Award-winning poet Harry Man talks with perennial Open Penner Piers Pereira about his inspirations, his creative process and his love of the arts.
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How do you define yourself? As a poet, a writer, or something else?
Pen on paper, in private, alone, listening, in the act of writing, I would call myself a poet. The rest of the time, that’s not really up to me.
Your work has a distinctive feel; beautifully magical, it burrows quickly into your mind. Are you someone who naturally finds these words coming to you, or is there a strict method you work to?
I write what I would want to read. When I am writing about say, a particular species of insect for Finders Keepers, I would like to make something that will shiver in your hands. I often research subjects very intensively before writing, and I’ll often interview the subjects of my poems – such as an astrophysicist, the manager of a butterfly house, or a stunt driver. I always want to include the reader, but that doesn’t mean I have to make it easy for them.
Do you feel print is still an important medium for poetry?
It’s one medium of many. The particular advantage in print is that it doesn’t run out of electricity and it’s tactile. There’s a tendency to feel perhaps a bit precious about that, but the medium, however, is a part of the poem, and a successful poem, be it spoken word, lyric, formal, avant-garde, image macro / alt-lit, instagrammed, etched into the DNA of a self-replicating extremophile, etc, will always take where it is to be published into account. To truly dislike a poem you have to truly understand it first, and more often than not the effort of the latter will reveal the falsehood of the former.
Are you someone who has to force yourself to write, or do you wait until inspiration hits?
I find it difficult to switch off inspiration, and it is a volatile thing. Most of the time, however, something crystallises and the poem surfaces, bright, elemental and unmanageably energetic. This is a negotiation with my own physiology, and my own wiring as a human being, and I don’t know if I should prescribe it to anyone else as a working method. I am continually commissioning myself to work on specific subjects, to greater and greater constraints, to drive poems out into the open.
When did you commit to being a poet, when did it stop being just a past time?
I was renting a cramped undecorated attic room with a very low ceiling in South London. I had to dismantle the double bed with a screwdriver and an Allen key to be able to walk around. At that time, in 2010, I had around nine years worth of work collected together, which I was too nervous to send anywhere. I met Jennifer Essex and she convinced me to start sending my poetry out to journals, and I made a list of a few topics that I wanted to write about; space exploration, endangered species, CERN, neuroscience, Tokamak reactors (fusion power), etc, and little by little the poems landed, and that’s when everything started evolving into what it is today.
What period of art is your favourite?
Hard to give you an adequate answer to that question. I like a lot of impressionism, abstract and conceptual art, and there are individual pieces of art that made a lasting impression. Michael Craig-Martin’s An Oak Tree has always stayed with me. It’s a glass of water on a shelf accompanied by an interview with the artist. The interview begins, “Q. To begin with, could you describe this work? A. Yes, of course. What I’ve done is change a glass of water into a full-grown oak tree…” Anything that has a teleporting quality, from any period, that draws me in and that provokes me, that has a mandala quality, or that makes me feel in some way wounded or elated, will end up getting lodged in my head.
What are your feelings on the internet being a jumping off point for writers?
The internet is comprised of servers with indefatigable memory. Your writing is indelibly on the internet in some form, and that means that the kind of immortal, impermeable status that was enjoyed by preceding generations is a thing of the past in favour of transparency, and a highly visible trajectory of learning. The internet is a wonderful thing, which has connected writers, and which is revising and expanding the way in which we communicate at a phenomenal rate, and it has spawned a new renaissance in pushing all of art, technology, literature and culture into a frenzied state of cross-pollination. Being an optimist, the more ways in which we are able to communicate, then the more ways we’ll have to describe peace.
Have you written poetry for a lover, if so what was their impression?
Yes, and they were touched.
What was the last piece of music you heard which made you smile?
Momentum by Petri Kuljuntausta. It’s not hugely representative of the kind of music that I listen to from day to day, but Petri Kuljuntausta is a Finnish composer and it was sweeping and meditative and made me smile. I like electronica and classical music, film scores, hip hop and Bob Dylan. Beethoven’s sixth symphony was something I listened to a lot as a kid, on an old pink cassette which I wore down to a dissonant warble. There are a few happy guilty pleasures in there too.
What is the piece of work you’ve never been able to finish, why?
I’m always learning in public, and so I think the next poem is always the one I haven’t finished.
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Harry Man will be speaking at A Poetry Reading at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival at 4pm on Tuesday 5th April. The FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival runs from 2–10 April 2016 in historic venues across Oxford. To book tickets visit www.oxfordliteraryfestival.org.