Making the most of a Life: Interview with Nathan Curnow

Nathan Curnow
Nathan Curnow

What is your first memory of wanting to be a writer/ wanting to write?

I have memories of enjoying writing when I was younger but the need to pursue it came from reading David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon. I’d seen him interviewed on television and he was so eloquent that I raced out and bought a copy. I’d read Fly Away Peter of course but there was something about Remembering Babylon that spoke to me, perhaps it was the description of an apple being carved with a penknife, I’m not sure. Judith Rodriguez told me fondly one day that David has an Orphean tongue, which is spot on. I wanted something like that, I wanted to say big and small things in a beautiful way.

What, do you think has been the most influential text of your life?

Because it was a defining text of my childhood I’d have to say the Bible.

Why?

I knew every story back to front and fell asleep with them in my head. Whereas kids my age ran around pretending to be superheroes I would play David slaying Goliath. I had my rocks and my trusty sling and I’d fire them off at the tall hedge in the backyard. I’ve written a little bit about my religious upbringing and those stories are one of the gifts of it. I am lucky to know them.

Have you ever written a love letter?

Yes, although it was more like a kind of howl.

Did this letter have the desired outcome?

Well, the moon just kept on glowing.

What is the last book you read?

Staunch: Ward of the State by Ginger Briggs. The book is a powerful read about the nature of institutional care in the 80s, telling the true story of a kid called Andy who was raised in it. I’m interviewing Ginger as part of the 2015 Melbourne Writers’ Festival and looking forward to the important discussion.

What do you think is your best body of work?

I’m not ready to look back yet, Neil! So I’d have to say my next collection of poems, The Apocalypse Awards. More on that soon.

You mentioned N that the bush has been an inspiration. How has this been influential on your work?

My early years were spent in the Mallee and something about it is still with me: the landscape and heat, the distance, the watertowers and silos, the church halls in the paddocks with pictures of the Queen, with lists of soldiers and the men who’d won tennis. In a way it’s like the Bible stories I grew up with. My earliest thinking was framed by these objects and silences. I don’t know if my thinking has developed much, and I’m sure those places and spaces aren’t exactly the way I remember them. I guess that’s why it’s so influential, because I’m still there, it’s all still there, but in a way that it never was. This kind of existential stuff came early to me.

I can be a harsh critic of poetry, although I love the form. What do you think are the strengths and the constraints of poets in Australia?

What are the hooks and constraints of Australia to its poets?

We are diverse in practice, which is very healthy, something essential to the sparkling, sometimes boiling, poetic conversation we have in Australia. There is a focus on new voices which is also good, with some trying, for all it’s worth, to innovate and push poetry into new scenes and contexts here.

But the trap, and it’s a very Australian one I think, is that we remain too inward looking, too focused on the same local issues rather than adding them to a wider debate, pushing and prodding the global dialogue. There are small presses and organisations with an international focus and many Australian poets being published overseas, but I’d like to see more next level vision, more ambition to be provocateurs on a bigger stage. Now I’m not sure what that looks like, perhaps it’s just a necessary ideal that we need to keep in mind. I’d like to see more of evidence of it inside the Australian shell of us that is girt by sea.

The very engaging and intelligent Nathan Curnow will be performing alongside Neil Boyack, Kirsten Krauth, Cate Hood, Annie Drum, Rod Blackhirst, Penny Tangey and Kirsten Boerema, Newstead Racecourse, Sunday August 23, 1.30pm, as part of Words in Winter.

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