2011 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New and Emerging Poets commended poet: Aden Rolfe
Aden Rolfe is a writer and editor whose work includes poetry and poetics, performance writing and criticism. His poems have been published in Best Australian Poems 2011, Overland, Best Australian Poetry 2009 and Cordite, and he’s had sound collages and radioplays broadcast on ABC Radio National. He is a past recipient of Sydney Theatre Company’s Young Playwrights’ Award and previously directed the Critical Animals Creative Research Symposium. He works professionally as a copywriter. He was recently awarded the Dorothy Hewett Flagship Fellowship for Poetry by Varuna, The Writers’ House, and received a grant from the Australia Council for the Arts to create a new comedy work for radio. He’s been commended for the Judith Wright Poetry Prize three times now, which is possibly a record, even if the ultimate glory remains out of reach.
UngainlyLet’s set the scene: me, on a beach, unsure if I’m on time or much too late. There’s a lot gone unsaid, but that’s not really the problem. It’s more that I don’t want to keep explaining myself. Not while water laps at my heels, roiling, ungainly, ready to pull a person under. That’s the menace, see. That, and not being able to escape the feeling that an Allosaurus might, at any moment, bound over the dune and seize that Plesiosaurus from the water. They’ll thrash away until one or the other dies or escapes or gives up, as it is with most things. Still, I’d rather idle here, unable to come to the phone, than the alternative. But as I pick shells from the sand I grasp an image of myself doing this elsewhere. I look like a particular kind of idiot – in that poem and this one – and keep it to myself. We have other things to discuss: plans we’ll never see through, menu options and then, unexpectedly, art theory. An idea might slip in somewhere, but nothing to indicate the change afoot. No, that will occur by miniscule movements, we’re told, until you see nothing around you but red, until it all hums and makes you sick, until movement occurs as if through a liquid. You won’t notice until your life doesn’t recognise you. That’s when you might find yourself standing on a beach with a pocket full of shells, thinking, ‘ungainly’ is the word, yes, and that sometimes, things merely happen the way they do.
MountainousnessIs it a thing? It’s a thing. Add it to the list. We came to the mountains to get away from it all driving up after dark unloading ourselves onto the gravel but all we found was a crew clearing the landscape for a set piece. They were grading the light to bring out the green and everything was quite suddenly rising peaks and clouding over. I looked for the sublime in a box of sultanas. They’re not on the list though, not now, not then but the trees are, the – I want to say ‘cypress’ but don’t know that I’d be right or even close or sure you’d know what I mean. We can look it up when we get home. Later, we counted three things through the window: wind, leaves and a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense. Language slipped out and roamed the house like a ghost, careless and clumsy. The dead mediate the living, it seems, while the lost simply hover out of sight. We could lie on the floor if we wanted or sit in separate rooms think things over. But this isn’t on the list. Besides, we’re already somewhere else in some other house entertaining guests, acting natural. I forgot to look up ‘cypress’ so we don’t mention it.
Who are you reading now and why do they turn you on?
I recently discovered Geoff Dyer, which is gripping my shit, but also making me a little ashamed for not knowing about him sooner. It’s funny how you can miss memo after memo then suddenly someone’s everywhere. He released a book earlier this year, Zona, about Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which is one of my favourite films of all time, and another book a few years back, Out of Sheer Rage, on not writing about DH Lawrence, which is the kind of book you read and wish you’d written yourself.
This year I’ve found myself reading a lot of new Australian poetry – Pam Brown, Michael Farrell, Astrid Lorange, Joel Scott, Nick Whittock – and rereading a lot of things. I reread DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, hoping to finish it in time to see the film. I didn’t, but Tom Lee rendered an excellent review on his blog, first of the preview, then the film itself. I reread Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, because I found two great editions of it a few weeks apart. I’m rereading Ashbery, which is a kind of compulsive process that never really begins or ends, and also Robert Hass. Both are strong influences on my work, but in Hass especially I can identify single words, phrases and ideas that have carried into different poems of mine.
How often do you write? Do you have a writing practice?
I write every day, but my practice is a mixed bag. I work as a copywriter and editor, dealing with varying shades of poetics across different creative and professional projects. Some days I’m writing poetry, other days a radio script or a construction tender. I write catalogue essays, edit romance novels, proofread horoscopes. I try not to do any of them on the weekend.
One of the frictions I find between ‘professional’ and ‘creative’ work is that the latter often has amorphous external prompts. When I’m editing a book, I do so to deadline. But with the exception of awards and submission deadlines, poetry is something that, for me, can be done any time. At least in theory. In reality, it tends to be the first thing that drops off when I get busy. This past year I’ve been careful to dedicate time to focus on poetry – otherwise I never do it.
When you think of Australian poetry, do you see an elephant in the room? If so, what is it?
The elephant for me might be the idea that place does make a difference. There are so many poets I read because they are proximal, because they’re around and their work is available and they’re being discussed or reviewed or getting drunk in the same room as me, not because they are better or more interesting or more attractive than their more distant counterparts. However much we wish it weren’t so, geography still makes a difference, creating preferential exposure and shared sensibilities. Which can be great. You meet and mingle with poets far better than yourself simply because they’re nearby and can’t escape you. You write with an ideal audience in mind, which is often the people around you, and before you know it, you have a movement, or at least a bunch of people that like each other’s work. There may be no such thing as Australian poetry, but there definitely are Australian poetries, influenced in their own ways by American and European and Indigenous poetics, shaped by whomever showed up on the day.