Nancy Corbett

“Poetry is being performed more than ever … poetry is alive … poetry is just evidence of life”.

Nancy Corbett is a U3APP Tutor of the Appreciating Poetry Class.

Nancy Corbett’s ‘story’ begins in a beautiful rural area of south-eastern Ontario, between Toronto and Kingston. Her love of nature and interest in storytelling began even before she went to school. Her mother read bedtime stories and poems from Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. “From those early times, I wanted to be able to tell stories and to make up rhymes like that. When my older sister started school, I would pester her to teach me how to read.”

Nancy wrote her first poem at the age of 5, about a rabbit. Whenever she read or heard a poem a few times, she never forgot it and she still automatically memorises many of the poems she loves today.

Nancy’s teachers at her primary and secondary schools encouraged her love of reading and writing. After some years of significant and distressing personal events, Nancy was granted a scholarship enabling her to complete her education. “My first success was winning first prize in a national essay contest in my final high school year, titled ‘Why Canada needs a Peace Research Institute.’ The second was being offered scholarships to three different Canadian universities.”

How did this come about? “The concept of the essay competition was how to maximize chances for peace, instead of war.” Nancy accepted one of the offered scholarships, enabling her to go to university. At that time, post-World War II, “there was a feeling of growth, of possibilities, of the need for educated people, so there was a lot of support for education in Canada.”

And so began not only Nancy’s fascination with words, rhymes, and stories but a committed interest in social and political inequities and the preservation of our environment. She attended the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, in the far west of Canada, surrounded by the Rocky Mountains.

The 1960s “was a very interesting time for music, politics, and social change. When the Canadian Government refused to send soldiers to Vietnam, it infuriated the American authorities. The Canadian Government passed a law protecting any draft dodger or deserter who could get across the border; they would not be sent back.” While a student in Vancouver, Nancy was involved in a group that assisted these American soldiers. “We found places for them to live, helped them settle. It was traumatic for them. Their families often did not support their stand; they were leaving everything behind that was familiar to them. Their country considered them criminals.”

Nancy obtained an Arts degree, then a Masters in English Literature. “There were some brilliant poets who were teaching at the university, including poet and Booker prizewinning novelist Margaret Atwood. I was privileged to meet Canada’s beloved poet Leonard Cohen then too, and hear him read. It was an exciting time.”

By the age of 30, married, with a child, Nancy wanted to travel and see the world. Her husband had previously lived in Australia and wanted to return, so they took a ship from Montreal to Rotterdam, then travelled for a year across Europe and Asia, ending up in Nepal. From there, they flew to Darwin, “arriving on New Year’s Day, 1974.” They lived in Sydney for a number of years.

Changing family circumstances required Nancy, now a single parent, to obtain a number of interesting positions. She worked for several years at the Djigay Centre in Kempsey, NSW, an Aboriginal college. “My role was to prepare students to enable them to do tertiary studies. I loved doing that and I learned a great deal.”

While living in the Blue Mountains in NSW, Nancy worked for a few years at a Women’s Health Center where she provided support courses for survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

Nancy then moved to Melbourne, where she worked for the Foundation for Young Australians which assisted young people to obtain the skills needed to obtain the necessary backing and finance for projects they initiated themselves.

Nancy’s final full-time position prior to her retirement involved designing and delivering courses for groups working with survivors of family violence, including legal students, social workers and the police. These courses were delivered in Melbourne and many parts of regional Victoria.

Can you give an example of a course you designed? “I wrote a course titled, Why Doesn’t She Leave? It dealt with the many different factors involved in family violence, and why it is so difficult for some women to escape and why it could be so dangerous when they did.”

Let’s talk about your writing, your poems. Nancy reflects that for long periods of her working career, she did not write creatively, occupied with earning a living and preparing a diverse range of courses.

In the 1980s Nancy wrote her first full length novel, which today she is glad was not published. Her second novel Floating was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, “which was a great honour.”

Nancy’s third novel Heartland, “is set in the future, about two separate societies. One is exclusively populated by men, the other by women. Whilst they have some connection in order to have children, they kept quite separate social orders.” Nancy reflects humorously, “well, after that was published, I went to Paris and lived there for a year.”

Nancy and her partner Howard moved to Tasmania in 2010. “We were living in Launceston. It’s a very creative place. There are so many writers and opportunities for workshops and performance. The annual Tasmanian Poetry Festival, held in Launceston, is the longest-running dedicated poetry festival in Australia. Its highlight is always the hotly contested Poetry Cup competition. I am immensely proud of having won it twice (in 2016 and 2019).

“I found my voice as a poet there. I had always written poetry, but sporadically and secretly; suddenly, people wanted to hear what I was writing! My first book of poetry, The Longest Conversation, was published in 2021. I was 77 years old!”

This book of selected poems reflects Nancy’s profound love of the natural world and her grasp of the complexities of human experience… (Publisher’s quote.)

Amazing! Do you write every day? “Yes,  I now write every day. I start first thing in the morning. I get up, go to my study, have a cup of coffee, and write at least 3 pages, just free writing. And out of that come things that I can work on sometimes. Not always, but sometimes.”

Do you consider that sort of discipline is vital to writing? “No, I think there are as many different ways to write as there are to do anything. Some people may write intensely from time to time, others write every day. Not everything is good, not everything becomes anything … but for me, it’s essential now to keep my hand in, and my mind.”

Nancy continues, smiling, “You can’t wait for inspiration to strike you. I mean, you have to turn the light on! But what inspires me is reading other poets and teaching classes, like this one at U3APP. I enjoy putting the classes together so much. I learn more each time. We go very deep sometimes but I always try to end with something funny.”

Do you have a favourite poet? “Well, if you turn over that book of mine, The Longest Conversation, you will see a quote by Mary Oliver: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it. I love Mary Oliver’s poetry; she has a unique talent for expressing appreciation for the wonder of life.”

Nancy also participated in a project with poet Kristen Lang who is “a dedicated environmentalist. She approached a few poets to work on a project together. The theme was to write from the viewpoint of a non-human being. One poem I wrote was in the voice of a tree standing in one place for centuries, living through so many storms, so many seasons, unable to move, but full of life. So different from the way we see ourselves. And of course, providing a home for so many other creatures, who lived their life because of that tree. It was just an amazing, imaginative exercise. We presented the finished work in Hobart and Launceston. It was a wonderfully creative project.”

Nancy has published a memoir, Firsthand. Written in two major sections, the first, North Star, refers to the guiding star of the Northern Hemisphere while the second section, Southern Cross, deals with her life in Australia since 1974.

“I wrote it over a period of about 5 years. I’ve kept journals and diaries all my life and I needed to select and keep what seemed to me to be worth keeping. The result was Firsthand, which was published by The People’s Library in 2018.”

You have been so inspired by the landscape in Tasmania, and now you are living in Melbourne. What inspires you here? “We live in Port Melbourne, so we can go down and stand at the edge of Port Phillip Bay anytime we like. I walk most days, and take photos, which reminds me to pay attention to things.”

Nancy has two adult grandchildren, and her partner Howard has three young grandchildren who live in Melbourne.

Are you currently writing about any particular themes? “I am at a new stage of my life. I found my voice as a poet in Launceston, in Tasmania. I went to so many workshops and sessions with other poets, thinking I will do something with all this, sometime. Well, this sometime has come; this is a time of harvest, rather than planting seeds, for me.”

“So, I am going through a lot of material from the past 15 or so years, using that as a basis for creating new work. I have a wealth of material, and this is the time for me to work with that material.”

So, no slowing down at all? “No,” Nancy responded, with a smile.

On a slightly different tangent, you have an interest in politics, inequities, our environment, and this is reflected in your writing. What are your thoughts on the world today? 

“Well, you would think we would have learned by now a better way of dealing with people’s different objectives than by going to war. And yet we seem to be building up toward another major war. However, I do also see some advances in human rights. Women have more freedom, in our part of the world at least. Also, we are starting to take children’s rights a little more seriously. There are real efforts to combat racism, so I do see progress in some ways.

“Human beings are contradictory, and we often act against our own best interests. But I think there are sincere efforts to make changes … we can change, and shape and influence. One of the best-known lines from the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley is that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Poets care deeply about what is happening in the world, and they express it through their poetry.”

So, we need to get people to read more poetry? Nancy laughs: “I’m doing my bit – I have a waiting list for my class. Poetry is much more popular than it was even 10 years ago. At President Biden’s inauguration he had a young black woman reading her own poem.

“Poetry is being performed more than ever. Back in time, it was only the educated elite who read poems whereas now we have pop songs and rap artists who are cutting through to sections of the population who otherwise do not have a voice or don’t read poetry. Poetry is alive.”

Nancy’s wealth of personal experiences has shaped her creative writing skills and her awareness of the needs of others, culminating in “a very rich life”. The popularity of her U3APP Appreciating Poetry Class is a testament to Nancy’s lifelong, imaginative immersion into the world of words.

Nancy Corbett was interviewed by Felicity May

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