Paul Hetherington has recently published his tenth collection of poetry, Burnt Umber (UWA Publishing, 2016). He won the 2014 Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards (poetry) and is professor of writing and head of the International Poetry Studies Institute at the University of Canberra. He was shortlisted for the 2013 Montreal International Poetry Prize and recently completed an Australia Council for the Arts residency at the BR Whiting Studio in Rome. He is one of the founding editors of the international online journal Axon: Creative Explorations. His poem “Onions” can be found here. It appears in the Mar/Apr 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Onions”?
The poem has its genesis in a number of events and incidents, including a story someone told to me about travelling to a town in France where the locals grew small, sweet onions as their main produce, and my own experience of travelling in Europe where I had also eaten lovely, aromatic onions. As far as I remember—and keeping the onions in mind—my original impulse was to try to capture something of the strangeness of arriving at new and unfamiliar houses and landscapes and attempting to understand and become familiar with them—largely through adapting my intimate and domestic lives to their sometimes idiosyncratic particularities.
At the poem’s opening, the persona struggles to see, and perhaps portray, a house correctly—it doesn’t seem to belong in space or in its function as a home. The feeling of beauty and occupancy doesn’t set in until near the piece’s conclusion. Would you say this piece more accurately depicts a taming of comfortable space or the creation of it, if either?
I like your question. I think the poem is about experiencing and quizzing a genuine puzzlement in arriving at an unknown house in a strange environment—and about failing to see and understand it from the outside as it appears to casually and strangely turn away from those trying to capture and place it. The poem subsequently examines ways of making an accommodation, achieved through action of various kinds rather than through the imposition of a particular view upon the place; and explores how people are able to learn ways of living and being that belong to a place they don’t know. I guess, in this way, the poem is trying to suggest a certain ethics of response that enables a coming-to-terms with altered, unexpected or alien circumstances.
The persona seems to come to an understanding of the house’s interior as if they were navigating a new sort of anatomy. Is it more an adjustment of the persona or a rearrangement of the house through cooking and accommodation that the eventual transformation occurs?
The idea is that the transformation happens within the persona and their companions, and it’s true that this occurs partly through a kind of anatomization of their experiences and shifting knowledge—and, as this happens, the place itself seems to change in response to their involvement. In this way, the poem comments on the idea of reciprocity and of responsiveness; and on how work itself often brings or enables the kinds of comforts we call recreational pleasures. The poem is also about recognition. As it develops, the persona and his companions stop taking photographs like tourists or aesthetes and enter into a lived negotiation with their environment and circumstances, finding themselves and a sense of experiential depth by attending to quotidian responsibilities, and through being alert to what they have within their grasp.
At the poem’s end, beauty is pictured as something tangible. To what extent are things like sweet onions and heads of broccoli responsible for the beauty you express and show, and to what extent is a photographer, reader, and or poet needed for this beauty to be realized?
True and deep beauty, as many artists have shown, inheres in the things of the world. It is not an abstraction imposed on those things, but an idea that grows from a nuanced appreciation of those things. And I don’t simply mean an intellectual appreciation—this is knowledge that comes from touching, being with, handling and being respectful towards those things. It is, in a way, like a compact—what is honored and respected may return a magnified idea of itself to the one who honors and respects it. So this poem suggests that beauty does not reside with the poet, photographer or artist, but in things themselves as they may be perceived and appreciated by anyone through a process of living-with-them-truly; and through encounters that do not impose too much on them from the outside. In suggesting this, the poem tries to rejuvenate an idea of beauty and delicacy that is so often ignored, debased, or trivialized in contemporary discourses. Artists of various kinds have the opportunity to convey such ideas in their works, and readers or viewers to appreciate them through these works, but the ideas themselves belong to the world at large.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
My writing has changed and evolved in a variety of ways. I used to write more formally, often employing meter or rhyme in my poems, and I used to write with a fountain pen into manuscript books. Recently, I have mainly been writing prose poems, and I draft most of them in emails or in Notes on my iPhone. “Onions” is one such poem, drafted quickly and then transferred to a Word document where I worked on it until I thought it was layered and complete.