Laurence Hutchman

An Interview

Gerard Beirne

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Laurence Hutchman was born in Belfast and immigrated to Canada at the age of six.  He has published nine books of poetry. His most recent book, In the Writers’ Words, Conversations with Eight Poets, consisted of interviews he conducted with eight very significant modernist Canadian poets. In 2009 I had the great pleasure of travelling to Ireland with Laurence and five other Canadian writers where we participated in the West Cork Literary Festival and the Cairde Arts Festival in Sligo.

GERARD BEIRNE: You were born in Belfast in 1948 and moved to Holland for several months and then on to Toronto. Do you remember much of your childhood in Ireland and in what way, if any, has it impacted your poetry?

LAURENCE HUTCHMAN: My memories of Ireland are vivid and powerful: the big parades with men in kilts banging huge drums, father fishing under the dangerous cliffs off the Antrim Coast, the spectacle of Guy Fawkes being burned in effigy in a bonfire, the train ride to see my grandparents in Derry at Christmas and many more. These events all found  their way into my books  Explorations, Blue Riders and Reading  the  Water.  My father was a great story teller.  He read stories to me of Rupert Bear.  I loved the illustrations, but the best part was the poetry, the rhyming. I would ask him, “Tell me a story out of your head”— those were the best, the scariest ones.  Being young, Irish nature seemed to me to be animated and populated with strange creatures.

GB: Your collection, Foreign National, specifically explores the effects of immigration upon personal history – what have been the effects for you? 

LH: After arrival in Canada we were surrounded by a lot of Irish immigrants.  My father, in  spite of having polio as a child, was a good soccer player and organized the games in  High Park, Toronto.  I was the only child playing.  Many of my friends at school were immigrants, so I the feeling of being different quickly diminished.  My best friend, Les Kelly was from Cork, Southern Ireland, and other friends were from England and different parts of Europe.  As an immigrant you bring the “old country” with you.  My father who was very attached to Ireland, receiving the Londonderry Sentinel every week for many years.

The impact of the Second World War was still affecting people. The wars were a big part of my family’s history.  My Irish grandfather survived one of the worst battles of the 20th century, the Somme. My Great Uncle “Lorney” was killed near the Belgium border on September 13th, 1944.  I was named after him.  After the war ended, my father, who was in the Royal Air Force, met my mother at a dance in Wassenaar in Holland.  My mother often talked about the war and the devastating effect it had on her country, especially during the “Hongerwinter” when her family at one point had to eat tulip bulbs to survive… A number of these stories inspired my poems of Foreign National

GB: You occasionally return to Ireland, what have those experiences been like? You came back, I believe, after your first year of university to Ireland and also travelled in Europe.

LH: After my first year of university, I decided that I wanted to return to Ireland in order to experience life on a larger scale.  My first stop was England, then Ireland.  I hitchhiked from Derry to Sligo and spent a few days in Yeats’ country reading his autobiographical writings, and then I hitched to Dublin.  I remember that I tried to buy Joyce’s Ulysses, but it was at that point still banned.  I walked around parts of Dublin, stood in the old doorway at 7 Eccles Street, went swimming at the Martello Tower, enjoyed diving from the board where Buck Mulligan had plunged from in Joseph Strick’s film Ulysses. I stayed at rooming house in Ballsbridge. The landlady had some literary anecdotes.  “Brendan Behan used to drop by in the mornings…Harold Pinter stayed in that room your in.”  When I was in Sligo on October 5, the civil rights marchers in Derry were attacked.

I decided to stay in Derry for the winter.  I was writing poetry and had begun a novel and I did most of my writing at Magee College.  That was the time of the beginning of the troubles in Northern Ireland.  The unrest started to escalate.  I remember the night when the students in People’s Democracy movement marched and where attacked at Burntollet.  At this time, Major Bunting was speaking at the Guildhall in Derry.  I was attending a student party at the City Hotel. There were several hundred people inside listening to the speech.  Outside a number of people became angry and threw stones at the Guildhall.  Many people were injured that night. Near the end of the evening John Hume came out and said, “Go home now boys, there’s nothing you can do here.” It was a very uneasy time. 

I returned to Ireland several times between 2004 and 2014.  In 2004 I gave a poetry reading to the Association for Canadian Studies at University College in Cork and in 2009 I was part of a group of Canadian writers who read at the West Cork Literary Festival and in Sligo.  On these trips I spent at least two weeks in Northern Ireland, visiting relatives and places associated with my family.

GB: In Beyond Borders, you explore not just geographical borders but linguistic ones also, indeed some of the poems are written in both English and French, how significant are these lines of division and interconnection?

LH: After finishing my undergraduate degree, I moved to Quebec to experience French culture.  In Montreal I lived one street west of St. Lawrence Boulevard, which had been the traditional point of separation between French and English and when you crossed this street you had a sense of moving from one culture into another.  The “lines of division” were quite significant, especially at the time I was living  there.  Most of the English-speaking writers were not interested in Quebecois literature  and the nationalist French-speaking writers were not much interested in poetry in English. This is no longer the case as there is more of an interchange. 

I became very interested in French literature at the end of high school when I discovered Camus and Sartre. In my university French course I was drawn to Rimbaud, Baudelaire and other writers.  I like Quebecois poetry, the wide unexpected, sometimes surreal nature of the French language, the variety of rhythms, the sense that this language is very evocative of the things that it is describing. It has more in common with the Spanish speaking poets like Lorca or Neruda for example.I was living in Outremont, a French speaking area during of the first referendum.I think we had the only Canadian flag in the neighbourhood, courtesy of the landlord who was from Georgia. Learning another language can enrich one’s poetry. 

GB: As well, as being a poet, you also like to paint. In Personal Encounters you write of your favourite artists and writers. How do these two art forms inform each other?

LH: I have been interested in painting since I was a young boy and many of my poems are inspired by paintings.  I took painting courses at my university a few years ago and I became very passionate about the painting process, finishing thirty canvases.  It was exciting to play with texture, colour, line and composition.  Art and poetry are parallel  expressions.  I would say that painting is a complementary experience to my writing.  It is less abstract, more visual, tactile, physical.  Some of my paintings originated  in poems such as Neruda’s “Alturas de Machu Picchu” or Rilke’s The Duino Elegies.  The others came out of my experience as in the painting,“Scenes from an Irish Childhood” which is based on my own memories. At the Galerie Colline in Edmundston I had an exhibition called “At the Border of Writing and Painting” in which my poems were juxtaposed with the paintings.

GB: Do you read many Irish writers and which ones have special significance?

LH: W.B. Yeats was my favourite poet in high school.  I liked his Irish subject matter and his style—the poems were very lyrical such as “When You Are Old,” others like “The Second Coming” I found more complex. At the end of high school, I read Joyce’s A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and decided that I wanted to be a writer.  Early on too, I enjoyed Louis MacNeice’s poems.  He grew up just around the corner where I lived in Knock Lade, in Carrickfergus. When I was in Derry in 1968, Michael Longley, David Hammond, Derek Mahon and Seamus Heaney gave a great reading at the City Hotel (which was later bombed).  I still have an issue of The Honest Ulsterman with a poem by Derek Mahon and a short essay “Writer at Work” by Seamus Heaney. I continue to read Heaney, Longley and Mahon. Heaney is one of my favourite poets because of the way he draws on the resources of language. I remember him using the word “thole” in his translation of Beowulf. My grandmother speaking of her sons once said, “I will thole the lot of you.” At the present, I enjoy reading poets like Paul Durcan, Paul Muldoon and others.

GB: Your most recent book, In the Writers’ Words, Conversations with Eight Poets, consisted of interviews you had with some very significant Canadian poets. Can you talk a little bit about that and the importance of poets conversing?

LH: That ‘s a fascinating question.  When you talk with a writer you get a strong sense of their  background, the place were they grew up, their  education, the influential writers in their lives, the events that influenced them and so on.With a writer like Ralph Gustafson, I learned how he was exposed to many influences from his time in  Sherbrooke, Quebec working with Robert Bridges at Oxford, and in the war  employed by the American army,  meeting such people as William Carlos Williams, and of course, later involved with the leading poets of his time. You get a sense of the  process  of writing, how richly complex and how individual it is for each writer.   George Johnson and Fred Cogswell talked about the importance of translation.  Al Purdy told me he wrote “Grosse Isle” about the Irish victims of cholera  by reading an Article in The Globe and Mail.  After interviewing these writers, I got a much clearer idea of the overall development of modernist Canadian poetry.