Poetry and politics in Joel Deane's Magisterium
Transcript of interview on ABC radio's The Book Show
Ramona Koval: Poets can be chameleon-like creatures who live in multiple worlds, only occasionally revealing their poetic skin. Recently I spoke to the poet Pi O, who leads a life a mild-mannered draughtsman for the Victorian Titles Office by day, with an alternative life as one of our most important experimental super-poets in the rest of the time. Well our next guest, Joel Deane, lives his life alternately as a poet and as a political speechwriter. But somehow, in his latest collection, called Magisterium, these two universes have collided. Writer Michael Gurr has just read Magisterium, and when he spoke to Joel Deane, he suggested that the reason poetry isn't more popular is that it frightens people.
Joel Deane: Yes. It's not a form that people read every day or see every day, and I think that a lot of poets are writing for other poets, rather than for non-poets. And it's been lost to the public to a degree.
Michael Gurr: How did that happen? Is it the way we're introduced to it in school, as a sort of medicine?
Joel Deane: I think so. I hated poetry at school. I was writing poetry and I was at the time in year 12 and I hated poetry and didn't do very well at English Lit as a result.
Michael Gurr: Do you remember your first encounter with poetry?
Joel Deane: I think my first encounter with poetry would have been nursery rhymes, like everybody else. So that was it. But the first real poet that I loved was Emily Dickinson—and Robert Frost—they were the two that really blew me away as a 16-year-old.
Michael Gurr: What was it that caught your attention about Emily Dickinson?
Joel Deane: Just she had this fabulous sense of doom...which is great for a 16-year-old. My first poetry was an imitation of her poetry. A good person to imitate, but I'm not Emily Dickinson, unfortunately.
Michael Gurr: Have you kept those suitcases of adolescent gloom?
Joel Deane: They're under my mum and dad's house and hopefully they'll remain there.
Michael Gurr: Safely buried for later...what about Robert Frost? What was it that caught your attention about Frost?
Joel Deane: I loved North of Boston, which is his second collection of poetry. It's the first collection of poetry I ever read, and it just astonished me. There's just a great wisdom, and he had a sense of sound. It was the first time I was aware of the sound that words make, and they were just perfectly made poems, as far as I could see, and I didn't know how he made them. He was the person that influenced me the most.
Michael Gurr: It strikes me we shouldn't be frightened of it as a form, we're surrounded by it. In song lyrics...
Joel Deane: That's right.
Michael Gurr: ...advertising. It's kind of everywhere. Was it the first kind of writing that you did?
Joel Deane: Yes, it was. And it's the writing that I go back to. And I think that for me, all writing comes from poetry because poetry is all about the sounds that words make when you bang them together; rhythm, rhyme—not necessarily all the time—puns and plays on words, that's what we do. And it's a spoken-word art form originally, so it's everyday speech in a lot of respects.
Michael Gurr: This volume is called Magisterium, tell me what the title means.
Joel Deane: The magisterium comes from my Catholic upbringing. That's the Catholic church's authority to determine spiritual truth. So Magisterium the book is my attempt at seeking spiritual truth, personal truth and political truth.
Michael Gurr: Three in one.
Joel Deane: Pretty much.
Michael Gurr: It's a very personal book, or it seems to be. But to what degree is all poetry a kind of exaggeration?
Joel Deane: I think that the term 'poetic licence' comes in to it. It's not autobiographical but all poetry—it's all lies, in some respects, isn't it, because nothing can be like the reality we're living. What you're writing comes from that, so no, it's not me but it's come from me...
Michael Gurr: A distilled or exaggerated you.
Joel Deane: Oh, yes. It's an amplification of feeling, of form, of a moment in time.
Michael Gurr: Do you have any sense of who your reader is? You mentioned that poets are often writing for other poets, which is just part of the market, I guess. But is there an ideal reader, is there someone you think of when you're writing?
Joel Deane: Probably my ideal reader...my hardest reader would be my wife, Kirsten. But I'm not writing for her, and I don't have a reader in mind, to be honest, I'm just trying to make poems that are as close to that perfection that I found as a teenager with Frost.
Michael Gurr: One of the poems in this book is a reply to a poem by Judith Wright. Tell me how that came about.
Joel Deane: Well, my wife and I...we lost three children through childbirth. One stillborn and two through miscarriage. And I found myself reading that 'Woman to Man' poem by Judith Wright to the exclusion of all else for a couple of weeks. And it just is a poem of enormous power, to me. And in the end I wrote that poem which uses the same rhyme scheme as Judith Wright's poem, in response to her poem. I wasn't planning to or intending to, it just happened, it just came out of almost a meditation on that poem.
Michael Gurr: Is that an unusual thing, or is there a sense of poetry often being in conversation with other poetry?
Joel Deane: I think there is a sense of poems responding to other poems. Poems responding to music, to paintings. It is a conversation. But ultimately the best poetry comes from somewhere within. It's not just some sort of hollow echo. The Judith Wright poem is about a woman waiting to have a baby and she's addressing her partner, the 'Man to Woman' poem is about a man after the loss of a child, addressing his partner. So it came from somewhere.
Michael Gurr: Let's talk a little bit about the political speechwriting. How did you come to be doing that? It's an odd job.
Joel Deane: It is a very odd job. I came to be doing it because of my poetry, funnily enough. I was working as press secretary for Bob Hulls, the attorney-general in Victoria, and in 2004 the premier needed a new speechwriter and my name was mentioned because I had a novel that was coming out and I published a bit of poetry. And they thought well maybe you can write, and Steve Bracks was looking for someone who didn't write, you know, like it came from a software program.
Michael Gurr: You describe yourself as 'very bloody political'. When did the political conviction kick in?
Joel Deane: The political conviction kicked in with Jeff Kennett when I saw what he was doing in the early 90s, but my politics comes from my upbringing. I come from a DLP family, grew up watching Bob Santamaria on the TV and thinking that Gough Whitlam was the antichrist. Obviously my views have changed a lot since then. But I've always been very political. And my poetry and my writing and politics have come together with this job, so I feel very fortunate and privileged to be doing what I'm doing.
Michael Gurr: When we think of political speechwriters, in Australia anyway, the names that jump up are people like Graham Freudenberg, Don Watson, oh, to some extent Bob Ellis; but they're all people on the left. Why do we not have the same sense of speechwriters coming from the right?
Joel Deane: Well there are a couple of others. There's Tony Abbott, Alan Jones...
Michael Gurr: But we don't think of them as primarily speechwriters, we think of them for something else.
Joel Deane: That's true. I think that there is something about the Labor party. The Labor party does have a sense of romance and a literary history that goes side-by-side with some of the power-dressing and bad ties.
Michael Gurr: The pointy-heads and the bleeding-hearts.
Joel Deane: Exactly. The bleeding hearts to paraphrase Watson, yes. And I think that it does seem to attract those sorts of people. And obviously I've read Watson. I've read Freudenberg and Ellis to a lesser degree, and they're all people of note, people of substance.
Michael Gurr: And the left is probably a little bit better at mythologising itself.
Joel Deane: Yes. It's not so busy trying to make a million dollars.
Michael Gurr: Okay. The poetry and the politics come together in this book most explicitly in a poem called 'Hansard'. Before we hear it, can you just tell us where this poem comes from?
Joel Deane: Yes. This poem is a cut-and-paste job. I've never written a poem like it before. I took the maiden speeches of several—now former—federal ministers and decided to write for Hansard using their language.
Michael Gurr: And they're from both sides of politics?
Joel Deane: No, they're not, to be fair, they're from the Alan Jones side of politics, I suppose.
Michael Gurr: Let's hear 'Hansard'.
Joel Deane: [Reads from Australia and Australians. There is no limit ... to ... I, you, we, thank the House for the courtesy it has extended to me.]
Michael Gurr: Is there a speech that you've written that you're particularly happy with, and if there was, what was the occasion?
Joel Deane: That's a very good question. I'm generally not happy with any speech I write. The speech I was most relieved with was the campaign launch for the 2006 state election, because that was the biggest speech I've written, so that was probably considering everything at stake the one I was happiest with. But there's been a lot of other smaller speeches that I've taken a lot of pleasure out of, but that's a big one for me.
Michael Gurr: Is it a completely different room in the mind to what I'll call your 'real' writing, which is the poetry, or do they occasionally intersect?
Joel Deane: They do intersect. The thing that I found is poetry is really important to my speechwriting. I read a lot of poetry and if I'm not reading poetry then my speechwriting suffers. Because the performance aspect of it, the fact that speeches are spoken word, just like poetry, so the sense of rhythm and sound, that comes from poetry. I'm not saying my speeches are poetry, but it's informed by them.
Michael Gurr: Political language of course is very sanitised now because nobody wants to make a misstep, which must be pretty frustrating for a speechwriter. Someone said that you campaign in poetry and—I can't remember who said it—and you govern in prose. Is there truth in that? You've worked from both sides.
Joel Deane: Yes. I think it's a lot more fun for people like me when you're in opposition, to be honest.
Michael Gurr: How come?
Joel Deane: Because there is no prose. It's all poetry.
Michael Gurr: It's a big, blank canvas.
Joel Deane: It is.
Michael Gurr: Do you know many politicians who read much poetry?
Joel Deane: No. No, I don't. My former boss, Rob Hulls, has criticised my poetry. When I had one published in the paper, in The Age, he sort of said to me, 'Mate, mate, mate...it's not rhyming—that's not poetry.' And he sent me a note for the book launch of Magisterium which—actually I've got it here, it says, 'Dear Joel, sorry I can't find time for the poet who can't rhyme. Good luck tonight.'
Michael Gurr: Charming! Would it help if they did read a bit more poetry?
Joel Deane: Yes, I think it would.
Michael Gurr: What would you recommend?
Joel Deane: Magisterium...no, I think I would recommend that they start with some of the best, the annual 'best of' collections and work their way from there. I'd always recommend Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson, obviously. I think Les Murray would be a must.
Michael Gurr: Let's hear another one. And this is a much more personal poem. It's a poem called 'Requiem'. Do you remember when this poem dropped in?
Joel Deane: Yes, this was the first poem that I wrote for the collection, and I wrote it just after the state election in 2006, and it was really when I was dealing with the sense of grief, and I was trying to find a way to not just write about myself. And so this poem informed the rest of the poems that followed.
Michael Gurr: Let's hear it.
Joel Deane: [Reads from Perhaps those archetypes of immortality, the beautiful doomed... to ...that we love this life we are leaving and are unafraid of the next.]
Michael Gurr: 'Unafraid of the next'... it's a kind of prayer, isn't it?
Joel Deane: It is.
Michael Gurr: Is spiritual faith part of where your writing comes from?
Joel Deane: It is, a struggle with spiritual faith, yes, that definitely is where a lot of my writing comes from.
Michael Gurr: What does the struggle involve?
Joel Deane: Trying to work out what I believe. Faith is not a black-and-white thing; it's all very, very grey. And I'm not one of those who's blessed with absolute certainty about anything.
Michael Gurr: The struggle is where the poetry comes from.
Joel Deane: Exactly.
Michael Gurr: The best bits of The Divine Comedy are 'Hell' and 'Purgatory'. Paradise does get a little dull.
Joel Deane: It does. I prefer Hell.
Michael Gurr: What are you working on now?
Joel Deane: I'm just polishing a novel...
Michael Gurr: What's it about?
Joel Deane: It's about death, really. Again. It's a nasty novel. It's about death and violence in mythology and men. It's called 'The Norseman's Song' and it's an imagined history going back to a forebear of mine who jumped ship in Melbourne who was a Norwegian. So I'm imagining what if he was some sort of a wild mass murderer.
Ramona Koval: Can hardly wait for that. Poet and political speechwriter Joel Deane speaking there to writer Michael Gurr. Joel's new collection of poetry called Magisterium is published in Australia by Australian Scholarly Publishing.
Title: MagisteriumAuthor: Joel Deane
Title: MagisteriumAuthor: Joel Deane
Publisher: Australian Scholarly PublishingISBN 978 1 74097 179 9