Will Harris reflects on his stellar second collection, a speculative rumination on memory and language
Will Harris is a London-based writer and editor. He works as the activity coordinator of a care home in Tower Hamlets. His debut collection RENDANG was the inaugural title of Granta’s poetry list and won the 2020 Forward Prize for Best First Collection. RENDANG’s conceit offered up the presumed persona of a poet of mixed racial heritage – in Harris’s case, Chinese Indonesian and British – in wry poems which tussled with the work of being an artist of colour in the formerly imperial metropolis and its literary marketplace. Brother Poem is his second collection and was borne out of the difficulties of writing when most of your readers don’t quite seem to get the joke. It is written as a series of addresses to an imagined brother, secret-sharer and double, a counterpoint hidden behind the pane of this dimension. I interviewed Harris in his home, where we talked about the anxieties of pushing poetry out into the world, the impossibility of pure communication, and normative states of consciousness.
I get the sense that Brother Poem is being offered up as a pendant piece to RENDANG. I think that idea of trying to correct yourself or provide an addendum to a previous utterance is really interesting. It runs quite counter to a lot of our modes of public appearance these days: the idea that you can say something and then it’s un-retractable, and you can just be doomed by whatever it is you’ve said.
Yes. If you’re writing about ideas, which are moving, floating signifiers – like race or a nation – I always have the constant terror afterwards of having not said the right thing or not given enough detail or context, or of not having read or thought enough. With the first book, I did feel a pressure to write about things which I didn’t necessarily want to write about. And that’s why I had the ironic shell of RENDANG. But I think I found the way it was received quite difficult. I felt like a lot of people hadn’t really read the book, or they weren’t really seeing it in the way that I intended. They were just reading it in the way that I think a lot of poets of colour are read in this country. It’s just ‘Oh, this person is representing some new identity that we haven’t heard from yet, isn’t that nice? Here’s this new emissary.’ And then I just felt like a massive fraud. Because I’m not an emissary for anyone.
The book came from the feeling of not having a fixed or complete sense of identity. But you come to be treated as a metaphor for the book. I found that whole process really troubling. Particularly because it was happening during the pandemic, and the book was travelling and I wasn’t, even though I suppose that’s the point of publishing. I became really anxious about it, because I knew that the book was going places and I couldn’t explain it. I couldn’t provide context for it, and that people were just interpreting it however they wanted.
I feel as if there’s a real anxiety in Brother Poem about communicating, getting across what you mean. That anxiety appears in lots of different guises. But there was one bit that I highlighted in particular: “If you freeze water, it becomes solid. If you speak something, it conveys something.” I was wondering if you could speak to that.
Speak to the idea of speaking?
And the anxiety of communication.
In this book, I wanted to write poems and feel like I could just write the kinds of things I wanted to write, without a conscious sense of an external reader or marketplace. It’s really about the ability to speak. The miraculousness of it. And yet, it is page poetry. It’s a speech act, but it’s also lodged in that moment before speech. It’s trapped expression. It’s on the page. I think most people would write for connection, and yet writing itself is an activity which takes you away from real connection to people. I also feel like there isn’t much content in the book. I mean, I really like poets who have very little content.
Why is that?
Because everything is focused. I love the mode of WS Graham, the constructed space. There are almost no images in his work. Its drama derives from trying to speak, and the reinstating of space between two people attempting to communicate.
A lot of contemporary poetry is basically in the mould of Wordsworth: you know, this idea of your life as a journey towards becoming a poet and making these poems which are the indissoluble expression of immortal truths – an I-centred lyric; a confessional poetics in the service of creating a character or identity, which is then imposed on others. And I am uneasy about the curation of that ‘I’, it can feel so focused on inserting itself into the literary tradition or the literary marketplace, insofar as the two are distinguishable. I’m not always sure they are, and I find that fact very depressing.
We both have the same editor, Rachael Allen. And Rachael – I think as a way of persuading me to make some cuts which, in hindsight, were very well judged – told me about this concept of ‘the ghost text’, the space where the cuts live and only you two know they’re there. Has she told you about this?
Oh, yeah, we had that with the first book (RENDANG). We called it the shadow book.
In Brother Poem, I feel as if there is a big preoccupation about the ghost text or the poem which cannot be, the poem which gets lost or mangled. A sense that you’re never quite able to bring the poem you first thought up onto the page.
Absolutely. Contingency was something I felt very aware of as I was writing. All the choices you make, you could have made otherwise. Each word, each line: poetry, language, is aware of every single option. Every single fork in every single road. And that’s what makes it so alive to read. I’m always looking for ways to speak directly in my writing, and many of my poems end up being about that very process.
There’s a phrase in Brother Poem about “pure memory” – what is that?
I guess that pure memory is memory which isn’t selected. As in, when you select a memory to turn into an anecdote, in a way it’s no longer pure, because it’s been put to use. You’re filing the edges off it, or entirely refashioning it to suit whatever point you want to make. Pure memory is the idea of just being fully connected to all your experiences, all the time.
Often the best anecdotes are personal refractions of macro-historical events. I think what’s interesting about living in the aftermath of the Battle of Britain becoming a national(istic) myth, is that our attitude to anecdotes has changed. It’s become one of pre-emptive nostalgia. You’re constantly narrativising your own life, reaching for that intensity of historical experience that you feel other people have had. It troubles our ability to live in the present.
Exactly. Nostalgia is a form of collective feeling that everyone thinks is unique to them. It’s very useful in the care home. The way people talk about the (Second World) war is just so cliché. These people have lived through so much, but when you ask them about the most significant phase of their lives, they will say “probably the war”. Most of them were children when it happened. It’s as if they’re speaking from a script.
It’s like a cultural flashbulb memory. Or the phenomenon where you fabricate a memory from looking through the family photo album too much.
Yes. It was mainly dementia sufferers who did this. I got obsessed with their voices. They got locked inside my head. They would tell the same, often very dream-like stories, on a loop. All the old metaphors of dementia are about it being an erosion of the mind, or a bombsite; a violent break. But I feel that it actually has a lot of continuity. When I am talking to someone who has dementia, I feel I could very easily be in that state too. Ultimately, I think that the condition challenges normative ideas about consciousness, and maybe poems also do the same. The first poem in the book, for instance: I feel it could be a monologue by someone with advanced dementia. I like that kind of associative speech, which makes verbal leaps. It has a certain coherence to me. It exposes how a lot of the shared ground in conversation is often implied but not actually there.
Back to the idea of the ghost text, I wanted to ask you about ‘After “The Quinine Plant”’, which comes towards the middle of the book, where you allude to a former project, a long poem entitled ‘The Quinine Plant’, but the poem before us is derivative of it. I thought it was really interesting how you’re referring to an unpublished and possibly imagined origin text.
I think that was a joke about postcolonial poetry or this idea of the poem, the poem that’s prototypical, ‘authentic’, because that’s basically impossible to write.
Elsewhere in the collection, in ‘Commute Songs’, you employ a seemingly Middle English lexicon – conjugating things in an archaic way, ‘knewe’, ‘toucht’, etc. What’s up with that? There’s also a reference in there to April and then ‘connecting nothing with nothing’ so I thought, “Oh, I’m getting some Waste Land vibes from this.” Mentioning April is always the jab in the ribs from author to reader, isn’t it? When I encountered that almost Chaucerian lexicon, and then I noticed that it’s called ‘Commute Songs’, which you could connect to The Canterbury Tales and pilgrimage – it feels as if you’re winging your way through these very established touchstones of the English literary tradition, and that tradition as a nation-building force. Was that something that entered your mind at all?
Yeah, I think it probably did. I mean, it’s there from the first poem: the “dirty and slobbery farm in Albion.” That’s Henry V. It’s the Duke of Bourbon, shit-talking England. Bourbon says, “I will sell my dukedom, / To buy a slobbery and a dirty farm / In that nook-shotten isle of Albion.” I guess Henry V is not one of the urtexts of English identity. But there are so many poems that are just swirling around in the subconscious of the imagined community of this country. So, I don’t think there’s a consistent project except to slightly, maybe, ironically include them, or just because they’re there, to draw them to the surface. And I was also trying to write using my dreams. A part of that poem I wrote while I was asleep. I just transcribed it when I woke up, and other times I would write as I was falling asleep, recording myself speaking into a dictaphone. Consequently, I can’t really account for a lot of the leaps.
Another different type of consciousness.
Yeah. Altered states.
But then is sleeping an altered state? You spend a lot of your time doing it.
Sleep is just where stuff comes to the surface, but it’s there all the time. But poems do that too. My dad read it and he just asked me if I’d been smoking a lot of weed.
Why the persona of an imagined brother?
One of the ideas behind the book was this psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell, and her book Siblings: Sex and Violence. In it, she writes about how psychoanalysis has historically privileged vertical relationships, such as parents, children, descendants, that kind of thing – this idea that everything kind of comes from above. And that that’s where the explanations lie. Psychoanalysis has really emphasised the vertical over the horizontal, such as the effects of social relationships with friends or siblings. They aren’t given the same weight. My book was meant to be an experiment in exploring the horizontal axis. It gave me a way of thinking about why I always felt so oppressed by finding writing so difficult. That expectation that you should explain your descent, and the idea that it all ends with you, and the pressure it puts on you. Whereas there’s something about the movement of talking to other people who are on the same level, which opens everything out, which casts off the pressure of descent, and makes us – I hope – less lonely.
Brother Poem by Will Harris is published by Granta Poetry, out now
Photography Siqi Li
This article is taken from Port issue 32. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here