The following is an interview with the poet Sheila Hamilton whose first collection, Corridors of Babel came to my attention a few months ago. The collection has a brilliant introduction by the poet and editor David Caddy, who celebrates the thoughtful and erudite poems written by this extraordinary ‘anthropological’ poet. Mythology, fairytale and surrealism are invigorated with a purposeful questioning of the world, both real and metaphysical, re-inventing its parameters. Seeking truths in the everyday and domestic as well as in often fragile familial relationships we are also asked to consider animals, dolls, puppets, unicorns and galloping horses alongside these turbulent pre-occupations.
Sheila has also written two pamphlet collections, one by Flarestack entitled The Monster in The Rose Garden and one by Original Plus entitled One Match, a sequence of poems after Jan Palach, a Czech student of history who committed suicide by self-immolation as a political protest in Wenceslas Square, 1969.
Why is poetry important to you?
I have always loved the rhythms of speech, and am drawn to music without having ever been a natural on any instrument. That’s one reason. And poetry has given me so much. When I was a teenager I found it very liberating to read the poems of Wilfred Owen, Sylvia Plath and also various Eastern European poets in translation, Polish poets, Czech poets, Hungarian poets. .. it was liberating to see people tackling big subjects: death, war, madness, totalitarianism. Poetry can be praise or lament, it can break your heart or make you laugh aloud. Because it is also about sound and cadence, it is closer to the heart than prose. (Though I do like prose.)
What was the first poem you wrote?
I can’t remember exactly but it was probably a haiku. We learnt to write simple haiku at primary school: meditations on the natural world, with some emotion of our own in the mix. It’s not a bad place to start though I realize now that haiku are actually very complicated! The first poems that I remember writing out of a creative need, let’s say, were written when I was 16 and in a psychiatric hospital. I don’t have them now, and I can’t remember their titles, but they were an attempt to process difficult material.
People tell me that I tackle big subjects in many of my poems. It’s true, but I would also say it is pretty much lethal to a poem’s success for the poet to sit down and say “Today I am going to tackle a big subject.” For me, a poem starts with a powerful visual image, or an intriguing phrase I’ve overheard somewhere. Many poems are born out of a sense of being bothered (and not in a Catherine Tate kind of way!).
What is the most difficult subject you’ve ever tackled in a poem?
Writing about Jan Palach’s self-immolation in Czechoslovakia was never going to be one poem. It appeared in the pamphlet One Match as 20 poems, though with a bit of re-arranging it could be considered one big uber-poem, I suppose. Writing about Jan Palach came out of going to Prague a few times and standing at the place in Wenceslas Square where he actually set himself on fire. (This place has been marked since 2000 by a bronze cross.) But once I began writing, this poem (these poems) began to address all sorts of things: the nature of political protest, how people behave in a totalitarian society, the tricky issue of martyrdom, how the living remember the dead.
I see most of my work as being a body of work, and running through that body is a preoccupation with trauma. Trauma can happen on Wenceslas Square, it can happen in the trenches of the Western Front, and it can also happen in your house.
In One Match you delve into someone else’s psychology, and not just Jan Palach’s but his mother’s and girlfriend’s. How did you go about achieving this?
. . .I have always been fascinated by how people tick, largely because no-one conforms to a template; even the most self-aware person can surprise themselves. When someone does something as extreme as immolating in a public place, it is only natural that others will try to find clues in the personality and circumstances of that person. Yes, Jan Palach’s protest was political in nature, there’s no doubt about that, but not everybody deeply disillusioned and angered by political conditions would do what he did.
So writing and researching about JP inevitably entailed finding out various things about people he knew. And this led in turn to a certain level of emotional identification with those people. This was not always a comfortable experience!
JP appears to have been emotionally involved with two young women. As far as I can infer (and this is an inference), he was close to Young Woman A but only viewed her platonically and he was romantically/sexually involved with Young Woman B. Young Woman B’s name was Eva, and there is an Eva in my poem “Jan Palach: Boyfriend” but the Eva in my poem is really a composite of both these women. In the poem, I imagine what she might have done if he had confided in her about his plan. I needed to explore that idea before I came to understand that, probably, he did not confide his plans at all, not to anybody. Doing so would have put the listener in an impossible position.
During his 3 days in the intensive care unit, Jan Palach was visited once by his mother (accompanied by his older brother) and once (separately) by Eva. His mother leant over him and said, “Janicku (note: a term of endearment), what have you done? What have you done?” Eva paced up and down talking nineteen-to-the-dozen before breaking down in tears and crying, “Please tell me that what you have done was a mistake.” Those are both cries from the heart in what is a visceral human drama. Running through my mind as I explored all this was the unanswerable question, “What would I myself have done if this had been me?”
And I’ll mention Jung, if I may. In the Jungian world of archetypes, Jan Palach is a Divine Child. A Divine Child is basically a young person who comes over as wise beyond their years and who stands out for the intensity of their ideals. (Jesus is the prime example within Western culture.) Such a person exists in difficult conditions and is, in a sense, made by them. A Divine Child has a huge impact on others, not because s/he is attempting consciously to “make friends and influence people” but because s/he has a lot of integrity.
Why did JP’s story compel me so much? Over the years, I have written quite a few poems inspired by folk and fairy tales and JP’s story contains several archetypal aspects (see above.) I have also over the years been able to exercise my democratic right to protest; what it would be like to live in a context where there is no such right, where attempts to march, lobby, distribute leaflets, etc. result in the person being carted off to prison or being put in a mental hospital? . .But these are what Palach as a philosophy student would no doubt describe as post-hoc rationalizations. When I was actually writing, I just knew I had to write. Some things just hit you in the face. ..
There is a line in your poem ‘ There is an asteroid named after Jan Palach’ which reads ‘Better, surely to be un-burnt, un-famous.’ But you don’t believe this. Often I see in your work a celebration of what it is to be human and to suffer. Do you think, this not shrinking from the truth sets you apart as a writer and can you think of any particular influences or like-minds?
The whole sequence of poems on Jan Palach was born out of an ambivalence: did he do the right thing? On one level, the individual human level, it would certainly have been better if he had scrapped the whole idea. But we do not exist purely as individuals; we are a part of society. He felt compelled to make a powerful stand against repression and he knew quite well that setting himself alight in the main throroughfare could not be ignored or hushed up.
The human fascinates me, we are such a complex species! People can be courageous, creative, generous beyond all call of duty. .. and people can also be despicable. I think in my poems I try to honour the human. But I wouldn’t say that I celebrate suffering, no. Suffering is horrible. Getting badly burnt is horrible. Feeling that that is the only way you can be heard is hideous, it should never come to that. I feel suffering needs to be acknowledged as part of the human experience but I do get angry with people who make out that suffering per se is a form of nobility.
I feel poetry, and other art forms too, must concern themselves with honesty. Otherwise, why bother?
Particular influences? I think of Shostakovitch the Russian composer who attempted in his music to honour the experience and sufferings of his fellow-Russians, people living under Stalin during the purges, people in Leningrad during the siege. I wouldn’t presume to put myself in the same category as him because he lived in circumstances I can scarcely imagine.
In a slightly different vein, I love the stories collected by the brothers Grimm, stories which definitely don’t turn away from difficulty. They have hunger in them, and abandonment, jealousy, infanticide, incest. The German versions written down (and sometimes altered) by the Grimms themselves are more visceral than the English versions, which the Victorians sanitized. In the German versions, the stepmother in “Snow White” is set upon at Snow White’s wedding and forced to dance herself to death in red-hot metal slippers. And Rumpelstiltskin doesn’t just stomp off into the wood “never to be seen again” but actually splits in two. And it is clear in the German version of “Rapunzel” that Rapunzel is having a sexual relationship with the young man who climbs up her long hair into the tower. These are vivid stories that don’t sugar-coat the messiness of the human experience.
What are the main themes in your collection Corridors of Babel, and how long did it take you to write it?
Corridors of Babel grew, like many first collections, over a long period of time. The earliest poems in it date from the mid-Nineties; the most recent was written very early in 2007, the year in which the book appeared. (That 2007 poem is “The Children Who Transformed Themselves” and came out of a wonderful one-day workshop tutored by Pascale Petit. I love the way Pascale works with myth to explore difficult experience.) In the earlier stages, I had little concept of putting together a book; I was simply working on poems and getting acceptances in magazines. So there’s less cohesion in it than there is in my later work.
Having said that, some themes do emerge. There is a preoccupation with people who are on the edges, the margins. Linked up to this, and I see this more clearly now with the benefit of distance, is a preoccupation with violence. There is the violence found in the Grimm tales, and in the Greek myth of the Minotaur, but also the violence within history: the execution of a Scottish Covenanter in the seventeenth century, the disappearance of Genette Tate, torture in Chile during the Pinochet regime. In the Remedios Varo poems towards the end of the collection, I explore various sorts of quest: physical, artistic, spiritual. And there’s quite a lot of dream running through the book.
Which poems in Corridors of Babel are you most proud of?
That’s a difficult question. I think I am attached to all of them for some reason or another. . The Genette Tate poem, “Disappeared”, I am proud of because I had been trying to write of this for a long, long time. .. this is what finally emerged after lots of false starts. When Genette went missing in Devon in 1978, I was only a little bit younger than her and lived only a few miles away. The fact that she disappeared was disturbing enough; the fact that her body was never found, even more so. . .And a poem in some ways connected to this, “Freyja”, I am especially pleased with because it came to be a love poem. I’ve definitely decided not to sit down and try consciously to write love-poems; they happen by serendipity!
“Gretel” I vividly remember writing at a large table in the Arvon Centre at Lumb Bank in West Yorkshire in the middle of the night. The course was focussing on childhood and dream and though I wrote other things there, this was the poem where both those things came together and collided with those already-existing preoccupations with violence and with people who are marginalized. John Burnside was the guest poet (the tutors were the excellent Moniza Alvi and Susan Wicks) and he had suggested to the group the night before that we might want to go off and each get stuck in to our favourite fairy tale or myth. Well, I could think of several but I settled on “Hansel and Gretel” and the voice of Gretel presented itself. It was one of those special occasions when a poem appears to write itself.
If someone were to write a poem about you…
Ah, this would depend so much on who was writing the poem! My younger son is autistic with severe learning disability: what kind of poem would he write? Perhaps it would be about me teaching him how to make a cup of tea. Someone else might focus on my wanderlust. Or on how a confused child of Catholic convert parents has been, in turn, a free-ranging protestant (small “p”), an apprentice Buddhist and, latterly, an agnostic with a deep distrust of most organized religion. I think I’ll just say: I hope that I never inspire a revenge poem. All else, gratefully acknowledged!
What are you currently working on?
I very much hope that my second full collection will see the light of day in 2013. At present, I am deep into working on my third collection. At the heart of it is the whole business of transience: travel, migration (both animal and human), how fruit ripens, how it rots, how the living relate to the dead. There is a fair bit of archaeology in it. Inside me is an archaeologist trying to get out. . .Or an archivist. I love the work of archaeologists and archivists. . .it is so important, they really are unsung heroes.
My preoccupation with trauma continues. I think I’ll soon be writing more about shell shock/war neurosis/combat stress. Who was it who said, “In war, there are no unwounded soldiers”? . . And I have recently been writing a longish poem about Liverpool, focussing on how Victorian Liverpool nudges the Liverpool of today and finds echoes there. Also two longish poems about specific places in Prague. I’m very interested in cities as palimpsests, places of layers and of incongruity, the magnificent alongside the horrific, elegance in close proximity to squalor. (Note to self: read “Cities” by Elaine Feinstein.) I have really enjoyed writing these longer poems. . .and intend to write more.
What advice would you give to an aspiring poet?
Everyone says this but I’ll echo it: read a lot. Read all sorts of poetry, especially lots of contemporary stuff. (Keats, Shelley, etc. are wonderful but you can’t learn from them how 21-st century people write, any more than you can learn from them how to talk. When Keats and Shelley were writing, they were modern.) Also read lots of things that are not poetry.
Go to workshops if you can but don’t presume that workshops can teach you everything.
Be prepared to write a lot of rubbish. If you tell yourself that each poem you write has to be great, you are setting yourself up for failure. . .and paralysis. All the most well-known poets past and present have written rubbish. . .over time, you tend to get a feeling for when something is good and when it is not, and when something can be reasonably improved.
Don’t write about something/anything that only vaguely interests you. Why would a reader want to read about something that even the poet can’t get enthusiastic about? Rather: what do you find yourself thinking about a lot? dreaming about? What keeps you awake at night? What do you find yourself discussing in great detail with friends? A lot of bad poems are vague because the poets are not sufficiently engaged with the subject-matter.
Draft. Re-draft. Re-draft again. If you find other poets who are 1) friendly and also 2) capable of offering constructive criticism, share your work with them. And pay theirs the same compliment.
Encourage other people who are writing; encouragement is not on ration. The suffering artist (or is that artiste?) languishing in his/her garret is a myth.