The Weekend Australian Review, March 6-7, 2004 - cover
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The Weekend Australian, Review, March 6-7, 2004

Write a song for me

First there was the wild childhood, then the stints in jail, the women and the battles with alcohol. Along the way Robert Adamson discovered Bob Dylan, and a poet was born. He speaks with Murray Waldren on the eve of the release of his sensational autobiography

FROM the veranda of the house he shares with photographer Juno Gemes at the end of a road on a secluded headland abutting NSW's Hawkesbury River waterway, poet Robert Adamson and I watch ripples rock the houseboats and slap against oyster-bed fencings. Summer is stippling the river with meditative calm. As it is Adamson: not so long ago he would have been sloshing a cajoling slug of Jack Daniels or three into the visitor's cup. But today he's serving up tea and temperance.

Below us, his game-fishing runabout – a Haines Hunter he calls the "Holden Commodore of boats" – bobs at the jetty. Once he took me on a scenic river tour, revving through moody mists that lent the afternoon an Apocalypse Now edge. Everything was poetically persuasive until a changing tide trapped us mid-admiration and mid-river, straddling an oyster-lease hurdle. Chagrin ruled as he seesawed the boat free; today, the seesaw is more emotional as Adamson talks of memory found and candour reclaimed, of trauma met and catharsis obtained.

This is not the man I met in the 1970s. Then he was a coil of wiry tension, a force of taut dark curls who moved and mouthed at warp speed, crackling with an electricity that illuminated even as it threatened to short out into instant aggro.

Now he is 60. The curls have greyed, and the wrinkles that soften his face have been hard-earned. Thrice-married and a stepfather of three, he has survived one of the more complicated and volatile love lives in the contemporary literary scene. He has survived the effects of an alcoholic father and occasional family violence. He has survived boys' homes as a juvenile and terms in some of NSW's toughest prisons as a late teenager. He has survived car accidents and life-threatening illness. He has outstayed an addictive personality, overcoming alcoholism and substance abuse. Once a hell-raiser among hell-raisers ostensibly bent on self-destruction, he has mourned as friends such as poets Michael Dransfield and Vicki Viidikas and painters Brett Whiteley and John Dell succumbed.

Still, as Morris West once noted, longevity is its own reward; for 30 years, Adamson has hung in as a full-time poet, publishing, performing, proselytising, editing and above all enduring. Ten years ago he won the Christopher Brennan prize for lifetime achievement in literature; his CV includes a National Book Council Banjo Award and the NSW and Victorian premiers' poetry awards.

These days, the man that David Malouf has called "one of Australia's national treasures" is internationally recognised both for the romantic lyricism and the "beautiful and brutal" insights distilled into his 20 books of often transcendent clarity. In June, he'll be a guest at the Dublin Literary Festival, in July it's the Ledbury Festival, Britain's 10-day poetryathon, then a reading at London's Festival Hall. Prominent English imprint Bloodaxe will shortly publish his Reading the River, 224 pages of selected poems; later in the year, Birds & Baghdad, an anti-war poetry and etchings collaboration with artist Garry Shead, will be released.

But the biggest event on the Adamson horizon is Monday's publication of Inside Out, the autobiography that has taken him three years and a lifetime of angst to write. Few such tales are as well written or as engrossing: his is a pageturner that flows like the best of novels. The author's eye is ironically perceptive, the narrative – by Kafka out of Chaplin – laceratingly frank as he writes of institutional brutalities he encountered and of his own self-sabotaging personality.

Given his experiences, he's surprisingly compassionate, almost naively forgiving about the malice of others. As Robert Creeley (whom Adamson acknowledges as "probably the greatest poet in the world") writes of the book, his "story is one of miracles, of common dreams, of pain, separation and hard-earned triumph".

Overseas interest is a given; in the US, the Chicago Review ran a 10,000-word extract when it was a work in progress, and readers clamoured for more. British publication is at the sign-off stage, and there's significant European interest in translations. For any writer, these would be exciting times, yet Adamson is apprehensive: he has been unsparing in his personal candour, particularly about his time in prison.

Facing up to fact, he says, has changed his life – Gemes says that during the writing of the book, "it was like living with someone going through psychotherapy" – but he worries about who will read it, and for whom he was actually writing it. "Certainly not for my mother," he says wryly, "because she'll be embarrassed – 'It's all right to talk about your father, Robert,' she'll say, 'but you don't have to tell the whole world.' There's also a lot in it that she knows nothing about and she won't like me resurrecting it. I suspect she'd prefer my poetry, where it's not all true and she can say, 'Ah well, that's just him, he flirts with the truth, he's always doing that – who he's writing about is not really us.' "

He laughs and pours another cup of tea. "Juno asked Mum once what it was like having a poet as a son and she said, We don't know where he came from, probably outer space, we're just an ordinary family.' Then she pulled out photos of me as a schoolboy and said, 'Look, there he is, he's already got that criminal look in his eye.' And I said, 'Thank you very much, Mum.' Juno said, 'She's only being ironic,' and I said, 'No she's not.' I won't be sending her a copy. But Juno will."

He also dreads going down to Brooklyn, the capital of the Hawkesbury's close-knit fishing community: "Once some of the prison stuff comes out – the fishermen there just have no idea . . . I won't be able to face anyone."

Anyone else he worries about reading it? "Just about everyone I know, actually. For some of my rigidly straight friends, it will be the realisation of their worst dreams, particularly for those who analyse subtexts."

• • •

IN his recent book, Mangroves, Laurie Duggan confesses to wanting to "dress like Robert Gray,/ talk like Robert Dessaix,/ think like Robert Adamson". Adamson's poetry takes no prisoners in pursuing truth and perception. The irony is that it took a jail term to make the then dyslexic and minimally educated Adamson a poet.

"If I hadn't gone inside," he confirms, 'I'd probably be a pastry cook today or maybe involved in game fishing." Prison is where he first heard Bob Dylan, with whom he fell in life-long love. And where he decided he wanted to be a troubadour like his hero. So he wrote some lyrics and showed them to a visiting Jesuit. "I'm sony, Bob," the priest told him next time they met, "but these are not songs at all . . . they're poems, and good ones at that." It was the last thing Adamson wanted to hear. Then the priest gave him the poems of Gerard Manly Hopkins, and he was hooked.

Poetry and books helped ease him through his time, and later to keep him on the straight and narrow – relatively speaking. He became an integral member of the so-called generation of '68, a wave of young poets who revived Australian poetry amid recrimination and rock 'n' roll rebellion. It was the era of the Vietnam War and protest, of drugs and social experimentation, and the poetry wars of the time were bitter brawls where (mostly) metaphoric blood was spilled amid incestuous treachery and shifting alliances.

In 1970, Adamson helped launch a coup to annex the influential New Poetry magazine, which he edited until 1985 "except for the times I was too drunk and my wives did it". In 1988, he and Gemes established Paper Bark Press, which specialises in high-value productions. He has also become a feature writer for Fishing World, and he's as proud of his articles for it as he is of poems published in the Chicago Review. He loves the immediacy of it and the "no-bullshit" feedback. "It's not like poetry, it's real and coming out of reality."

Poetry and reality have always been difficult to reconcile. "It was never easy in real life to stand up and say, 'I am a poet' – people find it very hard to accept. Even those who are arts savvy. A few years ago, for instance, at a dinner at Neville Wran's I met Gough Whitlam, who asked me what I did. I said, 'I'm a poet.' He reeled back then looked down at me: 'I've never heard anybody say that. You don't call yourself a poet – isn't that up to other people to say?'

"I was flabbergasted. This was the guy who created the arts council, who of all the people in Australia you think should understand the arts. But he was shocked into disbelief. It felt just like dealing with my mother's 'When's he going to get a real job?'

"But if we believe there's a place in our society for poetry, then we have to stand up and be poets. We can't just hang out with friends at readings and get grants and think it's a good lurk. If we're serious, we have a role to play, and we have to put up with the hostility of those who consider us nothing but wastrels and frauds."

He finds then flourishes a picture with a Jonah-ish fish. Poetry of a different kind. "I don't really like fishing," he confesses, "but I do it in the same way I used to drink – it's an addiction, like a part of my genes. I can't question it or think about it but if I don't do it, I start going crazy. I'm doing it more now and more seriously because of Fishing World. There's a purpose and structure to it – I don't believe in catching fish and kissing them and letting them go, that's bullshit – once you've caught a fish, you've already tortured it and to let it then go is insane. I just kill them and give any excess catch to the locals."

We've moved into his office, just off the kitchen, past a sign requesting guests to "empty your empty oyster shells here". It's a high-ceilinged room awash with order, light and artworks, including some by Shead, Martin Sharp and Whiteley; two walls are covered with books, a plaster frieze marches in quasi-Egyptian idiosyncrasy near the ceiling. Naturally, Dylan is on the soundtrack. Adamson is carrying Toots, the half-Siamese, half-Burmese cat upon which he dotes and which in turns terrorises every other neighbourhood cat and dog, as he conducts a tour of his mementoes.

He's always had his heroes, American poet Robert Duncan high among them. And Dylan, who "saved my life – if not for him, I'd possibly be dead now". And his paternal grandfather whose death at 99 devastated Adamson. "He only died then because he got drunk and fell over," he says as we settle into armchairs like retired generals in a military club. "He couldn't write or read but he was wise, philosophical, serene."

Adamson is a raconteur with a keen eye for the quirky and an appetite for literary politics, but in the past he would censor or embellish his personal anecdotes to suit the sensibilities of his audience. When he began Inside Out, he says, "I wanted it to be accessible to anyone – I promised myself it would be honest and readable.

"Then I realised something about my poetry that shocked me because for the last 30 vears I've been writing it in a way I thought was uncompromising. I'm in, I hope, a group of poets doing new things in poetry – but that means you're not writing for an audience so much as for other poets, in my case, maybe six in the world. So I thought, 'OK, with this book that peer group's gone.' Then I realised that that attitude had probably hampered me as a poet, thinking 'We're on the cutting edge, and if people can't understand, too bad.' "

In his poetry he uses personas, "but in the book, the character was me. I couldn't make it up, I'd already lived the plot, I just had to focus on how I was going to say it." Trouble was, he couldn't find his voice: "I just wrote notes and episodes [until] it became this nightmare of unrelated pieces in jigsaw tones."

The breakthrough came a year later when Australian Author editor Anne Summers asked him to write about writing his autobiography for her magazine. "I forgot the book and just began, 'When I was in jail, I wrote my first poem.' Then I thought, 'When did I write that? Ah, after I was in solitary.' So I wrote that. And I suddenly thought, 'Shit, that's it – the voice has just happened.' I described what it was like in the prison exercise yard, what it was like when I cut my wrists in attempting suicide – and the voice was mine. And when it came, I just wrote and wrote."

A year before he started Inside Out, his father died and Adamson wrote a 1000-word eulogy focusing on his qualities, his hard work, his vegetable garden. "But now I started writing about what his hands were like after working in the brickyards all day and drinking beer all night. And the more I got the facts right, the more story I had, so I dug out the family photographs and each one was like a door opening into a room. I didn't embellish and I didn't take out the bad bits because what was bad for one person was a good bit for someone else."

Sitting behind his desk without an audience between midnight and dawn, "I'd be reliving my life. And when I got to parts that I'd never actually spoken about before – like when I had an accident as a teenager in a stolen car and injured myself and my passenger – to write it was a relief. When I reread the words describing what had started off as a prank in a Crows Nest milkbar in the '50s and turned into this terrible tragedy, I just burst out crying.

"In the past, if I were to think of that accident it was usually when I was under stress, and if I was under stress it usually meant some kind of drug or alcohol was involved. If the memory came, I'd just have another bottle of Jack Daniels and get all sentimental or morbid and stop doing anything for a month thinking about what an arsehole I am. This was the first time I realised it really was an accident and not me who caused it."

He also discovered he had photographic recall, "something I'd never have believed possible, I used to tell people, 'I have the worst memory, I can't remember my childhood before I was 10.' I'd convinced myself it was true. But when I started this, I began to remember and it was Dad getting drunk, and all this abuse –I'd just talked myself into believing I had a bad memory."

In Inside Out, Adamson recalls with startling clarity his childhood traumas and the incidents that led to his frequent incarceration. Often his offences had Keystone Cops overtones, including the time his obsession with birds, more specifically the Ptilorus magnificus or riflebird, became a criminal catalyst. He yearned to add one to his aviary and so "liberated" a specimen from Taronga Park Zoo in a midnight raid. No criminal mastermind, he landed in a juvenile home. His situation was not helped by a pathological willingness to confess to everything, to the point of helping stymied cops "clean up" unsolved crimes. By 19 his record included "car theft, fraud, break and entry charges, carnal knowledge, theft of fishing gear, bird and bird-watching equipment". Interred in some of Australia's worst prisons – throwbacks to the convict era – he had landed in a Dantean nightmare where survival was all. His jailhouse techniques included empathy, submission, resistance and reinvention, including, at one point, adopting a transgender persona to con his way into protective custody. "I plucked my eyebrows, shaved my legs and practised walking like a queen . . . I started talking in what I thought was a trannie's tone of voice, softly and with the words more carefully pronounced."

He has always advocated the primacy of the imagination, taking as his credo Wallace Stevens's maxim, "The imagination, the one reality in this imagined world". Perhaps, he suggests, "that was part of suppressing so much of my past. When I was drinking, all this stuff would flow out like poison and hurt those around me as I raved in a drunken rage because I had no control over the material. But it's so ironic – I've fought for poems of the imagination as being of more value than those using reportage or reality and now I've discovered I'm better at writing about reality."

He's also discovered "just who I am. I certainly feel different, and I'm doing different things. In the six months since I finished the book, I haven't gone to see anyone or rung people up. This is totally against character – I used to be on the phone all the time. I've became isolated but it's not negative. When I was writing, I'd send chapters to Creeley, to Dorothy Hewitt before she died and Malouf for feedback, but once I finished, I stopped contact with everyone."

For the first time in his life, he reflects, "I've lost the need to please people. It's kind of liberating. At the same time it feels wrong because if you don't nourish your network of friendships, it will suffer.

"But I can't help it –once I'd got through writing about the prison years, I began to feel different. I did have nightmares for months afterwards but I stopped getting headaches – all my life I've had migraines but not a single one since I finished the prison section." And he smiles again, with just an edge of bewilderment.

Ahead lies part two of the Adamson story – this edition ends with publication of his first poetry collection – and he knows that will be especially gruelling. There's the black years of alcoholism to face, while the cast of those he has loved and fought is vast, iconic and unforgiving. But he relishes the task: if the first part is any indication, the next episode will be beneficial beyond boundaries.

This article reprinted from The Weekend Australian Review. © The Australian 2004