Nationality: Australian. Born: Bunbury, Western Australia, 8 August 1950. Education: Muresk Agricultural College, 1967–68; Curtin University, Perth, 1974–76, B.A. in English, Dip. Ed. 1981. Family: Married 1) Helena Salom in 1978 (divorced 1993), one son; 2) Meredith Kidby in 1994, one daughter. Career: Agricultural technician, gardener, and house painter, 1969–73; freelance writer and illustrator, Adult Aboriginal Education, Perth, and Student Guild, Curtin University, 1977–78; extension project officer, Department of Agriculture, Perth, 1978–80; tutor and part-time lecturer, Curtin University, 1982–90; writer-in-residence, Western Australia Colleges of Advanced Education, 1988; Singapore National University, 1989; B.R. Whiting Library/Studio, Rome, 1992. Lecturer, Murdoch University, 1994. Awards: Commonwealth Poetry prize, 1981, 1987; Western Australian Literary award, 1984, 1988; Australia Council fellowship, 1985, 1987, 1989, 1992; Western Australian Department for the Arts fellowship, 1990; Western Australian Premiers prize for fiction, 1991; Australia/New Zealand Literary Exchange fellowship, 1992. Address: Lot 501, Mills Road, Glen Forrest, Western Australia 6071, Australia.
The Silent Piano. Fremantle, Western Australia, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1980.
The Projectionist: A Sequence. Fremantle, Western Australia, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1983.
Sky Poems. Fremantle, Western Australia, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1987.
Barbecue of the Primitives. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press. 1989.
Tremors. Canberra, National Library, 1992.
Feeding the Ghost. Melbourne, Penguin, 1993.
The Rome Air Naked. Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1996.
New and Selected Poems. Fremantle, Western Australia, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1998.
Screenplays: The Box, 1977; The Giant, 1978; Always Then and Now, 1993.
Playback. Fremantle, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1991.*
Manuscript Collection: University College/Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.
Critical Studies: "The Surreal Face of Verse" by Philip Neilsen, in The Age (Melbourne), 29 August 1987; "Sojourn in the Sky: Conventions of Exile in Philip Salom's Sky Poems " by Kirsten Holst Petersen and Anna Rutherford, in Westerly (Perth), June 1988; "The Self Moving" by Keith Russel, in Quadrant (Sydney), April 1989; by Dennis Haskell, in Wordhord, Contemporary Western Australian Poetry, Fremantle, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1989; by Barbara Williams, in her In Other Words: Interviews with Australian Poets, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 1998.
Philip Salom comments:
Describing one's own poetry is not easy, especially in a few paragraphs. My work began as lyrical and representational—symbolist and very concrete in style—and yet, under the influence of the great dramatic monologues of Browning and Eliot, it moved strongly into monologue and "speech." Since then it has become increasingly described as "surrealistic," "erotic," "ontological," and "imaginative" and is noted for its exuberance, intensity, and boldness of imagery. Well, these all seem appropriate enough! (I will not add the less flattering comments, some of which are also true.) It is now often a conceptual poetry, but certainly not always.
The act of creation is central to my poems, not only as a response to poetry itself but also to human perception in general. My work is ontological, inquiring, achieving its effects by frequent re-creation of events, myths, public customs, and rituals in order to play them back upon themselves and so reveal within them (by irony, metaphor, satire) my altered layers of meaning and emotion. Often this involves creating worlds where "reality" is bent and fabulist, is teased and/or hurt into showing its less obvious aspects. I try to maintain a (difficult) balance between reaching for justice and yet developing a kind of moral open-endedness.
Many poems are about desire in the erotic sense but also the metaphysical. I use concrete and sensual language to explore being and to reach out, unexpectedly, beyond the literal, to "flash," as I call it, beyond the basic into the deeply resonant and other.
In fact, I am quite in love with metaphor and its power to defamiliarize, to see and feel, as it were, newer features of the commonplace. I seldom startle, or shock, or ornament—despite the densely imagistic character of my poems—merely for the hell of it; all my imagery has inherent sense within the poems, which still allows for the pleasures, which are shock and charm, of such usage. For the reader, as for the poet, I hope.
(1995) Recently I have been exploring with page form and have developed a multiple layering on the page that amounts to one or more poems plus prose plus fragments, all creating a composite or what I call a concurrent poem. This is for me akin to what we perceive/how we perceive and allows the poet and the reader to escape the oppression inherent in one poem's style and exclusiveness. This new poem is much more lateral and inclusive than any other.* * *
As one of the more prolific, energetic, and technically self-conscious of his generation of Australian poets, Philip Salom has tended to elude easy classification. His first collection, The Silent Piano, seemed to promise several possible lines of development. There was the life study poet, recording his rural origins with a sensual substantiality of imagery, sometimes fresh in its regional precision, sometimes violent, sometimes charged with the melancholy of a great Australian emptiness aching for "uncertainty and change." Given that one of these desired changes was the transformation of the mundane, it was not surprising to recognize a touch of the transcendental romantic, the metaphysical quester "walking on the eyelids of God." Such imagery, however, suggested an infusion of a type then less common in Australian poetry—a paradoxical surrealist, perhaps even a magic realist, given his professed debt to the Latin Americans, especially to Borges, and his "clash between the magic and the brutal."
This influence was more clearly dominant in Salom's next two volumes. The Projectionist is constantly concerned with perception, image, and reality; picture showing and picture viewing is the name of the game. We are given notice in the opening poem, "Let," with its suggestion of the fiat of Creation, that the poet as projectionist-creator will obey the injunction that "there is only to note every feature, also mention / ugliness, when necessary tell lies." The more spectacular mentions of ugliness found in "Mrs Benchley" and "The Railway Line" (with its graphically violent representation of a real or fantasized rape/murder) caused an uneasiness among some readers that culminated in an accusation of misogyny from a reviewer of Sky Poems. It is true that the poetic gaze of The Projectionist objectifies everything, including macho masculinity, which is hardly endorsed by its representation. Nonetheless, within the mythopoesis of the first two, possibly three, collections, grotesquerie is much more marked in his figuration of the female. While it can seem gratuitously hostile, it would appear in the case of the hunchbacked Mrs. Bentley that Salom is attempting something akin to the ambiguous valorization of the crippled Rhoda of Patrick White's The Vivisector, which Salom nominates as one impetus to his writing of poetry.
The surrealist framework of Sky Poems allow a wider and more exuberant range. Employing the conventions of apotheosis, Salom invites readers to share a vantage point of observation from which he comments on his place of origin (Australia) and the places of its mythology ("Seeing Gallipoli from the Sky"). But this sky is not heaven; it is "a word-processor," enabling the construction (and deconstruction) of fantasized scenarios. It contains the possibility of paradise for those who can achieve the difficult task of creating it ("Ghazals on Poets and Allegories"), but skepticism about the human capacity to do so is the more dominant effect, invoked as it is by the unreconstructed beings to be found in "Wandering in the Sky" or the witty sexual desolation of "He Sees She Sees."
The mixture of satirical commentator and lyric celebrant continues in Barbecue of the Primitives and Feeding the Ghost. Neither represents the kind of poetic leap forward of Sky Poems, yet each contributes to a growing poetic maturity. Despite its title, Barbecue of the Primitives extends the tonal and representational boundaries of Salom's work with gentler and more personal writing about his wife, child, and mother, while Feeding the Ghost makes a surefooted transition from regionalism to internationalism, most impressively in "In the Month of Hungry Ghosts." This long sonnet sequence plays elegant variations on the classical sonnet form while exploring not only the new geographical site of Singapore but also a new paradoxical view of the so substantial world as a hungry ghost needing to be fed by poetry but ready, like the starving cats of Singapore, to be scared off by "the wrong words."
It is The Rome Air Naked that marks a major development in Salom's poetics. The volume is the realization of what he had earlier announced as experimentation with a composite, or "concurrent," poem, to be achieved by a "layering on the page" of "one or more poems, plus prose plus fragments." It is also a multilayered poem of intensely intertwined erotic responses to the sensuality of (present) Rome and that of his (absent) lover. It resonates with the noisy traffic of "rip, render and ecstasy" (where else but in Rome), yet there are also eloquent moments of stillness, of listening to a silence in which thought can fly toward the absent lover "like sunlight in your glass." Altogether, it is something of a tour de force, although one finally wonders whether the hyperspace technique of the "poems of dissociation" will prove as durable as the more formally conventional poems. Certainly it is a problem for the more technically adventurous poet that anthologies remain probably the major form of access to an audience and thence into public memory, and it is difficult to extract a segment suitable for anthologizing from these so-called concurrent poems. In the meantime New and Selected Poems, published in 1998, provides a useful moment of stasis and a definition of substantial achievement.