Interviewer: Paul Brookes
When and why did you begin to write poetry?
I wrote my first poem in my early teens in response to an unreciprocated crush on a girl at school. She had a crush on me first, but I was too embarrassed and naïve to know how to respond, then by the time I had a crush on her, she had moved on and lost interest (understandably). I wrote a poem using the central metaphor of an empty can kicked down the road, and it was pretty terrible, but it got me started. I clearly remember copying out the final draft in my neatest handwriting and pasting it into my diary. I imagine many poets get started in similar ways for similar reasons. I started writing poetry seriously and frequently after reading poetry in my high school English classes.
Who introduced you to poetry?
My father was a high school English teacher, and my mother is an avid reader, so I grew up in a house full of books. The shelves always contained poetry, but I don’t remember reading a lot of poetry before my teens. I must have read some of the Hardy, Yeats, Keats, Tennyson and Shakespeare on the family bookshelves, and I grew up in a devout Christian household, so I read the poetry in the Bible, and was particularly impressed with David’s psalms and the Song of Solomon. However, it was my high school literature teacher, Rob Robson, affectionately known as Robbo, who gave me my serious introduction to poetry via Seamus Heaney, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Robert Lowell, Les Murray, John Keats and W.B. Yeats. I was struck especially by the work of Keats and Heaney, and around that time my Irish grandfather gave me a copy of Yeats’ Selected Poems, so Keats, Yeats and Heaney became my first great influences and their work inspired me to take the study and composition of poetry seriously – they are still my three favourite poets, my holy trinity.
How aware were and are you of the dominating presence of older poets?
By older poets, I presume you also mean those who are long dead. During my first few years writing poetry, I worried constantly about being too influenced by my favourite poets, all of them much older than myself, and many of them long dead. I worried that I might unconsciously imitate their style and subject matter, and whether or not I could ever produce a truly original poem. And then in my early twenties I read Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, which made it clear to me that my experiences were nothing new and probably every poet experiences the same anxieties and doubts, especially during their early years of writing. I no longer worry about the presence/influence of older/dead poets, or whether I can develop my own voice. Over time I have developed my own voice and found my own turf. If I think about your question a bit more literally, in terms of older, living poets much more successful than myself, I’d have to say that it is wonderful to have the example and work of poets like Eavan Boland, Carol Ann Duffy, Jackie Kay, Li-young Lee, Paul Muldoon, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, John Kinsella and Paul Kane to be inspired by and learn from. (I also learn a lot from poets who are my own age or much younger!) On the negative side, it can be frustrating to see certain older poets constantly winning the prizes, being published in the prominent journals, receiving the big grants, residencies, fellowships, etc. One of my Australian poet friends tells a joke about entering a certain annual competition and feeling that they actually had a chance of winning or being shortlisted for once because the poet who usually wins everything was judging and therefore unable to enter! So, sometimes it can feel like the older poets take up a bit too much space because the competition can be so tough; however, that same competition inspires me to constantly improve, and I’m truly thankful that we have the work of all of the poets who have come before us.
What is your daily writing routine?
I don’t have a daily writing routine. I’m a full-time academic, teaching literature and creative writing, as well as a husband and father, and an avid runner, so I have precious little free time, especially during the academic year. I write whenever I can, which means that I get most of my writing done on weekends or during breaks between semesters. Sometimes I am able to write a little while my students are writing or revising, and I write whenever or wherever I can, whether it’s in class, at home, or on a plane, train, bus, ferry or beach. When I get an idea, I write it down as soon as I can, using whatever I have available, which is usually a Moleskine notebook or my iPhone. When I have more time, I compose first drafts in a notebook or on my laptop, and then I use the laptop for revision and editing. At home I have a study with a desk in front of a window overlooking a lake, so that is my favourite place to write and revise in solitude.
What motivates you to write?
I think the most fundamental and honest answer is that I write in an attempt to cheat death. Most writers hope to create work that will survive after their death and perhaps continue to be read. It’s the reason Keats writes in “Sleep and Poetry,” “O for ten years, that I may overwhelm / Myself in poesy …” Keats knew his time was short and wanted to read and write as much poetry as he possibly could in the time he had left. I also possess a strong desire to create and be productive. It’s hard for me to be content if I am not producing new work and achieving my goals, which often focus on writing and publication. I love the feeling of transforming a blank page into a page full of words – one has brought something into the world that didn’t previously exist. There’s a kind of magic in any kind of artistic production. Once the poem, song, painting or sculpture is created, it can potentially exist forever. The final motivation would be to share my work with an audience, whether in print or at a reading. I really enjoy receiving feedback at readings, and it’s always a thrill to see one’s work published in a journal or anthology, or in book form. I hope that almost every poem I write will eventually be shared with an audience, once it’s ready.
What is your work ethic?
I have been justifiably accused of being a workaholic. I work hard and I get obsessed with projects and tasks. Once I get started, I don’t like to stop. I don’t like being interrupted and it’s hard for me to put something aside when I’m in the zone, but obviously I have responsibilities at home and at work, so I often have to put my creative work on hold. I really enjoy the extended periods that I have (especially between semesters) to work on my writing projects. I was the writer-in-residence at the Booranga Writers’ Centre in Australia in May, 2017 – it was absolutely wonderful to devote day after day to writing and reading and to have whole days without interruption and other demands on my time. I certainly hope to participate in other residencies in the future as they allow me to be tremendously focused and productive.
How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
When I was in my teens and early twenties, my favourite writers were Keats, Yeats, Heaney and Hardy, and they are still incredibly important to me. I constantly return to their work, both for pleasure and as part of my teaching, and I find inspiration with regard to subject matter, style and technique. For example, I love Heaney’s use of enjambment and often use it in my own poetry, and I consider myself a poet of place, which is largely due to the influence and example of Heaney and Hardy. I love to write about places that are important to me, and because I have lived in six countries I have a lot of former hometowns and specific houses, buildings, streets, beaches, farms, rivers, hills and landscapes that I often think about and long to revisit. Sometimes I return to those places in my mind, and sometimes I return physically – both kinds of journey often produce new poems.
Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
I couldn’t choose just a single poet. The living poets I most admire include Michelle D’Souza, Li-young Lee, Paul Muldoon, Eavan Boland, Paul Kane, Carol Ann Duffy, Jackie Kay and Alex Lemon. I admire the ability they all have to write brilliant poems that convey the universal through the specific.
What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
As I tell my students, you have to read, read, read and then read some more. As Robert McFarlane notes, “Every hour spent reading is an hour spent learning to write.” We learn how to write by reading and studying the works of others, learning about form, genre, style, subject matter and specific techniques such as alliteration, enjambment, internal rhyme, simile, metaphor, voice, tense, anaphora, assonance, etc. And then we write, write, write and write some more. Every serious writer knows that it takes years and years of practice to become a decent writer, let alone a great one. I always tell my students that I had to write 500 crap poems before I could write a good one. Young writers are often impatient and in a rush to get published, and many of them don’t understand that writing requires a really long apprenticeship and it is a hard-earned skill that involves a lot of craft, practice, failure and rejection. Constant rejection. Having the desire to write is just the first step. I started writing poetry in my early teens, but didn’t start getting published in national and international journals and anthologies until my early thirties.
Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I recently completed my third full-length poetry collection, tentatively titled (Un)belonging, which contains ninety poems set in ten countries and deals with themes including exile, diaspora, belonging, homesickness, alienation, travel, fatherhood, friendship, aging, illness, suburban life, mortality, religion, music, visual art and nature. I’m waiting for a decision regarding publication, so am not yet ready to move on and devote myself to a new book-length project, although I have one planned and started. I continue to write new poems whenever I can, so many of them will eventually become part of another new manuscript, hopefully afer being published in journals and anthologies first.
Nathanael O’Reilly was born and raised in Australia. He has travelled on five continents and spent extended periods in England, Ireland, Germany, Ukraine and the United States, where he currently resides. His poems have appeared in journals and anthologies in twelve countries, including Antipodes, A New Ulster, Australian Love Poems, Cordite, FourW, Glasgow Review of Books, Headstuff, LiNQ, Mascara, Postcolonial Text, Skylight 47, Snorkel, Tincture, Transnational Literature, Verity La and The Newcastle Poetry Prize Anthology 2017. He is the author of Preparations for Departure (UWAP Poetry, 2017), named one of the “2017 Books of the Year” in Australian Book Review; Distance (Picaro Press, 2014; Ginninderra Press, 2015); and the chapbooks Cult (Ginninderra Press, 2016), Suburban Exile (Picaro Press, 2011) and Symptoms of Homesickness (Picaro Press, 2010). O’Reilly received an Emerging Writers Grant from the Literature Board of the Australia Council for the Arts in 2010. He was the writer-in-residence at Booranga Writers’ Centre in May 2017 and has given invited readings in Australia, Canada, England, Hungary, Ireland, and the United States.
UWAP author page: https://uwap.uwa.edu.au/collections/nathanael-o-reilly
UWAP Preparations for Departure page: https://uwap.uwa.edu.au/collections/nathanael-o-reilly/products/preparations-for-departure
Ginninderra Press author page: https://www.ginninderrapress.com.au/store.php?catalog/search/Nathanael+O%27Reilly/name/1