The Ghost Poetry Project: an interview with Nathan Curnow - Part Two

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by Paul

Read Part One of this interview here.

The Ghost Poetry Project is something of a rarity among poetry anthologies: it's a page-turner.  Not only is its premise intriguing (ten nights spent in ten haunted locations to explore the nature of "fear, courage, and the power of mystery and myth"), but, with each section introduced by a brief description of that particular location's history and reputation, the reader feels compelled to follow the journey... alert, breath held, eyes peeled.  And the richness of the writing leads us on.  We track each phrase, each image, through a startling broadness of range - of voice, style and vision - and frequently discover an incisive sharpness of focus that is haunting in its own right and which brings each stage of the adventure vividly to life.

From the prosaic Preparation:
My wife buys three stones for their spiritual powers, says they need
to be touching my skin.  She wants me to practice holding them as
if it's easy to get that wrong.  And all the sachets in the hotel room
I am meant to swipe for her collection.  She just loves the trim of
their packaging.  It's not stealing if they expect to replace them.

to the deftly juxtaposed Slater Bug  and Colour of Asphyxiation ("he has got to understand for the good/of himself, how much love she has to give") - so evocative that I almost found myself curling up on the floor in a tight ball and gasping for breath.  From the picturesque Postcard from Richmond Bridge ("A boy with a net, his pants cuffed high, stirs/the silt of the riverbed.  With each careful step/bright scimitars clash, a crusade of light on stone.") to the humorous Portrait of a Headless Man Wearing a Straw Boater Hat.

What was the most interesting, intriguing or scary experience you had when staying at the ten haunted sites?

It was midnight and I was standing on the 
staircase of what many consider to be South Australia’s most haunted building, a cell-block inside Old Adelaide Gaol.  I had been taken on a one-on-one five hour tour and was dead-bored and tired when my guide said: Did you hear that?  It was faint at first but enough to interrupt his stories, a tapping noise at the top-left hand side of the stairs.

The sound grew louder until it was like a cane being struck on a ballroom floor, like a rack of billiard balls breaking open.  Access to the second level was blocked by an iron, padlocked gate, and based upon what I knew of the gaol, which is run by volunteers, the chances of a prankster hiding up there was so remote it was ridiculous.  But it kept on, over and over, echoing through the entire wing.

We returned twice more and within a minute of our arrival the sound started up again. 

There are frequent sightings, day and night, of a figure at the top left-hand side of the stairs but with numerous executions and suicides having occurred in the building, it’s impossible to know who it might be.

Oh and then there was the ghost train of Picton Tunnel.  But that’s another story… 

Can you describe how you approach writing – specifically the poems that comprise The Ghost Poetry Project?  Do you start with a phrase, an impression, an observation?

The project put me under intense creative pressure, which means I now have a much better understanding of how I work.  To be honest, I wasn’t sure I could pull the project off.  I had never written so hard before, and as a result I learnt how to find poems in a very short, intense amount of time.

Arriving at each site I would scavenge for information.  I talked to anyone/everyone, listening to what they were and weren’t saying.  I took photos and brochures and remained as alert as possible to the environment I occupied.  This meant that when I arrived back home I would have enough stories, along with my own experiences, to go to for inspiration.

So yes, a phrase, an impression, an observation… these were all catalysts.  And poems often spring from juxtapositions or symbolic moments, like the story of the ‘prisoner’ at Fremantle Lunatic Asylum who desperately threw a love letter weight by a stone over the wall to a woman he’d seen on the other side.  But always there is the hard slog of working a poem into what it’s trying to be.  You write a word, you cross it out, you try another.

It’s notoriously difficult to get poetry published – especially an anthology – so perhaps you could say something about this side of things.

Poetry in Australia has been largely abandoned by the major publishers because there is this entrenched belief that poetry doesn’t/won’t sell.  And I’m not naïve, but I do think that this ‘given’ should be challenged on a regular basis.  If there are low expectations for a book then it won’t be supported with publicity, which means it won’t sell and then we’re back again to low expectations.  It’s a wicked trap, but I think that some books of poetry can be circuit breakers if given half a chance.

That’s where small presses like Puncher and Wattmann come in.  Based in Sydney, and despite limited resources, it has been punching above its weight for years.  It has vision and takes the kind of risks that the major publishers (who can afford to) should be taking.

"This book must have the strangest ever provenance of any collection of poetry in Australia.  Only a vampire or a Nathan Curnow could have done this... These poems come drenched with the bloody and violent  deaths central to the history of European occupation in this country.  But they are not ghoulish or sensational.  They are the real thing, both 'transparent and completely solid'."
- Kevin Brophy
Now that The Ghost Poetry Project is published and available in booksellers, what next? 

Thanks again to the Australia Council I am currently working on a new play based upon the convict stories I collected during The Ghost Poetry Project.  In particular the dog chain at Eaglehawk Neck in Tasmania.
The dog chain was a line of savage dogs that stretched across a narrow strip of land between the brutal prison of Port Arthur and the settlement of Hobart.  Any convict that escaped had to confront the dogs sooner or later and figure out a way to cross without being mauled to death.  Only three convicts ever made it across.

What’s your vision for yourself as a poet, playwright and performer?  What would you like to accomplish in, say, the next ten years?

I guess the plan first and foremost is to keep writing somehow.  It’s a roller-coaster of a life, and not only do you have to ride it but you have to lay the track at the same time.  A little more security would be good, but that’s often in short supply for poets and playwrights.  As long as I keep learning how to balance it all so that in another ten years I can say:  I’m still here, writing hard, interpreting the world the only way I know how, through language.

Thank you, Nathan, and all the very best for you and The Ghost Poetry Project.


The Ghost Poetry Project by Nathan Curnow
(Puncher & Wattmann, 2009)
ISBN 978-1-92145018-1


Carolyn Cordon said...

Fascinating stuff here, I love reading about how other writers/poets do their work.

Paul Burman said...

Indeed so, Carolyn. That's why I find this interview process so fulfilling - meeting such interesting writers and hearing about their diverse approaches.

S D Everington said...

An insightful interview/review. Another book to add to my wish list. :)

Paul Burman said...

Those stacks of books just keep piling higher, don't they, Shanta? Good stuff.