Interview: Noel Williams

Noel Williams

We speak to Noel Williams about hallucinating in a hospital, editing his poetry collection, and the origin of his old nickname. Noel’s poetry appeared in issue 37 of Neon.

The descriptions in your poem “Sanatorium” have a wonderfully ghostly feel to them. What was the inspiration for this poem? What’s the strangest job you’ve ever had?

Both these questions get essentially the same answer.

In my gap year, between school and university, I was a hospital porter in a geriatric hospital in Oxford. Hospital porter is about the lowest rung of the health care hierarchy, getting many unpleasant and tedious jobs, some of which can be downright upsetting. I keep finding myself writing poems from this experience, though on reflection the difficulties were more to do with me being “sensitive” and over-imaginative (as my mother would still say) than real problems at work.

A few examples of the kind of work: I had my first encounter with dead bodies at perhaps nineteen years old. The main task was to haul the shrouded corpse from the ward where she or he died (usually Ward E, as fading people were moved progressively down the alphabet) inside a tin trolley that looked like a sheeted stretcher, but was actually a box in which you laid the body, down to the mortuary, then either lift it from the trolley to the slab, or perhaps help stash it in a frozen locker. A slightly chilling job. Worse, though, was probably the carting of amputated limbs in green plastic bags to the fridge in the mortuary. One porter would gleefully swing such things over his head, giggling. That same porter kept his packed lunch in the mortuary fridge.

But worse for me was the night shift, 10PM to 6AM, where you were required to patrol the grounds alone, checking locks and rattling doors and gates for security. This included checking the mortuary. Sometimes the lights were on, but no-one around. Sometimes the door was unlocked.

I became more and more spooked by this job. Patrolling the walks of the dying and the dead at night, with people suffering from dementia crying from their beds, and knowing that, sooner or later, I’d be wheeling them down to the mortuary fridge, I began to hallucinate and, after about three months, had to quit the job.

I’ve worked on the factory floor, as a farm hand, as a shop assistant, as a cleaner, as a clerk, as a gardener and even as an academic – but this was the most difficult job I’ve ever had.

1984 In 1968″ mentions two books by George Orwell: Animal Farm and 1984. Are you a fan of Orwell’s work? I read the poem as your reaction to reading Orwell in 1968. Do you think it would be a very different poem if you read those books today?

Yes, I enjoyed those two Orwell books very much in my teens, though I’ve never read anything else by him, which is a little odd, now I think about it. I’m sure that reading both books in a very different context (beyond the Cold War and with the Chinese take on Communism) they’d be radically different reactions. I wept over the death of Boxer, and had to read Animal Farm in one sitting (well, lying really, as I read it overnight, secretly, in bed). 1984 was a different sort of experience. Probably it helped formulate my anti-totalitarianism, anti-authority feelings as a young man, and that attitude has stayed with me throughout my life (even though I’m now a member of the establishment, I still resist authority if I don’t agree with its decisions).

Could you tell me a bit about your editorial work? You are the editor of Antiphon, associate editor of Orbis, and Resident Artist at Bank Street Arts Centre. Apart from anything else how do you manage your time?

The Resident Artist thing is now a sort of “floating title”. My actual Residency was a few years ago, as the first Writer in Residence at Bank Street, and it was pretty successful, so has led to a succession of others, and leaves me with an association with the place which fluctuates according to their activities and my desires. In June, for example, the Centre holds a Poetry Festival, at which I’ll be speaking in a symposium, with Rosemary my Antiphon co-editor, about magazines and anthologising. I’ll also have an exhibition of poems and images which I’m working on at the moment (working title “Viewpoints” – the idea being that our sense of significant place is essentially what we get from looking away from it, to other horizons, rather than the picture-postcard looking at it. So there’s an obvious metaphor in this, for how we construct or narrate our lives, too. In this instance, I’ll be part-writer, part-artist and part-curator. I’ll also give a reading.

Editorially, my two roles connect, or overlap, in that I aim to offer books received for one magazine to review to the other one, if not used by the first. This works to the benefit everyone concerned. My job at Orbis is entirely about reviews, so is mainly administrative, with a heavy dose of editing others’ writing, and generally writing one or two reviews myself. I very much enjoy review writing, as it introduces me to poets I’d otherwise not know, and forces me to consider what the virtues (and issues) are in writing which might be beyond my usual taste.

Antiphon is exciting. Rosemary and I met when studying the MA writing (actually, the first meeting was during my exhibition at Bank Street, when she was not entirely complimentary about what she found!) Our basic task is to find 24+ poems for each issue, from the many we receive. This requires a great deal of reading and discussion, as we aim to hone the magazine to the best possible selection from what we receive. Our main difficulty is the large number of poems that come from people who clearly have not read the magazine and the many who have not really read their own work, either, leaving in errors, typos, and weak lines which can wreck an otherwise excellent piece of work. Our general policy is not to ask poets for changes, in the belief that they are in control and ought to know what they’re doing, but we do agonise sometimes over a poem which we feel is wonderful “except for the last line” or which would really work (in our opinion), if only two line endings had been changed. Some people submit on the expectation they’ll receive feedback on their work, which is a bit of a headache, too. To do so systematically would be an endless job, and on the one or two occasions when we’ve succumbed (I sometimes feel a poet is really promising, if only certain changes in their approach could be made) we can find ourselves drawn into a conversation where the poet is annoyed by the particular weaknesses we see in their work. So we generally don’t comment.

Is Out Of Breath due to be your first collection? What has the experience of assembling your poems into a collection been like? Was there anything that took you by surprise about the process?

Yes, Out Of Breath is my first collection. Although, as a schoolboy hundreds of years ago, I did produce an eight page collection both written and illustrated by me, called Visibility. (The name came about because it was my nickname for a while. I’ve worn glasses all my life – bear with me, this is relevant – and in a Geography lesson about fog my best friend, Dave Horncastle, commented “Visibility, that’s a good word – four ‘i’s.” To which I responded “Are you insulting me?” and the name stuck. Dave and I used to challenge each other to get ridiculous words into schoolwork, such as “squirrel” or “aardvark” into essays on fluvial erosion. The best, though, was a complete quotation we made up with an entirely spurious source: “The effect of fog upon man is greatly enhanced by the effect of man upon fog.” I forget which of us made it up – probably Dave, but I’ll claim the credit now.)

Assembling the poems was much more interesting, and also taxing, than I thought it would be. I’d imagined it would just be a question of finding my sixty best poems, making a list of them, thinking of a title, and sending them off. Hah!

Firstly, my editor wanted more poems than would go into the book, so she could reject some. I didn’t mind that, as it meant I could be a little less discerning myself. I think I chose 68, and we ended up with something like fifty-six, one of which is a two-parter.

Most of the book was much more difficult. I’m quite prolific, and I produce poems of quite variable quality and intent. The poet her or himself is very often the worst judge of their own work, especially if, like me, you’ve a fondness for the quirky, the punning or the frankly rather overdone. Because I’ve been publishing for about five years, I’d well over 100 poems in print, and around another 100 unpublished (as well as quite a few more that I probably wouldn’t even own up to). So I had the equivalent of four collections of work to sift through.

Some could be rejected because they were old, inferior, too clever, not as clever as I thought they were, sentimental, feeble, had bad titles, poor openings, awful endings, too much alliteration, not enough music, were completely incomprehensible to anyone but me, were too trite and clichéd, were written for performance but didn’t work well on the page, were too glib or merely funny or even silly.

Choosing about thirty of them was relatively easy, because they’d either already appeared in Cinnamon publications (the magazine Envoi, or anthologies) or they were amongst the set I’d submitted that won the competition, or they’d won other prizes, or they’d been published in top magazines – these were all likely to be decent poems and liked by my editor. And, when I checked them, there were only a couple in these categories that I decided against.

That left around sixty more which I thought were serious contenders. I had to find some way to whittle these down. I asked my wife and some friends to review what I had, and I tried to be an editor, looking objectively, rather than a poet emotionally attached to particular pieces (although, to be honest, two pieces are in there because I have a particular attachment to them, irrespective of their quality).

Eventually my editor, Jan, came back to me with her list, and then there was a little negotiation, as I wanted to include my only prose poem, and she thought having only one such poem would seem like a “workshop gesture” to reviewers – which it may, of course, but I value that poem and it also has special associations for me.

Then there was the problem of the order, and the title, and the cover. In fact, the book title came before the title poem. I’d tried dozens of titles, and considered just about every poem in the volume as a possible title poem, and then I stumbled upon the idea that, as poems are made out of breath, and as, when in hospital, I’d almost taken my last breath, there seemed a rich ambiguity I could use. But then I had to write a poem to go with it! So the title poem, the last in the book, came last in the writing, too.

We launched the book earlier this week. It was a wonderfully successful event – better than I could have wished for – and the book, so far, has been well-received. However, no-one has reviewed it yet, so I keep my fingers crossed that people out there find things to like in it.

Do you have a website or blog? What is the best way for readers to keep apace with what’s happening with your work?

Actually, a personal blog and a blog for Antiphon. I do tweet occasionally, too, but this tends to be so sporadic as to be useless for real social media addicts. The personal blog is:  noelwilliams.wordpress.com and the Antiphon blog: antiphonblog.wordpress.com You can find Antiphon itself at: www.antiphon.org.uk and the Orbis promotional site at: www.orbisjournal.com.

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Noel Williams is widely-published in magazines and anthologies and has won his share of prizes. He’s editor of Antiphon magazine (antiphon.org.uk), Associate Editor of Orbis and Resident Artist at Bank Street Arts Centre, Sheffield. His collection Out Of Breath is due from Cinnamon Press in March 2014. His website is noelwilliams.wordpress.com.