I came across John Tranter’s chameleonic way with words for the first time at a poetry gathering. At one point, the evening’s host decided to read aloud Tranter’s The Urn of Loneliness. I was transfixed. A magnetic power seemed to lie in the poem’s shifting perspectives, from Morton opening a diary to the exposure of Mary’s thoughts, interlocked with Lesley’s mutterings and the overhanging memory of Angela’s kiss. It was like being beckoned into a labyrinth of intriguing voices, down tunnels of neurotic confessions and through chambers of haunting suspicions. I listened with bated breath, lapping up every line with relish.
The Urn of Loneliness showed me how poetry can be such an ideal form for evoking details and nuances, such as a provocative image or snapshots of a character’s psyche. When I had the pleasure of interviewing John Tranter for In Other Words, Tranter referred to an interesting comment that the American poet John Ashbery once made, which was: “content is the unexplored important thing about poetry.”
According to Tranter, while poetry is often discussed in terms of structure or style, content is central to poetry. “With a prose poem, it looks like a piece of fiction when you glance at it, but once you read it, you realise it’s much more intensely concerned with the sentences and the way they move, and it creates meanings that are hard to grasp at first. Whereas when you read journalism you want it to be simple and clear with a beginning, middle and an end. And fiction, to some extent, does the same thing. It has to have a narrative that carries you along from one point to the next. Prose poetry can just throw all that out and do anything it likes.”
Growing up in country New South Wales in the 1950s and 1960s, Tranter pored over the gutsy and rebellious writing by the Beat Generation in America while they were shaking up a new cultural awakening thousands of miles away. He read On The Road and The Dharma Bums, both written by Jack Kerouac, in his late teens and the books made him yearn to travel to America and join the rock’n’roll adventure.
“I think the lifestyle they lived was the kind of lifestyle the average teenager wanted to live. You know, you hitchhike around the place and you take drugs and you get drunk, go to lots of parties and write poetry. I mean, it’s not hard to do but it’s a lot of fun. And they seemed to be saying that this kind of lifestyle wasn’t self-indulgent at all, but it was artistic, so everyone wanted to try it out.”
Tranter left for Britain in 1966 and ended up visiting France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and India on his way back overland to Australia a year later. He found it important to get out of Australia at the time because the country was culturally stagnant and conservative. Travelling overseas allowed him to “see how Australia looked from the outside” and his experiences of culture shock fueled his creativity and inspired new approaches to his writing.
“I found it very interesting to visit different cultures because you notice little things that at home you would never notice. For example, in London, when I was there from 1966, I noticed, to make a phone call from a public phone, you had to have six pennies in your pocket and they were gigantic, heavy copper things. You had to put about a pound of copper into this machine and push buttons, and there were all sorts of clanging noises. I thought, ‘This is so strange! The English don’t see how weird that is. Why don’t you just put one small coin in? Why do you have to have six large copper discs on you every time you want to make a phone call?’ And then in Australia, you wouldn’t think of that, but because it’s strange when you see it overseas, you think about little things like that all the time. And I noticed distinctly how strange habits were in different countries and, by extension, when I came back to Australia, how strange things were here, too.”
Travelling still plays an important role in Tranter’s writing career. Most recently in 2009, Tranter stayed at a writer’s retreat for six months at the Civitella Ranieri centre in Umbria, Italy, alongside other poets and writers, as well as music composers and painters. He embarked on the residency because he has found that going to a foreign place triggers new ideas for his poems. “Being somewhere different jars you out of your old routines of thinking and acting and doing. It gets your mind working along fresh tracks, gets you thinking of new things.”
At the retreat in Umbria, Tranter wrote a suite of poems that are essentially loose revisions of poems by Charles Baudelaire from the French poet’s volume Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil). Tranter changed the subject matter of the Baudelaire poems to reflect a more contemporary setting but retained the overriding sentiments and Baudelaire’s symbolic fixation with muses and goddesses.
During our interview, Tranter read to me a selection of his poems including Venus, which had been inspired by Baudelaire’s La Muse Vénale and The Sick Muse, which was based on La Muse Malade. Whilst Tranter was reading the poems aloud in his crisp yet lulling voice, it occured to me that they are certainly not mere translations from the Baudelaire originals. In each of his poems Tranter presents a different character and situation to those illustrated in the original Baudelaire poem.
In The Sick Muse, Tranter addresses the saturation of consumer culture in our society with “Mammon, God of the Golden Dollar” ruling over us and mentions the American department stores Macy’s and Bloomingdales, where salespeople promote soulless images of beauty and luxury. By contrast, Baudelaire’s La Muse Malade refers to the power of gods from Greek-Roman mythology, such as Phoebus (Apollo) and Pan, as well as a female demon called Succubus from medieval folklore. In Tranter’s Venus, a drug addict returns home one night to find the heating has been cut off and wonders whether she would try to support herself by doing odd jobs or stand-up comedy. Yet, in La Muse Vénale, an impoverished woman is left to her own devices to brave the wintry cold and Baudelaire warns that, in order to survive, she would have to do something that she doesn’t believe in, such as performing ceremonial duties in a church, like an altar boy. All that is preserved in Tranter’s poems is the bare frame of Baudelaire’s voice and manner of addressing the readers. Rather than copying Baudelaire, Tranter appears to be keener about taking something from the past and moulding it into something new and relevant to our present times.
In fact, Tranter experiments with writing in the voices of other poets to inform his own style. “Poets generally like other poets’ work not just because it is good, but for what you can get out of it.”
He has also always had a great interest in traditional poetic forms and feels that structural devices are what make poetry distinct from prose. “I like blank verse, which is the sort of form that Shakespeare used in all of his plays, more or less. I think that’s a wonderful form for English. It’s based loosely on the iambic pentameter but because it’s dialogue, it has all sorts of dynamics and energies that pull the form out of shape all the time, and then it tries to pull itself back to the pentameter again, and then someone starts talking too quickly and pulls it the other way, so you get this constant energy in the form. I really like that. It’s a very dramatic form because it can handle dialogue and argument and aggression, all sorts of things.”
Apart from the works of other poets and writers, Tranter gets inspiration from music and films. “I find movies very absorbing and very interesting, and so they appear in my poetry because they’re just things in my life that I really enjoy and find a lot of meaning in. I just put them in my poems because they tell a story and they’re vivid and interesting. Music, I think, has always been important to me because it’s a direct emotional expression. You don’t have to translate a word of music; it just goes across from one culture to another. And I just put them in my poetry because they’re around me everyday anyway, it’s part of life. It’s like… landscape poetry, except that my landscape is not a line of hills in the bush, it’s a movie I went to last night and a cafe I went to before that, and some friends I talked to in a pub.”
There is a particularly striking, film-noir quality in his collection of poems The Floor of Heaven. It is interesting to hear from Tranter that one of the primary concepts behind this collection came from a scene in Luis Buñuel’s 1972 film, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. “A group of people meet together and sit down to have a meal and the meal is interrupted by someone who says, ‘Oh, I must tell you about this dream I had.’ And you go into that dream in the film, and in that dream there’s a different group of people who sit down together to eat a meal and, just as they’re about to eat, someone says, ‘Wait a minute, before we start, let me tell you about this wonderful dream I had.’ And then you go into that dream and, well, you never really get out of those dreams. It seemed to me, in that film, you could play with any story you wanted to, in each of these dreams there’s a complicated story going on. And each story is as valid as every other story. I just thought that was a wonderful idea.”
Like The Urn of Loneliness, many of the poems in The Floor of Heaven do not follow a conventional narrative. Instead, the stories of the characters are told from a range of fragmented points of view. To Tranter, it’s instinct that tells him when to bring a different voice into the mix. “I guess you reach a point where you’re a little tired of one voice and you want to bring in a difference voice, so you bring in someone who argues against what that person’s saying or doing and you try to get a little conflict in it, and I guess, also, there are lots of echoes in my head of other novels and stories and movies I’ve experienced and that tends to drift into the stories I’m writing too.”
The first poem from The Floor of Heaven that Tranter wrote was about a woman called Gloria who is seeking therapy to deal with her muddy past, but it was only a month later that he created a sister for her. “I woke up one morning and realised Gloria had a sister. And she had another life that was sort of like Gloria’s. It just sort of happened overnight, I must have dreamed about it. So Gloria came to life in my dreams and told me to write more about her and her sister and family and all the adventures they had. She really came to life for me and directed the poem to go in a certain way and I thought, “OK, why not? Let’s see what happens”
As a result of being influenced by so many different mediums, Tranter’s writing is in a continuous cycle of transformation. He has never lost the appetite for experimenting with new forms and styles.”They say that writers, when they are learning to write, have to find their own voice. I guess that’s true. You start out learning by copying other writers and learning to write like T.S. Eliot, or learning to write like Kerouac, and you do it a lot until you’re good at it, and then you move on. Eventually you find your own voice, and I found my own voice about forty years ago and that was fine, except after ten years I thought, ‘What’s this boring voice I keep hearing over and over again? It’s John Tranter. God, how terrible.’ So, after that point, I’ve always tried to find some fresh new way of writing that’s not my own voice but a bit different.”
Whenever Tranter senses his writing style is getting a bit musty, he employs techniques to get as far away from it as possible. The idea behind the Baudelaire-inspired poems was actually part of a personal challenge to turn an already completed poem into something he can call his own. “When I rewrite Baudelaire, I change everything, but I change all the things that he gives me in the first place.”
Another trick he has tried is using the end words of a poem to invent a completely new poem. “You take 30 of the end words and you throw the poem away. And then you write your own poem with each line ending with one of those end words. So you’ve got a constriction on what you can write, which makes you write things you wouldn’t think of writing before, but you have to fill up the lines with your own writing.” This particular exercise resulted in a collection of poems Tranter has titled Terminals, published in Urban Myths: 210 Poems: New and Selected.
Over time, Tranter has developed a softer spot for the quintessential larrikin style that permeates through Australian poetry. In Urban Myths, he wrote a set of poems that placed famous literary figures in a number of iconic Australian locations: Sartre at Surfers Paradise, Foucault at The Forest Lodge Hotel, Yeats at Bondi and Rimbaud in Sydney.
Tranter once had an argument with David Malouf, who taught him English for a few years at university, about whether Australian writers should try harder to be internationally appealing. “I was going on about how we had to be international and get rid of these gumtree ideas we had, and he said, ‘Well, you’re right, John, but you’ll find as you get older, the one thing that’s distinctive about your work is its Australianness. You’ll always have an Australian tone of voice in the way you look at things.’ And he’s absolutely right. We have a particular, laconic way of thinking and talking that I don’t think other countries have that well.”
Tranter recalls getting mixed reception from American audiences for performing a poem called South Coast Haiku by Laurie Duggan when he was travelling around the States. “It’s about young people turning away from commercial, capitalist society, and going to live on their own in the bush or by a beach somewhere, and getting close to nature.”
South Coast Haiku is an ironic, little poem that goes like this:
through the tin roof
But the Americans didn’t get that it was supposed to be ironic.”When I read that in New York, everyone laughed their heads off. When I read it in San Francisco, they looked blank and looked at each other.
Although he is very much devoted to experimenting with his writing, Tranter does not follow a strict writing routine from day to day. “All the writers I like say, ‘I start at 10am and work for four hours.’ I can’t do that, I’ve discovered. What happens is I don’t write for months and months, I do other things and I suppose at the back of my mind I’m thinking about what I’ve seen, a movie I’ve seen, a book I’ve read. And then I get an idea for a poem and I start to write it. And then I think, ‘Why don’t I write a few of these like that?’ So I write five or six poems, and then I write eight to ten, all in about a week.”
When he isn’t writing, Tranter works on a multitude of other projects. Some of his past ventures include editing his very successful, online poetry magazine Jacket and broadcasting for the Books and Writing program (now called Arts and Books Daily) he founded on ABC Radio National. He also enjoys taking photographs and admits to spending too much time reading magazines about digital photography on the internet.
While poetry is the main thing he has kept at over the years, Tranter believes it is important to keep busy with other activities too. “You just have to do the best with what you’ve got, and be aware of what’s going on around you, and try and get interested in lots of other things. Try not to think of yourself all the time. It’s very important to read a lot, and go to a lot of movies, and go to a lot of parties, meet lots of people, get married, have kids, all that stuff.”
And so, as life imitates art, or vice versa, John Tranter continues to grow, change and try new things.