Vivian Brian Smith, born in Hobart in 1933, left for Sydney in 1967 where he established himself as a noted critic, editor, and anthologist who has mainly focused upon Australian writers. His own poetry, first published by The Bulletin during the early ‘fifties, is extensively anthologized. He has published several volumes of poetry, beginning with The Other Meaning (1956) to, most recently, Late News (2000). This exchange took place in Sydney, June 1994, and is Smith’s first printed interview.
DM: In your writings, your childhood seems to have been a contented one. How did you come to have a happy childhood?
VS: I am pleased that my writing gives that impression. I suppose it comes from having lived in one place, in a small coherent world with carefully defined boundaries. It was a very settled childhood without change or movement. Limited in some ways, but free and concentrated.
DM: Did you become interested in literature through family or school?
VS: My family was very supportive and encouraged all my interests. They greatly admired my talents and abilities, but they were not particularly artistic or literary themselves. They just let me go my own way. School was very important, especially Hobart High School which was outstanding in my day. We had excellent language teachers for French and German, and our English teachers had a great love of poetry. One or two were a little bit histrionic, but their hearts were in the right place. Above all, they were enthusiastic and encouraging as well as being critical and severe. One couldn’t get away with any sloppy thinking or expression. And they believed in hard work–that it brought results.
DM: When did you start writing?
VS: When I was quite small I started writing verse. And of course I wrote for the Argonauts at the ABC. They had a very good literary session which gave one a first feedback. And our local radio station encouraged the writing of plays and competition essays. Poetry became important in the later years at school. My first poem was accepted by Douglas Stewart for The Bulletin in 1949 and published on 4 January 1950, some months later. After that I had quite a run of poems printed in The Bulletin.
DM: You were at school with Christopher Koch. Was that friendship fruitful?
VS: Christopher Koch was at the Hobart High School for my last three years–he moved there from St Virgil’s. We soon discovered that we had literary interests in common. He wrote poems at that stage, very interesting, experimental pieces that have not been collected in book form. We spent a lot of time together, reading each other’s writing, going for long hikes, endlessly discussing. We created our own world, and at University revived the local literary journal Platypus which is now quite a collector’s item. At one stage we also started planning a larger literary journal and society, but that never quite got off the ground, and when we started to publish in The Bulletin we left the idea behind.
DM: Was University helpful or inspiring?
VS: At the University, Morris Miller and Louis Triebel, the literary historians, were friendly. But young writers have to teach themselves how to write by trial and error. The best tips I ever received were from Douglas Stewart–about avoiding archaisms and inversions and contractions–very helpful at sixteen.
DM: How important was the landscape of Hobart for the development of a poetic imagination or temperament?
VS: I am sure that it was most important, but in ways that I cannot fully explain. Hobart was a remarkable place: a huge port, an old colonial city, a capital. The Hobart I knew has disappeared, and it was a vanishing world even as I was growing up in it. It had a wonderful natural beauty as well as a man-made one. It was old in my childhood, and still more nineteenth-century than twentieth-century. All that has changed. The port is now deadish, the horrible new brutal architecture has taken over the city skyline has been ruined; so much has been destroyed: its buildings and the landscape. Life there in the ‘thirties and ‘forties was still self-contained and open to the world, with a fine balance of opposites. One was able to grow up quietly, learning, slowly trying to make sense of the world. Perhaps I should also add that it was in important ways a European city. (My step-father was of Norwegian descent; his father, who I knew well, had been a sailor who had deserted in Hobart just before World War I so as to avoid military service.) I grew up in contact with people of Dutch, Belgian, French, German, and Scandinavian origin, as well as my family who were all quite obviously Australians. And, of course, the British influence was very strong… The seasons are very clearly marked in Tasmania. Snow in winter, real spring and autumn…
DM: Christopher Koch makes much of his generation’s need to get out of Tasmania, preferably to go to Britain. In adult life, did you ever consider leaving Australia for good?
VS: Yes, we all needed to get out and see the world. All those ships too suggested that it was possible. There is something different about living on an island. A number of my friends have now spent all their adult lives overseas–either in the U.K. or Italy. But I have never wanted to leave Australia for good. When the chance came, I realised it wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to live and write in Australia, though with the chance to travel when I could.
DM: Yes, you also mention in Growing up in Hobart (1988) your desire when young to sign up with a ship and get away from Tasmania. As it was, you became an academic, teaching French literature, and didn’t leave until your mid-thirties. How did those two things come about?
VS: There are a couple of different things here. The first impulse was simply to get away when I was fifteen or so. My mother had married again and it was a difficult time for me in adolescence. But I stayed on, started to do well at school, studied French and German at University and got a position at the University quite young. I stayed in that job for ten years. When I was a student, there was no way of studying Australian literature at university. But a course started at Sydney University and I decided it was time for a change for me. (I might say too that I could see that the writing was on the wall for the teaching of French in Australian universities, and in fact this proved to be the case.) I suppose this was all related to not wanting to be an expatriate, not wanting to live permanently overseas. But my study of foreign cultures also made me very curious about my own, and I wanted to spend more time on it.
DM: One of your most famous poems is Three Landscapes: Tasmania (1982). Was it meant to be a definitive poem for you, a kind of summing up?
VS: Yes. I think that is how it came about. I have now lived nearly as long in Sydney as I have lived in Tasmania and the poem was a summing up of my Tasmania, written after a holiday there at the end of the 1970s.
DM: It strikes me that there is a major difference between your pastoral poems of Tasmania and those of Sydney. In the former, your imagination seems at home in the whole island; in the latter the pastoral impulse seems less stable, and confined to a limited space, the harbour, or more usually a garden. Can you account for this? Does Sydney lack the natural drama of Hobart, with its mountain and harbour?
VS: Sydney is so different from Hobart. It is like going from London to Rome – about the same distance. The move was associated for me with intense activity and change and a lot of hard work. But Sydney is garish, technicolour, semi-tropical; where Hobart is all nuance, discretion, muted, watercolour country in fact. The colours there are soft and gentle. Sydney seems to be more wild and violent and sleazy. But you are probably right about the more limited space. I hardly move out of the suburb I live in, except to go to work or to the airport.
DM: The persona of a number of your poems seems rather dispirited by Sydney. Are you happy here; would you ever return to Tasmania to live?
VS: I am not sure that I could live permanently in Hobart again. The winter cold is difficult and I have become declimatised after so many years in the subtropics. I love Hobart as a place, for long holidays. It is a good place for quiet work, but it is insular; and the people I know who live there all long to get out for a change and a break. Perhaps dispirited is the word. I always count my blessings and think I have a lot to be thankful for, but some of my poems do or did give voice to the mildly depressive side of my temperament. I would have thought that this was just part of the normal ups and downs of life. Poets who deliberately write everything in a major key seem to me to be pretending; to be writing it up, rather than writing honestly. I hate permanent smiles plastered on faces, but I love real human happiness.
DM: Do you have a characteristic way of writing poetry?
VS: All the poems start with intense feelings: a rhythm, an image, a line. I have to dig down until I find the whole poem, keep working at it until I get it right.
DM: You are a fierce editor of your own work. Will you ever publish a “Collected Poems”?
VS: I have destroyed a lot of work: all my early poems and drafts. I am not a great hoarder of my own material. A “Collected Poems” perhaps. But I do think every poet should be fairly selective. It would be nice to be as prolific as Les Murray or A. D. Hope, but the Slessor principle is the one I approve of. Just look at what he achieved with a hundred very short poems.
DM: Do you think being a poet-critic (or an academic) places any particular strain on writing poetry?
VS: Some poets, like Robert Lowell, write very little criticism; but the best critics have been poets: Dr Johnson, Coleridge, Mathew Arnold, T. S. Eliot, to name a few. I think there are strains now which did not exist earlier. The main strain though is time. Poetry needs leisure, space, time to spare. Being an academic means being busy; it is a full-time job, and business can drive poems away. If you don’t capture the poem on the wing, you can lose it. ‘Persons from Porlock,’ the great poems one writes in dreams, the evanescence of feeling, the black holes that swallow up yesterday…
DM: Talking of which, there was a lot of acrimony and partisanship in Australian literary circles in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies. What were your feelings about this, and how do you feel about the ‘literary scene’ today?
VS: I dislike unpleasantness and conflict and petty squabbles, having seen enough of them in my lifetime. The acrimony of the ‘sixties and ‘seventies was related to the grab for power by a new generation who have now become the ‘establishment.’ The period from the 1940s on has been an extraordinarily rich one in Australian poetry and the literary scene today has some remarkable figures too–some at the height of their powers. But it has never been easy being a writer and I don’t think that has changed much.
DM: Your New Selected Poems (1995) is to be published soon, which will mean a new swag of reviews. Do you take reviews to heart?
VS: The reviewing situation here is not good. Some writers are able to arrange their own reviews, but I’ve never been able to do that. Reviews do help to sell books if they are positive and favourable, and a good review can be very encouraging.
DM: You mention in Writing in New South Wales (1986) that you have always written poetry whilst holding down a full-time position. Have you never held a writer’s grant or fellowship?
VS: No. Never. When I was young such grants were not given. I have always been a part-time or spare-time writer, never full-time. It seems to have suited me well enough, and, in a way, to have protected my poetry. I didn’t want to damage it by bringing pressures of production to bear on it.
DM: Have you ever thought of writing a novel to try to make some money out of writing?
VS: No. Never. I remember Mark Strand [the American poet] telling me his ambition was to write a best-seller and to make money with a film script on Keats’s life. Perhaps you can do that in the U.S.A. It was never a viable option for me–though I did once write a short novel–a novella, really, now gone up in flames.
DM: In your younger days you knew many of Australia’s foremost poets: for instance, James McAuley, Douglas Stewart, William Hart-Smith, Judith Wright, and Kenneth Slessor. How do you feel about the passing of that generation, and what do you think of the kind of poetry being published now?
VS: They were all fine poets and fine people too. I’ve seen their reputations come and go and fluctuate and revive. McAuley got very rough treatment in the 1960s, though he always had some strong supporters. Douglas Stewart has suffered ups and downs but has written some poems which will always have a place in the best anthologies. Judith Wright has survived the critical onslaught she met at one stage, and I can remember when Slessor was not as widely accepted as he is now, especially in academic circles. At present we have some outstanding poets. Les Murray, of course, Robert Gray, Kevin Hart–but I could name a dozen who have written excellent poems.
DM: You are well-known for your translations of European poetry. What effect does translating have on your own poetry?
VS: Translation has always been a stimulus to my own writing; and all my translations have been of poems I have especially liked. There are quite a few I have published, but not yet collected. Working with another language sharpens one’s awareness of what language can do.
DM: Do poets ever influence you in an obvious way?
VS: Not really. Influences seep in very slowly and work in very indirect ways. I can admire all sorts of things that other poets do without wanting to do them myself.
DM: Is that what makes you so adept at anthologizing; your openness to the work of poets very different from you?
VS: I would like to think so. I simply enjoy poetry and like work of a certain quality. The raucous hostilities that motivate some of our anthologists, who want to erase other writing, who see their task as ‘eliminating the opposition’; all this is quite foreign to me. And I think foreign to poetry. Poetry is democratic. It encourages good will and disinterestedness, the flow and recoil of feeling, the search for quality and value.
DM: Do you think that critics have over-emphasized your simplicity? You strike me at times as a complex poet.
VS: I’m not too sure now what the different critics have said. I’ve always found my poems to be too complex and difficult for many people–many have in fact told me so in the nicest possible way.
DM: Your use of puns is not often recognised by critics. Is this because your work does not immediately come across as ‘playful,’ to use the current argot?
VS: Yes. It is a side of my work not much commented on. My poems are not immediately or totally ‘playful.’ But discerning readers do notice it.
DM: In the new poem The Colonial Poet (1987), there is a hint of self-mockery. However, a serious point about writing poetry is being made. Do you think that, like the colonial poet, your work in recent years has become more successful?
VS: “The Colonial Poet” is one of a number of poems (almost a series) based on the experience of reading Australian colonial texts and springing out of my fascination with colonial art; in fact, out of my coming to terms with my Tasmanian-colonial situation. One of the details in the poem is taken from the life of Kendall. But I agree that it is a very personal poem and that it says something about my own development.
DM: There are some surprises in your new collection. The Names (1986) is a new kind of thing for you, isn’t it?
VS: Yes. It is perhaps my most autobiographical poem, an attempt to loosen up my poetic forms. But I am afraid of facility, and a poem like that has to hold together with a certain economy and concentration. It shouldn’t just go on and on.
DM: There seems to be a tension in your work between acceptance of the way things are and disenchantment with them. Does this characterise the way you see life in general?
VS: Yes. I think this sums it up very well. A certain ambivalence, an oscillation.