Richard James Allen

Issue sevenISSUE SEVEN CONTRIBUTORIssue seven interviews

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Interviewed by Samuel Elliott.

Richard James Allen is an Australian born poet whose writinghas appeared widely in journals, anthologies, and online over many years.  His latest volume of poetry, The short story of you and I, was published by UWA Publishing in February 2019.  Previouscritically acclaimed books of poetry, fiction and performance texts include Fixing the Broken Nightingale(Flying Island Books), The Kamikaze Mind(Brandl & Schlesinger) andThursday’s Fictions(Five Islands Press), shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry. 

Former Artistic Director of the Poets Union Inc., and director of the inaugural Australian Poetry Festival, Richard is the creator of #RichardReads(https://soundcloud.com/user-387793087), an online compendium of Global Poetry, Read Aloud, and an editor of the landmark anthology, Performing the Unnameable: An Anthology of Australian Performance Texts(Currency Press/RealTime).

Richard is well known for his innovative adaptations and interactions of poetry and other media, including collaborations with artists in dance, film, theatre, music and a range of new media platforms.  The recipient of numerous awards, nominations, and grants, as well as opportunities for presentations, screenings and broadcasts, in a unique international career as a critically lauded writer, director, choreographer and performer for stage and screen, he graduated with First Class Honours for his B.A. at Sydney University andwon the Chancellor’s Award for most outstanding PhD thesis at the University of Technology, Sydney

 

 INTERVIEWER

You boldly play with conventions throughout The short story of you and I, including several penned in second-person. As a form was this liberating? Did it allow you to realise these densely layered stories more easily than traditional first person? What was the reasoning behind that?

 RICHARD

I love playing with conventions.

The short story of you and I is a fractured love story in 57 poems.  The book can be read as an unfolding of the relationship between these two characters, the ‘I’ and the ‘you’.

The moment that I realised the possibilities inherent in the device of the second-person was indeed a liberating one for me, in terms of approaching ideas I wanted to explore, building a more direct relationship with the reader and weaving together individual poems to structure the whole work.

INTERVIEWER

One recurring theme I’ve noticed throughout is the ever-changing understanding of oneself and one’s perception of existence. What sort of challenges or pitfalls does seemingly ineffable subject matter like that present? Was this at the forefront of your mind with this collection? Or did it happen organically?

RICHARD

I am very interested in the construction of self, of identity. The challenges or pitfalls might be to be sentimental or new age about any of this, which I try to avoid with empathetic, but clear-eyed, compassion.

Equally, what we consider ‘real’ is rich subject matter.  And I love exploring philosophical and spiritual traditions, as well as scientific hypotheses, on the topic.  The dangers here might be getting too hokey, too ‘Area 45’.  While I do enjoy humour and irony, and don’t mind occasionally straying into Twilight Zone or Black Mirror territory, I also think that these things can be investigated in a genuine, personal, experiential way.

INTERVIEWER

That said, you seamlessly alternate between poems that are focused on the grandest and most complex of concepts, including existence and humanity’s debatable purpose or point, to something so narrow and niche, such as musing over the sound and meaning over a word like melancholy. Was the collection assembled chronologically? Is how they are set out how you penned them?

RICHARD

William Blake famously wrote:

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.”

                                              ‘Auguries of Innocence’

I am interested in the very big and the very small and how they relate to each other.  “Big answers to the small questions and small answers to the big questions,” as the character Thursday says in an earlier book, Thursday’s Fictions (Five Islands Press, 1999).

For me, the process of structuring a book-length work is a dynamic dialectic between the big picture ideas and the small pieces to realise them.  Finding the correct chronology of poems is a delicate evolution over time, which also includes cutting away pieces that don’t fit in a particular structure.

INTERVIEWER

If that were the case, I would interpret that kind of working as forever challenging your beliefs. Is that correct? How does one constantly challenge oneself and is poetry the most natural medium to do so?  

RICHARD

Complacency is death. As I see it, the life of an artist is one of continual self-challenge.  Which isn’t always comfortable.  But poetry is a good medium for doubt.

INTERVIEWER

In terms of poems like those featured in The short story of you and I, how do you go about their construction? Is the theme you wish to explore the impetus and then you pragmatically pen the piece thereafter? Or does it stem from maybe a few arresting words that come to you?

RICHARD

Every poem comes to life in a different way, but, yes, often beginning, with ‘a few arresting words’ or a feeling or an image.  In terms of how these relate to the larger structure, beyond the conscious dialectic discussed above, my unconscious does a lot of the work behind the scenes.  I only rarely set myself a task to write a poem to solve a particular problem, though this can be fruitful.

INTERVIEWER

How is it the assemblage and order of the poems came to be? There is this punchy one-two cadence to them. Balancing the longer, ontological driven ones with the short, sharp ones that might consider one central idea. Was this deliberate and how you always envisioned the collection to be presented? What did you want to achieve with this rhythmic balance of these oftentimes disparate types?

 RICHARD

I try to find the appropriate structure for the themes of each particular poetry collection. My last book, for example, Fixing the Broken Nightingale(Flying Island Books, 2014), was divided into named thematic sections which also worked together as a whole.  By contrast, The short story of you and Ihas no section breaks, so the interplay of longer and shorter pieces was a deliberate act of rhythmic pulsation to keep the reader’s attention fresh and refreshed so they could travel all the way through. It is a bit like the pumping of a heart, perhaps not inappropriate for a love story.

INTERVIEWER

For such an extensive collection, you sparingly refer to yourself directly. Is that because you didn’t want to take the focus away from the ideas presented? Was there an element of liberty to be found in hiding yourself with your own poetry?

RICHARD

The relationship in the book is between the ‘I’ and the ‘you’, the writer and the reader.  The book offers readers the opportunity to inhabit the story with the details of their own lives and imaginations.  It is not a confessional book.  Which is why I took out the usual bio and replaced it with a photo with white hair, not my normal colour – it is a portrait of the author as persona.

 INTERVIEWER

That said, when you do directly refer to yourself, such as in ‘Melancholy’, you do so to great effect. Was that then always the plan? To unveil yourself as the masterstroke, revealing the man behind the curtain?

RICHARD

It is flattering that you think it’s a masterstroke.  And it is interesting to me how many people say they like hearing ‘Melancholy’ at readings.  But I am not sure that this poem is more revealing than any other through its veils of allusion.

 INTERVIEWER

Whereas in poems like ‘Misadventures in paradise’you use the form to explore themes throughout an almost narrative driven story. Do you find this to be a perfect way to broach innately complex themes and make them readily accessible to a reader? Maybe even so subtly done that they don’t register until later, when they ruminate and unpack it?

 RICHARD

I like to let each poem find the natural form for its inherent idea.  The writing of the poem is, in part, the discovery of that form.  Whatever the form, I try to make it as resonant and yet accessible as possible.

 INTERVIEWER

Do you have a particular favourite form, do you prefer penning poetry in second person, or something nearing stream of consciousness?

RICHARD

I am grateful for whatever creative opportunities come my way and I try to respond in kind.  Over the years I have explored a myriad of forms. The challenge is always                                                                                                                                                                                                        to realise the idea in the form, a bit like Michelangelo revealing the statue in the block of marble.  I try not to pick favourites, as parents try not to pick favourite children.  But I am curious and I do love the adventure of the new.

INTERVIEWER

Do you believe the empirical experience of life is essential to the unknowable of many facets of it, or contemplating beyond our lot?

 RICHARD

That sounds like a question from an analytic philosopher.  Informed by a Buddhist/Yogic worldview, I tend towards the belief that all is one, the knowable and the unknowable.  Exploring that relationship is interesting as it reveals the limits of our apparatus of knowing.

 INTERVIEWER

How much has your empirical experience enabled you to consider such complex ontological matters and craft them into poetry?

RICHARD

Ontological poetry would be very windy without the concreteness, or at least the apparent concreteness, of the empirical.

INTERVIEWER

Your poetry has encompassed so many broad and disparate subjects. Have you ever encountered any subject you’ve found to be taboo, or have otherwise not wanted to explore?

 RICHARD

Perhaps.  But would I discuss it if I did?

 INTERVIEWER

Do you have a set process for writing a poem? Are you a creature of habit? Or do you pen one when the inspiration strikes?

RICHARD

I have no single set process, but patterns of process.  I find that physical activities of clearing my focus, like yoga, swimming, dancing, walking, sleeping, as well as immersing myself in alternative visions of the world (in cinemas, art galleries, etc.), are very helpful in putting me into a receptive space (for initial writing) or an acute space of attention (for rewriting).

 INTERVIEWER

Do you edit your poems, or do you disagree with editing poems?

RICHARD

Occasionally poems come out whole and complete.  And this is a blessing.  But mostly it’s a first draft that comes out, or sometimes just a title, certain key words, ideas or images – the seeds of the final work.  Then there follows a process of editing, usually with time lapses in between sessions so I can come back and see what is there afresh. Depending on the poem, this crafting can go on for hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades.  When I feel it is in a good place, I get invaluable feedback from some of my key artistic collaborators, and that sometimes confirms that I have something and sometimes sends me back into the editing process.

 INTERVIEWER

What was your earliest memory of writing a poem?

RICHARD

I wrote a poem in my first year of high school, I think it was about rain, but I can’t quite remember.

INTERVIEWER

What’s the toughest part of being a poet?

 RICHARD

Waiting for the rain.  (Of inspiration, haha!)

 INTERVIEWER

Who are some of your influences? Have they changed over the years? If you could meet your idols, would you want to?

RICHARD

The short story of you and I contains nods, in various ways, to some of my influences.  And, yes, they have evolved over the years.  I am always looking for new energies, inspirations, ways of seeing, hearing, experiencing, understanding.  I try to extend my gaze across artforms, cultures, genders and time periods.  The poets, artists and thinkers I would like to meet would fill up several graveyards so I don’t think I will go there.  But I do pay deep homage to all those who have dedicated their lives, often at considerable personal cost, to leaving behind something of their best selves to help us find our own.

 INTERVIEWER

What are you currently working on?

RICHARD

I am putting the finishing touches to ‘Text Messages from the Universe’, a long poem that I hope will be the title poem for my next book.  It is also the text for an unusual feature film that I have directed, ‘a book on screen’.   Here’s a synopsis:

‘Text Messages from the Universe immerses its audience in subjective states of consciousness they might experience when they die.  It imagines what they can see and think and hear in a seamless but fragmentary flow of poetic images, words, dance and music.  It places the viewer in the position of going through a journey into their own interior world of dreams and projections in which time and space, and cause and effect logic, are turned on their heads.  Text Messages from the Universe is inspired by The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a Buddhist text which guides souls on their 49 day transmigration through the ‘Bardo’, or intermediate state, between dying and rebirth.  It also draws on the Yogic idea of the seven Chakras, or psychic energy centres, in visualizing this odyssey of movement, colour and consciousness.’

I am hoping that this work will be able to be shared in a number of incarnations, including with me reading the text live as the film is projected.

 

 

Answers – Copyright © 2019 Richard James Allen. All rights reserved.