Heidi Williamson is an English poet. Her debut collection Electric Shadow was published by Bloodaxe in 2011 and was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry Prize.
Heidi has previously held writing residencies at London Science Museum’s Dana Centre and the John Jarrold Printing Museum in Norwich. Her second collection The Print Museum was published by Bloodaxe earlier this year.
Hi Heidi. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on your second collection The Print Museum. I understand the poems arose out of your three year residency at the John Jarrold Printing Museum; indeed they are so steeped in this world you provide a glossary of printing terms at the end of the book. Has your fascination with the world of printing been a lifelong one?
Thanks for inviting me. It’s been an exciting start to the year with The Print Museum coming out in March. We had a wonderful launch at atmospheric independent bookshop The Book Hive in Norwich, and a poem from the collection was featured as the Saturday Poem in the Guardian over Easter weekend, which was a fantastic boost.
Yes, the John Jarrold Printing Museum in Norwich was a great source of research and fascination for me. The volunteers there are lifelong experts in print, and the machinery and exhibits are often featured on TV and in films. They also let me browse their incredible library of old and rare print books, which was a wonderful way to spend a Wednesday morning.
Though I only really fell in love with the paraphernalia of traditional printing relatively recently. My dad is a retired printer, and it was a family joke that my eyes used to glaze over when he tried to explain the four colour printing process to me (a poem ‘Dot gain’ in The Print Museum is a jokey reference to that).
The starting point for the book was visiting the JJPM on a Heritage Open Day with my dad. He used to have a small print shop in Swaffham, and I instantly reconnected with the noise, scents and set up in the museum. It felt like an important connection with my past, and the language, machinery and skills are going out of use.
So many different careers – Composer, Reader, Machine Minder, Linotype operator, bookbinder – are going by the wayside now digital printing can be done by one person and a snazzy computer. It seemed important to capture the heritage and language, and witness the passion that’s made it a livelihood for so many people over hundreds of years.
During the years of writing the book, my son was also learning to speak, then read and write, so there are more personal poems in the second half of the book, about how we learn to live with language, and how it helps and fails us I think in fairly equal measure.
The book seems to have one foot in the past and one in the present. While many of the poems celebrate the traditional methods of printing, you also acknowledge newer technologies like Kindles, Twitter and 3D printing. There seems to be some ambivalence in how the speaker feels about them though. Does this reflect your own feelings on newer electronic mediums?
I love plugging in to the world of poetry via Twitter and Facebook and seeing what’s going on. It’s like a newsagent’s window – lots of little snippets of happenings and updates. I also really enjoy having a Kindle as it means I can take a tonne of books on trips without shoulder ache. Plus some rare or out of print poetry books are available on Kindle as the publisher only needs to supply a PDF, not reprint the hard copy. They can be cheaper too.
But you can’t beat relishing the weight and feel of a book in your hand, seeing how exactly things are laid out on the page, being able to flip back and forwards to favourite parts because they naturally fall open there. I’m also an inveterate page-turner-downer. I think books should be revered and also put to practical use. When I want to refer to a particular poem, it’s handy to go straight to the book and the bookmarked pages. When I lend them to friends they sometimes comment on whether they agree with my favourites that have pages turned, and it leads to great discussions.
I was conscious when visiting the JJPM that it’s a working museum – grimy and noisy and with potentially dangerous machinery close by in full spate. I love the ordinariness of what’s happening, but also how incredible it is. I thought if it had to be put online as a ‘virtual tour’ so much would be lost. So I tried to capture those aspects in poems like ‘Offcuts’.
In general, I’m happy in both the virtual and more traditional print worlds and enjoy different aspects of each.
One of the poems – ‘The Print Mausoleum‘ – juxtaposes a large number of different fonts on a single page and highlights how the typography used in a poem can change its character. How important do you think typography is to how a reader experiences the poem on the printed page?
I think it’s immensely important. Before you even start to read one letter, you have a psychological and emotional reaction to the entire presentation of the page or screen. Does it look airy and open, inviting? Or dense, impactful and powerful, but potentially needing a larger investment of time?
As the Large Hadron Collider team discovered, fonts can make headline news if you use a perceived lighthearted or naïve one for a seriously major scientific discovery. Google ‘Higgs Boson Comic Sans’ and you’ll see the ire and passion it provoked!
Each typeface has been carefully designed to create a specific effect and it really does matter how it comes across. I’ve become a bit of a type enthusiast, though very inexpert. I was delighted when I saw the beautiful, classic-looking but responsively designed font my web designer chose for my website. I also enjoy that it’s called ‘Merriweather’.
In ‘The Print Mausoleum’ I join outdated and extinct phrases from the world of printing into a sequence of voices that can loosely be read as a narrative – like a community story. Initially I had it in roman then italic, roman then italic, to try and delineate the voices. A friend asked who the two people were, which made me realise I needed to adapt it.
Vanessa Vargo, a very talented artist and typographer who volunteers at the JJPM, set it in outdated and rarely used fonts that are not only beautiful, and beautifully set up alongside each other, but that reflect the content too. So the line ‘So tall he was just furniture above the conversation’ is set in Baskerville. John Baskerville, who created the font, was extremely tall and it’s rumoured he was even buried standing up! So there are wry undersides to some of the choices that I enjoyed immensely.
I think she made it a beautiful piece of artwork to look at. I almost included the fonts as a found poem in the collection. You can see the full list of fonts used, laid out beautifully alongside the poem here.
A couple of the other poems – ‘Crossover’ and ‘Newton’s Rings’ – are more playful and experiment with layout too. Is concrete poetry something you gravitate towards naturally and do you think you’ll continue to work with the form in the future?
I had a lot of fun playing with form in the book, but it came entirely out of the subject. I’d never written concrete poetry or prose poems before. But looking at the physicality of how type is put together on a page, the weightiness of it, how words are locked together in a confined space and how the blank parts are built in as an integral section of the whole, made me look at how poems are constructed differently.
I wanted to work with form on the page as a ‘constructed space’, to slightly misquote W S Graham. So there are neat, compact lyric poems in the book as there were in my first book Electric Shadow, but I also wanted to explore more and experiment.
The prose poems came partly out of marvelling at the stunning layout of the first printed book, The Gutenberg Bible, where the text is fully justified across the page, and the effect is quite mesmerising. It makes you look more closely at the independent letters and words somehow, how in some ways they’re simply blocks following one after another.
Are there any dates in the poetry diary you’ve enjoyed recently or are looking forward to?
I read at Café Writers earlier this month in the atmospheric upstairs room of historic ‘Take 5’ in the heart of Norwich. It’s where I stumbled up, knees knocking and voice quaking to do my first open mic. They’ve been very supportive over the years, and I’ve seen so many inspirational readers perform there.
I was also reading at the Turn The Page book art fair yesterday, alongside artists inspired by the structural and conceptual properties of books.
I’ll be part of the Kings Lynn Poetry Festival in the autumn as well with some great writers I’m looking forward to meeting and hear read.
Wymondham Words is a literature festival in my home town in the autumn too that’s a pleasure to be part of. Just nip down to my favourite local pub and hang out with poets for the night. Ideal! So yes, lots of lovely things on the calendar to look forward to.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
I’ve started drafting poems towards a next collection now, based loosely around my time in Scotland during my late teens and throughout my twenties. They were very formative years, and my relationship with the area I lived in means a lot to me. We still have close friends there, and go back to visit as often as we can.
I miss being there, but feel very settled in Norfolk now with my young family. I guess I’m revisiting it in language, and trying to work out some of the experiences I had while up there. This poem is typical in that it evokes a place that was part of our daily life, special and ordinary to us at once. It lived alongside, with, and through us somehow. I feel part of me is still there, and that age version of me will always be there.
The trees of the Trossachs
The trees of the Trossachs and the golf course,
framed by the kitchen window and kitchen garden,
come back to me now in silence.
In photographs, they interleave the years.
Now, they are as they were then:
they green and golden, wave and wane.
Birds have come and gone in them. Nests. Storms.
The wind carries around the world and comes back.
Clouds top them with intricate patterning.
What diseases have they weathered?
What will carry them off?