Jaya Savige’s poetry collections include Maze Bright (Vagabond Rare Objects, 2014), Surface to Air (UQP, 2011), and Latecomers (UQP, 2005). He was born in Sydney, grew up on Bribie Island in Moreton Bay, Queensland, and teaches at the New College of the Humanities–London. His poem “Fort Dada” can be found here. It appears in the Mar/Apr 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Fort Dada”?
I remember at school in the mid-90s being tickled by David Letterman’s joke that all Boutros Boutros-Ghali (then United Nations Secretary General) wanted for Christmas was “another Boutros.” It’s apparent to me now that the joke hinged upon an Anglophone unfamiliarity with reduplicative words and phrases (and names), common in a vast array of languages other than English. The joke stayed with me, and I became fascinated by these “repeaters,” names and common words that repeat themselves, almost all of which have been absorbed into English from other languages and cultures.
I was of course already familiar with such repeaters from the plethora of memorable indigenous Australian place names, many of which appear in the comic folk-country song “Don’t Call Wagga Wagga Wagga” (Greg Champion/Jim Haynes/Ted Egan). The reference in the title is to the country town of Wagga Wagga, a name from the indigenous Wiradjuri people west of the Blue Mountains. Australians have a habit of abbreviating common nouns (e.g. “avo” for avocado, “arvo” for afternoon), so this song is an exhortation not to lop off the repeated term when referring to the country’s many indigenous reduplicative place names. (There is an historical irony here, in the fact that a settler culture that had progressively eroded an indigenous one over centuries should ultimately produce a song insisting on the integrity of its reduplicative indigenous place names.)
The female persona who emerged in this poem is very much like my mum, “who knew her rendang from her gado gado” (and who died at forty-two); she was of Anglo-Australian extraction and fell in love with an Indonesian man as a teenager, and became a skilled cook of these dishes. In a way, I recognize the persona here as about 70% my mum rewritten as though she were my contemporary, a kind of youngish stressed professional retreating to a spa town in Germany for some much-needed R&R. But there is a sadness too: everything’s too much, and is to some extent repressed by her act of escapism. Her time is out of joint (her chaconne for instance should be in triple time, not the more regimented four-four). Much of my early work was saturated with the effects of my mother’s death, and lately I thought I’d finally reached a point where I could write a poem that didn’t ultimately become some kind of missive to her. It seems I was wrong.
This piece very overtly incorporates a repeated use of repetition; how and why did you choose to use the pattern you did for this poem?
During a residency at the Cite International des Arts in Paris, 2014, I started working in a highly wrought anagrammatic poetic form I affectionately call “subtropics” (examples of which were published in Poetry in May 2016).
These too are obsessed with repetition, but involve radical difference, anagrams being by definition recombinant lexemes. These “subtropics” were squeezed out of a couple of decades of thinking about poetic form, and they appeal because they allow me to nest a recombinant poetics within the lyric mode, two things I’m interested in.
The “repeaters” of “Fort Dada” approach the question of repetition from the opposite direction: what happens when the repeated term is both immediately proximate and identical (e.g. “pawpaw,” “cin cin”)? They emerged in my thinking as a countervailing minimalistic urge against the maximal complexity of the anagrammatic form.
Put another way, I was seeking, probably misguidedly, to rub the nose of the lyric mode in the steaming pile of repetition it fetishizes.
The poem seems to begin and end, or at least conclude by gesturing, at the place it started. What does the full-circle nature of the presented story offer to the motif of repetition?
The loop you’re talking about is also hinted at in the title (“Fort Dada”), a mashup of Tzara’s moniker for his modernist poetics and the famous “fort/da” game that Freud observed his grandson playing in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which the little boy acquires language while seeking to master the absence of his mother: that is, by rolling a cotton-reel out of his cot, exclaiming “fort” (“gone”), and making his mother retrieve it for him, exclaiming “da” (“there”).
In your opinion, is this piece better suited for reception on the page or spoken aloud? It seems to be conscious of its sonic elements. Do your readers miss out on something important if they simply skim through in silence without opening their mouths?
I write for a mind, my own, but also that of any reader. To that end, I would normally say I write for the page, by which I mean I write for the silent reader. That is after all how I’ve encountered more than 99% of the poems I’ve come across, by reading them silently. I suppose I place an inordinate amount of trust in the reader’s mental ears.
More and more I’ve come to revere the picture of a human reading silently to his or herself. This is the coalface where the bond is forged, impossibly, across time and space. It is a miraculous thing. And yet, I know in my own experience that if I love a poem or a few lines I’ve just read, I’m compelled to say them aloud, to mouth them and perhaps share them with friends.
I find it interesting that you say the poem is “conscious of its sonic elements.” For some reason a lot of my work is like this and I truly don’t know why that is. The Australian writer David Malouf, a mentor of mine, once suggested to me it was a feature of poets from Queensland, as though the baroque phonemic playfulness were somehow a subtropical phenomenon, an artifact of the humidity. I like the idea, but I’m just as likely to put it down to the fact that my young early twenty-something mother saved up to buy me a violin and lessons during childhood.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
“Do not expect applause.” (W. S. Graham)
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
Right now I’m organizing this year’s Ricks Recitation Night at the New College of the Humanities in London, where I run the Creative Writing program. It’s an annual event where students and staff recite favorite poems by heart, and consume wine and pizza with our honorary professor Christopher Ricks. Last year we heard poems from across seven centuries and in five languages, and I’m hoping we have a similar showing in a few weeks’ time.