Maintenant #92 – Jeff Hilson
An interview with Jeff Hilson by SJ Fowler.
Now more than ever, if there exists a measure of what one could call a national character, indelible and prescriptive, it seems unlikely it can be held in the terms we seem to utilize. The limited, faded suggestions of temperament, appearance and culture are increasingly fraught. The valuable misnomer that the poetic in poetry is that which is lost in translation is a fair indication of how national character is found in the lack of a culture’s culture. I can only truly speak of England and Englishness, and what I deem to be its immovable quality, both its worst and it’s best feature – an unpretentious melancholy, a moaning disposition laced with satire, a call to arms without action, a sadness that has not the melodrama to make it public, a desire for privacy, a wit and observational keen which is razor sharp and practically dull. When an artist can build this ungraspable quality into the very fabric of their work, you know they can only have done so without preparation or motive. Jeff Hilson, as a master of this vernacular, stands as one of the most singular and gifted poets of his generation. Hilson’s use of distinctive vocabulary, a lexicon of the banal, utilises a finesse that pales the false poetic posturing of those working in circles created by perceptions of what has come before and held as the established “tone” of English poetry. He is the creator of poetic vignettes, an imagery not of the surreal but of the proto-mundane, couched in the wry, unpretentious drawl of a fogged civil servant, tired but not fatigued, worn but not broken. Hilson elevates the speech of the lived life, accelerates it, never seeking out absurdity, rather that would be too much agency for the singular voice purveying lines of observation and reflection. His poetic is not one of alarm, not one of lamentation – it is poetry of urbanity. Hilson’s mode is to shed light on the ever present – what we seem not to have noticed in its readiness, the pitted corners of language which are fundamentally drole and bloodless. Hilson exposes too the churlishness of the poet who takes no time to examine their own position, the ego behind the pen. His honesty, his lyrical inventiveness, his affected bleakness produces a strong sensation in its readers / listeners because of its central truth. It is then a poetry that is necessary because the poet does not profess its necessity. Only the reluctant can offer the objective truth that poetry must evolve, that it must be allowed to warp and break and rejoin in order to be in anyway new, and in being new, represent a culture that is truly contemporary. And even then, only within a form of an apology. Against Hilson’s work the concept of the poetic soul, the poetic pretension, is exposed as a welcome fraud. The melodrama of poetry is refuted and we are left instead with a very English sagacity of intellect and poise. In an attempt to utilise the Maintenant series to present poets to Europe, as well as from Europe, we present, for our 92nd issue, one of most remarkable poets of his generation, Jeff Hilson.
3:AM: You maintain a tonality throughout your work – one of rattled language given over in an assured, incisive manner, and you seem to have a distinct sense of vocal rhythm, of poetry that can be easily spoken, that unravels its intricacies when spoken. How much do you favour the page over the reading, or vice versa?
Jeff Hilson: The page and the reading are two different things, but they’re obviously related – there’s a dynamic between them though of course ‘reading’ in poetry has a number of different connotations. When I’m writing I’m very conscious of how the thing works on the page, as evolving text. But the page is a very curious place. There’s a sense that poets who write ‘only for the page’ are engaged in a purely textual event. But to read a page of text is surely to activate a complex set of processes, including the oral/aural, which can’t be switched off so that a silent reading of the page can never really occur. When I have a phrase, a line, whatever, that I think I’m satisfied with, I’ll read it to myself over and over in my head, sound it to see if it sounds right, a process which has something to do with actively making myself into a listener or ‘reader’ of my own work, to read it enough times so that I am no longer seeing it or hearing it as ‘mine’, so as to defamiliarise it if you like. And this process of trying it out (or trying it on) might take days, even weeks. So even before any notion of public performance I might have ‘read’ the poem out a hundred times or more to myself (or my non-self).
Anyway, I’m not sure this has anything to do with your question! For a while I wasn’t too bothered about page-related effects (line endings, enjambement, those kinds of things) but recently I’ve come back to them. They’re not always sounded in performance (in the way that, for example, Creeley does it) but they’re there. I love reading my work out loud to others just as I love hearing other poets read their work. You do get something else from hearing poets voice their writing. I’m not sure I’ve ever asked anyone else what they get from hearing me read my work. Some pleasure I hope, enough to then want to read it on the page.
Of course it’s a different thing if they’ve already read it on the page. Listening is probably then a different experience because it’s also a listening for.
3:AM: You seem to be engaged with environment, or habitat, be it the city or the space of living. Is this the case deliberately? It often feels perhaps your work is a poetry of the city, that owes itself to a city environs
JH: Peter Barry has written a piece in which he places me in a tradition of London writing (in an essay that also discusses Ken Edwards and Carlyle Reedy). He’s referring to my book stretchers, which I wrote whilst I lived on the Isle of Dogs, a socially deprived area of London’s East End which underwent so-called ‘regeneration’ during the Thatcherite nineteen-eighties and after. I house-sat here for a lot of this period, watching its unlikely transformation into the capital’s new financial district. Many of the poems in stretchers are a response to this new built environment but, as Barry recognises, the writing is as much about writing as it is ‘about’ the city. I never really considered stretchers to be ‘content-specific’ in the same way as, say, Allen Fisher’s Place (the phrase ‘content-specific’ is Barry’s). And yet it couldn’t have been written anywhere else. I guess what I’m trying to say is that place is a kind of given so to call my engagement with it ‘deliberate’ doesn’t quite sound right. It had to be. This might sound quietistic, implying something like a yielding to circumstance or environment, but the poems do offer a critique, partly via Lights out for the Territory, Iain Sinclair’s book of walks round London in which he condemned the Isle of Dogs for its lack of graffiti (for Sinclair the extensive use of glass in buildings meant there was “no surface rough enough to take the pen.”). My writing about the Isle of Dogs was partly also a recuperation of the territory of the island as my territory and I suggested Sinclair was too busy looking for graffiti on the walls when he should have been looking at the ground, at all the dogshit as a kind of writing (I’m quite interested in dogshit) or at the cracked pavements as a text that, say, Bob Cobbing could have read. I was being petulant but as Barry suggests, “stretchers strives to be the rough graffiti of the terrain which Sinclair sees as wiped away by the smooth professionals with their mouse-swipes and glossy PR-speak.” I noticed recently that Laura Oldfield Ford’s Savage Messiah opens with the Isle of Dogs and it turns out that the tower-block she lived in was right next to my house!
After stretchers I turned to what might look like less explicitly urban material – birds in Bird bird and the forest in In The Assarts. But I see both of these as kinds of radical pastoral and of course the pastoral as a genre is intimately bound to the city. And obviously there are plenty of birds in urban environments (including peregrines flying up and down Oxford Street apparently) so it’s not as though the urban excludes the natural in any way. An ‘assart’ by the way is a piece of cleared land (traditionally from forest) and I was excited to learn that when I moved further into the heart of South East London with my family in 2009 there was actually an old assart in Catford, now called the Forster Memorial Park. So the urban landscape bears constant traces of its pre-history. You can walk around the park through what is still quite clearly very old woodland but it’s been thinned out considerably (you couldn’t get lost in it) and there’s now a municipal football pitch in the middle. It’s definitely worth a visit.
I should add that I’m as interested in the space in and of the poem as I am in the physical or environmental spaces they might depict. In The Assarts is a sequence of sonnets, and it soon became clear to me that the assart was a figure for describing my own opening up of the sonnet tradition, a clearing of the terrain. And of course the sonnet form has its own very particular shape (another way of thinking about space) and the way the space of or in the sonnet has been used differently by different generations and schools of poets can’t be ignored. This was something I was trying to get across in The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, the anthology of ‘experimental’ sonnets I edited in 2008. Jackson MacLow’s “French Sonnets” are spatially very different from Jeremy Adler’s “Pythagorean Sonnets” and both are miles from Shakespeare or Sidney. Incidentally, Ian Davidson’s work on spatiality in contemporary poetry is well worth a look.
3:AM: There is an indelible humour to your work too, perhaps black, perhaps satirical. Is this instinctual, or conceived? Do you enjoy hijacking terminologies and texts which juxtapose the lyricism of your poetry, for it is fundamentally quite beautiful in its construction and language, with the comic harshness of daily life references?
JH: I do enjoy hijacking terminologies. As I said in the little essay at the back of stretchers (“why I wrote stretchers”), one of the tasks of the poet is to break into official languages whatever and wherever they are – in stretchers the language of architecture and building, in Bird bird the language of ornithology, in In The Assarts the languages (the law/lore) of the forest and of the sonnet. The problem with terminologies is that they are specialist discourses designed to confer distinction. Whilst they are sometimes necessary, or at least deemed so by their users, they are more often than not used as privileging and divisive markers. Again, from “why I wrote stretchers: “Specialised languages are more often than not allied to specialised practices which solidify into accepted practices, practices which obscure possible alternatives as well as obscuring actual histories and deliberately sabotaging alternatives.” To hijack Kenneth Burke’s terms, the ‘rhetoric of motives’ must always be observed.
I take great pleasure in misusing terminologies or deploying what might be called counter-terminologies, or ur-terminologies, formulations that have been abandoned, forbidden or that never made it and there’s certainly room for humour here. In Bird bird I was interested (among other things) in exploring the slippages between the scientific and empirical discourses of ornithology and bird-watching and the often irrational but fascinating language of bird-lore. The poems’ titles consist of (as in any guide book) the Latin binomial alongside the vernacular name of the bird (ie Troglodytes troglodytes, the wren, Buteo buteo, the buzzard etc). This in itself can be quite funny (for instance Puffinus puffinus is not as you might expect a puffin, but a manx shearwater) but the humour such as it exists often emerges from the irruption of the folkloric into the scientific. It’s something to do with the age-old clash of high and low cultural registers. Ornithology has knocked on the head some of the dottier theories about birds, such as their living at the bottom of ponds in winter rather than migrating to warmer climates. The latter is the result of empirical research and is now the ‘accepted’ account, but the former is no less interesting with possibly more imaginative (and possibly comic) potential for writing. And on one level this kind of way of seeing the world is no less ‘true’. It often represents, as you suggest, ‘everyday life’, a way of being in the world in which outmoded belief systems persist in the present. And poetry can be syncretistic in ways that other modes of writing often can’t be. It can accommodate multiple positionalities.
Humour in poetry is a very tricky area. In Britain at least it has unfortunate associations with the worst aspects of ‘light’ verse and is not therefore taken seriously (though the best light verse is up there – think of Ivor Cutler or even early Tom Raworth). I think there’s been a turn to humour in British poetry in the last twenty or so years, possibly a result of the emergence from the embattled state poetry in this country found itself in during the ‘70s and ‘80s, and with a younger generation’s discovery of poets in the U.S. for whom humour didn’t have the same perceived associations with laissez-faire politics or lack of ‘commitment’.
The late Ric Caddel once said that he’d stop writing poetry when putting words together no longer surprised him. I’m totally with him here and humour at its best is a means of generating surprise. If poetry can’t surprise you it’s not really working.
3:AM: There is a conception in poetry, as in music, as in art, that one passes through stages of understanding and learning and as one does so, so the breadth of interest increases, so the desire for work with a higher sense of complexity and freedom and philosophical engagement increases. It seems that many people reading poetry don’t pursue this path – this movement from formal work to more challenging work, they lack a hunger, even those who are enamoured with poetry. Do you think this is unique to England? A form of parochialism? What is your honest conception of the division in British poetry? Does it begin with the exclusion of one side to the other? Is that still as true now as it appears to be in the past? Did you enter into a poetry community and inherit this division? How did you begin as a poet, how did it develop?
JH: That’s a lot of questions! There is clearly still a divide in poetry in this country (as there is in America so I’m not sure that it’s unique to Britain) though there are also undoubtedly divisions within these perceived divisions themselves. Neither the so-called mainstream nor the avant-garde are singular states and the fiercest disagreements can occur within these apparent divides because of the politics of position-taking. The notion of a stable and harmonic community is often a fantasy. As the Canadian poet Lisa Robertson pointed out at the Greenwich Cross-Genre Festival here in London a few years ago, poets often suffer slights and unkindnesses at the hands of those in their immediate peer group. And how we love it! The picture isn’t a simple, nor a static one, and is almost impossible to document accurately because of the constant changes in the field. I think there’s been a marked increase, however, in the number of younger poets writing now which has perhaps made it more difficult to talk of a mainstream/avant-garde divide in the old sense – the lines of division are possibly being stretched so that there is now more of an uncertain middle ground. Whether this is a good or a bad thing remains to be seen (the other thing I’ve noticed is a closing of the gap between poetic generations – new generations of poets seem to be emerging much more quickly than, say, ten or twenty years ago, though this perception might just have something to do with my age).
I also wonder whether the old-school mainstream hasn’t eventually realised how boring its work has been for the last 40 years and has decided to poach terminologies traditionally associated with the avant-garde. A soon-to-be-published critical work by a well-known mainstream poet and editor claims to be “a radical map of living British poets” (you can google that phrase and find out who it is). It’s a joke! None of the poets examined could be called ‘radical’ in any sense – politically, formally, historically – nor would they, I imagine, think of themselves in this way – but using a word associated with the avant-garde will give this miserable text some much-needed credibility. It’s a small sign of how bad things have got in the mainstream and how desperate they are to be taken seriously.
My own ‘education’ in poetry, for what it’s worth, was the usual Faber fare peddled by school English Departments – Larkin, Heaney, Plath and Raine (Craig, not Kathleen). I specialised in American Literature in the final year of my BA before moving on to do an MA on the American long poem and starting a PhD on Louis Zukofsky. Throughout the ‘90s I was a regular at reading series in London like the invaluabe Subvoicive (overseen then by Lawrence Upton) and East/West (run by Thomas Evans & Drake Stutesman) before attending Bob Cobbing’s fortnightly Writers Forum workshops in late 1999. After years of listening to poets read, I felt ready to show others what I’d been writing though I remember being extremely nervous at the very first workshop. In fact I couldn’t stand up for the first few sessions because my legs were shaking so much!
As a footnote on the question of ‘division’, many poets I encountered throughout this time all still remembered the Poetry Wars of the 1970s, the Battle of Earl’s Court and the introduction to the 1981 Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry in which Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison had infamously announced that “nothing much happened” in British Poetry during the 1960s and ‘70s, the golden years of the so-called British Poetry Revival! Division was still absolute, to the extent that when I began Crossing the Line [sic] with David Miller and Sean Bonney, the late great Bill Griffiths refused to read at our first venue (the Poetry Café in Betterton Street) because of its connection with the Poetry Society.
3:AM: What is your summation of the Writers Forum, its place in the history of British Poetry?
JH: The importance of Writers Forum can’t be underestimated though its place in British poetry is still being assessed (and Steve Willey’s and Mark Jackson’s PhDs will hopefully go some way towards this). I for one worry that its significance might be forgotten – Bob Cobbing died 10 years ago and to my knowledge there’s been no talk of a celebration of his achievement nor any marking of the anniversary of his death. I hope I’m wrong. It might have something to do with recent events concerning the ownership of the Writers Forum name which I won’t go into here in any detail as it’s an unresolved and still delicate matter. Suffice to say it has proved something of a distraction from Cobbing’s remarkable accomplishments as a poet, publisher and editor. Both the workshops and press were the antithesis of slick, market-led practice, reasons for their necessary persistance as well as their continued invisibility in mainstream culture in Britain (though copies of early Writers Forum titles now go for tidy sums on the web). Many of the most important British poets from the ‘60s to the ‘90s were published by Writers Forum, as well as some of the least, which is less a sign of Cobbing’s judgement than an indication of his willingness to take risks.
3:AM: Can you offer a small history of Crossing the Line? It has become something of a hub for poetry in the capital, for the proliferation of poetries that might not be palatable for certain poetry institutions. Was it conceived as a meeting place, a nexus for this community?
JH: Crossing the Line (or Xing the Line in its new orthographic regime) was started in 2002 by David Miller, Sean Bonney and myself originally to put on poets who might not get a reading at Subvoicive, at the time the only other reading series for more ‘experimental’ poetry in London. We definitely felt there was room for another series showcasing this kind of writing though it wasn’t well received in all quarters, for different reasons. Some felt it was encroaching on Subvoicive and stayed away. Some complained about what they saw as an all-male ‘committee’ though to call us a committee was really too grand and missed the point completely about what we were trying to do. Well, you can’t please everybody. For the first few years, as I’ve already mentioned, readings were held at the Poetry Café as Miller knew the then-head of the Poetry Society though initially we also felt we were infiltrating this bastion of conservatism which had tried so hard to ignore the poets we were interested in. It didn’t last. After a run-in with the bar staff, a sordid affair involving false accusations of after-hours trespass on adjacent properties and true accusations of excessive drinking, we were thrown out. It transpired that the Café bar staff wanted to use our spot for their own reading event which about sums up the Poetry Society: mendacious all the way down. After the Poetry Café, we moved to a succession of venues north and south of the river and we are now located at the Apple Tree in Mount Pleasant, a small but very amenable pub opposite the massive Royal Mail sorting office in central London. I hope to keep the series going for as long as it’s needed. Others have come and gone, each serving their purposes and it’s in the nature of these things that they aren’t in any way permanent.
3:AM: You wrote critically on Zukofsky, and you seem to have a deep understanding of 20th century American poetics – the Black Mountain school, the Objectivists. How do you see the influence of American work on British poetry? In what regard do you hold elements of American poetry?
JH: Blimey! There are folks out there with a far greater depth of knowledge about C20th American poetry than me, but I have tried to read as widely and as variedly in the field as possible. Olson and Zukofsky were important early examples (prior to this I had also read a lot of Robert Lowell and Wallace Stevens) though of the Objectivists I have for some time been leaning more towards Lorine Niedecker and her magnificently weird ear than the well-known men. What better line in poetry is there than: “My man’s got nothing but leaky boats”? American poetry has influenced British poetry in so many different ways. Obviously Donald Allen’s 1960 New American Poetry anthology was key for many of the British Poetry Revival poets as was Eric Mottram’s editorship of the Poetry Review in the ‘70s which introduced many readers and practitioners to a subsequent generation of US poetry. Miles Champion and Tim Atkins’ Platform Gallery readings in London in the ‘90s was also significant in familiarising British poets with U.S. Language and post-Language poetry.
For myself I’m currently thinking about the significance of the first and second generation New York School – Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch, Barbara Guest, and then Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, Joseph Ceravolo. I know they were variously significant for Lee Harwood, Tom Raworth and John James (and later for Ralph Hawkins, Tim Atkins and myself among others), but I’m trying to find out how their influence extends to earlier generations of British poetry. For reasons I’ve already suggested, many British Poetry Revival poets probably had issues with the kinds of humour in New York School poetry, and with humour in general because it wasn’t a mode that suited “the situation of emergency” (Jeff Nuttall’s words) they found themselves in during the embattled ‘70s. Others of course just didn’t think poetry was a vehicle for comedy at all. It reminds me of the beginning of William Carlos Williams’ Spring & All (1923) where he is upbraided by a reader who doesn’t like his poems because he seems “neither to have suffered, nor, in fact, to have felt anything very deeply.” A poetry of ‘deep feeling’ with evidence of suffering is still predominant, and not just in the mainstream. Humour sits very uncomfortably with this way of thinking. Anyway, I guess I’m interested in the kinds of poetry that weren’t taken up over here as much as those that were.
3:AM: You teach at Roehampton University, how do you approach teaching contemporary poetics? Has it affected your own work, reengaging with texts for students?
JH: I’m pretty lucky to have a brilliant colleague, the poet Peter Jaeger, and together we teach whatever we want to. And it’s not difficult if you’re any good at explaining it. Sure it can be quite complex but that’s what makes it engaging. We make no bones about teaching the kind of material we do and haven’t so far had to justify it. But really why teach the kind of stuff that gets taught at school, the War Poets, Carol Ann Duffy, Wendy Cope, Simon Armitage (who I heard called a “national treasure” the other day!)? Surely it’s our responsibility at University level to open up students to modes of writing they won’t have encountered before. If you’re not doing that you’re failing as an educator. And anyway, a lot of it is the kind of writing that should, and could, be taught at school. But as I think it was Steve Willey who once said to me, the poets who get studied at GCSE and A-level are rubbish, and know they’re rubbish, and have to be rubbish because if they were any good more people would want to be poets and that would threaten their position. That’s great. Their job is actively to turn people off poetry and they’re pretty good at that.
We’re quite lucky to have had some very fine poets emerge from Roehampton – Holly Pester, Mendoza (aka Tommy Peeps, aka Linus Slug), Michael Zand, Harry Godwin. I read their work and know we’re doing something right. And, yes, you are constantly forced to look again at your own work, not just because of the texts you’re teaching, but because of the work students produce. I’m constantly amazed by the quality of some of the writing. And it’s a big ask for them to turn out what they do in such a short space of time, often having to rethink the foundations of their writing practice in a few months. To be honest I’m not sure I could do that myself!
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is the author of three poetry collections, Red Museum (Knives Forks and Spoons Press 2011), Fights (Veer books 2011) and Minimum Security Prison Dentistry (AAA 2011). He is the UK poetry editor of Lyrikline and 3:AM. He is a full time employee of the British Museum and a postgraduate student at the Contemporary Centre for Poetic Research, University of London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, April 22nd, 2012.