John Mateer was born in Johannesburg, and is based in Perth, Australia, but travels frequently. He has published books in Australia, the UK, Austria and Portugal, and smaller publications elsewhere, including Sumatra and Macau. His latest books are The West: Australian Poems 1989-2009, Emptiness: Asian Poems 1998-2012 and Unbelievers, or ‘The Moor’. Forthcoming are a selection of his Australian poems in German, The Scar-tree, and a Portuguese version of Unbelievers. His only work of fiction, The Quiet Slave: a History in Eight Episodes, describes the founding of the settlement on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands through the eyes of a Malay slave.
The Quiet Slave
“My new work is about the Malays who were taken, around 1815, in slavery to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, now an Australian territory (since 1955). The person who took them there was an Englishman named Alexander Hare.
“The book is published in concurrent English and Malay (standard Malay), and it has also been translated into Jawi, the Arab-Malay script. It was translated by Nur-El-Hudda Jaffar, and the transcriber is Alfian Kuchit. The Cocos-Malay do have their own dialect. It was an interesting translation process. In Malay you have a lot of compound words. Often, but not always, reduplication is used to make a plural, as there are no plural forms in Malay – the result is that you have a lot of long sentences.
“About 500 Cocos-Malay families live in Katanning, Western Australia, they’ve lived there since the 1970s. They spoke Cocos-Malay as a first language and might have been educated in writing Jawi. Stamford Raffles knew it, Alexander Hare knew it. Jawi was widely known until the 1950s when the Malaysian government decided not to use it any more – it’s still used extensively in Brunei.
“The book is a reminder of the extent to which the region was connected by the British. The British Empire wasn’t very poetic, and yet you have these amazing figures: Dampier, Raffles. At the very least they were robust. I mean Dampier sailed around the world three times. It’s even more unbelievable when you read about what occurred – sometimes the ship was more or less about to sink for most of the voyage. You don’t want to get into a position of idealising those people but they were particular people.
“My new project is related to William Dampier, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels and Alexander Selkirk. Part of the research for the project has been to read William Dampier’s writing, and what has been interesting about this was that Dampier was quite famous for having introduced a blank style into English literature. Defoe is said to have based Robinson Crusoe on Selkirk and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels was supposed to be inspired by the excessive popularity of journals like Dampier’s. Robinson Crusoe is credited as the first novel in the ‘realistic’ style. I’m quite interested in that because I think that plain style is a non-poetic style.”
Quality of interiority
“The kind of poetry I like is subtle and interior but not all poetry is like that.
“There was a period, and I remain attached to this work even though I’m distant from it now, when I read a lot of writing in Afrikaans, especially Afrikaans poetry. The poetry is more of less an unknown tradition. In fiction, some of the people are known, like the late André Brink, and some others now. The poetry is powerful and it’s a very consolidated poetry tradition, beginning in the early modern period. It has some strong poets – for a linguistic community of only a few million people, that has very small readership, they have poets comparable with the best: Wilma Stockenström, Breyten Breytenbach, Charl-Pierre Naude, Eugene Marais and Ingrid Jonker.
“What interested me about that was this question of the power of language within a small literary community. Because often people think if you write in English you’re at an advantage and you can write well because of the breadth of the language. I think that’s probably wrong, and that people who write in more contained languages, because their listening to that language is more intense, their writing is probably better.
“What you’re talking about in language very often is quality of interiority. When you have a language that’s small, where everyone knows the language inside and out, then you can be inside the language very, very well. That’s the problem facing English now: there’s a kind of faking going on that the language is well understood but English is too exterior to achieve that.
“English is strange in that there’s English proper, but because of the British Empire English is spoken by lots of people for whom it wasn’t a pure language. Even within England there are lots of regional variants. When you get to the late 18th, early 19th Century: I mean, people in London couldn’t understand Wordsworth. When you read Wordsworth now – you think, ‘that’s proper English’. When John Clare went to London they couldn’t understand his dialect either.
“It’s insufficiently remarked upon how the ‘other Englishes’ are like dialects. There is this phantasm of the proper English lurking but in fact this English is only spoken by a tiny number of people.”
Thinking beyond language
“I don’t think all languages contain the same, innate set of concepts. The concept of love, for example, if you look at Rumi, and look at John Donne, I don’t think it’s the same, even thought it would appear to be very close. And then as for what the concept of love might be like within Frank O’Hara vs Rumi…
“I do think in a general sense there’s a rough set of meanings for all humans but then it does break down a lot. The concept of friend, that would exist in Mexico, in Spanish, might be quite similar to the concept of friend in Arabic. But not in English because of the history of those languages, and the Arab influence in the Iberian Peninsula, and then the transference of the Spanish culture to Latin America.
“I was once in Mexico City and these kids were doing a survey, standing outside the museum, and they called out, ‘amigo, amigo’. And I thought, this is wonderful, but that’s their way of addressing people. Whereas in England they say ‘excuse me, Sir’ – and then of course Mexico had a revolution, so you wouldn’t’ call someone sir, you’d call them friend. There are overlapping meanings between languages but it depends where you encounter them.
“You probably are trapped by language when you are using a word in a way where its implications have limited what you want to suggest.
“I’m working on a long poem that’s almost exactly about this. It’s in the voice of a white South African man who is in the army during apartheid and who was in Angola during the covert wars. He is living in Perth, Western Australia. And he’s looking around at and describing Australia using, largely, South African (SA) English.
“What interested me was, to what extent can someone think thoughts that are different to the thoughts given to them by the words they have inherited?
“In this case, to what extent can someone who lived in the apartheid world, who was in the military – which operates with one of the most extreme forms of curtailment of language – to what extent can that person think ethical thoughts in a language that doesn’t tend to allow ethical thinking.
“The man in my poem is using SA English in Australia and thinking through his experiences in what’s essentially a redundant syntax. Superficially it looks like the English that surrounds him but actually it’s a different kind of English.
“To what extent can you think beyond language?”
In the Pleasure Quarter
Being foreign is the democracy that allows the Nigerian,
in all the accoutrements of a gangsta, to address me as brother
and offer a special discount to a nice place where the girls are all foreign
– Russian, Brazilian, Australian – and all speak english.
We are, perversely, brothers: of the same continent,
slave and master, ear and mouth,
in the weird dialectic of Shinjuku, this thoroughfare
where crowds blur into clouds.
What tradewinds brought him here? and those girls? and me?
Our common tongue is illusory, necessary, a kind of coin
minted by being stamped on.
– from Emptiness: Asian Poems 1998-2012 (Fremantle Press, 2014)*
“’- minted by being stamped on’. The key thing in that phrase is the violence of minting. To mint something is to standardise it through a physical, violent action.
“I did an interview for Peril magazine and I said to them that when I read that phrase I’m reminded of that quote from George Orwell: ‘If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.’ He was talking about communism and fascism but in this context I suppose it’s more of a question: what is a unit of meaning?
“A unit – is it a standardised thing, a unit of meaning – and if it’s not a unit, how do we make meaning? Is there currency in meaning? ‘To coin a phrase’: we already have monetary metaphorics in language – but maybe meaning isn’t unitary or formed in that way, through that violence of standardising.
“In an ultimate sense, you have the word, the linguistic exchange, but also the exchange between a certain set of worlds – these mental worlds – and it’s not as extreme as some people suggest, ‘we can never know another’s experience’; we can know more or less but we can’t know it ultimately.
“The question is, what is, in that, the role of language? That’s the question of the minting. And in this case I’m suggesting the darker side of it. In this context it’s about currency: the sets of meaning are reduced, an abstract currency rather than an exchange of experiences.”
Evocation / Invocation
“Ultimately all language is evocative – the fact that we can use a word, which is a sound, and maybe a script, and is representing something but can actually be evoked in someone else’s mind is quite an astonishing, spiritual event. A poetic event. It’s just that the actual attention given to poetic events is not very great today.
“In the case of poetry, what poetic language indicates is this ambiguity of the language process. It’s easier to ignore the poetic than to admit to this very peculiar circumstance of the ambiguous transaction of the language act.
“And of course you witness this strange dynamic of the language act as soon as you go to the edge of conventional context, like to hark back to this idea of the common tongue and minting, as soon as you’re speaking to people who are coming from another language context you realise you have to very carefully make the transaction – to allow understanding. And the closer you go to a limited context, the context that you usually occupy, the less you have to consider the linguistic transaction. It’s always there, this ambiguity, but there’s a sliding scale.”
Layers of communication and imagining
“I think a word is a moment and is dependent on its context, on the circumstances of its use, in some cases even on the acoustics that it’s uttered in and so for me a word is part of a continuum of activities. A word is part of a whole series of layers of communication and imagining.
“There’s one part that’s like music, and also there’s the voice. The voicing of the word is the sound of the word. And, there are different kinds of voicing, within a voice.
“But then there’s what the word represents within the minds that are hearing. And that’s a different thing because the word can have a different meaning or resonance for each of the people who are in that space. But I think it’s very much a question of the word having a certain physical presence, in the way that the sound has a physical presence.”
The ultimate expression of the work
“Reading out loud or hearing your work in your mind when you read is important but that’s different from the writer reading their work out loud. I think there’s a problem in poetry now where there is a conflation of the hearing of work and the poet’s performance of the work. I think that the poet’s performance of the work is maybe a falsification of the work, which is the opposite of what is usually thought.
“For the poem to exist, for the poem to have a life, it must have a reality that exists without the poet’s presence and sounding. The poem and its language might still have a sound but I don’t think it should be dependent on a particular physicality, a particular production of sound.
“It must be that anyone who reads a poem can produce something that’s like the sound that makes the poem the best thing it can be.
“Right now in poetry there is such an interest in the author speaking – in other kinds of writing too – and what you notice is that if you read very well usually people don’t buy the book. They say, ‘well, we’ve heard the ultimate expression of it’ but actually no, the ultimate expression is the reader being able to create it. We are talking about things that are written, so reading must be the animating of the written otherwise it’s like song – it’s not writing.
“One of the peculiarities with poetry is that a poem is like an annotation for a performance. But the performance is probably not the author’s voicing of the poem. The performance is a kind of an auditory hallucination of the text.
“Which is also true in fiction – but it’s not so crucial in fiction. When you read a novel you are still in a sense hallucinating the narrator’s voice. But the structure of it is not determined by the sounding, it’s determined by the narration and other elements of the writing. Whereas for poems, especially very compact poems, the structure is determined by the sounding. That sound is what makes a poem a thing. The difference between fiction and poetry is like the difference between theatre and song.”
An unstable registry
“It’s largely notional that there exists a graceful, pure, formalised language. With language there are two things happening simultaneously: a space in which everything is grammatically coherent and semantically explicit, and then there is how we actually hear and understand language: how we understand it in our minds.
“I think in the modern world we shouldn’t lose the idea that language can have a spiritual dimension – which is actually a poetic quality. In the Vedic tradition, there are words that contain worlds, and our existence is an echoing of a word.
“Poetry is often a kind of invocation without being clear as to the sort of listening that might make that evocation meaningful. It’s like prayer – speaking into space. It’s why people are not sure what to do with it. People like the idea of poetry but when you confront them with it they get quite uneasy, they don’t know how to listen to it.
“The thing with poetry, which I think is different to other kinds of writing, is that you need to read poems many times. One of the reasons this is necessary in poetry is that the process of reading is a process of internalising the poet’s language, because the language in a poem is actually kind of unstable in how it registers with the listener – it’s like hearing a new song. With a poem your own voice and your own sounding is in competition with the voice of the poem.
The repetition of the poem allows you to undo the sound of your own voice. It’s a certain kind of listening that’s in opposition to one’s own voice.”
“The dictionary I use is from 1910. That’s my aesthetic preference. I always think if you can choose between a word that’s plainly spelled and one that’s strangely spelled… I’m a bit 16th century in that regard.”
In Buddhist and Taoist philosophy emptiness is a key concept, yet in English it becomes either something banal, ’empty of meaning’, or something haunting, frightening, bleak – almost as echoic and disturbing as the notion of death. But its more usual, shallower impression in English reminds me that language itself might give the impression of being shallow and slight even as it conveys concepts that can shape one’s world.
From OED: empty, From Old English, meaning ‘at leisure, not occupied; unmarried’, then later, ‘containing nothing, unoccupied’. Sense evolution is paralleled in several languages, such as Modern Greek.
Śūnyatā, a Sanskrit noun, usually translated as ’emptiness’.
This word means ‘pretty’ or ‘cute’ in German. To me it is a sweet and sexy word, a gentle word, in a language often known as being harsh, precise, practical.
From Middle High German hübesch, ‘courtly’.
John Mateer’s portrait by Tom Langdon
*from Industry: Two Kinds, originally published Kyoto, 2003, translations by Keiji Minato.