Lindsey Holland's Blog
Lindsey Holland's Blog, with Helen Mort
The Poet's Photo: Helen Mort
‘The Poet’s Photo’ comes out of my experience of both poetry and photography, and my sense that the relationship between the two deserves more attention. Poetry—both the work of a poet and the act of writing—is for me closely linked to photography. Obviously both poets and photographers work with images, but there’s more to the connection.
‘The Poet’s Photo’ explores this connection in a semi-regular feature. Each poet shows us a photo they’ve taken and discusses how it relates to their current thoughts about writing. At the bottom, I discuss my own photo—usually an image taken with my phone rather than my professional camera—in terms of my recent writing.
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I was excited to receive this photo from Helen Mort, and her accompanying piece in which she discusses the transition from thinking about writing, to thinking about publishing, and back to writing. I won’t say more about it here because she says it far better herself. But I think both of us have connected to the fear of shifts, newness and possibility, and also to the need to find drive and courage.
I took this photograph on New Year’s Eve 2016 – I’d gone away to remote Northwest Scotland on my own to see in 2017. When I snapped this on my phone, I’d just finished a long run along an elevated, stony path and was a bit giddy, amused and delighted by the idea of being somewhere where the biggest danger might be sheep rustling – it seemed a world away from my usual preoccupations and anxieties. It was also hard to imagine where the CCTV cameras might be hidden! I’ve been looking at the picture again recently to remind myself to be bold and to stop thinking about surveillance. My first collection of short stories was published in September 2018 and my first novel came out this March, 2019. Making the transition to a different medium seemed frightening – an exposing thing to do. With the publication finally a looming reality, I was full of fear, aware of the gaze of others: what if people interpret the prose in a different way from how I intended it? What if they laugh at me? What if I’ve given too much about myself away? In short, what if I’ve made myself too vulnerable? Both the short stories and the novel touch on issues that are raw, personal and potentially controversial – what if people think I’ve handled them insensitively? This picture is a reminder of being out in the open, casting those worries to one side. That stormy afternoon in December, there was no other route besides the one I’d chosen to run. I started 2017 by jumping into a freezing cold loch. There was nobody to watch me, but if there was, I wouldn’t have cared. This year, I’ve been thinking about publication more than writing, but I’ve known that when I start work again, I have to keep that spirit of openness and defiance.
I took this photo on my phone, earlier this week. I knew immediately that the snail connected to my current thoughts about writing but at the time I didn’t fully understand how or why.
In the last week, I’ve had chunks of time to write for the first time in a while. At the same time it felt strange—almost uncomfortable—because I often work with a loose, overarching narrative and have a list of poem ideas that are waiting to be written. This time, I had no list, only an urge to write something a bit playful. In this spirit, I sat down with Jane Yeh’s new collection Discipline which I picked up last week in Manchester. I’m not sure whether I was drawn to it because it fits the ‘playful’ brief, because it’s new and shiny, or a little of both (most likely) but I was immediately struck by the use of end-stopped lines, disconnections between one image and the next, despite which coherence accumulates—it isn’t nonsensical—and the freshness of the voice which is untethered, free to go where it needs.
A poem early in the collection is titled ‘A Short History of Silence’. ‘In our house all the clocks are turned off and the mirrors / Don’t work’, it begins. This led me to think about the house I live in now, which is also the house I grew up in, and how I’d describe it. The I thougt about my previous homes and how I’d describe them. I realised that the people I lived with were connected to the descriptions. For me, it wouldn’t be enough to describe a house solely in terms of the decor or location because the dynamic between the people inside it, over time, became part of the house. My memories of each are also coloured by memories of previous houses. I identify with a home not only in terms of its distinctness but through its similarity, or dissimilarity, to my other homes.
Looking through the kitchen window one morning in the midweek I saw what at first I thought was something hovering. I couldn’t make out if it was a bird above the field, or an insect closer to me. I was close half way across the room before I realised it was a tiny snail, not hovering but making its way across the glass. The idea that a snail carries its homes is an old one but in some way this felt new; the shifts in my identification of the snail, first as it moved in my mind from bird to insect to snail, and then as it moved its home across the glass, connected to my thoughts about shifting definitions of home. I liked the idea of the snail’s home attached to the outside of my own: one home sliding over another.
But I didn’t write about the snail this week, maybe that’s a future poem. Instead, I wrote about one home, then another, then another—a stanza for each—and in later stanzas, jumped back and forth between the homes so that their edges blurred, one leading to the next, to the next and back to itself. Escher-like homes.
I haven’t yet typed up the poem but will do so after I’ve written this blog! I’m pleased with it so far. I think it may have opened new doors—perhaps real doors in old homes as well as metaphorical ones—onto poems about places that have mattered to me. I wonder whether writing is often like this: a hunt for an open door, that leads to another, then another. A hope that we can just keep writing.