A Conversation with Robert Wood
Interview by Leah Jing McIntosh
Robert Wood is a poet and essayist living in Redgate, Western Australia. His writing focuses on our relationship with the natural world and draws on his experiences of country, suburb and city to create mythic landscapes informed by history and philosophy. Wood has worked for Australian Poetry, edited for Overland, Peril and Cordite, been a columnist for Cultural Weekly and was the first poet on the faculty of The School of Life. He just signed his first official book contract for History and the Poet which is a book of essays and will be available before the end of the year.
We talked to Robert about writing Australia, being an ally to oneself, and sites of literary activism.
Read Robert’s poems here.
What does your creative practice entail?
I am a writer and I have a pretty strict schedule. I wake up and work on poetry first thing in the morning. Then I will break for tea (I am currently into Singapore Breakfast from T2, which is the true expression of hybridity with rice, pandan, coconut, black and green tea). I work on my essays before stopping at midday. In the early afternoon I light the fire in the potbelly stove, edit my work and other people’s, take a walk and cook, and afterwards I read. I stick to that most days, but that is simply my schedule.
Inside that schedule, my practice involves a lot of condensation and abyss, a kind of making new words and worlds from older ones and stretching out the space of archival poems, of layering, of geologizing and topography, and the essays are often dentistry work in so far as they need incisors and teeth. Both endeavours are utopian though, attempts at making the world a better place into the future based on ethical and aesthetic conceits of beauty, justice and solidarity.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a linked sequential poem for a full length MS; writing some essays set in Redgate that are transgeneric literary theory, personal anecdote, comfort food for the thinking animal; and an editing project with the Centre for Stories about winter and travel where we collaborate with the public to make poster sized stories to stick around the city. All these are aimed at raising consciousness and bringing pleasure through language to the world.
You move between poetry, essays, and critical writing; how do you weather these transitions?
One way is through how I organise my day, but also they are there to support each other. Of course I push against some traditions and expectations in each field, so my poems are built from the carcasses and compost of other poems, and my essays riff off and rhyme with other essays, but together they form an ecosystem of writing and language making that I hope is healthier, stronger, more beautiful than if I was working on only one area.
You have mentioned that as a mixed-race person, you try to make sure your white self is an ally to your POC self.
My white self is afforded a lot of privileges, and though it often hides my POC self because I pass for the most part, I tend to like and appreciate it. That might mean being in touch with my heritage, but also it is about that internal solidarity, of recognising and using privilege rather than situating myself as marginalised only, or being a victim. So, in that way I view it as a microcosm, a kind of world writ small, and it is incumbent on white me to help out to my POC self, and for my POC self to see that act of generosity for what it is. That is what working together is about.
What drew you to poetry? Can you remember your first published poem?
I didn't plan on becoming a poet. I wanted to do something good and I thought the way to do that was through politics. I studied history and economics. I worked as a unionist, for Aboriginal corporations, for non-profits. But I have ended up doing this because I love it. And you need to do what you love just to care for yourself. The world is hard enough as it is. Doing this does not necessarily mean it is narcissistic or selfish or cannot be ethical.
In any case, I was drawn to poetry at various stages in my life and continue to be attracted to it. I grew up in a family that encouraged this. My grandparents were all interested in stories, ideas and language. When I was five, my mother’s parents migrated from Singapore to live with us, and they had a depth of poetic knowledge that was, in retrospect, a rare blessing. And of course, there were books and books – Tagore, Robbie Burns, Kipling and lots of Australiana from mid century sociology to Gwen Harwood and Bruce Dawe.
Studying in Philadelphia, I became a more dedicated practitioner and part of the ‘poetry world’. Where I was studying was a centre for avant garde activity and while that mattered it is not where I want to end up, or even am part of now. Yet, my first published poem emerged from this faction and I remain proud of it. It was a poem called ‘In the Desert’ and came out in Southerly before being anthologised in that year’s Best Australian Poems 2013. It was called ‘profoundly silly’ in The Australian. But I was happy with that and have been called much worse since.
What was the impetus for Land Mass? Land Mass plays with the spatiality of the page, scattering words across white. What was behind this decision?
In terms of where Land Mass comes from, it is a follow up to another full-length work I did, Suburban Tabi. Tabi is a personal and public song poem from the Western Pilbara, where my brother-in-law is an initiated traditional owner (Ngarluma). I thought of the form he had introduced me to and wrote about my daily life in Wembley. That was like writing a series of sonnets but had a family connection.
With Land Mass I was thinking about more of a map and another dance form from up there called gunangu. So obviously music matters with regard to impetus and there is a long history of people talking about poetry’s aspiration to music. But for me, I have always placed it in conversation with sculpture, thinking here of hieroglyphics, rock art and cave paintings. So in that way, from my first poem to now, I have been interested in the page as a canvas, body, site, on which I can play with scale and possibility. I think one needs to work back from the possibilities of language, to have experimented and conducted research and development before finding an application, which might or might not work. Land Mass is one application but it is by no means the last.
Land Mass is also intended as a gift, which is to say, outside money. That was meant not only to highlight that poetry doesn't make anyone cash, which is a good thing to me. This is because it establishes different types of social relations that might offer us a utopian possibility that celebrates giving inside a logic that is shot through with generosity.
In other words, it gives an economic basis that is not only anti-capitalist but also anti-communist, if we think for a moment that those are two halves of a post-war global system. That might be the suburbanist economic order that we can truly call into existence no matter what the words on the page actually say.
Who should we be reading?
Without being proscriptive, there is lots of good work at the moment. It is another exciting year for debut Australian work. I am really looking forward to getting my hands on Amelia Dale’s Constitution, Bella Li’s Argosy, Melody Paloma’s In Some Ways Dingo, Tanya Thaweeskulchai’s A Salivating Monstrous Plant, Shevaun Cooley’s Homing, Jeanine Leanne’s Walk Back Over and JP Quinton’s How to Cross the Rakaia River.
But in terms of where to start, there are some other places that I think matter. For journals there is Mascara Literary Review, Plumwood Mountain and Cordite. Between those three you get pretty good coverage of the national scene at the moment. When speaking of the archive, which is infinite, let me say that I think Rex Ingamells is an interesting (and problematic) figure, Pi O’s earlier work still warrants re-reading and I keep my eyes peeled for the younger ones listed above. That is all in Australia though.
As part of my reading diet, I also read Jalada, Callaloo, Wasafiri and some Indian journals. As for what people can listen to, I have a conversation series with contemporary local poets and that is a good entry point for people who want to hear poetry explained a little more.
I’ve been enjoying your recent reviews. How did you decide to start this series?
A few things happened. The structural conditions were such that a few places I wrote for lost funding under George Brandis, which meant they were not publishing so much, so I had work that I wanted to make public but no home. The second was a frustration that review culture here often has an unconscious dead white male theorist bent. You see this where someone, apropos of nothing, will say ‘As Bourdieu says…’ and so on. I wanted to challenge that, not through the absence of theory but through critical disagreement and autonomous engagement. It is not as though other cultures do not have philosophy or aesthetics, or that there is no one in Australia who hasn’t had a critical thought before. So why not use that? Finally, I like contemporary poetry a lot and I like to write, so bringing those things together allows me to keep creating.
I’m interested in how writers and English departments alike both cement the canon through reverence and reference, as you write: ‘[Australia] is concerned with metropolitan validation… [emerging] most explicitly through the Anglicised importation of references in reviews.’ As POC writers and readers, what steps can we take to disassemble the canon that so permeates the Australian conception of the literary?
There are steps in theory and in practice, not that those two are ever divorced from each other. One aspect of these critical essays is to create an idiom, language, thought that was not concerned with canonisation as it has happened so far. That doesn’t mean I don’t read Cervantes, but that I am not interested in holding him up or in repeating his mistakes.
One thing I think is necessary is both to radically look inward and towards a sense of oneself through the traditions that happen on this continent including Indigenous, POC and settler European, but also to be eminently strategic in our engagement. So, one site of activism need be what is taught in schools, what is placed in bookshop windows, what is hosted at festivals. Through both these things, I do hope there can be a truer engagement and a more appropriate understanding of what our stories, words and spaces are for the here and now.
When you introduce the idea of a poetics for ‘Australia,’ you draw to attention to the term’s commonly universalised invocation—as something encompassing of a continent, a nation, a people.
I think people commonly make ‘Australia’ interchangeable with the continent as a whole, but lots of the place is unceded and sovereign, which is reflected in Native Title determinations as well as various rituals, ceremonies, laws that are Indigenous to those places. There are maps that I love that explain this better than what I can say, but one thing is to destabilise how we refer to ourselves and the assumed legitimacy of the continent as it sees and understands what it is as a geography. That is about knowing that country, nation and continent are different and ‘Australia’ is not all three of those.
Place features fairly heavily into your critical writing, on varying scales—the urban/metropolitan, the 'undeveloped frontier’ and then the suburban, which emerges as a sort of in-between space. How do these all fit into the narrative of ‘Australia’ that you work to unpack and dissect?
Though I am not convinced by ‘Australia’, I am yet to give up on its possibility. If you live on country here, you can’t ignore it, and if you live in it, you might want to change it. That is to say, we might have a history of colonisation, of trauma, of dispossession, and we can recognise that as well as move towards something better, which is what I think has happened. To think about place in that way means thinking not only of how the suburbs might be the banal occupation of land and expression of the nation, but that they are also a site of wonderful possibility in being exemplary for the post-colonial. I see that as how my family is with Indian, Ngarluma, Chinese, Scottish people in it, working together for a mutual betterment. That is possible in every place but the suburbs are the negotiation of that, they are the balancing act whose lifestyle is the synthesis of class and race, and will determine our connection to place as well as the material reality of a climate changing world.
How did you first become interested in the concept of suburbia?
It came from looking at myself. I had an Ivy League education, and returning home from that was a chance to decolonize, deprogram and decompress my self. That meant seeing where I had grown up for what it was, which is truly a world of possibility. It was also, in everyday speech, a kind of suburb. A unique suburb (Wembley) but also a type of living that was neither country nor city. And rather than projecting a sense of truth onto a raced essence like Négritude or a folk tradition of class consciousness, I wanted to see a reality in where I had come from, which was balanced and a whole of life understanding of itself. That means we need to take a bird’s eye and a worm’s eye view of who we are in order to solve our problems and make sense of whatever may come tomorrow.
In your introduction to ‘Keywords for Suburbanism’, you mention that ‘new poems need new poetics’. Can you elaborate on where that thinking comes from, how this fits in to your larger critical project?
I love making things and new words are a big part of that. That is just my medium of choice but you can find that in wood, in food, in photography. My larger project, like everyone else, is to live a good life, and so, there is something pleasing about engaging with originality, with birth, with regrowth. We need to apprehend the world with a sense of tradition, and the depth and hope that brings, which is why we can never turn our back on history. But at the same time we need to send out a dove for tomorrow so that we are not shipwrecked alone.
Do you have any advice for emerging writers?
Just write, everyday write, and be patient.
Who are you inspired by?
The reader; my family; people with ‘real’ jobs; some crusty old white guys who are dead (Hegel, Weber, Wittgenstein is what some people call them, to me they are just Tom, Dick, Harry); contemporary young Australian poets like Autumn Royal, Omar Sakr, Steven Finch; the Astro Poets on Twitter; horses.
What are you currently listening to?
I don’t listen to music when I work, but sometimes I listen to recordings for work. At the moment I am transcribing a conversation between two traditional owners from the Pilbara where they describe sites of cultural importance and which complements a map that situates their knowledge of country. The place where I listen to various things most though is in the car. When I am driving between Perth and Margaret River I aspire to listen to the AIATSIS back catalogue of CDs, which I have stacked at home. When that fails, I just flick on Radio National or if my wife is with me she invariably puts on a great podcast, or, because she has just come back from India we have been listening to songs of Kabir.
What are you currently reading?
There are lots of things beside my bed at the moment – Gabriel de Foigny’s The Southern Land, K. Ayyappa Paniker’s Medieval Indian Literature: An Anthology and Jessica Friedman’s Things That Helped. But in terms of books I am thinking about, it would have to be Lachlan Brown’s Limited Cities, which was his full-length poetry debut from 2012. I am re-reading it because I am limbering up to write a review essay of his next book – Lunar Inheritance, which will come out with Giramondo in July this year. But Limited Cities recounts in lucid detail, keen affection, tender insight, balanced optimism and acute particularity what it is to be suburban in Australia, which is something I relate to and appreciate.
How do you practice self-care?
After a health scare, I have become quite focused on self-care, which I would think of as a type of ritualised habit where you invest a certain action or moment with a new consciousness and intention. There is cooking and spending time in nature, and sometimes they come together, which might mean grilling some crayfish my dad and I have caught down at Redgate Beach. But that is seasonal and wholly dependent on our luck. Nevertheless, it has a certain type of sanctity that is nourishing. When it is not the crayfishing season or I find myself outside Redgate, I pretend to swim most days at around two in the afternoon. I find swimming meditative and invigorating in such a way that allows me to be a kinder, happier person. For the most part though, writing is the only practice of self care that I need. Still, I veg out to Chef’s Table, and truth be told, I also take a lot of probiotics and rely on my mum's dhal.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
It means to be rice, to be tropics, to be mountainous; to be tuk tuk, to be smoggy, to be moon cake; to be terraced, to be glutinous, to be fanning. It means having hemispheric solidarity and rooted feverishness in the coming century. It means being kingfisher, frangipani, sandalwood; mercurial, arsenic-full, bleaching; and to be mediating the world as it defines itself as indefinable and begins to show what it is to know where one can be at home yet still.