Monday, 24 January 2011

Seamus Heaney and the mystery of poetry

I have written poetry all my life since early childhood. Poetry and music have run through my head almost hand in hand, musical notes and musical words. I played three musical instruments, piano, clarinet and guitar and I used to write songs and set them to music. I loved reading poetry aloud even as a child.

When I had finished my three weekly library books ( usually by the end of the weekend) I only had our set of Arthur Mee encyclopaedias to fall back on. But these are full of the most wonderful poetry dotted in between scientific discoveries, histories of kings and queens and how to build a boat out of matchsticks. The poetry in these volumes constitutes my earliest poetic influences and I still dip in and out of the heavy leather bound books today.

But from my late teens one of the greatest influences on my work has been Seamus Heaney. I loved the way he chose his words to be short, strong and wedded to the earth, the way he combined words into layer upon layer and the way he gave me a taste of the classics. I used to learn Heaney's poems off by heart and can still recite odd lines to this day, Some day I will go to Aarhus/ to see his peat- brown head - the opening to TheTollund Man, his famous metaphor on the killing fields of The Troubles in 1970s Northern Ireland.

I first heard Seamus Heaney read his poetry in 1972 in London University. He shared a platform with Ted Hughes. I remember a student calling out, 'What about the Irish Times?' I didn't understand what he meant but I knew that Heaney had been accused of ignoring the situation in Northern Ireland in his writing. In fact Heaney's work does reflect the troubles but hs view was that he was his own man and would write what he wanted to write.

In 2008 I was fortunate enough to meet the great poet himself. He was reading at the annual T.S. Eliot festival at Little Gidding, where Eliot set part of his famous sequence, 'The Wasteland.' There were only about a 100 people in a marquee in the ground of Ferrar House and Heaney was mingling and chatting to the audience. Taking a deep breath I walked up and said hello. He was absolutely charming and very easy to talk to. I said that he had been an inspiration to my writing since I was 18 and told him about my memory of him reading with Ted Hughes in the 1970s. He gave his famous warm smile and commented that the audience was probably hurling more insults at Hughes over the death of Sylvia Plath.

Later he signed my copy of Death of a Naturalist, his first collection which I have kept close by me for decades.

I always try to hear Heaney read in London once a year and last night I saw him read from his new collection, Human Chain, at the shortlisted readings for the T.S. Eliot prize. This is the first time I have seen a change in the man, a shake in his voice and in his hand. I feel very privileged to have seen him read again and wonder how many more opportunities we will have.

We are very lucky to live in his time. Seamus Heaney is one of the greatest living poets today in the English language and his words will last and last.
Heaney was asked in an interview a couple of years ago, "Where do your poems come from?"
"Ah, that's a mystery," he replied. "I just don't know."

Breaking the thread
by Miriam Halahmy
first published in Staple 71 2009

 The first girl not to sew, I was bewildered
by the geometry of pattern, fumbled
with bobbins, took all term to fit a zip.

My grandfather was a tailor,
foot jammed to the metal pedal,
black cloth skimming under a racing needle.

Grandma on the other side lined furs,
best outworker in the business,
in her seventies, she cursed the unforgiving skin.

So neat, you couldn’t tell the wrong side,
my mother won prizes for embroidery,
cut down army surplus for winter coats,

knitted pram suits for three children.
Nearly had time to start on grandchildren.
I followed thought like weave across a cloth

my needle flowing ink, cross stitching
into the warp of black on white.

Who inspires your writing?

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

GOD COP and the editing process

HIDDEN is the first novel where I have properly experienced the editing process and it has been a combination of enormous fun, rigour, soul searching and extreme satisfaction. My editor at Meadowside Books, Lucy Cuthew, has more than anything allowed me to develop the more contentious issues on immigration and human rights law. I have been able to extend my research and write much more extensively around the issues which initially inspired me to write this novel. Young people need to be involved in this debate and I believe that fiction can help to present the facts.

But at the same time my editor has kept a close eye on the humour in the text and the flow of the narrative. Neither of us wanted to spoil the enjoyment of the unfolding story for the reader, for the sake of hammering home a point. Keeping that delicate balance has been one of the hardest things for me to do since starting the novel. With my editor to share the journey everything has fallen beautifully into place.

Lucy has also visited Hayling Island, the setting for all my three novels in the cycle, which shows her dedication to my work.

Once we had dealt with the nitty gritty of the text there seemed to be so many other things to work on. Was I being given more comments than any other author in history? I wondered at one point. But then I heard some more experienced writers discussing their experiences. It made me realise my editor had a light touch compared to some. I felt considerably cheered and felt that I could really embed myself from then on in the editing process and trust that together  Lucy and I could produce an even better book.

And then there were the howlers. I did warn Lucy that I was not great at copy editing. Finally Lucy did one final trawl through the text and phoned me up, "Miriam, I found something on almost every page," she said blithely, "but the best one was God Cop." We both cracked up.

In HIDDEN, the main character Alix has agreed to help hide an illegal immigrant until an organisation can be contacted to provide legal advice. But the police are aware that illegals are trying to come into the local beaches. They turn up at Alix's house one day and start questioning her. She hates lying to the police but she doesn't like the way one policeman barks at her and then the other one speaks nicely. She dubs them 'Good Cop/Bad Cop' like in the TV shows.
Need I say more?

If you are lucky enough to have as astute and dedicated an editor as me, go with it.I am a very contented author on the eve of publication.