Thanks to the ghost of Hartley Coleridge for assuming bodily form to conduct this interview. It took place in my attic, with Hartley seated by a round window sucking on a pipe. I perched on an old beanbag in the corner of the room, trying not to show my nerves.
HC: I imagine things have changed somewhat since my day, but I’m sure I won’t be the only reader curious as to how you found someone to publish your poems?
WH: I sent poems to Helena Nelson at HappenStance for years – possibly since 2013, though not consistently. There was a two-and-a-half-year gap where, after finishing a Masters in poetry, the last thing I wanted to do was write poetry.
The muse deserted you?
My dad is English and my mum Chinese Indonesian. For a long time I’d thought of Indonesia’s culture and history as basically cut off from me, or from the literary “tradition” I thought I wanted to be part of (writers like you and your dad). I had a minor crisis when I realised I couldn’t – for various reasons – write like that.
So what did you do?
I started reading into Indonesia’s history, and thinking more about my own family. But I also went to the library and tried to read as widely and randomly as possible – the short stories of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, but also Grundrisse, or Robin Blackburn’s Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848.
A programme of self-improvement?
I didn’t get very far. But eventually I reached the point where I could look back on the mountain village of poetry from a distance. It had once felt claustrophobic and restrictive. Now the surrounding white wilderness was visible, along with a ski-lift, and a patch of grass where a goat and small child clonked along a muddy path. I could see myself.
As a goat and child? This mountain village analogy reminds me of that James Baldwin essay, where he moves to the Alps and the local children think he’s the devil. Do you know it?
Yes. Do you?
Books occasionally break through to the after-life.
Then you must remember Baldwin’s brilliant insight? “Most people are not naturally reflective any more than they are naturally malicious”. People turn a blind eye to the legacy of slavery or to grinding exploitation not because they’re cruel but because it’s easy. Or, at least, it’s harder not to. In general, we’re less motivated by spite than a desire for simplicity.
How does this relate to writing?
Choosing simplicity means not questioning your vantage-point; it means mistaking your own perspective for a universal one. It took me years of not-writing to realise I couldn’t write from an invisible, vantage-less perspective. I had to write out of my own confused, mimicking, mixed experience.
And how did the poems come together?
The pamphlet came together because of Helena at HappenStance, really. She’s an amazing person, editor and writer, and even at my lowest ebb she gave me the kind of sensitive, critical feedback that made me think there was still some point in writing. As far as I’m concerned, the fact people like Helena exist – people who organise their lives around a belief in the importance of poetry – is the only thing that makes poetry important.
Do you imagine this interview will be of use to someone putting their poems into – what do you call it? – a “pamphlet”?
Probably not. But, since you’re here, could I take a moment to say how much I love your sonnet Long time a child. It makes me choke up every time – that bit where you say ‘I’ve lost the race I never ran’.
Thank you. That seems to be the poem people remember, if they remember any.
Do you wish you were more widely read? Or that you’d written more and been more read in your lifetime? I mean, when you call yourself the ‘living spectre of [your] father dead’ that’s pretty dark. It makes it sound as if you saw yourself as a ghost – the shadow of your father – even while you were living?
To be born with the urge to write while also being the son of a great beloved poet was hard. But we’re all spectres. We work with the light cast by our predecessors. Writing is an extension of who you are. Who you are is an extension of who they were.
You were happy with your career then?
I was happy.
Which is what counts, I guess? I’m just reading over your sonnet again. Maybe it’s not as depressing as I thought. I’d like to live out my years in a ‘lagging May’, rather than with a constant awareness of time’s ‘rathe’ blade. And if you can write what matters to you – what only you can write – maybe it doesn’t matter who reads it. If you can find a few readers who care, then maybe… – wait, Hartley, where are you?
A few beans sputtered out of a rip on the side of my beanbag. I stood up. Hartley was gone, his spirit off to wander like a breeze by lakes and sandy shores.