Canberra poet Paul Hetherington on a life in verse
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Canberra poet Paul Hetherington on a life in verse

It's funny the things that move you when you're in a foreign country. Paul Hetherington didn't expect to find clarity in the sight of an ancient aqueduct while on a moving train in Rome, but there you have it.

He also didn't expect a five-month Australia Council residency in Italy – staying at the BR Whiting Studio in Rome - to be quite so life-changing. Intending to produce around 100 poems inspired by visual arts, he returned with something closer to 200 works, and a whole new outlook on life.

Panorama profile, Poet Paul Hetherington. Photo Elesa Kurtz

Panorama profile, Poet Paul Hetherington. Photo Elesa KurtzCredit:Elesa Kurtz

"I thought that as I immersed myself in the city, I felt a shift in my identity in a way, and I brought that back with me," he says.

"I can't easily tell you what that shift is, but I did a lot of thinking over the last 20 years of my personal and professional life and preoccupations, and then I made a lot of progress in just thinking through issues which had been sitting there not fully processed, and that's been a wonderful feeling, actually."

The poems, too, were much deeper and richer than he'd anticipated, reflecting an all-encompassing experience of immersing himself in the humming, bustling, history-drenched metropolis that is modern Rome.

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To wit: the aqueduct outside the train window.

"There was this broken aqueduct striding across the Roman landscape, and it was a moment of revelation somehow, because it was both beautiful but it also somehow crystallised the weird contemporaneity of this ancient stuff," he says.

"There was a guy who'd taken off his coat and put it on the bottom of a bit of this aqueduct and was standing there and he looked thoroughly contemporary, and the aqueduct looked like it was from a world we can't even comprehend. And the juxtaposition of those two things, plus being on this train, which was like…being channelled in a different way, I just found that quite an extraordinary moment, and it stayed with me as one of those key images from that whole trip."

Of course, being a modern sort of poet, he whipped out his iphone – not to take a photo, but to jot down a poem. By the time he alighted from the train, he had a full draft.

"It was a wonderful moment - it was the kind of moment that I think new technology allows, because if I had a pen and paper with me, although I could have written it out in a notebook, perhaps, I don't think it would have been quite so immediate," he says.

But the act of writing a poem – the channelling of the thought process, the arrangement of words, the final, intangible touch – is a hard-won skill for Hetherington. He's in his 50s now, but he has, he says, a clear memory of his 11-year-old self, struggling to find the words to express something just beyond his reach.

"I was interested in a lot of the things that 11-year-old boys are interested in, I loved playing football, I loved playing in the playground, I quite liked the lessons and all of that," he says.

"But at the same time... I'm almost certain that even at 11, I had this strange sense of a gap between the things I could say to people I cared for, like my parents, my friends – a gap between what I wanted to express and what I thought I could express in just my daily language. I think I was looking around for a vehicle to say more elusive, sometimes rather hard-to-put-my-finger-on things, and I think poetry for me was that possibility, to say the unsayable, say the things I could not express."

We're sitting in his office at the University of Canberra, where he heads up the International Poetry Studies Institute, in a town fairly creaking with published poets.

He has worked here, in the Faculty of Art and Design, since 2010, and before that for 20 years at the National Library of Australia. There, he worked in education, edited the magazine and moved into directing the institutions publications and events programming. The job, he said, was something of a godsend, when he arrived in Canberra with his wife, Michelle Hetherington, in 1990. But his move to the university has been a new kind of revelation – the inspiration he gets from teaching – "other people who talk to you about words and literature in ways you'd never thought of yourself".

So where did the poet begin? Born in Adelaide and growing up in Perth, the son of art-loving parents, he wasn't a musical child, but he did like maths. The connection to poetry is, in hindsight, obvious.

"A lyric poem often demands a kind of shaping and patterning that doesn't seem all that different to me from the shapes and patterns of numbers that I see in my head when I think about mathematics," he says.

But poetry itself was, from the outset, a struggle – a "long labour" throughout his adolescence.

"I wrote hundreds and thousands of poems, in an attempt to learn how to do it. And I eventually burnt all of those," he says.

"At one point I thought, I've got to free myself from all of this so I can set forth again."

By then, he was in his early 20s, and began sending poems to magazines in the hopes of being published. He received piles of rejections before, finally, a letter of acceptance, from a small magazine in Western Australia.

"It was a really thrilling moment - I can still remember," he says.

"It was a very small thing, but for me as a young aspiring poet it was wonderful, because I felt that there was a way forward to take this into the realm of something I might continue to do in a truly vocational way."

The poem itself is irrelevant now – Hetherington thinks it must have had something to do with a newfound confidence, a new way of expressing himself that meant his thoughts and words could finally coalesce. But the event – the acceptance for publication – as the years have passed and he has got further and further away from it, looks more and more "like crossing the Rubicon in a very small, personal kind of way".

It must be hard, as a poet, not to find symbolism in things. Today, Hetherington is a world-renowned writer and has published 10 volumes of poetry, including his latest, Burnt Umber. Most of the book's poems were written prior to his Roman residency, but he shaped the manuscript in between walking the ancient streets, shopping at local markets and marvelling at the landscape.

"This book is kind of like a crossing point, a bridging point," he says.

"I actually see it as documenting my journey towards Rome, because it does have quite a few ekphrastic poems in it," he says.

"One of the poems in this book is a poem about my father and it's set in Rome, and so this book speaks to an experience which was then fulfilled in the city when I went there."

One of the underlying themes of the book is his father, who died last year – a political scientist and politician who loved language.

"He would have been a natural on the stage in a different life in a different era. He was always interested in the rhythms and the way language came out of the mouth and off the tongue, and he taught me a lot because of that interest," he says.

"I sort of see the whole book, even the idea of Burnt Umber, as a metaphor for ways of painting him in words, a way of painting the memory of him. So that's a very important part of this book for me, to try to find ways of understanding a complex person once they've died."

His next book will be based on his Roman experience. Ekphrastic poetry – that which interprets the visual arts – has long been a preoccupation, and was integral to his Roman residency.

"It's a really big project of mine because I'm fascinated by the way you can explore the connections between a visual artwork's representation of something, your own interpretation of that, and how those two things may connect into quotidian reality - the world we live in every day," he says.

"So you can almost get a three-way conversation going in a poem, if you're lucky enough."

And in Rome, he was more than lucky. But art has always been a source of solace and a way to refresh his psyche – a love he shares with Michelle, who is a senior curator at the National Museum of Australia.

He has his parents to thanks for his artistic sensibilities.

"I still remember going and seeing an exhibition when I was a kid of some of the Ned Kelly images, I'm not quite even sure how many, but I remember the weirdness of those paintings and that memory has always stuck with me," he says.

"I think actually a lot of my subsequent journey in poetry and more of my current journey in exploring the connection between poetry and the visual arts goes right back to the impression of those paintings and how they were telling that story and how the imagery was weird and kind of two-dimensional but somehow really striking."

Burnt Umber is book-ended, as it were, by poems about exhibitions. At least one reader has told him his ekphrastic poems are remarkable for their active voice.

"In my poems, it's not just a case of passively viewing paintings - they're doing all sorts of things actively, and I think that goes right back to even as a kid. I used to look at paintings that impressed me and I kind of felt that they were pressing themselves on me and very active in sometimes quite strange ways," he says.

"And that feeling of art pressing on me and kind of insisting on its own life, not just what I chose to see in it, is something I've always had, and that's one of the reasons art matters to me so much."

Burnt Umber, by Paul Hetherington, is published by UWA Publishing.