Matthew Hollis Interview
Not long after the poetry panel in which he read alongside Choman Hardi and Jacob Polley, I sat down with Matthew Hollis to talk about his debut book of poems, Ground Water. Editor, anthologist, and poet, Hollis has also received an Eric Gregory award and much critical acclaim for his debut collection. A native of Norwich, he lives in London.
Since you are here at a Debut Authors Festival, what does it mean for you to have a first book: to stand behind it in public, not to disavow all knowledge and so forth?
There is a thought or argument that publishing is actually a way of letting go of something, and there is a part of writing – whether it’s publishing a book, in a magazine, or whatever level that you’re publishing – that says letting go of something is a very important act. It frees up the imagination to do something new.
A form of forgetting?
I suppose you do forget. It could be a form of forgetting, but it’s certainly a form of letting go in that the book becomes public. Public sounds like a very glorious word – the book may find no readers – but it doesn’t belong to you anymore. I think in one sense, yes, you have the author’s name on the spine and you’re very pleased to have that, but in a way you’re even more pleased – relieved – that the kids are gone now. That they’ve left home, and you can suddenly do something else. And with the hope that some of them do find a home with other readers, which you may or may not ever know about.
It seems like you must always have some amount of optimism, believing in these poems and that they will find that home. Would you say that the experience of having a first book is in part making sure this optimism is continually at hand?
I think it has to be optimistic, always: I think writing has to be, at some level, or else you wouldn’t put yourself through it. Even if the moment that brought the poem to the surface is not optimistic, the act of writing itself is a very positive response to whatever that situation is. Certainly for me the experience of having a first book out has been nothing but optimistic and positive. I’ve been staggered by the ways in which it seems to have found its way to some people. Perhaps I didn’t have high expectations for it, I’m not sure. I always thought it was unlikely, because I’m a very fierce self-critic, but -
- as poets should be, right?
- as poets should be, definitely. But I think also there’s a sort of modesty where you don’t presume – for me, at least, this may not be true of all writers – that what you’re doing is of national importance. The chances are it almost certainly isn’t, and very few poetry acts are, but they do find their way to people and that’s a wonderful thing.
I had wanted to ask this very question: I believe poetry is of national importance, but what I’ve been observing – in a creative writing course, where a collection of writers is gathered under one umbrella, eating and breathing and sleeping together – is that you have some writers who say ‘Politics doesn’t interest me, history doesn’t interest me.’ I’m concerned about this compartmentalization that says ‘I’m a writer, so I’m not going to read the news. I should be writing.’ Is this a stance that you recoil from?
Well, I grew up in a very political household – from the age of four I was on my mother’s campaign trail – so politics has always run through the lifeblood of the family. I do consider myself a political figure in some sense. But it doesn’t consciously inform the writing I do. And that’s not to say that I keep the two things at arm’s length from one another, but I think that for me at least the act of poetry is an act of imagination rather than an act of politics. I think a poem can come into the world and then take on a political shape because of when or where it arrives, or because of who it’s speaking to. I don’t pretend that’s the same for all poets. We were listening to a poet in the panel today [Choman Hardi] who has a great and important reason to be connecting her political life story with her poetry life story. I haven’t had that same experience. Instead, I’ve had a different form of connection with, say, the way language and music connect.
When I was speaking to Choman earlier, we were talking about the relationship between her academic work and her poetry. She has her writing, she has her academia, and her research, and so forth, but they don’t always overlap. But as she began to talk about her experience in Kurdistan and conducting interviews with refugee Kurdish women, this act of recollection – the way an occasion to memory creeps in – well, I thought, that is one of the hearts of poetry right there. So at times, for her, poetry and politics could be two words for the same thing.
That’s possibly it. If you connect poetry and politics, or poetry and history, people might think you’re talking about different pursuits. Clearly we’re all informed by history and by politics, and no poetry works in a vacuum – rather, it can’t survive in one. I don’t think that anybody who was trying to keep them at arm’s length would actually deny their broader presence, but what they would probably be referring to is the process of creation.
James Fenton put it very nicely. He said: ‘When you’re actually engaged in the process of writing, you must always be writing into the dark.’ By that he meant letting the subconscious free up, and not being too directional about it. When you come back to redraft, you can be like Diogenes raising the lamp to see what’s up there. You have to. You have to bring light to bear on it, and take a good hard look. But at the moment of creation, I don’t think – for me, at least – I don’t think you would be thinking about whether something was a faithful rendition of the French Revolution say, or the race tension I saw in Spitalfields last night. The truth of the moment for me is not to the politics, but to the fidelity of the poem.
Which is a very Stevensonian thing for you to say. The poem as the alpha and the omega.
You mean Wallace, not Robert Louis.
Yes. I have to say I have a lot of sympathy for that view, because I think that at times the poem itself is the only good. That the question of ‘did it actually happen that way?’ must be subordinate to ‘how is this poem moving and cutting through its waters?’
Absolutely. I’m not even sure that the question of intention actually matters. There may be one or two occasions where it might, particularly when you get into the more political waters which can be much choppier, but the question of intention doesn’t seem to me important. And I don’t think it matters if you as a reader know what the poet intended, because there is only effect, really, and that comes into Stevens’ realm. That seems to me extremely important.
I’m sure Wimsatt and Beardsley are clapping in their graves right now. Do you think, though, that the writer does have a role as public intellectual, as advocate, spokesman, archivist of memory, as you were speaking about in the panel?
There’s lots of interesting questions there. First of all, yes, I do think the poet has a role, and from the earliest times poets have been the weathervane, the mouthpiece, of putting into words not just the experience of their life but hopefully those of other lives around them. I hope that never ceases to be the case. But in terms of what their public role would be – I think it would almost be Keatsian, to truth and beauty. The truth is not necessarily the truth of events but it is the truth of the poem. And beauty doesn’t necessarily mean flowery, but it does mean the right words in the right order, the best words in the best order. But I don’t think the role of the poet is one of advocacy… well, Derek Walcott and I once had this conversation when I was doing a book of poetry manifestos, and he was very clear about it. He said that the role of the poet is not to beat your chest and cry out ‘I did this’ or ‘I did that,’ standing up for this or that…
What Norman MacCaig would have called going out and ‘committing experience.’
Right, ‘I committed this experience.’ Not to do that. But again, that is a particular position, because I don’t come from a background of, say, the Troubles, where you might have a very different sense of what it means to represent experience.
There was an article in the Guardian recently about the sheer volume of novels – hundreds, I remember it saying – that had been written about the Troubles. Visitors to Hay were combing bookshops only to find this deluge of like-minded books, all with the same plots and stereotypes and so forth. One of the individuals interviewed was asking, just as you might in South Africa of late: what’s next? What do we write about now that there’s some measure of stability in place? I’m not saying that all writing coming out of these areas was a celebration of misery – I don’t mean to suggest that at all – but part of this piece was noting how suddenly writers are noticing all the happy families, to take Tolstoy, and wondering in a sense what to do with them.
Well, I do believe there is what I’d call a vernacular responsibility. To record an experience which is personal to you but which can speak to more than yourself. That said, I’m not sure the themes of poetry do change very much.
As I’ve been reading your book I’ve noticed a very deep connection to the land, to the elements, and I’m wondering if you can say something about that. The book is called Ground Water, maybe the first thematic lead to take you through the poems, but in a broader sense there is this elemental connection there. Was it intended, or rather, if intention is dead, was it conscious?
Which bit? The title or the thematic links?
It wasn’t conscious at all, actually. I wasn’t even aware that there are any themes in my writing (if there actually are) until someone else pointed it out. Certainly not until I started shuffling papers on the floor and trying to assemble something that resembled a manuscript. At that point I drew myself a series of little charts, trying to work out what the themes were and find a title. In the end I couldn’t find one – I went through about six or seven of them, hopelessly – but then my girlfriend came up with the title because she could see what the themes were and I couldn’t. I think that’s quite common, and quite healthy, for writers. So no, I certainly didn’t set out to write a book with the theme of ground or water, but that seems to be the way it turned out.
I’m interested in the way poets organize collections. Could you talk about putting this book together? Were there any poems that you regretted leaving out, or that went in there but you think in retrospect shouldn’t have?
There are poems I thought very hard about, because I produced a pamphlet eight years ago in which some of the poems still seem to be able to stand on their own feet. Which may not be a good enough reason to include them, however. What also struck me was that I’d written this collection over such a long time: it was eight years between this book and the pamphlet, but it was over twelve years that I was writing for it, and my style had changed so very much. It wasn’t so much that these older poems were bad poems, but they seemed to belong to a different writer.
How do you reconcile that?
In that case I didn’t. I separated them, and decided that those poems from earlier are still in the world, if people look hard enough. (laughs) They would have to look quite hard. But there are poems in Ground Water that were written as much as a decade ago that took on a different shape from the ones in the pamphlet. I had gone from one style in the pamphlet to something more ‘serious’, in inverted commas, by which I mean it took itself more seriously. More… well, less out for laughs.
I’ll make sure that when I type this up, ‘serious’ has inverted commas. But this actually leads into something Don Paterson spoke of in his introduction: this idea of your work as being celebratory, the way in which poets are not just called upon to declaim terrible conditions but also to hold moments up to the light. Could you talk about the impulse towards celebration, such as in ‘And Let Us Say,’ the poem in Ground Water about your cousin’s birth?
Sure. I think poetry is its own celebration, that the language and the syntax and music is the celebration. I think that’s what Don meant. Certainly the poems wouldn’t take moments of celebration as their core, but what they might do is pull something out of the fire that had some resonance about that particular occasion. There is something about poetry – I was thinking of this earlier when we were talking about Norman MacCaig – he’s got that lovely notion that ‘something to do with territory makes them sing.’ Poetry can be that territory. That expression of finding song in a moment.
Still, the language in your poems is very precise. To read them is to get the impression that you’re in the hands of someone who is very assured of the capabilities of language but also perpetually in wonder at its capability to offer what, and I always think of Borges here, what he called ‘small surprises within the text.’ But the question remains unanswered, or at least unaddressed: who is speaking in these poems? I’m not asking about voice: I don’t care for the way we talk about voice in contemporary poetry. Rather, Ground Water reminded me of Elizabeth Bishop’s first collection, North and South – she’s using first person, but it’s not quite Bishop who’s speaking. There’s a gap there. And you want to interrogate that gap. So I ask: who is speaking in your poems?
I have no idea. That is the honest truth to it. You hope that after a period of writing there are certain syntactic questions that take care of themselves, and what you’re trying to do is open up a particular moment. And actually, as long as the statements agree with each other, the ‘I’ of a poem could be yourself, but it probably isn’t. Yes, you draw on your own experience, but yes, you also draw on the imagination. I suppose one of the things that poetry can do very evocatively is empathize: it can write into spaces where it hasn’t necessarily been itself, as poetry possesses the ability to imagine things differently. I think that’s crucially important.
Which is the Levantine tradition of ethics: welcoming the unknown other into your home.
But there is a mixture. Because there are poems in Ground Water which are very directly written about a direct moment. Actually, let me rephrase that. They’re indirectly written about a direct moment. And by that I mean that there are poems that do have very true life outcomes in them, but the way I would have written about them would never be direct. As Yeats would say, there is always phantasmagoria. And I think that’s one of the moments in which a poem does take off. It’s also one of the ways in which you do put a certain amount of space between you and the poem. I do have to do that. My poems aren’t me.
A lot of these poems have been talked of as somber, sometimes even maudlin or quietly melancholic. Actually, that’s not me.
But at the same time, going back to the role imagination plays, the poem remains the emblem of the possible. Of the way in which things are not, but could be.
It does. I don’t want to say that the poem is a trick, but it is a performance. The ‘I’ that’s in the poem can move around, and there are certainly occasions even within one poem where the ‘you’s aren’t the same person, because you’re flooding in different experiences from different areas and people. I think that’s more a question for the reader.
That kind of fluidity intersects curiously, though, with the fact that many of your poems are written in form. In reading Choman’s collection, I found that there are no poems in form. There’s a tradition against which she’s rebelling – partly her father’s – as she’s writing. Yet in Ground Water, there’s an ease in moving between very strict metrics and rhyme schemes all the way over to poems like ‘Blink’, which is about as free as you can get.
I think the distinction between formal and free verse is actually very hard to sustain, because I think free verse in its way is obviously another kind of form. It simply has to be. Every time we engage in this act of poetry we engage in some kind of form, because it’s the way we communicate what this act of writing is and how people respond to it. Certainly when you as a reader open a page, something about it tells you it’s a poem.
It conditions your expectations.
I think so, yes. If you’re asking me why I move between all of these areas, well, I’ll say that I’m fascinated with form and I think it’s a compelling motive for the moment of the poem. Particularly for the kinetics – form propels a poem. What’s more exciting is when you get the really daring moments in a formal poem such as when the writer ever so slightly stretches the point. Frost was an absolute expert at this. You read something like ‘The Silken Tent,’ where it seems to be perfect until he slips in a slight footfall which crosses over, and the sheer moment of both tension and tightening in this very erotic poem is beautifully done. If only we could all get anywhere near that level of control.
Formal or not, many of the poems in Ground Water are very conversational in tone. There’s not a sense in which the poem is setting out to defeat you. The door is open, and you walk through.
I don’t think a poem should be a crossword that should require solving. What it should never do is speak to itself. What interests me more is something about opening up the space and the echoic sound – there’s a lovely line in Heaney’s ‘Personal Helicon’, where he says ‘I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.’ Yes, there’s something about that aspect, as you say, of opening – opening the door rather than closing down. And there are poems which arrive at a very sharp point and the effect is very true. The poems that I write, though, on the whole probably go a different direction.
Who in the past century continues to excite you?
Oh, there are so many. I’m blooded in 20th century poetry. There are lots of American writers – Frost, Stevens, Lowell, Bishop, Williams. I’ve been rereading Pound recently. Larkin. The list is so long. MacNeice, Kavanagh. A lot of them belong to something more like a lyrical strain than the arch-modernist; but then you can be absolutely buckled by a line of Pound or Eliot in the most programmatic manifesto.
An old teacher of mine used to say that anyone who reaches the line ‘Human kind cannot bear very much reality’ in the Quartets, and doesn’t just break down completely, has nothing inside them to be broken.
Even the description about the river: ‘I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river / Is a strong brown god.’ It’s extraordinary. A shiver goes up because what has happened there, apart from the imaginative act, is the most incredible engagement with the line, and the line in poetry is our measure. It’s those moments, no matter who’s writing them, when you get that connection – that’s what keeps you reading poetry.
In one of your poems you refer to the line directly. It’s in the longer poem, ‘One Man Went to Mow.’ You write: ‘And surely at this, a moment of taking stock, / there should be some line about backbone.’
Maybe that was a mistake.
I don’t think so. It’s just the poet peeping around the corner and saying ‘hello.’
I think that is one of the moments – and that’s probably the earliest poem in the whole book…
I did find it one of the more difficult poems in the book, however.
That’s interesting. That might have been a poem on the cusp of the ones that went into the pamphlet and the ones that didn’t. I think perhaps that was the first poem after the pamphlet. But it seemed to have something about it to me. You’re right to point out that it’s more self-consciously writerly, and yes, the poet pops up to say ‘hello’, which usually I wouldn’t do.
I wouldn’t have characterized it as more self-consciously writerly. If anything, I would say that it asks more of the reader than the reader initially expects. It’s not just a narrative act, a transcription. It’s asking something different. To my mind it’s asking something about the nature of the narrative act: what is there, for us, in these dramas we create amongst our family? Amongst those we love and those we think love us? So the gravity that narrative has seems to be put on stage in this poem more so than the actual story.
Well, you’ve put it very well, and if it does achieve that then it’s done its job. Certainly that was a moment in the poem where somebody was in effect putting the brakes on because they simply found it intolerable. But there is a nod. And there are two puns there, and I wouldn’t usually pun, because punning is such a risky business in poems. There is a moment of taking stock, though, a reference to cattle, and it is the moment where the narrator seems to be drawing breath to bring up a summary.
Early as it may be, this is one of the poems reinforcing that connection to the land that’s in the book. I was curious to know if this connection is biographical, or is it aesthetic? Spiritual? Something to which we’re all inevitably pulled, dust to dust?
It could be the latter, I don’t know. It’s certainly an emotional attachment. I didn’t grow up with cattle as in that poem, but I did grow up in East Anglia and I’ve never lived far from the sea. There, water is every part of your environment, really. The landscape, too, in a way. So the relationship between water and land, and the movement between things, is, I suppose, one of the things that comes back a bit in my writing. But some of these places are real, some are imagined, and people often respond that my background may have been x, y, or z while this isn’t necessarily the case at all. I’m happy that they read into it, but quite often a poem isn’t me. Rather, it’s set somewhere.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Absolutely. Read. Read as much as you possibly can. Read the contemporaries that are being published. By all means, read the greats and the classics. But get a feel of the way people are writing today, because though occasionally people arrive completely out of context and it’s wonderful, usually it isn’t. Read as much as you can. Do look at magazines, do buy as many poetry books as you can, because many young writers who will also have books are very keen that they have readers too. Find like-minded peers, whether they’re in writing groups or solo poets. Find someone to push you, to help you seek good criticism, and understand disappointment. There’s a lot of that. Writing is slow: it has many rewards, but hardly any of them are in publishing all the time. And how do I say it? Don’t give up.
Ground Water by Matthew Hollis is published by Bloodaxe Books (ISBN 185224657X, £7.95 PBK)
© Benjamin Morris 2005