Hearth interview: Will Harris

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Will Harris was born in London, of mixed Anglo-Indonesian heritage. He has worked in schools and as a tutor, co-edits the small press 13 Pages and is one of the organisers of The Poetry Inquisition. His poems have appeared in The Poetry Review, The White Review and The Rialto, where he is Assistant Editor. He is also part of the editorial team behind Swimmers and helped put together the first-ever Poetry Magazine Fair. He is a fellow of the Complete Works III, and will be published as part of the Bloodaxe anthology Ten: Poets of the New Generation. His debut pamphlet, All This is Implied, was published by HappenStance Press in June 2017. 

On Saturday, 4th November Will will speak about his work as part of our Hearth festival. Will has been called a poet who ‘distrusts fixed perspectives’ and All This is Implied mulls over societies where difference and complexity is the norm. Now writing a prose book on mixed identities, Will has said that much of his writing comes as a response to those who distrust, rather than welcome, difference. 

Before his event, we spoke to Will to find out more…  

Your debut pamphlet, All This is Implied, was published in June this year. Can you tell me a little about where it came from and the themes that run through it?

About two years ago, when I came to put together the pamphlet, I realised I had about six years' worth of poems I didn't like – which is to say, that didn't mean anything to me. I tried to think harder about what I wanted to say, or what I hadn't. I hadn't written about my parents, for example, or their parents, or about shame and what W.E.B. Du Bois calls ‘dual consciousness’, a sense of never being at home in one's body. A lot of these feelings arose from growing up and being seen as minority-ethnic in a host of mainly white environments, but also from grappling with the expectations of a toxically masculine culture. I don't know if these are themes exactly... I should say that one of the things ringing loudest in my head when I was working on the poems was confusion. I had this idea – and still do – that we should celebrate confusion. After all, we know so little of each other, of the world, of ourselves...Compassion begins in confusion. 

You are of mixed Anglo-Indonesian heritage, born in London. How much did you know about each side of your family growing up?

It's actually more complicated than that. My mum is Indonesian, but Chinese by descent – there's been a mainly endogamous Chinese community in the islands of South-East Asia since at least the 16th Century – so I always had this sense, when I visited Indonesia, of being among people who looked like me but (still!) being set apart. 

My dad accounts for the ‘Anglo’ side, but he's half-Dutch, and his parents (my grandparents) lived in France for most of their lives. So when I was little, most of my ‘English’ relatives lived in Europe. I would say I'm more European than English, but I don't think that's true either. Sometimes when people ask where I'm from I think ‘double Dutch.’ I'm pure gibberish. 

I guess I picked up scraps about my extended family growing up. There was a coup in Indonesia in the late-90s which, in a horrible echo of the events of 1964 (which my granddad was caught up in), ended with thousands of ethnic Chinese being slaughtered on the streets. I remember being in Jakarta a few months before – I must have been seven or eight years old – and feeling the tension in the air but, at the same time, being very preoccupied with getting a new Power Rangers toy. For years, my mum didn't think it was safe for us to travel there, so I didn't visit again until I was a teenager, when I railed against the poverty and the corruption and said I didn't want anything to do with Indonesia. I regret saying that. 

The other day, I was reading that during the last Ice Age – only 12,000 years ago – you could walk unimpeded from the Netherlands to Jakarta. The world shrinks and contracts depending on how you look at it. 

At what point in your life did you start writing poetry and what compelled you?

I think I could've been an artist but instead, when I was 16 or so, I read John Ashbery: 

‘They tossed him, the portrait, from the tallest of the buildings;

And the sea devoured the canvas and the brush

As though his subject had decided to remain a prayer.’ 

From that point on, I only wanted to be a sea-devoured portrait of the sea. You can only do that in a poem. 

I’ve seen it written that your work addresses the ‘opposite currents’ that flow in your blood. How important do you think your work is or might be for people who experience the same sorts of feelings?

That's actually from the epigraph to my book! In E.M. Forster's A Passage to India, he describes – in a totally off-hand scene – this Eurasian (Anglo-Indian) chauffeur who's been left by the roadside: 

'For a little he was vexed by opposite currents in his blood, then they blended, and he belonged to no one but himself.’ 

In a sense it's about me, since the chauffeur's name is Mr. Harris... 

But, in answer to your question, everyone (hopefully) will have had some kind of experience of ‘opposite currents’ in their blood, or be able to imagine what that means – though, of course, only some will have been persecuted for its phenotypic manifestation. In the 19th Century, Europeans learnt to think in terms of blood and nation and race. I wish they hadn't, but I suppose they'd have only found some other way to dress up the perceived threat of ‘others’. The real threat has always been in ourselves. 

I don't know what poems can do about that... Sometimes I think poems are like yo-yos: fun, distracting and faintly annoying. Sometimes I want to tie knots in their spools so that, instead of being able to perform tricks, they can only dangle in front of me like dead spiders. Sometimes, in abject failure, I'm reminded of our more beautiful potential. 

What is the best line from the work?

Unquestionably:

‘The wind sock creates the wind, endlessly firm and yielding.’ 

You are currently Assistant Editor at The Rialto. How, and indeed does, your daily activity here inform or impact your own creative output?

I worried about this beforehand, but actually it's helped. I love poetry and love reading poems. The reason I started writing was because I loved reading.

More specifically, though, the process of semi-constant reading and editing has forced me (I'd like to think) to be bolder, to take more risks. And I'd say to anyone submitting to magazines or publishers, or thinking of doing so: don't play it safe; don't try to second-guess the tastes of editors; only be the best, boldest self you can be. When I come across work that feels like it could never have existed in any other form – that makes my bottom lip quiver with tequila-singed joy and sadness – how could I not want to a) publish, or b) write? 

What are you currently working on?

Two things: a long essay about Keanu Reeves and Barack Obama (which will hopefully form part of a book on mixed-race archetypes), and a book-length manuscript of poems. 

Which poets or writers do you admire and look up to?

Benedict Anderson, Marshall Berman, Elizabeth Bishop, Annie Dillard, W.E.B. Du Bois, Karen and Barbara Fields, Thom Gunn, Sarah Howe, Claudia Rankine, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Simone Weill. 

I fall in love with a hundred or so writers every day. Mostly, though, I look up to the people I love. 

What are you hoping to find at Gladstone’s Library?

Myself ideally, along with the peace and tranquillity to write and think, and other likeminded people. Also, if I can, lots of late-Victorian writing about or to do with mixed communities in the British Empire (think Rudyard Kipling's 'Beyond the Pale', but more obscure). 

What are you hoping people will bring to your talk and what will they take away?

Bring: an open mind. Take away: a renewed belief in the world's essential beauty and complexity. Also, I suppose people could think beforehand about what makes up their sense of ‘who they are’. My talk is going to be a bit of a mixed bag: I'll share some poems and new writing, as well as talking more generally about the history of mixedness. Hopefully, by the end, we'll all have got to know each other better!


Will’s talk at Hearth, Mixed Perspectives, takes place at 4pm on Saturday, 4th November. Tickets are priced at £14. To book tickets you can book online, call 01244 532350 or email enquiries@gladlib.org.