Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with John Mateer
By Yong Shu Hoong
For Australian poet John Mateer, the notion of intersection is, perhaps in one way or another, imbued in his work. In a 2002 article in The Age, he is portrayed as someone whose heritage is "'Scots-Irish, cockney, from the island of Tristan da Cunha, Dutch and Jewish… ' (and who) grew up in South Africa, spent part of his childhood in Canada, has lived in Indonesia, moved from Australia's west coast to the east." And from such coming together of different cultures and influences – gained by birth (Roodepoort, South Africa, in 1971), relocations and travels – arose poetry collections like Barefoot Speech (2000), Loanwords (2002), The Ancient Capital of Images (2005) and Ex-White: South African Poems (2009).
On top of poetry, his accomplishments cross over to art, culture and history: writing prose inspired by these topics and curating art exhibitions. Published in 2004, Semar's Cave: an Indonesian Journal charts Mateer's daily experiences after arriving in Medan, Indonesia, in 1998, to write poems and investigate the origins of Cape Malay culture. The Quiet Slave: a History in Eight Episodes (2015) is described as an experimental historical fiction about the origins of the Malays of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands; it addresses (according to Poetry & Poetics, an initiative of the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University) his interest "in the nexus between scriptural traditions and migrations, voluntary and forced, in the Indian Ocean region." In collaboration with the art historian Arvi Wattel, he has also authored Invisible Genres: Two Essays on Iconoclasm, a 2017 book documenting an exhibition he curated which drew parallels between contemporary art and 17th century Dutch painting.
His latest poetry books are Southern Barbarians (2011); Unbelievers, or 'The Moor' (2013), which has been published in translation in Vienna and Portugal; and João (2018), a book of contemporary sonnets describing 15 years of travel.
1. What are you reading right now?
The sermons of John Donne. They seem to be appropriate reading as they were committed to paper between plague outbreaks in London, and most discuss death. They are somehow conversational and declamatory, in argument with despair.
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play, or poem, who would you be, and why?
There is a figure, in the Portuguese epic The Lusiads by Luís de Camões, who appears at the point in the poem when Vasco da Gama and his fleet are about to set sail from Lisbon, to sail around Africa and then on to India. This man appears and for several pages gives voice, boldly, to doubts about the ideas of exploration, trade and history. In fact he is accusatory. It's a denunciation. He criticises the "core values", as they would say today, of the mission. Proverbially he is known as "the Old Man from Restelo", a suburb just above the place the fleet left from. I would like to have been, or be, him.
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
That I am aloof.
4. Name one living author and one dead author you identify with most, and tell us why.
Dead: Peter Blum, a multilingual poet who intended to write in English, who was born in Trieste, and who rapidly became an extraordinary figure in the minor language of Afrikaans, then came into conflict with the sinister nationalist powers of 1960s South Africa, and left for London, never to return to the country he'd found himself in after the War, the country that twice refused him citizenship. Annually he sent postcards back, insulting the nationalist literati. He largely disappeared, yet there remains the myth that he has left a large body of undiscovered work.
Living: the Swedish poet Göran Sonnevi, whom I met many years ago, and whom I know through English, Dutch and German translations. He is a wonderful poet, if overshadowed by Tomas Tranströmer. His work is introspective and politically engaged, and it is an attempt to articulate what it is to be just one lone, lost person in an age when so many have been forced to be bystanders, witnesses, to distant horror. He apparently sees his entire oeuvre as one long poem. Quietly spoken, he is an astonishingly entrancing reader, even for someone, like me, who doesn't know Swedish.
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
I don't in prose. Prose is planning and labour. In poetry… Poetry is something else. I actually feel almost ill, fragile, before I write a poem. Yet it is also like being half in a dream. And the writing of a poem is, therefore, in my case at least, always only half intended.
6. What qualities do you admire most in a writer?
Indifference to the public, to a readership; writers who can write mindfully, even crazily, and still have a sense of their own work in relation to a literary tradition.
7. What is one trait you deplore most in writing or writers?
In both writing and the person of the writer: portentousness. Especially if he or she needs a public, a community, to be a mirror.
8. Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
I couldn't quote it verbatim… I once read, many years ago, that the Irish playwright Brendan Behan was told that whatever critics didn't like about his work he should do more of. That could be something like what Blake wrote: "The road of excess leads to the gates of wisdom."
9. Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I…
…am not always travelling. When I am back, I try not to go much beyond the boundaries of my small, overlooked neighbourhood.
10. At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy, or an action thriller to watch, which will you go for, and why?
Sometimes I am amazed to find how films are categorised, even by filmmakers themselves. The films of the Portuguese director João César Monteiro are sometimes said to be comedic… If so, I could say that I like – his – comedies. But actually they are films of slow action, and conversation. When I watch a film, I want to see, really see, something interesting or beautiful or intriguing, or ironic. I am not usually engaged by stories and the tropes of genres. But then one of my favourite films is The Darjeeling Limited, and its prequel short Hotel Chevalier. But I don't think it is a comedy. They are both a certain kind of fantasy.
11. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
Least favourite: "learnings". This is a word I discovered on an information panel at Tate Modern last year. I didn't believe it was a word – if it is a word – until I heard it said on television by an Australian official, maybe someone from Australian Border Force. My favourite word, the word I find most beautiful is "gravida", the Portuguese word for "pregnant". Isn't it wonderful that the idea of a young life in a woman's body may allude to gravity, the force that keeps us grounded, that should keep us centred, close to the Earth? It contains the word for life, and is almost gyroscopic, definitely metaphysical, and so, in many ways, maternal.
12. Write a rhyming couplet that includes the following three words: void, frame, self.
What is that word 'void', a frame around space?
Or an invisible heaviness that the self can't face?
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
A pocket-sized notebook. But once I start revising the poems, I transfer them to notebooks of various kinds, usually cheap notebooks, or school exercise books, that I have bought over the decades, notebooks I was drawn to for their shape, and for the texture and colour of the pages. I never use plain white paper when I write longhand. From there, poems go to the computer, and then there are the many revisions made on printouts. But the poems do begin in a small black notebooks, that cliché. As for prose: my laptop.
14. What is the best time of the day for writing?
Morning. For poems, very, very early in the morning, straight after waking. For prose, after meditation, breakfast and a walk; sometimes those three activities are in the reverse order. My writing of prose must stop at about 3pm.
15. If you had a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
Do you mean, as before an execution? The late chef-writer-celebrity Anthony Bourdain, the Colombian novelist and poet Álvaro Mutis, and dear, wry, understated Emily Dickinson. I would like to hear what Anthony and Álvaro would have to say to one another, what stories they'd tell of travel and food and the idea of freedom, and what they'd enjoy eating at my last supper. And I would like to hear Emily's pithy contributions and, later over a small glass of liquor – or the next morning, if I could be a ghost after the execution – her summation of the evening. Now I am wondering what she would like to eat and drink, and if she would!
16. In the Los Angeles Review of Books, a reviewer describes your collection of poems, João, as "a meditation on colonialism" that is "also about love, travel, language, the body, sex, longing, and art". How has the Covid-19 pandemic fuelled your further thoughts about language, art and longing?
How is it not impossible to feel despairing now? The inequality and divisions in today's world are only going to be exacerbated by the pandemic, and they will intensify the suffering. This morning I have been reading news from South Africa, Indonesia, and Brazil, a country I visited late last year. And then there is the US and the UK and Italy and Spain… Recently I was in touch with someone who appears in the book João, and she told me that her mother, in the north of Spain, and sister, in Chicago, have had the virus and recovered, while she is working as a volunteer at a hospital in Barcelona. I fear that she may be haunted for years by what she is seeing.
In the midst of this, there is the distortion of language, where politicians speak of the "peak" of infections and deaths. They seem to be seeing a graph, while I, unfortunately, see in my mind a mountain of corpses. When the politicians and journalists repeat that the pandemic is "unprecedented", I find myself wanting to react, to object, thinking of the plagues of previous ages, and of John Donne and Boccaccio and Camões who wrote in the midst of that, those various "outbreaks". It is thought Camões died of the Plague and was buried in a common grave.
As a species, we humans, it seems, are hard to kill, yet as individuals we are as tenuous as the moment of the first thought of a poem. I worry that we won't be able to travel freely for at least a year, maybe several, maybe many. As for "the body, sex and longing": I remember the AIDS Crisis – as it was then called – of the 80s, the fear of others, of closeness, of touching. Now we need to be fearful of touching an object another has touched, of standing too close to one another, of breathing tiny droplets from another's breath. And we are now compelled to watch others and the world through screens…
But it will pass. For the moment, if we can, perhaps we should appreciate the pleasure of borders and distance, this sense of expanded space and time, of solitude, longing, and this quiet which in some parts of the world will allow some to better hear the conversations of birds and to see those skies uncontaminated by jets, skies revealing new, beautiful clouds.
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?
QLRS Vol. 19 No. 2 Apr 2020
I have already written it. It appeared in my book Unbelievers, or 'The Moor', but in a Galician translation that I proposed should be graffitied on a wall in the immigrant neighbourhood of Lavapies in Madrid. It reads – "I should have perfected my signature".