Posted by Tracy
Faith Lawrence, producer of BBC 3's The Verb, asks John Kinsella about The Forest Tattoo, the second play of his radio verse-play forest trilogy
(Print version of the play available in The Ballad of Moondyne Joe, by John Kinsella and Niall Lucy, Fremantle Press, 2012)
You can listen to extracts on The Verb here.
FL: We'll need to set up the personal background to the play briefly - how would you do that in about four sentences?
JK: It is the second play in a trilogy of historic plays based in the south-west forests of australia. On my father's side, my great-great grandfather and great-great grandmother were Irish settlers/colonists who basically left British persecution in Ireland in the early 1850s. The first play in the trilogy - 'Signature at Ludlow' (a version of which was performed on The Verb a few years ago, and a full version of which was performed on the Australian Broadcasting Commission's Radio National last year) considers the irony of them leaving this persecution and in turn becoming complicit in the persecution of Aborigines in the region. Ned in 'The Forest Tattoo' makes reference to his father in the first play, by saying 'my father signed a paper once'... that first play moves between the 1850s and the 2000s, looking at dispossession and also destruction of the environment. The second play - 'The Forest Tattoo' - moves between the 1890s and 2000s and looks at the next generation of Kinsellas through the character of Ned Kinsella, the son of Edward Patrick Kinsella and Ann (Cavenagh) Kinsella in the first play. In this play there's tension between destruction of forests and a growing understanding of dispossession of indigenous peoples and the beauty/intensity of the natural environment, and that loss - deaths in family - your family buried in the very soil - changes your relationship to place. The third play - 'The Tower' - looks at my grandfather's life in the great jarrah forest, as a forester...
FL: What's the single most important thing you hope you communicate in the writing?
JK: The restoration of aboriginal land rights, and to prevent more damage being done to the natural environment, but also to explore the psychology of colonisation and its consequences, and the nature of inherited memory and its effect on who you are now and how you make decisions.
FL: Why did you choose this form in particular to write about the forest?
JK: Poetry for me is a political act. My mother was a poet. I grew up with poetry. For me it's the only way of expressing complex thoughts that reach deep into human emotions.
FL: Why did you include a prelude - what does a prelude allow you to access, tonally, content-wise etc, that you couldn't do through a character?
JK: It sets up tones and the arguments. Poetry that 'tells' is rarely effective - readers/listeners need to work it out for themselves and come to their own conclusions. But such a prelude suggests possibilities and gives context - historic and physical - without the characters having to do that filling in and really wasting time with awkward scene-setting which often dilutes the 'drama'...
FL: We're going to hear the Prelude from the line 'You can't transfer the mood of the forest' - you're really pushing at the boundaries of language there - what drew you to use repetition i.e. 'light'- what do you think the effect is?
JK: Poetry is about language in its most essential way. Sometimes if I can't get the words that we have to do the work, I create new ones! The relationship between sound and sight, between the visual and the aural, is the key to poetry. Repetition/refrain and the play of sound help elicit the picture, help us see by working across the senses.
FL: I'm fascinated by the phrases that follow - i.e.'multi-dimensional single organism, or utopian communalism' - such a contrast to the previous few lines. They are very complex terms, do you see it as risky to use them? What do you hope is the effect of the complexity, and the juxtaposition with the previous lines?
JK: The politics of place is complex. Party politics often reduces things to get the sound-bite. As an anarchist, I believe in consensus, and respect the intellectual abilities of all my fellow human beings. I do not wish to patronise them. If something isn't understood, then talk with others about it or look it up, work it out. It's healthy to think about language and its implications. I always mix registers - it creates 'the rub' in the poem, and the rub is what makes people question. Because I don't want to 'tell' (well, I do occasionally!), I want to suggest and bring response.
FL: Tell me about that great phrase 'beauty is inadequate' - what does it mean in the context of the play?
JK: I stand by this in all things. Aesthetics are largely irrelevant to me (explored in my poetry book, Shades of the Sublime & Beautiful). Beauty in itself, apart from being in the eye of the beholder, so often becomes an excuse for dismissing 'the ugly'. A forest is a beautiful thing, but not to all people. I know of people visiting Australian forests and lamenting that they're not, say, European forests. Beauty is in how you look. But whether or not you think it beautiful, it has surely a right to exist, to nurture many different forms of life (and 'beauty')... If it doesn't look good on the tourist's snap to some (how you see is everything), that is irrelevant to its truth and importance.
FL: You've talked about this idea that we don't experience the landscape as it is - our identity and experience affects how we perceive it - so it exists in our heads often in a distorted way - you have a dialogue between Ned and Sam in the play - who are they, and how do they see the landscape?
JK: Ned is a second-generation irish-australian. He leads a team of horses into the forests to drag out felled trees that are then milled and exported to Europe, especially to London. Sam is indigenous, and his tribal associations are in the region - it is their land. Sam was named after Sam Isaacs, who was a hero to whites (as well as to indigenous people) for working with Grace Bussell to save victims of the wreck of the Georgette which sank off the south-west coast near present-day Busselton (it was, ironically, carrying timber - jarrah - from Fremantle to the eastern states of Australia). My character Sam has been brought up in a European-settler context, though we are not sure how. But he is closely connected to his people and is an advocate for them. His connection to place is deeply felt, and spiritually and factually registered by Ned. Sam, much younger than Ned, becomes his liberator in 'ways of seeing'.
FL: How do you hope the reader see or interprets the landscape they're standing in as they talk, with the benefit of being able to hear them in dialogue?
JK: A great forest of karri trees - some of the largest trees in the world. Sadly, with massive felled trees scattered around. A ferny, wet forest. Ned has a team of horses he uses to drag logs out of the forest.
FL: Tell me about the importance of Ned's name, and Sam's name - why do you link Ned's remembering of his name to remembering the forest?
JK: Ned's name was tattooed on his arm so he could be identified if he died out there (not uncommon). This tattoo becomes symbolic of the incursion into a world that is not his, that has been stolen from others, and that colonists did not (largely) respect. It also connects with the dead of his family - his past and present and the future. But Ned is second-generation and is starting to feel a sense of discomfort - ironically by getting closer to the world he is exploiting. He is becoming part of the forest he is destroying. His identity is tied into his acquisition of the English language - ironic given his father would have arrived speaking Gaelic but ended up teaching English. Sam being named after a hero - in a world where Aborigines were generally disrespected, had their land stolen, and were frequently murdered - makes him a figure of transference between 'white' and 'black'. His heroism is in who he is, rather than what's accorded to him by whites. Which is not to devalue what his earlier namesake Sam Isaacs did - not at all. Just to say there are many indigenous 'heroes' in this.
FL: Why have Sam and Ned discuss the difference between story and myth?
JK: Ned needs to account for his epiphany. He says 'the forest was strange today' and he wants to understand why. Nothing seems the same as it was. This plays on the nineteenth-century idea of alienation called 'weird melancholy' - that the unfamiliar environment/forests were 'other'. In these extracts, something different is happening. It is weird because the other is becoming the familiar and there's no language to talk about it. 'Myth' too easily becomes (for the coloniser) what the indigenous believe, and not 'real' or 'true'. Ned's epiphany is that he now sees that the 'myths' are spiritually and factually accurate. They are their own writing. Sam has been telling him about his people's relationship to the place in the form of stories - but they are also historical accounts, witnessings, and descriptions of real experience. They are stories relevant to that place.
FL: That bit of writing towards the end of scene 4 is fantastic ' the language my horses hear' - I feel like I'm on the edge of understanding it - could you explain what you mean by this 'language my horses hear'?
JK: The animals are necessarily closer to the world around them because they are only allowed their physical relationship with place. As an ethical vegan and animal rights person, I believe strongly in the sentient integrity of all living things. Ned's team serve him - are in fact close to his speech (he was actually - in real life - renowned as a kind of horse-whisperer) - but their real relationship is with the forest they have to negotiate. Ned is becoming like them. He has to hear the language of the forest before it is entirely destroyed by logging.
FL: How do you hope the language you use in this play will engage the reader?
JK: We all have heritages. We all have things in our families' pasts that don't accord with how we see the world - whatever our politics. By bringing our past into play with our present - e.g. the 'John' and 'Tracy' in the play/s have the views that I and my poet-wife have - one can juxtapose difference. The epiphanies of the past are of course constructs, but ones based on historical data. The 'literature' comes in when creating the scenario for dramatic effect. Not big drama, but little glimpses into possibilities. After all, different as I might be politically from my foresting predecessors (and this extends to my distant ancestors who were apparently foresters in the Wicklow Mountains), they helped make me what I am. I protest to protect forests now; they worked the forests and grew close to them. Also, as the character 'John' says in another scene: 'The sense of what is meant/ is more substantial than language.' Language is vital, but what it needs to communicate is more vital.