Amanda Stewart is a poet, author and composer/performer. As well as writing poetry, she is interested in expanding poetic notions to other forms and has worked extensively in new music, radio, film, theatre, dance, sound poetry and new media environments. Some of her poetry utilises more traditional literary devices while other works aim to make an intervention at the level of the materiality of language, itself, exploring a range of conceptual approaches that challenge how we see and hear language structures. She is currently working on a new book of poetry, collaborating on several new music and theatre projects and producing a solo LP.
This interview was conducted in 2015, as part of a larger ARC funded project, led by Justin Clemens, titled Australian Poetry Today.
Justin Clemens: I wanted to begin by asking you about something you said which I thought was magnificent. It was a response to a question at the Queensland Poetry Festival in 2014 about your poetry: ‘how can signification be stripped from the voice?’ I was very taken by this phrase. I was wondering if you could talk a bit more about it.
Amanda Stewart: Sure. I’m thinking that some of my visual works, in some ways, do that. But the idea of the stripping of signification came about through two things. One thing I find most amusing about doing these interviews is I know, for myself, I’m consciously coming up with pretentious justifications for what I do. And of course, I haven’t a bloody clue what I’m doing. But as long as you think you’re doing something , then something might occur. As to what it is, who knows?
One of my main interests is the relation between different forms of inscription. We live in a time which is so rich in the sense that there’s a huge range of aural, computer, and written technologies that we can engage with as poets. So, I’ve always been very particular about this when I’m writing something as well as what form of writing system I may develop or choose to engage with.
The same with aurality, which I find more interesting than orality. One of the debates in sound poetry, which is one area I’ve worked in, although I don’t know how well my work fits that category, was an argument around semantic meaning in the voice. So, I was a bit more in the camp that said as soon as a human voice is present, so is meaning. I thought, is it possible to do a work just with the human voice and make it not sound like a human voice so that there is none of that interpolation, that as soon as we hear a voice we immediately go to the human.
This process fascinates me, how complex it is, and how we all do it. So, is it possible to make a voice that is no voice? By way of response, I made these two pieces, one which I haven’t released. But the one I did release is called ‘As If’. Sort of a cheeky, vernacular, ‘as if’, but also a philosophical, ‘as if’. But I prefer the former. I used digital editing to multi-track it. I didn’t use any processing. I never use processing. I’m interested in what the dry, amplified voice does. I use stereo mikes, which is a thing I often do because it spatializes the voice and reconstitutes it, re- articulates it, in a different mode of being.
The first time I performed this piece, I became very dizzy and felt on the verge of passing out, because of the breath control. In other pieces, like my subject-object works, which are more language based, you breathe more like you do when you’re in language. But this piece completely reconstitutes the body. The other area this work comes out of is music, in that I work a lot in music as well as in writing.
A lot of my friends in new music were starting to use computer technology, working with the glitches and producing new genres. So vocals started being uncool. One debate in improvised music has injected a new situationist element into the production of younger improvisers. I find it exciting. Part of the ethos of this earlier noise experimentation, was that when it was in its purest form, it would produce very minimal works. So, the existence of sound itself and the notion of listening became challenged. The other thing this work does, is it creates a much more ambiguous space, without a virtuosic performer, without a romantic hero.
So back in those days, this tendency in new music opened other listening structures. It articulated new ways of perceiving sound and the relation between sounds. Also, a lot of these guys were just using laptops. So that raises questions about what their performance presence is. A lot of people removed themselves from the stage, as well, so the emphasis is not on the musicians, just on the listening. At the same time, there was a lot of diffusion stuff happening in Europe, which was not as big here.
Now it’s swung around and the vocal element is back again, in music discourse, and in certain little scenes. Not in the composition scene so much but in sound art. I’m so excited by the younger writers and musicians. They give me real hope in an age where I sometimes feel disillusioned.
JC: So, on the one hand, there’s a general disillusionment, but on the other, there’s a sense of local excitement. Could you name some of these young people? Also, can you describe some of what they’re doing? For example, along the lines of the experimentalism that you’ve described about your own attitude.
AS: Do you mean the poets or the musicians or both?
JC: Well both or either. The ones who matter to you and what they’re doing and why. And how you see them taking this vast experimental project forward?
AS: Gee. There are so many of them. Well, let’s just stick with the poets. In Sydney there are people like Astrid Lorange, aj carruthers, Amelia Dale, Toby Fitch, Claire Nashar, Sam Moginie, Emily Stewart, Nick Keys, Evelyn Araluen, Aden Rolfe, Elena Gomez… there’s Bonny Cassidy and Ella O’Keefe, who have moved to Melbourne now and, in Melbourne, my god, so many: Corey Wakeling, Jessica Wilkinson, Fiona Hile, Tim Wright, Oscar Schwartz, Marty Hiatt, Sam Langer, Autumn Royal, Bella Li. Oh dear, I feel awful. I’m going to leave all sorts of important people out and I haven’t even started to mention people from other parts of Australia. But isn’t it exciting how many there are? I feel that something really significant is growing in poetry here at the moment. And, yes, as you said, this experimental project is vast and what’s exciting is how diverse it is. Each of these poets has completely different approaches. I’m completely inspired by them. They’re very well informed and ethical in their engagement with expanded notions of poetics. They’re taking the whole field forward. Each poet is doing this in their own way which I think is fantastic. There’s nothing worse than when you feel a sameness developing in the work of young writers. For instance, I was very influenced by Gertrude Stein when I was young.
JC: Well you need that. You need a real master, in whatever sense, to get around them in a way. To introduce you and then to circumvent them. I always think of Virgil and Dante. Virgil can only take Dante so far, you know. He’ll never make it to paradise himself. So, Gertrude Stein was your Virgil…?
AS: She was one of my heroes. But I had quite a few, as we do, don’t we? We almost knock them down as we go, sort of thing.
JC: Absolutely. So, what did you like about Gertrude Stein? Then who else and why?
AS: Well we’ll start from when I started writing, which was very young. I’ve got lots of heroes that are probably quite embarrassing to me now. [Laughing] Well, my dad introduced me to T.S. Eliot and John Keats who were his favourites all through my childhood. My parents were working a lot when I was young, so probably I was a bit lonely. But my grandparents looked after me a lot. I had a lot of extended family on both sides, which I still have and it’s wonderful. So, when my grandfather died, my poetry radically changed. I was ten. My grandfather was the person I always read my poetry to. I used to write short stories and other stuff too. Then I went onto my dad. My dad was quite a powerful God…. all sorts of slips of the tongue here! My dad loved Keats and Eliot and so he introduced me to them. But showed me the simple ones. I wasn’t like Chris Mann, a close friend and colleague of mine, who was probably reading Freud as he came out of the womb. But later I found Dada and was very influenced by visual art. So one of the main turning points for me was when I was about fifteen. We had this fabulous visual arts teacher at school who took us through twentieth-century modern art movements. I think I’ve told you this boring story before.
JC: [Laughing] Sometimes things can only come out in repetition.
AS: One of our homework assignments was to make a surrealist or a Dadaist work. So I put all this effort into making a Dadaist piece. I thought, she’s going to like this one. She was just a wonderful teacher, I adored her and really wanted to impress her. Anyway, the assignment came back to me with SEE ME written on it. I went to her and I said, what’s wrong? She said, ‘you haven’t understood. This is a montage. This isn’t a collage. You haven’t understood.’ That’s why I often think my own stupidity is one of my greatest assets. Because it took me some years to get it. And then I got it. And once I got it, it went bang.
JC: But you were really thinking about it and thinking about it for the whole time…and what was the difference after all?
AS: I think it is quite a difficult concept to get and was very formative. Much of my trajectory then was wrapped up in Duchamp, Cage, Jackson Mac Low. Even though I didn’t use their techniques, it was like this wonderful conceptual leap for me. Also, that influence of the avant-garde in literature that comes through Dadaism, Russian and Italian futurism, it’s stayed with me most of my life. It’s also fascinating that you can have similar forms, but one’s fascist and one’s communist. That was a big thing in my early twenties because I used to have an idea that you could develop forms that were ethical. But, of course, you can’t. I mean, a form is defined by its use, similar to a Wittgenstein cliché where a word is defined by its use. So that’s a really good, portable, takeaway about art and politics.
JC: Absolutely. I really like two of those things that you’re saying. First of all, the incapacity to understand the difference between montage and collage and that indiscernible difference being an inspiration to you. Then when you get it, there’s this visual art line which doesn’t influence you directly as a poet, but nonetheless, it has a conceptual influence. Then secondly, what you just said about the undetermined relation between form and politics that I also felt in my twenties. Can form have an ethical alignment?
AS: Yeah. I was very disillusioned by that. Because with everything I did, I wanted to question form. I thought that power relations were constantly being reconstructed through all our different human architectures of thinking and doing. So how can one be sure?
JC: If artists can’t fail, who can?
AS: [Laughing] I didn’t come across Tristan Tzara’s writing until quite a bit later. But those ideas from contemporary visual art actually affected my poetry before I knew the poets. So that’s a positive thing. Because although there’s not a very literal relation between ethics and aesthetics, there can be, perhaps, some sort of stirring that leads to something approximating it.
JC: Absolutely. It gives you new possibilities for your body, for thinking and action that you could otherwise not have had…
JC: They’re not representational in that sense. They have an experimental effect …
AS: Yes. That’s exactly it. You can become infected by an idea and it will generate something within you that has some residue of the impulse. One long-term obsession of mine is the revolution in thought that occurred in the nineteenth and twentieth century, modernism, in art, you know, abstraction, subatomic physics, Mendelian genetics, the beginning of psychoanalysis. To me, that was an extraordinary revolution of thought. We end up with these stars and pinpoints. But what we know is, everything comes out of an ethos of people together. That’s where ideas come from. It’s unfortunate that we get our Michael Jacksons of physics, because we know that, through the Bohr-Einstein debates, for example, that there were debates and discourses …
JC: And discord as well.
AS: Very much discord. Because if there wasn’t the discord, there wouldn’t be that rub of ideas. So that rub of ideas is what’s exciting. And, of course, what we’ve seen is so many reactionary appropriations of the outcomes of those debates.
JC: Yes, absolutely. I feel I had a similar feeling around form. But what you’re also saying now, it seems to me, is that the forms themselves, once they’re made, can be up-taken by your very enemies. So, it’s a process of rebreaking the forms again.
JC: It’s the rebreaking of form that produces the conditions for an ethical possibility.
AS: Yes. Suddenly, that’s put it all together for me.
JC: Well, just returning to your work, ‘As If’, it seems to me, as you were saying before, involves on the one hand, a sort of disorientation of the body, around breathing and the difference between language, breathing and making sounds that no human being has made before. Then, on the other hand, the introduction of the concepts. So, linking these quite abstract concepts to real physical experiments. Can you say something about the physical experiments with yourself around those vocal sounds? Because they are kind of amazing. I’m asking particularly about what happens at that limit of your experimentation, the noises that are not signification and not even recognisable as a human voice, and yet it’s the voice that’s made it. I mean, how did you do it? Just in a pragmatic sense, did you just start making noises?
AS: I don’t remember practising or trying to do this.
JC: That’s interesting too.
AS: I’ve never rehearsed. I hate the concept of rehearsing. You either play and you do something, or you do nothing. In these contexts of working with musicians or creating solo sound and vocal works, I see myself as using what I’ve ironically called extended language techniques. In Europe, I’ve worked a lot like that. Even in classical art music contexts because in the field of voice and extended vocal technique they’ve been interested in having a weirdo poet vocalist up there. It’s unusual. What is interesting, is that although I’ve done that noise stuff and used it quite extensively in collaboration with the musos, in terms of ‘works’, I’ve only done the two. One I have released and the other I don’t know if I ever will record it, so it’s fixed in time…
JC: Yes, in the public.
AS: I do produce noise works as public performance, but I see them as something ephemeral and that’s important to me. For instance, what notation system you engage.
JC: Absolutely. Because some of those notation systems come back to the signification problem. It’s like some things are born to disappear and some things are born to live forever. Or they have that temporality inscribed within them.
AS: I think it’s one reason I’ve been a bit reticent about being classified as a sound poet, because I do have these very specific things that I’m doing which differ greatly. It’s an area I work in and love but my work is diverse and a lot of my poetry is actually written and not sound poetry at all.
JC: Yeah, it’s not necessarily your thing, as some people do want to be a performance poet.
AS: Yes, that’s right.
JC: I mean, whether they say it explicitly or not, you can see that’s where they’re working and that’s where their heart is. But that’s not the case for you. That’s important.
AS: That’s right. When I’ve worked with the musicians, I’ve thought, there’s poetry proper and then poetry improper. The poetry proper is probably closer to the written poems I do. My aim was to almost make every work with a different conceit.
JC: Every one new.
AS: Yeah, not exactly ‘new’, but each possessing a different conceit. But yeah, you totally get it. I think I can do ESP with you.
JC: Well that won’t work for the public. That’s the only problem.
JC: Still, I’m sure we can both agree to emphasise this notation system! And, again, I don’t mean to classify you, but I can see the great modernist explosion as integral to aspects of your work. Then, something about the interferences that those guys provided, of the forms. Then, finally, with that almost utopian or messianic aspect of those communities too. Is that fair enough to say? That the explosion of modernism and all this great creativity within you, which you concede did not make it ‘new’ in the boring sense. Then the interferences of people, persons, and discourses, and then finally this utopian aspect, do you think that’s a fair enough characterisation of the sorts of things you’ve been doing as a poet?
AS: Yeah, it is. I don’t know about the utopian thing though. You need to explain more about that.
JC: Well I guess there is something about what you said before, about how you want young people to keep continuing this thing, which must go on into the future and go on without you. But knowing that something great and specific about the things you can do with your voice and to your body, are not the way of the world, what the world tells you to do. And the absolute value of that contestation in your work, I guess, is self-utopian. Even if it seems negative or destructive in a public sense, the necessity of that as an ethics of life might otherwise be lost?
AS: And I mean, how tragic that one even must think that way. It’s almost like you need to be pushing to make a space for young people. They could do anything. Once again, it’s like what we were saying about it not transferring forms or that would be a bit of a critique of modernism. But what I love about modernism are these sort of off-the-wall manifestos and irreverent, reflexive, works that come out of it. But there’s then a potentially reactionary aspect to modernism. You know, in parallel with fascism. So, it’s a complex beastie.
I think that chance to create adversity, rub, and discourse, as you were saying before and to have the space to do that is one interesting aspect of poetry. It’s so robust because you don’t need electricity. You can do it in your head. You don’t need anything. Music’s like that too. You can do it in your body.
But most poets have to work. A lot of my trajectory has been determined by work. A lot of the influences that came into my work from radio, from Europe, from working in the music and sound poetry scenes in Europe, and a little bit of poetry, were also for making a living. So, I’m incredibly badly read now. And, of course, a lot of my life has been flying by the seat of my pants doing gigs. Most of the time I was doing administration. So, when you’re a gigging type person, it can really end up being quite superficial. Because you’re just constantly rushing to the next gig.
But the fact that most poets must work is interesting. I wouldn’t be as utopian as to say it puts them outside of dominant social and economic systems, because it doesn’t. But you do have to be pretty bloody minded to keep on writing poetry.
JC: Did you grow up in Sydney?
JC: I think of the ’70s and ’80s, even into the ’90s, that post-’68 generation of people literally slugging it out in often quite vicious and divisive ways. Is that the sort of milieu you’re speaking of?
AS: Well it’s interesting because it makes me think of Pam Brown, who was wonderful to me when I was in my early twenties and trying to cope with the Sydney poetry scene. I was also at UTS studying communications there. I went there after school. I was part of a little group that got the sound studies idea happening. It’s waxed and waned over the years.
Actually, I was there at the time of the third intake or thereabouts. So, it was about three years after it was started. It was a fantastic course. They gave us lashings of Frankfurt School, and bits of psychoanalysis, and bits of French theory. There was a big split at that time between other poets. Another dear friend of mine is Adam Aitken. We lived together in the ’80s for a while. Not as lovers, as dear friends. John Forbes lived round the corner. Adam had done English at Sydney Uni. I’d done communications.
We found the scene all very bemusing, interesting, and funny. That’s one thing about his and my generation, we noticed that there were wonderful things happening. It was the post-Whitlam era, in Sydney, I was involved in setting up 2SER. I was involved in Rock Against Racism concerts. My friends were involved in the beginning of CAAMA and Imparja Television in the 80’s which was really exciting.
But apart from Whitlam’s policies, people like Pam and her generation had forged through with feminism. There were women’s rape crisis and health centres all being set up. Infrastructure that didn’t exist previously. So, when people like Adam and I and other people our age came on, it was like all this stuff had been done and you felt so fortunate. In terms of the literary scene in Sydney at that time, the feminists were starting up their own presses. Pam Brown organised a sort of collective make-your-own-printed anthology. It was called A Book of Our Own. We learnt how to typeset and print at this grassroots level. So, we produced this book with quite a lot of bad poetry in it and some good poetry, like Dipti Saravanamuttu, who was in Sydney then.
Pam and so many others had opened up the terrain for us. But on the other hand, it was difficult for people of my age to get proper jobs back then. Whereas the generation even just ten years before, had jobs galore because of Whitlam, after then the jobs disappeared. So, there was this feeling of ambivalence between the generations. It seemed split to me because some of them who’d been so radical turned out to be very ambitious and betrayed their principles, in my opinion. Others stayed true, like Pam Brown.
Eventually, I managed to get a job at the ABC I where I worked for over ten years. I used to spend my holidays doing a film or doing poetry. I was also involved in music groups. Then I had a bit of a European thing going on. You can make quite a good living working in music and sound poetry in Europe. Not here.
JC: It seems ’70s and ’80s Sydney was an extremely dynamic urban locale in which a number of these things you talked about happened, like the radical feminists who set up these institutions. Then also these other things; the anarchists, the Soviet Union is still up. So, an intensive community of discourse and discord.
AS: There were a lot of South American people moving to Australia then, Pam and Sasha Soldatow and I used to do these benefits at the Latin American Cultural Centre for Jura Books. There were all these old Spanish anarchists there as well as people from Chile and elsewhere escaping oppressive situations.
JC: Let’s come back to that. Tell me about Europe.
AS: I was involved in some radio stuff in the ’80s in Europe. But I was more interested in the American thing and went there often back then. And these were people who did link up with Dadaism in an obtuse way: John Cage and Jackson Mac Low. There were lots of others, of course, too. Even though I wasn’t using those techniques, it was a conceptual wonderland. It’s almost like, okay, well if they can do that, what can I do? That’s what I want for younger people. Don’t do the same, but can I make a space for you? Which you have a responsibility to do.
After I left the ABC I focused on Europe for many years and was able to build a career there. For a while, I largely stopped working in Australia, I was angry. Then that passed.
This period was really hard work. For some time, I went back and forth from Europe to Australia. I remember during one period I co-rented this little flat with other people in Amsterdam which had no phone. You had to use the toilet downstairs in the junkies’ apartment. There were difficult times. It rained all the time and there were no mobiles. I had to go to the public phone usually and join a queue of people in the rain. I was terribly homesick a lot of the time and I could no longer use Australian vernacular. My earlier poems very often used Australian vernacular, and popular references.
In Europe, I was working in non-English speaking contexts. In fact, a lot of the performing I did, I had to fit myself in around the context. I was working in new music, in improvised music, jazz and then the occasional composed music things, sound poetry and then some poetry festivals and also worked with various poetry organisations like the wonderful Literaturwerkstatt Berlin (now called Haus für Poesie). As a result, my life became overwhelmed by administration and my English suffered. This is one of the things that really frightened me the most. I had reasonably pronounced, but very simplistic French. I wasn’t working in France as much as I was working in Germany. I can order a cup of coffee in a type of German but it’s worse than my French. You become used to putting effort into making simple and unambiguous sentences…
JC: So language, locality, and place are important in a community that seemed critical to you?
AS: Very. But during that period when most of my work was for Europe, when I was here, I was out of contact with everybody. Then I realised I was nowhere. Now that I’m older, I think, did I do the right thing? Well I really don’t know but I did reconnect here which was fundamentally important to me and Europe has also been very good to me. I think that some of my more abstract poems and vocal works, like ‘As If,’ are a direct result of working there.
Amanda Stewart, ‘As If,’ Ladyz in Noyz, Vol. II, compiled by Lara Soulio www.corpuscallosumdistro.com