Interview with Oz Hardwick
Interview with Oz Hardwick
Beside the author you are also a photographer and musician. In your creative core are they all interlinked with each other? And how do you manage your artistic equilibrium in these three zones?
I think that all my creative endeavours are part of the same process, which I have been thinking of recently as framing manageable pieces of chaos and holding them up to the light. Art is often discussed in terms of making sense of the world, but I have come to terms with the world not making sense – at least on a level I can grasp intellectually – and so mostly what I think I try to do is to look closely at details I find beautiful in the great mass of overstimulation.
I have always written, but I became fascinated by photography in my teens and trained as a photographer when I left school. I found myself particularly drawn to abstraction, light and shade, extreme close-ups, patterns and textures. And that is what I try to do in my writing, too: Russell Edson talked about his prose poetry being “the shape of thought,” and that’s something which resonates very strongly with me. Music, too: I’m far from being “a musician,” but I play music and am more of an experimenter with sound.
In terms of equilibrium, I am first and foremost a writer, though, and the other disciplines and experiments grow out of that.
I have read that you have always heard voices. Are they auditory hallucinations? In how many ways and to what extent that has affected your creative process?
No, it’s not auditory hallucination, as such. Rather, it is something akin to pareidolia: whereas it’s common to see faces or whatever in random visual stimuli, I have always heard words in random sounds. It was quite scary for me as a child, but once I understood what it was, I found it interesting. I suppose it’s just an extreme form of the way we may mishear a song lyric or what someone says in a noisy room. I will sometimes “tune in” to the sounds of a building or of a train, and let the words form, and I have used that as the basis for writing but, more generally, I think it opened me up very early to the intriguing and sometimes unsettling world of non-sequiturs and linguistic chance which is beyond the purely functional aspect of language.
Your book Wolf Planet is an experimental prose poetry micro novella. What is the future of fragmented novels in the postmodernism era? Will they replace conventional
novels? Or will prose poetry efface the boundary between poetry and novels also
through its fragmented fabric?
We live in a time of fragmentation in so many ways, and I think that the rise in popularity of the novel or novella in flash is as much a response to this as it is to busy people having less time to devote to reading. There’s something about the gaps between sequential flash fictions which is as important as the words. While Wolf Planet claims to be a novella, it does so in the same way that Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America claims to be a novel: it’s inviting itself into a house where it doesn’t belong. I’m not just interested in prose poetry as a marginal form, but also that further shimmering boundary where it abuts flash fiction, and the simple – perhaps oversimple – distinction for me is that prose poetry doesn’t have the narrative impulse of flash fiction.
In spite of occasional cries of alarm, I feel that the traditional novel’s future is fairly secure for as long as people still read. There is something which many, many people find both satisfying and comforting in stories, and I can’t see that changing. At the same time, though, the novel has always provided a very mutable space for ideas. I live in York, about 20 minutes’ walk from where the first volumes of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy were published in 1759, and it’s a novel which is still dazzling in its wild experimentation. I hope there will always be works that challenge our expectations of what a novel is and what it can do.
Could you tell about your childhood and especially about your Grandfather , how he
guided your creative channels?
I grew up in a close, working-class family on the south-west coast of England, in a house with my parents, my sister, and my mother’s parents. I had a particularly strong relationship with my grandfather. He had left school at 14 and been an agricultural worker – working his way up from shepherd to Estate Manager – but at the same time he had a passion for the English Lake poets, particularly Wordsworth, and Robert Burns; these writers who had made poetry from the language of ordinary people. He wrote poetry himself – very much in the 19th-century mode – as well as being a self-taught musician and enthusiastic singer of folk songs, and also enjoying drawing. And I very much took after him in my enthusiasm. I was fortunate, though, that later I had the opportunity to take these enthusiasms further when I enrolled as a mature student studying English and Art History at university. This transformed my life entirely, but if you scratch the academic surface you’ll find the passionate autodidact just underneath.
How do you see the sometimes problematic relationship between poetry and prose, which causes so many poets, critics and anthologists anxiety?
I think the relationship is more problematic for critics than for writers. As some people like stories, others like labels. I have had a fascination with – indeed I’d go so far as to say a love of – prose poetry since before I knew what it was. I stumbled upon it by chance upon Richard Brautigan’s “The Cleveland Wrecking Yard” in an anthology of short stories. It looked like a short story on the page, but it’s actually a chapter from a book that claims to be a novel; yet it behaves like a poem, with its energy deriving from image and metaphor with the mooring ropes cut. I found it a remarkable piece of writing, but for all its overt claims to fiction, I couldn’t stick a convincing label on it until I came across the term “prose poem” – possibly through reading Brian Patten in The Mersey Sound anthology.
All of which is a round-about way of saying that prose and poetry have always felt like comfortable companions to me. The opposite of prose is verse and never – or, at least rarely – the twain shall meet, but the substantial and ever-growing library of prose poetry speaks for itself.
Whom does Oz Hardwick read in spare time besides photography, cooking and music?
I am always reading new poetry, of course. Luke Kennard’s On the Sonnets is the most exciting collection I’ve read of late, and I have in recent years made a lot of connections with Australia where there are some wonderful writers: Cassandra Atherton, who’s also a major scholar of prose poetry, is exceptional, with dazzlingly prismatic prose poems which are both intricate and practically weightless; and Dominique Hecq, too, whose language is so physical that it reaches out and grabs you firmly by the wrist until you have followed it to exactly where it wants to take you.
What is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?
I think it is still so-called “vanity publishing.” One would expect it to have died out with the rise in accessible self-publishing platforms, but still there are inexperienced writers who are seduced by the promise of a “proper” publisher and don’t realise that they are being exploited because they don’t know anything about the industry. I don’t really like the term “vanity” publishing, as it implicitly diminishes the writer who, most likely, is just inexperienced and trusting. It’s a parasitical practice that preys on people who just want to make their art and communicate it to others – which I don’t think is a bad thing to want to do.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
I would probably say “overcome your fears,” but I’m fairly sure my younger self would listen. I have written since childhood, but submitted for publication very rarely and certainly wouldn’t have read my work in public. I always had problems with lack of confidence and self-esteem: I still do, but I have learned – quite late in life – to do things anyway.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before
beginning a book?
I don’t really think in terms of research. I have a personality which tends towards the single-minded and obsessive. It isn’t the most useful of characteristics on a day-to-day basis, but it is absolutely ideal for a writer, in that I can draw on current and past obsessions. As well as poetry, I have written a monograph and many academic articles on medieval art and literature, and this deep well of iconography, example, romance and fabliaux, with all its strange textures, is particularly sustaining. I am this year involved in a couple of projects marking the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante, so this medieval streak has been manifesting itself in various ways. But I just like to incorporate whatever I am curious about at a given time.
What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
I really don’t find it difficult at all. Apart from the amateur enthusiasm, the other thing I inherited from my family is a really strong work ethic. Around the work responsibilities of being an English Professor at Leeds Trinity University, I will, 365 days a year, sit down and write the first draft of a poem, usually over breakfast. They will not always be good first drafts and most will never go any further, but I have been doing this for years and a good number are worth developing. I don’t believe in inspiration, and writing is so much a part of who I am that writer’s block is about as likely as eater’s block: I feel uncomfortable if I haven’t written something.
What inspired you to venture in the liminal space of prose poetry?
As I’ve touched upon, it’s something I discovered by chance, and the attraction was precisely that I thought I was reading a story and I wasn’t. I was surprised, intrigued and, in a way, liberated. I’ve mentioned stories a few times, so I should probably come out and say it: I’m not that interested in narrative. It’s back to that idea of stories making sense of life – something a number of theorists have suggested is one of the basic characteristics of being human – but it seems to me a very reductive way of approaching ideas and, indeed, using language. Beginning and ends are never more than arbitrary conveniences – and we’re back to Tristram Shandy again – and I like the way that prose poetry beckons the reader into the page and, instead of offering that familiar Aristotelian unravelling we expect from a block of prose, it pulls countless possible (and impossible) beginning and endings from a hat we didn’t even notice it was wearing.
I think this makes it the perfect literary mode for our times, because at least a fair proportion of the world seems to have reduced the world to simple stories, whether that’s a three-word political slogan or a persuasive meme. And this oversimplification has the pernicious effect of reinforcing objective certainties and absolutist views, and making the space between polarities too wide to cross. Prose poetry is a mode of writing – and of reading – that opens rather than closes. As you say, it represents a liminal space: it encourages compromise with one’s expectations, nuance, subtlety, reinterpretation, even negotiation with language and one’s own relationship to language; and that’s the sort of fertile terrain in which I choose to plant my orchard for future fruits.