Interview with James Brown

Your new book starts with a short poem – ‘There is too much /poetry in the world//and yet//here you are.’ Do you really think we’re running this country at a poetry surplus? And if so, what keeps you going?

I dunno if there is really too much poetry. There seems a lot, but maybe supply is meeting demand. This book has reinforced for me that I write poetry because I like the practice of trying to make something wonderful with language. I rely on my own worrying judgement and that of my publisher to decide whether my poems are worth sharing. I don’t care much about sales – I wouldn’t be writing poetry if I did.

‘Lugubrious ponds/leaked awful noughts.’ Can you explain why this is such a satisfying sound?

The stunning combination of vowels and consonants. Actually, that section (from ‘Eight Angles on the Manawatū River’) indulges in deliberate aural overkill. Hopefully people will realise I’m playing around – having fun with squlechy noises.

You write some poems which seem to be entirely about sound – ‘Home’ and then there are poems like ‘Our Life Story’ where I feel like I’m being told a story, but I have no idea what it’s about – I’m just along for the ride. I read a quote from Wallace Stevens recently, he said that poetry should ‘resist the intelligence, almost successfully’. How does that sit with you?

Wallace Stevens said that? Hypocrite. Sounds like he’s trying to have a bob each way. I like brainy poets, because poetry tends more towards emotion, which is fine by me too, but it's easy for intelligence to be pretentious. The best insights should surprise the poet. They often occur in the middle of a poem, in the middle of writing, like you’ve just tripped over them. Sometimes you don’t even recognise them until well after you’ve written the poem. The ones you hammer in grandly like election placards probably need to come down. Maybe that’s what WS means?

There is and always has been a playfulness about your work, some of the poems are LOL funny and you have an obvious delight in juggling words on the page. Cycling pops up in your poems quite often, and you borrow heavily from corporate speak in some poems, but other than that your poems do not tell us much about you, the writer, not in any clear way.I’m interested to know if you see writing poetry as a form of communication or as an art, or as a game?

All of the above. I’m always trying to communicate something. If a poem’s too obscure, what’s the point. (Mind you, as a reader I have a high obscurity tolerance.) And of course poetry’s an art. I sometimes try to visualise poems I’m working on as 4D objects – how they would look as sculptures in space and time. And all poems are games in the way they set up their rules and try to play by them. Poetic forms are a kind of game. There are poems in this book that use unpoetic discourses or reference popular culture, so require readers to be aware enough to get the joke and also open enough to accept them as poems. A lot of readers still want wisdom from poetry in the end. ‘Here’s Giles with the Numbers’, which uses the discourse of the RNZ sharemarket report to talk about minor personal concerns, has my Engagement With Big Issues falling. But then ‘Demarcations’ is composed almost entirely of small wisdoms. I don’t know how the same person could have written both poems.

Floods Another Chamber, PB, $25.