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A conversation with poet Nathan Curnow

Nathan Curnow

Nathan Curnow is an Australian writer and spoken word performer, the author of the poetry collections No Other Life but This, The Ghost Poetry Project, RADAR (a joint collection with Kevin Brophy), and Bath Towel Wings: Wagtail #131. He also collaborated on Dr Carmel Wallace's World Enough, and Time (2005), a book featuring Carmel's monoprints alongside his poems written in response. Nathan's poetry has won a number of awards and featured in journals such as The Rialto (UK), HEAT, Island, Overland, Meanjin, and Best Australian Poems 2008, 2010 and 2013 (Black Inc).

who the f is nathan curnow

Is it true Ballarat's spawned a number of religious sects and political splinter groups recently? Someone mentioned seeing a group of locals walking the streets in 'who the fuck is nathan curnow?' t-shirts? Is that a cult thingy …?

Ha. I love this photo. These are my friends Brooke Russell and Sean M Whelan, both of them Melbourne imposters that Ballarat hopes to one day claim as their own. Sean wore this t-shirt while opening a recent gallery exhibition here based around some of my poetry. During his speech he announced my intention to run for mayor, which is a total fabrication, so yes, you could call him a political splinter group. Extremely splintered! If this is the slogan he plans to lead my campaign with then I should probably sack him right now, which will be tough because I never employed him in the first place.

So do you feel at all isolated, living in Ballarat? I guess not, given its proximity to Melbourne and the fact that you’re a frequent visitor to the city, nevertheless ... ?

The short answer is ‘no’. There’s an ever-growing community of artists here that I’m very lucky to be a part of. I did feel isolated when I lived in the town of Portland, further away. There were a lot of privileges about living there but I fell into the trap of resenting it for not being Melbourne, and I resented Melbourne for not reaching out to me more, considering the effort I was making to emerge.

Mostly I was desperately lonely. But I came to realise was that while Melbourne offered a lot of opportunities, it wasn’t necessarily the way I imagined. The ‘gatekeepers’ weren’t manning the gates in the way I thought, and there was a benefit to not turning up all the time. I guess it comes down to your outlook, your goals and what you need to sustain yourself as a creative writer.

What do you mean when you say ‘The "gatekeepers" weren’t manning the gates in the way I thought....'?

I saw Melbourne as the epicentre of all opportunity, when in reality it was never that simple. The connections and opportunities I craved couldn’t just be granted by a gatekeeper snapping their fingers. There was a vibrant scene of course and much to get immersed in, but the publishers, editors and organisers had constraints and were just doing their best to stay afloat like I was. The epicentre wasn’t a static thing, it was a bunch of ideas and endangered projects.

I remember meeting people who after a couple years had burnt their bridges with the scene. They had attended so many gigs and launches that they were escaping to the regions or another capital city. I was doing so many kilometres, just dying to get amongst it, while they were on their way out, jack of it all. So not turning up to everything had its advantages—I was fresh and eager, people weren’t sick of me and they appreciated my effort and commitment.

I recall Andy Jackson commenting recently he doesn't lean towards collaborative poetry, 'Poetry is meditative to me, and I tend to be an introvert'. I wonder what you think of collaborative poetry? I note 'Cordite's' not long closed off submissions for a collaborative issue, did you offer anything for that particular issue, are you drawn to writing with others?

I’ve learnt a lot from collaborating with other artists across disciplines—with visual artist Carmel Wallace and composer/musicians like Anthony Lawrence and Wulfbyrne Brown. But in terms of ‘collaborative poetry’, actually constructing a poem with someone, that’s not something that interests me, unless there’s a whole new element that can shake the work into another form.

What Andy says is true for me too. Les Murray in his poem The Instrument refers to the ‘painless headache’ of writing, which is something I can’t get enough of—tapping away at the keyboard because I have to, directing while being led, panning endlessly for the small flecks I wish to keep. Like a gold miner I want to crouch at the side of the river on my own two feet, knowing that when I stand up the stiffness in my back is mine alone. I want the swirling trance of it all for myself. I don’t want to negotiate that process with another poet. Unlike sex, I can’t imagine enjoying it as much with another person.

No no, not the same at all.... But what about being denied the enjoyment of figuring the poem out for yourself? Do you recall publication of the poem 'Progress' under your name five or six years ago?


Right rights and left
A glass
A shore
A delay
A delay

What was that all about?

The unreadable publication was called For Godot which was an absurd, literary hoax played upon myself and another 3,784 poets around the world. It was a statement about construction, ownership, anthologising and/or vanity, I’m still not really sure. Basically our names were gleaned from the internet and attributed to computer generated works. Australian poets included were Derek Motion, Michael Farrell and Adam Ford, among others, poets with some kind of a web presence at the time.

Check it out here. This seems to be all that’s left of it:

To this day I’m not sure who the instigators Stephen McLaughlin and Jim Carpenter are, and if they’re their real names or not. The whole thing was never explained or repeated. Some international poets became very upset by it and others were just happy to have been chosen in the first place.

Looking at ‘my’ poem I don’t know about the repetition of ‘A delay’ at the end. Seems a bit sloppy. The programmer needs to have a good hard look at their poetics.

Still, it wasn't unappreciated. Derek Motion - possibly your staunchest admirer? - reckoned it was representative of your best work and labelled it 'profound, moving, but above all, experimental'....

Ha! Talking about people who should take a good hard look at their poetics! I’d forgotten that he’d said that. He was so cheeky back in those days. Thankfully he has a full-time job now and has less time to admire my work.

I first met Derek when he was director of the Booranga Writers Centre. I’d only been to Wagga once before in my life and that was while suffering a terrible hangover on my way to Australia’s most haunted house. Second time though and there was this guy Derek Motion waiting to pick me up at the airport. We were both emerging poets juggling all the same things—writing, work life, the parenting of young kids in the regional wilds—so the friendship stemmed from there.

I remember your 'blog battle' with Derek some years ago, what was that about?

Well, see, I’m not totally sure, and I don’t think Derek completely knows either. It was frivolous really, which in the long run might make it profound. Some part of it was about people like yourself asking us what it was about many years later. So thanks, Ralph. I’m kind of surprised no one’s written a thesis on the whole thing. It’d be good if someone could figure it out.

Derek and I have always toyed with flippancy and profundity, particularly in relation to ourselves. Australian literature can be all too serious at times—egos, academia, competitiveness, spot fire blow ups—so we’ve always played up this mock antagonism between us. At least I hope it’s mock! I’m sure everyone must be sick of it by now because it crossed into ‘weird-satirical-dad joke territory’ years ago. Then again, there are some very real brawls in Australian literature that have been going on for decades. Maybe we were sending those up too.

The ‘blog battle’ occurred when the blogging explosion had reached its peak. People had already moved to Facebook and Twitter was becoming the latest big thing in social media. The battle was a playfully flippant, egotistical and needlessly adversarial way for two regional writers to score attention. I am still surprised by the lengths people went to in their comments, some posting genuinely heartfelt messages of support for one of us, or both, and others amping up the dumb stoush for fun. Either way, we can all be proud of what we contributed to Australian literature. Strange no one has archived it yet.

Oh, and Derek might have officially won the battle, but I’m the one who’s getting interviewed about it. Go figure that one out, Motion!

curnow vs motion

Image by Adam Ford

Well one of the most touching aspects of your 'blog faceoff' was the way it became apparent no-one wanted either of you to leave the blogosphere....

What you think of reviews? Do you read reviews of your work, have you found particular critics and criticism to be particularly perceptive, particularly valuable?

I do read reviews, and some have been particularly insightful for the way they engage with the text and themes. I like reviews that illuminate the strengths and weaknesses of the work—because I get so close to the poems that I can’t see what’s going on in them, or possibly never even knew to begin with. There was a review by Gregory Westernberg in Blue Dog (Vol 9 No18) of a long poem called endtime, which discussed the ‘fault line’ of the piece—something I’m pleased he didn’t shy away from because I think it’s a central question to the work.

What's the sort of self-reflection they give rise to?

My initial reaction to reviews is one of either pleasure or pain, which clouds my judgement, so I tend to give them space before re-reading them. Only then do I begin to unpack what they’re saying and where they’re coming from. I guess they lead me here, to this question! On reflection, I like to be challenged and stimulated by criticism, although I try to hold it all pretty lightly so as not to get too distracted. Perhaps the best way to learn and develop, the insights I trust most, come from writing and reading the poems of others.

Well, criticism can be pretty uncomfortable....

One of the things you mentioned you'd discovered during your research of The Ghost Poetry Project was that 'a hearse can get pretty uncomfortable'. What did you mean by that?

I meant physically uncomfortable. Elvira the Haunted Hearse is a 1967 Cadillac originally used by a funeral home in Pennsylvania. Alan the ‘hearse whisperer’ brought it out to Australia and began using it for his weird Sydney ghost tours. Passengers began to report strange experiences, like feeling their hair stroked by an unseen force, so I stayed in it overnight as part of The Ghost Poetry Project.

It was a long night lying there in Alan’s driveway. I’d already stayed at six haunted sites around Australia and I had three others to stay at before the year was out. I stared at Elvira’s ceiling for hours. Where was the next poem coming from? When would I finally get some sleep? I was physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted, questioning the entire worth of my project in a seat that refused to recline. But thankfully I survived and learnt a great deal about myself and my craft through the process.

Yes, never-ending process.... I’m curious to hear what you make of the notion that the writing, the poem, is never finished … Jennifer Compton puts it well in a facebook post not long ago,

i find it uncomfortable - like uncontrollable itching - when i have finished a good day's work, really got somewhere - so i go for a stroll to a cafe as a reward - and BLOW - mind flooded with a better ending, wittier ripostes, important things i have forgotten to tie up - keep muttering to myself, having to pause, write the good things down, in my address book, on my arm - SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP i say - i have finished work for the day

and I'm wondering about that urge to rewrite. For instance, in the gap of time between acceptance of a manuscript for publication, and actual publication ... how persistent is the urge to suggest to your publisher, aah excuse me but I’d like to change this and this and this. And this….

I love this quote from Jennifer, because the same thing happens to me. I find an ending that releases me from my day’s work, only to find that the poem won’t let me go. It’s like the poem finally has a chance to assert itself once I stop banging it into shape. I know I have to listen to it along the way, and I do, but perhaps I’m not listening hard enough. Writing a faux-last line seems to frustrate the poem into shouting louder, ‘You fool! Don’t walk away from me! There’s no way I’m going to the party dressed like this!’

Now the urge to re-write is completely different than the urge to make changes to a book at the eleventh hour, and I half expect you’ve asked this question because I’ve put you through the wringer a couple of times. There’s nothing exciting or revelatory about those changes because they come from the sheer terror of imminent humiliation. Mostly spelling, punctuation, minor tinkering that can mean so much. So yes, the urge is strong! Super strong! My terror is such that I’m sure you’ll be hearing from me again.

Just part and parcel of publishing ... ? What do you think of Tim Thorne's general observation a few years ago on the state of poetry in Australia, that there are far too many 'good' poems:

'What I mean is that too many poems are written within the acceptable boundaries of what poems are supposed to be like. There is an insidious and politely ignored suffocation implicit in this phenomenon. Whilst I am not advocating complete anarchy, I scan the pages of anthologies and journals, often in vain, for those poems which break out of the constraints of what I would call “meritorious mediocrity.'

I’ve heard similar criticism from other Australian poets too. I remember Paul Mitchell telling me once that he was taking a break from reading his Australian peers, preferring to read international journals for a while instead (mainly American I think). I asked him if there was a stand-out difference he was noticing and he said the poetry he was reading was more ‘assured’.

I think that relates to what Tim Thorne is saying above. I would like to see more assured poems by Australian poets. I would like to see deeper exploration of biography, description, narrative etc—the standard scaffolding. Now these frameworks are useful and have an important place in poetry but they need to be used memorably.

So what turns a good, decent, correct poem into a memorable one? A number of factors, some of them completely external, totally outside the poet's control. What the poet can control however is three things: originality of vision, originality of execution, and perhaps most importantly, originality of risk.

I, like Tim Thorne perhaps, would like to see different stories told in different ways that succeed or fail for different reasons. More than just the same acceptable modes. Assured poems are those with the best chance to stir the hearts and minds of poetry lovers, possibly connecting into an era, a zeitgeist, or a social-political movement.

Paul Mitchell dedicates his new collection Standard Variation to ' beautiful daughter Hannah. Who hates poetry. And to my sons, Hugo and Ryland, who haven't made up their minds yet', and I'm reminded of seeing you at a reading in Castlemaine a couple of years ago with your four daughters in tow. What do they make of ... well,  poetry in general, and your own in particular?

They like the poems I’ve dedicated to them and hearing them read out in public. Sometimes we talk about the creation of individual pieces—the moments and memories, the material I stole directly from the beautiful things that came out of their mouths.

What’s particularly special is that these days they choose to come along to readings. They keep me company and enjoy hearing from other poets, especially those who are family friends. None show a real interest in pursuing writing for themselves yet. And I don’t mind if they never do. They’re happy kids with a whole range of interests and talents.

You mentioned last year that your partner was shouldering the income-earning side of the equation so you could make a fist of your writing. How are things going?

Things can be tough, but I’ve been lucky and had some financial respite lately. Generally though, my partner carries the financial burden, which makes me feel guilty and anxious at times—feelings I impose upon myself. From my end I try to scramble as hard as I can ie. by doing talks, workshops, entering prizes and applying for grants.

Many writers accept from the very beginning that they’ll never make money from it, but for a long time, for the sake of my family I guess, I refused to believe it. I was tenacious, obstinate and full of delusions of grandeur, which are important qualities for a young writer, albeit hazardous in the long term.

These days I have a better insight into myself, the industry and the realities of what it is to be an artist in Australia. I have good days and bad days, but I try to accept that what I owe my family is not financial success. The best response I can give to their overwhelming support is to love what I do and to work as hard as I can. So in that sense, things are going well.

Nathan Curnow

Photograph by Michelle Dunn

I'd like to ask you a 'found' question, the question(s) Peter Minter put to Ken Bolton in their 2005 interview for Jacket magazine; Could you discuss where you feel your early poetry practice was placed in relation to what was happening at the time? Did you feel that you connected, or wanted to connect, on aesthetic and/ or political terms, with one of the many poetry ‘schools’ or magazines that had by then appeared? Or did you feel that you were writing outside all that?

Ralph, firstly, I love where all these questions are stemming from. So many different sources. And that interview at Jacket is terrific!

Like Ken, I was introduced to the poetry of Coleridge, Wordsworth and Donne in secondary school and enjoyed exploring the classics. Naturally then, when I returned to poetry years later it was to those texts that I went. I knew nothing about contemporary poetry. I didn’t really know there was such a thing until I discovered it in my poetry reader at Melbourne University. The variety of styles blew my mind, as did the concept of free verse. I was freed and truly hooked.

Trouble was I didn’t know what was happening literature-wise in my city or beyond. Nearly everything was in hardcopy, literary journals barely had any web presence and the blog explosion was yet to come. I was twenty-seven with three children under three, studying at Melbourne University amongst students directly out of Year 12. So I felt the odds were stacked against me. There was no time to read widely, to make connections with poets and editors, to debate styles and schools of thought. I found out that there were open mic events, but late night outings came at a price when there were broken nights of sleep, nappies to change and breakfasts to be made at six am.

All I had was that reader and the work inside it, being particularly drawn to the poetry of Sharon Olds and Kevin Brophy. They were writing personal, accessible poems about domesticity, relationships, religion etc, all the things I was up to my neck in. I wanted to be understood and I wanted to write about big, meaningful things. So I guess I aligned myself with lyrical free verse, but the pact I made with everything in that reader still stands.

As someone with an interest in poetry and its publication, I wonder how you felt about the recent Overland / Quadrant debate where it became apparent that past contributors to Quadrant magazine were no longer welcome at Overland. Did you find it as vexed an issue as I did? There are so many fine poets – not just poets, of course – who’ve published in Quadrant over the years that Overland’s policy seems limiting of its pool of prospective contributors. At the same time, I've sympathy for the point Mark Roberts makes, would you really send work to be published not knowing the type of journal you're submitting to?

Vexed is a good word for it.  It raised so many overlapping issues regarding art, politics, culture and ethics. I was reminded of that line by poet David Gilbey, 'sometimes thinking can be a bummer.' So my thoughts were running wild at the time, but mostly I remember feeling pretty despondent with my peers. I'm something of a passionate provocateur too, but I think many aspects of the discussion could have been handled better. Not to mention that it initially played out on Facebook, which is a useless place to discuss anything of fire and complexity.

These opening months of the Abbot government concern me deeply, on every front, so I appreciate why Peter Minter at Overland is calling for poets to examine their ethics and morals, challenging them to pin their colours to the mast. If the time really is as late as it’s beginning to feel regarding the environment, personal freedoms, social equality, foreign policy etc, then people must stand up and defend what’s important.

Was banning Quadrant contributors from Overland necessarily the best punch to throw? I’m not sure. The fact I’m even answering this question means its stimulated debate, but sometimes agitation leads to nothing but derailment.

People should feel empowered to express themselves in any number of ways — some will boycott, march, get arrested, write political poems, and some will consider the writing of poems in itself to be an inherently political act.

Let me exit this question with a couple of articles I like about the poetry of witnessing, which I think can be a form of action. I write about it in a poem titled All the Lines from RADAR, likening it to a cat sitting on a window sill, looking out to the street from an in-between space. Although these days, for me, at this hour, I’m itching to get amongst it.

All the Lines

I sit between
the curtain and the cold of the window,
my tail wrapped around my base as neatly
as the cord of a kettle. Quietly I simmer,
listening within as I gaze upon the street.
It looks like I am guarding but I am
simply a presence and devoted to being one.
I have to remain though it is lonely at times
and confusing for the other cats. They call me
to fight and spray on things. My family believe
me lost. A window creature, made for the sill,
hidden and exposed. This ledge seems to fit
perfectly, so I remain as a kind of witness.
The sprinklers go up, the sprinklers go down.
It is hard to know what to make of it. Perhaps
it is a kind of territorial display—attack
the best defence. I sit here like a feature piece
but even action can be ornamental, the way
gnomes work late only to discover that
the garden looks the same each morning.
I wait and yearn, reading strangeness
strangely. A moth beats against the glass.
All the lines inside its paper wings
bidding on what light is.

Nathan Curnow & Ralph Wessman, May 2014