OzLit website (Originally broadcast 2RES-FM Monday Arts Live October 3, 1994)

John Davies interviews Robert Adamson

I'm Meredith Symonds and I'd like to introduce you to one of our literary reviewers, John Davies, who is a writer, critic, and poet.

He has written reviews for numerous publications including Nation Review, Art & Australia, The National Times, and Australian Book Review. His poems have been broadcast on Radio National and 2RRR-FM and published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Melbourne Age and Canberra Times to name just a few. His first collection of poems, Paper Cuts, has just come out in the Medal Series Poets published by Monash University and tonight he is in the studio with Robert Adamson. Welcome to the show Robert.
Robert is described as possibly one of Australia's greatest lyric poets. Robert's tenth book of poetry has just been published and launched. It is called Waving to Hart Crane.

And – a special welcome to you too John so I'll hand over to you.
Thank you Meredith.

Robert Adamson published his first book, Canticles On the Skin, in 1969. Other titles since then include The Rumour, Across the Border, Where I Come From, The Land at Heart's Desire, The Clean Dark, and an autobiographical novella, Wards of the State. As early as 1970 he was included in Thomas Shapcott's anthology of Australian Poetry Now. In 1979 he was in John Tranter's anthology The New Australian Poetry. By 1988 he was editing the bi-centennial anthology Australian Writing Now. Awards he has received include the Kenneth Slessor Award and the CJ Denis Prize.

All along he has been active as an editor and publisher. He edited the magazine New Poetry. He is a director and editor of Paper Bark Press. His work has been translated into seven languages including Russian and Chinese.

A volume of his selected poems appeared in 1989. Welcome Robert again.
Hi – how are you?
You once wrote 'Freedom comes in having no vast plan' – you've accomplished a great deal...
That sounds good doesn't it?
Was there never a vast plan?
I don't know whether I meant that – Yeah there was a sort of a plan – Yeah I think there was definitely a plan – Well I guess the plan was to write poetry and publish books and make a living from writing poetry. That was a pretty ambitious plan I guess...
You were very conscious from the beginning that the kind of poetry you were writing was very different to what was being written about by other people. Describe the climate at the time when you began, the kind of other writers who were established...
Well – I started writing – probably in the early 60s and by say '65-'66 I had read most of the poetry that had been published – certainly in the 20 years prior to that. The poets that were popular then were people like Rodney Hall, Tom Shapcott, David Malouf, Dorothy Hewett – a lot of them are writing novels now. And – and they were the more adventurous ones. The other poets were people like Douglas Stewart. A.D. Hope was still publishing then, and Judith Wright. And the poets that really excited me were – one of them was in Callan Park – Francis Webb – and Randolph Stow I think had already left Australia and gone to England. They were in a sort of mess at that stage – I think Randolph Stow was addicted to some kind of prescription drugs and hiding – and they said Francis Webb was schizophrenic. He was certainly in a confused state. I used to go and visit him in Callan Park. They were really – to me they were the best poets those two writing in those days but it wasn't very encouraging because, well, they weren't getting far were they? All the poets that were successful really were academics or retired professionals of some kind.
There was a comment I heard recently – at one of the functions for this new book – Angelo Loukakis commented on your 'disruptive intelligence'. And there was another line I found in a poem 'There has to be a fight / I can't imagine anything when I'm not up against a law?' Do you still feel disruptive? Do you mean to be?
I guess so! It's just that if you're not disruptive everything seems to be repeated endlessly – not so much the good things but the bland things – the ordinary things – the weaker things get repeated – the stronger things get suppressed and held down and hidden. Those good examples Francis Webb and Randolph Stow who weren't able to continue writing exciting poetry – they were dissuaded in one way or another, and eventually marginalised. Francis Webb is easily our greatest poet and one of the greatest poets in the world but he's hardly ever mentioned.

I don't know if younger poets read a lot of, you know, the poets – the established poets. There was a lot of pretty boring stuff to sort of put up with and to add to, to make something vital from. So I guess you have to disrupt things otherwise I do – otherwise there is nothing much as you say in the quote to fight against.
You left school very early and within a few years you mention you had the first of what you call shared dreams. Your first need to say more than you could in words. You wanted to live poetry, a life that was indivisible with poetry. At the same time you felt a lot of constraints in the society at the time where you were living. You also write in Wards of the State very movingly about the Hawkesbury and your family. You say at one point that your mother's family were harbour people – her mother a Scot and her husband a carpenter. Your father's family were river folk – his mother Irish and her husband a lamplighter and a fisherman. You write about your grandfather's workshop – planes and files, an oil stone in a cedar case – smells of polish and gum and tar – and you stress your memory of their craftsmanship in what they did. How early were you conscious of that example of craftsmanship as something you could use?
Yes. I think I was very early. I used to watch my grandfather in his workshop – making furniture and beautiful sort of jewel boxes with dovetail joints and then French polishing them and making the French polish, the shellac with crushed beetles' wings and these amazing mixtures of turpentine. And my other grandfather was a fisherman and I'd watch him making – literally making – his fishing nets – not mending them but actually weaving these huge yards of mesh from just a needle – just a fishing needle with monofilament twine. In poetry I notice – I mean inspiration is a wonderful thing but unless you have it crafted and protected somehow it doesn't last very long – it becomes a rhapsodic, wild impulse you could unleash and it might last while you are talking or while you're dreaming but then it fades away and it needs some kind of craft to distinguish it from most other people's dreams and songs or desires that aren't often spoken in such an articulate way.
Many of your poems are of course about the river and life along the river. Is there something in particular you would like to select?
To read?
There's one of my new poems actually – is a good example of where my poetry has ended up. My earlier river poetry was more like a cross between Shelley and Dylan Thomas. This is my latest poem – it's called 'Folk Song'. And this is an important thing that I'd like to mention to you – although I have lived and written on the Hawkesbury River it doesn't necessarily have to be the Hawkesbury River – I use that river as a metaphor – as a sort of symbol for any river but because I do happen to live there I do write about what I see – and in this poem I talk about a place, not necessarily a local place, but maybe I'll read it...
(Robert reads Folk Song)
We live here by this
sliding water, brown by day
black at night
flecked with bats
and the blue powdery stars.
Morning, a kingfisher
sits, an indigo rock
knife-shaped, winking
sun-speckled. There are too
many of us here,
still they keep coming,
rockets and landmines pock
their dreams. Here
the long-billed ibis go savage
in the mangroves.
Egyptians, blown in
on some cosmic whim, they
plunge their heads
into the black mud swamp
and drag out long bloodworms;
the royal spoonbills
shake their crowns,
head feathers white calligraphy
of surrender. We sing
of the mulloway, our
mauve-scaled river cod. They
rise breaking to the surface,
our songs mention
mulloway kills and at night
we eat the rich cream-coloured flesh.
Thank you. The line there about the ibis – 'Egyptians blown in on a cosmic whim' – In some of the poems I find a sense of life as a gift in different ways. There is a poem about a rock carving which is in a sense a gift from the past – to us – telling us something. Is that something you're particularly conscious of?
I think that's a great observation. I haven't consciously thought about it but as soon as you say it I agree with you. I do see life as a gift. And a poem as a gift. I feel that any – any poem that lasts is a gift. I don't know where it comes from. When I say it's a gift I don't mean that it's easily received and I don't mean it in the sense that Blake used to say 'I'm not so much a poet – I'm a secretary for the angels. I just write down the inspiration from some divine source'. I don't necessarily see it like that. And going back to that discussion we were having about craft is that most of my poems are very hard won and even after all that work – after drafts and drafts and months and months working on the same poem I find the ones that work out you look at and then I think it is like a gift. Or the ones that I write are anyway.
Robert Adamson – thank you very much. The book is Waving to Hart Crane. It's out now, published by Angus & Robertson/Harper Collins.

This article reprinted from the OzLit@VicNet website, with permission. © John Davies 1994