Issue 30: Jeff Hilson Interview
Q & A with JEFF HILSON
Jeff Hilson discusses his collections Latanoprost Variations (Boilerhouse Press, 2017) and Organ Music (Created Press, 2021) with A J Moore. The interview was informed by S.J. Fowler’s interview with Jeff Hilson for 3 AM Magazine (https://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/maintenant-92-jeff-hilson/)
AM: You include such a vast and diverse range of intertextual, cultural and political allusions in your work. Could you talk a little about your methods for doing this? To me as reader, it feels so effortless, how much research is involved?
JH: Research is a loaded word. In an academic context, we were encouraged to think about our research in terms of “practice as research” to justify our positions in the academy vis-à-vis the REF. The 300 word statements we had to write to describe each of our ‘research outputs’ constructed a research context. Now that I’m outside of that particular academic context, the urge to talk about my writing in terms of research in those terms has diminished somewhat but I’m not sure what I’d replace it with! I read a lot before writing any poem but it’s often a partial and directed reading, a strange kind of reading that isn’t necessarily reading for information, nor do I necessarily read a text chronologically or narratologically (?). I often read for phrases that stand out in a text so in a way it might be called a kind of counter-reading. The whole process is actually pretty messy and haphazard and the results only make sense in the context of the poem (and sometimes not even then, or especially not then). Do you have a particular example in mind? I ask only because tracing an actual allusion might be easier than thinking about the general process.
One of my PhD students recently mentioned dramaturg Stephen Hornby’s notion of ‘historical literacy’ rather than historical accuracy to describe his practice of deliberate distortion when writing plays based on historical events. I think this can be usefully applied to the kind of research I do. Reading poetry for research fidelity is on one level wrongheaded, surely? I’ve just started reading David Jones’s Anathemata, the copious notes to which are clearly evidence of research but they are so overdetermined that they become absorbed into the poem itself and useless as notes. The notes require their own notes etc etc. Perhaps Daniel Spoerri’s An Anecdoted Toopgraphy of Chance is another text worth mentioning in this context. Do you know it? Here’s the description:
What is the Topography? Hard to explain an idea so simple yet so brilliantly executed. Following a rambling conversation with his dear friend Robert Filliou, Daniel Spoerri one day mapped the objects lying at random on a table in his room, adding a rigorously scientific description of each. These objects subsequently evoked associations, memories, anecdotes, not only from the original author, but from his friends as well: a beguiling creation was born, and each time a new edition of the book appeared it grew larger and more elaborate. Many of the principal participants in Fluxus make an appearance, and texts by Higgins, Jouffroy, Kaprow, Restany and Tinguely are included, among others. It is a novel of digressions in the manner of Tristram Shandy, an archaeological game, a poem to the arbitrary, an encyclopaedia, a cabinet of wonders, but above all else, it is a celebration of friendship and creativity.
What am I getting at here? The open-ended nature of research, so that it is folded back into the world of the text, via its readers and collaborators. I’m not sure how this relates to your question!
AM: I love the ideas of ‘counter reading’ and ‘historical literacy’ So I find the idea of reading for phrases that stand out a really interesting one. I hadn’t been thinking about a particular example, but I wonder if you could perhaps say a bit more about the references to ‘the hong kong laundrymen’ in Organ Music ‘Side 7’ – I am wondering to what extent their story was hidden away/glossed over within official reports? Whereas in the poem they are returned to and acknowledged throughout.
JH: As the notes at the end of the poem reveal, ‘the hong kong laundrymen’ refers to two specific individuals, Lai Chi Keung and Ben Kwo Keu who died during the shelling of HMS Sheffield and HMS Coventry respectively during the 1982 Falklands War conflict. At the outbreak of war, in spite of being given the opportunity to leave, both men decided to remain on board their ships down below, and were thus deemed to be on active service (laundrymen were otherwise effectively treated as independently employed). Whilst a big hoo-ha was made in the red tops out of any Argentinian attack on a British ship, especially one leading to casualties among ‘Our Boys’, the deaths of these Hong Kong citizens were, to my knowledge, never mentioned. Since the publication of my book, further information has appeared online as to their fates. Keu went missing after HMS Coventry was hit by several air-to-sea missiles and possibly died of a heart attack. He was 50 years old. Keung, the youngest laundryman in service and allegedly known to the crew as ‘No 1 Boy’, also went missing after HMS Sheffield was hit by an Exocet missile. Both men have been ‘honoured’ since the conflict. In the Falkland Islands 40th Anniversary Place Names Project – there is such a thing – Lai Chi Keung had ‘a prominent outcrop of rocks’, and Ben Kwo Keu ‘a southwest facing beach on the west coast of Speedwell Island, East Falkland’, named after him.
JH: I love notes at the back of books and with, say, Organ Music, I hope that readers spend some time looking at the references and even chasing them up, especially in the case of the music which were on occasions the genesis of a line or a line of thought. I guess these pages are a kind of archive but a specialised one really only for the text they belong to. Richard Parker of Crater Press published a broadside of one of the poems from Organ Music (the one about Orlando Gibbons– happy to send you it!) and I gave a copy to the great organist Margaret Phillips after hearing her perform at St George’s church in Hanover Square. She was so baffled by my act of giving and I’m sure by the poem she didn’t know what to say. I certainly never heard from her again! I’m meant to be sending a copy of my book to the experimental organist Lauren Redhead but I’m slightly wary for the same reason, that she’ll wonder what this all has to do with the organ! What I’m trying to get at here is that the archive that has gone into making that book of poems is so idiosyncratic, eccentric, unreliable, aberrant even, that there’s every chance it won’t make sense to anyone encountering it (and maybe this relates to your next question of what to do when you trespass on an expert’s field with your poet’s version of their world). After all, Organ Music is not a history of the organ, any more than my book Bird bird is a book about British birds. What do we go to poetry for? Who knows how individual items from the archive will be used by readers. As for history, the small press poetry scene I’ve been involved with is still mostly invisible as a historical phenomenon that speaking of it as something that will contribute to contemporary mass culture sounds like a pipe dream (though of course I’d like it to be more widely acknowledged!)
AM: You have spoken about the importance of ‘breaking into official language’1 and ‘misusing terminologies’2. Could you talk further about this in terms of the overlap in your work between what we immediately recognise as ‘official language’ and that which at face value appears to be more functional and mundane? Can the language of payday loan reviews, for example, be considered as much specialist terminology as that of heraldry, given the agendas hiding in plain sight within its informal, chatty exterior?
JH: Perhaps it’s merely a case of the poem repurposing language that’s used in any other specific context. Poetry can accommodate any discourse because, as Wittgenstein noted, its primary purpose is not the language game of information. In “Poem About Grounds” in Latanoprost Variations, I obviously misuse or repurpose the word ‘ground’ to give it a different meaning. For Wittgenstein, language is a game with a set of rules that language users adhere to in order to enable them to communicate in a given context, rules that are
necessary, even imperative in certain contexts (like soccer – Wittgenstein is supposed to have come up with his theory of language games whilst watching a soccer match, something which I believe ‘grounds’ my poem. Someone (another poet) once complained that I obviously hadn’t read Wittgenstein in this poem – my argument would be that he had completely missed the point and that anyway he was wrong!). The poem can play around with those contexts, primarily because a poem is not in the business of deploying its language instrumentally. All language is up for grabs, and in the poem all language is equal. Obviously, this slipperiness can be used for humorous effect although not everyone will find it funny. And yes to your question here – are you getting at something to do with language’s connotative properties? That’s hard to control obvs…
AM: I was thinking with reference to the specialist terminologies that everyday phrases such as ‘its quite simple’ in ‘The Wogan Poem’ are as much a specialist language in their own way as the very obviously distinct language of, for example, heraldry. It feels to me that both can be about superiority and control, but that actually it is the everyday language that is more sinister, as its chattiness draws in and deceives rather than distances?
JH: Absolutely. The banality of the phrase you identify was taken from the website of payday loan company Wonga (itself a banal anagram of ‘Wogan’ – or rather vice-versa) whose friendly copy was designed to entice people to take out extortionate loans with them (Terry Wogan had the same friendly, avuncular tone which was also, to my mind, supremely creepy in the way he would ‘draw in’ his listeners on the radio and interviewees on the telly). There are a number of these phrases in the poem – “don’t have a kindle?” is another one, reflecting the fact that Wonga’s preferred system for securing loans was via automated app – as well as phrases taken from the testimonies of apparently satisfied Wonga customers. Since Wonga went into administration in 2018, its website has ceased to exist and all that remains is a shell site detailing the consequences of its wind down: “The window for submitting an unaffordability/redress complaint has now closed.” The language is obviously very different.
AM: Could you share some insights about your choice of form and structure and where that happens in the writing process? For example, though not adopting a particular form throughout in the same way as In The Assarts or Stretchers, most of the poems in Latanoprost Variations are c3½ page in length; Organ Music ‘s Interludes predominantly have 19 lines. Was this a conscious decision or something that happened organically? Does this perhaps hint at the formal, establishment structures at the heart of that which the poems illuminate?
JH: In the case of Latanoprost Variations and Organ Music, the length or shape of the first poem became a kind of template for the rest. It’s as simple as that. As you probably know, the 33 lines of each stretcher was based on my age at the time of writing. That isn’t the case with LV or OM. The length was much more random. Just to say that with LV I originally envisaged the whole book as potentially being one long continuous piece – “The Incredible Canterbury Poem” could have gone on indefinitely, as the Spotify algorithm could keep generating an endless set of other songs to like (or liken). One listener commented on how the pieces are too repetitive and the structure of the book as a whole quite annoying (!), but again that was the point. I wanted the poems of LV to take the reader or listener through various phases of interest and boredom which is one of the effects of insistent repetition. In classes, I used to refer my students to comedian Stewart Lee’s routine about approaching the town of Shilbottle on the A1. If you don’t know it it’s on YouTube! I think you’ll get how it’s relevant…
In the end, I ended “The Incredible Canterbury Poem” where I did because I had the idea for another poem (“The Wogan Poem”) and became impatient to move on. This is why I would never make a proper conceptual poet – I don’t have the discipline to see a potential constraint through. I’m not sure what you mean by the final question here?
AM: I was just wondering if there is a kind of formality (for example, the ‘template’ of the Latanoprost Variations poems or the ‘Interludes’ in Organ Music) within what appear to be quite informal structures and whether this might be seen as a deliberate ‘misuse of the terminology’ of form? In a kind of formal echo of the way that those in power and their agents (such as the payday loan companies) use language to misdirect and serve their own agendas?
JH: I guess the forms, such as they are, are technically ‘nonce’ forms, though I wonder whether the template form of LV is even a form, just as I wonder whether the poems of LV are prose poems, I’m really not sure. Visually, the interludes in OM have faint echoes of the sonnet (a form which continues to interest me) with the disruptive use of the forward slash which was an attempt to eliminate the craft of the line ending. I’ve said somewhere before that I don’t think poets have any responsibility towards forms – such as the sonnet – which can usually take care of themselves. What I mean by that is there are enough poets who follow prescribed forms duly and dully to the letter so there’s plenty of room for those who don’t. Poets often have their own agendas when they decide to use a particular form which is in many instances a power thing, for sure. Form is an agent as much as a payday loan company is!
AM: You have spoken previously about the importance of humour in ‘generating surprise’3. In both these collections, it seems that part of this surprise is that the distinctive, deadpan humour co-exists with an insistent, incremental sense of unease. In his work on laughter, Alfie Bown suggests that 'when we laugh, anxiety is never far away'. 4 Could you talk a little about the relationship between humour and anxiety in your work?
JH: It’s most clearly at play (I think) in the longer repetitive pieces. Repetition brings on its own sense of unease because of its phasal nature (ie increase and decrease of various tensions) when pushed to an extreme. Humour can be used to ease that unease momentarily. In reference to one of your earlier questions, Organ Music ‘Side 7’ would seem to be a good example of one which operates (whether or not it ‘works’ is up for debate) through uneasy humour. I think there’s also something exquisitely uncomfortable about repetition. It becomes funny when you keep going, so that the reader/listener can’t quite believe the repetition is being maintained. Kenneth Koch’s poem “Sleeping with Women” does this magnificently. It’s like a highwire act where the repeated phrase (a dodgy one obvs) is put through all sorts of torsion. Some of Jackson MacLow’s Light Poems also achieve this kind of exquisiteness through repetition.
1 Jeff Hilson, ‘Why I wrote stretchers’ in Stretchers (Hastings: Reality Street Editions), p. 74.
2Jeff Hilson, quoted in SJ Fowler, ‘Maintenant #92 – Jeff Hilson’, 3:AM Magazine, 22 April 2012 https://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/maintenant-92-jeff-hilson/ [accessed 21 June 2022].
3 Hilson, 3:AM Magazine.
4 Alfie Bown, In the event of laughter: psychoanalysis, literature and comedy (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018), p. 1.
Jeff Hilson has written five books of poetry: stretchers (Reality Street, 2006), Bird bird (Landfill, 2009), In The Assarts (Veer, 2010), Latanoprost Variations (Boiler House Press, 2017) and Organ Music (Crater Press, 2020). For two decades Jeff has run Xing the Line poetry reading series in London and until recently taught Creative Writing at the University of Roehampton.
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