Friday, August 15, 2014

For Beauty’s Sake: Poetry and Activism (Keynote Address, Perth Poetry Festival 2014)

by John Kinsella

I wish to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this country and the non-ownership of this land.

Poetry is so often less about ‘Art’ and more about ‘activism’ than many like to think. The poem that captures a glimpse of ‘nature’, or human loss, or reconstitutes a family memory through an object found while going through the belongings of a deceased relative, might seem to be little to do with activism but everything to do with art. That is, to do with the art of compacting, containing and adding ‘depth’/layering,/nuance to an idea so it creates conduits into other ways of seeing — creating the poem-object. But for me, rather than the ‘artiness of art’, I am interested in the poem’s potential for resistance, not its compliance with a status quo, not as the production of what will become an objet d’art, a thing intended for wealth accumulation and pleasure. Of course, a piece of art can escape its creator’s (or buyer’s) intentions and become subversive through context.

Poetry works the contradictions, the paradoxes, and brings the incongruous and contiguous into alignment, rendering them into shape, pattern and interpretability. That’s art, and this art is about aesthetics, about a hierarchising of perception into a spectrum of ‘taste’.

I’ve never cared much for taste, and most of us would agree beauty is subjective, which doesn’t have to lead us to say aesthetics can contain such difference, because the issue of ‘beauty’, to me, shouldn’t come up in the first place. Or rather, ‘beauty’ as thing-in-itself. Because if our intent is to oppose beauty to, say, destruction, and use it as a symbol of integrity, liberty, and agency, then it becomes something outside the limitations of taste — in fact, to the arbiters of taste, it might well be ‘tasteless’. Beauty in this case, becomes a political point, an act of defiance in the face of damage, destruction, and disempowerment. Beauty becomes a symbol of resistance and possibly its paradox. That’s a point-of-view issue, or maybe it’s actually an issue of empowerment?

Does the mining company, such as Bauxite Alumina Joint Ventures, wanting to create a massive open-cut mine at Morangup that would reach to Wundowie almost twenty kilometres away, see the destruction of habitat that it will wreak, in terms of destruction of beauty? Of course not. They see their promised ‘rehabilitation’ of land as a kind of beauty; they see the aluminium goods we consume as a kind of beauty; they see wealth-creation as a kind of beauty. No doubt, like Rio Tinto’s collaboration with the Black Swan Theatre Company, they’ll target ‘the arts’ in their desire to extend their largesse, to manufacture beauty that we can all digest as art.

And poetry? Poetry is occasionally offered funding directly and indirectly by such companies. It’s easy to get caught out, so we need to be wary and understand where the money’s coming from; often, it’s hidden. Business mostly wishes to take beauty and turn it into a form of capitalist activism, they wish to take art — all your arts — and make them subservient to this notion of beauty. It’s called advertising... or propaganda!

But if we accept that the integrity of land, that country itself is intrinsically beautiful, then in the name of beauty we might claim all evocations of natural beauty in poetry as an activist moment, as a resistance to the mining industry version. So poets describing a kangaroo paw, poets evoking a sunset (with or without pollution coloration), poets noticing a birdcall and implanting it in their own aubade, their own dawn love-poem, become activist in a way that resists the consuming of country enacted by these corporate miners.

So activism in poetry is often implicit, unless you celebrate goods, fetishise your possessions for the sake of them being your possessions. No amount of irony can save the poem that’s built around the actual ordering and acquisition of material goods for the literal sake of ownership.

But the activism I am interested in tonight is possibly more direct. It’s a matter of working lyrical and rhetorical registers, of bringing the figurative and didactic into conversation. The activist poem can traverse the spatiality from ‘celebratory nature poem’ all the way to the damning rant, the poem that simply says, in essence, that ‘All mining companies are fucked! They serve their own purposes. The rock they crush was a home to animals and plants. The rock they crush was a story...’ and so on. A poem doesn’t need to be stuck in the consistency of diction, in registers of display, in the packaging that more accords with Rio Tinto’s glossy arts policy. And if it does deploy ‘regular diction’, ‘predictable’ metrics, and a pat rhyming scheme, let its subject matter challenge the very conventions from which such approaches to poetry arise. Or let it connect with them, with the aural roots, the aids to memory that fomented the patterning of words into lyrics, into combinations of lines that become memorable.

Either way, let the poem protest against the constraints that industry, the military, religion, and government would impose on poets, poetry and community. Poems speak for themselves however hard they might rant, and maybe that’s what the governments and corporate cultures fear the most: their unpredictability, their capacity to make non-violent radical change.

It took the American poet Muriel Rukeyser in 1938 to help articulate in ‘The Book of the Dead’ the horror of the deaths of hundreds of labourers from silicosis after they were forced to mine silica without masks when excavating the hydroelectric Hawks Nest Tunnel at Gauley Bridge, West Virginia from 1927 to the late 30s. That’s poetry as direct, unremitting activism. Is there beauty in the poetry? — maybe of a sort touched upon above, but certainly not that packaged by Union Carbide, the company at the centre of the disaster, or any other prodigal of global corporate capitalism. The beauty of product, the beauty of modernity hawked by such companies is at variance with life, habitat, and health of the biosphere. Rukeyser wrote, investigated, reported:

[see her poem...]

I’d like to finish with a few lines from a poem entitled ‘Mining Company’s Hymn’ from the 1977 collection Jagardoo by Nyungar poet and playwright Jack Davis, whose poetry I am lucky enough to be editing into a collected volume at the moment:

The government is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
They let me search in the Aboriginal reserves
which leads me to many riches
for taxation’s sake.
Though I wallow in the valley of wealth I will fear no weevil
because my money is safe in the bank
vaults of the land,
and my Government will always comfort me.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Polysituated(ness): international regionalism

By John Kinsella

For the last 18 months I have been working on a book on ‘place’. I was recently invited to (what looks like a very interesting) event to discuss ‘home and away’. I think it is part of a series located in different cities. Anyway, that’s an aside to my present point, which is not a critique of that event, but rather a comment that comes out of the issue central to my critique of the idea of ‘place’.

I do not believe one is ever ‘at home’, because home is composed of so many variables, so many intersecting, bisecting and even parallel lines, that the expression only serves as a very general ‘location’ device that evokes certain sentiments around particular geographic co-ordinates. My problem with ‘home’ is that it is too often deployed as a term of ownership rather than belonging, and even when belonging is a passionate component, it is so as a declaration of exclusion, possession and security that necessarily denies such claims by (some) others. Who belongs ‘at home’? Those with whom we grow up, whom we allow and admit, who came before us (and how far back)?

I argue that we can only discuss connection, belonging, participation, and even visiting or departure, in terms of polysituatedness. We are always polysituated. If we are talking of where we primarily live (though we might go away, travel, or relocate and return every now and again), we are talking about so many different notions of connection and alienation that ‘home’ simply doesn’t answer the condition. At Jam Tree Gully we are talking of the idea of a ‘block’, the idea of fences or absence of fences, where a space begins and ends, overlaps with near and far neighbours, the act of accepting visitors, intrusion by the Shire (and its roadside herbicides), relationship with the town (some distance away) where we shop and collect mail, and the relationship of this town to regional centre. Then there are animals and plants (endemic and ‘introduced’), topographies and histories (dispossession, ‘settler’, ‘claim’ and so on), all of which create alternative configurations of that place.

Place is never static, and place is always defined in contradictory as well as complementary ways by outsiders and insiders, by those with vested interests and those indifferent. The horror of bauxite mining companies trying to develop their ‘claim’ south of Toodyay is a case in point: their configuration of a home that is not theirs in terms of dwelling (they can’t live in their proposed excavation), and a home which is the colonial target of a multinational conglomerate, is redefined in terms of run-on ‘local’ benefits for those who claim it as their place of dwelling. Shires love such propaganda to fuel their own dreams of personal and collective profit focused through improvement to living conditions (theirs). As such pressures come to bear on place, ‘home’ unravels into the polysituated: we take in information about our condition from sources far from our dwelling, well and truly outside locale. We create intersections with dialogues in Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America. At the same time, racist and exclusionary forces are at work in confining and enforcing sub-communal notions of home (to keep it ‘white’ or to resist certain religions or to keep out ‘greenies’). We polysituate where we sit, as much as when we travel or if we have more than one ‘home-place’. I am never ‘away’ because I am concurrently present in a nuanced and polyvalent discussion of belonging and exclusion.

One is cast as ‘UnAustralian’ for opposing the mining industry; living in a corner of Europe you’re asked, ‘when will you be going home?’ even if you have ancestry in that place. We live at a single point and all other points at once: the damage done locally affects the wellbeing of the entire biosphere. That’s the core of international regionalism: respect for regional integrity (whether we claim ‘region’ as home or not), and a desire for international dialogue. I celebrate difference and respect the customs of the local, but I also know that ‘home’ is a construct that suits the coloniser, as the colonised are forced to have loss of dwelling become a definition of home where other ways of conceptualising connection (e.g. totemic) are rehybridised to accord with western colonial notions of participation, connection… and ownership or non-ownership.

This is the way the disgraceful intervention into indigenous communities worked in Australia: home security becomes security for the nation to control and exploit what it sees as its materials of presence (people, minerals, soil, air, animals, plants etc). That’s home. And then the complicit (so very many of us) leave and look back with nostalgia, judgement, new knowledge, and still the desire to own memories and even the future of where one is not literally. They, also, are polysituating. It’s not always a generative and positive paradigm.

Polysituatedness works as a model within international regionalism for recollections and embodiments of earlier places of dwelling in one’s life, a family’s existence, or that of an entire community. When migrants describe their present ‘home’ as entailing aspects of their previous ‘home’, or refugees while embracing ‘opportunities’ in their new place/zone of enacting ‘living’, recall what they have been forced to leave behind and seek to recreate the complexities of that previous space in the new space, a polyvalent model of belonging is created.

Polysituatedness ‘explains’ these chronologies and spatialities, but takes things further by questioning the very nature of origins, birthplace, allegiance and loyalty, rights by soil, and other expressions (legal or conjectural) of connection to a particular set of geographical co-ordinates and their claimant communities. It also allows for a way of seeing entirely outside ‘claim’: connection through association, or even connection through ‘place’ itself making a claim on him/her/them. To occupy space and identify space are necessarily acts of definition, acts of establishing presence. To disrupt and twist Michel de Certeau’s words (yet again — unplanning in my/this case!):

‘The long poem of walking manipulates spatial organizations, no matter how panoptic they may be: it is neither foreign to them (it can take place only within them) nor in conformity with them (it does not receive its identity from them). It creates shadows and ambiguities within them. It inserts its multitudinous references and citations into them (social models, cultural mores, personal factors’ (The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven F. Rendall, University of California Press, 1988, p.101).’

It’s the ‘shadows and ambiguities’ of ‘home’ that undo rather than reinforce its claims to certainty, permanence, and as a reference point, but they are also the generative, creative and spiritual values of any such desires. Dwelling resists these, place embodies them, and space is the place of enactment.

From the city to the country, from pathways to trails, the rhetorical path is broken inside and outside the discourse. Parkour breaks the established paths and permissions through urban space, the sheep that breaks its desire line trails to the farm dam to escape, with its lamb, the predating fox, changes the rules it has established within the rules the farmer has established within the rules survey has established, and all the while there are preceding laws and rules of movement and belonging that are being negotiated without awareness (and sometimes with).

A brutal example of breaking the lines using ‘freedom’ as the outcome would be the trail-bike or four-wheel drive thrashing its way through bush, or following kangaroo trails and damaging peripheral vegetation. The ‘freedom’ of the place, of making use of, say, a broader definition of and catchment for ‘home’ (i.e. not where they dwell but within the region where the ‘participants live’) by these parties, is an enhancement of their notion of freedom and belonging, adding value to their sense of home, while diminishing it in the animals and plants, in the ecos itself, and in those humans who live in something more akin to a symbiotic relationship with that place.

Movement through place becomes the constant in the Polysituated equation as one leaves the dwelling in pursuit of food (or receives it via an online delivery service or has a friend pick up a take-away and bring it over, etc), or as one contacts the water board or electricity company or phone company to bring in to one’s space the allowances and opportunities of extended place, broader community. The lines are always alive, right to our transference to the funeral parlour in death, even if the ashes come back as a quasi-final statement of belonging.