Commentaries - December 2011
Peter Minter is one of the greatest poets I read, and one of the greatest poets I know. I regard him, his conversation, his attention, his criticism, his aesthetics and his ethics as militantly tender, tenderly militant. Minter is uncompromising and committed in the things he makes and does, and his politics are manifest in his making and doing, interfacing variously with discourses and methodologies of an eco-anarchist left. As well, he is interested in relation and encounter, whether enacted through romantic love, creaturely relations, community action, activism, critique, skill-sharing, meal-sharing, etc. His particular relational affect is quiet, precise, concerned, intuitive, understated and dead-on.
In July 2011, Michael Brennan published an 'interview' with Minter for "Australia -- Poetry International Web," an online resource collecting extended interviews and works by poets. The interview is not so much an exchange as an extended response to a set of questions presented to Minter by Brennan. Rather than answering each question discretely, Minter's written response is a critical exegesis of his poetics that treats, in some way, each of Brennan's provocations. I mention this because it is by far the best primer for Minter's work and critical stance. Read it here.
Minter’s contribution to poetics (in Sydney, in Australia, in the Milky Way) is enormous. As the editor of journals and anthologies, as the curator of reading series and the publisher of occasional collections, as a scholar in Aboriginal and Australian literature at the Koori Centre in the University of Sydney, and as an active and attentive member of communities, Minter has contributed, for decades, to conversations around poetics, aesthetics, indigenous history, culture, praxis and politics. Minter was founding editor (with Adrian Wiggins) of Cordite Poetry and Poetics Review (now an online magazine edited by David Prater). He was the co-editor (with Michael Brennan) of Calyx: 30 Contemporary Australian Poets, published by Paper Bark Press in 2000. In 2008, he was the co-editor (with Anita Heiss) of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature. He is a former poetry editor of Meanjin and the current poetry editor of Overland.
You can see traces of mid-twentieth-century America in Minter’s methodology for making – Olson, Duncan, Levertov, HD, Creeley, Williams, and other moments and coteries that dealt with the shifting, ecstatic, and catastrophic events of post-war internationalisms and its attendant macro-micro optic vacillations. There are also strains of the New-Romantic 1980s, as perceived by a teenage Minter in Newcastle, a steel mill city on the Australian east coast. There’s sci-fi in there too, with its tropic cues exacting specific fantasies and paranoias of post-cold-war bomb-oblivion. And it's queer, where queerness is a strategy for reading and positing a thoroughly multitudinous and anti-essentialist approach to imaging social and political relations. As a critic and commentator, Minter works against monoculturalism, neocolonialism, mediocrity, egomania, revisionist histories, rhetorics of ownership, entitlement, individualism and economic rationalism. Recently, he spoke out against the just-published anthology, Australian Poetry Since 1788, co-edited by Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray. You can see a video of Minter’s paper on the anthology in Michael Farrell’s excellent commentary piece here on J2.
Minter is a fastidious archivist, and he has collected and organised all of his material from a very young age in boxes. He was kind enough to let me fossick through and harvest some nuggets for this post. The boxes included comprehensive records of his editorial, curatorial, and personal projects, including very early and yet-unpublished poems, which Minter has kindly OK’d for publication here. It also included a tiny book that Minter made in 1984 during high school that is heavily influenced by photocopied chaps he found in record shops in Sydney. He told me that he and his friends would occasionally get the train to Sydney to get haircuts, stock up on kung fu sandals and dig through the records and cassettes in the music shops on Pitt Street. There, they found pre-zine-culture magazines that were coming out of the UK punk scene, and they emulated the format in an edition called Altermatum Motivation. The cover image of an issue of Altermatum is featured at the beginning of this post.
The following files have been scanned and gifted by Minter. Many thanks to him for his time and generosity.
1. Altermatum Motivation, 1984, p.3-4
2. "On the Beach," a poem by Minter, written while in high school, and published in Young Hunter, a collection of poetry by young people in the Hunter Valley region of New South Wales.
3. Peter Minter, "the world up until now," written 1988-89, when Minter was an undergraduate at the University of Sydney. This poem is previously unpublished.
"the world up until now"
of all that could possibly happen,
this that happened was the right
thing, being necessarily ambiguous.
and they were saying “there is
nothing at all to fear, we are going
to be with you, all the way. just
relax, there will be nothing, nothing
at all to worry about.” the history
tree vanishes back into itself every
hour of the day, its leaves
growing smaller as they float slowly
to the shifting, hesitant ground.
from here, the world is
so much wider than it ever
seemed to all and such as we.
how long has it been since
you arrived, fresh faced and
leaner than the sky? can you
remember anything or does it
hardly matter that behind those
holy marks you’re falling backward
motionlessly, through the schema
of life? can this be called
honesty, a body conducting
every word with its hollow
Shiva arms? this is an ever
growing dialogue, its paths can
take you anywhere, like an area
on the surface that develops silently,
a blindspot in a grassy place that
whispers sweet nothing to itself.
there is a city, somewhere
behind the trees, in the wind.
we were there before, lying
in the ground, covered by roads,
sitting in the score of the world
without a single picture
or phrase that was magically
straight to the point.
you can go fishing and see
in the fishes’ emerald gaze how it
really is under water. at such
times, at night, a wave of orange
in the grotto of the lookout, the
bird of fire on guitar and you say
that there are children, preparing
for the end. the cliff is civilized to the
point that it speaks ancient greek
and we, the last listeners, are as
clouds, forming ourselves from with
out. and the tree, overlooking
everything, is tangled in the wind
that sinks and pulls itself through
the taught and difficult matter of seasons.
sitting here, and the room
reassures itself that it is simply
a contracted immediacy, allowing
the flow of the traffic to sound in
through the window. there are no
more cigarettes, though someone
is sure to bring some, sooner
or later. an overabundance
of things can make you forget
how long it has been since you
came here and sat, waiting to see
the objects rise up with some
kind of recognition of themselves.
hopefully it will be easy, cutting adrift
them from “them”, though in the back
of our minds we know that nothing
is as easy as at first it seems. all
we desire is: a hint of the facts,
and to be floating in an all-white
clarity, subject of nothing, not even
words and their stale orchestralness.
we can almost hear you, circling
in the currents, the incessant days.
its a marvellous way to die — imagine!
the randomness of the notes that play
the music in your head growing closer, closer
‘till they ripple in and outward over everything.
from such a perspective the world
moves beyond itself, not a single
thought, just being at a locus,
a circularity of vowels that pass
song like through the world’s inarticulate
theme, its moments of careful indecision.
the vessel, colour of oak, the one
that never sees nor hears the
coming questions, is finally dissolved.
it was always morning
as we left the fields. the
sky in the room was blue
on that winter’s day. from
outside these yellow walls
you hear a dog, barking. perhaps
he is chained to a tree, in a
pool of glinting dust.
sleep and dreams become a way
of feeling the real weight of the future
as it grows like thick burgandy sap.
there is never any tense to such
occurrences, just the ebb of silent
summer and cool running water flashing
over rocks and lapping at the tediously
intricate traces left by creeping shells.
and it is difficult to decipher the images,
though they come, hands tied behind
our backs. it has something to do
with the reproduction of opposites,
a voice that pushes you down into
the waiting earth, that lets you
know where every meaning must lie.
it is sunday evening and we shuffle
around with pockets full of change, making
things to eat, listening to things
that happen on the radio. they
talk of bringing life back in order,
giving it a more definite kind
of nature. so that is the way of it
then, the sudden reversal of the terms,
the fascination of the effect.
quivering in hollow ditches, goldfish
caught in seaweed nets from the settling,
humming air. we are standing by, we are
wondering – why, as the season lost itself
amongst the mild, flowering trees, did the
cat leave the tails and scales?
from the mouth of the scarecrow
fall bulging pockets of words. he
must be nearly empty inside – the
birds fly, circling above, waiting
for his fall into the mere colour
of his clothes. the grasses shimmer
and grow between everything. an old
tree shudders in an air that
breathes slowly in from
the gradually sinking hills.
they come with documents to sign
that leave you without a single
responsibility. your house is getting
so wide it may soon be of natural
proportions. all that will be left –
a chair, a small table, maybe
some magazines, you could even
have them leave your papers and
a pen – all will appear both in
and out of focus, both cause and effect.
so, this is it, after years
of uncontrived engagement, where
days were full and fully collected
themselves and nights wrote diaries
on the finely tuned curves
of the satellites, as they slipped and
fell, without loss of energy, across
its thick, expansive black pages.
over and over, at this time of the
year, the days begin to outnumber
the nights, again. some people
will be thinking of the big
cleaning out – so this is it!
they cry as they kick the screen
door open with their left foot and
throw a box full of clothes and coloured ashes
out into somewhere out there.
it is, so same have come
to mention on stormy afternoons,
a strange occasion, this life. as
strange as pulling apart a boat,
piece by piece, while out on the centre
of a lake. disturbances like this
come as cool reminders, first sipped
with hesitation, then poured into the body
with an enthusiasm that is sure
the more is taken away, the lighter
the space will appear. the fluidity
is almost blinding, and the grasses
they are possessed with waves of clouds,
with waves and signs of recognition.
4. Peter Minter, "Mosquito Sleep. Island of Formosa." written 1988-89, when Minter was an undergraduate at the University of Sydney. This poem is previously unpublished.
"Mosquito Sleep. Island of Formosa."
sleeping round in the countryside often leaves
our heads quivering with mosquitoes. afternoons are
then like dreams: they never find their middle
caught between the beginning and the end;
there’s just the glowing immanence. this is
where the head likes to rest itself, unwind,
uncurl itself as would a snake; there, it is watching.
could be lying out there on that rock, waiting
for that wave to finally wash our skins from ourselves.
these hardened branches, autumn clinging to
the clothes with twigs and disturbances, a
dieing spectre that rests into the ocean waves.
from here it is still a little hard to see, though
sometimes the planes that cruise in over the water
hang like slowly falling moons and glow across
the wandering black space.
an old story tells us that years and years ago whales
once came to this rock and in the morning
they beached themselves and made thunder
in the sand that now shifts
under the weight of the experience.
in a context such as this we are made
totally unmanageable — it reminds us of our childhood.
it reminds us of someone we once
know who disappeared across the edge
into the waves. and the rocks are
of such odd shapes. they have no real positions.
they have no real names.
if this island were to crumble away we would
need to find a way of winning over nothing.
on the ends of ourselves we are dancing
this confusion — we have seen all the steps to be
taken in life and this poisonous knowledge aims
itself at our stomachs, and we are dancing
this confusion with our lives in our hands.
if we could see into the centre we may see
a hole of white coming from about; it is
hovering here just below us. if we happen
to dive inside it we swim like fish
round and round in a hollow green savanna
where everything needs painting, where
everything needs to rest.
these forms, accumulating gradually, leave shapes
and instances of themselves. it doesn’t matter
how they look or what they mean. you can
see it in their eyes; they know a language made
of pictures that have their origins on bones,
a matrix of suspicion making sculptures in words,
the movement of fingers, the pixillating blink.
in the middle of the night black ibisis
seek the words that lie hidden
deep within our ears. they have come
from nowhere and the reasons for their
interest in such things are uncertain. the
ibisis always fly home high above the
beaches, wide angled as clouds.
when we speak together we like to make up
stories, we like to plan our escape — there is little
time left to go before this rock disappears
and takes all the heaviness of the surrounding land
with it. other times we lie together, dreaming
that the sky will shortly speak
to sculpt is lean.
5. Drafts and final versions of the "Varuna New Poetry Broadsheet." Minter published these broadsheets to correspond with the reading series he curated at the Varuna Writers Centre in Katoomba (1994-1998).
6. Drafts from Empty Texas, Minter's first full-length poetry book, published by Paper Bark Press in 1999 (a smaller folio containing some of the poems had been published under the same title by Salt the previous year.) These drafts represent only a fraction of the paper-edits made by Minter for each poem in the collection. These drafts were composed and revised during 1997.
from Attack of the Difficult Poems
This is an excerpt from "Fraud’s Phantoms: A Brief Yet Unreliable Account of Fighting Fraud with Fraud (No Pun on Freud Intended), with Special Reference to the Poetics of Ressentiment" from Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions
In the early summer of 1986, two young Austrian poets, Franz Josef Czernin and Ferdinand Schmatz, had the idea to write poems that closely resembled the poems they found most typical and at the same time most deplorable in contemporary poetry volumes, for example the work of Rainer Kunze, Günther Kunert, and Sarah Kirsch. At first they had the idea to call the poet Irene Schwaighofer (silent court), a poet born in a little town in upper Austria, who, familiar through schooling with the tenets of modernism, would need no time to forge her own distinctive style and upon being published would proceed to win many prizes and much praise. However, Czernin and Schmatz felt this process would take too long and in order to shorten the “difficult and boring” process, decided to give authorship of the poems to Czernin. They completed the work in a few weeks and the book was immediately accepted for publication under the title Die Reise (the journey). The book received positive attention, some of which suggested that at last Czernin has given up his thrashing about in the waters of experimentation and found a more profound and authentic voice. When Czernin broke the news of his own duplicitous relation to the poems in Der Spiegel in March 1987, a furious hale of criticism descended upon him, not the least from the publisher of the book, who felt he had been betrayed. Later the same year, Czernin and Schmatz published a book-length account of the story together with exchanges between them and several interlocking essays.
Here is of one of the poems from Die Reise: In achtzig Gedichten um die ganze Welt:
ist mein blick
nicht eine schere,
die alle fernen
hat denn die schere
die zu ringen werden
die auf ihre ziele zeigen?
und gehen diese ziele
nicht auf zwei füssen,
auf nägel treten,
die meine ganze reise
is my glance
not a scissor
that cut through
had, then, this scissor
which will strive
loins of desire?
and will not such loins
walk on two feet
tread on pins
my whole journey?
Schmatz and Czernin created a literary scandal with this and the other poems in the collection, but they were able to focus the discussion of issues of quality and judgment and to avoid the more abusive aspects of the Ern Malley and Yasusada hoaxes. Indeed, Die Reise is motivated by a desire to critique the jargon of authenticity rather than to reinscribe it, as we find in the Yasusada case. There is no claim here that these are necessarily good poems or that we should look to the “poems themselves” for the meaning. The texts here have meaning in relation to the literary valuations into which they make an intervention; their meaning is social and diacritical. Indeed, late in 1987, Schmatz and Czernin published Die Reise: In achtzig flachen Hunden in die ganze tiefe Grube, a book about the affair in which they address explicitly the questions of authorship and motivation. In this book, Czernin describes Die Reise as a form of literary self-criticism. “Perhaps one must, to make a better poem, know how one makes a worse poem,” he writes. “I think it was Novalis who said that good literature is made from worse literature. He was right that there must be, in any case, worse poetry from which better poetry can originate, whereas for me it is self-evident that the contrary can also be valuable.” Die Reise, then, can be understood as an investigation of aesthetic judgment. And yet, as the Ern Malley poems also show, what is written out of a desire to expose the limits of a particular style (or rhetoric) may ultimately become exemplary of unrealized potential in the style; ironizing of the style may create a thickening of the artifice and with it an intensification of the aesthetic experience. Over time, the poems of Die Reise take on charm that goes beyond parody. In any case, Czernin is not asserting the objectivity of any such judgments but rather that “every objectivity is fictional.” His purpose then, as befits a poet who has written a study of Karl Kraus, is satiric adjudicative: the fraud remains a fraud.
 Franz Josef Czernin, Die Reise: In achtzig Gedichten um die ganze Welt (Salzburg und Wien: Residenz Verlag, 1987), p. 30.
 Franz Josef Czernin, “Die Verdopplung des Igels,” in Czernin and Ferdinand Schmatz, Die Reise: In achtzig flachen Hunden in die ganze tiefe Grube (Linz-Wien, Austria: Edition Neue Texte, 1987), p. 21
from Nod House (new from New Directions)
reading on Close Lisening:
full Close Listneing show, including my conversation with Mackey, on his PennSound page.
Stephen Spretnjak describes the work this way:
While reading the Art Reviews in the New York Times, I noticed that some descriptions mimicked scenarios of my artworks … "a burning house" possibly the projected film installation of my farmhouse ablaze…"a see-ya-later-wink- wink" as playing dice spilled into a solid plexi-glass cube… "a tsunami of memories" as collages made daily from found media scraps, dream texts, and poetics. Using a razorblade, I cut-out text-blocks then placed each down the centerline of quadrille grid pages. Composing by stacking emphasizes constructing with language. Rorschach-like silhouettes echo and expand the experience. As with all poetics, the act of translation occurs between the slippage of word and image.