Reach for your own hand: An interview with Jim Hall

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Jim Hall is a Mouthy Poet alumnus, born in Derby but now based in Nottingham. After I got my grubby mitts on a copy of his debut poetry pamphlet Upon Arrival, Drop Your Cool, I asked him a few questions about poetry and life in general, and he was obliging enough to reply with his usual generous honesty.

When did you decide to be a poet? Is there a moment for you which crystallised that decision, or did you kind of fall into poetry?

We have to decide to be something each day. To leave the house, our duvet, own head. I try to give the energy required to simply exist towards being as decent a human as is possible. Being a poet is my check-in with humanity.

It is how I challenge what challenges myself & those around me in a way that still acknowledges the beauty, the worth of choosing to be here, whoever we are, as bravely & humanly as we are capable of.

I think my decision to be a poet (though I feel ‘become a poet’ more true) is also a choice to confront the many silences we carry through the world like luggage there is nowhere to unpack safely. That which we are either too ashamed to voice or simply do not know how to begin talking about. By this I mean the joyful as much as that which weighs us down.

I start that work with the page & try to reach a better language to help lift the many hands of those silences from around my own life, release what I find hardest to set free. In doing so I seek to remind myself & hopefully others, that we are not alone.

Memory: At twenty-four I walk back to my parent’s home, away from a city I had never felt so disconnected from. I am lonely, lost, and grateful to be alive, despite. I have one of those overwhelming truth-breakthroughs that often arrive at 3AM when lonely, lost & grateful to be alive, despite. I realise how deeply I would feel an experience & yet struggle to fit that experience around my mouth, to put what it meant into words. There is this freeing acceptance that though I will likely fail again & again to say what it is I need to, there is such worth in the act of trying.

How did the decision to self publish come about? Did you find it hard letting go of the poems, and knowing when each one was ‘finished’?

The deadline dropped by Nottingham collective The Mouthy Poets via a Facebook post offering alumni members of the group a space to sell their work at their upcoming event was a nicely timed prod in the productivity ribs.

It is often difficult for me to let go. Much of my writing explores that which I so desperately want to hold onto. Be that a person, place, feeling. Similarly I house poems for months in the dark room of my head/laptop before considering pulling up the blinds & letting the world in. Call it perfectionism. A protective stubbornness. The need to be one image closer to the image that says what I never could aloud.

It is easy for me to return to a poem with bared teeth & raised knuckles. Perhaps this is akin to my own self-critical nature. I am trying to be kinder on all counts. It’s easy to uncover a botched line break as though uncovering a can of Stella lodged down the back of the sofa from a house party & begin doubting whether it was a fun party in the first place. I try to trust that the party was worthy, either way.

There was a point during the writing process for this pamphlet when the second track from Pvris’s debut album swooshed into my ears & I felt like I was dancing through each poem. I am a terrible dancer but that is the point: I did not care. I just knew I needed to dance & so I danced. That feeling of just letting go in the healthiest, most positive sense, is what I wanted to capture when writing this pamphlet.

I hope to return to that feeling again & again when sharing these poems behind a mic, in a living room at 1AM, wherever they may end up visiting.

A lot of your poems are about embracing things you don’t necessarily want to embrace; painful memories, social awkwardness and that alone-feeling that our generation seems to specialise in. Why do you think it’s important to address these themes in poetry?

I feel it’s important to address these themes not just in poetry, but in life. It’s as easy for me to privately hurt as it is for anybody else. The ‘I’m all good’ response is a go-to for so many of us but the poetry is my truth-voice, whispering: ‘No, you’re not. But that’s cool. Let’s talk it out.’

The poem is often the jump off point towards a personal confrontation with the painful, the uneasy. Also the brave & the lovelovelove & the everything-held-inside. Then comes the attempt to voice that in a way that can tap a stranger on the shoulder & say: Hey! Me too.

‘Embrace’ is the best word you could have used to describe my approach to that process, so thank you for that. That sense of owning & celebrating what is not easy to feel is the charge that carries my work to places I feel glad to arrive at.

A lot of poetry collections now seem to follow a theme or a journey, whereas reading your collection felt like more of an emotional roller coaster to me — we could end one poem in a jubilant, hopeful mind and then be right back down in quite a dark place with the next one. Was it a conscious decision on your part, to shake up the ‘poetry journey’ model?

Very little of what I write is a conscious decision. I like the idea of being in my late twenties & flawed & working hard at being a positive human & the poems reflecting that. Perhaps there is a rollercoaster feeling because is the world right now not itself a rollercoaster of hurt, healing & still, somehow, tenderness & love?

I aim to end much of my writing in a place of hope & faith in whatever happens when the poem is over & the world crashes back into the room. Sometimes a poem that ends difficultly, can still somehow be beautiful. Just like something we live through. I believe this so much, I really do.

How do you make time to write, do you wait until you feel like writing or are you quite disciplined about it?

I make time by getting over myself. I forgive my lessthanperfect. My negative-voice goes: ‘Hey, Jim. You said you were going to write for an hour today but you did not you just played with a few poem titles & ate all the Pringles again.’

I say: ‘True, but I did at least play with some poem titles & you forgot to mention I texted my friend, hugged my girlfriend, tried to be as okay a person as possible.’

Some poems can’t be rushed. The Blue Nile took four years to release Hats & if I ever was forced to name an album as perfect, it would be Hats. Every crack of vocal, press of piano, is there for a reason. Note: I will never write a poem that makes somebody feel like I feel when ‘The Downtown Lights’ sweeps across my heart-eyes like some stretching skyline of woah, but I am over that.

I feel like energy, effort, discipline are your best friends as a writer. Call them back, arrange to meet up for coffee. Be gentle yet firm yet enjoy the failure. Make that failure sing.

In terms of the whole life/art balance this image haunts me:

A man scrawls at a desk in a locked room while his wife gazes at a brochure for the countryside walks they could stroll through, just a bus ride away. She came home from work three hours ago. He doesn’t exactly have a clock-off time. What haunts me is not this conviction to the page but the thought of him being so buried in the need to dig out the perfect metaphor for being in love, he misses out on being fully present & alive to that love.

Art is super-meaningful to my life, but is not its pulse. Nothing impresses me about a writer boasting about how many hours they put in a day like that is the only measure of success. How they wear their books to bed.

I’d rather hear a poet offer a rough draft of a piece about self-care then bail on the after-gig drinks because they need to call whoever they need to call to feel okay, than watch them drop some polished piece to a crowd-chorus of finger clicks, only to have forgotten their name at 5AM because why take care of yourself when you just shared the most beautiful poem in the room, right? Wrong.

I think what I am trying to say is that if you give everything you have to the page the way you would give everything you have to those you love, but remember the balance of those two things, something healthy and whole will emerge.

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For more of Jim’s thoughts & work follow him at flawsfoldedtoorigamiswans.tumblr.com

Were we always this selfish?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently. A few months ago, in the staff room and on Facebook, people marvelled at how desperate these ‘migrants’ were to get to Britain, that they were prepared to risk their lives. And yet their imaginations could only conceive that this desperation is born from greed; ‘It’s because they’ll get benefits, isn’t it? And we don’t even look after our own.’ I find this thinking staggering. It’s like English people regard anyone non-white-British to be a different breed. I don’t know anyone who would risk their lives to get to a country where they are entitled to about £40 a week in benefits, especially since that £40 won’t go as far here as it would in their homeland, especially when the price of such ‘benefit’ is to be forbidden to work for a year and to be forced to report to centres on a regular basis, like some kind of criminal. And yet people find it perfectly plausible that foreign people would do this, more so than the idea that they are running from death, rape, persecution or torture.

My English peers seem to me a very strange breed; we take great pride in our part in wars few of us remember, a war against facism, a war where we took in a persecuted refugee population despite being in pretty dire economic state.  Yet the people who are proudest of this are the ones who condemn most strongly any move to help the desperate and persecuted today.

There’s a chilling reason why Save The Children’s viral video had to imagine the things which happen to children in Syria and Palestine and the Yemen happening to an English child. It should not have taken the image of another child; a real, Syrian, dead child, to get people to care. Even now I hear people worrying that we’re going to let terrorists into Britain along with the asylum seekers, and yet no one seems to care that these people have been subjected to terror on a daily basis. That in many countries, people still are.

This isn’t a particularly hopeful blog post I know.  But it’s a rant I’ve wanted to have for a while now.

At least not everyone is selfish. I’ve been heartened by the images I’ve seen of people’s support for refugees on social media. And a marvellous lady I know, who survived conscription and a world war before she was even old enough to vote holds no grudges against bearers of other passports — on the contrary, her wish is for peace. I sometimes wish I could ask her if people were always this selfish, but I think I don’t want to know the answer. I like to believe this is simply a low point for humanity — surely from here, things can only get better.

The dream is free

So today I googled writing exercises and one of the first results was a link to the most introspective writing exercise I’d ever heard of. The challenge was to ask oneself the (uncomfortable) question: Why do I write?

Well, I found it uncomfortable, which is why I decided to answer the questions and then share them very publicly on the internet. If you’re a writer I would highly recommend answering these questions, even if you decide to lock the answers in a box and hope that no one ever reads them. The post is here.

What do I want to write?

  • I want to write poems that crackle with life, that are relatable to other people but which also sound beautiful and make unexpected connections.
  • I want to write short stories which do the same and which linger in the reader’s mind.
  • I want to write plays which make people laugh and cry.
  • I want to write reviews which help people decide if they want to buy a book, I want to draw out a writer’s strengths for appreciation so that readers can decide if they would appreciate those strengths.
  • I want to write features which make people laugh and then get chucked in the recycling.

How often and how much do I write? Do I have enough time to write and could I make more time for my writing?

I categorically DO NOT write enough; on good weeks I mean this in the way that all writers mean when they say they wish they had more time to write. On bad weeks I mean that out of the 168 hours in the week, 74 minus work and sleeping, I dedicate a paltry amount of time to writing, despite having spent 4 years learning to be a better writer and a lifetime telling people that I want to be a writer. I’ve pinned a quote on Pinterest which goes ‘The dream is free; the hustle is sold separately.’ If I’m brutally honest I am just now deciding whether I personally want to afford the hustle. What can I say? Students like free stuff.

What are my top three goals as a writer?

  • To stop writing for self-esteem and praise.
  • To write for the sheer joy of it.
  • To publish a collection of poetry which is worth making public.

What is my five year plan as a writer? What do I need to do to achieve my goals?

  • To simply decide whether I truly want to achieve those goals and to put in the graft accordingly.
  • To develop an internal barometer for when a poem is doing what it needs to do in the best way in can instead of relying on other people’s opinions.

More time spent reading and listening closely and writing and writing and redrafting would probably achieve both of these macro-goals.

In the past year, what have I accomplished in working towards my goals?

It’s a diddy bit more than a year ago but I won two IdeasTap briefs and got some great feedback on my writing as a result, and I took part in a really cool online course which got me writing more regularly because I had deadlines.

So that’s it. Feel free to share your answers if you feel so inclined, because I’m nosey healthily curious.