And the poem is the interface between them - and unfortunately, it has to be invented again every time one starts a new one.

What can emerging poets do to raise their profile and become more involved in the Australian poetry scene?
There are many ways one can raise one's profile - not all of them honourable. One can become a member of a gang which publishes each other's work and reviews it favourably. One can spend a lot of time attacking other perspectives as a way of creating space for one's own. It would be less than honest to suggest that all the behaviour of ambitious people is genteel. That said, the poetry world also contains some of the most generous people one is likely to meet, and since the only thing that matters in the long run is that one creates work which speaks to someone else's imagination, the surest tactic, ultimately, is simply to produce good work. Will you find a readership just by producing something worth reading? No: there are fashions, circumstances and tastes to negotiate as well. But it is the only thing that will matter in the long run: all the ruses of self-advancement will evaporate over time. There are no hidden tricks to raising one's profile: enter the competitions, get yourself published, make something your own. How hard one wishes to play this will depend on one's personality. There are people, however, who spend more time worrying about it than asking themselves the hard questions about their work - ultimately, because it is easier, though it may not really be the most productive way to spend their time.

As to ways to become involved in the scene: finding good people will partly depend on the reading and curiosity one brings to the table oneself. But there are a surprising number of places where people who enjoy poetry can share that taste: join Australian Poetry, go to readings, form a readers' group, take a creative writing class, edit a blog or magazine. One of the best ways of becoming more involved is to become an organizer oneself. Not all, but almost all well-known poets have at some stage devoted considerable time to organising, editing or publishing themselves.  

Martin Langford will be teaching For the Beauty of the Edge: A Six-Week Poetry Workshop starting Tuesday 3 May. But hurry, only two places left!   


Anonymous said...

A man who smiles is a friend of all the world, so who is this geyser?

Anonymous said...

Smile, and the world smiles with you...but don't let it get you down if you don't feel like it today.

Anonymous said...

You're either with us... or without us!