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A Martin Harrison ABC

by Stephen Muecke

Compiled and transcribed by Stephen Muecke

This medley of extracts from Martin Harrison’s radio work, from 1981 to 2005, was chosen fairly much at random from what the ABC was able to offer from its archive, and according to what I thought might be interesting in general, and revealing about Martin’s range of interests.[1] The style of transcription is verbatim, including hesitations and repetitions that reproduce, somewhat, the verbal styles. Until I did this, for example, I hadn’t realised that Martin would hesitate by repeating grammatical words (“If if if … “). Ellipses with brackets mark omitted sections of any length, while ellipses in the text mark silences.

1 Foreign Bodies

Martin is interviewing Meaghan Morris, on her way to becoming one of Australia’s most celebrated academics and public intellectuals, on the occasion of a landmark conference for the intellectual left, Foreign Bodies, at the University of Sydney in 1981.[2] It was a real coming out for the baby-boomer generation of humanities  academics, and the point at which more conservative commentators noticed for the first time that something called “French Theory” was entering the country, and they were quick to denounce it.

MH: Australia is one of the very few countries in the world where everyone on arrival is sprayed [MM giggles] and by implication decontaminated of any foreign bodies, which suggests that there is a fairly strong opposition to … to precisely these foreign bodies. Um, what is the nature of this opposition?

MM: Well, if I knew more about Australian history I might be able to venture a hypothesis, but I think it really is absolutely insane the degree to which people … can become hostile to something on the basis of its … country of origin, and I mean an idea. And I always think of Bjelke-Peterson’s phrase that just because a few wogs want their spicy tucker, that doesn’t mean that Australian health has to be put at risk. The idea that ideas coming from France can somehow endanger our national health and sanity, seems to me, um, a very peculiar one, and some very peculiar people do put it forward.

MH: But we’re talking about a set of people who had in many ways, they had contradicted some of the, some of the fonder assumptions of common sense, for example they diverged from the idea that we know what the world is about, that the world is simply constituted from a set of given facts, that we interpret them, that we know what a poem is about, a poem is simply a direct expression that we interpret and read and enjoy at that level, I mean everywhere you you you look in this body of thought you find, ah, divergences from a sort of commonsensical, empirical point of view and this is something which is deeply grounded, um, in Australia, certainly intellectually.

( … )

Marion Clark said something, er, which seemed to me very symptomatic of the situation that this conference is describing when she said the problem is not to speak Australian, but to speak Australia. In other words making a connection between the structure of thought and the position that commentators and analysts find themselves in and and the very nature of of national identity in this country [MM: Mm]. How does something like this conference relate to that notion, what positive contribution does it make?

MM: Well I don’t think that we’ve been talking about national identity ( … ) I don’t think the people who have been serious about this are going out there and finding it and saying, “Terrific, here it is.” Neither I think with Manning Clarke. Part of his process of writing—or Manning Clarke for me, I don’t know what he intended—part of his process of writing is to fictionalize such a thing into being, ah, when he wants Ned Kelly to mean rage, he looks at the rage of (laughs) Ned Kelly and so on. Perhaps we’re looking at something very cumbersome, as you said before, which is given that nobody here is interested in finding a national identity, and um, the very language of national identity doesn’t get you very far, except in a very repetitive debate, in what way … do we deal with … the … suggestion that it comes from other places, that all we’re doing is inadequately translating work which is done elsewhere and now nobody feels that we do do that, what we do find is that we are always being dragged into these arguments about whether we should or shouldn’t read French philosophy, you’ve got very little time to put that philosophy to work and to do some positive research which makes sense in your own culture. Ah, I think that’s what everyone here is interested in doing and that’s why we had a conference of our own and not constantly having our time wasted by people who wanted us to talk about France, and France is not our problem (laughs).

MH: If if if you find yourself in the ideal circumstance of being able to “get on with your own work” in the cultural context you find yourself to be in, the way you interpret it and so on, what would you want to do?

MM: Well, I’ve been working with Paul Foss on a project to do with how space is represented in a range of Australian writing. The thing I’m particularly interested in is travel writing, because, um, I’m interested in what is called in linguistics, the mechanism of enunciation, the relationship between I/here/now and you/there/then. I’ve been working on ( … ) a range of writings cropping up all through the twentieth century which are not exactly explorer’s journals, they’re books where someone is repeating a voyage of discovery. Uh, books where people travel across the interior, or go around the continent and then they write a book about it and on the inside or the back cover they always put a map with a little set of dotted lines showing where I went and what I saw. And it’s very often to do with personal discovery or cultural discovery, a search for Australia I suppose, and, it I had time, if people would leave me alone (laughs) and stop asking me to talk about Paris, um, that’s the kind of problem I’d like to explore, how the desert becomes such a powerful metaphor in our language about ourselves.

MH: I know it’s a very difficult task, but could you give some kind of working example of how the way you’d approach that material would would er be significant, and actually very much in you advantage in comparison say with an ordinary narrative historian who simply told the facts and and gave a certain fictional colour to them?

MM: I think that’s probably a very polemical opposition because I don’t want to get into a position of saying I’d do this and of course the poor dumb narrative historian wouldn’t. I think people interested semiotics are always drawn into those oppositions and I’d prefer to refuse it because I don’t think what we’re doing is setting up, ah, narrative history for example as what we no longer do. I think what we’re trying to do is define what it is we might do. Ah, a point of departure for me would not be a worry, for example, about the reality of the desert. Ah, I um … it would be to look at how that, that sign functions in Australian writings about Australians travelling through Australia. For example, desert. Now, geographically, geologically, in the centre of Australia there isn’t one desert, there isn’t one gaping space, there is a wide variety of different types of deserts, they’re not empty. Not only are there, and have there been, people there, but there are profusions of life, there are utterly different ecologies and so on. Now, what goes on when in novels or in plays or in voyages or in travel writing, the notion desert starts to be employed as a global concept. So in that sense what I’d be doing is looking at the language of texts. I wouldn’t be denying that deserts exist, but I’d be looking at the language of texts, rather than trying to reconstruct what somebody actually did when they went across that real desert. My point it not to discredit that second question simply to say that I’m asking a different one, which is, what is the language about the desert tell me about how Australians are conceptualizing Australia and what effects does that have on the way they act in relation to it.

MH: So, in simple terms this in a way is the difference between the desert as a sign, rather than seeing it as a historical or geographic fact, which has occurred er, in Australian history, or the history of exploration and to some extent in the literature as well.

MM: I suppose so, but once again it’s not a mutually exclusive opposition. I think, as Anne Freadman was saying today, she’d start from the desert as sign, but sooner or later you do have to repose the question of history, the question of the referent, the question of what real people have actually done. I think that’s possibly the point which produces most resistance in relation to semiotics because people find it much easier to simply dismiss it by saying oh like Bishop Burke, they don’t believe in facts, kick a stone and hurt your toe (laughs). Ah, that isn’t a problem, I don’t think that is a problem in the 20th century, period. The problem, and here we again come back to media, is not to deny that reality exists, but to say if we start from the analysis of meaning, then what does the relationship between meaning and action look like? It’s not an opposition between meaning and the real, because of course meaning is real …

2 Australian Space with Paul Carter


In 1982 Martin invited his good friend Paul Carter onto Books and Writing to discuss “the history of the nature of space in Australia”.[3] At the time Carter had started working on the book that was to found his huge reputation, The Road to Botany Bay.[4]

PC: If you think about going into the city each morning, and going to work and coming out again. And when you get home you’re asked by, your wife or husband, “What have you been doing all day?” and the answer is usually, “Nothing”, or”very little” and you go out, perhaps and discuss with friends, “What have you been doing?” and … somehow it invariably it comes back as, “Well, we went somewhere, two three weeks ago, or, we went on holiday.”  And the discussion always seems to turn on events … in the past, now events are in fact but a very small part of our history, and in fact the larger part of the day is spent in moving around …  in a routine,  moving around in a space … and … its my contention that space is not passive, but it’s a space that we have created, and, in turn it in some way structures the way that we live.

[a few seconds silence in the audio]

Those situations offer beautiful examples of occasions, in history if you like, where the history is a space. And what I mean by that is quite literally … the early explorer made his reputation, not so much because he saw someone on a particular date, but merely because he went there. In other words, for him, and for the early settlers, er, history was a function of the space. Without it, they couldn’t exist. They couldn’t lay out their own properties, they couldn’t lay down streets.    In a way, I suppose what you could describe me as doing is trying to, locate the archaeology of our culture: An archaeologist dealing with a culture that has left behind no written records. Say, the larger part of his role is concerned with the placing of objects. He takes an archaeological site and what matters to him most of all is the relationship between various foundations, buildings, artefacts. And … through these things, he interprets the people who once lived there, and used these things, and,  he assumes  that the way in which they lived, to some extent, is reflected in the spatial arrangement of their world. And I make the same assumption and I argue that it’s only by taking in to account the space, not as a passive thing, but something we continue to create, that we can get a fuller account of our own cultural history.  And I think that in Australia it’s a particularly pertinent approach because the most significant feature of. Australian history perhaps is the mere fact of arrival.

And it’s so often taken for granted, it’s just given as a date, but it also involved an enormous conceptual leap. It involved, importing certain ideas about space,  and then testing them out against the landscape which had not previously been carved, if you like, into Western shapes. And, I can give you an example. Its almost like a truism that the early exploration that they had thought is was a kind of country which had all the qualities of 18th century parkland, in England. And we find this time and time again, Sturt talks about it and so does Mitchell. And we can find that same … feeling  … that we are only at home in that kind of space expressed by a modern writer. I’m in mind of someone writing in 1955, and she says: “We graze our animals, grow our grass and crops, destroy so much to make a world we find comfortable and more profitable, but the wide stony plains defeat us, from the deep green jungles to the rainforest, in these places we stand amazed”, she says. But what I’m interested in finding out is why that was truer in 1955, and I suspect now, than it was to the first explorers, to Sturt who was appalled by the desert on the one hand or to the early settlers in Gippsland who were appalled by the rainforest, on the other. What cultural attitudes towards space reflected in those statements?

MH: This, I guess, is specifically a history of white cultural attitudes to Australian geography. I mean that to some extent you are not, ah, pointing to the fact that there were these white reactions to Australia but you are, to some extent, trying to measure the appropriateness and the inappropriateness of those reactions (PC: [softly] yes) … the way those facts were falsified.

PC: It’s a little hard when one talks about history in a culture which is literate, to appreciate that, the larger part, of our lives, is not written down, or recorded or documented. If we turn to a pre-literate culture, the Aboriginal tribes offer an example of this, we can find instances where, time, doesn’t exist in its own right, as something to be stocked up in libraries, but only exists as a function of space. And there is a lovely example,  I think its in Tindale, one of the Western Desert tribes … ah an informant was asked to, write down, or to draw, his territory.  And … beginning with the first camp, he progressed … water hole by water hole, to the twenty-first camp, which was in fact the same as the first one. But if you looked at the drawing, the first and last camp were at opposite ends of the line. In other words his territory was conceived of, not as a map-like entity like Australia , but simply a succession of, ah, spatial units. And it was a cycle of  time, so that, for him, there was no concept of … linear time, but only of life and space. And I think this applies also to literate culture, such as our own. And again, Australia offers a unique opportunity to approach the categories, if you like, with which the white people approached the new country, because you do still have, to a lesser or greater degree an Aboriginal population or populations, who are able to bear witness to alternatives, estimates of space, and these are the territory and so on, against which you are able to assess and measure European preconceptions.

MH:  An historian who was looking in the more traditional form, of looking at public events, of looking at the lives of politicians and wars and so on, would have available a whole range of a documentation, state papers and commentaries and newspaper reports, a whole number of of pieces of documentation. What do you yourself see as your primary sources of documentation, for the kind of history that you are currently engaged in?

PC: Well to some extent my documents if you like , overlap … its not so much that the documentation is entirely different its rather the way in which I look at it. To give you one example,  if one’s looking at the early dispatches or the early journals of explorers, you know one is not concerned simply to accept the narrative as having started on a certain date and having concluded on another, but one’s concerned to analyse what is happening on each day, as a problem of describing, the space around, and one is concerned to draw out, from the narrative, examples of, or illustrations if you like, of preconceptions. Now that might sound very esoteric, but in a way its quite simple , even someone like Philip, he never succeeded in producing the kind of planned town he wanted, but he says quite clearly that he would like to have his houses one hundred feet apart. He’d like them to have good gardens, for the freed men to cultivate. And then he says something like, “these accommodations will make them feel the benefits that they may derive from their industry”. Now, a conventional historian, if you like, is going to be more concerned with why Philip failed to bring about that model of  city, the date, or, roughly, the period during which he was working on this plan and, well, its demise. Now I am not concerned with the rise and fall of an idea, in this case, what I’m concerned about is the underlying assumptions about space, contained in that recommendation. Its very clear to me that Phillip is saying that certain arrangements of space have a morally improving influence on men.

MH: You’re almost saying in fact talking about a kind of inner history of town planning, as as applied in an early project for an Australian town, an Australian city.

PC: Well that’s right, one … one interesting thing is that you find a constant conflict between the impression the journals give you, particularly about their exploration and the impression that maps give you of the same journey. Because in the narrative, an explorer like McKinley or Sturt is attempting to tell you the diary of events and therefore we are with him at a certain point on the journey and we arrive with him at the end, by which time we have probably forgotten about the earlier part. But of course a map takes in a quite contrary point of view, it argues that all the space is of equal importance, and that no individual preference should be given to a discovery here or a disappointment there. So that, in those two pieces of documentation, if you like, the journals and the map, I see contradictory views of the nature of space. Now that can be, I think., very strongly substantiated by a study some of the most curious names that, er, the early explorers used. If, for example, you are going to call a lake, Lake Disappointment, it is, if you like, a statement that makes sense in terms of a narrative: “we expected to find something here, and we didn’t”. And it’s almost as if the explorer is lamenting the failure of the map to comprehend his baffling experience, and the journal is the alternative to that, in an attempt to try and express space as, in fact, a conventional history in time. And squeezed out of those two kinds of evidence are these, as I say often very curious names, which bare witness, I think, to a polarization with the characteristics of this new space, and an attempt to try and overcome, by psychological means, by attributing to them one’s own emotion.

[a few seconds silence]

One particular feature that interested me there, and that is that the names which I mentioned earlier, the proper names, which the explorers, navigators gave, were almost invariably added after the expedition or navigation was completed. And they are, it turns out, not just arbitrary, they are not the first thoughts of the moment, but they’re carefully considered. They are, if you like, the jottings of an editor or proof-reader on the explorers own original log, and, it seems, particularly in the case of a navigator like Flinders that names are used, in those finished journals, finished products that are going to  be published, to accent and articulate certain aspects of the exploration, which a map conceals. The classic example, in that respect is Flinders attempt to reproduce the layout of his home county, Lincolnshire, in Spencer Gulf.

Now, Flinders has had ample opportunity to revise his great voyage to Terra Australis, whilst he was in Mauritius, I forget for how long, I think ten years and one of the burdens he gave himself was to find names.. for something like one hundred and forty five features along the South Australian coast, and its obvious, when one analyses the names, not just that in a particular part of Gulf he felt at home, and therefore used names from his home country, but that he actually saw a spatial resemblance, that is why he felt at home, and what he did was to take the village names of Lincolnshire and apply them quite precisely to their special counterparts in the gulf. So its not just a case there of decorating the place, it’s actually a case of changing it, changing its significance, a re-writing, to draw out certain characteristics that a map perhaps, could not express properly.

MH: I find that quite fascinating. In the writings that I ‘ve seen of yours so far, you constantly refer to the acts of naming as of a primary demonstration of the things that you are trying to explore, yourself (PC: That’s right) and, one thing that I have picked up from my own reading of your recent work is that you are trying also to say some things about, in those days, in those early nineteenth century days, those contemporary notions of naming itself, and almost, as it were, philosophical theories of naming and of language which have actually influenced what later we have come to know as the names (half laughs) of Australia.

PC: Yes, that’s right. One beautiful instance perhaps of that is the policy of a man like Macquarie. It’s astounding to me to imagine Macquarie at certain places in Tasmania, deciding that here there will be a town or a city, and instructing a minion t. nail together two—very significantly I think in the form  of cross—nail together two pieces of old plank—I always like to think it’s some sort of wrecked vessel—and plant it in the middle of this space, with a name on it, Trafalgar or whatever it’s going to be and, from that act, An act which is the sort of repetition, in the microcosm of the great “I am” of God (both laugh). Extraordinary,  the pretentiousness of the act, but, psychologically very valuable. Suddenly a space, begins to assume the characteristics of a place. He lays down certain streets, he names them after his beloved wife, and although its not something perhaps time to go into now, it is astounding how he only uses his wife’s name where he particularly wishes to enjoin upon the settlers the likelihood of great prosperity and fertility! He applies her name to the plains and to the the most promising rivers, but the whole thing there being bound up with the creation of a comfortable space in which, as I say, the inhabitants can come to feel they are at home, turning what is undifferentiated into something that has directions and a sense of purpose and place.

MH: Also, what I think is there is, a sense of expectations too (PC: Mm). I mean, the the the those names are really projections upon the future.

PC: Yes, yes, that’s right. It’s a promise of what’s to come. It’s also very interesting to explore what happens when the explorers become settlers, because the character of their names quite naturally alters. What had formerly stood at the horizon of the expedition, what had proved a barrier, or a margin, something that had to be crossed—like … the way that we cross from one chapter of a book to another, had now become the sentence.

MH: Can you give me a, an an instance of this?

PC: Yes, there’s one that rather comes to mind in Victoria, where the settler Learmonte, first arrived in the area to do the west of Ballarat and passed as he said in his letter he submitted to Latrobe, a miserable night, there’s no water and it was very dark and bleak and on the spur of the moment, decided to call this boundary point, Mount Misery. Then, dawn came up and it turns out after all that it was quite a nice place, perhaps he would settle down, and he much resented that he had called, what later on turned to be the centre of a very prosperous property, er by such an uncharitable name, and he was most concerned about it and he refers to it twice, in er his Latrobe letter, and he even goes so far as to suggest that if his Excellency wouldn’t mind—it ought to be renamed after Latrobe, someone who has done so much to open up the colony in that region to settlers. And it goes further because he gives a reason—and the reason is that according to him, and I must say my own wanderings there haven’t quite confirmed this lofty estimate, according to him it commands a view … of … the larger part of the colony. It stands at the centre it seems to him, and because of that, what name could be more appropriate than the man who stood at the centre of … colonisation. So that from beginning life as a name expressing … rejection, fear, disappointment … it has completely reversed it’s value, now standing at the very centre of his life, he wishes to reflect that changed attitude towards the space, in a changed name.

MH: In a way … I suppose the very fact that the settlers and explorers were naming – was itself an instance of considerable cultural presumption because … presumably all the landscape was already named and had been named (laughs) for a long long time by the original inhabitants. (PC: Yes) One thing which is striking, say on any regional map in Australia, is the fact that there is a mixture of European and Aboriginal names.

PC: The alternation of Aboriginal with White names is most interesting because to take again the most eloquent of namers, Major Mitchell, we find that where the land is not thought to be of economic significance, and it’s not just that it’s also land that doesn’t look attractive. Mitchell follows a policy of always using Aboriginal names, but it’s curious that as he approaches what are almost like points of energy, points of cultural tension, let’s just say a picturesque valley or example or river, he completely forgets that policy and substitutes instead names which grow increasingly personal. Increasingly he feels that in these more beautiful spots, spots which will appeal to settlers and indeed I suppose to his employers, as attractive places worthy of an expedition, there he uses names drawn entirely from key episodes in his own life or from key figures in the colonial administration. So that, by tracing these names one can in fact, curiously, trace a map of those parts of Australia which, as it were, offered spaces that were comfortable, and those parts of Australia which seemed to lie outside the pale.

MH: To name in that way presumably also implied that those are the parts that Mitchell favours more interested in possessing that he wanted to own, develop, settle those parts (PC: Mm) but not the other parts.

PC: Yes, because the other side to this is that it’s not simply a question of giving a name to a place, the place is invented by the name and not only the place but what’s supposed to be there is invented. After all, if you name a river, it’s not only the name you give to it, it’s also the proposition that what you’re naming is a river (MH: Right), and, particularly in Australia, it’s proved time and again to be a misnomer. And it’s most curious that, the idea of a river is so bound up it seems with white ideas of commerce, the possibility of opening up the interior simply depends so much on an easy of means of communication between inland and coast, that they were bent on finding a river at all costs—I think there was something similar going on in the search for an inland sea—something that was definably and obviously profitable, offering a means of communication. And it was held by more than one of the early settlers that the very absence that they maintained amongst the Aboriginal people that they met of the general term corresponding to “river”, the English word, was proof that the Aboriginals could not conceive of so grand and abstract a geographical feature. The myth was promulgated, if you like, that Aboriginal people were unable to … relate like objects which were different, in other words they would have a word for this mountain and a word for that mountain but not a word for “mountains”. Now, that’s very convenient if you want to occupy a territory. If the original inhabitants don’t have general terms, it’s clear that they don’t have concepts of a unified territory. One’s hardly dispossessing them if their language doesn’t even come up to the level of perceiving a unified space. And, again its also interesting that, Mitchell in particular in his early expeditions, was most upset by the absence of flowing water in Lachlan actually and he notices the individual ponds in the bed of the stream and he notices too how this Aboriginal guide had a name for them, but not a name for the river, and he remarks on this as a great curiosity but doesn’t draw the inference that the ponds were the normal state of being and that it was a general term for all of those, and it was the river that was extraordinary, and a rare event. In other words, he was, because of his own linguistic categories and cultural expectations, because of his desire to see the particular space that he was interested in which was the length of the river leading him hopefully to something comparable to the Murray, Sturt’s Murray, he was indifferent, blind almost, to the characteristic features of that part of the Murray Basin, its isolated pools of water, those isolated pools of water I suppose he had thought of as rather like the Aboriginal languages: so many names for things but really no organization such as a proper river ought to have.

MH: All of what what we have been talking about one gets the sense that the appropriateness and inappropriateness of language, the language and the culture that was brought to Australia but in particular in this matter of language (PC: Yes)

I wonder, in fact, whether, given that these expectations were constantly being falsified and changed. Were the early explorers themselves, the early settlers, not … they they themselves must’ve possessed some relativistic awareness (laughs) (PC: Mm, mm, yes) of what was happening to them?

PC: It’s devoutly to be hoped isn’t it. From what I have been saying we have to look at the margins of books, we have to decipher double meanings, it’s very hard apparently to find a straight-forward expression of what I’m saying. But it’s not the case, in fact, there are a number of cases where the early explorers and again the settlers, do express a sense of being unable to comprehend what’s about them. And not only that, we do occasionally find instances where they’re at last realising that there’s a value simply in the extension of this space, particularly in the flatter parts of Australia, a value in a space that wasn’t cluttered up with objects to possess.  I particularly like the quotation from Stokes’ journals. True, he’d been at sea and was used to flat horizons, but he describes himself as—this is in the North West part of Western Australia—as “Straining forward incited by curiosity” and he says that “eagerly over an untrodden heath or untraversed desert”—in other words some thing that was barren—”as easily through that as through valleys of surpassing loveliness” and the reason he says is that “we are in fact if anything more eager where there is nothing, because there, there is nothing upon which the mind can repose, nothing to tempt it to linger, nothing to direct the current of its thoughts”. It’s almost as if he were saying after so many years at sea, navigating carefully, the freedom that he feels on contemplating a vast horizon with no direction, which hasn’t been scored by roads which obliges to follow our daily routines, but which is simply open to contemplation.

3 Aboriginal Literature with Colin Johnson


In 1983 Aboriginal Literature began to be institutionalized. The first national conference on the topic held in that year at Murdoch University where Colin Johnson, later Mudrooroo Ngoongah, was teaching.[5]

CJ: Aborigines in Australia didn’t come into … this multicultural society until err the sixties. And that’s when Aboriginal creativity began more or less. Before we had a few tales written down and not much else, and then during the sixties and after that when our writings began to get published and Kath Walker and myself and other people came on the scene. We tried to cover a lot from ah, oral literature to …  traditional … that’s traditional oral literature, Aboriginal forms and also, the use of, European or white forms by Aboriginal writers, and then we had poetry as a means of Aboriginal expression and um Aboriginal literature in schools and things like that … Aboriginal literature really is a uh committed literature and we are committed to our people and so we have to work out where the uh … fields in which we should be writing are …

You know, we have a danger in that of course … is that our creativity is drying up.

MH: Does that mean that the main emphasis of this conference was … retrospective,  it was looking back at what has been done,  or  that you saw the thrust of  the conference very much to do with what people might write in the future but they might be interested in doing so in the coming decade?

CJ:  Very much what we should be doing in the coming decade-whether we should be using standard English, standard European forms such as the novel or … going back into Aboriginal culture and using .Aboriginal forms of locating them and developing them and especially writing say, Aboriginal English and dialect from different Aboriginal languages, and uh, and this is that ah.. one of the main themes in the conference is that how we should be writing .

MH: —presuming there is also here some sense of the … the need to include what are—well what are called, I mean so called traditional forms of art and writing and of course , aspects of the use of words which are oral story telling songs- these sorts of things.

CJ: We were really lucky because we had our traditional story tellers like ah, Daisy Utemorrah and David Mowaljarlai and Gooru Goonup [?] and these people, they well told us stories and we stayed up half the night, sometimes all night, listening to them and it was really interesting.

MH: Is there here some issue appearing in Aboriginal writing between, as it were, the writers of the city and the writers of the country?

CJ:  I don’t know about that, not really because most Aborigines living in the city have, ah country, ah, backgrounds, so … we can relate to that. And its amazing how we can and, that that’s why, say the stories that we heard were so important. I … I was interested in the stories ‘cos I was thinking about dialect and Aboriginal literature in general, oral literature in general and what the form was like and so on, and so I was really happy to hear about it, but , ah I think a lot of urban writers think as I do … and … would like to refer, and want to refer back to the oral literature which is still so strong in most of the traditional regions of Australia.

MH: This, presumably, was one of the things you were raising in your own paper because you’re suggesting that there may be some sense of tension between the writer that sets out to write in literary form in an inherited literary form, in a published form, in a book form and so on,  trying to include the kind of performance of  songs, stories and so on that you were just talking about.

CJ:  Well, a lot of tension was ( … ) to see how … I think the forms can brought over but, ah … say the use of … Aboriginal dialect and Aboriginal English, whether this can be brought … say … an Aboriginal form of the novel for example, and ah, after hearing stories and listening to the beautiful flow of the Aboriginal English, I can see it can be now. But one problem which did crop up was that ah … possibly if Aborigines wrote in Aboriginal ah, Aboriginal English then ah, they wouldn’t be able to be published.

MH: Because, presumably Aboriginal English would not be seen by white critics, white publishers as a sufficiently central language in some sense?

CJ: Well … it wouldn’t be standard English, you know, like the plural and ah singular tenses and things like that would go. The ah Australian publishing companies are geared towards making a little profit and things like that, and Aboriginal literature except for, say, glorious books of ah, colourful  legends, colourfully illustrated legends, these sell very well, but other Aboriginal literature doesn’t. And to get a wide variety of Aboriginal literature published, I doubt ah … if ah … we could go to any of the major publishing companies. Of course there are the alternative publishing companies and this is what usually happens. Aboriginal literature is published with the small companies rather than the large ones. We had the Aboriginal magazine Identity,  and when it was based in Perth, then there was always this ah … outlet for our writers especially our young writers. Now since that has collapsed, there isn’t really an outlet. And when there is an outlet … after listening to our oral literature and seeing the finished product of the legends, there’s a, a great difference between how it’s told and how it’s written down and published.

MH:  This would be a question I think of the nature of editing and selection and things of this kind?

CJ: Yes, yes that’s right. I think that most of our young writers feel that there’s no way they can get into print, at least sympathetic print [ends].

4 On the Road, Part One, with Samuel Wagan Watson and Martin Harrison

The programme’s prologue is a cut-up dialogue, then the rest of the programme alternates dialogue and readings. Parts were delivered at the Sydney Writer’s Festival of 2005, the rest was composed for radio with noises of cars, roads, voices and animals, these sound effects are only occasionally indicated here.[6]

SWW: what do you say we hit the road?

MH: just inside the car

SWW: yeah, let’s go [car door slams]

MH: do you want to start?

SWW: oh no, you

MH: shall I start? (car starts, revs)

SWW: but after this session I’ll be just passing it out. … How far into the night are we going to go, mate?

MH: I love the speed of your work

SWW: you’re very, surgical

MH: I can actually see it, see it on the page

SWW: Yeah, the haiku

MH: it’s an endless line

SWW: have a long kind of upthrust

MH: so much room to move within it

SWW: into a block of words and then [smash, voices, rooster]

MH: poetry isn’t fiction

SWW: I don’t know, it just works for me, and

MH: driving very fast, ha!

SWW: I’m in the zone, gotta be in the zone all week just a little moment, looking out the window, on the road … You’re the experienced, senior man (MH: laughter, thank you) I’m still the green behind the ears kid.

MH: why don’t I start with that er, one of the crow poems (SWW: yeah). This is a poem called “Roadside near Hillston”, and Hillston is way out in Western NSW:

[MH reads]

SWW: Mmm. I look at all these poems I’ve written as polaroids, out of my head, through my eyes, I’m taking photos. Yes, for some reason, crows, they’re such a hard, disgusting animal, but they merit a lot of weight in my work:

[SWW reads two poems: “A bent neck black and flustered feather mallee … ” then: “The thousand yard stare”]

SWW: Are they related to crows? (MH: related to?) crows [Woman’s voice: I don’t think so, but they do have that similar look, don’t they?) … so this is all midden? (MH: Yes, looks like it, doesn’t it, most of it. I think some of the other area we came down on, the edge of the road, actually, was middens). One of my cousins, ‘cos there’s middens all through Stradbroke island, one of my cousins found an axe head, a green stone axe head, and Queensland didn’t even have it, and they’re not sure if it’s jade from er, China or the green stone from New Zealand? (MH: yes, yes) Stories are just starting to come out now about canoe trips that were made by New Zealanders that came over here, so…yeah (W: how long ago was it?) oh, couple of hundred years, but those stories are just coming out now…

MH: Do you want to start again?

SWW: Yeah, I’ll start with a morning poem, “Three AM escape”.

[SWW reads]

[MH reads: “There is away back there to the red gum … ”]

It’s a very early poem of mine and when I look at it I think, yeah, even back then I was, you know, trying to get some sense of moving forward and the shifting position you have in relation to light and the slope and the land and landscape and so on, you know an aesthetic in a sense (SWW: yeah) of the road was there.

SWW: I’m jealous. I think my writing is going to take a bit of a turn after this (laughter) you know, you’re very surgical, whereas I’ve just sort of picked things up off the road like… I haven’t stopped and smelled the flowers enough you know, mate.

MH: (laughs) The real people who interest me in poetry were not so much poets as painters and photographers (SWW: yeah, yeah). And I love the way painters and photographers can work. You know, I think, like a lot of poets in a sense, I’ve always sort of envied, you know,  the capacity for the visual artist to … to deal with the world, to use their hands in relation to the world, you know, to handle such beautiful things, handle colours, handle textures and beautiful papers and paint and all that kind of thing and its really been an incredible influence on me.

5 With Robert Gray on Barnstone’s Machado


I’m not sure when this interview was broadcast on Books and Writing, possibly 1982. They are talking about Barnstone’s translation of Antonio Machado, Border of a Dream.[7]

RG: One thing that’s very impressive is that, uh, Machado had an aesthetic command, a technical command that’s, uh, at least comparable to Yeats I think. In looking at these poems and playing around with them with a dictionary and so on, one can see, using the translations and the original, that this man had, uh, extraordinary abilities technically, like the later Yeats. Fortunately, I think, he had a much more attractive persona. And so he seems a more interesting poet. I mean, this is a hobby horse of mine, but I find, Yeats almost unreadable because of the personality that comes out of his work, I needn’t characterize at all. But, uh, if anyone wants to, uh, find a very good characterization of what’s wrong with Yeats’ poetry, they only need read something that I was recently looking at, a book by English poet C.H. Sisson called, Modern Poetry: 1900-1950, in which he sums up very concretely through all the anti-Yeats school just exactly what is so unattractive in Yeats’s work, that nouveau riche sense of pretentiousness and cultural name-dropping, and, uh, the arrogant, uh, strutting rhythms which become very hard to take.

None of this is found in Machado’s work. So that one has this, this wonderful musical quality, and at the same time, a feeling that a liberal-minded intellectual in the 20th Century can find, uh, attractive and bearable, you know, which one can’t, I think, with Yeats. And so they’re very different poets. One is all pretention, and the other, all un-pretentiousness. One is all affectation, the other very unaffected. And, uh, I find them a total contrast in that way.

Of course we in the English tradition think, think that, um, that English poetry, English language poetry is, uh, has dominated, uh, from our point of view, has dominated world poetry. But, when you become aware of people like, um, Machado and one realizes that this is a very parochial point of view that we’ve held and that there are riches, probably beyond anything in English awaiting us in other languages, if only we knew it.

MH: There have been other translations of Machado. I think the American poet Robert Bly and the British poet John Tomlinson have also done some work translating Machado’s verse.

RG: Yes, both unsuccessfully, I think, to some degree. Tomlinson because his translations lack the lyrical quality that I find in these. They’re very dry. They’re reproduced in William Carlos Williams’ dip down, three-part line, which seems to me very peculiar and doesn’t really bring across the very lyrical and, uh, the very flowing quality of these poems. And Bly, I think, fails because of his characteristically, uh, sloppy, uh, emotionalism. He brings in, uh, some quite horrendous, uh, phrases, I think. Particularly, I noticed in a the poem called “Fields”. In the Barnstone translation, if I can read this, it says:

The afternoon is dying

like a humble hearth burning out.

There above the mountains

a few colds? remain

The fractured tree on the white road

moves one to pity

And here Bly says: “The blasted tree/ makes you want to cry for compassion”, which is just terrible in comparison. This man is just much tighter and much more solid … Of all the translations I’ve looked at and come across of Machado, these seem much the most successful. But of course, he’s notoriously difficult to translate, and everyone comments on the impossibility of the task.

MH: I wonder if we could talk a little bit about the impossibility of translating poetry like this, because I suppose part of the difficulty is that Machado’s work is so simple. It, it has such clear and simple values in the lines, such musical simplicity. And why is that such a tremendous problem to translators working between two languages?

RG: I think the great difficulty in his poems is that they depend so much on a very rarefied quality of feeling. And he uses very few words, very simple words. But the poems release a feeling, particularly at their end. Uh, and if one hasn’t used the exact weight of words, the exact phrasing, that, ah, correspond to his exact phrasing, one is just going to lose that very subtle, very rarefied delicate feeling, which is the whole of the poem. His poetry depends upon a very, uh, unusual temperament , a refined temperament, you know. It’s a poetry that doesn’t depend upon a fix, on rhetoric and on normal, uh, poeticism. But it depends very much on the quality of the spirit in the work.

In fact, he says that somewhere. He decided, and I have a quotation here from him, he decided that the “substance of poetry does not lie in the sound value of the word, nor even in its color, but in the deep pulse of the spirit. This deep pulse that the soul contributes with its own voice.” And this is some way of, uh, approximating his voice. And it’s impossible to really get what he’s all about. And the poems can fall very, very flat and seem trivial and, and thin.

MH: So the poems are very much poems that depend upon atmosphere and the direct rendition of feeling in the simplest means. I mean, that’s certainly the impression I get from Barnstone’s translation, which is a quality of economy and, and simplicity. Machado is, I suppose, a poet primarily of emotion and, and of memory.

RG: Yes, yes, very much so. Uh, one feels that there’s a great deal of thought behind the work. He says that all poets should have a metaphysic behind their work. They don’t need to express it, but they need to have it somehow informing their work. One feels that there’s a lot of metaphysical thought lying behind the work. You feel that very much with him, that there is, he’s almost a systematic thinker, you know, and that the poems are like the tips of, uh, these icebergs. And one feels that there’s a great deal of philosophy, or in fact, one knows there is from having read his prose. But this gives great strength to these seemingly very simple poems. One has to see that there’s this great deal of submerged content that these things point to and suggest.

MH: Certainly in my own first reading of Machado, I, I found myself wondering why the poems were significant. They, they they come up, uh, upon you almost as surprises (RG: Yes) They seem that they’re such simple stories or such simple events or incidents, the [?] that are going on.

RG: What I particularly like, I think, is the quality of the mind that comes through. This sort of mind that is so, um, unpretentious, so natural. I like the emotional balance in him, I think. What impressed me is that here is a man with a mind that I can really admire. He’s totally disillusioned, and yet totally humane. And that seems very sophisticated to me and very attractive.

[the audio cuts for several seconds]

The poetic feeling comes from the suggestiveness of what he writes, I think. They’re poems, very much, of endings to me. They’re like in that Chinese poetry and, uh, Chekhov stories. We’re used to those things, where it’s as if at the end of the poem, a window had been opened and one can go on and inhabit this landscape of feeling that exists beyond. One moves out into it. And, uh, that’s when the poem has its real life, almost, after the poem is finished. They’re not just words that they escape from being words on the page, into being, as he says, the spirit that, uh, continues its release from the poems. And it continues, and which one can then live in, and which, uh, it’s something more than merely, uh, verbal, uh, ingenuity. They had this great, uh, great quality of, uh, lived things.

They also depend, I think, on the mood in which one reads them to some extent, as with all poetry of this kind. Chinese poetry is probably noticed. And certainly each one is not susceptible to, um, the delicacy of a feeling that can be released. He writes about emotions that there aren’t really words for very often. He manages a combination of words and images, which suggests feelings that are almost too light to be handled, and yet, he makes them exist.

MH: It seems to me despite, or perhaps because of the simplicity, a lot of Machado’s poetry is moving into areas of, almost sub-conscious or threshold experience. I mean (RG:  Exactly) they’re always a waking or falling asleep. He was just catching that moment of connection of internal feeling, internal contour and memory. And I think if you’re talking, a lot of that kind of writing is particularly contemporary, and particularly 20th century. And yet, for the same thing which Machado’s work is deeply traditional and almost anti-Modernist. It’s the most curious kind of balance that he achieves.

RG: It’s a very impressive mixture. He’s not technically an innovative poet. And yet, uh, the insistence on planned speech, directness, hardness, lack of pretensions, the cutting off of all rhetoric, whether it’s 19th century rhetoric or Modernist rhetoric makes him seem very, very modern at the same time. His father was a folklorist. He was very much influenced by the folkloric poetry of Spain, and by the early lyric poets like St. John of the Cross and, uh, and so on.

But at the same time, um, he, he, is rather similar to something we find in English, the Poundian Modernist tradition. You probably know, or have heard me, hold forth about this, (MH: about the Poundian tradition? Yes, (laughs) but I think that behind Pound, uh, I think as a theorist, lies Ford Maddox Ford, who is the real patriarch of Modernism or at least of one type of Modernism, what we call the Poundian stream of Modernism. There is the other stream, the Mallarméian stream. But the main, uh, inventor I think of the Poundian tradition is really Ford Maddox Ford …

MH: Seriously? Because he’s not well known. I mean, he’s known more as a name, I think, than as a critical influence.

RG: Yeah, he’s not even read as a novelist much. [MH: yes yes] But I think one can really safely claim that the, it was Ford’s idea that, uh, influenced Pound, very, very deeply. And Ford’s basic idea was that, uh, he was opposed to the idea that all poets must of necessity write affectedly, and at great lengths and with many superfluous words, that poetry of necessity is something boring and pretentious.

He says, uh, somewhere, “You must write as simply and naturally as you can, as you speak. And you must write of subjects that spring at your throat,” which sounds very much like Machado to me.

MH: Of course also the connection isn’t there of Pound going back to some of the earlier Provencale lyrics at the beginning of his works. I suppose there is a connection between Machado who also relates his work to some Spanish medieval poetry.

RG: Yes, of course, this so-called … you know Pound’s essay about Ford that’s called, “The Prose Tradition in Verse.” And this “Prose Tradition in Verse” goes right back to the Greek anthology, the simplicity and directness of prose. And Pound said … whenever poetry is in trouble, that’s the tradition that’s always revived, in Chaucer and in the Augustan poets, in Wordsworth, and so on. So, um, that, that tradition is my own ideal. I think that’s, of all styles that’s going, the one that I would choose to write in. And Machado feels this ideal very much. And, uh, I felt immediate affinity with him, and I recently read this translation by Barnstone.

[the audio cuts for a few seconds]

In that poem, he talks about a landscape, looking at a landscape. But then that landscape is given great meaning and a whole thing is invested with a great deal of feeling by just the last line of the poem, in a way that we’ve got to notice in people like the Chinese poets, and in a short story writer like Chekhov. We are prepared in some ways for reading Machado from those sorts of examples.

I think that one of the most attractive emotions in Machado is the humility of the, uh, of the writing. I think humility is the key emotion in his work, and that’s an extraordinarily difficult emotion to achieve and to, uh, to bring off.

MH: What would you mean by humility there? What is humility in poetry?

RG: It’s the way the outside world imposes itself on the poet and overwhelms him. It’s full of, uh, a love for things outside himself, this poetry, constantly.

(MH: It’s a kind of objectivity in him … ) Yes, he calls it objectivity himself in some of his prose writings, actually. He says that’s what he’s after when you transcend the subject all together. And, uh, this is, um, a spirit,  takes on a spiritual sort of quality in his work, this humility. He’s not a Christian or anything, I’m not talking about spirituality in that sense.

MH: I want to move us on to something else in Machado’s work, which I, I pick up, uh, from looking through it, which is the sense that the language that a poet uses is not just the poet’s own property, there is such attention to the ability of the poem to communicate. To this, Machado’s poems are constantly cast in a kind of an I/you relationship that he’s always talking to someone, and always trying to keep that channel of communication as open as possible. And this is very, very striking because it puts his, his poetry in a completely different position from a great deal of modern poetry which either is concerned with the effect of the image, or is consumed with a much more public level of address, late Pound for example writing “World History” in verse form and so on, I mean, Machado’s work is so much more concerned with the person he’s visiting next or opposite to him or someone that he knows, or a person that he’s writing a letter to or something of that kind.

RG: Machado’s language has this very pronounced social dimension to it. He was influenced by Marxism. And, one can see this in statements of his like, uh, like this. He said, “My feeling is not exclusively mine, but ours. I note that in my feeling, other feelings are vibrating as well, and that my heart is always singing in a chorus. Although, its own voice may be for me, the best. That it also be the best for others, that is the problem of lyrical expression.”

[the audio cuts for a few seconds]

I think what I find most useful in Machado is his emphasis on the quality of the voice, or the tone of the voice in poetry, in which all of our philosophy exists in embryo as it were. The whole sensibility, uh, that underlies the philosophy in the choice of the philosophy and the, having arrived at a certain philosophy is embodied in a voice. Um, Wittgenstein says that, “Language is the gate hinge in which all the perception and all of philosophy swings.” And I think one can go even more, deep than that. One can become more fundamental than that and say that not just language, but, uh, the cast of a mind that uses the language, the, uh, the emotional, uh, balance, the, um, the perception, far more fundamental, uh, is the hinge on which all of philosophy swings.

And in Machado, one finds him going extremely deep, right to the quality of his emotion. And that’s what he’s concerned about. This is where his lack of pretentiousness and his austerity and everything come in. He’s cut everything right down to examining the quality of the emotion that he’s talking about. He’s gone right to the very basic thing. And he’s concerned with the truth of that emotion. This is something that’s very difficult and something that not many poets are prepared to say. This concentrating all attention on the quality of the underlying feeling above all else, that’s the really hard test for a poet in my opinion. And so I’m impressed when, uh, somebody manages to do it so convincingly as he has. To move us and to convince us this is poetry, just by the, uh, the quality of the feeling without any tricks and without any verbal pyrotechnics. Not relying on anything else but some sort of deep honesty in the feeling.

MH: Towards the end of the book of translations, Barnstone includes a number of poems which quite surprise me. They are very, very short, two or three lines aphorisms. They’re not exactly like, um, Japanese haiku. They, I don’t even know how to describe them. They are very, very short statements, often quite abstract, quite conceptual. And it seems to me that is Machado writing with maximum economy and the maximum, um, lack of pretension if I can put it that way.

RG: Some of them, I think could almost been influenced by haiku. In his last book of poems of the war, the Spanish Civil War, for instance, uh, this one that he wrote in France, and it says:

The chill winds of February

whip the lemon trees

I do not sleep

so as not to dream.

He’s in exile in France and that’s, that’s a perfect haiku frankly. But I know what you mean, most of them are aphorisms, they’re parables given over to, uh, a concentration of our little diamond heart point of thought. And I find that idea extremely useful also, that, uh, one can concentrate a whole philosophy into these, these captions, these aphorisms as he has done. Uh, some of them are extremely suggestive I think. I like this one:

You who hope, will despair

as the saying goes.

And it’s true everywhere.

The truth is always as it is

and stays the truth

whatever thoughts one has.

That’s the whole tradition in modern philosophy summed up there in, in that. And, uh, there’s another one:

All passes and all remains

that ours is to pass

to pass while making roads

roads across the sea.


[1] Thanks to the ABC’s RN Features Department and especially Michelle Baddiley and Gretchen Miller for making this possible. Thanks also to Didie Vincent who helped with the transcription.

[2] Aired on Books and Writing on the 11th February, 1981. Selections from the conference were published in Peter Botsman, Chris Burns and Peter Hutchings, eds.  The Foreign Bodies Papers, Sydney: Local Consumption Publications, 1981.

[3]Aired on Books and Writing, 8th September, 1982.

[4] The Road to Botany Bay: An Essay in Spatial History, London: Faber and Faber, 1987.

[5]Aired on Books and Writing, 16th February, 1983. Proceedings were published in Jack Davis and Bob Hodge, eds. Aboriginal Writing Today: Papers from the first National Conference of Aboriginal Writers, Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1985.

[6] Poetica, Aired 10th September 2005, now “Earshot” (

[7] Border of a Dream: Selected Poems of Antonio Machado, trans. and intro., Willis Barnstone, Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2003.

Published: September 2015
Stephen Muecke

is Professor of Ethnography at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. He works in the experimental humanities, with Indigenous groups in Broome, and on intercoloniality in the Indian Ocean. Reading the Country won the Non-fiction prize for the West Australian Week Literary Awards (1985), Joe in the Andamans and Other Fictocritical Stories, (2008) was shortlisted for the 2010 Adelaide Festival Awards in the Innovation Category. Contingency in Madagascar, with photographer Max Pam, appeared in 2012 with Intellect Books’ Critical Photography Series.

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Plumwood Mountain Journal is created on the unceded lands of the Gadigal and Wangal people of the Eora Nation. We pay our respects to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and to elders past, present and future. We also acknowledge all traditional custodians of the lands this journal reaches.