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July Pin-Up Poet: Max Ryan & Where Were You At Lunch

August in Brisbane is all about poetry… with the pinnacle event, Queensland Poetry Festival (QPF) held at The Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts from August 24 – 26. The full program is now online and over the coming weeks, I will be taking time out to chat to several festival guests. First up, I embark on another ramble with one of my favourite Australian poets, Max Ryan, who is no stranger to the QPF stage.

ALS: You are no stranger to recording your work with musicians; your debut CD, White Cow, recorded with Cleis Pearce, picked up a few accolades including Spoken Word and Ambient Music categories in The North Coast Entertainment Industry Awards. You also gave some incredibly powerful performances as a duo, one that I will never forget was on the QPF stage in 2008. And now there is Before We Lose Each Other Again… an album recorded with Where Were You At Lunch (WWYAL), featuring your son, Kishore on drums.

As you know, I am passionate about bringing poetry and music together in a truly collaborative sense. American inventor, Edwin Land famously said, “politeness is the poison of collaboration.” After listening to Before We Lose Each Other Again several times during the past week, there is nothing polite about your collaboration with WWYAL. The band moves from noir-noise to quiet brushstrokes across the course of the album and more than ever, you are really giving the vocal some energy, breaking out into full-throated song on occasion. This gives the album a feeling of spontaneity; it’s like you are capturing ideas as they form. So just how did the pieces come together? Was it a process of jamming ideas or something more methodical?

Max Ryan: WWYAL are, as you’ve discovered, a powerful combo, and they bring that group dynamic with them. Blake said ‘without contraries there is no progression’ and I feel that interface certainly brought out some new and surprising things in me.

That’s a spot-on observation about how it came together. Apart from a couple of jams in the week before the recording, we had very little in the way of planned material. I’d have to say this is pretty well a live album done in four fevered days in the basement of the manse at Richmond Anglican church where producer, Nick Huggins’ dad practises his ministry. It all just spilled out in the studio from the first track where I started humming along with Pete the bass player and ended up singing out the words which first appeared as a prose poem in Rainswayed Night. I had the idea to just add on the short piece Fragment about my father as a sort of segue from the Leaving Newcastle piece. When I listened to the final mix months later I was struck by how even the slightly tentative tone as the voice leans in on that first track captures the way the recording unravelled. It felt vey much like we were all in it together and the brilliant Nick Huggins is definitely an equal player. Even though Kishore’s my son it always felt we were just two pieces in the jigsaw. But yeah there was a strong element of a very tight outfit that is WWYAL wanting to rip.

I did have a few ideas about pieces such as Boy City (written on my mobile phone just before) being sort of wistful and lyrical but the band had other ideas and what a friend described as ‘the vocals called out against the ravaged pounding sound’ of the band really evokes the industrial swirl of that harbour city (Newcastle again). There are lots of lovely accidents like that on the recording and I could go on about each one. The last track on the CD (and album title track) Before We Lose Each Other Again was the very last thing we recorded. I just came up with the refrain but we couldn’t seem to move it from there. Then the guys started just started singing that one line (that’s Nick on banjo) and I just intoned the lines between and we all went home.

Kishore Ryan: I like your description Graham. I remember after the second or third day of recording, Samaan said to me that it was very trusting of Max to let us help him turn his poems into songs. Very much so when you consider the fact that he spent several years writing the words. The music on the other hand was ‘composed’ – for want of a better word – in less than a week. We had one or two jams and came up with the outline of “Leaving Newcastle” and “Boy City”, but the rest was improvised in the studio. We did a few takes of each track and later decided which were the best ones. The fact that there were no overdubs whatsoever was a revelation for everyone, including Nick Huggins, who said, even when he’d done albums which for the most part were live, he’d always chickened out with the vocals. But that wasn’t an option for us because it was so interactive. Even on songs like “Boy City” that have a verse/chorus structure, the form is really raw. We knew that after each verse there was a chorus but we didn’t have an exact amount of bars set out. Sometimes I would play a drum fill or Peter would shift into the chord change or Max might starting screaming the refrain, and then everyone else would follow a beat or two later. I think the lack of politeness that you mention Graham comes from a fear of making a spoken word album with background ambience. It could have turned out really bad if we were too polite. Who wants to listen to someone reading their poems with a bunch of musicians noodling in the background? Not me.

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Max Ryan vs Kid Sam

Well today is the first of August… so I am now officially counting down the days until QLD Poetry Festival 2011 takes over the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts from August 26 – 28. So with 26 days to go you may want to consider planning your travel arrangements from wherever you may be, believe me, the line up is that good!

One of the fine Australian poets who will be appearing is Max Ryan. Max and I have had some long, lovely rambles over the years, many of which have been posted on this blog.

Recently Max and I were talking about music, so I asked him about his connection with Kid Sam and what it was like working with them and importantly, whether there are any recordings floating around…

MR: Haven’t worked with Kid Sam that much; several times I’ve performed (funny word that) in Melbourne with a fairly loose array of musos including Kieran and Kishore. Thing about Kid Sam is they’re family, of course, with all that goes with that. They’re both superb players and I think Kieran is already one of the best singer-songwriters in this country.

This recording of Hunter is, alack, the only record I have of a piece I did with just Kid Sam a few years back at Kishore’s final recital of his music course at NMIT in Melbourne. It’s pretty rough and probably goes on too long but it really went off on the night. It’s totally improvised with all of us just jamming on a few phrases I’d already come up with (some, I confess, stolen from Walt Whitman). The thing for me was I eventually turned the lines into a villanelle, Before we lose each other again; the villanelle being, as you know, a highly musical form.

ALS: You can listen to the full recording of Max & Kid Sam performing Hunter here. And it’s something else! Kid Sam create a wild, blissed-out storm while Max drops lines into the air… it might just take your breath.

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Rambling with Max Ryan (part II)

ALS: That last line really sends me Max… captures so beautifully the notion of ‘a birth and a death’ that you mention. By experiencing the show, the teens lives have altered, been forever changed… and with all change, something of our former selves is lost. Loss is another recurring image in many of your poems. Before we lose each other again contains some of my favourite lines in the collection: ‘I’d hear your name on a stranger’s tongue’ and ‘all our blood beats to the drum/ of a hunter who can never rest’, make the hair on my neck prickle. Loss is something we all experience, so I am interested in how it influences your writing.

MR: Thanks for pointing that out. It makes me realise another element of that last line… the man remembering is forever captured by the spell of another time and place, even imagination or the world it conjures implies some kind of loss…

Loss is at the heart of all poetry, methinks. Something Michael Dransfield says:

to be a poet what it means to lose the self to lose the self

I guess I don’t see this loss as necessarily a calamitous thing. Keats seemed to be pointing to something like that in his notion of Negative Capability: because the poet (not the person) has no fixed identity, is in a sense lost to the sureties of worldly existence, he/she is made open to the experience of ever-changing life. Also, the art of haiku in a sense necessitates this loss of self which is why it’s truly a humbling art.

But yeah, there’s a fairly strong theme of loss and an attendant sorrowful tone in Before the Sky. I remember being struck with that when I first saw the proofs and Judy Johnson, who edited the book, had placed two elegies at the start. Maybe I’m particularly drawn to the subject… I couldn’t say I’m an especially moribund person, there’d be few people alive who hadn’t been made aware of how precarious this existence is. There’s a beautiful section in the film What Happened to Kerouac? where Allen Ginsberg speaks about Kerouac’s death and (I can’t remember his exact words) explains how we mourn for existence because we know that this very place is it, it won’t come again.

Before we lose each other again is my first attempt at a villanelle. The title implies that the woman is one I’ve known before and am destined to meet (and lose) again and again. The form of the poem with its recurring lines and cyclical, incantatory cadences is ideal for such a theme. Without going into a discussion of transmigration of souls or somesuch, I think there’s often this recognition when we encounter certain special people that we somehow know them in an entirely uncanny way.

Kieran Ryan (on the Kid Sam album) says it nicely in the song Mirror Drawings:

I’ve been around once or twice now
Come around a few times more
but I can’t always recognise you
in all your different forms

streets of jogjakarta touches on something similar:

the rooftop thrums with rain
as she comes back to say goodbye
calling you to go or stay
like she once did in another time

Going back to the villanelle, the image of the hunter is of course a symbol for death or mortal fate, the thing we can never escape. So the very thing that pursues the lovers, the knowing that ‘one night the hunt will end’ instills a kind of desperate passion in their lovemaking. The ‘faceless hunter’ beats the drum and we can only dance to it:

and all our blood beats to the drum
of a hunter who can never rest

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Rambling with Max Ryan

Quite some time ago, I posted a long interview with award winning poet, Max Ryan. Max has just released his second collection, Before the Sky, so we decided to start rambling all over again…

ALS: Your latest release, Before the Sky, is brimming with musicality. In the collection we ride the bus home after seeing The Beatles, with the shell-shocked girls in the back (Journey of The Beatles Fans); we hear Keith Richards, choogling away on open G (Keef); and we sing for the cohort of the damned as the radio is turned off (Rimbaud Blows the Whistle). I have spoken to you before about your love of music, but I wanted to ask you specifically about how you came to writing Keef and Journey of The Beatles Fans.

MR: Whoo… I guess you mean poems with a musical or music theme.

The last time I saw the Stones, a woman actually prostrated when Mick introduced Keith. Keef started off as some kind of paeon to the man himself but it ends up being just as much about the narrator, some one who’s a contemporary of K and sees his life as moving in some kind of parallel to his. Of course our narrator’s life, like most lives, is a compromised one…he gives up rock and roll to run a lawn-mowing business, splits up with his wife in contrast to K who ‘got rid of Anita’. In the end though the last line describing K’s phenomenal riffing power (‘dead on time’) seems to bring the two together. Keith is, after all, mortal. Isn’t he?

Journey Of The Beatles Fans came from an idea I had for yonks for a poem about seeing the Beatles all those years ago. Tried many times to get it down but it always seemed to trail off into a ragged vision of us teenyboppers riding home on the bus to and from Newcastle. Last year I was reading Geoff Page’s marvellous 80 Great Poems where he was discussing TS Eliot’s Journey Of The Magi. Most of you will remember it’s a dramatic monologue by a Magus (one of three) describing his trip to witness the nativity. The mood is weary and defeated as the three travel through hostile arid lands:

With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly

The seminal event is brushed over in a few lines with the Magi

…not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

Anyway, it all fell together: I got the idea that the actual journey to the concert and the effect it had on those pubescent pilgrims was the heart of the matter. Basically, I planted my poem in Eliot’s even using the same metres and his litany-like depiction the journey. The mood in my wee saga is definitely up-beat on the way down to the show:

With us with our ears pressed to scratchy radios, ringing out
It won’t be long yeah yeah yeah

After the climax:

And JOHNPAULGEORGEANDRINGO ran on, not a moment too soon
Bestowing Grace; it was (you could say) the only word for it.

the mood shifts to something similar to that experienced by Eliot’s Magi of a sense of something gained but also lost, a birth and a death.

It would be hard to equal Eliot’s powerful final line:

I should be glad of another death.

But the Beatles fans, or at least one of them, can celebrate the journey because, although there’s still the sense of dislocation and not being able to fit in, the imagination relives the unconditional joy of knowing that something way beyond anything he’s seen before is about to happen:

I was still on that bus, heading for the show.

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