Local publishing house UWA Publishing recently announced a new project: they will be publishing a regular poetry imprint as a result of the increasing number of quality poetry submissions they receive. The new series will launch at their regular Sturmfrei Poetry Night, the next instalment of which is happening next Thursday 28 July.
At this edition of Sturmfrei you can enjoy a drink or two whilst listening to some remarkable Australian poets: Paul Hetherington, Amanda Joy and Siobhan Hodge. Paul is a very accomplished poet with 10 published, full-length volumes under his belt. Today we chat to Paul plus we are giving away five copies of his latest relese Burnt Umber. I’ve just finished reading it and it’s wonderful!
What is it about poetry that makes it the medium for you?
I fell in love with the idea of poetry when I was eleven years old and decided that I wanted to spend my life writing it. Even for that primary school child, poetry was a medium to try to express the otherwise inexpressible (although I certainly couldn’t have said so at the time!). As an eleven-year-old there was a lot I didn’t know how to say without poetry (or even in poetry) and that has always remained true. But I enjoy the challenge of trying to say some of it; trying to catch those elusive complexes of feelings, thoughts and sensations that poetry can be. Writing poetry is a way of winkling out meaning from the ineffable and the unsayable; a way of trying to catch the light as it falls on the carpet; of the breeze as it glances from the skin.
Are there rules to poetry? What makes a poem a poem? Where does the line exist between prose poetry and a short story or flash fiction?
There used to be clear rules for writing poetry. All cultures had them, and they were always to do with formal patternings of words, sounds, rhythm and the like. I suspect that this was due to the fact that poetry everywhere began as an oral form and, even after it began to be written down, its verbal patterning, including metre and rhyme, allowed it to be relatively easily remembered by those who heard it or read it. In the days before mass media of any kind, people could then recite and share what they’d learnt.
These days there are supposedly no rules, but serious poets still employ many of the techniques poets have always employed—choosing diction carefully, paying close attention to sound and rhythm, trying to find combinations of words that are richly figurative and suggestive. The risk in past eras was that poets would simply churn out technically correct work that was of little intrinsic interest. The risk today is that poets may forget that they are writing poetry and become very prosaic. However, it’s hard to define what makes a poem a poem. Some prose is very ‘poetic’ and, as I’ve said, some poetry isn’t. I guess I mostly recognise poetry in language that is unusually condensed; and which creates ramifying and highly suggestive effects, charging, extending and transforming meaning in all sorts of interesting ways.
The line between prose poetry and other short prose forms such as flash fiction is somewhat blurred. I guess I’d argue in general that a prose poem focuses on what Jonathan Culler has called the ‘lyric present’; that it opens out into a timeless and suggestive spatiality. Works of flash fiction, even if very short, are usually driven by narrative concerns – a sense of what will happen next. Such works are primarily about conveying a story, whereas prose poems are primarily about events as they may be understood within the frame of a present instant. However, these distinctions are tricky because prose poems often do contain some narrative material, and works of flash fiction are often suggestive and sometimes ‘poetic’. I think it’s a matter of judgment as to what work might be classified in what way and, in the end, I’m not sure that it matters all that much. The main issue for me is whether a work moves me, or makes me think ‘wow, that’s wonderful’ or even, ‘I wish I’d written that’.
Does poetry present you with a certain literary freedom as a writer?
That’s a great question and one that I hadn’t really considered until now. I think poetry does provide me with all sorts of freedoms: to search experience with language’s tools; and to pursue ideas through poetic formulations of them. This allows me to find different things than I can find through conversation or other forms of writing. Writing poetry also allows me to have a creative life that’s very much my own; and to meet and mingle with other creative people (and not just poets; I love the visual arts and admire the work of visual artists enormously). And writing poetry inculcates a certain way of thinking about the world that I enjoy. It allows for meditation and the bringing together of disparate threads into new wholes. That’s a wonderful thing to do. Also, it’s pleasurable to see a poem emerge, and to have the sense of impressing, as it were, something new onto a page or screen.
You are coming to town to deliver some of your work at UWAP’s next Sturmfrei Poetry night. How does the experience of delivering your poems to an audience directly differ from sending them out in the world in print (or electronic) form?
I enjoy reading my work because it’s a way of connecting directly with a group of readers or potential readers, and a way of hearing the poems move into their own space. I’ve always thought that reading a poem to a live audience is a very good way of testing it out; of hearing whether it really works as well as it should. And its fun being part of such occasions, too – meeting new people, chatting about writing, maybe having a drink or two. I’ve always thought that it’s good for my poetry to leave the quiet spaces of its making and enter the wider and more boisterous world. And when it does, I like to go along with it to see how it fares.
The upcoming Sturmfrei night will also launch UWAP’s new regular published poetry collections, a project that has come as a result of shrinking opportunities for poets in Australia. As an established, published poet with 10 full length poetry collections under your belt, what observations do you have about the state of publishing, specifically with regards to poetry, in Australia?
Being published, however that takes place and in whatever medium, is very important to most poets. It enables them to begin to get a realistic sense of who their readers might be. It also challenges them to make their work as polished as they can make it because once it’s out in a public forum there is usually no way of taking it back (and readers, who are so often generous and supportive of poets, have a strong sense of when a work has not been given a poet’s full attention). Given this, it’s a shame that most mainstream Australian and international book publishers have abandoned poetry. They’ve done it for economic reasons – poetry sells relatively few books – but I hope one day some of them will return to poetry publishing for other reasons – because of its cultural and historical importance, for example, and because poetry is one of the main places where any language is continually being recharged and renewed.
Having said that, the web is a marvellous vehicle for all sorts of publishing, and it’s providing superb opportunities for many poets. I’m a great fan of what it’s doing for writing of all kinds. Book publishing remains important simply because lots of readers like to hold a book in their hands when they read, whether that’s a collection of poems or a novel. There remains something marvellous about having attractive covers around a collection of poems, along with a sense that a publisher has taken the trouble to make a pleasing material artefact (ie a book) out of a collection of lyrics. In contemporary Australia, publishers like UWA Publishing perform a marvellous service to writers like me. They present our work beautifully and carefully and distribute it widely. Such publishing makes me want to write more and better, and I owe them a great deal. Paul
Thanks to UWA Publishing we have 5 copies copies of Paul Hetherington’s latest collection Burnt Umber to give away. Simply email your name and postal address to firstname.lastname@example.org by midnight Tuesday 26 July with Burnt Umber in the subject line to be in the running.
You can hear Paul present his work alongside fellow poets Amanda Joy and Siobhan Hodge at Sturmfrei Poetry Night on 28 July. UWA Publishing are also hosting a couple of poetry workshops: Poetry as Painting on 29 July and Prose Poetry as Comtemporary Art on 30 July. Follow UWA Publishing across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram by searching the handle @uwapublishing.