Burnt Umber is Paul Hetherington’s tenth full length collection of poetry, and he has also published five poetry chapbooks. He is head of the International Poetry Studies Institute (IPSI) in the Faculty of Arts and Design at the University of Canberra. Paul recently returned to Perth to launch Burnt Umber and he caught up with Amy Hilhorst at the University of Western Australia to talk about prose poetry, ekphrasis and the tangibility of language.
AH: Congratulations, Paul, on the achievement and publication of Burnt Umber. One of the things I noticed about the collection, along with your previous publication Six Different Windows, is the way your craft has evolved over the years. You seem to have moved away from regular stanzaic structures, to prose poems or to poems with longer enjambed sentences, with comparatively little in the way of rhyme, for instance. Can you talk a little bit about how your poetic form has developed since your earlier collections?
PH: Yes, what you say is true. This collection represents a significant new departure for me in terms of my books—in a couple of ways, actually. One of them is the presence of prose poetry in the collection. Until November 2014—as far as I can remember—I’d never written a prose poem in my life. I don’t think I’d been deliberately avoiding prose poetry, I just simply hadn’t seen it as a form that had particular appeal to me as a writer. Even now I’m not quite sure why I started. I thought about this the other day and I can’t remember specifically what motivated my first prose poem but I’ve been writing them mainly since—for about the last eighteen months. And there’s the Prose Poetry Group, which has 21 members at the moment and which is an initiative of the International Poetry Studies Institute at the University of Canberra. I started that, really by accident, by sending a prose poem to a couple of colleagues of mine at the University of Canberra. Since then the group’s grown, anthologies have been published from it and some of us are writing academic papers about prose poetry. I’ve become quite immersed in the form and feel that it’s opened up a whole range of new avenues of expression—and I’m not really quite sure why. The form seems to do a whole lot of things—as I think with it and through it—that I sometimes have trouble putting my finger on, but which I find exciting. Burnt Umber publishes some groups of prose poetry and I think that’s a real point of difference with it. These prose poems have moved me away from lineated poetry, and there’s an attractive informality about the way sentences run-on, which I love playing with. I also try to make my prose poetry very poetic as well, and given that’s in prose it’s a really interesting tension. It feels to me like a bit of an in-between space; it’s not traditional poetry and it’s not traditional prose, and I love that in-betweenness.
The other thing that’s different is the ekphrastic poetry in the book. Some of the poems that are in the two ‘Pictures at an exhibition’ sections are based on paintings I have seen at various points. Others are paintings that I’ve imagined, they don’t exist, so those I guess would be referred to as poems of notional ekphrasis. I’ve really thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of writing a response to actual or imagined paintings—bringing a second art form, poetry, to a kind of conversation with another form. Between the two art forms I think there is a kind of dialogue happening. As you would have noticed in my ekphrastic poems, the paintings are very active: they’re coming at you, they’re speaking to you, they’re moving into the room. They have a kind of independent life. I’ve partly written those poems because for a long time I’ve felt that visual art has real energy; that it’s a mistake to see paintings in a gallery as somehow passive, believing that we merely look at them and somehow divine what’s there. I think they engage with us very actively. They can almost seem alive; they’re like a living presence in the room. Anyway that’s the idea I’m working with, and it fascinates me to think about the implications of that.
And you know, more generally, in terms of the question you asked about my poetry having changed, I spent decades trying to adapt some of the traditional techniques of prosody—rhyme, metre, particularly metre, and you talked about enjambment and so on, some of the ways I could play around with lineated poetry. I wanted to get what to me were the most appealing formal effects in poetry but also to achieve a relaxed quality of utterance, or a sense of informality. I’d played around a lot with trying to get that balance and I loved experimenting with metre—using iambic pentameter or tetrameter and other metrical forms—partly to try to discipline my language and get some of the musicality and rhythmic effects which I love in reading poetry. And yes it’s true, more recently I’ve moved away from metre and some of those effects. However, they are always in my mind as a kind of guide. So even if I’m writing free verse poems, many of which are in this book, I’m trying to listen to the music, to a hidden metre within the lines. I still care about every line I write—trying to shape every line in every poem—as well as about the poem as a whole. It’s a challenge to make free verse interesting in a kind of rhythmic and musical sense, but it’s something that I’m playing with.
AH: What you said about prose poetry brings me nicely to my second question. This collection contains three sections of prose poetry, and you have written elsewhere of the ‘unstable genre boundaries’ implicit in this term. (Hetherington and Atherton 265). I’m curious as to what factors are at play in your drafting process when you make the choice to write the poem in either verse or prose form?
PH: Well, partly at the moment because I’m writing a lot of prose poetry I think I tend to default to prose poetry if I’ve got an idea. Having said that, I have also been writing some loose sonnets recently, which have all sorts of challenges quite separate from the challenges of prose poetry. And that’s often because I’m thinking about what might seem appropriate in terms of subject matter or the sound of the poem or the idea that’s driving the poem. My poems often start with a single word or a single idea or even a rhythmic sense, or a weird intuition that a poem is waiting to be written. So I tend to write first drafts quite quickly and then, once I’ve got something, I try to hear the form or intuit the form through the process of writing. Often it will emerge in the writing process. With the prose poetry I’m writing at the moment, I’m often consciously working with the prose poetry form and so that form is partly driving the ideas. For example, I was in London recently and I went to see an exhibition of Paul Strand’s photographs—partly by accident because I was going to meet someone at the V&A, and we got our arrangements mixed up so she didn’t turn up—and I didn’t know where she was. I thought I’d go and look at this exhibition instead, and I had my iPhone with me, and I was really struck by some of the photographs. I started writing ekphrastic prose poetry on my iPhone as I stood in front of these photographs. The prose poetry form enabled me to write quickly, in a way that I felt enabled me to respond quite immediately to the images. I ended up with a small five-poem suite, which acknowledges the Paul Strand collection. The contained discursiveness you can get in prose poetry seemed absolutely right for how I was responding to these photographs. The photographs themselves weren’t always discursive, but the exhibition was quite a large retrospective of Strand’s work. I felt as I was going through it that I was being given a kind of discursive way of seeing his art. My poems were sometimes responding to a whole group of images and sometimes to an individual image, and in every case I wanted to capture a feeling I had that his images were telling me something poetically. In that instance, the prose poem form seemed perfect. More generally, it’s often just an intuited sense or a particular occasion that will seem to demand a kind of writing.
AH: Your ekphrastic poems in Burnt Umber seem to delve into descriptions of paintings, and out to the event of experiencing or seeing the painting. Sometimes, such as in ‘Painting 4: Doppelganger’, you even write the speaker into the painting, blurring boundaries between visual art and poetic language, and between art and ‘reality’, as it were. How do you find the process of balancing these considerations when writing of visual art?
PH: I think it goes back to something I said a bit earlier. I’ve loved the visual arts for all of my life—nearly as long as I can remember. I can still recollect as a child my parents taking me to a gallery where some of the Sidney Nolan Ned Kelly paintings were shown. I don’t really remember—because it was such a long time ago—exactly what I thought of them. I think I found them strange, I think I found them weirdly impressive and weirdly moving without really knowing quite the story they were narrating. But they were also puzzling and curious. They seemed to be very immediate, they weren’t simply paintings that I was standing back from and examining as aesthetic objects, they were almost pressing on me. Their meanings were pressing on me. The weirdness of their imagery—the strangeness of the flat textures, and the weird geometric shapes, and the unruliness of them were pressing on me. I still have that sensation in art galleries. Many of the works are almost speaking to me. I don’t mean in actual words—instead each work deploys its own shaped calligraphy. To me looking at works of art is not that different from thinking about poems or other kinds of literary forms. The ekphrastic poems I’ve been trying to write are trying to present, in various different ways, the speaking-out of the paintings, their pressingness, the way they move into the spaces we inhabit, the way they connect to the imagination. When writing about them the poet is performing a speech act in front of or in company with the painting. That in itself can be examined. Because every act of utterance—whether it’s a painting’s notional utterance, or the painting’s actual and speaking image, or the poet talking about poetry, or the words of the poem itself—they’re all forms of trying to grapple with that elusive thing we call reality. But I always think reality is the thing that we can’t quite hold. People might say if you’re going to write about reality, write about the brickwork or write about the person you’re talking to, or the trees in the park or whatever. But I suspect those things are frequently distant from us, and often forms of art connect us more closely to reality or give us a pathway into thinking about reality, whatever that is, in a much more immediate way than walking around our quotidian world. And if you think about our language, a lot of our quotidian language is functional, useful, it can be engaging, but it’s often not all that inherently interesting. It’s aimed at achieving a purpose: ‘Can you shift the chair?’, ‘Can you cook a meal?’, whatever. I think visual art and poetic language share a number of things, and one of them is that they’re transforming reality and often putting us more closely in touch with it. If it’s good art, good poetry, it’s at least potentially a way of taking us closer to the deeper, more interesting, more elusive things about what it is to be alive, to understand a sense of who we are, and to understand what being in this world might be, if we could only say it. I think we never quite say it. At best, we’re kind of getting slantwise at one part of what that might be, but it’s a very slippery thing. So paintings, for me, are a way of thinking and feeling, ‘Oh, actually yeah, I feel closer to what the world feels like.’
AH: In your ‘Rooftop’ prose poem, there is a wonderful line: ‘he was moved by abstract paintings that had no more narrative than poems’. Is there some significance in this shared quality—this resistance to narrative—in writing a poem that is inspired by a painting?
PH: That’s a really great question. A lot of my poems—like the ‘Rooftop’ poem, which is a sequence of prose poems—narrate a story. I’ve always loved that quality about poetry. Poetry can give narrative to the reader. And I’ve enjoyed playing with narrative in my poems. Jonathan Culler said something about how in lyric poetry, even narrative sits in a kind of timeless present of the poem—whereas in a conventional novel for example, the narrative will take you forward and in that way unfold meaning to you. It takes you through imagined time, not only the time of reading, but also the time that the narrative encompasses. With some of my prose poems and some of my ekphrastic poems, I’m trying to suggest some degree of narrative in the works, but to hold that narrative in the presence of the utterance of the poem. And I think a lot of paintings do that too. If you look at them superficially, they give you one image or one set of images, which seem still and fixed. I’m saying, of course, there’s much more; that if you look at them they start to move and tell you things. But it’s that sense of the continuing present and presence of a painting that I was trying to get at in those lines from the ‘Rooftop’ poem, and which in writing Burnt Umber I’ve been to some extent trying to encapsulate. Because even the ‘Rooftop’ prose poems, which do give a narrative of a love affair, and other connected issues around time and intimacy, I’ve tried to render that experience as a series of moments which sits a little outside its narrative implications, so that you can also read the whole poem as something that’s sitting frozen in its own timeless expression of events while also offering a dynamic engagement with the reader—a kind of paradox, I suppose. The imagery, and its poetic gestures, and the suggestiveness of the poem, sit in counterpoint to the narrative and hold the narrative in a poetic place.
AH: Yeah, I think that’s a really good way of putting it. I’m researching Bruce Beaver’s work at the moment and one critic described what you’re talking about as the ‘momentaneous’ quality of poetry.
PH: That’s lovely, I hadn’t heard of that.
AH: One of my favourite poems in your book is ‘Angels at Nedlands Primary School, 1968’, where you write of a childhood belief in the supernatural. Childhood, in fact, is a theme explored in several of your collections. What is the role of memory in writing such poems, and how do you balance the voices of adult and child?
PH: Yes, that’s a great question. I have been very interested in childhood, always as a poet. That’s for lots of reasons. It’s an obvious thing to say, but a lot of really important events in anybody’s life happen in their childhood. I think there’s a lot of misremembering by adults of their childhoods, and also a kind of sentimentalising of childhood. I think childhood’s a fascinating place partly because it can be a brutal, untamed and deeply unruly place. Childhood is full of all sorts of experiences, which later are very hard to name. Adults can try to name them, but I think the nouns we use for childhood experiences often misrepresent them; we turn them into an abstract thing, which we are recollecting in hindsight. And yet, the actual experiences are deeply visceral and often quite animal-like, instinctive, instinctual and quite driven. I think children are often strongly driven by whatever idea is current with them at the time. They tend to do things as a way of thinking through them. That doing and thinking nexus is fascinating. With my childhood poems I’ve tried to get what I think of as some of the truths about childhood, which can be difficult or elusive truths. Those poems are trying to suggest certain kinds of experiences but not trying to hold those experiences tightly in the poem. That is, not to say in the poem, ‘This is what happened’, but rather saying well this is the kind of thing that happened and to leave the reader with perhaps the implicit question, ‘What are the implications of the nature of this kind of experience?’ I did go to Nedlands Primary School; I was there in 1968, but the specific details of the poem are to some extent made up, in order to make a poem out of them. But the feeling, the kind of construal of meaning that I’ve tried to get into that poem, is a way of trying to represent something of the strangeness of being a young boy and believing in the possibility of things which the adult world was trying to negate. And an environment where becoming older, learning your lessons and so on, represented a kind of loss of the dreaminess and imagined possibilities of existence. I think as educators we should try as hard as we can not to squash the dreams of children, because the dreams of children (if they remain alive and active) make better adults, by and large. My childish dreams inhabit me very strongly and I think they’re a significant part of the best of what I am, as a person.
AH: You have included in Burnt Umber a section called ‘Viscera: poems from WWII’. What does it mean to write and publish World War II poems in the 21st century?
PH: I think it can mean a whole lot of different things, depending on what you’re trying to do. In my case, it was partly a way of memorialising my father, who died in February 2015, and who was a very important person to me. He had been through World War II, and that experience had changed his life in all sorts of ways. He had left school as a working class kid, and after he came back from the war, because of opportunities available to returned servicemen, he got a place at university, he met my mother, he became an academic in the end, and his whole life was changed. It was also changed, perhaps much more deeply, by what he saw and went through during his service in the war. So my poems in this book are partly a way of memorialising him, partly trying to capture… not the stories he told me, he didn’t tell me that many stories about the war. He tended to be relatively silent about a lot of his experiences. He brought back a lot of jokes, which he told my mother a great many times, and she kept on laughing at them all throughout their relationship, that was important. But for me it was about trying to capture some of the sense of what he conveyed to me as a person, both some of the really bad things that happened and some of the not so bad things. It was a way of entering into his world. And one of the poems, which is about when he was bombed in Darwin and thought he was going to die, is a version of an actual story that he told me about a real event. When I first heard that story as a child, of course I had that thought: if he had been killed by the bomb in Darwin, I wouldn’t be here listening to the story. It is very interesting how poems can pick up narratives which have all sorts of significances and try to relay them into another space, which is the space of a poem.
AH: Burnt Umber has, like your former collections, the occasional image of language as concrete or tactile. An example is in ‘Furniture’, where ‘words baulked at spaces we’d filled with speaking’, or in ‘Bundle’, where ‘language, once ordered, was as liquid as water’. Can you talk a bit about your descriptions of language as a tangible thing?
PH: Yeah, that’s a very interesting question. I find it a little bit hard to talk about this. I think for me, language—I suppose I can say—words, particularly nouns, often seem like something I might be able to hold in my hand. I remember once, in a relatively early poem I connected writing to a child who was kicking a football, and bouncing a football, and so on. I’ve always thought of language and meaning as going through my hands and, to some extent, my feet and my body. If I’m writing a poem, in some way I’m handling language, and that language might be like a tool I’ve picked up, or a clod of earth I gathered as a child—there is a kind of tangibility about it. I can’t quite justify that connection in any actual way. Words are words and I’m writing them on a page or typing them into a computer or whatever. However, when I’m writing creatively, when I’m imagining words, it’s not very different from being out in the garden with a spade or being on an oval with a football. In one way it’s not very different… in another way it’s very different indeed. But I’ve always felt that strong, physical and almost visceral connection to words. I think it’s one of the reasons I love writing poetry, I feel like I’m handling words again, and it’s really pleasurable.
AH: I think Lucy Dougan, at the Perth Writers Festival this year, spoke of dealing with people’s poems as an editor as dealing with ‘handmade things’, in the sense that language is the material of a poet’s craft.
PH: That’s a lovely idea.
AH: You have included a section in Burnt Umber called ‘Mythologies’, where you tell stories of Icarus and Ariadne, for instance, in contemporary poetic form. Are there advantages of the contemporary lyric mode when writing of these ‘unreal’ or mythical figures?
PH: Some of the stories I try to address in this book are very ancient stories—like the Icarus story and the stories of Ariadne and the Minotaur. They are associated with ancient Greece but it’s almost certain that they’re earlier stories that came through what we now call the Cretan culture. They are stories imbued with deep spiritual, religious significance, that to some extent has been lost, and which the Greeks reinterpreted anyway. I like a lot of things about them and one of those things is that they are deeply about transformation, the kind of protean nature of imagining and reality. They’re also about deathless ideas; the Icarus story is endlessly being repeated in our culture because behind the story, there’s a set of relationships and a longer narrative, and it’s a really extraordinary story about all sorts of very complex, very elusive issues. So in my poems, I wanted just to take some of the resonances those stories had for me. I think they remain contemporary, I didn’t feel that I had to make them contemporary. I think their relevance continues. But I wanted to adapt the stories for my own purposes in terms of thinking about certain issues around self, intimacy, and a sense of ‘beingness’ in our strange world. A couple of those poems are about the difficulty of articulating through language the very things that matter to us most. And that’s actually been the slightly paradoxical preoccupation of my poetry ever since I started writing—how to say some of the things that I think are the hardest to say, and trying sometimes to indicate in poems that there are things I find unsayable but that, nevertheless, I want to make some poetic utterance around those things, which tangentially ‘gets at’ those things. For me, poetic language often exists in that space between silence and eloquence. Ideally it would be nice to have every poem an eloquent poem, but in some of my poems I’m trying to say something that is beyond the usual rhetorical understanding of eloquence, something a little bit more awkward and difficult to get at. Those poems about mythology are trying to do that.
AH: Your point about tangentially getting at an issue or topic reminds me of Dickinson’s ‘Tell it slant’ dictum.
PH: ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant – / Success in Circuit lies.’ Yeah that’s wonderful. I think she was absolutely right about that. Particularly in poetry but in lots of really complex forms of utterance, the way to get at the thing itself, whatever that is, is to approach it in a sidelong and respectful manner. When I say respectful I don’t mean ‘polite’ necessarily, but you’ve got to give the thing you’re writing about it’s own due and it’s own space, and as you try to approach it, sometimes the best way is a kind of circle, or a slantness where you’re honouring its separateness from you.
AH: Well, my final question is an informal one. I have a friend who is reviewing the collection and she messaged me the other night and said, ‘I want to know who the lady in the green coat is in this collection.’ I looked through the collection and motifs of green clothing seemed to come up a few times. So I’m wondering if you can talk about that at all?
PH: [Laughs.] I’m not telling you the identity of the woman in the green coat, partly because the idea behind that motif in the poems, the greenness of it and the presence of that figure, is important to me as a kind of gesture towards the quotidian. In other words, there is a sense in which poetry even at its most abstruse or abstract often speaks best when it touches the daily stuff we know, whether it’s the table or a coat, or whatever it may be. The green coat is a small repeated motif in the book, for those who are observant enough to notice it, to say: here is an emblem of something. For me I suppose it’s an emblem of residual intimacy, loss, the idea of otherness, the way we often remember or understand things through a kind of metonymic process—we remember the whole through either a part or an association. The green coat and its association with some other poems also speaks of mystery. There’s a Shakespeare sonnet where he talks of his feeling of disgrace, though he never specifies what causes this feeling. I think that’s an exemplary poetic gesture, he leaves the reader to ponder what that idea might be. In a very small and modest way, my green coat is a gesture at the mystery of poetry and its connection to the daily things that we all know.
Hetherington, Paul. Burnt Umber. Crawley, WA: University of Western Australia Publishing, 2016. Print.
Hetherington, Paul, and Cassandra Atherton. ‘Unconscionable Mystification?: Rooms, Spaces and the Prose Poem’. New Writing. 12.3 (2015): 265-281. Taylor & Francis Online. Web. 1 Jul. 2016.
Amy Hilhorst is a Perth-based writer and doctoral candidate at the University of Western Australia. Her poetry, essays and reviews have appeared in Verity La, Writ, Westerly and Cordite.
Paul Hetherington’s Burnt Umber is featured on UWA Publishing’s website. You can buy it here. RRP: $22.99, 132pp. ISBN: 9781742588063.