Interview with Pam Brown

by Angela Gardner


Thanks for being our foam:e interviewee this time!

As you know I like foam:e quite a bit. And I'm pleased to answer your questions if I can.

You wear a lot of hats, could you let me know what projects you are working on currently?

Actually I think my hat collection has diminished over the years. I used to be in a band, in a theatre group, do silk screen printing, make little movies, write scripts for performance, edit regularly for magazines (Overland and Jacket) & write poems, as well as wearing various day job hats.  Although I make an occasional collage these days I seem to be living in the shade of the text hat more than any other. So currently, I'm selecting some local material for Prague-based VLAK magazine & writing an introduction for a polyglot - a political-aesthetic prose writer's forthcoming book of poems. I should probably mention my occasional blog posts on the deletions. I'm tinkering with my own poems in between those things & keeping the possibly publishable ones in a folder that might become a manuscript.

What's the relationship between your work as editor and your own writing?

As I just said - my poems seem to be made 'in between'. The editorial work goes on in a kind of choppy continuum. I mean I think I've finished something - like say, a couple of  years ago, compiling a feature of 51 contemporary Australian poets for Jacket2, and then the Jacket2 editor, Mike Hennessy and I cook up the idea of having an accompanying audio component, so I approach poets for recent sound files of their readings & gather them together to publish in PennSound.

Then alongside everything else, for three years running I participate in an arduous poetry judging panel-of-three ('arduous' because each year there are dozens of terrific books to evaluate and only one - which one? which one? - can have the award). Of course I suffer a kind of paranoia doing that work and wish, impossibly, that I could be incognito so that no one in the poetry realm might notice my activity (because I don't like competition & never enter any of the individual poetry competitions myself, though my collections in book form have been entered for state awards). So I justify it as a kind of public duty (like jury duty) and my contribution to the poetry culture in general. It's also paid work, (even if quite underpaid relative to the amount of work & responsibility involved). But it is similar to editorial work because the poetry has to be read not only appreciatively but also critically.

That three-year stint just finishes & next Michael Brennan at Vagabond Press has the bright idea (& it is a good one) of inviting me to ask a group of ten poets if they'd like to send work for a booklet of their latest work. That began a highly enjoyable editing process culminating in the recently published deciBels series (including Thing & Unthing, your own book in this series Angela). Every now & then I'm also asked to write and present encomia for various poets' book launches. And for light relief, last year a group of us had an informal Sunday arvo poetry reading group that I attended fairly often.These things (although not all literally editing - I've strayed from your question a bit) are par for the course in any poet's life I think. All the while notations continue accreting on scraps of paper & on the desktop &, almost mysteriously, poems are assembled.

Yes a mysterious process. So are you working toward a new collection with these accretions and poems? Is the process of them becoming a collection also mysterious or is there a point where you say this is what ties it all together?

I'm not sure how a collection is decided on, even though I've published quite a number of them. Actually, it looks as if I've had a lot of books published but that's been since 1972, so that's forty three years of publishing and some of the early books were more like chapbooks and none of them are actually that long. Dear Deliria is the longest with 160 pages and the most recent, Home by Dark, has 130 pages.  So my 'oeuvre' (a word that always sounds like breakfast to me) doesn't actually take up a lot of shelf space. And that's a plus.

I don't write conceptually - meaning that I don't have a theme, or a set of poems 'about' a topic, or a procedure to follow, so there can't be a kind of 'known' beginning or ending but poems, like explanations, as Wittgenstein said, 'come to an end somewhere'. I think the process of writing poems and then putting them into a folder just continues and then something about them makes me realise that it's a period I'm done with. So I suppose it could be called intuitive. Sometimes it's a three year span, sometimes longer. And in that time I also go back to poems and alter small elements in them until I think they're ready for a reader. If I start to compile them into a manuscript I might drop some of them and I might alter the order. In Home by Dark I broke the poems into sections because I thought the tenor might be overwhelming otherwise. Nothing in my books is chronological.

Do you find that poetry is a conscious way of bringing matters of interest into focus or do the subjects appear out of the corner of your eye and take shape in your own mind as you write? This may be a question about method, or intention or purpose in writing poetry.

I'm often surprised by what becomes 'conscious' when I'm making a poem. So I don't actually set out to say everything that ends up being said. I guess then that my experience is more what you describe as subjects appearing or sneaking up on me and then becoming realised in the process. I think I work with a pile of linguistic debris and from that I can either connect lines, phrases, images, reactions and so on or discard them. So I can start somewhere - in a room, from a phrase, another poem, on the street and so on and then I go off on a tracking process that's fairly mutable and record what's glimpsed, heard, thought about along the way, all the while keeping an eye out for opportunities to undermine anything that looks like becoming too grand or self-important as I go.

At this stage of my life I don't actually think that there's a 'purpose' in writing poetry (perhaps I never did - I've often said that it's a benign compulsion for me). I don't think there's a 'purpose' in living either. I've been making poems for most of my life, and scepticism has always been my modus operandi. So the idea of 'purpose' is probably more immediate for me - in poetry's scene-at-large - you know, its social manifestations - in books, magazines, readings, seminars and so on. For poetry to exist in corporatized western societies, whose undeniable context is power, it has to be sceptical of the status quo. It has to be questioning, probably experimental, or at least apply an unanticipated use of language and form – that is, be interesting to be poetic. I would hope that some of my poems foreground this intention.

What interests you in your own work and in other's at the moment?

I've just bought Astrid Lorange's exciting book How Reading Is Written, which, from the title, is obviously a study of Gertrude Stein. Astrid uses a distinctive and innovative indexical method to compile her evidence and thinking about, or as she might say, 'with' Stein. So I've started reading it and, so far, it's wonderful. I began reading Gertrude Stein in the mid-1970s. She's a lifelong companion. I'm very glad Astrid has made this fully-engaging book that keeps Gertrude Stein's work so relevant to the contemporary world. That feels necessary to me.

And because I was going back to North Island New Zealand for a fourth visit I recently read Auckland anthropologist Joan Metge's Tuamaka: The Challenge of Difference in Aotearoa New Zealand which is a series of short essays on Māori and Pākehā intercultural possibilities. It's a kind of gentle manifesto with a very comprehensive glossary of Māori language. It widened the Aotearoa context for me.

The poetry books I've read and liked most recently are Tim Wright's The night's live changes - which in some ways beautifully reconstitutes the enduring influence of so-called 'antipoetic' 1970s Australian poetry, especially the central cascading, fragmentary 23-page long poem 'November' and, currently, another two books I like a lot are Heteronomy and Plummet by Chris Nealon from Washington DC. His poetry integrates political thinking back into its personal and original or classical meaning - that is the organisation and distribution of power in daily life - but he does this with such grace, humour and guile that the poems craftily sneak up on any calcified idées fixes and prise open a few fresh fissures. Three years ago he published The Matter of Capital: Poetry and Crisis in the American Century examining capitalism's impact on North American poetry in English over the last century or so (from Pound to now) which, after all has been central to every poet's life and work.

Regarding my own poetry writing, right now I feel that I'm on the brink of either a hiatus or a change of direction. Of course perhaps neither will occur. Perhaps something, perhaps nothing.

Thanks Pam -“something, perhaps nothing” seems a good note to end on.

Thank you very much for including me in foame:e again.