From Garibaldi to the world of the stage

Writer and critic Alison Croggon. Picture: Daniel Keene.

Writer and critic Alison Croggon. Picture: Daniel Keene.

The novelist, poet and arts critic Alison Croggon is one of Australia’s most successful writers. Her latest speculative fiction novel, The Bone Queen, is a prequel to her fantasy series of Pellinor books, set in the fictional world of Edil-Amarandh. Her poetry has won many awards and has been shortlisted for the Victorian Premier's Poetry Prize, the Kenneth Slessor Poetry Prize in the NSW Premier's Literary Awards and has been nominated for a US Pushcart Prize.

She was poetry editor for Overland Extra (1992), Modern Writing (1992-1994) and Voices (1996), and founding editor of the literary arts journal Masthead.

She has written libretto for opera and her theatre criticism is recognised as being among the most discerning and astute in the world.

Croggon grew up in Garibaldi near Buninyong. She spoke with Caleb Cluff about her extensive, lauded career and her love of theatre.

You're a poet, a librettist, a novelist, a renowned critic. Where did you start? What's the first thing you picked up?

The first thing was poetry. So I wrote poetry when I was a child obsessively. Apparently I wrote a poem on my first day at school. I have no memory of it, but my mother tells me it was some little verse. So it was there from the beginning. And I've always been a word-centered person, so whatever I do is always to do with writing, one way or another.

You were telling me just before you were living outside of Buninyong? 

At a place called Garibaldi. Our property was called Garibaldi. I think it's much more developed now than it was then. It was just our house and a sheep farmer across the road called Wally. My mother bought 20 acres and we were basically self-sufficient. We raised calves, we had chickens. Made our own bread, had our own milk.

My parents divorced when I was about 15. I was born in South Africa. My father was a mining engineer when he was working there. Then we made our way back to Cornwall, which is where both my families come from. I lived there ‘til I was seven and we came to Australia. It was supposed to be just three years I think, but we ended up living here.

So that's how I arrived here and we moved out to Garibaldi when I was eight or nine.

This is the late 60s, early 70s. So that's a big shift, a new world.

It's a beautiful part of the world; it certainly was when we were living there. So I suppose a lot of my childhood was about that very beautiful place. Round our place there were these huge oak trees. It was actually settled by Italian miners, hence the name Garibaldi.

Our property was called Garibaldi. It was just our house and a sheep farmer across the road called Wally. My mother bought 20 acres and we were basically self-sufficient. - Alison Croggon

Behind our property were the mullock heaps and the Garibaldi State School, which had been abandoned. We spent quite a bit of time there as kids, going through drawers and finding things they just left there. They just closed it and left. But it was a very beautiful place and there was bush not very far away, and of course in those days kids had a lot of freedom. We'd just disappear, sometimes all day. Go for long walks to the post office. 

You said that you read everything; did it take you to wildly different places? 

Of course it does. I think that reading does that, that's one reason it's very powerful. When I was a child, there were us three girls and it was fairly isolated in lots of ways. We were still immigrants and used to get teased for having a posh accent and things like that.

And I was just always hungry for stuff to read. I mean when I was a kid I couldn't imagine having books in the house that I hadn't read. Yet now I've got lots of books in the house that ‘one day’ I'll read. But then that was just totally unimaginable to me, and so I read everything in the house.

The Alexandria Quartet.

The Alexandria Quartet.

We had an old wardrobe for the books in an old shearing shed on the property. I read all all of them, so many books that were completely inappropriate for a person my age. I think one that struck me was (Lawrence Durrell’s) The Alexandria Quartet which I devoured. I understood about 15 per cent of it, but I found it amazing because his writing's so lush and sensual. I was that hungry, I just read everything. 

It's interesting you say The Alexandria Quartet. Your poetry is also lush and lyric. It is a product of what you read early on?

I was about 10  when I decided that I was going to be a poet. And my mother still has - I put together these booklets of poems, all sorts of things. So at that age I think I discovered what a sonnet was. I read it in the encyclopedia - the Shakespearean sonnet - and I was like 'ooh, I'll try that'.

I also read Tolkien, who wrote these very long, very boring but metrically intricate poems. And I copied everybody. I amused myself by trying to invent really complicated writing schemes and write really long, boring ballads.

I would go to jumble sales - I mean I was the most total dag - and I'd buy poetry anthologies that were used in schools; people were just throwing them out. I still have those books. I just read everything; I didn't know whether it was good or bad or indifferent. 

That's really fascinating,  I have the same obsession, that same desire to pick up any anthology, because some people in them remain and some people disappear. I'm always fascinated about why poets disappear. 

Poetry is a very weird and volatile world. Think of John Donne. He was forgotten about for centuries. Then I think it was the early 1900s someone picked him up again.

T.S Eliot picked him up again. 

Was it Eliot? Yes. There were a few essays, then these poets of that time, particularly Donne, suddenly they were being read again.

I think it's interesting because it coincides, the revival of Donne, coincides with Freud and the idea of ‘the self’ becoming more focussed. We were saying before, someone like Philip Larkin, someone like Elizabeth Bishop, whom I really admire, they write about the self so clearly and so well.  When I first came across your poetic work – I'm not sure where I picked up the first of your books out but it was probably at the Nicholas Building  – but our conversations on poetryetc, there was extraordinary present sense of self your work. There's a poem of yours –The Elwood Organic Fruit and Vegetable Shop. It's magnificently self-deprecating and yet quite assertive.

When I was a kid writing all these poems, all these galloping ballads and whatever it was, particularly Eliot, I did a lot of Eliot copying. It was whatever caught my ear here. I never wrote about myself. Ever. You know I mean poetry is a kind of, as somebody said, a spiritual autobiography and I think there's a case for that, but when I was first writing poetry, it was never about me.

I was always making stuff up. 

With the first personal poetry, directly personal poetry I ever wrote, I remember that sort of revelation: ‘you can write about stuff that's personal!’ I always resisted biographical readings and I still do because you're drawing on the self and you're drawing on personal experience and emotional experience, but it doesn't mean it's 'true' in any literal sense.

We're allowed to fabricate worlds, beautiful worlds.

And we do, or we hope so. I mean you're creating realities and there were realities in the words and that sort of thing. Having to be able to be 'authentic' is always something I've sniffed very suspiciously. 

Can we talk about The Bone Queen and your Pellinor series?

It's a new book that's part of a series which has been re-released. My first ever - aside from writing poems - my first-ever real ambition as a writer was to write a fantasy novel just like The Lord of the Rings. This was when I was about 10 and read The Lord of the Rings. Then I forgot about it - you know, 'put away childish things' - and went and did other stuff.

When I was about 40, I started writing a fantasy novel because... I just did and it was obviously a continuation of those very early ambitions. There's now five of them, the Books of Pellinor. I felt very much like I was coming out of the closet. It's been a very good thing in my life. I really have enjoyed writing these books. These books are high fantasy, they're epic fantasy. 

When I was about 40, I started writing a fantasy novel because... I just did and it was obviously a continuation of those very early ambitions. There's now five of them, the Books of Pellinor. - Alison Croggon

They began - they've continued and evolved as they've gone on - in a way as my feminist, more democratic, less racist answer to The Lord of the Rings, which is a book I adored, but at the same time it's imperialist, it's got all these problems. And they are no women.

I must say it never appealed to me to read it. My friends did though, devoured it. And now it’s a phenomenon.

Well I had the experience of reading all of The Lord of the Rings to my ten-year-old daughter. And every night I'd say to her, 'darling what happened last night?' and she'd say, 'I don't know' and I'd say 'are you really sure you want me to read this book?' She liked me read to her, so she said 'yep'.

And then I'd read the next bit and she really, really didn't pay much attention unless they were girls in it. And The Lord of the Rings is a very, very long book to read out loud. But every now and then she'd sit up because there was a female character. There's not many, I can tell you.

I've always loved making stuff up. And of course the the magicians in my books are poets.

You are a feminist and a writer. It's difficult when you've been educated in 'the canon' and it's all men; it's virtually all men. We were reading men talking about women, rather than women talking about women. As a writer how have you tried to work through that? 

I used to ignore it. I didn't actually meet other writers until I'd left home and had come to Melbourne. Before then I was very vague. I just read poems and couldn't quite remember who wrote them, that kind of thing. I had no idea that Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were married to each other, that kind of stuff.

Of course then you start meeting other writers. I can remember encountering this idea here. This woman standing up at some Poets Union event, saying that she couldn't write male characters. I was very taken aback and I thought, 'well you just make it up!'

And so my first reaction as very young woman was, because I was about 17 or 18, it was just to just say 'what?' You know your mind, your imagination, allows you to do that.

It took a while for me to work out exactly all those much larger issues at work. To become aware of my own reading habits really; of how as a young girl you know there aren’t many heroic girls in books. I always related to the boys. I wanted to be the hero; who doesn't?  

And women get very used to - not just women but minorities - just get very used to reading themselves between the lines and reading their way into narratives. I think I started grappling with that when I was around 25 and had babies; having babies was my first straight collision with what roles actually were. That was quite a traumatic clash. So it's a constant gradual uncovering of your own conditioning and your own blindnesses, some of which are imposed, some of which are protective.

I first encountered your writing generally as a theatre critic – as a ferocious theatre critic.

I'm very nice!

Well let me rephrase that. As someone who... upset people sometimes. Called works out if they were faking it. You are one of the most incisive critics of theatre – the most incisive theatre critic in Australia. How did you come to theatre?

From poetry. Theatre, which plays such a huge part of my life in all sorts of personal and professional ways, was a complete accident. I mean I went to be journalist on The Herald(now the Herald Sun). And I was sent to work on the long-defunct TV Scene magazine. At the time I didn't have a television, so I was interviewing people and I had no idea who they were. I only had to do two horrible interviews a week. I was bored so I drank a lot - that was in my early 20s. 

Anyway I started writing for them, they had a little theatre column. So it was probably the first time I writing about theatre. I knew almost nothing. Then I left The Herald because I wanted to write poetry, but I kept freelancing, by accident, and so I was beginning to go to the theatre, beginning to watch it and beginning to write about it. I wrote features, interviewed people; I just found myself kind of wound into it in that way. 

A little after that, pretty much out of the blue, I was given the job of Melbourne theatre critic for The Bulletin, another long-defunct publication. I was 27 then and that's when I upset a lot of people.

Because I worked as a young poet for a very long time with a guy called John Leonard who was an editor, I'd go to him every three months with a bunch of poems. He trained as a Jesuit. I owe him a great deal; he taught me how to be critical about my own work and he gave me a very honest feedback and it was always useful. That was a wonderful thing for a young poet, to have this sensitive reading of your work; that asked questions of what it is you think you're doing. 

I think there's a lot of things I didn't know then. At least I tried. Like I said, I think I was naive: 'I'm writing this from my great deep love of theatre, so that fact that I've been horrible about your work shouldn't upset you.' - Alison Croggon

This is what I thought critique was. It came out of my own practise as a poet.

So when I first started reviewing - and I have a tendency to get all beetle-browed and very serious -  so I when I got this job with The Bulletin and probably a little bit before then, I was like, 'oh OK, I want to take this seriously,' and so I’d go and see the show, I'd read everything.

I approached it I think - because I never went to university; I did a cadetship instead - I approached it as a chance to educate myself.

But you were so across the history of theatre and the references made inside works and by works. 

I think there's a lot of things I didn't know then. At least I tried. Like I said, I think I was naive: 'I'm writing this from my great deep love of theatre, so that fact that I've been horrible about your work shouldn't upset you.'

I didn't mean to be horrible so much but I did get notorious for some... I think I was quite funny as a critic as well. I had this other thing about - again from early going to the theatre where I felt very intimidated as an audience member - I felt that I didn't understand what was going on. I felt it was like a club that I wasn't quite invited into.

So it was very important to me to write, if I was going to write and it still is actually; if I'm going to write about work and talk about complex ideas, I want, as far as possible, to write it in a way that's easy to understand for anybody who's not necessarily a theatre geek.

That is entertaining to read. As accessible as possible, given the ideas that you want to communicate. I haven't read any of those reviews for years, but I did have other critics coming up to me saying 'what did you say this week?' 

But you were banned as a critic for a period. (Croggon was banned from reviewing at Playbox Theatre in Melbourne.)

I was banned. It was all very notorious at the time. And then I stopped reviewing for 15 years. Not because I was banned. I mean at the time of the banning I was kind of like, 'Oh good, now we can get back to our really serious talk about aesthetic and theatre'. It was just kind of dispiriting. Being a critic isn't a very - people don't necessarily like you. When I came back, when I started TheatreNotes, it was with all that in mind.

It was a different time and I wanted to do different things and I was much better educated in theatre by then. Fifteen years of reading and thinking and sorting stuff. I find that what I want to do as a critic is less and less about judging. I mean discrimination, in the best sense, is a really important part of critical response. But there's ways of doing that aren't about 'snark'. Which is perhaps what I loathe most of all, the kind of faceless scoring points off people's work.

I love that phrase of Gerard Manley Hopkins: “admire, and do otherwise”. - Alison Croggon

A lot of young critics do that; I probably did a bit of that in my day, because you get 'outraged', that's OK. The cheap shot is not very helpful and not very interesting, actually. I think that what a review has to be more than anything else is interesting. Even if it's negative it should be interesting, it should be illuminating and it should make you look at the work again.

I've never worried about whether people agree with me or not; people are always going to disagree with you. That's just how it is and how it ought to be. I've always had a certain amount of giving no fucks. I've never been especially vain about my work. I’d always like it to be better. One of the benefits of getting older is when you realise certain anxieties about things fall away.

I want to finish by asking you about the state of theatre now, how you feel about it now as opposed from 15 or 20 or 25 years ago.

Oh my god…last year I didn't see a lot of theatre. I'm a Australian Council Literature Fellow at the moment. I really started going again this year and reviewing. 

I can't generalise because I haven't seen a breadth of stuff, but obviously over the last three years, the arts sector is taking huge hits and they're coming from multiple directions. So what I'm seeing is, in some cases, people stepping back, people pulling their horns in, people just saying ‘why?’ And there are people here picking up on the urgency and doing brilliant work.

Melbourne audiences are very sophisticated now and we have some very good theatre, very interesting. You have to do what you do.

I love that phrase of Gerard Manley Hopkins: “admire, and do otherwise”. 

You can order Alison Croggon’s books at her website

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