Max Ryan is a poet whose ‘words sift deep into life, and are full of power and insight.’ (Judith Beveridge) Max is also renowed for his work with musician Cleis Pearce, their CD ‘White Cow’, winning several music industry awards. This Lost Shark caught up with Max recently to discuss the good things in life… poetry & music. Here is part #1 of the interview:
The importance of landscape and place is something that is evident in your work. In your first collection, Rainswayed Night, you conjure feverish images of India (The Dancer, Burning Ghat, Varanasi); the sensuality of the ocean (all night the sea) and the rain that seeps into so many of these poems. You currently split your time between the ocean and the desert. How do each of these vastly different landscapes impact on your writing?
Firstly the Indian poems: well, anyone who’s ventured to the sub-continent will testify that India confounds any ideas of order and predictability so maybe my India poems are an attempt at some sort of disentropy. Interestingly, ‘The Dancer’ came from something I saw on a very early trip to India: a man dancing on the ghats (steps) at Manikarnika Ghat, Varanasi, in an almost drunken, totally self-absorbed way; his eyes were bloodshot and his mouth smeared with betel juice and he looked like he’d been up all night. I wasn’t even aware of what the actual situation was but the overall effect was an energetic jolt to my being, very strong, and I knew it would turn to a poem one day. Of course there are other benign, deeply peaceful poems about India in Rainswayed (‘A White Cow’, ‘Shepherd’s Hut, Triund’ for example).
A friend, the poet Judy Johnson, pointed out to me the strong presence in the original manuscript of water generally and it was she who suggested I call the book Rainswayed Night. The water element certainly runs through the poems but not in any defined way. In ‘The Hexham Flood’, water, in terms of the river and the dampness or pneumonia that settles on the child’s chest, is a highly malevolent, totemic force that acts as a nemesis in the child’s imagination. In the actual Rainswayed Night sequence, ‘the rain’s soft sheath’ is a source of elemental comfort and solace amidst the horror of the car accident and nightmare of the hospital. In ‘Evening Storm’, the tropical storm and rhythm of the sea-tide flows into the commingling of the two lovers. The rain in ‘rainy day paper boy’ erases all sense of time and space and merges into the boy’s early morning dream. ‘all night the sea’, which is a series of tanka, is probably the closest poem I’ve written so far in describing the place where I lay my head at night. The sound of the sea is the trigger here, a constant presence at my beach house. I’ve tried (unsuccessfully) in another poem to describe just what that sound is. So the sea features in many of my poems even the new ones; sometimes, I feel, overly so. Which is where the desert comes in I guess. Yes, it is very different out there (the centre, the country around Alice Springs) and I’ve come to love the vastness and wildness of the place. Very different, dry and hard, endless, a roaring silence; it’s quite confronting in a way, humbling too somehow. So far though, beside some haiku, I’ve written very little about it (‘A White Cow’ was totally about a sort of epiphany in the desert albeit the Rajasthan one). Last time I was in Alice I was sitting in a car in the car park outside Woolies while my friend was picking up a few groceries and there was something on the radio about some sort of scientific probe on Mars, checking for water, signs of life etc. Meanwhile a group of old Aborigine women, dressed in the most colourful array of raggedy clothes, were taking in the winter sun and then an old uncle wheeled up in a chair wanting a cigarette…I was just struck by the contrast between the radio show and the scene outside, there’s probably a poem there…
But the words for the poems may not come in a direct and immediate way; the India poems, for example, were formed after a very long gestation. As it is for most poets, I suspect, the actual poem can come from many sources. Ultimately, I think, poetry is about words and some weird alchemy of sound as much as any specific experience.
You mention that ‘all night the sea’ is a series of tanka. You also write in the shorter, haiku form. What initially attracted you to these disciplined forms of writing?
Hard to say but right from when I was in my late teens, I’ve been reading books on Zen and writers like Alan Watts who had a deep understanding of the old Chinese poets and the Japanese art of haiku. There’s a favourite ku of mine by Ryokan, I’ve seen various translations, but this is it essentially:
the thief left it behind:
at the window
The first time I read this, I was blown away and I still marvel at how much Ryokan manages to say here: the overall picture is of a burglary but right at the centre is the moon, inviolate and beyond any human conniving. There’s a marvellous sense of freedom in this haiku: ‘the window’ (I’ve seen it described as ‘the open window’) turned into a portal to the unlimited and there’s an implied sympathy for the thief who misses out on the most precious thing there. So yes, I’m very drawn to the essential nature of haiku and the sense of the poet’s disappearing into the poem. I still feel very much a novice though. My friend, the poet John Bird, and I have sat together out the back of a country pub we go to near here and written haiku about the things around us…while I’m still struggling to describe a crow perched on the rickety paling fence, John will have a half dozen fully formed haiku, it just seems to come naturally.
Tanka are different again; the five lines allow for a more expansive description and generally more subjective and personal voice. (It’s a great vehicle for the theme of lost love or recalling times past). I write quite a few tanka and submit fairly regularly to Eucalypt, the Australian tanka journal edited by Bev George. I’m also part of the Cloud Catchers, a local ginko group. We get together every season (the Oz ones) and have a haiku walk, usually about three quarters of an hour before we regroup and share our haiku.
I’d say the influence of these forms definitely affects my writing in free verse. In an important way, the hard clear image, unlike polemic or high blown linguistics, doesn’t lie. I’ve made it almost some kind of credo to avoid the use of abstractions and airy figures of speech. Probably I’ve been too dogmatic about this but overall there’s something undeniable about a good image. Bob Dylan’s method of ‘chains of flashing images’ is a compelling one.
‘Chains of flashing images’ was a phrase coined by Allen Ginsberg to describe Dylan’s writing style. Throughout the last five decades, Dylan has been a touchstone for many poets and I know he is someone that has influenced your life and work. What is it about Dylan’s work that continues to mesmerise?
Well I’ve written one poem, outlaws, largely influenced by Dylan’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. It’s his least verbal album but I’ve tried to capture the atmosphere of that work, the overall sense of inevitable tragedy in the outlaw story echoes the fate of the lovers. Even the music becomes part of that:
harmonica swirls as we sink to the floor, wound
in guitars’ quicksilver chords. maracas
swish to the silk of your dress
as i follow you up the stairs.
Saw Dylan the first time he came here in 1966… Rushcutters Bay Stadium in Sydney, still a functioning boxing ring (fortunately we didn’t have to put up with the revolving stage they’d used for the Beatles less than two years before: you’d get one song full-frontal then they’d crank the stage another 30 degrees round til three songs later it all came your way again), the audience for Bob wasn’t so big. I’ve never really forgotten it: Dylan and what was (minus the drummer) The Band; snarling, surreal, wildly eclectic grooves, lots of it from Blonde On Blonde which I don’t think had even come out yet. I’d never heard anything like it… I’d never seen human beings that looked like that! Cuban heels and strange Confederate style suits from some Civil War of their own…Dylan with his floaty, Little Richard bouffant, pale and on fire. Just made me aware of the power of words and music as incantation…something prophetic and uncanny the way he brought it all together. From there I discovered Rimbaud, Verlaine…the declamatory quality of Walt Whitman and the lyricism of Tennyson you could hear it all in Dylan.
I’ve never had any problem with seeing singer-songwriters as bards in their own right. When I went to study English literature at Newcastle Uni I felt lucky to find a department where the Romantics were given great respect with the implied acknowlegement of the importance of the lyrical in poetry. One of our lecturers was the late Norm Talbot who was described by Gwen Harwood as Australia’s greatest living poet. He wrote an article in poetry australia called ‘The Stranger Songs’ (I dug it up) where he declared that something was indeed happening Mr Jones:
The lyrics of many pop songs…are considerably better, more craftsmanslike and more interesting than the work of the Established, the Serious, the Bright Young, and the Promising poets. This is uncommon.
I remember Norm asserting at some discussion of popular song that the Tambourine Man was none other than the Muse. Not to say Norm was some Dylan sychophant or anything (he was probably more interested in Keats and Blake and Emily Dickinson) but he could hear the poetry when it was there. All sounds a bit post-modern now but it was inspiring at the time to see the important place of song in poetry, like putting the lyre back into lyrical.
But yes, Dylan’s been a big influence, even as a medium to the work of other poets. I’m also a huge admirer of Ray Davies (the Kinks), love his vision of the lives of ordinary people:
Terry meets Julie, Waterloo station
Every Friday night
But I am so lazy, don’t want to wander
I stay at home at night
Going back to Dylan, I’m inspired by the narrative leaps of some of his songs such as Tangled Up In Blue and Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts. Poetry and song are a brilliant medium for telling a story, shifting through time and space in a way that nothing else can and Dylan’s a master of this. Also Dylan’s way (mentioned in Chronicles) of leaning into the song on the odd beats is something I’m probably unconsciously influenced by in my work with such musicians as Cleis Pearce. Without the formal structure and rhythmic cycles of a conventional song, you’re thrown into a highly spontaneous interplay of the voice and the musical surge. I feel blessed to be able to collaborate with such a deeply intuitive, sensitive player as Cleis.