FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
WILL HARRIS: At the start of Daniel Deronda, George Eliot writes that people ‘can do nothing without the make-believe of a beginning.’ She also says that our ‘less accurate grandmother Poetry has always been understood to start in the middle’. I started writing poems in my mid-teens and saved them to a document called ‘physics coursework’ because I was so embarrassed about it and wanted to make sure no one would ever read them.
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.
WH: I think the same relationship between me and my ‘physics coursework’ mostly applies today. It’s become a more public activity, for sure. I share work with friends and we talk about poems and that gives me a lot of joy. But when I was a teenager I used to share poems too – in a forum, under a different name – and that was a big thing for me then. The sense of shame about making work itself – exposing yourself – never really goes away.
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?
WH: It’s all important – to me at least. But I never know how to talk about the book. I think it’s about what it means to believe you exist – for a self to exist in language, rended by multiple cultures – though I know that’s a bad blurb and who would want to read a book like that. M. NourbeSe Philip says: ‘the purpose of writing for a writer of colour is to prove you are human’. But that feels only half-true to me. For some people, nothing you can do will prove you’re human. For others, proving you’re human – whatever you do – won’t make a difference to how you’re seen or heard. I feel like anything I say will make it harder for you to see or hear this book. Or easier not to see it.
FAF: At this moment, the world has been turned upside down by Covid-19. How do you think these extraordinary times will affect your readers’ response to your work?
WH: Early-ish in the lockdown I went to the supermarket and was caught in a sudden downpour. I think it was Easter Sunday. I was listening to multiple versions of the same song because it was more comforting than listening to different songs. I was trying to keep hold of this thought: when you lose something you become fixated on that lost object, but trying to find it again is never just a case of recalling its whereabouts. You have to turn over everything, to ransack and re-order all your belongings, to derange your sense of the already known world. And then if you do find what you’re looking for it’s not really because you’ve remembered its location. It’s because everything else has changed around it. You’ve rearranged the world in order to make that act of retrieval possible. So I left the supermarket and it was quiet along the canal and the clouds had gone and the sun looked like a lump of butter smeared across the sky by one of those old posh knives.
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
WH: Recently I’ve been reading Carole Watts’s Wrack and work by Geraldine Monk, thinking about how their work accommodates shipwrecks, history and geography, how it buzzes with those power relationships encoded in the past-as-present. Which makes me think of Helen Charman’s pamphlet In the Pleasure Dairy, and how – in the tradition of writers like Wendy Mulford, Denise Riley and Frances Presley – it treats the page as a field on which alternative voices, pathologies and histories compete. Charman’s pamphlet is published by Sad Press, which is co-run by Samantha Walton whose collection Self Heal is incredible. That’s published by Boiler House who also publish Sophie Robinson and Nat Raha among others. Yesterday morning I read Sascha Akhtar’s ‘Legatura/ (Ligature)’, as published in out of everywhere 2 (Reality Street, ed. Emily Critchley). This morning, I was reading bits of Callie Gardner’s ‘springletter’ from Naturally It Is Not (The 87 Press) and thinking about this line: ‘health the lossless state that makes possible fear’.
FAF: What is next for you as a poet?
WH: I don’t know.
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
WH: Be shameless in your shame. Absorb everything into your work. Trinh T. Minh-ha: ‘Writing reduced to a mere vehicle of thought may be used to orient toward a goal or to sustain an act, but it does not constitute an act in itself… Beware when you cross railroad tracks for one train may hide another train.’