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    Can Literature Provide Solace?

    Plough’s poetry editor talks with one of Australia’s greatest poets about form, translation, and poetic influences.

    By Stephen Edgar and A. M. Juster

    January 10, 2023

    A. M. Juster: Stephen Edgar has won numerous Australian awards and honors for poetry, poetry written almost entirely in rhyme and meter, including the Prime Minister’s 2021 Literary Award for his recent book of selected poetry, The Strangest Place. The great Clive James titled one of his reviews of Mr. Edgar’s books “Stephen Edgar Stays Perfect,” a title which all poets would like from reviewers. Despite these achievements, he has received little recognition outside of Australia, and almost no academic attention, even in his native country, which is why I’m so pleased to be highlighting him here today. Edgar still publishes regularly, and his elaborately crafted poems tend to be longer and broader in scope than most poems by American New Formalists. While his work provides ample fodder for literary criticism, it is also accessible to those outside the literary world who are steadfast lovers of poetry. Stephen, it’s a great honor for Plough to speak with you here today.

    Stephen Edgar: Great to be here. Thank you.

    Good. Our similarities are probably going to drop off quickly, but we did both choose to work outside the academy. I think that’s a healthy choice for poets. Although most poets in America today and, I suspect, most poets in Australia today, would disagree. I wanted to ask you what you saw as the advantages and disadvantages of that choice that we made.

    Right. Well, I’m tempted to say, Mike, only partly in jest, that as far as possible, I chose not to work at all, if I could manage it. But, yes, I certainly did choose not to work in the academy. That’s a fairly recent change, isn’t it, in the lives of poets? Up until the twentieth century, contemporary English literature wasn’t even taught in universities, but, obviously, during the course of the twentieth century, particularly in America, it became more and more the norm for poets to get academic jobs. Certainly, that gives them security. It’s never seemed to me obvious that a vocation for writing poetry would coincide with a vocation for teaching it. I’ve never felt any particular vocation for that or inclination to do it.

    Also, I suspect that writing poetry and teaching poetry come from different parts of the brain. Perhaps I was worried that the teaching might overwhelm the writing. I can certainly think of a couple of cases, here in Australia, of poets who, once they became academics, stopped writing, or seemed to stop writing, for quite a long time, although, of course, there are others who went on writing perfectly well. Basically, it’s a matter of temperament, I suppose you could say. It just didn’t appeal to me.

    Having said that, I did, on one occasion, teach at university. This was back in the 1990s, when I was living in Hobart. A professor at the university, David Lawton, asked me and a couple of other local poets if we’d like to inaugurate a creative writing course. Somewhat reluctantly, I agreed to take part in that. I did that, I think, only for one year, possibly two. I didn’t enjoy it, I have to say. I also did some lecturing. I gave a few lectures on Gwen Howard, David Malouf, Peter Porter, and a couple of tutorials, I remember, on Stevens and Yeats. But, with the single exception of that little brief period, I’ve never done any academic teaching or felt inclined to do it.

    Yes. I’ve done it twice, every seventeen years … I’m like a locust. Every seventeen years, I come out to teach. I rather liked it the first time. I like the experience of dealing with the students. I had a lot of difficulty with the administration, which is why I didn’t go back. I’m doing it now. I like the students, but I’m teaching online. I find, A, as you’ve discovered, I’m not particularly adept with the technology, and, B, as much as I like the students, I don’t get that feeling of connection that I got in the actual classroom. I got some feeding from energy, feeding of energy, from the students, when I taught seventeen years ago.

    If you look at the people whose poetry I admire, they’re going out and doing things that they are passionate about. And I think that ultimately flavors their poetry. I liked having challenges out in the world. I think that gave me a lot of more interesting poems. I don’t think I’m unusual in that regard. Did you like working?

    Well, it’s an unfortunate fact but I suppose there was never any particular job, occupation, that I felt drawn to. So it was more something that you have to do, rather than something that I love doing. And this might come up later, but yes, I always resented having to give all those hours of my time, eight hours a day, five days a week, to somebody else for their purposes, and taking away from my writing.

    When you could be writing.

    When I first left school, for a few months, I worked in a psychiatric hospital, as a psychiatric nurse. That was certainly interesting, I suppose you could say, in some ways, but it didn’t appeal to me, and I quickly gave that up. I briefly worked in an insurance company, but, mostly, at least for twenty odd years, I worked in libraries.


    Photograph by René Riegal

    Libraries. So I wanted to ask you about that. I see some hints of that, some reflections of that, in your poetry, for instance, in the splendid poem, “The Secret Life of Books.” You also refer to the great librarian-poet, Jorge Luis Borges, in your poem, “The Man at the Next Table,” and you’ve done translation of Borges’ work. Do you have a special affinity to Borges, maybe as both of you are librarians? Or do libraries have any kind of symbolism or appeal for you that maybe might not be obvious to other people?

    I don’t know that libraries had any particular symbolism for me. Although it occurs to me that a library is a kind of figurative labyrinth, isn’t it? So that ties in. You can see where Borges might get some of his ideas. I should point out that, although I worked in libraries for many years, I was never a professional librarian. I only worked as a library assistant. And the reason for that is that I could do that part-time – again, my disinclination to hold a full-time job. Even though I did ultimately gain a diploma in librarianship, I chose not to seek a professional position because I thought that would entail working full-time. But, as for Borges, yes, I’ve always been drawn to his fictions, those games he plays with time and infinity and alternative realities. Whether I connected that with libraries in any way, I don’t really know.

    How about Larkin? Larkin was also a librarian. Does Larkin, as a poet, resonate with you?

    Oh, indeed, yes. I love Larkin’s work. He has certainly been an influence on my work, I would say. Possibly during the eighties, I think. Yes. But he’s a quite different kind of writer than Borges. A quite different kind of librarian, I suppose you could say.

    I think he would’ve been very different to work for, too.

    Very different to work for. Well, he, of course, liked work, didn’t he?

    I think so.

    I mean he wrote “Toads Revisited.” He rather liked having to go out and work. But I was always afraid that not only my physical energy but my mental and imaginative energy might be drained by a full-time job. I remember, years ago, at home, when I was about ten or something, we were having a conversation around the dinner table. And, apropos of something or other, my father said to me, “Oh, well, you always have been a bit of a lotus-eater, haven’t you?” And, not having read Homer at the time, I said, “What’s a lotus eater?” He said, “Well, look it up.” And I looked it up, and I was rather offended to have been dismissed as an indolent dreamer, but I have to confess, in retrospect, that he was probably right. So that’s why I’ve really always chosen to have part-time jobs, at the expense of a secure income.

    Speaking of Larkin, I’ve thought that, for Larkin and The Movement in the 1950s, they mostly didn’t actually know each other, and they seemed to always resent being lumped together. American New Formalists actually really are pretty chummy – most of them actually do know each other, although I think, sometimes, they like to pretend that they don’t. And they’re always very sensitive about being presented as a movement or an organization Australia has a smaller group of people, but you had Gwen Harwood, who was important early in your life. Clive James was a great advocate for your work. You wrote a moving poem for Les Murray, and I wondered if you could tell us a little bit about those people in your life and maybe just a little bit about whether there was any kind of sense of commonalities with some of their peers.

    Those poets you mentioned, of course, are all an earlier generation. The Australian poetry scene for many years was riven by factions and animosities, particularly between what you might call the mainstream, or traditionalist, poets and the more modernist, American-influenced poets. Well, within each group, I suppose it was chummy. There was a lot of animosity. Broadly speaking, that particular division has faded to some extent. Although that’s been now replaced by this identity politics division, which is raising its head, which creates problems. But, yes, there are groups of poets who get on well and have a collegial feel.

    Gwen and Clive, again, are of an earlier generation, but they have been important to me. My first partner Ann Jennings, who was considerably older than me, was a close friend of Gwen’s. And she sent Gwen some of my poetry quite early on, and Gwen responded very enthusiastically. And, when Ann and I, having returned from London, when we moved to Hobart, where Ann was from and where Gwen lived, I met Gwen, and we became friends. And we remained friends until she died, in 1995. She was always very helpful and positive, gave me great moral support, championed my poetry, and she also gave practical support. Particularly when I was preparing my first manuscript, she gave me a lot of feedback and suggestions about what to include, what to reject, changes perhaps to make to poems, so she was very important. She may have influenced my own poetry to some extent. It’s always hard, or can be hard, to realize exactly where an influence is. I certainly feel that her poetry, particularly during the eighties, say, had some influence on my own work, possibly in descriptions of nature. I’m not sure with Clive. Well, I first became familiar with Clive’s writing, when I was living in London, in the early seventies. Of course, I didn’t know him. That’s when he began his very well-known stint as a TV television reviewer in the Observer. And, after that, I read him assiduously, all his genres, for many years, although I didn’t know him. It was in about 2002, when, with a sort of unaccustomed initiative or nerve, I decided to write to him. I included my previous book and asked him if he would write a blurb for my forthcoming book.

    I also thought it would be wise to point out to him that I was born in the same suburb of Sydney as he was, Kogarah, and I even attended the same high school as he did, (years later, of course), so I hoped that that might engage his interest. This was early in 2002. Anyway, months went by. I didn’t hear anything, and Ann was very ill at this time. In fact, she was dying. And rather spookily, on the very day she died, I received a letter from Clive James responding very favorably to the book I had sent him and enclosing a blurb for my forthcoming book. From that time on, we stayed in touch, emailed one another. In due course, I met my present wife, Judith Beveridge, and I moved back to Sydney. On Clive’s next visit to Sydney, we met and continued to meet every time he came to Sydney, until his health declined, and he could no longer travel, but we remained in touch until his death, in 2019.

    So, when I think of the poets I know, they’re a little bit of a mixed bag. Some of them are wonderful people; a number of them are not. But “fun” is an adjective that I use relatively rarely. . . . And I do have a few poet friends that fall in this category. It seems to me, not knowing either Clive James or Gwen Harwood, that they must have been fun people. Do I have a wrong impression?

    Certainly, yes. Clive was a very fun person. We had great times full of laughter and wit. Gwen, of course, was very funny as well; she had quite a savage wit, but there was an aspect of Gwen that was rather sharp and critical. I’d be having a conversation with her and banter, going back and forth, and then I’d make some remark, and there’d be silence, and I’d think, “Oh, hang on. What have I said there?” But, no, she could be very funny too.

    Maybe a little bit more like Jonathan Swift or somebody like that, perhaps.

    As for Les, Les and I were never friends. We were acquaintances. I got to know Les, but we were never more than acquaintances. Les was a strange man, in many ways, and I always felt rather uncomfortable in his company. I never quite knew what to say to him. And I also never was quite sure what he thought of my work because, although, when he was the reader, the poetry reader, for Angus & Robertson, at one time the main poetry publisher in Australia, when he was the reader there, he accepted my second book, Ancient Music, for publication. On the other hand, when he edited The Oxford Anthology of Australian Poetry, of which there were three successive editions, he never included anything of mine in it, so I’m not really sure what he thought of me.

    What about Peter Porter? Did you know him as well?

    I did get to know Peter, and I liked him very much. It was, in fact, when I was still in Hobart. In fact, I think, every time I met Peter, it was while I was still in Hobart. And, as I mentioned, I did that brief period of teaching, and I taught his poetry. On one occasion, he was in Hobart at the very time I was delivering these lectures, he came and addressed the class. On a few other occasions, he visited Hobart for literary festivals and one thing or another. He was a very nice man, extremely erudite, knowledgeable about everything.

    If you imagine all them together, that would be a pretty intimidating group.

    Yes. There was a woman called Jill Kitson, I think it was, who used to work at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and she engaged Clive and Peter to do a number of conversations which were broadcast. There were at least two series of that, and they would just sit down together. Usually, Clive would launch it, and he’d say, “Well, Peter, such and such.” And then off they would go, on this extraordinary fifty-minute ad-lib conversation about all manner of things, literary and cultural. It was extraordinary.

    I think, in America, we’ve kind of missed that. I think these are great poets, and, in Clive’s case, certainly a great critic as well. I just don’t think they’ve gotten the appreciation in the United States that they deserve. How about paying it forward? I know that the literary culture in Australia has become pretty hostile to formal poetry, but are there younger Australian poets you’ve been able to encourage, poets you admire, people we ought to be paying attention to?

    To be honest, I don’t have a lot to do with many younger poets, and, of course, formal poetry still hardly has a presence here. You would hardly say there is a kind of school or a group of formalists. Among the older poets, there are poets who write formally, from time to time or even regularly, but, among younger ones, not so much. There is one younger poet who is a very good formalist, a man called Jakob Ziguras, who is of Greek and Polish background. He, however, has been living in Poland for the last several years, and I have rather lost touch with him. But, in an email he sent me, a little while ago, he had some rather interesting comments on this subject, which I might just read to you.


    “On the subject of the fortunes of formal poetry, a description I increasingly dislike, since a lot of experimental poetry seems to be far more formalist, in a pejorative sense, in its focus on manipulating language according to often arbitrary constraints, being in Poland has given me some perspective. According to some younger friends, both of whom are literary critics, very involved in the politically engaged poetry scene in Poland, many younger poets now consider it far more radical to write villanelles, for instance, than the austere free verse of someone like Zbigniew Herbert, which is seen as passé and conservative.”

    Certainly, there’s nothing like that in Australia. Another younger poet whose work I admire and have tried to encourage is a man called Todd Turner. He’s not a formalist, but he does write highly crafted poetry. They would be two that come to mind.

    Okay, so now I’m going to push you a little bit. Speaking of influences, I did learn from a Clive James essay that, from my perspective, you’re on the wrong side of the Richard Wilbur versus Anthony Hecht debate among formal poets. I wonder if I might be possible for me to convert you, or are you …

    Well …

     … going to be unrepentant?

    Look, I have to confess, I wasn’t aware that such a debate existed.

    Oh, yes. When we get tired about arguing about whether spondees exist, this is one of the things that we argue about.

    This is a matter of temperament, I guess. Look, I love the work of both of them. But I don’t know whether you’re familiar with that interview that Hecht did with Philip Hoy, a very long book length interview, which was brilliant. At one point in that interview, Hecht refers to William James and his classification of personality types, and he says James identifies some people as healthy-minded. They live on the sunlit side of their misery line. And then there are those who are “sick-souled.” They live on the shadow side, in darkness and apprehension. And Hecht said, “Unfortunately, that’s what I am, sick-souled.” One would imagine that Wilbur is healthy minded. Well, I tend to feel that I am more like Hecht, in that respect. I tend to be more of a depressive, gloomy type, in many ways, and that’s why I respond to that darkness in Hecht. But …

    Well, that’s why I want to bring you out of the dark side and over to the Richard Wilbur side.

    Yes, but I love Wilbur’s poetry, too.

    They’re both terrific poets. I personally was very fortunate, late in life, to develop a little bit of a relationship with Richard. On the other hand, I got on Anthony Hecht’s bad side rather quickly.

    Oh, how did you manage that?

    By having an opinion different from his, and not immediately changing it when told it was wrong.

    Oh, right.

    Yes. But, no, I loved Richard, and I’ve been thinking about him this week. It’s been the fifth anniversary of his death. And I had a little epigram in his honor, published in a national journal this week and just been thinking about him a lot. His family had actually moved him just about a mile down the street from where I live, outside of Boston, to a facility. He was living on his own at a very advanced age, and the word I had gotten was that he was in good shape, and he just needed more care. And so I sent him, as I was wont to do, a mischievous letter, where I offered to sneak food into the facility because I assumed that the facility was probably not gourmet, and I did a little note about some of the local delicacies. was looking forward to the response, and then I got the bad news, which was a big surprise because, even though he was ninety-seven, the word I had is that he was still hale and hearty. He had seemed to be defying age for the longest time.

    Still writing, too, into his nineties.

    Still writing. And, a lot of times, when poets lasts that long and there’s writing, it goes downhill. I think he was less prolific, but, the poems that he did write, some of them were absolutely marvelous.

    Yes. That one about his wife and setting out, “Night after night, my love I put to sea,” that one. . . . As I hinted in the first version, this is grammatically incoherent, so can we tidy it up a bit? I suggest: That one about his wife which ends, “Night after night, my love, I put to sea.


    Did you see that film about Wilbur that was made quite recently? A Difficult Balance is it called?

    Yes, I did.

    Yeah. That was wonderful.

    It was quite good, and I reviewed the recent biography, and I have very mixed feelings about it. I loved it in the sense that Wilbur trusted the biographer and opened up about a lot of things that he had not opened up about before. I learned a lot of things and learned some things that were really important, but I also have the sense that the biographer turned on his subject, the way that a lot of the biographers of big major poets do, such as Larkin’s biographer and Frost’s biographer. And I think it was sort of vicious and uncalled for. I actually reviewed the biography and panned a lot of it.

    Well, who was it? Who wrote it?

    It was a fellow named … I think his name is Robert Bagg. Technically, he wrote it with his wife, although I think it was primarily his work. He was a pretty unsuccessful literature professor and poet, not at all oriented toward formal poetry, so, clearly, down deep, I think he was contemptuous of all of that. I think he was contemptuous of Wilbur’s fame and success in some unfortunate ways, so the only good thing I can say about it is there’s a lot of new factual information that future biographers will be able to sort through and hopefully deal with his life more appropriately. I don’t know why poets make very bad with their official biographers. I mean, you look at …

    Did Wilbur choose this fellow?

    I don’t know whether Wilbur chose him, but he clearly agreed to be extremely cooperative, so I don’t know. It’s not an official biography, I don’t believe, but it’s one that he clearly cooperated with. Usually I think of politicians doing less good jobs on most things than other people. But politicians seem to be much better at finding biographers that are good at polishing their lives and presenting them in a positive light. Poets, we do terrible work with that. So let’s stop talking about other poets and talk a little bit about you and your craft. One of the many things that I think is remarkable about your work is that you developed a well-crafted signature style at an early age. Instead of using, for the most part, received forms, the way that a lot of formal poets do, particularly beginning formal poets, you started with a stanza that seemed to be, typically, seven to nine lines or so, iambic pentameter and rhyme, but varying line lengths and then replicating whatever form you chose in the first stanza in the second and the third and the fourth. It’s not a huge change from everyone else’s, but it’s very distinctive. I don’t know that anyone else has done that typically.


    Photograph by Stefan K

    It seemed to me that when your first and your last lines rhyme, what’s surprising to me is that I almost invariably can hear that rhyme, even though I’ve been known to say, in the classroom, that rhymes more than about three lines away usually can’t be heard. But then it seems like you changed a little bit. I was trying to look at the dates and the poems. I’m guessing it was somewhere around 1990, but you might have a better sense, and you seem to get a little restless with your own invention. We started seeing blank verse and sonnets and rhyme couplets, and then, about fifteen years later, we saw a little bit of a move back in sort of the original direction.

    Of the five poems that’ll be appearing in Plough, two of them follow your original formula, and another one is fairly close. I wondered if you could just riff for us a while about how you came to your original form with such remarkable fluency at an early age and then how your thinking changed about it, how you experimented, what was kind of going through your mind, and then maybe that second move a little bit later back in your original direction. At least that’s the way it looks to me. I wonder if that feels right to you and kind of how you’re thinking about it now.

    Unlike Hecht and Wilbur, who seemed to have perfect technique from the very beginning, judging by their first books, I didn’t feel that I had those sorts of skills at all. In fact, I’m going back to school now, I mean, I began writing when I was still at high school, and I began writing free verse. But I, very quickly, felt this desire to write a more formal poetry and had to learn how to go about doing it. Well, it so happened that our school library had a copy of Dylan Thomas’s first book, 18 Poems, which I borrowed. I’m surprised I didn’t steal it, actually, because I had it virtually on permanent loan for the rest of my time at high school. So I began to imitate Thomas, and I read that he wrote mostly syllabic verse, so I started writing syllabic verse. By doing that, I acquired the ability to mold these quite complex stanzas, which he often did himself and I generally used half rhyme, in those days, but then, in the course of time, I would also begin to write some metrical poems. Then, in about 1980, I decided that syllabic poetry wasn’t the right way to go, and probably that’s when I should have committed myself to metrical poetry, which is, I think, where my talent lies, such as it is. I made a detour, then, to a kind of accentual verse. So, for a few years, I was writing a kind of accentual verse, where I was just counting major stresses, but you could have any number of unstressed syllables in a line. In about the middle of the 1980s, I started reading a lot of Stevens, for a start, and so that was probably where a bit of blank verse came in. I also was reading Larkin then, and I discovered Hecht then as well. So that’s when I started to commit myself to metrical poems and full rhyme, I suppose, and those stanza forms that you identify.

    Of course, plenty of other people have done that kind of thing, constructed their own stanza shapes. I mean, Herbert constructed his own stanzas, didn’t he? And Donne, I suppose. And Yeats, of course, in many poems did that, although he also used ottava rima a lot.

    So that’s when I first started writing some blank verse as well. I’m not particularly aware of 1990 as being a turning point. I know that there was quite a long poem in my third book, which was in blank verse, and it was probably something like The Venetian Vespers that gave me the idea of doing that, but, yes, I had always written the odd sonnet. I wrote the odd ottava rima as well, I guess, following Yeats’ example. But, essentially, from that time, say certainly from the 1990s, I’m not particularly aware of a major change in the direction.

    I wouldn’t say “major,” but I would call it more of a drift, a little bit back toward what you were writing earlier. It’s, at least, the way it looked to me. But …

    Yes. I’d just like to think that I was getting better. That’s all.

    That’s not inconsistent! (Laughter).

    You have no idea how many botched poems I wrote during the 1980s, hundreds of them! And so I certainly felt that I was becoming more accomplished at that kind of poetry during the course of the nineties and into the 2000s. Yes.

    We’re feeling blessed at Plough because we’re about to publish five of your poems. One of the things that took me a little while to notice about them, that makes them different from not just the mainstream poetry scene but, I think, the formal poetry, at least that I see here in the United States, is that they’re almost depopulated. There’s a “you” in “South Head, a Wild Surmise” and “World Within.” There’s one, a “you,” that I kind of inferred was probably your wife, but I can’t be sure of that, but you see no actual human beings described in the poems, or they’re not speaking to you, and you’re not talking about them explicitly. It just seemed to me that … what’s maybe the word I’m looking for? An almost painterly type of vision, that you’re looking at scenes, and almost maybe a sense of wanting peace. They’re typically not scenes with a lot of busy-ness; they seem to be scenes with a lot of calm. I just wanted to see if I was misreading, if I was misunderstanding, or if that seemed fair to you.

    Well, you’re not the first person to have said that. I recall twenty odd years ago a reviewer of one of my earlier books also said that, pointed out that there seemed to be scenes in which people may have been or will be again, but they’re not there at the moment.

    Right. Right.

    That is true of a lot of poems, but there are people in my poems. My book, Eldershaw, for example, contains several narrative poems, which are full of people and relationships. I’ve written poems about my parents and other relationships, and, indeed, the poems you’re publishing, which are part of a manuscript I’m compiling … that has some people in it as well. It just so happens, I think, that the ones I sent you didn’t have any people, but it is a valid point. A lot of my poems are like that. They’re kind of a contemplation of a scene and processes. I don’t know. It’s the conscious mind, I guess, speculating about the nature of things. I can only write the poems that my imagination offers me, I suppose. If that’s the kind of poem that comes up, then I write it, but, certainly, I do write about people as well.

    It also seemed to me you’re writing frequently about nature. Part of the approach is that you’re not just describing nature, but you’re looking for order. You’re looking for patterns, and you often find it, and you find beauty in those patterns. It’s almost the way that mathematicians do when looking at the world finding beauty and color and shape and other features. Also, it seems to me, particularly in the more recent poems, there is a fair amount of sadness. And it seems like there’s looking, and there’s some joy. But there’s also … I think I often get this sense that there’s something that’s eluding you. I misreading, or is that reasonably fair?

    Funnily enough, just yesterday, I was reading an anthology called Windharp, which is an anthology of Irish poetry. I don’t know whether you know it. The very first poem in the book, by Patrick Pearse, begins: “The beauty of the world hath made me sad, / This beauty that will pass.” So there you’ve got beauty and sadness all in a nutshell. And so I suppose, if you …

    He got it over in one line. It doesn’t make it very interesting. You make it interesting.

    So that’s one thing, yes. The beauty of the natural world. What was I going to say? I had a little note here. Well, I suppose, with Larkin, his obsession was his fear of death. Right? And I suppose my obsession, or one of my obsessions, is a sense that existence is sort of empty and pointless. That’s never explicitly stated, I don’t think, in my poems, but it’s possible that you’re sensing something like that, that you interpret as a kind of sadness. So nature is not exactly a solace, perhaps, but may be partly a solace, with the beauties of the natural world. They’re also a distraction from that endless monologue of consciousness that is going on inside you all the time.

    Do the poems provide much of a sense of consolation to you, with that kind of sad feeling or not?

    I don’t know that I’d say they’re consolation. No. It’s more … you get a feeling of satisfaction, if you feel you have achieved what it was you were trying to achieve in the poem.


    But I don’t know that literature really gives solace.


    I mean, it gives a pleasure of a kind, doesn’t it, if you can achieve some conception, and you can achieve it in words?

    Well, while we’re on the subject of pleasure, you married a distinguished poet, Judith Beveridge, after you’d already become a distinguished poet yourself. If you wouldn’t mind, if you could tell us a little bit about Judith’s work and how having an in-house poet in your life has changed your writing process, changed your life, that type of thing …

    Well, Judy’s work, it’s also often about the natural world. And it occurs to me it’s also often unpopulated. What is important to Judy is the music of a poem and the power of imagery and the power of metaphor to make connections, and her poetry, although it’s not in rhyme and meter, it is highly crafted. When she was younger, she used to write free verse more or a freer kind of poetry. These days it’s often much more tightly constructed. I don’t know that living with her has changed our processes particularly. We still do our own thing. (Laughter).

    Do you talk shop at the breakfast table?

    Not on a regular basis, no, except from time to time.

    Do you read each other’s drafts before they go out for publication?

    Not poem by poem. Well, we used to do that more, but we’ve fallen out of the habit of doing that. When we’re preparing manuscripts, we’ll look at each other’s books and make comments there and suggestions, but we have different ways of going about things, in a way. She writes directly onto a computer. I write with pen and paper. I find this extraordinary, but when she sits down to write, she has no idea what she’s going to write about. It’s all summoned up out of nothing, whereas I never sit down to write, unless I have at least an inkling of what I’m going to write about, even though that may then take a different direction. She can also stick at it for hours and hours at the time, whereas I tend to conk out after two or three hours and come back the next day. (Laughter).

    I think you and I are kindred souls, in those regards. Maybe, when I was younger, sometimes I would just sit down and stare at a blank page, but not so much. I need to have something that I’m thinking about that grips me to go and really want to spend the time in this struggle. So that’s how I am. I’m like you, that way. So, before we start to wrap up, I just want to ask you: what are you looking forward to in your poetry and your life? You’ve done some wonderful translations into formal poetry, which I know is extremely difficult, and I wondered if you had more translation projects in mind, more Akhmatova, Borges, or something like that, or there are things that you haven’t tried before that you’re thinking about taking on. Or for the next five years or so, what do you see?

    Well, in terms of what am I looking forward to in life, a bit more of it, I think, to begin with. When you reach seventy, as I have, there’s not quite so much future available as there once was. I’d certainly like a bit more. In poetry, as I said, I’m slowly compiling a manuscript for a new book. I’m not rushing that because it’s not even two years since The Strangest Place came out. So I just sit on that and gradually try to accumulate poems. I can’t help feeling that it might be my last book because the muse doesn’t seem to visit as frequently as she once did, but you never know. I may get a late burst of inspiration.


    Translations? Well, I do translations, from time to time, when I just suddenly get fired with enthusiasm to do it. It’s not something I do regularly. I did once have a project to translate all the messengers’ speeches from Euripides’ tragedies. In Greek tragedies, there’s usually a messenger who appears on the scene, at some point, to relate some critical event, and I had this plan to do a lot of those. In fact, I have done ten, but I haven’t done any of those for a few years.

    So, yes, I did do quite a lot of Borges, at one time. I haven’t translated any more for a while. And a few Akhmatova. I’ve done a couple of Pasternak poems. I don’t know whether they’re all worth publishing. Some of them work, but I mostly do that for my own mental stimulation and satisfaction. I don’t necessarily intend to publish them, but, every now and then, I may be pleased enough with one to think that it’s publishable. I published a few of the Borges sonnets, in one of my earlier books, Where The Trees Were. I had a middle section with some of those, and I also published a couple of Baudelaire translations, in Other Summers, a later book. A few of them have been published in magazines from time to time, but I don’t have any translations in mind, just at the moment, but, probably, I will do more at some point.

    Good. So I think we’re about set. One question I just always like to ask people is: Anything that I haven’t asked that you really wish that I had asked, at this point, because this is your last chance. So, if you want to make up a question and impute it to me, here’s the opportunity.

    No. I can’t particularly think of one. No.

    Well, thank you for sitting down and spending this time with us. We’re greatly appreciative, and we’re greatly appreciative of your work.

    Thank you.

    I am hopeful that the poems and this conversation will bring your work to the attention of a lot more people in the United States because I think that you deserve it, and I think the Americans would benefit from it. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we’ll raise your profile a little bit in the States.

    Well, that would be wonderful, and thank you very much for publishing those poems and for this interview. It’s been great.

    Contributed By portrait of Stephen Edgar Stephen Edgar

    Australian-born poet Stephen Edgar studied Classics and librarianship at the University of Tasmania and lived in London, Great Britain, and Hobart, Australia, before settling in Sydney.

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    Contributed By AMJuster A. M. Juster

    A. M. Juster is a poet, translator, and essayist, and the poetry editor of Plough. He worked in senior positions for four US presidents, including twice in the White House and as Commissioner of Social Security. His most recent book is Wonder and Wrath (Paul Dry Books, 2020).

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