August 8, 2012 § 3 Comments
Interview with Jane Holland by Emine Ahmet.
1) What was the first poem you read and how did it affect you?
I can’t remember the first poem I ever read, since I began reading poetry so early and was exposed to plenty of it, thanks to my parents’ extensive book collection. However, the poem which made me decide to become a poet was undoubtedly Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. My parents took me to Keats’ house near Hampstead Heath, now a museum, and bought me a short book of his most famous poems. I was enchanted by the romantic notion of The Great Poet Who Dies Young and instantly set myself to memorise ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. The next morning, I crept into my parents’ bedroom and recited the whole thing from memory, much to their astonishment. So yes, it was probably on encountering the masterpiece that is ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ at about nine or ten years old that I knew what I wanted to do with my life, i.e. become a poet.
2) How did you get your work published? Were there difficulties to confront?
I wrote all through my teens, but stopped when I married young at nineteen. At eighteen I remember showing my work (by invitation) to a well-known poet, who was dismissive of it, and that may have had an effect on my inability to write poetry in the years following that. Though having two small children in the house was probably more of a factor! It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties and divorced that I began to write poetry ‘seriously’ and send it out to magazines. I was incredibly lucky in receiving an Eric Gregory Award and landing a debut collection with Bloodaxe Books shortly after that, despite having had only a couple of pieces in magazines. To some extent, this may explain why there is nearly a decade between my first and second collection. Effortless debut publication is a hard act to follow.
3) Do you have any regrets as a writer?
I regret not having pursued a more ‘professional’ career as a poet, i.e. I’ve never been a poet in residence or taught a university course or done the lucrative Festival circuit. I’ve never been visible as a poet, except for one rather entertaining year as a local laureate. I probably still hold to that early romantic notion of the Poet as a creature ‘apart’ and suffering, which has no doubt informed my decisions as a poet. As a writer of prose, I regret not having written big commercial novels earlier than in my forties (I currently write historical fiction as Victoria Lamb) since it is only now that I can afford to live comfortably. Unless you are happy to become a ‘career poet’ (see above), you tend to spend your life sponging off other people and lurching from one meagre payment to another.
4) Do you publish every poem that you write?
Absolutely not. About 95% or more of what I write is pointless rubbish. I start each poem in hope of that small percentage which might prove publishable.
5) I particularly like your poem ‘Red Star’ – How did you bring together the different ideas and inspirations in this poem?
In ‘Red Star’, I was looking for a simple, almost childlike vibe, something that would act like a nursery rhyme or ‘Once upon a time’ in a fairy story. The poem opens my Boudicca sequence. It may not have been written first, but it is clearly a poem of openings and beginnings: uncomplicated, yet keying into the magical territory of The Story with its predictable song lyric rhymes, repetitions and simple quatrain structure. I find that if you want to say something powerful, you need to state it as simply as possible. I can’t comment on the ‘ideas’ in this poem, except to say that when talking through a character from Celtic history, references to the simple, natural world she would have inhabited (like the oak or the wild geese or firelight) is a good way to anchor a poem in that consciousness. The flat tone of the ending, of course, is almost brutal in comparison, and is intended – as many endings are in the Boudicca sequence – to undercut the lyric impulse of the poem and throw the reader off balance.
6) What do you believe poetry is – both in contemporary society and for you personally?
In contemporary society, poetry is a riddle that most people fear and avoid, probably because not being able to unravel and solve it makes them feel stupid and ridiculous. For me personally, poetry is a wise, rich and deeply intimate space where I go to commune with those who went before me and who told the story of the tribe rather better than I have yet been able to do. Occasionally I add my own line to that story, but it always sounds so hollow, I have to keep returning, listening, and attempting the line again.
7) What’s your opinion on free verse vs. verse forms?
Some people can do one adequately, some can do both adequately, and a few can do either one or both brilliantly. I can write in form only imperfectly, and so have never really trodden that path. My initial impulses in poetry are always to free verse, using rhythmic beats, repetition, alliteration etc. to make it ‘poetry’, so that is the way I naturally go.
8) How has your work changed or developed since you first began writing?
I have both lost and gained confidence since my first published collection. I have gained the confidence to say ‘Sod it’ to the ever-alluring idea of being widely published and feted for my great poetry, but in never having that reward I have simultaneously lost the confidence to write smoothly and joyously with the naive idea that I was born to be a poet. So I struggle on, as the majority of poets do, in the depressing awareness that I have failed to do myself justice.
9) What keeps you writing and sharing your work with a society that seems to be listening less each day?
Stupidity and egotism, I expect.
10) Do you think poetry is a dying art?
Yes. Or rather, it’s dying as an art. It’s constantly being revived as an easy-to-do medium for people who want to indulge themselves with the notion that they can write poetry or who have been told they can assuage their problems and issues by writing a ‘poem’ about them. But as an art, it’s already on the way out, to be frank.