Digging through some old (and not so old) magazines and journals last night was a really productive experience… The Strange Conversations I posted last night really lit up the memory sensors as did this interview I did with Patricia Prime (first published in Simply Haiku and then in Takahe). Enjoy!
Graham Nunn Interviewed by Patricia Prime
PP: Your poetry seems to contain many references to your family and your personal experiences. Literary scholars usually distinguish between the author and the persona or speaker in a poem. To what extent would you say this distinction applies to your poetry, or, to put it differently, how much of Graham Nunn is to be found in your work? Here, as an example, is your poem “The Party’s Over”, which seems to recapture one of your own experiences, but could equally apply to any young party-goer:
the last song has played
the crow is calling
and we’ve run out of ice
the girls have all left
ands are drowning
in plastic cups
the ex-wife is pinned
to the dartboard
the dog has jumped the fence
/the fence holds in emptiness/
morality is covered in dust
and I sit
staring at the walls
empty of sound
for the moment
GN: I agree that there is a lot of me in my poems. I am not afraid to show myself, but I do try to write from a broader perspective, to let the reader into the poem. You can be too personal and there are some poems that I certainly don’t take out of the bottom drawer. The struggle between the author and persona is something that all artists experience. I remember hearing Nick Cave speak once about his album The Boatmans Call. He said that he liked the album less and less as the years passed as he could see too much of himself in the songs. Personally, I love the songs on that album for the same reason Nick dislikes them. They are songs that reveal the author, but allow the listener to make their own connections and create their own reality. This is something I try and do with my own work.
PP: Do you think that the reader often identifies with the speaker in your poems?
GN: I hope that the reader can identify with my poems, interact with them, bring their own life experience to them and on some level, make the stories their own.
PP: Would you consider yourself to be a “confessional” poet”?
GN: Not at all… I certainly share some truths about my life experience through my poems, but in no way am I writing these as confessionals. Writing for me is not a cathartic experience. It is a means of taking a story, an idea, a feeling and putting together the right words to allow the reader to experience it in their own way.
PP: You seem to start out from a simple thought or idea but the imagery you use is often complex, full of projections, transformations, shifts of perspective. So you make demands on your reader’s imagination. Is that an important part of your craft for you?
GN: I like to think that there is a simple core at the heart of all my poems. Something tangible for the reader to hang on to, but I also like the reader to have to open their eyes and mind to get the complete experience. Language should be used to challenge the imagination and have the reader engage with the poem’s subject on a deeper level.
PP: I detect you are inspired by the ordinary things we as humans do, that we pretend not to notice. To what extent would you say your work conforms to this pattern?
GN: I am in love with the ordinary. My partner actually refers to me as vanilla.Too many people spend their lives searching for the extraordinary, when there is beauty in the boiling of a kettle, the opening of a door, the pattern of dust on the window sill. I like to live simply and enjoy the small things. I find that this helps to keep my senses sharp.
PP: Are there poems you wouldn’t publish because they’re too intimate, too personal?
GN: I think everyone has a stash of poems that they wouldn’t publish for some reason. Sometimes for me it is beceause they are too personal, but more often than not it is because they just don’t translate for anyone else. They don’t have the space to let anyone else in. And let’s face it… some are just not up to scratch!
PP: I find many glimpses of humour in your work, so I was wondering how important humour is for you, with regard to your work?
GN: Humour is not something I ever aim to achieve in my writing. I have never actively set out to write a funny poem. Humour is something that naturally finds its way into my work at times. I live a very happy existence and love to laugh, so it is only natural that my sense of humour shines through at times.
PP: How much attention do you pay to stylistic elements? In what ways do you work on syntax, phrasing, finding the right words to communicate your story?
GN: I certainly pay more attention to the finer details now. I used to be very much about getting things down and putting them out there, without a whole lot of editing. More the first thought, best thought approach, but I have started to move away from that in recent years. Now when I write, I still try and turn off the editing brain, but once I have it down, I like to put it away and then come back to it a few days later, see if it still resonates. If it does, I like to pull it apart, look at each word and see how it is working, examine line breaks, the poems appearance on the page. I guess it is much like a mechanic approaches a car engine. I want to fine tune it, so that it performs the best it can on and off the page.
PP: It would be interesting to learn more about your method of working. Is there a strict time scheme you stick to when writing?
GN: When I first started to become serious about my writing, I would be really disciplined and set aside chunks of time in my daily routine to write. This approach really worked for me. I would get up each morning, walk the dogs, come home, eat breakfast and then sit down for 45mins and just write. During the last four years, my approach has not been as disciplined, due to the various other roles I have taken on outside of my full time teaching job (running the monthly event SpeedPoets, taking on the role of Artistic Director, QLD Poetry Festival 2004 – 2007, starting Small Change Press), but I always have time marked aside on my calendar to write and I have become much better at finding 5 or 10 minutes in the middle of the daily hustle and bustle to get ideas down. The thing I have always maintained is when I sit down to write, I write. There is no such thing as a blank page at the end of a session. As a writer, I understand that there is no good stuff without bad stuff, so when I do get time to write I make sure I put words on paper and review it later. In that sense, it is like any work… you have some great moments and some that are better forgotten.
PP: Why did you decide to become a publisher?
GN: I am incredibly passionate about getting new voices heard. Small Change Press is all about investing in the local community, and providing emerging poets with the chance to publish and get their work out to a wider audience. Our focus is on poets whose work performs on and off the page, on poets who can connect with a live audience and a reader. Our method of distribution is different to the traditional publisher. We are more about putting our authors in front of people and giving them the opportunity to let their words connect.
PP: You are a publisher of other people’s poetry. How does the publishing of their poetry affect your own work?
GN: Obviously the people that we have published are people that I have a great deal respect for, as human beings and as poets. Their work inspires me to stay true to what we set out to do as an independent press and that is to publish work that has its own clear vision and unique voice and is capable of translating both to the reader/listener. Being around quality poets and quality poetry, gives me the necessary nudge to constantly develop my own craft.
PP: What are your own experiences with publishing your poetry?
GN: It was interesting publishing my fourth collection through the press in 2007. It wasn’t something that I had planned to do, but it has turned out really well. I sent the original manuscript away to Jacqueline Turner in Canada, for editing, so that David and myself didn’t have to get into any battles over decisions. Jacqueline did an amazing job, which made the whole process really easy. The launches and other readings were a huge success and it was great to be able to have a hands on approach to the whole project as well.
PP: Your biography is quite impressive, and also quite unusual for a writer. Apart from appearing at numerous literary festivals, teaching, and publishing, you are also the Secretary of HaikuOz. So, you obviously enjoy working with people and “taking your work out there”. What is your view on performing poetry? How much does an audience matter to you?
GN: The live setting for me is just as important as the writing process. I think to do your work justice, you need to pay equal attention to your skills as a performer. When you stand up in front of an audience, you owe it to yourself and to them to make sure you are well rehearsed. I cannot stand it when people shuffle paper, um and ah, shift around nervously and don’t know how to use a microphone. Poems need to perform on and off the page. I love performing and feel that getting up in front of an audience has helped keep my writing disciplined.
PP: Do you feel you get a non-verbal response that’s quite strong when you’re reading to an audience?
GN: I love the interaction that takes place in a live setting. It never ceases to send a shiver up my spine. Even after hundreds of performances, standing behind a microphone with nothing more than your words is a rush. Looking into that sea of faces, having the opportunity to take this group of people on a journey. It is a really powerful thing. It is the most incredible feeling when you get that sense that you are all moving together.
PP: Do you feel you are taking a risk by entering those different spaces? Is it quite important for you to take risks as a writer?
GN: Putting your poetry out there in front of a live audience is always a risk. You cannot control how people will interact with your work. That is what makes it exciting, because in the end you can only control the quality of your performance and your writing. The audience to a large extent is out of your hands. For me, taking the risk and getting up in front of new audiences will always be extremely important. I love the gigs where you go and there are only 10 or 15 people there, and the room is big and you have to work really hard as much as the gigs where the room is full, the vibe is up and the audience are right there with you. It keeps everything fresh and in perspective.
PP: Can you say something about your interest in haiku?
GN: Haiku was my doorway into poetry. In my mid-twenties I got turned on to Kerouac and read Desolation Angels. What stood out to me were the little poems that appeared often at the end of each piece of prose. They really lit the prose up, made everything immediate. I did my research and it wasn’t long until I had devoured Higginson’s Haiku Handbook, Basho’s, ‘On Love and Barley’ and the rest is really history. It is a form that I will never fall out of love with.
PP: Following are some examples of your haiku taken from Famous Reporter 33. Can you suggest the elements you consider go into the making of a “good” haiku?
between the dunes
GN: When you boil it down, it comes down to the ability of the poet to not only capture the essence of a moment, but to find the words that transcend the moment and give the haiku that feeling of eternity.
PP: What is your involvement as Secretary of HaikuOz?
GN: I am really privileged to work as part of a dedicated, professional team. My role is to promote haiku related happenings to the community via the website and through the QLD Poetry Festival, I have had the opportunity to able to put on a series of workshops and haiku readings to continue the development of the local haiku community.
PP: You have published a collection of your haiku, A Zen Firecracker. Do you have another collection in the pipeline?
GN: In 2007 I was Poet-in-Residence at Brisbane’s Royal National Show (The Ekka). I wrote a series of 30 haiku, 10 of which were used as part of some public art projects in and around the Ekka Shwgrounds and the Museum of Brisbane. I am also currently working on a manuscript that will integrate haiku. Always new projects on the boil!
PP: What led you to writing prose poetry as in the haibun that you so successfully write?
GN: I had a whole series of scribblings, bits and pieces of haiku like writing that wasn’t working just as haiku, so I decided to turn my hand to haibun and the results have been really satisfying. As soon as I started writing, the form brought out the best in the ideas that I had at the time. The end result, Measuring the Depth, was a really important step forward for me. I learned a lot about myself as a writer and felt that I gained a lot of discipline during the writing of that collection.
PP: Many examples of your haibun that I’ve read are quite short: perhaps one or two paragraphs followed by a haiku. Could you summarise the reason for the brevity of your pieces? Here is one example I particularly like which we published in Kokako 6:
In a Heartbeat
She slips off her stockings and throws them at my feet. Pulls her hair back and sits in front of me on the bed. Tells me it’s $200 straight or $250 for that little bit extra. My eyes drift out the window. The sun-bloodied sky is slicing through the hotel blinds, streaming through her hair. She pours another whiskey and crawls over me.
a heartbeat later
leaving my longing
GN: Brevity is something that I have always admired in all forms of writing. I like the fact that what you leave out is just as important as what you leave in. I like bringing the reader to the poem and then giving them the bones. I don’t like to give too much away. It is important that the reader/audience has room to interact with the poem and move in and out of the images.
PP: You recently published your partner Julie Beveridge’s collection of haibun Home is where the Heartache is (Small Change Press, 2007). What is it like living in a household containing two writers, both of them working in the same genre? Do you share ideas, edit each other’s poems or work together in any way?
GN: I love the sharing of ideas that happens in our house. I had the absolute pleasure of editing Julie’s collection. It was a brilliant experience and one that I would happily take on again. Editing someone elses work and having your work edited teaches you a lot about your own writing. I think that this is something that is sadly lacking in the poetry community. Quality feedback is often hard to find!
PP: Can you identify some poets who have inspired you?
GN: The poets who inspire me most are the people that I work closely with. Jacqueline Turner is a huge inspiration to me. Her work is such a rush. No matter how many times I read her work it is always fresh and exciting. Rob Morris and Matt Hetherington who I have had the pleasure of publishing through Small Change Press constantly remind me of why I love poetry. David Stavanger, co-founder of Small Change Press, is always reminding me of the importance of taking risks. Rowan Donovan, is always there to remind me of grace and humility and my partner Julie is so grounded, so honest. She keeps everything real and is never afraid to shoot straight.
PP: Do you have any thoughts about how to anticipate the future of your work?
GN: I guess I anticipate that I will be doing this until I am no longer able to to do it for whatever reason. It’s like Bukowski said, ‘if you have been chosen, it will do it by itself and it will keep on doing it until you die, or it dies in you.’