…no holds hyena!

An interview with Fran Lock

by Karolina Ros Olafsdottir

KO: I really loved the poem in the magazine and the energy in it. I was wondering if you could start with talking a little about ‘La Jena di Londra’ that appears in the Spring Issue?

FL: I’ll try. This particular piece is taken from my forthcoming collection, which is also called Hyena! It’s one of about fifty Hyena poems so far, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever reach the end of them. 

Hyena as a conceit – although I loathe that term – I owe to Charles Hoy Fort, the well-known researcher into anomalous phenomena. In his final book, Wild Talents, Fort writes about the belief that under certain emotional conditions, such as grief or rage, a man might turn into a hyena, literally. I was rereading bits of this brilliantly bonkers text and thinking about the hyena as an avatar for certain kinds of desire or traumatic experience, when I received the news that my very dear friend had passed away. His death was a shock to my system – one shock in a long series of shocks – and it triggered something in me where, following a period of loss and turbulence, I had reached a state in which animal transformation felt plausible to me. Where I felt just mad enough and feral enough to turn into a hyena myself. The character of Hyena emerged because the accumulative effects of grief were a kind of therianthropy for me.

Hyenas get a pretty bad press, and in legend and lore they are persistently figured as strange, fluctuant, and threatening. The hyena shifts between categories of species, and – according to classical sources – sex: neither animal or man, cat or dog, male or female. I feel a powerful identification with this otherness, this uncanny queerness, repeatedly miscast or abjected; feared and shunned. In ‘La Jena di Londra’ Hyena is still this supernatural witch-animal, and she attends the dead and dying as she does in all her ancient myths, but here she is merciful and tender. Her magic is meant to console, to liberate, to heal. In real life this wasn’t possible, but the poem makes space for the kind of miraculous cherishing I wish the rational world – and I – had been capable of. Hyena brings her friend the heart of a deer, so that he, in his turn, might transform and run free, escape the shitty human world and the horrible logic of death.

KO: There are so many beautiful and innovative lines in the poem. ‘the bruising taste of szechuan pork’ and the image of the ‘matador before the night bus’ stuck with me especially and the imminent danger or violence that they carry. Could you talk a little bit about the significance of the meat that travels through the poem and the persistence of the hyena through fading and fleeting images? 

FL: Firstly, thank you! Secondly, I suppose there’s a sense in which evocations of meat seem obvious and inevitable when writing the hyena; most people picture them scavenging the carcasses left by lions, tearing dead flesh with their teeth. But the meat in this poem – in all the Hyena! poems – isn’t dead. It’s fresh, and raw, and tender.

When most people encounter meat it has been processed and tidied, shaped into something unrecognisably animal. This happens to feelings too, within language and literature: emotions are sieved, seasoned, pulped, processed. The meat in Hyena! bleeds, it’s full of damage and adrenaline, it’s bruised and bruising; it’s wet and it tastes of itself. In ‘La Jena di Londra’ my hyena makes a gift of this: vulnerable and suffering meat has magical potency, the potential to work a charm or spell. It’s probably very Catholic of me, but I’ve always believed in according pain its proper respect. Meat as a motif in Hyena! often signals the sites or occasion of trauma and pain; the moments when my therianthropic speaker is at her most animal. I might measure my distance from my speakers in meat. I’m more human and less feral in some places than others. But it isn’t a constant trajectory, grief doesn’t work that way. The flickering persistence of the animal under the human is the threat of violence, loss and disorder beneath the skin of the world, I think. 

KO: The name of your upcoming collection is Hyena! which I think is such a playful title and slightly cunning maybe. It can either be an exclamation of a warning or excitement. How did the upcoming collection come together? Did you set out to write on a certain theme or what was the spark to it?

FL: You’re absolutely right! I love the exclamation mark with all its thrillingly ambiguous expressive effects. I like its over-the-topness, how it conveys both volume and intensity. I’m not supposed to. I spent nearly four years in academia having the principles of good middle-class prose ironed into me. Snobbery about the exclamation mark is one of those principles: it’s tabloidy, a kind of gutter punctuation; it belongs to popular culture, has a rich, kitsch tackiness to it, a tacky kitschiness. It’s working-class. It comes from poverty, like me. Proletarian and camp in equal measure. I see the exclamation mark as a species of typographical hyena: no one knows how to read it. It is a threat? A warning? A joyous whoop? Is Hyena a cat or a dog, a woman or a man, an animal or a human? Hyena! is simultaneously both and neither. I think of it as queer.

When I began to search for a word or phrase to describe what I’m trying to do with Hyena! I found myself taking about it as a work of ‘queer mourning’, a poetry that makes space for the weirdness grief initiates in us. I tend to think of grief as a queering of the real, as a making strange of the world and the self to the self and the world. The queer, I think, is an identity or mode of being that is imperfectly held within language; it cuts across all our cosy categories of ready-made belonging. These are hyena properties too. Hyenaness is something I connect to my sexuality, but even more so to culture and to class identity, to the feeling that has persisted all my life of being simultaneously ‘both’ and ‘neither’; to finding no perfect expression of solidarity, no true ‘home’ in any one territory or lexical field.

Grief destabilises you too, within its distorting gravity, language itself becomes warped. There is, I think, an experience of loss that is so disturbing and persistent that it can’t be adequately reclaimed by language. Through the figure of Hyena I’m trying to dig into that loss, or dig it out of me. The collection began around the 2019 general election, but quite a few of the poems are more recent than that. Hyena came to life only after the loss of my friend in January last year, and once she arrived the momentum was frightening. 

KO: This is something that has perhaps become a standard question in these strange times but could you talk about how it has been for you writing poetry and working on the collection during the pandemic? 

FL: Sure. Coming from poverty, and being working-class, I almost think I was better prepared for lockdown life, certainly than a number of my middle-class colleagues and peers. The conditions in which I work have always been monumentally unconducive and cramped. I have always dealt with precarity and scarcity. I’m adept at spinning honey out of nothing, at making do, at rolling with punches. It hasn’t been nice, but that very quality of not-niceness is not so wildly outside the usual run of things for me. And I’m adaptable, resilient. I’ve had to be, and that’s stood me in good stead. I’m also lucky, in that poetry is the perfect mode of production for these conditions. It comes in fragments and flashes, time snatched back from the jaws of unlovable labour and the ever encroaching responsibilities of ‘home’. I can write anywhere, and I do.

What I have found hard is what I’ve always found hard: preserving the edges of myself. I think that for a lot of working-class women the first casualty of lockdown was our sense of ourselves as writers, our ability to prioritise ourselves as artists. It’s a situation where our work vies, not merely with the poetries of others for attention, but with the endlessly evolving and intrusive demands of home and work; of health and money. And the same time our poetry was/is being asked to carry and to do a great deal. I swear to God, if one more person says ‘bridge-building’ or ’empathy’ I’ll leap through my laptop screen and bite them – no holds hyena!

I am not a great believer in a frictionless catharsis, in art or in life. I am not sure it’s poetry’s job to translate the pain of raw experience into some ideal of emotional expressiveness, to mould our traumas into neat little codes of plain statements. Catharsis is too much like absolution, it lets us off the hook. Since the ‘crisis’ began I have felt increasingly ostracised from poetry: art should be about ‘connecting’ people, about ‘bringing people together’; it should ‘offer consolation’, provide a place of safety, invite a means of escape. I’ve been hearing ‘should’ a lot. The pressure to churn out an endlessly uplifting torrent of content is enormous these days, and it instrumentalises creators in the worst possible way. Easy affirmation serves the aims of government because it folds the inequality and unfairness that are the substance of our lives into a textureless meld with the lives of others. It contributes to the illusion that we are ‘all in this together’. We’re not. We’re really not. Fundamentally, I’m a miserable commie bitch. And articulating the need for that in poetry, and my right to that as a person has been one of the hardest things. 

Fran Lock is the author of seven poetry collections, most recently Contains Mild Peril (Out-Spoken Press, 2019). Her eighth collection Hyena! is due later this year from Poetry Bus Press. Her poems are featured in Issue 98: Spring 2021.