Interview: Helen Mort

Helen Mort & Rachael Allen

Helen Mort’s first collection Division Street, is published by Chatto & Windus. She has published two pamphlets with tall-lighthouse press, the shape of every box and a pint for the ghost. She is a five-times winner of the Foyle Young Poets award and in 2010, she became the youngest ever poet in residence at The Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere. Here, she talks about her writing process and poetry and interconnectedness. You can read a new poem by Helen here.

RA: Hauntings, in the form of ghosts (your first pamphlet is called ‘a pint for the ghost’), near misses (as in the collection’s title poem) and glimpsed epiphanies appear throughout the collection. Where does this interest stem from for you?

HM: I think poetry itself is a kind of haunting for me. That’s how poems start – I’m visited by an idea that won’t go away and I often carry it around for months. The shapes of poems seem to bother me. And like the glimpses you describe, they always stay somewhere just out of reach. The best poem is always the one you’re nearly-but-not-quite writing.

You write on your blog about the idea of apophenia: the linking of phenomena, and the idea of ‘pretended’ and ‘real’ illocutionary acts. Are these hauntings an extension of this interest – a haunting less as spectre or vision but as a connection between the haunted thing and the thing that haunts?

I think poets are often people who are obsessed with connecting things. It’s almost superstitious, that kind of noticing. I often wish I saw the world as somewhere less interconnected, really. John Burnside writes beautifully about these things in his autobiography Waking Up in Toytown and, elsewhere, he’s described how he suffers from what he calls a ‘nostalgia for the present’, never quite being able to occupy the moment you’re in, perhaps because you’re always thinking about how you could write about it. Making connections. I think the ideas he explores in both his prose and his poetry have really influenced me.

The narrative voice and characters your collection portrays are enigmatic. It feels as though we are given a glimpse at the side of a character in darkness – you illuminate that side. The collection feels like an assembly of characters, each attached to a memory, or fleeting dialogue, or a feeling. How did it feel to create these characters – either known to you, or invented – and know how much of them to give away, and how to colour them?

Someone pointed out to me years ago that I’m often addressing a ‘you’ in my poems and its true, I am. I’m always writing to someone else, but that person isn’t so much a real ‘you’, a person drawn from my own life, but more an amalgam of different people I’ve known. Perhaps it just seems enigmatic because that person isn’t fully realized! I think there’s something seductive and liberating about the way you can create shadowy characters in a poem. The people I imagine in my work are often like those faces you see in a crowd and convince yourself it’s someone you know, someone dear to you perhaps, only to draw in close and find that it’s a stranger after all. But of course, strangers are just people you’re yet to meet. To quote John Burnside again: ‘Any first meeting is the occasion for a romance that might last a lifetime.’

Could you talk a little about your PhD on metaphor, contemporary poetry and the influence of neuroscience?

There’s been a lot of interest recently in how cognitive science can enhance our understanding of the ways in which we read literature. I was interested in the converse – what poetry can say to neuroscience. It strikes me that, in their preoccupation with consciousness and what makes us uniquely human, neuroscientists and poets are often concerned with the same philosophical questions, even though they address them in different ways. In particular, I got interested in Norman MacCaig and how his work challenges what he sees as language’s inadequacies, particularly in relation to metaphor – he’s interested in the gap between what we perceive and what we express. I think that’s a gap that obsesses a lot of writers actually. I think we write because, at heart, we think we’re actually quite inarticulate people. Or because we’re aware of language’s limitations.

A number of the poems in the collection focuses on the aftermath of the miner’s strikes in the North in the 1980’s, especially the longer poem in the middle of the collection, ‘Scab’. What was it like to write a difficult and recent history like this into a poem?

It took me a long time to get round to writing ‘Scab’ because I was worried about how to approach it – as someone who was hardly born at the time of the strike, I felt in some ways I wasn’t qualified to say anything about it. But I really wanted to. I’d always been aware when I was growing up of the impact the strike had had on local communities, and I’d recently read David Peace’s powerful novel GB:84 on that theme. To return to that idea of connection, a lot of my ideas for poems get carried around for a long time until something completely different connects with the original thought. So, in this case, I could only write ‘Scab’ when I’d figured out what my connection with it really was, why it bothered me so much. And that centred around experiences at Cambridge University, the idea of having crossed an invisible picket line. I had to come at it a bit slant.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’ve just been reading everything the American poet D. Nurkse has ever written, because I think he’s a wonderful writer. His poems certainly have that haunted quality you mentioned earlier – they’re incredibly atmospheric. Apart from that, I always have a novel on the go and I recently finished M. John Harrison’s brilliant novel Climbers. As a rock climber myself, it really rings true and there are some sublime passages of prose.

Passing Place