Dr James Graham’s Celestial Bed was one of the most impressive debut collections of poetry I have come across. In your new book, you seem to have developed your voice, it is more assured, more controlled. Do you agree? If so, what has happened in the interval between books?
Thank you. Yes, the poems in Lifting The Piano With One Hand are perhaps more focussed and less ‘frilly’ than the ones in Dr James Graham’s Celestial Bed. I think my earlier poems had more raw, but uncontrolled, energy. They are the kind of poems I can imagine scuttling off the page. My later poems seem more fixed and sure of themselves. I think that when writing Dr James Graham’s Celestial Bed I was less conscious of an audience and destination for the poems. I wrote the poems without thinking about who might read them and where they might end up. They were plump things crammed full of imagery, a bit wild and a bit naughty and they didn’t care. I think, as writer, once you’re published your writing becomes more self-conscious, more reader-orientated which is both a curse and a blessing. I always worry about overworking a poem so much that it loses its pulse. Sometimes I miss the old-style-Gaia-poems for their excess. I think I tried to squeeze everything into each poem. Now I think I realize that sometimes just one single idea or image can resonate effectively throughout a poem. Less can be more. A friend once said ‘You have to write from the throat of the wolf’. I like that idea but do sometimes worry that, with this heightened awareness of ‘the reader’, I’m playing it too safe and ‘writing from the throat of the Labrador’. But yes. My poetic voice is more assured, more controlled. In the interval between books I have read more ( I think that as a writer you have to read) and lived more. I have also done a lot of teaching (poetry and creative writing) and have learned a great deal from my students.
A lot of the poems are about relationships at the end of their life. Do you think you have to have lived through these experiences to be able to write about them?
Just about all the poems in LTP are based on my own experiences (with a little poison or glitter added) but I don’t think you do have to have lived through certain experiences to be able to write about them. A good writer should be able to borrow someone’s elation or pain and make it their own. A good writer has to be curious, observant and absorbent. Of course you have to know your subject to give your writing authenticity but that doesn’t mean you have to have lived it. If you’re observant and absorbent enough you can know things by proxy. I like the idea of ‘taking the truth and embroidering it with fiction.’ Many things in my poems are fictional embroideries. I have to reassure my mother of that. I’d just also like to say that the lines in one of my poems about eating dead kittens drowned in gin are made up . If I didn’t make things up and carry reality over in to fantasy I’d just be writing boring poems about the moon and the stars and the slugs devouring the broad beans in my garden.
The title poem ‘Lifting The Piano With One Hand’ dramatises an unusually strong protagonist. ‘Cillit Bang’ also describes that feeling of being indomitable. How strong are you?
What a difficult question! People always ask me to open jars of beetroot that they can’t open… I think that actually I’m a bit brittle, a bit of a weed, but not in my poems. That’s one of the reasons I write, because in my poems I can flirt, say ‘no’ to the things I don’t want to do, lift a piano with one hand, smash up someone’s tv , set a house on fire with my fingertips or tell someone to ‘fuck off’.
There are a lot of religious images in the poems. Are you religious?
No. I’m not at all religious but love some of the ritual and colour of religion. I was brought up in a church. When we first moved in all the churchy fixtures were there. Me and my brother would sing in the pulpit. We’d jump off the balconies on to a big green foam mattress. The pews and the aisles and the bell tower were our playground. When my dad started renovating the building we kept finding all kinds of religious trinkets in the powdery foundations- gold crosses, saints set behind turquoise glass, prayer-book lockets. My dad was a big fibber. He had a scar on his chest which he claimed was a bullet wound from the first world war. For a while he was a photographer and him and my mum would dress up for photos. One of the photos he took was of him dressed up as a vicar, dog collar and all, with his face blacked-up with shoe polish. When I asked him when the photo had been taken he said it’d been taken in the days when he was a black vicar and I believed him and told my friends and teachers at primary school. All the kids in the village used to go to Sunday school where they sang hymns, ate Rice crispie buns, made nature tables, played games, drew bright Crayola pictures of Mary and Jesus and came home with rosettes and prizes. I got very jealous and wanted to go but my dad wouldn’t let me. When I asked him why, he said ‘because they’ll fill your head with bloody rubbish.’ My childhood in the church was a rich and happy one. Me and my brothers had a lot of freedom and the church was full of good magic. We had 7 cats, 12 rabbits and, for a year or two, a crow that we’d rescued called Eric. Maybe I associate churches with childhood happiness? I think that some of the holy dust from the church has stayed in my blood and, whether or not I understand it, I want to keep it there. In one of my creative writing seminars I handed out photographs of rooms and asked the students to imagine who lived there. One of the photos was a picture of my front room cram-packed full of religious imagery, saints, angels, Ganesh, Lakshmi, Buddha. I asked the girl who had got my photo who she thought might live there. ‘A nutter,’ she said. Though I’m not religious, I pray. Praying is a form of wishing and I do it often.
One of my favourite poems is ‘Someone Should Tell Her Mother She Is Taking Drugs’. It’s about a nosey neighbour who gets the wrong end of the stick. Is it based on anyone in particular?
Yes. That nosey neighbour is Joe who has moved on and probably passed away. Despite my portrayal of him in the poem he was a real sweetie, a nosey sweetie. He was a lonely, gay man in his 70s. Sometimes a young man came round and I’d see them sitting on his sofa together topless and eating pizza but most of the time he was alone. Joe was Irish. On hot days he’d open all his windows, put The Saw Doctors on full volume, wash his Shamrock and Tipperary print tea towels and hang them out on the washing line to dry. Joe’s sofa faced my front room and I imagined him watching my life like a television. I think he was more interested in my Irish-wandering-minstrel-boyfriend of the time than he was in me. Conversations we had usually began with Joe saying ‘When’s he back?’ Joe was very fond of my wandering minstrel. My wandering minstrel would wash Joe’s windows twice a year and then they’d sit on the sofa drinking whisky and getting more and more Irish by the minute. I think Joe really looked forward to his ‘window washing’ days. My wandering minstrel was away a lot, working at festivals or singing for his supper. He’d say goodbye to Joe each time he left and Joe would say ‘I’ll keep an eye on the little lady for you,’ and he did.
Who are you writing for?
I hope my poems are ornate but accessible. I love it when someone who has previously been ‘scared’ of poetry reads my poetry, and relates to it or likes it. I’m writing for anyone who is interested enough to read my work. What a feeling that is… to think a total stranger might pick up my book and read it. What a privilege. I’m writing for myself because, in reality, I’m a timid wee mouse but in my poetry I can roar. I’m writing for dead dogs and burger men and men who make churches out of matchsticks and people no one notices. I am noticing and remembering these creatures, these people, by accommodating them in my poems and giving them a home which won’t rot away. I often think my poems are letters in which I’m writing to the people I’m too scared to talk to, the people I’d like to meet. I love what Ali Smith says about writing, ‘ Writing anything at all, is to invite a dynamic meld of anarchy and discipline, to leave our prints in the fizzing fuse-lit possible places between order and chaos.’ I hope I’m leaving a few prints somewhere.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing about lock smiths and mothers. I’m writing about the stigma attached to being childless at forty. I’m writing about slugs devouring the broad beans in my garden. I’m writing a story about a mad Lollypop lady. I really want to strengthen my fiction writing muscles, write some short stories, but I think I need to eat a lot of spinach to give me the stamina to do so. Poems feel fairly transient. I want to inhabit another world and stay there for a while. I want to marry an idea and stick with it for longer than a year but I have yet to meet the right idea. It has to be strong, handsome and a bit of a wolf.
Are we going to have to wait another seven years for your next collection? (I bloody hope not).
I hope not too. The sense of limbo I experienced between my two collections was a hindrance. I completed the manuscript for Lifting The Piano With One Hand in 2010 and had these ghostly poems loitering around my head and waiting to ‘go out in to the world’. I felt I couldn’t really write anything new until they’d packed their cases, put on their shiny jackets and gone. They were sad, broken, whining things. They held me back and took up too much room in my head leaving little space for new ideas. I have written lots of poems between 2010 and 2013 but not as many as I could have done. I’d say I’ve got about 1/3rd of my next collection already. It shouldn’t have to be this way, but the publication of Lifting The Piano With One Hand has given me a sense of validation and I’m raring to write lots and lots of new poems in new voices. For a while, when people asked me ‘so what do you do?’ I’d say ‘uuum’ and avoid answering. Now I’d say ‘My name’s Gaia Holmes and I’m a poet.’
To buy Gaia’s book, go directly to the Comma website here: http://www.commapress.co.uk/?section=books&page=LiftingThePianoWithOneHand