Interview with John Mateer – Emptiness


In this edition of Elderspeak, we share three works from one of Australia’s most interesting poets, John Mateer, whose work crosses cultural, geographical and conceptual boundaries with intensity and finesse. In addition to featuring his works: Cremation, Bali, In the Pleasure Quarter and Meeting a Chinese Poet, John connects here with Eleanor Jackson, Peril Poetry Editor/Editor in Chief for this conversation about his latest collection Emptiness: The Asian Poems 1998-2012.

John Mateer

EJ: Thank you, John, for taking the time to share this work from Emptiness. Despite editing an online publication, I remain enamoured with the experience of a book as a physical object – the way that we fall in the inevitable cliché of “judging it by its cover” and the seeming, lovely permanence of a “real object”, in a digitised, ephemeral world. I was struck by the delicious provocation and tension in its cover image (a Rodney Glick sculpture, in which an “Asian” man opens his shirt to reveal the face of another “Asian” man in the centre of his chest), and the ironic proposition that a collection of works covering over a hundred pages, fourteen years and a region as expansive as Asia could nevertheless amount to “emptiness”. Can I start by asking about the choice of title: were you merely providing the answer, as per the Tamura Ryuichi quote you include in the collection, or were you trying to convey something else to a reader picking up this collection for the first time?

JM: Maybe we should begin with the image, Rodney Glick’s sculpture?

That was one of the works he produced in the series Everyone. Each work had a number, and many of them were based on people he knows. While the series is a kind of parody of serial conceptual art systems, it seems to me that it is also akin to the Buddhist idea that every being can be recognized as a Buddha. The sculpture was included in an exhibition I curated for the Perth Centre for Contemporary Arts in 2013, a show intended to open Australian viewers’ eyes to the cultural connections between the west of Australia and other countries on the Indian Ocean rim – Malaysia, Yemen, Iran, Indonesia, Madagascar. Glick’s work is, I believe, based on a Taiwanese Taoist folk sculpture. I liked it for several reasons: although the man appears Asian, one can’t be completely sure of his ethnicity, the face that appears in his chest seems his own but is painted white like a Noh mask, and the way he is opening his shirt reminds me of Clark Kent metamorphosing into Superman.

And this relates to the name of the book: Emptiness. The way the word functions in the title is, I hope, as a kind of loanword, an echoing of a translated concept. Anyone who reads Buddhist philosophy comes across the concept that is translated into the English word “Emptiness”. The paradox of this has been the subject of debate for a long time, in that the idea that what in Eastern philosophies is named “Emptiness” is often conceptualized in the so-called West as a fullness of Being, of light or spirit. The sculpture captures that, the transformation from an everyday person into an icon or spirit or ghostly being.

I’m not sure if in your question you are thinking that I am suggesting the title indicates a kind of vacancy of experience after a decade and a half of travel… I’m not suggesting that at all. If anything, the title is to suggest that my experience has taken me into another realm, allowed me another way of thinking about philosophy and history, and my life.

Besides, Emptiness can be read as a companion volume to my book of Australian poems which is called The West.

EJ: The work is structured in six sections, which appear to group loosely by geography and in turn, somewhat, in tone. I had much less certainty, however, in understanding temporal settings of the poems, which in some senses was a real pleasure – the poems have a strong sense of a recurrent now and an internal gaze, and feel present and attentive as a result, even though the timeline of the work is not explicit. Despite this, the works also feel contemporary and have the air sometimes of reportage, a direct observance, and there is a strong sense of the political, or perhaps post-colonial exchange of travel in your work. From reading your prose work, Semar’s Cave: an Indonesian Journal, I would assume that some of the works written in or about Indonesia must have transpired immediately around the time of President Suharto’s dramatic resignation in 1998. Yet, in Cremation, Bali, for example, I felt both grief and removal from the whoop of the mourners and those ‘comrades’ bound in tyres and torched / hated, during our wartime. Is there something greater than the singular funeral? When was “our” wartime”? What place do you see in your work for these contemporary, contextual factors – for a collection spanning such a long period of time, does the work act as “a chronicle, a diary” or something else?

JM:  That’s an interesting observation – this question of the temporal, and how that is somehow unclear whereas the geography is clear…

Although you as a reader are looking at the book as an entity, ‘a selected poems’, a book gathering together poems written in different places – Medan, Japan, Singapore, Xian, Bali – and the book inevitably has a chronology I carefully structured for this publication, it is actually a small anthology, a small library, if you like. By this I mean almost all the sections of the book were composed to be separate, small publications in their own right, some with the idea that they could be published in their original English and in the language of the place they were about. This didn’t quite eventuate. But the poems in the suite “Mister! Mister! Mister!” did appear in an English-only booklet in Sumatra, and the first set of Japanese poems was published with translations by Keji Minato in Kyoto, while the second suite of Japanese poems came out in a English/Portuguese edition in Lisbon, and the Singapore poems were published together in an Australian-Singapore anthology.

There’s probably another aspect to this strange temporality you have noticed, which is related to my approach to writing about those places. One of the keys to any place is its literature. This is especially important to someone travelling to a new place. As the places I have written about have their own very long histories, particular literatures and traditions of translation, I have tended to think through my experience of travel by contemplating the process of translation. Whether this is in a poem like “Translated Man” in the Sumatran poems, a poem referring to an essay by Salman Rushdie in which he talks about being a person who is required to translate himself, or in my interest in the French poet and archeologist Victor Segalen, who enabled me to think about the way Western writers have fantasied about a Classical China and the poet’s role in it, to me the idea of translation is always important.

One of the things that happens, though, in reading a lot of translation, in thinking a lot about history, is that one’s own language can become ‘uncontemporary’. That might be what you are noticing. That, too, is a way of entering history, of looking back into the past.

You are right in your sense that most of the Indonesian poems were written during the period described in my prose book Semar’s Cave: an Indonesian Journal. I was in Indonesia only a few months after Suharto resigned, an interesting and uncertain time. But the journal itself was written afterwards, as a reconstruction of my stay. It took four years to write, even though my visit was only three months long!

There are a few poems in the Indonesian suite that were not set in Sumatra, two or three of them written more than ten years after the others. The poem “Cremation, Bali” is the only one about Balinese culture. I like that expression you used – “Is there anything greater than a singular funeral?” That is a genuine, philosophical question. What is the significance of death in the midst of any culture? Recently I was reading a lecture by the French philosopher Michel Foucault in which he observes that for centuries the funeral was one of Western culture’s most important events because it marked a period of transition, from this life to the next one…

For me, in watching the cremation of a high-caste Balinese man, what was a fairly large funeral, watching the burning, charred corpse fall out of the coffin out on to the ground, I was reminded of images I saw as a teenager during the conflicts at the end of Apartheid when rival militant groups would attack people they thought were “informers”, for their opponents or the government, by placing a burning, petrol-soaked tyre around their necks.

Of course, this has nothing to do with what I was seeing in Bali. It was merely ‘in my mind’. Yet the fire in Bali and the fire in an almost forgotten era in South Africa are both the fire of death and of transformation.

EJ: I cannot resist asking about works like In the Pleasure Quarter, its lightly troubling intimacies of sexual exchange, the entendre of “tongues” both linguistically and interpersonally, which hint to complexities of the historical and colonial East-West exchange.  In a review, Lucy Van (who is also featured in this edition), noted the “inescapability of a stereotypical Orient – lurid, unknowable, inexplicable, sexual” within the framing of the work – how does this interpretation sit with you?

JM: I really appreciated Lucy’s gracefully side-stepping of the issue in her review of my books Emptiness and Unbelievers, or ‘The Moor’, my book of poems related to things Islamic, in Cordite. After the heavy-handed criticism of a similar issue in one of my earlier books by the Melbourne critic Alison Croggon, and the general anxiety so many male writers seem to feel now, strangely, when talking about heterosexual sex, it was a nice to see, to hear the issues reframed so carefully, so deftly.

Reading her review was moving for me, because Lucy took great care to avoid reducing my work to conventional categories. It gave me the sense that there is, after many years of my thinking otherwise, a readership for this part of my work.

But here I must make the point, and it is as true of Emptiness as it is of several of my other books, that I am interested in the artifice of culture, its theatricality. This is something that is often apparent in eroticism: the role-playing of nationality and race, of “power-relations”. The West has often contemplated Asia through cultural and sexual cliches. The issue for any writer is always how to pass through already existing conventions to produce insightful, engaging work.

It’s interesting to me that that poem often draws attention. It has been translated into several languages. Yet it is actually the second part of a two poem series called “Industry: two kinds”, and I feel that the first part, which is about being in Ueno Park in central Tokyo in the wake of the Asian financial crisis of the late 90s, when there were homeless people camping in a kind of tent city in the park, is a better and deeper poem. Together, the two are about commerce and its exploitation.

While readers might look at “In a Pleasure Quarter” as being about sexuality in the Orient, what is most important to me there is the effect commerce has on language, and the fact that the intermediary in that circumstance was neither Western nor Asian, but African. The issue of language, of English as a common tongue, as a language of a particular kind of cultural death, is the most important aspect of that poem for me. The link between the two poems is the idea of stamping, the action that concludes both.

It reminds me of an image ‘coined’ by George Orwell: “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a face – forever”. Bleak, isn’t it? Yet isn’t that what much of our industry and commerce is doing to the planet, stamping on the face of the past?

In a way, though, aren’t we talking about translation again, when Lucy Van brings up the notion of impressions of the East? Any writer has to think about how they can know the world they want to write about… How can anyone write about a culture that is not one’s own? Yes, of course… But what is it to ‘own’ a culture?

EJ: I once heard a poet say that, at a reading, you could share one poem about being a poet, or about poetry itself, and so I do want to ask one question about poetry itself. Although you write that there is no space in a poem / for The Poet, you evoke both the meditative rapture of the abandon of a poem and the painful ordinariness of life as a professional writer (in many cultural and economic contexts) in Meeting a Chinese Poet. What propels you to write and if you were to write your own Letter to a Young Poet, what would it entail?

JM: That poem was a strange one, based as it was on a dream in which I met Chao Shen, a Chinese poet, a friend from the mid-90s, on a bright day at Fremantle railway station. I don’t recall exactly when I wrote that poem. In fact I think I was rewriting a lost poem. But I would date the poem in the book from around about the time I went to China in 2009, a period when I was constantly thinking of him, wondering what had happened to him. No one I knew had heard from him after he returned there after his two years in Australia.

I’ve now being writing for so long it is hard to recall something as simple as an impulse, the impulse to write. And the idea of giving advice is something anyone should hesitate over. But since you asked me…

I feel that much of my desire to write comes from having ‘second thoughts’ about the world, about what I am expected to believe about it, and about what society tells me to do and know. I am mainly interested in the nature of language and the ambiguity of history. It seems to me that poetry is about articulating one’s own experiences and sense of the world, and so, in a way, I think composing poetry must always require the defying of conventions.

Any advice I would give should be practical: question received knowledge, believe in your own experience, read widely, and learn another languages. If only I could have properly followed my own advice! And, to be banal but also most practical, it is important to support writers and their publishers by buying their books new.

Remember: writing is always the making of an artefact, a piece of future evidence.

Author: Eleanor Jackson

Eleanor Jackson is a Filipino Australian poet, performer, arts producer and community radio broadcaster. Eleanor Jackson is a former Editor in Chief and Poetry Editor of Peril and currently Chair of the Board.