Chris Hamilton-Emery

August 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

Interview with Chris Hamilton-Emery by Sarah Castro

Chris’ blog.

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.


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