Name-dropping in Australian poetry

Justin Clemens. Image: Nicholas Walton-Healey

In a recent review of new collections by Corey Wakeling, Pam Brown and Lisa Gorton, Peter Kenneally identifies ‘a Justin Clemens appearance’ in Wakeling’s "Walk the Plank!". Pondering the inclusion, he writes:

Justin Clemens, in case you are wondering, is an academic, secretary of the Lacan Circle of Melbourne, and recently has published a book titled Psychoanalysis is an Antiphilosophy. Now that’s what I call an allusion.

Clemens is also a poet, and name-dropping has been ‘a thing’ in poetry ever since – and no doubt long before – Aurelius and Furius first dissed Catullus. Conversely, we’re all familiar with Pound’s advice to Eliot to replace the citation from the work of one of his contemporaries with a less-threatening classical reference. Elsewhere, poets work their poems so that they ‘tolerate a state of namelessness’, in the sense meant by Derrida. In “Unreading Kinsella: Dropping names and Revolutions of the Word in Syzygy,” Michael Brennan views the language of Kinsella’s text, with its resistance to simulation through the use of ‘enjambment, echolalia, coinings, parenthesizing and cacology’ (169), as that which unsettles, unnerves, even ‘unreads’ the reader (174). Many other Australian poets – Ken Bolton, Pam Brown, Duncan Hose, Ann Vickery, John Forbes, Laurie Duggan and dozens more – name-drop with a frenzied decisiveness. One of my favourite name-dropping poems is “Adventure at Sadies” by Ann Vickery for the way it hyperventilates the name:


Oscar remonstrates with Shklovsky and finds a
substitute in Ken Brown: what a gambler!
And as we drive back south, we become
part of the Great Tradition. Thanks Mum, thanks Dad,
thanks Pam, Ken, Laurie, and the whole damn gang
Rae, Denis, Tom, Barbara, Micky, Kelen, Alan, Erica,
Kate, Leigh, Sal, and Kurt. (Ella, make a note!)

 All of this would seem to indicate that in certain transient forms poetic communities can and do appear. When Justin Clemens appeared ‘near the Pelham Street renaissance’ recently, I persuaded him to share his thoughts on Australian poetry communities and the imminent release of his mock-epic, The Mundiad:

In a recent blog post for Australia’s longest-running literary journal (“Community: networks, nepotism and exclusion”), Ali Alizadeh wrote that ‘my experiences of our cherished ‘poetry communities’ ... suggest that the term is more often than not a warm and fuzzy euphemism for the signified of self-serving scenes, gangs and cliques which – in addition to being nauseatingly nepotistic, incestuous and partisan […] operate on the basis of what philosopher Jacques Rancière has described as “the problematic remainder that [the community] terms ‘the excluded’” (115-6).’ How does this accord with your understanding of the various Australian poetic communities you encounter? Could they operate in any other way? Is exclusion always a bad thing?

Well I basically agree with Ali’s description, which is constitutionally the case for community groups of all kinds. As such, we’re all in accord with Elias Canetti’s description of such groups as ‘the increase pack.’ I make a helpful guzzling sound here, like so: gugglegugglegugglegugglegargh. But actually, perhaps the biggest problem today is inclusion, not exclusion. Once you’re included today, you’re susceptible to a permanent escalating carrotization – in the sense of the ass-carrot-stick machinery – which is gonna rot your carotids, aesthetic or whatever, in a festival of total corruption. As for exclusion, I would therefore like to see more of it, extended everywhere to everybody: to date, I’m not convinced that anybody anywhere has actually ever committed themselves to enforcing a genuinely universal exclusion from all and any community whatsoever. Perhaps we all now need to get together to organise the universal exclusion of everybody? But this is where a variant of Russell’s paradox might cause us further problems. Take the community that excludes every community. Does it exclude itself or not? If it does, then it doesn’t; if it doesn’t then it does. Logical inconsistencies regarding the possibility of the exclusion of exclusion aside, it’s also true that there are many different kinds of community, which, if they do always entail the exclusion of others, don’t always simply do so on contemptibly low-grade forms of paranoid-schizoid splitting.

When I think of the various poetic communities that I know of and the ways in which they seem to convene and disperse along a series of circuitous trade routes, I think of the French philosopher, Alain Badiou, and his remarks on theatre – ‘There are moments of great melancholia when the fraternity involved in performing and staging breaks up.’ He likens this to the ongoing issue of separation in love in that ‘The community of love is also precarious, and you also need much more than a telephone number to sustain and develop it.’ Given that Badiou thinks that ‘every philosopher is an actor’, do you think it's possible also to say that ‘every poet is an actor’ and that a particular flaring up of poetic activity can be thought of as communal in the theatrical sense that Badiou is talking about?

This example from Badiou is particularly interesting in this context. Why? Because it gives a model of community that is based on an initial positive encounter, a structuring of the group in accordance with the necessity to live up to the challenges of that encounter – whose implications go beyond every individual concerned and by whose principles each seeks to change themselves and work together in a new organisation – with every participant knowing from the very beginning that an inevitable distressing dissolution is built into their practice in advance! So, the group of actors/director/technicians/assistants, etc., all meet; they discuss the text/performance in different ways; they rehearse together relentlessly, producing something new in that very rehearsal; which they then present publicly and repeat for the duration of the season (which may be very restricted in all sorts of ways, but no matter); they then depart on their separate ways. What’s crucial here is that the ‘meaning’ of what they did is unfixed; yet, even if the performance itself vanishes absolutely in a searing melancholy kind of way, on the basis of its having-happened (Badiou’s ‘great melancholia’) there are always now new possibilities for departure, encounter, transformation that have been opened up, new futures for all ... It is here that one might also add that a community is possible on the basis of the problematic excluded remainders of others.

You were invited to read your poems at this year’s Queensland Poetry Festival and for a number of years you’ve been one of the judges of the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize run by the festival and Arts Queensland. These and other poetic appointments would seem to figure you as oriented towards the mainstream in the world of Australian poetry and yet, to me, your poetic works operate as a number of differently positioned rheotaxic organisms in relation to just about any poetic stream I can think of – Ten Thousand Fcuking Monkeys, The Mundiad, Villain, Me ‘n’ me Trumpet, a series of mathematically generated works, and now a ‘massively expanded’ six-volume return to The Mundiad. What is going on?

The problem here is that I actually do still maintain some respect for all kinds of poetry, even the really lamentable conservative kinds; as long as I can really see that they’re working at it, I love it. That’s not so problematic in itself. What’s problematic is that, when I write, I end up twisting so spinelessly in the wind, my poetry may as well be by no-one. I may also have been over-influenced by Marcel Duchamp, who said: ‘I force myself into contradiction in order to avoid following my own taste.’

Why have you returned to The Mundiad? And what drew you to the mock-epic in the first place?

Recently I came home with my daughter from kinder. As we approached the front door, my daughter said: ‘That’s a funny smell.’ And it was. My daughter described it as ‘cooking meat but not really.’ Upon entering the house, we discovered my partner scrubbing the walls. ‘Whassup?’ we asked her. Apparently the cat had had explosive diarrhoea on the rug, and the splash-back had ricocheted up the wall to above head height. Later we let the accursed animal back in to the house, and it returned immediately, unchastened, to the spot at which it had previously unleashed its demonic bowels. I feel a bit like that about my poetry: returning convulsively to the scene of the crime, but without really knowing what it is I’m doing there or why I feel so unwell.