FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
HARRY JOSEPHINE GILES: I’ve written since I can remember, but I made a big switch from mostly writing stories to mostly writing poems when I was around 20. I found Luke Wright’s Poetry Tent one Edinburgh Fringe, and couldn’t be made to leave: I watched and watched all these different kinds of performance poets, and left thinking “This is something I want to do.” It focused my delight in language, and it got me excited about this extraordinary thing that can happen between a poet and an audience, this electric magic that happens when it works right.
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.
HJG: I’ve been plugging away at poetry for the last decade, but at the same time I’ve been building a career in theatre and games – my artistic work now moves between those three different fields, sometimes combining them in weird ways. So learning how to write poetry has happened alongside learning how to communicate with an audience from a stage, alongside learning how to design rules for interesting play.
I started out as a straight up performance poet. I did a lot of slams, a lot of back room pub gigs, and a lot of event organising. For a while I wrote really bad rap. Then I gradually got more and more interested in exploring different kinds of poetry and tried to teach myself how it works: for a couple of years I had a mailing list with a few friends called “Poem-a-Week”, where I’d email out some poetry prompts and we’d each try to write a new poem. I tried to write a different sort of poem every week, working out what I liked and where I needed to get better. Several of my pals were on Creative Writing courses at the time, and I learned a lot by proxy from their formal training. But my writing is still rooted in that interest in orality and aurality and in meeting an audience.
I had a bit of a breakthrough when I started writing in Scots. I began to express parts of myself that had been hidden away, and it was the language I needed to get into the puzzles of identity and belonging that drive a lot of poetry. It also meant combining experimentation and vernacular poetry – trying out new techniques but also speaking in a way that more people can hear. My work is around half and half Scots and English now, and I find myself switching between the languages to say different kinds of things.
I wanted to make a living from my writing and performing, and to do that I haven’t particularly focused on publishing until recently. It’s easier to earn from residencies and decent-paying gigs, so I focused on getting good at those, with small publishing projects like pamphlets and postcards coming as a result. I hadn’t really expected to work much with the publishing world, and now that feels like the next adventure – a book is a very different sort of context, and I’m just starting to understand what’s possible with it.
FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection mean for you?
HJG: I’m excited by my work finding and meeting different sorts of readers! It’s a common complaint from poets working in Scots that it’s very hard for our writing to find an audience outside of Scotland, but I think that Scots can be a global language and has things to say to many different sorts of people. I want it to be read in the context of other minority languages, as one movement in this problem of how to keep alive linguistic diversity in the era of globalised English. So I hope it leads to a wider readership and reviewership: I’m pleasantly nervous to find out what people make of it.
I also hope that the shortlisting will be part of throwing open more doors between the publishing and performance worlds of poetry. This is a collection with a lot of very performance-style pieces in it, combined with a lot of very publishing-style pieces: I want to prove to both worlds that they’re closer than they think, and that learning the skills of one can improve your work in the other.
And the thing about being an artist is, you’re always questioning whether what you’re doing is worthwhile, whether you’re actually communicating to anyone, whether what you do is worth anyone’s time. It’s hard to push ahead on self-belief alone. So when this group of people – whether they’re an audience in a pub or a panel of judges – says to you “This is good: keep going,” that means everything.
FAF: Please tell us about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Which poems in the collection are most important to you?
HJG: I saw the call for entries for the Edwin Morgan Poetry Award and thought “I suppose it’s worth a shot”. So I printed out all the poems I’d ever written that I thought were worth reading, spread them around my living room floor, and tried to build a coherent story out of them. I got close enough to a good book for that to be shortlisted, which led to a publishing contract, and then to some excellent sessions with my editor Henry Bell trying to make it the best it could be.
Or another way of telling the story is: I spent a few years putting out pamphlets and doing residencies and putting poem sequences online and asking people what they thought, building up my understanding of what you can do with words on the page, until I felt I was ready to stretch that out into a book. I’m still not sure I’m ready! I really like small-scale publishing and using clever design to present a half-hour’s worth of excellent poetry – a book is a whole different thing.
In the way of a lot of first collections, Tonguit is me writing my way to self-understanding. I had a lot of questions about my identity, my home, my language, my struggle with belonging, and by the end of the book I felt like I had enough answers to do something new. The Tao Te Ching sequence at the end, aald rede fir biggin a kintra, is special to me in that regard because I wrote it when I was much more at peace, when I had found some firm ground to stand on. The poem ‘Your Strengths’ is my favourite to perform, because I can get really angry and venomous while doing it, and it’s an exorcism of all the horrible government and management language that rules our lives. Also, there are three poems about Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the collection, which I think is the minimum required for any good collection, so I’m please to have met that bar.
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
HJG: Edwin Morgan is a guiding light for me: I love that he successfully combined the populist and experimental, that he found ways of speaking clearly to large audiences while also restlessly exploring new ways of writing. In contemporary Scottish poetry, I’m most delighted by Jen Hadfield and Kei Miller, who centre aural pleasure and play in their writing, and who are finding powerful ways of working with elements of minority languages in an accessible poetic context. I’m always in awe of the work of performance poets like Andrea Gibson and Mahogany L Browne – when you watch them perform, see them achieve such heights of thought and experience with their words and their breath, it really changes what you think is possible with an audience. And at the moment I’m doing a lot of work in the field of electronic literature – hypertext fiction, twitterbots, procedural generation – because I think it’s the most significant literary frontier at the moment, and the place where the populist and experimental are meeting again. Some of my big inspirations there are Porpentine Charity Heartscape, Katie Rose Pipkin, Allison Parrish, Emily Short. Their work is rarely if ever seen in a mainstream poetry context, but I think poets need more electronic lit and electronic lit needs more poets.
FAF: What is next for you as a poet?
HJG: I landed an AHRC studentship to study for a PhD in Creative Writing, so I’ll be starting that at Stirling in October. My supervisors are the scholar of Scottish literature Scott Hames and the poet Kathleen Jamie, which is a bit of a dream. I’ll be working on ideas around minority languages, particularly Orcadian and Scots, and writing a verse novel. Three years supported to think and write! I haven’t got my head round what that’ll be yet. I never studied Creative Writing after secondary school, so I’m looking forward to a bit more formal grounding and academic support for my work, but most of all I’m looking forward to the chance to slow down and work on just one big thing for a long period of time. I’ve spent years doing the freelance arts hustle and making a lot of work very quickly, but this will be about getting lost and despairing and seeing what happens out the other side.
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
HJG: Read lots of books, go to lots of shows, and find some friends to share words and ideas with. And don’t stop playing.