by Joshua Mei-Ling Dubrau
This post, and the next two or three, will be written enroute. You’ll note I haven’t specified a destination. This is a holiday; a pack the tray, jump in the ute and drive off holiday. Heading South. Being away from home and office and institution brings both blessings and curses in terms of blog-writing. There is the joy of seeing, smelling, tasting the new as kilometres unfurl beneath us and sensory experiences spark new thoughts and new connections to (or at least positions in relation to) the Australian landscape, both physical and social. On the other hand, there is the fear of being away from my familiar pile of scholarly resources and my stash of well-rehearsed arguments, not all of which can be fitted in my head at once, even if someone were to sit on my skull in an effort to help me close it. Intellectually I’m worried about taking the wrong turn; missing that dot on the map that marks the quickest, most efficient route to the point I want to make. Or failing to stop at the mental antique shop where the vintage theories are lovingly polished, showing very little sign of the wear that years of use brings. Or how could I not have heard about that farmer’s market where they sell only the freshest organic artisanal ideas, slow fermented then fully baked over tempering coals?
Being solely a writer of poetry, I am going to talk in those terms only, although I do feel that despite the greater importance of narrative propulsion to most prose fiction than to most works of poetry, both genres must manage a tension between truth (and by truth I mean here a kind of internal cohesion or integrity of the literary object) and the language which the author uses to attempt to fix that truth. Here is an example of the two different kinds of truth I have in mind:
Back in 2005, as the creative component of an Honours thesis, I wrote a set of narrative poems that a kind reader might have labelled a verse novella, and one examiner tagged with a remark along the lines of ‘if this were indeed a Roman a Clef, the author would have nothing to be ashamed of’. I’m still not quite sure if that refers to my handling of the genre, or the torrid details of my textual thirty-something life. Apart from a couple of favourites that were strong standalone pieces, I’ve never tried to publish it. Yes, it was somewhat half-baked in the way that something written to a deadline often is, and it was the work of a more naïve writer than I hopefully am now, but it certainly would have been a solid starting point for a first collection. So why didn’t I pursue it further?
I had my first run-in with readers’ attachment to a particular idea of ‘the truth’. These mostly narrative, very confessional poems were discrete but not discreet. I tried very, very hard to tell ‘the truth’. At the time, to me this meant not so much an honest account of a year’s worth of the vicissitudes of a dissolving marriage – its affairs and deceptions and self-realisations and reconciliations – as an attempt to include this as part of a far bigger canvas, including, most importantly, capturing a series of emotions evoked in me, the poet, which were thoroughly enmeshed in the physical surroundings and social fabric of that time.
In practice, this sometimes meant the creation of a fictional narrative event or setting which seemed the best fit for the language I wished to use in relation to the portrayal / creation of a certain web of feelings. I cast myself as about five years older, feeling it better matched my level of cynicism. I combined several people to make some of the characters. A lot of these fictions seemed obvious to me but I was besieged by everyone who read the piece (yes, all eight of them) bombarding me with questions such as ‘Is Olivia me?’ or ‘Oh my God, I didn’t know you had sex with X’. I felt invaded on one level (which I’d been expecting) and on another just annoyed, because although this piece was fairly firmly situated in the autobiographical, ‘telling my story’ was the least important part for me. It wasn’t cathartic; I was standing back watching myself manipulate the character of myself. Perhaps that in itself was the closest thing I got to a release from the exercise, this manipulation allowing me the illusion of a degree of control. It just puzzled me that, as a very private person, people thought it was shocking that I would share these ‘facts’ openly, when it was the revelation of my true emotions that was the panic-inducing, gut-wrenching part of the project.
I’d like to think about this idea of truth for a moment through the well-known lens of T. S. Eliot’s ‘objective correlative’ as detailed in The Sacred Wood:
The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.
In my work, Infidelity Suite, this is what I did, without realising it, although the chain of events that made up the ‘formula’ was drawn largely from my own life experiences, unlike Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the text to which Eliot applies his instrument. In theoretical terms this might be considered a simplistic goal, bearing a pre-postmodern insistence that, by mere distortion into variable length / lines riding breath flows even / the odd / ideogram, I could make these stale markers of language utter purely and simply the story that I wanted them to tell. Because this is a blog, and I am not being assessed on it a way that might affect my progress through the Academy, I will say this: although I accept, embrace even, the view that we – as both products and subjects of a system where the signifier is given over to the services of late capitalism – cannot make language faithfully represent experience but rather must allow language to create experience as we use it, I have a secret hope (and I wonder how widely it is shared, if at all) that I can maybe, just sometimes, use language to convey the truth. Especially if that ‘truth’ consists of a meshed entity of poet, catalytic event and language. We’ll talk about this more in the next post, this is really half of a two part piece… In the meantime, poet, novelist or any form of wordsmith in-between, I’d love to hear some thoughts on where you often find yourself in the production of your own work.