Multimedia artist and poet Sophie Herxheimer loves to place herself in what she calls ‘ghost-conversations’ with literary figures from the past: Emily Dickinson, Rosemary Tonks, William Blake. In January this year, Herxheimer and I met over Zoom with the intention of discussing her creative engagement with Blake. As you can see from the interview transcript (below), our conversation ranged freely from Blake to gold-edged dinner plates, to Jewishness, womanhood, and London. Yet Blake’s spirit everywhere shone through: as Herxheimer says, ‘Blake’s a lifelong friend of mine.’
A native of Lambeth, Herxheimer has often felt the ghostly presence of Blake, resident of Lambeth with Catherine during the 1790s. In our interview, she describes her sense of a curious dovetailing of time and space between Blake’s Lambeth and her own:
We grew up in this kind of wooden house that was built under Queen Anne’s reign. Blake would’ve walked past that house. That was in his borough, in his radius, I guess. Because it was built in 1707, he probably looked up at that house and those windows and thought, who’s in there. He probably saw me, like I see him. […] Because he didn’t really believe in a chronology, and he’s in the same time as us now, and he’s constant, and maybe we all are, maybe all our ideas are. So I love that idea that there’s a sort of forcefield in which Blake walks past my childhood house, I walk past his childhood house, and round we go—around Clapham Common, Peckham Rye, whatever.Herxheimer has brought this sensibility—in line with what she calls the ‘anti-chronology’ of Blake’s poetics—to many of her projects. A prime example is the book entitled The Practical Visionary, published by Hercules Editions in 2018, which was the product of a collaboration between Herxheimer and poet Chris McCabe. The book contains experiments with visual poetry, photography, and collage, evoking the creators’ shared fascination with Blake’s imagery of London, reimagined in the present tense, as well as with Blake’s experimental integration of words and images.
More recently, Herxheimer spoke in the film BLAKE NOW, produced by The Poetry Society in partnership with St James’s Piccadilly (the location of Blake’s baptism in 1757). The film explores Blake’s enduring legacy in the streets of London and in especially in the work of contemporary poets. In the film, five contributing poets including Herxheimer read their Blake-inspired work, making frequent reference to Blake’s memorable mapping of eighteenth-century social dysfunction in his poem ‘London,’ and revisioning the poem for the present day. You can read more about the project on Herxheimer’s blog, where there is also a link to the poem she contributed, entitled ‘I Give Birth to William Blake and He Gives Birth to Me.’
As well as exploring the resonance of Blake’s geographical imagery in a contemporary context, Herxheimer’s work also points to the particular persistence of Blake’s legacy among small-press networks in London. In BLAKE NOW, she comments on this strand of Blake’s legacy:
[H]e kind of models how you can live in a rebellious fashion: you can make a mythology of your own and kind of not only live in the real city that has its rules and has its arrangements but, you know, in your own imagination you’re subverting those all the time and you can write them and you can paint them and you can print them and you can make zines and that’s in a way what he was doing. He’s also a precedent for all of us that are zine makers or want to put out our own pamphlets about how we see things, how we see change in the world. […] He continues to influence people who’ve got small presses, people who want to put out an alternative vision of the world, an alternative way of things happening. This is all in the shadow and in the wake of Blake.
Sophie’s website: http://www.sophieherxheimer.com/index.php
Sophie’s blog: https://poetryteapot.wordpress.com/
Hercules Editions: https://www.herculeseditions.com/
BLAKE NOW, the film: https://poetrysociety.org.uk/news/blake-now-new-poems-inspired-by-william-blake/
This interview was conducted as part of research supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and hosted by Tate Britain and The University of York. For more information, see https://www.tate.org.uk/research/studentships/current/caroline-ritchie.
Caroline Ritchie: You’ve got a lovely, colourful backdrop there.
Sophie Herxheimer: That’s one of my paintings. It’s a collage that I made when I was on that residency in America. That’s on that side. And then this side, behind me, that’s a different collage about Europe. So they’re both quite Blakean because they both have tons of text, actually. The one about Europe has more of a narrative, but this one has less… sense—it doesn’t make sense.
I made a collage stash when I was there because I didn’t take collage stuff with me, I sort of thought, well I’ll have to use American stuff when I get there. So I just did, I made a big collage stash there, which I then had to more or less leave there, which was awful because a lot of it was great. They have such different words.
CR: What are you working on at the moment?
SH: Well, actually, I’m working on a couple of different things—I’m always working on a lot of things at once. But the thing that’s kind of keeping me going in lockdown mostly is collage and papercuts and stuff. I’m doing a publication which is like a prophetic pack of cards. It’s called INDEX and it’s made of these little card-poems that I’ve been making.
I made a lot of them when I was in America out of cut up books, and I’d made a few of them before I went. I’ve sort of forgotten how to make them—I’ll show you what they’re like, they’re like this—cut-ups. I can read you one. In a world where ordinary household refrigerators sense their brittle presence in the middle of a frozen city in Europe, develop an emotional economy made up of tiny hot things, a painting, a shattered heart, the sound of a woman’s bangles. So they’re like everything I do—a bit playful. This one’s quite Blakean. I wrote it in London before I went to America. It says, good luck London, quaint but decorative, upside-down in a glass jug of water, remove the dried fur from the accepted standards, the rambling old problems, the death of trees, deceit, the gasping man, the drooping mystic, thorns, poverty, stiff-legged peasants with ragged bone-tents, God. Hardy upper-class ladies—well, good luck to any society.
CR: That’s terrific! Where are you finding these bits of text?
SH: I’ve got a horrible stash of old books by my legs—you can’t see those because they’re in the legs department out of the zoom call. But I can show you them. I have a huge stash of old books. Mostly I use instructional books, like recipe books and how-to-make-your-own-tent books, and things like that. How to go camping, and so on. Instructions are great. I like non-fiction; I like things without identifiable authors, basically, because I don’t want to be nicking lines from Blake or Shakespeare or Austen or anyone like that. I want to just use the incredibly matter-of-fact and sometimes quite old-fashioned language to say something kind of subversive and contemporary, but in quite a stiff, cut-up way. Because the kind of books I’m using—like this: here’s an example of something I’m cutting up—books that are just asking to be cut up. They’re asking to be cut up because they’re full of shit. They’re racist, they’re xenophobic, they’re sexist shit. I mean, they’re great books—they look beautiful, the typography is lovely, the paper is often very nice, has faded to a nice colour, the phrases are lovely. They say things like ‘the raucous cries’ or ‘the military way of life’ or ‘the gymnast attitude of mind,’ you know, ‘it was an excellent horse’—all these sorts of things that you wouldn’t find in contemporary internet instructions on how to make granola, or something.
CR: Diamonds in the rough…
SH: Yeah. So it’s great to cut up stuff I hate and re-forge it as something quite rebellious and contemporary. Here’s another book I’ve had absolute mileage with—I’ll show you. It’s A Royal Recluse. I mean, this is an actual Nazi book about King Ludwig of Bavaria, published in 1935 and translated into English. It’s just on and on about how misunderstood King Ludwig was and how he was a marvellous monarch who understood the German people, and this is how they look after a few days, these books [Sophie showed some pages full of holes where she’d cut out bits of text]. They also have splendid illustrations. Now, I’m turning to some of the images. I’ve made basically loads of backs for the cards out of the black-and-white images from the books I’ve been cutting texts from. So these are all going to go on the backs of the cards. There’s going to be 78 cards in the pack and so far I’ve made a third of the backs, which might mean that they’ll print them twice or three times and you can play snap or something with the backs. I’ve been totally enchanted for my own lockdown to make collages that work any way up. So [in this one] there’s a goat whichever way you turn it.
The pack of cards itself is called Index because I made all the poems on index cards. They’re being published by a small experimental press up north called zimZalla, run by poet Tom Jenks. So I’m just finishing that, which is a joy. We crowdfunded it, and we raised a lot of money to print it. It’s being made by a local printer near Manchester who is going to scan in all these collages, and then people can play it as a game with prophecy, so that they shuffle the cards and one side they can play as a game in terms of interpreting the poem as a message for the day, which they can play with friends. Or on the other side they can play snap or they can still take interpretive messages from the images—supposing they have goats and jewels: what day is that going to be? A goat and a jewel… it’s maybe going to be quite a good day. A day when you have to eat cabbage and look for pearls. This is another new one of those collages, with this cute cat on it and Terry Thomas, who was a famous English film actor. I quite like it in the middle because it says—can you read it?
CR: ‘I am a painter as well.’ It’s very playful—I love the way it’s making out of breaking, which I think is very Blakean as well. Has collage always been part of your practice?
SH: I have a very, very erratic practice. I love the idea that I’ve even got a practice, or that I’ve got a career, or anything like that. It’s whim-based, project based. But I have always, always made things, my whole life. If I ever have a day where I don’t make anything it makes me feel so angry. It’s just like there’s nothing pleasant if you have a day where a little bit of making didn’t occur—I don’t really mind if it’s soup; I don’t really mind what it is I make. But it’s just the combination of being able to affect your world as well as be swung along in it by all the laws and conformity that is thrown at one day and night by the world—all the phrases, all the slogans, all the rules. They’re so oppressive, really.
CR: ‘Thou shalt not…’
SH: There’s a lot of that. I mean, Blake’s a lifelong friend of mine. He’s one of my oldest sources of inspiration, since I was a child. I guess I’ve internalised some of his inherent fury or subversiveness or whatever it is really. There’s a sort of fury and a sense of observation and compassion that he exemplifies in his workings, that are very inventive. I think his own attitude was so inventive because he didn’t really belong to any schools of thought, and I think I identify with that in that I’ve never really been exhibited—I mean, I have—I’ve had exhibitions and I’ve had residencies. I’ve had lots of recognition, so I shouldn’t moan. But I do moan.
CR: And so did Blake!
SH: Yes, I know. Well, he moaned about a lack of recognition and in a way if you’re an individual thinker of a certain type of eccentricity, it’s quite hard to be fitted into a box, and then for somebody to do your PR or to think you’re really great, because they don’t know whether you are a painter or a poet or an artist or a thinker or a writer of blog posts or a maker of soup. Because you are many of those things. I think particularly for me—I’ve got two children; one of my kids is learning disabled and autistic and he needs 24-hour care. So he’s now at a residential college, which means I can do my work 24-hours instead. And I do. But for fifteen years at least I could barely get to anything. I did it, because otherwise I’d go mental. I always said to both the kids, you know, if I don’t make anything, you won’t want to know me. Let’s make a puppet!
CR: Have you always lived in Lambeth?
SH: Well, I was born in Lambeth—I mean, I lived in Clapham as a child. I was born in Balham, which is probably the London borough of Wandsworth, so I had a few moments outside of Lambeth. But from seven-ish, my mum had this idea and she bought this derelict house, and my dad tried to live in it but he didn’t really get on with it, or her. They didn’t get on. So he moved out. It was her dream-house. She was very glamorous, my mum, she had sort of strings of lovers and all sorts of ideas, and my poor dad just couldn’t really cope with any of it. So he went off to a very modern flat in Bethnal Green that he bought straight off the builder. And my mum stayed in this derelict early eighteenth-century house. It had grass growing in the kitchen when we first went there. We had to wee behind a tree in the garden for the first six months because we didn’t have a toilet… So my mum was eccentric and not conventional in any way.
We grew up in this kind of wooden house that was built under Queen Anne’s reign. Blake would’ve walked past that house. That was in his borough, in his radius, I guess. Because it was built in 1707, he probably looked up at that house and those windows and thought, who’s in there. He probably saw me, like I see him. I mean, in that poem I wrote in The Practical Visionary about the mulberry tree, that’s kind of about that, in a way. Because he didn’t really believe in a chronology, and he’s in the same time as us now, and he’s constant, and maybe we all are, maybe all our ideas are. So I love that idea that there’s a sort of forcefield in which Blake walks past my childhood house, I walk past his childhood house, and round we go—around Clapham Common, Peckham Rye, whatever.
CR: A kind of re-enchantment. There’s something quite intimate about that idea. Many people seem to attach great significance to Bunhill Fields, Blake and Catherine’s place of burial, for instance.
SH: I think the Blake Society and people who are quite religiously Blakean are—It’s really interesting… I suppose that’s with anybody who’s a kind of devotee of something, or a fan—they are resistant to change, even though Blake himself was all about change. But Blake himself was sort of resistant, too, because obviously he did not want the Industrial Revolution fucking up his city. I mean, the dark Satanic mills. So it’s not as if he was perfect in embracing flux, but I do think there’s something interesting about that idea that one lot of people like the old tombstone, another lot of people like the new. And Blake himself—what does he think? Which tombstone would he prefer? What does Catherine think?
CR: Yeah, I think people feel very strongly and very territorially about Blake, or they feel they have a particular claim to Blake or to a Blakean place. It’s very powerfully felt.SH: He’s one of those artists who has such enormous circles of thoughts radiating out of him because he made so much material. Some of his material is incomprehensible and you could spend a lifetime studying part of it. And some of it seems so accessible and simple and friendly. He’s such a complicated, rich area of being. And because of the anti-chronology, as I say, he can duck and dive in and out of one’s work and life in a way, I think, more than other people who one might have phases of. He’s always there.
You can never be lonely in London once you’re friends with William Blake. He’s a guiding spirit, in a way. But also, the house I grew up in being so old, it’s sort of on his map as well as it being on my map. I often have that when I find a piece of china or something. I have huge hoardings of things like china and old books. I love old stuff. But when I find an old glazed plate that has some sort of odd pattern on it from pre-Napoleonic Wars, say, and I buy it from a carboot or something and it’s a pound, I think, oh me and William Blake are having our egg on toast on this plate. Because it’s one of his. And then I look at it and I think, he probably couldn’t afford it because it has a little gold edge on it.
CR: So when did you start thinking about Blake?
SH: I can’t even remember—I was a tiny child. We read The Tyger at primary school. I think I was lucky because I had a very playful mother, she loved Blake. My father was a scientist, more of a rationalist. But he was playful with language, my dad, he was a refugee—he was born in Germany and his English was absolutely impeccable, it was much better than an English person’s would’ve been, because he’d made such an effort that his German was to be absolutely unfindable. He thoroughly and utterly disguised it in every single layer of English idiom—though sometimes, especially when he got old, he started getting muddled up and he’d say ‘well, we were all in the same soup,’ instead of the same boat.
CR: You started to talk a bit about how you came to be familiar with Blake’s work, which is probably a long and winding journey, but it would be good to hear a bit more.
SH: I suppose I grew up with him, and things like the Songs of Innocence and Experience. When I was a sixth-former at school I thought I would do my Art History A-level dissertation on The Marriage of Heaven & Hell. I ended up not doing that because for some reason it seemed very hard to write about when I was at that age—I was eighteen—and I ended up writing about ordinary people in fancy paintings—all the people doing everyday things in very fancy paintings, which was also quite interesting and quite odd. I had lots of ideas for my dissertation. But anyway, The Marriage of Heaven & Hell was one of the things I wanted to look at, because I grew up knowing him a little bit and then that always struck me as the most wonderful thing, was the ‘printing house in hell’ and the sort of Lambethy-ness of it and the kind of funniness of it, the free, accessible jokiness of it. And I always loved his marginal notes to Reynolds and things like that.
I have the big red complete Blake—I’ve had that since I was about seventeen, that same volume. Again, you can play it like the I Ching or something. You can just open it somewhere and it’ll tell you something strange about your day—which is partly perhaps what’s influenced my prophetic collage cards.
So I was kind of interested in his duality and his bringing together of things that didn’t belong together. And I didn’t like myself having to choose between art and English—a bit like you—I was good at English and I got into some universities to study English, but then I went to Art College. I thought I’d do foundation and then I’d go and do an English degree, but of course I got really sucked into doing art. It was so fun and beautiful. But then I carried on and did a Fine Art degree which I absolutely hated because nobody there seemed to want to talk about meaning or content or ideas. They just wanted to live on the surface of things. A lot of people who’d ended up on an art degree were people who weren’t there to read or write, to be honest. I’m sorry to be catastrophic about it—I mean, they weren’t stupid by any means, but they had purposefully gone into the land of pictures in a slightly anti-academic way. I was quite academic, in a way. But I had a tussle with my academic self because of being naturally quite a naughty person in my heart. I did well at school, but only because I was reading Hamlet at the back of a cinema that I was working in with a torch, whilst La Cage aux Folles was playing at the same time.
So I always had so much conflict going on within me between whether to be of the devil’s party or behave. I had a sort of self-sabotage programme built in. So everytime I made something, I would destroy it. And I think Blake is a great companion in that way because he is also so subversive and angry. I think I just grew up very confused generally. I had very confusing parents. I had very few boundaries about certain things. Other things were very boundaried. You know about being a woman.
CR: Yeah, I wonder what that’s like…
SH: Women can’t be painters. My mum told me that over and over again, even though she was a textile designer and used paint. But she did textile design because she felt she couldn’t be a painter. But it was acceptable to be a textile designer because that’s a woman’s area. And also because something about my Jewishness—both my parents are Jewish, but it was never ever spoken of; we weren’t practicing Jews. In fact, religion and tribalism were total anathema to them, but they had married a Jew, each of them. So that’s another conflict. And they despised religion, and yet they had a kind of cultural Jewishness that was very tangible—about food and about arguing and about all the things that I’ve since come across in more ‘out’ Jewish people’s lives. And I was like a closet poet, as well as a closet Jew, because I never really showed my poems to anyone. But I always wrote them.
I think with my son having so many learning difficulties and not acquiring language—he couldn’t speak for a long time, when he was little—so I made puppets, and the puppets taught him to speak because they were small enough that he could not be scared of them or find them annoying. So the first time he used two words together was when the granny puppet popped up from behind the sofa and he went ‘hello darling!’ And we all nearly fainted because he’d never used two words together. And the granny puppet was one that was leftover from Little Red Riding Hood, which I’d made all the puppets for, for my daughter. Anyway, it was a sort of bonus that the puppets became these tools by which my son could learn to talk. Because the act of getting him to talk was so urgent and so life-possessing, I think my poetry was fuelled by the ideas of language and communication as urgent and necessary pursuits—more urgent, more desperate even than what colour goes next to what colour… Even though I am very interested in what colour goes next to what colour and it’s actually all I think about—but anyway, that’s just another ridiculous situation…
That’s how I was raised by my textile-y mother, was that all we really ever thought about was what colour went next to what colour. I have all her old palettes sitting next to me. She died in 2011, a bit young. She was 72. But she had cancer and she died. When she died it kind of released me further into being a poet, because she’d always been so harsh about pretentiousness. And then I thought, now I can be properly pretentious—she’s not looking. She’s more supportive as a ghost anyway. I mean, I really miss her, she was fantastic, so I’m not meaning that in any of this way I wasn’t glad of who she was, but she was a huge huge glittery personality, like a disco ball in mascara. She shone out on everybody, inevitably making them sometimes stay in the shadows. Because she had a rivalrousness as well. Reading poetry to her in hospital made us both feel better. I would photocopy ones I thought we’d both love and read them to her and she’d stuff the poem in her bra for later to read again. She was too weak to hold a whole book in the last months.
I met Chris [McCabe] quite soon after my mum had died, and I wanted to make a book in her honour because I couldn’t think what to do in her honour. So I made a little book called Hurricane Butter. The words are from a poem I wrote about me and her both being hurricane butter, actually. I made a little screen printed book at a studio in Whitstable, Suki who runs it made it with me. I’d met Chris at the Poetry Library and through the Poetry Library. He’d agreed to help me edit these poems because I was such a newcomer—I was really not capable of editing my own poems (I’m still not—I still find that a bit of an ask). But anyway, I was writing and writing poems. He agreed to help me. That book made me a few good friends. I think Chris was quite interested in my artistic process. I was certainly very interested in his poetic process. So we could bring each other to each other’s art form in a nice sort of wandering-around-Lambeth kind of way. And when he was writing the book on the real Southbank, he said, you know who’s the presiding spirit over this book? And I said, who? And he said, Blake. And I said, oh amazing—Blake is always such a great presiding spirit. And he sort of said, oh is he with you as well? And I said, absolutely, he’s like my little friend.
And then Chris and I sort of thought about it and we thought about how we could maybe teach a course on Blake together at the Poetry School and that could help us learn. If we taught a course on Blake it would mean that we’d have to research and present something in a kind of format that people could apply themselves to and listen to and learn from and read and look at. And we could make it quite a practical course—they could learn some print-making, they could do some collaging, they could do some kind of creative work springing from Blake. And so we did run this course at the Poetry School. And that helped me concentrate more and think more coherently about Blake, to be more focused about Blake, and tighten up some of the nuts and bolts in my mind that had always been around him as an influence. And also my friendship with Chris was quite rich, because I felt that we were studio mates, that we could share work, projects, conversations in a way that I’d been really missing because I didn’t really have allies in fine art. Fine art is so inherently competitive, or at least it always felt like that to me. Whereas poetry often seemed to have tendrils out towards collaboration and towards looking out for each other and each other’s work.
I loved that we could share our Blake, and that we could bring Blake into the form of the Practical Visionary. And he’s now taking Blake off into a new direction into this book called Civic that he’s working on, which will be wonderful by the look of it. I’m going off in my direction with INDEX which doesn’t pay a literal homage to Blake, but I think that whenever a person is working with text and image there’s invariably some kind of debt to Blake, as well as to many others. You know when you said that your mum was from India—the Indian art that I’ve looked at all my life also exercises the same magic on me, because there’s a lot in Indian art that combines image and text and that is to do with a kind of density and concentration, which I think crosses over with Blake enormously. You know, like a little figure in a garden with a line of Hindi/Sanskrit text, and all the books of the Ramayana—I illustrated the Ramayana for kids in a book called Rama and Sita: Path of Flames. And I made all the characters out of cardboard and painted them. I went to the British Museum, where they had an exhibition about the Ramayana on and they had page after page of the most delicious colour with text and image. It’s like a theatre. It’s like Charlotte Salomon. So Charlotte Salomon, all those Indian miniature painters, Blake—as far as I’m concerned, they’re all in a kind of beautiful library of my influences, where I could just dip in and go, how the hell do you put that idea next to that idea? How can you find an animal or a person that represents that kind of power? And what colour is it, and what texture is it? What does it smell like and what word is adequate to go near it? Does that answer your question?
CR: Yes—more than! I was also wondering about your walks through Lambeth with Chris as you prepared the Practical Visionary. Could you tell me about that?
SH: We did a lot of walking through Lambeth and we went up and down those little tunnels with the mosaics in with our students. I mean, we went before we took our students because we were sort of like, what should we do with them, should we take them all around London? And we did a day walking as part of our course. It was so much fun because we took them into the garden of Lambeth Palace and read anti-church poetry (sort of)—‘the priests in black gowns’—we took them across the river from Lambeth Palace and walked to the Tate and read notes on Reynolds, read about his [Blake’s] exclusion from the Academy and the marginalia, the notes, about who’s in and who’s out. We went to Parliament—we railed against Parliament with Blake outside the Houses of Parliament. We walked everywhere and railed against things in Blake’s voice. It was tremendous and very energising, and kind of enriching in a wild way. Because it’s like fuel for one’s politics as well. He’s such a political animal. His political action is in art—and how great that is, that it’s not dreary. It’s the opposite of dreary. It’s the opposite of earnest. Even though it’s serious.
CR: Who or what are your other influences that have been woven into your work on London, or place in general?
SH: I did a kind of ghost collaboration with Emily Dickinson a couple of years ago, called Your Candle Accompanies the Sun. At the beginning, it was just a series of collages that I made in ghost-conversation with Emily Dickinson. That was because I was having a very, very difficult time with my son and he was refusing to go to school. It was when he was in his late teens. He was refusing to go to school and he would instead run off round the neighbourhood and, like I say, he’s massively learning disabled so god knows what he’d get up to. You couldn’t phone him—he didn’t have a phone—I had no idea where he was going. Luckily, everyone in the whole neighbourhood kept my phone number and they’d go, ‘hi I’ve just seen C. in the coffee shop,’ or ‘oh, C’s just gone up Brixton Hill with a bunch of boys I’ve never seen in my life,’ and I’m like, ‘shit.’ So I’d be racing out of the house. I couldn’t go out of the house really and get him because only I would be in and if he’d come back, then I’d need to be in. I was in a state of high anxiety. I’d decided to declutter my house, as a thing to do while I was stuck indoors, because it was a model for lockdown, really. Emily Dickinson is my role model for lockdown. She’s such a master of it. Everyone’s good for something—she’s good at poetry and lockdown.
Anyway, so I was searching through books that I was giving to the charity shop, I found a little book of Alpine scenes, and I thought, oh god, it’s the inner landscape of Emily Dickinson—you know how she’s always writing about volcanoes and oceans. She’s always putting one hair of her head next to the ocean. She’s a scale goddess—a bit like Blake actually, he’s a scale god. He does put the small ladybird next to a large desert or whatever. He loves to put the small things next to the Giant Albion. Anyway, she’s a bit of a scale goddess. When I was looking at this tiny book of Alpine pictures, I thought, yeah it’s her inner landscape—she never went out, but these mountains exist inside her. So I started making these kind of Alpine homages to Emily. She never went to the Alps, I’ve not gone to the Alps—I’m in my kitchen. I’m not in America, I’m not in the time of the American Civil War, ignoring the Civil War and writing about volcanoes that I’ve never seen. But yet if I work with her, I can create a world in which the feelings that are mountains or oceans have these small intricate passages to the eye and the ear. And so I worked with her. That wasn’t on London, but that was on my London of seclusion. A shut door. So it involved less walking and more inner walking.
CR: World-making, I suppose?
SH: Yeah. Alternative universes. The other London poet who I have made ghost-collaborations with is Rosemary Tonks. Chris [McCabe] set me off collaborating with Rosemary Tonks. He allocated her to me. She was a kind of beatnik who lived in Hampstead in the ’60s and was incredibly posh and wrote very influenced by Baudelaire and Rimbaud. She was influenced by the French experimenters with language, the sensualists, you’ve got to read her. Luckily, there’s a new edition of her work called Bedouin of the London Evening that Neil Astley at Bloodaxe has published. Because he had access to her in her last years. She became a fundamentalist Christian because she couldn’t sustain her decadent life. She ran away to a kind of Christian enclave and she changed her name, and she turned up as someone called Mrs something in Bournemouth. She lived there for years. She didn’t write a single poem after she’d become a fundamentalist Christian. In fact, she sort of blinded herself by doing weird eye exercises and she had a religious fanaticism going on. When Neil Astley found her and went to see her, she wrote about it in her diary. She put, ‘I’ve had another visit from Satan today.’ But she gave him permission to publish her poems posthumously, because they were all out of print for years. The reason I got to see them was because Chris, being the poetry librarian, got me some of the early first editions out of the rare book department and let me read them and look at them. He didn’t let me borrow them, obviously.
CR: He might’ve been worried that you’d cut them up…
SH: He was really worried that I’d spill ink on them, because I am very, very inky and my tendencies are very much towards spill. He did look at me in a quite nervous way when he handed me the Rosemary Tonks books… So yeah, I’ve worked with Tonks and Emily Dickinson.
So we wrote the poems not whilst walking around, but we did a lot of walking. And actually, my poems in the Practical Visionary, I wrote after Chris’s because I wasn’t so confident about writing poems directly towards Blake. And I really love Chris’s Hawthorn poem. It has the walking rhythm. So I read that a lot of times and I thought, what can I do, I’m not Chris, and I’m not writing like this, and I don’t write like he does and I’ve got to find my own Blake. And also he said, well I’m writing about the young Blake, why don’t you write about the old Blake. So I didn’t, I just wrote about the young me.
Then he’d written ‘The Government’s Lamb’ and that was funny. And so I thought, well he’s tackled ‘The Lamb,’ I’ll just be really, really bold and I’ll take on ‘The Tyger’ because it’s the most famous poem in the world. And that tiger’s my tiger. And then I thought, I mean, that tiger’s me, that tiger’s you, that tiger is all of us. He’s our tiger. Or she’s our tiger. And so I thought about that tiger belonging to people—how it belongs to everybody—and then I thought about how poets often say about a poet that nobody else has heard of, like Rosemary Tonks, they say ‘oh she’s really the poet’s poet.’ Or, you know, if it’s a really amazing hairdresser, they’ll go, ‘he’s the hairdresser’s hairdresser.’ So I thought, well I’m going to write about the tiger’s tiger. And so that’s what I tried to inhabit—to inhabit, I guess, the outsider. Tigers don’t live in Lambeth usually. But they might come to Lambeth and feel quite scratchy. And a bit cold. So, yeah. I went for ‘The Tyger.’ And, in a way, I think they did complement one another, the two poems. Like, you know, my Mulberry poem and his Hawthorn poem. I called mine Mulberry because his was about a Hawthorn. I thought, well that’s okay, we are two trees, and we’re two of Blake’s trees, and we’ll be two of Blake’s trees in this book in which London’s trees grow side by side. And yet you are the government’s lamb and I am the tiger’s tiger, and that’s also going to work. So I guess I bent to what he had already done, and riffed off it, as well as riffing off of Blake.
I guess I was leaning a little bit on found imagery in the book, in that I found a pulpit Bible at a carboot sale—a huge, Victorian Bible. And Chris was quite questioning at the dilemma of cutting up a Bible, because he was raised Catholic and has that in his world view. And I couldn’t even vaguely take that seriously. Because I’m a mixture of curious and perhaps disrespectful. I couldn’t really imagine that it would be an issue, but I thought it would be really fun to cut up this old Bible, as well as obviously quite devilish. You’re right into Blake’s source. You’re sort of marching into Blakeland when you go into the Bible like that.
CR: It’s something that he kind of conceptually—and iconographically—cuts up as well. I like the way your move has kind of literalised that: the received wisdom of the book being ripped apart.
SH: Yeah. Yeah, question it all day, question it and take it on. It’s huge, it’s authority, so take it on.
CR: You were talking about the tiger as the outsider, and also that being kind of like Blake himself. I was going to ask you about whether you feel like you’re actively positioning yourself as an outsider in that way when it comes to making books and making art?
SH: I had a very unusual ubpringing and I had an unusual time of it. I went to state schools throughout and people just took the piss out of me for my whole young life. I was bullied at primary school because I was eccentric. And I was always covered in ink, to be honest. I am quite a messy person and I quite often went into a dreamworld. I had to be taken and tested for deafness in the infant school because I think I was dreaming so much and drifting so much that they thought I wasn’t listening, that I was deaf. And so I got tested for deafness. And also I was much posher than a lot of people in my primary school. I was in a very working-class area and people just thought I was really posh, and they thought my mum was really posh because she had a car—which she did have—we had a phone, we had a car, we had indoor plumbing. It was London in the ‘60s. It was just bombsites, laced with Bohemia, like I wrote about in the Mulberry poem. It was a lot of poverty and a lot of basicness that is different from some of todays poverty, though the desperation of it has made a very unwelcome comeback, as the tragedy at Grenfell shows. Some of my friends lived in pre-fabs that they’d put up on bombsites. It was a different world, a different city. And also I think there were so many conventions which now maybe people have less regard for. I mean, you know what conventions are, for god’s sake, it’s like everybody’s straight and married with two parents. You know, the family unit. Already I didn’t really have that system. So I sort of was an outsider. But I didn’t know that that was a good thing to be or that that was a nice thing to be in any way that would ever be acceptable. To be honest, it isn’t. And I think that I’ve made the best of it because I love making things, as I’ve said, and that gives me joy. Bizarrely, I have managed to convince somebody to marry me and I have got quite an ordinary setup. Here I am—I’m a middle-aged woman with a husband, two children. What could be more normal? So I’m not that unconventional. In fact I look at a lot of people who really are embracing their queer identity or writing poems about their rich heritage and I think, why would anybody want to know what I think? I come from the olden days.
So, I think, the fact is, outsider—schmoutsider! Everybody who is trying to pursue or create their own path is invariably not fitting into some concept of what a person is supposed to do according to the capitalist laws of productivity! And I’ve been lucky in the way that I had that modelled for me by my parents, because they both enjoyed challenging the status quo. But they made successes out of what they did. They weren’t mad in an evil way, which is fortunate. My dad was a doctor, but he was a subversive doctor. He was often on the medical expert panel against big pharma. I am so missing him in this pandemic, I’m like, where the hell is he? Because he would be so sensible. So useful about medicine and how it works—what to take, what to do, how to be wise in the face of health concerns. He was very sanguine about things.
CR: Have you been involved with other Blake people, like the Blake Society for example?
SH: You know what, I haven’t. I think there’s an inherent contradiction about something like the Blake Society because he was not a society person—and nor am I. The nearest thing I’ve had to working with other people collectively has really been with Chris or Tammy [Tamar Yoseloff]. I do collaborate a lot across my work, actually, and I do make books a lot and I work a lot with Henningham family press, who published my last collection of poems and I love small presses. My most recent job has been with Harper Collins, which is so huge. I found it really hard to work with them. Luckily, I was working for Marina Warner and making vignettes to go with her memoir and I could go directly to her. So it was with her that I ended up collaborating and conversing. I never met the publishers—I mean, not even on zoom did I meet the editor. No, like one or two phone calls with a kind of editor or designer, and no support. I don’t like that. I don’t like working like that, I don’t understand where the parameters are, I don’t understand what’s required. I was writing to them going, could you tell me the page size please? Spine width? Please—just help me here… And I don’t want to diss them, because they’ve done a good job and now the book is looking great and we all did pull together and we worked and we made the book even though it was lockdown and nobody could see each other. I met the jacket designer, because she lives quite near it turns out, so I dropped the artwork to her door and said hello. But it was a big contrast working with a big publisher and a tiny publisher.
I love working with a tiny publisher because it’s a proper conversation. In happier times, I’d be at the small press book fair and the poetry book fair, and all those places where poets and printers and publishers like to meet each other and think about books.
Short Books published my first collection in 2017, which is called Velkom to Inklandt—It’s another occupation of London through somebody’s voice, my refugee grandmother, who lived in north London, and walking the city in a different time and recounting it in a different voice. I borrowed her accent to tell her story from the inside out, in a series of dramatic monologues. I made accompanying papercuts of her ordinary household objects which I hoped anybody would recognise and find familiar, a bannister to cling to in a vortex of incomprehensible Lenkvitch! A standard lamp, a hairbrush, a chair… this seemed to help the poems chime with a lot of readers, and now the book is to be reprinted.
The first poem in the book is actually called ‘London’ and it’s about my granny getting on a bus. It ties in with Blake and Dickinson and Tonks. I mean, the whole conversation about time and immortality, poetry as prayer, paradox, occupation, invocation, inhabitation. Those qualities that are poetry’s domain. And if you can map that domain onto an actual city with all its street lights and doormats, well, you’ve got this beautiful arrangement between the concrete and the imaginary. And of course, that was Blake’s stock-in-trade.
CR: The ‘practical visionary’!