THE HAZE AND BURN:
an interview with Nathan Curnow
Everyone knows Nathan Curnow, nationally acclaimed poet. Tell me about Nathan Curnow, the playwright.
I’ve been writing plays for as long as I’ve been writing poetry, and it’s been a similar road in many ways. My play-writing career has all come down to a lot of hard work, a degree of luck and making my own luck, plus a ridiculous amount of backing from a few key believers.
I still remember handing my first script over the fence to my next door neighbour, Kevin Hopkins, who happened to be an actor. I had no idea if it was any good, so he got his buddies together and put on a reading of it at La Mama. (I didn’t even know what a ‘reading’ was at the time). The play then gained the support of Greg Carroll and the two of them put on my Dizney on Dry Ice at the Carlton Courthouse as part of the 2006 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. I’ve worked with them both ever since.
Following that one, a play about stealing the cryogenically frozen head of Walt Disney and holding it for ransom, I wrote a lot of other crazy stuff. Plays about talking fish, indestructible cats and the second coming of Houdini, to an absurd comedy titled Mystery in a Blimp. Many of these were ten minute pieces that have featured in short play festivals around the country, because as a poet I became very interested in short form theatre and what it could do. But I’ve recently returned to writing a feature-length work with the assistance of the Australia Council.
Does poetry play much of a part in your playwriting? And vice versa – has writing for voices, bodies and the stage had an influence on the poetry?
For a long time writing poetry and plays seemed quite separate to me, just because I was asking different things of them. I wrote plays to be stupid, for silly dialogue with crazy ideas and tangents. Comedy has its own demands of course, and writing gags is hard, so it’s not that I found one form/style more liberating or demanding than the other, there was just little crossover in terms of language and subject matter at least.
It took me a while to consciously realise how common the forms are. It was while I was going to a lot of short ten minute plays that I saw all the elements playing out in front of me. I realised that a short play was a kind of poem, and I had to balance all of its distinct elements the way I had to balance and layer my poems. So exploring the short forms just seemed to unlock everything. I’m reminded of Sailing by Kevin Brophy. Although he’s talking about short stories here these lines reflect something similar for me:
“When I took an interest in the theory of the short story everything became a short story. Every film I watched, every apple I ate, every newspaper article, every science textbook, poem I read — they all had beginnings, middles and ends; everything existed in a curiously reduced universe; even the longest of novels was in truth a short story.”
And now I find there’s a lot of crossover for me between the two. At the moment there seems to be a common through-line for me in all my projects, both in terms of subject matter and the way I go about approaching/constructing them. My poetry and plays seem to be directly feeding each other.
It might be argued that novels are nothing more than epic poems transformed by the theatre experience. How do you see the novel and is it something you plan on attempting?
In terms of how I ‘see’ the novel, it’s much like what you suggest. I think poets and novelists all have to make similar decisions i.e. what to reveal, when and why; the balancing of the part and the whole; language use; voice etc. There is that metaphor of writing a novel being like running a marathon, and it is, but all projects are marathons, whether it’s a manuscript of poems or a full-length play. They all have to be raked over again and again, and take years off your life.
So that said, yes, it’s something I’d like to try soon. When I first started writing it was definitely the goal, but now I think I might finally have some better skills and clues to bring to it. Plus due to some recent interest there may even be a chance to tackle it sooner than I expected.
I was talking with a short story specialist recently about flash fiction. She’s a very successful writer in that regard, but said she’d never been able to write flash fiction. In fact, she said they needed an entirely different ‘skill set’. She also said she’ll never write a novel, and for her, there’s a sense of integrity in this regard. She’s a purist and her work has benefitted from it. She does things you simply couldn’t do with novels, flash fiction or poetry.
I was wondering whether you might talk about the differences you’ve found between playwriting and poetry. Have you written much short fiction and what differences have you found working in this medium? I’m wondering whether you might look at the notion of a ‘skill set’ in relation to what you’ll need finally taking on The Novel.
I have great admiration for the purists but I wouldn’t call myself a purist of anything. There are times I’ve written poems and realised later that they are short stories (or could work just as well if not better as a short story), and times I’ve written short stories and realised they are plays (or seem to want to be plays, in that they exhibit qualities that would cross over). And I suspect most writers experience this with their work along the way. So I wouldn’t say the skill sets are entirely different. There is overlap.
I guess I don’t totally understand what the term ‘purist’ means. If it means committing solely to writing in one form despite the overlap (though I’m still not sure if that makes you one) then yeah, it’s not me.
I guess I’m hesitant when it comes to this question, and I’ve been trying to figure out why. I want to acknowledge that there are specific qualities to each form, different ‘skill sets’ needed, but I’m shying away from saying anything that ultimately defines one form from the other. [insert illuminating yet sufficiently mysterious metaphor here]. There is the Richard Ford quote which Kathryn Lomer uses in her Q&A with Cate Kennedy in Island 122:
“The form is this: I write it; I call it a short story; it is one. End of argument — though it doesn’t have to be all that short. I just have to want to call it a short story. There’s no police in this business.”
So I have had a number of short stories published… or pieces that I (and others) have called short stories. And no, I won’t be looking at the notion of a ‘skill set’ when it comes to writing a novel. I’ll probably have the particular skills/demands of the form in the back of my head as I set out with instinct and bloodymindedness. I won’t consciously acknowledge the ‘skills’ as I begin i.e. putting them up on a white board in front of me, but they will come in to play. Amid the haze and hard burn of concentration the form I’m working in (or that I tell myself I’m working in) will bring the piece to account, and there will be damning questions I may or may not be able to answer. There are no givens. By the end of it I might still end up with something that seems to be more of a play. That’s the thing about projects — you know that you have some clues, and yet despite those clues, despite your dogged direction, the project also has to direct you and you have to be open to that.
It’s a known and unknown pathway, and sometimes I’m wary of discussing it too much in case articulating the mystery of the ‘haze and hard burn’ stuffs it all up for me.
A ‘known and an unknown pathway’ is a brilliant expression. Some writers, even after writing five or six novels, still face a crisis with every project. The only thing they have to go on is that they’ve done it before. I suppose what is known is that we have the experience of travel but the territory (if we’re pushing the envelope) is always new, and often hostile. We work out ways to live in deserts and sometimes return with visions of an emerald paradise. Could you talk a little about the pathways you’ve found and perhaps a little more about that necessary ‘haze and hard burn?’
I really like your last response. Your ‘visions of an emerald paradise’ reminds of the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. Where at the heart of it there is just someone saying ‘pay no attention to that man behind the curtain’.
Over the last few years, particularly while writing The Ghost Poetry Project, I have become more keenly aware of how I work.
There must be times of great intensity where I am painfully present, slogging away at the words and ideas, and also times where I have to stop and make room for them to come. It’s a big lesson for any artist to learn, and at the end of the day I have to thank the Australia Council for it. Through their support I’ve been able to live as an artist, to have the chance to identify my own rhythms and trust in them. I trust now that turning off and walking the dog is sometimes the best way to advance a project, even though it’s still a mystery how a 15 minute walk can have me brimming with words and connections by the time I return.
So yes, there is always a constant push and pull between what I know and don’t know, between instinct and conscious thought, times of fallow and times of hard slog. All I know is that so far I have been able to identify and negotiate the haze and hard burn of production for myself. But there are other things to navigate as well: engagement and seclusion, promotion and obscurity, self belief and doubt, narcissism and self loathing. Any one or all of these things might undo me down the track.
(Photograph by Amy Tsilimanis)