Vlad Savich: Dear readers, today my interlocutor is Jennifer Compton.
Dear Jennifer, I usually ask my interlocutors to talk a little about themselves. Today I won’t change my rules. Please tell us a little about yourself. Who knows you better than you? For example, you remind me of Jimi Hendrix’s improvisation!
Jennifer Compton: Do I want to kiss that guy? Or do I want to kiss the sky? (I determined early on I wasn’t going to belong to Club 27. I had had my chance and muffed it so now I was in it until the bitter/sweet end.) Life is so tasty, if you are reckless, and well provided for by a husband, who, if he does not understand you, has you on a long, long leash. And it is a long, long leash that has no turning. My father used to sing, “No one here can love and understand me. And oh, what hard luck stories they all hand me. So make my bed, light the light, I’ll be home late tonight, Blackbird, goodbye.”
“Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly”
The pride of my postage stamp collection was an Australian stamp. It’s a picture of a kangaroo. I saw a kangaroo at the zoo one but never the country where they live. Tell me, please, a little about Australia.
JC: Barron Field, who arrived in Australia in 1817 to take up an administrative position, published the first book of poetry on the continent. He called it ‘First Fruits of Australian Poetry’. (Barron Field – First Fruits – pretty witty eh?) And in it is a poem called “The Kangaroo”. (First published poem about a kangaroo, not the first poem created. The whole country would have been chokka, reckon, with oral poems of every ilk created by the Indigenous population, about kangaroos, and everything else.) But in his poem he rhymes Australia with failure. I think that’s a first. Also, and this gave me a shiver down my spine, he mentions ‘sooty swans’. The first ‘black swans of trespass’ as ‘Ern Malley’ wrote.
I am a native-born New Zealander and I am well familiar with earthquakes. I think Australia is still being wrenched and jolted by powerful aftershocks from the seismic shift of the Invasion in 1788 of the First Fleet. Shall I moot genocide? Is that too strong a word?
VS: Few people out in the “big wide world” know about the Australian literature. Can you advise us of 10 books by Australian authors? I think one of them will be your book!
JC: I tend to read poetry as I come upon it. One poem leads to another. I rarely sit and read a book from go to whoa. One wonderful poem does me, as it were. There are a few books I have read that are books, if you catch my drift, rather than – Here are all the poems I wrote in the last two years – but now I think of them (Spring Forest by Geoffrey Lehmann, Subhuman Redneck Poems by Les Murray, 1953 by Geoff Page) I realise they skew towards the older, white, male poet. Or is that my skew? So I would rather address poems.
I will list 10 of my favourite Australian poems and one of them will not be my own.
Because at the moment I am hating everything I ever wrote. As I approach the hard task of putting together a Selected. Of course any of the anthologies, such as Australian Poetry Since 1788 edited by Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray or The Best Australian Poems series published by Black Inc since 2004 (now defunct alas) would be a flavoursome tasting platter.
“We Are Going” by Oodgeroo Noonnuccal
“Clancy of the Overflow” by Henry Lawson
“The Tin Wash Dish” by Les Murray
“Mothers And Daughters” by David Campbell
“Fix” by Michael Dransfield
“What I Have Written I Have Written” by Peter Porter
“The Ministry of Going In” by Christine Paice
“If I Had a Gun” by Gig Ryan
“Frisky Poem and Risky” by Lionel Fogarty
“The Lyrebird” by Michael Farrell
VS: You have lived in different decades of the 20th and 21st Centuries. Which one do you remember the most?
1940s: During the two months I spent in the ‘40s I must have been dwelling on something else because I laid down no retrievable memories.
1950s: My first memory. Before speech. A white wall where there hadn’t been a white wall before. And then the ‘50s was all spatial sensations, emanations of energies, the movement of colours, weather. Sudden storms. Summoning clouds. A breeze that lifted the hairs on the back of your arms.
1960s: Hellfire and damnation. I had gone nuts. My family had gone nuts. The world had gone nuts. There was no way out. There was no way back.
1970s: Another country. The streets were paved with gold. For those who would stoop to pick it up. I fled to a bark hut by a green river.
1980s: The children arrived. First one, then another. Their pretty ways. I acquired a large pram and wheeled them up and down the almost deserted road under the dome of an implacable sky.
1990s: Where did they go? I breathed in and out, wiped crumbs off the kitchen bench, walked out of the room when the News came on. My heart thumped. The aunts and uncles commenced to die.
2000s: Immortal longings. A stealthy severing of the ties that bind. I travel the world. Alone. I am lonely.
2010s: The duties of a grandmother. I swell. I bloat. The male gaze drifts away. At last. I understand I have wasted my life. I should have … I could have … but there is still time aplenty for one big push. I don’t intend to die.
VS: “I don’t intend to die”. I’m afraid of death too, but tell me: why are there so many suicides among writers?
JC: But I am not afraid to die. At least, not yet. I don’t intend! to die. That would be pointless. I might not like it. I seem to have got the hang of being alive so I will stick with that.
Do you know I have no opinion at all about why some writers commit (or attempt) suicide? The people I have known, or known of, who committed or attempted suicide were none of them writers. And I have known a few writers in my time. When we were living in the country a young lad who had been expelled from school went to his classes after prom party, and then laid down on the railway tracks and was killed. But he may have been drunk, or tired. And there was a rash of male suicides two villages over from our village. It got so bad a meeting was called in the local hall and a counsellor brought in from the city. I know of two actors who successfully committed suicide. And a writer’s child. A young cousin of ten hanged himself. But he may have been playing a game. Many women I know, when love had gone wrong, have attempted suicide. But they all seem to have lived on to love again. Sometimes more successfully, sometimes not. One talks very lovingly of her dead husband, and honest to God, she never had a good word to say about him when he was alive. Michael Hutchence committed suicide (or did he?) the night before he was due to come and see my play because he had a friend in the cast. I am racking my brains for a writer within my circle who has committed suicide. And I can’t come up with one. I did break into my sister’s house once because I was so mad at her for not letting me in to sell the table setting I had lent her. I knew how to shimmy the glass louvres out of the window and wriggle through. And found her comatose but still breathing next to the empty vodka and pill bottles. And on the floor, open and face down, a Mills & Boon called The Second Bridesmaid. I gave her a bit of a kicking before I ran down to the corner store to use their phone to ring an ambulance. Very bad literature can kill you. But I saved her. As I ran back up the road the woman who had come to buy the table setting greeted me by the front gate. “Sorry. Sorry,” I said. “The ambulance will be here any moment.” And she went away.
VS: “I don’t intend! to die” What is death, what do you think?
JC: Perhaps it is a realm where we can make free with ourselves. And with others. A New Zealand poet (who lives in the UK) called Fleur Adcock wrote a poem called “Making Love To The Dead”. I liked it very much, because no matter what angst, shouting matches, guilt and divorces ensued from making love to live people, once they are safely dead and return in dreams to pick up where they left off, to complete unfinished business, to love you without grievance or fetter, then you can wake up to this world and know that you were loved and desired. And how often do those ‘deads’ return! Not always, or often, for incomparable sex. They stroll up to you, immaculately garbed, and walk you to the end of the street, then smile and tip their hat and vanish round the corner. They leap into your arms with elongated limbs and press their cheek against yours, struggle to speak.
And many other instances. It seems the dead can’t die.
VS: Do we need state censorship? What do you think about it?
JC: I am not absolutely sure what you mean by this term, ‘state censorship’. My husband came home yesterday enthralled by a movie – The Death of Stalin – which has been banned in Russia. It is of no great nevermind here in Australia, you’d have to know quite a bit of history and to care, but my husband does, and does. I am sure anyone in Russia who wants to see this movie has a copy. And is passing it around. Meanwhile.
I wish I knew what you meant by ‘state censorship’.
What I hate in Australia is the glorification of Anzac Day. A young Muslim woman was hounded out of the country recently because she made an injudicious tweet. An injudicious but most judicious tweet. And the people were down on her, baying for her blood. Was that the State?
VS: “Was that the State?” A state is a compulsory political organization with a centralized government that maintains a monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a certain geographical territory. But let’s leave it aside. You mentioned Russia What do you know about Russia and Russian literature in particular?
JC: When I asked – ‘Was that the State?’ I meant to imply that our government, tickled on by lobby groups, abetted by the media, sets up sacred cows, like Anzac Day, which cannot be questioned. And when the young woman used a sacred phrase – Lest We Forget – to highlight present wrongs – the mob fell upon her baying for her blood. Until she was hounded out of the country. And no one in power made any attempt to call off the mob. Perhaps they did not dare. They depend upon the mob voting for them. It is all extremely complex and very human. When you live inside a culture you quickly learn, unless you are bereft of self-preservation, what it is possible to say, and what it is not possible to say. Who sets these parameters? Is it the State?
I know almost nothing. Nothing. I am holding in my hands two countries, two cultures (New Zealand and Australia) and sometimes I forget which country I am in and get pulled up. In New Zealand once I was told, “We don’t play Aussie Rules here, Jennifer!” (Aussie Rules is a football term). And although when I land in Australia I pull on my FuckYou face, I am never quite tough enough. I only have two hands. I can’t take on board another culture. However! The very first time I ever entered the Tower of Babel was when I was about 16 and went to see the Russian Hamlet with Innokenti Smoktunovsky, and although I knew I was reading subtitles, I started hearing with my other ears. Now there’s a trick. I swear, to this day, that the line, “The rest is silence” was in my own language. Every couple of years I read Anna Karenina. But in translation. “Telling Lies To The Young Is Wrong” by [Yevgeny] Yevtushenko was one of the first poems that made my blood run the other way. I briefly met Yevtushenko in Genoa and although he was underwhelmed by meeting me, I was fairly whelmed. And Chekhov! He is my main man. He is the rock the actor’s wave breaks on.
VS: Shakespeare once wrote, “All the world’s a stage”. If that’s true then who is writing our role for us?
JC: I don’t like this speech much. It has never rung true to me. I prefer the speech from Macbeth. “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow …” where life is a tale told by an idiot.
Jennifer Compton was born in New Zealand but emigrated to Australia in the early 70s. She now lives in Wingello on the Southern Highlands of NSW. She is a poet and a playwright. Her first book of poetry From The Other Woman was published as part of the Five Islands New Poet Series in 1993. Aroha was published by Flarestack Press in the UK in 1998. Then there was Blue – Indigo Imprint at Ginninderra Press – in 2000 which was short listed for the NSW Premier's Prize in 2001. A book of poems, Parker & Quink, was published by Ginninderra Press in 2004, and another, Barefoot, was published by Picaro Press in 2010. Barefoot was short listed for the John Bray Poetry Award at the Adelaide Festival in 2012. This City won the Kathleen Grattan Award in New Zealand and was published by Otago University Press in July 2011.
Vlad* Savich was born in the USSR, where he was educated, married and fathered his daughter. As soon as the chance appeared to leave, he did. At present he lives in Montreal, where he writes, directs for the theatre and breathes the air of freedom. He can be found online at savich.lit.com.ua.
*He prefers not to be called Vladimir, so as not to be associated with the disreputable activity of a certain barnardine Russian leader. Image: From The birds of Australia, Gracius J. Broinowski, 1890