“Being aware of tragedy and trauma allows us to work for healing and justice”: Robert Wood Speaks With Bengaluru Review

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“Being aware of tragedy and trauma allows us to work for healing and justice”: Robert Wood Speaks With Bengaluru Review

The poet talks about his latest collection of poems, Redgate.

Robert Wood is a poet, whose writings have dealt with subjects ranging from dream, enlightenment, and nature to suburbs and philosophy. Robert is a Malayali with connections to the East Indian Ocean. He lives in Noongar country, Australia. Robert is currently the Creative Director of the Centre for Stories and the Chair of PEN Perth, and his recent collection of poems Redwood was published by Red River Publication, New Delhi. In this exclusive interview with Bengaluru Review, Robert discusses his latest book, along with his influences and poetic trends in Australia.

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Bengaluru Review (BR): How has the real Redgate transcended into the Redgate of your poems?

Robert Wood (RW): Redgate is the inspiration for these poems. That is in the sense of a historical and ecological reality that transcends into a spiritual expression of place. It was about representing Redgate as a poetic home, a gathering of thoughts and influences that reflect who I am and what I love about family, nature, dream.

I wanted to open it out as well, to invite people in and with an awareness that I am a guest on Noongar country; to think about what landscape means and does for people here and how it extends across saltwater to others around the world. What lessons can be shared from my understanding of Redgate itself?

The real place has many languages braided into it, different names for the same plants, trees, fish, birds, and ways of being. The poems try to articulate all of these things by standing outside Redgate too. By being so close, by being of it, by becoming Redgate, one can then transcend the every day and make it an enlightening experience with teachings that make sense across borders and lifestyles.

BR : Your previous book Suburbanism was a collection of essays. In the poems of Redgate, this suburbia seems to metaphorise into a country locale. How has your recent prose influenced your poetry?

RW : The opening and closing chapters of Suburbanism are about Redgate, about the difficulty of belonging when the world is beset by violence and pollution and wrong. Suburbanism mapped out a global phenomenon when it came to space, being somewhere between city and country, and this was done with a certain ambivalence, a certain sense of a middle path that was nowhere to be found.

And yet, Redgate can be found because it is specific because it is real and imagined because I have experienced it. Redgate is a beach, a collection of houses like a hamlet or a suburb or a village, and a road with paddocks and forest too.

Where the suburbs matter conceptually for Redgate might be how we can think of the place, how we can organise it not only as a romantic or modern location, but as one that is quotidian, mundane, ordinary, and yet relevant to many. Where suburbanism matters for the poems of the book might be how critics can engage with it as a sensibility, aesthetics, and an example. The poems respond to the anonymity, consumerism, and destruction that suburbanites have wrought by being located, balanced, and attentive to detail.

BR : There is a sense of dystopia in these poems. The soil is rotten and the necks of lights are craned. What were the personal experiences and influences behind such a grim setting?

RW : The setting is grim, which Sampurna Chattarji highlights in her endorsement and which Rashida Murphy recognised in the book’s launch. This comes about from the archive rather than the location. Here I think of the blood-stained truth of Australia’s colonial period, which still resonates today in terms of land occupation, resource mismanagement, and the oppression of traditional owners.

And yet, even by acknowledging this past and present where power informs emotion, I think there is hope to be found. Being aware of tragedy and trauma allows us to work for healing and justice. In that way, Redgate to me is also a place of wonderful resilience and ongoing collaboration when we speak with the people and the place itself.

I think of the crayfish swimming backward into the past until it comes to a mythic beginning. I think of the trade between distant seafarers. I think of the language that emerges from the ocean itself where we might begin to sound our way through salt and seaweed and swell. To me, there is great beauty even with an awareness of death, and the poems have that in them as well.

BR : Your first person voice is almost absent in these poems. Most of the titles of the poems instead have a 'we' in them. Who is this we?

RW : That is an astute observation and one that I wanted the reader to recognise. For me, I wanted to create a sense of who we are, to incant and imagine a group beyond the lyrical romantic singular subject who speaks with authority about untouched paradise. It was more complicated than that. It is more complicated than that. The use of ‘we’ reflects such a perspective.

As for who it is, there are a few answers. One is the reader and the poet. Two are me and my sisters. Three is the living and the dead, which is to say, ‘we’ can also be a way to refer to the ancestors that we carry inside us, that rest in the place as well, from elders to children.

We recognise and create each other most of all when we find unity and strength in who we are. That means, of course, knowing who I am, but it also means seeing you truly for what you are and how you can be part of Redgate’s story as it is being told.

BR : Who are your favourite poets? Your poetic influences? Name some of the recent poems that have spoken to you.

RW : This is a great question. I have poets on my shelf that are world-historic and that are obscure, and, I enjoy their poetry in equal measure. The book I return to most of all is Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, and I like both the John Minford and Ursula K Le Guin translations. I am also very fond of Emily Wilson’s version of Homer’s Odyssey and Ranjit Hoskote’s I, Lalla.

Closer to home, I love a book called Tarruru, which has song-poems from First Nations people from the Western Pilbara. They cut through to the essence of life in the mid-century and deserve more recognition. From this collection, I like the work of Pinningu (Donald Norman) and Parraruru (Robert Churnside).

And, also on my shelf is K. Ayyappa Paniker magisterial anthology Medieval Indian Literature. I return to the Malayalam section a lot as this is where my family comes from, and, I especially like the selections of Madhava Panikkar in there.

BR : Tell us a little about recent trends in poetry being written in Australia. Who are the poets you find most promising in the country?

RW : There are several promising poets in Australia at the moment and a whole generation of emerging First Nations voices that are making waves. Those that are nationally prominent include Alison Whittaker, Kirli Saunders, Ellen van Neerven, Evelyn Araluen, Natalie Harkin, and many others as well. There is a lot of energy and excitement around these poets.

I am also working in a specific region of Australia too, firstly at the state level in Western Australia and next in a small part of that vast state on Noongar country. In Western Australia, I have to say I am very fond of my community of poets and this includes Amy Lin and Nadia Rhook most of all. Then in Noongar country in the city of Perth, there are a number of diaspora poets at the Centre for Stories such as Priya Kahlon, Nisha D’Cruz, Kaya Lattimore, Patrick Gunasekera, Alexander Te Pohe, Baran Rostamian and more. They come from all over the world and their identities are intersectional. I am so lucky I get to work with those people on a daily basis.

As for trends, I think this is complex. One has been hearing from historically marginalised voices, which needs to keep happening and growing if we are to change the world. And, I think many of the themes remain the same - politics, love, sex, labour, family, nature, history. From this, you could conclude that poetry here, in this place, is capable of speaking about life as a whole in such rich and varied tones that we must be thankful.

BR : What are you reading currently? Also, tell us about your schedule and writing routine.

RW : I am currently reading Daniel Boyd’s Parts of Lost Body (after Aime Cesaire & Pablo Picasso). This is a visual artist’s book of poems that references Cesaire’s poetry, which I think is important and influential if somewhat problematic. I also have the Library of America edition of James Baldwin’s Collected Essays by my bedside and David Hinton’s Classical Chinese Poetry. I get around to reading all of these before I go to sleep.

Every day begins by walking in the park for an hour with my six-month-old child. We start just before dawn and say hello to a boab tree that overlooks the river before passing over a hill that has a lookout onto the city. Then I feed her breakfast. On the days I am in the office, I go in and work until 4 before walking home. Then it is family time - we go to the park again, eat dinner, have a bath, and get into bed. I am lucky that my work is a place for writers so I edit, read, and occasionally write during business hours. I am even luckier that my wife is a writer so we are always speaking about ideas, creativity, and possibilities from politics to aesthetics to the community. She is more than a muse, and really is a teacher and co-conspirator.

I try to write at night from the time everyone else is asleep until I need to rest my eyes. This is new for me, just like being a parent, and in the past, I had long uninterrupted days on writing residencies to sit at the desk. Now, I sneak it in when the place is quiet and dark, and it seems to be working. I hope to have more poems to share sometime soon and if Red River is a willing home I would be thankful for the opportunity to publish with them once again also. But for now, I am more than happy that Redgate is in the world.

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This interview was conducted by Sourav Roy.

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