THAT EXTRA KICK:
an interview with Graham Nunn

Posted on August 7, 2011 by in The Melbourne Review Interviews

ASHLEY CAPES

Your newest collection Ocean Hearted includes a confident blend of haiku and verse. I’m interested in how you see haiku interacting with your verse poetry.

GRAHAM NUNN

I got in to writing through haiku, so the form is very influential on my writing process. In my last collection, I used haiku throughout the book to help the reader make the leap from poem to poem. For me, they kept the collection moving, much like in a renga, utilising that idea of newness, of not looking back. This (ie. Mixing haiku and free verse) is something that I will continue to do, as for me the haiku also act as a cleanser for the longer verse. They keep everything sharp.

ASHLEY CAPES

I like that description of haiku as cleanser and sharpener, and I think it really shows in the collection. It’s interesting that haiku was the form that turned you to writing. How did you find haiku? Through school? A penguin classic?

GRAHAM NUNN

I actually came to haiku through Kerouac’s Desolation Angels. At the time I was living at the top of a mountain range in a very small town (population less than fifty people), so I was really feeling his isolation, his solitude. The haiku dotted throughout the first half of the book really hit me. The poem on Starvation Ridge/ little sticks/ are trying to grow is a poem I go back to often. It still has the same spark, the spark that has ignited what I am sure will be a lifetime interest in haiku.

ASHLEY CAPES

Compositional context fascinates me and I’ve wondered if the way modern methods and tools have changed the way we compose poetry, if it has altered the content more than we realise. That it may have removed some of that solitude you mention. Do you work with both the pen and the keyboard? If so, when is one tool more appropriate than the other? And if not, why do you prefer one more than the other?

GRAHAM NUNN

The keyboard does not play a part in the composing process… I am very much a pencil and notebook person. I really enjoy composing while outdoors. My big old dog Floyd was a great writing companion. He heard the poems in Ruined Man long before anyone else did. We would sit out under the Pepperina Tree for hours… I have recently been running a ginko series for QLD Writers Centre, and that has been great for my writing as each week there is a new destination, a new set of stimulus and most importantly, time to open up to your surrounds. There is definitely too much time spent with the doors closed (literally and metaphorically speaking). I am also a believer in carrying a notebook with you at all times. Sketching ideas and experiences play a very important role in the process of composition. I have been going back through some very old notebooks of late and working on different ideas. They seem so foreign to me now, which makes them all the more exciting.

The keyboard… well I use that exclusively for editing. It creates too many distractions for composition.

ASHLEY CAPES

By which, do you mean, what the keyboard creates access to? The internet, answering e-mails, bureaucratic tasks etc?

GRAHAM NUNN

Absolutely, I really struggle to ignore all of those things when I sit down at a computer, so I tend to stay away until it is actually time to type and edit the poems I have been working on.

ASHLEY CAPES

I know for you music isn’t one of those distractions. Many writers have their favourite albums to write to and just as many require silence. From your blog alone, the casual observer would suspect that music is a big part of you – take your performances with Sheish Money or the album you collaborated with him on The Stillest Hour. What music do you find best to write to, and conversely, what music do you find impossible to write to?

GRAHAM NUNN

As I am writing this, Margot Smith’s Taste is simmering in the background… sadly, she passed away recently, such a beautiful voice; a gifted songwriter. Wherever possible I have music playing… bands like The Necks, Because of Ghosts, Set Fire To Flames, Tren Brothers, GodSpeed You! Black Emperor and Clogs all create a space where the sound of reality is drowned. Through music, I find it easier to inhabit a world free of distraction. I very rarely listen to anything with lyrics while writing, although Sigur Ros is a band that gets plenty of writing air time. Jonsi’s voice is so otherworldly that it becomes part of a song’s arrangement, rather than a focal point. That for me is the defining point… I could never listen to Bob Dylan and write, nor The Church or The National or Okkervil River or so many of the bands and artists that I love. Their lyrics are so potent, so important to the overall song that I am unable to free myself from the world they create.

ASHLEY CAPES

The ocean has a profound effect on your writing, especially the autobiographical elements (I’m not only thinking of your latest but also your haibun collection, Measuring the Depth) Can you explain how it came to be so important? And why it continues to do so?

GRAHAM NUNN

I was fortunate to grow up in a family with grandparents that lived near the beach. My Gran lived at Paradise Point (Gold Coast) and my Gran and Da lived at Toorbul (Sunshine Coast), so for me, two out of every three weekends was spent in or around the ocean. I see the ocean as the thing that draws our family together. Whenever I am feeling out of sorts, I pack a fishing rod and head to Toorbul. Standing waist deep in the ocean never fails to get me back on the level. Sadly Paradise Point is unrecognisable, so I rarely go back there. But there are many other places that are important in our family’s mythology – every Easter I go to Brunswick Heads, my Great Grandmother lived in the caravan park at Tweed Heads, so I regularly go back there to swim and fish.

The cleansing power of the ocean is what constantly draws me in… no matter how you are feeling, it is always there, ready to accept and wash over you.

ASHLEY CAPES

The idea of a family’s mythology is interesting, can you expand on it a little? I take ‘mythology’ to mean something vital to the group’s identity, rather than something ‘made up’ and I like that you are a part of creating it in the way you so deftly incorporate such history into your writing, both at a literal and a symbolic level.

GRAHAM NUNN

I think of our family mythology as a created world and definitely something that each of us has a role in creating. Place is very important in this whole concept and plays a major role in the construction of our mythology. An example of such a place for me is Toorbul, a very sleepy little beach side town, north of Brisbane. For me, this place has great spiritual significance. It holds so many of my childhood memories and to this day fills me with the same innocence I had thirty years ago when my Grandparents first moved there. When I am there, I feel the deepest of connections; my mind is always clear and my youth is always just below the surface.

With Ocean Hearted, I wanted to bring a little of that connection to the poems; to bring that mythology into the poems.

ASHLEY CAPES

Could you share something of the process you undertake when revising work for a collection? When putting it all together, what are the differences, as you see them, between ‘selection’ and ‘editing’?

GRAHAM NUNN

Selection is far more painful than editing. It is the one job I happily give over to other people. It is incredibly difficult to make that ruthless decision about what stays in and what is left out. I am lucky to have four or five people that I can send work to; people whose instinct I trust. Once they are finished with the ms, it is generally pretty clear which poems have risen to the surface. It is then a matter of sequencing. In that sense, I generally look at things like a musician making an album. I want each poem to make the collection build in intensity and emotion. More often than not I have a start and finish point, so then I look over the poems to build the narrative in between. I am working on a new chapbook-length collection and this time, the selection of poems has really looked after itself as the central poem, ‘On the Island’, will make up the bulk of the book. I am now deciding what I am going to do to flesh the collection out… I am caught between a series of love poems that I have been working on and another longer series of poems titled Black Stump Blues, written during my time in Blackall (Western QLD) during the last few years. I am leaning toward the latter idea as the mix of ocean and outback would create a real contrast. But, we’ll see…

ASHLEY CAPES

I remember the Black Stump Blues poems, and I agree, they’d make a really effective contrast with the ocean. That’s actually the kind of big-picture thinking I find most difficult when putting something together. How important do you think a theme is to a collection’s unity? I noticed that your latest collection Ocean Hearted is broken into three parts/themes, and here you talk about wanting a collection to ‘build in intensity and emotion’ is this difficult to match to thematic concerns?

GRAHAM NUNN

Theme is something I have really focussed in on, in the compilation of my last two collections. With Ruined Man, I wanted to put together a series of really urban poems; poems that lifted the skin of Brisbane and slipped into the vein of the city; poems that brought the inner and outer darkness together. With Ocean Hearted, I wanted to move away from the urban, and capture the coast, while also focussing on aspects of family, love and death. I had to laugh the other day as a friend of mine said to me, whenever I think of your writing, I think of death and the ocean… definitely made me chuckle!

ASHLEY CAPES

Brisbane is another of your great loves, how important is a city to a poet?

GRAHAM NUNN

For me, feeling at home is incredibly important and in Brisbane, I feel very grounded. Brisbane has a unique energy… a mix of being totally comfortable with itself and searching for something new. It is that mix that makes it creatively vibrant.

The community of poets here is also very special. While the number of readings fluctuates from year to year, there is always something on each month and audiences have definitely grown. Having a major festival like QLD Poetry Festival and a truly magnificent Writers Centre, really helps to create a focal point. SpeedPoets has also done great things for the poetry community and I am thrilled that it is still going strong after ten years.

ASHLEY CAPES

SpeedPoets has recently moved venues. How has that changed the gigs for you as an organiser and performer? Have you been able to introduce any new facets to the performances?

GRAHAM NUNN

With every venue, there is change, in fact, because of the open nature of the event, every gig is surprisingly different. The move to Brew in the heart of the city feels really good though. The space is vibrant, comfortable and has great sound. And importantly, it feels really focussed. All of these things influence you as a performer; they give you that extra kick to make sure your performance is spot on; that when it your turn to make your mark on the mic, you deliver.

ASHLEY CAPES

Would you consider the internet explosion of blogging to be something of a poetry movement in itself?

GRAHAM NUNN

I hadn’t really thought of it like that. The internet is definitely a fertile ground for poets and with the recent shake up in the book industry, new technologies are going to be taking more of the market share. Publishing in a traditional sense definitely has its back against the wall, so online avenues such as blogs and social media sites like Facebook have become an essential tool for audience development. And like most movements throughout history, blogging has opened up new networks, and is proving to be a vital creative space, where people from all over the globe can gather, engage and create. It will be very interesting to see where things are at in another ten to twenty years.

(Photographs by Julie Beveridge)

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