All my work is driven by anxiety,” John Kinsella admits.
One of the finest poets writing in English today, the wheatbelt resident seems always to require something to push against, respond to, argue with, riff on, transform, develop, deconstruct.
“I react to ‘things’ because I feel I have a responsibility as a poet to witness, transform into an effective language, and to facilitate different ways of thinking about what people often take for granted,” he says.
“Poetry is a medium of change and alternative ways of seeing. I can never waken to a day without an awareness that damage is being done somewhere and that I have a responsibility to articulate responses to that damage.”
A Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge and Professor of Literature and Sustainability at Curtin University, Kinsella has already authored more than 40 books of poetry, fiction, drama and nonfiction.
Now come yet two more major poetry collections: Drowning in Wheat – Selected Poems and, often rage-fuelled yet redolent of the mellow fruitfulness of a poet in the early autumn of his career, Firebreaks.
Kinsella says the poems in Drowning in Wheat stretch across 35 years of publishing poems. “So it’s a life, in essence.” He adds that as he started writing as a child and publishing in journals from a young age, the book connects his past and present “in visceral ways.”
“Early poems like Finches and Notes on Fire-tumbles contain the grains of what I have gone on to write about and consider in my poetry in more elaborate and lengthy ways as the decades have gone by,” he says.
So in Notes on Fire-tumbles we have a snapshot-manifesto of nature’s indifference to Kinsella’s heroic attempts to bear witness: “Fire-tumbles are not poetry,/nor even a substitute for poetry.//They are things wild/whose wanderings/are without motive.”
Compare this with the mournful classicism and the organ-stop assonance of the later Funeral Oration (For Joyce Heywood): “The grave is a gate you send flowers through,/and the pink blossom frosting the northern hemisphere/is, on closer observation, a confluence of species.”
Though Drowning in Wheat is not without humour. Take The Police Busted Me with a Chilli in My Pocket, from one of the many sequences in the collection, Chillies: “The chilli glowed in a hand./One of them rubbed his eyes and they/began to sting. We’ll have you for assault/they said.”
And a fecund variety. Can the same poet who utters “The golden flowers of wild radishes bite/Just before they are ripped from the soil” also observe that “Someone is revving the sh** out of a chainsaw”?
“In many ways, Drowning in Wheat is more a portrait of a way of seeing and responding to the world than a picture of the self,” Kinsella says. “The self is always there, of course, but it’s also about how the world affects that self, and especially how the self and humanity as a whole have an impact on the ‘natural’ world.”
In Firebreaks, Kinsella returns to his beloved Jam Tree Gully, north of Toodyay. This is vintage Kinsella, the flame of every poem kindled by exhalation before being sucked back into the body.
“So we have contraction and expansion in ideas and language, and that’s what I take to all my writing,” Kinsella says. “The up-close, and at a distance. Also what is called ‘prospect’ and ‘refuge’ in landscape theory: the broader perspective (open) and the more private, hidden one.”
As with his 2013 collection Jam Tree Gully, which won Kinsella the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry, Firebreaks converses with the dead, in this case mostly the exiled Roman poet Ovid and French philosopher Gaston Bachelard.
Exile is a central theme: from home, from nature, from the self. In Cambridge, Kinsella pines for home. But back in Jam Tree Gully, he sees that “Change came faster than we imagined.” Wrestling with an internal exile, he admits “I do not want to leave this land/and yet feel I must.”
But why are themes of exile from country – or Paradise – and humankind’s estrangement from nature so prominent not only in Firebreaks but so much of Kinsella’s other poetry?
“I have always felt I live on other people’s land – in the wheatbelt, it’s Noongyar land – and I love the land I write, but I have a feeling of intrusion, and my poetry often struggles with that apparent contradiction,” he says.
“I believe respect for nature is a way of non-invasive ‘entry’ into place, and if we don’t listen to life outside our own, to non-human life as well as human life, we are inevitably alienated and alienating.”
Like his wife and fellow poet Tracy Ryan a committed vegan and environmentalist, Kinsella says that as humanity moves further away from nature and embraces consumerism and exploitation of nature it destroys both itself and the planet.
“Empathy with other living things (gives us) access to the richest part of our own inner ‘natures’ as much as allowing us to respect and do what’s right with regard to the natural world,” he says. “The lust for Paradise is part of the human drive, but if we stop straining for it, and stop damaging the planet in the way we do through our excesses, we’ll find it can be pretty near at hand.”
And although on the surface his and Ryan’s work are very different, their motivations are the same. “We share many of the same concerns about humanity and the world we live in,” he says.
“We come from similar places, we have spent much time together in other places of the world, and we share a strong interest in the same literatures, art, and sometimes music. Though regarding the last, Tracy might draw the line at some of my predilections for hardcore punk!”
Asked which ghosts most haunt him and why, Kinsella answers unequivocally. “Genocide. I am writing poems about markers of memory of the horror humanity has inflicted on humanity. And about the erasure of these markers.
“I have spent a lifetime being active against racism and bigotry in all its forms, and the ghosts of those who have fallen to this hatred will always haunt me. In the same way, the ghosts of all living creatures that have been tormented and used haunt me.”
Drowning in Wheat – Selected Poems is published by Picador ($33). Firebreaks is published by W. W. Norton ($31).
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