Thursday, February 23, 2017

Christopher Hopkins responds

Christopher Hopkins: I was born and raised in Neath, South Wales, surrounded by machines and mountains, until moving to Oxford in my early twenties. Both areas have shaped me and my writing. I currently reside in Canterbury and work for the NHS. I have had poems published in Rust & Moth, The Journal,  Harbinger Asylum, Anti-Heroin Chic, Tuck Magazine, Dissident Voice magazine, 1947, and Duane's PoeTree. I have two early-work e-book pamphlets "Imagination is my Gun" and "Exit From a Moving Car" which are available on Amazon.

DV: Chris, when and how did the poetry bug find you?

CH: Well I've always had an interest in lyrics from my time in rock bands, writing songs when I was in my teen years, but writing poetry has been a kinda recent thing, over the past two years. Due to personal circumstances I had some dark days and I found writing helped. It's then the 'bug' took hold and I can't escape it now! If I'm not working on an idea or writing, editing then I feel I'm wasting time.

DV: In your experience, what is the difference between "rock lyrics" and "poetry"?

CH: There's a world of difference to me. Not that one is better than the other (but poetry is best). Lyrics are only part of a whole in song writing. Poetry is a very different beast of beauty. There's an unspoiledness with poetry. The fact that the reader and writer both start with nothing, with silence. Where the poem takes you is then a journey of each other's experience and an openness. I can't imagine 'Indoors' by RS Thomas with a bossa nova backing. But Mr B Dylan won the big prize, so I could be wrong?

DV: The notion of readers and poets alike starting with nothing except silence and then sharing a journey together appeals strongly to me. I suppose that metaphor gets directly to the heart of how the poet can have one view of what (and how) a poem has accomplished and many readers can have entirely different views. Because, even though they are traveling "together" they are not in lockstep. Symbolic connotations vary from individual to individual. For instance, it's hard to discern whether the poet is being ironical or an asshole. I've certainly had interpretations of my works that not only had never occurred to me but left me baffled as to how anyone could see them that way. Is poetry "unspoiled" until it is "settled," or must it always remain unsettled to have value?

CH: I'm not going to worry about it. As long as the reader is taking something of value from the work that must be the important thing, if they  are misunderstanding or are yet to experience such things which the poems addresses or expresses, then writing can be rediscovered "downstream." As long as your words don't incite hate it doesn't matter. You the writer know the truth in your own words and images.

DV: So, if that is the case, then why are poets (and other writers and artists) so desperate to share their work? Other than commercial reasons, of course (as Samuel Johnson remarked, in his own pithy way, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money"), if the writer knows the truth and is unconcerned with whether anyone else understands it, why not just keep a personal journal or a sketchbook and be content with that?

CH: I understand that poets share their work for acceptance. A sense of validation. Not to be understood by every reader. Being understood and being accepted could be two different things. When your work is accepted for submission you don't know what they took from it, only that they saw something of value to them in it. Use the feedback to improve writing moving forward. Sometimes it feels like poems are living things, they can change, morph the image to something different through the process of writing and editing. You know what you are after is there and you keep working to draw out its very best from the page. Other times you can hit the nail on the head straightaway. The process of writing for me is the journey for the poet. Then you hope that your offspring are accepted. 

DV: Maybe Gregory Corso said it best (as he often did): “If you believe you're a poet, then you're saved." The creation of art is not only about acceptance, it's also about Self -- discovery and expression. At the other end of the process, reading or experiencing art or music is the revelatation of Other.  I guess the Poet (with a capital P) is that rare being who bridges both ends of the spectrum.  Who do you regard as a Poet in this sense?

CH: I keep coming back to Seamus Heaney. He is one of those rare poets who is popular with readers and critics alike. His sense of tradition and texture is brilliant and I keep coming back to his writing time and time again. The feel of the past in his work sparks links to my own up bringing, in his landscapes and dispositions. Maybe I'm just a romantic at heart.

DV: Maybe we all are, even when our romanticism has gone sour.  Taking a riff from Benjamin Disraeli, " A man who is not a romantic at sixteen has no heart; a man who is not a cynic at sixty has no head." (Somehow I manage to be both simultaneously.) You say that Neath and Cambridge have shaped your writing. Is it possible to give us any concrete examples of this?

CH: Neath & Oxford. I grew up in the best country in the world. A beautiful countryside which can match anywhere the world has to offer, and it’s people with poetry in their hearts, though there is a soft sadness in there too which is part of the Welsh character. That pride and melancholy is always with me as a Welshman, no matter where you are or what you do. But sometimes we can be too inward looking. Believing our pride and history of solidarity will always prevail, when economics and time have chipped away at it until there's only a piece left. A good example of this in my writing is 'A sorrow on the hill', which is about a working man's club closing down.

It's a place to go.
Here, where nothing comes,
only the bread vans
and the taker.

Men drink in the lounge,
while weigh ins for the slimmer's club go on next door.
Cigarettes left their piss stains on the ceiling tiles.
But no one’s looking up.
Into jars upon small brown tables,
the gaze lined instead.

The talk and laughs
some angered shouts,
it's a little more than drink talking,
coming from the dark torus of the room.
Some with a rasping chest behind each line.
A crackle in the laugh
that becomes a man's sentence.
The velvet gleam of the billiard table
is the brightest thing in the room,
like a slice of spring remembered.

Money only went down the hill,
in carriage,
stretched from lamp to the sea,
and it left them up there,
with their houses no one wants,
longing for someone to start a childhood song
on a Saturday night.

Someone is to blame but the blame falls wrong
and nothing gets done,
all knowing that history isn't enough
to bay the slip of hope,
to stop the brewery locking its doors.
It was a place to go,
here, where nothing comes.

But you can make arrow heads out of the chipped pieces. Richard Burton summed it up best with  "I got away from the valley and proceeded to drink myself to death elsewhere." That brings me to Oxford. I went there to work. I found my independence and adulthood there. I love university towns, I think that's why I ended up in Canterbury afterwards. There is such a range of people you meet from all over the world and that is nothing but a good thing. But with adulthood comes responsibility. The pressures of life, work and love, you come to realise that small things like coming home from work to a warm home are so fortunate. I think I expressed this in 'Tuesday Night Commute'.

That cataract haze, 
just past sundown.

March is shaking winters hand

Only a cuff of moon above,
gloriously perfect.

The switch of street lights,
a sodium pink,

now the day has truly gone.
Rushes of brick fronts

and guard dog teeth of rose bushes,
dout the work day’s wick.

Porch light phare,
teases with promise,

of the bless’ed comfort waiting.
                                 The loving.

Familiar veins on the concrete path,
my map to guide me home.

But sometimes pressures can get to you and take you down darker paths like in 'Foxes', where the everyday can seem too much.

And the foxes know more about me than

Every night their white sox
and moustaches in the trash.

The oxide wash
under the satellites slip ways,
sailing the darkness,
between the scaffolding streetlight beams.

They cluck and bark as they talk about me.
Sharing gossip on the breeze with their watcher grace.

Pizza twice in a week,
nosing the folds of boxes.
The overdraft bigger than last month,
and the price of gas up again,
on chewed over, crumpled logo’s.

‘He’s always pulled from the shores
by the drowning moon’,
they tattle the modern turn of heartache and heart attack.
‘There was no architecture to his silent living’.
They shake their heads.

Looking towards my door,
a look
only a mother could give,
or fox bite from love's fanged lip,
that promise
of the gentle perfection of worry.

My patter chews over it,
remember the living.

They would miss me dearly.

There is nothing wrong in being a product of environment, we have to know what that environment should be. 

DV: I've loved "Foxes" since it appeared in duanespoetree some months back, and continue to enjoy it. The grind of a daily blog can feel burdensome (even more than the daily grind of teaching sometimes was, although that situation had continuous feedback) but in both cases there is the occasional Eureka! moment that makes it all worthwhile.  Is there much of an open mic culture in Canterbury, or other reading opportunities? Are you involved? 

CH: I'm starting to discover there a scene bubbling under the surface in the area. A number of Poetry Slams, and there's the Wise Words Festival in April. I'm not as involved in the local scene as much currently as I wanted to have a good number of good works under my belt, as I am still pretty new to writing, but I shall be making my presence known shortly. Cheeky wink! 

DV: Having a large repertoire is an advantage, but don't wait. Two of the best poets I knew in SAN (Seoul Artist Network) open mics had relatively little. One of them worked via a plan: He always had a newly-memorized poem by someone else and a memorized poem he wrote, and then one or more of his own works that he read -- not always new ones. But he always had a somewhat varied show. In the other example, he came to several open mics without actively participating, then when he felt enough confidence he read a wonderful live poem. For a long time he read that same poem, usually with others, and gradually enlarged his body of work. A good reading can teach any poet, but especially a tyro, a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of the material. (A lot depends on the venue, of course. I went to one in Los Angeles which catered to a clique of regulars, studiously ignored me, saved me till the end after most had left, and didn't seem very interested in what I had to say. So, don't get discouraged.) What other projects do you have in mind?

CH: That's great advice. Thank you. I'm finalising a chapbook manuscript currently and I want to get that out to publishers for feedback. If anyone knows anyone who might be interested please do get in touch But my greatest challenge is coming in March, as my wife and I are expecting our first child!

DV: That's wonderful news. Certainly more important than birthing books. I'll let you attend to life again, now. I do want to thank you for sharing your time and thoughts.


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