Interview With John Mateer

September 5, 2001

17_John_MateerJohn Mateer is a Melbourne-based poet, whose most recent book Barefoot Speech, (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2001) won the Victorian Premier’s Prize this year. John’s previous books are Burning Swans (1994) and Anachronism (1997), both also published by FACP. This interview with Mike Heald was conducted in December 2001, in Melbourne.

Congratulations on winning the Victorian Premier’s prize! What is your response to winning it, and what is your attitude to literary prizes in general?

Thanks. Well, winning the prize is a wonderful confirmation that my work has been noticed and is appreciated. It makes me feel that my work is now being recognized within the Australian context. I’m not sure what this will mean for the Australian context; whether it will be any different for the fact that my work is now a bit more prominent. As for my opinion of prizes in general: I think they are a great encouragement – they can make writers feel that their efforts are worthwhile – but ultimately they are a reflection as much of the judges’ sympathies as of the quality of the writing.

Could you say a little about your background?

I was born in Roodepoort, a satellite city of Johannesburg, South Africa, and mainly grew up there. When I was a child we moved to Toronto in Canada where I mixed with children – mostly immigrants – from various backgrounds: German, West African, Newfoundland… We returned to South Africa when I was about eight. I moved to Australia with my family shortly before I was conscripted into the South African army during the state of emergency in 1989. I’ve lived mainly in Perth, and since 1998 have been in Melbourne.

What was the process of settling in Australia like for you?

I found it very difficult. For the first year – I was in Year 12 here – I hardly spoke. I found it very difficult to make myself understood and to understand the language and attitudes of Australian people. Also during that time tremendous changes were taking place in South Africa. When we left the country was in a state of undeclared civil war: the African townships were frequently on fire, troops were being sent in to ‘restore order’, there were mass rallies and boycotts, and there was very strict censorship of the media. Shortly after we arrived in Australia Nelson Mandela was released from prison and the so-called thaw began. But even during that period there were bombings and the threat of radical Afrikaner nationalists. So, even while trying to live a ‘new life’ in Australia I felt beset by traumatic events taking place in South Africa. It took me a long time to become used to the experience of being here. And quite often I feel that I’m yet to become used to it.

How would you describe your relationship with Australian literature and readers in particular? Do you feel part of the Australian ‘scene’, if there is such a thing, or do you think nationality is fairly irrelevant.

These are fairly difficult questions. Australian literature is really two things: a context and a body of writing. In answer to your first question I must say that I do have an automatic relationship to Australian literature and readers simply for the reason that I am published here so I am inevitably in the Australian context. But what do I mean in the Australian context? Now that’s something you probably need to ask readers. I suspect that my work is ‘difficult’ in the Australian context in that there are few writers like myself – from a South African background, for example – working here. But then that is not the sole fact determining my difficulty. That I haven’t aligned myself with any of the prevailing schools of OZ lit has meant that many Australian readers don’t know how to approach my poetry. Although this is presently something of a problem, I don’t think it will mean much in the future. I think serious readers will eventually figure out how to read my work. They will eventually come to understand that my work is strange because – I am speculating here! – I am probably creating a new set of possibilities for writing in Australia. Maybe! And this does connect up with what you’re suggesting in the second part of your question; namely, that my writing isn’t easily placed within a national literary context with its attendant body of work. Poetry of my sort will probably cause readers to question the correspondence between person, nationality and literature. This is for the good, I think.

How do you combine poetry writing with your other activities?

Poetry fits in fairly easily. I write whenever I feel I should. The only problem is, of course, earning a living when all you want to do is think about words! I write art criticism and reviews and sometimes teach.

Could you describe the process by which your poems come to be written?

To a great extent every poem is written following a different process. In general I think my poems evolve in my mind – by that I mean that I compose them mentally, through visualization as well as sounding out phrases in my mind – and then are written down, either in fragments which I piece together or more or less whole. Then, over the course of days or even months, I will redraft the poem. I usually develop groups of poems simultaneously, drafting and re-drafting several at once. Then when I put them together in a book manuscript I’ll return to the individual poems and rework them again. But it’s important to remember that every poem and every book evolves differently. If we looked at any one of my poems I would have a different story to tell about its composition.

What would you see as the defining characteristics of your poetry, both in terms of language use and subject matter, and how would you relate your work to current movements in poetry writing?

That depends on which of my books and which of my poems we look at. I suppose the qualities that I would describe as being characteristic of my work would be those after which I have strived – immediacy, a sense of physicality, an attention to linguistic and psychic particularities and an awareness of the philosophical – that is to say ethical – components of our everyday experiences. These qualities are a result of my fascination with language as action and embodiment. We are beings not only full of ideas, but also full of strange impulses and memories, all of which are constantly present in our day-to-day life. In a way I suppose I would see my work as being a kind of lyricism that, although it is in language, is constantly attempting to query language. I’m not sure that my work sits well in relation to current trends in Australian writing – especially that kind of poetry which is concerned with writing itself – but, that said, I have learnt a lot from modern African writing, especially Southern African writing, and from the lyrics of post-war Europe. I feel allied with those feminists who are interested in the connection between corporeality and language. And this means that I am interested in the poem as a performative act. In the past few years I have been realizing that I am interested in the ‘old fashioned’ artefact – the lyric poem – because it conveys both the utterance of an individual and – often most subtly – the context of its action. Despite what many literary theorists are currently saying about the lyric, it is a very powerful medium because it enables the presence of an ‘I’, a voice that speaks out into the physical world.

To what extent does your poetry retain a South African’s voice?

There are many voices in my poetry. In some ways this question is impossible to answer without looking at my poems one by one. In some poems there is a single voice, in other poems there is a voice that echoes other voices, and in some there are several distinct voices. If anything, I would say that my work is marked by my desire not to have a single voice, a single tone, a single position from which to speak. For many years I used to fret over this, feeling that I wasn’t forming a coherent literary self – if I can call it that – but now I don’t have that feeling. I now feel that voice, just like the phenomenon of self, is context-dependant: change the context, the self changes.

Poetry, these days, does not seem to have a very large readership. Can you describe your own views about this: how you came to devote so much effort to this art form, and how you see the role of poetry in today’s society?

No, it doesn’t. In answering your question I have to fall back on the values that I feel are at the core of the linguistic act. For me this means thinking of poetry as a process of testifying to experience, the range of our experience. It’s a kind of truth-telling, a sharing of truths so that we won’t feel alone amidst the radical strangeness of the world. Whether a poem talks about love or an animal or politics, it is always – if I must generalize – a way, a means of sharing experience. I have devoted over a decade to this genre of writing first of all because I like it as a medium, its modesty, its sonic and visual qualities, and secondly because I feel it allows me to orientate myself within the near chaos of life! But, of course, it should be remembered that every poem suggests a different relationship to the world.

You recently returned to South Africa, and witnessed the country since the collapse of apartheid, the so-called ‘New South Africa’. What were your impressions?

I’ve returned twice, actually, first in 1995, and then again this year, 2001. Both times it has been very different. In 1995, the year after the first free and fair election, I felt that little had changed in the country. But on the trip this year it was very different: there are rich black people and Afrikaner beggars, there are many languages spoken on TV and there is now a sense that South Africa is a part of Africa itself. There are many, many things I could say about the country, but they are hard to elucidate in the context of an interview. I have many feelings about the so-called New South Africa. To some extent I feel that I am lost to the country, that I don’t belong there, and yet I also feel incredibly moved by it and its people, and I feel that some of my best poetry is about South Africa. There is really no word to name what I am in relation to the country. I don’t fit the connotations of any words that come to mind: I’m not really an immigrant, an émigré, a refugee, an exile, a fugitive… While this every so often gives me some kind of existential anxiety I think it is actually useful to me as a writer – I am constantly changing…

You have also recently been to Indonesia on a writing fellowship. Could you reflect on the significance of that trip for you?

Being in Indonesia, in Medan in North Sumatra, was a powerful experience for me. Not only was it the first time I’ve been to Asia, but it was the first time I’ve been somewhere where I can’t speak the language. I learnt some basic Indonesian while I was there. Learning a new language meant that I was forced to confront the dynamics of sentence construction both in English and Indonesian, and the effect of this on my writing has been profound. Since then I have been turning to a simple, less conversational language in my poetry and I have also become more interested in the traditions of poetic forms. While I was there I read all the Indonesian poetry in translation that I could get my hands on. Of course, as I was there shortly after Suharto resigned and before the election, I couldn’t help but be aware of the political situation. Through meeting many Indonesians – many of them Chinese Indonesians – I got a better sense of the history of the region. I also became interested in the early history of South-East Asia. I went there originally because I was interested in researching the relationship between South Africa and Indonesia that resulted from the trade of the Dutch East India Company. I returned to Australia with an awareness of the complexities of cultures and how nationalism simplifies them.

Could you describe your current projects?

I’ve got a few things on the go: I’ve got a new book of poems, Loanwords, coming out in March 2002 with Fremantle Arts Centre Press, and I’m currently working on a number of poems about South Africa that I started when I was there in June, and I’m trying to finish a book of prose, Semar’s Cave, about my stay in Indonesia. And at the moment I am planning a trip to Japan in 2002 where I will be investigating Shinto ritual practices with a view to writing a sequence of poems.

Thanks John, and once again, congratulations: poets must savour these moments of recognition!

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