Poet Holly Hopkins talks to Roisin Dunnet about robots, medieval castles and writing her Forward Prize-shortlisted debut collection.
The English Summer is my first collection and for a long time I wasn’t writing a book, I was writing individual poems. It was only gradually I felt I was starting to circle in. I found myself returning to and deepening my engagement with specific themes: a sense of place and the manufacture of national identities and histories. That’s when I knew I was writing a collection.
I could answer that for individual poems but for the whole book it is much trickier. Every poem has its own inspiration – it’s usually either something I love or something which has made me angry.
Different poems come in different ways. Sometimes I want to write a poem and I’ll go for a walk and fit lines together in my mind as I pace. Sometimes I’m at a desk and I’ll use a free writing exercise to get started, perhaps a follow-on exercise involving postcards if I need an extra warm-up. Then there are the terrible and glorious times when something happens and I just need to write it.
I have a friend from university whose gift is making robots. While I was doing a university summer job in a cinema, he was designing a robot that attaches to the front of a train and detects weaknesses in the tracks. He sold his design to a company. His PhD refined the bit in a robotic lawnmower’s navigation system that stops them escaping and eating people’s begonias. I was jealous that his talent was economically valuable. I thought he might stay in academia but he left and went to work for a supermarket chain. I asked him why? He said he’d looked at all of his potential employers, both inside the academy and outside, and he couldn’t find a single other job opening where his work wouldn’t be useful in developing new weapons – in fact many of the positions on offer were directly sponsored by defence firms. His creativity requires a lot of money for its expression. He needs a lot more expensive equipment than the books, pen and paper I need. So, he works for a supermarket developing new robots which help organise and pick online orders.
There are days when I think writing poetry is impossibly hard because I struggle to balance my writing with necessary paid work and my unpaid caring responsibilities. Then I remember my friend and I am glad that I can write on my own terms, albeit battling the writing-work/paid-work/domestic-work/life balance. It can be hard, but at least I’m unlikely to accidentally kill people if I make a careless choice.
It matters because we use the past to tell a story about ourselves and what we can and should do. There are a couple of poems in the collection – “The Moon” and “The Castle” – that celebrate forgotten medieval technology. It really bugs me that, when medieval castles are shown in films, they all look like Winterfell in Game of Thrones: bare stone, flaming torches, windows without any panes in the middle of winter as if people were idiots. When glass windows were a luxury confined to church architecture, people with means had translucent windowpanes made from linen dipped in beeswax. They had lanterns made with thin plates of see-through horn. When these obsolete technologies are forgotten it creates the impression that innovation only really got underway with the industrial revolution. This feeds the dangerous and pervasive lie that people are at their most inventive when they’re also at their most polluting. We need to confront that lie because it creates a sense of unproductive despair, when we need to be active to meet the challenges of climate change.
I’m interested in stories which are carried around in people’s heads. The ones they feel they know without having to look them up. Often these are stories where the boundary between history and legend has grown fuzzy. An example might be my poem ‘Hilda and Cædmon’. Here are two real people, Cædmon is widely celebrated as the ‘First English Poet’ a former swineherd who was supposedly visited by an angel and commanded to sing the song of creation. Meanwhile, Hilda was the abbess at Whitby Abby on whose estates Cædmon worked, we’re told she was also a saint who turned snakes into stone. I doubt she really transformed snakes but the existence of the story, and the story’s impact, are historical facts with their own power. And what if we inverted Cædmon’s story? What if instead of Cædmon the poet struck by divine inspiration, and Hilda acting as handmaiden to his talent, we have Hilda the arts funder who created the first English poet by picking out someone who seemed likely and giving them the time – free from other labour – to develop their poetry. That seems a more realistic story. So why is it the story of talent miraculously developing in an instant that gets remembered? Stories shape the way we think about the world. That makes me want to take out the stories that live in my own pockets and really look at them.