Harpy Interviews: Rosie Hilton
Harpy chats to Rosie Hilton about her creative process, the impact of gender identity on her work, and the power of poetry as both personal exploration and instigator of social change.
First things first - How did you start writing poetry?!
I started writing a blog and then began writing for the student newspaper in Edinburgh. I really enjoy journalistic writing but I also realise that my style is often a bit too flowery to be appropriate sometimes. The stuff I was writing for my blog was initially mostly prose but the ideas I was trying to articulate seemed to fit better as poetry.
What’s your process? Do you just write things down in the moment, or do you spend a long time crafting the ‘perfect’ poem?
It does depend on the subject matter. If I have been asked to write something I tend to think about it for quite a while and when I do eventually start to write it tends to be general scribblings. I usually only spend about an hour on a poem and I struggle to come back to it and try editing, because I feel that once I have written something, then it’s done! There are definitely pros and cons to working in this way – I think the poem can turn out to be quite raw and genuine because I haven’t over-worked it but, also I think that they could be much better technically. I also read my poems aloud just to see where line breaks should go, or what the effect would be of using punctuation and rhyme. Mostly though I think that the most important thing for a poem is to have impact, and not necessarily that it is technically skilled, or even makes sense!
I came across your work on Instagram – was it a conscious decision to have your work available there in particular?
I think that putting my poems on social media was a good way to get them out into the world without having to say ‘these are poems’! It feels less daunting because you can still get feedback on your work but I think there is less judgement. Also it means that I don’t have to send work off to publishers and go through the process of having other people decide whether it’s good enough. I write because I enjoy it, so I want to try and avoid any process that might compromise that.
Is it fair to say that you would struggle to label yourself as a poet? I imagine that would be quite a scary thing to do.
I do find labelling myself in that way quite intimidating! I think it invites people’s scrutiny more – and not necessarily of the work, but of you as an individual. I don’t want people to question my legitimacy as a writer.
I think that doing an English Literature degree has also had an impact. When you are studying famous poetry, it’s inevitable that you will compare your work and find it lacking. You spend such a long time analysing poems – literally picking them apart for value – and looking at things like metre and rhyme scheme that when you look back at your own work and it isn’t technically ‘good’ it’s quite unnerving and can be really discouraging. Saying that, I think being surrounded by poetry in my studies has also been really inspiring and I am definitely able to look at my pieces and judge them with a little more detachment.
I think it’s true that there is a general view that ‘good’ poetry is also technically adept – I think it can be quite easy to be cynical about poetry that doesn’t subscribe to what we have been taught is right. Rupi Kaur’s work is often victim to this snobby attitude and elitist perspective. It has been disparaged because it lacks traditional structure, or does not have technical complexity. Essentially, though it seems her work is disliked because it doesn’t fit in.
I think that Rupi Kaur’s work is really interesting because it does expose how much people have a deeply ingrained prejudice when it comes to poetry. Her work is successful because it is different and it obviously appeals to a lot of people. I would say that if something means something to people, if it evokes genuine emotion and is relatable – then that is enough. I also think it makes you question where this idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ poetry comes from. Who decides this? I think that judging a poem by whether it fits into the existing canon is a really arbitrary way of measuring quality.
Who do you think assigns value to poetry? Do you think gender has anything to do with it? The history of literature is fairly male-centric. Do you think this could skew our perception of women poets?
I think that in literature and in most other areas of society, men’s opinions have historically been valued more. Men have shaped literature because they were the ones that were educated enough and confident enough to create the narrative. If a woman could not write, then she could not create poetry (or at least she couldn’t write it down and then it would not be copied or passed down in the same way) and it certainly would not be listened to or valued in the same way. There have always been female creatives – women have always had stories to tell and the intelligence, imagination and talent to tell them well, but men’s voices have been prioritised and men are the ones that give the stamp of worth.
Do you think that this context of literature has affected how you write or how you perceive your work, and do you think that your experiences as a woman have influenced your poetry?
Absolutely. If I look at the writing I have done, a lot of it is to do with my experiences as a woman. It is only really when I became an active feminist that I would seek out writing by women and about women and these voices definitely inspired how I wrote and the content of my poems. It is certainly true that being a woman gives you a lot of material! The recent discussions around MeToo have definitely impacted my work and poetry is, for me, a really useful and cathartic way of deconstructing my thoughts, feelings and personal experiences in relation to my gender identity and my sexuality. In terms of the history of poetry – it is so male dominated. I feel that if you are going to try and rebel against that and create and elevate a distinctively female voice, you have to change how you are saying it and what it is that you’re saying, otherwise you run the risk of slotting into a male tradition. To refer back to Rupi Kaur – she is essentially saying with her work that poetry can be something different and I think that is quite radical. To be able to express yourself freely, without constraint and without the fear of other people’s reactions is really amazing.
People can feel quite strongly about the power or value of women defining themselves as ‘female artists’ or ‘women artists’. Some say that it is demeaning and reductive; being a woman does not determine your whole identity and you can create in ways that don’t reference gender. Other’s say that it can be a way to encourage cohesive community and a sense of unity. Would you define yourself in this way, or not?
I haven’t really thought about this – especially as I would struggle to define myself as a writer or a poet! I think if I was to label myself though, I would be happy to say that I was a woman writer. My gender identity is something that I am proud of and is certainly relevant to my work. I do get why people would find it infantilising and restrictive, but I think it is quite a personal reaction. When women group themselves together it can be a really powerful act of solidarity. I suppose it also matters who is applying that definition. If women are self-identifying in a certain way, that is different to men, or wider society labelling people by their gender. Especially as I think that being defined as a female comedian, or a female writer or actor etc can actually be meant as an insult, or as a way to ostracise people.
Some of your poems are especially focused on reclamation – of a voice, a space or an experience. Is writing an act of rebellion for you personally? Is it a feminist act?
I think that a lot of my poems that focus on my experiences as a woman are very angry! I still think that to be a loud woman in this world – to say what it is that you are feeling or thinking and especially saying something that contradicts patriarchal narrative - is massively important, both on an individual level and in terms of impacting society. ‘but first’ is definitely one of my poems that was written with the intention of reclaiming something that has been denied to women and other marginalised people. It was written for the ‘Fight For The Night’ protest march, which is organised by Edinburgh University Student Association Liberation Campaigns and is a protest against sexual harrassment, assault and violence.
To write about things like this is helpful for me personally but also I hope for other people – getting groped in a club is, horrifically, almost a universal experience for women and to have that articulated and externalised is really cathartic. Often when I write it is to make sense of feelings, or just to get things off my chest. When I look back at the poem it can be really awful, but it’s also useful to then be able to reflect on my thoughts and feelings.
You have touched upon how your poetry is both very personal, but also how it can be a reflection of a universal experience and have profound impact on other people. To what extent do you think creatives have a social responsibility to write for others and try to verbalise collective experience?
I try to always write authentically. As soon as you try to write to appeal to a particular audience, people see right through it and it doesn’t strike a chord with the intended listener anyway. I think that you have to write for yourself, and this will then come across to others as more genuine and it will also be more powerful.
It is mainly women that have responded to my work, or have related to it which suggests that, to an extent, my experiences are similar to theirs. I write for women, but not intentionally. I would also say that it is important to not try and write outside of your own experience in an attempt to appeal to more people, because I don’t want to commandeer other people’s narratives. It’s true that if you experience one form of oppression, that it is easier to empathise with another’s experience but I will never be able to know the experience of, for example, a black woman or a trans woman, because I am not one.
I would say that my role when I write, and more generally, is to recognise my privilege as a heterosexual, white woman and use that privilege to talk to people who I can more easily reach. It is my responsibility to talk to the white men in my life because I have access. That is my job. It’s interesting to consider at what point someone has a responsibility to represent other people or elevate their voices. Does it only become necessary when you have a platform, or is it for everyone to do?
Young women and teenage girls were identified as the biggest consumers of poetry last year, and this has been linked to a rise of interest in politics. Why do you think young women are drawn to this art form in particular, and why does it have such political connotations?
I didn’t know that, but it does make sense to me. The writing that has most stuck with me has been poetry. A few lines can hugely impact the person reading or hearing them. I think lots of literature-lovers have that feeling where they read something that seems like it was written for them, and that is such a magical thing. I think that the feeling of being recognised, of experiences being verbalised and validated, is a relatively new thing for women. Our voices have not been heard to the same extent as men’s, and so that feeling of communality and the power that comes from it has been missing. I think it is quite an addictive feeling, especially when you have been deprived of it. Once you have experienced that, I think it is natural to be compelled to try and find more. Maybe that is one reason that young women are drawn to poetry – it can embody their way of living in the world. That is definitely why Rupi Kaur is so popular, I think – she can encapsulate something really powerful in such a condensed way.
Female friendships also feature prominently in your work. Why?
My whole life has been defined by support from other women. I have been very lucky in that I have the best group of female friends ever and I have known them since Year 7. I also have a really strong relationship with my sister and mum, so I have always been surrounded by wonderful women and I don’t think that female relationships get spoken about enough.
If female friendships are visible in our society, they tend to still be fairly one-dimensional and are often portrayed as being bitchy or facile, or revolve around competing for male attention.
Yes, and that is just not true! I find it so bizarre because that has not been my experience at all. My friends have been a consistent source of strength and safety for me and the experiences I have shared with them have been the most formative of my life. I think that women’s friendships are so important because we literally are each other’s support network. We are in this together. I also feel really strongly that young women are our future. They are so often ridiculed and undermined but young girls are my heroes. Why is everything that they like or deem valuable so critically demolished? It is like society thinks there is no way anything they like could have any meaning. But they will change the world, and I love that they may come across some of my poetry and feel something when they read it. They deserve to feel seen and they need to know how amazing they are.