Rick Holland Between the Bells: An Interview
Rick Holland is an established poet who recently came into the spotlight in a big way with his collaborative work with Brian Eno, namely an exhibit at the Brighton Festival and an amazing, achingly beautiful album, Drums Between the Bells. I was thrilled when Holland agreed to answer some questions about working with Eno, the record, and his thoughts on a few issues in contemporary poetry.
ELM: What other collaborations have you done?
RH: Look here for the past collaborators, but most exciting by far is the collaboration due to come out with Diode in November. Called ‘Diode + Rick Holland featuring…’ it is a succession of works written in an open collaboration with various amazing vocalists, including Beth Rowley, Chris James of Stateless, Onallee (Roni Size and Reprazent) and Andrew Plummer. It will be released on a small independent label called WW music based in London.
ELM:What was your knowledge of Eno before you worked with him?
RH: Almost nothing, and that was such a good thing. It meant I made a lot of ‘mistakes’ as much as I didn’t attempt to write to suit what I thought he wanted, I just turned up with what I had.
ELM: Was your own writing process different since you knew it would be against music and spoken by other people?
RH: The ‘album’ was a collection of experiments that were not started with a collection in mind. It took eight years to become an album, so the honest answer to that is that my writing process changed a lot in a lot of ways in that time. I already had a keen sense of silence and space within groups of words, and working with music in this way enhanced that even further. The first few experiments with Brian showed me that unexpected lines could sound incredible when mixed with ‘other’ vocal performance and music, in ways that were impossible to control. A fairly bland line (one that springs to mind is ‘ships all adrift and nudging foamsoft rocks’ from a piece that wasn’t released) can unexpectedly jump out from its context (a poem about searching for love in a big city full of fetishes) and become a poem in its own right. Similar forces are at work to those that make poetry come alive from a page in a reader’s mind, and they are similarly hard to define. What is certain is that on occasions I was happier to leave massive gaps in ‘meaning on the page’ because I was sure that a reading and music would create something rich with potential without spelling it out completely.
ELM: Who are your favorite poets? (Or favorite writers in general.)
RH: I have recently started reading Stafford Beer (essays about systems, society, management theory and everything). He refuted a world of reductive definitions, and counted himself as physicist, painter, poet, economist, psychologist, teacher, soldier, student and many more things besides. He also stressed the power of Eastern thought, which is so unfashionable in Western tradition and opens a person up to so many negative characterisatons, and his life’s work was about harnessing wonderful developments in science and knowledge in ways that would improve life for normal people. In terms of poets I like, I like any with fierce power of image, or direct lyricism that comes from raw honesty. Edward Thomas, Sylvia Plath, Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali, Chris Abani, Jehst (UK rapper), Ted Hughes. I also appreciate writers who encompass how the world really is, unravel its meta language. Orwell in essay form, Aldous Huxley, Henry David Thoreau. These names are the ones that spring to mind today!
ELM: In an interview I read with Eno about the project, he talked about how, as people, we’re always singing to each other. Do you share that aesthetic?
RH: Yes. We can never tap into exactly the same vocabulary as the person we speak with, whoever they are and however formulaic or business like the conversation. Stretch this idea to its natural extremes, and we are all making components of sounds that we form in our own way and then throw out there to be interpreted. The components are like musical notes, however pitched.
ELM: “Pour It Out” was adapted from your “Story the Flowers” book. Was it difficult adapting it? Did you feel strange removing it from its context?
RH: The context was really just the inside back cover of a book when I scribbled that one down after or during a trip to New York. It belonged as much in the music and with Laura reading it as it did in the book ‘Story the Flowers’. What was common to both representations of it was that it needed an open mind and imagination to really come to life. It also appeared as a huge poster in the corner of a dark room filled with floating glitter balls (at the Brighton Festival in 2010). The musical piece existed before the book, and the poem didn’t change much from its first scribble, in this case.
ELM: Which piece was the biggest departure for you, and in what way?
RH: Good question. I suppose it was ‘sounds alien’. At that time i was writing lots of very very short poems, very quickly. That group of five short lines would have taken seconds to write, and is a very simple message really, ‘i am confused’ is all it says really. My creative ego would have struggled to let something that simple be seen as work, for all sorts of reasons that are influenced by other people’s tastes and definitions. Brian treated that without judgement. He didn’t say ‘this poem isn’t really that clever is it Rick’. He laid out the words in a chaos of music and let the two play out together. I didn’t like it! Lots of other people say it is their favourite track.
ELM: How much do you know about music theory? Did you learn more after undertaking this project?
RH: In ‘theory’ terms, I know almost nothing. I played the piano for a short time and learnt about phrasings and notes. In practice I have developed a way of talking about music in a studio that most musicians understand most of the time.
ELM: If I may ask you a few questions about poetry aside from this collaboration, I’d like to. There seems to be a lot of debate now about the future of small presses, especially given some of the recent controversy surrounding certain ones. Do you foresee more poets turning to self-publishing, or do you think there’s a future for small presses?
RH: I have never worked with or around a small press so I couldn’t answer that part of the question. There is one small press that I would see as a marker of standard, what they publish tends to be good quality and to my taste, so as a consumer of poetry I like that, and we have to be honest, there is a lot of very bad self published poetry out there. So by that argument, the marker that a small press can stamp on a book as a sign of quality can be a good thing. But I published my own book, I loved doing it (with a designer called Sam Blunden and small local printer called Calvert’s in London), and all around me I listen to the work of people bypassing traditional means of publishing and I love what they have made too. I would think there is a future for small presses for as long as there are people who want someone else to filter out the crap work. There is also a vast future laid out for people who want to do things themselves or their own way.
ELM: There’s also been controversy about Poets & Writers releasing their annual rankings of US MFA programs. What is your poetry education background like, and how do you feel about writing programs such as MFA’s?
RH: If you have the means and the desire to do a structure course/writing program, and by doing so you mix with people who inspire and challenge you, then they must be good. The idea of annual rankings sounds completely ridiculous to me though. I studied literature, and learned something from it. In terms of my progression as a writer though (and in the spirit of rankings) I would say 10% came from what I learned by studying a degree and 90% from elsewhere.
ELM: What’s next for you, either collaboratively or on your own?
RH: I am still working on the music project that starts to be released in November, with Diode and various featured singers, and have a project starting with designer Nick Robertson that is a spin off from the album ‘Drums Between the Bells’.