An interview between Charlotte Guest, Publishing Officer, Samuel Cox, Publishing intern, and Dan Disney and Kit Kelen, the editors of Writing to the Wire.
1. How would you describe Writing to the Wire?
A necessary book of overdue empathies. A book of challenges. A swarm of disenchantments. Writing to the Wire is an anthology of Australian poems including poems from those currently held in the so-called “detention centres” which are organised, funded, and roundly supported by either side of mainstream politics in Australia. This book is an attempt to talk back to those active and politically-invested media-manipulating colluders.
Writing to the Wire is one of those books we sadly had to have because the national psyche has been so bent out of shape by political ambition. We have to remember there's a need to establish an ethical basis to our being here, being ourselves. Australia has come a long way in terms of our capacity to discuss some of the key existential issues to do with nation in our case – for instance dispossession and Indigenous rights. It's not that that problem's anywhere near fixed (we're not even close to a treaty) BUT Australians generally can understand today that the country was stolen and that the people who were here before the Europeans came have been very badly damaged by that and that the Australian nation has to do what it can to make this right. People generally get that, I think. But there is this huge blindspot in the national psyche to do with cosmopolitan obligation, to do with duties to our neighbours former generations of Australians might simply have thought of as 'Christian'. The problem has been exacerbated by the Islamophobia in which mainstream media have colluded.
2. What do you think the power of poetry is in comparison to other forms of expression?
I follow Emmanuel Levinas’ assertions for poetry as the saying of proximity to our others. Poetry’s power lies in its ability to look outwardly, disinterested in any other self except that which is mediated through a humanised, ethical connection with our others. And I would say that this is the power of poetry...
This anthology performs gestures of speaking up, out, and against those truth-effects promulgated by contemporary Australian politicians.
I am fond of Seamus Heaney’s notion that poetry is simply “language knocked sideways”; this of course can have a knock-on effect to wrest us from our accustomed modes of perception, which we hope will happen to readers of Writing to the Wire.
In the pages of Writing to the Wire are many who do poetry among other things; but many of us can fairly say that we have devoted our lives to poetry. Australia is a country with a remarkable number of good poets producing the good stuff in the here-and-now. There is, in Australian poetry today, an unacknowledged golden age that has been going on for some time and shows no sign of abating. So, if, as might be cynically asserted, they are mainly talking to themselves (again), then at least they are in fine company. Ethos and poeisis have a very important kind of connection.
I don't want to engage in any kind of told-you-so-ism before the fact; however I do see Writing to the Wire as an important document in the Royal Commission into the Offshore Processing of Refugees, which I imagine will be initiated before the end of the present decade. It will be important when the time comes that the record of conscience was, in part, in the form of poetry.
3. Tell us about the process of bringing this anthology to fruition.
Kit is the sole originator of the idea to make a book. Our “Introduction” is co-written, and all selections were decided as a team. We were guided by an overwhelming desire to act inclusively, to make a book that would accommodate and represent poets from across Australia (and beyond) working to a range of idiosyncratic styles.
Most of all, we wanted to make a gesture, landmark, conversation-starter, provocation, and work of compelling authenticity writ loud with antithetical language. Every poet in this book happily waived a contributor’s fee; any money the anthology makes is to be donated to the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre.
A lot of it's depressing stuff, and especially the material from the asylum seekers themselves. Moving, uplifting, but ultimately depressing because lives are being wrecked for no good reason, but for political expediency (very expensive political expediency!) A personal note. My father was a refugee, who came to Australia on a Nansen passport before the Second World War. He served in the Australian army in New Guinea, in Borneo, in Japan. Later in life, he earned an AOM for his services to Australian literature. He contributed to Australia and that's what he came to Australia to do. And I would not be answering these questions now if the Australian government then had had its present attitude to asylum seekers (my father was trying to not be conscripted into a Hungarian army, aligned with the Nazis at the time). I say this merely by way of demonstrating that my own existence and capacity to express myself are the result of the fact that Australia then was in some ways less closed to the cries of refugees than it is today. More of a fair go in some senses at least. But of course there was the White Australia policy and there was Egon Kisch. So it wasn't a bed of roses back then. Nevertheless, I write from a sense of moral responsibility deeply personal to me.
Can I also simply say that this seemed like work that needed doing, that while a number of Australian poets had written something on the subject, there had not been any kind of 'community' response, and this seemed a sad lack we could work to make good.
4. What did you have to take into consideration editing such a political book?
Primarily, the safety of those contributors who are currently “in detention”, and secondarily the safety all other contributors; before going to press, we took it as our responsibility to seek out the relevant legal advice.
I think we were very focussed on keeping the book open and inclusive, meaning that a wide range of voices should be heard in its pages. This was not simply a matter of our instincts as teachers kicking in, but was also to do with the specific politics of the case – that what we were countering was something closed, excluding, politicised; something made very deliberately opaque and at great moral and financial cost to the Australian people. We wanted to make a democratic text in the face of a moral threat to Australian democracy. Including the asylum seekers themselves was an important part of the story too. We saw the need to include people who, in good faith, wished to be Australians, and despite the way in which Australia is currently treating them.
I think that idealistic streak in both of us is also hoping this book might contribute – and the sooner the better – toward a change in the way those who seek asylum in Australia are treated.
5. What sort of impact do you hope the book will have?
I will keep hoping the book will be read by non-specialists; I’ d like the anthology to be read by politicians and their minders too; I hope the book will be read into the future; I expect our anthology will broaden the horizons of possibility, and hope other poets will start making similar project-based responses to the salient issues of the day (and directly, for me this project precipitates another, academic work seeking to make response to notions around the ethics underlying creative production).
I do see Writing to the Wire as a model for possible future anthologies. I hope that the book will make every pragmatist politician come to her/his senses, apologise for the harm done by supporting the unconscionable policies of recent years, and immediately begin fixing things with a will so that the UN sanctioned human rights of asylum seekers in Australia are respected from this day forth. More realistically, I hope that the book will be widely read and recognised as a milestone document of this particular struggle for justice. I hope it will come to be seen as part of the turning point, the point at which Australia began to return to its ethical senses. I'd like to make another little/big point here too, because I can't see where else to say it. There really is a major contradiction in organising the anthology promoting cosmopolitan ethics on a national basis. There really is no other-than-pragmatic reason for organising, funding, publishing poetry on a national basis. It is in a way anathema to the purpose of this book. But this circumstance is simply where we're at in the world, and in Australia, today. I do no more than note this here.
6. Can you explain the title Writing to the Wire?
We envisioned Australian poets writing in solidarity with those poets and others incarcerated and made to suffer extensively in the Australian government’ s camps; the way that our borders are so brazenly cordoned off by those espousing a ‘Fortress Australia’ mentality, we felt that the idea of a fence exerts powerful symbolic force ... like any fence, we maintain the hope that this book contributes toward an eventual emancipation; we want those fences removed, and we hope the writing in this anthology contributes to that “wire” (both symbolic and actual) being rolled back.
Writing to the wire! A bit like bashing your head on the brick wall. Tough work but somebody's got to do it. How are we to make any difference? One way is to make it real for the reader. The wire – the razor wire – keeping people locked in, people who came to us for freedom and safety. That wire is now. We are paying for it. Asserting the symbol is a way to make that fact real for the reader. The document is epochal in this sense. It's very easy to imagine history happening in some other time, somewhere else. But we live in the time of the wire. We are the ones who are keeping locked up the people who came to us for help because of their terrible need. There's a need to stand up and to say that this is wrong.
7. Though you are Australian, you have both lived overseas for many years now. Do you think this provides you with a critical distance to reflect upon the issue?
The longer I am away, the more politically myopic the country seems. I hope this anthology causes its readers to see more clearly the malfeasance of our policy makers, and the legalistic mistreatment of those who, in seeking asylum in Australia, are exercising a basic human right.
I've lived most of the last twenty-five years in East Asia. And I have to say it was pleasant to not be in Australia for the Howard years. I do think that John Howard is personally responsible for diminishing the ethics of the Australian nation.
Howard set in motion the valourising of selfishness (national and individual) that has brought us to where we are today on the issue of asylum seekers (and a number of other issues). Being away does give perspective to one's sense of home and one's own sense of identity. And I have always stayed in touch. In all my time away there has only been one year in which I didn't actually set foot in Australia. I doubt that will happen again.
Living in places like Japan and China does give one an insight into how other polities treat their alien others. That's not always a pretty sight either. But nor is ethical behaviour on world stage a competitive event. Australia's like that kid who's been sent out of the classroom to sulk for a while, before coming to her/his senses, because deep down she knows what's right. Yes, I'm addressing you, Malcolm Turnbull! Say sorry to the others now and shake hands.
8. What is the most important thing you’d like to impart to an Australian who agrees with our current asylum seeker policy?
I would counsel that we each need to travel beyond the safety of our own backyards so as to better develop critical distance from those discourses around identity thinking which, so often, are simply a means of political managers to dogwhistle their constituents into an acquiescing, unthinking order. I would ask whether silence is complicit and enabling, and I would ask for any mindlessly acquiescing supporter to make themselves available for other kinds of language in which, indeed, rusted-on notions of self and other stand to be knocked sideways. I’ m also a realist and not holding my breath.
Just stand in the shoes of the asylum seeker for half a minute – the ones on Manus or Nauru, the ones on Christmas Island, the ones waiting in Indonesia, the ones still trying to get out of Syria. No need to do any walking at all. Just stand in their shoes for a moment.
Consider the scale of the crisis in Europe, out of Syria, particularly. Consider that this is an international humanitarian crisis, and it is the result of international power relationships in which Australia plays a part, generally as a nation fortunate enough to fight its wars on other people's land. Australians, having participated in long and recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, cannot credibly claim to have no responsibility for the outflow of refugees from the Middle East. Australians need to stop thinking of themselves as potential victims of terror and start seeing themselves as a people with the ability and responsibility to be a serious part of the solution.
Consider how helping the people who had to come to us in the aftermath of our war in Vietnam did us no harm. Every successive wave of migrants has made Australia a richer and better country. It will be no different this time, unless we choose to diminish ourselves by choosing not to help, whether this is for bigoted or for simply selfish reasons.