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Mark Young Interview


Mark Young Mark Young is a New Zealander who has been publishing poetry for more than 50 years. He has 20+ books to his name, the most recent of which is Genji Monogatari. A new book, entitled either At Trotsky's Funeral or, more simply, Ficciones, is due out from Kilmog Press in Dunedin, N.Z. later on this year. He is the editor of Otoliths.



Sheila E. Murphy is a prolific poet who has published numerous individual and collaborative books of poetry. Her book Letters to Unfinished J. appeared in 2003, and received the Gertrude Stein Award from Green Integer Press. Recent titles include Collected Chapbooks, Permutoria (with K. S. Ernst), How to Spell the Sound of Everything (with mIEKALaND), Quaternity (with Scott Glassman), Circumsanct and Reverse Haibun.


Since 1993 she has led a consulting firm (now Sheila Murphy, LLC) that provides Customized Artistic Designs for public and private spaces; keynote speaking; and corporate consulting in Strategic Corporate Communication; Individual and Team Executive Advisement and Succession Planning.




SEM: Mark, you are well known for your poetry and for your current publishing endeavors through Otoliths. I'd like to focus on both of these areas in this interview. Let's begin with your own writing. Would you mind sharing some highlights along the path of what brought you to your current place in writing?


MY: Highlights? I don't know about highlights, Sheila; but, at the risk of sounding like a spammail for tantric massage, there were definitely pleasure points. & milestones.


The milestones first, occasionally interspersed with pleasure points. Writing my first poems at age seventeen, out of the blue as it were though many non-poetic things got me there, then having those poems published in a national journal. A year & a half later reading Don Allen's New American Poetry & discovering kindred souls in there, everyday speech, which meant that I had something to hang on to, didn't have to follow in the Anglophile tradition of New Zealand poetry. Developing through the 60s, publishing in all the leading journals though usually poems I'd written several years before, lagtime diminishing as my reputation grew. The readings in Auckland in the late 60s. Not having a collection published in N. Z. before I left in 1969. A few poems in my first few years in Australia. Then giving up poetry for 25 years.


Coming back to it through a request from Michele Leggott asking if I'd consider being included in Big Smoke, an anthology of N. Z. poetry of the 60s. Rereading my early poems again, realizing there were some quite good things amongst them. Working on some of them again, polishing, even rewriting. First collection, The right foot of the giant, N. Z., 1999.  Half of it the book that never came out in 1969, the other half those early years in Australia. First new poems appeared in ancillary stuff to launch Big Smoke. Discovering the e-zines on the web. Reading, writing, publishing. Discovering the poetic community I'd always yearned for in As/Is, its early days, which you'd remember since you were there. Stimulation. An outpouring of poetry. The dam broken? Or just making up for those missing years?


The collaborations with Jukka-Pekka Kervinen which became The Oracular Sonnets & Poles Apart. Setting in train one of my now main stylistic strands, the stochastic assemblage of found phrases.


Discovering Eileen Tabios' invention, the hay(na)ku, a marvellous framework to help set your thoughts in order.


Three words written on a notepad sitting outside a motel in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, a pissy poem, but the first poem of Series Magritte, now more than six years old & over 200 poems strong.


Deciding that stylistic consistency was not for me. Let the poem shape the form, not the form shape the poem.


Three books in particular. the allegrezza ficcione, Pelican Dreaming, & Genji Monogatari. Though the others ain't bad, either.


SEM: You speak about poetic community and its importance to you. I sense that the discovery of a new poetic community supercharged your re-connecting to poetry as we slid into a new Century. Can you talk more about that, and about what prompted you to inaugurate Otoliths?


MY: There's several years between the re-connection & the inauguration, so I'd prefer to leave discussion about Otoliths until later on in the interview, & deal first with the surge—a word that now, unfortunately, has different over- & undertones in these post 9/11 days when military incursion has become a constant.


One of the problems about coming back to writing après une aussi longue absence is to decide which direction to face. In an interview I did with Martin Edmond some years ago, I noted:


I seem to remember writing in an email to Michele that I was having a problem as to how I should approach this current "writing"; whether to start anew or to go back & try & build a bridge across the intervening period. I think what I've done, & what I'm still doing, is use the past not so much as a bridge but as a reference library which I occasionally return to.


I was lucky, I guess, because the way I used to write, the influences that shaped me, the style I had developed, were all still contemporary. Sure, there had been a lot of new stuff happening in the interim, but there was still around a continuity that had its roots in what, say, Olson & O'Hara & Snyder had been doing all those years ago, & even the new stuff was related to that melting pot—or, at least, to some of the ingredients.


So I had no problems about my poetry being passé. The process, however, was a bit rusty. I'd got movement back into my fingers through the editing & assemblage  of The right foot. I became a bit more flexible with the writing of some new poems. I regained confidence in my abilities by getting some of those poems published. I probably also had more commitment, in the sense that I had time to give over to writing rather than getting involved in things that earlier had (a) interfered with my being able to write & (b) a bit later on, actually prevented me from writing. But it was still not what I would describe as in any way full on.


That came with a physical move, & a conjunction of opportunities. L. had just finished her doctorate & was offered a tenurable position at a regional university. I decided to retire from my current job. It was a couple of years earlier than I'd intended, but the nature of organizations had changed & I found myself in conflict with this new structure of upper management who were employed on, generally, three year contracts, often from an industry quite different to the core business of our shared employer, & whose goals inevitably were short-term personal financial gain rather than long-term responsible corporate vision.


I found myself in a small city, no poets that I knew or knew of within 2000 kilometers. Time was one thing I now had lots of, so I could write more, plus it was a new environment & that always provokes activity. I had the beginnings of an electronic network, mainly comprised of editors of journals.  & when two of those editors decided to start up a group blog, As/Is, & invited me to join I willingly accepted, not realizing how important it would become to me, how much impetus it was going to provide.


A magazine—or, perhaps more precisely, an issue of a magazine, even an electronic one—is a static thing, bound by its publication date, its "covers", its editorial oversight & tastes. A group blog has the potential to be organic; poets & poems bounce off one another, a response appears hours after its trigger, not months later, when the trigger is no longer obvious. It's essentially a form of poetic correspondence, a correspond-dance, if you like.


& As/Is, in those early times, was the best of the best. At least, that's how I saw it, that's what it was to me. I had a need to outpour, & now there was a place to do it. Synchronicity. & the comment boxes—now sadly lost because of a later template change—were like a chatroom. Friendships were forged, longlife dances.


SEM: You’ve made reference to being employed full-time in an organization, and functioning apart from that world, freer to devote attention and time to your writing. I’d like to ask about your own expectations for your work in each of these contexts. If you are willing to reflect on your recent work in relation to available time and attention, that would be welcome, also.


MY: This is a surprisingly difficult question for me to answer, because the way my life panned out meant that only rarely was I writing & working at the same time. It's not cause & effect, or one prohibiting the other; rather that there were other factors that both (a) forced me to work, & (b) possibly prevented me from writing, & all, at times, concurrent. So to give some background, I'll break up the relevant parts of my life into three simplistic parts.


The first part was roughly 15 years, from the time I started writing & publishing poetry to the time I put it aside / stopped / gave it up / whatever. I worked, I wrote, for a period in there my work was, in fact, my writing. I wouldn't describe myself as prolific—there's probably only 100 or so poems that came out of that time. I don't remember there being any work/writing conflict. In fact, thinking about it now—& it's probably a truism that stretches across my whole life—I wrote as much as I needed to write.


The second part was the next 25 or so years, the first half of which was spent working on the factory floor, the second half in middle or upper management.  I gave poetry away. Applying my truism to that period, I obviously didn't feel the need to write, though I did afterwards discover a small number of poems that were written during the period.


There is something that needs to be brought into the discussion of this period, though, & that is, especially after making the shift to management, I did a lot of writing—proposals, feasibility studies, operations procedural manuals, quality control documents, etc. Add to that the fact that in the early part of the 1990s I enrolled at the local TAFE College—Technical & Further Education; occupational focused, something more than a High School, less than a University—where I got a couple of diplomas, & followed that up with a return trip to University to do a Bachelor of Applied Science in Operations Research, & you can say I did an awful lot of writing, much of it requiring reasonably quick turnaround times.


& something that also must be brought into the mix is the perceived value of one's output, whether through self-belief or through recognition by others. The longer the period after I left New Zealand in 1969, the less value I placed on poetry; & the longer I was away, the more I was forgotten. There was neither internal nor external stimulus to start up again.


As I mentioned above, I came back to writing poetry after Michele's Big Smoke email—external stimulus—& my own personal re-evaluation of those earlier poems—internal stimulus. I found working full-time did not interfere. After all, I had been spending time outside work on assignments, reading, indulging in my hobby of jigsaw puzzles. Also, the times, the appliances of writing, had changed. I had been using mainframes since the early '80s, got my first PC—primitive beast, a single 5¼ floppy disk drive into which you had to insert the operating system disk to get it going, but costing more than a high level laptop does these days—for TAFE in the early '90s, had to use a fairly basic web-based system to upload assignments  in a number of subjects at University.


I had always used a typewriter to compose my early poetry. It was a slow process though, because I would work from the top down, get the first line(s) right before moving on. Which involved sheets & sheets of paper, & a lot of retyping, copying out what had gone before. Using a PC meant that all that excess work was replaced by a single movement of the cursor, meant that I could now create more poems in a shorter time.


& the evolution of the web meant instant availability to what was going on in real time. The previous prevalence of print, the economics of obtaining books & journals which were over-priced because they were imported, the time it took those that did get to you from an ocean away, all those things meant that you were either out of the loop &/or behind the times.


So you have inputs, outlets, the appliances to ply your vocation as a poet. But usually you need something more, social contact & interaction. &, if you are positioned somewhere geographically where poets or like-minded people are thin on the ground, work provides that for you. Plus, if you're lucky—& for the latter part of my working life I was—it can also provide mental stimulation.


SEM: Your organizational and educational experiences seem to have contributed in a wide variety of ways, bringing on an artistic version of “deferred compensation.” Given your strong familiarity with the corporate world, the university environment, and the artistic sphere, please share your views on the possibility of bringing a wider range of people to poetry. Is this a fantasy, or is it possible in our current time?


MY: Let me go out on a limb here & say I believe we have already exceeded the upper limits of the poetic macrocosm, but because there are no regulations or restrictions, no fire marshalls standing at the entrances counting the numbers going in, it's going to keep on growing. For a while, anyway.


Why has it grown so much? Population growth, obviously. More people, more poets. A world made smaller by technology, & with English the lingua franca we are now seeing Indian & Chinese & Ghanian poets writing in a second language as part of the everyday offerings. The exponential growth of publishing methodology which means more books, more cheaply. More magazines—duotrope's digest has around 3000 outlets listed. The growth of MFA programs in creative writing—this is going to be one of the first areas to go belly up. It's simple economics. People in these programs are trained only to become teachers of MFA programs in creative writing programs; there will soon be—if there isn't already—an oversupply of teachers; demand for the programs will drop off because there's no guarantee of a job on the other side; & bums on seats is the guiding principle of academia these days.


So it may seem we have opposing points of view, you wanting to bring more people, me saying there are already too many. But I think we both have caveats attached, qualifiers perhaps; & what we're both moving towards is how do we attract more people—whether already in the macrocosm or still to come—to the type of poetry we care about, to that part of it we both adhere to.


Let me step outside the sphere of poetics for a moment & quote from a book that is a cornerstone of my library, Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In it Kuhn puts forward his beliefs as to why certain bodies of thought, often exemplified by specific texts, provided the impetus to change the way particular fields of science were pursued, the way what he called "paradigm shifts" came about:


They were able to do so because they shared two essential characteristics. Their achievement was sufficiently unprecedented to attract an enduring group of adherents away from competing modes of scientific activity. Simultaneously, it was sufficiently open-ended to leave all sorts of problems for the redefined group of practitioners to resolve.


I'll explain why I think Kuhn is relevant. To me, poetics, like politics, has a reasonably revolutionary left wing & a conservative right. &, again like politics, it is the left that is full of schisms. Yet the left wing has a history as strong as that that the right professes to. But these days its impact is diminished because it's splintered. I have fairly eclectic & wide-ranging tastes, but when I came back to poetry I found that if I wanted to read one group of poets I liked I had to go here, & if I wanted to read another group I had to go there, & another elsewhere, & if I wanted to see/read vispo, then I had to go searching in 100 places. & yet they're all essentially related even though sometimes the bloodlines are denied.  


Back to Kuhn. We have the "enduring group of adherents"; we have the open-endedness; what we don't have is a sense of the commonality that actually does exist even though many practitioners spend a deal of time turning the minor differences into unbridgeable chasms. Somehow we have to bring things back together again, to show the breadth & the strength of the left even if the house has many mansions. I think that by doing that we will attract a wider & better-informed audience. It's what I've tried to do with Otoliths.


SEM: Otoliths has become a vital source of energy, being a repository for innovative work in the textual and visual dimensions, as well as a community of writers, many of whom are closely connected in collaborative creation. Would you talk about your original goals for this whirlwind of publication, and perhaps share some of the important discoveries along the path from its inception until the present?


MY: One of the problems about living the isolate life is that a lot of interpersonal skills atrophy because there are no longer the avenues open to engage in them. I'm thinking especially about meaningful conversation here. Even though I would describe myself more as a listener than a talker, conversation is/was important for me because its inherent components—developing thoughts on the run, bouncing them off people, the nuances, the associations, taking on their objections & augmentations to what you are saying or the reverse, reading how people react—mean that you're using words in realtime. They become familiar, easy to handle, easier to put together in sequences that have some sense to them, not just to you but to others as well.  


I found that that many of my skills were decreasing because, although I was in touch with people, I wasn't able to, as it were, physically touch them. I was in danger of becoming a reverse Ouroboros with my tail swallowing my head. I talked earlier about how one of the most important things about work is that it supplies an arena for social interaction so, when an opportunity for a part-time clerical job presented itself, I accepted gladly, thinking that I could split my week & have the best of both worlds.


What I didn't allow for was the fact that the level of managerial skills & experience I possessed are relatively scarce in a small city; & once they were "uncovered" I found myself moved up a few rungs in the organization ladder, given a heap of project work to do, & asked to work another couple of days a week.


Now work may not interfere with writing, but I found it certainly interfered with blogging; so I decided to close off the main blog (pelican dreaming) I had at the time, & cast around for something else to do.  I realized I now knew a lot of poets whose work I liked & I'd learnt from blogging how to use html so starting an e-zine seemed like a logical next step. I thought about running one on a commercial server, but wondered if Blogger might serve my purposes just as well so I created a test blog & found that I could manipulate the template & the settings to create a post-to-a-page zine with nearly all the Blogger paraphenalia removed.


Once I had the technical framework in place, I then sent out the emails to about 60 people; people I knew through blogging; editors who'd accepted my work; contributors to the first hay(na)ku anthology; poets I'd actually met. Within 24 hours I'd received positive responses from about three-quarters of them. I moved from enquiry to solicitation, & from solicitation to publication, on May Day 2006.


I don't know if I had any goals at the beginning beyond getting the first issue out with as broad a range of contributors as possible & making it as good I could. I think you approach the first issue of a journal as if it were equal parts anthology & mousetrap, but both parts driven by the same motivators—quality that lasts, quality that attracts.


I was also cognisant of something Charles Olson had written to Cid Corman 55 years before:


And, I get back to the notion that—as any live thing—it is a question of how 

the units are juxtaposed so that they declare (stand in the place of) the man 

who puts them together

In other words, that, yr problem as editor, is, to find out how to (omit, even!), 

what to put together so that, each unit keeps its force and, at the same time, 

the whole mag lives

it is this what, that puts the whole thing, hard: questions—
                                                                                                (1) in
the small space of an issue of a mag frankly "for the creative", how much 

variation of materials can one get in (does one have to keep in) to save all 

units from mutual cancellation?

You already know my guesses as to roads toward, the answer: that is, 

the most obvious, is, to broaden the base
                                                                       and i don't mean simply to, say,
                                                                       all the arts. On the contrary,


I'd guess, that the answer here, is, has to be, YOU: that is, for you to get in, to 

any given issue, as close to all the possible angles to a given issue that you 

can conceivably think of—which means that you yrself are the packed one, eh?



The first issue was compiled, not edited per se—in a sense, the editing was done in who I asked to contribute—but I tried to put together the pieces I received so they kept their force, which is an ongoing thing. Not so noticeable online, more noticeable in print. The second issue was probably 75% invitation, 25% submission.


From the third issue it has been almost totally submission. There's essentially a core group of contributors who feel at home in the pages of Otoliths. They don't appear in every issue, but probably a quarter of every issue is drawn from that group. They work in divergent styles, & it's that divergence that has drawn an even wider group of people to submit. I'm delighted when I discover new writers—& Otoliths has published quite a number of first appearances; I'm delighted when I receive submissions from people who have been around for quite some time & probably feel more comfortable in print; I'm delighted when I receive submissions from people working in a medium that is not their standard medium—poets writing prose, or text poets experimenting with vispo.


I'm heavily into publishing & promoting all forms of visual work. We don't work in isolation, & it behoves us to be aware of what's going on in fields beside our own, how we stand up against those fields, how that holds together. & I claim some role for Otoliths in the greater space that other magazines are now giving vispo.


My tastes are eclectic, but, at the same time, I remain open to having them widened. & that happens continually. I feel comfortable with everything I publish. Much of it really excites me. I treat each piece I publish with the care I would like any piece of mine to be treated with, don't mind spending a day getting the formatting of a piece correct. I try not to interfere with pieces though I have made suggestions at times.


& since I get good feedback, & seem to be getting more & more submissions, I guess that there's quite a few people out there who share at least some of my tastes. I return to my above extrapolation from Thomas Kuhn: I think I am succeeding in bringing things back together again, to show the breadth & the strength of the left even if the house has many mansions.


SEM: I wonder whether I might tempt you to comment on what kinds of “next steps” and emerging trends you foresee with the world of writing and visual poetry, as well as any related area you might like to incorporate. We’ve spoken here about the past, the present, and the idea of the future cannot be far behind.


MY: Ha! The poet as futurologist. Some thoughts, non-linear.


Poetry will progress as technology expands, but not at the same speed.


Poetry is slammed into the ground.


The 30-second soundbite will be compressed into 30 nanoseconds. Poetry will be reduced to trite haiku.


Poetry is dead. Long live poetry.


No poets appear in the books of William Gibson. His is an alternate present that may presently become a real future.


An alternate future is presented by Samuel Delany. "Singers are people who look at things, then go & tell people what they've seen. What makes them Singers is their ability to make people listen. That is the most marvellous oversimplification I can give." Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-precious Stones.  


Poetry will be reduced to being the titles of prose pieces. Poets will earn their living by doing this. Kerouac will be cited as a precedent.


The deconstruction by the author of poems written in Creative Writing classes will become more important than the poetry. The poems will be left out of the final submission & only the exegesis will be published. Gradually, the poems will become redundant, will never be written.


Computer-generated poetry will continue to be produced, often better than the output of the mind. Poets will contract out for books to be computer-generated in their name. Critics will comment on the algorhythms.


Poetry is live. Long dead poetry.


The creators of programs like Photoshop will drain the brains of innovative visual poets to use in their upgrades. There will come a point when the output of the untalented will be almost indistinguishable from that of the talented. The word "soul" will get bandied about as a distinguishing trait.  The new visual poetry will be preprogrammed into wall panels to be used as objects of conversation. The conversations will be brief. They will have no soul. Visual poets will turn to painting. Their work will only appear online. Galleries will be swallowed up into building-supply stores.


Long poems will become like children were in China. You'll be allowed to write only one long poem in your life, provided it's a boy.


We will pass by poetry & not drop a coin in its cup.


Ask me again in 100 years.




copyright © Mark Young & Sheila E. Murphy