Will Roby: Reading your poetry, it seems you’ve lived many lives, or at least one life in lots of interesting places. Yet you readily identify yourself as a transtasman poet, based in Sydney, Australia. As our audience might be a bit unfamiliar with that term, and that area, tell us a bit about your home country, and your experiences in the literary world there.
Stephen Oliver: First off, transtasman is a term of my own invention. A little like transatlantic. Usually the term is hyphenated to designate economic, political and sporting exchanges/trade between Australia and New Zealand, etc, as in Trans-Tasman. I’ve telescoped the term to suggest a hybrid culture borne out of an experience of and in both countries. I was born in New Zealand, and have been resident in Australia for 16 years. There is a suggestion of anti-nationalism about my use of the term, too. Unfortunately, cliques, regional or otherwise can represent an isolationism and bogus exclusivity and thus, in this instance, the emergence of various ‘schools’ of poetics, usually associated with the English Departments of Universities, who in turn work in with the University Presses, etc – the mainstream publishers of literature and poetics. The problem here is that you get certain academics, or quasi-academic poets in these departments insisting that their particular take on poetics ought to be the ‘new tradition’ of poetic expression within the greater literary tradition of that country. Bit of a post-modern virus, really, in all its mutations. Anyhow, I’ve addressed this in strongly satirical terms – notably in my essay, “The Poet As Fraud: A Composite”, and “One Day In The Life Of Vicki Viidikas” which can be found published in the online magazine, Thylazine – check out the archives. Both New Zealand and Australia are post-colonial countries – as to poetics those folk who flourished in the 60s seem to think tradition began with their own literary publications as they came romping after the American black mountain poets, and thence through to Creeley, Ashbery, O’Hara, Olson, and all the rest of it. Seems to me that post-modern theory, put into practice, becomes a form of abstractionism that has more to do with the fragmentation of ego and less with poetics – at least of the visionary kind. The two islands of New Zealand lie in the lower southern latitudes and geographically the country is shaped like a broken hand gun. It is essentially a South Pacific country and consciousness. Australia – a vast, ancient continent, sits above it like an oven plate and is more associated with the South East Asia in its consciousness – however, maybe there has been a shift in this focus of recent, so that Australia would like to be the political bully boy in the South Pacific region. Of course, the poetry scene has loosened up considerably, mainly through the independents, in particular, through the efforts of the New Zealand poet Mark Pirie, and his publishing house, HeadworX Publishers. Pirie has probably done more for the ‘democratic’ spirit of acceptance and publishing in New Zealand than any other publisher over the last twenty years. His literary magazine, JAAM [Just Another Art Movement] has opened up the field and broken down some of the old university and hidebound cliques that had been dictating terms for years.
WR: When did you begin to write?
SO: Round about 13 or 14 years of age.
WR: Do you have any specific routine for writing? A specific time of day, or a certain typewriter . . .
SO: No – though I have held onto my first typewriter and first electric typewriter – I suppose they represent physical evidence of assorted chapters in my literary development . . . in fact, I’m kicking the boxes under my desk that holds them as I type this. As to a specific time of day for writing – this varies according to the intensity of what I may be writing at the time . . . so I’m always picking at it . . . until I’ve got it down, like a dog with a bone I worry away at the composition till I have it right. For poems this will take days, weeks, for poem cycles, and books, years, often as not. The whole process of one poem to the next, one book to the next is something of a continuum. You try to echo what you have previously written but not to repeat yourself – this is one way of building up a personal mythology – and thus an individual tradition of achievement; a shared, ontology of the spirit – if that doesn’t sound too dramatic.
WR: How long until the next Ice Age?
SO: Can’t come soon enough. Humanity and the planet could do with a few thousand years of icy silence.
WR: Dr. Paul Millar, writing in the Oxford Companion of New Zealand Literature, said the overall effect of your work is “of a verse diary of the life of a mind.” For those unfamiliar with your work, how would you describe this latest book?
SO: As suggested earlier, I have a tendency to write poem cycles, sequences, though often, simultaneously, I work on individual, self-contained poems – so that at least two major processes are going on at the same time, sort of a left and right brain hemisphere thing – or two books. As to Deadly Pollen I think you articulated the way this cycle works best yourself, Mr. Roby:
“Deadly Pollen, a collection of new and recently published poems full of both original and mystical references. Conversation, myth, image, symbol . . . all are mined for their poetic point, all wrung out to dry. Perhaps the most approachable book of Oliver’s to date, Deadly Pollen is full of poems that are complete in and of themselves, yet woven together with spirituality, a sense of the magic of science.”
WR: One constant consideration of my own in writing verse is the length and music of the line, as an individual unit of a poem. Do you personally consider a poem line by line, or as a whole? What do you think is the most important “rule” of breaking lines for students of poetry?
SO: I consider the ‘sound’ of the image and the thought or vision tied up within that image, then I see the shape of it on the page, and that is usually how it appears; its inherent rhythm and breath decide where the line breaks, hangs, or moves over to the next line. However, if I am writing verse which demands metric construction, aside from the standard rules of prosody – one line will represent one thought, and that will decide the line’s measure.
WR: What writers (songwriters, novelists, chefs) are your greatest influence? What specific books have been important to you as a poet?
SO: In an essay titled: “Talk, Chalk and Asphalt Days” published in the NZ literary magazine, JAAM [Just Another Art Movement] edited by Mark Pirie, I laid out a list of the very first books that I read as a teenager – the very first, which helped shape a certain literary inscape – from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Gerard Manley Hopkins, H.G. Wells [Anatomy of Melancholy], to Thomas Hardy’s Poems, Dylan Thomas, the Russian poets of the early 20th Century, especially, Osip Mandelstam, Mayakovsky, Velemir Khlebnikov, etc; Homer, Virgil, the Tibetan Book of The Dead, and the East European Poets, etc. all sorts of odd tributaries; Joshua Slokum’s ‘Sailing Alone Around the World’, the plays of George Bernard Shaw, the symbolist poet, Sidney Keyes, the wonderful Latin, silvery prose of Cyril Connolly; R.S. Thomas [the last of the great bardic poets], the essays of Francis Bacon, Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, the prose and poetry of Edward Thomas, the verse plays of Christopher Fry, the great NZ Poet, James. K. Baxter, and other indigent poets of NZ, and I suppose I’ve always favoured those poets of the heightened image and vision; Lorca, D.H. Lawrence (the poems), Odysseus Elytis, Paul Celan, Neruda, Wislawa Szymborska, The Book of Revelations, William Blake, from Wilfred Owen to Ted Hughes to the early Seamus Heaney, the modernists, to the muscular rhythms of W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, and more recently, the American poet, Charles Wright – an exhilarating poet and a true visionary. And of course, how could I forget the novels of Zane Grey, an essential primer for the Post-Romantic Spirit! To read the great writers of the Age is an exercise in self-diminishment and serves to temper your own urgent gifts and enthusiasms as a writer. You should pit yourself against the best, not the most fashionable.
WR: How can we encourage children to read, and to write, and to eat better?
SO: If I knew the answer to that I could change the course of human history and in one fell swoop eradicate all the cop shows that ever appeared on television past and future. Somehow a child must identity his environment with what he or she reads – in other words, to create an imaginary, supra environment that complements the physical one in which that child resides. This heightens perception and sharpens choice. And all without drugs or the endless consumption of Coke. Never consume burgers while reading because it leaves too many page markers and confuses the reader.
WR: When will the world end?
SO: It already has – just we don’t know it yet. We’re living in post-apocalyptic shock.
WR: What magazine or journal has been especially important to you?
SO: Invasion Of The Post-Modern Body Snatchers – the complete lecture series: Vol. 1-20, 1969-84, University of Flat Earth Press, NYC.
WR: Where would you like to see your poetry appear next?
SO: On the video screen at the Super Bowl. Failing that – in my next book, titled: Ballads, Satire & Salt – A Book of Diversions, Greywacke Press, 2003. About to appear close on the heels of Deadly Pollen, Word Riot Press, 2003. Now Available.
For those interested in reading more of Stephen Oliver’s poetry and prose online go to: New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre: