THE FACE

VIC­TO­RIA LAU­RIE meets

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile - CATHERINE COLE

WRITER Catherine Cole has done some­thing too few of us do. She has taken time out to re­flect deeply on a per­son who helped shape her ca­reer and who ar­guably changed her life. Cole’s men­tor nur­tured her pas­sion for writ­ing and po­etry. Her book The Poet Who For­got is a trib­ute to the man who cor­re­sponded with her for 20 years un­til, aged 93 and suf­fer­ing from de­men­tia, he died in 2000. He was a wellqual­i­fied writer of en­cour­ag­ing mis­sives: he was Aus­tralia’s great poet A. D. Hope.

Hope was al­ready an aca­demic when Cole fell in love with po­etry at school: ‘‘ Robert Louis Steven­son, Wal­ter de la Mare, Robert Brown­ing, long nar­ra­tives about pied pipers and Lorelei rocks and high­way­men re­cited en masse, loudly, in sti­fling sum­mer class­rooms,’’ she re­calls. At univer­sity, she mem­o­rised the verses of Ken­neth Slessor and Hope, whose poem The Death of the Bird was a par­tic­u­lar favourite.

One day, when in her 20s, the un­der­grad­u­ate felt com­pelled to ex­press her grat­i­tude for all the beau­ti­ful words. Slessor was dead but Hope was not. So Cole sent the fa­mous lit­er­ary fig­ure a note thank­ing him for the plea­sure of his verse.

That trig­gered a lively cor­re­spon­dence for two decades be­tween Hope and Cole, who is now pro­fes­sor of creative writ­ing at Melbourne’s RMIT Univer­sity and au­thor of crime nov­els Dry Dock and Skin Deep , the non­fic­tion Private Dicks and Feisty Chicks , and her Viet­nam- based novel The Grave at Thu Le .

‘‘ It seemed a way of hon­our­ing peo­ple just to drop them a line and say, ‘ I stud­ied your po­etry and thank you very much’,’’ Cole ex­plains. She thought lit­tle more about it un­til, to her sur­prise, a re­ply came in Hope’s hand­writ­ing.

‘‘ He re­acted very kindly. He said, ‘ If ever you’re in Can­berra, look us up.’ ’’ Some months later she did, knock­ing hes­i­tantly on his of­fice door in the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity’s A. D. Hope build­ing. ‘‘ I was ner­vous be­cause Alec was al­ready Aus­tralia’s most fa­mous liv­ing poet; he’d writ­ten very sex­u­alised po­ems and peo­ple said he had a rogu­ish rep­u­ta­tion.’’

But the white- haired, avun­cu­lar man with a twin­kle in his eye merely of­fered her sand­wiches and a glass of shi­raz. ‘‘ We talked po­etry for hours,’’ Cole re­calls. ‘‘ He was warm and friendly and gen­uinely in­ter­ested in my work.’’ The friend­ship grew and fur­ther meet­ings oc­curred. ‘‘ I look back on one par­tic­u­lar day 30 years ago, when I went on a ( Syd­ney Har­bour) ferry with Alec and we talked about Ken­neth Slessor all the way to Manly. I think now what an in­cred­i­ble priv­i­lege it was.’’

Oc­ca­sion­ally Cole looked af­ter the Can­berra home of Hope and his wife Pene­lope when they went away. But the most pre­cious ex­changes were on pa­per. ‘‘ I sent him a post­card from Ravenna of Byzan­tine mo­saics, and he sent back this amaz­ing let­ter full of in­for­ma­tion about the em­press Theodora.’’

An­other mis­sive was a schol­arly ex­po­si­tion on Zen Bud­dhism; yet an­other de­scribed his ef­forts to write po­ems in­spired by Old Tes­ta­ment tales about Susanna and the el­ders. Yet oth­ers were hasty notes dashed off be­tween fi­nal­is­ing po­etry manuscripts.

‘‘ He was so clever, so able to talk widely across phi­los­o­phy and ideas,’’ Cole says. ‘‘ He would love to chat on about a writer you’d dis­cov­ered, be­cause in­evitably he knew all about them.’’

And as Cole strug­gled to get work pub­lished or find jobs, Hope’s ad­vice was al­ways gen­tle and en­cour­ag­ing. ‘‘ If I used a word that was too florid or in­ap­pro­pri­ate, he’d sim­ply say, ‘ I don’t think I’d use that word in that con­text.’ What he gave me was a sense of ‘ when the time is right, you’ll write’, and a sense of dis­ci­pline. He said, ‘ You just have to keep work­ing at it, keep go­ing.’ ’’

Cole did keep go­ing, not in the area of po­etry but crime fiction and novel writ­ing. She kept ev­ery one of the 38 let­ters Hope sent. And the older poet, who was awarded a Com­pan­ion of the Or­der of Aus­tralia in 1981, clearly cher­ished Cole’s let­ters, post­cards and com­i­cal notes, be­cause he kept them, too.

‘‘ I dis­cov­ered that all the let­ters I’d sent to him were in the Na­tional Li­brary. He’d kept them all. It was lovely but it was also quite ter­ri­fy­ing. You sud­denly feel very ex­posed.’’

Cole’s cor­re­spon­dence is kept in the Na­tional Li­brary’s Hope ar­chive of 80 boxes, nes­tled along­side let­ters to Hope from lu­mi­nar­ies such as Pa­trick White, Ju­dith Wright and Slessor.

‘‘ I got per­mis­sion from Alec’s two won­der­ful sons to get copies of my let­ters, which I paired with his and put them to­gether in the book, wrapped around with es­says,’’ she says.

Cole’s crime fiction writ­ing, set in Syd­ney’s Bal­main, has at­tracted fan let­ters. Once an el­derly fan ar­rived at her doorstep. ‘‘ I was a lit­tle bit shocked at first, un­til I re­alised she didn’t see the books as fic­ti­tious but about her own ex­pe­ri­ence of Bal­main. I in­vited her in for a cup of tea.’’

She says she tries to bring Hope’s men­tor­ing qual­i­ties to her own teach­ing be­cause bud­ding young writ­ers and po­ets de­serve ‘‘ an em­pa­thetic ear, hon­esty and a gen­er­ous re­sponse’’.

‘‘ Talk of po­etry ap­pre­ci­a­tion be­ing dead among the young is un­true,’’ Cole says. ‘‘ It’s just that they ap­pre­ci­ate it and savour it dif­fer­ently.

‘‘ My gen­er­a­tion would study po­ems at school, take them apart and re­cite them. You’d carry those po­ems with you all your life . . . Younger peo­ple like po­et­ics through song: they like Leonard Co­hen as much as we did. They un­der­stand no­tions of me­tre and rhythm and word play, so none of that’s lost.’’

Think­ing back on the in­ter­ac­tion be­tween her and Hope, Cole muses in The Poet who For­got on the ways we re­mem­ber events.

‘‘ Like ( Scot­tish philoso­pher David) Hume’s no­tion of me­mory as a kind of palimpsest — where mem­o­ries over­write one an­other, leav­ing in­deli­ble prints one un­der the other — read­ing A. D. Hope’s let­ters takes me back to a past which has been over­writ­ten with lay­ers of ex­pe­ri­ence. Had I known then . . . If I’d fol­lowed that di­rec­tion . . . What­ever hap­pened to . . . What might have re­sulted if?’’ Hope had se­vere Alzheimer’s dis­ease by the time he died. ‘‘ There’s a beau­ti­ful poem in the book by Ge­off Page about Alec’s loss of me­mory. But it’s also about what we lose as we get older, and the last two chap­ters are about me­mory and for­get­ful­ness. I feel I’m a bit like I’m at that point in life where I’m both re­mem­ber­ing and for­get­ting.’’

The Poet Who For­got is not a mem­oir of Hope or even a bi­og­ra­phy, Cole says, but a per­sonal ac­count of one man’s kind­ness to­wards a youth­ful ap­pren­tice. Cole plans to do­nate her pack­age of Hope let­ters to the Na­tional Li­brary.

‘‘ They’ve been sit­ting in a lit­tle card­board box for years in their orig­i­nal en­velopes. It feels as if I’d be send­ing them to their right­ful home, and it’s time to let them and the sto­ries go.’’

Pic­ture: Andy Tyn­dall

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