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June 2007

June 29, 2007

An Open Letter to the Poet Alan Wearne

I read your name today, Alan, in The New Yorker, of all places (do you know? Of course you do. Someone's told you...) You were mentioned in an article on Les Murray, and an extract of a letter you wrote to the London Review of Books appeared, lines which criticised Murray's AIDS poem ("Aphrodite Street") as bullyish pratsterism (and yes, I made up that last word. It means "of, or pertaining to, a prat") Anyway, you know all this.

I don't know Murray's work very well, but the article gives me good reason to suspect that he's very odd. Have you met him? Of course you have. Is the caricature real? Or affected? Or both? I'm rambling.

Listen: I felt a smug register when I thought of how a man mentioned in the New Yorker was also someone I had met (although there is sort of a second. I saw the ex-Chicago Bulls centre Luc Longley in a pub once, and both the New Yorker editor David Remnick, and the late David Halberstam, have mentioned him in articles on his much better team-mate Michael Jordan. But that doesn't really count, does it?) It also got me thinking: what a daring replacement "The 7 Degrees of the New Yorker" would be for the Kevin Bacon version? Dull and educated drink-affairs would never be the same again! But let's come back to Earth. I'm being facetious as to escape the dispiriting reminder of the wankery I felt when I read your name. But... perhaps I can overcome it by making this more than just a cheap "hello". Indulge me Alan, as I introduce myself and riff on the time we spent together...

You taught me creative writing at Curtin University. I was an under-grad. and the year was 2000, or 2001, but either way it was before the towers came down. That's important to me, but you may be grated by the American point of reference--I remember you taking exception to someone writing "ass" instead of "arse" but perhaps I'm stretching a point. In any case, I was taught creative writing when the towers fell by the late and lovely Elizabeth Jolley, and, Alan, she too struggled to turn hacks into anything other.

You won't remember me--I was an exceptionally average writer with an exceptionally enhanced perception of ability. It may have had something to do with the fact that I was 19. Which brings me to an important question: just how the fuck do you teach a 19-year-old to write? The ones (like me) who divine intense and universal meaning from a one-night-stand and vomiting on themselves the morning after? I would love to know.

Christ, I haven't really said anything yet, Al, but that's half the fun--writing this I don't have to mention the words "paradigm" and "discourse" and pretend that I know what they mean, as so I can just feel the sheer shaggy enjoyment of it all. In other words, academia can be a drag, filled, as it is, with pompous terrors. I know that you know this. You always struck me as a man who hated wankers and so you may approve of my telling you that my most recent repulsion of the Ivory Tower came when I read this neat little bit of horse-shit on Michael Jordan: "Finally, there is the subversion of perceived limits through the use of edifying deception, which in Jordan's case centres around the space/time continuum". Wow. That's from an essay entitled "Be Like Mike? Michael Jordan and the Pedagogy of Desire" and the prick's name who wrote it is Michael Eric Dyson. Un-fucking-believable.

But let's get back to you having taught me. One of my fondest memories is of you violently dismissing a student's work under your breath, as she read aloud to the class. I was lucky enough to be sitting next to you at the time, so I heard every word. I won't mention the student's name here, but I remember her, and you were right to swear. She was a pompous yawn, with nothing to say, and she didn't have the excuse of youth. I remember being thrilled by your criticism because I thought it meant you were real, and that you were actually listening. I still think that.

Okay, confession time: I was high on marijuana in that class. So was the guy I was sitting next to. He keeps a blog up on here, too. You must know, Alan, that I am blameless--the guy sitting next to me was an incorrigible dope fiend, forever tempting me with dark delights. Looking back, he was a vicious influence, and the next time I see him I'm going to poke him in the eye and call him a "cheap bastard".

That was, from memory, the only time I was ever under the influence of drugs in any class, ever (excising drunkenness), but let me tell you this: the experience was thrilling and terrifying. Of course, back then it was all in the name of writing--we felt that petty drug use and minor delinquency would provide us with a well of illuminating experience from which to write. We wanted to be pale and inauthentic Genets, before any of us had read the guy. And seriously--who the fuck wants to be Genet, anyway? Or Bukowski, Keroauc or Burroughs. Fuck that. I want good skin and a wife I don't shoot in the head. What do you think, Alan?

I have something else to tell you--I was a really miserable writer. Seriously. I thought that imaginative virtuosity would compensate for all the failures (Norman Mailer is sometimes guilty of this. Have you read his Ancient Evenings? Fuck me). There was a story I submitted to you once, and the thing should really be the final word on the evils of earnestness. The story was about a fictional colleague of Mozart's who, through some divine-tragic genetic anomaly, could actually see the classical musical arrangements of things: rain, trees, traffic infringement notices. But his unfinished masterpiece--unfinished because he goes mad in trying to write it--is his late wife. His difficulty is that she is dead, and so he's got to work from memory on the whole musical notation thing. Soon he's working from a cell in an asylum. It ends badly for everyone. It always did in my stories.

The logistical nightmares of his genetic mishap aside, the piece was, of course, a bloated exercise in youth-fuelled tedium, but you marked me on my "ambition". That was very generous of you. When I asked you to sign my copy of your book--The Lovemakers--you wrote: "To Martin. Keep up the ambition. Alan". What you meant, Alan, was that I overstretched, and I did and I did. Still, you didn't dash my hopes, and for that I'm grateful.

I haven't written any fiction for years. I'm terrified. I've read too much great stuff, Al. How do you escape this tyranny of idolatry? Stop reading? I think I can hear your response: fuck idolatry. Shit, or get off the pot.

That's very good advice, Alan. I think I'll take it.

Hope you're well,

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 10:49 AM

June 8, 2007

Grace Under Pressure


There is a copy of a black and white photo stuck to my wall, just to the left of this desk. It's of an old man with white hair and a white beard sitting on a bed reading from a sheet of paper. The rule of thirds has been observed--the old man and the bed absorb the bottom horizontal third, and above him is a stark wall, notable only for a small crucifix hung to the right.

The old man is Hemingway, and he is occupying a room in Málaga, Spain in 1959. He had witnessed the country's civil war, and had written some good stuff about it, but he would end it two years later in rural America.

Above the photo I have written six words. They are his words: "Write the truest thing you know". I scribbled those words on the photo some years back, but I have done very little to observe them. Devoutly felt truths tend to be empirical if you lack confidence or a God, and as for me, I'm unsure about either. Others said the same about the older, sick Hemingway, the self-plagiariser who could no longer see "the world clear, and as a whole".

But the younger Hemingway apparently could see the world clear, and as a whole, and if he did feel this way it was courtesy of a wonderful con he played on himself. But you need cons to write well. The trick worked for the younger Hemingway, as so he could write truly about the small worlds that exist in cafes and army hospitals and on rivers and open spaces.

Some have written that the world after the Second World War was too complex for Hemingway to maintain the con. But this is bunk. It wasn't the world's change that was significant--it was Hemingway's. He was growing tired, bloated with booze, and had suffered from countless near-fatal injuries. If the world was once whole for Hemingway, it was because--in boxing, fishing, game hunting, fucking and writing--he could maintain the illusion that he was dominating it. With age and physical and mental breakdown the illusion broke down, too. It was all, and only could have been, an illusion. Hemingway's activities--and they were only that--did not change the innately ambiguous state of nature. They did not change the cold, strange game of international diplomacy. They could not make static the increasingly radical politics of his home country. But the illusion was important, because he wrote with it, and, for a while, he wrote beautifully well with it, as so his short stories have the quality of being felt.

And for those who have no illusion? Well, there is Franz Kafka, a strange, tormented individual who gave us half-complete novels about men incapable of imposing their will on the world. His characters were men who struggled, and failed, against forces--psychological, logical, political, biological--that swept them towards nothingness. "I sometimes believe I understand the Fall of Man as no one else," he said. He died in 1924 at the age of 41 of tuberculosis. That same year Hitler celebrated his 35th birthday in prison, then still a relatively unknown agitator. 21 years later and Europe had changed forever and the world knew of another Fall.

It's pointless to ponder what Kafka would have said--he said it all when he was still here--but for Hemingway, for the survival of his own work and inner life, the war found its best side in small stories about grace under pressure. It was Hemingway's war, because he wrote it, and so the war became something different, both true and false. Hemingway once wrote "The world is a fine place and worth fighting for" which may well be the finest illusion of all. It is certainly preferable to having none.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 3:56 PM