Skip to main content
Outdated Browser

For the best experience using our website, we recommend upgrading your browser to a newer version or switching to a supported browser.

More Information

Nonfiction

The City and the Writer: In Melbourne with Cassandra Atherton

Cassandra Atherton talks with Nathalie Handal about literature, lockdown, and hidden cities in Melbourne, Australia.
Portrait of writer Cassandra Atherton

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Melbourne as you feel/see it?

There is a restlessness in the city that I have grown to love—it’s like a swaying cat’s tail. Melbourne is in a constant state of becoming; making and remaking itself. While Melburnians are superficially known for their coffee snobbery, preference for wearing black, and layering their clothes for the changeable weather, Melbourne is a deeply self-reflexive city.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

During the COVID pandemic, Melbourne had the longest lockdown of anywhere in the world—262 days. And for most of the pandemic, the city had a curfew from 9:00 PM to 5:00 AM and restrictions preventing citizens from roaming more than five kilometers in any direction from their homes. It broke the city and its people, and we are still in a long process of recovery.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Melbourne has some of the most stunning parks and gardens. I love the transient beauty of cherry blossoms. The Royal Botanic Gardens has a cross between the Fuji cherry and the Taiwan cherry called the Okamé cherry, which is incredibly beautiful when it flowers.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Chris Wallace-Crabbe is considered one of the first quintessentially Melbourne poets (after CJ Dennis). He has a poem, “Melbourne,” that is often studied in secondary schools and laments the city’s stagnancy. It ends with these lines: “ . . . The artists sail at dawn / For brisker ports, or rot in public bars. / Though much has died here, nothing has been born.” So much has changed since this poem was published, but the city still questions its relevance as much as it asserts it. Chris was my PhD supervisor at the University of Melbourne.


Is there a place here you return to often?

I love long, lazy afternoons at Claypots Evening Star at the South Melbourne market. I can sit on a barstool at the bench, loop the handles of my handbag over the hook next to me, drink Gilgamesh shiraz (or vodka sodas) with a friend and dream. I love the intense smell of garlic and chili and the way it curls into my hair. I watch the chefs flip the whole fish, prawns, or mussels in their pans, and sometimes I write poems on my phone.   


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

In 2008, Melbourne was named the second UNESCO “City of Literature” because of its historical and ongoing commitment to writing and literature. There are thriving literary festivals and symposia, famous bookshops, brilliant writers, publishers and literary organizations, and also incredible libraries across the city. I love the State Library Victoria. It’s Australia’s oldest library and one of the first free libraries in the world.  The octagonal reading room called “the Dome” is breathtaking, and I’ve always loved the green reading lamps.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?
 

Laneways and arcades are like hidden cities in Melbourne. I love Hardware Lane with its sprawling restaurants, light, and leafiness, and the ornate Block Arcade.


Where does passion live here?

Probably at the football! Australian Rules football started in Victoria. During the football season, some people paint their fences in their team’s colors or hang football scarves out of their car windows. It’s rowdy and competitive, but it’s also community-building, as lots of families attend and barrack together for their team—often while they eat Four’n Twenty meat pies and sauce.


What is the title of one of your works about Melbourne and what inspired it exactly?

I’ve written a lot of prose poetry set in Melbourne, even if it’s not always referenced explicitly. My prose poem “Bonds,” published in the The Best Australian Poems series, is actually about a plain white cotton t-shirt that the Australian company Bonds are famous for making. We have a Bonds factory outlet down the road from my house, and the poem was inspired when my husband bought one. It’s supposed to be darkly comic and begins, “You wore a white Bonds t-shirt to bed last night. A plain, white, no-nonsense Bonds t-shirt and I knew it was over. I heard the death knell.”


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Melbourne does an outside exist?”

Melburnians carry their city with them wherever they go. I remember being in Sydney and the students at the university telling me that I had “Melbourne vowel sounds.” It reminded me of that scene in My Fair Lady where Professor Higgins can detect the town or city in which someone was born based solely on their accent. So, I’m a little piece of Melbourne, wherever I travel.


Cassandra Atherton
is an award-winning and widely anthologized prose poet and international expert on prose poetry. She has written ten volumes of prose poetry, most recently Leftovers (Gazebo, 2020), and her prose poetry has been translated into Japanese, Chinese, and Korean. Cassandra coauthored Prose Poetry: An Introduction (Princeton University Press, 2020) and coedited the Anthology of Australian Prose Poetry (Melbourne University Press, 2020) with Paul Hetherington. She is a commissioning editor for Westerly magazine and associate editor at MadHat Press (USA). She is currently writing a book of prose poems on the Hiroshima Maidens with funding from the Australia Council. Cassandra was a visiting scholar in English at Harvard University and a visiting fellow at Sophia University in Tokyo, and is currently a professor of writing and literature at Deakin University.


Copyright © 2022 by Cassandra Atherton. All rights reserved.

English

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Melbourne as you feel/see it?

There is a restlessness in the city that I have grown to love—it’s like a swaying cat’s tail. Melbourne is in a constant state of becoming; making and remaking itself. While Melburnians are superficially known for their coffee snobbery, preference for wearing black, and layering their clothes for the changeable weather, Melbourne is a deeply self-reflexive city.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

During the COVID pandemic, Melbourne had the longest lockdown of anywhere in the world—262 days. And for most of the pandemic, the city had a curfew from 9:00 PM to 5:00 AM and restrictions preventing citizens from roaming more than five kilometers in any direction from their homes. It broke the city and its people, and we are still in a long process of recovery.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Melbourne has some of the most stunning parks and gardens. I love the transient beauty of cherry blossoms. The Royal Botanic Gardens has a cross between the Fuji cherry and the Taiwan cherry called the Okamé cherry, which is incredibly beautiful when it flowers.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Chris Wallace-Crabbe is considered one of the first quintessentially Melbourne poets (after CJ Dennis). He has a poem, “Melbourne,” that is often studied in secondary schools and laments the city’s stagnancy. It ends with these lines: “ . . . The artists sail at dawn / For brisker ports, or rot in public bars. / Though much has died here, nothing has been born.” So much has changed since this poem was published, but the city still questions its relevance as much as it asserts it. Chris was my PhD supervisor at the University of Melbourne.


Is there a place here you return to often?

I love long, lazy afternoons at Claypots Evening Star at the South Melbourne market. I can sit on a barstool at the bench, loop the handles of my handbag over the hook next to me, drink Gilgamesh shiraz (or vodka sodas) with a friend and dream. I love the intense smell of garlic and chili and the way it curls into my hair. I watch the chefs flip the whole fish, prawns, or mussels in their pans, and sometimes I write poems on my phone.   


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

In 2008, Melbourne was named the second UNESCO “City of Literature” because of its historical and ongoing commitment to writing and literature. There are thriving literary festivals and symposia, famous bookshops, brilliant writers, publishers and literary organizations, and also incredible libraries across the city. I love the State Library Victoria. It’s Australia’s oldest library and one of the first free libraries in the world.  The octagonal reading room called “the Dome” is breathtaking, and I’ve always loved the green reading lamps.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?
 

Laneways and arcades are like hidden cities in Melbourne. I love Hardware Lane with its sprawling restaurants, light, and leafiness, and the ornate Block Arcade.


Where does passion live here?

Probably at the football! Australian Rules football started in Victoria. During the football season, some people paint their fences in their team’s colors or hang football scarves out of their car windows. It’s rowdy and competitive, but it’s also community-building, as lots of families attend and barrack together for their team—often while they eat Four’n Twenty meat pies and sauce.


What is the title of one of your works about Melbourne and what inspired it exactly?

I’ve written a lot of prose poetry set in Melbourne, even if it’s not always referenced explicitly. My prose poem “Bonds,” published in the The Best Australian Poems series, is actually about a plain white cotton t-shirt that the Australian company Bonds are famous for making. We have a Bonds factory outlet down the road from my house, and the poem was inspired when my husband bought one. It’s supposed to be darkly comic and begins, “You wore a white Bonds t-shirt to bed last night. A plain, white, no-nonsense Bonds t-shirt and I knew it was over. I heard the death knell.”


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Melbourne does an outside exist?”

Melburnians carry their city with them wherever they go. I remember being in Sydney and the students at the university telling me that I had “Melbourne vowel sounds.” It reminded me of that scene in My Fair Lady where Professor Higgins can detect the town or city in which someone was born based solely on their accent. So, I’m a little piece of Melbourne, wherever I travel.


Cassandra Atherton
is an award-winning and widely anthologized prose poet and international expert on prose poetry. She has written ten volumes of prose poetry, most recently Leftovers (Gazebo, 2020), and her prose poetry has been translated into Japanese, Chinese, and Korean. Cassandra coauthored Prose Poetry: An Introduction (Princeton University Press, 2020) and coedited the Anthology of Australian Prose Poetry (Melbourne University Press, 2020) with Paul Hetherington. She is a commissioning editor for Westerly magazine and associate editor at MadHat Press (USA). She is currently writing a book of prose poems on the Hiroshima Maidens with funding from the Australia Council. Cassandra was a visiting scholar in English at Harvard University and a visiting fellow at Sophia University in Tokyo, and is currently a professor of writing and literature at Deakin University.


Copyright © 2022 by Cassandra Atherton. All rights reserved.

Read Next