Will Harris

Interview with Will Harris, guest poet reading from his new collection Rendang at Fire River Poets Thurs April 2nd

Creative Innovation Centre Taunton 8pm

Graeme Ryan (Fire River member)

Will, I loved your new collection RENDANG (published by Granta) – I read it all in one sitting and grew completely immersed in your way of looking at things and your skill, in so many poetic formats, at thinking and responding, finding such significance in the world. Open your book anywhere and it is compelling written – I’ve just opened it at ‘Buddleia Not Buddha’

      ‘chanting in bloom my soul before

I knowed it chanting too

I ran down to the tube and from

Gray’s Inn Rd to Farringdon

to the Golden Lane Estate

        buddleia not buddha chanting in bloom’

then at All the Birds Are Your Husband and both create such compelling – and sort of inevitable worlds – completely new and at the same time capturing something I didn’t know I knew. 

I looked up rendangand found out that the spicy rich Indonesian dish was voted No 1 from the 50 most delicious foods in the world in a CNN International poll of 35,000 people in 2011. I have to say that your book merits such a title – it’s a feast!

It seems to me you have a poetic sensibility which is completely integrated with your day-to-day self – in other words you see the world in poetic terms, it is seamless and totally convincing.

What thoughts do you have about this characterisation – would you put it in similar terms, or do you see it differently?

Many thanks in advance, we’re very grateful for your time

Will Harris: I’m bowled over with gratitude for your words about my work. The idea of poetry being an immersive activity, about finding “significance in the world”, is exactly it. There’s this Karl Kraus line I copied down years and years ago from a copy of Half-Truths and One-and-and-Half Truths in Hammersmith Library: “Word and substance – that is the only connection I have ever striven for in my life.” Something in that sounds very narcissistic. Like it suggests that life should be about shutting off everything other than “word and substance”. But what else is there? I have my experience of the world and this set of cobbled-together mechanisms – sounds, gestures, words – by which to communicate that experience. These aren’t just mechanisms, of course. Behind them is the dream of shared consciousness, of seamlessly transferring experience from one human to another. In writing, that dream requires more than being good with words. It’s about feeling with words. This is what Kraus is saying, I think, or it’s what his words make me feel. It’s futile to hope that substance-less words can convey the substantial weight of the world. But it’s beautiful and human to try.

Graeme What an inspiring reply – totally get where you’re coming from and thank you for the introduction to Karl Kraus, who I haven’t come across before – will check him out.

I love what you write near the end: ‘…the dream of shared consciousness, of seamlessly transferring experience from one human to another… more than being good with words. It’s about feeling with words.’  Wow. I can so powerfully see how your poetry in RENDANG is actually a way of seeing and being in the world – not one poem in your collection announces itself as a Poem, stands on a dais, taps a mic and clears its throat as it were; it seems to me you have found a way of writing where the world, your thoughts, your feelings and sense impressions are unified in flow  which feels utterly natural and makes the world cohere in such a living way.

Something about Eliot’s dissociation of sensibility comes to mind – by which I take it to mean that we’re bombarded by so many fragments and chopped-up bits of experience in any typical day (exponentially amplified by the internet of course). Eliot as I understand it was lamenting the effects on consciousness and on artistic creation – but for better or worse it’s the world we’re in – and RENDANG  for me finds ways – a poetic method – back to the source, the depths, the profundity of being alive, filtered through our jumbled contemporary experience, which is the crucial point in such a genuine and admirable way. Take the very first poem Holy Manand the way you try to define what you see after the eponymous man outside the restaurant has button-holed you and asked you to name a colour of the rainbow:


colour could I see? I tried to picture the full spectrum

arrayed in stained glass, shining sadly, and then refracted

through a single shade that appeared to me in the form of

a freshly mown lawn, a stack of banknotes, a cartoon

frog, a row of pines, an unripe mango, a septic wound. I saw

the glen beside the tall elm tree where the sweetbriar

smells so sweet, then the lane in Devon where my dad 

grew up, and the river in Riau where my mum played.

It was blue and yellow mixed, like Howard Hodgkin’s version

of a Bombay sunset, or pistachio ice cream: a jade statue

of the Buddha……the colour of my favourite Power Ranger,

of the Knight beheaded by Gawain, of the girdle given

to him by Lady Bertilak…’

Yes – this is the way consciousness works! And you have found a way of staying very close to this endless unfolding in a way which does ‘seamlessly transfer experience from one human to another’ certainly to this reader. Something about glancing/sensing with rapt attention, stealing up on a creature where you are extremely aware of its presence and how it could flit any second, not looking at it directly but keeping it in your visual and emotional field, getting close enough so that you can really communicate its true presence. Your way of stealing up keeps the integrity of the experience thrillingly alive. This seems to me the heart of your poetry and underscores poems like State-Building which makes such powerful observations about Empire and the nature of political power:

‘In the British Museum, two black ‘figures’

(they don’t say slaves) beat olives from a tree;

a ‘naked youth’ stoops to gather the fallen

Fruit. The freeborn men elsewhere, safe behind

Their porticos, argue about the world’s

true form’ 

I find myself wanting to challenge your sentence: ‘It’s futile to hope that substance-less words can convey the substantial weight of the world’ because I think that’s what the best poetry can do – and yours definitely does in RENDANG. Yes it is indeed ‘beautiful and human to try’, but that could sound a little forlorn – what about Blake’s energy and unwavering championing of the imagination?  Poems of yours like Seven Dreams of Richard Spencer:

‘Once the rain fell in vertical girders and I thought

I could walk between them, pressing my cheek

against their cold surface, but a mansion rose

about me several floors high and a voice called

telling me to leave. Father, I said, why have you

forsaken me? I turned into a great eyeball and

still he looked away, so I turned into a frog

and slipped without a sound into a millpond’

or The Hanged Man: 

‘The next week, listening to Human Touch, he dozed

and woke to find himself floating two feet off the ground.

Hanging there. his parents were alive and dead.

If only he could keep completely still he could remain

unscattered, forever on the edge of rain.’

pack such an imaginative punch and show such feeling with words that as a reader I feel I am absolutely there with what you describe and the way you steal up on what you are experiencing and thinking – it is both ‘beautiful and human to try’, and you also take us to such rich imaginative worlds – Goethe’s world of things and of spirit, waves and particles, changing as you look at them.

Do you know a book called The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abrams?  It’s about how we have way more sense-knowledge than we give ourselves credit for, and that the earth is equally conscious too, so that an Aboriginal guide Abrams spoke to as he scanned the animated landscape somewhere in the Australian bush declared ‘That rock is me!’ because there was no separation in his consciousness between the landscape and himself: the land is conscious and dreaming us as much as we might be conscious of and dreaming it. Abrams writes about phenomenologists like Merleau-Ponty and Husserl – your work makes me think of them and of Abrams for reasons I can’t fully articulate: something about fidelity as far as possible to our human subjectivity within the world: we and it are indivisible. I love the way the I is present in your poems yet in such a non-egoic way.

I could say lots about the wealth and breadth of your subject matter: titles like From the other side of Shooter’s Hill and Pathetic Earthlings, andthe variety of forms you render so successfully; Rendang is the sort of poetry I want to press into as many people’s hands as possible.

Will There’s so much to reply to here, and all generous and interesting. I’ll do my best…

I hadn’t heard of that David Abrams book. But it reminds me of the bit in Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception – drawing from Henri Bergson – where he talks about the brain being a “reducing valve”. So for him language is only the petrified form of this reduced awareness. And the point of LSD and other psychedelics is to open the valves, letting the “Mind at Large” roam free. Which in a weird way sounds like what the Russian formalists (Viktor Shklovsky et al) were saying at around the same time – though maybe not on acid – about literature returning readers to the “stoniness” of the stone. 

But I partly react against this kind of talk at the risk, as you say, of dais-standing and mic-tapping. Even if poetry is able to stimulate a pseudo-mystical experience, it very much isn’t a mystical activity in every other way. Poetry, for me, is language aware of itself as language. Which means the ways in which syntax and lexis constitute identity and relation. Or the ways in which power is encoded in usage. And these are largely technical questions. So I try not to think too much about the “imagination”. Imagining is mostly just misremembering things anyway. 

Graeme When did you know you were a poet?

Will  I still don’t know! I started writing in my mid-teens, and I feel very lucky to be able to spend so much of my time writing and thinking about poems now. But I still question my right to make poems daily, and whether they’re any good or useful or worthwhile. I commit to it as constantly renewed activity that embraces others. And that probably started happening when I got better at sharing my work in my mid-twenties.

Graeme What poets/poems are most precious to you?

Will  This changes all the time. Yesterday Daisy Lafarge’s Understudies for Air and Samantha Walton’s Self Heal felt very precious to me. At other times, these poems have also helped: Margaret Cavendish’s ‘Of Many Worlds in This World’, Emily Dickinson’s J1042 (“till the bee/ Blossoms stand negative,/ Touched to Conditions/ By a Hum”), Wallace Stevens’s ‘On the Adequacy of the Landscape’, Aimé Césaire’s ‘Lost Body’, Martin Carter’s ‘Proem’ and ‘I tremble’, Ingeborg Bachmann’s ‘No Delicacies’, John Ashbery’s ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’, W.S. Graham’s ‘Implements in Their Places’, Inger Christensen’s ‘Light’, Thylias Moss’s ‘Sweet Enough Ocean, Cotton’, Kim Hyesoon’s ‘A Teardrop’, Jennifer Chang’s ‘Pastoral’, Vahni Capildeo’s ‘To Stand Before’, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s ‘Tan Tien’, Nathaniel Mackey’s ‘Song of the Adoumboulou: 50’ (“a pocket of air flexed mouthlike,/ meaning’s mime and regret”).

Thanks again for your questions, Graeme! Looking forward to meeting you in Taunton. very best, Will

Graeme Many many thanks Will, appreciate your time, such a fizzing and stimulating set of responses leaving us so much to digest; also a great list of poems/poets to discover read! Really looking forward to your reading on April 2nd!

And here’s what The Guardian Review Feb 1st 2020 had to say about Will Harris’ RENDANG

Will Harris’s Rendang (Granta, £12.99) is a sharp and assured debut collection that meditates on the multiplicity of identity, the shaky building blocks that make up a country and the politics of exhibition. It travels from actual terrains – in London, Chicago, Jakarta – to the surreal “purple rock” of “Planet Mongo”, and this exploratory curiosity is matched by the collection’s formal expansiveness, encompassing accomplished prose-poems, concrete poetry and lyric sequences. Harris suffuses the everyday with a mythic dignity, so that the drunk singing Otis Redding in a pub takes on the tragic stature of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner and “bees groan inside / the carcass of the split bin bag” as Samson’s biblical riddle is brought to summer pavements to later “draw forth – not sweetness – something new”. As the speaker ticks “Other, Mixed” on forms, he muses that “some / drunk nights I theorize / my own transmembered norms”, wryly using the non-standard English “transmembered” to evade being trapped in bureaucratic boxes himself. The collection leans into a vocabulary all of its own, and announces itself as an artefact that will not be dislodged