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The ABSA/LitNet
Chain Interview

Die Ketting

Anne Kellas Anne Kellas began her life as a South African poet as part of a small group who for a time called themselves the Circle of Eight which over time and in various incarnations has included Lionel Abrahams, Giles Hugo, Moon Silver, Anne Schuster, Margaret Rostov, Shirley Pendlebury, Heide Coombes, Floss M. Jay, Graham Walker, Michael Gardiner, and others nurtured by Lionel Abraham's generous spirit.
She is currently co-editor of The Write Stuff web site and editor of the Showcase of Tasmanian poetry.
Her work has appeared in the USA, Africa and in several Australian magazines. In 2001 she was 2nd in the Shoalhaven/Arts Rush poetry competition; in 1993 she received an Arts Tasmania award to work on the book that became Isolated States.
In South Africa her work appeared in Quarry, Sesame and much later, after emigrating, in the anthologies A Writer In Stone (David Philip, 1998) and Like a House on Fire (COSAW, 1994) as well as in the Columbia (NY) feature on South African writing in 1986.
John Mateer John Mateer is an accomplished poet who has published five books of poems: Loanwords, Barefoot Speech, Anachronism, Burning Swans (all in Australia), and most recently, The Ancient Capital of Images, a collection of poems on his experiences in South Africa, Australia and Japan. He has also recently published a non-fiction work, Semar's Cave: an Indonesian Journal, a meditation on his experiences in Sumatra and Java.
Mateer is an invited reader at the 5th International Meeting of Poets in Coimbra, Portugal, at Poetry Africa in Durban, and at WORDfEAST in Singapore, as well as at writers' festivals around Australia. He has been writer-in-residence in Sumatra and Kyoto, and visiting artist at the School of Contemporary Arts at Edith Cowan University, Perth. Among his awards are the 2001 Victorian Premier's prize for poetry and the Centenary Medal for his contribution to Australian literature.
In South Africa his work has been published on Donga (online), in Itch and New Contrast.
His work as an art critic specialising in contemporary art has appeared in many journals and catalogues and he is a frequent contributor to Art Monthly Australia.
Mateer was born in Roodepoort, South Africa, in 1971 and spent part of his childhood in Canada. Since 1989 he has lived in Australia.

Anne Kellas in conversation with John Mateer

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  1. First I would like to refer the LitNet reader, by way of introduction to your work, to the list of books you have published. (See the end of this interview.)

    I notice that you won the prestigious Australian prize, the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for Poetry in 2001 and that, more recently, you received a Centenary Medal for your contribution to Australian literature and society. I am wondering: besides raising one's profile and validating one's art, what does this kind of recognition do for one's actual writing?

    It gives the writing a certain official status that it didn't have before. In earlier times, or in certain other cultures, criticism would perform the role of drawing attention to significant work. Increasingly it is prizes and awards that do that. I am grateful for having received those awards, but I am very aware that it is only an engaged readership that can value work and keep it alive.

  2. You were featured on the radio programme PoeticA (ABC Radio National, April 2004) (,, and I noticed that Mike Ladd, the presenter, prefaced the programme with the Malay proverb, "Your mouth is your tiger". Could you speak about this proverb in relation to your work?

    That proverb was the epigraph of a small collection, Mister! Mister! Mister!, that was published in Medan, Sumatra, in 1999 and republished as a section of my book Loanwords. The proverb speaks of the power of one's own language, the meanings one intends, and also, I think, of the fact that every word we use - unless we ourselves have coined it - is borrowed from other speakers and other contexts and so is, in more than one sense, ancestral. The tiger in several Asian societies, and certainly in Malay culture, is a powerful spiritual presence. Maybe - contrary to what one might assume - we as speakers actually haunt our ancestors …

  3. Skin. There is something dramatically electric that happens in your poetry right there on the surface of the boundary between self and other, on the border between self and the experienced world, and out of that charge comes the flash of poetry. Yet your poetry is also full of the human figure, face-on, present, sentient, sensual. How do poems start for you? With the shock of the inner, the skin-felt feeling, or with the image of the other? For instance, in "Aftermath" (in your book Barefoot Speech) you move from the first stanza:
    Walk into my mouth
    into the head that isn't mine.
    Sit cross-legged on the crinkly, sooty ground,
    on the wisps of singed hair
    in the aftermath. Undamagingly

    ironic isn't this? that arsonists
    with their seed-flames hidden
    often help fight the inferno
    as if enacting an atavistic memory of
    firestick farming.
    to this almost archetypal image that is so tactile one can feel it in your words:
    I approach a tree,
    trying to tell its type from reptilian
    evenly scaled charcoal skin:
    apartheid Near my hand on the bark, an ant.
    In its jaw-hands a huge load of food.

    How can I answer that? Maybe it would be better for me to try to answer how poems end for me. They end because their form has been achieved. You pose the question, "With the shock of the inner etc …?" Well, I don't believe we exist within our skins. We are edgeless and multi-layered. We exist in images, whether sound, taste, vision, and we exist in language. But we also exist in memory, our own and others'. So any interaction, especially a poetic interaction, is a transaction involving these dimensions. So I could say, were I willing to generalise the experience of the poem, that a poem begins with a new opening of one or more of these dimensions.

  4. To me, thematically your work is overwhelmingly about the reaching out to the world that we writers do with words - a reaching out that the ordinary world might take for granted but which the poet deals with as weighty currency: speech, communication, language, meaning. (The poem "Dark horse, for JMC", begins: "As I write this line it is in a foreign language" and moves later to:
    As I write this line
    the line 'I do not speak my own language' is in my head

    like the line of an ascending aeroplane piercing through cloud.

    Beware of those bearing grief in comprehensible words.
    Beware of your mouths.

    You put your finger on a kind of crisis in how we communicate. I hear in your poetry a use of voiced sound as something primal, beyond language. I am thinking of the section that is called "Silence of Forms" in your book Barefoot Speech. These lines from the poem "Ascending Devil's Peak" describe an almost antediluvian or unearthly silence: "My mind, like the museum/ down there, surrounds postal/ stones, weighs pieces of the mountain/ on yellow onionskin, opens/ its silent mouth to see blue/ sky. From a fissure in the sedimentary/ rock I fill my mouth with crystal/ water, having no answer to/ its origination, silently calling/ its Self spermcloud, cervicalland, rockthirst." At other times you manage to animate your poems, as in "Elephant Graveyard" in Barefoot Speech, with cinematic takes or movements, but not necessarily with "images". I wonder, John, can you help me understand this better? Is this a deliberate grappling with the failure of language, a making graphic poetry's (in)ability to deal (adequately) with our age that interests you?

    I think poetry can deal adequately with our age. The difficulty with "using" poetry is the belittling of poetry, and the arts more generally, that is occurring in education systems everywhere. That is definitely a consequence of the nature of culture today, being technological and commercially driven. The question you ask about the cinematic is very complex, because the question of what an image in a poem might be is itself complex. As I said above, we don't exist solely within our skins. The voicing of a poem is sonic and linguistic, just as an image is an event and a certain type of cognition. Depending on your definitions, seeing in the present tense is a kind of memory as much as it is a sensory experience. My interest in this, at base, is an interest in undoing conventions, whether of thought, experience or language. The "undoing" can enable an intelligent openness.

  5. I know the work of Breyten Breytenbach has meant a lot to you. He's spoken of exile in terms of being an "eavesdropper". To take this into the ambit of your work: it seems to me your poetry listens out there on a high wire of tension, with an almost animal alertness. In your book Loanwords these words sent a shiver down my spine: "the city is thought, sounded, not yet words: psycho-acoustics". I am wondering, this hypervigilance in your work, is it the linguist in you tuning in to the cross-cultural cosmopolitan dissonances?

    At a certain point in time Breytenbach's work was exemplary. I now feel quite distant from it. But the question you ask - you use the phrase "animal alertness" - is interestingly posed, because you follow the notion of the animal with the notion of the cultural. Feeling both familiar and estranged in South Africa and Australia, both countries in which the "natives" were treated as if non-human, I am intrigued by the idea of the non-human in my own work and in my own being. What does it mean to be a non-human, a daemon, an object? If we are, as the cliché notion of a particular kind of linguistic theory would have us, nothing more than machines through which language speaks, then how might we speak? This is a much more pressing concern than most intellectuals would be prepared to admit. The demise of the notion of a humanist subject means that it is nearly impossible to argue for human values. Its my view that poets need to address this problem of the non-human, which parallels the notion of the inhuman, so that we can find a new place for the assertion of the significance of language. Unless we do, the arguments in favour of the commercialisation of experience will meet no resistance. This is, I believe, one of the causes of failure to prevent the current, international world war.

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LitNet: 11 May 2005

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