Every now and again a poet will catch my eye – someone who’s work awakens parts of my emotional side that I thought buried. This is the best kind of poetry, the kind that makes me want to read until the poor book is dog-eared and also never write again because someone has already written everything I want to say.
Emily Harrison‘s collection I Can’t Sleep ‘Cause My Bed’s on Fire is that book. I think I might have a crush on it. It deals with everything I have passion for; politics, mental health, feminism, class and rage. Lots of rage, coherently put into poems that scream volumes like an L7 song. I could go on with the great things about this collection, but I will let Emily tell you more about it herself:
Hi Emily! Firstly, tell us about the title poem ‘I Can’t Sleep ‘Cause My Bed is on Fire’ and why you decided to make it the name of your collection.
Hello! The title of the collection is a line from the Talking Heads song ‘Psycho Killer’. I thought it was an apt line to describe what it feels like to be consumed with a feeling of abnormality. Also my attitude to the stigma surrounding mental health is to poke fun at it – a reference to ‘Psycho Killer’ in a book about psychiatric hospital seemed too delicious to pass by. The title poem itself is one of a selection of poems in the book that takes place on the ward. The poem is about the ridiculousness of being embarrassed about your dance moves in hospital. It highlights that we still conform to social convention even when we’re deemed too unwell to be in society. I wanted to show the humanity of the place. Why is it that psychiatric wards are still so white and sterile when mental illness isn’t contagious?
How long has this collection been in the making?
Some of the poems in the collection are from my teenage years and it took a lot of sifting through unnecessary angst to find anything worth keeping (don’t worry, there’s still a little left to line the stomach). If I really think about it, the collection has been around 4 years in the making. I felt it was important to show life before, during and after a hospital stay. It was important to be a human being first. I didn’t want it to appear like the only time I struggled with my mental health was when the men in white coats got involved but I also wanted to offer more as a poet. I strongly believe all emotion in the book is relatable. Everyone’s mistakes eventually turn into hilarious anecdotes, we’re all a little strange and, ultimately, all we want from life is to be loved.
You use very specific and vivid imagery to describe alienation, class and relationships in these poems; does this come from personal experiences or a great imagination, or both?
I want to say everything in the book is personal experience but with an added little footnote on the end. Small things get chopped and changed and edited into different poems. There is always cross-over. A smile or a word or a look may be given to a different person or put into a slightly different situation. One person may become two people, 15 may become one. I might use the first person when actually I’m talking about another person or vice versa. I think part of the fun of both writing and reading poetry is that you never really ever get to know. But honestly, I think there are certain perspectives on experiences you just can’t fake.
How would you describe your writing process?
I don’t write every day. I find the whole experience exhausting and writers who can write every day amaze me. I usually write a poem in one burst and will edit it a maximum of twice. I like rawness. I find if I edit things too much, I just end up poorly imitating the kind of the poet I think I should be. I am still pleasantly surprised when people find my work funny.
You describe yourself as a feminist, do you have any advice for anyone wanting to write a ‘feminist poem’?
Someone asked me if the feminist label was a gimmick. I get that, because at the moment it seems like a very innocuous brand of girl power is being used by companies to flog anything and everything. I replied that I am a feminist poet because I am a feminist. To me, a feminist poem is just a poem written by someone who considers themselves a feminist. There’s a lot of fuck you’s to a lot of scum in the collection – from the abusive man in ‘Four Match Ban’ to the man who longs for an underage muse in ‘Tell Me I Asked For It’. These characters represent what the patriarchy has done to everybody, not just women. My advice for writing anything is to get nice and pissed off first.
Finally, what’s next for you and your collection?
I am currently organising a book launch and will be performing poems from the collection at festivals this summer including Womad and Latitude. Information of upcoming gigs can be found on my Twitter (@EmilyHarrii) and there is also information on my website at http://www.guccipig.wordpress.com. If all else fails, you can find me in East London. I’ll probably fall in love with you on the tube.
Pick up your copy of I Can’t Sleep ‘Cause My Bed is on Fire from out webstore now.