In the Space Between Writer and Reader is the Poem

Thursday, December 20, 2018
Claire Gaskin Interviewed by Christy Tan

A portrait of Claire Gaskin
Claire Gaskin

Masterclass: Poetry as Presence

CT: You quoted Heidegger when he said, “Language is the house of being”. Where does poetry fit into that and how is it different from the everyday language we use to communicate our coffee order or complain about Melbourne weather?

CG: Extending on Heidegger and incorporating the thinking of Luce Irigaray, I have said; if language is the house of being than poetry is the home. Non-verbal people are being and have a being so interacting with Heidegger I would say, language can be the house of being or language can be the home of becoming. Poetry is a visceral use of language, sensory. Home incorporates abstractions that house does not. Being incorporates non-physical existence. Poetry is language used to an evocative, associative and allusive effect; this is expansive as being is expansive. Poetry is living, perpetually forming and dissipating. One of the beauties of poetry is that it is not an essay. You do not have to define your terms by narrowing them. ‘Being’ and ‘becoming’ are very evocative words to sit with. It is not lazy not to define your terms. It is very hard to use language in an effective way that is radial not linear. It can allow the reader or receiver entry. It can make you think and feel not tell you what to think and feel.  This is not to say that poetry cannot be direct and clear and be in the same practically shared language that we order our coffee in and talk about the weather with. There is no hierarchy in forms and styles of poetry. All have their purpose and place. However, if we want to communicate in an uncoded and new way it has to be poetic. It has to use language in a way that unmakes pre-existing loadings, assumptions and prejudices. It has to be poetic in terms of being about potentiality and possibility rather than being about reducing and excluding. To be inclusive and non-didactic poetry employs ambiguity. If it is not clear what it definitively means it can in fact mean all of the possible things that come to mind. However, I must say that when I order my coffee or talk about the weather using allusive language not everyone appreciates it. I get annoyed too when I email a poet friend and get an intriguing response when I just wanted to find out where and when we are meeting.

CT: If poetry’s purpose is not to describe, what does it set out to achieve? You once said that “writing is an act of survival” for you. What do you set out to achieve when you write poetry?  

CG: Poetry can describe. ‘Accuracy of observation is the equivalent of accuracy of thinking’, as Wallace Stevens said. If a poet describes with attention to specific detail then it becomes thematically complex, themes emerge. I think poetry can work best when it does not set out to achieve anything. If a poet describes and records than the rest takes care of itself, outside of the conscious control of the poet. The more the poet gets their own will out of the way the better. It is an allowing rather than being god- creator. The question in editing that needs to be asked is what does the poem want not what does the poet want to achieve. If a poet describes an object or something abstract what they are left with is not the object of their description, not a representation, they are left with a poem, an enactment. 

Writing is an act of survival for me. It is essential to the survival of a sense of autonomy. It is not solely about the content. It is an act and an enactment. It is proof of survival. It has an existence outside of me; it is a piece of writing. It is proof that I am not just acted upon, I act. When something is too intense to contain writing it out is very helpful. It alleviates the intensity. It focuses and clarifies. It contains it, gives it a home, a being, a becoming.

CT: You also said that poetry “holds its breath to listen, to enable, to activate relationship”. Which relationship do you focus most on? The relationship between a writer and their reader, a writer and their subject or a writer and the self?

CG: In the space between writer and reader is the becoming. The language is activated in the relationships. As soon as you finish writing you read it, so you have become both reader and writer, so it is a relationship between writer and self, self in relationship with self is survival of self. This relationship is essential to being, being is dynamic survival. Existence is exchange, as in the exchange of breath. In the space between writer and reader is the poem. It is where the writer and reader exchange, like breathing. The writer breathes out, the reader breathes in, the reader breathes out, and the writer breathes in again. The writer’s subject is self or a projection of self onto other. I think my relationship with my subject is a relationship with myself, but the writing does not represent me, does not represent a self. It may represent a momentary self. It is always in becoming. It is written to be let go of, to be let go of as a failed attempt. Some poetry, some spark, may come out of the failed attempt at any representation of self or a subject. I write to sort out what I am thinking and feeling, than I go back and look for the poetry in it, what can be distilled. I read it as a reader and see what I can discover. It is about what language itself can do, the power of putting words together, even just two words, is like mixing highly volatile chemicals.

CT: You have been writing, teaching and publishing poetry since the 1980s. How has the literary landscape changed since then? In an age where the trend of insta-poetry is growing, how does a poet retain originality and as Ezra Pound said, “make it new”?

CG: I am really delighted to see that the literary landscape has finally become more diverse. I am happy to see that in my lifetime. It is beginning to represent the general population more. It is no longer almost exclusively dominated by white and heteronormative voices.

I think the struggle to retain originality and ‘make it new’ is the same as it always has been.

I think we have to be very careful when talking about insta-poetry to be aware of what is encoded in the language we use. I have read and heard it said of certain insta-poets that it is poetry for fifteen-year-old girls. I think it is really important to analyse why this is a criticism. It seems to me to be more a criticism of being a fifteen-year-old girl than the poetry. There is nothing wrong with being a fifteen-year-old girl. I have heard and read it being criticised for being honest and raw. If it is bad it is not bad because it is honest or personal or concerning the emotional life. This concerns me deeply because since ancient Greek philosophy the emotional is equated with women and both are seen and clearly stated to be lesser than the male and intellectual. Poetry is an equal union between the emotional and intellectual, the mind and body. Poetry does not just exist in universities and literary journals it never has. There has always been an oral tradition. People have always found their own audiences and ways to bypass the gatekeepers.  In my lifetime I have seen street poetry, spoken word, insta-poetry, literary journals and attended academic poetry conferences. A healthy intellectual eco system is a diverse one; if one dominates it is unhealthy. However I would say of insta-poets that followers are different than peers and it is helpful I think to have a peer to develop your work with. If a poet wants to extend and develop their work I think they need a community of other poets, teachers, and readers to work with. I do not think anyone can work in a vacuum.

CT:  What is the most valuable lesson you have learned through your writing?

CG: It is a survival tool. I still have to keep doing it. It is great to be in a room full of people who are interested in reading and writing. It is a great privilege to hear peoples’ stories and perspectives and to exchange ideas. I have learned through reading writing with a group of people that not understanding is an engagement with a piece. Sometimes if everything is understood on a first read nothing has happened, there is no interaction. If something is not understood then something is moving, some preconceived ideas are being challenged. There is the potential for something new or different to enter the space. Reading a piece of writing in a group is a joyous rich experience because I do not just get what I thought about it, I hear what other people have gotten from it and that opens it up to further exploration. If you do understand everything on a first read it does not mean it is a weak piece but hopefully when you read it again you get more. Poetry is an indirect way of communication directly. It is language used in a way that is not designed to be read once. If you don’t get it all in a first read it does not mean there is something wrong with you or something wrong with it, it is asking you to read it again. It requires you to bring yourself it. I have learnt that the response to it does nothing for me is, what have you done for it? When I ask people what they have gotten from it, they often talk at great length. I point out to them that they did get a lot out of it, it just wasn’t definitive.

CT: Your workshop will be a masterclass on poetry appreciation, technique and devices. What do you hope people who attend your workshop will gain from it?

CG: If they are new to poetry I hope people will gain a sense of being part of a rich literary scene. I hope they will feel inspired and motivated to keep writing and reading. If they are experienced I hope they will feel re-invigorated and supported in strengthening their practice. I hope they will walk away with a deeper appreciation of the depth and breadth of poetry. I hope they will have learnt some new techniques and that understanding some of the devices used by poets will be a key to poetry opening up on a deeper level. I hope they go away with new ideas and feeling excited about reading and writing more poetry.