Q&A with Corey Wakeling and Jeremy Balius

OutcropcoverA Q&A with Corey Wakeling and Jeremy Balius, editors of Outcrop: radical Australian poetry of land, Black Rider, 2013

Anne Elvey

Corey Wakeling and Jeremy Balius kindly responded to some questions I sent them about their edited collection, Outcrop. I am particularly taken by Corey’s comment: “I believe poetry can encourage decipherment, unbearable sensitivity, and an archaeological sense of manners.”

AE: I am interested in where you would situate Outcrop in relation to ecopoetry. Do you see Outcrop as a work of ecopoetry and ecopoetics?

CW: I do, insofar as Outcrop participates in the multiplicity of the field following certain recognised premises of ecocriticism, such as incredulity towards dualism, the articulation of porous, soluble, liquid or posthuman conceptions of the human figure, interest in nonhuman temporalities of, say, geodesy or volcanology, interest in non-economic and premodern visions of sustainability, the recuperation of indigenous knowledge, and so on. Like Timothy Morton says about ecocritique as unafraid of “nonidentity”, I don’t think much of the poetry in Outcrop is fearful of dealing with it either. As a field invested in rethinking origin, environment, and, essentially, ethics regarding these considerations, I am aware that, at the activist or metaphysical poles of ecocriticism, much of the poetry within the collection will participate uncertainly with their edicts. Well, this is my hope: that as a properly vibrant and multiplicitous field of contrary discourses of poetics and environment informed at once by the Romantic phenomenologies of Wordsworth, Shelley and Clare, and the contemporary experiments from the 60s onwards of Gary Snyder, Juliana Spahr, John Kinsella, or Peter Riley, but most importantly of the work of scientists who have rethought the meanings of consciousness, humanity, and time, that ecopoetics consider the possibilities of Keri Glastonbury’s queer pastoral or Nicola Themistes’ rewritings of pastoral myth. As conscious of the ethics of the emergence of identity and thinking in interconnected but contaminated space, exhausted space, nationalised and bordered space, I think ecopoetics is a fitting lens for understanding the collection’s diversity. If ecological thinking is as exigent to the present as it appears to be to those in science and politics and to me, then of course it commands relevancy to the collection. Necessary identification with its edicts was no stipulation nor of any interest to us as editors, however, and why indeed it is not entitled a collection of ecopoetic work but as works of land.

JB: Yes, I’d also generally situate the book under that umbrella term as it’s fairly far-reaching, though I personally don’t use the term very often. (For me, this is perhaps also partially due to the sound of the word.) As Corey mentioned, the focus wasn’t on identifying with or specifically adding to a public discourse on what is ecopoetical as such. There are fantastic publications already pursuing this in Australia and indeed, worldwide. It was specifically the poems and the encounters with land in an Australian context we were and are bright-eyed about. But if you were to respond to that with “That’s still ecopoetics(!)” we would graciously agree and offer you more tea. 🙂

AE: If you feel the works in Outcrop represent a kind or kinds of ecopoetry, or an ecopoetic sensibility, can you say a bit more about how you understand ecopoetry and what is “radical” about it?

CW: Allow me to answer the second, since I think my above response answer’s the first. These poems were chosen and nominated radical by us because they are often challenging, problematic, intensified, confrontational and polysemous works which debate the foundations on which discourses of land are embedded and asserted, discourses such as regarding nation, culture, place, belonging, fealty, and reality. Explicitation and denotation of the consternation that these master signifiers congeal and conceal is one effective way of marking and disturbing these operations, and poetics is particularly radical in the way in which the condition of writing nation, culture, place, belonging, fealty, and reality into the multiplicity of cohabited and palimpsestic socio-environmental experience opens out into its deterritorialised logics. This is not to say that deterritorialisation is simply positive. However, I do know that, as for ecological thinking, it is exigent for nation, culture, place, belonging, fealty and reality to be rewritten, that the way they are being rewritten ideologically is presently into the same categories of stifled concretion and rigor mortis of territory. This is due significantly to a poverty of poetics and language for describing the local, the apparitional, the seen, the felt, space and time—sufferings of imagination—as much as the coercions of a conservative government myopically servile to industry, all of which contributing to us abiding in a majoritarian culture of galled politics and conservative epicureans of real estate.

I have begun answering the next question. I return to Outcrop: it is as important now as ever, it seems to me, to counter the aestheticisations of Australia as a pasture and mine. Many poets in Outcrop don’t identify themselves as ecopoets, but many were glad to be collected in an anthology of work that would and has been read for ecological content and sympathy, and I think this is wonderful, but also telling as a commonality in radical investment in poetry. As Justin Clemens said at the anthology’s launch last year, this collection is about poems, not poets, and if it were simply the self-identifying radical poets that were considered radical, then a disappointing (and narcissistic) field of poetry would be the only one considered radical. I am interested in people’s questions for the term. Some poets from the collection were surprised to be called radical when we approached them. That’s okay, but I think the term is charming and honourable and identifies a certain libido. More importantly, it is radical to rethink Australia and land wherein the categories of nation, culture, place, belonging, fealty and reality have apparently changed, the nomination of ‘land’ intensifying the implications of this rethinking. I think of Martin Harrison’s reading of Jennifer Rankin in Who wants to create Australia? where he articulates a poetic phenomenology, inspired by Aboriginal topographical imagination, of being at once on the ground and in the air. I was staggered when I read this. It is geographical, topographical and spatial contributions of poets such as this which necessarily disrupt a purely industrial conception of land, which we are rife with presently. Our environmental imagination is being high-jacked; signs of this are found in the synecdochic poesy of this condition in Gina Rinehart’s “Our Future”:

The globe is sadly groaning with debt, poverty and strife
And billions now are pleading to enjoy a better life
Their hope lies with resources buried deep within the earth
And the enterprise and capital which give each project worth

Rinehart has ingeniously presented the exigency of counter-poetic upheaval on a plate. If you thought poetry was seclusion from these affairs, well even the rhyming couplet is not safe, and whether you like it or not, politicised. Rinehart’s is a poetics of so blatant an inversion of environmental priority and repulsive elision of what in fact is “groaning”—to think it is “debt, poverty and strife” the globe is “groaning with”!—and is blatant high-jackery of environmental harmonics, Virgil’s buzzing bees here transformed to workers, zones, ore and —the saviour—enterprise. But, I argue this is the state of affairs in the present majority of Australia’s environmental imagination, the sense that our future does not exist without the strong borders of “enterprise” and “capital”. Australia’s imagination is so impoverished that “Our Future” marks a collective anxiety about our socio-economic future and totemises it in its favourite rhyming couplet verse.

Certainly, by contrast with Gina Rinehart’s poem, most poetry appears radical. But, better than this, I should add that an expansion of the aesthetic, poetic and ethical imagination in a radical way, that renders old conceptions of nation and culture insolvent, is necessary to activism and metaphysics which consider a better future. Poetics is more complex than simply critique or celebration; it is a rewriting of the conditions of thinking and meaning as such. I’m very Rancierian about this, but generally very Frankfurt School, I think: change the actors and the spectators!

JB: We’d been deliberating and conversing on the term “radical” in relation to poetry, in an Australian context, for some time prior. While it’s a term which resonates deeply for each individual with varying meanings attached to it, it perfectly encapsulates or alludes to a great many things we were bringing together and it’s this diversity of discourse within the same volume that is important here. In many ways we felt that there was no other descriptor which could achieve this.

Broadly, the radical here disrupts or makes aware, and to me, this is exciting.

If your question is asking whether we define ecopoetry in general as being radical, we are not.

It’s important also to view Outcrop in the context of Black Rider Press and its overall trajectory. This isn’t a standalone publication (albeit the term radical is only used in the context of Outcrop), but is part of a broader ecosystem, including Black Rider presents forward slash and its follow up later this year, The Diamond and the Thief series, Black Rider presents Lyrics chapbook series with coming editions by Jill Jones, Ali Alizadeh and Louis Armand, the Sound of the Black Rider audio series, the Last Hurrah events, novels by JJ Deceglie and Levin A Diatschenko, Matthew Hall’s poetry collection and the coming debut poetry collection by Tim Wright.

AE: On the question of what is radical—and both the notion of something organic and rooted and the sense of a certain activist political orientation come to mind—what do you see as the role of poetry in negotiating the interplay between ecological engagements with country and postcolonial commitments to land rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples?

CW: I see no role for poetry, and certainly not as any kind of negotiator. This is the language of instrumentalising poetry for a common good in a world where common goods are the first bastion of ideological manipulation. There is a certain kind of civic-mindedness and tendentiousness written into the consideration of where poetry should be and might be positioned. I mentioned earlier, however, that I see poetry as vital to activism and utopia, if they are to be conceiving in symbolic and material terms as yet inconceivable and unmanifest. This is why poetry for me is new thinking welcomely undisciplined, and as such inhering in other codes, inhering in activism and metaphysics; it is a dimension of language which is a language.

Poetry is another language, and the preferred language of a number of significant Aboriginal activist-poets. Lionel Fogarty in “Aphorism Wealth Grazier” in Outcrop writes: “Geography is seen over infinite / when eternal / seen in Aboriginals spaces.” If the conditions for seeing geography “infinite / when eternal / seen in Aboriginals spaces” is in a state of ruination in the popular Australian imaginary, I think poetry is the language where we find the conditions in which to manifest this future articulated, where the citizen of Australia’s postcolonial predicament can access an aesthetic community that engages its possibility. There is no more modern poet than Fogarty on these terms, where the modern ruin of Australian life ignorant of Aboriginal heritage and knowledge is precisely the site in which Fogarty stages his most direct protest but also richest and most delirious metaphysics of catastrophic change:


It is this combination of protest and imagination which I think is so extreme in Fogarty’s work, and testament to the significance of poetry in these affairs and how influential it can be. But I would never call Fogarty a civic-minded poet or a negotiator of an interplay between ecology and postcolonial commitments. Ecology and land rights are discoursed upon in Fogarty’s work, but they are no longer themselves when he illustrates contemporary Australia as a “MUTUAL FEVER”, “AIR MINGLED A SPIRIT OF COLOURED LUNAR […] COMIC BIZARRE DEATH TRIBAL MODERN”.

To understand the twenty first century as a tumult and palimpsestic accretion of cryptographic traces of events is to be ecological with history and modernity, because it understands surface efflorescence as not just the behaviour of plants and surface dwellers, but of a magnificent ecological network of interdependence, catalysis of decay, metamorphosis, and reliance upon long temporalities of predication. I would argue that poetry which deals with the interplay between ecology and Aboriginal land rights that you mark better come to terms with the manner in which the past is written into the future-orientation of the present. I believe poetry can encourage decipherment, unbearable sensitivity, and an archaeological sense of manners.

AE: How would you situate Outcrop in relation to the earlier The Ground Aslant: An Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry, edited by Harriet Tarlo, in the United Kingdom?

CW: The Ground Aslant to me is highly consistent in documenting contemporary post-pastoral writing coming out of the British poetry scene, although in such a way that turned away from Cambridge Poetry’s contribution to landscape and phenomenology in contemporary British poetry. It is an immersive anthology conscious of the slow time of landscape and place, and was influential for Jeremy and me not only for some of its appealing poetry, but also as an indicator of how radically different Australian writing of landscape is, without necessarily consciously rejecting the Romantic and Black Mountain forebears to that work.

To my mind, Outcrop’s poetry is far more invested in the problems of movement in time and space in poetry, far more incredulous towards phenomenological experience of place as an authenticator or substantiator of the land, its history and its objects. For reasons discussed earlier, Australia’s non-Indigenous establishment, its incomplete recovery of Indigenous environmental manners and social life, and its plagued unconscious, mean our poetry’s sensitivity to encounter with land is enormously different. Moreover, shared inspiration from Romantic and American traditions manifest very differently; think of the difference between Minter’s open fields to Peter Riley’s, though we may read the Olson antecedence partly in both. I can’t help but see Australian poetry as more enlightened in this respect, that there is no immediate encounter with nature that supersedes a mediated one and that language is the first mediation; it is as if English’s bastardy as culturally genocidal, contaminated and contaminating, is better interrogated by us. There is a falsity of purity, it seems to me, propagated in The Ground Aslant, and hence an unknowing that much of the lexicon used, as it specifies to cope with micro-detail, renders itself more and more alien. Remember that I really enjoyed The Ground Aslant, but I’m making distinctions for clarity’s sake. I’m most sympathetic, as goes ecocritics, to Jed Rasula here, where even the archive of literary knowledges is understood palimpestically, hence promiscuously, cross-germinatingly, grown from the shit of others, and itself shit in another state of being, but belated. Outcrop shows that Australian poets are polyphonic and polymathic, but not in terms of languages understood by different cultural groups, but in intra-cultural and extra-cultural terms, in terms of demotic, sound, citation and register. Since poetry is made of words, it struck me that landscape was not even legible in the same visual way when considering the experimental registers Australian poets write land in. Michael Farrell knows, for example, that one of the few possible illustrators of his own poetic landscapes is the amazing Chilean Australian painter Juan Davila, one of whose paintings is the cover to Michael’s book open sesame. In the eighties, it probably looked like Juan Davila’s paintings were a trenchant satire of Australian culture. Sure, they are. But in the twenty-first century, we now know that Davila is a prophet, and that his paintings paint Australia as it is, hybrid and deranged, both for better and for worse.

So, in short: Outcrop might be situated along with The Ground Aslant (UK) and The Arcadia Project (USA) as a collection unafraid of the polymathic and palimpsestic impossibilities of mapping land, wherein draughtsmanship and survey are the tools of the land speculator, not the poet, wherein pasture and garden are political spaces, wherein protest and comedy have a place in studying landscape, wherein myth can and will necessarily be rewritten, wherein the subject’s encounter with space is not limited to one habitus, one language, and one affective colour palette. The simplest answer to what it isn’t really for me to say is that Outcrop is Australian.

JB: Certainly The Ground Aslant was a reference as it came before and is a fantastic collection. Heavily influential was also the brilliant anthology The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (Ahsahta Press, 2012), edited by Joshua Corey and GC Waldrep in the US. We didn’t mirror their classification system (or classify within the book at all for that matter), but it is interesting nonetheless as the book is structured according to “New Transcendentalism”, “Textual Ecologies”, “Local Powers”, and “Necro-Pastoral”. I’m also particularly influenced by the journal Ecopoetics in how it describes itself as an exploration of the “creative-critical edges between making and writing”.

Another absolutely vital differentiator is that those collections published a single or a small number of poems from each included poet. This is of course beneficial for a very broad inclusion. The Arcadia Project, for example, includes one or two pieces from almost 100 poets each. Outcrop in turn offers more space and length for the individual work of the 20-included poets, which meant offering readers the opportunity to engage with longer forms, suites or a substantial selection of each poet’s work.

AE: In relation to the last question, what is the significance for you in the shift from landscape to land in the subtitles of the two books?

CW: To add to my answer partly begun about the shift from landscape to land is that landscape is a series of visual and terrestrial directives which I think poetry does not necessarily follow. For this reason, it is generally an unpopular thing to call poetry of a genre called “landscape”, studies of Romantic poetry for example are described in terms of place, nature, and more popularly now, ecology. It is again the primacy of visuality for describing experience, to echo Brian Massumi in Parables for the Virtual, for example, which misunderstands I think what poetry is capable of even simply regarding the senses. Poetry instead synthesises but also negates the senses, marking very particular sensoria, a subject I am particularly interested in, and so I think the encounter with land in these poems is better understood by the reader if they understand that the poems encounter land, rather than landscape, in radical ways. Ali Cobby Eckermann’s elegiac poems are not landscape poems; they are very careful and immediate encounters with textures and materiality, and encounter land as a living memorial. The land in Peter Minter’s poems is metamorphous, ecstatic; no one landscape could come to terms with the phases of place and feeling that shuttle through these works. Indeed, the scientific predicates on which ecology is built would dispute the category “landscape” also. What is a volcano without tectonics and lava? What are sand dunes without the wind? What is the Yarra’s colour without the city of Melbourne? Land seems to me to better suggest these ecologies than does the term landscape.

JB: To add to this, it is the simplicity of the phrase “poetry of land”, while including or enabling for landscapes, ecologies, sensory experiences, ethical discussions and the encounters Corey mentions, which is particularly beautiful for me. I’ve grown increasingly inspired by this phrasing, and use it more frequently in this regard than any other. Land is a very small word, and yet, oh the enormities!

AE: Thank you, Corey and Jeremy, for your insightful responses. I resonate with your questioning of the notion that poetry might have a “role” or might “negotiate” anything. But as you comment in relation to The Ground Aslant, there is difference in the Australian writing you are publishing which is related to what I would call an ongoing colonialism—a past that is never past (to cite Derrida). For me, “landscape” does not fit here and reminds me of some imported nineteenth century English (and more generally European) ways of seeing, painting and writing, which many of us have inherited but also to some extent resist. “Land” to me is also problematic and I wonder if it is sometimes helpful to think more specifically in terms of “country”, however contested, e.g. Bunurong/Boon wurrung country where I live in Seaford.

Coming back to poetry and agency, my feeling is that a poem is a thing in its own right, with its own material agency, but that we cannot know in advance what might be the effects on anything (e.g., readers, cultures) of a particular poem. Nonetheless, there may be a deliberateness in the making of a poem that is performative of the poet’s commitments, but also of their (often unconscious) shaping by things such as class, race and culture (e.g. the unacknowledged privilege of whiteness).

Do you have any thoughts on these further reflections or anything else you would like to add?

CW: I think your thoughts about lexical choices and the ethical significance of Country are very important. I suppose I would be reluctant to call Outcrop an anthology of poems of Country, since that would be assigning a custodianship I have no right to assert. Moreover, it would mean closing off, from an editorial vantage, these poems being read within the problematics you mark. I don’t feel it is my place to redeem them along the lines of an ideal ethical contiguity, but I admire readers that would do so; I think Susan Pyke’s review of Outcrop in Plumwood Mountain reads the collection mindful of the ethics of Country. This is a wonderful conversation to spur with poetry. Evidently, this is a polyvocal conversation already going on in Australia’s radical poetry, and certainly beyond Outcrop.

Corey Wakeling and Jeremy Balius are the editors of Outcrop: radical Australian poetry of land, published by Black Rider Press in 2013. More information about this and Black Rider’s ethos and other publications can be found here.

Anne Elvey is managing editor of Plumwood Mountain journal. Her personal research and poetry blog Leaf Litter can be found here.


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