Interview with Les Murray
at the Bath Royal Literary & Scientific Institute, Queen Square, Bath, April 5 2003
Published in The Rialto Magazine, 2003
Les Murray was at the front of the building as I entered. I introduced myself to him, and mentioned that I had attended a reading of his at the Liverpool Everyman a few years back. He caught me unawares by saying: “Ah, yes, it was on a shore whose other end was in Egypt at the time; another meaning of the theatre in the round—you get my drift?” (Big smile). “The round of the whole Mediterranean?” I asked. “That’s it, yeah”. I feel at ease with surreal people; I just didn’t expect it from Les Murray. Although our interview was scheduled for after the reading, we had time to fit it in beforehand. We found a quiet office.
Lawrence Pettener: Are you working on anything at the moment?
Les M: Oh, just the next book, I don’t know what it’s called yet. It’s a little bit shapeless, I mean I get—I can’t find a direction, I’m just sort of – adding a poem and a poem and a poem, you know – gradually stashing up, but, ah… some of the books have a kind of internal coherence about ‘em, this one won’t.
L.P: So there’s no particular theme developing?
Les M: I don’t see one. I’ve just written a few books that had particular themes; I think I might be themed out! I wrote a long thing called Fredy Neptune, which was a verse novel. And I wrote a little book called Poems the Size of Photographs. And that didn’t have a theme, but it had a kind of form which is exploring the short poem. I was having a great deal of fun, but the present one is too all over the place.
L.P: What do you say to the charge that in Translations from the Natural World, you refuse to privilege humanity over animals, or perhaps you even seem to relegate it?
Les M: Well, it’s the opposite of what The Guardian said the other day—they said I’d turned animals into Disney figures! But I didn’t privilege the humans, no.
L.P: But do you relegate humans below the level of animals?
Les M: Well, humans basically relegate animals. Maybe it’s fair to do the opposite sometimes. I don’t really think the animals are gonna step out and take over. There are poems in there that refer to the human; there are poems in there that don’t refer to the human and live entirely in another world, you know, in an animal world… and it doesn’t privilege any particular species—but it’s not against anything.
L.P: Why is the word Presence absent from the cover, including the spine—was that yourself or Carcanet?
Les M: Well, I just got to like the other title better. Presence works as a kind of dimension inside the poems; we don’t need to advertise it at the front, I mean we’ve got a better title. You don’t want two titles on a book, and Translations From the Natural World covers what I was doing; and Presence was a dynamic inside some of the poems. I thought I’d leave it like that.
L.P: Is it something that continues to develop, presence, as something that you see as a thread going through all of your poetry?
Les M: Oh yeah, everybody’s poetry, I mean everybody’s poetry that’s any good has a lot of presence in it. It brings things to life.
L.P: So you continue to drop in the odd mention of presence?
Les M: I think to make things fully present in art you need three things, you need the body and the dreaming mind as well as the conscious, rational mind.
L.P: Do you take the “dreaming mind” from the aboriginal view of Dreaming?
Les M: Not especially. They use the word Dreaming a lot; by the Dreaming they mean the religious and poetical dimension of life, which gives it meaning; and they don’t think that anything that’s outside the dreaming is very important – it’s just ordinary life. And if they make art that’s outside the Dreamings they call it rubbish art—you don’t care about art, you know, you’re only playing, doing it for fun. But serious art is always to do with the Dreamings. But I listen to the Aborigines, but my use of that word isn’t quite the same as theirs. I just mean something absolutely scientific and empirical, you know, the fact we have a dreaming mind, it switches on fully at night – in our sleep, but it’s always on; it’s ready, and there during the day too in reverie, you know, under the surface of the rational mind.
L.P: You’ve said that “All stories are of war” and that “…most modern writing sounds like a war against love”. How would you characterise how that particular war is going now—who else do you see as being on your side?
Les M (Sigh): Oh God… I never think about people being on my side, I just get on with it.
L.P: You do, don’t you?
Les M: Yeah… I am a bit of a loner. But I did realise that a tremendous amount of stories are about two things, they’re about war and they’re about law. About trying to establish what is proper to do in the world, and trying to establish what is in fact done in the world, the terrible human conflicts, and to resolve them. Aborigines speak of the law as essentially a mythical thing, you know; being initiated is called “being put through the law”; learning the real laws of life.
L.P: Do you see any other writers as being vaguely on your side? Or akin to being on your side?
Les M: Oh, yeah, you often come across it, but I don’t even want to give you a list of people, but you realise some things are, er, (long pause) I find them congenial. I think that they’re not on the side of destruction and denigration and tearing down and sweeping away.
L.P: I was going to mention one poet in particular: Ted Hughes. Among your numerous awards, in 1999 you were awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry on the recommendation of Ted Hughes, and you seem to reflect a very similar interiority of experience when it comes to animals again; I’m thinking of Translations; how do you feel about that comparison with Ted Hughes?
Les M: Oh… (Sigh. Mr Murray was looking up at the ceiling).
L.P: I’m thinking of phrases like, in Shoal, “Jinx jets the jettisoned”; comparing to (Hughes’) Second Glance at a Jaguar: “Deaf the ear, the bar he spins”.
Les M: Yeah, He could evoke animals. Yeah, I think we had a certain er… I never read all of his work, to tell you the truth.
L.P: Did you meet him?
Les M: I knew him slightly. We never sat down and had the big conversation we were meant to have. It seems things always got in the way. I met him in Adelaide in nineteen-, oh, seventy-six at the Adelaide Festival. And the poor fellow was being harassed to death by the local feminists.
L.P: Over Plath, I take it?
Les M: Yeah, over Plath, I mean it was a pack of lies. And later—many years later, when he died—I was asked to write something about it and I said that Hughes’ was a case of something that should be stamped out by law—the persecution of a person. If you make a charge against someone it should go and be tried in court; if it’s not tried in court you should be prevented from making the charge any more. If he’s tried in court and he’s found guilty that’s one thing; if he’s not, it should not then be raised again. The people out there wouldn’t go to court. They kept it at the level of accusation without proof and it was a malicious and terrible persecution.
I’d refer you to the United Nations Convention about the terroristic use of fashion against people, and persecution in that way. It should be made illegal around the world.
L.P: How would you say your return to Australian farm life has affected your feeling for how you reach out to your audience?
Les M: Oh, I didn’t go back to farm life, I went back to living on the old farm up at Bunyah where I came from; I don’t want to farm.
L.P: That’s how I mean—the rural life.
Les M: Yeah. It’s disappearing where I come from anyway. People raise cattle and horses there and some of them, my relatives, some of them are still there, but a lot of the people I knew in my childhood are dead and gone. I was away thirty years, and the place is changing, it’s becoming ex-urbia; distant ex-urbia. The old sort of community that was there—it’s there, but it’s a ghost now, you know. One of the big changes was that the post office closed. And when the post office closed there was no longer anywhere in the valley where people were that intimate. They had to mean to meet each other.
L.P: Yes, that’s very topical in this country now.
Les M: Yeah; no, someone was saying in America the other day, maybe in fifty years time there won’t be any cities.
L.P: There’ll just be sprawl?
Les M: Everyone will sprawl out into the country; we’ve taken up all the inhabitable parts of the country.
L.P: “Sprawl” has another meaning for you; does that feel current to you—sprawl?
Les M: Oh, I wrote that poem a long time ago. There’s a certain generosity of gesture that I was writing about. Yeah, that’s true; yes. And I think that’s what a lot of people go to the country for, they want space. They want sprawl, they want gesture. That’s why I said, you know, in another poem, they end up knowing everything, and no-one. They go up there and learn everything about the country, but they don’t get to know the local people. And for the local people it’s always a question of who you’re related to and whether you fit in. For city people it’s always what do you do for a living; what are the data? That’s a great cultural difference.
L.P: Do you find in your life that you have enough time for this grace, this… spaciousness?
Les M: Yeah. I’m only concerned about it when I haven’t got it; when I’m in some constrained sort of place. I don’t dislike cities, I used to get accused of hating cities, it’s not true, I use cities a lot. But I’ve never felt at home in them; and I just wanted to get home and erm…
L.P: I was thinking in the context of a busy poet’s life—the call to do interviews, photo-shoots perhaps, and all the rest of it, and readings—do you find that you get enough spaciousness?
Les M: That’s not all the time, it happens in bursts; I come round the world every year for a month or two and read and talk and babble and carry on, but then I go home quietly and then I get on with writing. Writing and driving to town and drinking coffee and dealing with people and the family.
L.P: Do you have any comments on the present war in the Gulf?
Les M: Well it’s, I don’t understand it, I’m a bit stupid. I don’t know why in particular Australia is in it. I think the only Australian who wanted to go there was the Prime Minister, John Howard. Nobody else was interested. Australia had always gone to wars in the Middle East before, with the effect of relieving the Arabs of domination by some empire or other. The First World War it was the Ottomans; the Turks. And we were fairly signal in bundling them out of the Middle East and er… the Arab part of it; and in the Second World War it was to stop Mussolini and Hitler. But now, for the first time we’ve gone in to attack an Arab country. And I think it’s a bad change. The Americans have never been in the Middle East before at all. The British know their way around, I mean Britain’s been carrying out its evil and devious designs there for over a century (big comic smile).
L.P: Would you say the Vernacular Republic is imminent?
Les M: No, it’s im-man-ent. Aah, it never dies and it never quite comes. It’s always there, but it doesn’t become the regular government. And I never expected it would. I think it’s a cultural principle, you know, and some people live more and more fully in it than others.
L.P: The act of getting into the animal world, that’s an embodiment too, isn’t it?
Les M: It’s an embodiment all the time, you know, if you’re stuck with an idea, you look for an embodiment for it. I wrote a couple of essays about the way the heart models the way that humans really think. Humans pretend that they think rationally; at least, western humans think that. And in fact I think they think politically. And there’s a lot of dream and a lot of body and gesture and dance and weight and things in their thinking which they don’t admit are there. And so the question is always not so much “What poems do you read?” but “What poems are you in?”
And I think George Bush is in a big poem of riding to the rescue. It’s probably fuelled as much as anything by Madeline Albright, who has never got over the fact that nobody came to rescue the Jews. And this is the rescuing the Jews. Sixty years too late—does that make sense to you? The cavalry gallops over the hill to rescue the good people from the wicked oppressor. I think in a bumbling way, George Bush is trying to do something like that. In the real world, it’s a bit more complicated! (laughter.)
L.P: To return to Translations, are you giving animals a spirituality?
Les M: I think they’ve got it; it’s just that it’s not open to us. I’ve got a poem that I’ll read you upstairs called The Meaning of Existence, which will bring all of that into focus.