Photo Credit: Jenny Halse
Helen Tookey is a poet, writer, editor, and scholar. Her poems have been appeared in places such as Best British Poetry 2013 (Salt 2013), The Forward Book of Poetry 2015 (Forward Worldwide 2015), and New Poetries VI (Carcanet 2016).
Hi Helen. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on your latest pamphlet In The Glasshouse with HappenStance. Many of the poems seem to deal with geography and landscape, and our relationship to it. Do you think this is a fair description of the pamphlet’s concerns?
Thank you! Yes, that’s definitely one main strand in the pamphlet. I seem to come back and back to the question of how we relate to and connect to the natural world (Rilke is a touchstone for me here), and often when I’m writing about specific places (for instance in the poems ‘Rheidol Valley’ or ‘Sudley Field, Dusk’) that’s the question that’s driving the writing.
But I also write quite often either about dreamed places, or places that I’ve never been to (including Japan and America), and that often seems to be about exploring the ways that we build up associations, sometimes just with the sound of a word or a place-name, the ways that we create imaginary landscapes for ourselves.
I was aware to some extent of the threads and connections across the various poems when I was putting them together, but I was lucky to have a really brilliant editor – Nell Nelson at HappenStance – who helped it all to come into focus and enabled the pamphlet to find its final shape.
Congratulations too on your debut collection Missel-Child with Carcanet. Can you tell us a bit more about the book and what the editing process of putting together your first full-length manuscript was like?
Putting a first collection together was a really interesting process because it enabled me to see what I was actually trying to explore in my writing, and to identify connections that I hadn’t previously seen among disparate poems. Michael Schmidt at Carcanet helped me a great deal with that process of selecting and shaping and ordering. There was, again, a lot about place and landscape in the book.
There were also quite a lot of poems drawing on dreams or childhood memories, often circling around an unsettling feeling of narratives playing out around you that you don’t quite understand. I grew up in the suburbs and I always had this sense of secrets, of things being repressed, remaining unspoken but you somehow knew they were there. I would say that’s a preoccupation in my writing.
Some of your poems use collage as a technique for creating something new – such as borrowing text from a thread on an online forum (‘Hollow Meadows’), Virginia Woolf’s diaries (‘Katherine’), dictionary entries (‘Miss Yamada Has Gotten Married’), and a department of Environment pamphlet (‘At the Castle’). Could you tell us a bit more about these poems and your drafting process for turning prose like this into poetry?
Yes, I really enjoy using found text as a source for poems. For me, it’s a way of getting hold of types of language that I wouldn’t be able to generate for myself; so for instance it might be the slightly off-key language of a translation, or the very formal language of an older text, or a guidebook or a textbook, something factual or informative that can become evocative or eerie or unsettling in the context of a poem.
Sometimes I collage things together from different sources (such as ‘Hollow Meadows’), but probably more often I use some sort of fragmentation, extraction and rearrangement process based on a single source text (as in ‘Katherine’). It’s partly about trying to bypass your own censoring, to allow a certain amount of chance and free association; but of course there’s always a process of selection and arrangement at work as well.
So again, I think it’s interesting to notice the things that strike you in other texts and to try to think about why they do. The ‘Katherine’ poem is built around the line ‘And the doll on the bed, which I detest’ – which struck me as bizarre and disturbing and therefore worth exploring.
You also collaborated with Sharron Kraus to set some of your poetry to original music, which was released as a CD/booklet earlier this year by Wounded Wolf Press. What was the genesis of the project and in what ways did it meet or exceed your expectations?
Sharron and I have known each other since we met at Sheffield University in the late 1980s so it was absolutely brilliant to collaborate with her on the CD, If You Put Out Your Hand. It came about because we were asked by a mutual friend if we’d like to do a gig at Bishop’s House in Sheffield, combining poetry and music.
Sharron picked some of my poems which she liked and felt she could respond to musically, and we performed them, me reading the poems and Sharron playing dulcimer and recorders. Then we thought it would be great to record them as tracks so that we could develop them a bit further, put more layers in and so on; so that’s what we did.
Sharron approached Wounded Wolf because they specialise in this type of poetry/music collaboration and they produed a beautiful CD and booklet for us. It was fascinating for me seeing how Sharron would respond intuitively to the poems, based much more on feeling than on conceptual understanding – we’ve written about the process in the CD booklet. We’re planning to do some more live events based on the project.
Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have especially enjoyed this year or are looking forward to in the future?
I’ve found Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake very thought-provoking. She seems to me to be willing to try all kinds of things in grappling with that fundamental question ‘how can I say what it is like, this being-in-the-world’…
I always really enjoy the Poetry Book Fair; it’s a chance to meet up with lots of people and find out about all kinds of things going on, especially in the world of very small presses. This year I was particularly after books that occupy the poetry/weird prose territory (because that’s what I’m finding myself writing), and I bought some very interesting things from Shearsman, including Donna Stonecipher’s Model City, which I love.
In terms of forthcoming books I am looking forward to the debut collection from Judith Willson. It is called Crossing the Mirror Line and will be published by Carcanet in October 2017. Judith was one of the contributors to New Poetries VI which I co-edited with Michael Schmidt; I’ve seen her collection coming together in manuscript form and I think it’s brilliant.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
‘Glasshouse’ was first published in The Compass magazine earlier this summer and is the opening poem of my new pamphlet. It works, I hope, as a kind of key or a touchstone to a lot of the themes and ideas that thread through the various poems.
It had its origins in a number of different things. One was an exhibition, also titled Glasshouse, by the artist Niamh O’Malley at the Bluecoat in Liverpool last year. Another was a story told to me by a friend. He worked on an art project that involved asking people about their secret wishes or fantasies, and one very respectable woman admitted to having always had fantasies about smashing glass. So they took her to the Pilkington’s factory in St Helens and she was let loose smashing vast sheets of glass…
I was fascinated by this, and the whole idea of shattering glass became a symbol – people wanting to break out of their own habitual selves and lives, which could be very freeing, but could also be destructive. The poem is about various things but fundamentally it’s about that tension between wanting or needing to change things about yourself or your life, but also the dangers and difficulties associated with that.
in the glasshouse we are all listeners
we all make confessions
the air alive as rain whispers tell us
what I have always wanted
what I have always wanted
is the destruction of glass
hanging an instant in perfect balance
and then the consequence: everything falling
exploded beyond thought of repair
what I have always wanted
(laughter angles from glass walls)
is the power of a forbidden word
is to run and run in sheeting rain
is an act so irrevocable it takes away my name
and afterwards I shall be changed through and through
and I shall walk quietly back into my life
and no one will know the language in which to speak to me
and that act will never be repeated
but will always have taken place
and the glass will hang always in its perfect instant
complete still but fractured utterly