In 2015 I travelled to Los Angeles to catch up with Luke Davies for tea on his front porch, against a backdrop of palm trees, hummingbirds and police helicopters—known locally as ‘ghetto birds’. Born in Sydney in 1962, Davies is the author of three novels, including the semi-autobiographical Candy, which was adapted into the film starring Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish, and five collections of poetry. In 2007 he moved to Los Angeles and has established himself there as a screenwriter and script editor. His most recent feature, Lion, will be released this year. This interview follows on from one former Meanjin editor Sophie Cunningham conducted with Davies in 2008.
Louise Carter: You’ve been in Los Angeles for the last eight years. Has it influenced your poetry?
Luke Davies: I’m sure it has, I mean the answer has to be yes but only in the sense that wherever I would have been living for the last eight years, those circumstances would have influenced my poetry. However, specifically in relation to LA, I’ve always secretly liked the fact that Theodor Adorno came here after the war and was writing some of his most amazing work here among the palm trees in the weird, sunbaked heat—coming out of that darkness of Europe.
LC: Are you seeing palm trees in your poetry?
LD: No, but I did write a suite of poems about coyotes, because I used to live on the edge of Griffith Park where there’s a lot of coyotes, and I was fascinated by the fact that in the middle of the night you would hear packs of coyotes killing domestic dogs, and it was really savage and violent—these sudden flurries of yelping and yapping and squealing and then silence.
I didn’t come here for any reason to do with my poetry—my poetry always just comes with me. But being here intensifies the feeling of being an outsider, and that’s a two-pronged thing: one is being an outsider to American culture, the second is that in America, Los Angeles is a uniquely weird subset of that experience, so I’m kind of doubly an outsider. There’s much to love about this town, it’s split—there’s the crazy, bullshit, huckster side of film stuff, and there’s the fact that some very talented people here do some beautiful things. And yes, nine out of ten films that get made are crap, but one in ten are good, and some of them come from here.
LC: At least you’re in a place where people are being actively creative.
LD: As you know, the thing that matters most to me is the thing that brings me zero money basically, so it’s nice to also have these other parts of me that I’m passionate about, and to make some money from them, to help support the poetry. Because there aren’t many available careers for poets, you know. There’s either guys like John Forbes who just used to do casual removal work, or there’s the academic world—there’s not a lot of other options.
LC: What’s the motivation to keep writing poetry?
LD: Ah, it’s very simple. I feel I have no choice, I feel I love poetry more than anything in the universe, my universe. I believe it’s the most important thing that I do and I wish and hope that’s the way some version of a future views it too.
LC: But what is it about poetry that—
LD: Well, when it’s good it manages more than pretty much any other art form to approach the mythic and the specific at the same time, which is a spine-tingling kind of experience.
LC: Like a convergence of worlds?
LD: Yeah, whatever those worlds may be, and they are different things at different times. I still think it’s the primal art form and it’s amazing to be plugged into its energies. You can’t exactly be a tourist, you know what I mean?
LC: You can’t be a ‘casual’ poet …
LD: Yeah, but I’m also talking as a reader of poetry—what’s available is profoundly nourishing and exciting. For most people it’s this thing that’s hiding in plain sight, to use the cliché. Joseph Campbell wrote about this Indonesian saying: ‘You’re standing on a whale, fishing for minnows’, and it’s beautiful. It’s like the whale is this body of work that goes back to the most primitive kind of times and that makes up our psychic history and being and body, but we live most of our lives fishing for little things on
Being hooked into poetry reminds you of what’s important, and what’s important really matters, given the bewildering speed of everything, that we’re all hurtling towards our deaths. When I read good poetry I get a sense of identification, of connectedness.
LC: For me, when I’m reading a novel, there might be a single sentence that I connect with really strongly, but poetry is like all of those sentences extracted.
LD: Yeah, it’s like ‘essence of’, you know, it’s like pure essence. Do you have a general way that poems begin for you? I mean, do you have a line that comes first to create a momentum, or do you start with a feeling or a concept?
LC: Well, there’s this quote that I heard recently: ‘Comedy is what happens when vomit comes out as laughter, and poetry is what happens when vomit comes out as wonderment.’
LD: That’s great!
LC: It describes so well that feeling of ‘I’ve got to get this down!’
LD: Well, wonderment, or awe, is at the centre of it for me—poetry has one of the best chances of capturing that extraordinary sense of wonderment as art, which other people can be affected by. My history as a writer comes from something very basic that happened when I was 13, when I started reading adult books. It started with Steinbeck and very quickly jumped to Faulkner—I was a precocious kid—but it blew my mind, and it was like, ‘I want to affect other people the way this stuff is affecting me.’
That kind of instinct has never gone away—there’s probably some egotism to it, although the older I get, the more I realise that the process of losing one’s ego is a good thing in terms of becoming a better writer.
LC: I feel that whenever I get too full of myself, my poetry starts to suffer.
LD: It’s true, I think there are possible places that the poem comes from, which will often define whether it is in retrospect a good or a bad poem—it often takes me months to work out whether something’s good or not.
But back to wonderment—even though I’m pretty sure I’m an atheist, clearly a lot of my work speaks of God all the time. I keep having this experience of being God-soaked or God-haunted …
LC: I’m going to confess that I stole ‘God-soaked’ and stuck it in a poem …
LD: Ah! Good! I’m very happy. But there’s this quote that sticks with me from a Richard Powers novel where a character asks another character if he believes in God, and the other character says, ‘That’s not the form my astonishment takes.’
LC: That’s fantastic!
LD: It is completely brilliant, and that’s my sense of where ‘that place’ is for me, and it’s also the place where poetry is. It’s other things too, like I’m completely film-obsessed—it’s the place where great films are too, and great novels, and great reading.
LC: I’m really inspired that you’re still excited about reading. I would hate to stop being excited about reading …
LD: So would I, but there are a lot of people who don’t read any more, or who only read ephemera on the internet. That comes back to that point about the origins of poetry, that there was a power to it because some bards, seers, prophets, shamans were transforming verbal language into art forms that could viscerally affect people—put them in trance states—make people feel different and happy and give people’s lives greater meaning than what must presumably have been the brutality of searching for food or whatever. Then you jump forward to now and the possible future, with the fragmentation of the attention span and the reduction of things into atomised elements and so on, which could be perceived as negative developments, but the truth is that great artists will find new ways of transmitting the same primal power in a new world.
LC: Well art is about parameters, isn’t it? You’ve gotta work with what you have.
LD: Yeah, and that makes the future exciting, that the parameters are radically different. It’s one of those huge shifts in history.
LC: Could you talk a little bit about that Joseph Campbell quote, that happiness is a by-product that comes from ‘joyful participation in the sorrows of the world’?
LD: That concept was basically a revelation for me, of growing older—the understanding that the pursuit of happiness is a very misguided one, since it’s unrealistic and delusional. And yet, the pursuit of whatever acceptance means has this bizarre side effect: that you wind up having greater happiness levels if you can somehow succeed in accessing that thing of acceptance—accepting that all things change all the time. In my experience, anxiety and distractedness are not necessarily extricable from joy and presence.
Growing old and knowing that you’re dying; knowing that everyone else will die, knowing that you and I and no-one on this street will be here in a hundred years time—these are extraordinary facts that are kind of frightening, and there’s a certain duty if you see yourself as an artist—well, what is it that you think you’re doing? There may be many answers to that, but for me, I’m investigating that experience as people have done, as writers have done in the past.
LC: For me, writing is often a way of reliving memories—the act of writing can breathe life back into the past.
LD: I mean that’s what great novels do, and I guess great poetry too. There’s that beautiful Rilke poem, and it begins:
The school’s long stream of time and tediousness
winds slowly on, through torpor, through dismay.
O loneliness, o time that creeps away.
And then he goes on to describe these childhood memories of playing with a toy boat in a little pond, and it’s a beautiful poem. I was just quoting the Leishman translations because when I was 16 and owned this little Penguin Selected Rilke, that was the translation—since then there have been some pretty interesting Rilke translations. There’s a translation of Rilke’s poem ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ by Stephen Mitchell—he’s fantastic—and it ends famously with: ‘You must change your life.’ So it’s a poem that’s overtly about what art is for, that the experience of art is to tell us we must change our lives, right now, and it’s one of the greatest poems ever written. I wish I could speak German.
LC: I was at a book launch recently where they spoke of poetry being an act of translation, that you’re translating something unsayable.
LD: It’s really true, I like that. That is why, for me, the spine-tingling experience of poetry working in that way is still really good—it’s that moment where it’s like I grasp that this poet is approaching translating the unsayable. It’s why I come back to T.S. Eliot … he’s unbelievably great, his greatness is exciting, and for all of those issues that always come up about his personal life mixed with the work itself and all that sort of stuff …
LC: I met a poet recently who was saying that Walt Whitman was racist, and for that reason he can’t read his poetry any more, and it just irritated me because it’s that conversation about the artist and the art …
LD: It’s complex, and at what point do you draw a line? I mean, I read Faulkner, and you see the ‘N’ word liberally sprinkled, or Joseph Conrad—it’s kind of unbelievable.
Whitman’s interesting. I get that he’s out of that so-called Transcendental School—Whitman and Emerson, and I read him a lot when I was 16, but I felt like I outgrew him very quickly. I don’t admire him all that much as a technician—he’s a sprawling, enthusiastic, generous-spirited kind of beautiful lunatic, but I’m more of a formalist, or I lean towards formalism—what excites me still tends to be in the architecture of the poems.
Whitman’s open-ended long prose stanzas don’t do it for me—they’re a little too corny and earnest, but I know that there is greatness in there and that he was doing amazing things, but I always feel, in terms of Americans, that I would come much more out of a tradition of Wallace Stevens regarding formal architectural skills, not out of that Emerson–Whitman–Thoreau line. Although I’m completely fascinated with American history—the westward expansion of the United States, the growth of the nation itself, its self-concept—leading to the amazing place we’re in today, this amazingly great country that’s also amazingly dysfunctional.
LC: We have so much access to information now, how do you think that affects the process of writing poetry?
LD: I think it’s a really interesting period of change, and we’re undergoing a weird democratisation of voices, in the sense that there used to be these gatekeepers who were academics and the publishing industry, but that process is changing, and now the new challenge will be sifting through all the crap, because it’s easy to put crap out there now. But it’s also exciting because it means you can find more things that are interesting.
Again it just sort of sucks that the world doesn’t get how important poetry is for the psychic health of humankind. The main thing I bemoan is the fact there’s so much out there and it’s impossible ever to be fully in touch with and aware of all the good stuff that’s going on.
I’ve got a profile as a poet in Australia, and I’m glad to have one, but I live in America now, and in eight years of living here I’ve never sent poems to the old-fashioned journals, the journals that still exist—I’ve made no attempt to make a presence here or to integrate myself. And while I’ve always liked that sense of being an outsider, there is that question, are you an outsider who wants to be read by people? How pure is your purity about being a poet?
LC: I’m not pure—I want to be read. I admit that.
LD: So do I!
LC: I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
LD: Oh no, not at all, but I don’t know how to do it exactly, and it’s sort of frustrating. And yet I believe that, taken together, Totem and Interferon Psalms may be the best thing I’ve ever done—a really solid body of work. I’d love to get those books published here, but it doesn’t exactly work like that. Life just feels so busy—the actual struggle of life day-to-day sometimes gets so busy that I’ve got the time and the energy to write the poems, but then I don’t do anything with them.
LC: That’s its own kind of purity, isn’t it?
LD: Yeah, but it’s not quite right … I would like to be slightly more out there. But I guess I’ve got myself to blame, that I don’t make the effort to find out what’s what and go to events and so on. I don’t do that in a whole lot of ways, I mean when my housemate and I are here, we’re just homebodies …
LC: Just cups of tea?
LD: Yeah, I don’t get out much.
LC: My mum gave me a pair of Crocs for my last birthday …
LD: Oh wow …
LC: I wear them around the house, and I said to myself, ‘That’s it, just to the bathroom and back’, but I’ve started wearing them down the road …
LD: Wow, that’s it, there’s a Seinfeld episode where George is wearing the tracksuit pants, and Jerry’s like, ‘That’s it, if you’re wearing them outside, it’s game over!’