Will Harris is a London-based writer. His debut collection, RENDANG, won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and was shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize. He co-leads the Southbank Poetry Collective with Vanessa Kisuule, and works in extra care homes in Tower Hamlets as an activity worker. In the lead up to the publication of his second collection, Brother Poem (Granta, 2023), he sat down with our Reviews Editor Isabelle Baafi to talk about writing through absence and memories, both real and imagined.
Isabelle Baafi: How was your experience of writing Brother Poem different to that of your first collection, RENDANG? Do you think that this collection builds on the last one, or any of your previous works, in some way?
Will Harris: My experience of writing a book (whatever a book is) has been kind of like this: you accrue material through random reading, note-making, walking, talking; after a period of slow writing and a high point of activity and sleeplessness – sometimes indistinguishable from depression – this coalesces into a single doc which you obsess over for a long time. You wait for it to do something, you dream about it, you break it apart again and again, building it back up in different forms like a complex sand sculpture. One day, you let it go; the waves crash over and around you, a space opens up between you and the work, and finally you see – both in yourself and the work – the flaws (so many). Then follows a period of self-disgust and shame, a weight piled on your chest, which lasts until a weekend in May when, watching two magpies fight over a sausage roll, the weight lightens. The next day, you’re talking to a friend about a book you’ve read – like Aurora Leigh or Renee Gladman’s Calamities – and suddenly all the bumps and silences of the past two years seem intended, not by you or anyone else but by a force so compelling you have to write – for yourself, only – just to record this intuition of order, of connectedness. You’re not alone or overwhelmed, even if you will be later. But for now, you feel capable of seeing and acting simultaneously, so the cycle repeats itself.
IB: In an essay published recently in Granta, ‘Speaking Brother’, you write about the process of imagining the brother figure who would later become the addressee of the collection: a persona who helped you ‘retrieve memories I thought were lost, or didn’t know I had.’ What memories did you uncover that were particularly surprising to you?
WH: They were more physical-spatial memories. Imagining a brother – imagining I could talk to a brother figure – helped me insinuate myself into the child spaces in my mind I thought were closed off. It was writing as a form of proprioception. So, I could be sitting at the kitchen table and feel myself aged eight again, eating instant noodles in front of the TV, our old net curtains blocking out the light, crumbs in the corner of the sofa, the slow treacle of afternoon.
IB: Would you also say that you were writing to yourself, to some extent? What did you discover about yourself in the process?
WH: I write to myself, yes, but also to past and future versions of myself – which include lots of people. Selves formed by my relationships with others. Though I grew up without siblings, I can’t really imagine myself alone-alone. If I write about myself aged five, I’m addressing my mum as well. I’m remembering bathtimes with my dad, or I’m thinking of my dad’s friend Murray who was a builder and drew cartoons and poems on kitchen paper and chased me around the house with a hammer.
It’s never clear – to me, at least – what’s discovered in the writing process. But in ‘Speaking Brother’, I was trying to understand where the brother poems came from; one (provisional, partial) answer was that they emerged out of a desire to ease the vertical burden of descent, of trauma; I wanted a horizontal addressee, someone who would know me instinctively, who I could talk to without explaining anything. My mum had a difficult relationship with Indonesia, with having left it, and I grew up confused about where I stood. There was this pressure to explain myself; to say this is where I’m from, who I am.
But maybe in writing the book I realised this wasn’t a problem that could be resolved; it could only be looked at differently, laterally, taking in the people around me. I didn’t need what Saidiya Hartman calls a ‘romance of origins.’
I needed siblings.
I was also trying to write in a more improvisatory way, and the figure of a brother helped with that. When Fred Moten talks about Cecil Taylor and improvisation, he describes the way sound becomes a ‘dispersive sensuality’; it’s speech without foresight – which, in doing away with notation, rejects foresight – but also operates ‘as a kind of foreshadowing, if not prophetic, description.’ It feels true to me that the possibility of future understanding requires, in the spirit of improvisation, some denial of present understanding in favour of a self-dispersed or dispersive sensuality.
IB: In your acknowledgements, you cite Samuel Delany’s memoir, The Motion of Light in Water, as a key text for you. Delany was known for his speculative works which also explore how gender, sexual, and racial difference are instrumentalised by state bodies to sustain inequality. Did writing Brother Poem help you find a vocabulary for exploring racial difference as a continuation of your previous projects, most notably Mixed- Race Superman? Did the Other that you created in the brother figure serve as a conduit for any of those considerations?
WH: I don’t know about the links between those bits of writing; they feel so awkwardly different to me. But one thing I mention in ‘Speaking Brother’ – which has cropped up several times – is the problem of the mirror stage. Fanon argues that it’s easier for a white subject to move past the mirror stage and become a ‘social I’, to assimilate their reflection into their self-image; after all, the Other is there to shore up their sense of self. But in a majority-white society, the non-white subject remains both self and Other, carrying their unassimilated reflection with them. What happens to the difference that can’t be annulled?
In The Motion of Light in Water, Delany focuses on his childhood and early years in New York, starting out as a sci-fi writer. But it’s hard to describe what makes the writing so amazing. Delany finds this subject position that’s fluid enough to admit the burdens placed on a socialised ‘I’ while moving towards a more improvisatory form of identity. The prose is constantly breaking free, on a narrative level – in the way it plays with time – and on a sentence level.
His argument, if that word makes sense, is that the self is just a moment. Standing by Williamsburg Bridge at dawn, there are countless ways in which light and water might interact to create the illusion of solidity; likewise, every moment – or none – is ‘you’.
IB: Is absence a theme that you have always been drawn to? Also, considering the fact that a poet’s chief tools are words (which render the poet’s presence on the page, a stage, or a recording) what are some of the ways that you sought
to convey absence in Brother Poem?
WH: I guess there’s a paradox in writing. You write to connect with others but, in the act of writing, you keep real people at a distance. Why would you take part in an activity that requires you to turn away from someone in order to talk to them? This feels particularly painful in the case of poetry, which is a communal artform: we write together in workshops, we share and edit each other’s work, perform it out loud. Poetry addresses its subject directly; it calls on a ‘you’ who might be listener, reader, parent, and partner combined. It invokes action. But to invoke action by turning away is bizarre. Maybe that’s why absence – or the gap – is important. Because poems don’t just address things in the world, like an old friend or a jar in Tennessee; they address the gap that exists between an object and its description. Various other things flood into this gap: ‘I’ and ‘you’, action and inaction, the self and the collective. The gap becomes an active space.
IB: In ‘Voice Notes’, you write:
I believed that when we spoke a token would appear, a third space implied by our voices, a plane of understanding entered into, that we knew would stay. I heard it. And I heard it in you speaking.
Do you believe in manifestation? That is, do you believe that imagining something makes it real? Is the brother figure real to you, to any extent?
WH: I think so. I mean, I believe in speaking, and I think that trying to communicate in the form of words is magical. Not because of what’s conveyed necessarily but because of the active space, the potential, created. Words are like those translucent cicada husks that cling to tree trunks weeks after the cicadas themselves have moulted and gone; they exist separately, apart from the speaker. So, you can address yourself to someone whether or not they can hear it; you can talk to the dead. Something happens beyond understanding.
IB: Is there a poet – living or dead – whose work you feel speaks directly to you?
WH: I don’t know, it’s so hard to say. I feel connected to individual poems or plays or whatever else. But in terms of a voice, Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s Poetic Artifice has been pretty important to me over the last few years of thinking about this book. It reminded me – in a way Mark Nowak’s Social Poetics did, very differently – about what poems can do.
Forrest-Thomson writes about how a lot of contemporary work (she was writing in the 70s, so goes in for Philip Larkin) ‘leaves poetry stranded on the beach of the already-known world’. ‘Artifice’ is, in one sense, what it sounds like: all those things which make poetry different from workaday prose: complex patterns of sound, syntax, and connotation. But, more than that, Artifice is the ontological embrace of a kind of writing that defies paraphrase; that teaches us to read differently.
When reading a poem, we don’t simply ‘receive’ information as we might if someone told us ‘there are roughly 1,500 potentially active volcanoes worldwide.’ The discursive and empirical modes being blurred and blended, we hesitate (one of Forrest-Thomson’s favourite words). In that moment of hesitation, we experience ourselves hearing and receiving the language of information for the first time.
In William Empson’s poem ‘Letter V’ he draws attention to his own Artifice: ‘You are a metaphor and they are lies’. This bold self-reflexivity risks making the poem sound gauche and flimsy, but here the opposite occurs. The distance acknowledged – between rhetorical figure (the metaphor of ‘you’) and implied reality (the real ‘you’) – creates the space for closeness. We hear the timbre of the speaker’s voice croaking, the hard ‘a’ sounds forming patterns of avowal and disavowal. In Forrest-Thomson’s words, ‘By making ‘you’ a metaphor, ‘I’ give myself the only chance of touching the external you.’
IB: You’ve previously talked about poetry’s ability to rupture our sense of self through the interplay of pronouns (especially ‘I’ and ‘you’), and how those breakages open up space for us to discover ‘our embeddedness in each other’. Who do the poems in your collection make you feel more connected to?
WH: The space between the ‘I’ and ‘you’ in a poem isn’t literal. It’s not like the space between me and my actual dad, though it might mimic some of the features of that space (a series of short lines followed by silence). For one thing, the ‘you’ changes. It might start out as my dad and become a character from a film or a friend from school and then someone else I don’t even recognise.
I suppose that’s why in workshops people tell you to clarify who you’re talking about, and not gesture vaguely towards a random ‘you’ midway through a piece of writing. Why would anyone want to read that? But I really do. And I think we all do, on some level, because we all experience it – and not just in dreams. The vagueness is encoded in our speech. Roman Jakobson refers to pronouns as ‘shifters’, in contrast to nouns which are generally less shifty. A colander, for example, will always be a colander, however much you wear it like a crown. But ‘I’ and ‘you’ shift depending on their context; who’s speaking to who, and where and when.
The deictic space of a poem is clear, on one level, because it’s speech-obsessed (‘You are a metaphor and they are lies’), but poems also remove, or minimise, the broader field of information that would help us to picture them like scenes from a film or play (‘Behind the kitchen, on a level raised six and a half feet, is the boys’ bedroom, at present barely visible’). So though poems may bring me closer to numerous people – including a brother who doesn’t exist – it’s difficult to talk about who exactly I feel more connected to when writing or reading them.
IB: What prompts you to write? Do you write as a habit, or is it spontaneous for you? Are you often inspired by thoughts that you’ve been ruminating on for a while, or something that happens in the moment?
WH: I haven’t written any poems for about half a year now. I’ve been working a lot, occasionally making notes on my phone, trying to read, trying not to think about not writing. Or to expand writing to include activities which are dubiously ‘writing’, like making mapo tofu or knitting a scarf or singing.
Maybe my answer to your first question makes the whole thing sound as though writing happens almost mechanically, like a wash cycle. But my worry is that the repetition is cyclonic rather than cyclical, and that every time it’s repeated the energy is diminished. Like at some point, after trying and failing again, I won’t have anything left. But then, that could be the point? You expend energy, you lose yourself. Multiple books, friendships and image-complexes might come out of the same cyclonic period of seeing and acting, but ultimately you have to run aground. Because the themes can’t be more harmonically interwoven, or phrased any differently or more effectively; they have to be replaced.
Change happens through a combination of will and inertia, by a repeated movement from inside to outside, by hating yourself a lot and still being willing to return to the source of that self-hatred.