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John Tranter: Prose

Question and Answer, June 1998

Published, in a shorter form, in the Sydney Sun-Herald, 21 June 1998

If you were not a poet, what would you be?

My father wanted me to be a farmer, but I wanted to be a Fleet Air-Arm pilot. Or a Buddhist monk. We were both wrong.

Could you describe the genesis of your new collection of stories, “Different Hands”?

I chopped up and fed some pieces of prose — a Biggles story, a Japanese novel, some real estate ads — into my computer, scrambled them up, mixed them together, and produced seven hybrid stories out of the resulting mess. It was hard work, and great fun.

How would you describe the current Australian poetry scene?

It’s a bit like a mass audition for Elvis impersonators, with too much free alcohol. All that talent, so little time!

Do you have any peculiar working habits?

I have this goat curry I cook sometimes, with lots of cumin. The smell permeates the house, I get exhilarated at the thought of eating the curry, and I write hundreds of poems.

A lot of people write poetry at some point in their lives, but very few are published, let alone successful. What makes a successful poet?

You have to be born with high verbal skills wired into your brain, like a composer has to be born with perfect pitch. Then you have to read indiscriminately and voraciously for years. Then you have to write hundreds of bad poems until a good one comes along. I mean it — hundreds. That’s all.

If you had been born in a different culture, would your work have been received any differently?

Not as well, perhaps. Australians are pretty good at nurturing poets — we even put two of them on our ten-dollar note. My friends overseas are jealous of all the grants we give to writers.

Is the poet an endangered species?

Poets are like prostitutes — sometimes they’re kept and pampered by the rich, sometimes they’re driven underground or out of sight, but there always seems to be a need for them in every culture.

Who are your favourite poets?

Shakespeare (his plays, not the sonnets, which are contrived and stiff), Li Bai, Arthur Rimbaud. William McGonagall, a really incompetent but accidentally charming Scots poet. I have a dopey Scottish Fold cat named after him. Among contemporary writers, John Ashbery (US), Jeremy Prynne (UK), Hans Magnus Enzensberger (Germany). My friend John Forbes, who died recently. And dozens of younger people.

Who are your least favourite poets?

It would be cruel to name them. Really bad poets never know that they’re bad — all poets think they’re outstanding, especially the bad ones — and even if they did, they couldn’t do any better.

Where is your favourite place on earth?

I love Paris in the spring-time, and I get a thrill out of New York, and I left my heart in San Francisco — a charming and sleepy town — and of course the food in Singapore is irresistible. But I still call Australia home, and my favourite place is right here in Balmain, by the sparkling waters of Sydney Harbour.

What is your fondest memory?

My two children, Kirsten and Leon, when they were little. Kids are wonderful, especially your own.

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