I'd Like to Introduce You to Two of My Favourite Poets

Sean M Whelan, photo by Sudeep Lingamneni

Sean M Whelan’s and Nathan Curnow’s poems are very different in both style and theme, but come from much the same place.

Nathan captures the poignancy of childhood and the wonderment of parenthood, nostalgia and love in his chapbook No Other Life But This through tiny observations – an arm through a sleeve, a question, a coffee cup, a bird, make-believe, a moment in the car and so much more. These moments are rich, and significant.

Nathan’s poems show no sign of deliberation or flourish, but are perfectly crafted. Sean’s poems are collectives of an intertextual, emotional consciousness.

Sean’s poems (as in Tattooing the Surface of the Moon) are more all-encompassing – but the largeness is also ordinariness – extraordinariness, bundled within. Astronauts for stars, abstracts, musical references, surreal dreams, words on cigarettes, birds flying from mouths – moments still played out in bedrooms and on beaches.

Both poets write about a kiss – acknowledging this common, yet spectacular, occurrence. When reading both these chapbooks lunches went cold, hand went to chest, pen circled lines. Nathan’s I savoured over a month, never wanting it to end. Sean’s I devoured in an hour, then turned back to the front.

If I were a philanthropist I’d send these poets to far corners of the world just so I could see it through their eyes, and because people who see so much in a moment, deserve a variety of moments – even though both do show us that this one right now might be just as full, rounded, altering and significant as any other. Here are my questions for Sean and Nathan:

Nathan, one thing I got from No Other Life But This is that there is a kind of renewed innocence and wonderment that accompanies becoming a parent. Was that something you felt you had to express?

The themes of No Other Life But This weren’t particularly apparent to me until I arranged the manuscript. It was only then that I realised what I’d been writing about for so long. Parenting is definitely a large theme but I never sat down and said ‘this is what I have to say with this book’. I never knew if I’d have one published.

Nathan Curnow during the Static performance at the Melbourne Writers' Festival

Poets are always looking to see the familiar in new and fresh ways, and children do provide an innocent perspective. But whenever you write about life you are also saying something about the human condition, the reality of death. Children provide you with a renewed sense of time, and of it passing. It’s one of their confronting gifts.  

Both of you have done poetry as performance, as well as on the page – what is different in the creation process?

Nathan: I have always made a clear distinction between my ‘page’ and ‘performance’ poems, although sometimes (not often) I find a poem that will work in both contexts. When writing for performance I try to keep in mind things like movement, volume/pitch of voice, speed of delivery, use of space, props, costume etc. These help to support the words. When writing for the page you are pitching onto a white background, a blank space, and that has completely different demands. The line breaks, spaces, size of the characters etc become the visual representation of the poem, whereas when performing it is the poet themselves.
And yet while there are differences, I find that rhythm and sound are common elements, and ones I pay particular attention to when writing both. 

Sean, what do you think of the ‘surrealist’ label that can be applied to your poems? I think of a line like ‘1987 sits there on the beach, tempting them in the moonlight’ (from ‘Seven Dead Astronauts, Seven New Stars’).

I have no problem with the label, although oddly a lot of ‘surrealist’ poetry I just can’t stand myself. I think because a lot of it comes from a cold, distant core. Surrealism fails for me when the atmosphere becomes so alien that there’s nowhere to place your own emotions into. If I offer a surrealistic moment in a poem it’s just another chapter in the everyday. I always start from a point of solid rock reality and then let the flowers of another world grow from that place. That way the reader (and myself) always has somewhere to trace back to, like leaving a trail of breadcrumbs in the poem. I’ve never wanted to write about ‘strange’ people and places, it’s not strange, weird or surreal to me because they live in my head and I’d hate to be a stranger to my own imagination.

Who or what is influential on your work?

Sean: Everything, all of the time. Influences are a steady, full flowing body of water. I think I’m fairly impressionable. With books I’m reading I am sometimes conscious of reflecting too much of that particular writers style in my own work. So I usually have two or three books on the go at the same time to diffuse that. The first two schools that really turned my head were the Dirty Realists of North America and the magical realists of Latin America. And even though I don’t seek out those writers as passionately as I used to I think they’re probably still pretty strong watermarks in my work. A kind of ‘dirty magic’, if you will.  Films do it for me. What’s better than disappearing in a dark room every now and then? Music definitely does it for me. Musicality and rhythm in text have always been important to me. Even though it’s not something I’m very conscious of in the crafting process.

Nathan: So many things excite me! But I am particularly interested in short forms and what can be done within a limited amount of words. Poets like Kevin Brophy and Judith Beveridge have been a big influence, and I love reading the short stories of Margo Lanagan.

I am also constantly listening to music, so lyrics are a big thing for me. I get stuck on certain artists and tracks. At the moment it’s Kanye West and The Killers but it’s just as likely to be Dolly Parton and Diana Ross next month.

Nathan, can you tell us about your ghost poetry project?

The Ghost Poetry Project is an account of my adventures staying overnight at ten haunted sites around Australia, from Port Arthur to the Old Fremantle Lunatic Asylum. Funded by the Australia Council it was very much an experiment under duress, an exploration of courage, story and the creative process itself. The collection intertwines an extreme, personal journey with ghost stories, historical facts and the complexity of suggestion. The Ghost Poetry Project is forthcoming with Puncher & Wattman in 2009.

Sean, you’re off to Canada soon, can you tell us a bit about that?

Yeah, it’s pretty exciting. Myself, Emilie Zoey Baker, alicia sometimes and Justin Ashworth have been invited to appear at the 8th Festival Voix d’Amériques in Montreal. It runs from  February 6 to 13, 2009. It’s an eight day festival completely dedicated to Spoken Word, and from what I understand is really fresh and dynamic. And is about putting on ‘shows’ rather than readings. Which is something I’ve been interested in for a long time now. It’s a great honour to be guests at such an event.
We also have dates booked in Ottawa, Vancouver, Toronto, New York, Chicago. We’re performing at the Bowery in New York. An amazing full time poetry venue, which is really quite unique. I was first exposed to it through the amazing New York poet Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz. She’s been to Melbourne a few times now and launched my first book way back in 2003. Our Chicago gig is at the famous Green Mill Cocktail Lounge which hosts the Uptown Poetry Slam. The place is famous for being the birthplace of Poetry Slams way back in 1985. Began by Marc ‘So What’ Smith. I was lucky enough to co-host a Slam with Marc at the Queensland Poetry Festival in 2006. He brings an amazing energy to everything he does.

I’ve never been to Canada, I have performed in the States before but I feel like I was a much different reader back then. I didn’t have anything memorised, so I’m really looking forward to having new audiences and performing without a net this time. It’s much more liberating to perform without the page, it’s easier to really get inside your work.

You’ve collaborated on the Static performance with alicia sometimes – how did you come up with the personas and the overall theme of that performance?

Nathan: We tossed around a few ideas and somewhere between vampires and toast we settled on the theme of ‘static’ ie. transmissions/messages/white noise. It was a concept that seemed large enough to explore. We then went about tackling it separately. After years of writing and performance we all have completely different styles and it seemed wise to go with our strengths, and to juxtapose them. 

I ended up with a piece about a country boy who is looking to the stars, aliens and the Bible for escape. I had been interested in close-encounters for a little while and I had a poem from years before about a kid who had to pick up his father’s severed fingers… so when I found the boy’s voice, it all came together.  

Sean: Static was an incredibly rich collaborative experience. Working with alicia, Nathan, musician Quinn Stacpoole and director Kieran Carroll was such a joy really. We were all very appreciative of Going Down Swinging giving us the opportunity by specially commissioning the work. Us writers decided quite early that we wanted a theme to hang our hats on. Something to kick start to process and also to give the show some glue. We came up with the idea of Static, thinking about messages that live in the shadows, that come in and out of focus. The pieces were written separately but then we came together and found ways to walk in and out of each other’s work. I really loved the process of watching Quinn hearing the performances and then trying on different musical arrangements until finding something that fits. I wanted to write a piece about death that wasn’t morbid, that took the view of death being more a process of change rather than finality. I think we’d all like to further develop Static too and possibly tour it more widely next year.

Nath, I remember telling you after Static that the voice of your piece was perfect short fiction (not to mention your great acting). Tell us something you can’t do?!

Wow. Thanks Angela. There’s lots I can’t do. I mean you wouldn’t believe!

The piece does have a strong narrative. So yes, very ‘short fiction’ as well as ‘dramatic poetry’ perhaps. I’d like to do more with prose in the future, so that’s nice to hear. A big thanks to Going Down Swinging who commissioned the work in the first place. 

Sean, do you know why you often express things intertextually, through pop-culture or esoteric references? Is it a shortcut to relatability in a world of signs and myths (in the semiotic sense)?

My first and most vivid experiences of love (outside family) were all through movies and music. They became a mainline to emotions. Transformative emotions that turned sadness a different shade of blue. I was turned upside down by The Breakfast Club. I saw the emptiness there too but found such solace in the bubblegum sincerity. This was also the time of ‘alternative’ bands featuring heavy on soundtracks, bands like The Cure, New Order and The Smiths, so suddenly my two great crushes of music and film were getting in bed together to make out. How could I not draw on this?

This is the first time this has really occurred to me but when I first started writing, music and film were much more influential than books. Although I was fairly obsessed with Henry Miller and Anais Nin for a while there. But the veins of inspiration really go back to the songs and stories I was hearing and watching rather than reading. This has really struck with me.

Using pop-culture references in literature is definitely a warm jab to the heart for me but I’m not sure if it’s so carefully constructed on my behalf more than just naturally occurring.

The truth is writing is still very much a complete mystery to me.

I would like to suggest I have a better understanding of the process than I actually do, because that would infer that there’s some kind of reliable workhorse I saddle up at will. But the fact of the matter is that almost every time I sit down to write it feels like I’m doing it for the very first time. It just doesn’t seem to get any easier. I know if I sit in the same place for long enough something will happen, I’m just not sure how to get there. And I often take completely different, bewildering, sometimes excruciating paths to get there.

Can I ask you both to share a few lines from one of your poems?


From Eight Different Sections of His Body:


He isn’t a joke

but he sometimes feels that way.


She isn’t a punchline

but she loves being the last thing reflected

in his eyes before he goes to sleep.


Some holes will never close.



From Bunyips (4)

                                         Borrowing light

march ahead, though with each step you come apart

to meet the mystery within you, imagine this

there are mysteries you cannot imagine

6 thoughts on “I'd Like to Introduce You to Two of My Favourite Poets

  1. Two fantastic performance poets, I have enjoyed readings by both Nathan and Sean in the past. I’ve read quite a bit of Nathan’s work, thanks for reminding me I should seek out Sean’s!

  2. Great post!
    ‘If I were a philanthropist I’d send these poets to far corners of the world…’ Sounds like a plan?! How about one less sporting scholarship to the AIS, just for this year?? I wonder if Mr Garrett reads this?

  3. Gerard – I think you would like both of them for shiz. And thank you.

    Lisa, get ‘Tattooing the Surface of the Moon’, it’s like a Sean best-of in book form. And you’ve reminded me, I have to get his older book. He read from it at a recent event and it was awesome.

    Troy, one day when I have the cash (!) I have nothing against sport, people get a lot of enjoyment out of it, but more money directed to the arts would be AWESOME.

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