Joel Ephraims and Daniel de Filippo in conversation with Urn Yoda
The following two-part interview, first with the author and then with the illustrator of Biota (Apothecary Archive, 2022), was conducted by Urn Yoda inside a fully restored Poké Ball
Dan & Joel: First, we would like to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora nation and the Dharawal people, the Traditional Custodians of the lands upon which Biota was both written and drawn. And we would also like to pay our respects to their Elders past and present. Furthermore, we will both be voting yes in the upcoming referendum for an Indigenous voice to parliament.
Interview With the Poet, Martian Cumulonym (aka Joel Ephraims)
Urn Yoda: Biota, a book with a ‘double-theme’ – this would be ‘biota’ and the ancestor shrines?
Martian Cumulonym: Yes, haha. Though now that I think about it I don’t think ‘double-theme’ is accurate to my intentions. From the start I envisioned a book with a main theme, that of ‘biota,’ a specialised term from the natural sciences that means, as stated in the book, ‘the organisms that occupy a place, habitat or time together.’ This is meant to be, and is metonymically presented in the book as, a self-reflexive metaphor for both my poetry specifically and language generally – that is, language and poetry as a living system in relation to other world systems. I had three main loose-ish influences here: the title of what is considered to be John Ashbery’s first book of poetry, Some Trees; Jack Spicer’s concept of a Martian poetry, a poetry transmitted through mysterious radio broadcasts to the poet from unknowable Martians (I like how ‘biota’ is about everyday biology but sounds perfectly alien); and then I like how the term extends, complicates and abstracts another natural sciences phrase that continues to be emblematic of Australian poetry, ‘flora and fauna.’
So, the main theme of ‘biota’ you could say is the first sphere of the book. The second, concentric, focuses that theme into my everyday life, bridged between Vietnam and Australia from 2017 until 2021. Encompassing my life as an English teacher in Ho Chi Minh City before Covid-19 and then my return to Australia at the start of 2020 and my life through the global pandemic experienced as a PhD student in Sydney. Through the lens of a second-generation Sri Lankan migrant, the continuing wavering othered-ness of that experience, and then seeing one alien country reflected in the other, Australia from the distance and prism of Vietnam, and then Vietnam from the distance and prism of Australia, one-inside-the-other within a 21st century hyper-capitalist, hyper-globalised, hyper-speed context. Anyway, so that’s the main thematic situation. Rather than being a second theme, the shrine poems and their accompanying illustrations are a complementary formal dynamic (what you might call also a light form of conceptual writing) that both refracts and focalises a two-way cultural situation and comparison.
They began as tiny poems influenced by Les Murray’s Poems the Size of Photographs (2002). (Fun fact: the one time I met Les Murray he stole my pen. That is, refused to give it back). He has a shrine poem in there, the idea and form of which I essentially lifted. Following Murray, my shrine poems are slight poems which, at their base form revolve around a single whimsy, a single blade of wit, a single idiom or idiomatic fragment or a single profundity – offered up to the reader as a piece of sustenance or nourishment, a trail of incense momentary as a skimmed newspaper cartoon – standing in relation to the full-length poems of the book as excited and critical conversation between a cinema audience before and after and sometimes during the movie; or as a light smattering of extra-terrestrial clouds over an extra-terrestrial landscape. From a formal perspective I like that juxtaposition of being inside and outside, substantial or insubstantial, conversational or densely literary etc. etc. At heart we are creatures of dichotomy.
Another influence on them is the idea, inspired by John Ashbery’s description of his own poetry in relation to the Victorian poet John Clare, of poetry being a pastoral walk through a landscape, only the landscape is a landscape of ideas. At some point my brother Tayne, who also lived in Vietnam at the time, along with me and Daniel, talked about his idea of creating ancestor shrine models containing, rather than the sacred statues and icons of traditional Buddhism (and there are many different strands of Buddhism in Vietnam), Marvel and DC superhero action figurines. I’m sure he got this idea both from the popularity of these Western superhero movies in Vietnam as well as from our writer-idol Donald Barthelme, whose novel Snow White (1967) appropriates the Disney movie to make an exploration and Joycean critique of American consumer culture and its mythologies. Seeing Coke-a-Cola and Sprite can pyramids within many of the ancestor shrines in Vietnam, along with Tayne’s idea, made me reflect on how these shrines could be used to represent a space of cultural influence and transition and how they might be used as a literary metaphor for consumer worship and the sustenance and nourishment we take from consumer goods. That they would also be a useful space for representing a two-way relationship between the culture industries of East and West, of Australia and Vietnam, proliferating industries in which consumerism has dimensions of mythology would also become central to my representation.
Going back to Ashbery and Clare, I was captivated by the prospect of recreating the physical experience of how ancestor shrines in Vietnam pop up unexpectantly, as wonderful surprises, in restaurants, in gardens, in roofs, everywhere, with their dusky incense and flashing green incandescent Buddhas like sacred dioramas. And then interrupting the poems as is the custom of enthusiastic Vietnamese cinema goers in relation to movies. And then, also, the religious level of there being two simultaneous worlds, one big, one small, the world of the humans and the world of the spirits, both ever physically present.
Urn Yoda: How did you write Biota into a postcolonial context?
Martian Cumulonym: Let’s start with the human world and then move to the spirit world. My approach with all the poems in Biota was to stick with my experiential perspective as an Australian expat teaching English and living in Ho Chi Minh City, which I did for only three years (and which, I note, as a stipend-less PhD student am again now). As a Western-foreigner with developed-world degrees I was in a privileged position. One that, being paid Australian-comparable wages in US-dollars in a low cost-of-living country in-itself had colonial overtones. In Biota I tried to be self-reflexive and self-critical to that. But an over-insistence of that position would also be colonially rife. Vietnam is an accelerating economy in a globalised world. It doesn’t need my overtures. So, firstly, I made sure to stick to my compromised, outside perspective. My other approach, involved with that, was to ensure that I kept a representative distance from Vietnamese culture and traditions while ensuring that I had researched enough to represent them accurately. This is especially the case with the ancestor shrine poems, which I presented at the general, blurred level of ‘Buddhism’ without focusing on any specific religion in Vietnam. In regards to using religion for literary purposes, I’d again emphasise that I was doing so not for surface aesthetics but to represent a new historical global and Neoliberal situation in Vietnam. My main influences on literary explorations of religion were Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, Andy Warhol’s Catholic iconography art, and Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob. Religion has always has a special pull for me. My conversion and subsequent apostacy from Christianity remains perhaps the most significant event of my life. One which, at its core was purely fictional but which traumatically upheaved both my life and the world around me (see my poem ‘Apostate’s Elegy’ in this book.) All of which is nothing to the past, present and future suffering of historical colonialism – shadows of which have touched and shaped my life too.
Since writing Biota, I’ve had some time to reflect on how I might have approached the colonial situation better. Firstly, I would have liked to give more explanation at the front of the book as to my goals and intentions. Notably, I didn’t clearly present what is the main positionality of my ancestor shrine representation: that of a two-way relationship between Eastern and Western, Vietnamese and Australian culture. Secondly, I would have liked to have conducted more in-depth research into ancestor shrines in Vietnam and then presented key sources, again at a representational distance, at the end of the book. Thirdly, after delving more into Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob, I would prefer to have embodied my treatment in a more fictional mode, abstracting from the actual religion and thereby allowing me to explore it in more detail at a more sensitive, abstracted remove – and to delve deeper into its profound and huge human truths.
Everything I have represented of Vietnam in Biota is only at a surface level. I can speak very little Vietnamese. But, surface holds depth. And, as conceptual writing shows us, negative positions can be generative. My in-translation and non-verbal perspective on Vietnam must bring forward its own representational truths into relief, benefiting from outsider, hybrid and distanced, uncomprehending perspectives. I’d also like to note how Vietnam has morphed the colonial cultures which have repressed it into its own: its architecture, café culture, cinema, to name but a few. McDonald’s umbrellas at the local Vietnamese café. Brilliant, provocative.
Our publisher, Gareth Sion Jenkins, under his enigmatic press, Apothecary Archive, has kindly given us the opportunity to revisit Biota. As a taste of what is to come, here is an alternate prologue for the book that I look to include in a new version (we are considering more than one) and which addresses and realises some of the ideas I have referred to above. Emphasising a two-way cultural relationship. Employing a more fictional mode, in this case amalgamating the mirroring traditions of ancestor shrines and their ancestor worship with tomb stones in Australia and how we also worship our ancestors and loved one’s by the placement of physical things in sacred spaces. A more specific but abstracted research-based approach. Here ‘children on their birthdays’ loosely echoes the Vietnamese folklore tradition of the ‘Hungry Ghosts Festival’ when ‘according to Vietnamese folklore, in the seventh month of the lunar calendar, the gates of Hell will open to allow ghosts and spirits to roam the earth’ and where ‘in some regions, children are allowed to grab the [offering] food for themselves’ (https://www.sbs.com.au/language/vietnamese/en/article/explainer-taboos-and-rituals-of-the-hungry-ghosts-festival/jszzsx40z; https://saigoneer.com/saigon-culture/19162-ghosts-and-other-myths-how-vietnam-celebrates-the-7th-lunar-month). Furthermore, my fictionalised mythology relates full-circle to the title poem of Biota, in which enlightenment ideals (globally) are metaphorically embodied as thousands-of-years-old children.
The poems are houses.
The tiny poems are tomb shrines.
Tomb shrines are for the sustenance of ancestor spirits,
called back from the netherworld by singing of children on their birthdays,
whether of family blood (those shrines placed inside:
in foyers, in restaurants, in TV rooms) or of strangers’ blood,
(those shrines placed outside: in tile roofs, in forests, on highway side),
giving sustenance through offerings of food, loved objects, flowers
or sacred icons lest the roaming spirits suffer a final implosion
and become auto-cannibal ghosts,
those lost spirits that alternatively inhabit deep trees and the thick sky
and leave their implosion food and implosion goods
amongst the food and latest things of the living.
The world of the dead
smaller than the world of the living.
The material world
holding gravity beyond even the grave.
Urn Yoda: More tell me about your neo surreal style?
Martian Cumulonym: I believe that John Ashbery coined the term as an update of the capital letter ‘S’ French Surrealists who emphasised writing from the unconscious but who were also homophobic. A simpler way of stating it is just to say a lower case surrealism, one removed from the historical movement, which shares its drive to represent the working of the unconscious mind and the profound input of the unconscious mind into society and human affairs through automatic, abstract modes of writing but which also brings the conscious mind back in, so that the representation is fuller, the unconscious in tandem with the conscious – ie. lived experience. I don’t want to toot my own horn here too much or stifle my poetry with didacticism (didacticism is another trend in Australian poetry that I am striving to break away from, the idea that in an urgent political environment poetry must be self-explanatory, conventionally rhetorical, essayistic etc. – sometimes to the point of not really being poetry at all) but I will offer a few thoughts on my own style, which falls under the umbrella of what Michael Farrell has termed the ‘Ashbery mode.’ Following the later poetry of Ashbery, which became much more self-reflexively political, my style uses a mode of metonymic distance. I don’t say it is a pirate ship. I offer you a skull pondering a desert upon which the shadow of a passing plane makes a cross-shape, upon which lie the fossilised remains of ancient sea creatures, upon which a lumbering wheeled vehicle crawls, the silhouettes of gauntleted arms visible in its eerie, opalescent windows.
What Ashbery does is present background worlds as foreground. Strategies of inversion and subversion of surfaces and the conspicuous or inconspicuous depths they are made up of. For example, take the surface propaganda and obfuscation of discourse in Australian democracy and fragment it so that its duplicitous and contradictory edges come into relief. And then, separately, as an ironic and parodic gesture, literalise obfuscation as a total way of looking at and speaking about the world. People say that Ashbery’s poetry is too complex, that his images and lines are often too obscure. I see it in an opposite way. His lines simplify complex relational situations in society by presenting them in condensed fragments of inter and intra-relation at the level of language. They clarify through sharp-focus societal situations that are otherwise diffuse and smoky. And make plain the contours of puppet master multiplicity that loom in the shadows all around us, human or otherwise. The purpose isn’t to befuddle but to re-fuddle. Anyway, that’s how I read Ashbery and it’s what I seek to do with my poetry. A kind of Rubik’s cube choreography. The poem as a puzzle. Not in an absolute way, where you have a set solution the reader is challenged to solve, but in the sense that the world is made up of puzzles, mostly unsolvable, and that language itself, following Wittgenstein, is made up of complex language games. So, what we do is make puzzle mirrors and puzzle windows that simplify the puzzle forest they look into and frame, not departing from the puzzle essence and puzzle materials that are our and every writer’s main concern – something like that haha. I guess that it’s show don’t tell at the level of language. The action is the creation of puzzle experiences that are really kinds of carnival mirrors, condensed reflections, reflections of more cryptic puzzle situations in real life through the creation of a word puzzle whose twisting edges are also keys to ‘solutions’ – to
new awareness. The mode of simultaneity and amalgamation – which is the natural mode of the neo cortex.I don’t want you to come away from my writing affirming what you already know, I want you to come away seeing, feeling and experiencing things differently. Differing from Ashbery, and the general Ashbery mode, perhaps, I have sought to move in and out of this counter-discursive mode of writing. I wilfully present lines of poetry at the barebones, literal extreme end of the poetry spectrum and then, without notice or warning, plunge my reader into the densest of abstract jigsaw foliage, then back again to sipping a cà phê sữa đá and blank mist drifting over a mountain. My hope with this is to present the double perspective that Ashbery’s mode explores intrinsically: the world that is discursively and verbally presented to us, and the way this presentation finds unique expression and modulation in the verbal, imagistic and emotional fusion of our reactor minds. For example, take these lines from different stanzas in my poem ‘Canary’ (Biota, pp 88):
…it’s fair to posit you have a material existence,
that the same kinds of rungs hammer our umbrella spheres…
I’d travelled with you in the taxi
and thought of you,
our hands had brushed
finding our seat-belt buckles.
Urn Yoda: Asymmetrical, symmetrical?
Martian Cumulonym: I certainly overshot this aspect of Biota, which is another reason I look forward to re-visiting the project. When I wrote Biota I was under a double-duress. Firstly, the whole of the Covid-19 pandemic and its lockdowns and pressures on my mental health. Secondly, for the final stretch of the book, finishing the manuscript, the whole illustration collaboration phase and then editing and finalisation, I adamantly insisted on bringing the book to publication in time for me to reapply for the Australian Government Research Training Program (RTP) stipend scholarship for my fulltime PhD in creative writing at the University of Sydney (my PhD is for another book, please refer to my bio). Not the ideal circumstances to write a poetry book, to say the least. ‘Asymmetrical, symmetrical’ is intended to embody Noam Chomsky’s statement that language is both finite and infinite through a conceptual writing set up influenced by the conceptual writing of writers like Christian Bök, Raymond Roussel and Toby Fitch. At the time, I was juggling too much at once. The parenthesised reference to ‘Asymmetrical, symmetrical’ in Biota at the end of the presented description for the term ‘biota’ would serve better to be clearer. And most unfortunately where I overshoot most is with my execution of the conceptual set up. I wove into the manuscript several repetitions of different words, with no set numerical pattern, with the intention of the repetition emphasising the finiteness or symmetricity of word usage generally, by bring into relief the extent to which our language is conventional and repetitious, even those words we might take to be rare. In the editorial stage, when Gig Ryan asked me why there were so many repetitions (asked to do an endorsement she kindly offered me some editorial advice), I panicked under pressure and then removed many of them but arbitrarily left others so that what remains probably appears as just laziness. Anyway, I am excited at the prospect of properly introducing a conceptual set up to a new version of the book, in a more sophisticated and better communicated way. I want to explore micro and macro levels of language (or biota) and how they interrelate to make and unmake meaning, especially within the triangle of grammar, lexis and discourse. I also like the idea of a writer applying a conceptual set up to their pre-existing work, as Christian Bök would say, introducing a machine. So please keep an eye out!
In the meantime, I would like to introduce my illustrator, Floating Amoeba (aka Daniel de Filippo) whose surrealist translations of my surrealist shrine poems often outshine their shrine poem counterparts, with a blunt and delicate chiaroscuro style that brings to my mind both Hayao Miyazaki and Max Ernst. But if I can steal one more moment of you time, I’d also like to mention that Jake Goetz has just released his second collection of poetry with Apothecary Archive, Unplanned Encounters (2023) (see the link at the end of our interviews), which makes light of our dire and breezy contemporary Australian situation in all senses of making light or light making (cosmic, botanical, quotidian, comedic…).
Interview With the Illustrator, Floating Amoeba (aka Daniel de Filippo)
Urn Yoda: (After a glass or two of John and Zizi’s shiraz) Thank you, Daniel, for joining us to discuss your involvement in Biota. Can you start by telling us about your inspiration behind the illustrations in the book?
Floating Amoeba: Hi. Yes. The inspiration for the illustrations in Biota stems from, firstly being able to create something with my close friend Joel, and second, the ideas and thoughts that could be explored in this particular book were quite powerful for me. On one hand, I was drawn to the concept of ecological and social interconnectedness and the idea of organisms coexisting in various physical and geopolitical spaces – in Vietnam, in Australia and also globally. At the same time, making surreal translations of ‘ancestor shrines’ presented an intriguing challenge. I wanted to capture the essence of sacred spaces and the cultural and mythological elements they encompassed. By creating drawings that served as translations collaborating with and accompanying their poetic counterparts, I aimed to evoke a sense of the ephemeral and the shimmering presence of the shrine poems’ ghosts.
Urn Yoda: Fascinating how you merged ecological concepts with surreal translations of shrine poems and shrines in Biota. How did you approach this process of surreal translation into visual imagery?
Floating Amoeba: The translating process was a deeply engaging one done over several drafts. I immersed myself in the themes and emotions conveyed by each poem, allowing them to guide my artistic choices. There was reflection and revisiting between the shrine poem and image as I captured the essence and meaning of the shrines. While working on the illustrations, I aimed to maintain a balance between honouring the cultural context and infusing my own surrealist interpretations. This involved careful consideration of symbols, and composition to evoke their metaphysical and social significance.
Urn Yoda: The book encompasses elements of autobiography alongside the surrealist illustrations. How did you navigate this throughout the book?
Floating Amoeba: Exciting and challenging. We had lengthy discussions about Joel’s ideas of carefully curating the placement of the illustrations within the book. I approached my illustrations as visual counterparts to the written content, striving to complement and amplify the themes explored in each section. Some are autobiographical, some are commentary, in the shrine contribution, both are part of a tapestry of Joel and Daniel experiences.
Urn Yoda: How engage with Biota readers you hope?
Floating Amoeba: My hope is that readers will be intrigued by it. That the shrines evoke a sense of wonder and contemplation, encouraging readers to reflect on the complexity of the natural world and its intersections with complex human beliefs.
Urn Yoda: What’s next for you as an artist? Are there any upcoming projects or themes you’re excited to explore?
Floating Amoeba: Currently, I’m excited to continue illustration. A few projects are already in the pipeline. In the works are two projects further exploring shrines, including an update with Apothecary Archive of Biota. Another project in the early stages I’m working on will expand what drawing, a ‘traditional medium’, can do when in intersection with new technology. This is a project that applies my background in interactive and participatory art installation. I will be working throughout various artistic disciplines and will create immersive experiences participants can share in.
Joel Ephraims is a South-coast writer of Sri-Lankan heritage who has published two books of poetry, Through the Forest with Australian Poetry and Express Media’s New Voices Series in 2013 and, most recently, Biota with Apothecary Archive in 2022. In 2011 he won the Overland Judith Wright Prize for new and emerging poets and in 2016 he won the Overland NUW Fair Australia prize for poetry. In 2018 he was longlisted for the Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize and in 2022, for work on his conceptual, participatory novel and PhD thesis, 15238, he was granted a David Harold Postgraduate Research Fellowship by the University of Sydney. Joel’s poetry has appeared extensively in Australian literary publications for over a decade, in such places as: Griffith Review, Cordite Poetry Review, Marrickville Pause, Australian Poetry Journal, The Red Room Company, Overland, Rabbit, Seizure, Mascara Literary Review, The Australian Weekend Review and Otoliths, among others. An updated version of Biota (in collaboration again with the illustrator, Daniel de Filippo) is in the works with Apothecary Archive. Joel’s third book of poetry, Vaanya’s Ghosts, will soon be forthcoming. He can be contacted at: ‘email@example.com’.
Daniel de Filippo, a multi-disciplinary artist hailing from the Illawarra, has exhibited works in galleries that range from wax sculptures to screen-based work. As a film director, he won the Newcastle Real Film Festival’s best short film with “Thirteen Things To Say When You Are Breaking Up With Someone” (2013). Other than Biota, Daniel’s most recently released work “Register” (2021) explored the role technology plays in organising human beings. Biota is Daniel’s first time published as an illustrator, despite many years practicing underground. He currently works at Beyond Empathy and can be contacted at: ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’.
You can read more of and purchase Biota (2022) with Apothecary Archive
You can read some of and purchase Jake Goetz’s Unplanned Encounters (2023) with Apothecary Archive