Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Richard's Big Break

Posted by Scott

For almost fifteen years Richard Taylor has been reading his poems in Auckland’s pubs and cafes, and publishing them in literary rags with smart-ass monosyllabic names like Salt and .brief.

The first time I heard Richard he was drunk at the London Bar, and seemed to be composing as he performed: I remember the line ‘A daddy long-legs got drunk and blew up to the size of the First World War’. That one doesn’t sound so hot today, but there are plenty of lines from Richard’s book Red which still ring in my head:

In the rumours of the lost rooms...

The head on the table like an accusation...

Down stone steps to the conscious sea...

Unlike most regulars on the live poetry scene, Richard has never wanted to be a bard. You won’t find him wearing a beret, or quoting On the Road, or gnomically fingering a Baxterian beard. Richard has eschewed autobiography and didacticism in favour of an abstract yet highly distinctive poetry. Abstraction does not have to imply minimalism or solemnity, and Richard is much more a Pollock than a Mondrian. And Richard’s use of abstraction is not only energetic but very entertaining. He’s a populist as well as a postmodernist.

Because of its abstraction, of its literariness, a good Richard Taylor poem is able to communicate with an audience which would run in terror from most high modernist and postmodern poetry. The working class autodidact from Panmure takes the forms of postmodernism and affectionately pisstakes them, and in doing so conveys a very down to earth Kiwi sensibility:

Their breath came increasingly in the sacred little clouds that we were still too scared to pop, but
I thought of ‘green’ and ‘red’ and ‘insinuation’ and ‘xylophone’, and was proud. I know you are thinking that this is not how you would sense it, or place the rugger ball and the cross christed and socratic shadows of your private pit and what the fuck is he standing on? Bastard. Too zippy? Eh?

Now, just when we were getting used to stuff like that, Richard has offered up ‘Hospital’, a sequence of poems and prose fragments that will be excerpted in the next issue of .brief. Written as a sort of diary, ‘Hospital’ gives us the low-down on the drug scene at Middlemore Hospital, and extols the joys of constipation. I asked ‘Panmure’s greatest living postmodernist’ to explain himself...

Cliched question, I know, but how did you come to write 'Hospital'?

OK the serious answer is I was rising each day and reading certain texts before getting onto the net to play one-minute chess. I had become addicted to chess again when I discovered a site via the New York Times and the Buffalo Poetics group - in fact it was a recommendation of Ron Silliman's. My leisure time began to revolve around the international online one-minute chess marathons. While I was waiting for the whistle to blow start, I’d sit beside the computer and read through Kendrick Smithyman's books. Although he had been my tutor at Auckland University in 1968 I hadn’t found Smithyman very amenable - difficult, he seemed, as a writer. But after getting seriously interested in him thanks to the enthusiasm of you and Jack Ross and others I was toying with the idea of writing a book on the man. I was trying to "decipher" each poem, to crack it like a code. Impossible, of course, but I made my way through a lot of them, and there are surely some of the greatest poems written by anyone anywhere amongst Smithyman’s work.

I also thought I would look at Baxter, as a contrast, and I had somehow decided to read the Duino Elegies (translation by Stephen Spender), so before "the accident" I was thinking about Smithyman and about the New Zealand tradition he fitted into, or didn’t fit into. As you know, most of my poems are kind of "abstract" - like music, I hope, or abstract painting, no definite subject. But I was getting a little tired of abstraction - I wanted to get some sort of process, method, raison d'etre, grit, plan, philosophy, into my work.

Then I broke my leg – ironically, I did the damage while trying to get fit. I was taken straight to Middlemore, and I got my daughter to bring my notebook and decided to put an entry in each day. I had vague ideas it would become a "work", but it really just grew naturally. As it happened it was good to keep a diary: it made the whole experience of hospital more interesting. I used various devices such as reading or writing entries or aguing with nurses or others to keep sane - as one does, of course, in "real" life.

But I wouldn’t have really bothered to publish it if you and Jack weren’t interested: it would have probably Pessoafied, in a huge trunk...

Would it be fair to say, as Hamish Dewe has said, that 'Hospital' is your big break?

Hamish is famous for his minimalist wit, his brilliant acerbity - his genius for disturbing the universe. A break is a break is a break - and then there is the problem of 'fairness'...Sod's Law. In hospital I had to describe over and over how I broke my leg and it was bit emabrrassing, but only one doctor quipped "Sod's law, eh?’. He was sympathetic and I wanted to tell him Sod’s law is actually (unlike the very funny Parkinson's law) an actual mathematical law, but of course the bloke disappeared. Doctors in hospitals have an amazing abilty to disappear when you want to talk for hours about what to them is trivia!

What do you say to the rumours that you were drunk when you fell off those monkey bars in Panmure Park?

I was endorphined, feeling good - I used to do the fitness trail easily...but there you go. Think now, cunning corridors, contrived, propagating a fear and a refusal, denying a forward cogitation of a devil(s) (black and backward). Think of that so-called Al Qaeda video they trot out all the time : they are probably CIA or actors dressed up, but they are always on Monkey Bars. The tragedy of falling from Monkey Bars! Why couldn't I have been in a war of liberation or the hero in a bank robbery? And, nay, I had libated not...

Is there a genre of writing about hospitals and illness that you dipped into? Is there a tradition in New Zealand literature of dealing with this stuff? And what about the journal form? Have you tried that before? Do you keep a diary? Do you read other people's?

Amazing! I wandered into - in fact I got lost in the Uni library (the Old Quarter (very few know about it) ... it’s like Hamish's Green Door at the Greenlane Hospital)...and this - it has to be said – Borgesian apparition, (a man I think), and tall, ascetic white faced and bearded gentleman(?) escorted me to a dark gloomy interior room where there were huge tomes, which he translated for me rapidly in a strange high-pitched voice at immense speed though somehow as if I were in a dream I could follow every word! Those tomes dealt with the Hospital poetic/literary phenomenon going back thousands of years...

Seriously now - when I went to New York in 1993 one thing I went to was a journal reading - I think the group of young people were from St Marks at the Bowery with Bernadette Mayer. But I was almost always drunk my whole time in Manhattan so I can’t recall anything they said. The journal form and the essay form are surely related - the Language poets use it...I recently got Gide's huge journals and have dipped into them (James Schuyler mentions them in his great 'The Morning of the Poem', I also love his picnic cantata poem - do you know that Paul Bowles made it into an opera?)

A lot of Silliman's work is journalistic, Baxter, even Alan Loney...there is Wystan Curnow's excellent "Cancer Daybook"...I hadn’t been very successful keeping diaries - it seems to take so long to write things - what to leave out, or whether to keep everything in...at one extreme one wants to record everything, but everyone fails at that, even Joyce in Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake, which are surely just too prolix, have too many words, though one is intrigued by the attempt...

There are some pretty graphic descriptions of your injury and the incoveniences it caused you in 'Hospital'. Did you feel embarrassed about letting this stuff in? What would your mother say?

I think my mother would be proud, but I was always embarrassed discussing such things with my mother, though she read some very graphic novels, novels that were challenging: she was brighter and more knowing than I as a son thought. She didn't like poetry much, though she loved Edward Lear’s poems of the owl and the cat...I was a bit wary of some things but let's face it, it is reality there in the hospital... the worst thing I found about breaking my leg was not the pain, but the constipation caused by the morphines in my anaesthetic.

Third Man was real as were the nurses and doctors and many other people...the Maori bloke I argued with one night...the meals (which weren’t that bad)...I dropped out things related to my friends but kept in the "graphic" things...but I was never in any great pain and there was nothing gory...these days in fact my operation is (while serious) fairly routine.

Want to give some background on this ‘Third Man’ who keeps popping up in Hospital?

When I woke in my ward there was Third Man (I also call him Spider Man as he was tatooed all over and had spent 17 years in Paremoremo - he had FUCK YOU tatooed on his forehead!) Third Man had crushed his foot in an accident at work and had been in since before Xmas. He used to wheel himself all around the hospital, at all hours of the day or night. He was Third Man because apart from him and myself there was only a South African businessman (nice enough person)...later I was moved to another ward where there were more blokes – ‘Garth’ and a fellow whose name I forget...later a workman came in (he was English but had been here for years) who had smashed his hand falling off a ladder (forgot to secure the steps in the centre - humanum est errare)...

Why were you in 'Hospital' so long, if you only broke your leg? Were you malingering?

My doctor tells me that the average time of recovery for a leg break is 12 months. One hears of broken arms and legs (and of course that and worse happen daily) but it is impossible to experience it until it happens. Actually I was in hospital for 8 days: when my leg (fibula and tibia where it joins the ankle) broke there was a lot of swelling. Initially I was put in a corridor, and I waited for a long time - not to be seen so much as to get into a ward...I didn't realise that the main problem for the surgeons was swelling, which is caused by the breaking of tissues: they were wary of operating, as it is very much more difficult to work on a body that is so swollen, and risks of damage are higher...

So I was in 8 days but it seemed ages - not all of it unpleasant and a lot of it interesting. I know you joke about malingering but I started to kind of "settle in" - it was summer and my house had become infested with fleas. Once I realised I was stalling I got organised and got home.

A friend of mine who knows your work described it as a 'head trip'. She hasn't read 'Hospital' yet, of course. Do you think she'll change her opinion? Do you want to change her opinion?

I don’t know what she means. I just wrote it down and you happened to like it otherwise I would probably have just put it in drawer...I don't care what people think of it ethically - maybe she is meaning I'm going like Plath or Lowell...I was just noting things down - sure the first part was influenced by K Smithyman's methods...his pauses, repeats, caesuras, ambiguities, etc

I think as poets we are all egotists to a degree - we all have heads and go on trips...mine was from Panmure Basin by ambulance to Middlemore - it was interesting, a little alarming, but an exerience – a part of life.... I can’t "see" my own work - she may rightly adjudge it a load of codswollop...I'd like to think I am indifferent to that but that's not quite true - one loves praise...but by and large it doesn't really matter: the main thing is to be healthy and happy.

You used to be one of the most popular live poets in Auckland. Nowadays you don't read so much. Have you performed 'Hospital', and if you have what sort of response did you get?

I read sections of it and those present were responsive. I mixed my reading with some older work to set up a contrast but some of it they probaly didn't understand - others liked that part where I have a kind of mantra "Bone be bone..." but I have since dropped that....the "story" of the old man who became a communist was well liked...

I don't read as much - I used to need it so much I would write two or more poems a week and put on a performance of great intensity, but because I am very neurasthenic I used to imbibe a lot, and that lead to my getting in the black books of various judges and constables...

What role does Portugese nationalism play in your work? Where is Portugal in 'Hospital'?

Actually - ah, the blazing face of Europe! Actually I bought The Book of Disquiet (Pessoa) of course from the US...Pessoa in a way was another journalistic writer - with the many personas - I haven’t done the many personas - but the Eternal Trunk is there steadily filling with unpublished and probably unpublishable scrawlings... I wish Portugal well, it’s surely subsumed in there via Pessoa, and Mongolia. "Mongolia, I love you Mongolia, you are Mongolia because you are Mongolia..."

Where's the next break going to be?

On my nose! Hopefully some charity will take me in....I tend to write for an audience - unlike my friend Leicester Kyle I find it hard to self-motivate (some cruel personas would insinuate I was lazy) - I have projected works - but I used to write so much and so quickly I have deliberately tried to slow myself down: do projects...but I have to feed my cat, try to sell books, eat, shop, pay bills, read, eat, phone people randomly, play chess on the internet...some times I do brilliantly and other days everything goes terribly...

Is there any comment on the public service that might be justifiably extracted from 'Hospital'? Would you go private next time, if you had the money?

Not really – it’s not political per se - my sister has used private hospitals for years and some of the things she found "bad" were the same. Since I was young in many ways the hospitals have become more progressive - one is not treated so much as a child, one's rights are declared everywhere, and without being mollycoddling, people there are mostly very kind (given they have so much to do).

But we, I was lucky, that we have a medical stystem at all...I was reading a book about the times of Chaucer and the writer (Derek Brewer who also edits The Parlement of Foulys which I have just read) mentions that in those days a leg break or similar accident was almost always fatal.

The hospital system has improved even since the 70s, but of course all institutions, public and private, need to be watched - I am thinking of "The Unfortuante Experiment" by Sandra Coney...there maybe could be someone who might visit patients and give comfort or just make contact...a kind of Patients' Union...

I like what happened in China in the cultural revolution - patients became involved very much in their own care - a great leap forward by China, but maybe that can only happen for a brief time and humans revert downwards so to speak...who knows...Third Man didn’t believe for an instant that anything would ever be better for the poor versus the rich...Given the enormous workload the staff etc do brilliantly - and hospitals are huge and complex organisations where staff work long hours - even organising meals is complex.

No - we are lucky to even have a medical service and over time it is improving (there are of course larger nationwide problems of staffing etc and wages but they are a constant - and maybe there has been some downturn since Rogernomics etc) Let's be vigilant.

Any questions you want to make up for yourself and answer?

You are "coming out" now after years of non-political poems, years of (brilliant? or just sloppy?) constructs and histrionic perfomances? What do you say? How public should a poet be? Was Eliot not right on this? Or do we go for Perloff's "materiality of the writing process, the radical artifice? Foreground the word? Where does the self fit in here?

‘Hospital’ is a kind of experiment. Of course there are many similar examples of this kind of writing: but I just felt I had written too much "abstract" (not an accurate term) stuff...but I don’t want to neccesarily stay in the 'realist' camp for too long...I think a writer needs to look widely and deeply at many styles from the very "conventional" to the crazily new...



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