Award-winning poet Jaya Savige is studying the concept of risk in modernist literature.
Does studying literature at close quarters make it harder to create it? As both an award-winning poet and academic, Jaya Savige  can answer this question better than most.
Jaya is studying for a PhD in English, funded by a Gates Cambridge scholarship. He admits that it can be difficult to sustain any creative practice in a truly serious way while conducting a major research project since the modes of thinking involved are very different.
He says: “The dissertation is driven by a thetic imperative, the need to gather data, analyse it and synthesise it to form a persuasive, watertight evidence-based argument. In many ways, the writing of poetry is quite the opposite; it revels in indeterminacy and open-endedness, it thrives on linguistic slippage, and requires room for the mind to roam freely without needing to reach after fact or reason. Good poetry is very rarely didactic.”
Nevertheless, he says, there can be benefits in combining the two disciplines and they can both feed each other. Some of the poems in his new book, Surface to Air, have emerged directly out of his research and he says writing these poems has allowed him to process his academic material in alternative, yet fruitful ways. He adds that it is also true that literary criticism makes him “a more informed writer”. “All good writers are first and foremost good readers,” he states.
Jaya’s research centres on the emergence of the concept of “risk” in western epistemology and its representation in European literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most particularly in the work of the great modernist writer James Joyce.
The main focus of his research is a notebook Joyce wrote while he was working as a banker in Rome for nine months. At the time he was trying to get Dubliners published. The notebook is all about banking, insurance and commerce. “Not many people have studied it as it is not creative like his other notebooks,” says Jaya. “I am interested in its relationship to Joyce’s later work. Ulysses has crucial moments which are informed by Joyce’s immersion in the banking industry.”
He adds: “One of the defining features of modernity is how we have come to understand the world through risk and risk assessment. All our decisions are based on risk assessment. Joyce was the first and best writer to represent our modern risk society in literature.”
Jaya says it is “strangely fitting” that his research should focus on Joyce’s time in Rome since he held a writing residency in Rome for six months prior to commencing at Cambridge.
“It’s a scary thing when, as a PhD student, you realise that your research interests and your life aren’t entirely separate entities, but are intimately bound up with one another,” he says.
Jaya’s own life has not followed the traditional academic trajectory. Born in Sydney, he was brought up in Bribie Island in Queensland. Neither his mother or stepfather had finished high school, but his mother, who died at the age of just 42, placed a big emphasis on education.
She got Jaya into a very good secondary school in Brisbane. However, soon after the family went bankrupt and couldn’t pay the fees. “The school should have kicked me out,” says Jaya, “but I was doing well and so they allowed me to stay.”
He had shown early promise in poetry, winning his first poetry competition at the age of just 10. After high school, he applied to study law, but quit within six months because it was not creatively stimulating enough. Although he had entered many poetry competitions during his school years, he did not take writing seriously until he hit the libraries at university. “I had not grown up in a home full of books. I couldn’t believe this new life of the mind,” he says.
He graduated from the University of Queensland with an English degree and won a University Medal for his honours thesis. He then took an MPhil in creative writing, which he describes as “a turning point”. Jaya says he had several mentors who encouraged him to write. “At school my head of English said something casually about a poetry exercise I had done. He said ‘never stop writing’,” he says. Other mentors are the poet Bronwyn Lea and the writer David Malouf.
Jaya’s poetry project for his MPhil was published as a collection of poetry in 2006, the year after he finished it and launched him on the road to reading tours and festival appearances. The book, Latecomers, won the prestigious Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry.
After his early success, he won the writing residency in Rome. He also started writing for newspapers, became poetry adviser of the Australian Literary Review and is now poetry editor for The Australian.
Following his residency in Rome, he travelled around Europe and came to Cambridge where he applied to do his PhD. “I had the feeling when I came to Cambridge that this was somewhere I could live for a number of years,” he says. “I liked its poetic and intellectual tradition.”
He says the field of “risk studies” is interdisciplinary by nature, spanning sociology, economics, mathematics, history and philosophy and he hopes to open this up to literary studies. He believes Cambridge provides the perfect setting for this. In 2010 he presented a paper at a conference on Risk and Uncertainty at Cambridge. “As the only humanities scholar in a room full of economists, engineers, climate scientists, lawyers, town planners, I initially felt a bit out of place presenting a paper on James Joyce and the risk of Modernist literature. But I knew that I had something relevant to say, and I think it paid off. That’s one of the truly great things about the intellectual environment of Cambridge: it openly encourages interdisciplinary approaches to pertinent issues, like the nature of risk, that confront us today.”
Both Jaya’s literary work and his academic work have involved extensive travel. There are reading tours to get his poetry out to the public and many of Joyce’s manuscripts are housed in the US so he spent six weeks last year on a research tour of some of the country’s major libraries.
Just before that he presented a paper at the XXII North American James Joyce Conference at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, one of the two major Joyce conferences in the world. His paper focused on the role of risk in Ulysses and he says it was well received. “Like the scientific disciplines, the humanities also involve a global conversation, and it is crucial to get your work out there,” he says.