Thursday, 13 December 2012

Author Visit: Melissa Lee-Houghton

I'm very, very happy to welcome Melissa Lee-Houghton to the blog. I raved about her collection 'A Body Made of You' in a blog post recently, and tracked her down on Twitter, asking her to come and talk to us. I think this is probably the most heartfelt and honest interview I've posted, and I thank Melissa for that.

Everyone who replies to this blog post will have their name put into a hat, and the name pulled out of that hat will win a copy of 'A Body Made of You.' The giveaway closes at midnight Monday 17th, and is open to everyone worldwide.

If you don't win, do track down a copy. If you only buy one poetry collection this year, or over several years, make sure that it's this one. 


Hi Melissa, thanks so much for stopping by the blog!

Thank you for having me!

Can you tell us about your relationship with poetry? When did it start, and how did it evolve?

I always delighted in reading rhymes as a child, The Owl and the Pussycat for instance, and when I was seven or eight I wrote a very long poem on many pieces of paper. My teacher stapled it onto the classroom wall. I was immensely thrilled. It was about scuba diving, and I’d painstakingly illustrated it too. I had ideas that poems were very important, and I have no idea where this came from, but I think I just took it upon myself to find out about them. I read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner which I found so dark and dramatic. I had these really old illustrated books on whaling and my world began to take shape, with these gloriously tempestuous books. 

As I became older, we kept an anthology on the bookshelf called The Albatross, which I don’t think I was supposed to touch, but I got it out and read to myself. Eventually, when I was a young teenager I went to a bookshop in Skipton and saw Sylvia Plath’s collected works and wanted to buy it. My parents tried to put me off, in light of the fact I was in psychiatric care at the time. They told me she had killed herself, and that possibly made me want to read it even more. In the end they let me have it and I read it hungrily. I have never coveted a book like I coveted that one. It was very difficult for me to find poetry but I discovered Brian Patten’s Love Poems which I think was the standard book in WHSmith’s poetry section and probably still is. I loved it, the study of love, the body, psychologies. I read some of Leonard Cohen’s poetry, and borrowed Forward Prize anthologies from my local library. 

Overall, I had a feeling that poetry was something very difficult to get into or find out about. I don’t remember ever studying it at school until I was fifteen, though I barely attended secondary school. When I was sixteen I had an English teacher who encouraged my own writing and I realized it was something I desperately wanted to do. In hospital during my teenage years a nurse brought Dylan Thomas for me, and all I can really say is poetry affected me in a way nothing else could, though I admit to being influenced by song lyrics, as this was the main component of language and rhythm in my literary diet throughout my broken-up adolescence.

What does poetry mean to you?

I write poetry or prose every day. Poetry means I can express myself. Many times in my life I have felt I couldn’t express myself or couldn’t be heard, so being able to write about anything at all, as it occurs to me, anytime I want to, is the ultimate fulfilled wish for me. I also think if I didn’t read poetry at all my inner life would not be as rich. I don’t think you can really write poetry if you don’t also read it. Sometimes I read a poem and it astounds me so much I just have to put the book down and breathe! If I didn’t have poetry in my life the colour would begin to drain out of it, and I would not have the same sense of purpose. I also wouldn’t think in the same way, or be interested in the world in the same way.

Which poets inspire you?

Elizabeth Smart, author of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is my ultimate literary heroine. I first read her work when I was twenty and I couldn’t believe anyone had the imagination or the fluency of language to write something so tragically beautiful. She taught me that no matter what the thought or deed, no matter how painful or unpopular an idea, that writing transcends those things, and you can write anything you like, for anyone you like, or for no-one in particular. I love the Russian poets Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva for their bravery and stark and sober adherence to a line of inquiry. I love Anne Carson, for writing about pain and love and the female experience of it. My favourite living poet is Sharon Olds. 

One subject I struggle to write about is my family, especially my children. I don’t know how to access that emotion as it feels so primeval and raw and frightening; to love someone so much. Sharon Olds writes about family with such brilliance. She also explores pain and violence in a way not many writers can compare. Other writers that inspire me include Sheila Hamilton, whose book Corridors of Babel had those ‘put the book down and breathe’ moments. Abegail Morley tackles subjects like love, death and mental illness with unerring nerve. Lucie Brock-Broido is new on my radar but I love her mysticism and her living magic. (I realize I have mentioned no male poets whatsoever,) I also love Bobby Parker’s work. He doesn’t hold anything back and there’s all kinds of psychological and psycho-somatic distress and raw emotion but there’s also a tenderness and love for the world around him which is infectious. One of my all time heroes is Frank Stanford, whose work is under-celebrated and ridiculously stunning, and I would have loved to have spent an afternoon drinking tea, smoking cigarettes and talking with him, watching the sun set from a porch in a garden with a lawn and a picket fence. I would have liked to have tried my hand at convincing him not to shoot himself in the heart. 

When you’re writing a poem, how does it normally form at first? As an idea, or as an initial phrase?

I just let something come to me, anything, a line, a word, an image, whatever it is I just write it straight down. I have learned to just write. I used to think, no, that’s no good, and I’d be editing as I wrote and thinking about an end product, but now I just let my mind and intuition get on with it and I put it all down and then re-draft later, re-writing the whole structure, working on paper and on computer until a draft is accumulated. I rarely ever sit and think ‘I’m going to write about x today.’ I rarely have a line I’ve held onto all day. I try not to formulate any writing until I’m actually sat with a pen in my hand. It has to be automatic.

I do believe, however, that ninety per cent of a poet’s work is in thought and time spent NOT writing. I walk every day and my mind covers a lot of ground. On some level I’m laying the groundwork for my next poem almost unconsciously.

Tell us about A Body Made of You: how did it come into being? How long did you work on it for? Which poem was the first you wrote, and which was the last?

I was going through a mixed bipolar episode, and it was something I thought up in the early hours of the morning, that I could write a sequence of portraits and interview people. I contacted a large number of people when I was high and a fraction said they were interested, but it was enough. I have no idea how long I worked on it because I have no concept of how long the episode lasted. I took my manuscript in and out of psychiatric hospitals with me, and it kept me going, it was my purpose, it may have even kept me alive. I don’t remember writing the poems, except ‘Portrait of the Husband: the dream’ and ‘portrait: scorched and flayed.’ I wrote the former heavily drugged on antipsychotics in front of the living room fire, and I felt I’d written exactly what I wanted to say. The latter I wrote after a reading in Manchester with the ‘sitter.’ I came home and wrote it in bed on scraps of paper. My husband was very tired and wanted to me turn out the light but I wouldn’t, and at one point I was shaking so badly because I was manic it’s a wonder I ever managed to decipher any of it.

The collection is an examination of people; looking at them from all different angles, seeing things that other people wouldn’t. Can you talk us through one of the portraits?

I interviewed most of the portrait ‘sitters,’ at length. I knew some of these people well and a few of them were complete strangers to me. The first portrait of Stephen came about through extensive correspondence and ‘Stephen’ had also been inspired to paint by subjects we were discussing. It is very difficult to write so close to the mark but he appreciated that writing, like painting, shouldn’t be an exercise in how to make people feel comfortable, or how to dress something up so it resembles something beautiful. He knew that there is beauty in the abject, the terrifying, the tragic. This affinity allowed me to write things that were tough, that weren’t easy to say and look at his own relationships and emotional life and try to make sense of it all. Only it doesn’t make sense nor does it need to make sense. I was inspired by Beckett, especially the last poem in the sequence where my sense of this person just bleeds out. ‘Stephen’s’ paintings are cruel. Cruel in the sense that what they show the viewer is masked. There’s masked pain. There’s anonymity in suffering. There are wolves in sheeps’ clothing, dogs and séance and intense portraits that you want to kiss, punch or shatter. I visited his studio, which was caked in paint, the floorboards, the walls, and whiskey bottles and a black curtain half hanging off and an impossibly bright bare daylight bulb. I could feel him screaming inside, throwing paint at the walls, grabbing the bottle, pacing, talking. I knew that this was a person living with the acute concept of their own mortality. Someone who suffered the afflictions of youth indefinitely. I needed to write his portrait, because I sensed that everything he had to say was never going to be heard.

What is the collection’s publication story?

I sent it to Tom Chivers at Penned in the Margins and waited quite a while. I was surprised when he asked me to resend as he’d had his laptop stolen. When he wrote and said he wanted it, I was, well, I was so happy I couldn’t speak. I was on my way to the swimming pool, so I went and swam just beaming and thinking about all the wonderful things, like what it might look like. I came home and started to ring people, and then it sank in. I think this is one of the happiest memories of my whole life.

You say on your blog that routine is a very important part of your working life - what is your writing routine?

After the morning school run I start work. I have a desk I sit at, though sometimes I like to sit next to a window I can see out of, as it puts me in a state of dissociation. When I write I feel barely there, unreal, detached. I sometimes listen to music while I write as a constraint. I work until lunch, and then I go walking and work in the afternoon before I get the kids. I drink a LOT of tea. I like to use a particular cheap black biro, I buy from a local discount shop. I have a notebook which would be unintelligible to most people aside from the rather obsessive lists. 

Any poetry collection recommendations?

Corridors of Babel, by Sheila Hamilton, which is human, has swathes of empathy, incredible surreal imagery and so many perfectly conceived ideas both historical, political and mythological. 
Ghost Town Music by Bobby Parker which is raw, broken and honest and lights up with quiet hysteria.
Steak and Stations by Michael Egan is expressively vivid, original and surreal, and his passion for language, for place and for possibility comes through on every page. 

What’s the one piece of advice you would you give to a poet?

You don’t need to go to university and suffer many years of debt to be a writer. You do not have to have a lot of money to be a writer. You don’t have to have an MA to be a writer. You just have to write. 

You say things that people don’t want to hear are often the most vital things we need to say.’ What are you working on at the moment, and what are your goals for the future?

I’ve recently finished a pamphlet manuscript and my second collection. The pamphlet is largely concerned with abuse, which in the wake of what has recently come to light with Jimmy Saville, is necessary. It is necessary to speak out. I think that anyone who has a voice and an opportunity or platform, should speak out about abuse, because nobody should have to keep it to themselves. I think that for a long time the media haven’t exposed abuse and exactly how widespread it is. This has had a knock on effect with the general public and people have felt that they must not come forward, that they shouldn’t ‘play the victim’ and they won’t be believed by people in authority. I hope that in light of what has happened in the entertainment industry people are going to open their eyes. People are going to listen. 

 I’m also writing a collection of prose poems around the experiences of teenagers. I have a teenage daughter and I remember now how hard it was to be her age. Some artists are illustrating it, and I don’t know where it might lead but it’s one of those projects you do purely for the love of it. All I hope for the future is that I can continue to write. Often, I have a lot of self-doubt, but when I’m actually into it, writing, typing, editing, planning, playing around with language and ideas, I’m so absorbed, just so grateful to be able to do it at all. 


'With all these fineries and mermaid's hair
and a jaw as tense as a fox, you cannot undress
you are always dressed. Your voice does not know
if it is British or indeed if your throat comes from the purse
of an orchid - there's a lamb's bleat in your gut
and two bride's nervous bellies in your midriff.' 

Everyone who replies to this blog post will have their name put into a hat, and the name pulled out of that hat will win a copy of 'A Body Made of You.' The giveaway closes at midnight Monday 17th. 

If you don't win, track down a copy. If you only buy one poetry collection this year, or over several years, make sure that it's this one. 


  1. What an absolutely wonderful interview, thank you Jen and Mel. I rarely read any blog posts all the way to the end, my attention span is so shot, but it was a combination of already being a big fan of both of you and your work and the fact that I found this interview incredibly moving that kept me hooked til the end. Thank you. I have A Body Made of You, can't wait for more MLH!

  2. I have always felt tremendous admiration for Melissa because she is SO honest both in her work, and in relation to it, as here. Her use of language and imagery is stunning, always surprising, and yes, often breathtaking.

    1. The above from Zoe King. I've tried to rename the blog, but the system insists on identifying me as Happing Writers. Sorry!

  3. I have always felt tremendous admiration for Melissa because she is SO honest both in her work, and in relation to it, as here. Her use of language and imagery is stunning, always surprising, and yes, often breathtaking.

  4. "I don’t know how to access that emotion as it feels so primeval and raw and frightening; to love someone so much."

    This is a really really beautiful interview, it felt...brave somehow, as though it wasn't just a series of answers to questions, but more honest than that. [which makes no sense. I know what I mean in my head. I am under-caffeinated today]

    In a nutshell, the interview was wonderful and the book sounds equally so.

  5. I really liked her advice for writers. Sounds like an interesting book. I don't own any poetry books, I need to sort this in the new year.


  6. Lovely interview. "Heartfelt and honest" and also a generous quality to Melissa's responses.

  7. Excellent interview. Useful and inspiring. I am a fan of Melissa's work and already have "A Body Made of You"; if I win a second copy, I will share with a lucky friend :-)

  8. This was a fantastic interview. "A Body Made of You" sounds like a must-have!

  9. Excellent interview. A Body Made of You is now on my Amazon wishlist, along with the Bobby Parker, who I recently published in Astronaut.

  10. What an interesting and inspiring start to my day. Thank you!

  11. Very enjoyable interview. I especially liked her discussion of her personal processes. I look forward to actually reading her work in the near future. Cheers!

  12. This is such an inspiration! I love coming across a poet who is so real and transparent! I always feel like I've learned something of high value.

  13. Well Hello from accross the ocean again. G'day Jen, hello Melissa!
    I would greatly enjoy a full copy of your book. I will even help with the shipping. My daughter moved to England and we have been learn first hand the high cost of shipping!
    I am standing by, with a joyous mind. Pick me he said with a grin!

  14. Thanks to everyone for entering! The name pulled out of the hat was braithanlithe - please email me your address.

    Everyone else - please do buy a copy of 'A Body Made of You' - you won't regret it! And Michael, hello again! It's been a while :) x