Q+A with John Hartley Williams – poet and writer

I intended to use this page as nothing but an art-prose outlet and keep it as anonymous as possible, but I just found out through Facebook that John Hartley Williams has died.

His book, A Mystery In Spiderville, completely changed my life and his poems really made me look differently at what you can achieve through that art form. The pseudonym of Spider Rembrandt is a not-so-subtle nod to this influence. I interviewed him for MMU's student magazine while studying there and he was really accomodating, so I figured I would dredge it up from my hard drive and post it in memoriam. RIP


As with most people in pursuit of knowledge and entertainment a lot of my spare time is spent skulking around libraries and bookshops in hopes of striking gold in the quagmire of mediocre. A few years ago, before another mind-numbing shift in work, I stumbled across a book titled A Mystery In Spiderville by John Hartley Williams... and at that moment my life as both a writer and a reader was changed completely. 'Never judge a book by its cover' is a piece of advice worthless to people already five minutes late for a shift and having looked at the cover and the description on the back ("the decor is by Dali, the plot is a mixture of Breton and Burroughs") felt like I HAD to read this book... and I've read it at least six times since - every time I do I find something new and different and inspiring. This book has influenced me more than anything I've ever read before or since and for that I've become permanently indebted to John Hartley Williams – I mean even the blurb on the back of a collection of his poetry, Cornerless People, is the best concept of what story actually is that I have ever come across! Take that for what you will. So it’s a great pleasure to conduct this Q&A with someone who has had such a profound affect on my creative life. Anyway, enough of the fan-boy gushing, read on please.


How did you begin writing and in what form did it first take shape?
I began writing poetry at about the age of eleven. They were science fiction poems, because that was what I liked reading. I also wrote stories and I remember a schoolmaster telling me I had an "unfortunate tendency towards surrealism". I don't think at the time I had any idea what surrealism was.

There's a great quote from a band I look up to, The Minutemen, and that is "Punk is whatever we made it to be". I've always felt this quote is applicable to poetry, particularly when viewed in regard to concepts such as concrete poetry. Have you ever found the form constricting at all?
Two things really: I think form is liberating, however you define it. The nub is, and that's the point of your quote I think, you devise your own form. You devise a set of home made rules that may encompass more traditional formal restrictions - sonnets, sestinas, stanza shapes, iambic pentameters etc - but also run counter to them because I think as a writer you always have to challenge yourself. The sequence called 'Pistol Sonnets' which appeared in a Bloodaxe book called 'Canada', and which began as my attempt to take the 'snapshot' character of the sonnet and blur it a bit (cf: JMW Turner: "I think you'll find that indistinctness is my forte") evolved its own form of three sets of 33 poems as it went along. This was both liberating and productive.
Second point: Bob Creeley's remark that "form is never more than an extension of content" may also be true some of the time, but you can't be a poet and not want to take rhyme on board, say, or complex matrices like the villanelle. Robert Frost said free verse was like playing tennis with the net down, but you can play tennis with the net down if you have racket, ball and court. You can imagine the net. And you can invent your own variants on the game as you go along.

I've always been a prose writer but have dabbled in other mediums of expression when it has seemed like a better fit to the concept or telling of the story. Have you ever been in this position? Would you ever want to attempt writing a novel or screenplay for example?
I have a novel looking for a publisher, and another collaborative novel doing the same. I've written and published short stories. And the kind of poems I like are the ones that have a story to tell. I'd love to have the chance to write for the theatre, and I've dabbled in playwriting, but it's much harder to get a play put on than it is to publish a book.

'A Mystery In Spiderville' is a book I return to again and again for both entertainment and inspiration. Do you have a particular well that you go to for inspiration – be that a book, record, film, person or whatever?
I think French writing has been a great influence. Baudelaire's 'Little Poems in Prose' started me on 'Spiderville'. But then I could also add French movies to that list - think of all those wonderful French crime films starring Lino Ventura, Jean Gabin et al. I saw Luc Godard's 'Breathless' when it first came out and it made a terrific impression. The poet Ken Smith, who was also a friend, is someone whose writings I return to. It seems to me there was more dour truth telling going on in his poetry than all the other contemporary poets rolled together. Mallarmé dismissed the idea that you can make neat separations between verse and prose. Wherever good writing happens, he said, there is versification. Of novelists, I greatly cherish Malcolm Lowry, who was also a poet, but whose most perfectly poetic productions, I think, were in prose. You could say the same, perhaps, of Kafka - though I'm not aware that he actually ever wrote line-broken poems. There are hundreds of writers and musicians I've loved over the years. The list could go on forever. Here's a brief one: Benjamin Péret, Louis Armstrong, Ed Dorn (You gotta read 'Gunslinger'), Dylan Thomas, Miles Davis, Arthur Rimbaud, Robert Graves, Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak, André Breton, Ezra Pound, Joachim Ringelnatz, Ernst Jandl, Shelley, Lester Young, Wordsworth... You see what I mean?

Having lived and taught in France, Yugoslavia, Cameroon and currently Germany, how have the experiences gained from being in these different countries and around these different cultures filtered into your writing?
That's hard to pin down. In writing classes I always suggest that at least one important item of a writer's armoury should be a foreign language. Being locked into your native tongue can be limiting. I don't think I'm one of these people who is a natural foreign language learner, but I'm very fluent in my mistakes. I don't ever try to write in a foreign language - except for jokey little things - but I do enjoy the feeling of dancing round in a pair of trousers that were cut for someone else. The other aspect of this is that experience of the different ways people have of doing things in other countries makes your English certainties look a bit wobbly.

Are you ever surprised at the amount of material you've generated?
I always think I haven't written enough. Too many projects that never got carried through.

How do you feel when you look at your earlier material now?
I'm quite cheerful about it. Salt brought out a retrospective collection recently called 'The Ship'. These are poems - mostly written in the seventies - that never got published at the time because I was always on the move, but also includes poems from my first collection 'Hidden Identities', which was published by Chatto. One or two things there I'd definitely classify as 'juvenilia', but I kept them because they seemed to me to say something about what it was like then. I wouldn't disown it - even when I can clearly see I'd be embarrassed to write like that now.

I hate to use the phrase 'guilty pleasure' but are there any books or authors that people might be surprised to hear you enjoy?
I sometimes feel guilty that I find contemporary novels as boring as I do, which is a reverse answer to your question. 'Realism' - I suppose that's what most novelists practice these days (even of the 'alternative' variety) - seems to me to be a mistake. I guess your question is really asking if I like 'Harry Potter' - which I've never been tempted to read. And hobbits are loathsome. Actually 'guilt' is the wrong word. I wouldn't feel guilty about reading pornography, for example, and yes I have read 'The Story of O' and the first half of it is brilliant. Really high class eroticism doesn't seem to exist these days - alas. I'm a huge fan of Raymond Chandler, the Phillip Marlowe stories, but you couldn't feel guilty about admiring writing of such quality. I do love silly rhymes, if they're sufficiently daft. Verse & Worse, that sort of thing.

If someone reading this was to go to your website right now and browse your publications, which would you suggest they buy?
They'd be limited by what's available. 'Blues' (Jonathan Cape) is still available, as is 'The Ship' (Salt). 'A Mystery In Spiderville' (Cape Vintage) should still be available. And if you're a wannabe poet you could try 'Teach Yourself Writing Poetry' (Hodder) which has just come out in a third edition. This year (April) there'll be a new book from Cape titled 'Café des Artistes'.