[Interview] Chris Hardy

Poet, musician and song-writer, Chris Hardy has written and published two poetry collections, Swimming In The Deep Diamond Mine (Hub Editions 2002) and A Moment Of Attention (Original Plus Press, August 2008).

His poems have also been featured in magazines that include Acumen; Tears In The Fence; and Poetry Review.

In this interview, Chris Hardy talks about his writing:

When did you start writing?

I started writing poetry at school in the 1960’s, influenced and inspired by reading English poetry, especially John Keats, Wilfred Owen, William Shakespeare and William Blake.

As for publishing, this started in the 1970’s when I came across poetry magazines in London, where I was living. I submitted poems to them and began to get published: Stand, Poetry Review and Slow Dancer were amongst the first to take my poems. It was easy to find out how to do this, but to get a collection published, while easier then than now, was still difficult. In fact, I did not think of doing so until later.

Throughout this period, and up to now, I was also playing guitar in bands and as a solo musician, and writing tunes and songs ... I have always felt that, if there were no poems being written, as I could not find anything to write about or did not feel like writing, then at least there was still the music -- and visa versa.

How would you describe the writing you are doing?

I write lyric poetry, by which I mean pieces of writing in a verse form that do not extend much beyond four or five pages.

Most of my poems are less than 40 lines long. I write like this because that is what my imagination creates. I sometimes intend to put together something longer but this rarely happens, mainly because it is ‘put together’ -- is artificial.

Over many years, I have come to rely on my imagination finding the material it needs in my experiences and making something new from that. What is produced is then shaped by me into a verse form -- stanzas, lines, punctuation etc -- that seems to emerge from the poem.

Often the first few lines set the form.

I do not sit down thinking I must write a poem and this is the topic, nor do I attend writing classes where topics are set. Again to me all this produces is artificial, manufactured, poetry.

I trust my imagination to make something, using words, from my knowledge and life: the poem, if it is a poem, will reveal what I was aware of but did not ‘see’ or ‘know’ before. Of course this leads to periods of anxiety when nothing appears, sometimes for months ... but I have to remind myself then that this does not matter ... what does matter is that whatever is written is necessary (to me) and ‘authentic’.

Who is your target audience?

I do not have a target audience. Once the poem is finished -- has been amended, added to, shaped and left lying around for a while -- I will try to get it published in a magazine or anthology, but why I do this is a good question: I think it is simply to get some sort of response or reaction.

I often try new poems out on other writers I meet at ‘Stanza’ meetings, but only rarely do I hear anything that I am willing or able to make use of to improve a poem -- though it does happen at times.

There is definitely also a desire to get some sort of recognition and approval, especially through getting poems into famous magazines like the The Rialto or The North, or winning prizes in competitions, and the odd prize covers the cost of all the postage!

I think it probably took 10 years of trying, once a year, sending six poems, to get one poem recently into The Rialto ... And I, and I am sure other writers, read these magazines asking ourselves, ‘You print that and not mine?!’

There is also a competitive element: many writers are competitive, with each other and with the publishing establishment: it becomes a small victory to finally get a poem published ... guitarists, by the way, are the same.

In the writing you are doing, which authors influenced you most?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Frost At Midnight), John Keats (Bright Star), Wilfred Owen (Spring Offensive, Futility), Isaac Rosenberg (Dead Man’s Dump), Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Thomas (Lights Out), Shakespeare (Hamlet, Othello), Gary Snyder (Turtle Island, Rip Rap), Allen Ginsberg (Howl etc) and other ‘beats’ -- Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, and also Robert Duncan, e e cummings, William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell, T S Eliot (Wasteland, Prufrock), Ezra Pound (Cathay), Philip Larkin (Whitsun Weddings, Aubade), Sylvia Plath, early Ted Hughes, the very Larkinesque Carol Anne Duffy more recently.

I also find inspiration sometimes in the excellent poems that frequently appear in the small magazines I subscribe to: Magma, Tears In The Fence, Rialto etc.

I have been influenced, at least in approach and subject matter, by novelists such as Leo Tolstoy, William Faulkner, Hemingway, Joseph Conrad: these and many other authors, of course, write from their own experience, which connects their work directly to reality. They all firstly create a physical world from imagery and through this and from this arises any underlying meaning: fact is far stranger than fiction and, once fiction is made from fact, fiction cannot lie.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

I will start a poem with a word or a line that I have heard, thought of or remembered and these are often connected to memories, or from something just seen or read or heard. Memory is especially important ...

Once the poem gets going, I know it is something worth continuing with if I arrive, at some point, at something I had not clearly seen or known before I began. But whatever this is, it comes from and relates to some sort of inner or sensory experience.

I rarely, if ever, write about things I have never felt or known. In this connection I am not interested in any sort of Science Fiction, Television serials and do not usually watch films, or if I do, I cannot take them seriously as Art. Exceptions are 40’s and 50’s Westerns (High Noon), Some Like It Hot, Paths Of Glory, Doctor Strangelove, The Godfather ...

The Wire is the sort of TV I like and other than that, a few documentaries, and sport.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

The biggest challenges are twofold: writing something; getting it published. I have written above about both these things.

I do not ‘practise’ writing poems as I practise guitar: every day for at least one or two hours.

I have to be patient and calm and wait for the moment, which is also a mood -- when I become aware that anything and everything in the ordinary world is of interest and has a mystery: it is inexplicably strange that we are here, like this.

Then it takes a prompt: a word, an image, a memory, a line of verse, a phrase.

Getting published takes patience and thick skin.

You have to learn to take rejection and keep going. You also have to read plenty of poetry and research the scene -- there are, for example, many online magazines now. You also have to put up with interminable delay by most magazine editors. Very few of them will respond within three months, most take longer and some never reply even if you send, as you must, an s.a.e. The worst offenders in this regard are the editors of Arete, Poetry London, The London Magazine ... and as other excellent and very busy magazine editors do manage to reply promptly, I cannot excuse those who do not. The best are Acumen, Tears In The Fence, Smiths Knoll, Poetry Review, The North ...

Do you write everyday?

No. I do not write everyday, but I am ready to write -- I try to remember to have a notebook on me at all times. I have written poems on beaches, in lecture theatres, in bed, on buses ... all I need is some paper and a pencil or pen.

I do not type until I have re-written by hand several times.

I use a manuscript nook for drafting, sometimes I compose straight into it. I have kept quite a few of these as they are a sort of mine or quarry -- there is stuff in there that I might be able to use -- fragments, abandoned poems and also many notes, quotes, pictures.

I stop writing when I have nothing else to write down.

But one important rule, that I have to remind myself of is that, once I start I must not stop to correct, re-consider, censor ... that is fatal, as, if there is anything there, it might find its way out buried in a load of verbiage and imagery that can be pared away later.

Another helpful way of finding what a poem is about is getting someone else to read it -- they will sometimes see what the poem is really trying to reveal, or is really concerned about, and suggest ways of bringing this out, making the poem, in fact.

On the whole, I do not agree with the often expressed notion that a poem is ‘never finished’: I read poems written years ago and, while noticing that I might not have phrased or structured it like that now, I do not wish to re-write it ... it is better to start afresh. I have written many poems that took hours to get right, then found that what I have left is not really worth doing anything with. I will leave it, and possibly make use of any images, phrases, lines in a future poem.

How many collections have you written so far?

I have published two collections: Swimming In The Deep Diamond Mine (Hub Editions 2002) and A Moment Of Attention (Original Plus Press, August 2008).

I began publishing poems in magazines in about 1980 with a poem called Knife, in Orbis -- a magazine that I still send work to. Poems in Other Poetry, Stand, Poetry Review and Pennine Platform followed, as well as poems in magazines that are now extinct -- Slow Dancer, Urbane Gorilla, Oasis etc.

Since then poems have appeared regularly, in numerous magazines (over 60) including The North, The Rialto, Smiths Knoll, Tears in the Fence, Acumen, Brittle Star and many others.

Some of my poems have won prizes, for example in the National Poetry Society’s and London Writers’ poetry competitions, and a poem, highly commended by the judges, is in the 2009 Forward Prize Anthology.

More poems and information can be found at the following websites and ‘zines’ (online magazines) myspace.com/mrchrishardy, greatworks.org.uk, poetrypf.co.uk, nthposition.com and poetrylibrary.org.uk

How would you describe A Moment Of Attention?

My latest book, A Moment Of Attention, contains a large number of poems and is somewhat erratically ordered on a thematic line from birth/beginnings to death/endings but with a questing, searching poem at the end that celebrates (I hope) the wonder of the easily accessible world. The title poem also emphasis this: it is about an old barn but the underlying idea is that life is just this brief moment of consciousness -- what is happening now is all there is, and the poem tries to show and say how easy it is to forget this and live disconnected from what is really happening, unaware -- like a person walking on a mountain and making a phone call.

Sam Smith, with his Original Plus Press, picked up the manuscript immediately he received it, and proved to be a most efficient and careful editor -- this is why I went along with him and did not try anywhere else. If you find a friend stick with him ...

What sets A Moment Of Attention apart from the other things you've written?

Poets usually simply collect together what poems they have that have not appeared in a book but that might or might not have been published elsewhere and then try to make a ‘Collection’: this means a book containing poems that are not going to be on one theme or in one style, but it is important to try and make the ‘running order’ work: each poem should complement, or contrast with, its neighbour.

Getting this order right takes several attempts and is never completely satisfactory. I compare it to constructing a musical ‘set’ for a band’s performance ... the songs chosen need to enhance each other and the performance.

My poems have always been on a number of limited themes: life, nature, death, truth, mystery, other people and myself, time, fate, history, religion ... in this, both my collections are similar and the next one will be too.

What has changed is my style: I now take much more notice of rhyme and rhythm and am focusing more on both, especially the iambic beat and the 10/11 syllable line. However, I have to guard against this interfering with the actual moment of writing ... and it is also apparent to me that my imagination is producing poems that contain a lot of half and full rhymes, that they condition the writing and unfortunately can also limit it ...

What will your next book be about?

My next collection is not in any sort of order yet. I have a Word file with about 50 poems in it, and an associated file with about 20 poems that I now do not intend to use ... there are many other poems that are in neither file.

The main file has the title, Write Me A Few Of Your Lines. This is the title of a poem about the great American blues musician Fred McDowell, the poem was published on a USA poetry website lucidrhythms.com. If the collection turns out to be about discovery (the poem is about how Fred was ‘discovered’) and revelation, then it will not be that different to the previous collections and poems!

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

Keeping going when inspiration is absent, there is nothing to say and no one wants to publish what poems I have that I think are interesting and well-constructed enough to find an audience.

Even if you win a prize in the National Poetry Competition, or get a poem in the Forward Anthology or into a ‘prestigious’ magazine, nothing will probably change in your life -- it takes luck, contacts and, of course, the right poem to make money and a name ... most poets, in any case, do not want to earn a living as poets. This would mean writing to order like a journalist or forcing the pace as novelists do -- poetry should be written in the corners of your life and you need to live, not write, to write it.

Far too many poets work in Universities and especially on ‘creative writing’ courses: this means that their only experiences, from which the poems must come, are of writing and talking about writing. But the poetry that is about poetry is the most pointless, self-regarding and unenlightening of all ...

To me, the ideal poet’s life would be that lived by Gary Snyder, who worked in the forests of North America, or even Owen and Sassoon’s wars, T S Eliot’s bank and Larkin’s library administration. Wallace Stevens, Yeats and Arnold all worked in the world and wrote in a separate but connected existence -- as if life, work and poetry were connected rooms.

Some of the best poets are mainly thought of as novelists -- Thomas Hardy, D H Lawrence: their poems are, to some readers, superior to their books because they were written to express essential emotions and experiences; not to support a fiction but to re-create a powerful perception of a fundamental experience.

Possibly related books:


Related article:

[Interview] Siobhan Logan, Conversations with Writers, February 20, 2010


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