Jeffrey Harpeng is one of Australia’s leading writers of haiku, haibun, tanka and tanka prose. He will read a selection of his work at the final Poetry on the Deck event at Riverbend Books on Tuesday June 23. I took the time to fire a few questions his way. Here’s what he had to say …
1. What intially drew you to poetry?
The shallowness of the world, just didn’t feel credible. Poetry was found on a pilgrimage to metaphysics.
The things you hear when you start to listen with the third ear. Even when I found heaven vacant the wraith like words wouldn’t quit their spooky groaning.
These hallucinations could be little more than the steam rising off a fever, the result of some secondary infection.
2. When is a poem ready to be published/performed?
Alfonso Reyes wrote “We only publish to stop revising.
Sometimes that is so, sometimes a poem arrives through the séance of reverie, and meaning and sound are already left and right hand vines tersely intertwined. These poems unravel when picked at with an editorial pen. That doesn’t mean that they are suitable for public exposure, only that the author is under their spell and is willing to bleat their praise like a bold little lamb. I must be talking about somebody else here.
Then there are poetic-sculptures that are chiseled from a marble lump of words, poems found like Michelangelo found his David. They might, could perhaps, would possibly take a further chisel clack or two. Performance can embarrass their faults into magnified obviousness, and publishing can be more frightening. How did no one notice that wart on its lip? Is that really meant to be there?
Or I might say, “Poems are part of an ongoing conversation, and you can stand there blank and dumb for only so long.”
3. Has publication changed the way you approach your writing?
Editors confirm both good and bad writing habits according to the private dementias of their tastes. Some of us, at times, need to be punctuated into good sense. A poem or three may thus become ghostlike, lifeless in the shackles of punctuation. So why not just omit those little tyrannies (& that can sometimes be a sin) to let the words catch their own breath, to weep, and laugh and cry unfettered by demanding scrawls. Oh, you could read your way into and out of these and other fetishes. Ultimately and intimately it is the silk yarn of themes that lead me on, and I live always with the hope that these may tangle and un-tidy the thinking of readers and listeners.
4. Why perform/read your poetry?
‘Language is a virus’, sang Laurie Anderson, infected with that idea by William S. Burroughs.
We are all Typhoid Mary’s of the word, or in my case an Bad Cold Jeffrey.
A poem may not be as sexually communicable as a song, but it’s a damn smart virus that can latch on to a laugh or a sigh, sink its velvety barbs into the lips of a smile. Oh I think I feel some purple verse coming on.
Sing, “Purple is the colour of my true love.”
5. What is the greatest challenge faced by poets/poetry today?
To get up and go to work five days a week. Oh is that just me? Does poetry have words for what it’s like to to swim, butterfly stroke, through a leech infested swamp? Oh, I’m still talking about work. Poetry’s biggest challenge is to be believed when it tries to find or convey truths by telling lies. I could excuse myself by saying that is just the way language works. It’s pictures have to look bigger than the real world to be seen.
But look, I see a little haiku weeping in the corner. Is that a frog it has got in its hand. Oh it’s a messenger toad with a coded message stuck on its back, a lick and stick metaphor. Phew it’s hard enough not to put my dictionary-seven-league-boots in my mouth.
I should really talk about social responsibility, and of poetry’s ability to reconcile us with or at least help us recognize how much of us there is in the other. I should really talk about that but I gave up using delusions-of-grandeur aftershave years ago.
Each of us has a unique life mission, though where that fits into the evolutionary idea I haven’t got the foggiest. I guess I’ll just tell you about my beard and the barnacle in my ear.
Join Jeffrey Harpeng on the Riverbend deck alongside Angel Kosch (Standing on the Road); winner of The Dream Ain’t Broken chapbook competition Nicola Scholes (Dear Rose); poetic adventurer and protector of apostrophes, Zenobia Frost (The Voyage) and experimental writer and musician, Marisa Allen (Fire in the Head).
Date: Tuesday 23 June
Location: Riverbend Books, 193 Oxford St. Bulimba
Time: Doors open for the event at 6pm for a 6:30pm start
Tickets: $10 available through Riverbend Books and include sushi and complimentary wine. To purchase tickets, call Riverbend Books on (07) 3899 8555 or book online at http://www.riverbendbooks.com.au/Events/EventDetails.aspx?ID=2205