CHANGING THE GROUND OF EXISTENCE: an interview with Paul Hetherington
If there’s ever a part of human endeavour where people work extremely hard, achieve an extraordinary amount, but, in the main, unless there’s a miracle (and we all know they’re bullshit), the work goes largely acknowledged, it’s the realm of poetry, especially – perhaps – Australian poetry. So, let’s remedy the situation.
Enter this bloke: Associate Professor Paul Hetherington at the University of Canberra has published seven full-length collections of poetry, including the verse novel, Blood and Old Belief (2003) and It Feels Like Disbelief (2007), along with two poetry chapbooks, and the recently published collection, Six Different Windows (UWA Publishing, 2013). 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. His poems have also been published in anthologies, journals, magazines and on websites in a variety of countries, including the USA, England, Ireland, Denmark and Japan.
But we’re not done yet.
Hetherington’s doctoral thesis explored the extent to which Emily Dickinson’s poems may be read as autobiographical texts and, more generally, the ways in which Dickinson might, or might not be identified with her poetry’s personae. Formerly publisher and events director at the National Library of Australia, he edited the final three volumes of the Library’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 was founding editor of the Library’s quarterly humanities and literary journal Voices (1991–97). From 1990 to 2008 Hetherington edited the monthly magazine National Library of Australia News and he is a former editor of the Western Australian monthly multi-arts magazine Fremantle Arts Review. He is a former member of the Boards of Australian Book Review and Conversations (published by the Australian National University). In 2011 he was one of the founding editors of the international online journal Axon: Creative Explorations.
Okay then, that’s enough. Pour yourself a coffee or wine or whiskey, curl up on the couch with your favourite online-reader whizz-bang-kafoops, and let’s get into the discussion. Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone (with dictionary on standby).
Congratulations on the publication of Six Different Windows. If I can add up correctly, this is your tenth book of poetry. What’s the motivation behind this latest collection? And is the motivation any different to what drove your previous works?
Thanks Nigel, they’re interesting questions. Like most poets, I write poems one by one – although often in bursts of activity – and the collections that are published are to a considerable extent constructed after the event. But, having said that, it is true that most of my poetry collections do have certain abiding preoccupations – usually preoccupations that belong to particular periods of writing.
Six Different Windows deals with a variety of subjects that connect to the way I understand the past and memory. Although I’ve always written about such matters, I believe that they are inflected differently and perhaps more sharply in this recent volume. For example, my previous collection, It Feels Like Disbelief, which was published in 2007, contains a number of poems about archaeology and how we might understand the contemporary interest in so many things archaeological – programs about archaeology are even popular on television – but it is only in this book that my interest in the subject is explored at some length. These poems are partly a series of reflections about how people may have lived in the past, and they are also a consideration of how we, in the early 21st century, may or may not connect with people from other historical periods and their habits and cultures.
Additionally, some aspects of today’s human situation may be more easily understood when we refract them through the lens of past societies and practices – or they may, at least, be more approachable. Human cruelty is an example. We are all aware of the way in which human beings often behave cruelly, especially in wars, but to step back from contemporary behaviour of this kind can be difficult. Poems that explore events in the distant past have the benefit – if that’s the right word – of being about something that happened a long time ago and for which nobody now alive was responsible. My poem, ‘Sacrifice’ attempts to get at something of the ordinariness – even the dailiness – of human cruelty, and the ways in which we justify such behaviour – and the matter-of-factness of it, too. The poem can be read as simply being about the past or it can be understood as a reflection on what human beings are like all of the time – even now, today, as we speak. In this sense, my poems about archaeology are to a considerable extent a way of trying to find analogues for the present; of trying to sift aspects of the present through the perspectives of people who would not recognise many of the ways in which we live but who were, nevertheless, like us.
Speaking of analogues, this book also explores ways of retelling some of the mythological stories that have become ingrained in our culture, and which have been retold hundreds of times, but which continue to offer important ways of articulating what we know. Two long poems in the book recast the Icarus story, and the Ariadne and Theseus story. As far as we know both of these stories originate, in versions now lost to us, in the Cretan bronze age culture and civilisation we refer to as Minoan. These stories – which presumably had considerable religious significance in their original versions – were subsequently adopted and rewritten by the ancient Greek culture that supplanted the Minoans.
One of the most prevalent versions of the Ariadne and Theseus story – I guess everyone would know it – has Theseus arriving as part of an intended sacrifice of Greek youths to the Minotaur and, with Ariadne’s help, he kills the Minotaur and leaves with Ariadne, before precipitously abandoning her on the island of Naxos. This story is also part of a powerful set of connected narratives and, in retelling part of the story, I wanted to try to reclaim some space and agency for Ariadne, who in the original and lost Minoan version was almost certainly a god with important powers. But I also wanted to write a contemporary poem – to present a woman who was in many ways stronger and more knowing than Theseus, and on whom Theseus depended for his success and eventual fame. This is, in one way, a different form of my interest in archaeology – and in the creative reconstructions that attend to much archaeological practice – because there are hints in the versions of the story that have come down to us of other stories and other emphases. I cannot retrieve those lost versions, but I can rewrite the Ariadne and Theseus story on the basis of some of the hints I find, as I dig around in various sources looking for clues about what might once have been there.
My rewriting of the connected story of Icarus aims to translate that well-known story into the world of terrorism and suicide bombers – to make it utterly and disturbingly contemporary. Why do this? Partly because the Icarus story is one of those rare narratives that mean almost an infinite number of things at once. It is a story about what human beings aspire to be, and what they are, and what they might be, and how they might become something else. And, although it’s not so well known, the Icarus story – narratives about Icarus’s father, Daedalus, in particular – already deals with significant cruelty. Rewriting such a story is a way of trying to connect with one of the resonant narratives that has emerged out of what we call Western civilisation; and to make such a story contemporary is to try to speak of the past and present at once – which, generally speaking, is perhaps what poetry and other forms of literature are always doing anyway.
I haven’t mentioned the first section of the book, called ‘Corrugations’, which is about childhood. I have always been interested in childhood and how the intricacies of childhood experience persist into adulthood; and how they inform what we become; and how elusive they can be – and how delineating aspects of childhood can be a way into expressing important things that are otherwise inexpressible. This section of the book picks up themes and preoccupations that have been part of my earlier volumes of poetry, but I have been even more concerned in this collection to present poems that, while they remain lyric poems, have a strong narrative element. This is because the poems in ‘Corrugations’ are all attempts to delineate some of the key stories of childhood that are more-or-less common to everyone, however much some of the details may differ from person to person. The poems are about growing into selfhood; and about some of the values that are formed as this happens. And they are about how childhood as a reality is nothing like the saccharine version of growing up that some adults wish to remember – and sometimes wish to foist on their own children, too. Significant parts of childhood experience for everyone are fairly stark and bewildering and these poems are an attempt to locate some of the recklessness and even anarchy of that experience; and some of the sexual awakening – and something, too, of how childhood grapples with language and, as it does so, becomes changed and never again like it once was.
The book also presents poems about the importance of literature, art and culture – and, in this way, celebrates making and creativity. Some creative activity can be uncomfortable, but it is a vital part of human society – perhaps even the best part of it, along with the human capacity for love, compassion and charity. I wanted to speak of some of those things, and about how artists continue to help us see the world freshly; and about how they help us keep in touch with quotidian realities as well as the ineffable and the elusive. Contemporary Australian society doesn’t seem to know – en masse, at least – how to properly value its artists and makers even though so many Australians are engaged in artistic and cultural practice and associated activities. I think this is a real and ongoing challenge for governments in this country – to learn how to appreciate cultural capital, and individual making. We seem to have no trouble appreciating those who have a lot of money, but that, relatively speaking is banal.
There are poems about travel and about history in this book, too, along with personal poems – I have always been interested in mapping some of the intricacies of intimacy; of what may be involved when we embark on that extraordinary experience of closely knowing another. But if there is one idea that unites this volume, I would suggest that it is a desire to get at the nub of what we do and don’t know of ourselves and others, and how we speak of such things, and how the past often reveals us to be different from the way we imagine we might be.
Further to this desire to ‘get at the nub of what we do and don’t know of ourselves’, perhaps in Six Different Windows there’s also the desire to get to the nub of what we do and don’t know of language?
What we do and don’t know of language – that’s certainly a fascinating thing to ponder. In one sense, all poems are primarily about language and are a way of getting to know it – the bodily and sensory experience of language; the attempt to aestheticise language and make an artefact out of it (the poem); and the use of a poem to encapsulate an idea of language.
For me, considerations of language are connected to many of the most difficult questions about what poetry is or might be. In our contemporary age, when poetry and prose are sometimes almost indistinguishable – except that poetry is often written in shorter lines (and even that is not always true) – it can be difficult to say what is ‘poetic’. One of the ways I recognise the poetic is when I find works in which language is condensed, ramifying, polysemous and unparaphraseable. Part of what I wish to do when writing poems is to make works that speak in such ways – but to do so without resorting to any kind of trickery or artificial obscurity. To write directly and complexly at once has long been an aim of mine, and to register crucial human subtleties and complexities.
Much of what I know of language is elusive – and only able to be expressed satisfactorily through making artefacts (poems) out of language rather than trying to state explicitly what that knowledge may be. Writing poetry is partly an intuitive and mysterious process through which I try to allow poems to form, arrive and surprise me. I often search for poems by stepping back a little from them and trying to allow some poetic conduit or other to open. What are such conduits, and from whence do poems come? These are tricky issues, but I guess, partly, they originate in the infinite place of language-possibility, where, when one is fortunate, combinations of connected meanings effloresce like flares on the surface of the sun and are expelled as what we call poetry through one or other conduit we call making and writing – but which is sometimes more akin to being-made and being-written.
The poet has to work hard if such expulsions and arrivals are to happen, of course. I think of the painful, sometimes sickening work of making, drafting and revising many poems as being a way of honouring whatever the muse might be and of honouring the process I have just mentioned – and as a way of honouring language more generally. It is a way of saying, ‘I am serious about what poetry might bring.’ We are steeped and formed in language and because, in one sense, language always knows us better than we know it, poetry is often a way of asking language what it knows and what it might offer up.
There may be no ‘nub’ here, however. I suspect that poetry is at its best when it is no longer a literary genre we call ‘poetry’, but is language-without-any-one-name – by which, I mean, language that knows itself (which we cannot fully know) and that truly encapsulates and condenses multiplying, self-enriching meanings. This is more akin to language-speaking-itself than any genre.
In Six Different Windows, I present poems that attempt to engage with language at this level, and which also try to create beguiling narratives and suggestive situations and ideas. Some of the poems are explicitly about words – poems such as ‘Abstractions’ and ‘Pale’, for example, are about what we can and cannot name. Many other poems are about the disjunction between what we know and say; between what we do and say; and how we cannot fully speak about the import of what we know. This disjunction or gap constitutes a profound space where we negotiate meanings, and continually try and fail to get at just how things were, while all of the time seeing them escaping from us – from our grasp, from our understanding, even from our memory.
Poems can be a way of trying to close this gap, or a way of acknowledging it, or a way of naming it. Poem as way-of-seeing-and-speaking-the-gap-between-doing-knowing-and-saying may be a cumbersome phrase, but perhaps that is one good way of saying – naming – what poems often are.
In Six Different Windows the short poem, ‘A Norse Greenlander, 1450’, is most obviously about history, and the terrible privations of Greenlanders during a period of great cold:
A Norse Greenlander, 1450
her wieldy scythe.
Her woollen clothes
are close about her torso,
keeping at bay
the bleating, freezing wind
that blows across a stub of glacier.
Three winters now
her tilling has resulted
in frost-blackened harvests.
Her remaining sheep
are cramped with rickets,
her husband’s ice-pale eyes
are shot through
of blood and forage.
As well as being about history, this poem is about what language tells us of such experiences; how words like ‘wieldy’, ‘stub’ and ‘forage’ work when activated poetically in a dense and sparse poetic tissue. If all poems are largely about words, this is an example of how poems, in largely being about words, are also largely about other things. Or, to put this differently, the more successful they are in being about words, the better they speak of what is beyond words; the better they reveal that words are, after all, grounded in extra-linguistic experience. At its best, poetry brings the linguistic and extra-linguistic into a potent proximity, and that is one of its greatest pleasures.
Reflecting on something you said earlier, an element of Six Different Windows that intrigued me is the barely submerged violence in the poetry, from the rebellion of youth to the outright brutality of more ancient history. Is this something you’ve been consciously working through, or is it a theme that’s surreptitiously knitted its way into this collection?
The nature of violence and unruliness; of the places that exist outside of the confines of ‘right behaviour’ have interested me for as long as I can remember. This is partly because some of the unruly places and spaces (both actual and metaphorical) are where creative energy may be effectively channelled. Poetry, for example – or, at least, my poetry – needs to flow from and into places that are often libidinally charged and which are open to a variety of impulses and desires. This is not because poetry has explicitly to be about such impulses but because unless it is gutsy and charged with true, unsaccharine feeling, then it is unlikely to sit up in the mind or on the page. Politeness and empty sophistication, unleavened by this gutsiness, tends to damage art and making, sometimes turning it into various decorative elaborations.
More generally, I believe that to face up squarely to humanity is to see how cruel and violent human beings can be as well as to observe their capacity for generosity, self-sacrifice and charity. It is to notice that many human impulses are crude; and that much of what we see as ‘appropriate’ behaviour – even as forms of sophistication – are ways of codifiying, and often concealing, fairly basic modes of behaviour. We see this almost everywhere if we look for it – in work places, in many domestic environments and, of course, in warfare.
One of the reasons – and this connects to your previous question about language, too – that the contemporary world has invented an entire lexicon of euphemisms for death and destruction is because, thanks to television and satellites and a host of other media technologies, governments can no longer simply hide behind pat, bland generalisations as a justification for war, invasion and colonisation. Enough of the reality of warfare’s carnage and sometimes needless, gratuitous violence filters through to people in their lounge rooms and in the streets, to compel many governments to find increasingly complicated ways of reporting on and speaking about their engagement in warfare. Some of this amounts to the cynical exploitation of the resources of language.
For example, we now frequently have complex hypothetical scenarios presented as the justification for conflict (reality itself is often simply not sufficient). The most notorious recent example was the WMD scenario used to justify the overthrow of an, admittedly tyrannical, government and in order to change the balance of power in the Middle East. Much more common are phrases that have become dark clichés, such as ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘collateral damage’, which in anybody’s plain language mean death and destruction. Poets cannot change these things but they can try to speak clearly and truthfully – to speak against the tenor of these times.
Mind you, in this book my interest is not in the language of governments, but in delineating some of the starkness and plainness of existence – of stripping away, for example, a few of the veils that modern sophistications tend to impose on how we interpret childhood and the past. I try in Six Different Windows to capture something of the wildness of children and some of the strangeness of childhood – not only its unruliness, but the private, hidden spaces that childhood often occupies. For example, the evocation of the games of children in flirting with death in the poem ‘Abstractions’ is an attempt to say something about how childhood often possesses its own implacable logic and a kind of anarchic free-flow that adult language can neither fully name nor contain.
I remember that many years ago I took one of my daughters and the daughter of a neighbour on a picnic. My neighbour’s daughter – perhaps eight or nine at the time – was from an unhappy environment and as we walked back from our small picnic she suddenly moved towards a place where the ground fell away – I think it was a smallish waterfall, and the drop must have been five or 10 metres or more. She stood facing that space for a minute or so – maybe it was longer; it certainly seemed so at the time – as I entreated her to return and at the same time moved carefully towards her, unsure what she was likely to do. Eventually she returned to me – it seemed reluctantly – and we resumed our walk home, but I saw that there was a gap in that child’s being, and a space in her life, that was dangerously charged – and it was something that my entreaties, however well meant, could barely touch.
All children as they grow and begin to be more clearly formed – but while they also remain significantly unformed – feel wildness and uncertainty running powerfully through their bodies. It is an extraordinary, fundamentally visceral experience. I’m not talking here about the sexual drives of adolescence that are often so badly understood and managed in our society, but about that earlier wildness and strangeness of being eight and nine, or even five and six. Different ideas of gender float much more freely and unselfconsciously through the body at those ages than they tend to do later, as do a variety of notions connected to what we often call identity, but which may be better called what-it-is-like-to-be-me-here-now-in-this-world. Children are usually less alienated from their animal natures; and their pleasure in inhabiting their bodies can be extreme and profound. They are also often very matter-of-fact about what happens to them and what they do – many of the public dramas of childhood are imposed on children by parents who interpret childish happenstance through their own sets of values.
For example, young children often don’t see truth and lies in the way that adults see these things and have to be taught that a lie is a lie and is also not-a-good-thing. Lies, in fact, are often the result of a playful, inventive imagination, and the capacity to construct lies is part of the capacity of human beings to make their world differently from the way that they find it. To be able to lie is to be able to invent. This has been commented on before, but it needs reiteration in a society where many people seem to have an absurdly literal idea of truth and falsity while at the same time being prepared to believe in the literal truth of religious stories that, as far as we can tell, are not even claiming to be literally true – no matter how important they may be for other reasons.
There’s a disjuncture here between the truth as we can know it through our bodily experience in the world and the ‘truth’ that people wish to insist on as artefacts of ideology and self-consciousness. So much human conflict – between adults and children, and between adults and adults – results from disjunctures of this kind, and from the insistence of one party that they know better than another. Poetry, I hope, can be a small antidote to such insistence – a way of looking more accurately at how we are as human beings; and a way of turning our values and assumptions through a variety of different lens.
So, in answer to your question, and among a variety of other preoccupations, this book tries to tease out from childhood, from the archaeological past, from mythological stories and tropes and their connections to contemporary preoccupations, and from the ordinary happenstance of things, some of the less-remarked-upon truths to do with different ways in which we are all implicated in violence and cruelty. We all live with it and know it in myriad ways – even the most gentle and peacable among us – and it constitutes a significant part of what we all are. This is not male testosterone at work – although that is part of it, no doubt – but is about a significant part of what human beings know of themselves in general.
If you have one hope for Six Different Windows, and one hope for poetry more generally, what would those hopes be?
I think that the only hope I have for Six Different Windows is that it finds some sympathetic and engaged readers—and, of course, that someone decides to publish an interview with me about the publication!
As for poetry more generally, I have the – perhaps optimistic – belief that poetry is undergoing something of a resurgence both in Australia and internationally. There are certainly many people writing strong and interesting poetry in this country, and these include poets who are not necessarily well known or widely published. In a globalised world that tends to define success in terms of material prosperity, poetry offers ways into connecting, or re-connecting, with spiritual matters – and, when I use the word ‘spiritual’, I don’t mean religious belief. What I mean is that there are important ways of being nurtured, and of living more generally, which connect to what was once called the soul. We no longer make use of that word very much, but we have no obvious replacement for it either. What the soul needs is what often animates and activates poetry – a cognisance of some of the greater complexities of existence beyond thoughts of immediate gain and individual desire. Arguably, attention to the soul also breeds complexity of mind and, as it does so, has the potential to keep the body – and perhaps the body politic – healthy.
Further, because poetry represents a way of expressing complex ideas and feelings beyond what we usually acknowledge in our daily speaking and doing, it offers a way for people to register a sense of complexity in themselves – and in their associates – that may otherwise go unnoticed. In other words, poetry – and art in general – promises to alleviate that frequent neglect of what one might call ‘possibility’. Poetry is able to yield the hard-to-quantify return of stimulating an individual’s sense of who they might actually be or become, and how they might imagine themselves more fully. It can, in ways that often go unremarked – but are no less profound for that – change a person’s ground of existence. Some people might scoff at this and say that poetry is not much read and changes nothing – and for many people that may be true. However, poetry undoubtedly changes some lives and has the potential to change others. Both reading and writing poetry represent the possibility of better things in a world that sorely needs this possibility.
At the University of Canberra I have been closely involved in establishing the online journal, Axon: Creative Explorations and in founding the International Poetry Studies Institute (IPSI). These activities are attempts to find new ways to publish, discuss and value poetry and poets, and to conduct research into poetry. There is much to be done on these fronts because, in Australia in particular, poetry has been relatively neglected in recent decades – in the literary pages of newspapers, by larger publishers, and even by some writers centres and networks. I believe that it requires focused support and that university research into poetry needs to be pursued as actively as possible.
Overall, then, my hope for poetry is a relatively simple one – that it may prosper and be better supported and understood.