THE THINGLINESS OF THINGS: an interview with Jen Webb and Paul Hetherington
The scholar who admits to taking images on her phone when tipsy. The poet who exhibits his work in art galleries. A little capital city that was boldly designed from the ground up. And the book the three of them have created. No, this is not the start of a joke; it’s a very serious business. (Well, mostly.)
Jen Webb is Distinguished Professor of Creative Practice at the University of Canberra and Director of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research. She has published 18 books, some creative, most of them scholarly, with several translated and republished for Chinese, Korean and Indian readerships. Her scholarly work for the most part deals with art, visual culture, and representation. She also makes and exhibits artist books, incorporating her photographs and fragments of creative writing, and has published and performed her poetry across Australia and New Zealand, and in Canada, the UK and the USA.
Paul Hetherington has previously published eight full-length collections of poetry, three poetry chapbooks and a collaborative book of poetry and digital imagery with Anita Fitton. He won the 2014 Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards (poetry) and was a finalist in the 2014 international Aesthetica Creative Writing Competition. He was also shortlisted for the 2013 Newcastle Poetry Prize and the 2013 Montreal International Poetry prize. In 2014 he was awarded an Australia Council for the Arts Residency at the BR Whiting Studio in Rome. He is Professor of Writing in the Faculty of Arts and Design at the University of Canberra and head of the International Poetry Studies Institute (IPSI) there.
What is it that they have created? And why?
Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone
Congratulations on the publication of Watching the World: impressions of Canberra (Blemish Books, 2015). It’s a beautifully produced collection of images and poems focussing on one of the world’s most intriguing designed cities – in a way it is both a unique coffee-table anthology and an exploration of a place. What was the motivation for the book?
The motivation was the Centenary of Canberra, 2013: the celebration of a hundred years since the establishment of Australia’s national capital. There’s a lovely line in a Dorothy Porter poem: ‘Imagine a city/where it’s mostly/imagine’ (from ‘On Reading EM Forster’s Guide to Alexandria’, in her collection The Bee Hut, Black Inc., 2009). A small group of us here at the University of Canberra wanted to put on an exhibition as part of the Centenary celebrations, and riffing off Dorothy’s line, we called the exhibition Imagine Canberra.
Paul and I decided we would do a collaborative poetry + photography piece, works that reflected our own personal and idiosyncratic Canberra(s), and we exhibited these in little balsa-wood cheese boxes, their circular shape mirroring Canberra’s endlessly circling roads, and the great circles on the Griffin-Mahoney designs of Canberra. Getting the work together forced us to spend quite a bit of time moving around in, looking at, and thinking about this place: at once our hometown, and the government centre of the country.
We showed the work twice: in the Belconnen Arts Centre, as part of Imagine Canberra, and again at a creative writing conference held at the end of 2013. By this point we had come (a) to really like the ideas in the work and (b) to want to improve it – change the saturation in the photos, for instance; sharpen up some of the lines of poetry; develop it all a bit more.
Jen has nicely summed up how the exhibition and publication got underway, and what we then did. It was a chance to extend my collaborative work with a poet and artist I admire a great deal – and someone who is a very supportive and generous colleague, too. I thought Jen’s photographs for this project were wonderfully engaging from the first time she showed me a few of them – representing views of Canberra, a national capital, that were at once intimate, observant, unexpected, and full of the quotidian stuff of the city.
Yet, this was not so much the quotidian doings of Canberra’s citizens – although Jen’s images do represent those doings in judicious and creative ways. The images captured the quotidian life of the city itself as expressed in buildings, places, monuments, scenes and occasions. There are large views and vistas, and small, exquisite details. Some of the images have a relaxed and deceptive apparent casualness that welcomes the viewer while being sharply observant.
They were superb images to work with as a poet; and posed the challenge: how shall I find words that will have their own life and poetic structures while also complementing Jen’s visual imagery, and which will create some sort of implicit dialogue between image and poem? I did not wish my poems to be ekphrastic or descriptive works; I wanted them to be companion pieces; pieces that spoke to what Jen had seen and made; and which saw and were made differently, but in strongly connected ways. The original project title, ‘Circles and Intersections’, acknowledged this process – of the way we both circled and intersected with each other’s work, and its creative imaginings; how we didn’t try to find too many straight lines of connection; how we made a book that celebrates the circuitous and lateral connections that Canberra as a designed city embodies and expresses in various ways for all of its occupants – and for visitors, too.
In such ways, the book is certainly an exploration of place; and it is an exploration of how seeing double sometimes has a multiplying effect. Our joined imaginings about Canberra are an attempt to provide multiple perspectives that arise from the nearly simultaneous consideration of laterally related visual and verbal imagery.
The Porter line about cities and imagination seems fantastically appropriate to Canberra, especially when paired with the stated ambition of Walter Burley Griffin, the American landscape architect Walter Burley Griffin who, in collaboration with Marion Mahony Griffin, won the international design competition for Australia’s national capital: ‘I have planned a city that is not like any other in the world.’ I wonder if you both could talk more about the intersection between the urban imagination – or the imagination of the urban – and the visual/poetic imagination. By this I mean, do you believe there is a direct link between Canberra being a place of such imaginative deliberation and how you produced the work in Watching the World?
That’s a good question, and one that’s not easy to answer. This book is a culmination for me of nearly 25 years as an inhabitant of Canberra, and it incorporates many years of responding to the city on a daily basis – responses that are no doubt embedded in the rhythms and cadences of my poetry as well as in its observations.
In terms of the city more particularly, I have always been attracted to poetry, and to art in general, partly because it is made – because it is designed – and I remember when I arrived in Canberra a key aspect of the attraction of this city for me was the attractive strangeness of finding a place that would be a home in the usual informal ways associated with homeliness, while also being conspicuously and rather grandly conceived and ‘made’ – even if not made entirely in Walter Burley Griffin’s and Marion Mahony Griffin’s original image.
Exploring the city poetically for this book constituted a re-engagement with what I knew in this way – as a citizen of a city who had carried my impressions of its original and attractive strangeness with me for two and a half decades but who also wished to reappraise it. In doing so, I realised that I’d never relinquished the sense that Canberra was not like other cities and that I enjoyed this idea of its difference (some people criticise Canberra for that – they suggest that it is sterile, or too organised, or what-have-you – but I have always liked the sense of reserve the city possesses). I used this sense of difference as my point of departure for the poems I wrote.
I was also reminded that Canberra is a city that is in the throes of growing up – simultaneously a fully-fledged national capital and a mixture of suburban and semi-rural spaces. Much of its current charm comes from the way the grid-lines of its original design, and the beauty of its landscapes, are sprawling in ways that are creating a more modern, more haphazard place, despite the efforts of planners to control and moderate such development.
Jen’s photographs capture this in-between, sprawling moment in our city’s life very well and with considerable subtlety, and I love that about them. My poems respond to that quality; as well as to the thoughtful, sometimes playful, sometimes almost quizzical spirit of her work and, as a result, they are about her images of the city as well as about the city as I know it.
I suppose, then, that the poems are written out of an attempt to say, isn’t this interesting – to be here; to see a city like this in its current stage of development; to live in a place that’s so extraordinary but which I mostly know in a daily, ordinary way and which Jen has helped me see freshly. I tried to find words to speak directly and simply of such things – a complex city’s complicated life.
Jen, was this shifting between the ordinary and the extraordinary, as Paul describes it, something that you tried to work with when producing your images?
I don’t think I ever aimed to shift between the ordinary and the extraordinary. My conscious aim was to find images of Canberra that were entirely quotidian, even banal. If there is a shift to the extraordinary here and there, that’s quite likely because the everyday world itself is extraordinary, or at least contains the extraordinary. I used my smaller camera and my phone camera, and deliberately just took snapshots – a shameful thing to do, no doubt, but I had a vague idea that this would allow me to be very ordinary, and to capture images en passant, as it were: not capital P Photos, but the everyday glimpses of the city we Canberrans see, often without noticing them, because they are so very familiar.
Walter Abish has a sort of a treatise on this in his wonderful novel How German Is It (W W Norton & Co Inc, 1980) where one of his characters presents a lesson on the familiar, and how very hard we – or the familiar things themselves – must work to achieve that status. I’ve always been taken by the idea that, when looked at aslant, everything becomes new and strange. And that because photographs – even snapshots – freeze the moment, they afford a sudden stasis in which we can look again at what has just flickered past our eyes, and in looking, come to see.
After Paul wrote the first group of poems that responded to my photos, I was quite captivated by the almost delicate tiptoeing into his lyrical versions of Canberra. Especially in a couple of the very short poems, there was a sort of catching and releasing of breath. His response to my shot of the RAAF memorial on ANZAC Parade, for example: ‘Hands that have left/no print/being wings’ seems to me to be a sort of sob, or stutter of breath; a hesitation in Paul’s articulation that reflects the stutter, or perhaps shudder, in history caused by all those unnecessary deaths, and all the sorrow and rage that accompanied them.
After reading his poems, I went out and took more photos, still aiming at the banal but perhaps a little more infused now by lyricism; and then in the process of preparing the photos for the exhibition – cropping and cleaning – I deliberately over-saturated them to make them un-real, more like 1960s picture postcards, more like an evocation than a record – attempting in that way to creep a little closer to the poems themselves. It seemed to me that the process we followed in this collaboration – back and forth, show and tell, revisit and reshape – led to the poems and photos leaning closer and closer to each other until they became less two discrete bodies of work, and more a single statement, if that makes sense.
Another example of the image and the poem merging to become a single statement is ‘Conversations’. Could you both talk a little about how this particular work came together?
These works – Jen’s photograph and my brief poem entitled ‘Conversations’ – began with her image of chairs on a table in what looked like a cafe. I liked this image immensely, not only because of the shapes of the chairs, but because of the way the image foregrounded them. A detail that is usually overlooked or taken for granted – the putting up of chairs at the end of the day, often for cleaning purposes – was placed centre stage. And it was placed in such a way that the usual narratives associated with such details were obscured – was this, indeed, a cafe; if so, where was it; and what was the connection to the shop where, as the sign says, there was a ‘suit sale’; etcetera?
The image was like a quotidian fragment with almost no contextualising narrative. It said to me: ‘Look at this. This is what happens every day in many, many places. And, ordinary as it is, there’s something noteworthy about it; and even a kind of beauty inherent in the daily rhythms of the opening and closing of shops; and of people coming and going.’ And, as I looked, I thought the chairs were like faux gold crowns – not only in their upturned shapes and colour, but in the way the act of placing them on tables at the end of a day ‘crowned’ the day’s business. The image also reminded me that conversations in cafes are often of a particularly ephemeral nature; that cafes are frequently less than entirely satisfactory; and also that there’s a certain drabness about the decor of many such places.
In my poem I didn’t want to say everything suggested to me by the image; rather I wanted to make a work that might complement the image and provide the reader/viewer with the chance to look twice, as it were, at what Jen had made – once to ‘read’ the image in the first place; and then to read it again through the poem. In this way the poem was written to be at the image’s service.
However, I also wanted the dynamic to work the other way, so that readers of the poem could afterwards attend to the image, importing its visual information back into my words. The poem is deliberately restrained as a result – to allow such a dynamic to occur. It says what I hope is just-enough-and-no-more to be part of that larger conversation between image and word:
The café was more drab
than he’d remembered,
strewn in awkward pride
like yellow crowns.
Ditto to all Paul said. I took that photo extremely late on New Year’s Eve, slightly tipsy, when we stopped off at the Belconnen shops to pick up milk for the morning’s coffee. The place was almost entirely deserted, with everything but the grocer shut down and asleep. I loved the colour of the chairs and the shape of their legs in the air. When I showed Paul, he responded as he said, which led me to revisit the chair images I’d shot, change the saturation, change the cropping etc. I decided, after reading ‘Conversations’, to pull in very tight around the chairs so that it was AllAboutThem. They are, of course, awkward in that upside-down context – gawky, inelegant, and yet entirely chairs. Thinking about the ephemerality of conversation in cafes, I came to feel that the chairs were utterly uninterested in what we have to say, and that perhaps what matters to them are the long quiet nights when they commune only with each other. (I know of course they are only made objects and not sentient beings, but you know . . .)
Do you see the publication of Watching the World as the end of this project?
I think the Watching the World project is over; we’ve exhibited the work (twice), reworked it, and now published it. But the notion of watching the world is by no means over. Paul and I worked on two other photography+poetry collaborations last year, and are presently working on another, and all have involved, to a very great extent, looking closely at the everyday things of the world, and responding to them. I find myself uninterested in whatever is ‘grand’, whether it’s abstract theories or material objects that are labelled as such. I tend to photograph the un-grand: water, street signs, graffiti, leaves, stones. I like to see what they might say to me in their small voices. Paul has a wonderful ability to find the smallest gesture, the most ordinary story, and translate it into a clear and captivating poem. So many of his poems treat the everyday: family relationships, something someone once said, the look of a jar or cup or dress. I think our two different-but-related aesthetics work well together.
I have been very interested, for a long time, in phenomenology as a way of pursuing research projects, and therefore interested in the thingliness of things, in ways of figuring out what it might mean to be. Related to that is a body of reading I’ve done in the writings of scholars like Humberto Maturana and Franscisco Varela, who described the reflexive mechanisms that operate in all living beings that allow them to interact with everything in their environment; this interaction means there is a constant flow of knowledge between living beings and environment, and that each is continually changing the other. They were writing as biologists, but the concepts they posited have been adopted by sociologists and philosophers et al, because they open up a very interesting space to think about cognition: knowing, being, seeing. They offer a great phrase: ‘Anything said is said by an observer’ – and in that seeing and saying, the thing is changed. I’m intrigued by how the act of observing – of watching the world – might change both me and that part of the world I am observing and ‘saying’, and might afford new ways of understanding. That’s probably enough said on that!
I very much doubt we’ll ever take the original Watching the World objects out for a spin again (in fact, I’m keen to burn them ceremonially!). I’m confident that we have more projects to come that demand we bring ourselves very close to those everyday objects, converse with them, watch what they do, and have a bash at rendering them in photos, poems or other modes of representation.
I think the answer has to be yes and no. The Watching the World book, and the related exhibition that the book grew out of, have now been produced – although, as this interview is taking place, the book is yet to be launched and it has yet to fully find its place in our literary and visual culture. But I suspect that those projects are unlikely to reappear in any other guise or manifestation.
On a broader level, the book is one of a number of joint projects that Jen and I have embarked on, all of them connected to poetry, imagery and collaboration, and in that sense – as one manifestation of that larger collaborative enterprise – it is perhaps a kind of staging post: a place where we may pause and reflect prior to producing further work.
More generally, still, I tend to think that making art is a more-or-less continuous process in which new work builds on and develops previous work; and in which there are cycles of development and recurrence. I suspect that the writing and photographs in Watching the World have already enabled other kinds of creative work for both of us, and that they will return in some form or another, perhaps years hence – and possibly when we believe that they belong only to the past. In such a recurrence they will no doubt be reinflected and perhaps even wearing disguises of some kind, but in that way they are likely to continue to be part of a future conversation that Jen and I have with one another; and they may help us make further work at that time.
I believe that artists are almost always looking back as well as forwards; that the forwards-backwards dynamic is, indeed, how the engine that drives creativity works. As we watch the world today, we understand where we have been a little better; and we also prepare for what we will do in the future.
Watching the World: Impressions of Canberra by Jen Webb and Paul Hetherington will be launched on Tuesday 21 July at the National Library of Australia in Canberra. The publication can be purchased directly from Blemish Books.