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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 June 29, 2007 10:49 AM