These questions come from a seminar with my creative writing students at the University of Chester. Stalker is a set text on third year course Life Writing that I teach there. Ian Seed
1.Why did you choose the form of the prose poem to write Stalker ? Why not longer prose or lineated poetry?
This is a question I often address when I give readings. Stalker didn’t begin as a collection of prose poems. It was twenty years before I could write about the events referred to in the title sequence. I wrote a short story called ‘Stalker’, which was published in a small magazine that also included my article on John Steinbeck. This was my first published work. Some years later I took the manucript of a novel to an Arvon fiction course. It was based on my two years living in Paris as a teenager. One of the tutors asked if I wrote poetry and a year later I signed up with Mimi Khalvati at the Poetry School in London. I was writing long rhymed poems about Vincent Van Gogh. Then one day, out of the blue, I wrote a long poem in unrhymed quatrains and took it along. It was about an experience in the States and unlike anything I’d written previously. I received positive feedback, no-one suggested revisions. Yet for some reason the poem didn’t feel right to me and I didn’t send it anywhere. Three years later I got it up on my screen and started playing with it. I did away with the first four quatrains and put them into a paragraph. Suddenly it felt right! The sensation was almost physical: as if I’d altered a sweater and now it fitted and felt comfortable. I changed the remaining quatrains and worked on it and gradually the pieces became ‘Algae Beds, Wyoming’. This form acted as a catalyst: all at once I was writing prose poems set in my teens and twenties, including my two years in Paris, which are referred to in Section 2: Storms & Stations. The prose poem offers enormous scope: it doesn’t have to be linear narrative, you can jump around, twist and turn, play, begin after the beginning and end before the end.
2.Did the ideas behind he book dictate the form of the prose poem, or did you decide on the form first?
I have no doubt that the poem ‘Algae Beds, Wyoming’ chose its form and that this form released all the other poems belonging to that period, which eventually became Stalker.
3.Who are your influences?
The most important writers for me are those concerned with the psychological and spiritual predicaments of men, women and children grappling with the everyday exigencies of their lives from the perspecitve of their own times and cultural backgrounds. Writers who may have influenced my own writing will invariably reveal a poetic sensibility in their work, irrespective of genre. Also those who use historical and mythical epics as a vehicle to portray aspects of the modern world. Aside from writers mentioned in Stalker, others who made a great impression on me include the Irish dramatist Seán O’Casey, Carson McCullers, Hermann Hesse, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, Nawal El Saadawi, Michael Ondaatje, James Baldwin, Edmund White. Also Virginia Woolf and George Eliot. South American writers with their magic realism entranced me. Also classical French writers such as Jean Giono and short story writers such Alphonse Daudet and Guy de Maupassant, whom I loved for their use of French dialect as well as their portrayal of working and peasant life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Short story writers such as Catherine Mansfield, E. Annie Proulx, and contemporary writers such as Lydia Davis, Lyn Hejinian, Anne Carson who blur bounderies between poetry and prose. The poetries of Derek Walcott, Yehuda Amichai, Rumi … too many to mention them all. But I should mention a critic who had an enormous influence on my perception of writing and on my sense of affirmation: the French Algerian writer, playright, poet, philosopher and literary critic, Hélène Cixous. I read her while I was still attempting fiction and can’t over-emphasise the excitement and encouragement I felt when reading her books for the first time, particularly: Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, Coming to Writing and Other Essays, and Rootprints. Cixous is a feminist writer but she is not sexist in my view.
Reading and translating ancient and traditional texts from the French, which are themselves translations from the original Arabic, has influenced aspects of my new book. This second collection of prose poems attempts a greater textual layering than Stalker : a desire to reference history within the present. I have also been greatly influenced by visual art, as is apparent from the obsession with Vincent Van Gogh. I have a strong visual memory and my current work-in-progress (for three years) begins with my making a visual photomontage, which can take weeks or months. This visual work then acts as a stimulus for the poem that follows. The poems are all in unpunctuated couplets, so it’s a departure from prose poetry. Again, I believe the poems found their own form.
4.What for you, the author, are the most important themes of Stalker?
For me the most important themes are those that compelled me to write it. I think they can all be viewed as a form of stalking. Dreams, for example, have always been part of my life and, especially when I was young, could haunt and stay with me for weeks. Dreams are a rich resource for writing, but it was years before I could make use of them. Living alone is another theme. I had never ‘dealt’ with my experiences of living alone as a young woman, trying to make sense of the world, trying to find a meaningful way to live that was true to her own nature. How to be true to your conscience. How to love. Being a twin is another important theme for me. As one poem says, my first memory was of two. We are not identical, in fact we are very different in temperament and interests, but the the depth of intimacy between twins is unique and can certainly be felt as haunting, a form of stalking. Language itself, the origin of words, my mother’s native tongue are all food for creative writing. In her review of Stalker Sandeep Parmar says: ‘Words are stalked through the ages by their roots and, by using them, we are also dogged by what they signify… Ultimately these types of ‘stalking’ are what gives life its viscosity…’ (Sandeep Parmar, PN Review).
5.Why do you make use of so many literary references?
Reading is an important theme for me. These references are to books I was reading at the time I was actually living the events portayed in Stalker. To have omitted reference to what I was reading during those periods in my life would have been unthinkable: a denial of my inner life. Books helped me make sense of what I was living. Not by giving me a replica, but by showing me the inner lives of women and men during different periods in history and in other countries and cultures. Great literature gave me paradigms against which I could test out and measure my own beliefs and position. It inspired and encouraged me by showing me essential truths about human nature and behaviour.
The poem ‘Nigg Bay, Aberdeen’ relates directly to Tolstoy’s Resurrection, which was like a revelation to me when I read it while living in Aberdeen aged 18 and very unhappy. Tolstoy’s book helped me so much because it showed another human being grappling with his own conscience and remorse, as well as loneliness. The fact that his hero was a privileged prince living in the 19th century didn’t matter to me because Tolstoy revealed Nekhlúdov’s innermost feelings as a man, a human being. Nekhlúdov had betrayed a woman he had loved and she was now in prison. I was working in a Care home for young boys, some of whose fathers were in prison. The theme of conscience is also in the poem ‘What Men Did Not Read in Their Hearts’, which quotes the Catholic Catechism I had to learn as a young child, and again at the Catholic secondary school I was sent to. I didn’t like the Catholic belief in absolution, which seemed to suggest we aren’t accountable for our own actions.
Steinbeck was very important to me as a writer for similar reasons. I read him at a time I was grappling with love, life and work while living alone in Gravesend, Kent. Gravesend was an edgy place to live in the late 70s, when many rented bedsits didn’t even have a payphone in the building. The title sequence ‘Stalker’ refers to this time. A time when it was unusual for a woman to go to a café on her own, and virtually taboo to go alone to a pub, since that’s what prostitutes did. This didn’t stop me as I needed to be independent, but it was hard in a town without a student culture to make pubs and cafés feel women-friendly. I loved Steinbeck’s portrayal of misfits and people living on the edge. I was blown away by his Journal of a Novel. This is the diary he wrote every morning to warm up before continuing his day’s work on East of Eden. We see the famous author struggling with his own demons, women, drink, two broken marriages, children he loved.
6.There is a feeling of depersonalisation throughout the book. Is this one of the effects you wished to convey? If so, why?
No, I didn’t choose convey an effect of depersonalisation, though I know it is there. That is to say, it wasn’t an ‘intellectual’ decision. I think it springs from an involuntary and organic need to be objective in order to write about these experiences.
7.Your main character remains something of a mystery, which some readers will find frustrating. Why doesn’t she have a stronger presence?
Yes, I understand this reaction. Again it wasn’t a conscious decision to create a mysterious character. I think it relates to question 6 and is to do with an instinctive need to keep a distance from painful experiences in order to write about them at all. No doubt a better writer would have been able to overcome this. For me, even from this distance, I often found it extremely painful to relive the experiences as I wrote about them.
The issue of character presence also relates back to question 1. Stalker is prose poetry, not fiction. There is usually an element of mystery in poetry, of ‘showing it slant’. The novel I took along to that Arvon fiction course dealt with the two years I lived in Paris as a teenager. It is written in the 3rd person and I think the narrator has a fairly strong presence throughout. But I wrote it without any group support or feedback and it was unwieldy and poorly structured. Years later, I took it along to a small fiction workshop and was encouraged, but life intervened and finally I had to choose, and chose poetry. But I love the blurring of boundaries and cross-overs in different art forms. There are really exciting things happening including innovation and experimentation. I think it’s important to explore and keep open to possibilities, and then be true to what feels right for yourself.
Lucy Hamilton’s Stalker is published by Shearsman (2012) and was short-listed for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Her new collection is Of Heads & Hearts. For more information, go to http://www.shearsman.com/browse-poetry-books-by-author-Lucy-Hamilton
Ian Seed 2nd February 2018