I’m not so sure that I have found my genres, so much as they have found me. I was always a poet – family legend has it that I wrote a verse on my first day at school. Poetry was a kind of inner necessity, more than any kind of conscious decision. And in a process akin to brachiation, everything else has evolved from where I began. Somebody asked at a Con last year whether my "brand" is too confusing. I freely confess that I am no good as a brand. I am a critic and a poet, I write for high art performance, I write genre novels. But poetry remains at the centre of everything I do.
When I am not writing novels, I spend most of my time at the theatre. As an incurable border crosser and margin dweller, I both write for it and criticise it. Theatre has always seemed a strange accident in my life: it just kept turning up, although I never quite intended to go there. I began writing about it as a critic in my late 20s, when by sheer chance I was offered the post of Melbourne theatre critic for the Bulletin, and at that time, uneasily aware of my ignorance, I approached each task as if it was a university assignment. I never went to university, as I trained as a journalist instead, and this was a way of catching up.
The culture of performance was an escape from what I increasingly saw as a suffocating insularity in the culture of poetry; it offered a more generous, collaborative possibility. It interested me because of the physical presence of the actor, the direct mediation between performer and audience, and because it only happens when you’re there. Thinking about this artform has taken up a lot of my time over the past decade, but all that work is a direct result of my practice and thought as a poet.
It seemed logical that I should write for theatre, because poetry has a close relationship to theatre writing, much closer than prose: theatre has an inherent poetic that writers ignore at their peril. Over the years I’ve written a number of plays, both for radio and stage, and six libretti. Libretti are a natural form for a poet because they offer language a heightened existence. But most importantly, I love the work of collaboration, the articulation and subsuming of the writer’s self in the larger frame of the work.
I don’t think of myself as a dramatist: even when I’ve written plays, I’ve always thought that they are the plays of a poet. I once included some plays in a collection of my poems, which just seemed to confuse everybody. I was told it was a bad idea because booksellers didn’t know whether to file the book under poetry or plays. It’s often a disavantage to move between genres. I remember the poet John Forbes telling me that he had always been deeply suspicious of the multi-talented, and certainly I’ve struck that suspicion quite often: there seems to be a widely held belief that you can’t do more than one thing without being somehow inauthentic.
My first venture in prose, a novella called Navigatio, was an exercise in poetic prose, a mixture of memoir and fantastic speculation that was really an essay on memory and imagination. The next time I attempted a novel, several years later, I went for broke: a four part high epic fantasy called The Books of Pellinor, which ended up being a story 2000 pages long. It seems logical for the kind of poet I am to reach for the cathedral-like architecture of the metaphors of epic fantasy: if I had been writing centuries ago, I would have written an epic poem. Again I was astonished that I finished that, but I did. And it woke in me the slumbering story teller that I had never quite realised was there.
I feel that novels are a difficult addiction, but now I am entranced by the possibilities of narrative. My most recently released book is Black Spring, which came out late last year. That’s a feminist twist on the Gothic novel which is a tribute to both Emily Bronte and Ismael Kadare. My next book is a lyrical fable called The River and The Book, which is set in a place like contemporary Central Asia and which is about the environmental and cultural changes of modernity. And that is different again. The book I’m writing now is a return to the epic fantasy world of Pellinor, and I find that I’m rethinking the form again on this revisit.
This means that I probably am a confusing writer. Sometimes I even confuse myself. I can only write the work that passionately engages me, and I loathe repeating myself. I’m kind of stuck with that. I am passionately fascinated by form: I like both inventing new forms, and exploring forms that already exist, like 19th century gothic or epic fantasy, to see how I can at once use and subvert them. I will always be, in all those forms, a lyrical writer. And I feel very much like Dorothy Hewett, another writer who worked across prose and plays and poetry: it’s all writing.