ALWAYS KNOWING WHEN TO TURN THE PAGE: an interview with Nathan Curnow and
More and more it’s being reported that poetry is experiencing a resurgence, primarily due to the form finding a home – or endless homes – on the internet. Poetry seems to suit blogs, online journals, even in the social-media space (amongst the torrents of Facebook and Twitter drivel it’s always a pleasure to find some carefully crafted words, or tips on how to find some). Although no one’s yet collected the statistics, an increasing number of people might be experiencing poetry, which can only be a good thing. Long-live the creative wordsmith.
Two poets who should be at the forefront of this resurgence (if they’re not already) are Nathan Curnow, a regular here in Verity La Land, and Kevin Brophy – we can all thank our lucky stars that they’ve recently co-authored Radar (Walleah Press 2012). Astute readers will remember that we published Brophy’s ‘Flicker‘ and Curnow’s ‘Blessing‘ in August and September 2012 respectively. Go on, grab yourself a copy – you won’t regret it.
Nathan Curnow is a poet, playwright and performer who has toured Australia and New Zealand and been heard widely on ABC radio. He is the author of The Ghost Poetry Project, a collection of poetry based upon his stays at ten haunted sites across the country and released by Puncher & Wattman (2009). He has also won the prestigious Josephine Ulrick Poetry Prize and co-edited the 30th birthday edition of literary journal Going Down Swinging. Kevin Brophy teaches creative writing in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. From 1980 to 1994 he was founding co-editor of Going Down Swinging. In 2005 he was awarded the Martha Richardson Medal for poetry. In 2009 he was co-winner of the Calibre Prize for an outstanding essay.
Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone.
Congratulations on your joint collection Radar – it’s a truly wonderful read. How would you both describe the book?
I like to think it’s an attentive book, from my collection of poetry to Kevin’s collection of prose-poems, two different forms and styles scanning memory, dreams and experience through language. We didn’t set out intending to come at it from different angles, but I’m so pleased that it turned out the way. Perhaps my work monitors the open skies while Kevin’s searches the ocean depths.
The book fits us between its covers because I think we are both poets driven by a lyrical impulse, interested in pursuing narratives-of-feeling, both of us schooled (though in different eras) by Melbourne’s performance scene, and both committed to a poetry of plain speaking. The book is most definitely two books for the reason Nathan suggests: the forms are very different. Free verse has its own modern tradition now, especially in English poetry, and Nathan exploits it, revels in it. He knows how to make a line work, and how to bend a line ending. There’s none of this in the prose-poems, which are visually not-poetry, and work much more as mental swirls, as clouds posing as paragraphs, slightly exotic as a form. Both of us, though, I think, head out into fiction at times…
How did the idea for the book come about? Was it along the lines of ‘I’ve got some poems, you’ve got some poems – let’s do this’? Or was there something deeper going on from the very beginning?
I guess the deepest thing going on is that we’re mates and have liked each other’s writing, and approach to writing, for some time. I had been sitting on a number of poems when Ralph Wessmann from Walleah Press approached me with an offer of publication. What I had amounted to about half a collection so I made the suggestion of a 2-in-1 book. Thankfully Kevin jumped at the opportunity, which was a real thrill seeing that he’s been instrumental to my development over the years. I don’t even think he had anything written at the time, and we didn’t look over each other’s work until the latter stages. All I knew was that he was heading to Europe and had promised to write, which was enough for me. It’s kind of like if the film director Terence Malick says he’s happy to work with you. The only answer is ‘Wow, let’s do it!’ and then you figure it out as you go. Perhaps Kevin could speak about the process from his end, because I think he was exploring a different approach to how he usually works.
I believe that Ralph and Nathan were looking for a female Tasmanian poet to partner Nathan with the book. And somehow they stumbled across me. I liked the idea because I did want to try writing a book in a creative frenzy, over about six months, and knowing Nathan’s work I knew he would be both professional and lively. I was relieved when I read his first draft, to see that he had taken an autobiographical approach to his collection, while I had taken a more ‘fictional’ and speculative approach to my little paragraphs. I was pleased to see that the two halves would be different enough, and both hopefully engaging for their own reasons. Of course there was something deeper going on and that might make the reading of the book a little more interesting and unsettling than many poetry collections.
Radar certainly is more interesting and unsettling than many poetry collections. Two themes that have emerged so far in our interview are the notion of autobiography and the slip to and from fiction. I wonder if you could expand on these elements of the work.
One of the great twentieth century poet-eccentrics (later adopted by the Language poetry movement), Louis Zukofsky, wrote that ‘the test of poetry is the range of pleasure it affords as sight, sound, and intellection.’ That’s ok, and as poets we want to ‘afford’ our readers those pleasures. But they are not the full range of pleasures. The critic Kenneth Cox, an admirer of Zukofsky, finally decided that with Zukofsky ‘What is lacking is afflatus’. He meant ‘the breath of life that sends a thrill down the spine and gets engraved on memory’. Whether it is autobiography or fiction does not really matter; what matters is whether the body and its breath are in the work, along with those other pleasures poetry can afford its readers. Nathan’s work heaves with afflatus. One of the reasons I pushed out of the line into the paragraph was to get at that part of me that brings the world and its afflatus into the words. I would be pleased if our poetry looks unsettled, and even more pleased if the poetry is unsettling.
As Kevin says, the line between autobiography and fiction doesn’t really matter, what matters is the strength of the piece, how it works and conveys. Although much of my work uses autobiography as a launching off point, I don’t primarily write to tell people about my life, because I know that writing can never give the whole picture. Poems are inadequate frames and writing demands twists and turns which askew everything. Still, much of my work in Radar presents as autobiography which I’m not particularly comfortable with at times, and it’s the reason I’ve included the poem ‘To the Google Earth Tracking Vehicle’, kind of warning the reader that while I’m trying to be honest, it’s also just a pose and can’t escape being that. So the line is hazy and complex, and what matters most is the ‘full range of pleasures’ for the reader that Kevin refers to. This is why I’m so excited about the direction he takes in Radar, because he’s still showing me how to write about life in new ways. His pieces are full of strong images and a deceptively simple tone that presents characters we can all relate to, ones with obvious failings. They are portraits that speak honestly and intimately about others, about all of us, and so therefore, indirectly, about what Kevin does (and perhaps doesn’t) know about himself. I like that you refer to it as ‘the slip to and from fiction’, Nigel. It’s so slippery that it almost becomes a non-issue.
What hopes do you have for Radar?
This is the toughest question. I hope that Radar grows up into a fine classic book without feeling it has a split personality or a repressed side of itself that won’t stay repressed. I hope Radar has a large extended family of readers who get together once a year to talk about it. I hope Radar gets to talk with critics and other books along the way, and that in its retirement, when it is hopelessly out of copyright and looks like something left over from the era of ink and paper, it can hold its own at the bar and sink a few with those old-timers who are still on their feet. I hope that it doesn’t get too garrulous with age, and always knows when to turn the other page.
All of the above from Kevin. I hope the book is returned to over and over. I hope its owners read it to people that they love and that it inspires them to write. Plus I sent a copy to Missy Higgins, who I’ve never met, so I hope she likes it too.
Radar can be purchased by visiting Walleah Press.