Like all good things part II of this interview has been a long time coming, but is well worth the wait…
I have been fortunate enough to see you perform live with Cleis now on several occasions, most recently at Queensland Poetry Festival 2008. That show is still resonating with me four months later. The performance transceded both genres (music and poetry) and drew the audience into the vortex of the moment. Just how much of a show is rehearsed and how much is intuition, interplay, instinct? And how does the live performance differ to the process of recording?
Thank you for your full-hearted response. The angels were with us up in Brisbane: a finely attuned audience and a great sound engineer didn’t hurt either. There’s sometimes that sense I’m sure any artist gets that it’s all just coming through you and if there’s any reward for your labours, it’s probably this. I’m touched that you had that experience at QPF, I guess that’s what I’m reaching for with Cleis: something that’s more than the two parts. In some uncanny way, I feel that when we’re ‘on’ my voice becomes some sort of musical instrument weaving through Cleis’ strings. So the words transcend their semantic meaning and become more incantatory, mantric. Similarly, Cleis’ music is much more than an accompaniment; in a very dynamic way, she’s listening at a subliminal level, she’s making poetry too. The poet Rob Riel said when he launched our CD at the Australian Poetry Festival that Cleis must also be a poet.
We tend not to rehearse overmuch but there’s a definite musical structure and Cleis will know the poems fairly intimately. Both of us like to leave a lot of space for improvising and not be overly confined to any set pattern. It’s a bit of a game I play with myself; I don’t mull over the poems so that when we perform, I feel like I’m entering the poem for the first time. It’s a somewhat risky exercise but mostly it works I think. In Brisbane I lost my way for a moment in The Blind Singer but made a leap and came back into the poem through the back door.
Another example of how it works: I suddenly got the idea driving to the festival to make four years old more cyclical so instead of trailing off into the grown-up child driving the car round the corner, it comes back to the second stanza:
The carousel goes up and down
to the strains of a wheezy waltz.
I’ve learned every song the man plays –
each second Sunday they’re part of the world
I’ve made with chocolate ice creams and rides.
This time around you catch my eye
and I’m waving, right on time.
It was enough to just mention this to Cleis: I knew she’d turn it all around. In The Blind Singer that night there was a fair bit of improvisation between us, especially when the poem builds into the singer’s deep trance. I tended to repeat phrases or run them together in a different way. The Hexham Flood was more measured with us holding the edge of the child’s fear of an inner drowning.
There are certain patterns we tend to fall into: we’ve somehow made Gypsies our closing piece and by then I know we’re coming home, there’s lots of space with the music surging and drawing back towards the final unravelling. Here, images from the poem swirl together as the child’s imagination is set on a kind of internal combustion with his vision of the gypsies. It tends to go off at this point and I’ll tend to fall into some kind of declamatory mode and then just let Cleis rip. It always feels like everything just opens up and the audience can just go with the sparks climbing into the air from the gypsy fire.
Overall I’d say there’s a strong intuitive interplay within the defined structure of the words and music. Each performance can vary quite radically. I suspect this has a lot to do with the nature of the audience and how in touch it is. In Sanskrit there’s a term called ‘rasa’ which loosely means juice or sap, it’s the very essence of a work of art. The ‘rasakant’ is one who can taste that essence and importantly it is he/she who brings the art to life. Without the ‘taster’ there’s no juice. The QPF audience, I’d say, was a big part of the magic that night.
In recording of course, that’s just the part that’s missing and there can be something quite cold about a recording studio. We made White Cow not that long after we’d started working together; there are things I’d do differently next time but we tried to keep it fairly open and there’s quite a bit of spontaneity on the record. First track we recorded, Eagle, was us on one mike, just one take. The others were mostly recorded in two or three takes at the most, both of us with our own mike standing facing each other so we could bounce off each other as much as possible. For a fairly obsessive person, I’m pretty happy with the result. Overall though I’d say we’re a lot better now. Next time I’d like to capture us live.
I’m inspired by working with musicians but at the heart of it all I guess I’m still searching for the finished poem on the page. In Melbourne I’ve performed with the band Kid Sam; one piece we’ve done consists of loose phrases we weave together and build on but since then I’ve shaped it into a much more formal structure, a villanelle in fact. The performing and the writing run into each other and sometimes, in a musical context, I’m able to hear my own words in a much more charged way, hear just where they work and where they don’t.
I hope to be able to keep working with musicians. One thing’s for sure: it’s lovely to have someone up there with you, writing poems is lonesome business enough.
Searching for the finished poem on the page is a life’s journey, so where are the footsteps of Max Ryan currently heading?
Ha! I could try talking about poetry…
Perhaps above all, I love reading poetry and I can envisage myself doing that till I drop. In a fairly direct way, the poems I write are nourished by the poetry I’m touched by. Not that there’s any stylistic resemblance necessarily but there’s some kind of direct energetic force that inspires my own attempts. There are some poems I read over and again, never tire of: Coleridge’s Frost At Midnight, Dejection: An Ode, Yeats’ Adam’s Curse, An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, When You Are Old, Whitman’s Song Of Myself, Out Of The Cradle Endlessly Rocking, many of Emily Dickinson’s, Marina Tsvetaeva’s. In a great poem there’s always that sense of magic, some narrative leap or unforgettable turn of phrase that makes the heart beat a little stronger…
Harold Bloom called Coleridge the great poet of night. I still delight in those first few clear notes of Frost At Midnight as the poet summons us to his midnight vision:
The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud— and hark, again! loud as before.
Coleridge then draws us into a mystical vision of the ‘stranger’, the still beating embers of the fire that presaged the arrival of some absent friend, which becomes a metaphor for the poet’s ‘abstruser musings’. The poem finishes with this wishful prophecy for his son Hartley, the infant sleeping by his side:
Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.
Definitely poetry from another age (the capitalizing of Frost and Moon and the ornate diction for example) but there’s such a sustained lyrical vision of the harmony between man and nature. I love the way ‘fall’ just falls onto the line. The last lines have the power of great haiku.
There was a period where I felt quite deflated after Rainswayed came out… what now? I realised I’d pretty well written some sort of story-of-my-life, at least my life so far, and I didn’t want to go on just writing more of the same. What I’ve been discovering are poetic forms such as the pantoum, the villanelle etc which have allowed me to enter the poem in a less linear way, such styles seem to fit with the way I feel right now…
Of course these forms can have a highly defined structure and a deep inherent logic and perhaps by this token they provide a great vehicle for bringing what can seem fairly random images into a whole new dynamic. At a certain point, they start to work for you and certain phrases will be reiterated in sometimes surprising new ways. The pantoum form, for example, fits nicely into the fairly imagist style I tend to write in:
half-way home, the drifter turns around
still, even in the rain, we look for signs
before the storm, swallows skim the river
an ocean roar , a face in the crowd
Reading poetry has always been a huge source in my life. I’ve spent a fair bit of time travelling, often alone, and also spent periods of my life fairly laid-up with physical problems. So poetry, a book of poems, has never been far from my side. I left Australia for India in the late 70s with a hard copy of Yeats’ The Collected Poems in my haversack. Yeats has been a real companion to me, sometimes I feel I know him better than I do many of my friends.
Just now I’m enjoying Bronwyn Lea’s The Other Way Out; there’s such a fine sensibility (the only word I can conjure) in these poems and I’ve been delighting in many readings. This one, Ars Poetica, says it nicely:
I used to want
to say one thing
& have it turn
out to be another.
Now I only want
to say one thing.
As if the pleasure
now is in the voicing
not the trickery
but the soul making
above the traffic.
As for plans: tanka and haiku, especially the latter, provide a real grounding and keep me rooted in the senses and the everyday occurrences around me and I trust they still will. Working with musicians is always there and I’d like to record with different players on separate pieces.
So I have no major ambitions for my poetry, just to keep on keeping on I guess and above all to enjoy it. I’ll take it wherever it leads me: I feel greatly privileged to be able to practice such an art and hopefully to share it with an audience. We’re all walking in the footsteps of many great bards. Dorothy Porter once said she’d be happy to leave a half dozen of Coleridge’s poems behind her. Well, it was a lovely way of honouring the masters. Mind you, as for the Coleridge poems, I’d be happy with one!