Michelle Cahill in conversation with Peter Boyle: “The Apocrypha of William O’Shaunessy”


On The Apocrypha Of William O’Shaunessy

MICHELLE CAHILL in conversation with PETER BOYLE


MC: What were the inspirations for your work The Apocrypha Of William O’Shaunessy ?

PB: Many and varied. It is a long work – about 400 pages with a wide variety of material. I began it in 2004. Museum of Space had been published, I’d just returned from the International Poetry Week in Caracas and, though I had written several new poems, I really wanted a larger project. A young Venezuelan poet at the Festival, Edmundo Bracho, had read a few very inventive humorous prose poems from a sequence called “Noir”, imagined conversations written in a formal archaic Spanish purporting to be scripts for various famous 1930’s Hollywood films. I’m not a film buff but I do know something about the Greek and Latin classics and I thought it could be fun to try such inventions – poems and prose fragments written under the names of various real and imaginary ancient writers. The project rapidly took on a life of its own and picked up on a lot of other interests – my fascination with languages, philosophic ideas about time and circularity, history, political events and indirect ways of writing about such things. There was also the example of Edmond Jabès’ The Book of Questions, a masterpiece that deliberately blurs the divides between novel, lyric poetry, philosophical essay and traditions of Rabbinical commentary. Large sections of that book are attributed to imaginary rabbis. Likewise Henri Michaux’ prose poems of journeys to imaginary lands have long been favourite reading of mine. But alongside that desire to experiment and make something new for myself, there was a strong sense that I wanted to speak in my own indirect ways against the background of the world that Bush and Howard had made, the apocalyptic world of globalised capitalism.


MC: Is The Apocrypha Of William O’Shaunessy what you would describe as an epic, and what drew you towards this classic form?

PB: It has some elements of epic but I wouldn’t describe it with that word. There isn’t a single sustained narrative line running through it. It is deliberately fragmented. I think of the great epics – Homer, Virgil, Dante – as being more authoritative but I’m interested in leaving plenty of holes for the reader to go in different directions.
There is, though, some sense of epic about it. People, places, debates, various authors like the poets Omeros Eliseo and Erycthemios, the philosopher Leonidas, the exile and writer of miniatures Irene Philologos, the traveller and essayist Lucius of Ocampo, appear across the work. The struggles between Eusebius and other realms like Ebtesum and Kitezh, the lessons of Phokaia, the sense of it being a vast travel book also thread the whole together. My model is probably more a kind of the Histories of Herodotus with vast holes left in it than the Odyssey or the Aeneid.
What I particularly enjoy about such a large form is that various types of writing, styles, concerns can bounce off each other, reflect or subvert each other and so build a very many-sided whole bigger than just the sum of its parts. Also, in the tradition of Ern Malley, it has a single ficticious author, the late classicist William O’Shaunessy, and includes an appendix of his other writings – poems, short stories, biography. So it also belongs in the tradition of heteronyms going back to Fernando Pessoa. I enjoy the creative sense of becoming someone different, writing in quite different ways, for example, when I’m the Byzantine poet in exile Irene Philologos compared to when I’m the slightly Cuban Omeros Eliseo or the rather Wittgensteinian Leonidas.
MC: Did your writing of the poems require specific research into ancient history, philosophy, or languages?
PB: Mostly not, but I did refresh my memory of a few of Plato’s Dialogues, reread much of Thucydides, read a few histories of the late Roman Empire and discovered Valerius Maximus’ book, and read quite a few philosophers and books on the ancient world. I had studied Latin and Greek at High School and still know a certain amount of that. I was able to write the epigrams to the book in Greek and Latin but did check them with dictionaries.

MC: Many of the poems seem like dreams or the fragments of dream. Were any of the pieces inspired by dreams, and if so, how did you record them?

PB: I don’t think any of these poems come specifically from dreams but I have long written down at least some dreams in my notebooks. A few of the poems come from vivid daydreams or half dreaming thought experiments. Book III, for example, was written while staying with my ex-wife’s family in the Philippines – parts of it sketched out after mid-afternoon naps. Its concerns reflect tropical landscapes, water, poverty and what all those things might do to people. The concerns are quite real but they are given an oneiric bent. Personally I enjoy the freedom that gives to the writing, a way into talking about big things without preaching.
MC: The substance and the discipline of writing prose poems differs to that of free verse. Do you have a preference for writing poetry in either form?
PB: To me they are different types of poetry that work in different ways and make different demands on the poet. I enjoy writing in both styles. There are, in fact, a lot of free verse lyric poems in The Apocrypha. The selection Michael Brennan made for International Poetry probably favours the prose poems and prose writings over the more familiar free verse forms – perhaps because the main narratives and main issues are more obviously there in the prose poems. The lyric poems tend to be more personal.
MC: It seems to be a series of poems about books, about reading and writing, or philology and the imagination’s relationship with books. Why is this fascination so compelling and how might a reader read this book?
PB: Of course, each little section is ascribed to some author or other and often comes from a book. So you have the excerpts from The Green Book of Ebtesum, the uncut Etruscan edition of Herodotus, Omeros Eliseo’s book Nineteen Poems of Life and an Ode to calm temporarily confused ghosts etc. And the Apocrypha themselves are organised into seven books, each made up of roughly thirty numbered sections or fragments. So there is, deliberately, a sense of entering into a labyrinth. But, if the poem – for The Apocrypha as a whole to me forms a poem – looks inward towards the fascination and delight of reading, it also looks outward at our own world. There is a strong satiric element to the book – the kingdom of Eusebius with its principle of maximising inequality, its desire to own everything including the right to use the present tense, for example, or the Dawn ritual of purification for descendants of those who participate in slaughter. Echoes of Howard and Bush and their policies can be found across the work. Likewise, for example, there are echoes of September 11, the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, Monsanto and its bio-piracy, and of Australia’s own legacy of violence and indifference. I don’t see The Apocrypha as a bookworm’s book about other books but as an indirect, but perfectly forceful way of speaking about how things are.
Philology and imaginary languages are something that fascinates me. Imagining radically different languages is largely about imagining different ways in which we might be, imagining alternate futures for ourselves, for humanity perhaps. It is part of the thought-experiment aspect of poetry that attracts me strongly. In creating something large you need light and dark, the joyful as well as the appalling. So Kitezh, the city whose buildings are made of water, surrounded by a river that reverses the direction of its flow by night, appearing and disappearing at whatever might be the centre of the world, stands opposite the ultra-capitalist dream of Eusebius. Mostly the imagined languages, like those of Phokaia, explore the creation of an artistic, emotion-based, relationship-centred world, compared to a world dominated by commodities and pragmatic purposes.  
Because the book is so long it sets up certain challenges to the poetry reader, or probably any reader. It’s too long to read from cover to cover in one sitting, as I often do with poetry books. It has some degree of sequence and structure so flipping to poems at random might not be ideal either. Personally I think you could open it at random and read a section or two here or there. It might be good to read it Book by Book, as each Book is constructed as a unit, or you could read a couple of Books, break, then read a couple more. You might want to intersperse the reading of Apocrypha with a few of O’Shaunessy’s own stories or poems. You could hopscotch through the book in several ways. Or you could read it in, say, three sittings from cover to cover.
Ultimately, though, it will be for the reader to decide how they will read it and what they will take from it. I imagine some readers will respond more to its playful side, others to its intellectual paradoxes, others again to its social/political dimension.
MC: Is there a sequential or chronological narrative in poems from The Apocrypha Of William O’Shaunessy?
PB: Not in any strict way, but certain large themes – Eusebius versus Ebtesum, the Kingdoms of pre-Roman Africa, what is language, the life of Irene Philologos, for example, do get gradually revealed as you read on over the seven books.
The organisation of each book is more a balance between a main focus or location and the need to ensure variety – both in content and in style – between free verse lyric poems and prose poems and longer prose excerpts, for example. So Book III focuses on water, Book IV on the island of Phokaia, Book VI is more focussed on poets, especially Irene and Philemon of Mauretania, Book VII is more centred on philosophers, but each book has a range of other things.
MC: In some ways, as Michael Brennan suggests, the Apocrypha could be seen as “a homage to Borges.” In your view, to what extent is the work influenced by, inter-textual with, or paying tribute to the labyrinths, mirrors and philosophical idealism of his writing. I’m thinking here of stories like “The Library of Babel”, and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”?
PB: I honestly don’t think of it as a homage to Borges. The influences are far more diverse than that – Michaux, Jabès, Bonnefoy, Char, Jonathan Swift, Joyce, as well as Cortazar, Manuel Puig, poets like Pessoa and Ern Malley are all there in the background as well. On the other hand, I do love Borges’ work and have been reading it for over thirty years so I’d have no great objection to someone seeing it as in part a homage to Borges. After all, O’Shaunessy’s poem “Reading Borges late at night and imagining Buenos Aires” is how I chose to end the book.
MC: The work seems to play with several paradoxes: it is protean, yet it seems to subvert the possibilities of the future as much as historical truth. It invents alternate languages and alternate grammars, yet it speaks of the beauty that lies beyond speech. What is the function of paradox, and to what extent is the poetic voice, in this collection, a visionary one?
PB:  I think everyone loves paradoxes, or at least relates to them. They capture so much of our experience of life. Our concepts of both time and language abound in paradoxes. Paradoxes, where they are fresh and telling, address us like poems, push us into seeing things differently, at least for a few moments give us the gift of being in a different world. Many people talk of poetry in terms of metaphor but perhaps the paradox is an equally important aspect of poetry.
I’m not sure of the phrase “a visionary voice”. It recalls Blake and Allen Ginsberg, both of whose work I deeply admire, but the phrase conjures up the danger of being a pretentious know-all, someone who claims to have a unique pipeline to Truth. Ultimately whether one’s work is visionary or not is for other people to decide. I would see the poetic voice in The Apocrypha as involving (depending on the section concerned) largely playful but also serious thought-experiments and a passionate engagement with life. Whether the whole achieved is a visionary voice is something I’d prefer to leave to others’ judgement.
MC: You describe it as a mixture of fiction and prose and fictive translations from imaginary texts. Do you see this work as a development in some way from your experience of translating French and Spanish poetry?
PB: In places yes. I had been trying to do my own translations of Cuban poet Eliseo Diego and the Spanish poet Antonio Machado but had to give up, feeling I couldn’t capture the essence of what I felt in the Spanish in the English. Some of Omeros Eliseo’s poems are my own attempts to write a little like what they might have written had they written in English. There are also occasional echoes of poems by Borges and Yves Bonnefoy in The Apocrypha, but only to a minor degree. Perhaps to some extent surrendering to a heteronym resembles putting one’s poetic skills at the service of another poet in the process of translating, but I suspect it is a fairly limited resemblance. After all, in The Apocrypha there is no literal text guiding my versions.
MC: What kinds of challenges did you encounter in the syncretism of the work; by that I mean the shifts from lyrical to historical, from abstract to discursive voices and the alternating syntax that these might require?
PB: Only the difficulties everyone experiences in writing. Writing in different styles is a challenge, writing in the same style for a twenty page poem is also a very big challenge. Avoiding monotony in style was one challenge in a work this long. In some sections the challenge was to sound archaic and slightly bizarre (to fit a particular persona) without being merely confusing and clumsy for the reader.
MC: The verse novel has established itself as a successful sub-genre in contemporary Australian poetry. How might your book differ from a verse novel?
PB:  As I see it, the verse novel narrates a story using the line-breaked form of poetry – the line breaks and certain typical rhythms of poetry, its conciseness, its omissions, perhaps certain more striking metaphors mark it out as poetry. If a verse novel was in prose poetry we would simply call it a novel, possibly a rather fragmented one, but there is a long tradition of that going back to Faulkner and including something as wonderful as In the skin of a lion.
The Apocrypha has some elements of a novel but it isn’t a novel. It is as much in prose poetry as in free verse form. Its fundamental concern is not narrating a story where the fate of the characters is the reader’s chief interest, though there are quite a few characters in the book. It is more open in form than a verse novel and has, at heart, a different conception of poetry. I am most interested in poetry as a way of perceiving and relating to the world, an alternate way of thinking that uses thought-experiments, paradoxes, playfulness to get outside the limitations of the reasoning self. There are some verse novels I deeply admire, like Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate and Walcott’s Omeros, but in general the idea of writing a verse novel hasn’t appealed to me very much. It does seem to come out of a different, more technical perhaps, concept of poetry.
As to The Apocrypha, I think it is a form of its own.
MC: Did the work stem from the writing of individual poems, which are integrated into a whole; or was it written more through the filtered perspective of characters forming a discontinuous narrative?
PB: I worked in both these ways. The second was, though, very important. If it hadn’t been close to the dominant mode of writing The Apocrypha I don’t think the whole would work. There were, also though, several individual lyric poems or prose poems I wrote separately and then had to think about where, if anywhere, they might fit.
MC: The world of these poems seem to be governed by an order of physical and ethical beauty which prevail over inconsistencies and distortions in time, logic, grammar and language. Does this suggest a kind of political or philosophical allegory?
Yes, though I trust in a way that is not preachy.
Certainly I agree that beauty is a key value that runs through the work, whether it be the aesthetic beauty of the lost music of Parmenides, the physical beauty of Ebtesum and Kitezh, or the kind of ethical beauty found among the peoples of Phokaia and Siripech.
MC: What are the functions and the conceivable limitations, do you think, of repetition, in poetry?
Repetition gives the reader the chance to encounter something from many different angles. Repetition lets a poet go deeper into something they have visited before. You write one poem about your mother or father; later you write another. In The Apocrypha because it’s so long certain themes, issues, ideas, places, fantasies get revisited a few times, always I would hope with the aim of going deeper. The danger is obviously monotony; the danger is that by giving more you will be giving less. This is, in principle, no different for The Apocrypha than for a collection of poems about your family like The Dead and the Living or The Unswept Room by Sharon Olds or for a collection of poems largely inspired by Science, like Carol Jenkins’ superb Fishing in the Devonian.
As a reader when you’ve read something good you want more of it. As a writer or a poet when something draws you strongly, a topic, a style, a structure, you want to see how far it can take you. The danger is monotony or mere mechanical repetition. As poet or writer, you have to trust your instincts with this.
MC: Has your work, do you think, progressed from description and expression to inscription?
Interesting. I would have to tease out what this might mean. There has been a development, or at least a shift, from the first two books published in 1994 and 1997 to the last two books, especially Museum of Space. While I’ve always written some surrealist type poems, more experimental in form, the first two books tend to have more poems describing my early life, people, historical or social themes in a fairly direct way. What the painter saw in our faces has some poems like that – “Paralysis”, for example, but there are more prose poems than before and the long title poem is an experiment with voices and with fusing different dimensions of experience. Museum of Space tends to be more prose poems, thought experiments and poems that have a playful surreal feel, though there are still a few, “Memories” or “To J”, for example, that might have been in the early collections.
Largely this is about the need to move forward, to find new ways of writing and not be caught in merely repeating myself. There are also the natural shifts you might expect in a poet as they get older – for example, death is around me more now than it was twenty years ago. Writing about myself in any direct way has perhaps become more difficult, as the self I look into is a more gloomy one. In this regard, it’s interesting that The Apocrypha takes me further than ever away from myself, though not, I would want to stress, away from the real world.
I am drawn by the fluidity and playfulness poetry offers, by its possibilities for inventing meaning, inventing other lands and new structures. Counterbalancing the rather bleak image of becoming a gloomy old man endlessly writing poems about himself, a danger I felt with certain poems in Museum of Space like “Rain at Midnight”, “These autumn days” or the various “Jottings”, this new book launches me out into a wider world that offers a sense of creative freedom.
One other way of thinking of the description/expression/inscription idea would be to think of a shift towards a type of writing where awareness of writing itself becomes an equal focus of the work. So within The Apocrypha there is this multiplicity of authors and books, this fascination with the trajectory of writing as a human activity. There are gradations from the awkward, slightly gauche tone of some of the prose writers to someone like Irene Philologos. I always think of her as someone who writes from a place of purity, a place where only the essential is possible. Her name, lover of the logos, the meaning, the essence of things, the word, points towards notions of inscription.
This sense of inscription, this turning towards the act of writing as a focus, is also reflected in the use of a multitude of heteronyms. The tradition of heteronymous writing is so strong in the Latin American world, such an inventive and rich tradition. There is Pessoa and Machado. Eugenio Montejo practised heteronymous writing, as in El cuaderno de Blas Coll. One really peculiar coincidence I wasn’t aware of till nearly finishing the book is that the Argentinian poet Juan Gelman has a collection Los poemas de Sidney West, which he published as translations of an American poet living in Melody Springs in the Midwest, a completely invented figure. Within the book there are references to one of West’s friends, a certain O’Shaunessy. So far I’ve only managed to read a few excerpts of Gelman on the web. The Apocrypha, however, is unlike anything I know in the tradition of heteronymous writing by having so many writers and poets in the one book, by using imaginary lands and histories and also by being largely a satire in the Swiftian tradition.
MC: Your poetry slips across the boundaries of the visible and invisible world, and seems to be thematically fluent or connected: an excursion into the real and abstract spaces of galleries, museums and libraries. How intentional has this engagement been?
I don’t think my work, either in The Apocrypha or in earlier books, is obsessed with dusty libraries, art galleries, museums and concert halls in the sense of being the daydreams of an aesthete. The museum of Museum of Space is something open to transience, something that always has to be created, not individual works that could be owned by anyone, almost an anti-museum. Paradoxes interest me and the desire for beauty, for meaning, for whatever might counterbalance our commodified world. In the absence of credible religion, art in this deeper sense intimates the possibility of a more humane world.
MC: How can the poem be free from reality, or from the poet’s inner reality?
PB: Hmm, you wouldn’t want a poem to be completely free from reality – if it was, how would it speak to anyone? On the other hand, part of the delight of poetry is that it frees us, at least for a while, from the oppressive mundane limiting sense of reality – our domination by the jobs of the moment, anxieties about the future, obsessive and futile regrets over the past – all of the stuff that could be called “reality” and that largely serves to block us from living.
Likewise you wouldn’t want a poem to be completely free of the poet’s inner reality – even if it could be. However, equally, in states of gloom, depression and difficulty, as a poet you don’t want to be monotonously repeating that in your poetry. You want to get outside yourself. Every poet seeks ways to do that. You might engage in writing experiments or take inspiration from photos and paintings of the wider world or write verse novels about other people or experiment with a range of styles and contents. And, sometimes, you might be able somehow to siphon that gloom and darkness into a poem that works.
MC: In what ways does this book pose a new direction in your work?
PB: I think it is a new direction, but there are no guarantees as to what will come next. I mean it is new; it is very different from what I’ve done before. However, I don’t know if it is a one-off experiment or will be a recurring feature of future poems.
MC: You have said that when this work leaves your hands, you might take an entirely different direction. Is The Apocrypha Of William O’ Shaunessy essentially ontological, or, a book of the self?
I’m not quite sure what you mean by ontological here. It is a book about the world out there and about philosophical ideas, but it does trace certain parts of my life. O’Shaunessy strongly resembles some aspects of myself as I was in my twenties and early thirties – there are a few prose pieces attributed to him written during my early thirties. Likewise the love poems and poems about death, depression and pain come from experiences over the five years of writing The Apocrypha. During those five years I was doing my best to cope with a largely unhappy marriage, fell in love, got diagnosed with cancer, got separated and divorced, started a new life. I’m sure traces of all these experiences are in many of the poems.