On The Odour of Sanctity, sainthood, creativity through faith, and the line between poetry and prose.
Amy Brown’s contemporary epic poem, The Odour of Sanctity, is a formal wonder. It makes a case for the canonisation of six saints, from Neutral Milk Hotel’s enigmatic frontman Jeff Mangum, to the talking Medieval infant known only as Rumwold. Many-voiced, technically surprising, and audacious, this epic is absolutely unique in the world of New Zealand and Australian poetry. Poet and Lumière conversationalist Joan Fleming talks with Amy Brown, a former books and creative writing editor for The Lumière Reader, in her Melbourne home about this peculiar and marvellous book.
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JOAN FLEMING: What was the first impulse, or the seed, for the project?
AMY BROWN: I think I could track it back to honours in English lit at Victoria University in Wellington. I think it was called “Classical Traditions” with John Davidson. They taught Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and that was my first encounter with a long, epic, catalogue poem, or whatever you want to call it. I loved it, and I liked how baggy and rangy and interesting and ambitious and weird it was. I was also, not tired of smaller collections like The Propaganda Poster Girl, I just felt it wasn’t something I wanted to do again. I didn’t know how to approach a smaller book again. So I decided to think about what an epic poem would look like if I was going to try and write it. I was thinking as if it was a joke at this point, not all seriously. It would have freaked me out if I had. Epic poems usually contains an element of religion, and that’s a foundation to everybody’s upbringing, even if they’re brought up by atheist parents, as I was. My grandparents were Presbyterian, and my great-grandfather was a Pastor, and so there’s this foundation of religion there to be explored. I suppose what I wanted to do was to think about the place of religion in my life, even though it’s not literal so much as twice-removed, perhaps, in the moral compass I’d been brought up with as a child. I didn’t feel like I was an insider by any means, but I also didn’t feel like I was invested–
JF: Or in contact with it, if not inside of it-
AB: Or, affected by it, yeah. And I felt strongly that I wasn’t alone in that, that a lot of people our age have perhaps replaced the literal aspect of it but have retained shadows of it in the way they make decisions, and what they see as being right or wrong. Anyway, that’s very vague. I’m sort of meandering towards an answer. So I don’t know, I didn’t initially think I’d approach the Catholic Church in particular. That came later on when I had a PhD supervisor who was helping me shape it and make it more coherent. At first I had very crazy ideas of what would it look like to write a Newer Testament.
JF: Oh I remember that!
AB: You probably remember that from Tennyson Street [the Tennyson Street Studio]. That was the facetious—well, I was being facetious because I was scared of being serious about it. I wasn’t wanting to be offensive. I certainly didn’t approach it from the perspective of someone wanting to undermine the religious institutions. Even though I’m not a part of it and don’t associate with it, I didn’t want to be blasphemous either, which probably sounds really naïve, considering the current discussion.
JF: So, the notion to put it together as these arguments for candidacy came much later.
AB: I’d probably been turning the idea over for six or eight months when I applied for the PhD at Melbourne. I came over and met with Kevin Brophy, who was happy to let me roam about on a leash for a bit and sort of figure out what I was going to do and try things out. But it became clear the scope was too broad, and what I was planning to do would take much longer than the three-and-a-half years I was planning to do it in. A lot of potential disciples for telling “the Newer Testament” were saints or saintly figures, so he suggested perhaps just focusing on the process of canonisation. That gave me a really good structure to hold the poem together.
JF: And your supervisor was educated as a Jesuit. I found it really interesting that he had come from a place of faith, and had transitioned into the world of intellect and academia. And you were coming in as his student, and trying to think or intellectualise your way into the world of faith.
AB: That’s right [laughs].
JF: I’m curious about his feelings about the project. I don’t know whether he is a lapsed, guilty Catholic?
AB: I think all Catholics are a bit guilty?
JF: I think so, the ones that I know. Obviously Kevin has understood faith at one point in his life, so I’m interested in the kinds of things that he warned you against or encouraged you towards.
AB: He was remarkably trusting, I suppose. Or perhaps his warnings were subtle and I didn’t feel like I was being manipulated at all, or having to compromise or censor myself around him. I don’t know if lapsed is the right word for it, but I don’t think he is still faithful. I don’t know, you’d have to ask him. We didn’t have in-depth discussions about his own faith. I’m trying to think of times he commented on the verisimilitude of the expressions of faith, or the way that I’d tried to articulate these characters’ versions of faith. Once he observed that the way faith was manifesting in Margery Kempe seemed like it was more pathological than faithful. I don’t know if that was a complaint, or a suggestion that I needed to go further. But I think we agreed in the end, or at least acknowledged, that that was the limit of what I could put down honestly in terms of understanding, myself, what she was going through. And perhaps that’s a sign of my own lack of faith. I could only engage with the manifestations of her faith physically. So that’s perhaps that’s why it comes across as an illness rather than a transcendental experience.
JF: Because I’m not Catholic, and don’t have an understanding of Catholicism, and the kinds of experiences you’re writing about are quite extreme examples as well—asceticism, self-denial, self-mortification, these are all experiences and attitudes that are so other, so different to our culture, which is a materialist culture, which tells us that we deserve the things that we enjoy. So I had the experience, when I was reading the book, of bringing other frames of reference in to try and understand these experiences. For example, Margery Kempe with her extreme dieting, and then she flips, and is choosing the choicest cuts of meat because she’s got Mary’s voice in her ear telling her to do so. I had to import a framework of eating disorder to understand her experience of transcendence. And with Elizabeth of Hungary, I had to import an extreme S&M relationship framework to understand her experience of pain as a kind of pleasure. And I wondered how conscious, if at all, you were of using those frameworks.
AB: It certainly occurred to me when I was writing the Margery Kempe part that it appeared to be anorexia that she was suffering from. But I know that’s anachronistic and I wanted to take at face value the descriptions in The Book of Margery Kempe, which is extraordinary. I didn’t exaggerate, particularly, the sort of asceticism and self-denial that she engages in. I think the obsessive quality is akin to a condition like anorexia, and perhaps a lot of the—this is where it’s going to sound blasphemous—a lot of the hagiographies that describe Saints’ extreme behaviour as being retrospectively seen as diagnoses, or could be read as diagnoses, of-
JF: Mental illness?
AB: Well, not just mental. Have you heard of Hildegard of Bingen? Hildegard, I really wanted to put her in as well, there are a couple of saints that didn’t make it because I just didn’t have enough room, or didn’t feel like I had enough of a hold of their voice or situation. She had visions that she described in great detail, and the descriptions fit in really well with what we call migraines today. And other manifestations of the faith could be seen as epileptic fits. I suppose that’s part of the limit of the faith, is finding a physical or scientific explanation for the extraordinary. I didn’t want to undermine the extraordinary elements, but I did want to understand them. In order to understand them, I had to bring them down to earth in a way, to make them earthier and more bodily. Maybe that’s profane, and sacrilegious. I don’t know if it takes away from the depth of their experience. I hope not. And I hope that the fact that it’s explainable and makes them seem more normal doesn’t interfere with the concept of sainthood. Because saints are normal people, that’s the thing, and there’s an idea in the Catholic church that there are a whole lot of, what’s the word, latent saints wandering around that haven’t been canonised or brought out. I didn’t have a problem with making them ordinary, or trying to relate to their extraordinary experiences.
JF: The project of trying to get to this inexplicable, unknowable experience through the body—that definitely comes through. But in a way, it’s a bit of an impossibility, to try to understand faith, which, by its nature, is not to do with understanding or logic or reason.
AB: That’s right. That why I think the epic poem was a good vehicle for that, in a way, because its classical origins were faithful. They believed in a whole truth that was possible to see. If you look backwards at the stories that were evolving through cultures over time, that was the truth and there was no need to interfere with it. The heroes were good, and the villains were bad, and there was certainty to the stories. But that’s anachronistic now, in modern society, and so the role of the modern epic is to strive for that sense of wholeness, all the while knowing that you’re never going to achieve it. But doing it as honestly and optimistically as you can.
JF: Because there’s just too much doubt in the cultural atmosphere now.
AB: We know that truths are multiple, and there’s no way you could fit every aspect of a society into one piece of work, unless it was constantly evolving and changing and being added to. And it has to be finished, in a way.
“That’s part of the limit of the faith, is finding a physical or scientific explanation for the extraordinary. I didn’t want to undermine the extraordinary elements, but I did want to understand them. In order to understand them, I had to bring them down to earth in a way, to make them earthier and more bodily. Maybe that’s profane, and sacrilegious. I don’t know if it takes away from the depth of their experience. I hope not.”
JF: I wanted to ask about the critical part of the thesis. It sounds like you’ve already touched on some of the ideas.
AB: That was the crude description of one of the ideas I have about the contemporary epic poem that really interests me. I like it aesthetically and also intellectually I suppose. I like the fact that it’s not going to be tidy or finished or perfect, that there’s room in it for interpretation, and its fragmented quality is one of the ways it enables the reader to make their own truths, or to come to their own conclusions.
JF: The edges aren’t smooth. It can’t contain totality.
AB: The critical part of the thesis was, as a starting point, arguing against a Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin who was defining the rise of the novel, and contending that the novel is the perfect genre for modernity.
JF: Because of its openness.
AB: Yes, its internal focus and its sense of the individual. Because of that, he also had to argue that the epic was semi-moribund, and on the way out, there was no way that it could continue. It had perhaps evolved into the novel, but there was no way you could have an epic poem alongside the novel, it wouldn’t work.
JF: So your thesis was a bit of a, No, wait!
AB: Exactly! It was a: Not semi-moribund! Alive! And trying to work out how it might be revived. I think that the initial impetus of the epic to be a cultural document, and something that is a depository for cultural knowledge, that should still be there. And I think that’s not anachronistic.
JF: That’s not a use that a lot of contemporary poetry is put to, or contains, that documentary purpose.
AB: Yes, but I think it has the capacity to. So I gathered up examples of it, and looked at how they were working, and one thing I saw in common between them was that they were enabling the reader to be on the same plane as the poet, and on the same plane as the epic action or the world of the poem. So there wasn’t this, well, what Bakhtin called “absolute epic distance” between the world of the poem, the heroes and the plot, the journey, usually, and the poet and the audience. In The Odyssey and The Iliad there’s the sense of distance, where you’re observing it from afar, and there’s no way you can effect or change what’s happening in the story. There isn’t room for participation. But in some of the longer poems I was looking at, the proximity’s there, and it’s a world that the reader can engage with. And also the fact that it’s less finished, there’s a sense of agency, or trust put in the reader, which perhaps isn’t there in the classical epic, where the reader, or the audience rather, is just absorbing.
JF: Definitely, there are places in the book where the tones shift and cause the reader to question, who’s speaking here? Whose voice is coming through? Is this the candidate, is it the author, is it God? There are these moments of minute detective work that needs to happen. Not that there necessarily is a right answer to be unveiled, but you definitely have that experience of participating and trying to unpack, if not the truth, then at least, “who’s speaking?”
AB: [laughs] Who’s responsible for this sentiment?
JF: Exactly. One of the places where that happens is when God is speaking.
AB: And you wonder, What is God, in this context.
JF: You wonder, What is God. And then I had to think, well, if religion is an invention of the human imagination, and, in my opinion, it’s no less real or less valuable for being that, then the way that one would understand the voice of God is through a human mind, and that you can’t get away from that. There’s a moment in one of the God narratives where the tone shifts to italics, and it’s this obvious commentary: “This is dross, this is throat-clearing, but God doesn’t clear his throat, he doesn’t have a throat!” [laughs] So you’re thinking, Where am I right now? It’s a really interesting exercise. I want to ask about God, and why he is sometimes so erotically shocking.
AB: [laughs] I don’t know whether—hmmm.
JF: There’s a moment where he’s describing Elizabeth of Hungary’s sickness, and her diarrhoea is described as a “reverse penetration,” something like “a fucking of the air in which she lay.” That is so shocking!
AB: I guess I thought God has no reason to censor him or herself!
JF: Wow. I did not expect that answer.
AB: I mean, there’s no reason to hold back, I suppose. There’s no responsibility.
JF: No one to be responsible to, I guess.
AB: Yes, I suppose so. And, I guess in the omniscience and omnipotence I saw this perfect freedom as well. If you can see all and do all, you can-
JF: Say all.
AB: Say all, why not think all, and perhaps be privy to all thoughts as well. So that’s a sensation that would be private, usually, but not from an omniscient being, I suppose. I know it is shocking.
JF: What would you say to the critics who claim that it’s “not poetry”?
AB: [laughs] Well that’s fair, I think.
JF: Does it matter to you? Is that an interesting distinction, for you: what is poetry, what is prose, where are the lines. Is it a question that feels important.
AB: It interests me, but it doesn’t really bother me, in terms of this book, whether it’s deemed prosaic or poetic. I think some sections are poetic and some sections are prosaic, but its meta-form rather than line by line is poetic. I think its rhythm is just over a longer period. And line-by-line, I was very conscious at the time, and especially when publishing it, that its layout isn’t in perfect little capsules of sound and meaning. It’s not a lyric, it’s not lyrical. If it had been tighter in places, I don’t think it would have-
JF: Done the work that it needed to do.
AB: I was very keen on staying as true as I could to the various voices that recur throughout. And I know in places, in the God canto and the envoi at the end when the voices blur a little, that’s less clear. But particularly in each of the saint’s sections when they’re named at the start, I wanted them to be consistent, and in places the voice just didn’t want to sit elegantly in each line. It was flatter in places than in others, more ordinary.
JF: And it had some information to convey.
AB: True. And I think that, I hope at least, the more prosaic, mundane lines can be read quickly, they are a vehicle to get the idea across, and hopefully the juxtaposed stories and the rhythm of how they’re arranged and presented is sufficient. I think it is poetry, myself. I hope it is. I do agree in places it does not read like poetry. If you read it aloud it would sound like prose. I guess the question is why break the lines, in that case.
JF: One answer is to signal its genre as an epic poem.
AB: I suppose so.
JF: It’s not prose. You couldn’t have done away with the line breaks. It wouldn’t be the same experience.
AB: Because while the sentences are intact and it reads like prose, there are gaps in it, there are fragments, and the space that’s left at the end of the line is where the reader processes those fragments and glues them together.
JF: What did you think of Thom Conroy’s observation about the lulling-ness of the lines-
AB: Oh, the boredom? [laughs]
JF: The boredom as an exemplification of the saint’s boredom.
AB: I thought that was very interesting, I thought that was a fascinating review, that he had genuinely attempted to find something in it towards the end. I was grateful to him for doing his best to find something.
JF: It was one of the more engaged responses.
AB: Mm. I honestly believed he’d done his best to read the book on its own terms and to do it justice, and I’m grateful to him for that. I hope that each character’s story would draw one through the more lulling lines. I don’t think it should be read like a collection of lyrics, for its linguistic gymnastics, its agility. The bagginess is important. When I was talking to Pi-O about his epic poem, 24 Hours, he referred to the theorist Claude Shannon, and essentially the idea is that, in some cases, to convey information, you needed a vast quantity in order to allow some of it to adhere to the recipient. Instead of just giving them what they needed, because some of it would inevitably fly past, you give them a whole lot, and so—oh, this is very inelegant.
JF: Like having a shower, versus a sponge bath?
AB: I suppose so. I don’t know if the poem would have worked if I had stripped it back. If it was at the same intensity the whole way through, I’m not sure if it would have been as satisfactory.
JF: To get back to the actual question about enabling the reader to feel the same saintly boredom that Christina Rosetti mentions, I think that’s kind of ingenious.
AB: It wasn’t what I intended! I didn’t want to bore the reader, but-
JF: He doesn’t call it boring, but he talks about the lulling rhythm of the lines as being a peculiar reading experience.
AB: It was a peculiar writing experience, so I think that makes sense.
JF: And it’s a peculiar book!
AB: It is a peculiar book.
JF: It stands out like a sore thumb, it’s great. It’s what we need more of.
AB: I’m still astonished that it got published. I’m amazed that Fergus [Barrowman, from Victoria University Press] went along with it.
JF: It doesn’t amaze me. I think it needs to be in the world. I have a question about creative process and research. You’re part of a new generation of writers who are doing creative PhDs and publishing quite conceptual books that come out of work that has a critical framework sitting behind it, or informing it. A lot of people talk about the creative process as one where you aren’t in control. You know that feeling of something coming through you, instead of from you. And then, in the best moments, you’re working, and time disappears, and you look at what you’ve made, and you think, I have no idea where this came from. I’m wondering, is that your experience of creative labour, and if it is, how is that altered, if at all, by research and by doing a project that has this kind of critical component.
AB: That’s a good question. What surprised me about the book at the end, I don’t know how it happened—perhaps I’d just been alternating, a couple of months at a time, between the critical and the creative work, and trying to keep them separate during the candidature, and when I finished the critical part of the thesis, and put forward my argument about what the contemporary epic poem looked like, and then finished, or thought I might have finished, the creative part, and read that, they didn’t square up.
AB: The creative part of me clearly hadn’t been listening to the researcher who was doing the work. There was something different that was driving it. Not driving, that’s not quite the right word. I think I was managing to have that sense of surprise that you were talking about there, the feeling of time passing and not being quite sure who’s responsible for the results. Though it wasn’t quite that simple either, because obviously there was a lot of planning in terms of how it was going to be structured. I had big diagrams and things of who would go where. But again, a lot of the structural decisions didn’t arrive until a couple of years into the project. There was a lot of writing and getting used to the voices and thinking about the best way of arranging this information. There are sort of two parts to the research. There was the research regarding epic poetry, and there was the research regarding each of the candidates, and the process of canonisation itself, and sanctity.
JF: That’s too very different kinds of research. One is for detail and knowledge and material. And one is for an approach, and a way of thinking about what you’re going to write.
AB: That’s right.
JF: So did they match up in the end?
AB: The poem and the critical part?
JF: What did your examiners say?
AB: They didn’t see a discrepancy, which was great. Or they didn’t seem to mind. I do remember addressing it in the bridging statement, in the conclusion to the critical thesis and the introduction to the creative, acknowledging that there were elements of my poem that didn’t fit in with the examples I’d been looking at and the definition I’d come to. And I think the acknowledgement was probably sufficient for them to read it on its own terms.
JF: And in a way I would hope that you wouldn’t be able to see the result of your creative labour with absolutely clear eyes, it’s kind of an impossibility. And I do reckon, in my experience, that it’s two separate brains, one to do academic work, and one to do creative work. It’s a very different mental functioning. I’m curious about how they work together, and different people’s experiences. Do you think of yourself as a theoretical writer?
AB: I’d like to, I really would. I don’t want that part of myself that was nurtured for three or four years during the thesis to just wither away, I want to keep it going. Because I like to think that when I read, I read critically, I’m interested in not just the reading experience, but the hows and the whys of how it’s come about. That’s what interests me mainly. I’m certainly not a strong theorist yet, but I’d like to continue writing in that vein, and I think it’s important to the creative work. It’s a form of active reading. While I agree, that they’re two separate parts—or two separate brains [laughs]—but there’s a subliminal connection between them. The critical work is enriched if not affected literally by the critical.
JF: Even if you try to forget everything you critically know when it comes time to actually write, it’s still coming through, and changing your writing in ways that you might not be able to name or trace.
AB: It makes you more conscious of your blind spots and your weak points as well. If you are resting on certain creative inclinations-
JF: Your tics-
JF: It lets you be hard on yourself where it’s useful to be.
AB: Or at least to be aware of what they are.
JF: Several, actually most, I think, of the candidates in the book are creative people. Christina Rossetti is a Romantic poet; Saint Aurelius is a writer; Margery Kemp wrote, or at least dictated, her autobiography; Jeff Mangum, obviously, is a songwriter. There are moments in the book when there’s an analogy drawn between an artist and his work and God and his creations. Definitely in the Jeff Mangum sections. There’s a moment when he describes his work as “God’s voice, a drop of noise holding eternity” and says that the closest thing he’d heard on earth to the music he’s making is Tibetan monks chanting. And then he says, “That hum didn’t really resemble anything I’d ever heard before, so I needed it.” I just love that remark. “It was original, begot from nothing.” So I wondered if, as you say, you are to some extent confounded by religious feeling, or by the experience of faith, if the analogy between God and the creative process was one way of writing yourself into that experience of faith that you can’t have, because it’s not part of your makeup. [laughs]
AB: Yep, I think you’re right there. It hadn’t really occurred to me how consistently throughout each of the candidates is the idea of creativity, but it probably is my way of trying to relate to them. The Jeff Mangum example is perhaps more to do with idolatry, and the way that some creative people, musicians particularly, are idolised, like God, because of what’s produced, and there’s a mystery to the way it’s produced, and to the way it effects the recipient. So I think that was definitely one of the reasons why I chose Jeff Mangum as a saint, because of the god-like reception he has online, and everything you read about the band sort of resembled religious fervour.
JF: Right, he’s this mythic character who’s got devotees.
JF: And you admire Jeff Mangum?
AB: Mm, I do, particularly at the time I was writing I was listening to his music a lot.
JF: I do too.
AB: Did you see him play? [In Auckland in December] With Steve [Toussaint]?
JF: No, Steve was there on a different night. I had a solo religious experience. [laughs] I have a weird question that’s making a connection here, just say if it’s not, if it doesn’t make sense. I have this question about, um, writing a character that you admire, and then ascribing to him this experience of faith, which is baffling to you. There are definitely places in the book where the kind of faith that some of these characters are experiencing is, if not mocked, at least ironised. And that doesn’t feel like it’s the case in the Jeff Mangum sections, so I guess my question is about writing someone who you admire, but giving him qualities that-
AB: Are ineffable, that you can’t understand yourself… ?
JF: Yes, can’t understand, or, believe are, hmm, I’m trying to say this carefully.
AB: No, go on.
JF: Have a feeling of condescension about.
AB: Or, perhaps ascribe a certain naïveté to these figures for believing. I think in the case of Jeff Mangum, I don’t really endow him with faith, I think that’s perhaps why you’re not getting the sense of condescension or irony there. I think his religious experiences are more comprehensible to me, in a way, because as you noted before they are to do with creation, but it’s perhaps more of an internal epiphany. Which I suppose is what Augustine sought, as his faith as well. It was an internal relationship with God.
“One of the things I really miss is the closeness of the Wellington writing community, where you go to a launch and you know everyone there. There’s a very strong sense of camaraderie. Though it’s hard to say whether that’s to do with the Wellington scene, or with the age I was when I was there, the stage of life one’s in. So maybe there are variables. And I’m definitely not saying that Melbourne’s bereft of a writing culture. It’s extremely rich, but it’s a bit siloed.”
JF: In a place that he can’t locate. “Somewhere inside.”
AB: Yes, there’s mystery. You’re right to draw the connection between that feeling of faith and that experience of creativity as well. I think the section that I found hardest that probably has the heaviest level of irony over it is Elizabeth of Hungary, because, to me, she was the saint that was so good I couldn’t understand her. The ways in, the ways that I tried to get in, were via her love of her husband, which, in the accounts that I read, seemed to be intense and very human, not spiritual. He died when she was still very young, leaving her with children so she was alone in this country she’d been taken to as a child, and he was her only reason for being there, and so she was vulnerable. And I think the visions were—again, I think I was pathologising them, as in the Margery Kempe section—those were probably the two that are most problematic, where I was struggling to understand.
JF: And then write from a place of understanding.
AB: Obviously, the other one is Rumwold.
JF: So creepy. [laughs] I kept avoiding his sections when I was re-reading, because I find the concept just makes my skin crawl.
AB: No, I know. It is creepy. I felt freer in that section because there was so little written about him. And I see how it can appear disrespectful to focus on the freak-show elements of the Catholic process of canonisation, and that he’s since been discredited as a saint.
JF: Was he once a saint?
AB: He was once a real saint, yeah. So I can see how that could come across as irony as well. But, on the other hand, I found it interesting to consider whether it would be faith if you were created solely as a mouthpiece for a spiritual voice.
JF: Where’s the free will, if you haven’t developed any real consciousness yet.
AB: I certainly didn’t start from a place of irony with each of them. I perhaps started from a place of curiosity that obviously wouldn’t have been the same if I’d been faithful, perhaps. I would have been curious in other aspects. Perhaps I would have chosen less weird saints, like Mary McKillop who was in Melbourne for many years, who was sanctified the year I started the thesis. That’s the other thing, that it’s continuing, this ancient process.
JF: I was curious about your choice of, to me, less well-known saints, as opposed to, say, Saint Francis or Joan of Arc. I suppose with saints that are lesser known, or where the historical records are more fragmentary, there’s perhaps more space for invention.
JF: I had some questions about what in the book was invented and what was based on reality. The Jason Sidney situation? Is that-
AB: No, that’s invented.
AB: And, gosh, I suppose that’s the other benefit of the form of the epic poem, you don’t have to be historically accurate. It’s not a biographical document, although there are elements of biography in it. Though I do have some qualms about the fact that facts and fiction are difficult to decipher in the piece.
JF: You feel uncomfortable about that?
AB: Sometimes. Sometimes I worry that it’s irresponsible to mix them up so thoroughly. That I don’t imagine people will be reading it as a historical resource, more as an imaginative resource.
JF: One reviewer did say you had, uh, she used the word “meticulous” in terms of your referencing. And I was like, hmm.
AB: [laughs] Um, no.
JF: It’s fiction!
AB: I did want to reference as meticulously as I could when I had appropriated lines from other documents, so that’s why there are some references in the back. Otherwise, a lot of it’s invented. There’s the stories broadly, particularly in the Christina Rossetti section, are based on the reading I’ve done. But in order to feel comfortable in the voice I had to imaginatively embellish.
JF: And part of the reader participation aspect of engaging with it is wondering, and then going off and googling, and coming back.
AB: Yes, it’s a book for the age of Google.
JF: The book’s been described as a horror story, a challenge to orthodoxy, a commentary on the violence and self-hatred inherent in religion, and a book that makes no commentary at all. [laughs] Which I don’t agree with.
AB: Where was that?
JF: In the Thom Conroy review. He says that he couldn’t get a sense of what was being said.
AB: What the point was.
JF: My question is, how much of yourself and your opinions about that shadow-side of religion is in the book?
AB: Well, I think it’s saturated with myself and my opinions, even though I’m not a character in it. In order to attempt to understand, I’ve put as much of myself in those three and a half years that I was writing it into the book. And to me, and to some of the people who were close to me during the writing of it, when they read it, they see different things to others. But, in terms of an agenda, I didn’t want it to be dogmatic, or inflammatory, as far as I could help, other than that’s its topic is inevitably provocative, because it’s dealing with belief. I do see what Thom Conroy is saying in his assessment of it not having a commentary, because I didn’t want to editorialise, and I also didn’t want it to feel finished, like it was the be-all and end-all of what canonisation is, by any means. I didn’t want the reader to feel satisfied. Well, satisfied I hope, aesthetically, in terms of by the end there’s a sense of closure without it actually finishing. A stopping, rather than a finishing. But I wanted the ideas to remain open and alive. It’s deliberately indecisive, I suppose.
JF: Your project is about providing an experience, not providing a set of answers.
AB: Or a position. And I hope throughout the book, readers’ positions change, or occasionally they may develop a position or reject it according to what they’ve read. But I wouldn’t want to feel like I was imposing it or suggesting it. Rather, trying to provide an environment for it to grow, I guess.
JF: To arise. [laughs] To move slightly away from the book itself—because I’m interviewing you in Melbourne but the interview’s going to be published on a New Zealand site.
AB: Of course.
JF: You moved to Melbourne five years ago, and it seems like you’re here to stay. I’m curious, what about New Zealand writing culture do you miss, and what do you think New Zealand letters can offer Australia, and vice versa? Because they are quite divided.
AB: I know, it’s peculiar to me, and I think there are some good initiatives to try and diminish that divide. For instance, on Cordite Poetry Review, the editor there, Ken McCarter, has started an “across the Tasman” section where he’s reviewing some New Zealand books, and sharing some news. For instance, when Best New Zealand Poems came out recently, he posted it there. So there are some attempts to reach across, and I’d like to continue encouraging that, because New Zealand and Australia are not that different, in a lot of ways, but I think they would benefit from each other’s poetry considerably. Simply, because a larger community is, I want to say more active, but one of the things I really miss is the closeness of the Wellington writing community, where you go to a launch and you know everyone there. There’s a very strong sense of camaraderie. Though it’s hard to say whether that’s to do with the Wellington scene, or with the age I was when I was there, the stage of life one’s in. So maybe there are variables. And I’m definitely not saying that Melbourne’s bereft of a writing culture. It’s extremely rich, but it’s a bit siloed.
JF: It is a Literary City.
AB: It’s actually a Literary City, yes!
JF: Life, here, is a bit siloed, I’ve noticed, into the different neighbourhoods where people live.
AB: That’s my experience of it as well. Maybe you just have to stay a long time, to get through that siloing. I don’t have any specific recommendations that I could see New Zealand or Australia benefitting from, but I do love going back to Wellington, and I miss it and still think of it as home. I love VUP and constantly look at their website for new things, and Hue & Cry of course, I’m still involved with them though I’m over here, so there are connections of course.
JF: Okay, this is the last question. A friend asked me a little while ago what I thought was the future of New Zealand literature.
AB: Ooh, what did you say?
JF: I just said, “more long poems.”
AB: Why did you say that?
JF: I was on the spot! [laughs]
AB: I hope so. I love long poems. I don’t mean just for New Zealand. I feel like it’s a burgeoning genre, and I feel like we’re on the cusp of seeing a lot more.
JF: These things seem to go in waves, and that’s a form that hasn’t had a lot of play lately, so I feel it’s almost about time.
AB: Exactly. I wonder if it has anything to do with the rise in creative writing PhDs as well. The fact that you’re given an extended period of time to think about a project, and you perhaps feel brave and supported enough to try something whose scope you couldn’t necessarily maintain while you’re working or doing other things, that it’s enabling these long poems to come about. Also, the more one reads of a certain form, the more one’s likely to want to write in it. The title that’s coming out from Hue & Cry from May is a book-length poem. That’s an exciting one.
JF: Maybe I was on the money.
AB: I like to think so.