‘Perhaps to be in between two places, to be at home in neither, is the inevitable fallen state, almost as natural as being at home in one place.’ —James Wood
When I was thirteen, in the summer of 1994, the fragments of Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 slammed into Jupiter over the course of a week. Like a lot of young anoraks, I was excited by this. A world vastly bigger than my own, subject to forces I could barely comprehend, and then only by comparison with terrestrial examples (x tons of TNT, y number of Hiroshimas): that’s the stuff! I knew that what I was seeing was important for science, but it was not directly relevant. The explosions in the atmosphere of Jupiter were exquisite and amazing, but, importantly, the explosions there had nothing to do with me. I didn’t live there. I could relax as I watched.
Is this how I see American poetry now, now that I no longer live in America? It could be if I let it be. I have only been abroad for a year. A year ago today, on 8 December, I arrived in Christchurch, New Zealand. It is easy to forget that remoteness can still exist in the time of the Internet. An economics lecturer of my acquaintance refers to this country’s ‘continuing, splendid isolation.’ Meanwhile, he had spent two hours that morning Skyping with an Israeli hospital orderly. One can stay connected without being particularly connected. People I know always talk about visiting N.Z. (probably because this country sells its ‘hobbits and kiwis’ image very effectively), and they probably want to, but no-one is going to.
This isolation-that-isn’t-really-isolation only adds up in the end to a small pile of smaller differences. But my stupidity about them is astounding. It should be easier to accept them than it is. Let’s take up the example of literature. There is no such thing as cheap, quick shipping for books, not even across the Tasman. The prices are gobsmacking. The paperback Archie Burnett edition of Philip Larkin’s complete poems, which retails for $25 in the U.S., is $60 N.Z. Sixty! For a paperback! There are essentially no American poets in the bookshops. (There aren’t even British poets in the bookshops. And Australians? Ha! Good one.) I came across Patricia Lockwood’s Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals once and I actually gasped aloud. It may seem as if there is something like protectionism at work, that native poets are being favoured at the expense of exotic ones, but in fact it is simply the market. Readers here would really rather buy Fleur Adcock than Louise Glück. (Which is fair enough: Adcock is very good.) Magazines don’t use Submittable (!). You might as well ask the editors to drive on the right.
Sometimes when I catch myself thinking these thoughts, embarrassingly incredulous, I feel like the subject of this tweet:
American poet's head filled only with poetry written by Americans.
— News for Poets (@PoBizNews) November 17, 2014
This has never been my condition, I hope. (Christ, I do hope not.) But I’ve always imagined, at bottom, even though I knew better, that other readers lived much like this, all over the Anglosphere. I have recently been struck by a major realisation: of course they fucking don’t.
I know some very, very well-read New Zealand poets who have not heard of, for example, Michael Robbins, and who probably think that Prairie Schooner is something you drink for a hangover. There is definitely literary citizenship here, but I can tell you this: it definitely does not involve reading 500 tweets about the National Book Awards.
Another realisation: you are never so American as you are when you realise that your culture is not important to others.
Many people might use the word ‘liberating’ to describe this state, and I would not correct them. Suddenly, you realise that your most important reader is you, that the most important reader of your whole tradition is you, because you’ll always be there for yourself. At the same time, you have the wonderful opportunity to introduce a new set of readers to your ways and works. These circumstances must be a tonic to me, because I have never written so much in my life, not even when I was a teenager and was writing only drivel. (The assumption I’m making here is that writing drivel should be easier than writing strong, mature work. But I may be wrong.) I used to look forward to poetry readings as much as I look forward to making small-talk at the supermarket check-out, but now I actually enjoy going to two reading series, Catalyst and the Canterbury Poets’ Collective, as if I’m a good citizen and a nice bloke. I am increasingly placing myself in online communities, too. I am the sole antipodean representative among the writers at the new literary site Queen Mob’s Tea House.
It is not this place specifically that brings the writing out of me. There is no property of the air or mineral in the drinking water that sharpens one’s artistic vision. Because, of course, New Zealanders try to escape to an elsewhere, too. Short story writer Katherine Mansfield and painter Frances Hodgkins are this country’s most famous artistic émigrés, but David Eggleton, for example, was known as a street performer in London long before he was anyone in N.Z. poetry. Fleur Adcock mines the history of her family as farmers at Te Rauamoa in her newest book of poems, The Land Ballot, even as she writes from East Finchley.
It is easy to exaggerate the importance of place. Surely, isn’t most of life lived at a remove from the real action of the world? I may not be in New York any more, but the poets in New York aren’t fighting partisans in Donetsk or mapping Antarctic sea ice, are they? They’re just doing their thing, as I am.
And what of the flashpoint issues in the U.S. now? Ferguson, the mid-term elections, the new war in Iraq, more Ferguson? I thought I would say something like, ‘I am glad I only observe them through a lens, like those explosions in Jupiter’s atmosphere twenty years ago.’ But it’s much worse than that, and less clever. These things sicken me, but I’m glad that they sicken me from afar, and then I sicken myself in feeling this way. Then I wonder whether to write or remain silent, to look back at an old home or away and into the new one. These are the mixed consolations of literature, and of living in a new country.
In any case, with the rise of globalisation the U.S. should probably be outsourcing the writing of poetry to foreign shores anyway, and I am happy to do my part. (That is if anyone will write poems for even smaller compensation than American poets already do.)
My partner Meredith marks her own day of emigration/immigration (she’s an Australian in New Zealand) with the reading of an apposite passage from Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage that she first encountered just before she arrived here years ago. (And, amazingly, Childe Harold was published on 10 March 1812. Meredith’s immigration date is also 10 March.) That’s exactly the sort of sentimental ritual that I should observe! I specialise in nostalgia and I rely on rituals even to tie my shoes. But I won’t, because I recognise a danger there. I see that in honouring the past I would also be reminding myself of how afraid I am of going back to it. Maybe instead I could write an essay like this every year, whether for publication or for my private bonfire. Maybe that’s how to look forward by looking back.