The Cortland Review


John Tranter
An interview and poetry. Guy Shahar talks with Australian poet John Tranter.

Bruce Canwell
Writers on Writing 3: Preserving our Future.

John Tranter

Interview | Poetry


John TranterJohn Tranter is a well-traveled Australian poet with a background in just about every field of the arts you can think of—and then some.  He has published 13 books, most recently Late Night Radio (1998).  As well, his work is included in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry.

It is the intense drama of his life that makes the story of John Tranter so captivating.  Our dialogue was both luminous and refreshing.  He openly discussed his childhood, poetry, favorite films, influences, and (being that he is a bonafide master of media and communications) the Internet. 

For my first feature as Co-Editor of TCR, I couldn't have asked for a more spirited poet than John Tranter.  He has been a friend and supporter of The Cortland Review for quite some time now.  He also edits his own online magazine, Jacket, which we highly recommend. 

Interview with John Tranter

to page 2

Fade to black...

1943: a dirt road winding through the brush near the little town of Dalmeny, on the east coast of Australia. Late at night, a young boy of four is asleep in his mother's arms. The passenger-side door unlocks. He falls out of a moving sedan, bounces, and lands bloodied in a ditch. The car disappears.

Guy Shahar: This was your first memory: a dark and isolated feeling—You were literally pulled from your mother's arms.  Tell me how this affected the rest of your life from that moment on.

John Tranter: I guess an experience like that gives your nervous system a shock of some sort. Whether it was that accident or something else genetic, I grew up into a rather anxious person. My early poems are often about loss or death, which is the worst kind of loss. I seemed to see a lot of death. Three kids I knew at school died violently. One of our farm workers had a heart attack and drowned in six inches of water; a favorite uncle died of a heart attack when I was fifteen, my father died when I was nineteen. I had a stammer as a kid which troubled me for many years. Through my adult life I've suffered from anxiety and depression at various times.   Not that life is all doom and gloom—I've had a wonderful life and I've been as happy as Larry most of the time.

When I was travelling through India thirty years ago an Indian friend examined the whorls on my fingertips and pronounced that my life would be "ninety per cent lucky," and he was right. I certainly try to appear cheerful. But my early poetry was often accused by critics of being grim and too obsessed with the darker side of life, and I guess those childhood experiences were partly responsible for that tone.

Guy Shahar: The intense traumatic experiences must have thrust knowledge upon you that you had not asked for. Did it force you to mature quickly, or at least think differently than the other boys?

John Tranter: I don't think so. I mean, I felt a little different from other people, growing up an only child, miles from anywhere, out in the bush. I had different talents: I was good at writing school compositions, and got a lot of enjoyment out of that. I enjoyed art as a kid. Where the other boys chose technical drawing—a practical subject—I chose art, and found myself stuck in a classroom with a lot of girls. It didn't turn me effeminate, mind you. I ended up going to an all-male agricultural boarding school, with a lot of other farmer's kids. They were a tough lot, and gave the teachers hell. In the final exams I failed agriculture, would you believe. And I was the first pupil at that school to gain honors in English for a quarter of a century. Or so I was told. Then I failed English at university and dropped out for five years, doing menial work and hitch-hiking through Europe and Asia.

You know, it is both surprising and ironic when you look at the track records of some of the greatest minds of our time and you find that, in the beginning, they often failed miserably in their respective standardized institutions only to emerge years later as key trendsetters in their various fields.

Your writing seems to have a lot to do with people, and the mental pastures or prisons they are in. I quote a line from The Colors of the Days, "She comes back from Europe, old, tired and unwell, distressed at having wasted the best part of her life." I wonder if you collected these penetrating insights into other people's lives while you were hitch-hiking your way around the world?

You have to understand that Sydney, Australia in the mid 1960s was a horrible place in many ways. The social structures were mindlessly authoritarian. There were thousands of petty rules and regulations. There was an extraordinary internalized censorship in every area of life, the landscape had been ruined with ugly brick buildings with red tile roofs—D.H.Lawrence describes his first glimpse of Sydney wonderfully in his novel "Kangaroo". There was no tradition of dissent like there was in the US—instead, Australians had a tradition of obedience to petty bureaucrats. So it was like a dull English seaside town on a wet Sunday somewhere back in the 1930s. Getting out was a liberation. I left in mid 1966, for London, and later Europe and Asia. Lyn followed me to London a few months later.

I should have gone to New York. I would have had time to meet Frank O'Hara, just, and Ashbery. I didn't meet Ashbery for another twenty years. That was a shame.

But the US didn't let people in unless they had money and a ticket out. I don't think Americans realize sometimes just how threatening the American border looks to someone from outside.

It was wonderful to come across cultures—like Italy say— where people enjoyed breaking the law, and knew that good coffee was an important basic part of life, not a sinful luxury. It was interesting to see and feel real bone-grinding poverty. To become so broke you had nothing to eat for three days. And to come across Afghanistan and Iran, with their layers of Moslem laws—in Kandehar, in Afghanistan, we were stoned by a mob of schoolchildren because we looked different. We could have been killed. It was interesting to come across real hippies, and a couple of obvious CIA agents smuggling lapis lazuli out of Afghanistan, and a French truck driver with a hare lip who gave us a lift for three hundred miles and grew so fond of us he burst into tears when we turned off at Bayonne and headed for Spain. Just the blast of different cultures and different outlooks suddenly put Australia into perspective. Until then we had thought that the way Australians thought was the only way to think. We had absorbed that unconsciously, as everybody does who grows up in a little village. To come face to face with the sheer variety of human life was very liberating.

Is that how you met Lyn?

No, I met Lyn in a bar in 1964. There was a wonderful pub in Sydney called the Newcastle—it's gone now—that in the early 1960s actually allowed women to drink in the main public bar. That was forbidden in most hotels and pubs. Australia didn't have bars as such. We weren't permitted to set up places like bars, where people went to get drunk; we had to pretend that they offered accommodation too, and the only bars I saw were in hotels. The Newcastle was a retreat for liberal-minded people, philosophers, students, professors, left-wing unionists, film theorists, secretaries with radical views, poets.

Anyway, I was drinking in the Newcastle one Saturday night. A friend of mine was having an engagement party after the pub, and he asked me to come along. "You have to bring a girl," he said.

I didn't have a girl, I replied.

"Well, ask that one over there," he said, pointing, and I did.

I remember I talked about Rimbaud all night, which must have impressed Lyn. Her father was a policeman, and I don't think she'd ever heard anyone talk about books before. We were married four years later.

How much of an influence on your career is she?

Lyn has been a strong support over the years. Poetry is not much of a career, frankly. I would have been better off in a material sense doing almost anything else: architecture, which I dropped out of; radio features production, which I dropped out of in order to write poetry, editorial work with a publishing house, ditto. Lyn has always seen the need for me to do those things, and supported me all the way. Somehow we've raised two kids and managed to pay the rent.

She also encouraged me to go back to university and complete an abandoned arts degree, which was important in allowing me to find less menial jobs through the 1970s. I hated doing it at the time but I'm glad I did now, especially for the sake of the kids.

She's also a very sharp critic, with an immediate sense of when a piece of writing is not working, and why.

Very early on you discovered the reckless youthfulness of Rimbaud. What was it about his writing that you identified with?

Three things. First was the brilliance of the writing, line by line, image by image. He really is one of the most dazzling poets of all time. I loved the way he took traditional forms and mastered them, and then turned on them and tore them apart. And then there's a very moving lyrical urge underneath all he wrote, even the deliberately ugly pieces. The other side of that coin is his cynicism, just as his blasphemies are the verso of his deep religiosity. He's a Lucifer figure in many ways, and we always admire the bad boys more than the goody two-shoes.

Then there was the initial shock of confronting a poetic figure who took poetry more seriously than anything else on earth. I was seventeen when I first read Rimbaud, a kid from a country town, like he was, and the sheer effrontery and bravery of that choice really made me blink.

Then in the end there is the dilemma of his renunciation of his gift. By the time he was twenty he had thrown it away. His loathing for the poetic life was total after that point. It can drive you crazy, trying to work that out. Charles Nicholl's recent biography ("Somebody Else") is very good at probing that mystery, and the barren, exhausting decade that followed as he wandered around the Mediterranean and back and forth across North Africa in pursuit of money and security.

I'm not so interested in his early left-wing politics and his later conservative mercantile views. For one thing, they're so common in every time and culture since about 1780. They're predictable for someone at those various stages of his life — particularly his adolescent response to the French defeat at the hands of the Germans and the subsequent political events in Paris. Perhaps you could say that his homosexuality is also predictable, given his stern, emotionally barren mother and his absent military father, and the opportunistic Verlaine. Those things are contingent, not essential, in the way the actual writing is essential, and his eventual renunciation of poetry.

Where to from there?

I guess I've never really moved on from Rimbaud: I just digested what I could and started looking elsewhere, and kept coming back to Rimbaud from time to time. I still read him, in the Oliver Bernard translation for Penguin; I think it's the best available, given a few minor infelicities. Much better than the Wallace Fowlie or the Varese, in my opinion.

I read everything I could through the 1960s, including Chinese poetry, Zen Buddhism, the Beats, the academic North Americans (in the Penguin "Contemporary American Poetry"), Hans Magnus Enzensberger, the 20th century French poets, Auden, Dylan Thomas (funny how very few people read Dylan Thomas these days...), and Eliot and Pound, who had a huge effect on my style of rhetoric.

I was also reading novels (Gavin Lambert, J.G.Ballard, Graham Greene, Kerouac, John Clellon Holmes, etc) and devouring movies. I was also painting, and writing prose, and writing experimental plays; none of which I did very well.



� 2002 The Cortland Review