“THERE IS LITTLE TIME FOR OUR SECRET DANCE”: CLARE ARCHIBALD INTERVIEWS AUSTRALIAN POET, RICO CRAIG
RICO CRAIG‘s first poetry collection – Bone Ink – is available from https://ricocraig.com/. His poetry is fragmentary and cinematic, it makes use of unexpected images and voices to investigate the transformative passions and regrets of modern life. His work has been widely published and anthologised in Australia and internationally. To find out about recent work visit twitter.com/RicoCraig
CLARE ARCHIBALD is a Scottish writer interested in the interplay of forms and potential of collaboration. Most recently print published in Gorse Journal and Creative Review, she has read at Edinburgh International Book Festival Storyshop and been long-listed in the Lifted Brow prize for experimental nonfiction. She’s currently finishing The Absolution of Shyness, a linked collection of nonfiction and curating Lone Women in Flashes of Wilderness, a collaborative project exploring women’s thoughts on, and experiences of aloneness, darkness and wilderness. She can be found here https://clarearchibald.com/
Clare Archibald: After reading Bone Ink (which resonated with me on lots of levels, and I admired and enjoyed it very much) I read through a review by JM Schreiber that described his reticence about reviewing poetry as he didn’t feel suitably aware of the formalities but that he decided to just read his way in without knowledge of structure etc. I think this reticence would resonate with quite a few people whether reading or writing poetry, myself included. Why do you think there is an extra layer of apprehension when it comes to describing what you write as poetry or in approaching it as a reader?
Rico Craig: I deal with this quite a lot in my daily life, where I find young people who are against the idea of poetry because they view it as something detached from their reality and from their sense of the world they live in. Sometimes I think this comes from the way poetry is introduced to people in schools, the way it is often presented as a puzzle that people need to solve. The poem and the relationship to poetry becomes wrapped up in this idea of solving and being right. Yet often people are asked to solve something that can’t be solved, find answers that the poet isn’t really offering. And often they’re asked to do this without an understanding of the tools poets use and the breadth of poetic forms. For me that’s the core of the apprehensiveness a lot of people feel, seeking an answer when they don’t really know how to find an answer and when there might not even be an answer in the poem you’re looking at.
CA: Would you say then that there is a deliberate political aim in representing places, lifestyles and characters perhaps less often located as central in poetry? Have you partly written Bone Ink do you think as a way into poetry for others who can be made to feel shut out or is that simply a welcome consequence perhaps?
RC: There is something deliberate, I think poetry is a great medium for sharing different characters, voices and experiences of life; poetry is flexible, it’s this great vessel that is able to contain and share many voices. Mainly I think that poetry is the last thing that people should be locked out of, it has space for the oral, the visual and the written, it has a way to find and link people, that’s one of the most powerful things a piece of writing can do. And any voice speaking is political, the choices people make to listen are political, the material people have access to is political. I’m conscious of not speaking for anyone, these poems aren’t the voice of someone else that I’m lifting from the street, they’re a conversation with people, they’re a conversation about what happens around us. I want this conversation to get out to people who might feel locked out of some versions of poetry; I’ve tried to give the reader lots of ways into the poems in this book, even the more difficult poems, I hope, have a simplicity and clarity of language that keeps them accessible. I want to deal with the difficulty of strong emotions, but I don’t want the poems to be difficult to read.
CA: Anne Carson saying that if prose is a house, poetry is a man on fire running quite fast through it has had quite a bit of traction online recently – what do you think about this? I read in an interview that you did with Tony Messenger that you clicked with poetry when you realised that you got to explore fragments of a longer story in rich detail. What led you to this point – did you try and reject other forms, did you study writing in any way?
RC: I kinda like the man on fire. I’m pretty much only writing about the man on fire at the moment; I’ve dropped all the short stories, all the chunks of novels, all the scripts that are too strange to film. As I mentioned in that interview with Tony, I like the intensity and focus of digging into fragments. I did study writing, and it was working with a truly fantastic poet and teacher named Judith Beveridge that shifted me to poetry, she encouraged me to play with that tension between the narrative and the lyric that was always present in my work, and it was in conversation with her that I became convinced that poetry was the form that enabled me to turn that tension into something positive.
CA: The Carson quote is quite apt actually as there’s a lot of fire and ash and embers in Bone Ink in various manifestations. Can you tell me a bit about how you came to put the collection together, was it something that evolved organically or did you write with particular intent/themes in mind? For me the recurring/linked ideas were made of concrete, water and fire and there are really strong senses of skin on bodies and all that is human, both natural and man-made.
RC: It evolved really organically, all my work comes from a pool of material — fragments, parts of poems, images, snippets of narrative — that I just allow to float around until pieces start to come together. Once I get a clump of related ideas I start to focus the writing, this is where I start writing with more intent, it’s where I start to see if this clump will become a parcel of loosely related poems, a single poem, or a tightly connected series of pieces. In the collection you’ll find poems that could almost run together, especially the poems set in Western Sydney, for me they’re all a part of some larger story that I only see pieces of, it’s like some unruly, epic, endless and constantly shifting film that I’m able (occasionally) to transcribe scenes from. All that skin and blood and concrete and cigarette smoke is just the stuff that stays with me, the stuff we live with and around. I like the stuff we feel with, I like the stuff that makes us feel even if it’s as hard as concrete, I like the stuff you have to work to leave a mark in. And I don’t have much interest in writing about the things that don’t stay with me; as a poet I don’t get out of bed unless there’s blood on the dance floor.
CA: I love the word clump and the idea of it. I think that’s a great way to describe the ideas and feelings that build inside until they become something more tangible to grab onto. Sticky blood, fresh blood I think it’s good to see you dance around it. There is so much of the corporeal in the collection that also doubles as an exploration of words. I think you know the Danish poet Line Toftsø and only she rivals you I think for the tongue/lips mentions. I love the physicality of your poems the “burying the shape of words in my ear” (from ‘Blackberry Caliphate’) and also like the way that nature is present in a very unsentimentalised way. Is that in some ways do you think to do with an Australian sensibility/awareness of the extremities of nature because of location/climate/species/ecological awareness/necessity?
RC: I like the corporeal stuff, there’s something about knowing the way the body works itself out into the world that I find totally fascinating. Especially the lips and tongue, they do so much that a poet needs to write about. I can see why you’d mention Line Toftsø, I like her recent pieces in Five: 2: One. I haven’t thought quite as much about the nature side of things, though I know I’m interested in the thoughtlessness of nature, the way things happen in ways that seems full of meaning and passion, but each event that is so relentlessly substantial will be replaced by the next, and what is natural will continue and continue with no sense of an end. The closest I can get to explaining what that means is by pointing you toward a Bill Callahan song called Spring…so it doesn’t feel like a particularly Australian sensibility to me.
CA: Although you’re in Australia now Bone Ink roams the world and there is a very strong sense of the different places throughout, whether it’s the smell of kebabs and the rain on greasy concrete in the suburbs, disheveled buildings and rooms or Malay or the Arctic, how important was sense of place to you? I love the idea of the silent shamble with the vapours of a city that you write of in the second last poem of Bone Ink and wonder if you’d apply that idea to the whole collection? There are a lot of journeys on foot, in cars and a real sense of physical movement that I personally really enjoyed, how deliberate was this?
RC: Totally deliberate! Place is often a starting point for my poems, for me it means a lot to be able to ground a poem in a place, even if that grounding is something that never appears in the poem and is just something I use as a way of framing the poem for myself. But, more often than not the place is very much at the forefront of the poems. If I had to pick any element of the poems that was autobiographical I’d definitely point toward the places.
CA: Although I know bits about how you as a person through interacting online and via collaboration and snippets about things you do/have done, I read the collection with little solid idea of how many of the poems are autobiographical – was this deliberate, and how do you feel about the balancing of autobiographical narration and characterisation? I predominantly write nonfiction so am particularly interested in the parameters of presented truth and curious what you think about this, especially as this can often be gendered in appreciation.
RC: Yeah, I think most of the time it’s ridiculously gendered, but that said I’ve been getting a bit of autobiographical action from people. I think the easiest way to explain what happens in my writing is to say what I say in classes I run, I often suggest writers use a persona that knows everything about them, but isn’t them, so they’re free to use anything from their life but it’s always cut with extra, imagined material. I think that enables you to write something that appears genuine (read autobiographical) but you manage to escape the feeling that you are too obviously revealing elements from your own life. The other thing that has happened with the poems in Bone Ink is they often start with a place and I search for the people and persona to fill the space; so often my places are very real but the characters and persona of the poem are completely imagined.
CA: Can you tell me a bit about the Australian poetry scene – how localised/city based is it? Is there a sense of Australian literary identity that you feel you are part of/adding to? To anyone outside of Australia, who would you recommend reading? How has it been bringing out your first book there, has it been easy or difficult to get reviews/readings around it? I was initially approached to review Bone Ink but declined partly because I don’t have any real experience of reviewing but mainly because we have collaborated previously and I felt that this would compromise any objectivity. I have a real issue with friends reviewing friends or the you-scratch-my-back approach but am perhaps quite puritanical about it – what’s your take? Also how do you view the different lit scenes around the world and how important are they to you?
RC: The Australia poetry scene…I guess at first glance it appears pretty small, the second thing I notice is I’m crap at being part of that scene. I’m good at reading journals, buying books and following the work of poets, but I rarely do readings or writers’ fest type of things so I don’t have much face to face contact with any part of the scene. My sense is that it’s strong; there are a few strange (and for me unnecessary) borderlines between different forms and styles, between different generations of poets, poets in different geographical locations, and between page and performance poetry that flare up every now and again. If anything I think that shows that there are strong pieces of work being produced by all these different groups and that there are things that are worth fighting for and making statements for — both good things. I don’t sit in any camp and I read (and listen) around a lot, I’m feeling really positive about the changes and shifts that are happening; there are heaps of really excellent young Australian poets doing innovative work across the whole field of poetry. At the moment I think writing from Caitlin Maling, Ellen van Neerven, Bella Li and Michelle Cahill gives a good indication of where really original Australian writing might be heading.
About reviews and attention for Bone Ink, it’s funny; I’ve had much more attention from people outside Australia, which I guess is in line with my publications — I also tend to get more stuff published in journals overseas. No idea what the deal is there. The other unfortunate thing that’s about to happen is Guillotine Press, my publisher, are about to fold (pretty sure it’s not my fault) so Bone Ink is suddenly homeless and I’m reasonably desperate to find someone else who might be willing to adopt the collection, the last thing I want is to see it disappear.
CA: Thanks for the recommendations. That’s really bad news about Guillotine, I think it must be very hard to run and sustain a small press and have massive respect for the people that do it. On a personal level that’s really hard for you and I can only imagine how frustrating and a wee bit heartbreaking it must be. I really hope that someone else picks up Bone Ink and gives it a stable home. Coincidentally at the moment loads of writers here have been horribly affected by the breakup and breakdown of Freight publishers – who were previously Scottish publisher of the year. They’ve had to buy back their own books or have them pulped and many have been in limbo rights-wise – it’s a mess that really brings home the act of trust that is handing over words in any capacity. I hope that for you the process has been much easier and better handled at least.
CA: I love the title, and was pleased but also a bit annoyed that you made me wait so long for the reference. It’s very evocative and I think is perfect for the corporeal sense that runs throughout and the idea of words that we carry around as walking tattoos almost (that’s how I thought of it anyway) that fold away and leach from our bodies. Titles are hugely important to me and I find it hard to write until I have the feel of one, how does it work for you generally and in relation to the collection title particularly?
RC: It’s odd, now I’ve settled on Bone Ink I can’t even remember what the other possibilities were. I was trying to capture that sense of story and words held in the body and the way it finds voice in actions as much as in words. The title came last for me, it was final element to slot into place; that’s the way it generally works for me, titles are like the special treat you get when you’ve almost finished a piece of writing.
CA: I found it interesting that a review I read commented on the masculinity inherent in Bone Ink and in a way I’m not entirely sure what that meant as for me there were some very universal, non-gender specific themes of love, longing and of loss especially. My favourite poems (which we’ll come onto later) were the ones that got to the emotional locus. I think that perhaps ‘Dress Uniform’ comes closest to examining ideas of masculinity and power but tell me about masculinity as you see it.
RC: Gawd, I’m so glad you said that, I’ve been a bit intrigued by the idea of masculinity people have found in Bone Ink. I’m not totally sure what it means, but I’m interested that people have found it worth commenting on. Obviously, I write a bit about guys; I don’t have a particularly nuanced take on this, but I think it’s something to do with remembering what it was like to be a young man, a teenager. I’m acutely aware of the way boys can be total dickheads, and actively try to project an image of dickheadedry, even when they’re not; and often this is the side of boys that gets seen, recognised and talked about. Part of my writing is trying to sneak under that veneer and look at what’s really going on in the heads of the characters. I want to get to the complexity, and I think that complexity is universal; I just happen to be use boys as a way to investigate what is hidden behind appearance.
extract from ‘Angelo’
[…] We gnawed on our tongues, smoked with acetone fingers
and we knew a stolen car was intent to murder,
to run. A weapon is what cops said; enough
for bullets through a windscreen.
Cops Killed Tsakos
At the funeral his mum howled her dark-haired
Greek rage. No one held her back, she ripped
the priest’s cross off and threw herself
at the coffin. I can’t go see her, no one visits
her now; when I’m home I drive past and imagine
her behind curtains condemning the TV
like a cursed queen. All she wanted was good boys,
like good boys could take him out of that car.
Cops Killed Tsakos […]
CA: I read (I’m paraphrasing) that you wrote partly as a way of repaying debts to people. I find this idea of words as unsaid gesture quite fascinating and I know that’s it’s something I’ve done myself (even where it will definitely go unnoticed). Is that something you feel able to say more about? There are quite a few religious references throughout Bone Ink which I read as sardonic, perhaps incorrectly, what’s your thinking then in this respect, and do you see the poems as a form of reparation?
RC: Definitely sardonic, my debts are all here in the real world and if anyone is keeping score it’s real people. Repaying debts isn’t the main reason I write, but I’m conscious of promises made and people lost. I’m also conscious of borrowing from people I’ve known, writing without permission, stealing moments that no one else knows about. Sometimes, even if I don’t think people will ever remember what happened, or read what I’ve written, the poems are a way of saying I remember that thing we did, that place we were, it was real. Maybe that’s reparation, maybe it just a way of holding on to ghosts.
CA: Obviously we collaborated previously on a Cinepoem project, which was fairly intense as all done in 48 hours between 5 strangers across 3 different time zones – what do you like/find challenging about collaboration and do you have anything else planned?
RC: I don’t collaborate much, it’s something I wouldn’t mind doing more of if it comes up. I really enjoyed the visual element of the project we did together and the back and forth of coming up with pieces quickly.
CA: I don’t really want to talk in detail about the poems as I think people should read for themselves but other than ones I’ve mentioned one of the most impactful for me was ‘Monsoonal Light of Our Childhood’ I think because it’s avowedly unsentimental and quietly devastating at the same time. I love that the image of nits crawling has an idea of unrestrainedness to it that becomes really potent in different ways as it progresses. I think in relation to ideas of the institutionalised place as well that it reminded me of some of the poems in The Luxury of the Dispossessed by Dan Duggan (published by Influx Press) – I think you’d appreciate them. It’s interesting that you say that you don’t really do readings etc. because I would love to hear you read this one – you should record it please.
RC: I’m also pretty fond of ‘Monsoonal Light’, I’ve read it at a couple of readings, but it’s strange I’ve always done radio edits and focused on either the first or second half instead of reading the whole poem. There are a couple of other recordings floating around the internet: the Cinepoem we worked on together and Behind Orana Takeaway
extract from ‘Monsoonal Light of Our Childhood’
Life cannot quell
thoughts of you
In the Malay of childhood, you’re eight,
our hands are sticky
with frangipani sap. It’s rainy season;
you have starfruit juice, caught
silver on your chin,
the essence of a cloud.
Mum and Dad are playing paddle board
in the teeming rain, they’re slick as orchids
swatting the downpour. My fingernails
are carmine tipped; I’m killing ticks,
our Alsatian whines. You run
into the rain, rambutans have fallen,
they’re furred clots on the grass.
CA: For me personally, I think I preferred the first section of the book as I like the emotional grist of it, I found the second section resonated a bit less profoundly in a way that I held onto (although I did very much appreciate ‘Abruption’ – near the bear, northern – in particular “oceans exhale the history of ice”) – do you have a favourite?
RC: If I had to pick a favourite it would be the Lampedo sequence that ends the collection. The response to the second half of the collection has been interesting, most people seem to prefer the first section, which I understand, those poems are tighter and they have clearer narrative entry points – which I think helps people to latch on. With some of them, particularly ‘Abruption’, I was trying to draw back a little on the narrative voice, to shift the way I used persona in the poems.
CA: You said that you’ve put aside novels and films for the time being so what are you gathering inside at the moment – can you say?
RC: There are a few ideas bouncing around about the next collection. I’ve got a bunch of characters hanging around in the southern end of Spain, getting up to strange troubles – I think there’s a chapbook in there somewhere, but I’m waiting for it to come together.
extract from Lampedo
‘The fox earth you give’
[…] In the nights following, your fox
friends find us; they hunger
through the mist, nuzzle at your side
longing for use. You must leave,
there is little time for our secret dance.
On the dawn of your first departure
a fox drifts arrogant, aware of the game
in play. You draw an arrow and loose
it into mist where it finds a thankful
whimper. Hunter-sure, you stride
into the heavy air and return
with a fox-bundle. Your forearms
let the coarse fur to my chest;
she will be protector, eyes
in city mist, screech in throat,
leader at shin. […]