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Scott, John A.

SCOTT, John A.


Nationality: British. Born: Littlehampton, Sussex, 23 April 1948. Education: Monash University, Clayton, Victoria, Australia, B.A. (honors) and diploma in education, 1970; graduate study, 1975–76; doctoral study at University of Technology, Sydney, Australia, 1991. Career: Lecturer in media, Swinburne Institute, Melbourne, 1974–80, and Canberra College of Advanced Education, 1981–89. Since 1989 lecturer in writing, Wollongong University, New South Wales. Resident, Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris, 1990. Awards: Poetry Society of Australia award, 1970; Mattara prize, 1984; Literature Board senior writer's fellowship, 1985, 1986, 1988, 1990; University of Melbourne Wesley Michael Wright award, 1985, 1988; Victorian Premier's prize, 1986, 1994; Fellowship of Australian Writers A.N.A. award, 1990. Address: c/o University of Wollongong, Northfields Avenue, Wollongong, New South Wales 2500, Australia.

Publications

Poetry

The Barbarous Sideshow. St. Lucia. Queensland. Makar Press. 1975.

From the Flooded City. St. Lucia, Queensland, Makar Press, 1981.

Smoking. Melbourne, Scripsi, 1983.

The Quarrel with Ourselves; and Confession. Melbourne, Rigamarole, 1984.

St. Clair: Three Narratives (includes prose). St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1986; revised edition, Sydney, Picador, 1990.

Singles: Shorter Works, 1981–1986. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1989.

Translation. Sydney, Picador, 1990.

Selected Poems. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1995.

Plays

Radio Scripts: The All-Australian Show, 1977; Now Is the Time, If Ever There Was a Time, for the People of Australia to Rise in Anger and Start to Intervene in the Affairs of Governing This Country, 1977; Eleven, Eleven, 1979; 77 km, North 63 East, 1979.

Novels

Blair. Melbourne, McPhee Gribble, 1988; New York, New Directions, 1989.

What I Have Written. Melbourne, McPhee Gribble, 1993; New York, Norton, 1994.

Before I Wake. Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, and New York, Viking Penguin, 1996.

Other

The Book of Rats (graphics). Sydney, Transit Press, 1981.

Dante's Political Purgatory. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.

Editor and Translator, Emmanuel Hocquard: Elegies and Other Works. Plymouth, Devon, Shearsman, 1988.

*

Manuscript Collection: Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.

Critical Studies: "Enlarging Our Experiment with Narrative: John A. Scott's Trilogy with Annotations" by Martin Duwell, in Australian Literary Studies (Queensland), 15 (3), May 1992; "Perversions in the Text of 'Before I Wake'" by Michael Brennan, in Southerly, 58 (4), summer 1998–99.

John A. Scott comments:

A highly metaphoric poetry that seeks to reconcile a poetic based on ambiguity, metamorphosis, contraction, and ellipsis with extended narrative structures. Scott's oeuvre, both poetry and prose, may be seen as an extended meditation on the relationship between language, power, and sexuality.

*  *  *

Restlessly talented, John A. Scott tends to elude categorization and to flout normative criteria for inclusion in mainstream anthologies, where he nonetheless seems underrepresented given his considerable success in the realm of literary prizes. It is his technical virtuosity that commonly attracts initial praise from critics. More rare are assessments like that of Philip Mead, who considers him "one of the few Australian poets with an incipient view of society and the directions it might be taking." This may indeed prove to be what gives Scott lasting significance. Meanwhile, inventive imagery and language, seen by some as his prime strength, provoke occasional rebukes for "linguistic excess" and can cause even admirers to have trouble getting their bearings.

It is not only that Scott requires of readers the oblique responses appropriate to the literary techniques of parody and allusion. He also requires readers to bring into play habits of reception that we are more familiar with in fiction and film. Clues to his idea of the process of writing (and of reading) are provided in the appropriately named prose poem "Projection":

Later the detective will teach him how dangerous it is to see things incorrectly, or to search for the wrong things: the seductions of order and chaos, and the way film makes detectives of us all.

The visual, along with the need to "read" it, is extremely important in Scott's work, and it is frequently linked with violence. "Our real aggression he thought / is optical " comes from the sequence "A Documentary on Gravity: Eight Sonnets on a Drawing by Rod Moss." The first of the sonnets does indeed exercise optical violence by constantly superimposing the visual attributes of one thing upon another while drawing attention to this by insistent preference for simile and analogue rather than unifying metaphors.

In the three narratives that make up St. Clair violence is a distinctive quality of both language and experience. "Preface" is a mythomystical evocation of ecstatic Sadean sexuality, desire's "exquisite variations" played out in a world of inadvertence where "we write our fictions in the sexual act" only to find that "at the point of emergence, love reverts to loss." The volume as a whole, however, is structurally divided into past, present, and future, and within this structure sexual excess as a past focus of our anxieties is superseded in the present of "St. Clair" and the future of "Run in the Stocking" by concerns about the use of psychiatric technology as a means of social control.

The title poem is set in a psychiatric hospital officially taken over for treatment of "a new insane," political dissidents. It is a world both phantasmagoric and appallingly prosaic. Scott's multifocused, elliptical treatment draws us into a world where, as part of truth's corruption, language degrades, disintegrating into manipulative ideological abstractions or mere noises of violence or seduction. "Run in the Stocking" is a murder mystery whose affinities to futuristic sci-fi are less important than those with Dürrenmatt's somber studies of uncertain fact and certain guilt. Its epigraph from Baudelaire makes explicit one of Scott's running subtexts, that violence is another face of anomie, so that we find in our own image "an oasis of horror in a desert of tedium."

Scott is, however, neither exclusively visual nor unremittingly somber. Sound montage, also important in his work, helped to establish his early reputation as a performance poet. He plays exuberant language games in poems such as "Alliteration & the Rise & Fall of the New Classifieds" and can be impishly irreverent in literary allusions. "The Third Coming" consists of the three lines

Nightfall in Bethlehem.
A rough beast thumbing
through the street directory.

It is Marvell's turn in "De-Boning the Garden," but in its more sustained wit this becomes a sophisticated essay on the problematics of metaphor. Himself a master of the baroque metaphor, Scott nonetheless shares contemporary distrust of the figurative, as at the end of "Changing Room" when lover and similes depart together, leaving "everything quite suddenly / and only like itself …"

"Changing Room" comes from the 1989 volume Singles, where the charged eroticism of earlier work often modulates to a perplexed and sensuous tenderness of the kind experienced by the speaker in "Breath," who lies awake beside a lover whose breathing is the only thing giving shape and sense to the dark. Readers hoping for new poetic developments out of this more sympathetic feeling for the texture of quotidian lives have had to accept the fact that Scott's attention is firmly fixed on experimental prose. At least the new Selected Poems of 1995 brings out-of-print works back into circulation, allowing something of an overview of his poetic achievements.

—Jennifer Strauss

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