(An International Journal of Poetry)
ISSN 2249 –2178
Volume-3 June -2013 Number-1
An E-Interview with Paul Hetherington
(Interviewed by Pradeep Chaswal)
(Paul Hetherington is Associate Professor of Writing and Head of Discipline of Journalism and Creative Writing at the University of Canberra, Australia. He is also Head of the International Poetry Studies Institute. He has published eight full-length collections of poetry, including Six Different Windows (2013) and the verse novel Blood and Old Belief (2003), along with two poetry chapbooks. His poetry has won a variety of prizes and is part of the online Australian Poetry Library. In 2002 he was the recipient of a Chief Minister’s ACT Creative Arts Fellowship and he was awarded a place on the 2012 Australian Poetry Tour of Ireland. He edited the final three volumes of the National Library of Australia’s authoritative four-volume edition of the diaries of the artist Donald Friend (volume four was shortlisted for the Manning Clark House 2006 National Cultural Awards) and in 2011 was one of the founding editors of the international online journal Axon: Creative Explorations. He has written articles and papers on literary and cultural matters.)
Chief Editor: How did poetry take birth in you? At which age did you write your first poem? Were there any incidents in your life that made you write?
Paul Hetherington: Thanks for your questions. I’m not sure exactly where my interest in poetry stems from except that—and this is the obvious answer—poetry was a significant part of my experience of childhood. My parents were always interested in language, and in art and culture more generally, and my mother had a particular interest in poetry. She passed that on to me through reading poems to me and talking about them. She also wrote poetry, although I don’t remember discovering that until I was in my late teens or early twenties. I made a decision to write poetry when I was 11 years old and I have never deviated from that since. I suspect I was unhappy at the time—feeling shy and unsure of myself; experiencing the first pangs of growing towards adolescence and away from the relative innocence of being seven, eight and nine years old. I don’t really remember what I thought poetry was at the time—except that, even then, it may have represented the possibility of saying things well, of articulating elusive ideas, and of conveying what was otherwise inexpressible. Perhaps I had some sense of its capacity to be pithy, incisive and evocative. Or that’s what I’d like to think my 11-year-old self may have thought—even if he wouldn’t have used that kind of language. It’s equally likely that my 11-year-old’s idea of poetry was a kind of refuge from loneliness and self-consciousness; a way of expressing and helping to define an early, uncertain sense of self and being. I had occasionally written poems in primary school although I didn’t have any obvious facility with poetry beyond the fact that I was good with language. However, my grade six teacher was very encouraging about my writing (although I’m not sure whether she read my poetry), which may have prompted me to take the idea of writing more seriously. So, it’s possible that poetry as a vocation arrived as a result of family and school influences, along with a personal predisposition. But there is something mysterious about that, too. Why was I so powerfully drawn to poetry rather than to something else, and why did this occur at an age when I hardly knew what poetry was? I’m not sure that I can answer those questions—or not conclusively.
As for incidents in my life that made me write, I can’t pin down particular experiences that provoked me into writing poetry—although I’m sure that there must have been a number of key experiences that contributed. It is certainly true to say that many of my poems begin with specific experiences or feelings, or with one or more incepts provided by my reading. Individual phrases from other writers sometimes prompt poems, as do experiences of intimacy or unusual encounters. Sometimes, too, they are prompted by very ordinary events that suddenly strike me as in some way ‘poetic’—by which I simply mean, worthy of a poem. Poems sometimes come from nowhere I can name—as if from outside of my own experience. Such poems seem to write themselves, as I might be a conduit for ideas that have been given to me. At certain times poems even seem to tell me about my future self, or to predict aspects of my life. At other times, they are a way of refining memory, and of making sense of long past events that I can barely summon up but which a poem, as it were, resuscitates—often in a disguised form.
In a nutshell, poetry has been with me for most of my life, and I have worked hard to get to know it better over many decades. Writing poetry is in vocational terms what I most enjoy doing, although I do many other things as well. The urge to make poetry has been a constant force and influence in my life in a way that nothing else has ever been.
Chief Editor: Would you please throw light on your latest collection of poetry?
Paul Hetherington: Six Different Windows is a book divided into six sections, each of which presents a separate ‘window’ onto experience and the world. The book’s first section consists of a series of lyric poems that present small narratives about childhood, trying to capture some of the kinds of stories that many people would recognise from their own experiences—no matter how different the details of their own lives may be. In doing this, I have tried to evoke some of the strangeness of childhood, and some of its anarchy—and to express the way in which children exist both inside and outside of the frame of their parents’ rules and values. I have also tried to locate childhood as a time of simultaneous vulnerability and resilience, when many things happen that the child never really makes sense of until much later in life.
The second section of the book presents poems about art and representation—trying to articulate some of the ways in which art and culture—and writing and poetry—are significant. We know ourselves partly through art, and are often able to interpret significant experiences through what artists give us in their works. It’s important to remember this—to value art and to remind ourselves that it is often hard won. It is not always easily valued, unlike a lot of commodities—goods in shops, for example—yet living without art and artists would be like living in a world with very thin air, where it is difficult to breathe. We need what art and culture does for us even if we don’t always know how to assess or judge it. Art is sometimes about the ineffable. It is important to let the ineffable into our lives.
Another key section of the book is about archaeology and history—about ways of trying to understand the contemporary world through perspectives provided by the past. I have been interested in archaeology for a number of years and wrote poems about it in my previous book of poetry (It Feels Like Disbelief, 2007) but it is only in this current book that I have reflected more widely and deeply on the subject and tried to present a range of poems that conjure some sense of how the world used to be. This is an imaginative journey into making poems that I hope are suggestive of the ways in which past human societies and cultures are very different from those we know today while simultaneously being very like our societies and cultures. The past may be another country, as has often been asserted, but it provides a lens through which we can find new perspectives on ourselves and our immediate preoccupations.
There are also poems about intimacy in this volume—I have always been interested in this topic—and poems about travel. This last group of poems is, for me, a way of considering what ‘home’ is, and how we understand ourselves when we are displaced from our familiar surroundings. The poems also consider how ‘travelling’ takes place in the mind as much as through physical journeys, and that as we travel we pursue ideas that we carry within us even as we encounter new places and people.
Overall, I would say that this is a book about different ways of seeing and knowing the world; and about different ways of understanding intimate and personal experience. It connects the distant past to the present, and asserts the importance of childhood and memory to adult experience. It also asserts that art and making are central to human society.
Chief Editor: Would you like to share with the readers some important incident or experience in your life?
Paul Hetherington: The most important experiences I have had—apart from experiences of human intimacy, compassion and charity—have been to do with being out in the world and experiencing the physicality of being alive and in my body—with a breeze on my skin, or with a football to pick up and kick—or have been connected to reading and writing. When I was young, my discovery of the pleasures of reading and the intricacies of language were crucially important to me as a way of being able to try to ‘say’ myself—to speak of how I understood the world—and that has remained true ever since. Reading provided tools and perspectives from which I could express who I believed I was, and who I wanted to be. It also taught me that nobody had said quite what I wanted to say—that literature was always capable of making further gestures at saying the unsayable; at registering the world’s shifting complexities, and that I might find my own place within that field. The generosity of other artists and teachers has also, at crucial times, been important to me, and I have been fortunate in finding wonderful mentors and supportive colleagues at crucial times in my life.
Chief Editor: What is your advice for the young poets?
Paul Hetherington: I am always uncertain about how best to advise others and I’m not sure that I have anything original to say about this. However, I suppose I would advise any young poets to stay true to their sense of their own voice and their own quality of utterance—and to steer clear of fashionable ways of writing unless these accord with their own instincts and preferences. I would also encourage poets to write a great deal—as much as they can—and to read a great deal, and to continue to learn from other writers. Writing is something to enjoy and work hard at. As far as possible it should be at the centre of a poet’s life. And learning to revise work is just as important as sitting down and writing early drafts. Sheer, hard graft is just as important as inspired and creative ideas. I would advise poets to persist in their craft and to learn to accept occasional disappointment, frustration and disillusionment. This can be hard for poets, who often start out with a high level of idealism and personal ambition, and who often feel the impact of rejection and criticism—and the occasional churlishness of other poets—fairly deeply. But one can get used to such things and, usually, in order to be an artist, one needs to get used to them. After a while they hurt less—although perhaps they never stop hurting completely.
Chief Editor: In your latest collection of poetry “SIX DIFFERENT WINDOWS” a poem entitled ‘The Muse Drafts Her Business Card’ appears to be an unconventional poem. Please through some light how this poem was composed?
Paul Hetherington: This poem started out as an email to a female friend of mine who had been having some conversations with a male poet she knew, and had found herself in the role of offering him comfort and support about his writing, and a kind of informal counselling and reassurance. It struck me when I heard about this that the traditional invocation by male poets of a female ‘Muse’ might be interpreted as being partly about finding a mythical someone who would not only provide key moments of inspiration, but who may also provide various kinds of solace, support and comfort. Hence the rather ironic poem which follows, in which the Muse drafts her business card and, as she does so, expresses some of her reservations about the roles she has had to perform throughout history:
The Muse Drafts Her Business Card
Inspirer of poets for ten thousand years,
maker of Homer, goader of Sappho
and in demand from most poets since,
especially men of a certain age,
to use my services, please send
a brief resumé (exclude all poems)
and a one-page statement, double-spaced,
as to why your lyric or epic verse;
your free or formalist utterances;
or all of the above, even haiku
(delete whichever does not apply);
your career or personal relationships;
your expansive flings with other poets;
your periods of abstention or writer’s block
do not satisfy. A fee applies.
Nothing by email. No tears, please.
Chief Editor: How will you define the creative and poetic process in you?
Paul Hetherington: I often write in bursts of poetic activity and when I do I tend to produce a number of drafts of poems fairly quickly. After a period of writing in this way—often for a few weeks or a couple of months—my poetic inspiration usually dries up and I often write relatively little new poetry for quite a while. After my draft poems have had some time to settle—and once I have had some time to get used to them and learn to be critical of them—I begin, with some trepidation, the slow process of revising the poems (every single one of them). Sometimes these revisions are extensive, sometimes they are relatively slight, but I try to examine every draft to see if it stands successfully on its own away from my immediate personal preoccupations; and whether it communicates clearly and effectively; and whether it seems original; and whether every part of the poem seems right.
I can sometimes tinker with a poem for years trying to get these things as I want them to be. In doing this, however, I am always keen not to destroy the core and driving force of the original draft—assuming the draft has something in it that seems to be worth keeping—so the process of revision sometimes involves reinstating parts of a poem that I have altered but subsequently decided that the poem required. It is often a slow process, and is occasionally a to-and-fro between what I have written in the first draft and what I hope the poem might become.
Chief Editor: What are your views on present day poetry from Australia?
Paul Hetherington: Contemporary Australian poetry is very diverse and a great deal of it is of a high standard. There are many fine poets in this country and there is also an established poetic tradition that includes many excellent poets who, although they have died, are still a significant influence on current poets. Important poets who are part of this tradition include Kenneth Slessor, Judith Wright, Gwen Harwood and Francis Webb. It is a very good time to be writing poetry here, as new voices are emerging and many established poets are producing fresh and innovative work.
Chief Editor: As a Professor how do you see role of poetry in curriculum at school and college level?
Paul Hetherington: I think poetry is very important at school and college level, especially when it is taught by people with a genuine interest in the form. Poetry is perhaps the oldest of the written arts, and connects powerfully to oral traditions that preceded writing in all human cultures. As a result, knowing about poetry may be a way into thinking about key aspects of human culture—and about the suggestive and condensed power of language when it is used persuasively. Studying poetry can also be a way of learning to read attentively, and of becoming confident in dealing with verbal complexity—skills that are useful in almost every human activity, including interpersonal relationships. I suspect that if poetry were better and more often taught to school students at a national level, a great deal else would follow, including the development of those students’ capacity to have greater confidence in themselves and their chosen forms of self-expression.
Chief Editor: You are author of eight full length collections of poetry. How do you see your journey from first collection to the latest one?
Paul Hetherington: My first poetry collection, Acts Themselves Trivial, contained a variety of poems about memory and intimacy, among other issues. Subsequent volumes of my work have tended to focus on specific tropes or topics, including love and family relationships. I see this latest book as continuing to explore such preoccupations while also marking a significant development in my writing, expanding into areas—such as archaeology and mythology—that I have never previously explored in a sustained way.
Chief Editor: Your message for the poetry lovers and readers?
Paul Hetherington: I hope you get a chance to read Six Different Windows and that you enjoy it if you do.