Essay: Stuart Cookeon writing

In Relation to Relations


I sit down to start this essay. I open Word and I’m confronted with a familiar feeling of consternation, of voicelessness, a bit of dread: there is the blank page, there is my empty head. So I click on Firefox and load up Gmail. So I wander down my Facebook feed and, in the moment of greatest desperation, I check my work emails. I need someone to have sent something to me, I need something to take my attention away from my self. But I regather, close the browser and go back to the white Word screen. Still nothing. I decide to look at what other writers have written, so I open up Firefox again and head to the SRB’s website. I find the Writers at Work archive… there are a lot of writers at work!

Soon my blank page and my empty mind are surrounded by other people and their essays. At first I’m a little overwhelmed; it feels like being under siege. What can I say? What can I say? In my frustration I get defensive; suddenly I’m aware of the difference between my white page and what surrounds it. I realise that I have things to say, that I don’t want to say other things—even if none of these things have yet attained any kind of form. This lifts my spirits a little; I feel more confident, I look out at what surrounds me with a smile. Who are these people? Now I want to meet them, share with them. Slowly I start to feed off their cacophony, to find spaces within it, within which I might grow something, filling in a gap or branching out.

In this way I am a writer who thrives off opposition, differentiation and relation, where these terms describe different parts of a process rather than solid, enduring states of being. Of course, I write in other ways, too: beginning from a point of almost pure isolation, for example, there is no overt opposition or differentiation; instead, what takes place is a kind of ongoing relation-ing with what’s around me (a forest before rain, say), and with what’s inside my head (something that someone has told me, maybe, or an imagination of what they would tell me, were they with me in that forest, looking at my writing or talking about the rain).

At other times, thinking more analytically, I’ve produced a theorem and then, deciding that the best form to describe it would be an essay, I’ve watched as said theorem gets built into a complex organism, or whittled down to splinters, by the scholarly requirements of the genre: to support one’s argument with—no, source its genesis in—the arguments of others. And in all of my writing it’s this building up or whittling down that is most common, in terms of the uneven realities of a semi-daily practice, as opposed to momentary flashes of insight or inspiration. I thrive ecologically, meaning: I strive for definition in relation to relations.


When I think about why I write or how, I see at least two choices. The first is to look at specific examples of my writing, of which there are too many to discuss. A second is to try and isolate an original impulse and, having done so, to trace some of the hereditary structures of this impulse in what I write and think now.

Some of my earliest experiences of poetry were not with poems as I would have identified them at the time, but rather with what I would later come to understand as poetry, albeit in very different forms to those I publish. Early on in my adolescence I became a huge fan of Michael Jackson and then, a few years later, of Prince and James Brown. Not wanting to hijack this space with a fan-rave, I won’t go into detail here about why I loved (still love) these three musicians; what’s important is to emphasise how listening obsessively to them as a young man ingrained in me a set of fundamental propositions regarding language and expression:

1) The body is inseparable from the act of enunciation. People might talk about Jackson as a dancer and Prince as a musician, for example, but this presumes some kind of meaningful separation between these activities. Besides, all we have to do is spend a while on YouTube to see that neither of these artists is very interested in such a separation; in Jackson especially, music is dance.

2) Sexuality, specifically male sexuality, specifically straight male sexuality, is radically amorphous. I went to a very rough, public, all-boys high school in a very white, working-class suburb in the far-northern suburbs of Sydney. Suffocated by a constrained masculinity predicated on physical strength, repressed emotionality and anti-intellectualism, men like Jackson and Prince (and Daniel Johns, too) were literal saviours for me. People who know me (a little) in person might be surprised by this; it’s true that I never really learned how to perform my sexuality physically. But cognitively this porosity pervades my dream structures, my moods and my desiring machine. 

3) Words are not merely containers for semantic content, nor are they merely dressed up, melodious containers for semantic content. Rather, they are functions of sound, and therefore they are material for music. To fall in love with the vocal tradition that James Brown helped to create is to fall in love with the sounds of language, the power of imperatives, the funk of non-semantic yelps and woops. All those white canons of rock, full of rhetoric about lyrical complexity and invocations of Rimbaud, of Plath, of Pound, they all miss the point entirely—that first and foremost lyric is charge, that it unleashes, explodes. Language is sound; play with it, dance with it!

This inextricable confluence of dance, melody and rhythm also says something about my interests in non-Western poetries, particularly Indigenous poetries, in which contexts to say that someone like Michael Jackson is a poet might not be so discordant.


So, between parts 1 and 2, what is the relation? I have been trying to sketch out some of the matrices in which the possibilities for my writing emerge. Part 1 presented the image of a blank page surrounded by a world, where at first the feeling was of demarcation and differentiation, but then the edge of the page turned into a site for encounter instead. In Part 2, I introduced three of my most foundational influences, and outlined how they encourage an understanding of the body as fluid, as both participant in and creator of expression. It is with an imagination of my own body as similarly fluid that I seek relations with the world surrounding my page. 

I’m a terrible dancer and singer, so the electricity I adore in the aforementioned performers manifests in my work in different ways, such as an ongoing series of deviations, or a resistance to consistency and formal restraint. The lyric’s charge always catalyses new arrangements: it crackles not only through the recording, but across forms and bodies in elaborate, improvised, staged and/or filmic choreographies. Similarly, I tend to think not only of the charge of my language, but about how this charge might propel the poem into distributions across an open field, or how it might slip through the crevices between words into arrays of diacritical marks—dashes, brackets, loops, shapes, even photographs.        

Perhaps most importantly of all, it is because of the way that those three musicians are to different extents instances of trans-poetics—trans-cultural, trans-genre, even trans-sexual—that my own practice is often thoroughly relational. A song is not just a song or its recording, but it can also flourish in dance; a voice is not just a site of meaning, but it can become one of a set of instruments; a body is not just a set of atoms in space, but… and so on. A poet rather than an instrumentalist, I look instead for compositional relation with other writers and artists, or with the places I’m in (eg. Opera) or the species with which I share such places (eg. Lyre).   

But I don’t spend my whole life writing, so this electricity is tapped relatively rarely and, if I go for too long without feeling it, I become lethargic and sometimes chronically fatigued. By the end of a teaching semester, for example, having marked a mountain of assignments and spent hours tabulating and uploading students’ results, all the while trying to ignore a black cloud of looming deadlines for course profiles, grant applications, conference proposals, journal articles, proofs, etc, I am so far from any kind of electricity that I could be in a different body.

Still, I have been able to find rare moments of grace in other roles associated with my primary mode of labour—in lecturing, for example, where, in particular lectures under particular conditions, I feel a freedom in my body, a power in it, which might be similar to the performer’s. I feel that what I am saying is travelling not only out of my mouth but down my arms and out of my hands, and out of my chest, and down through my legs into the floor, so that the whole lecture theatre becomes charged with the force from my body, and all I want is to let it keep flowing, for everyone to get swept up in it so that we can lose our lives to poetry, if only for fifty minutes.