Nathanael O’Reilly, interviewed by Stuart Barnes

Our poetry editor Stuart Barnes interviewed poet Nathanael O’Reilly for Issue Six of Tincture Journal. This interview can be found in the journal alongside two of Nathanael’s poems, “Christian Girls” and “I Was Not Like the Other Kids”. Nathanael’s first full-length collection of poetry, Distance, will be released by Picaro Press in June 2014.

O'Reilly Reading

SB: For how long have you been writing poetry, and what or who inspired you to begin?

NO: I think I must have been about thirteen when I wrote my first poem, which was about a girl at school I had a crush on, and contained a terrible metaphor about my heart being kicked like an empty can down the street. That was twenty-seven years ago. I got serious about poetry while studying literature in year twelve. I had a fantastic teacher, Rob Robson (affectionately known as Robbo), who made poetry come alive for me. I will never forget his explication of John Donne’s “To His Mistress Going To Bed”, complete with hand gestures. Robbo showed me that poetry could be profound, complex, direct, irreverent, funny, even sexy—but more importantly with regard to your question, he inspired me to get serious about writing poetry. He also introduced me to Plath, Rich, Lowell, Heaney, Murray, Hughes, Keats, Yeats, and Eliot, which was an excellent start to my education as a reader of poetry.

SB: When and where was your first poem published, and what was it about?

NO: Some friends and I put together a zine in high school and I had a few poems in it, and I had some poems published under a pseudonym in the university newspaper when I was at Ballarat in the early 1990s, but I honestly don’t remember the poems or exactly what they were about (they were probably love poems). I would go to the library and read journals likeIsland and Meanjin, and fantasised about my work being published in them, but I was so afraid of rejection that I did not actually submit any poems. I got married in 1999, started my MA in 2001, and then began my PhD in 2004—between being happily married and studying literature intensively, I had little time for poetry. I actually didn’t send any poems out for publication until 2005, when I was thirty-two, and later that year a poem of mine called “Beyond” appeared in The Oklahoma Review. It was about being young and full of dreams and desires, but lacking the ability to attain the objects of desire.

SB: How and where do your poems take shape?

NO: My poems usually begin with an image, an event, or a phrase. The image or event might be something I experienced or witnessed, and at some point a nagging desire develops to put that experience or event into words. At other times, I will come up with a phrase and feel the need to write it down. Usually, the first words I put down are the only ones I know for sure that I will write, but once I start writing, other words, phrases, and lines usually soon follow. When I’m in the right mental space, I can start with a single line and end up writing an entire first draft in a single sitting. When the inspiration runs out, I will put the draft away and then come back to it later to revise. The actual composition takes place in a variety of places—usually at my writing desk in my house or in my office at work—but I have written poems on planes, in cars, on boats, in airports, on trains, in pubs and cafes, while watching my daughter’s dance classes, while walking down the street, and while my students are taking exams. When I have an idea I do my best to write it down immediately, no matter where I am. I used to drive 80 minutes each way to work, and I composed my poem “Symptoms of Homesickness” in my head while driving to work one day. I remember rushing from my car to my office to type up the first draft before I forgot it all.

SB: In an interview with Sydney Time Out in June 2008, Dorothy Porter revealed “Music has been the key for me since I was a teenager … I wanted to tap into that dark potency of rock‘n’roll, and I still write to music every day.”

What music influences your poetry? Can/do you write to music?

NO: That’s a great quote from Porter. When I was in my teens and early twenties, I wrote to music—in fact, I did pretty much everything to music, including writing, reading, and studying. However, as I got older I found that I needed silence and solitude to be able to really concentrate and create, so I no longer write to music, and haven’t done so for more than a decade. Part of the reason for the change is that I found lines, phrases, and ideas from the lyrics slipping too easily into my poetry, which hampered my efforts to be original. I would also find the rhythms of the music inflecting my poems. I wrote one poem (which shall forever remain unpublished) that almost perfectly fits the melody and rhythm of The Smiths’ “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side”. As far as musical influences go, I have always loved music with serious, beautiful lyrics—basically poetry set to music. There are too many artists to name, but a few of them are Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, Tori Amos, U2, The Cure, REM, Paul Kelly and Nick Cave.

SB: The two poems—“Christian Girls”, “I Was Not Like the Other Kids”—that appear in this issue of Tincture are from ‘Cult’, a manuscript you’re currently working on. For this manuscript you received an Emerging Writers Grant from the Literature Board of the Australia Council for the Arts.

Tell me about these poems and the manuscript. What advice would you offer an emerging writer applying for this grant?

NO: I don’t want to say much about the poems because I believe that poetry should speak for itself, and I wouldn’t want to preclude a variety of readings of the poems. However, as you mentioned, they are both from Cult, which is a collection of poems about the experience of growing up in Australia in a fundamentalist Christian cult. I was born into a religious community that had very strict rules regarding personal behaviour, but also about interacting with people outside of the church. I did not know that I was actually a member of a cult until after I left the church in my early twenties, but I was always aware that the church was far from the mainstream and that many of our beliefs and practices would have been considered bizarre by my peers at school and their parents. So, I lived a kind of double life. On the surface, I seemed like an average Australian kid growing up in the 70s and 80s—playing sport, riding my bike everywhere, skateboarding, surfing, going to concerts, hanging out with mates, swimming in the river. However, I kept my beliefs and participation in church activities from everyone except my two best mates, and always felt like an outsider at school and university. The poems in the collection attempt to convey the experience of being both a member of a conservative religious community and a seemingly average Australian child, teenager, and young adult. Having been outside of the cult for many years, I am writing about it from a distance now and can see how it would have appeared to others. The cult had its fair share of problems, so I am interested in issues such as hypocrisy, appearance versus reality, faith, doubt, knowledge, trust, betrayal, loyalty, and community.

I was really stunned and thrilled to be awarded the Emerging Writers grant. It was a huge boost to my confidence as a writer. My friend Jason Skipper, who wrote Hustle, a fantastic novel, suggested ‘Cult’ as the title for the project and told me that I needed an intriguing title and angle. I did some research and read advice from previous recipients, including the suggestion that my proposal should answer the following questions: Why this project? Why now? Why me? I made sure that my proposal answered those questions clearly and emphatically. Anyone applying for a grant should follow all of the guidelines carefully, take as much care with all parts of the application as one would with one’s creative writing, and try to emphasise the unique aspects of the project.

SB: How has your poetry been influenced by others’? By reviewing others’? By teaching literature at Texas Christian University?

NO: I did not pursue an MFA and have never taken a creative writing class, so I am what some would call “self-taught”. Thus, I have not had an influential writing teacher, but have learnt everything I know from reading and practice. I’ve been reading poetry widely and seriously for over twenty years, and I consider other poets my teachers. Reading other poets has taught me almost everything I know about poetry. I studied poetry formally as an undergraduate and while working on my graduate degrees, so I also read a lot of poetry criticism and theory, as well as studying poetry from the perspective of a critic. The formal study of poetry as literature allowed me to acquire the technical knowledge of poetry necessary to teach poetry in my classes and write reviews and longer criticism. I can deconstruct a poem and teach others those skills, and though those skills are different from the skills necessary to compose poetry, I know they are also helpful creatively. When I write poetry I often think about how the poem might be interpreted, broken down, and received by readers. I expect that thoughtful readers will pay attention to form, structure, line breaks, metaphors, similes, enjambment, diction, punctuation, imagery, symbolism, allusions, etc. It was while studying poets such as Dickinson, Whitman, Herbert, and Ryōkan for my graduate degrees that I came back to writing poetry.

In terms of direct influence from other poets, I try hard to avoid consciously imitating other poets, but don’t hesitate to acknowledge that poets such as Keats, Hardy, Yeats, Kavanagh, and Heaney have been big influences on my poetics with regard to subject matter, diction, structure, and tone. Heaney’s use of verbs, for example, inspired me to take great care with verbs in my own work. The Irish poets’ use of place names is probably an obvious influence for anyone familiar with my poetry. Reading Li-Young Lee inspired me to write about expatriation and diaspora. The work of Alex Lemon and Dan Disney has inspired me to experiment with form and structure.

I don’t think that reviewing poetry by other writers has influenced my own work in any obvious ways, but it certainly gives me an appreciation for others’ craft and reminds me to keep potential readers and reviewers in mind when composing, revising, and editing.

Teaching at TCU gives me the opportunity to read and re-read a great deal of Irish, British, and Australian poetry, and to discuss the works in detail with lots of really smart, dedicated students. It’s a real pleasure to engage closely with poetry in collaboration with my students. I am sure that the constant reading, re-reading and close engagement with poetry that I do as part of my teaching helps me to improve and refine my own poetics.

SB: Tell me about your experience with Picaro Press, which published Symptoms of Homesickness and Suburban Exile: American Poems, your two poetry chapbooks.

NO: I’ve had a great experience with Picaro Press and their publisher, Rob Riel. I am a big fan of their chapbooks and their publishing philosophy (which readers can learn about here), so I was delighted when Picaro decided to publish Symptoms of Homesickness. Picaro produces beautiful chapbooks at a really affordable price, $5, which is less than one pays for a beer or a coffee in many parts of Australia now. It was really important to me that the chapbook be cheap and easy to acquire, since I wanted to make my work available to as many people as possible. Readers can buy Picaro Press chapbooks from their website or directly from the poets. Many poets sell their chapbooks at readings, but since I live in Texas it’s pretty hard for me to give readings in Australia. I’ve sold chapbooks at readings in Australia, London, Toronto, and Texas, but I sold most of the copies through Facebook and Twitter. I had such a positive experience with Picaro publishing my first chapbook that I wanted to work with them again for my second chapbook, Suburban Exile: American Poems, and I am absolutely delighted that Picaro is publishing Distance, my first full-length collection. It’s an honour to have the same publisher as many of the contemporary Australian poets I admire.

SB: What are your thoughts on print vs digital poetry publication?

NO: Print books have been a big part of my life for thirty-five years now, and I’m one of those people who loves the feel and presence of printed books and will pay good money for a first edition, a signed copy, or a particularly beautiful book. However, I also read e-books and can see the many advantages of digital publication. While I certainly get a kick out of holding a printed issue of a journal or anthology that contains my poetry, I am a big fan of digital journals such as Tincture. As a reader, I love the accessibility and portability of digital publications, which I can read on my Kindle, my smartphone, or my laptop. As a poet, I love that anyone anywhere in the world who has internet access can read the online journals in which I have published, and that those readers with internet access and just a small amount of disposable income can purchase digital publications that operate on a subscription or payment per issue model. I would much rather have my work published in a digital publication with a potentially huge audience rather than in a print journal that is only available to readers who can afford the subscription or have access to a library that subscribes to the journal. Certain print journals have developed a prestigious reputation over time and produce a beautiful artefact, but their readership is restricted by economic factors. I am much more interested in having my work made available to a wide audience than being published in a prestigious journal with a small print run.

SB: What poets are you reading, what’s your favourite poem at the moment?

NO: As part of my teaching, I read a lot of canonical poets from Britain, Ireland, and Australia, but I also try to read as much contemporary poetry as I can. In the last year or so I have been reading poetry collections by Michelle Cahill, Heather Taylor Johnson, Jonathan Bennett, Paul Kane, John Kinsella, David McCooey, Lachlan Brown, David Adès, Dan Disney, Maxine Clarke, David Malouf, Kit Kelen, E. A. Gleeson, Stuart Cooke, and Michael Farrell. It’s hard to pick a current favourite poem, but of the many fine poems in The Best Australian Poems 2013, edited by Lisa Gorton, David Musgrave’s “Coastline” really blew me away—I read it over and over again. Matt Hetherington’s “Middle-Aged Poet to Middle-Aged Poet” in fourW twenty-four had me laughing out loud and forcing my partner to read it, which is definitely a mark of a successful poem.

Thanks for the great questions, Stuart. It was a pleasure answering them.

Thank you, Nat.

Nathanael O’Reilly was born in Warrnambool and raised in Ballarat, Brisbane, & Shepparton. He now resides in Texas. He is the author of Distance (2014) and two chapbooks, Suburban Exile: American Poems (2011) and Symptoms of Homesickness (2010), all published by Picaro Press. He is the recipient of an Emerging Writers Grant from the Literature Board of the Australia Council. Over one hundred of his poems have been published in journals & anthologies around the world, including AntipodesAustralian Love PoemsCorditeLinQBlackmail PressHarvestTransnational LiteratureMascaraWindmillsPostcolonial TextProsopisiaRed River ReviewSnorkelTincture and Social Alternatives.

2 thoughts on “Nathanael O’Reilly, interviewed by Stuart Barnes

  1. Pingback: Issue Six Table of Contents | Tincture Journal

  2. Ah, another graduate of christian fundamentalism; my own conversion away from this menace has been so protracted & disturbing – it is hilarious. I still have to pray that my family don’t read this – hahaha. Fantastic introduction to a poet I will definitely look out for.

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