Alison is the Editor of Masthead, see the feature
in Winter 2001, along with Alison's poetry, her Essays on Poetics and the Erotic and
translations of Rainer Maria Rilke
An Interview with
By Rebecca Seiferle
Once upon a time, it was common to speak of a man of letters, a writer who could not be categorized in a particular mode or genre of literature, but who was so gifted in a variety of modes, that almost anything he wrote was of interest. Unfortunately, the term expired, probably of misuse, before it could ever include women, for Alison Croggon is undoubtedly Australia's woman of letters. She is among the best of new Australian poets, and in a country where much of the most interesting and vital poetry is being written by women, but she is also a noted critic, playwright, librettist, translator, novelist and fantasy novelist. All of her works, as varied as their modes may be, seem to originate in a unique sensibility, original and complex, obdurate and fluid, a genius that flows into various forms in a way that both illuminates the form and intersects with the issues of being, and it is a being in and of the world, not apart from it, a being which includes knowledge of light and darkness, the murk of being, as well as its light, the cells of the body and violence of mind, the grace of the lyric as well as the dark drama of human relationship.
In this issue, we have a special feature of Alison Croggon's work. Specula is a new series of poems which she recently performed at Sub Voicive and Specula: Mirrors from the Middle Ages is an accompanying essay which she presented at Birkbeck College at the University of London while on tour in the United Kingdom. In her work, categories collapse or fold into one another, so that these poems, Specula, which are a lyric sequence could also be said to be theatrical, performance pieces, works for voice, as well as being a kind of historical criticism, a meditation on spiritual reality, where knowing is a conceiving, of physical and spiritual reality, all the extremities involved, and also a kind of linguistic experiment where speech is broken and reaches that point where as St. John of the Cross put it an-I-don't-know-what-remains-babbling behind the spoken word.
Her work evinces that characteristic which Breton described as a vertiginous descent within ourselves, the systematic illumination of hidden places and the progressive darkening of all other places, perpetual rambling in the depth of the forbidden zone. . . Everything leads one to believe that there exists a certain point in the mind from which life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, what is communicable and what is incommunicable, the high and the low, cease to be perceived as contradictory. Alison Croggon's work, in whatever mode it may be written, originates from this certain point, where polarities of whatever type, even those used to define types or genres or modes of writing, cease to be perceived as contradictory. Such a sensibility finds its center everywhere and can express itself in any mode, as a hand may pick up a pen or a knife or a hammer or a pair of scissors, the most ordinary of things. And yet because it is not pen or knife or hammer or scissors, but the instrumentalities of words, what originates could originate only in one particular sensibility.
I first became aware of Alison Croggon's work when we were putting together a feature of Australian poetry and invited her to send some poems. Since then, I have become aware of the variety and depth of her work. Her translations of Rilke are particularly interesting for the way in which they convey the inner turnings of the original. Her essays on poetics (Speculations on Poetics and the Erotic) are insistent reclaimings of the erotic word. Her novel, Navigatio, which interweaves memoir with fictional accounts, is a kind of tour de force, resonating with a complex and distilled truthfulness, that is both transparent and not merely personal. Her latest poetry collection, Attempts at Being, combines the Amplitudes of her long sequences with short fluid lyrics, as well as performance texts, like The Breach in which a mind unravels in a monologue on a stage. She is also a fantasy novelist, whose first novel, The Gift in a trilogy for young adults, appeared in Fall, 2002. Yet, her fantasy work, for all it may be marketed as young adult reading, is full of what once belonged in the realm of poetry, a kind of Song of Innocence, full of stories and encounters like those in the poems of Blake, and is a rich meditation on the way in which poetic knowing is a way of being.
Writers who are so versatile often confuse their critics. Because Croggon is so fluid a writer, so capable of so many things, her various modes are sometimes used to fault one another, as if the presence of the plays worked against the poetry, etc. I suspect it is partly the usual embarrassment at another's riches; we like to think that those who do many things well do not do them as well as those who do only one or two things, and it is perhaps disconcerting to find that that is not necessarily the case. For Croggon's work is full of depth as well as range; her work is particularly rich because, in whatever mode she writes, there is an intersection of preoccupations, as we see in Specula. For it's not just that she writes this and writes that, but that any particular work is difficult to limit and contain; her meditations extend in so many directions and yet are vertical in sensibility, a diving into or a flight out of, so that in any mode we see the deep originality and fluidity of genius.
This interview was conducted by email in February, 2003.
Born in 1962, Alison Croggon is one of a new generation of Australian poets which emerged in the 1990s. She writes in many genres, including criticism, theatre and prose. Her poetry has been published widely in anthologies and magazines in Australia and overseas. Her first book of poems, This is the Stone, won the 1991 Anne Elder and Dame Mary Gilmore Prizes. Her novel Navigatio , published by Black Pepper Press, was highly commended in the 1995 Australian/Vogel literary awards and is being translated for publication in France. Her second book of poems, The Blue Gate, was released in 1997 and was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier's Poetry Prize.
The poem Mnemosyne, was published as a chapbook by Wild Honey Press in December 2001. A book of poetry, Divinations, will be published by Arc Books in the UK next year, and Salt Publishing released a new collection of poems and other writing, Attempts at Being in early 2002. Both books are available online from their publishers.
October 2002 also saw the publication of Alison's first fantasy novel for young adults, The Gift, the first installment of an epic trilogy. Alison has to date written and had performed nine works for theatre. Her theatre work includes the operas Gauguin (Melbourne Festival 2000) and The Burrow(Perth Festival, Sydney, Melbourne 1994-95 and broadcast by ABC Radio), both with Michael Smetanin, and the plays Lenz (Melbourne Festival 1996), Samarkand and The Famine (Rules of Thumb season, Red Shed Company, Adelaide 1997 and ABC Radio 1998). Her play Blue was presented at La Mama in Melbourne and the Street Theatre in Canberra in June 2001 by CIA.The text Monologues for an Apocalypse was commissioned for ABC Radio National and broadcast in 2001.She also wrote lyrics for Confidentially Yours (Playbox Theatre 1998, Hong Kong Festival 1999).
Many of her poems have been set to music by various composers, including Smetanin (Skinless Kiss of Angels, Elision New Music Emsemble), Christine McCombe and Margaret Legge-Wilkinson (Canberra New Music Ensemble) and most recently Andreé Greenwell, with whom she is working on two collaborations. With Michael Smetanin, she has most recently completed a music theatre project,The White Army and they are now planning their third opera. She has also performed her work with saxophonist/composer Tim O'Dwyer.
She was the 2000 Australia Council writer in
residence at Cambridge University, UK. She was
poetry editor for Overland Extra (1992), Modern
Writing (1992-1994) and Voices (1996) and
founding editor of the literary arts journal
Masthead, featured in Winter 2001 and online at http://au.geocities.com/masthead_2/index.html
Rebecca Seiferle: You recently toured the U.K. giving a number of poetry readings and talks. You performed Specula at Sub Voicive with cris creek. Can you describe the event? was it more poetry reading or performance? And did the performance of the work, as well as the collaborative aspects, alter the work itself?
Alison Croggon: Specula was performed at Camden People's Theatre in London, which is a small cooperative which probably holds about 50 people, with cris cheek, who is a poet interested in all the interfaces between page and performance. It was a most interesting and liberating experience for me, since it took me right out of my comfort zone. I am the sort of poet who usually just gets up and reads my text straight, but Lawrence Upton, the organiser of the subvoicive readings, insisted that I should do something else, for which I was most grateful.
The performance included sound and minimal visuals (we were a little hampered in our ambitions by a lack of technology at cpt). I spent a couple of days with cris going through the text I had and working out the sound. I had brought two cds with me - one a recording of various versions of the Sybilline Prophecies, from 11th century to 15th century, and the other was a cd of some work by a composer I've worked with a lot, Michael Smetanin. I thought we could pillage both of these for sounds, and that is in fact what we did: we took tiny motifs, a viola, a voice, even a single percussive note, and cris mixed and looped them until they were completely unrecognisable. We worked this in with the reading in various ways. We decided that the Lingua Ignota (the Unknown Language) should be visual, and not read: we would have liked to simply project the words, but in the end it was just on cris's laptop. And we read some parts together, some separately, some in chorus. It was great to perform; working with someone else removed the self consciousness I might have otherwise felt, and there was fun in playing with the words, attacking the language. I'd like to do something like that again
Yes, the text did change through this collaboration: it made me focus on giving it some dramatic shape. Margery of Kempe had been initially a single poem: as a result of working with cris I divided it into the present five parts, which I like much better. And I did the usually snipping where I felt, as a result of reading it out loud, that it was over written.
Rebecca Seiferle: What lead to your engagement with the writings of the mystic women of medieval Europe? Did the project originate out of a longtime interest or a sudden intersection of preoccupations?
Alison Croggon: Both, I think - I've always been interested in a casual way in mystic writings, such as Saint John of the Cross, which often seem to me so close to the preoccupations of poetry, in their investigations of the limits of language. But what really sparked it was reading an essay by Danielle Regnier-Bohler in the mediaeval volume, Silences of the Middle Ages, in the series A History of Women. This particular essay, which I refer to in my own essay, really prompted the whole project. And then, as these things do, it intersected with various other things that were happening at the time.
Rebecca Seiferle: I notice that Margery of Kempe is a central figure in these poems. In your essay you mention how the use of the strategy of divine revelation is particularly noticed in The Book of Margery of Kempe, but I wonder if it isn't her theatricalising the self as you put that so drew you to her? perhaps an intersection with your interest and work in the theatre? As if a sort of theatre of the soul were at work in her.
Alison Croggon: I think that is perceptive - that is very true of Margery of Kempe, who draws from me a kind of amused admiration. She is, in her text, almost wholly a performance of herself: she stretches language into the language of the body, sighs, weepings, screams. And at the same time she is clearly so single minded in her pursuit of herself, as a chaste woman of God (despite having had 13 children). She is such a rich field of contradiction, and presents so many selves. And I also liked very much the language itself, that mediaeval English which you have to read out loud to understand, its tactility.
Rebecca Seiferle: You have the medieval texts interwoven in the poems. Are these quotes or a kind of pastische, a semblance from memory? It seems that this interweaving gives the work a kind of multivocal quality, as if contained several voices, though still with a unifying sensibility that remains, as a result, oddly anonymous. Was this something you desired and deliberately attempted?
Alison Croggon: I don't know whether it was an ambition I began with. The quotes are all precise. As I read the book, I wrote down sentences which amused or attracted me. When I finished I had a few pages of quotes, and when I did the poem, I selected these sentences, or parts of them, and put them together on the page, simply listening to their rhythms. I've also put in a few quotes from other sources. While I was doing that, I was listening primarily to the language, some other kind of sense: I didn't want it to be primarily a fragmentary collage. So often writing poetry seems a kind of balancing act, and this was particularly one of those.
Rebecca Seiferle: There are so many violent images of the body's dissolution and decay in these poems, that it might be startling for some to think of them as expressions of freedom. Of course, there are such startling images in medieval texts or arts, for instance Grunewald's decaying Christ, but how do you see this sort of violent bodily martyrdom in connection with the idea that the writings of mystic women can be seen as visualizations of possibility?
Alison Croggon: Not all the mystic images are violent (though on the whole I've picked up on the violence in Specula). Some are very beautiful meditative pieces, or sensual imaginings like the Tree of the Senses, with the five different fruits. The violence is the inevitable expression of the desire for freedom within such a repressive context as most mediaeval women lived. And also, the violences against and within these women were real and physical, and in the conundrums they present I think it's important, no, crucial to remember this. What then women might do with that real violence, in transforming it for example into a source of spiritual enlightenment, is both problematic and amazing. There is a terrible irony of course in the desire of women for enlightenment in a context in which such desire can only lead to the flames of the pyre or the erasure of God's book (which is the irony in the Seven Veils poem, of something that is at once complicity and rebellion).
Rebecca Seiferle: And to continue that question in a somewhat different direction, how does this imagery have clear resonances with contemporary ideas about the body? What connections between the writing of these mystic women and contemporary poetry?
Alison Croggon: This is impossible to answer without writing a book! I sketch a couple of connections in the essay. But I will try... I should of course have said some contemporary ideas... there are resonances, in the common mystic trope of being unable to express the delight of mystic experience, and in the complainings of the limits of language, with comments by Octavio Paz, or Valery, or countless other poets. And there has been a very strong insistence in so much contemporary writing by women on the physicalisation of language, from people like Luce Iriguay and Helene Cixous to your own work. There is a line in LANGUAGE poetry which follows those ancient mystic traditions of writing from the body, of dissolution in fire. I think this kind of thing is something poetry constantly returns to, because of its being itself a place where language, emotion and carnality intersect.
Rebecca Seiferle: There's a preoccupation with knowing, the knowing of one's own emotional and physical sensations, that is very close to that Biblical idea of sexual experience as ‘knowing' the other,in the writings of the mystic women, to a degree that their writings have been viewed merely as, you say, expressions of ‘hysteria' or sexual lack, or the self indulgent. How do you view the presence of female desire in Specula?
Alison Croggon: Specula is all female desire, it is the engine. I don't know, it's hard for me talk about, since it is the whole thing: the desire is sexual, but also a desire for freedom, a desire for satisfaction, a desire to be whole, a desire for power and autonomy, a desire for God and godliness. Female desire is the inadmissable element which is demonised (Eve) or erased (Mary) through Christian theology, and one of the things about these writings was how these women instated it into their love theology, sometimes with extraordinary frankness. It is the speaking and expression of this desire which seems to me to be amazingly potent, because there is no lack here: rather expressions of ecstatic longing and ecstatic satisfaction. Of course, in mediaeval times carnality and mortality held a different, I would say more practical place than it does now, where we are all somewhat sanitised: and I am aware of the contradiction here of speaking of ecstatic states which are nevertheless all about the body. But these seem to me the contradictions constantly expressed in mystic writings, and which fascinate me.
Rebecca Seiferle: In your essay, you describe how Margery of Kempe uses the strategy of divine revelation? And, while I agree that divine revelation becomes the means by which these women are able to speak, I wonder if we can say that they really used it as a strategy? For it seems that if the fantasies of the female mystics could go so far as to reshape an obdurate reality to more rightly fit their desires, that it would have been perhaps imperative for those fantasies to be perceived as some truer, or more sacred, reality? Could Margery have thought of taking Christ as her husband in either term of strategy or fantasy?
Alison Croggon: Strategy is a term scholars use and Margery certainly didn't. I don't know what she would have thought: but I do think it is fair to say that she was very insistent on establishing the authenticity of her visions and her right to speak, and was very clever in establishing and negotiating that authority through the authority of the church, in circumstances where she was often an embarrassment and could have been easily considered heretical. With Margery, it seems to me quite clear that she wanted to be a saint, and to be worshipped of the people: and that, by her actions, is precisely what she attained. She wanted an ideal lover and, in Christ, that is what she found. Her stubbornness and the strength of her will in achieving these realities are I think wholly admirable, though when I read her book I couldn't but agree with those who call her vexing.
Rebecca Seiferle: You have written successfully in so many modes, performance pieces, plays, operas, a novel, a fantasy novel, that I wonder if you were in part drawn to the writings of these mystic women because they present such an intersection of writing modes. There are aspects of theatre, the ‘testimony,' the public speaking of the texts, along with the dramatisation of the self, as well as poetry, but also an element of fantasy. The texts, and how we read them, depend very much upon how real we perceive their reality to be. As the figure of Christ and divine revelation became less literal, the interpretations of these women and their writings moved to the psychological where they were perceived to be mere hysterics, their visions as symptoms. You however seem to be arguing for a new framework in which their work can be perceived, a framework in which various modes that are often held to be separate or in conflict are viewed instead of possibilities of perception, and where the extremities of the female mystics is viewed as a throwing off of linguistic constraints as well as a means by which they could reshape an obdurate reality to more rightly fit their desires? Is this connected to the inherent feminist argument of the work?
Alison Croggon: Oh yes, indeed. This intersection of modes is a kind of evolutionary aspect of my own work. Many years ago I started writing long(er) poetic works, which operated on a dramatic rather than narrative structure: the formal connections were driven by contrast. Specula is the latest of these. And meanwhile I find that my own work seems to have expanded in several different directions, through my interest in working in theatre and with composers, and an increasing interest in various kinds of prose. It's inevitable that these things, which of course I see as all connected, although someone who only read my fantasy novels, for example, might be surprised by the kind of poetry I write, should find nodes where many of these preoccupations intersect. Specula was originally thought of as a collaboration with a composer, to be a performative work, which occurred perhaps in an art gallery or other non-theatrical space that included the possibility of visual dimensions (I always thought the text could be displayed to be read). The connection with that particular composer seems to have fallen through, but nevertheless I'd like to continue with that idea. I like work that wants to break what I think of as artificial boundaries and categorisations. Over the past couple of years I've become aware of and interested in the very long history of utopian writing by women. This is tangential but nevertheless connected with the mystic project. If realities are to be real, they have to be imagined and expressed first: and the formal qualities of the work are as much part of the expression and imagining as any other part, especially in a poem. So yes, the feminist argument is deeply embedded in the work in that way.
Rebecca Seiferle: Do you feel that this project is finished or would you like to return to it in some way at a later date?
Alison Croggon: No, it isn't finished. It feels like the first part of something; and when I have time, I would dearly love to return to it!