FORWARD PRIZES: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
SELIMA HILL: My first poem was published when I was four, in the school magazine. I found a copy of it in my mother’s papers after she died. (Any poems I wrote after that poem, unfortunately, she did not approve of: they were never to be mentioned.) It goes like this:
I see a horse
in the field beyond
a round blue pond.
I can still vividly remember writing it in my head as we drove past: I loved the prepositions!
What drew me into poetry? Perversity, probably. I am only a writer in as much as I am not a painter or a musician like the rest of my family. I thought writing was more cool because it was less public. I didn’t want anyone to read it or understand it. I want to feel free to speak the truth.
FP: 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.
SH: When I first felt I was a poet? Well, what’s the difference between ‘writing poetry’ and ‘being a poet’? I think you can be a poet before, or even without, writing poetry. And what’s the difference between poetry and poems?… Ever since I can remember I have accompanied myself by a small notebook. (The more autistic the phases of my life, the more encoded the writing.) (I speak in code, too, if I want to.) I have got hundreds of these notebooks. Also, I would like to point out that there is no big deal about poetry as opposed to prose: ‘it is all literature, all letters,’ it seems to me.
FP: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
SH: Being shortlisted – astonishment, mainly. As a privileged, elderly, female I thought my time was up! That people would no longer be interested in what I have to say. (I can’t help being p, e and f! And it’s no good being like the DJ John Peel who pretended he wasn’t…) I have always respected the Forward Prize for its integrity, thoughtfulness and broadmindedness, as I think everyone does. It’s good to know that there are people out there who think poetry is worth celebrating. As a poet I spend a lot of time feeling pointless and self-indulgent, a rather cranky person who is best avoided, like a philatelist, say, or someone into UFOs.
FP: 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?
SH: The Czech writer Bohimil Hrabal fell from a fifth-floor hospital balcony in 1997 ‘while apparently feeding pigeons’, B.H. who wrote that his life ‘seemed to have happened to someone else’, that his books are like books ‘written by a stranger’. That word ‘apparently’ continues to haunt me.
I wasn’t sure about having the word ‘men’ in the title because I wanted to avoid that whole men/woman thing, but I’m happy, too, to have a title referring to men who are kind… It ‘marks a departure’ in as much as it is all about men of one kind and another.
Which poems are most important to me? Muriel Spark said novels are only lazy short stories, short stories lazy poems. Let me add to that by saying long poems are lazy short poems. So my favourite poems are the shortest ones, such as ‘Crab’, say, in the sequence Billy (p.52):
I pray he doesn’t offer me the crab.
I pray he doesn’t even mention it.
Eleven different words in total — including one crustacean.
(I write as near to silence as I can get!)
FP: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
SH: The poets I admire I admire as much for their lives and thoughts as for their work. Also, maybe because I can’t write prose myself (fiction, that is, with plots and things like that), I prefer prose writers: Kafka, for example, Krasznahorkai, Elif Batuman, Pajtim Statovci, Fleur Jaeggy, Sebald, Tepeneag, Camus. (It’s odd how much I like East European literature, for example, although I can only read it in translation.)
The poetry I first knew was written by poets of a different gender from me — the poets of nursery rhymes, hymns, folk songs, ballads; Virgil and Catullus; Homer; Christopher Smart; Chaucer; Lear. Later I learnt to love the work of Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Flannery O’Connor, Tove Jansson, Alison Bechdel, U.A. Fanthorpe (Sylvia Plath, less so).
A classical education has probably taught me to read very very slowly and pedantically, another reason why I am adapted to reading and writing poetry. (Also I don’t like looking at screens, or sitting still, so poetry is more portable.)
FP: What is next for you as a poet?
SH: What is next? Neil Astley at Bloodaxe Books helped me to put my work together by suggesting I had two collections of sequences, one, Men Who Feed Pigeons, dealing with men, and another, Dressed and Sobbing (2023), dealing with women. In the meantime I have six or seven pamphlets out this year, so I’m having fun working with different small presses. I am also bringing out a series of ABCs ‘for adults of all ages’ illustrated by the artist Tim Nicholson. (My grandmother, mother, father, husband, son, daughter and grandson were/are artists so I’m used to working with artists, but more often as a model…). The alphabets are rhyming and it’s fun to really go crazy with the rhymes & not be ‘free’ as in ‘free verse’ any more!
FP: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
SH: Advice? Sweep the floor; clear the workspace; don’t have one more coffee.