At Home with the Hoglets
Beginning with A Restricted View from Under the Hedge to Sticklebacks and on to The Cult of the Spiny Hog, along with a classic collection of inspirational writers, Mark Davidson and his poets are turning hoglets into must-have bookshelf desirables. Over a series of interviews with the poets and Mark himself, we’ll explore what it takes to put pen to page, poem into print and pamphlet onto that prized position on every reader’s bookshelf.
Today I am joined by Oz Hardwick, author of, among others, Wolf Planet, The Lithium Codex and Learning to have Lost, the first two of which were published by The Hedgehog Poetry Press. This fan of prose poetry and Hawkwind rock will also join me on the Poetry Podcast Eat the Storms this Saturday (20th Feb 2021) to share some of his work with us. For now, let’s dig into how that work arrives on the page.
Thank you so much for taking the time to share your rumination and routine with us today Oz. Let’s set off…
1 Why did you write this collection, what is it about and what would you like the reader to take away after they turn the last page and find that perfectly prized place for it on their bookshelf?
I wrote Wolf Planet because I had to – which on the one hand isn’t as pretentious as it sounds, but on the other, it probably is. I’m a compulsive writer and write every morning before shifting my headspace into work mode, so I produce a vast number of drafts, sketches and ideas, which I’ll then go back to and see what I can make of them. What happens is that I sometimes find certain preoccupations rising to the surface, and I start circling them like seagulls over a skip, swooping and picking at them. Then, I take the resulting unsightly mess and strip away all the bits I don’t need until a poetry sequence is revealed, all shiny and slightly awkward.
Really, since about 2018, with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 8 first orbiting the Moon – the first humans ever to be out of sight of the Earth! – I’ve been rediscovering my schoolboy enthusiasm for space, but in a metaphorical sense. Coupled with this, for who knows what reason, the Big Bad Wolf started cropping up in a number of guises. And then the magic – or at least fairly polished sleight of hand – took place.
So, it was a mix of quite possibly unhealthy obsession and utter frivolity and play.
2 My chillout time comes from cooking, endless hours lost in the kitchen along with a blaring radio of eclectic tunes and golden oldies, but I can only chill when the cupboards are well stocked with the basic ingredients. Firstly, what is your chillout routine, your escape from the pen and all the pondering and, secondly, what are the basic ingredients you need when it comes to settling down to write- what factors or futons make the best mix for your creations?
Quite simply, I don’t chill out. I’m always doing something. I guess that the act of creating is my equivalent of some sort of mindfulness meditation. I can lose myself in engaging with ‘art’ – in all its forms – to the extent that I forget to eat and, if left to my own devices, not leave the house for days. And I feel great doing that. That said, I do like varying what I do, so I like playing about with musical instruments and weird noises. I’ve no real talent, but great enthusiasm, so I occasionally play bass in a trio with a couple of proper musicians, just for fun, and I’m part of another trio called The Forgotten Works (a Richard Brautigan reference) with the poet Amina Alyal and the musician and sonic whizz Karl Baxter, which involves words, music, strange noises, lights, and improvisation around a structure. I’m really looking forward to doing that again. Oh, and I trained as a photographer and still do a bit of that. And music journalism for RnR magazine. And …
You’re probably getting the picture, and it will come as no surprise that I don’t particularly have rituals and formulae around writing – I just do it first thing in the morning, then pick it up whenever the opportunity arises.
3 Sticking with the cooking analogy for a moment, do you follow a specific recipe for writing or do you throw all the ingredients into the bowl and see what happens?
Initially, it really is just whatever’s in the fridge, even if it doesn’t sound like it’ll go together. But then there’s the process of blending and cooking which, though not following a recipe, have been learned from years and years of daily practice. Also, while I’m not concerned about the ingredients, I am, however, very fussy about the bowl, which has to be the right colour and ring in E-flat when I run my finger around the top. Which is to say, although my writing can have all the appearance of being rather shambolic, I am actually very disciplined indeed.
4 In these days of social media, you’re nothing if you’re not seen and in these unsettling, uncertain days of Covid, seeing, listening and buying has moved online and readings and live launches in libraries and lounges are a rare happening or else there is a limit to the amount of people in attendance. How are you dealing with having new collections coming out right now?
I’m not a fan of things online, purely because my brain doesn’t really process things very effectively in that way. However, I do like to stay in touch with the world as a not entirely passive observer, so every few weeks I’ll join in with something literary. When it came to Wolf Planet, I was quite fortunate, in that it was before everyone was completely Zoomed out, so it pulled a good audience. And I didn’t want it to be just another slightly pixelated face on a screen, so I had a sequence of background slides I’d taken, an atmospheric, spacey drone that my schoolfriend Age Lundstrom recorded based on my breathing, a couple of cheap pocket synthesisers, a musical box., a tambourine, tuned wine glasses, and God knows what else, and did a manic one-man-band multimedia performance of a selection, followed by a Q&A. Absolute nightmare to do because, essentially, I don’t have enough arms – and an extra brain may have been useful – but I got marks for effort and sold a few books. My day job these days, like a lot of people’s, involves hours of faces on screens and dodgy sound quality, so I think one needs to make an effort if one is hoping to get people to give up an hour or so of their evening.
5 What is your way of being seen? How are you coping with the fact that being a writer today also requires a certain amount of spotlight, certainly more than the days of Ms. Dickenson?
I accept pretty much any invitation I get, but I hate approaching anyone. I’m somewhat stereotypically British when it comes to self-promotion and, taking a very brief dip into brutal honesty, I have pretty much no self-confidence or self-belief, which makes me a rather poor advocate for myself out in the world. I’m also painfully shy and, although I’ve developed strategies for dealing with that, I didn’t really talk to people much until I was around 30 and I still feel awkward. As you say, though, it’s something that has to be done, and I’ve got so used to being out of my comfort zone that I probably couldn’t find my way back. In fact, it’s probably been redeveloped into luxury apartments and I wouldn’t be able to afford it these days, anyway.
6 Speaking of being seen and getting noticed, how important are acceptances from writing journals and how do you deal with the rejection which comes, no matter how much acclaim you have received? The reality we must learn is that not everyone is going to love our work, which can be heart breaking as we’re basically offering up our poetic babies to be loved, though no one loves a baby as much as the parent. So what keeps you going? Head up and move on or hide out and wait till the hurt passes? What encouragement do you have for others starting out?
I don’t take it personally. Every journal, website, competition, anthology – you name it – gets a phenomenal number of submissions. Yes, a proportion of them will be awful, but I know enough about the art and craft of poetry to know that everything I send anywhere is not terrible. In fact, it’s probably pretty good (I’ll allow myself that). And I’ve judged enough competitions and done enough editing to know that there are always damn good poems that will, after an enormous amount of deliberation, be left out of a selection because there is space, or there are prizes, for an inflexibly fixed number of poems. Added to this, while I think that any competent competition judge will be open to any sort of poem that is written to the highest standards, a great many journals will have certain parameters of form – maybe even subject – within which they work. A journal devoted to avant-garde poetry with an environmental theme isn’t going to publish your villanelle about steam engines, however intricate, surprising, and moving it may be.
So, the advice is: get to know the journals you’re submitting to, so as not to build in inevitability of rejection (or waste your time and anyone else’s); then, don’t be dispirited if, out of the superfluity of good work received wherever, don’t take it as a dismissal if your poems aren’t selected. The mitigating caveat, of course, is that you don’t send bad poems, and the way to be sure of this is to commit yourself to getting to know what good poetry is by reading a lot of contemporary poetry and practising your own writing with diligence, discipline, and a degree of recklessness.
7 If you had to pick one piece of your own writing that most represents you what would it be and why and would you like to share it or part of it here with us?
Making clear from the outset that that it may or may not represent me, but could perhaps be seen as the midpoint in the general cluster of my work over the past five years, I’d maybe go for this one from Learning to Have Lost (Canberra: IPSI/Recent Work, 2018):
As you fold the sheets, it reminds me of the Great Origami Craze of ’68-’69. Wherever you went, there were people folding squares into something-or-other: frogs that hopped when you tapped them with a pencil, lotuses that opened to reveal Shiva, delicately balanced and winking. Some days, the air was so thick with planes that you had to fold bell-like umbrellas to keep their sharp noses at bay. On rainy days, gutters would become armadas of frigates and galleons, each bristling with guns that pinged matchstalks off passing traffic. Origami was prime time entertainment, there were special live broadcasts at breakfast time from the world championships in Mexico City, and soaps would end on a seemingly impossible crease, leaving the nation anxiously awaiting the outcome the following evening. As surgeon won the Nobel Prize for the first successful origami heart, and when those gloved astronaut hands planted the first origami stars and stripes on the Moon, the whole world held its breath and watched. You, being those few years younger, don’t remember it, but the way you fold the pillowcases, sharp edge to sharp edge, could have stopped paper clocks.
I’ve put the whole thing here because the unified whole is very much part of my process. Prose poetry has been called ‘the poem without lines’ but of course it’s actually the poem with just one line, and I think about that musical movement from first syllable to last in exactly the same way that I would in a lineated poem. Russell Edson, the great American prose poet, called it the shape of thought, which I think’s just perfect. I think of it like Gandalf blowing his smoke rings, only made of words. And this poem, amongst other things, squeezes the past into the present, draws a bit on my nerdiness – there’s an early appearance of that 1968 Apollo mission – and it has a confident internal logic that draws the strange into the everyday. I think that, taken as a whole, these same observations could be made of the body of work that I’ve produced since about 2016.
8 Writing poetry, more so than any other writing form, is often the art of peeling back, removing the unnecessary, eliminating lines to uncover the hidden truth- how bare does it get for you? How difficult is it, at times, to tell your story within the lines and framework of a poem? How comfortable is it to be naked with so few words to cover over the possible discomfort or is it just a part of the process you get used to?
Poetry is the place I feel least uncomfortable. My only concern within poetry is with truth to the poem, and there’s no sense of responsibility to anything other than words and form. This makes it all sound like head-up-the-bum aesthetic piffle, but it’s not. To head off at a tangent – something I do pretty much all the time, which is great for poetry but less so for answering simple questions – the cultural and political values I hold as a moderately bright and mature adult have in very small part shaped by politicians and political discourse; they are much more the product of the more subtle media of the arts. Confronted with a political slogan, one agrees or one doesn’t, whereas with a work of art – even non-verbal, non-representational art – it will ask you questions, challenge you, and then make you ask questions of yourself (and go on doing so), if you let it. I’ve always been open to that and, though I make no claims for my ability to do likewise, it informs my approach to writing, or music, or whatever. So, to return to your question before I completely forget what it was, I’m constantly digging down to find the words that express the things that are deeper than the statements and revelations; and in doing that, whatever it is that I’m approaching – and there are some of The Big Questions in there – I’m sufficiently single-minded that I kind of almost forget that I’m even part of the process. Life’s big, art’s big, and I’m very, very small indeed. That keeps everything in perspective.
9 When it comes to titles, our pieces as I said, are like children- each needing special consideration and attention- how do you name your poems, short stories, collections or novels- is the name a starting point, a midway consideration or a summation of the theme afterwards? Sometimes I worry when I come up with a really great title it might overpower the poem itself- is there a balance between the two?
Titles always come afterwards for me, and they can take a long time. They can change, too. Every verse paragraph in Wolf Planet started out as an individual prose poem, with its own title and on its own page, but when that shaping started to take place in earnest, I decided that they spoke more directly to each other with these layers of formality removed. I’m currently working on a joint collection with Amina Alyal, and I know some of the titles will change – as will details of the poems – as they settle into a sequence and the conversation between them becomes more nuanced and layered.
10 For myself, writing started in childhood as a purely cathartic process, even if I was too young to fully understand this, it was a way of self-analysing and coming to an understanding of the world and my place within it. How did you find your way to writing and what was it about the process that kept you hooked?
I grew up in a fairly small house, with my sister, my parents, and my mum’s parents, and I was very close to my grandfather. He’d worked on farms for most of his life, from being a shepherd up in the Lake District to estate management, and although he’d not had much of an education, he had a passion for the Lake Poets and Robert Burns, and he wrote poetry himself. He was also a self-taught musician and would play old folk songs on the mouth organ and melodeon. I think I got the love of words and rhythms by a process of osmosis from him, and it just seemed a natural thing for me to be doing. Also, as I said, I was very awkward socially, and the world of books was very welcoming, so I also had a sense that I wanted to actively participate in that world of words. Although I enjoyed novels, though – particularly fantasy, and Mike Moorcock was an enormous influence on me – I never really wanted to write them myself, and was much more interested in the texture of language and resonant moments than narrative. And here I am 50 years or so later.
11 For the most things that fulfil me in life, the surrounding visuals are very important, and over the past few years the relationship between the photograph I take and poem I write becomes integral to the success of both- sometimes I never know which inspired the other more. What is your favourite accompaniment while creating a piece of writing?
I can write pretty much anywhere, but if I am given a choice, it will be accompanied by some very dense space rock – some really thick, layered Hawkwind. I love the band – and their approach to poetry and spoken word within those intense electronic soundscapes absolutely blew me away when I first heard it – and I find them excellent for creating a little self-contained pod of creative focus. On the other hand, a selection of Morris dance tunes is almost as good, but I couldn’t analyse why that’s the case.
12 The more I write, the more it becomes my oxygen, the more my hand shapes itself to the shape of my favourite pen or now my iPhone which has replaced the laptop as the most at-hand instrument to record my thoughts, and these days I have to catch them quick or they are lost forever. As a kid I wanted to be a famous fashion designer and lived in 4 different countries working for various fashion brands, though the writing was always there. Since then, cooking and photography have come more into the forefront. What were your childhood dreams, what were the jobs that followed to fulfil them or just fill time and what, other than writing, would you consider doing in order to express yourself?
I’m of that age where everyone wanted to be an astronaut and, as I suggested earlier, on a metaphorical level I think that’s what I do: I strap myself in an spin into the void, looking at all the weird stuff on this odd planet which is equal parts familiar and absolutely alien. It’s the same age that, a couple of years later, everyone wanted to be pop stars or rock musicians, and I wanted to be bassist in a space rock band and do a bit of the spoken word thing as well (I’ve never kidded myself that I could sing). While that didn’t really happen, there are a couple of records out there with me on them, and I’ve had the pleasure of faffing about on stage with all manner of talented musicians – including a few former members of Hawkwind, on occasions. What I actually did was train as a photographer, and I was pretty good, but don’t have the personality for it. I’ve had a lot of stuff on album covers, and in magazines and books, and so on, but never made a living out of it and have done some pretty dire jobs – I spent most of the 1980s spot welding cars on a production line! But writing’s always been a passion and, just before I hit 30, I took a degree in English and Art History and have managed to be engaged with literature and its interfaces with other artforms ever since.
Whether any of it’s published or not, I can’t imagine not writing. As for what else I’d do to express myself – I already do it. Having said that, if ever I had the time (and money), I’d like to go from messing about with a few little odds and ends to explore electronic sounds a bit more. I love the organic and unpredictable character of modular synths and the way that with them, too, you can really excavate down to that area beneath the constraints of language.
Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts, insights and mental workings with us. It’s been a pleasure to dive inside your head from the comfort of our own armchairs. Before we depart, if you were to leave us with one line, one phrase, one lyric, a one-liner or a once-in-a-life-time admission, either yours or someone else’s, what would it be?
‘Sometimes life is merely a matter of coffee and whatever intimacy a cup of coffee affords’ – Richard Brautigan.
You can find Oz Hardwick and both his collections The Lithium Codex and Wolf Planet here…
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