“I am Irrelevant”: John Kinsella on Old Growth

“I strongly believe that in destroying the ‘ancient’, we not only irreparably damage the health of the planet, but we destroy the essence of who we are as humans.”JOHN KINSELLA is the author of 30 books and is the three-time winner of the WA Premier’s Book Award for Poetry. He’s a fellow at Cambridge’s Churchill college, the editor of international literary journal Salt, and self-describes as a vegan/anarchist/pacifist. He tells ANGUS DALTON about writing in the face of fascism and the destruction of ancient gums that catalysed his latest short story collection, Old Growth.

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AD: What binds the stories in Old Growth?

JK: Technically, a concise use of language — an attempt to ‘capture’ more than is apparent in as few words as possible. Even in the longer stories, this is the raison d’être — to let place and event make intense exchanges through evocations of particular language. I am strongly interested in the ‘colloquial’ and how we ‘see’: so there are maybe strange mergings of sight and sound. On a thematic level, the threads — sometimes overt, sometimes more subtextual — that run through all the stories are ‘enravelled’ around isolation and alienation, but with an ongoing desire for connection: to people, to the land, to something that is hard to pin down.

Whether it is loss imposed by forces outside one’s control, or something almost catastrophic brought on by one’s own actions, that loss is given ways out, ways to redeem itself, to find anchorage. I suppose, in the end, I am interested in ‘justice’ and egalitarianism for all people and all living things, especially when they are under pressure from external forces and wrestling with internal uncertainties. It’s almost a case of working and reworking the unbalanceable equation — never giving in, wanting to find hope even where it seems elusive or impossible.

Even the ‘quiet’, say, imagistic poem capturing a ‘stilled’ moment holds back a quiet fury for me in the context of a biosphere we are systematically destroying.”

There’s always something ‘strange’ at the edges of even the most mundane action or circumstance — selling desk-sets in the city can be as loaded an emotional condition as a child wishing the annihilation of an oppressive parent. Whether ‘city’ or ‘country’, characters struggle with external and internal forces that would throw them off their tracks. Stories don’t have to be overwhelmed by plot and unusual settings to be intense in their implications. I find weirdness in the ordinary — I am fascinated by the horror of the incidental, the (often disturbed) familiar.

I suppose one other obvious thread is the tension between urban and rural life, but this is actually more troubled in the book than it might first appear! In many ways, the lines are more blurred than the propagandists on either side would have you believe. In ‘The Coffin’ story we have ‘urban’ kids growing up alongside large bush areas next to a river. They don’t fit the delineations.

AD: You once said in an interview, ‘Poetry’s purpose, for me, is to bring people’s attentions to the injustices and damage/s being done to and in the world’. What’s the purpose of a short story?

JK: Of course, the purpose you mention regarding poetry can apply to all literature and probably should. But I do differentiate in my own practice (a little) between poetry and the short story. Poetry’s emphatic language, its immediacy and intense ‘portability’, make it actionable in its entirety or as extract at any given moment. It takes matter in and spits it out; then as it is expostulated the phlegm flies out of the mouth. Even the ‘quiet’, say, imagistic poem capturing a ‘stilled’ moment holds back a quiet fury for me in the context of a biosphere we are systematically destroying. My own poetic language draws directly from physical environments and consequently reacts to the trashing of those environments.

My stories are similar in their arising out of the physical world, but as they are fictions, constructs in which fabulisms and extraordinary moments might distract from or augment the quotidian, this creates a distance or slippage between cause and effect. So a story might have a clear theme concerned with justice/injustice, such as the racism and redemption in ‘The Shopping Trolley’ or the consequences of ecological damage as physical revenge when a character is confused by intense psychological loss (such as in ‘Old Growth’), but the fact of the ‘story’, of its construct (at the hands of the writer) takes it into a more conjectural realm.

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So: activist in the writing and its existing as a text, but more self-directing and, for that matter, self-escaping. It performs, to use an expression from one of my poems, its own ‘tricks of significance’. The story is there for us to understand better how and why we feel the need to make our own stories: to define who we are, and who and what we might have been. Stories are tools for learning the self and community, for learning place and displacement.

AD: Did you write the stories in Old Growth surrounded by the bush and rural landscapes in which the stories play out, or are you able to write about the landscape while not necessarily being in close proximity with it?

JK: Yes, I always prefer to write ‘in situ’, as I call it. Place is an important part of the language, never mind the setting, of my stories. And even those stories set ‘elsewhere’ rely on my having been to those places. Sometimes distance from the causal event that inspired a fiction is useful, but more often than not if I am not actually writing the story in the setting, in-scene, I have to return to the place of conception to finish it. I actually feel every bit of hurt inflicted on the bush and see it as my responsibility to enact this in my writing across all genres. The story is a site of being, and what happens in it has real consequences not only in the diegesis of the fiction, but in how it is reinvented in different places of reading. Reading a story set in the Western Australian wheatbelt in, say, a suburb of Sydney creates ‘comparatives’ that inform (and hopefully enrich) both settings, both worlds. It’s all about the slippages between spaces.

AD: After working in the US, the UK, and on various international literary journals such as Salt and The Kenyon Review, have you noticed a particular quality, characteristic or tone that distinguishes Australian writing?

JK: Of course there is, and whether we like it or not, it is heavily tied in with the belief that Australian fiction (in particular) is somehow in dialogue with place, with landscape, and that it comes out of geographic ‘isolation’, even in the age of electronic communications (maybe even more so because of the ease of these — the global village is alienating more than inclusive in so many ways, but also insensitive in essential ‘local’ ways). There is ultimately no more reason for this to be so than anywhere else in the world, but as the reality of ongoing colonialism, in the context of unresolved indigenous land and cultural rights, informs all that Australia is, this is not surprising. There are wrongs that need to be righted. The disturbance that comes over the notion of a ‘lot’ of space remaining unavailable, because it’s waterless or ‘marginal’, bothers non-indigenous sense/s of belonging. Australia is a construct of flux and ancient ineffability in popular and literary fiction alike, and how that is dealt with marks the writing in obvious ways beyond literal content. The question of rights of telling, how stories of ‘other’ places inform ‘this’ place, and the necessity for breadth, a pluralistic vision of literature, work in the context of a geography and topology that resist the generic in so many ways – though many (in spite of themselves!) do their best to render it as consumable as possible!

It’s advocacy for the act of writing as a means of intervention, of bringing positive change, of resisting the rise of global fascism.”

I have just co-edited (with David Lynn) a special Australian issue of The Kenyon Review that seeks to capture some of this disrupted sense of how the many overlapping and sometimes contraindicating stories of ‘Australia’ might co-exist in the telling. We celebrate the pluralistic, we celebrate cultural diversity, we believe in an evasive literary discourse that won’t be pinned down. But under all that, there’s the recognisable, whatever the background or different sense of ‘belonging’ the writer works out of. Whether editing for Stand magazine in the UK, late 90s, or for Salt or as international editor at The Kenyon Review or special issues of numerous other journals, I can always spot Australian writing. 

AD: In a piece about asbestos on your blog, Poets Vegan Anarchist Pacifist, you wrote: ‘We are writers writing in times of catastrophe faced with a ‘hebephrenic’ power elite (hebephrenic in Hodge & Mishra’s sense) who will force what they see as necessary on us all.’ Can you expand on this statement and the place of writers in the current state of the world?

JK: If we don’t act individually and collectively, there will literally be no world left to write. It’s that brutal and that glib and that essential. As writers we witness and we reconstruct and we purvey and convey and always, to some extent, translate. But this in itself is not enough. Our works can’t stand by themselves, as the myth of literature would have it — authors have to speak out, stand by their works and the purpose of these works existing. It’s advocacy for the act of writing as a means of intervention, of bringing positive change, of resisting the rise of global fascism.

AD: A recurring sentiment in Old Growth seems to be your characters’ polarised attitudes towards the city; some loathe the country and crave city living, while others cannot imagine spending lengths of time in our modern metropolises. Do you share a distaste for city living, and what do you think it means to live in a society in which the increasing majority of people dwell in built-up urban spaces?

JK: Ha! See end of my answer to your first question. These things are complex. Frankly speaking, I cannot cope with living in cities, but at the same time I have visited and stayed in many great cities of the world and found them inspiring. On the most positive level, cities for me are intensifications of people from diverse backgrounds and I enjoy this greatly. In rural areas it is often the case, though fortunately not exclusively, that there’s a cultural homogeneity (often faux) to community, at least on the surface. This can make bigotries more obvious, and I find this distressing. But it’s, again, more complex than this, as quite often the greatest acts of tolerance and support for ‘difference’ can be clarified under such social pressure. Distance, isolation, are often depicted as bringing out the worst in people, allowing them to indulge their ‘dark side’, but that’s garbage — in the city, anonymity of ill-intent is easier to achieve among a crowd. In my stories I try to challenge all these constructs — I don’t say ‘clichés’ because clichés arise from actualities and are fascinating to explore. For me, Wake in Fright can occur as much in the city as the country!

AD: How did the collection’s title story, ‘Old Growth’, come to form?

JK: Witnessing someone destroy hundreds-of-years-old flooded gums and bushland so they could access the land for personal leisure. It was one of the most distressing things I have encountered in a life of resisting the destruction of habitat. I felt real malice was involved as well.

AD: Most of the recent poetry on Poets Vegan Anarchist Pacifist is concerned with the destruction of old-growth trees and bushland in WA. What is ‘old-growth’, and what is at the root of the disregard for ancient ecologies? How does your poetry seek to rectify this?

JK: I am talking of trees whose origins are pre-colonial, whose lives far outreach ‘settlement’ (or ‘invasion’), whose relationships to humans have been of a rich and mutually totemic nature; trees that are part of ecosystems and make ecosystems. Trees that have cultural histories. Trees that, aside from the human connections, have seen generations and generations of birds, animals, insects, arachnids, and other life-forms come and go — that have worked symbiotically, that have shared the biosphere. These trees are identity, these trees are belonging, these trees are a record of life over hundreds of years. They are witnesses and life-givers, they are all of us and their influence reaches around the planet: they are the biosphere. I strongly believe that in destroying the ‘ancient’, we not only irreparably damage the health of the planet, but we destroy the essence of who we are as humans. To make a poor dynamic equivalent, we are destroying buildings of worship, libraries, museums, community centres, villages, cities, houses, and nurseries. It’s catastrophic loss. And writers should be conscious of this on every level — right down to pushing their publishers to use non old-growth sustainable papers (especially from non-tree sources), to work to end the clearing.

My poetry is of the land, of these trees. I claim to speak for no one, and actually barely even for myself (I find myself hard to fathom), but I do know that my poetry somehow tries to connect with the essence of the living world, and to act as a conduit for conversations concerning that world’s preservation and protection. It is the only reason I exist, whether I (or it) succeeds or fails in terms of poetry-in-itself. I am only concerned with the health of the biosphere and all in it — nothing more. I am irrelevant.

Old Growth by John Kinsella is available from Good Reading‘s online bookstore for $25.50.

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