• The Bequest of Enlightenment: An Interview with Robert Wood

    I first met Robert Wood at the University of Western Australia many years ago, where, as PhD students, we were involved in the postgraduate journal collective. After countless conversations and cups of tea, we learned that we shared a passion for contemporary Australian poetry, a childhood in the suburb of Wembley (6014), and a love of neighborhood Asian eateries. To discover Wood’s writing as a friend was to relax into fragmented experimental poems, to see his prose negotiate the constructs of nationhood and backyard spaces, and to arrive at a lyric mode that is comfortable in its space whilst welcoming you into it. Wood and I shot emails back and forth to explore some thoughts about his work.


    AMY LIN: Much of your poetry is based on the suburbs, and more recently is based on a place in the Southwest of Western Australia. Can you tell us a bit about Redgate and how it informs your poetics?

    ROBERT WOOD: Redgate is a very special part of the world. It always was and always will be Wardandi land and I am so grateful to be there as a guest. Although I have been going to Redgate for my whole life, thirty, forty, one hundred years are the blink of an eye in the timeline of traditional owners. That needs to be respected, now more than ever. The knowledge that families have there, including young leaders like Zac Webb, is something I continue to learn from.

    Redgate includes a beach (Calgardup), a limestone quarry, a national park, a surf break, a winery, a river, a collection of houses, paddocks with sheep, a road, and a big rock (Isaacs Rock). It is where I have craypots and dive for abalone. It’s where I fish with my dad for herring and skipjack and salmon. It is where I burn off the block with my brother-in-law, where I sit around the potbelly stove with my sisters, where I cook curry with my mother. It is where there are orchids and frogs and flowers that are only found there. And it is where I go with my wife and child to take shelter and find my way along the balanced path.

    Redgate is a bedrock from which I work. It is a place that matters to my poetry and my poetics. I think of it as a suburb, not country though there is nature, not city though there is culture. The town of Witchcliffe just up the road is expanding towards us too and with that there are subdivisions and quarter acre blocks, new service stations, small cafes, and tennis courts. Redgate informs my writing then, not only as something to write about, but as a spirit to draw upon, a case study, and somewhere to feel a sense of world historic belonging when I am in and out of the Indian Ocean itself.

    You speak of world historic belonging, but there is also a place that one’s poetry belongs to or at least borrows from. Your poetic style has developed to be shorter, more lyrical, and less fragmentary than your earlier poems. Can you tell us about the departure from your earlier style, and what it has allowed you in your craft?

    I had poetry around me growing up and people who had a poetic practice in words and deeds, but I learned to value writing in university. This was under Charles Bernstein at the University of Pennsylvania and Philip Mead at the University of Western Australia. This education was in a Western experimental tradition. Like a good student, I wrote in this vein when I was starting out and I will always be thankful to them for those lessons in particular.

    In response to this university-led attack of the difficult poems, I wanted to make something simple so my people and my history could be recognized. Beauty is for the lyricists as expressed in the Romantics, difficulty is for the avant-garde that continue Modernism’s project, and simplicity is mine as a saltwater Malayali suburbanist. It is hard to master and will take a lifetime. That is what I am after, and going to live in my ancestral country in Kerala allowed me to make a start.

    When I was there, I realized that part of my self, my family and my people were being left out. This was not only on the axis of identity, of being a Malayali when I had learnt so much from white poets, but in terms of craft, voice, form, style, and taste in general. It was a political and aesthetic change that came from the ground up and was reinforced to me when I turned down a fellowship at Harvard University. I chose my community and my city rather than the higher education sector. And, in the context of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2016, I read a corpus including Cheeraman, Cherushsheri, Ezhuthacchan, Poonthanam, and others. That informs this newer work.

    In choosing your community but engaging with the global community, some of your published poems are accompanied by Hindi translations, and you have worked in Malayalam, Tamil, Marathi, Bengali, Burmese, Farsi, Chinese, as well. What does it mean to publish bilingual poetry, or to translate, and how does the art of translation interact with the art of poetry?

    I owe a debt of gratitude to all of my translators, especially Abhimanyu Kumar who did a whole book. His work and that of my publisher, Dibyajoti Sarma at Red River, has been incredible. They think of the possibilities of bilingualism rather than its limitations. In coming from the Indian diaspora, and mainly publishing in India, and seeing myself as an Indian poet, bilingualism and multilingualism is normal. Many poets I know happily speak six or seven languages just like tjabi poets I have worked with in the Western Pilbara where I translate poems into English in a team with my Ngarluma gumbarli Andrew Dowding and Elders. This is despite the monolingual hostilities of the official state.

    As for Hindi, I realized there were hundreds of millions more people I could reach. I cannot take up space on this continent because opportunities are limited and should go to First Nations poets. But with a movement to my home, I am able to engage with people at once radically different and remarkably connected to myself. Speaking with two tongues, writing in two scripts is the beginning of this.

    In general, translation helps us access new poetry in ourselves and in others. It opens us up. This is not only to decolonize and come out of Anglophone hegemony, but to keep us optimistic about transcending boundaries, of mixing, of hybridity. That happens when we begin to see continents and not only national affinities.

    To engage with a hybridity is also to engage in a dialogue between the abstract and the concrete. Your poems are highly textural, corporeal and imagistic as you write of sand, salt, navels, nails, and granite. Then these are often placed alongside abstract concepts such as grief, knowledge or memory. How do you find the process of working with abstract and concrete material?

    The process is somewhat intuitive so explaining it can be difficult. My engagement with the abstract and the concrete comes from what I read. I work with a number of talented emerging poets at the Centre for Stories and I always tell them to read. To write poetry, you need to read.

    For me, it includes a prior and rigorous engagement with Western philosophy such as Hegel, Weber, and Wittgenstein but all the way back to Horace. Yet, I keep reading and listening to my contemporaries, especially Noongar poets like Alf Taylor, Cyndy Moody, and Daniel Hansen through their work with Community Arts Network, and those who publish with Magabala Books like Kirli Saunders, Alison Whittaker, and Ambellin Kwaymullina.

    I find the balance of the abstract and concrete that continues to resonate with me comes from where I come from. This is where texts can be both poetic and philosophical, where the idea and the material are joined in their expression, where we have stars of orientation and feathered feet to help us find the way home. I get that in Lalla and Kabir and a host of others.

    Another binary in your poetry is the anonymous collective self and other, and recently ‘we’ and ‘they’ mark your poems’ subjects. How do you conceive, in your poetic imagination, of these collective entities, and what did they mean for you as poet?

    I have a tendency to think of others in a poetic sense and do not want to keep my “I” as central to the project. Not in my family or my work or my poetry, the last being a kind of hobby for me. “We” and “they” offer a way around it, and, are intended as a utopian frame of reference. What happens when we transcend our individuality or our class, race, gender, sexuality, privilege collectively if we so wish?

    To ask that is not to deny the political reality of our daily life and our identities, but to think about the role of imagination in seeing the future as we could come to create it collaboratively. To do this is a group endeavor. It is to make “we” and “they” through the performative labor of speaking and writing itself. In other words, we create who we are when we say it, when we spell it, and when we keep going into the space of silence and violence.

    It is deliberate on my behalf to make sure it is a welcoming idea that allows all sorts of people, animals, ghosts, ancestors, monsters and others to be seen together. The hope is that by being inclusive we get to change how we relate to them, and in the process, we make all of our futures better.

    Speaking of political realities and making our futures better, you write of landscapes and selves burning, which resonates strongly with the bushfires in Australia and the current climate crisis. What does the poetic form afford in depicting such catastrophic events and conditions?

    The time we are living in, perhaps like all times before us and those that come after, is catastrophic. Not only when it comes to climate change, but the genocide of peoples, the over consumption of resources, the repression of religion, and many other issues. That matters to COVID and it matters to Black Lives Matter as well as the bushfires.

    Poets have a responsibility as eloquent citizens to change our events and conditions, especially by placing pressure on politicians and rallying the people. I have a letter writing practice in addition to going to protests and supporting others. I write to those in power every Monday on incarceration principally, and on linguistic rights, freedom of expression, media ownership, data and privacy, the role of journalists, and so on. This is all through my volunteering with PEN Perth.

    It is not only that we have to work to change the situation, but you have to enjoy the process. To be with activists means you are sustained by the camaraderie and you can cope with the ongoing and constant losses, and savor the rare and elusive victories. If we have solidarity, we find ways to express ourselves as poets in a community of belonging. The form of poetry in addition to the content and the context can be something to enjoy and something to raise consciousness through.

    Our expressions of ourselves are not only confined to creative writing practice, but the daily rituals and habits we share with those around us. Your writing has rich imagery of consuming food and being consumed by food. You have also done some food writing, and I’m wondering how your food prose intersects with your food poetry?

    My wife is an excellent baker and my child is a very good eater. Food has always been a part of my life and creative practice. My mother wrote a cookbook, In Memory of Mumma, which had recipes from our native place; my aunt wrote a cookbook, Never Leave Home Without Your Chilli Sauce, which is about life as a migrant in Singapore. I helped write a cookbook with Fervor and I also had a Food Blog, which was a diner’s diary of New York.

    I like thinking about food. Food is central to life and not only as enjoyment but as ethics too. Food security is a problem from remote communities in the Pilbara to the hundreds of millions in India. I know those people and see them as my brothers, sisters, and non-binary siblings in a family of care. I would love to cook nourishing meals for all those people so they are sustained, supported, and simply fed. But I cannot. I am not a chef and I cannot be everywhere.

    Books though, poetry though, can travel. And words satisfy the soul in a way that matters too. My poetry and prose get at both, with food being something that cuts across the two. We can leave bread and water (and taxes) to the Marxists, but us poets have work to do when it comes to spiritual enlightenment. My writing is chicken soup, lentils and rice, and kangaroo tail for the soul.

    Words satisfy the soul, but also sometimes notions of the soul, and of spiritual enlightenment, can come through in words. Some of your writing implies that humans have an innate memory of things we usually think of as impossible to know. An example is where your poetic subject “recalled what was the origin point of souls.” Can you speak to this theme of a kind of primal, spiritual recall?

    The whole world is contained within us since we were children, since before our birth. My awakening happened one dawn at Redgate when I was gripped by a death delusion that a marban man would kill me because I had broken the Law. My parents drove me to the city and when we crossed the Derbarl Yerrigan I was released from all suffering. That was my personal enlightenment. I was then admitted to a mental health facility and woke up three days later. After another four, I was released into the community and remained a ward of the state until thirty days had passed. That was ten years ago and it was a humbling experience that I will be forever grateful for.

    In that moment on the bridge, after leaving Redgate, I saw that everything was possible. That is what we need to hold onto. That is our transcendence. It is not about being locked up for what we believe or for being sick or for other things. If you are open to it, your ancestors will visit you in dreams and stay with you in waking life. I try to bring the reality of that true mysticism into my poetry and always ground it in a consciousness that time is finite. We all die, so why not try to live a good life? Redgate allows me to do that and to say what I think is right. Lao Tzu put it better than me in the Tao Te Ching (David Hinton translation, chpt. 27):

    A sage is always perfect in rescuing people

    and so abandons no one,

    always perfect in rescuing things

    and so abandons nothing.

    This is called the bequest of enlightenment

    so one who possesses this perfection is a teacher of those who don’t,

    and those who don’t possess it are the resources of one who does.

    We can recall our poetry, our spirituality, our life as being a teacher and a resource no matter who asks what we make of it all. We are in the middle, and becoming a sage with a connection to Redgate is truly worthwhile.