Vale Walter Billeter

Rochford Street Review was saddened to hear, via Kris Hemensley and Robert Kenny, of the death of Walter Billeter. We have published Kris’ and Robert’s tribute, both of which first appeared on Facebook, in full below:

Deeply shocked & saddened to read the notice in today’s Age newspaper of our dear old friend & colleague Walter Billeter. “4.7.1943 – 3.10.2020. Dearly beloved husband of Penelope. Loving father to Karl and Annelies, and father in law to Simon and Louisa. Adored grandfather to Sarah, Gemma and Tabitha. Rest in Peace.” Loretta’s habit to look at the tributes & celebrations. She couldn’t believe what she was reading nor I what she was telling me. I’ve now spoken to Penelope & briefly to Annelies. Penelope has allowed me to pass on the news.

Walter was hardly a Facebook correspondent but did follow friends’ posts amongst whom Penelope mentioned Edward Mycue, Pete Spence & Chris Barron…

We were introduced to Walter by Mike Dugan & Robert Kenny in 1973, after returning from a few years in England. The occasion was Moomba Literary festival event at the Town Hall in Collins Street. In the midst of my talk I referred to Arno Schmidt, the German James Joyce according to the TLS I said… Walter was sitting at the front; his exclamation loud & clear! Walter was already translating Schmidt, and his own Schmidt inspired experimental prose was appearing in Contempa magazine (ed Kenny, Phil Edmonds).

Walter became our resident German-language translator –Schmidt, crucially Paul Celan, and Jurgen Becker, Konrad Bayer & many others. His Etymspheres magazine, on which John Jenkins collaborated for an issue or two, was an extraordinary magazine of original & translated poetry & prose; even now a wonderful testament to his vision & work.

Thrown back now to the mutual friends of those 1970s, JJ, Warren Burt, Chris Mann, Finola Moorhead, Bernie O’Regan, Rudi Krausmann, John Anderson, Clive Faust … And the time Robert Duncan came for lunch at our place in Westgarth, and we all read for one another, The Group! including Robert K, J A, Laurie Duggan, and Robert Duncan expansively fielding questions, offering opinions, –Walter recorded reel to reel tape of the reading & discussion, disappeared though over the years… oh, so much, can’t think… overwhelmed by feelings & memories of the person, places, the era…

We extend deepest condolences & commiserations to Penelope & the Billeter family, and of course to his friends & colleagues. Penelope left me with descriptions of Walter in his beloved garden, and working with wood…

Out of the blue, his death a terrible pity & shame…

 – Kris Hemensley


Very saddened to hear this week of the death of dear and influential friend, Walter Billeter, poet, translator, editor, and draughtsman.

Walter was the first writer I got to know. We met at a poetry workshop run I think by Poetry Australia at Macquarie University and found ourselves travelling back to Melbourne by the same overnight train, he in first class, myself in second. We smuggled me into the seat next to his in first class and sat all night talking poetry. Back in Melbourne, we kept in touch. I was 18 or 19 and he was a few years older, Swiss, well-employed as an engineering draftsman, and connected into what was for me an exotic world of contemporary German-language literature and avant-garde music. I was already intrigued by such European poets as Paavo Haavikko and Walter’s passion for Paul Celan hit a deep sympathy within me. Together we came to know more of the Melbourne poetry scene in the year or so after this, often through the amazing generosity of Michael Dugan.

It was Michael who introduced me to Kris and Retta Hemensley when they returned to Melbourne in 1972, and I knew immediately that Walter and Kris had to meet. They found much in common and Kris was soon publishing both Walter’s original work and his translations from the German in his magazine. Philip Edmonds had invited me to co-edit Contempa magazine, and Michael suggested we publish books and joined us in doing so. I was very pleased that one of the first books was Walter’s Sediments of Seclusion, a sustained homage to Celan. Soon after this Walter and John Jenkins began the journal Etymspheres, exploring their mutual concerns for experimentation and language. As well as his own writing Walter published translations of various contemporary German-language authors. He drifted away from literary engagement in later decades.

Walter was a formative influence on my life, I doubt if my intellectual and aesthetic direction would have been the same without knowing him. His inquisitiveness and passions broadened many of our minds.

 – Robert Kenny

A selection of Walter’s work can be found at the Australian Poetry Library





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