HIST cover 3In my tenth interview for In the Booklight, I talk to David O’Hanlon about his poetry collection History (Valley Press), which I was also delighted to write an endorsement for.

Myth, famous personalities and very everyday personal histories feature side by side in ‘History’. How many different types of history did you set out to include in the collection and why?

Any act of recording, remembering, erasing, rewriting, or misreading the past is important, really, and I’ve tried to include as much as possible. I realised a couple of years ago that I was writing under the heading history, and the more I’ve tried to write under that guiding principle the less I’ve understood what it means. I’ve developed a bit of a skepticism towards those who call themselves historians, now. I mean, Ovid claimed to be writing history.

One thing I’ve always enjoyed is the irony that there’s very little in the collection which can be called history in the grander or more academic senses of the word. My focus is on the individual and our minor (but in no way insignificant) existences, rather than the society or culture.

The book’s epigraph is Samuel Butler’s ‘God cannot alter the past, historians can’. What role do you think recording history actually does, and should ideally, play? And what does using poetry rather than prose bring to this?

You kind of want to think that history’s role is simply to remember the past. But really it creates the past, defines it, celebrates and mourns it, deals with it, exaggerates and suppresses it. It manipulates the present, posits precedence for desired futures. History is never simply to remember. As soon as you have the intervention of the past’s mediator, the historian, it can no longer be an impartial act of remembrance. The word originates in ancient Greece as a term for a judge; someone passing judgement. Historians not only can, but always do change the past.

As far as verse over prose is concerned, I don’t know. Any student of history will tell you that any documentation is history of some kind. And as far as I know (and I could well be wrong) Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are the oldest known books in the world and, if they don’t provide “fact”, they provide insight into context and belief systems that help us understand the past as much as any dry, traditionally-“historical” document can. That’s not to say my own poems are historically significant, mind. Just that poems can contribute.

On a completely personal level, as well, I like to think of the Chinese proverb which says that the faintest ink outlives the strongest memory. As a writer, let people remember what you want them to remember of you. It is the perfect opportunity to manipulate your own history, and not just to eradicate your negative traits, but to overcome those difficult memories.

David O'Hanlon Photo credit: Phil Punton

David O’Hanlon
Photo credit: Phil Punton

Historically, who has been most inspiring person/character for you as a writer and why? And similarly who has been the most influential and why?

When I was about nine, I discovered Shakespeare, and my fascination was founded upon an absence of censorship from my parents or teachers. He was violent and shocking. Under no other circumstances would I have been allowed to read about a man murdering his way to power, but because it was being told by The Greatest Writer of All Time it was perfectly fine, even laudatory. How he’s impacted my poetry more recently was in the discovery that not only was Macbeth real (for a long time I was completely unaware of this), he in no way resembled the character Shakespeare gives us. Terms like fictionality and historicity seem inadequate. Shakespeare rewrote history as poetry and poetry as history. But I love the idea of being remembered falsely in the pages of a great poet rather than correctly in the dusty pages of an unread historian, just like it gives me a childish pleasure to imagine that some future scholar writing about Pyramus and Thisbe will, of all things, write about the old age I’ve provided them. Of course, the other prominent inspiration is Ovid, not just because he wrote myths and called them history, but because he created his own myth: that of the exiled poet. I know it’s a contentious point, but the idea that Ovid was exiled by Augustus, it has been suggested, was perhaps an invention by Ovid himself.

Though influence is the flip-side of that same coin, I always have much more reservations about talking about it. There’s always that desire to pay homage to the significant figures in your life, but I always feel there’s an element of comparison involved, and I’m very reticent about suggesting comparisons between myself and my idols. With that excuse out the way, though, I will name some. Paul Muldoon is a major influence. So are TS Eliot, Don Paterson and Rilke. If I was to explain their influence it would all be along formal and structural lines, but that influence is is always secondary to their significance to me. These are the poets I return to and, whether deliberate or not, their influence is, I think, to be found throughout my writing.

There is what I’d call a lovely very down-to-earth light dry humour in some of these poems. How important to you is that kind of angle on events, both in poetry and life?

I think we’ve all encountered that rather ill-informed idea that humour isn’t serious. It is. Laughter is liberating and empowering. To laugh at someone is to make them feel powerless, and to make you feel powerful. It’s why the political right so often have such contempt for satirists. History deals so much with the notion of my own past (albeit in a far more indirect way than my V. Press pamphlet, art brut, 2015), and sometimes laughing at it is exactly what it takes. To continually aestheticise the past and mine it for its emotional tug is, in many ways, to allow it to keep a power over you that it shouldn’t.

Similarly, there’s that idea that “low” humour isn’t appropriate to “high” art (whatever that is). Such pronouncements are made ignoring a book like Ulysses, the high-brow book of high-brow books, which is, let’s face it, one continuous stream of knob gags and innuendo.

Both ideas are, I guess, to do with the pretence of sophistication, and that’s something that I either try to avoid or at least try to acknowledge and play with, such as in Danaus when I cite Lucretius. Whether I do that successfully is of course a different matter.

You take on a number of different viewpoints and voices in these poems. Are there any particular processes that you use to get into character before, or while, you’re writing in non-autobiographical first person?

Not really. Samuel Butler said (I hate to quote him again as though he’s some presiding influence; he’s not) that all art is self-portraiture. These viewpoints are simply a way of problematising and expanding on my own experiences. I guess it’s something along the lines of that Keatsian idea of ‘negative capability’. I mean, I have no way of relating to a character as horrific and vile as Tereus, but I have known grief. To speak of grief, but in his name, is to create a new, uncomfortable dimension. Similarly, the two characters in ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ are loosely based on two people I know and love. The identification of them with the two mythological characters sheds new light on their relationship. I mean, we all want to be the perfect, over-romanticised couple we find in poetry, but are we in reality? Is anyone ever?

Are there other questions that I should ask of History? And what would the answers be?

I suppose an obvious question is to ask what drove this collection. The answer is my own past. When I was fifteen I was packed off to a psychiatric hospital, due to mental health problems. In my melodramatic way, I describe the cure as worse than the disease, though that should be taken with a pinch of salt as both disease and cure combined to create some of the worst experiences in my life. My pamphlet, art brut, which was written throughout 2014, deals with that aspect of my life. It was an attempt to make something new, positive, and maybe even a little joyful and hopeful out of my past. It’s a surprisingly upbeat and positive collection of poems, considering the subject matter. History, on the other hand, deals with the very notion of having a past. The earliest poems are from 2010, the latest from 2015. The two, for me, are companion pieces. I see art brut as much more raw and intensely personal, and History as much more detached, delicate and philosophical, though no less intense. They’re both quite different in a lot of ways. History is, I guess, more “mature”, or something along those lines. Both are as “me” as I could hope them to be.

After all I’ve said about notions of history and memory, all I can really say is that they’re poems of love and despair, and plenty of things in between. They are what they are, and that’s all any poem really can be.

HIST cover 3Where can people get hold of a copy of ‘History’?

The best way is through the Valley Press website (valleypressuk.com). It can also be ordered from your local bookshop, as well as through Amazon and Waterstones and other online retailers.

Thank you, David, for sharing these thoughts on history, inspiration and your writing processes.

To read more In the Booklight interviews with authors, please click on this link.