A century earlier, Christian missionaries would have been eradicating Aboriginal beliefs and mythology, but what I saw in Port Keats (which has since grown into a modern town called Wadeye) in 1974 was very much like how the Green Man must have been accommodated in the early centuries of Christianity in England. That mission was founded in 1935 to unite under one Christian roof people from three warring tribes, the Murinbata, Maringar and Murinjabin, and the old mission church was decorated with images painted by Aboriginal artists of beings from the Dreaming, the Aboriginal time of creation. Dreamtime is eternal, an ‘ever-present and immutable reality which underlines, and is expressed in, time’, wrote A.P. Elkin in The Australian Aborigines, my set text in the classes in Aboriginal mythology I attended in Darwin. The dreamtime is re-entered in sleep and at death, through ritual and through the frenzy of corroboree dance. Procreation involves the spirit of a child being called from the dreamtime to the womb.
“A poem lives in its language,
which is body to its soul…”
KN: Bloodaxe is renowned for its multiplicity of voices – from the so-called avant-gardism of a major twentieth and twenty-first century figure such as J.H. Prynne to the more popular presence of the gifted and engaging Jackie Kay. Elsewhere, you’ve spoken a little about your approach to accepting poetry, through gauging an engagement on the part of the poet. Is there also an intuited, a sensed approximation for the type of work you support? I’m thinking a little here of Charles Olson and his inference of the energy field of text itself which can also be seen in the etymology of grammar – ‘spelling’ for example. Would you agree that this is a palpable magnetism embedded in poetry and if so, how do you respond to it?
NA: That multiplicity extends to readers as well as poets, and there are many different ways in which all kinds of people read and respond to poetry, ranging from a more cerebral, linguistic engagement with the work of poets such as Prynne, to the emotional connections other readers might make with the work of Jackie Kay, or the spiritual sustenance many derive from reading R.S. Thomas, David Scott, Denise Levertov or Jane Hirshfield. All these are poets I admire and publish. I also edited the anthology Soul Food (2007) with my wife, Pamela Robertson-Pearce: this has the subtitle ‘nourishing poems for starved minds’ and has been much loved by readers for its fusion of the spiritual and the thoughtful. Unusually, perhaps, in the poetry world, but very helpfully for a poetry publisher, I find myself able to respond to a wide range of very different kinds of poetry in its own terms, on many levels, open to and appreciative of whatever I feel is authentic and well-wrought. That palpable magnetism you describe as embedded in poetry has to be not just present but fully charged in the language, imagery and music of the poem. A poem lives in its language, which is body to its soul. Joseph Brodsky believed that our purpose in life as human beings was ‘to create civilisation’, and that ‘poetry is essentially the soul’s search for its release in language’.
KN: Were you brought up in any formal religious context? Did your parents attend church, for example, and would you adhere now to any spiritual or religious framework in your thinking and being? If so, why? If not, why not?
NA: No, our family didn’t attend church, but I went to a Church of England primary school, and later, religious teaching was integral to the moral values instilled in us at Price’s School in Fareham, Hampshire. Established in 1721, this was a grammar school on the English public school model with morning assembly presided over by masters wearing gowns, along with houses, caps (prefects had tassels on theirs), its own cadet force and a mission to turn unruly boys into gentlemen. Centuries of Pricean tradition went to