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Q&A with Irish-Australian poet Nathanael O'Reilly

In March we published three new poems by Nathanael O'Reilly, an Irish-Australian poet and the writer of more than a fair share of poetry collections. Our poetry editors were immediately taken in by the honesty and depth of his work and were thrilled to feature "Settling Down", "Someday I'll Love Nathanael O'Reilly", and "The Landscape's Singing".

Nathanael is an Irish-Australian poet. His collections include Landmarks (2024), Selected Poems of Ned Kelly, Dear Nostalgia, Boulevard, (Un)belonging and Preparations for Departure. His poetry appears in 125 journals & anthologies published in 15 countries. He is poetry editor for Antipodes: A Global Journal of Australian/New Zealand Literature. He is also launching a new collection (titled "Dublin Wandering", ) at Sweny's Pharmacy in Dublin on June 15, 2024.

In the lead-up to us publishing his work, Grant Burkhardt, one of our managing editors and a member of the poetry team, talked to Nathanael about the new poetry, his influences, and, among other things, the concept of home.

Grant Burkhardt: I'd like to start by talking about "The Landscape's Singing". There's this moment in the original, the Seamus Heaney poem that it pulls from ["The Singer's House"], where he calls out "Gweebarra" and it transports him back to the bay. I wonder if there is a word or a thought or a phrase, where all you'd have to do is say it and you're taken back there.

Nathanael O'Reilly: That would be Warrnambool. So Warrnambool is the name of the town I was born in, in Australia, and it has a rugged coastline and it's not dissimilar from Donegal, or Kerry for that matter. My family are almost all Irish – I've got something like 14 different Irish surnames in my family tree – so I have that ancestral connection as well. But there's also something about the landscape of the west coast of Ireland that I feel really connected to, so whenever I'm there I feel like I'm home, and it's the same when I'm in Warrnambool.

It's a bit complicated because obviously Australia is a settler colony, stolen from the indigenous people. My ancestors were there very early on, within five years of the first settlement. So, there's always that element of guilt that's part of it. Like, am I allowed to love this place even though our people shouldn't have been here in the first place? But there's so much resonance for me in that word. Of course, it's an indigenous name as well. It's a name given to it by the Gunditjmara, the original people of that place.

GB: It does give another meaning to a landscape singing, many generations together, singing an incredibly old song. You're living in Texas now. What does the landscape sound like in Texas?

NO'R: There's certainly parts of Texas that are like parts of Australia I've lived in. There's parts of Queensland that remind me of West Texas, so there's definitely some connection to the landscape but not the culture, whereas when I'm in Ireland...that's where my family was for thousands of years.

The very first time I went to Ireland, I was like 22 and I was hitchhiking, and a guy gave me a ride and we started chatting. He asked me where I was from and I told him my last name and he said, "Ah, you're from here!" I said, "Well, that side of my family's been gone a hundred and fifty years," and he said, 'That's nothing, in the grand scheme of things that's just a couple of days, welcome home."

So I've always loved that aspect of Irish culture as well, very quick to make you feel welcome.

GB: There's a really nice bit of "Someday I'll Love Nathanael O'Reilly" about shared memory, and one of the things that's so hard about people moving away, or break-ups even, is that part of your memory is embedded in that other person, or those other people. And for people that move around a lot, that can be very hard to deal with.

NO'R: I've just come back from Australia, and I was catching up with friends I've known almost my entire life. I was thinking about the friendships that I still had from my first 22 years, and then the friendships that didn't last the distance...and the idea of parts of the self residing in other people's minds and memories, and then the idea of homesickness metastasizing. It's probably the most honest poem I've ever written, because a lot of these issues, it's usually easier just to not write about them.

GB: "Landmarks" [which launched in February] is your eleventh collection.

NO'R: Yes, it's the sixth full-length collection, and I have five chapbooks as well.

GB: That spans quite a while. What's your relationship with your early work?

NO'R: It's surprisingly good, surprising to me. I have a book coming out in December, called "Separation Blues, Poems 2004-2024". In order to choose the poems from that collection I had to reread all my previous poetry. And I was a bit nervous about it, like was I going to go back and read the first book and think it's just awful. And there are things, certainly, [that I'd change] but overall I was fairly satisfied with what I'd done in the previous books. I did the best I could do at the time. You're always going to learn more and get better, so you can't expect to write the kind of poems at 30 that you'd write at 50. You just have different life experiences.

GB: And the young confidence, I'm sure. There's a blinder confidence at that point.

NO'R: Yeah, and the subject matter shifts a lot too. In those twenty years I've become a father, which changed a lot. There's a lot of poems about my daughter, which is not something I was writing about before I became a dad.

GB: There's a lot of longing in your work, longing for a place. You even use the word "yearning" in "The Landscape's Singing". And if the opposite of that is "peace," I wonder if that's maybe what you're searching for through the writing?

NO'R: My wife often says "You just need to be happy where you are." And I've tried really hard. I've lived in Texas twenty years, on and off. I never got a cowboy hat or cowboy boots, but I tried to understand the culture an become part of the community. It just never clicked for me. It's just not my place. I have a really great life here, and I really enjoy my job and my students and have good friends and all that. I always feel like an outsider here, so there's always that part of me that just wants to be in a place where I'm at home, that I belong, and I am at peace and calm, and that's how I feel in Ireland.

And maybe it's a fantasy. Maybe it's something unattainable. But there's a part of me that likes to think that when I retire, I'll move to Ireland and get my little cottage on the west coast, then I'll just totally be at home and at peace.

[Laughing] But who knows, maybe someone will call me a blow-in and I won't feel like I belong anymore.


Nathanael O'Reilly

Nathanael O’Reilly is an Irish-Australian poet. His collections include Landmarks, Selected Poems of Ned Kelly, Dear Nostalgia, Boulevard, (Un)belonging and Preparations for Departure. His poetry appears in 125 journals & anthologies published in 15 countries. He is poetry editor for Antipodes: A Global Journal of Australian/New Zealand Literature. (Headshot by Celeste Jenkins-O'Reilly)

Grant Burkhardt

Grant is a poet and writer with work featured in or forthcoming in the Great Lakes Review, Nightingale & Sparrow, Icarus, and others. His poem - 'The Thing About People Knowing You Cook' - is a 2023 Sundress Publications 'Best of the Net' nominee. He’s also one of the Umbrella's poetry editors and non-fiction editors.


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