John Kinsella on 'Comus'
Your masque deals with the relationship between mankind and nature in the modern world, and all its attendant contradictions and hypocrisy — a theme that you often explore in your poetry too. How did you become an eco-activist?
From a pretty young age I grew up in a culture of guns and hunting, extensive environmental degradation and rural clearing. My father was connected with mining for some years...so I saw the land being constantly damaged. At a certain point, I became a vegan because I was so disgusted with my participation in the slaughter of pretty much everything I saw; it was quite an epiphanic moment. I've been a vegan now for 24 years, so it was an important life decision, and a dramatic time for me.
When I was young, I was constantly getting into trouble for being physical and vocal at protests. Now, I still attend protests, but I tend to be more of a spokesperson. I write about these issues; as a poet I have a voice that people — some people — listen to and that has an effect. So writing has become, for me, over a lifetime, a more effective way of bringing change.
This is what Comus is about through the figure of Comus himself — you've got this outlandish, extreme figure who is a genetic scientist in my version, but he's no more wrong or right than the rest of us. He becomes a symbol for all of us because I'm every bit as complicit as Comus is in the wrongdoings of the world. What I don't like is the holier-than-thou environmentalist who says 'I live this pure life and you're all wrong' because the moment that environmentalist switches on a light, or wears a piece of clothing made in a factory, or is involved with any of the other millions of contradictions that make up modern life, he or she is complicit.
So Comus becomes an embodiment of all our contradictions. What I've tried to do in the masque, and what I've tried to do in my writing life and my life as an activist is not to say 'x is right and y is wrong', but to say 'here are the issues, let's discuss them and each of us broaden our horizons'. Showing an alternative is a far more effective way of bringing change than telling people what to do.
What was the biggest challenge for you in writing a new version of Comus?
Milton himself was the biggest challenge! Milton has obsessed me since I was five years old. My mother used to read me Paradise Lost when I was a child. My mum was a mature student in the early '70s, which was a very unusual, distinctly feminist thing to be doing in the era she did it in and her great love, apart from the English Romantics, was Milton, so he loomed large in my life. I've written in various capacities, but all I've spent my life trying to do is re-write Paradise Lost. Nothing else matters, just that single great poem. I remember reading Samson Agonistes when I was down and out in Bangladesh aged 21, and that was the text I gripped onto. Milton has always been there and been important to me in some form, so tackling Comus was about overcoming the fact that Milton was behind it.
I realised that at the time he was writing Comus, Milton was young and hadn't yet settled into his Republican politics, and he wrote it out of the aristocratic patronage system, so it's a very dubious part of his political evolution...that made it easier to approach, because I realised there was a certain amount of ambiguity in what he was doing. Once I saw that you could open the door into an ambiguous aspect of this extremely ambitious and brilliant poet's life, that was my mode of access.
In terms of the text itself, was it difficult to maintain the structure of the original?
I've kept to the structure exactly, and bits of the text inter-weave with the original, so it works dialogically. That's a familiar post-modern technique that I've used extensively. Nearly everything I've written inter-texts with something. My present book of poetry, Shades of the Sublime and Beautiful is based on Edmund Burke's treatise on the sublime and beautiful, and the book before that, The New Arcadia, was based on Philip Sidney's Arcadia, so there is a conscious effort to tackle what we see as canonical literature and play with it and pull it to bits, de-canonize it in any way!
During the process of writing your masque, did you discover anything new about the original?
Each of the characters is more interesting than I'd perceived; they came alive for me. Take the two brothers in the piece. Their sister is very interesting from a gender perspective, she's politically challenging and complex. Comus, meanwhile, is a dynamo, a polymorphously perverse character: sexually perverse, philosophically perverse and in many ways very modern, so he was easy to write. With the brothers, they were far more strait-jacketed and trying to test the limits of what they could and couldn't be was really quite fascinating.
Milton, of course, was a great political activist and anti-monarchist. Like him, your politics informs your work. How do you see the role of the writer today in relation to politics?
The writer and politics are inseparable. I am anarchist-vegan-pacifist, my politics since I was 16 have been decidedly anarchist. I am also a pacifist, I'm against violent overthrow of the state, and I actually coined the phrase 'umbrella anarchism', which basically means a mode of ethical living that doesn't approve of the state as it is, but coexists with it, because if you're against violent overthrow of the state, you have to find modes of living within its structures that fit your principles.
I own very little, I own books, basically, and clothes, and I share them in any case. So my politics inform my every day way of living — it's not who I vote for, it's how I live. And how I write is connected to how I live. Milton was the same; when Cromwell went, his public life was destroyed. His life as a political activist was finished. Does that mean he ceased to be political? Absolutely not. It just channelled itself in a different way. And I think that Comus, which is seen as one of the least political of Milton's work in many ways is actually exceedingly political.
What is it, in your opinion, that makes Milton's work so influential 400 years after his birth?
The obvious answer is that he talks about big issues of state and spirituality on so many different levels. He measures the space between aspiration and success or failure. The tension between what we can see and what we can or can't have. The tension is in the knowledge of what is to be lost or gained, rather than what necessarily is. But also, I think it's because of the incredible crispness and freshness of his language. It is language that just hasn't dated, and as long as we are capable of reading it, I doubt it will date. That freshness isn't just in the word choice and syntax, but in the vitality of the ideas behind the words. Everything is alive — he is a living, sublime poet.
What do you think Milton would have made of Cambridge today, the city playing host to his 'Comus'?
That's a really pertinent question. Someone wrote to me the other day and said that when he was last in Cambridge, he visited Milton's mulberry tree and there was one mulberry left on it, which he ate to carry back to Australia in his stomach. The point is that for him, the symbol of Cambridge was always Milton. Milton was an absolute ego-maniac, he was convinced of his genius and I think he'd love the attention he's getting today.
As for the politics of the place, as an educationalist I'm not sure what he'd think about the way things have gone. In as far as you can make silly summations about that kind of thing, I think he'd be kind of entertained. I don't know if he'd be pleased by what I've done with his Comus but he'd be pleased that his original was being put on I'm sure. People see Milton as an innovator, but only really within a constrained field. To me, he was always, and is, an incredible innovator, he was the post-modern poet of his age in so many different ways.