New Double Issue launch on 10 April!

Contrappasso Double Issue, April 2015

Contrappasso Double Issue, April 2015


Roll camera…

Contrappasso starts its 4th year with a DOUBLE ISSUE.

Writers at the Movies, edited by Matthew Asprey Gear and guest Noel King, brings together many kinds of artists who have been captivated by film: its imagery, history, personalities and political edge. Across essays, fiction, poetry, interviews and photography, the contributors are James Franco, Emmanuel Mouret, Sarah Berry, Barry Gifford, Michael Atkinson, Luc Sante, R. Zamora Linmark, Richard Lowenstein, Anthony May, Michael Eaton, Jon Lewis, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Scott Simmon, Clive Sinclair and the late, great Richard Hugo.

Companion issue Contrappasso #8 takes the journal’s adventures in international writing further and wider, with its biggest selection of new fiction and poetry, from nine countries.

There’s an interview with Filipino authors F. H. Batacan and Andrea Pasion-Flores, plus stories by Pasion-Flores, US authors Rick DeMarinis and Kent Harrington and, in a Contrappasso first, a long-overdue translation of Argentine modernist author Roberto Arlt (with translator Lucas Lyndes)…

…plus the most poetry in any Contrappasso issue, with work by Nicaragua’s Blanca Castellón (translated by New Zealand’s Roger Hickin), Spain’s Alicia Aza (translated by J. Kates), China’s Lu Ye and Geng Xiang (translated by Ouyang Yu), New Zealand’s Kerrin P. Sharpe and Mary Macpherson, the UK’s Bill Adams and Richard Berengarten, the USA’s Floyd Salas and J. Kates, and Australia’s Elias Greig, Philip Hammial, Travis McKenna, Sascha Morrell, Tony Page, Sarah Rice, Frank Russo, Page Sinclair, Alex Skovron, Paolo Totaro, Lyn Vellins, Luke Whitington – and one of the last poems by the late, much-missed Morris Lurie.

This Contrappasso DOUBLE ISSUE presents the most writers so far, across the widest range of fields.

And… cut.

from Issue #6: Poetry by Stuart Barnes

Photo (CC) Tim Parkinson @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Tim Parkinson @ Flickr


i[]m[ ]perfect

The hair an eyrie that threatens to top
…………-ple the skinny neck that labours to brace
…….the face inconspicuous in spite of
………the flushed Greek nose, the left eye crazier
than Alastor Moody’s, the mouth as red
………….as a paper cut’s blood (ouch!), the ears blue
……zombie war trophies, the comical Ken
……..doll moustache that floats over the gruesome
trunk’s straggly black hair, spindly limbs (the right
…………arm annunciating scars like Billy
……….Corgan’s), the curved average junk deprived
……..of turtleneck, the mole on the inner
…..right thigh (a lump of shit: taunt of so-and-
………so), the ingrown nail on the big left toe.




The holding of golden hands, or the pit
…..stop at what was probably a beat? No, The jungle gym kiss, the cuddle? No,
no. Freedom? No.
…………………………Something more innocent

….triggered her bark at the bone transmitter,
..annoying paranoiac, Guardian—
….self-appointed—of The Lake and The Park.
..The station issued a cagey car.

skin—darkest, purest—the element, they
………..confessed, obsequious porky
who laughed while needlessly taking details,
asked pardon for that woman’s most fatal

…………Fury, ghormeh sabzi, in my gut.
Allahu Akbar! Blindfolded, we fucked.




Stuart Barnes’s poetry has appeared widely in publications such as Assaracus: A Journal of Gay PoetryCordite Poetry ReviewGoing Down SwingingMascara Literary ReviewOtolithsPoetry Ireland Review, SeizureSoutherlyVerity LaThe Warwick Review and The Weekend Australian Review, and is represented in the anthologies The Night Road (Newcastle Poetry Prize 2009), Short & Twisted 2010Time with the Sky (Newcastle Poetry Prize 2010), fourW twenty-three and fourW twenty-four. In 2014 he was Runner-Up for the Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize for an Unpublished Manuscript. He is poetry editor of Tincture Journal, co-poetry reader for Verity La, and slush reader (poetry, flash) for One Throne Magazine. Twitter @StuartABarnes, Tumblr spines, jackets, sleeves (

New & updated edition of Clinton Walker’s ‘Buried Country’

buriedcountryGood news – Clinton Walker‘s classic history of Australian Aboriginal country music, Buried Country, has just been republished in a new and updated edition through US publisher Verse Chorus Press.

A series of Walker’s drawings from Deadly Woman Blues, Buried Country‘s forthcoming sister volume, appeared in Contrappasso #3.

Here is the Press Release for Buried Country redux:

Long before Aboriginal creativity could be expressed freely across contemporary Australian culture, before ­Aboriginal artists, writers, performers and directors were widely acclaimed, it was country music that first gave the original Australians a voice in modern Australia.

It might seem an unlikely combination, but country has always offered a vehicle for the disposessed to tell their stories. Aboriginal country music has a rich history, from the great pioneer Jimmy Little through Vic Simms, Harry and Wilga Williams, Bobby McLeod, Bob Randall and Isaac Yamma to Roger Knox and Kev Carmody, Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter. These pivotal figures and many more are vividly captured in Clinton Walker’s magisterial and compelling account of this unique Australian tradition.

Hailed on publication as “an act of restitution” (Rhythms), a work that “traces new pathways into the songlines of a hidden and resonant Australian musical history” (The Age), Buried Country draws on the author’s extensive research and in-person interviews. This expanded and updated edition is lavishly illustrated with rare photographs and memorabilia, and includes a full discography.

Visit and Verse Chorus Press. You can also buy the book at

from Issue #6: Poetry by Les Wicks

Photo (CC) Beau Giles @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Beau Giles @ Flickr



He sees a woman, his daughter,
fly away.

Knew this fluff bundle this
totter of feathers she flew then fumbled
as do all gristle to the
adolescent mill when bodies
mystify & mirage so
certain about nothing it’s
almost grown-up.

Lost her somewhere around year 9. They became poles,
the magnets spun their unchosen roles
chalk & chilli.

He knows he’s no authority, no man, no failure
despite. These are the deaths each were promised
eat joylessly a caged lettuce
but need as they
think climb
but decline
into wisdom itself
a fraud one can’t discuss.

Lords of fix or fragment –
she the stubborn, judgemental,
opinionated little brat (just like her old papa).
Forgive him
this not-enough
more to come
bungled but unconditional love.

In awe he watches her name, she
builds a sturdy thing with broken eyes,
the School of Scars
has made something impenetrable to him but a
smile’s worth of trouble.
Friends are salved, worthied the mend with days.
Networks emerge newborn from her fingers,
her business busies (that shop in Newtown)
while managing two children (Grandpa’s quarterly visits
those tiny, priceless strangers).
She strides through
a lush crop of episodic
light & sails.

The father leaves life for those who are ardent, their
petty thrills of territory.
But one thing wanted, waits (for her) unfinished
sucking sense from a regretful river outside
always outside
the Last Iconoclast Saloon
at the end of a train line..


.Hindered by the Hearth

Leave our doors
with weight
stop on a tickle
check the mailbox (you do know
it’s the middle of a long weekend?) back upstairs
to verify the heater is cold have you
got your wallet this
leaving will take a while,
maybe have a cup of coffee?
We work hard to fill the question.

Jowled sky
about the courtesies of coal
you say the day is leaden
leading nowhere
the whimlost winter,
this breeder of night,
is subtle. I will convince myself.
Our tracksuits are smeared with belief.



Les Wicks has been published across nineteen countries in ten languages. His eleventh book of poetry is Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience) (Puncher and Wattmann, 2013). This year he will be performing at the World Poetry Festival (Delhi), Beyond Baroque (L.A.), Austin International Poetry Festival (Austin), Brett Whiteley Studio (Sydney), Struga Poetry Evenings and RhiZomic (Sydney). He can be found at

from Issue #6: Poetry by Jamie Grant

Photo (CC) Robert Cutts @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Robert Cutts @ Flickr


A walk in the Coal River Valley with Christopher Koch    

Two figures move along a deserted road
at the centre of a landscape of farms
and forest-capped slopes. A single car passes,
its driver raising one finger off the wheel
in the traditional countryman’s
salute. The dust on the road is as real
as the images brought into someone’s
mind, of the estuary and its arms
wrapped around townships and sheep-grazed grasses,
….waters that have flowed

down from mountainsides, long extinct cones
of ancient volcanoes. Of the two
walkers, one is myself, while the other
is a man who wears a cap one might see
on a Greek fisherman, a man with shrewd
eyes and a subtle grin, the delicacy
of an old watchmaker somehow imbued
in his manner, even if that is not who
he happens to be. Over the fields a plover
….tips its wings and moans

like a distant child. The thorny hedges
beside the road flourish scarlet berries
the size of tear drops; over the hillside
rows of grapevines are covered in plastic
nets, that flutter in the breeze like flags. Sheep
move slowly in a field, touching their thick
lips to the dust-pale earth. A stone house, deep
among shade-giving conifers; beady-eyed
swallows in the eaves, swooping in flurries
….like swarms of midges;

small birds among the vine-rows. Another house
beside the road, red brick with a tower
on one corner – and my companion tells
the history behind the tower’s construction,
and talks about crop growth and old wealth.
His knowledge stretches over the fields, a distraction
from his thoughts about the declining health
which means he must suffer from hour to hour.
From far away, a sound of muffled bells;
….a scattering of cows

steeped in long grass; hills named after household
objects, sugarloaf, cap and bonnet, and
beyond those hills the unseen mountains, jagged
as Switzerland; lakes in hidden valleys,
like the waterways of Europe; small towns
laid out and built almost two centuries
before, beside creeks on flatlands and downs.
The earliest occupants of this land
left no buildings or sculptures, and wore rugged
….cloaks against the cold;

and yet while Napoleon was still alive,
while Lord Byron journeyed among the Greeks,
stone walls and bridges, churches and barracks
arose in forest clearings and on the banks
of rivulets – walls that remain standing
to this day. Buckets and watertanks
in cottage gardens; pathways winding
like the quiet voice of the one who speaks
to me now, of politics and income tax,
….the will to survive,

and the hazards of idealism. A hand
gestures as the words take shape in his thought,
about the past and the present. This place
with its contours and its watercourses
has drawn him back whenever he has meant
to leave. A training track for racehorses
behind a modern farm house, shaped like a tent,
prompts a tale. All through his life he has sought
peace: this landscape written over his face,
….Van Diemen’s Land.





New Year’s Eve. A fireworks display
above the harbour; immense crowds pack
the shoreline. Laughter and drinking
and senseless brawls. Policemen make their way
….past fold-out chairs
and picnic rugs, their flashlights blinking.
The noise is like that of an airborne attack,
….with lights and explosions. Stairs

that lead to vantage points are bordered
by shining faces. Among them, a teenage boy
is caught up in an argument
the police have to settle, and is ordered
….to leave. He goes
off, looking for an unlighted easement
that will lead to where he might rejoin
….his friends. To get there, he follows

a stranger, another boy, down
a laneway and into such darkness
that neither can see where their feet
ought to be placed, in a part of town
….no-one visits
in daylight, the rock-scattered, steep
embankment above a long-disused
….railway siding. Some bits

of what is to follow must remain
fixed in his memory. The ground slips,
and then he is tumbling in air,
bouncing off stones and stumps down to the old train
….tracks, where he sprawls
with bruises and broken bones, aware
mainly of the sharpness of shoulderblades and hips.
….Afterwards, phone calls

and ambulance sirens, confusion
and lights and cameras, a person’s broken form
strapped onto a stretcher to be winched
up the cliff face. The next day’s television
….news will portray
the scene, as two faceless figures are inched
toward safety’s open doors. He comes to less harm
….than someone else may

have done, after such a tumble.
Later, in the ambulance, it seems as if
he is in a dream full of blinding light.
His friends come to find him in the hospital.
….“I was immortal,
I once thought,” he will soon write
on Facebook. “Then I fell off a cliff.
….Now I know I’m immortal.”




Make my Breakfast

My cousin’s father phoned her,
even though they were estranged,
on Christmas morning, to complain
about her mother.

She would not cook his breakfast,
he said. He had managed businesses,
negotiated at the highest
levels, terrified his staff,

but still he did know how
to heat a slice of toast.
My cousin drove across the city’s suburbs
in morning sun. Leaves on the great trees hung down

like sheets of discarded gift wrap.
At the top of a long driveway
the house was an empty box, brittle
as cardboard. In the kitchen a tap

was dripping as he sat at the table.
“Make my breakfast,” he repeated.
In those times it was not unknown
for a man to be unable

to boil a saucepan of water. Instead
my cousin went to the darkened bedroom.
A figure lay under the sheets.
Her mother was dead.




Jamie Grant was born in Melbourne and now lives in Sydney. He has worked as an advertising copywriter, a trainee teacher, a publisher’s representative, a bookseller, a proofreader, and as a freelance editor and journalist. He was editor of the William Heinemann Australia poetry series and poetry editor of The Bulletin. He has published eight collections of his own poetry and has edited five anthologies, including 100 Australian Poems You Need to Know and 100 Australian Poems of Love and Loss. His latest book is Glass on the Chimney (2014).

from Issue #6: Poetry by Frank Russo

Photo (CC) Contando Estrelas @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Contando Estrelas @ Flickr



They found one of the blond twins to play Jesus—
the ones whose parents had migrated to the Ruhr
to work as factory hands. The ones whose chestnut hair,
like Renaissance Jesuses, passes for blond in these parts.

He’d ridden his motorcycle from Essen, down autobahns
which morphed into the Autostrada Del Sole
before it trickled into the Great Highway of Communication.
Passing the hamlet of Mammola, he remembered hearing

how the crumbled stonework now housed some of those
who’d arrived on Pantelleria by boat. He rode until
the hillsides became familiar, russet carpeted forests
giving way to steep ravines, their streams rock-swollen.

Seeing him white-smocked, an old woman cried,
He’s like a real Jesus, his hair straight from a painting
of the Stations of the Cross. The band of twenty didn’t
need much practice—the play etched into their fabric.

A cluster of women move through the square,
coat sleeves brushing to the soft chanting of Our Fathers.
At the fore of the procession, hooded men
in sackcloth, eyes flickering through slits.

Behind them the ones playing slaves,
barefoot, planks of wood spanning their shoulders.
On the hill outside the village, the spot marked
for Golgotha: an ancient olive tree for Judas to hang.

As Judas climbs a metal ladder, takes the carefully
knotted noose, a man recounts how
the best Judas they had was the one
that time in Ragonà: so possessed,

the guilt of betrayal stamped on his face—
when he took the noose and kicked away the chair,
the way he struggled appeared so real—
how his legs kicked and bucked,

how his hands struggled to untie the noose
—how could the crowd not burst into applause?




When they call a hill a timpa

What’s left of the language of youth when its speakers
have all but gone? The grey-haired woman on dialysis,
what does she care if her word for orange

comes from the Persian, naranĝ? Or if the tafareja
where she stores her wedding ring, comes from
the Arabic for jar? The old man who seeks solace

in communion wafers and lottery tickets, what does he care
if the word he uses to name the mouse he snared,
has its origins in French? If the suriciu he trapped that morning

derives from souris, or the slice of nduja he used as bait
comes from the French, andouille?
What do the old women care if when they bake their pitti

at Easter they speak a word borrowed
from Albanian, or when they call a hill a timpa,
instead of rupe or collina, they speak the last trace of Oscan?

Do they care when they say ajumari
when lighting a fire, it springs from the Occitan,
allumar? Or when they call someone’s head
a capizza, it stems from cabeza? And what do they care

if the word they use for persimmon is the same in Japanese?
Do they care if they use these words instead of the ones
that came with nationhood? Capo, topolino, salsiccia, giarra
foreign words, all the same. What interest do the words of dominion hold?

What do they care when they use the word viatu
to describe how someone went quickly in their sleep?
Would they care to know its origins in an arcane
form of French? Are they mindful how the word

lends more dignity than using presto, so redolent of magic tricks
where loved ones might vanish in mist and vapours?
And why would anyone care for the word tambuto

their word for coffin? Would it soothe them to know
its Arabic roots? Tambuto!—like the sound of earth falling on wood.
Tambuto!—like the taam-buu-ra-taam-buu-ra-ta of a tambourine.

The woman searching death notices for familiar faces,
what would she care if time relegated her words to archive drawers
and to German philologists to catalogue and study? What would she care

if the word she uses for handkerchief—muccuturi, muccutur
were the bastard brother of a Catalan mocador?




Frank Russo’s poetry and fiction have previously been published in Southerly, The Weekend Australian, Transnational Literature, Blue Crow, ABC Radio and in anthologies in Australia, the United States and Canada. Two of his novel manuscripts have been short-listed and commended for the Vogel/The Australian Literary Prize and for other awards. The poem “Calvario” was highly commended in January 2014 for the Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Competition (Ireland). Both poems published here will be included in Frank’s collection In the Museum of Creation (Five Islands Press, 2014/15). He holds a Masters in Writing from UTS and is completing a Doctorate in the English Department at the University of Sydney.

from Issue #6: Poetry by Siobhan Hodge

Photo (CC) Tommy Wong @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Tommy Wong @ Flickr


 Happy Valley Turnover

American alfalfa, fresh
off the jet, arrives
for a visiting
in the barracks.

Soybean starches
ulcered bellies,
oats and lucerne
for horses ushered
to another day’s racing.

Withers judder
in humid clumps,
seasons in uneasy
halogen nights.

Eyes may turn
to Kowloon skyline
under lock
from stall to killing pen,
now harried up the ramp.

Seychelles broke fast,
Sicilian Storm no
along the outside
we have another

Imported hay is
for spent bodies
on the morning truck,
and the punters
park elsewhere.




Horse Latitudes

No red tide laps the shore
to mark your bloody passage.
Algal bloom snuffs oxygen,
your lungs filled
in unfamiliar seas.

Cast adrift, no water to fill
your salted flanks:
they pitched you over the side
like an empty barrel.

Spanish soil fell from your hooves
before Pacific
rose to claim
your abandoned hide.

Rolling in the deep,
hawkhead mauled
by foam. Sharks barter
for your sinews
beneath calm water.

No horizon will beckon
you home, body
sunken – skull to mount
the bedrock, mapping
a legacy of bones.



Siobhan Hodge was recently awarded a PhD at the University of Western Australia in the discipline of English, studying Sappho’s poetry and its translation. Born in the UK, she divides her time between Australia and Hong Kong, and is currently undertaking a writer’s retreat in Cambridge. She recently published a chapbook, Picking Up the Pieces, and has had poetry and criticism published in several places, including Cordite, Page Seventeen, Yellow Field, Peril, Verge, and Trove. Siobhan nurtures a longstanding interest in working with horses, drawing on both classical dressage and natural horsemanship methodologies, and is working on a related poetry collection.

Clive Sinclair classics now available as ebooks

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Here’s an enthusiastic recommendation: Hearts of Gold (1979) and Blood Libels (1985), two early classics by Contrappasso interviewee and fiction contributor Clive Sinclair, are now available in Kindle ebook format. We urge our Kindle-bearing readers to seize the moment.

And while you’re at it, why not download Sinclair’s most recent collection of stories, Death & Texas (2014)?

The books are also available in epub format at Waterstones: Hearts of Gold, Blood Libels, and Death & Texas.

And remember, you can read Matthew Asprey’s long interview with Sinclair at the Los Angeles Review of Books and also a further chat on the occasion of the publication of ‘Death & Texas’.

from Issue #6: Poetry by Richard James Allen

Photo (CC) simpleinsomnia @ Flickr

Photo (CC) simpleinsomnia @ Flickr



yes we get on alright
no longer breathless
like young lovers
more like old folk
though not so old
for i believe i am of sound mind and body
and still capable of work
it being at such times
after work
as i’m not feeling my best
what with standing up all day
and the rheumatism in my left knee
or if i’ve been treated to an unkind word
or if there’s been a hold up in my pension
or a dear friend has passed away
that i talk to her
pondering it all over
as i powder my toes before bed
and she listens so patiently
but mostly i let her talk
nodding my head from time to time
even if i’m only pretending to listen
because there are boxes of my mother’s letters
to be read or reread sorted or resorted
or a note to be answered from the landlord
concerning the rent
or a couple of lines that want writing to the dentist to say
i won’t be dropping my teeth in there again in a hurry
not after the price he charged me for that new set last may
but there’s never a harsh word between us
forty years and nothing to complain of
we get on famously
her and me
me and the tv




Crazy stuff

Why did he give me all that crazy stuff –
his portfolio on UFOs and Alien Abductions,
his years of research into Conspiracy Theories,
his proofs that everything we have ever suspected
is actually true and is going on right now,
only even worse than we expected?

Why did he give me all his crazy stuff
and then disappear off into the night,
never to report back again?

Did he think I was as sane as he?




The Unanswered Question

Would you have loved me as I loved you?
The great unanswered question
Which binds like forget-me-nots
The recycling souls of the human race.




Australian-born poet Richard James Allen’s recent collection of poems, Fixing the Broken Nightingale (Flying Island Books) is his tenth book as a poet, fiction, performance writer and editor:  Widely published in anthologies, journals and online since winning the ‘under-21 section’ of the English Teachers Association of NSW National Writing Competition in 1980, Allen has been the recipient of numerous awards, nominations and grants, as well as opportunities for presentations, screenings and broadcasts, in a unique international career as an acclaimed writer, director, choreographer, filmmaker, performer, new media artist, and scholar. Further information at The Physical TV Company website:

from Issue #6: An Interview with Judith Beveridge

Image: Devadatta's Hirelings, Jamalgarhi (CC) Photo Dharma @ Flickr

Image: Devadatta’s Hirelings, Jamalgarhi – Photo (CC) Dharma @ Flickr



An interview with Judith Beveridge

Theodore Ell


JUDITH BEVERIDGE was born in London in 1956 and moved to Australia with her family as a child. She grew up and studied in Sydney, where she still lives. After having worked in diverse jobs in offices, adult education and bush conservation, since 2002 she has taught poetry in the postgraduate creative writing program at the University of Sydney. She is poetry editor of the literary journal Meanjin.

Beveridge has published five collections of poetry: The Domesticity of Giraffes (1987), Accidental Grace (1996), Wolf Notes (2003), Storm and Honey (2009) and most recently Devadatta’s Poems (2014). Her work has appeared in many anthologies and has won numerous awards, including the Dame Mary Gilmore Award, The New South Wales and Victorian Premiers’ Poetry Prizes (the latter twice) and the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal.

Devadatta’s Poems is Beveridge’s first collection focused on a single subject. It extends themes that have increasingly absorbed her attention across several collections: the life and spiritual quest of the Buddha and the wider dramas that unfolded among those around him. Beveridge’s first Buddha Cycle of narrative poems appeared in Accidental Grace and was followed by Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree in Wolf Notes. These sequences depicted the wanderings of Siddhattha Gotama across India before his attainment of enlightenment. Devadatta’s Poems takes place after he has become the Buddha and is written from the point of view of Devadatta, Siddhattha’s envious and power-hungry cousin, who joins the new monastic order so as to bring the Buddha down. Devadatta even tries to murder him several times. The new sequence strikes many contrasts with the earlier poems ‘spoken’ by Siddhattha – the calculating versus the contemplative, the sensual versus the ascetic, lust versus renunciation, violence versus tranquillity – but both cousins are bound, ironically, by their longing for Yasodhara, Siddhatha’s wife, whom both have had to leave behind in their distant home city.

This interview was conducted by email in July 2014 in the weeks after the launch of the new book and was reviewed by both interviewer and interviewee before publication.


ELL: Devadatta’s Poems is your first book written only in one voice, telling one story. In the past you have placed narrative sequences among other work on varying subjects. Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree was one of those cases. What was it that led you to set Devadatta apart in this way?

BEVERIDGE: I wanted to give myself the challenge of writing a book-length sequence. I’ve always loved Dorothy Porter’s book Akhenaten and Geoffrey Lehmann’s Nero’s Poems and I felt with Devadatta that there was enough narrative material to do an extended sequence. The trick was in trying to work out how long or short the book needed to be, whether or not I would do a more extensive book. In the end I opted for a shorter book, throwing out quite a number of poems I had initially thought I might include. I opted for a tighter focus.

ELL: In the poem “Dawn” in Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree, Siddhattha reflects, ‘Not yet / am I a sorrowful man. Not yet.’ Was there a sense then that there would be more to tell, that after Siddhattha’s enlightenment there would be new trials?

BEVERIDGE: When I was writing Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree, which traces Siddhattha Gotama’s journey over north India before he became the Buddha, I came across Devadatta, the Buddha’s cousin and thought at the time how that would be a great story to explore. Devadatta caused the Buddha a great deal of trouble and grief by trying to take over the Buddhist Order and by trying to murder him three times, so, yes, in a sense that line can be seen as alluding to future strife for the Buddha, though when I wrote that line I didn’t consciously have that specific conflict in mind.

ELL: Siddhattha’s reflections in the earlier sequence are not all contented – he is, after all, struggling to revise his whole way of living – but his motivation is essentially humane. The new sequence turns that on its head. What did it take to shape the inner life of a speaker whose motives are so much blacker, even murderous?

BEVERIDGE: At the centre of Devadatta’s Poems there’s jealousy, hatred, ambition, lust, cruelty. It’s always easier, I think, to write about flawed characters, mainly because our language for these emotions is so much richer, and because these emotions are so much more dramatic and more embedded in our literary, cultural, social and political history. Every day these emotions make the news and so inhabit our minds and imaginations very frequently, so it wasn’t that hard to depict a flawed and corrupt character. However, I didn’t want to make him so terrible that readers would be entirely repulsed by him.

ELL: Devadatta’s antagonism towards Siddhattha is quite clear (‘Some nights… all I do is scheme / to give Siddhattha schism, infighting, dissonance’) yet both cousins, in your depictions, define themselves, to themselves and to us, in quite similar ways. They are constantly searching in the details of the world about them for some kind of solace or confirmation, and both are quite lucid and self-controlled in describing what troubles them. Did you envisage a family resemblance? How did you approach contemplating that same setting from a new point of view?

BEVERIDGE: The difference lies in the fact that Siddhattha after years of struggle finds inner peace and the path to wisdom. I knew I could never write about Siddhattha after he had achieved enlightenment because it would be fraudulent of me to try and imagine what an enlightened mind might experience. Devadatta is still caught up in all the illusions, in suffering, in the mental traps, and so resembles Siddhattha in those years before he became enlightened. Devadatta too is searching for something, but does not have the discipline to let go of craving or aversion, so he seemed like a good candidate to continue on with. It would be so hard to do justice to the character of the Buddha after enlightenment.

ELL: You mentioned having to ‘throw out’ a number of poems you originally thought of including, for the sake of a tighter focus. What was in those poems that seemed to distract from that? Could you use them elsewhere?

BEVERIDGE: No, I’d never use the poems elsewhere. The poems I threw out were poems which didn’t seem to be strong enough, or that were simply going over ground I had already covered, or they were tonally similar to other poems and weren’t adding a great deal to the narrative. There are a few of those discarded poems I do like, but they will simply have to be forever part of the reject pile. I have hundreds and hundreds of poems like that from previous books.

ELL: The drama of both sequences seems to be almost all internal, with Siddhattha and Devadatta reflecting on events after the fact, in the spaces between the ‘moves’ of their lives. We’re not often inside their minds while they are in action. I’m wondering about the source of that reflective distance from events. Is it a result of how you see the personalities of these figures? Or is it more to do with finding a way into a poem?

BEVERIDGE: It’s probably a reflection of the kind of poet I am. I write reflectively and meditatively and I’m mainly concerned with human emotions. There’s certainly very little action in Devadatta’s poems. It’s mostly thought processes and Devadatta’s plotting and planning how to kill Siddhattha. This was one of the problems I had when writing the sequence: I didn’t want it to become an endless treadmill of thoughts and I was constantly worrying about how to progress the narrative, because in a way the story doesn’t go anywhere much in terms of plot. It’s more a psychological investigation. One of the most challenging elements in writing the sequence was to try to give a sense of movement in a story that essentially has little action. I’m not sure how well I’ve succeeded in creating this movement, however.

ELL: The main exceptions to that sense of distance are the poems in which both cousins long for Yasodhara – Siddhattha’s wife, whom he leaves behind, and who is the object of Devadatta’s lust. What did it take to depict this side of both their natures, this thought that overrides everything else?

BEVERIDGE: Human longing and desire are emotions that most of us feel most of the time, whether it’s longing for a person, a place, a lost time, a lost opportunity or whatever, so all I had to do was tap into that feeling. The hardest part was finding the right language and images. You might have noticed I have used Yasodhara’s hair as an element that represents her beauty, especially in Devadatta’s poems. This was one way I was able to evoke the emotions and give focus to the mood.

ELL: Is Yasodhara a character whose story you’d consider telling, from her point of view?

BEVERIDGE: It has crossed my mind to do so. I’ve not really tried a woman’s voice before, but if I do write it, it probably won’t be for a while. I’ve also thought of writing the story from Rahula’s point of view. He was Siddhattha’s and Yasodhara’s son, so there are still some options and possibilities.

ELL: What is it that draws you back to this drama, to elaborate the various sides of the story? You published the first Buddha Cycle in the mid-90s and the world that it opened up seems to have occupied you a great deal ever since.

BEVERIDGE: It’s true I’ve always been captivated by the Buddha’s story, ever since I was a child. It certainly has a much better ending than the story of Jesus. Eastern religions seem very sensible and attractive to me. I could never accept the Christian idea of original sin, but I’ve always thought that the idea of things being related on a deep level to ring true. I dislike the hierarchical structure of Christianity and find in Buddhism a more harmonious and integrated view that includes a non-exploitative attitude towards nature and animals.

ELL: Can you describe the effect that visiting India has had on you and your work? Have you written much while there, or do you tend to reflect on details after the fact?

BEVERIDGE: I visited India on two occasions, though not for any research or religious purposes. I was married to an Indian and we took our young son to meet his family. I didn’t write a word while I was there, but I tried to absorb as much as I could. I was lucky in as much as I got to experience an Indian family first hand, so I wasn’t a tourist as such, but was able to observe things on a more domestic and intimate day-to-day level.

ELL: How far has your reading taken you? The Siddhattha-Devadatta sequences look to very ancient texts. Are there any Indian writers in particular, ancient or modern, whose work has offered inspiration?

BEVERIDGE: I have read many books on Buddhism and on the Buddha and on life in ancient India, but I don’t like to know too much about a subject because I find it shuts down my imagination. I like to have imaginative room to move, so in the Devadatta sequence, there are quite a few things which are not historically accurate, and most of the scenarios I have simply invented in order to dramatise something about Devadatta’s character. I usually find that something very small, some almost trivial detail might start a poem, such as the existence of ox-toads. I have read some Indian poetry. I am especially fond of the work of AK Ramanujan.

ELL: What is it about his work that appeals to you?

BEVERIDGE: It’s a while since I’ve read him, but I’ve always enjoyed his insights and his precise use of language. He was born in South India, but wrote mainly in English and probed his culture mainly for an English-speaking audience. He died in Chicago in 1993 and there’s part of one obituary I think rings true: ‘In the quiet yet affable wit known best to his extended family of students, colleagues and friends, Ramanujan would observe that he was the hyphen in the phrase “Indo-American”. But to everyone who knew him and the passionate brilliance of his language, he and his poetry were rather a richly evocative metaphor for the human experience wherever it might be found. He was as much at home with Yeats and Tagore as he was with the classical literatures of India.’

ELL: It’s interesting that you should say you prefer not to know too much about a subject, as your range of subjects is so broad. As well as the Buddha sequences there is Driftgrounds: Three Fishermen in Storm and Honey. And in that sequence the poem “The Book” reams off the most bizarre species of fish – hardyhead, toothy flathead, rhinoceros file fish, robust pygmy star-gazer – before the speaker admits he hasn’t found ‘the right one’ to throw back at his fishing-mate when he calls him sweetlips. Is there a sense that your character’s casting about, his gathering-in of names and effects, reflects your own?

BEVERIDGE: Yes, absolutely. I love names for things and part of my interest and love of writing poetry is that you do get to name things. The thesaurus is great for this: it has long-lists of names in all sorts of categories. I am always casting around in my poems for the right word.

ELL: What is it that draws you to such varied subjects? What gave rise to Driftgrounds, for instance?

BEVERIDGE: I am always searching around for subjects, and as I don’t like to write about myself, I cast around constantly for possible characters and scenarios to write about. I think most writers are very curious people and they often have broad interests and obsessions. One of my obsessions is water, so I wrote Driftgrounds partly to indulge my love of seascapes and riverscapes and also to try to explore the brutal subject of fishing and how character and place affect each other. I like using characters in poems as they give you a way into material not your own.

ELL: Your previous collections have usually included both longer sequences, like Driftgrounds or the Buddha poems, and sets of diverse ‘single’ poems, but it seems to me that with each collection the sequences have been growing longer. Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree made up a large portion of Wolf Notes and Devadatta’s Poems is, of course, a single book. Has ‘narrative’ been occupying you more than the writing of ‘single’ poems recently?

BEVERIDGE: Certainly for the last couple of books it has. I find that having a larger project to work on helps me generate poems more easily because I can slot into the character or ready-made narrative, not every single poem has to be begun from scratch because of the established setting or mood. However, for my next book, I am deliberately going back to single, unrelated poems as I want to have the challenge again of a broader range of subjects and forcing myself to start from the blank page with each new poem. It’s uncomfortable, but I don’t want to fall into easy habits.

ELL: What is it about a narrative sequence of poems that attracts you, as opposed to rendering the same story as a novel?

BEVERIDGE: I just love writing poetry. Writing prose doesn’t especially interest me because I like the fine detail and focus that a poem demands and I enjoy working with sound and rhythm and metaphor and texture of language. This is not to say that novelists don’t also work with these things, but they don’t work with the line or the line break and I love working with lines, finding out what they can achieve. I also love the intensity that a single poem can have and a poem can often say in a few words what it might take several sentences to say in prose.

ELL: Another trait one can sense in your work is that often once you’ve settled on a subject, you draw image after image out of it, elaborating the possibilities into long chains. “How to love bats” is one example: you tell the reader to ‘Begin in a cave’ and ‘listen to the floor boil with rodents, insects,’ but before long the poem has brought those sensations into the human world: ‘Visit op shops. Hide in their closets. / Breathe in the scales and dust / of clothes left hanging.’ You use the same technique of elaboration in Devadatta’s Poems as well, especially in conveying Devadatta’s dreams of Yasodhara. I’m wondering to what extent this ‘cataloguing’ and elaborating reflects the way you shape a poem. Do you list different attributes or qualities first and then build them into a shape, or do they trigger and grow from one another, while you are writing verse?

BEVERIDGE: Definitely the latter. For me writing is always a process of discovery inasmuch as I don’t really know what it is I am going to say before I write. I discover as I go along. One thing I do consciously is to try to push my material as far as I can imaginatively. I like poems that have imaginative reach. This means my poems go through many, many drafts before they are finished, as I often take wrong turns or produce material that I end up scrapping before I can discover the true or meaningful poem. But I like this. It makes for hard work, but it gives me a strong sense of vocation when I’m writing, a sense that the poems are quite often hard won, as I believe they should be.

ELL: Is there a sense in which you are also attempting to win over yourself in writing poems? The discomfort you mention in relation to writing about your own life calls to mind another much earlier poem of yours, “Fox in a Tree Stump,” in which the speaker of the poem recounts being forced into flushing out and killing a fox, and recalls, ‘I was nine years old. All my life / I’d stuck close to my yelled name.’ Your work has travelled away from the brutality described in that poem, but it seems to me that ideas of threats to oneself, and of oneself as a threat, have persisted, especially in the case of Devadatta. I’m wondering how you negotiate your degree of involvement with characters. How complete do you think they can be as masks?

BEVERIDGE: There is a paradoxical relationship between myself and the characters I use because they are both masks and not masks. They are masks in the sense that the emotions I give my characters are all emotions I have experienced, and I imagine most human beings have experienced, as they are the usual ones. What I change are the settings and the circumstances and this allows me a distance and perspective I wouldn’t get if I were writing directly from my own life. But I love the idea that I can move away from my own particular experiences and enter them in a more universal way. So, yes, I am attempting to ‘win myself over’ in my poems by trying to understand my own emotions through a more general lens. And what I get from this process is a sense of shared humanity.

ELL: With all your varying characters and subjects, is there a centre to your poetry, something that will set you writing where something else may not?

BEVERIDGE: Always the motivating and centralising factor for me is language. My poems always start with a desire to play with language. It’s the hardest thing in writing, to get the language right. It’s easy to have ideas for poems, but getting, as Adrienne Rich said, ‘the language that’s adequate to experience’ right in a poem is always a challenge. I don’t mean that I play with language in a postmodern sense, such as in L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry, where the intention is to leave the meaning up to the reader, or that I break down syntax, because I do essentially want to communicate and I want to communicate emotion. I still believe the lyric has a lot to offer and still has relevance for the reader and writer, and that inflecting emotion into a poem is a serious task.

ELL: Has your recent turn back to single, unrelated poems altered your working habits?

BEVERIDGE: My working habits have always been pretty much the same, no matter what I’m working on. I need long stretches of time before me. Six or seven hours is a typical stretch for me to get anything done. I’m painfully slow and plodding. I’ve never been able to work at white-hot speed, like some poets. And I do enjoy those long stretches. They give me a strong sense of vocation, that I’ve worked hard.

ELL: How far off may your next collection be?

BEVERIDGE: Hard to say. I think my next book will be a New and Selected Poems, so my intention is to write the ‘new’ section, which is why I’ve chosen to work on miscellaneous poems, rather than a coherent project. But I’ll take my time. Patience is a key ingredient, I think. I’d rather produce a work I’m happy with than rush into publication.