Sunday, August 23, 2020

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Georgia Hilton

Georgia Hilton is the author of two books of poetryI went up the lane quite cheerful (Dempsey and Windle 2018) and Swing (Dempsey and Windle 2020). Her poem Dark-Haired Hilda Replies to Patrick Kavanagh was the joint winner of the Brian Dempsey Memorial Prize (2018). Georgia grew up in Limerick, Ireland and now lives in Winchester, England, with her husband and three children.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first book was my pamphlet, I went up the lane quite cheerful. Before it was published I found the idea of people I know reading my poems completely terrifying! It felt like one of those anxious dreams where you turn up to the school dance naked. It changed my life in the sense that afterwards I felt much more at ease in my own skin as a poet. I don’t worry so much now about what people will think.

If the first book was like a distillation of some of the things I had been writing about for years, then my second book Swing is a complete departure from that. It’s historical narrative poetry about the Swing Riots in England in 1830, when agricultural labourers rebelled against the automation of their jobs. I attempt a sort of poetic ventriloquism, where I’m inhabiting the characters I write about and as such, many of the poems are in the first person.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

Like a lot of people I came to poetry in my teens, probably as a way of processing painful feelings. Poetry is particularly good at translating your own personal experience into something that feels more universal. We all have a need for a sense of connection to something greater than ourselves, and that’s something that poetry does really well. Having said that, there is nothing better than getting lost in a great big novel!

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

It really depends. Sometimes a poem will emerge fully formed in the space of a few minutes and only needing minor edits. Other poems I can work on for years. It’s particularly hard when there is a poem that has merit – a good central image, or an intriguing idea –  but you just know something about it’s not right. That’s when a good writing group is indispensable. When you can no longer be objective about a piece of work, someone will say something that just unlocks it for you.

Swing started as research for an MA Module I was doing called Writer as Researcher. I was really busy writing a research paper and focussing all my conscious efforts on that, and then very naturally and organically, these poems started to write themselves. I had a pen and notebook next to my laptop and every now and then I’d break off to write lines of poetry that suggested themselves to me.

4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

That’s really hard to say. Sometimes a story or a poem begins with just a single line that pops into my head, and that’s a catalyst for the whole piece. At other times I think I would like to write something about a particular subject and so I sit down and do some research and see where it leads me. I’m not a very methodical person by nature, so most of the time I’m just following my nose. The writing becomes a book when I can see a theme emerging that I can run with.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I used to be terrified of public readings, to the extent that my hands would shake. I was so uncomfortable during readings that I couldn’t imagine them being part of my creative process. With more experience I now really enjoy them, and even feel that I’m actively performing my poems, rather than just reading. I now write poems with an ear for how they will sound in performance situations, but I still consider myself overall a poet that writes for the page rather than a performance poet.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I do have theoretical concerns, even though they only really seem to define themselves through the creative process itself. When I was writing Swing I was astonished by the many parallels between 1830s England and the present day. Issues such as the automation of labour, stagnating wages, unaffordable rents and temporary employment were causing great political instability, as they are today. Seeing how brutally this rebellion was quashed, and how the press smeared those involved is quite shocking, even at a distance of 200 years, and it’s instructive when looking at the political situation today. Having said that, I’m not interested in writing overtly political poetry – the poems are about people    their stories, and I wanted to tell these stories that perhaps people hadn’t heard before. That’s what really motivated the poems, a desire to give people a voice that they hadn’t had in life.

I think one of the most important things in writing today is just that – giving voice to the daily experience of millions of people who perhaps haven’t historically controlled the narrative.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Again, it really depends. There is a place for the writer who is a form of entertainer, writing pure escapism. There is also a place of course, for writers who provide a critique of the culture they are working within. And then there is also a place for pure transcendental beauty, just as there is in the visual arts. There is something ecstatic about some forms of nature writing in particular that comes close to worship. There is validity in all of these roles.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Both, definitely. Although to be fair, I think it’s probably harder for the editor than it is for me. Not because I am particularly difficult or precious, but just because I can be so maddeningly indecisive.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

I think the best writing advice is not to try and write for the market, or to capture the zeitgeist. Just write something that you love, and that you would like to read yourself. Write the story that only you can write.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

Fiction writing for me is very playful. I enjoy writing short stories with unexpected twists, it feels like the best fun I could possibly have. My story, Home Improvements was once described as a ‘mystery without a murder’, and I think that’s pretty representative of the kind of fiction I write. Moving between genres like this is easy, in some ways, because it gives me a great sense of freedom. I’m just writing to see where it goes. To generalise – the poetry tends to be more serious and the fiction is more fun.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I’m not brilliant at keeping to routines, I must admit. But there are some constants. I start every day with a cup of tea in bed and I do keep a notebook on the bedside table to jot down any ideas. I have three children so the morning is a rush to get everyone to school. I then tidy up, walk the dog, and then settle down to do some writing. There’s a constant tension between balancing domestic responsibilities and creativity, but somehow or other it (mostly) gets done. In lockdown I’ve been home educating so there isn’t as much time for writing, it’s pretty much been whatever I can fit in in the margins.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I take a long walk or a long bath! I also get some new books.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Oh, the sea air in the west of Ireland, coming straight off the Atlantic. When I’m there I just gulp down big lungfuls of it. More domestically - banana bread.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Nature is definitely an influence, and just the animal experience of being embodied really. No matter how far removed we might be from the natural world, we still have much in common with other mammals, particularly the experience of labour, birth and feeding our young, and that’s something I have written about. The process is pretty much identical for all mammals – whether you’re a human female, a cat, a cow, or a porpoise.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Too many to mention, but one of the writers who had a profound impact on me early on was the late Eavan Boland. Reading her work was a revelation – it was the first time I had read poetry written by a woman about her domestic experience – children, husband, housework, interwoven with mythology and history. Before this, the poetry I had been exposed to was mostly men writing about their experience of war, or unrequited love, which is important of course, but not the whole story by any means.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Travel overland to China! A train from London to Paris or Berlin; then a train from either of those cities to Moscow. And then the Trans-Siberian route all the way to Beijing. I also want to take the train to Istanbul via Venice. I think trains are both the past and the future of travel! Being in lockdown has really ignited my wanderlust, but I don’t have much desire for air travel anymore.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

In recent years I’ve become particularly interested in history – I think I could very happily be an academic historian. When I was a child I wanted to be a marine biologist – I was obsessed with the idea that dolphins and whales are actually more intelligent than human beings, and that in their wisdom they simply decided they didn’t need advanced civilisation. I still find it a very attractive theory!

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I don’t know really – it’s just always felt essential to me in a way that other things don’t. I’ve had long fallow periods, but always returned to writing in the end.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I really enjoyed the film Downsizing with Matt Damon – very thought-provoking. And I recently read a brilliant pamphlet called Whalelight, by conservation scientist and poet, Fiona Cartwright. She articulates better than anyone our link to the natural world through childbirth and she’s also quite the historian – basically right up my street!

20 - What are you currently working on?

A few things – I’m finishing a ‘long short story’ set in Limerick, Ireland. It’s going to be hard to place publishing-wise due to its awkward length – roughly 10,000 words. Too short for a novella and too long for a short story! I’m always tinkering with new poems, and I’m also attempting an historical novel. It’s early days and it’s quite an intimidating project for me, but it’s also exciting.

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