Dr. Stuart Cooke on Lyre: An Interview with Queensland's own Poet-Academic
In this interview, we chat about Dr. Stuart Cooke’s poetry collection, Lyre, the global poetic community, how we can become better readers of poetry and upcoming works.
Dr. Cooke is an academic, poet, senior lecturer and translator based at Griffith University’s Gold Coast and Nathan campuses. He is a recipient of the Gwen Harwood, Dorothy Porter and New Shoots poetry prizes. His breathtaking collection of avant-garde poems, Lyre, came out in 2019, showcasing Australia’s flora, fauna and landscapes on their own, non-human terms. Making us reconsider where art comes from and who (or what) can create art in the first place.
TCI: What does poetry mean to you?
SC: Poetry is everything. Not in some sort of bland, hallmark greeting card sense. I feel like for me, poetry identifies patterns and expressions from which life comes and on which life is necessary. It’s much more than certain kinds of language forms in one language or another. In that sense, I’m less interested in particular conventions or linguistic traditions of poetry than I am in poems from anywhere which are interested in poetry as a form of structuring experience, or as a form of producing experience.
TCI: How can poetry be used to learn more about the world, beyond the ego of the writer?
SC: I can talk about that in terms of my own work, but I suppose I should preface it by saying I’m quite interested in different kinds of work that seek to defer, or place in the background, the fore-brain or the ego of the writer. I don’t want to sound dogmatic about this. There were for example, the Conceptual poets in the United States and Canada. They were quite dogmatic about processes of composition that didn’t foreground the ego at all. But I think there’s a place for egocentric writing. I’ve become more interested in how much richer my work becomes when I don’t necessarily silence the ego — I don’t have a religious identification with this, or a spiritualist practice where I’m seeking that silencing the ego. But, when I allow the ego to enter into relation with what’s going on around me it tends to produce, what I think, is a much more rich, interesting and exiting kind of writing. That’s something that’s been developing for me over the past ten years. I realized that the more I composed my work sitting outside as opposed to in a relatively bland space like a study or office, the more my work would surprise me. I wouldn’t think of it really even as my work, but as the record of an interaction with a certain moment, which made the work feel almost like a moment in itself. Which would then also give me a lot of pleasure when I let go of the work, because it didn’t feel like it’s just mine, or just deeply personal to me. It’s something that was born out of an interaction with the world, and that means it needs to go out into the world, to go on living as it were.
TCI: What is the significance of the lyrebird to your collection Lyre?
SC: In Lyre, I’m very interested in composing in relation to the wider world, but also foregrounding without any irony at all, the different kinds of poetics, articulation and making that are going on in all these other species. So, the centrality of the lyrebird is not a symbol in the book, it’s not making reference to some kind of set of priorities or cultural terms that I’m trying to get everyone to think about. Rather, the lyrebird in the book, specifically the Albert’s lyrebird functions almost like an aesthetic totem in that the way I composed the book was thinking very much about Albert’s lyrebird poetics. Reading a lot about the Albert’s lyrebird, spending a lot of time in its habitat, not always finding lyrebirds, but finding enough of them. So, you have this bird who’s practice of poetics is based on what we could call a kind of collage, but there’s also improvisation and a kind of confessional poetics going on as well. It’s necessarily a poetics totally grounded in the place in which that particular lyrebird lives. As I was writing Lyre, I was thinking about what the lyrebird was doing while I was making each of those poems. So, every poem draws on not just my own experience with that particular species, but it also includes cut-up and collage from different scientific literatures, from other poets and occasionally other novelists who had written about that species. All of that was included into a big, rough draft, which after many, many revisions was sculpted and molded and changed to end up in the final poem that you see on the book. The lyrebird will spend many hours, not just during breeding season, but all year round, rearranging, rehearsing, revising, and polishing his composition, a continual state of revision. I wasn’t trying to reference the lyrebird in the way that it appears in a lot of Australian poetry as some sort of Orphic seer. Even though these poems have that Orphic element to them, in the way I’m going around and singing up all these different species.
TCI: Will the future of poetry tend toward that collaborate style of writing?
SC: In many ways, that kind of citational writing and people’s comfort with it is much more advanced in academic writing than a lot of contemporary literature. Is this the future of poetry? I would like to say yes. And it’s not just me, there are a lot of other poets using citational procedures and different modes of collage in their work, and to be honest, have been for a while. What concerns me about a lot of contemporary poetry and fiction as well is maybe tied up with what we’ve seen in last couple of decades with the explosion of interest in memoir. People, rather than collage and writing relationally, seem to be in a moment where they are more interested in ‘authenticity’. What people really want is your own voice, your truth the particularities of your experience that they can read. Rather than writing which tries to interrogate or deconstruct this notion of the individual. In terms of critical theory, this is stuff that’s been going on for decades. But it’s almost like creative writing has reacted against that and retreated into a much older understanding of the self and the ego: as being based on this essential biography that belongs to you and you only. If you articulate that biography, and your individuality that’s like the highest goal of the writer. I say this with weariness because of course, that kind of mode of self-expression is extremely important for particularly people from non-majority or non-normative backgrounds, politically, to articulate those individual perspectives. But the kind of problem with the culture we’re in at the moment is that it seems now that mode has become, rather than an important way to articulate non-normative realities, the only mode, which is important, or the only legitimate mode. Everything else has receded or become ‘elitist’ if you are trying to search out more than the strictures of your own self. I would love to think that what you’re talking about is the future, but honestly, I feel like we’re in a reactionary moment. You kind of see the same thing after high Modernism with your James Joyces and your Virginia Woolfs. Fiction just contracted into this incredibly conservative reaction to all of that. And I feel like we’re kind of doing that now as well. We had this incredible explosion of poetics over the last couple of decades, toward the end of the twentieth century. I don’t think it will be the future at least for the next couple of decades, which depresses me.
TCI: Do you still write creative-nonfiction and memoir?
SC: I’ve always dallied in creative prose slash lyric-essay, not so much fiction. Because it’s just this incredible freedom to write in such a different mode. Especially if you spend so much time writing work like Lyre, it seems almost incredibly indulgent and incredibly low energy to just sit down and think about yourself and just write about it for a few thousand words. It’s almost like, I can’t believe I’m even allowed to do this. I don’t want to say easy, I don’t mean to denigrate that kind of work, but I mean it requires less exertion and exploration and testing or searching. Over the years I’ve started thinking about not just the lyric essay as not just a mode for me to talk about something that happened to me and how upsetting I thought it was and how it reminded me something in my childhood. For example, a couple of years ago I wrote this speculative essay — in part it was like a travelogue, like a fantastical journey through Brazil based notionally on my own trip to Brazil. That became a way of exploring speculative relationships between Brazil and Australia, historically and ecologically. But in the mode of writing that essay, it was highly fragmented, and I could see parts of those fragments functioning more as prose poems and because it was an essay. It then allowed me to have these moments of highly personal reflection plus I could also have a very academic formatting with references and citations and quotes. I stumbled on that and realized this is a medium that allows me to encompass everything I do as a poet and as a scholar in this one space. But that’s still very emergent, I haven’t written a lot of it. It’s something I think more about because the poetry community is relatively small, although it’s large in a global sense. When you’re writing poetry, you know exactly who you’re writing for and who is going to like your work, or who isn’t. When you write prose it’s like you’re sending that work out into a much larger pool and you realize very quickly, even just with reviews, or prose you write about poetry. You realize they’re receiving much more attention than the poems themselves. It gives you a sense of liberty perhaps, after spending a lot of time in poetry and thinking about poetry, to do something else. It has it’s drawbacks too, but it’s something I’ve been thinking more about as the years go on.
TCI: Do you think the poetry readership isn’t paying attention to all the new work coming out?
SC: It’s tricky. Honestly, and I’m not the only one that has this opinion, I think the problem isn’t that people aren’t reading contemporary work. Most contemporary poets are reading a lot of contemporary work. The problem is readers of poetry are too parochial and too provincial. So, very few readers of Australian poetry would have any real engagement with poetry from anywhere else— or would have any real engagement with the histories of poetry, the different traditions, the different cultures of it. It’s kind of unfortunately the same in much of the English-speaking world, the UK’s a bit different, but even in the US, where there’s obviously so much more poetry, it’s still very provincial and readers of poetry tend to just read the poetry coming out n their immediate communities and pay little attention to anything else. The problem with that is it produces a very a-historical understanding of poetry. Every five minutes someone’s proclaiming this new book, or this new poem to be the greatest poem ever, or the most revolutionary poem ever without any understanding of how new or unusual that poem, or that form is in relation to the thousands of years of poetics prior to this moment. And no just in English, that’s the other thing. Readers in English are appallingly bad at reading work from other languages. They almost make a political point of it by saying ‘I don’t like reading work in translation because I worry about what’s gotten lost in the original poem’ and so on. Which is a way of enforcing an intellectual ignorance. It’s not specific to the particular poet, sure in some cases you make that claim, but in other cases a poet might have had his work translated and might be really eager for you to read it. Trying to justify it as some kind of facile ethical principal, it’s a real shame. It really stands out, the poets who read widely, they’re in a much longer time scale, so what’s happening now is of much less relevance to them, because you’re thinking of time scales of hundreds if not thousands of years.
TCI: What are you working on right now?
SC: In the summer I was working on two long, scholarly essays: one was about taking elements of Lyre and focusing on trees and tree poetics, the other essay was about the ‘Baroque’ as a term that we use to talk about a period of European art but looking at it in terms of poetics. But since then, I’ve been working on something totally different, this has been my main project for the past year or so. I don’t know exactly what it is, but it’s a prose book about Michael Jackson. It’s totally different to any of this stuff that we’ve been talking about. It will have an element of memoir, but at the moment it’s hard to say whether it’ll be a collection of essays, or a semi-narrative based memoir. Looking at Michael Jackson obviously, it’s much more about popular culture and celebrity and controversy. All the different ways Michael’s body has been written about and Michael’s been written about. It’s a very different set of questions for me. I don’t write a lot about pop-culture. Feels like a very new endeavor.
TCI: How did that idea start?
SC: I’ve always been a big Michael Jackson fan. Probably one of the first artists back in primary school that I consciously was drawn to, he’s someone I have a lifelong history with. Because of that, he’s almost been a soundtrack for all these different key moments of my life. Which means that there’s a kind of relationship, for me, between so many of the discussions of his sexuality and his appearance with the development of my own sexuality. I’m less interested in artist’s biographies and all this stuff that dominates pop culture media. I’m not so interested in what he did here and what happened to him here. I’m interested primarily in the music. The music forms that space for relation, which catalyzes so may memories. So I’m trying to articulate a way of thinking about how we can talk about an artist’s music without always reverting to some kind of biographical reading of who that person is. In the case of a global icon like Michael, it takes that need to an extreme because no one really knows who he is. Literally no one, not even his kids because they were so young when he died. So, what is it that we’re doing when we’re constantly trying to associate him with the music? You’ll have seen Hannah Gadsby’s thing on Netflix, that great critique of Picasso. It’s very different, there’s much more reliable of work about Picasso and who Picasso is, but Michael was growing up in the age of a very different technological culture, and he often himself exploited that sense of who he was. He was literally masked a lot of the time. It’s stuff I’m trying to work out. How do I find a space to express the way this music makes my body feels without it always having to come back to a discussion about who this person was and how problematic someone thinks he was. That’s also bound up with trying to step away from this problematic history, where we just continually take down powerful black men. It just goes on and on, and people will dress it up in so many different guises, and from so many different perspectives but all these dead black bodies get continually dredged up, and re-used and positioned here, and positioned there, and I don’t want to do that. Particularly given that I’m not black. So, I’m trying to figure a way of letting Michael rest in peace, but to deal with the fact that even though he’s gone his music is so alive for so many people. It’s so hard not to fall into this binary— the outcome of a lot of cultural deconstruction is that you end up not even talking about the work because you’ve completely eroded it into this set of cultural relations and power relations, which is all very good. But we lose sense of what drew us to these relations in the first place, which is the work. So, how do we keep the energy of the work central to our thinking while acknowledging that it has Michael Jackson? And yes, of course you can think all these things about Michael Jackson but there’s still the work. But I’m still really confused as to how do I situate elements of my own biography in this process. I do feel that one of the only ways you can articulate any of kind affection for Michael without being seen discredit or dismiss concerns of people who feel he shouldn’t be platformed—especially in the wake of the Leaving Neverland documentary a couple of years ago—is to simply articulate how much he meant to me growing up. Certainly, someone for the first half of my life I almost didn’t even choose to like, I was too young to make those decisions.
TCI: This is such a radically different project for you. Is that to do with being restricted from the travel that informs so much of your work?
SC: Not so much. It’s something I started working on before COVID, but it did derail the project a bit because I wanted to go and spend time at Neverland and I needed to travel to couple of different places to do interviews. I don’t know that I have started thinking consciously about being domestically focused because I’m still reading work from everywhere. In our line of work, one of the benefits of it is that you can do a lot of research just by sitting on a couch, reading books. I’m lucky that Lyre came out just before COVID. I was working on a new book of poems, and I was meant to be in Rome for the last half of last year. I had this fellowship in Rome to work on those poems but had to come home after a month, so that got totally derailed. I do feel like some troubleshooting would need to be done about this Michael Jackson book. I‘ve got this section in the book where I talk about going to Neverland and at the moment it’s purely fiction! I just sat there with Google Maps and all the terrain, writing about everything, pretending I was there on the ground looking at all of it. I would like to go to Neverland and least check that everything is more or less the same as I imagined it.
TCI: What contemporary works, poetry, or fiction, do you recommend?
SC: Recently, I just think of the works that have totally shocked me or surprised me or blown me away, in the past couple of years. For your readers, I would start with recommending two, contemporary Mexican poets whose work has been translated into English, one Gloria Gervitz, another one, Veronica Vólkow. They both have books published by Shearsman, which is a UK press — wonderful translations of their works. And as far as prose, the book that has stood out to me, by far the most original and exiting and the freshest take on the form that I’ve read for so long: It’s Ben Lerner’s first book, Leaving the Atocha Station. Ben Lerner’s a New York poet and novelist. In terms of a piece of fiction, almost auto fiction, it straddles the line between fiction and memoir – but as far as a piece of fiction that’s totally unafraid of big ideas and unafraid of incorporating complex concepts into a smart and racy, crystalline prose, there’s nothing like it that I’ve read for so long.
TCI: As a culture, are we reading enough poetry?
SC: Not at all. I don’t even think most poets are reading enough poetry. As a culture in general, we don’t know how to read poetry, and this is something that I’ve come to realize more after ten years of teaching poetry at an undergraduate level. It’s got nothing to do with the capacity of the reader, the intelligence of the reader or even the education of the reader. Year after year I’ve seen many smart and dedicated students who are otherwise very competent linguistically, in terms of their reading, simply unable to read poems. In the case of a relatively unambiguous poem, educated, good readers will look at that poem, and no matter what the poem is shouting at them they are almost unable to see it and they simply implant on the poem their own perspective. Sometimes it can be kind of extraordinary, you see this where they almost take one word or one phrase from that poem and almost immediately insert that phrase into some larger discourse about whatever, and then go off on this rant about this discourse, having forgotten the poem. Again, I don’t think it has to do with intelligence or education it seems to be with familiarity and the fact most people aren’t used to the pace and level of immersion that’s required to read poetry. It’ll be like the equivalent of introducing television. Most people at first wouldn’t know what to do with this thing and it would take time for them to start rearranging their entire living rooms around it, rearranging their entire schedules around it, developing a sense of what the difference is between a drama and a sitcom, and the difference between current affairs and news. We are so far as a culture from reading a lot of poetry that it’s almost like poetry doesn’t exist. I contrast this because there are different contexts with a country like Chile, which is completely different. In Chile you can talk to taxi drivers, with bus drivers and they will give you passionate opinions about their favorite Neruda poems or their favorite Mistral poems, or why Pablo de Rokha was better than Neruda or why they hate Vicente Huidobro. It’s part of the culture in the same way that people argue passionately about Michael Jackson here, or tell you about whether Game of Thrones is better than Breaking Bad, it’s the same thing with poetry over there. It makes you realize this is a cultural situation. Socioeconomically with a lot more problems than here, but it doesn’t matter. It’s an issue throughout the Anglo world in particular because it doesn’t seem to be as bad in other parts of Europe. In Australia, no one reads poetry, there are just so few good readers. I was just talking with someone from Colombia recently, she hadn’t even finished university, she studied engineering and now she works as a nanny. Not particularly academic, not particularly interested in reading, but still, we had this totally full-on discussion about Gabriel García Márquez, about César Vallejo because she read them all in school, but she read them all in school in such a way that she felt she had some kind of ownership over her reading of them. So, even now, twenty years after she’d been at school, she was able to argue with me about her opinions of their work. And you know, César Vallejo is this super difficult and complex poet, and here’s this person who probably reads a book every five years, still talking about his work in a very intelligent way. It’s not just Chile, it’s throughout Latin America.
TCI: What should we keep in mind while reading poetry?
SC: Understanding what a poem means is not the only way to enjoy a poem. In fact, it’s probably one of the less important ways to enjoy a poem. If you asked what me what many of my very favorite poems are these poem’s are about, I couldn’t tell you. But I love them because they sound great, they sound great, or they’re just full of energy. All kinds of reasons. Often, people tell me themselves that they don’t know a lot about poetry they say, ‘I don’t understand it,’ or, ‘I can’t figure out what it means’, that seems to me a central barrier. Soon as people are told it’s okay if you don’t understand what a poem means, suddenly they seem to give themselves more permission to enjoy it. It’s not as if people who are experienced reading poems have developed this remarkable intelligence than can decipher all the most complex language, it’s just that they’re learnt to become more comfortable with not understanding everything. They’ve learnt to enjoy the non-semantic, or the abstract, or the playful, or the conceptual as opposed to purely prosaic language functions.