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Poetry Studio: an Interview with Fiona Hamilton

We caught up with poet and tutor Fiona Hamilton to find out more about her new course in Bristol, Poetry Studio, starting 16 September…

Hi Fiona! What poetry are you reading at the moment?

Today I read poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (‘Don’t Let That Horse’), Wendy Cope (‘The Uncertainty of the Poet’) and R.S. Thomas (‘Don’t ask me…’). All are about writing poetry. Two make me laugh. The third has beautiful insights about what a poem can do. I also read some Alice Oswald and Wyslawa Szymborska. Marvellous.

Why do you think it’s important to experiment with new forms and genres in poetry?

Experimenting with forms helps you hone writing, distil thoughts and feelings, feel the ‘edges’, discover how to say what you want to say. And it’s exciting. Recently I was asked to write a poem for an App as part of a project on the Romantic movement in Bristol. You can go to places on a map (in reality or virtually), touch the screen, learn some history, and hear a poem that relates to it. I wrote about Ann Yearsley, who tended pigs and sold milk before being recognised as a poet. This form is multi-dimensional and gets people engaging with poems in fresh ways.

Last year I worked with two wonderful dancers on my poems in Bite Sized, for performance. I loved observing how the dancers worked with rhythm, pauses, timings – our collaboration brought new layers of meaning out of the poetry – made it 3D. It’s interesting to experiment and I’m a big fan of poetry off the page as well as on.

How has your own writing style developed – have you noticed defining moments of change in your poetry since you began writing?

One defining moment was when I ‘heard’ a first line and saw it in my mind’s eye. I realised that the six words were enough on an otherwise empty page. This set up a rhythm. The page-turns are breathing spaces. I have since paid more attention to gaps, the unsaid, spaces, and the interplay of space with words. Previously, I thought poems were made entirely out of words. Now I think they are composed of silences and 3D spaces too.

How did you first come to writing poetry?

Via prose and drawing. My first story when I was four was illustrated and called The Adventures of Ann. Songs and poems were part of my Mum’s background in Scotland, and her father kept notebooks of poems and prose fragments that he liked – those trickled through and made me want to have a go at writing poetry myself. At my primary school there were spoken word events which I liked. I wrote a poem called ‘Clouds’ and it carried on from there.

You teach Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes, could you tell us a little more about that?

I’ve worked for many years as a writer and facilitator in healthcare settings with people facing challenges such as cancer or mental health difficulties. They find creative writing in a supported environment enables them to free things up and explore new meanings. Poetry plays a big part. It allows ‘non-logical’ narratives to be expressed. I bring writing and listening skills and other creative resources. On the Masters course in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes (CWTP) hosted by Metanoia Institute, and courses with Orchard Foundation, there’s plenty of creative writing and reflecting, theory and group work. CWTP is fascinating because it draws on a variety of disciplines. The ‘therapeutic’ aspect looks outwards as well as inwards – we look at the world and how we can construct narratives to ‘live well’ in wide senses, as well as looking ‘inwards’ at personal life stories and how these can be viewed in different ways. Writing also allows the freedom for play, humour and creative pleasure, which I believe are precious in a busy world.

Do you find writing poetry to be a therapeutic exercise for you?

I find satisfaction, sometimes joy and delight, sometimes a sense of greater understanding or coherence, through writing. I also experience frustration and other difficulties with it. For me, ‘therapeutic’ is a problematic word because it is associated with the word ‘therapy’ and that is often interpreted as ‘sorting out problems’ or ‘splurging troubles out’ or ‘introspecting about self’ (crude simplifications, I know). If, however, therapeutic is taken to encompass ‘enabling a fuller, more vivid, flexible engagement with diverse experiences’ then yes, writing does this. It enables me to engage with the light and the shade, to grapple with and seek fresh meanings, and to connect with anyone who happens to be listening!

Have you ever experienced writer’s block, or periods in your life when you were unable to write? And if so, how have you learned to move out of this?

I think it is important to have fallow times. We are so geared to keeping active and busy in this society. A field needs to rest – and so do writers. When this happens I wait, and do other things, physical things like swimming or making things or drawing or going for walks with a dog – or some of the usual mundane jobs that are part of everyday life. I can’t say I rest that much but I do watch rubbish TV sometimes curled up on the sofa. I like contemplative quiet time in peaceful places. I’m a mum and I have quite a lot of students…. I need all this variety, and even though I might sometimes moan that all this gets in the way of writing, it is also part of writing. All the textures are ultimately part of it.

Who (or what) is most influential over your own writing style?

I have a feeling it might be music or sounds. I admire writers who get words to resonate like musical notes in the body as well as mind. Oral traditions influence me, and everyday speech, and places I know and love. Love of languages, and knowledge of some, and a feel for intonations and cadences. A belief that poetry is ‘heart and soul and language’ and that if it can touch people from many walks of life, that’s a good thing. We are poetic beings, even though we might not think so half the time!

Have you always lived in Bristol, and do you feel that place influences your writing?

I grew up in London and Surrey. I’ve lived in France, Poland and Scotland. I have lived in Bristol for over twenty years and it’s a vibrant city with quiet areas of parks, woodland and water too. I am nourished by all of this. I have written explicitly about Scotland and the south east of England in Skinandi but only a few poems about Bristol explicitly – yet I’m sure the place is in the writing in many unspoken ways as I love it and it’s home.

How would you describe the poetry community in Bristol?

Active, lively, diverse, interesting, passionate, underfunded. Poetry Can is our valuable organisation supporting poets and bi-annual poetry festivals. Such a lot is done on a shoestring for love and passion.

Any advice for new poets starting out?

Read writers who move you and make you think. Pay attention to the here and now. When anyone says it’s a waste of time, including you, remind yourself that poetry has deep roots and that language is human beings’ most remarkable invention.

If you want to experiment with poetic forms, styles and genres to stimulate your writing, details and booking for Poetry Studio can be found here or by calling our offices on 0207 582 1679.

Fiona is a writer of poetry, fiction and non-fiction based in Bristol. She has two collections: Skinandi and Poems for PeopleFiona teaches Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes at Bristol University.

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Image Credits:

Clifton Suspension Bridge at Sunrise, Harshil Shah