‘…something punched a hole…’: An Interview with Joan Hewitt

I met Joan up at Cove Park earlier this year, and have been much moved by her first book, Missing the Eclipse (Cinnamon Press, 2008).  So I’m delighted to have her as my 2nd ever interviewee! 

Joan Hewitt lives in Tynemouth with her German partner. In 2003, she won the Northern Promise Poetry Award from New Writing North, and was awarded a Distinction in Newcastle University’s MA in Writing Poetry in 2004. 

 Her poems have appeared in various journals including London Magazine and Southlight, and have been widely anthologised, notably in The Body and the Book: Writings on Poetry and Sexuality (Rodopi Press: Amsterdam and  New York), 100 Island poems of Great Britain and Ireland (Iron Press) and Not a Muse world anthology (2009:Haven Press: Hong Kong). In addition, she has been placed in five international competitions, including the Ledbury

She loves giving readings. Past venues include Theatre Royal (with the Royal Shakespeare company); the Literary and Philosophical Society; the Blue Room,   Newcastle, with French novelist Sylvie Germain; the Baltic; and  Costa poetry café in Liverpool, City of culture event , 2008. 

Joan is a member of the Northern Poetry workshop, poems from which will appear in In Your Own Time. (Shoestring, 2012, ed G.Wardle), foreword by Chair Sean O’Brien.

How did you come to start writing creatively?  What place does writing have in your life now?

Poems always came when something punched a hole through the daily fabric of life, something needing to be mended or recorded or dealt with: very much Heaney’s idea of poetry as “redress.” That hasn’t changed, although reading a poem by someone else and,much less  frequently, a workshop stimulus can be the start.

I recently found a quote in my 2010 journal which I didn’t reference.Perhaps a reader can help.  ” We forget the amazing things that happen to us.Poetry remembers them.Also what is given shared articulation can never hurt so much as what remains unuttered.”  In  creating  a poem, I give the difficult-to-express a form and solidity which satisfies more and seems more enduring than the journal scribblings which fill four shelves in our house. Through a poem I often find out what I didn’t know.

As a 6th form convent schoolgirl in Liverpool in the 60s and a very unsophisticated Leeds university student, on an English  course with no modern poetry, my few poems  were usually some variant on  unfulfilled  love or desire.  I had no  habit of writing: the impulse came, was satisfied, and went. At 15 I did a very romantic variation on Eliot’s “Prufrock”‘,  fuelled by a crush on a friend’s older brother. At 17, Sylvia Plath blew open a hole in the wall of the male  canon , and I sat up all night with “Colossus.” Suddenly poetry seemed more than something that I just read and quoted-often as a riposte to my father,  who worked on the docks, but could use apposite chunks of  Shakespeare or Burns on any occasion.

I never thought of publishing, knew nothing of small magazines,  and had no connection with any young poets at university.Geoffrey  Hill was my tutor: I found him terrifying. There was no way I would show him my first and only Surrealist poem ” Comfort me with savage apples”.I must have shown to a flatmate, because  I found  the line carved in dirty  snow outside the Union one night, and felt a thrill that it was “out there.”  Somehow  I knew enough to  defend myself against the guy who came up in the library and said triumphantly, “I know where you stole that from!  The Song of Songs!”  I  pointed out with dignity  that, by inserting the word “savage” and expanding on the concept, I had produced a valid “version”.

In the late 60s and early 70s, I burnt the candle at both ends, as a teacher and ingenue  in hippy London; followed by teaching in Finland and former Yugoslavia.I  returned to the UK, married and had 3 daughters.  The few poems which I made time to write, at times of elation or change or difficulty,  remained in drawers . I had picked up a pen the night my first daughter was born to celebrate her perfection, but she woke, and that became the pattern.  It was 9 years before the next poem.

I had returned to EFL teaching part- time, and was visiting an old Azerbaijini poet, a refugee. I told him that I had a poem in me ( a need to mourn something ) but no time to write it. He made me see how crippling that was; that I had to respect my need. On the twenty- minute metro journey home, I wrote it.

I attended Jon Silkin’s WEA class and he was complimentary. The poet Andrea Capes submitted my name to the Northern Poetry Workshop, an invited group chaired by Sean O’ Brien, who was Northern Fellow at the time, and I was accepted. This was a breakthrough: I started to see poetry as essential to me and as something to be worked at and honed. The quality of the others’ output and the rigour and objectivity of the criticism was extremely daunting. I wrote down everything they said and  remembered only the negatives. Then it clicked: in the workshop, the poem was the point, not its inception (my father dying, my divorce , etc),and I grew to appreciate the superb attention paid to the workings and effect of the poem by this range of practitioners. From Sean, Bill Herbert, and Peter Armstrong,  I learnt that the way a poem sounds is as important as the way it looks on the page.  I gained confidence and  toughened up under criticism, no longer taking it as a blow to self-esteem.  I still relish the willingness to help with unresolved issues of a poem . I learnt from poets older and younger than me: Alistair Elliot at one end, Jake Polley at the other. Jake ,almost thirty years younger, was for a time my poetry “uncle”, giving the sureness of advice that only a very talented poet can offer. The gender mix in the group has been  useful:  Kathy Towers and Helen Farish have warmed me with their painstaking attention to detail, their wanting my poem to achieve its potential. This contradicts the notion that women feel that, with arguably fewer opportunities for prestige publication, they cannot afford to help each other.

Describe the day job and how it fits in around the writing.

Teaching English as a Foreign Language, with its emphasis on grammar and basic communication, including a summer school, and  ongoing university  management and contractual problems , was  crushingly antipathetic towards poetry. I recently retired, and I wake every day, still early,  with a sense of  freedom.  More time to read as well as  write: I have  two  walls of  poetry, a  window to gaze through , and not a student  or essay in sight.

How did Cinnamon Press come to publish your collection?

In an attempt to be my own person when my marriage broke up, I sent off the first poem ever to London Magazine.Alan Ross accepted it, and then two more, and then asked me for a book. This was, with hindsight, the worst thing to have happened, as I felt I didn’t need to send out to smaller  magazines.This promise ,and being placed in competitions, kept me going. Hubris! Sadly, Alan  Ross, obviously a man of impeccable taste, died. One night at work, at the age of 59, before the onerous semester’s teaching began, I stuffed sets of twelve poems into envelopes and  sent out to  ten publishers( not an ethical move). CInnamon replied within two weeks and offered me a contract to publish within six months.I took it. I  got two more expressions of interest,  with cautions that I would have to wait until ACE grants were secured.I never regretted sticking with Cinnamon, as Jan Fortune-Wood was an enthusiastic, excellent hands-on  editor, and organised a launch in Newcastle and a reading in  my home town of Liverpool.

I was struck by the importance of relationships in ‘Missing the Eclipse’.  Not just romantic or sexual relationships, but familial ones – as well as the relationship between, for want of a better word, poetic rivals and antecedents.  Is that something you were aware of when assembling the book?  How does relationship and communication as a theme feature in your work? 

It will be obvious from the above that I am an other-directed person.In a lecture on “The Poetry and the Personal” given in the university of Teeside, I was honest about the difficulty I had in including certain poems .  Vicki Bertram, in “Gendering Poetry ” cites  fear of offending family as one of the most frequent reasons for women publishing their first collections late.  Of course for the poet, the notion of the unutterable which has to be ultimately said has been discussed widely as a prime force of inspiration. But what about my  pre-divorce poems, for example? My husband was a decent , very private person. In the end, I included only one of those poems:”about” the negative effect of overwork on family life, “Commuter  Moon”; perhaps because I had realised that the poem was as much about me as about him, and therefore would be relevant to others. The title poem “Missing the Eclipse” about the post-divorce time with a new partner,  came out of  a row with a daughter. I very tentatively asked her permission to use it and she very generously gave it. However, I have since heard that one if  her sisters  disliked her own appearance in it.Naturally I regret that.But many poet (Hughes, Heaney, VIcki Feaver, Colette Bryce, inter.al) have come to  the conclusion that it’s the tension between the unutterable and the uttered which drives the poem. For me, a  poem  is often the answer to an unframed question.

A woman in the audience asked me why I wrote about others so much. I replied that  I am what  I am,  and people and relationships, with all their pleasures and tensions constitute my default landscape. That includes the poets I workshop with and read. Of course I like being alone and contemplative, but so far I have used that time to ruminate on the peopled times, and weave the natural world in, rather than it being the contemplative object per se.This may change as death approaches!

How did you gather and order the poems?  Was there an obvious sequence, for example, that leapt out at you?

 No, but that was such a pleasure discovering it,  on a very  long table! One factor was chronology, as the poems were spread over 14 years.I grouped the  parents and daughter poems, and the ones on my lovely partner, his parents, and friends were interspersed. I hoped I found a rhythm which allowed air in after the heavier poems. The last poem in the book was an important choice. I wanted to end on one which opened me up to future poems , so I chose” New in Vilnius”, one of those which I also enjoy reading aloud.Some of the earlier ones I find”clunky” to read: “Block”, for example, which used to be a performance piece.

I really enjoyed the variety of forms in the book, from very small pieces – that extend very little into the white space, both horizontally AND vertically – to the prose poems.  Could you discuss your use of form (and I guess I’m asking you about your line break and stanza break decisions)?  How do your poems take shape?

The first line usually comes first. If I can keep that with me and pay attention to its rhythm, I have a chance of a decent poem. I take it out for walks, and mutter. Sometimes those two lines are the only ones that stay with me for  a week or more. Whatever is going on in my life, I hold onto them.The longhand version finally becomes indecipherable and that is when I  transfer it to my PC and make further   decisions on line-endings, influenced by the space around the poem. The ear is the dominant consideration. I want to “score” it ( a term  learnt from a consummate performer of his own and others’ work, Bill Herbert) so that the reader knows how to read it aloud (as  I hope they do, at least sub-vocally). I may choose a form e.g.   a three line stanza of fifteen lines,  later lose a line, and then  re-do  as two-liners. I have even found that, faced with the new fourteen lines, I’ve played around with a sonnet.If the “turn” comes around line 8, then I end up with a more metaphysical or intellectual poem; meatier and denser.

What next?  Is your writing different?  Has it changed?  Are you assembling another book?  Are you working on any projects/residencies etc?

The inspirations for poems don’t come more often, but I now have more time to shape a poem. This currently seems to be reducing it,  as with a sauce that simmers.  Just spent two months returning frequently to  a forty  -liner and it’s now down to four lines.But it’s  better.

The ongoing estrangement from my daughters has been lately my poetic focus or obsession.I am using the poems as a way of  filling the space and silence between us; creating some kind of music.I have been fascinated by Derek Mahon’s  honest poems on what the break -up of his marriage meant to his  relationships with his children. What got me was the way he creates a music out of this guilt and pain.

“And I think of my daughter at work on her difficult art/And wish she were with me now between thrush and plover/ Wild thyme and sea-thrift , to lift the weight from my heart.”

More and more I wish I could write a song and sing it: it must be the Irish in me(25 per cent). Instead I’m using more half and full rhymes now, and  making poems which I can memorise .So the extra free time in retirement is taken up with crafting.

My latest “commission” is a very heavy one: a friend who is terminally  ill has asked me to write a poem for his funeral service.I have the first two lines and am finding it impossible to move beyond that. Because I don’t want to; because he’s a lovely man; because I feel inadequate.But I know I will, because it is a different kind of poetic imperative. At my age, I am writing more death poems for  friends and relatives , of course. I think it’s important. I notice the Irish poets do that more:acknowledging tradition.

Perhaps in eighteen months I will have enough for a new collection but it can’t be rushed.  I don’t want a regular teaching commitment but am open to workshop offers. I will be running one  in October on Elizabeth Bishop for Carlotta Miller Johnson in Morpeth, inspired by my visit to  Bishop’s grandparents’ village in Novia Scotia.

In April 2012,I will have five poems in the  anthology ” In Your OwnTime”, to mark the twentieth anniversary of Northern Poetry Workshop, edited by Gerry Wardle , foreword by Sean O’Brien and  published by Shoestring Press. You can imagine how exciting it is to be alongside thirteen others,  a diverse range of accomplished voices: including Sean, Paul Farley, Jake Polley, Colette Bryce, Bill Herbert, Peter Armstrong, Kathy Towers, Peter Bennet, Joan Johnson, Helen Farish, Alistair Elliot,  Michael McCarthy and Tony Williams.

Can’t wait.



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