An ‘experiment’ in creative practice

Having read several of Geoff’s verse novels as part of my doctoral research, I introduced myself at the 2012 launch of his Coda for Shirley. I shared with Geoff my plans to improve reader reception of verse novels, and thanks to his generosity, this interview is an outcome to that end.

 

Linda Weste: I’ve finished reading 1953 and it’s fantastic — it really engaged me.1 I’m fascinated by the story time versus the discourse time, which for me as a narrative researcher is particularly interesting … the fact that every individual narrative within the overall narrative is set at 2.30pm.

Geoff Page: Yeah, it’s probably fairly unusual, if not original ...

Linda: It’s a terrific device. What are some of the advantages that you thought it would offer you when you decided upon using that technique?

Geoff: Well its’s a bit of a longish story but I’d done five verse novels previously and I was looking around to do a sixth one and didn’t have any overpowering idea and I was sort of experimenting. I wrote six beginnings. They were all possible beginnings to a verse novel that was set in that place, in Eurandangee which I had a certain idea about. And then I was dissatisfied with all of them as a beginning, somehow, well let’s put it another way, I didn’t know quite where to go from there, and then I thought, well these poems were all standing up by themselves, more or less, they were early versions and probably not as long as they became. And then I thought, why don’t I have a whole books of poems set in this place and the logical thing would possibly be to set them at exactly the same time, then I started to develop the idea.

I don’t know if I first thought of the term, or whether somebody who read it said it: horizontal narrative. I was thinking of yam roots that go out and disperse under the ground, and you’ve got a whole lot of horizontal stories that are interconnected. I’m aware of lots of prose fiction that uses interconnected stories and disconnected narratives and so on, you know, but going back to Faulkner but also Frank Moorhouse and Joyce’s Dubliners, you know the various templates were in my mind as I was working away on it.

Linda: A single moment is afforded 116 pages so it’s very interesting … the temporal duration, the chronology ...

Geoff: There’s quite a lot of backstory there and occasionally there’s a foreshadowing of forward stories and so on.

Linda: Which the omniscient narrator is able to comment on quite explicitly.

Geoff: Yeah I dunno if I … I tried to sort of avoid that a bit, in the sense that I hope the omniscient narrator is not personalised too much, it’s meant to be fairly neutral … in the bits that are third person rather than the bits that are dramatic monologues you know ...

Linda: It struck me as a disembodied voice that floats in and out.

Geoff: Yeah that’s what I wanted … but there’s no Dear Reader kind of thing; nothing like that.

Linda: And throughout, the use of flash forward … presaging what might happen.

Geoff: Yeah that sort of surmising what might happen in the future … not all that often. Say with the clergyman – you surmise that his faith is starting to crack a bit at the edges and he’ll end up in some place that won’t be comfortable further down the track.

Linda: And how long did 1953 take you to write? You mentioned that it had six beginnings … how did it take shape.

Geoff: I think the whole project would have taken about a year and a half but I might have done some other poems at the same time. It was submitted to one publisher and it was knocked back for a reason other than quality — they didn’t think it suited their list particularly, then I sent it to UQP and luckily Felicity [Plunkett] really liked it and pushed it onto their publishing committee, which was good. So I think it took about a year and a half, but I couldn’t prove that.

Linda: And was the narrator there from the beginning, or was that a device that you brought in?

Geoff: I knew that I needed to get some variety, and so I was thinking that some of it would be dramatic monologues and others will be third person. Another template in mind was Spoon River Anthology and even Our Town which I haven’t read for years, and even Under Milkwood — a number of different sorts of works whose pre-existence enabled me think of doing a local contemporary version of the idea, even though my idea is a bit different from all of the things that I’ve mentioned.

Linda: In 1953 you would have been thirteen. How significant a year was it for you?

Geoff: (Laughs) Well I always thought that thirteen is the most miserable year of your life; adolescence is a pretty hopeless time anyway and early adolescence is ridiculous ... you know I was pretty unhappy in a boarding school. I taught thirteen year olds and fourteen year olds for a long time and really disliked them, ugh!

1953 is a period in Australia too that I wouldn’t ever want to go back to in any sort of hurry. Although I’ve been accused of being a bit too … considered nostalgic ... and there are elements of nostalgia there from my childhood and adolescence possibly outside another town.

I grew up on the Clarence River as you know. It’s a bit like Dubliners, this sense of stasis and flight. A lot of the characters would like to flee; some are locked in a stasis and don’t know how to flee, and others don’t realise they need to flee. And a few are completely happy in their life, but a lot don’t realise the extent of their unhappiness — they’re not articulating it themselves.

Linda: What influences your choice of characters in 1953, and how did you go about characterisation?

Geoff: I did some poetry type research which is pretty impressionist, here and there and running around on Google, that sort of thing. I grew up outside a town which is of comparable size, maybe a bit bigger and I went to school in a town of the same size or  ...

Linda: And how did that help characterisation?

Geoff: Being aware of Fitzgerald’s famous saying ‘If you begin with a character you soon have a type. If you begin with a type you have nothing’2 I had to avoid making them pure embodiments of type. I had to give them some individuality as well, but they were symbolic as well ... The clergy in the body ... Niko in the café embodies the situation of those Greeks at that time ... you know the sort of isolated situation that they had to endure ...

Linda: And in terms of devising them, what comes first for you?

Geoff: I think the normal way I would approach it is … the café: I remember the way it looked … what would he be thinking? why did he leave Greece? ... it’s sort of free association of thoughts in his mind. I had an idea of what happened in Greece before and during the war ... I know a bit about Greeks ... my second wife lived in Greece for a while ... I was able to think my way into the accuracy of it. I don’t know if someone like PiO3 would see the accuracy of it ...

Linda: Bringing to bear your life knowledge ...

Geoff: A lot of this you’re trying to empathise your way into another’s life situation. Start with what you know and go on to what you’re pretty sure it would have been like you know ... And that’s the attraction of writing poetry and fiction as well. That’s always a way into someone else’s mind. Like Terence saying: ‘there’s nothing human that is foreign to me’.4

Linda: With such an assemblage … Benny in the ending, in the final poem ...

Geoff: Yeah I can’t remember his name now … you mean the fourteen-year-old who suicided at the end?

Linda: … a very strong poem to end the collection with.

Geoff: Yeah it’s almost a bit too shocking. Some people found it too sudden, that it wasn’t prepared for. Perhaps there’s not enough overlap, or maybe I just didn’t want to go down that overlap trail. There’s the adulterous situation that’s there in the first few poems and then fades off as it goes on ... some people would find that a bit frustrating because it doesn’t go on ... That’s one of the strengths and limitations of the concept, it’s all happening 2.30 in the afternoon, and we can’t be too specific about what happened later.

Linda: Which character particularly resonated for you?

Geoff: Well I think if I were a critic — and I suppose I am, I’ve written thousands of reviews — I’d recognise that the intensity of the poems vary. I hope they’re all up to a certain standard ... I think I’m most in favour of the poems which I think are the best, the last two you know … Their merits are a bit varied … I’m quite happy with that one, with the women talking in the pub even though it’s not a particular character, it’s more the quality of the poem, the intensity of the writing. They’re the ones I’m fondest of. Say, for instance, if I’m reading it aloud at a reading, I’ll tend to read the ones that go for the jugular more.

Linda: Can you try to describe how you try to strike an interplay between the poetic and the narrative demands of the text?

Geoff: Well that’s a big issue with verse novels generally — incidentally you’re talking about 1953 as a kind of verse novel; I was thinking of it more as an alternative to a verse novel, more or less in a way a livre composé rather than a verse novel because of the lack of forward narrative momentum that you’d expect in anything that’s got the word ‘novel’ attached to it. You’d expect a forward narrative momentum which you don’t get with this, you get this diverging off in different directions. All these separate stories that are connected more like the underground yam ... now I’ve forgotten the original question ...

Linda: The interplay of poetic and narrative?

Geoff: That’s so fundamental … the big risk of verse novels is of falling between two stools. If you make it too compressed, too lyrical, then you can’t get the forward momentum, and if you make it not sufficiently lyrical, then it’s not very different from prose, and then you have to ask, well what’s been gained by writing the novel in poetry?

You have to strike this balance, and that’s the hardest thing about writing any verse novel. The same applies to 1953 as all the other ones. You have to get the right level of metaphoric intensity; and it’s a lower level than you get in normal poems, even in narrative poems that are freestanding. In reading, I often don’t read excerpts from verse novels because they often don’t seem to have the same intensity as other freestanding poems, not to mention the difficulty of explaining all the characters and so on. One exception might be the humorous verse of Lawrie & Shirley, that can be read in a freestanding sort of way … because they’re human. That must be pretty close to one of the essences of your thesis. Everybody has got that difficulty. Some of the young adult verse novels, they just go way way too far, toward the non-lyrical end, they’re very prosy and flat, not enough linguistic energy. Sometimes it’s the other way … some of Alan Wearne’s verse novels ... you can have such linguistic and conceptual density that they’re a bit of a labour to actually work your way through. So that’s a big issue — I don’t have a lot to add other than a sort of simple statement. I don’t have a magical solution other than to keep it in mind all the time.

Linda: Did you have a particular poetic model in mind, even if it wasn’t an exact fit? Were you thinking of a particular approach?

Geoff: No it’s just that in the last 20 years or so, my poetry’s become more definitely iambic than it once was; it used to be free verse and I used to have more irregularities. There are more iambic lines back at the beginning. There were quite a few anapestic feet scattered around, extra unstressed syllables and so on, and as I’ve gone on, I’ve eliminated a lot of those irregularities, because it sounds better to my rhythmic sense, even though I know that rhythm needs to be varied, and there’s such a thing as syncopation and so forth. I just relate that tp my wanting to hear everything in a clear iambic tetrameter or trimeter. In the first one ... it seems a bit undisciplined ... I would have liked it all to be in tetrameters or trimeters. In The Scarring there’s a few lines there that are pentameters and there are some that are just dimeters and that’s sort of too much movement. I like the idea of fours and threes, there’s so much there. It’s like you get some of the virtues of the ballad but without tying it down to the ballad in the rhyming and the alternation of 4, 3. But when you’ve got everything in either 4 or 3 and there’s a certain amount of accidental or incidental rhyme or sort of looking out for rhyme toward the end of the poem: that’s the sort of thing, it gives a sense of formality that I like.

Linda: Which leads me to ask what you think about the verse novel, as a form, as compared say to other types of continuous verse?

Geoff: Not sure what you mean — you mean long poems?

Linda: Well yes, long poems, biography, ballad, epic ...

Geoff: Oh okay yeah. Well I think of the epics as early verse novels, the early forerunners of the verse novel but without some of the psychological dimension that the 19th century expected of ordinary prose novels. I think the verse novel goes all the way back to Homer by one definition. But because of what Flaubert and others did in the 19th century, people still want what’s called characterisation, so you have to work that into the texture ... and every scene has to be developing one or more of the characters and their interaction with the other characters. As long as they don’t get out of control. The two daughters of Shirley — I thought them up as sort of standard yuppie women, but they turned out to be monstrous. They took over the whole thing. I wanted a slightly soft-edge romantic comedy set in the seniors generation. They turned into a sort of sharp satirical social comment. I had to just go with that. When I put my pen down at the end, there it was, they’d both sort of risen up and taken over the novel, as Faulkner used to say, so I just had to go with it.

Linda: So were there other considerations in writing 1953 that you didn’t anticipate in setting out?

Geoff: Yeah novelists have this idea but they don’t really foresee. They head off in the darkness without a compass, more or less, and see where they end up, and that’s been a bit like my experience of doing verse novels.

The first prose novel — I wrote two prose novels in the 1980s and each weekend I wrote one of those chapters in the rough draft.5 In 1953 I just went from one poem to the next, and I didn’t write them in that order; I played around with it a lot. There was some limitation as they started to cross-refer to each other. I knew that I needed something pretty dramatic. It wouldn’t be such a good book if these poems were situated near the beginning.

Linda: In terms of what you wanted to achieve overall in 1953, could you isolate those intentions?

Geoff: You’re aware of the postmodern idea that the author doesn’t really know what he’s doing, he’s imprisoned in the situation? 1953 — the complexity of what was happening in Australia — some wanted to escape. Their personality and universal experiences could have happened 200 years earlier or 200 years later give a type of particularity and uniqueness but at the same time a representation of ongoing types.

I just wanted to make a kind of well-written book in this form with tetrameters and trimeters that would hang together as a book. Oh, one further thing I could say — I grew up in Grafton and I’d already set a few books on the Clarence, so I chose to go somewhere I didn’t know about. The temperate humid climate around Grafton without the drought, it’s an easier life there ... Grafton is only a hours drive away from the beach … and I wanted to put them in a more difficult situation, almost on an island surrounded by the sea – except it’s wheat.

Linda: Yes, the image of wheat recurs throughout the book and is very resonant for anyone who grew up in country areas.

Geoff: To be honest, the writer can pretend to have more knowledge than he actually has. You don’t have to know all the details. They [the readers] might get more information out of it than you yourself. You just have to make sure you don’t fall on your face by getting something totally wrong. That’s where research comes into it. Research ... and write later.

Linda: Any issues in reception as yet?

Geoff: Most of the reviews have been favourable. A couple of the ones that were less in favour — they were a bit disappointed that it ended so abruptly, or that the last few poems weren’t so connected to the rest of the book, and that’s a fair criticism. If I realised it before I might have gone back … that was a bit of a limitation, trying to link them all up.

Mainly the reception has been good. There’s been about six reviews and most nearly all have been very favourable; only about two have had reservations.

Linda: How did you decide on your choice of speech and thought in 1953 … third person, narratorial commentary etc?

Geoff: Within the first line or two there probably were a few poems where I went from third person to first person and vice versa, but to articulate why I used particular ones … I think the Auntie May is more moving, but on the other hand, the one about the hardware girl — I don’t think that would have worked as well as in the third person. Like if you’re writing a dramatic monologue and everything is the thought or expression of that person, there’s not much conversation, just reported conversation — in one of the Aboriginal ones where Janine quotes her mother, reports what her mother said ...

Linda: You mentioned Spoon River Anthology.

Geoff: Spoon River Anthology is all dramatic monologue; that’s not a limitation of that book, that has a different conception ... people speaking from the grave ‘how I died’, using that convention — whereas my convention is just to say what’s happening at this particular time.

Linda: The debate around Spoon River Anthology — whether it had the integrity of a novel or the distinctiveness of a verse novel — was in debate in the US for about twenty years. If people were still speaking about your work in twenty years time what would like them to be reflecting on, thinking about?

Geoff: I’d like them to be still thinking about the time 1953 and its limitations and the toughness it requires. I hope it would be good ...

The difference with it [The Spoon River Anthology] is that the quality of the poems differ considerably. I don’t consider it one of the great American poets’ portrayal of small towns — not like Whitman’s or William Carlos Williams’. It compares with Winesburg, Ohio.6

And I hope in my book, all my poems are up to a uniform quality … that’s what I was trying to do ... that there were no lapses in the quality of poetry in it ...

Linda: You’ve been keen to experiment, and sought to test yourself poetically over the years — what remains to be done for you? Do you have your sights on a particular form?

Geoff: At the moment I’ve got a new collection. I don’t think of myself as a very experimental poet. In some ways I’m very retrograde. It’s instinctive ... occasionally I’m using anapest, I don’t really enjoy free verse and I get a bit impatient reading it as well. Some of the free verse tends toward the iambic, and even those who use a traditional form, like Stephen Edgar, are using an even looser iambic.

The experiment in that book [1953] is a genuine experiment, an analogy to Georges Perec, the French writer, writing an entire book without the letter e.7

If you set up too arbitrary a restriction then you haven’t got anywhere to go very much, there’s not enough room left for emotion.

 

Notes:

1. Geoff Page, 2013 1953 St Lucia, QLD: University of Queensland Press

2. The full quotation is: “Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created--nothing” in Larry W. Phillips (ed) 1986 F. Scott Fitzgerald on Writing New York: Scribner

3. PiO or ΠO (1951— ) Greek-Australian poet.

4. The famous quotation is derived from Terence, ‘Heautontimoroumenos’, Act 1, Scene 1, Line 25: ‘Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto’, usually translated as ‘I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me.’

5. These prose novels are Winter Vision (1989) and Benton’s Conviction (1985)

6. Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio (1919)

7. See Georges Perec La Disparition (1969); English translation (1995).

 

Works cited: 

 

Anderson, S 1919 Winesburg, Ohio: A group of tales of Ohio small-town life, New York, NY: BW Huebsch

Joyce, J 1914 Dubliners, London: Grant Richards Ltd.

Masters, EL 1915 Spoon River anthology, New York, NY: Macmillan

Page, G 2013 1953, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press

Page, G 2011 Coda for Shirley, Brisbane: Interactive Press

Page, G 2006 Lawrie & Shirley The final cadenza: A movie in verse, Canberra: Pandanus Poetry

Page, G 1999 The Scarring, Alexandria: Hale & Iremonger

Page, G 1989 Winter vision, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press

Page, G 1985 Benton’s conviction. North Ryde: Angus & Robertson

Perec, G 1969 La Disparition Paris: Gallimard

Perec, G 1995 A void (trans Gilbert Adair), London: The Harvill Press

Phillips, LW (ed) 1986 F Scott Fitzgerald on writing, New York, NY: Scribner

Thomas, D 1954 Under Milkwood, London: JM Dent

Wilder, T 1938 Our Town: A play in three acts, New York, NY: Coward McCann