LIDIA VIANU -- SELIMA HILL
Sometimes autobiography is not true enough
Interview with SELIMA HILL (born 13 October 1945), British poet
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
LIDIA VIANU: Reading your poetry has made me feel as if I had known you for ever, but I do not know anything in fact. To start with, would you reveal some of the facts of your life, such as: when and where you were born, what you have studied, how you came to be a poet, what your life is like? Any connection between you and John Fowles (since you live in Lyme Regis, Dorset)?
SELIMA HILL: I was born in 1945. When I was a baby I was burnt in a fire. I was rescued from my burning cot by a farmer who saw the flames. I spent six months (maybe a year, I’m not sure) in hospital. Of course, I nearly died. An of course my mother felt guilty... I was born into a family of painters. My grandparents and my parents were painters. (My ex-husband and my son are also painters. My daughter is a photographer. My youngest son is a writer.) My father was sixty when I was born. I was sent to boarding school, and then University, where I read philosophy. I then had a breakdown and spent another year in hospital (Psychiatric hospital). There is no connection between John Fowles and myself (except that I used to live in his flat – one big room overlooking the sea).
I now live with my various animals in a house with a small orchard near the beach – and also near my seven grandchildren and my ex-husband and his new wife and my children and their husbands and horses...
LV. Your poems float between imagination and tenderness, in a land nobody else has discovered yet. Violet is both an angry and a loving volume. Actually, I do not think you can hate anyone, not when you write, anyway. Your clarity is one of extraordinary images, which invoke very ordinary feelings. You make no effort to be more (or less) than you are. You are so very natural in every line. What do you think, writing as you write, about poets who push their own life and loves out of literature and declare they only want to imagine, not to leave signs of what they have lived?
SH. I do not like writing about other poets in this way. Because I love them all! And in poetry – it’s a big space out there – we can say what we want.
LV. So far, I have seen a lot in contemporary poetry, from wonderful feminine sensibility (such as Ruth Fainlight’s) to the most astonishing bookish texts and abstract rhymes (no names here). Your poetry is, maybe, one in a million. You are not ashamed to write about your own life, but you do it in such a way that it becomes everyone’s. I am desperately curious to know a lot more about the elder sister, the lodger, the lover whose portrait as a horse (title of your latest volume) does not seem to have been written yet. Would you tell me who they are and what binds you to them?
SH. The sister, lover, lodger etc. are my ways of writing about myself. The only energy we have is the energy of our own lives. But sometimes autobiography is not true enough. In order to be ruthlessly accurate (which is my aim) it is sometimes necessary to fictionalize: in this way I feel free. (I do not want to hurt anyone: Art is not an excuse for hurting anyone...)
LV. In one of your short letters you say that you have visited Romania and liked it. How and when? Since you do not write tourist poems, I see no mention of it anywhere, nor is there mention in your lines of any of the places you have visited. What do you know about the ex-communist world?
SH. I do not write about Romania, or the places I have travelled to. But the 20th century poetry of Romania has influenced my work very much, I think, although no one seems to have commented on, or noticed this. Again, I think the reasons are the same. I want to feel free. I experienced my family as oppressive. I had difficulty forming relationships. My suffering – although I am so white, middle-class, privileged etc etc – my suffering responded to the suffering of the Romanian people – their passion, energy, courage, humour, guts. How WARM they are! And how SUBVERSIVE!!
I was several days at Oradea. I loved everything about Romania. (I’ve also been to Siberia, Mongolia, Russia and China; also worked in Prague; also lived and worked in France, Spain, Italy, Iceland, Tunisia, Toronto – planning to return to China next year. Also visit Easter Island). Romania felt warm and wild and subversive – big big heart and smiles in spite of everything!
LV. Violet describes your mother’s death seen through a child’s eyes, your own. The narrative of your poems is so strong that I cannot help but wonder what actually happened, although you do make poetry out of it, meaning that it would not be the story that would make the poem, but the other way round.
SH. I take what the world throws at me, and spin, twist, skim, fly, flip, throw it back – I am not saying my life is uniquely special, but I am saying, Look, my life is like this, and your life is like that, and thus we are two suffering beings, I am special and you are special.
LV. Your images are both sharp and tender. You seem to ignore poetry while you are writing it. Your major concern is finding the most suggestive word, the most apt to give a concentrated (actually a one-word) description of a person, a feeling, an incident. I think you write numberless haiku poems: each word is its own poem, with you. Considering this respect versus words, what do you think of those contemporary poets who empty their words of all emotion and try to fill them with artificial, striking music or bookish trips into other texts?
SH. I am who I am. I remember I am unique – just like everyone else!
LV. Your emotions – love, loss of childhood, loneliness wherever you are, need for sympathy, total lack of communication, introvertness – are overwhelming. They are so, while dressed in the garb of meek, commonsensical words. The poetic load is not placed upon the lexical meaning of words, but on their unusual associations. Your mind leaps from sensation to idea within seconds. I have trouble pinning you down: you are neither emotional nor intellectual, you are both alert and soothing, you feel love and hatred at the same time. Where would you place yourself, what kind of a poet do you think you are? What matters most for you in poetry?
SH. I have a man’s brain in a woman’s body. My brain was educated by men at Cambridge (I got a scholarship etc etc) but emotionally I am a cripple. What was I supposed to do with my body? My parents and teachers were strict. I did not feel listened to or understood by them. Only by nature and silence – and swimming! Nobody gives you the power – you just take it (or nobody gave me the power, I just took it). This is what I tell my students.
What matters most for me? Love, joy, truth, guts, intimacy. A sense of fellowship. Secrets. Shame. Beauty. Nowhere else can love or beauty go so freely as in poetry (art).
LV. You wrote Please Can I have a Man in order to explain that you would like someone who:
sticks all my carefully selected postcards –
sent from exotic cities
he doesn’t expect to come with me to,
but would if I asked, which I will do –
with nobody else’s, up on his bedroom wall
Who is not prepared to say I’m ‘pretty’ either,
who can be
affectionate and undisciplined and uncomplicated.
It may not seem much to ask but it is far more than men offer, so your poetry is not happy. It rejoices verbally but weeps emotionally, so you offer a rainbow of effects. Do you see yourself as a happy poet?
SH. The person I am is much nicer than the person I think I ought to be... Poets in their poems feel safe. And when we feel safe we feel free. Free to love. To trust our reader. To forgive our tormentors. To be tender. To meet God, and camels and suitcases and dogs and lettuces... ‘If you have a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail’ (Nietzsche). If you are a poet, everything begins to look beautiful! I don’t mean you have to like it (it, the world, everything) – but you do have to love it. This is what my poetry can say. All poetry is love poetry. We sit on God’s velvet cushion. We are God’s spies! I would rather be good than happy. By being good, I will be happy. I cannot make myself be happy. I can only make myself be good and other people happy.
LV. You talk about Being Fifty, which makes you ‘feel large,/ large and cold/ like someone else’s fridge.’ You have a tender sense of humour, your irony heals instead of pinching. Your poetry could not be described without using the words tenderness and humour. Most contemporary poets go to great lengths to avoid both. Do you think there is anyone writing in your vein today? Would you say you belonged to a group? Who else would be there, besides you?
SH. I have ‘no car, no TV, no radio, no lover – no problem!’ to quote a recent newspaper article headline about me! Happiness? I want to make other people happy. (Not myself. That’s impossible). I want my reader to feel close to me, understood, loved by me, kissed by me... I write for myself. I write for strangers. But when I meet real people face to face I feel trapped – as if I am a bad person. Ugly. Dirty. Inadequate. (Not at all the person I feel I am when I am writing, the person who is one with all things!)
LV. When trying to bring writers together under the heading of Desperado, I start from the one assumption that contemporary authors are mainly similar in their dissimilarity: they all want to be their own trend and use all devices to make sure they cannot be pinned down. You could not care less, I think, who is or is not like you. You just write your poems. The singular manner in which you do it comes almost unconsciously, or am I wrong? Do you take great pains to write a line? Does it take long for you to finish a poem? I should say the feeling takes longer, the words come as a jet. Is that the case?
SH. I write very fast in very small writing and don’t read back. (I can’t read my own writing without glasses). I write fast to feel free and keep ahead of the censor, who, he or she, is always hammering at my heels... After writing fast I leave it for a month or two, or more. Then I go back and cut about 9/10s away: cut, cut!
LV. Jesu’s Blood states, ‘I see my job as making people happy’. Your husband leaves with a girl-friend, and you repeat stubbornly, ‘I won’t./ I won’t be angry. Can you understand that?’ It hurts and you make poetry out of it. You make poetry out of pain more than once. Your mother dies, the ‘lodger’ hurts you, a man fails to love well. You make people happy because you do not want them to go through your pain. At some point, though, you must be happy yourself. What makes you happier, life or poetry? Or, maybe, the one could not exist without the other?
SH. I do want people to go through my pain – in other words, by going through my pain, they go through their pain. There is no other way but through. You can’t go over it. You can’t go under it. You’ve got to go THROUGH it! Go naked into the shower of truth.
LV. The poem The Man Who Said He Had Danced with Twyla Tharp states:
Every day I tell myself Remember
somewhere in your heart
there must be tenderness.
what we’ve got to do is try and find it.
What we’ve got to do is find it soon.
Your poetry does that for you. You are in poetry what Graham Swift or Peter Ackroyd are in the novel: a passionate seeker of feeling. Are you happy with the way literary criticism has perceived you? What kind of criticism do you favour? Dry and scientific or compassionate and impressionistic?
SH. There is a taboo on tenderness, it seems to me... (It is so difficult to write about well, so easy to write about badly... that’s the trouble). If I could talk about things, nicely and plainly and clearly, in a normal friendly way, like other people seem to do, I wouldn’t need to write poetry, would I!?..
LV. Violet is written in the first person, Bunny in the third. Not that the distance or closeness matters. Your volcanic sensibility is the same, whatever person you use. It just made me wonder who the lodger was and what the story which I can guess but not know for sure actually was. Would you be willing to say more than your poems about it?
SH. After I finished Violet I thought ‘Good, now I can write the nice good-natured happy poems of the nice good-natured, happy person that I am’, but Bunny seemed to stubbornly press on beyond the point where Violet turned back. It got darker, grimmer. I had the sense of a large animal in my backyard I was secretly feeding, and being bullied by. Half love, half fear.
LV. Portrait of My Lover As a Horse, written in the first person again, has on its cover a photograph after Neil Astley. Is he the same Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books? Is it a painting? How come there is no actual poem of your lover as a horse in the whole book?
SH. No poem called Portrait of My Lover As a Horse because I cut it out. For fun. (Also to tease critics – I don’t like the idea of ‘the title poem’. No poem better than another poem...) Like Mike Leigh’s play Abigail’s Party – there was no party.
LV. If you could start your life and career all over again, would you still choose poetry? What would you do differently?
LV. Who are the poets you like?
LV. What poets of previous generations have influenced you?
SH. Swimmers, divers, Romanians, monks, fish, babies – God’s poets everywhere!
November 13, 2002