Friday, 11 February 2011

Poet Visit: John Hegley

Last Sunday John Hegley came by our bookshop, Ripping Yarns for an author event, and also for a chat with me [well, us!] about poetry. We sat down amongst the antiquarian books - John was particularly taken with a book called 'Hannibal the Hamster', which Celia let him keep. And we had a natter over a cup of tea and some cake. Ohm.

This interview is typed up from the dictaphone.

John, hello, thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for us. When did you first start writing, and how did you get into it?

Well, I wrote my Daily News when I was about five, which was the start of my writing, and that was fictitious. I’ve looked through those and there was certainly inventions of new red hats and coats which I definitely never owned, so you could say that was the start of my creative writing. Then we were read ‘Tarrentella’ by Hilaire Belloc - Mr Brenan read that to us, and that really made me want to dig into poetry and maybe to write it as well, because I did write a poem around that time. So, that would be the first poem I wrote: ‘The cave is hot, the kettle is boiling, the ugly snakes around it coiling, one which has a wooden spoon, another rides upon a broom.’ I can’t remember the rest.

So, what is it with poetry and performance poetry that you love so much?

See, I mean, when is a poem a performance poem? I’ve got a poem that I’ve been reading for ages, and then I got the audience to say ‘some people’ at the start of every line, because it’s called ‘Some People.’ So, then maybe it’s become a performance poem? But there’s not that much difference. I used to say ‘some people write their name in books when they’re thirty three and they only live with one other person, some people think they’re more important then they are.' You know, various some peoples. That’s just reading a poem, isn’t it? Now the audience say ‘some people’ suddenly it’s become a performance poem? Seems a bit too much, really, for me.

Do you think there’s too much of a new separation between ‘performance poets’ and the old fashioned idea of sitting in a room and not talking to anybody and writing something almost for yourself and not to share?

I just think that the lines are quite blurred, you know. I mean, there are some poems in my books that I never read out, but then one day I might think well, actually, I’ll read that one and suddenly that’s come out of the closet, suddenly that line has gone. Maybe these categories help to let people know what they’re getting, you know, so if you say to them that it’s going to be a performance poem they get more of the idea that it’s going to be that rather than a quiet reading. But, I think that sometimes it's made to seem a bit more cut and dry than it actually is.

Yes, I see what you mean. Do you think that if you’re performing a poem, do you think that it’s maybe something closer to music? And maybe poems that you wouldn’t read out are less so? Why would you choose to read out one poem and not others?

Maybe… maybe because it’s more of a quieter feel. Maybe if it’s melancholy… though that’s not a reason not to read it out. I guess what I’m trying to say that is that it doesn’t have to be funny to read it out, no. It doesn’t have to be funny to perform it. But sometimes things are just quiet observations… but, I tell you what, you know what I take from this Jen? I’m going to read out more of the poems that I haven’t read before because, now that you’re asking me, I’m thinking why the heck haven’t I read them out before. laughs.

Fair enough. Talking about comedy, though, do you find that humour in poetry means that you’re able to reach more people? People, perhaps, who think that poetry is very serious and hard work – and only about love etc?

I think it helps, but just because it’s funny doesn’t mean that it can’t be about love. It can still be that and funny.

Sure, but do you also think that humour can be [and shouldn’t only be used for, but can be] used to say more without making the audience feel as though you’re shoving it down their throats?

Yeah - it’s a sugar coated pill.

What do you think poetry should be used for?

I don’t know if poetry should be used for anything, but it can be used to help you remember things, so maybe lessons could be learned there. People use it in situations where they get married, or there’s a funeral. People like to use it for occasions, maybe we should make more occasions in our lives so that we can write more poetry for those occassions. Like, drinking these cups of tea, here, we should have a poem for that, perhaps.

Why not!

That kind of thing… that kind of cuppa.

What about politics?

Yes, I think not should, again, but I think that it can be. There’s a very good exhibition on at the British Library at the moment, about language, and there’s a poem by Tony Harrison which delves into a political area, and I thought it was very arresting.

On our book forum we have the Book Tree, where members pick their favourite book or poetry book and we post them around to each other, and write in them as we read them. So when each member gets their book back, it’s filled with comments from other people. What book would you pick to put in the Book Tree, and why?


Anything you want

Well, maybe a book of Norman Nicholson verse, because I gave a copy of it to my friend who I’ve known since I was four, and he picked out these two lines and said that those two lines are the most phenomenal lines he’d ever read, and I know that he doesn’t read much poetry. And there’s a lovely one about a guillemot. Perhaps ‘The Third Policeman' by Flann O’Brien, because part of that is about how the policeman sits on his bicycle and his bicycle turns into him, so at some point the policeman is more than fifty percent bicycle because there’s an interchange of molecules between the two of them. So, that’s a lovely story. ‘Earthly Powers’ perhaps by Anthony Burgess… that’s a bit fat though. In terms of thin books, W. S. Graham, a collection of his perhaps. There’s a very nice collection that Jo Shapcott, ‘The Poetry Cure’ which is a really fantastic collection of poems.

That’s a very large parcel that you’re posting around, there.

Ok, ok… If I had to select out of that lot, then, I’d keep ‘The Third Policeman


... and the W. S. Graham….


and Norman Nicholson.


and now I'm going to go and try and find those two lines that were the best thing his friend had ever read, and kick myself that I didn't ask John what they were, when I had the chance



  1. This is such a great interview, Jen. I've met John Hegley a couple of times and he's just as lovely as he is here.

  2. He sounds wonderful Jen - would love to meet him just from reading this!