August 8, 2012 § Leave a comment
Interview with Chris Hamilton-Emery by Sarah Castro
1. How long have you been writing poetry? Why and how did you start?
My earliest memory of actually writing a poem dates from around 1976 at grammar school, aged around thirteen, I think. That was a poem about the oubliette at Warwick Castle. I went on to write dire sequences around wizards and dragons and secret knowledge with lots of archaisms — ‘ye’s and ‘thou’s — but somehow I caught the bug — I’d been reading light verse for years, but I had no idea about the art and like many people, felt I had access to the art without any real knowledge of contemporary writing at all. This continued through my art school education and sometime in the mid 80s I had to make a decision about choosing painting or poetry. Poetry won, largely as the facilities for the visual arts in Manchester were so poor. As to why and how, I can’t honestly recollect those original impulses, but I do have some touchstones, in fact the series of books entitled Touchstones became part of my early poetic education and I loved the visual elements of those books, with dramatic black and white shots that had tremendous psychological resonance for all young creative minds. Photography and film seem to me to make very good bedfellows for poets.
2. What do you enjoy most about being a poet?
It allows me to be other than me. I think that’s the chief pleasure in all creative writing, to momentarily create these alternate spaces in which we can see through into dramatically different modes of being in the world. Inventing new histories for oneself. There’s a huge social component too, though I can find this a drain because of my day job as a publisher, but I think poets are always fascinating to be among. I also like the idea of living a life within this large historical pursuit, you join in, you add what you can and inevitably pass out of the vast historical conversation that poetry provides.
3. How do you see your work as different from other contemporary poets?
I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer that, and I don’t think my writing has qualities which separate it out from my colleagues, there’s nothing exceptional about my writing. I’ve moved from writing quite accessible poems to a deeply explorative period in the late 90s and early noughties that has now led me back into writing a more socially focussed kind of poem — a poem I hope general readers can find entertaining and rewarding. I can’t say I’m any different from other poets, but I do have this belief in attending to, let’s call it artistic sensibility. I’m not interested in coteries or programmatic writing, or writing for and within the academy, I like the idea of poetry being a living breathing art outside of any university system. It doesn’t belong there. But this isn’t to say it can’t be taught, or shouldn’t be, but I think one has to leave the university system and recognise that there are no qualifications to being a poet. No tests to pass. Except for the attention of general readers. I also believe that you have to write for people today, people in society living their lives, today. I like poetry which cares about real lives in real places and tries to engage with them in a language they can come to cherish if not wholly understand. But that sounds too arcane, doesn’t it.
4. Where and when do you write, especially when writing about strong emotions – is it immediate, or on reflection/ from memory?
I don’t think necessary writing ever directly arises from strong emotions, or rather, one can have terrifically strong creative urges that attend to emotional content, but are, in some way, distanced from it, they can commandeer it, if you like. You’re not in the emotional context of the poem as a writer, but are engineering at a deep level of craft that emotional context for the reader. Does that make sense? The honesty of the poem doesn’t like in its reportage, it lies in its effective transfer of the emotional universe of the poem itself. I think I can write emotional poems, but the emotions may be fictions. To suggest memory would be to imply authorial culpability in the poem’s facts and trajectory, I suspect it’s more tangential in that we create these imaginative spaces and occupy them with the poem and the poem can gain force and presence from these imagined worlds.
5. Is there an aspect of your life that is particularly influential on what you write?
Well, in one respect, how I earn a living, as it provides the means to do everything else. If there’s no income, all art becomes the poverty of hope. I have been terrifically fortunate to work with a lot of writers and some have been wonderful colleagues and nurturing influences at different points in my creative life. But much of my world is the grinding pursuit of tiny sales for the beautiful work I believe in and, to be frank, bet my own money on. The world of writers can be frustrating and, like any professional society, it can be inward looking and occasionally regressive. But it can be wonderful too and the wonders far outweigh the presence of ego.
6. In your Poem George’s Song, how did you bring together the different ideas and inspirations in this poem?
Goodness me! That’s a poem from a long way back. I honestly can’t remember how that was written, though I do recall that it was a technical challenge to write a kind of dramatic narrative poem that had a kind of inner voice but moved through a sequence of isolated images; the way dreams can be filled with these narrative procedures — cuts and scene changes — that seem to make absolute sense in moving the story forward, but actually are fractured and fragmented. The story lies underneath the images. It’s a filmic poem, too, the thing moves forward by conveying these distinct hallucinatory elements that are comic and threatening and creepy, too. When I read it, I see the poem as much as I hear it. I’ve not read it for many years now.
7. What advice would you give young writers to encourage them to write poetry?
Firstly, read everything you can. Read beyond your own tastes, your own prejudices, your own desires. Read until your eyes bleed. The writing will take care of itself if you build this occupational obsession.
Secondly, imagine a writing life that is outside of any institution. Avoid all forms of institutional writing and beware of what drives it in case it ends up driving the writing itself.
Thirdly, consider what it is to be a poet, what this vocation means to you in terms of your whole life, not just the writing, but your idea of yourself and the choices you will make. Being a writer is a responsibility and each writer will articulate those responsibilities differently, and they may change, too. But do think of the big questions, How will I choose to live as a writer. And remember, you’re almost certain to find you can’t earn an income from writing. It’s not about money.
Fourthly, remember it’s about craft and technique as much as it’s about skill, style, voice, theory, emotion, politics or anything else. Without the technique you’ll fail to deliver the art.
Finally, don’t become a ghetto. Look, listen and attend to all the arts, for they are the lifeblood of the world. It would be foolish to only savour one art, just like it would be boring to spend your life eating radishes.
8. What do you hope your legacy to British Poetry will be?
My absence! I’m not interested in legacies, it’s fallacious, history is not my concern. We’re alive this very moment, and it’s this moment we should attend to as human beings and as writers.