Interview with Stuart Cooke


Stuart CookeStuart Cooke’s poetry has been widely published and recognised with prizes and fellowships, including an Asialink Fellowship to the Philippines. This is the first time we have shared his work here on Peril, and it is a pleasure for us to feature this thoughtful and thought-provoking writer as a part of collaboration with the Queensland Poetry Festival.

I find the idea of ‘home’ to be extremely complicated and sometimes quite unsettling. It is true that I feel ‘at home’ within the walls of my apartment, but beyond that, well, there was once a childhood home, and there have been various temporary homes (usually shared with others) ever since. But in any broader sense, I cannot lay claim to the uncomplicated experience of belonging that ‘home’ suggests, not in this land, & not with my history (familial and personal). I feel that ‘Australia’ is my home, but I don’t know what this is, and I don’t understand entirely the extent of my rights to it or how/if it was ever given to me.

As for Queensland, I’m not sure how it fits into my narrative, but I’m glad that it does. I spent a lot of time in hospital as a teenager, and one time the nurses took us on a special trip up to the Gold Coast. At the time it was the greatest week of my life, and from then on I suppose I’ve looked at Queensland as a place of possibility; everything north of the border has been tinged with very warm and welcoming colours. Except during Origin.

At the moment, because I’ve only been here for a couple of years, ‘Queensland’ is primarily a place of salvation – it’s where I was offered a wonderfully fulfilling and satisfying job after a long and desperate period of unemployment. I’m overwhelmed by the beauty of the Gold Coast’s surrounding environment but, as ever, I’m also attracted to the possibilities that ‘Queensland’ suggests, which for me are predominantly ecological, I suppose: that enormous coast stretching up to Cape York, one of the most remarkable regions left on Earth, is like a star above my idea of the state.

I suppose I have to defer to a terrible cliché here, and say that my extended periods overseas have only made me fonder of my own country. I do love Australia, but I can’t emphasise enough that when I use the word ‘love’ I’m not talking about some kind of ridiculous, chest-beating, flag-wearing, Australia Day hysteria. I use ‘love’ in the way that we might feel about a loved one, someone who might horrify as much as seduce us, whom we love for their flaws as much as for their marvels – love as an openness to the dark along with the light. So, the more I travel the more I am disappointed in my country, in what we take for granted, in what we refuse to recognise, but the more I am convinced that I couldn’t live anywhere else and that, despite anything that might appal me, I am of it and it moves me beyond anything else.

As far as a landscape, as traces of histories and memories and the awe of it at sunset, the only place that has ever come close to Australia for me is Chile. But as much as I love it, I hate that place even more than I hate this one! In my next book, Chile is almost like the negative image of Australia (or vice versa), and the two landscapes speak into one another to produce trans-Pacific songs of mourning and loss. I imagine them to be singing for that time when they were joined. There remain so many vestigial traces of each country in the other, but they are so faint as to be almost trivial amidst the far more pronounced facts of their vast separation.

As a way of constructing a sense of myself, of the polis, and of the land itself, my national identity is probably one of the most important creative constraints in my work. The Settler Australian poet is defined by what s/he knows s/he can’t see, not by what s/he pretends s/he can. The Settler literatures of this country are comprised of a language that scrapes/strikes/strides/scribbles like fragile shards of light through some of the densest, oldest and most intricate layerings on earth.

Thinking in terms of other identity formations, I grew up listening to Michael Jackson and Prince, so at a very deep level I’ve a profound interest in the transgressive potential of sex, and of the fluidity of genre and race and style. I guess it would be easy to point to me and say that I’m a landscape poet or an ecopoet, but I was writing fervently about sex, sexuality and desire long before I knew anything about the colonisation of this continent.

My unease with the term ecopoet is for a variety of not-necessarily-related reasons. Firstly, I have only published one, small collection that deals with ecological theory and poetics in any sustained or concerted way (Departure into Cloud). Apart from that, most of my poems weave in and out of different ecological constellations not in order to explore their natures or alert us to them, but to enrich the organic textures of my language. Anyone interested in real ‘ecopoets’ would do far better to look at people like Julianna Spahr, Angela Rawlings or Jonathan Skinner, or someone like Patrick Jones here in Australia. Secondly, I think a lot of the time people call me an ‘ecopoet’ because of my research publications in ecological theory and ecocritical practice – that is, in finding ecological imprints on the texts we read, and on the ways we understand texts – but I see this as a separate activity to the work of making my own poems. Thirdly, even though it’s very much in vogue now, I’d argue that we need to be very careful with this term, ‘ecopoetry’. This is basically because it’s pretty hard to find a poet who doesn’t talk about some aspect of ecology. Language itself is a biological product, and it integrates us with the air and the earth around us. Even at its most basic, a metaphor operates in a garden. On top of all that, if we’re going to talk about ‘ecological’ poets, then the same old free-verse dreamers can’t come along and assume the title just because they write a lot about birds and oceans (on the basis of a lot of my earlier work you could certainly include me with such types!). The term needs to mean something, and to distinguish something from something else. An ecological poet formally and thematically pursues ecology –coherence, fragility, relation, scarcity, transfer, translation – and isn’t interested necessarily in certain charismatic animals or landscapes. If I had to invent a set of terms for my own poems, I’d say that in general they’re much more pointedly about landscape – with histories of colonisation and repression, with the way human memory comes from land memory, with associations of form and colour and species – than with an overt attempt to speak ecologically.

After the diffusions and proliferations of modernist and post-modernist art over the past century, it seems that the climate crisis has brought us to a point where, despite our myriad local complexities, we must nevertheless cohere at certain points to produce (or suffer from) certain unanimously horrid substances. Along with such global coherence, however, comes a core realisation that we inherited from the turmoil: stasis is over; to quote Pierre Joris, “The past century has shown that anything not involved in continuous transformation hardens and dies.” So the land is certainly “beyond all arguments”, as Philip Hodgins once said, but it is a living thing, with life-spans, memories and innumerable unfathomable geological and biological cultures and complexities. The key as a poet is to be able to encounter this new situation without hiding beneath ideas about older ones. As the human becomes ever-smaller, the poem must be less about one Poet’s imposition of a form and more about the collaboration between subjects (human, non-human) and materials (organic, inorganic): self-emergent form, rather than poems rolling off a factory assembly line.







Sarah Gory

Author: Sarah Gory

Sarah Gory is a reader, writer, and cultural producer. She is the Director of Queensland Poetry Festival, and has previously worked with Queensland Writers Centre, National Young Writers Festival, and Oxfam Australia. She has had short stories published in The Lifted Brow and Stilts.