Live Canon editor, Rebecca Hare, interviews poet Mark Huband about his work. Mark has published three books of poetry with Live Canon: American Road, The Siege of Monrovia, and most recently Agony: a Poem of Genocide. All are available to buy here: http://www.livecanon.co.uk/store
1. The world has changed quite dramatically over the last six months. What's changed for you, as a person and a poet? What's stayed the same?
Most striking for me has been the extent to which the Covid-19 pandemic has shattered any remaining expectations we may have had in the UK of the capacity of our leadership institutions to lead, inspire confidence and act in an intelligent manner to address the crisis we are all facing. As a person – a citizen – I have been horrified by the appalling quality of thought, leadership and strategy. As a poet who is very much engaged in the reality of the world around me, these experiences have intensified my view that poetry remains the last bastion of truth-telling: poets can interpret, pursue their fascinations, explore mentalities – but in the end they cannot lie, because their truths are their own. In a world in which language is being used to such devastating effect to deceive, manipulate and endanger, poetry alone is where truths can remain inviolable. We must protect it with all we have to hand.
2. You've recently launched your powerful new book-length poem, Agony: a Poem of Genocide. What inspired you to write this book?
In part stemming from my strongly-held view that poetry is today alone in being where truth can be explored and told, my new poem is very much inspired by my absolute determination to use what poetry offers to confront humanity with the reality of itself. Genocide is the greatest crime of all; to deny it, to forget it, to pretend it is not still – and probably always will be – integral to the truth about what humanity is capable of, is a nightmare prospect. Only by unequivocally relating what is the worst humanity can do to itself, can we perhaps prevent it from being repeated. Again, language is the vital tool: political language, journalistic language, the language of ‘debate’ – these subject the reality of genocide to points of view. But there is no ‘point of view’ to be had as regards the truth of genocide. Poetry – by only pursuing truth – is the way to ensure that this pure horror can be related, examined and remembered. Agony: A Poem of Genocide is my attempt to achieve this.
3. How does Agony compare to your previous work?
I am aware that Agony makes considerable demands on the reader; poems with footnotes, occasional use of other languages, and so on, are a challenge, though one I hope that readers will see the point of. But at its core, the poem is an attempt to bring together many different strands of thought, philosophical accounts, factual events, my own direct experience of the Rwandan genocide, the views of Holocaust survivors and perpetrators, the historical fact of what the Conquistadores committed in Latin America in the 16th century, the routine denialism perpetrated by Turkey regarding the Armenian genocide in 1915. This assembling of events – from different perspectives – will, I hope, be seen as giving the poem both an authoritativeness as regards the subject matter, but also a power in the fact that it is a poem. Poetry has its own, in-built power; a poem which is extensively and exhaustively research, will – I hope – be seen as doubly powerful, and thus as providing readers with a perspective on these issues which goes beyond ‘debate’ and actually achieves truth in the telling.
4. Anna Steinberg beautifully illustrated Agony - for you, what do these illustrations contribute to the experience of reading the poem?
Anna’s illustrations give the book an immensely powerful additional perspective, which gives the reader insight into the language of the poem by way of visualisation. I feel that the words and illustrations work incredibly well together – as well as allowing the reader to ‘pause’ between the parts of the poem, and to reflect in a visual way on the images on which the language focuses.
5. Can you describe your writing process? Is it different for different books?
When it is working most effectively, the ‘process’ of writing poetry is characterised by a perfect balance between the free flow of ideas being strictly ‘ordered’ by a conscious focus on structure, discipline, awareness of the direction of the poem, and a need to ensure that the poem doesn’t run away with itself. Poetry is a seeking of truth, as well as a celebration of language, the evocation of images which heighten the ‘truth’ by way of triggering ideas in the mind of the reader in ways which make the reading process an experience for the reader which is both highly individual while also striking a sense of empathy/rapport between reader and poem/poet. The writing of Agony was strongly influenced by these various aims and needs – I wanted to use poetry as a means of intensely relating human experience, but with the goal of doing so using language which readers would not feel the need to dispute. Of course, this goal is different from poems which don’t have similar aims, though I feel that the need to communicate with a view to establishing empathy with readers, is common to all my work.
6. What inspired you to start writing poetry?
The need to write as a means of communicating – but also to explore the mind, experience, versions of reality, the limits/boundless opportunities provided by language, have always lain behind my writing of poetry; I feel that my poems are my ultimate, personal truth. Telling it has always been a strong need.
7. What/who is your favourite poem/poet? Why?
Always present in my mind as been TS Eliot, with ‘The Waste Land’ a constant reference, and ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ a constant model of rhythmic perfection. To explain why is difficult; Eliot is a poet I trust, and his poems – ‘The Waste Land’ in particular – are poems I feel are my companions.
8. What are you working on next?
I have just finished a 267km hike through the high mountains of the Pyrenees – the first part of a 900km hike, which will be completed in 2021; I am writing the first part of what will be a poem relating this experience and what lay behind my decision to take on the challenge. The poem is part-personal, but also focuses intensely on what I learned of the challenges nature poses both physically and mentally in this often very hostile part of the world.
Born on the Yorkshire moors, Mark Huband grew up in Harlow, Essex. As a journalist and author he spent twenty-five years travelling the world. Postings as a newspaper correspondent in Abidjan and Nairobi took him to most countries of sub-Saharan Africa as they emerged from the Cold War. Initially for the Financial Times and then as Africa correspondent for the Guardian and the Observer, he covered the civil war in Liberia, the famine in Somalia, genocide in Rwanda and Burundi, and the conflicts in Angola and Sudan. Moving to Morocco, his focus was the emergence of political Islam across North Africa and the Middle East. Rebasing to Cairo as regional correspondent for the Financial Times, he became immersed in the turmoil stretching from Afghanistan to Algeria. Moving to London, in the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks he was appointed to oversee the FT’s coverage of Al-Qaida – a role which took him from the slums of Manila to the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
The author of eight books on Africa, the Middle East and global affairs, Mark Huband’s debut collection of poetry, American Road, was published by Live Canon in 2014. A book-length poem – The Siege of Monrovia (Live Canon, 2017) – has been followed by three pamphlets: Skinny White Kids (2017), Exile (2018) and The Candidate (2020), an account of his experience as a parliamentary election candidate.