Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

It's Just a Little Prick

An Interview with Peter Goldsworthy, Conducted by Ryan Van Winkle

Peter Goldsworthy is an Australian man-of-letters with a wide-range of accomplishments and accolades. He's a novelist, a poet, an essayist and (where does he find the time?) a doctor. In a sprawling, in-depth, conversation recorded at the Clunes Booktown Festival in Australia we talked about the variety and scope of his work. The excerpt here is a small fraction of the insight, humour and sheer story-telling prowess on display in our original interview.

Ryan Van Winkle: The Scottish poet Norman MacCaig always claimed writers who did both tended to write novels to make money, but always felt poetry was the “real thing”. Do you have a particular loyalty?

Peter Goldsworthy: I always thought of myself as a poet and as a short story writer. I think those forms are part of our biological make up. Every culture uses rhythm and rhyme and assonance and music to make things memorable. In pre-literate times poetry and music were what we used to remember the knowledge of the tribe, you never forget that stuff.

Every human brain has this module hard-wired for poetry and music, it’s why we remember every nursery rhyme and pop lyric we’ve ever heard. They hammer the text into you. I love that definition of poetry as what makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. What I think about poetry is this: compared to other forms, it has earlier access to something in our brains, the closest we can get  in words to how we actually think. We don’t think rationally in words,  we think in odd streams of words, occasionally feelings, emotions, images  this huge mixture. There is joy when we’re reading something for the first time and we think, we knew that but we never articulated it in words, it was on the tip of our mind. I think poetry is operating on either side of that little interface between thought and word. In that sense I think poetry is the oldest human verbal art.

That said you can get a poem almost perfect, when you turn something on a lathe, once it’s done it’s done, you’re content. But a novel’s not like that, you’re never content, you publish a novel just to keep yourself from tampering with it. You can always change a preposition or make a character turn left instead of right, so much of a novel is arbitrary.  But the best poems feel inexorable, invincible. They have that wonderful quality where each line can surprise you, but the moment after it surprised you you think, 'that’s the only line that could have been there'. There’s a paradox. You knew it but it still surprised you.

It took me a long time to believe in the novel. I thought novels were inventions of publishers where short stories and poems were as old as every human campfire.

RVW: Would you consider yourself a minimalist?

PG: When I started I loved the Eastern European post-war minimalists. They learned their minimalism by going through these terrible events. Serbian or Yugoslavian poets, the Czech Miroslav Holub, or a lot of very good Polish poets like Tadeusz Ró|ewicz or Zbigniew Herbert,  they’d rebelled against what they saw as the uselessness of language. There’s a poem by Brecht where he asks 'what’s the point in writing about trees in a world where millions of people have died?' And obviously I hadn’t earned anything like that, I had no right to anti-poetry minimalism. But I found it appealed to a certain laconic, ironic Australian sensibility, so I loved those poets and wrote imitations of them.

RVW: Do you feel you found your voice out of those imitations?

PG: I think you end up taking what you need from them, whatever armoury you’re assembling in terms of what your voice is. There’s a who poet died not far from here in 1995, Philip Hodgins, a great poet of the Australian rural, he was only 35, he’d had leukaemia for a long time and decided to stop having chemotherapy, it was too difficult. He asked me through a friend if I’d write an obituary for him in the papers, and I said, 'Of course, I’d be honoured'. He called me up a week later and said, 'Have you written it yet?' I said, 'Yes, I have.' He said, 'Can I read it?' I said, 'Okay', sent it to him, and a week later I got back a bottle of wine with a message, ‘an obituary to die for.’ That was his style.

RVW: Does being a doctor affect the writing?

PG: I always work half-time, write in the mornings, practise medicine in the afternoons. I know I’m very lucky. I get a lot of material from patients, stories with high stakes. But, also, writing is lonely. There’s a nice line in Luis Bunuel’s autobiography, “Solitude is a wonderful thing, so long as you can talk to somebody about it afterwards.” That’s how my days are organised, I spend the mornings in solitude and then I go and see my patients. You hear astonishing stuff; I’ll tell you a story I’ve never forgotten. I had one patient, she was 86 years old, in elderly care and dying. She was a very sophisticated woman with a keen sense of humour. I was giving her a shot of morphine intravenously, and as I brought up the syringe and the needle I said, ‘it’s just a little prick’, and she said, ‘doesn’t matter dear, you have nice eyes’. This dying woman  what stoic good humour. It’s like Philip’s line, ‘an obituary to die for’, those lines that contain so much information about character, so condensed, they’re poems in themselves.

Peter Goldsworthy's novels, stories and poems are all available to buy online and you can hear our full conversation on our Scottish Poetry Library podcast.

Ryan Van Winkle is a poet, performer, and critic living in Edinburgh. These interviews are from his Scottish Poetry Library podcasts produced and edited by Colin Fraser. This team also produces the arts podcast The Multi-Coloured Culture Laser. He was awarded a Robert Louis Stevenson fellowship for writing in 2012.