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Interviews

The City and the Writer: In Canberra with Paul Hetherington

Paul Hetherington talks with Nathalie Handal about green spaces, the making of literary places, and otherness in Canberra.
Portrait of writer Paul Hetherington reading from a book in front of a microphone
Photo: FUKAHORI Mizuho

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 Canberra as you feel/see it?

There is a wispy, sometimes evanescent quality to Canberra; a stillness qualified by a sense of intimation—like subtle movement at the edge of dusk. The proliferation of wildlife in Canberra’s native grasslands and shrublands creates a concomitant sense of activity; a buoyant mood associated with birds climbing and shrilling.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

 In Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino writes, “I thought: If Adelma is a city I am seeing in a dream, where you encounter only the dead, the dream frightens me.” In 2015, when I was in Rome, I received the news that a dear friend of mine had died in Canberra. That evening, I had a powerful, trance-like sense of my friend’s presence—a visitation. My absence from Canberra during his death fractures my memory of the city.


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

Canberra has many beautiful and remarkable details, many of them important to me as a poet. Often, I see them and do not see them, simultaneously—not knowing I’ve seen them until I begin to write about them. Canberra is called “the bush capital,” and one of its extraordinary details is the prevalence of green spaces and extended pathways intersecting its suburbs—such as Hassett Park in Campbell; the green corridor that runs along the edge of Lake Burley Griffin; and numerous walkways and grassy tracks. They allow perambulations of the kind that many of the world’s urban spaces cannot offer.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Many writers gravitate to Canberra, even when born elsewhere, and there are perhaps more writers per capita in Canberra than in any other Australian place. The fine writer (one of Australia’s most famous poets) Judith Wright is now closely associated with Canberra, as are the poets Rosemary Dobson and A.D. Hope. The novelist and memoirist Marion Halligan has written many eloquent works that draw on her life here.


Is there a place here you return to often?

I often return to places I’ve visited with friends—cafés, restaurants, parks, shops, and the like. A number are situated near Lake Burley Griffin, the beautiful artificial lake at the heart of Canberra. I enjoy walking on paths that encircle the lake, or sitting in cafés glimpsing that ever-shifting body of water.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

 There are various literary places in Canberra, including a “poets’ corner”—consisting of three bronze busts of poets by Cathy Weiszmann—and Manning Clark House, which memorializes an esteemed historian while hosting various literary and cultural events and programs. However, being a relatively young city, Canberra has fewer iconic literary places than many other cities—such places are still in the process of being made.


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

Canberra was constructed according to a plan, being conceived of as both a garden city and the Australian capital. It was designed by the American Walter Burley Griffin, with creative input from Marion Mahony Griffin, who had previously worked with the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Many of its hidden places are residues of what existed prior to 1913, when the new city’s construction began—sites of Indigenous heritage on Mount Majura, fugitive waterways and old buildings: a kind of palimpsest largely overwritten by Canberra’s well-planned monuments, government buildings, and suburbs. It’s as if one might fold away the Canberra plan and find a starker, more laconic place beneath it.


Where does passion live here?

Passion in Canberra is most obviously associated with its argumentative political life as the seat of Australia’s parliament. However, there is a different kind of passion for writers experiencing what it’s like to be alive in a relatively young city where a sense of nascency and coming-into-being is underpinned by the world’s oldest continental crust, originating 4.4 billion years ago.


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

One of the prose poems published in my recent book, Ragged Disclosures, is titled “The Word on Our Lips.” It begins: “The word on our lips is ‘fire,’ pushing smoke through the hills, sullying our conception of place.” The poem derives from my experience of the 2003 Canberra bushfires, during which approximately five hundred homes were destroyed and four people died. I remember standing on the roof of our house and stuffing tea towels into downpipes to prevent embers settling in them, and friends arriving who had lost almost everything they owned.


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

Canberra incorporates the notion of an “outside.” Many people who live here come from elsewhere, and Canberrans travel regularly to other Australian or international places. The city is ghosted by otherness, living in the shadow of the many world cities that preceded its planning and influenced its conception and development. In this way, the outside is already inside Canberra, and the city is constantly pushed and pulled by what lies beyond its borders.


Paul Hetherington
is a distinguished Australian poet who has published seventeen full-length collections of poetry and prose poetry, including Ragged Disclosures (Recent Work Press, 2022), Her One Hundred and Seven Words (MadHat Press, 2021) and the coauthored book of epistolary prose poetry Fugitive Letters (with Cassandra Atherton; Recent Work Press, 2020), along with a verse novel, twelve poetry chapbooks, and two collaborative artist’s books. He is also a well-known scholar and, with Cassandra Atherton, coauthored Prose Poetry: An Introduction (Princeton University Press, 2020) and coedited Anthology of Australian Prose Poetry (Melbourne University Press, 2020). He has won or been nominated for more than forty national and international awards and competitions, recently winning the 2021 Bruce Dawe National Poetry Prize. In 2014, he won the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards for the best poetry book published in Australia, and in 2017, he was shortlisted for the prestigious Kenneth Slessor Prize. He undertook a six-month Australia Council Residency at the BR Whiting Studio in Rome in 2015–16 and was awarded one of two places on the 2012 Australian Poetry Tour of Ireland. Paul is Professor of Writing in the Faculty of Arts and Design at the University of Canberra, head of the International Poetry Studies Institute (IPSI), and joint founding editor of the international online journal Axon: Creative Explorations. He founded the International Prose Poetry Group in 2014. He also worked for the National Library of Australia, where he was founding editor of the library’s quarterly humanities and literary journal Voices (1991–97). He chaired the ACT Cultural Council (2005–13) and the ACT Public Art Panel (2006–11), and in these roles instigated various arts initiatives and led the development and delivery of the first comprehensive policy and action framework for public art in the Australian Capital Territory.


Copyright © 2022 by Paul Hetherington. 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 Canberra as you feel/see it?

There is a wispy, sometimes evanescent quality to Canberra; a stillness qualified by a sense of intimation—like subtle movement at the edge of dusk. The proliferation of wildlife in Canberra’s native grasslands and shrublands creates a concomitant sense of activity; a buoyant mood associated with birds climbing and shrilling.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

 In Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino writes, “I thought: If Adelma is a city I am seeing in a dream, where you encounter only the dead, the dream frightens me.” In 2015, when I was in Rome, I received the news that a dear friend of mine had died in Canberra. That evening, I had a powerful, trance-like sense of my friend’s presence—a visitation. My absence from Canberra during his death fractures my memory of the city.


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

Canberra has many beautiful and remarkable details, many of them important to me as a poet. Often, I see them and do not see them, simultaneously—not knowing I’ve seen them until I begin to write about them. Canberra is called “the bush capital,” and one of its extraordinary details is the prevalence of green spaces and extended pathways intersecting its suburbs—such as Hassett Park in Campbell; the green corridor that runs along the edge of Lake Burley Griffin; and numerous walkways and grassy tracks. They allow perambulations of the kind that many of the world’s urban spaces cannot offer.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Many writers gravitate to Canberra, even when born elsewhere, and there are perhaps more writers per capita in Canberra than in any other Australian place. The fine writer (one of Australia’s most famous poets) Judith Wright is now closely associated with Canberra, as are the poets Rosemary Dobson and A.D. Hope. The novelist and memoirist Marion Halligan has written many eloquent works that draw on her life here.


Is there a place here you return to often?

I often return to places I’ve visited with friends—cafés, restaurants, parks, shops, and the like. A number are situated near Lake Burley Griffin, the beautiful artificial lake at the heart of Canberra. I enjoy walking on paths that encircle the lake, or sitting in cafés glimpsing that ever-shifting body of water.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

 There are various literary places in Canberra, including a “poets’ corner”—consisting of three bronze busts of poets by Cathy Weiszmann—and Manning Clark House, which memorializes an esteemed historian while hosting various literary and cultural events and programs. However, being a relatively young city, Canberra has fewer iconic literary places than many other cities—such places are still in the process of being made.


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

Canberra was constructed according to a plan, being conceived of as both a garden city and the Australian capital. It was designed by the American Walter Burley Griffin, with creative input from Marion Mahony Griffin, who had previously worked with the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Many of its hidden places are residues of what existed prior to 1913, when the new city’s construction began—sites of Indigenous heritage on Mount Majura, fugitive waterways and old buildings: a kind of palimpsest largely overwritten by Canberra’s well-planned monuments, government buildings, and suburbs. It’s as if one might fold away the Canberra plan and find a starker, more laconic place beneath it.


Where does passion live here?

Passion in Canberra is most obviously associated with its argumentative political life as the seat of Australia’s parliament. However, there is a different kind of passion for writers experiencing what it’s like to be alive in a relatively young city where a sense of nascency and coming-into-being is underpinned by the world’s oldest continental crust, originating 4.4 billion years ago.


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

One of the prose poems published in my recent book, Ragged Disclosures, is titled “The Word on Our Lips.” It begins: “The word on our lips is ‘fire,’ pushing smoke through the hills, sullying our conception of place.” The poem derives from my experience of the 2003 Canberra bushfires, during which approximately five hundred homes were destroyed and four people died. I remember standing on the roof of our house and stuffing tea towels into downpipes to prevent embers settling in them, and friends arriving who had lost almost everything they owned.


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

Canberra incorporates the notion of an “outside.” Many people who live here come from elsewhere, and Canberrans travel regularly to other Australian or international places. The city is ghosted by otherness, living in the shadow of the many world cities that preceded its planning and influenced its conception and development. In this way, the outside is already inside Canberra, and the city is constantly pushed and pulled by what lies beyond its borders.


Paul Hetherington
is a distinguished Australian poet who has published seventeen full-length collections of poetry and prose poetry, including Ragged Disclosures (Recent Work Press, 2022), Her One Hundred and Seven Words (MadHat Press, 2021) and the coauthored book of epistolary prose poetry Fugitive Letters (with Cassandra Atherton; Recent Work Press, 2020), along with a verse novel, twelve poetry chapbooks, and two collaborative artist’s books. He is also a well-known scholar and, with Cassandra Atherton, coauthored Prose Poetry: An Introduction (Princeton University Press, 2020) and coedited Anthology of Australian Prose Poetry (Melbourne University Press, 2020). He has won or been nominated for more than forty national and international awards and competitions, recently winning the 2021 Bruce Dawe National Poetry Prize. In 2014, he won the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards for the best poetry book published in Australia, and in 2017, he was shortlisted for the prestigious Kenneth Slessor Prize. He undertook a six-month Australia Council Residency at the BR Whiting Studio in Rome in 2015–16 and was awarded one of two places on the 2012 Australian Poetry Tour of Ireland. Paul is Professor of Writing in the Faculty of Arts and Design at the University of Canberra, head of the International Poetry Studies Institute (IPSI), and joint founding editor of the international online journal Axon: Creative Explorations. He founded the International Prose Poetry Group in 2014. He also worked for the National Library of Australia, where he was founding editor of the library’s quarterly humanities and literary journal Voices (1991–97). He chaired the ACT Cultural Council (2005–13) and the ACT Public Art Panel (2006–11), and in these roles instigated various arts initiatives and led the development and delivery of the first comprehensive policy and action framework for public art in the Australian Capital Territory.


Copyright © 2022 by Paul Hetherington. All rights reserved.

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