Interviews, John Looker
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Author interview: Meet John Looker, author of The Human Hive

“I knew that I wanted to write a series of poems about what it is to be human through the lens of work and activity.”

Bennison Books recently published John Looker’s first volume of poetry, The Human Hive, a brilliant and original exploration of life and work through millennia. Inhabiting both male and female personas, his poetry takes us across continents and through time, capturing the broad panorama of human history as well as the deeply personal and often moving experiences and emotions of the individuals he depicts. The Human Hive is available at Amazon.com and Amazon UK.

John708e06074a0c78d6104be4f812ee16cbHow long have you been writing poetry?

Since I was old enough to tie my shoelaces, I suppose. And of course in a childish, clumsy manner at first – well, for a very long while I guess. I gave it up in puberty, when I was afraid that poetry was for girls and wimps and was all about daffodils and rose buds. Then I took it up again in late adolescence when I discovered that poets could be real men writing about sex and war and politics and proper grim stuff.

Which poets have particularly inspired you? Do you have a favourite poet?untitledl

As a child I was bowled over by Lewis Carroll. Still am. Later it was John Donne’s wit and Pope’s satires, Wilfred Owen in the trenches, and DH Lawrence.

Then the whole red carpet of 20th century poetry unrolled, from Eliot onwards. No favourite really. I liked both Frost and Wallace Stevens. Today, both Carol Ann Duffy’s bottomless box of delights and Geoffrey Hill’s hypnotic Mercian Hymns.

imagesGAUAW4BEMost recently I’ve re-read Hilda Doolittle’s The Walls Do Not Fall, written during the Blitz. It ends: 

we have no map;
possibly we will reach haven,
heaven.

How do you write? Directly onto your computer? Pen and paper?

Neither. In my head. Then straight to the computer.

To what extent do you revise your poems before publishing them?

Oh, extensively! There seem to be three phases: a long stage of sensing that a poem is forming somewhere out of sight; a sudden rush of composition; then weeks or months of revisions which steadily reduce. It’s like a train coming out of a tunnel. First you sense a vibration in the ground and hear the approaching noise; then a whoosh and it’s gone – and you’re staring down the track as it grows smaller.

What inspired you to create The Human Hive collection? Did you conceive it as a whole, or did you gradually realise you had a themed collection taking shape?Hives2

I knew that I wanted to write a series of poems about what it is to be human through the lens of work and activity. I’ve had so many different experiences of work and these just had to find their way into words. 

I knew what it was to work through the night in the House of Commons, but also how it felt to be a supermarket porter killing time on the after-lunch shift.untitled4 I had addressed a commission of the United Nations in New York, but also spoken with labourers in a banana plantation in Panama. So one day I planned the whole book – seven sections coming at it from different perspectives. It took over two years to write. 

The ‘Martha’ poems seem to strike a particular chord with female readers. How difficult were they to write?images1VVR85W6

Tricky. I knew I had to have a section of poems about work in the home, not only paid work but the eternally paramount activity of running a household and bringing up children. So I took my mind back to my childhood and tried to recover my mother’s world around 1950. I’m heartily relieved that women have liked them. Of course, many of the poems  also show women in positions of influence in the modern Western world.

Do you have a personal favourite from among the poems in The Human Hive?

Not really. Although I’m rather fond of A Garden of the Ming Dynasty which is more than a poem about gardens and gardening. It’s about creating something beautiful, about mystery, about reaching out to the unknown. It draws especially on visits to a New Zealand garden that was designed and built in Shanghai, and another traditional garden in Tokyo.

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