2. The Avant-Garde in Australia, after
Eddie Paterson, Philip Mead and Caitlin Maling
[»»] 0. Introducing Poetics for ‘Australia’
[»»] 1. Closer to Home: Omar Sakr’s These Wild Houses and the new suburbanism
[»»] 2. The Avant Garde in ‘Australia’: after Eddie Paterson, Philip Mead and Caitlin Maling
[»»] 3. From Wembley: Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Carrying the World
[»»] 4. The Boys in Cambridge: Clive James’ Injury Time
[»»] 5. The Boys in Cambridge: John Kinsella’s Graphology
Paragraph One follows: 1:
A.J. Carruthers has been admirably busy — academic monograph, blog posts for Southerly, a new index of experimental poets on Jacket2, job in Shanghai, daily Tweets. And there is a lot in his project of promoting ‘the Australian avant-garde’ to be sympathetic towards, particularly as a project after his Stave Sightings. But can we make a distinction between his formulation of ‘the Australian avant-garde’ (or its variations such as ‘neo’ and ‘experimental’) and ‘the avant-garde in ‘Australia’’? And how might that matter for suburbanism?
It might first be necessary to note the historical aspect to Carruthers’ work — this is a project that cognises itself as having a past, a re-insertion of figures and texts that have been forgotten or silenced into a contemporary public sphere (see his work on Harry Hooton for example). This history is there despite the fact that it only appears recent — the last fifty years as opposed to going all the way down. Yet, there is a developing note of national autonomy to his criticism with a recent Southerly piece claiming that ‘Australian experimental poetry since 1970 has not just been ‘derivative’’. This seems to be at odds with his review of Laurie Duggan’s East and Under the Weather, where he stated:
It’s possible to say now, I think, that Laurie Duggan’s massive, monumental and documentarian long poem entitled The Ash Range (collected in 1987) has done for Australian expansive poetics what William Carlos Williams did with Paterson, and Charles Reznikoff with Testimony.
This referencing of past metropolitan avant-garde figures would only seem to suggest the view that Australia lags behind the centre. But such a view is only possible if we refuse to see the implication of ‘just’ in Carruthers’ earlier statement, which is to say the Australian avant-garde has been and is derivative (heteronomous) as well as independent (autonomous). It is that paradox, that tension between these two qualities that demonstrates ‘Australia’ itself is both singular, unique and self-contained as well as multiple, shifting and connected.
Yet, I reject the false, binaristic separation of Carruthers’ following statement:
inventive poetry in Australia in no way “lags behind.” As is clear, there are a surfeit of interesting experimental works that lead the way. There is, however, as Mead suggested in Networked Language, a critical lag, a lag in the critical discourses employed to speak about this work. We need to more often pursue radical critical experiments that don’t fall back on received discourses but actively invent new ways to speak of new work. In a nutshell, we need to be experimental readers.
This anti-colonial desire to not lag behind is indicative, but maybe there is something to reclaim in it yet. Why being ‘ahead’ is inter alia a good thing is never demonstrated and hence, such a statement mimics the structural, anachronistic futurisms of earlier, non-Australian avant-gardes.
What makes this even more curious is that it comes in an essay that could only be described as formally ‘vanilla’ and does not self-consciously radicalise the structure of the critical essay, which is immediately available to Carruthers himself. When poetry or criticism lags so too does the other and, if one wants to separate those fields, I am not sure we can defend the creative if there is a paucity in the analytical.
In this case Australian criticism has failed to go back far enough into the roots of language itself, and Carruthers’ project in finding bedrock in 1973 creates a less than philosophical basis from which to work. And so we must make distinctions.
After all, the ‘Australian avant-garde’ is different from the ‘avant-garde in ‘Australia’’. If we think of the component parts of both those terms we must think through what ‘Australia’ is and what the ‘avant-garde’ is. At their simplest I think of Australia as a relation of place and the avant-garde as a relation to time (futurity in particular). But the ‘Australian avant-garde’ seems to be a faith in the Australian future whereas the ‘avant-garde in ‘Australia’’ is a faith in futures in ‘Australia’ with the latter destabilising the nation as a concept in particular. However, these two things are not mutually exclusive even as I would argue that they are somewhat antithetical propositions, each other’s internal labour of negation.
At present, I would regard Eddie Paterson’s redactor as being one expression of the former. He is an Australian avant-garde precisely because he is institutionally comfortable and his formal experimentation is benignly acceptable for the national literary bureaucratic establishment. In other words, his book sits within a tradition that has itself been reified and accepted without a sense of historical immanence that apprehends the infinity of the archive or a collective political sensibility that speaks back to settlement today.
Its newness relies on the newness of a dislocated, and seemingly universal, public sphere (‘sitting in a mcdonalds. free wireless’ or ‘after i googled peter sarsgaarde’ for example). redactor is full of applicable investigations then rather than the becoming that is ‘investigating application’, which might situate it with the work of Toby Davidson and Jess Wilkinson as opposed to the stable of poets at Stale Objects.
In contrast to Carruthers and Paterson, a history of the avant-garde in ‘Australia’ would include books that have mattered here from other avant-gardes (a materialist, print culture history of Tender Buttons in Sydney for example) as well as individuals who happen to step foot on the contested landmass that gets labelled as ‘Australian’ (Alan Loney as a Kiwi immigrant). This would function as a critique of nation and make the designation focus on the work itself as a way of calling into existence a tomorrow that was utopian.
It might not be about mirroring the theorisation that has occurred elsewhere then, as if our own institutions should be structurally analogous to what has gone elsewhere before, but it might be about a consciousness that makes explicit the language games, which are a type of puzzle, that we are involved in as well.
And that is where situating the discourse of ‘Australia’ seems to matter — what network do we belong in? Is it ASEAN or the TPP? Is it a ‘republic of the South’ or a ‘Northern outpost’?
If the Australian avant-garde tends to the latter, we still need to ask what is the ‘North’ and what is the ‘South’ for an avant-garde in ‘Australia’? Aren’t they relative spaces? After all Pete Spence is not Billy Collins, someone is North of someone else, South of somewhere altogether.
In proposing a response to ‘North’ / ‘South’ and networking an avant-garde in ‘Australia’ with Haroldo de Campos as opposed to Gertrude Stein, I want to turn to a language of the ‘centre’ and pick up where James Halford left off in his ‘Southern Conversations’ in Sydney Review of Books. The final sentence of that piece reads:
We are back in the centre now: the place that is neither North nor South, but somehow both at once.
This is the culmination of a trip Halford takes to the conurbano (suburbs) of Buenos Aires to hear JM Coetzee speak at a local university. In that speech, Coetzee:
proposes a comparative literary studies of the South that is less concerned with ‘writing back’ to the old imperial centres than about learning to ‘ignore the gaze of the North’ and ‘to see the South as home.’
This is about the autonomy of a construct by and for ‘Southerners’, which critiques a ‘mythic South’ invented by the ‘North’. It is a transnationalism that is regional and against a hegemon that might also be called transatlantic or metropolitan or empirical. Halford writes:
Australia, a rich peripheral nation of the southern hemisphere, in some ways unsettles the North-South binary, revealing its basis in economics not geography. Yet Australian literature, no less than that of Argentina and South Africa, has struggled to free itself from a sense of cultural dependency and inferiority, on the one hand, and from nationalist exceptionalism on the other. All three countries feel the weight of what Coetzee calls ‘the Northern Gaze.’
It might be necessary to grow from the autonomy Coetzee seeds, which means changing the language of our criticism in such a way that we begin to map out what is ‘real’ in this here place and responding in a more thoroughgoing way to Carruthers’ call that we ‘actively invent new ways to speak’. After all, with autonomy, there is the realisation that the direction to take is the one that Halford himself ends with — the centre location.
I do not mean central in the sense of metropolitan as though the sun revolves around us, though that surely has some uses. I mean it simply, which is to say in a literal way that is startlingly complex. In Coetzee’s designation, these relations are relative places — North of somewhere, and not only North from South, but also ever more North until we are no longer there at all.
But what is it to think in circles? What is the central axis around which the weather vane spins? That might be point zero, which is not the same as Greenwich meridian, the equator or some place that was the dark heart of the matter. Thinking of the centre brings its own orientation and politics.
In thinking of direction, let me add that there is more distance between Cheeditha and the John Medley Building than there is between the John Medley Building and King’s College Common Room. ‘North’ and ‘South’ are ideas that emerge in discourse and are then mapped onto realities, and vice versa.
Yet, not only are they often poor heuristics to define what is happening on the ground but they are also related in a complex way to what is ‘really’ there. What happens on our island continent is heterogenous then, both ‘North’ and ‘South’ just like what happens in ‘Australia’ and the ‘avant-garde’ as well. So how do we unpick and unpack, determine what one is and what the other is? And what might be their lovechild rather than their simple meeting ground? And then, from that, what is it to be central, which might be to ask what is the absent, avant-garde suburbanist?
I began to think of this centre when thinking about Philip Mead and situating him within and against Coetzee’s articulations of South-South relations. I have seen Mead in ‘the North’ (Berkeley auditoriums) and in ‘the South’ (creeks in Carpentaria). I have seen him bring some ‘North’ to the ‘South’ (Neville Shute in Bourketown) and some ‘South’ to the ‘North’ (standing up for Peter Minter to an attack by Charles Altieri).
Mead is, from what I gather, working on a ‘global Souths’ project, a project that comes after his Networked Language. But the centre there might actually be in the suburbs, even as they are absented and hence ‘Southerned’ in discourses that perpetuate a city-country antagonism.
The very title of Mead’s forthcoming book, Zanzibar Light, not only references the light in Zanzibar but also the calorie free version of Zanzibar and the whiter version of Zanzibar. What it does show though is the higher synthesis that is central, not South or North, Australian or avant-garde, city or country.
As he himself has written, ‘everything’s in between where the radio stations drift.’ For me though, and thinking of when we find the radio stations, I like the moxie, frisson, threat of the South, the hospitality, generosity, solidarity too, but I like the shine, timing, weight of the North, its comfort, refinement, confidence.
One might hope to find all these qualities in a centre, something that Mead begins to share with us in a balanced way that knows what it orients around as we find out who we are for ourselves whether we choose the designation avant-garde in ‘Australia’ or something else, like suburbanist.
After all, ‘Australia’ is a suburban place as is the conurbano, as is the west of Unguja, as is New Jersey. I mean that not only in a common sense way — that there are a lot of suburbs, but also as a condition of thought, a place that is middling. A middle power, middle sized, middle class, middle aged, middling in its aspirations when viewed in a global community of nations or even a continent of countries.
There are people, of course, who are globally competitive anywhere you look, like Gina Rhinehart and George Brooking, but overall ‘we’ are middling. The middle is the blindspot of historians with the proletariat and the aristocrats coming into the frame of reference more often. But the middle, like the suburbs, like the avant-garde, like the South has a History.
However, when you couple the delay projected onto ‘Australia’ with the futurity of the avant-garde you simply arrive in the present. Maybe an avant-garde in ‘Australia’ apprehends its time as being of the now and hence it is a philosophical sociology not another cultural studies history.
In the unfolding history of the present, one book that chronicles the suburbs in a post-national way is Caitlin Maling’s Border Crossings, which is as much a book about televisions and cars as anything else. Focusing on the book’s suburban qualities one notices references to reality tv and highways most of all.
This is not an ABC documentary or being stuck in traffic, but the contestant presenting a spectacle for a celebrity judging panel and the open road that speaks of boredom and adventure in equal measure. But it is noteworthy in so far as it tries to think through a style of life after the state in its present incarnation. As Maling writes in ‘I-610 Inner Loop’:
Australian English to American English,
and the birds mimicking leaves on electric wires
I mistake for forests. Houston is densely wooded
with Targets & Walmarts & Petcos & Churches & Night
Bingo & Day Bingo and none of these buildings have any windows
And in that way they are like trees.
She can forget that she is translating Australian English to American English because she is in the suburbs, which we all recognise not only from television but from experiences of materiality that are similar. We know Target because it is also ‘down under’ just as we know Williams and Reznikoff because they have been imported as well.
But Maling apprehends this post-nationally, crossing borders that would disrupt an Australian avant-garde precisely because her work exists outside the surveillance of the nation state. One has already crossed the border then as opposed to being on the plane, and these places, foreign as they are, actually feel like home already. As she writes:
guarding the outer limits of the city.
Houston is a story which repeats itself:
Target, Walmart, Loews, Sears.
Ease into familiarity like a bath.
You’re going home.
Home is suburban. The big brands of multinational corporations determine so much of our present day, but, like marriage and baths, that familiarity can be comforting when all that was solid has melted into air. The car and television are perhaps the paradigmatic suburban technologies in the same way that train and film represented the modern (though various Russian writers were quite taken by the umbrella).
In the contemporary reclamation of suburbia we can see planes and the computer have replaced these old technologies. The border that we are crossing might not be Perth to Houston, Western Australia to Texas, but out of suburbia itself as a material condition, or, rather, from one moment of the suburban to another.
But in Maling there is a ‘muted transcendentalism’, a way of becoming free within the confines of the suburban if we can apprehend the conditions truly. That it initially appears apolitical only suggests we must re-read it carefully to construct an ethics that knows what it senses is possible when we retrofit the rust belt and the malls that have fallen into disrepair.
An Australian avant-garde that is from the South and sees only brands must be railed against in aesthetic terms. This is an ethical demand that our styles of life already contain within them. If Carruthers has declared a life long poem, we might declare for ourselves that there are no grand projects, that there is no need for a counter-canon, that we can let history unfold in such a way that refracts our very present as we have defined the structure for ourselves. Hence, an avant-garde in ‘Australia’ which is part of the centre which is part of the suburbs might be one form of dense particularity that can attempt to become something general.
In other words, it focuses in such detail on what is possible in, say, Wembley, that we notice aspects that connect it beyond its mere locale. The challenge for making such a perspective relevant to a reader might not only be in the methods of production that direct our prescribed texts but also in the languages we use to open out to ambiguity without specialisation and that allow us to create new dreams in light of the templates, plans and regulations that seem to populate our collective heads.