It feels great to be here
With no clothes on
— from 'Summer Sick Note'
Geoff Hattersley was born in South Yorkshire in 1956. His many collections of poetry include Port of Entry (Littlewood 1989), Don’t Worry (Bloodaxe 1994), Harmonica (Wrecking Ball 2003), Back of Beyond (Smith Doorstop 2006) and Outside the Blue Hebium (Smith Doorstop 2012).
His poems have been broadcast on local and national radio and have been used as part of syllabuses in schools, universities, and with The Open University. He is an experienced reader of his poetry and has performed and recorded musical arrangements of his poems.
He edited The Wide Skirt Press from 1986 until 1998, publishing 30 issues of the magazine and 24 books and pamphlets. He is an experienced creative writing tutor and is currently Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow at Leeds Trinity.
'a powerful and uncompromising poet' — Ian McMillan, Poetry Review
'cheeky, imaginative, cerebral, witty' — Douglas Dunn, Financial Times
'saucy' — Anthony Thwaite, Sunday Telegraph
'the real thing' — Tony Charles, Stride
'inadequately famous' — Yorkshire Artscene
'W. H. Auden, in his essay, The Poet and the City, (the Dyer's Hand, 1962), starts with a quote by H. D. Thoreau: "There is little or nothing to be remembered written on the subject of getting an honest living.......One would never think, from looking at literature, that this question had ever disturbed a solitary individual's musings."
Auden covers much in this essay, but it's his concept of the modern hero which is relevant here: "the man or woman in any walk of life who, despite all the impersonal pressures of modern society, manages to acquire and preserve a face of his own."
In Geoff Hattersley's latest collection, Harmonica, we have Auden's hero; in fact, a succession of them. These are heroes battling against the complexity, confusion, drudgery and relentlessness of making ends meet.
This collection is appealing on many levels: for its simple language, the way he maps the struggle against these 'impersonal pressures', the optimism you unearth as you read more deeply, and the love of people.
Throughout, Hattersley celebrates speech, whether it is the woman in 'Jumbo' who delivers a killer line to a fat bloke in the chip shop "and he's the one who ends up blushing" or the final lines in 'Splinter', an elegy to his mother, which are such a tender reminder of her voice.
Simplicity can be mistaken for naivety. But the greatest artists are still on its side: Picasso, who claimed to have spent all his career trying to see again like a child, writers like Samuel Beckett and Czeslaw Milosz, architects like John Pawson.
However, Hattersley's work does not sit well alongside the baroque tendencies of much contemporary writing. His is the view of the minimalist; he manipulates the emptiness around words, celebrates the raw materials of poetry instead of creating ornate edifices to mask the emptiness within them.
If we need convincing, let's hear Milosz open 'Preface': "First, plain speech in the mother tongue./ Hearing it, you should be able to see/Apple trees, a river, the bend of a road,/ As if in a flash of summer lightning..."
Hattersley's use of what's around him reminds me of how Peter Reading, James Kelman and Fred Voss tap into the power of disaffection. But Hattersley also has Miroslav Holub's humanity and Yannis Ritsos' delight in the everyday.
Let's return, though, to the struggle, humanity and Auden.
"In our age, the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act. So long as artists exist, making what they please and think they ought to make, even if it is not terribly good, even if it appeals to only a handful of people, they remind the Management of something managers need to be reminded of, namely, that the managed are people with faces, not anonymous members, that homo laborans is also homo ludens," Auden writes.
Many of Hattersley's poems in Harmonica make me laugh precisely because they are about these everyday political acts: just the titles of 'Summer Sick Note' and 'Bad Attitude' speak for themselves. In 'The Depth', though, Hattersley explores the cost of these terrible pressures in the enviable lines: "It's the sort of job where you lose/ something, something/ you spend the weekends/ looking for with tired eyes."
Nevertheless, hidden in Hattersley's horror stories, these claustrophobic narratives which build into a novelistic sweep, there is a fundamental optimism. It's manifested in the tenderness of his "Two Love Poems", and a constant seam of humour which runs through the book, like the lines ending the first poem "I was an Unarmed Teenager": "'How do you die/ like a cowboy,' my mother asks,/ 'four-three-four?'"
Hattersley likes having a good time, likes the people who aren't the bosses or the ones telling us how to live. He plays with us and this idea at the end of the book in 'P for Poem' delivering the lines: "Things can only get worse, /I mean better./ Death's boots are shuffling/ on the Welcome mat -/ "I don't need anything right now!"/ I shout."
So let the last word be Auden's ".......The peasant may play cards in the evening while the poet writes verses, but there is one political principle to which they both subscribe, namely that among the half dozen or so things for which a man of honour should be prepared, if necessary to die, the right to play, the right to frivolity, is not the least."'
— Jackie Wills, Amazon 2004, on Harmonica (Wrecking Ball Press, 2003)
YOU DON'T DREAM AT ALL IF YOU CAN HELP IT
It’s tough for a spoilt kid in a cold world
and you’re grateful you were never that kid
but still the world is tough, the world is tough.
Banks and charities and castles and locks –
stuff that makes no sense everywhere you look.
You feel like you’ve been to the moon and back
only for some nitwits to convince folk
you were fooling around in a desert.
If you’re lucky you’ll make it to sixty,
you already like playing the old man.
You try hard not to think of the future,
a place where kids play games with human bones.
Geoff on his work
I seem to have been writing ever since I could hold a pen. When I was four or five, I used to like to sit under the table and record everything the adults in the room were saying. Every ten minutes or so I’d pop out and repeat their conversations to them. They’d all laugh indulgently and I’d go back under the table and start again. I don’t remember this myself, but I’m assured it happened.
I carried on writing all through my childhood. I wrote hundreds of stories, and once filled two exercise books with what could only be described as a novella. At one point, I teamed up briefly with an illustrator to produce a comic strip based on the adventures of a superhero we called Jet Man. We tried selling the adventures of Jet Man in the school playground, which was when I first learned how indifferent most people felt towards literature.
This was in Wombwell, South Yorkshire. That’s a small town between Barnsley and Rotherham. Nearly everybody who lived there used to work at the steelworks or down the pit. Now they don’t.
I didn’t achieve a great deal academically. I was always top of the class in English and near the bottom in every other subject. I just wasn’t that interested in them, I suppose, or in the way they were taught. I left school at sixteen with three GCE O-Levels (English Language, English Literature, Maths) and began working in a succession of fairly unexciting jobs in offices, warehouses and factories. I could never stick at any of the jobs for long, but this was the 1970s, when it was still possible to pack a job in one week and find another to start the following week.
I never stopped producing short stories on a regular basis. I was writing in isolation though. I didn’t know any other writers, or even anybody who read all that much. I hadn’t had a university education, hadn’t made the acquaintances of other bookish types. My saviour was Margaret Thatcher, whose economic policies devastated employment prospects in the area and pushed me onto the dole. This meant I could now read and write all day if I wanted to. I copied passages from books by writers such as Melville, Hemingway and Hamsun, tried to learn the nuts and bolts of what they did.
I was 27 when I saw a WEA writers’ workshop advertised in the local paper and decided to go along to find out what some other people thought of my stories. I met Ian McMillan there. He was the same age as I and already a well-known writer and performer. He was actually the first contemporary poet I ever read. He was very generous with books and magazines and introduced me to a whole scene of alternative poetry which I hadn’t even known existed. Before long I found I was writing poems myself. They were really bursting out of me for a few years. I should be so lucky now!