1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself? Where were you brought up and did you become interested in writing poetry?
I grew up in Melbourne just around the corner from Caulfield Racecourse. I always wanted to be a scientist, but I also loved language. Somehow, I managed to do Latin, French and German at school alongside maths and science. I was fortunate to have two brilliant English teachers who got me interested in creative writing.
I began at Melbourne University in 1972 and majored in Zoology. At the same time, I was joined a weekly poetry workshop mentored by Chris Wallace-Crabbe and Vincent Buckley. It was a wonderful group and I ended up co-editing the Melbourne University poetry magazine. I’m still friends with some of those people!
I went on to do my PhD in Zoology and gave up writing poetry. This was not because I was doing science, but more because I had become interested in conceptual and political art, and I felt I had nothing new to add there.
After spending two years as a post-doctoral researcher in USA (Los Angeles and Burlington, Vermont), I came to Flinders University in South Australia in 1985. Originally on a research fellowship, I soon became a lecturer in Anatomy and, much to my surprise, went on to be Professor and Head of that Department for 20 years. Along the way, I had a very successful research career, being internationally recognised for my work on the microscopic organisation of the nerves that communicate between the internal organs and the spinal cord. I also had major teaching commitments, and had significant input into designing and running the innovative Flinders’ Graduate Entry Medical Program.
Sometime round about 2000 or so, for no obvious reason, I started writing poetry again. Before long, I was amazed to achive quite a bit of success in getting work published. At the same time, I was becoming more and more involved in promoting science to the public, often in collaboration with artists. I began to use my poetry and music in these events, which people seemed to like, and eventually I was involved in some major collaborative art-science events and exhibitions where my writing was a key element.
I retired in 2014, and I’m now doing creative work pretty much full-time, in between windsurfing whenever the wind and waves cooperate!
2.You have a background in neuroscience and were the Professor of Anatomy at Flinders University. How has science influenced your writing?
Science has influenced my writing in many ways. Apart from anything else, it has given me a deep understanding of how the world works, from quantum mechanics through molecular and cell biology to ecological and evolutionary frameworks of life and into the depths of outer space. Along with that, it has provided me with the language to describe it all.
I have written (and had published!) many poems that are built around some specific piece of science, even if it isn’t necessarily obvious to the reader, notwithstanding titles like “Lessons in Neuroscience” (from Urban Biology) or “The Five Cardinal Signs of Inflammation” (from A Skeleton of Desire) or “The Science of Shark Fishing”! Some of these were written for specific science-communication or art-science events; others I just thought needed writing.
In my position as Professor of Anatomy, I had to deal with a range of ethical issues about the use of human bodies donated for teaching purposes. Through that, I became interested in the cultural history and framing of anatomy and related medical sciences, which has resulted in several poems. I used to read / perform a few of these at appropriate times in my classes, which (in general…) were greatly appreciated by the students.
I have utilised scientific language explicitly in many different ways. For example, I have sampled texts from scientific papers, including my own; I have written in what seems to be an archaic scientific style, often making up words in the process; and I have reimagined the context and voice of scientific or technical manuals to give them a very different life.
I now have four books of poetry, and all have some kind of underpinning in science and scientific language. My first, Urban Biology, has a glossary and species checklist in it, identifying all the various plants and animals I referred to in the poems. The Microscope Project: How Things Work came from a major collaboration with artists Catherine Truman and Deb Jones, and includes diverse re-imaginings of manuals and design plans for a range of microscopes and ancillary equipment I once used and managed at Flinders. Floribunda, with artist Judy Morris, imagines the discovery of new plants by European explorers and employs the language of 19thcentury scientific reports. My recent chapbook A Skelton of Desire contains a range of poems built around the structure of the body and the Latin terminology used to describe it.
I don’t have much of a theoretical underpinning for my writing, but as time has gone on, I have developed some more or less neuroscientific basis for what I do. For all of the undeniable value of language, there is much that it cannot do. Indeed, language fails dismally to describe actions and it’s not much better at describing objects or emotions in any kind of detail. We are only consciously aware of a tiny amount of what is happening around us and within us. Nevertheless, the contents of this small window of experience are moving far too rapidly to be captured by language in real time. So, these days, much of my writing tries to replicate what is going on at the edge of consciousness where language is on the verge of breakdown as it tries to keep up with fleeting experience.
On a completely practical level, scientific publishing taught me to be pretty thick-skinned when it comes to rejection, and not to be too precious about editing or rewriting your favourite material. Indeed, I enjoy editing my poems and I’ll often rework them to match a changed context, eg for performance or an exhibition.
3. What forms do you practice and do you have any particular preference when it comes to form?
I write in a really wide range of forms and often employ found, algorithmically generated or process-driven text samples.
At one extreme, I love doing performance poems in noisy environments, such as pubs or streets. These poems usually use more or less plain language that I can adapt on the spot to suit the circumstances, including input from the audience…
At the other extreme, I spend hours using highly restrictive generative techniques to conceptualise texts that I then process repeatedly until they either work (I hope!) or fall apart. Some of these pieces are impossible to read out loud and end up being visual works or something that only a computer can turn into sound.
So I’ve done poems that look like crosswords, chessboards, random computer code, mathematical proofs, and so on. I’ve also made poems in highly stylised pseudo-languages that look like computer programs, but which follow their own internal logic and rules. A surprising number of these experimental poems have been published.
Between these extremes, I am very conscious of the rhythm of the language and how it looks on the page. Line breaks matter – it’s very easy to demonstrate this experimentally! And the poems have to sound good, sometimes not much more than natural speech, sometimes in a highly stylised way. I tend to towards assonance, consonance and alliteration rather than rhyme, but I often embed partial rhymes in my text at points where they seem to add coherence to the whole.
So, more often than not, I usually end up with poems in which the line lengths are consistent, as are the number of lines per verse. These constraints help tighten everything up and force choices of words, phrasing and even content.
A lot of my poetry is considered as being “difficult” yet when I perform these pieces, people like them. The best complement I can get is when someone says something along the lines of “I don’t know what you were talking about, but I know what you mean…” (!!!)
3. Your video-poem dog daze won the 2018 Film and Video Poetry Symposium in Los Angeles. Can you explain to the reader, what videopoetry is?
In some circles, the answer to that question would generate (and has done) pages of largely unhelpful debate.
The most widely accepted definition of a videopoem is a work in which moving images and a poem interact to produce something that is more than the sum of the parts. In other words, the video should enhance, not simply illustrate the text, and, ideally, the poem would not work so well without the visual and perhaps other audio elements.
The debate usually occurs around the edges: eg is a video of a spoken word performance a videopoem? In most cases, probably not, although there have been some brilliant videopoems featuring the poets performing their work on camera. Alternatively, could a video having no coherent text at all be a video poem? Well, sometimes… in any case, I’ve had a couple that some people would put in that category published in poetry journals and shown at festivals…
My own style varies considerably. Indeed, it has changed as I’ve learned more about video production, animation, editing, and so on. Some pieces are very abstract; others have more narrative structure.
Occasionally, rather than making a full video animation, I’ll make an animated GIF sequence that contains just a relatively small number of frames: these versions can be easily posted on websites.
4. What inspired you to get into it?
I don’t remember exactly. My earliest attempt at making videos was for the first collaborative art exhibition I was in: not absolute in 2009. These were simply Powerpoint slide shows that I animated and converted to video. Too my surprise, they were very well received and some were selected for reshowing in various places. From there I decided to learn more about video production and editing, which is a never-ending process.
The videopoetry scene is an international one. There are only a few other Australians (eg Marie Craven, Jutta Pryor, Mark Niehus) who regularly make videopoems and have them widely shown. But, over the last few years, my video poems have been shown in festivals all around the world: USA, UK, Ireland, Greece…
Unlike written poetry, where once you have something published, that’s pretty much it, videopoems tend to be treated like the rest of the film industry, in which you try to get your work shown in as many places as possible, including streaming from your own website.
Video also opens up other unique opportunities to get your work out into the world. In the last few years, I have had video poems shown in large art gallery installations; projected onto the windows of the Adelaide Convention Centre; projected onto the side of a major department store in Adelaide’s CBD; projected onto a moving water-screen in the middle of Adelaide’s River Torrens; and so on.
5. What’s your process when creating a videopoem?
I love the idea of being able to generate an imaginary world through which the text can travel. When I write, I nearly always have a strong visual image of the environment within which my poem is set. These environments are nearly always imaginary, even if based on a real location and experiences. Indeed, most of my poetry is fiction in the sense that the situation, the narrative voice and the imagery are invented or assembled from disparate sources. Dream sequences also can feed into them. Video poems provide an opportunity to realise that visual environment.
Constructing the videopoems can happen in many different ways. Sometimes, I will have pre-existing text and then I get an idea for a video sequence which I will then go out and acquire. Sometimes I have some images I’ve collected for no special reason, and then I’ll match them to a pre-existing poem. Sometimes I’ll come up with a concept and then write some text and get the video more or less simultaneously.
The audio part of the video is an important element too. I’ve been putting some of my poems to my own music for a long time now either as performance or as part of art installations. So for some videos, I already have the complete soundtrack. Otherwise, I’ll compose music or soundscapes to suit the project at hand. In general, I prefer to have the soundtrack first and then fit the video to it. This allows me to closely match the visual and aural rhythms of the piece.
I’ve always enjoyed experimenting with animation and some of my early video poems were entirely based on animated text. More recently, I’ve been learning advanced video compositing techniques and 3D animation which allow me to create totally new visual environments from a mixture of pre-existing images and computer-generated scenes or effects. This process is 100% analogous to the way I use found or sampled text in my poems.
So the videopoem dog daze depicts a dystopian urban environment in which the narrator plots revenge against some unknown, ill-defined oligarchy / stand-over merchant / political bureaucracy or whatever… The scenes themselves are composited from video sequences shot around the streets of Adelaide CBD, augmented with video animation effects, some of which I made myself. Parts of the text appear on roadways, building walls, billboards, etc. In this case I had the poem and the backing track music already, since I had performed it live with the music a couple of times, and the video edits follow the rhythm of the music very closely.
6. What do you do when the Muse leaves you?
Something else! Go windsurfing, read, make music, cook – all of which I do anyway… I really don’t fuss about it.
Working to an external prompt is really good! I enjoy the challenge of writing for journals that have themes for their submissions. Even if I don’t get accepted in them, I regularly produce new works that will go on a generate new life of their own. For example, dog dazewas written specifically for a David Bowie tribute gig: it was inspired by Bowie’s Diamond Dogswhich was simply assigned to me at random by the event organiser. I dug out the original lyrics and music as a starting point and came up with one of my most successful pieces in recent years.
I also use various process-driven methods to resample pre-existing text and they often end up producing something pretty good. Much of the Microscope Project: How Things Workwas written like that. Similarly, the text in Floribundawas written in response to drawings by Judy Morris along with the Latin names of the plants in her work. Newspapers are also a fine source of text!
7. What are you working on now?
A range of things. There are several new video poems in their early stages of formation. And I’ve been working slowly on an extended conceptual work based on an unlikely mixture number theory, planetary science, and medieval ideas of the body. It might get finished or it might simply spin off some useful side projects, as has happened already.
I’m continuing to learn more about 3D video animation to push my videopoems further into areas rarely seen in this genre.
I’m also trying to learn how to do real-time algorithmic text generation and manipulation that can be combined with video and audio in performance mode. I’ve got at least one collaborative installation-based project happening later in 2019, which will give me a chance to try whatever I’ve learned up to then…
Other than that, I’ve got no idea… which is really good!!