FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION IN CONVERSATION WITH HELEN TOOKEY

FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?

HELEN TOOKEY: Obviously this is a generalisation, but I think poets are often people who have a strong sense of the strangeness of things, even quite ordinary things; and at the same time a heightened awareness of how fleeting everything is – so they feel a kind of compulsion to try to capture moments, to say This is how it was, here, now. And the small, compressed, densely woven spaces of poems can be the perfect medium for that.

I wrote (terrible) poetry as a child, and in my teens. Then for a long time I wrote prose, but not stories – fragments, scenes, bits of description. I couldn’t see at all how to turn it into anything that looked like a recognisable genre of writing, anything that could be published. Eventually I started to think that perhaps what I was struggling towards writing was poetry – but I didn’t know anything about poetry. We had studied hardly any poetry at school, and nothing contemporary. The only poem I’d encountered at school that really did fascinate me was The Waste Land, which an English teacher showed me (we weren’t actually studying it). I had no idea that poems could look and sound like that – fragmented, puzzling, switching languages and voices – I loved it. But I didn’t explore poetry any further until I was nearly 30, which was when I started to think perhaps that was what I was trying to write. So then I started from scratch to learn how contemporary poems were written, what they looked like, what they sounded like. I started going to readings and events, really good series like Poets and Players in Manchester, and reading collections and magazines, and eventually I started submitting things to magazines. I was lucky that Michael Schmidt accepted some of my very early, very tiny poems for PN Review, and that gave me confidence to think that there was something there worth pursuing (though he rejected plenty after that!).

FAF: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.

HT: Getting some relatively early poems accepted by good magazines (PN Review and Stand) gave me confidence to believe that I wasn’t completely deluded in thinking I could write poetry; but it was quite a long, slow process, trying to learn what worked and what didn’t, and especially trying to learn how to push my poems beyond tiny, ‘single-moment’ descriptions. I discovered that I really enjoyed using found text, to create slightly mysterious voices and situations, and there’s a lot of that in my first collection, Missel-Child. Michael Schmidt accepted a batch of my poems for the New Poetries V anthology in 2011, and that was probably when I first felt, yes, this is genuinely something I can do, and I could realistically envisage a collection following (which it did, in 2014). Being in New Poetries meant being published alongside people like Tara Bergin, Jane Yeh, James Womack, Will Eaves, Billy Letford – it felt like really being part of a serious poetry world.

FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?

HT: It’s a huge vote of confidence in my writing. I think a lot of writers struggle with self-belief – you write something, you put it out there, and you really don’t know whether it actually works or you’re just crazy. So it’s wonderful to think that the judges have read the book and felt, actually, this really does do something – it’s a huge confidence boost. Of course, you still have to go on doing your thing, and you’ll still get rejections, and you’ll still feel that you have no idea what you’re doing, because that’s part of any creative process… but for now, it’s great to feel that at least for these poet-readers, here and now, this collection works. I absolutely love W.S. Graham’s comment in a letter, reflecting on his long poem ‘The Nightfishing’: ‘For all its mistakes and blemishes I think it is a knit object, an obstacle of communication, if you like, which has to be climbed over or gone round but not walked through. I think it just might make its wee disturbance in the language.’ I love the idea of making a knit object.

FAF: Please tell us something about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Does it mark a departure or change from your earlier work? Which poems in this collection are most important to you?

HT: The whole process of putting a book together is fascinating, because there’s quite a long period of floundering around, not yet having a sense of what you’re doing – you’re just trying things and hoping they’ll start to hang together somehow. In this case, I had published a pamphlet in 2016 (with the wonderful HappenStance Press) so one question was how whatever I wrote next would build on that, or how to incorporate some of the poems from the pamphlet but into something that held together as a new, wider context. I took inspiration from a number of books I read at that point – Charlotte Gann’sNoir, which created the sense of a sort of fractured film noir, with unnamed protagonists; James Sheard’s The Abandoned Settlements, which made an interesting connection between body, or self, and place; and Louise Glück’s Faithful and Virtuous Night, which set lineated poems alongside prose-poems and also created the sense of a mysterious, unsettling world. I wanted to create the feeling that the poems, and prose-poems, in the book echoed each other, made connections, but that the situations and the characters remained elusive, hard to pin down – there are a lot of yous and hes and shes in the book and it’s never spelled out who they are or whether they’re the same people. The poems took inspiration from my own experiences and memories, but also from dreams, from stories other people told me, from artworks, scenes from books I read as a child – all of those things are equally real and they all fed in, in various ways, to creating this slightly enigmatic world. The prose-poem ‘City of Departures’ came directly from a dream and in a way provided a key, or a pitch, in the musical sense, for the book (as well the eventual title). There’s a strong sense throughout the book of the fleetingness of things – encounters, meanings, connections – and hence of feelings of loss and not-belonging. There’s also a strong thread of Europeanness (there are poems set in Germany, France and Denmark), but it took me a long time to realise that one of the things I was addressing was my sense of despair about the Brexit situation. European identity is hugely important to me, and that’s something that is operating in various ways and at various levels throughout this book. It’s brought out more overtly in the prose piece at the end, ‘Skizzen / Sketches’. It was Michael Schmidt’s suggestion to include a longish prose piece and it was very serendipitous – I’d just been to Hamburg and Copenhagen and was wondering whether I could find a way to write up my notes and thoughts from that trip into a kind of travel-essay. I found it quite scary, in a way, because this mode of writing is much less oblique than the poems, and also requires a different kind of accuracy in terms of historical or geographical facts. But I think – I hope – that the piece acts as a kind of counterweight to the poems, and pulls together many of the themes and ideas that the poems are also concerned with. It’s definitely a mode of writing that I now want to explore further.

FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?

HT: Elizabeth Bishop, for her clarity, her precision, her attention to detail, and her understatement – her ability to take the reader absolutely inside a situation, and yet to leave so much unsaid. Also the way she uses such solid, short, plain words, but puts them together, plays twists on them, so the poem keeps building and building – as in ‘At the Fishhouses’, when we get ‘Cold dark deep and absolutely clear, / the clear gray icy water’, then at the end ‘It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: / dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free’. We looked at that poem in a class recently and one student, who had hardly attended and had really struggled to engage with the course, was absolutely blown away; we got to the end and there was a silence and then he said, reverently, ‘Wow, that is fucking existential’. It was a great moment!

I also very much admire Louise Glück’s work; again partly this is to do with a certain understatement, a somewhat detached narrative voice, which appeals to me. I also like the way she creates almost a new world, a new language and textual landscape, in each collection; she’s written really interestingly about this in her collection of essays Proofs and Theories.

And probably the other poet I go back to the most would be W.S. Graham. He’s almost the opposite in that he could never be accused of understatement: he started off hugely influenced by Dylan Thomas and his writing revels in texture and wordplay and strangeness; sometimes he sounds like Hopkins and sometimes almost like Gertrude Stein. What I really love about Graham’s writing is that it’s philosophical – he’s obsessed with questions around writing itself, language and communication – but it’s also always deeply grounded in the tangible and in place, especially in Cornwall where he lived for most of his adult life, and in his relationships and friendships. His poems are like letters, they’re always trying to make contact – they’re playful and fascinating but also very moving.

FAF: What is next for you as a poet?

HT: I’ve recently found myself writing poems that are coming out of my response to the ecological crisis, especially the reports about species loss and the collapse in biodiversity. This is interesting for me because I’ve often worried that my writing doesn’t manage to address social and political issues, but you can’t just sit down and decide to do that – you have to have a genuine ‘way in’ to writing about something. And suddenly I seem to have found ways in – ways of being able to respond, in the specificity of a poem, to this huge, frightening situation. So I’m just trying to allow those poems to happen and see where it goes.

The other thing that’s coming up is that, together with the poet and sound-artist Martin Heslop, who I’ve been collaborating with for a while now, I’ve been awarded a two-week residency in Elizabeth Bishop’s childhood home in Nova Scotia, in September. We’ll be exploring and writing and listening, and aiming to make a text and sound piece responding to the place. Bishop is one of the poets whose work has meant the most to me, so this is an amazing opportunity. And I’ve never been to Canada before so it’s enormously exciting.

FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?

HT: I think if you’re a writer, you will write, because you have to. But if you want to write poetry that’s publishable, and that can genuinely engage other people, then you need to read the work of other poets (both contemporary and not) – to study how they do what they do, what makes their poems do something for the reader, and see how you can try to apply some of those techniques and approaches and structures to your own writing. What you write won’t be quite like anything anyone else would write, because you’re bringing to it your own mix of experiences and memories and preoccupations – which aren’t always things you’re consciously aware of, but they will start to come through. But you can’t write well in a vacuum – you’ve got to learn from other people’s writing. Go to readings, go to events; find out where the good quality poetry is happening near you, who’s writing, who’s publishing – go to those events and start to try to become part of that world. That by itself won’t make the writing happen, but it’s the context you need to be embedded in. Also, you can’t write by just staying in your room – you’ve got to get out and observe the world, really learn to see it, hear it, taste it. People often think poetry is about big ideas, and it can be, but you’ve got to get those ideas across by showing the reader something specific and tangible that they can get hold of. I love it when you read a poem and you think ‘I would never have thought of it like that before, but now that you’ve shown it to me, I can see that’s exactly how it is’ – it’s a kind of recognition through a new way of seeing.