Harry Man is a poet from South London, currently living in Teesside. His first pamphlet, Lift, won the 2014 Bridges of Struga Award and won praise from the poet George Szirtes among others. His most recent pamphlet, Finders Keepers, a collaboration with the artist Sophie Gainsley, concerns endangered species across the British Isles. He was Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust in 2016.
You like to incorporate popular culture in your poems – I’m thinking of the epigraph by Justin Bieber in High Brown Fritillary. What do you think this brings to your work? Is it a touchstone for contemporary readers to engage with?
I think a touchstone is about right. Nobody likes to show up to a poem only to quickly get the sense they weren’t invited. Popular culture references are part of a communal vocabulary that grows organically within the poem and that gives us a clue as to where we are. It’s also unavoidable, I find myself working furiously on some new experimental fusion of contemporary dance and poetry with my partner, considering almost obscenely specific ideas about visual syntax and conveying metaphors in movement within certain timed intervals, and then half an hour later, in the evening, we’ll sit together, eat a bit of soup and watch Strictly Come Dancing. So as much as I want to appear to separate myself from popular culture, that wouldn’t be fair to the reader and it wouldn’t be true to me either.
In High Brown Fritillary questions surrounding cyberbullying, celebrity and privacy are all contained in Justin Bieber. These resonate widely with a screen-lit generation such as my own and tap into bigger ethical questions surrounding censorship, the restriction of the freedom of movement and mass surveillance. This problem of time in a poem and how much your reader is willing to spend on what you have crafted is largely a matter of guesswork. I like what Terrance Hayes had to say when he talked about finishing a poem, which was something along the lines of I like to put the pen down early and to leave a few rough edges wherein the reader will fill in their own manner of perfection. Sure enough, it’s a beautiful thought.
Your latest publication, the beautiful Finders Keepers, is a collaboration with the illustrator Sophie Gainsley. It is a triplicate text – poem, illustration, notes. This means you can come at things slant in the poems. Did you have a model in mind?
I liked Douglas Adams and David Carwardine’s book Last Chance to See and Finders Keepers does bear some similarities to that project – here it is: your last opportunity, potentially, to hold these creatures which have been around for – many of them – 120 million years or more – and that now they are dying out and I can put them in a book and put them between your hands and into your head where they can continue to live. I was very specific in wanting our work to be focused purely on species that are endangered in the UK. When I asked Sophie about the poetry that she liked the most, she responded with Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Mark Waldron’s The Itchy Sea. One of Waldron’s poems has the lines “I’d know for certain then, / what I will never know, / the extent to which I am my own ghost.” And the line – and a lot of the poems in that collection – hint at the lack of self-awareness of the animal and the human and the uncanny. Writing or creating from an animal’s perspective, you will never fully escape the dual mode of anthropomorphism – and any poem strives after what we know empirically to be the case – that we can never experience what consciousness is like for other animals. To consider an animal, and in Ted Hughes’ words, “see it, touch it… turn yourself into it,” there is a shamanic idiom in which the poet operates, working to transform into an animal, and through that animal’s voice either crafting a cure, telling a story, giving a blessing, imparting advice, or going into battle. When what we’re talking about is unknown to science, we resort to our wits and instinct and speak of magic, luck and superstition. The pamphlet begins with a kind of invocation in this way. I created the field notes because I wanted to give the reader a form of handrail and say here’s the reality and here’s what we know right now, while simultaneously allowing the poem and the illustration their necessary space.
In Alice Oswald’s Weeds and Wildflowers the etchings and the poems are distinct from one another, though as Oswald mentions in her introduction both are “shuffled together” – so that while the poems and illustrations stemmed from the conversations between Oswald and her collaborator, Jessica Greenman, there is a kind of independence in that book between poem and illustration. Alice Oswald’s poetry, particularly in collections such as Woods etc, and now, Falling Awake, have their own lives, and live as much in the oral world of the tale, as they do in a state of touch-transmitted astonishment – a quality unique to her work. I looked at Leanne Shapton and various others, but I was most interested in singing along to Sophie’s illustrations, which like rails, split away from and converge with the poems periodically.
Your notes seem to suggest technology is key to fighting species decline. You provide apps to help us eat fish responsibly and even a site offering instructions on how to build a solitary bee house. Sophie Gainsley writes in her introduction that we can all make a difference, even though ‘the scale of this issue can seem daunting’. How positive are you?
Sophie and I aren’t ecologists, so we’re probably not the ones to ask for a straightforward answer on what’s worked best to fight species decline. That said, Sophie does work as an activist, and she has organised and taken part in several high-profile, successful actions in the UK, so her view would be more advanced than my own on what type of action leads to the swiftest results at least in the offline realm. From those I spoke to that specialise in a particular field within conservation, the recurrent theme was ‘mitigation’ of decline rather than ‘prevention’. To reverse species decline in their view will take a near-unanimous change in our thinking, and for that to happen, species loss has to become much more visible, and we should become much more attuned to it and we need those protections enshrined in the law. In a lot of ways, technology encourages seclusion and thereby can have the effect of making the rest of the world invisible. One indication that there can be a very big change in this direction occurred once Finders Keepers was more or less up and running and that was Pokemon Go which made use of augmented reality to push children and adults into the outside world, albeit with a device in hand. While it was not focused on endangered species it does show that there is an appetite out there for a similar kind of project provided it is presented in the right way. The Big Butterfly Count is very successful at getting people involved in surveying and therefore preserving species – just over 36,000 people took part last year and together they captured over 400,000 records. The butterfly is such a delicate and, to our eyes, attractive creature. Similarly, at the other end of the size spectrum, the humpback whale is part of a group often dubbed ‘charismatic megafauna’ for their lovable appearance. To preserve moss, algae or lichen for example, which has the appearance of a mouldy breadstick, you’re going to struggle to inspire people and to keep them interested. This is deeply unfortunate because not only do lichen contribute an awful lot to their local habitats, but they may also hold the key to the future of things like antibiotics which are very seriously under threat.
From what I’ve seen as an outside observer to the world of conservation, I do feel positive that yes we can do a great deal to mitigate species loss. A lot of the volunteering options aren’t particularly glamorous, or perhaps on the face of it all that inviting, but they certainly should be. It’s very heartening to see it happen and to take part — whether it’s wandering around a woodland all day with a clipboard, accompanied by someone who used to be a world-leading hand surgeon, or if it’s climbing into a grimy attic to check on the bats with a volunteer who is currently sewing their own wedding dress – the both of you holding your breath. These experiences hugely extend your understanding of the world around you and offer a way in which two quite disparate members of society can come together, which can only be a good thing. The same is true of other projects, like Zooniverse, which makes use of a global network of volunteers to identify and map species all over the planet through their mobile devices. As technology becomes all the more integrated into our daily lives, harnessing the power of grid computing (linking internet-enabled devices together to work on the same problem during idle time) will become invaluable from climate modelling to transforming agriculture on our planet, and not just our health, or posting up reviews of dustbusters.
What’s next for you?
Coming to see the Fire River Poets which obviously I’m very excited to do (2 Mar 2017 – Ed). I am working towards a first full-length collection which I have all over the floor, and most of the walls of my little office at the moment, and that is gradually coming together. I am also currently coding a self-updating poem that combines revolving images and static text together, which is nearly ready. This summer I’ll be at the Felix festival in Belgium and at Poetry International, a festival in Rotterdam. My next reading will be at the CB2 café in Cambridge on the 25th April 2017.
Visit Harry Man’s website
This is the first in a series of interviews for Fire River Poets by Matt Bryden. See Matt’s profile here