Peter Minter is a poet, scholar and editor. In each of these fields, much of his work is devoted to one of the most pressing, contentious issues in the contemporary era: the environment. He has published six volumes of poetry, edited a number of anthologies, and works as the poetry editor at Overland. Here, he shares his concerns about and contributions to the natural world.
Can you give us some insight into what your lifestyle is like as a writer, an editor, a scholar? Is it one you’d recommend to others?
Well, my first reaction is that thinking about it as a lifestyle is probably not the most productive way of thinking about it. Rather than being a lifestyle, for me it’s a life. I started writing creatively in my early teens, and from that point onwards it seemed to me a completely natural thing to do. The idea of a lifestyle makes it seem like an activity or a path that one might simply choose to be part of. For me, and for many others, that’s not really the case. And it’s not something undertaken for financial gain, which is why doing other things like editing or teaching can be really helpful. To my mind the value found in the life of the writer can’t be measured by ideas of financial or instrumental value. There’s also value in having a rich personal life: you can have really fantastic relationships with your family and friends. And on a day-to-day level, having a job description that involves observing nature and living life rather than being confined to an office is fantastic. So I would highly recommend the life, and to dive into it as much as one can, but with one’s eyes open to the fact that it doesn’t necessarily have a lot of material benefits. And alongside that: as our societies become more complex and more dehumanised, knowing that your job is to remind people of the value of profoundly human qualities like the imagination is wonderful.
Most of the people who will be attending this festival are emerging writers- can you tell us about the earlier stages of your career?
I think one of the most important things—and this is something I always mention when working with younger writers—is to not be afraid of reading as much as you possibly can. I think some people feel like the main game is simply to be unique and individual in their own writing, without fully knowing the context in which they’re working. I suppose it’s like learning a musical instrument—before you can become a really good piano player, you need to spend years and years learning the craft, and even in a sense imitating past masters. Only once you have a certain level of skill can you take it in new directions that are unique to you. So: don’t be afraid to read and absorb and imitate writers you love as much as you possibly can as part of developing your own voice.
Do you think that the Australia literary market, for want of a better word, is a good one to be getting into?
Yeah, absolutely, I think it’s the best place to start. But an even better place to start is to create local collectives in which to read and work—and go on to start little magazines and publications together. One of the best things you can do as a young poet is start a magazine, because you read other poets and meet other poets, so you know their work and they know yours. So I really encourage the creation of local environments and networks. They don’t have to be geographically local, they can be local in terms of aesthetics or points of view, too, because from those networks you not only improve as a writer, you also start to become part of much broader conversations.
What makes Australian literature or poetry unique, or special?
I personally prefer to think in terms of human literature rather than national literature. I’m a bit sceptical of the idea of a nation-state, and all that comes with it. There’s never been such a time as now to show how redundant nation states are, when, for example, the kinds of ecological catastrophes we’re facing are so planetary. Nation states are, if anything, an impediment to solving important global, human issues. Of course I appreciate how tags like “Australian literature” and “Australian poetry” can be very good and useful, but I think that over the next couple of hundred years there’s going to be a lot of pressure on the concept of the nation-state and the idea of national literatures.
At the Emerging Writer’s Festival you’re talking about ecopoetics. Can you explain to us a little bit about what that means and why you’re interested in it?
Well, obviously it’s related to the environmental movement going on in the political phere. Since the late 70s and 80s, there’s been a growing trend in Anglo-American scholarship whereby literary critics and scholars who have an interest in environmentalism politically have begun to think about what this means for literary criticism. So that’s been a matter of figuring out how kinds of political thought can be brought into readings of literature to assist the environmental movement in some way. That’s part of a much deeper project about questioning the negative effects of industrialisation and capitalism in their various forms, something that has become increasingly prevalent in literary scholarship and criticism since the last century. Environmental criticism has really proliferated; some people might now look at how nature is represented in Shakespeare, for example. Really, it’s about applying an ecological awareness to scholarship and criticism of literary works. It’s about trying to understand the representation of nature and human relationships with nature in literature, and how that might have an impact upon larger political and aesthetic conversations about those topics. I suppose the whole thing assumes that literature and criticism can be linked with the political sphere. So, for those of us who are literary boffins, this is our contribution to the environmental movement. Personally, my contribution is to think about how in Australia we inhabit a colonised state, and that we have a lot to learn from our Aboriginal brothers and sisters about how to best dwell here, given the intimate cultural relationships Aboriginal peoples have with their environments, their Country. In a way, I see that part of my work is to imagine what Australia can contribute to planetary ecocritical discussions by thinking and writing about how a decolonised ecocriticism and poetry might look in Australia.
Peter Minter will be presenting a panel, New Nature Writing, with Rebecca Giggs at the Emerging Writers’ Festival. Follow the conversation on Twitter using the #ewfsyd hashtag.