OZ HARDWICK INTERVIEW
Oz Hardwick is a York-based poet and musician of distinction. Here, he chats exclusively to Steve about 2013’s many and varied trials and tribulations, his passion for words, and his brand new book…
Hello Oz, how are things?
It’s been a bit of a bumpy year so far, but things aren’t looking too bad at the moment.
As ever, I get the sense that it’s been an extremely busy year for you…
Yes. I guess I’m not very good at saying ‘no’ to interesting projects. At the moment, you catch me between two performances of the ‘Tanka and Taiko’ set, which I have been involved in for a couple of years with Amina Alyal, Kaminari Taiko and, latterly, Anna Plews on flutes and Michael Graham on koto and shamisen. Also, in a few days I’m participating in a poetry walk that Becky Cherriman has put together for Morley Literature Festival, which involves a number of poets reading their works which have been adapted as art installations around the town. We’re also at the end of the first week of the new Creative Writing MA at Leeds Trinity University, for which I’m the Director. And that’s just this week…
Have you had chance to write and perform much poetry this year?
Now you ask, I think the answer’s ‘yes’. It’s funny, I’ve had the feeling that it’s not been a very productive year, but now you’ve made me think about it, there’s actually been a lot going on. Obviously, there have been a number of solo readings – one of the particularly enjoyable ones being at the Oversteps Poetry session at the Ways with Words festival at Dartington Hall down in Devon – but I’ve been involved in some particularly interesting collaborations. Something I’m excited about at the moment is a sequence I’ve written in response to some poems written by my maternal grandfather, who was a great influence on me. These are being set to music by Peter Byrom-Smith, and I hope they’ll be performed somewhere next year.
Also, any day now, I have a new book out, An Eschatological Bestiary, which is being published by Dog Horn, who publish experimental and transgressive writing. I had a few poems in their anthology, Bite Me, Robot Boy, and I’m really pleased they wanted to publish Bestiary, which is a bit of a departure for me, bridging my poetry and my academic work. My most recent book is an academic monograph, English Medieval Misericords: the Margins of Meaning, which just came out in paperback earlier this year.
Along with this, I’m involved in an occasional collaboration with an excellent poet from Chicago called Robin Fine. I’ve also released a CD with another Chicago poet, Janet Kuypers, and had tracks with Sixpenny Wayke and A Tiding of Magpies released on the Cold Spring ‘Dark Britannica’ CD, Hail Be You Sovereigns, Lief And Dear. So, I seem to have been keeping busy, after all.
How old were you when you started writing poetry, and what first encouraged you to put pen to paper?
I started writing a lot when I was twelve. I think, like a lot of people, the catalyst was puberty kicking in, and having all this chaotic stuff going on for which I needed an outlet. In terms of why that outlet was poetry: as I’ve said, a major influence was my grandfather who lived with us. He was very much an autodidact, with a huge enthusiasm for the Lake poets – he’d lived in the Lake District – and, particularly, Robert Burns. He could quote reams of their work, and I think their directness appealed to me. He also used to write poetry, though only a few of his poems survive. Then, on my own, I discovered the Liverpool poets who, again, appealed because they were speaking a language I could understand.
Alongside this, I was – and still am – passionate about music, and when I was entering my teens in the early seventies, popular music was rather more literate than it tends to be now. I loved T. Rex, and though Marc Bolan’s book of poetry tends to be dismissed as hippy nonsense, one thing it undoubtedly does have is a real sense of enjoyment of the texture of language. The big influence, though, was Michael Moorcock and, particularly, Robert Calvert’s work with Hawkwind. Seeing ‘Silver Machine’ on Top of the Pops was, in a very real sense, life-changing. Apart from being a great track, the accompanying film was just hairy, degenerate chaos, and I immediately thought, I want some of that! So, when I bought the live Space Ritual album and heard these spoken passages over these strange, spacey electronics, it was a revelation. For a few years after that I was writing bad science-fiction poetry and lyrics with a bunch of friends who couldn’t really play anything. We just made a horrible racket – it was brilliant! And though my writing set off in a completely different direction a long way back, I can still trace the lessons of cadence and precision of image I first picked up from ‘The Awakening’ and ‘10 Seconds of Forever’ in bits and pieces I’ve done right up to the present.
Do you have a preferred style of poetry, or do you simply sit down and see how your thoughts and feelings organically evolve without trying to force them into a specific style?
I very much go through phases. An Eschatological Bestiary, for example, came out of a period of exploring the possibilities of prose-poetry, whilst at the same time going through one of my periodic returns to surrealism… though the ghost of Paul Delvaux seems to sneak into my poetry whatever I’m thinking about; his paintings have haunted me since my school days. On the other hand, sometimes I like to go back to the nuts and bolts of tradition and will spend a while writing sonnets.
Of all the poems you’ve written over the years, do you have any poems that you’re particularly fond of? If so, why is that the case?
Naturally, this changes from one week to the next, but there are a few in particular that remain amongst my favourites. ‘Stormcrow’ from Carrying Fire is special to me, because it was maybe the first that was noticed beyond my immediate circle. Also, at Glastonbury a few years ago, I got to read it on stage with the band Pyramids of SNAFU, which featured a couple of original Hawkwind members, so that was a nice re-connection. From my last collection, I’m particularly fond of ‘The Seafarer’s Return’ which I call ‘an Anglo-Saxon sonnet’. It’s a response to the Exeter Book elegy known as The Seafarer which, although very specifically Christian, seems to me to be more generally about taking the road you know to be right, rather than the one you know to be easy. As with the original, my poem has a few layers to it, and can be read in a number of ways, whether as a meditation on the interior exploration of artistic creation, a confrontation of the disconnections brought about through bipolarity, or simply the mixed feelings of returning home after a lengthy physical separation. I could list a few more, but will just go for ‘The Trail of the Fox’: my slightly postmodern contribution to the European Reynardian tradition, and which is maybe my most popular poem. It was my dad’s favourite, too. As he passed away a few weeks ago, it’s taken on another degree of significance now.
You have had a series of poetry collections published to critical acclaim. Are you presently in the process of writing anything new?
‘Acclaim’ may be stretching things a bit, but I’m fortunate in having had uniformly positive reviews so far. I’m always working on new material. In terms of publication, I’m just at the point of hammering out the contents of my next collection, the name of which hasn’t been finalised yet, which will be published through Valley Press next spring. An Eschatological Bestiary is very much a stand-alone project, which I doubt will crop up in my readings – it’s written and designed specifically with the page and the physical book in mind, rather than to be read aloud. The next one, however, will be the follow-up to The Illuminated Dreamer, and will be made up of a selection of what I think are my best poems of the last two or three years.
Who are your favourite poets to read, and what is it about their work that you find so compelling?
Of contemporary poets, I absolutely love Katrina Porteous. I don’t think there’s anyone who can match her for the sheer music of her language. I’ve always liked Simon Armitage for that demotic directness I talked about earlier, and his Seeing Stars collection from 2010 was quite remarkable in its use of prose-poetry: that’s how to do it! Another no-nonsense voice with incredible depth and subtlety is Paul Farley. Christopher Reid, in A Scattering, showed how to free the intensely personal from self-indulgence – something we can all learn from. Going further back, the jagged energy of Jack Spicer is quite thrilling, few have ever handled the line as well as Robert Browning, and, of course, Geoffrey Chaucer kicked off the whole thing – well, following William Langland – and is still worth a few hours of anyone’s time every so often.
As well as being a poet, you’re a talented musician who plays in York-based band Root 64. How long has the band been gigging together, and are there any gigs coming up on the near horizon?
Thanks! Actually, I’d say I’m a fairly rudimentary musician, but in Root 64 I do get to play alongside two very talented people, singer-guitarist Miles Salter and fiddle player Nick Thompson. It came out of a Dylan-themed poetry and music show – Subterranean Homesick Yorkshire Blues – which Miles and I, along with Helen Burke, Paul Coleman and Dave Gough, took around various northern venues about four years ago, I guess. It was the first time Miles and I had worked together, and shortly afterwards he asked if I’d play bass with him at another show, along with a friend of his who played fiddle. It being a small world, this friend turned out to be Nick, who I’d seen with The Buttermountain Boys a few times in the early nineties and also met through mutual friends down at the Cropredy Festival. It went well, and so we’ve played on and off ever since. We fit it in when we can and it’s always great fun, but I don’t think we’ve anything lined up at the moment.
You’ve been fortunate enough to play at Glastonbury in the past, in the company of some of your musical heroes. How did that experience manifest, and did the reality live up to expectations?
As you’ve no doubt picked up, I’m always excited to be working with other people, and it’s particularly exciting to do something with people I’ve admired for a long time. The first time I did Glastonbury I was on the Poetry and Words stage, but spent most of my time hanging round the Mandala Stage, which was more or less next door that year, and which was run by a couple of people I’ve known since the eighties because of following Hawkwind the length and breadth of the land. The other couple of times I’ve been were as half of Sixpenny Wayke, an acoustic duo with Paul Coleman, which were centred upon the Mandala Stage, where we also did a few poems during band change-overs. This led to my guesting with Pyramids of SNAFU – a band which included a couple of members of the original line-up of Hawkwind – which was great. The real buzz last time we were there was getting to play as the sun was coming up, with all the campfire smoke drifting across. This was up in the Green Futures Field, well away from the corporate Hell of the Pyramid Stage, and it was just as I’d dreamed of Glastonbury being when I bought the Glastonbury Fayre album back when I was fourteen. Definitely a memory to treasure.
To tie things up neatly, Alan ‘Boomer’ Davey, who was with Hawkwind for over twenty years, got a band called the Psychedelic Warlords together this year to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Space Ritual, playing the whole album, complete with encore. I saw them in March and it was absolutely tremendous. Anyway, when they were coming up to play in York in September, he got in touch and asked if I’d like to read a couple of the spoken sections. So, after all these years, I found myself in the eye of the electric storm reciting Calvert’s poems, going back to something that was so seminal in my own development – I’m not sure it gets better than that! In my idea of a perfect world, I’d love to write new material with them, as they’re a great band who I hope will carry on beyond the Space Ritual tour, and it would be great to participate in that sort of project after all these years. It doesn’t seem all that likely, but then so many things that have happened in the past ten years or so seemed highly unlikely just a few years earlier, so you never know…
Living in York as you do, which other poets and musicians from the area do you admire?
First off, I’d have to say Miles Salter. Yes, he’s a good friend, but that’s not why I mention him first. We got to know each other through our work and we each have great respect for what the other does. His new collection, Animals, is really first-class. Someone for whom I also have a lot of time is Pat Borthwick. And then there’s York’s best-kept secret, Dave Gough, who I don’t think has actually published anything, but who has been producing witty poems of deceptive depth for years now. As for musicians, Union Jill are just starting to pick up some of the national attention they deserve, producing intelligent songs with brilliant harmonies. And where would York be without David Ward Maclean, eh?
Finally, what’s the best way for folk to learn more about your poetry and music?
Google! I’d love to be slick and point you to my website, but I haven’t got one. A friend says she’ll do one for me, but I can always think of something more interesting to be getting on with than self-promotion. Maybe I’ll get it done soon but, in the meantime, just put my name in a search engine. And while you’re there, take a look at that old clip of ‘Silver Machine’ on YouTube.
(Questions by Steve Rudd; Answers by Oz Hardwick)
This interview was conducted on 2nd October, 2013.