FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION IN CONVERSATION WITH MELISSA LEE-HOUGHTON

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

MELISSA LEE-HOUGHTON: I began writing poetry from a very early age in primary school. I experienced intense emotional states as a child, and perhaps feelings of deep reverie that needed to be channeled somehow. The language of poetry, songs and letters always appealed to me, and through my childhood and adolescence I would write letters prolifically, listen to songs obsessively, and eventually began to routinely work the ideas and feelings of these into poetry. Music, to me, is the purest art form, and I needed to create art of my own that had musicality, though was more intensely direct, expansively eloquent and personal than a song, perhaps. Unfortunately, much of what I wrote would be destroyed, so my relationship with language was always somewhat illicit and secretive, so even when I’m describing my innermost thoughts the interplay and relationship between myself and the reader is something I like to work with and I think this must be central to anyone understanding my work. Part of the desire to write, for me, is and has always been the idea of conversation. I not only want to tell but I want to be responded to, spoken to and addressed. I think of my poetry through all my years of writing as deeply intimate conversations that are mostly one-sided and mostly don’t reach their intended addressee, shared with people who perhaps understand the intensity of wanting that response to come.

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

MLH: I was very surprised to learn I was a poet and felt the distinction only came when my second book was published, but I consider myself a writer, or even an artist, as I write more than poetry, and feel even poetry alone is sometimes reduced to the idea that it is poetry when in fact for me it encapsulates such a range of components found in all art forms and all aspects of life. At twenty one, I was studying to be a painter but that eroded quickly as I realized my visual imagination was very much linked to language and I had no powers of recall and transmission of visual images; only through creating images in language could I effectively transmit what I saw in my mind. I wrote a very long poem at this time, and as it grew and as I gained stamina and learned how thrilling it was to write at length in this way, I engaged in a full-on love affair with poetry that simply had to be maintained and investigated, or I’m not sure how I could’ve lived.

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

MLH: It has intense magnitude for me as a person and as a writer. I visited the local library in my teenage years each Saturday morning, and the poetry section was scant, as it still is today. However, they did always try to stock the Forward anthologies, which I would immediately gravitate towards each time I visited, and I’d feel particularly upset if they weren’t available, and envious if someone else had got there first – you couldn’t even take them out, they were in the reference section. I felt in many ways hooked on language and it was incredibly difficult to source poetry books so reading these anthologies was of utmost importance to me. I remember having a sense that it was quite dangerous to read contemporary poetry. It went against all the ideas I was being taught that as a human being we must be sensible, limited, in control of our feelings, and ensure they don’t leak out into the outside world in any ugly, excessive way. I felt the vibrancy of these anthologies was incredibly alluring, and remember having the thrilling thought that perhaps one day I would have a poem of mine in one of them, though that was quickly succeeded by the idea that of course I would not. And that was what I always felt – to be a poet is one thing, but to be a visible poet is another thing, and I always felt, until very, very recently, I was talking and writing to myself.

FAF: Please tell us about the genesis of your shortlisted poem. Is it part of a collection or sequence? Where can a reader find more by you?

MLH: The poem is a very central poem in my new collection, Sunshine, which will be published by Penned in the Margins in September. I seem to have reached a point in my life and in my writing, which is largely a response to my life, in which a cumulative effect has taken place and a kind of plateau reached. My book is not kind or comforting. It isn’t supposed to be reportage but art, and a great deal of rage and sadness has been channeled through this book. I think I began writing it in my head when I was sixteen, and long afterwards have re-engaged with the place I was in as an abuse victim at that time. The book and in particular this poem is also a response to the way sexuality is reduced in our times and via technology, and the most damaging aspects of it promoted and encouraged. I see all women as suffering constant violation through pornographic images, whether they feature in them or not, and euphemisms like ‘sex work’ and pro-prostitution writing is becoming a prevalent point of view of many who see pornography as liberating. For me, this is so beyond the truth of the violation of women through pornography and prostitution, and how men are allowed to objectify, violate and place demands on women sexually, even in loving relationships, that I had to find a place through my work in which I could express my outrage at the continued oppression I experience as a woman who both enjoys and fears sex. Written in one session of heightened lucidity and raging surges of emotion, I was frightened by it, and was left physically shaking after writing it. Desire is an experience that does not need to be sexualized, but when sexualized must be honored and cherished, and not reduced to acts of mere gratification and exploitation, and after a lifetime of abuse my message to the world is that I am very precious.

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

MLH: Two poets who changed my life at very difficult junctures experientially and psychically are Arthur Rimbaud and Elizabeth Smart. I shoplifted A Season in Hell as a sixteen year old girl, pregnant with no money and no place to call home. A friend of mine has told me he believes Rimbaud would have been fine with this, though I do feel a sense of shame, but also a sense that I had to do it in order to receive the book’s bravery and carry it with me through my life from that very dark place. A few years later I read By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, which is quoted briefly in the poem, and experienced a dazzling realization of the power and intensity of human desire and how we will run at it with full force and volition in even the most impossible of circumstances, because it is the defining and most beautiful feature of the human condition and teaches us the most important and unbearable truths about ourselves. I don’t believe I could ever live a life in isolation though I have experienced chronic loneliness at times in my life with an inconsolable wish to be loved and to love. My feeling is that this love can exist without anyone to direct it towards and can then be awakened, and in that awakening something bigger than ourselves takes place.

FAF: What is next for you as a poet?

MLH: I will be writing until I can’t.

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

MLH: Embrace failure and imperfection. Poetry can’t be perfected, it can only be experienced and lived, assimilated and enjoyed. There is simply no clear route to achieving a sense of a stable and readily conjured voice. This takes incredible dedication and discipline and writers need the ability to put aside all wants for recognition from the writing industry, which is very much a temperamental machine and the poet very much a flesh and blood, fallible being. Being intensively active as a writer is consuming and fierce and necessitates a lot of solitude and contemplation which can be highly demanding of any person. You can’t reach for perfection and it is inhibiting to wish for the adulating praise of readers, though this is the impetus for many – you have to do the difficult work of doubt, irreconcilable feelings, despair and the various interruptions and obstacles that thwart all writers, to reach the places in which you can make an art that generates the feelings of having made poems that the poet feels express in imperfect but deeply resonant meaning, the ideas they have been overcome by and immersed in unconsciously and consciously. It is very much about reaching for something that might always remain completely beyond you. That necessitates very often falling flat on your face.