Monday, April 29, 2024

TBR: Popular Song by Harry Man

TBR [to be read], a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books.  


We don’t expect an elevator pitch from a poet, but can you tell us about your work in 2-3 sentences?


Pound, Hope Mirrlees and Eliot and later modernists were writing in response to mass-production and the rise in literacy and psychoanalysis. From the 60s until now, the big subjects have been advertising and the environment. Now that great subject is ourselves. Congruent with that is the question of popularity. Online attention as popularity (particularly divisive attention) and thus the favouring by algorithms of the popular, the separation of self between the online persona whom we perhaps believe is more popular than our unvarnished selves, and also poems that reflect on what that popularity means. These are all hiding in the wings. The collection itself is concerned with discovery, humour and invention that takes its cues from the Invisible Man, assorted British wildlife, Kubla Kahn and David Bowie among others. In other words, nerdy, but fun nerdy.



What boundaries did you break in the writing of this book?


I was already working on poems after Ed Sheeran, Tones and I and The Weeknd, to challenge myself. All three have penned some of the most streamed songs of all time. I did also write poems in response to some of the UK’s favourite poems including Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ (aka ‘Daffodils’). A working title for my first pamphlet was Pilots and I think that tradition in my work of every poem being a test shot into the unknown continues. With that comes the risk of spectacular failure. In order to send work out, I have to be okay with that. This of course is alongside any chance of success. If I can inspire poems by people who had previously felt intimidated or alienated by poetry, then that is greatest reward and that for me is where the poems take off into new lives.


I also like poems that offer a valuable journey to a reader who wants to spend more time casting around and isn’t afraid to get out their own answer to literary sonar in search of ancient ruins, revealing treasures and uncovering histories for themselves. (You can see a little bit of this in poems like ‘Alphabets of the Human Heart in Languages of the World’)



Where does that sort of courage come from?


I read a news story the other day about a local guy so high he took a kid’s little yellow bicycle and tried to outrun the police on it. Courage comes from all sorts of different places. To be more serious about it, post-pandemic, I think like a lot of people, I needed to talk myself back into a hard-truth, yet highly empathetic reality.


There’s more to it, and I tend not to wear it on my sleeve, but I am dyslexic and I am on the spectrum, what people used to call Asperger’s. I think dyslexia gives me the most courage. You not only think, see, and hear the world differently, but you also learn the true weight of a blow. This can help you to understand how to inspire other people to fight for what they want to write and what they want to say and that’s exciting. For yourself that opens a space to write and create without limitation, but of course there are some cold light of day dangers to that too(!). Days and nights at the keys are all very well and good but you should also absolutely take a break and listen to the birds. Anthony Minghella, director of The English Patient said he had the affliction of being uxorious. That’s an affliction I also share that gives me the most courage (pukeworthy, but also true!).



Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.


The book spans twelve years of writing. In that time my poems have blasted off to Mars, others have been printed on cakes, cast in ice, put onto train station platforms and one was turned into a turning steel monument another performed with a jazz orchestra in Rotterdam. They’re young, they need to get out there and do their own thing. It’s hard to have a favourite. I think one of the best was when I heard Kathleen Jamie say she liked my work. I think my pulse has not quite been the same since. I read poems on stage with Pete Brown (who wrote the lyrics to Cream’s ‘White Room’ among other songs – probably the one song in the world that for me that most epitomises pre-internet London) before he passed and that was really very special. I also got to shake hands and share a glass with Jan Erik Vold – a privilege I will never forget. I walked with Nikola Madžirov and had one of those life-changing conversations about writing and the imagination and I got to watch the tempestuous Norwegian Sea rise and fall around black cliffs at midnight with Endre Ruset – and see how deservedly adored he is. I banged my head against a desk in frustration at my own poems while talking to Alice Oswald. The world turned. I worked nights at the supermarket during the pandemic. I wrote. I lived in a caravan, then in a shepherd’s hut and wrote a meditation for the birds and I translated secret codewords from the Russian military into English (for a poem). A close friend died of cancer. I wrote poems with Julia Lewis. At night I walked across the fields by moonlight to my house. I held my bed for six months while waiting for a doctor’s appointment because I thought my heart was going to explode. I conducted interviews with the trees and my niece wrote a story where everyone on Earth left got in a rocket and set off, leaving me behind with a bunch of dinosaurs, a canoe and a chocolate cookie. Poems about some of this ended up in the book. There is so much to explain, but I am grateful for all of it.



What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


Don’t finish that day’s writing when you’ve finished the thought, but rather when you know what the next sentence will be.


It’s more for prose writers than for poets, but building that rhythm and swinging across the gap from one sentence to the next to keep that pace going… Invaluable.



My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?


I was working on a piece about ‘The Empire Strikes Back in Reverse’. For a reader, it’s all over in a few minutes, but for me it’s been a quarter of my life. I always knew the poem had its own secrets. I took the two main characters outside of the cramped conditions of the car where most of the poem is set and it broadened and suddenly all this light came into the room and the relationship between them opened up in its scale and conversely it focussed their intimacy and that was revelatory. I started that poem in 2013 and finished it eleven years later… the amount of times I’ve seen a Tauntaun regain its innards and come miraculously back to life… It was all that time to find that one secret.



How did you find the title of your book?


An earlier version was called Spooky Action at a Distance. It has that feeling. People travel to Mars and lose contact with Earth, others the reader steps into a cassette tape and becomes the song on the album. Gradually, working like a selected poems, it became more of a mixtape and more about song and sound.


Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)


Gremolata Linguine. A perfect spring or summer afternoon recipe. It is zesty, tangy, a little bit spicy and feels warming and indulgent. It does not strictly feature in the book, but this is a big recipe from my childhood (minus the wine) and my childhood does feature – as does time travel, so if I travel back in time from the future, maybe it will go into the book somewhere!


Here’s how to make it:




3 garlic cloves

1 lemon (zested, then juiced)

60g wild rocket [known as arugula in the US]

100g parsley

1 red chilli

300g cooked and peeled prawns (will also work with breadcrumbs, olives and rosemary)

300g linguine

250ml dry white wine


Pepper, salt, olive oil


You will need:  A boiling pan, a food processor, two large bowls.





Add two tablespoons of salt to a large pan of water and bring to the boil. Cook the linguine to one minute less than it says on the packet instructions, so it still has a little “al dente” bite to it. Pour a little of the cooking water out of the pan before you strain it. I usually drain the pasta and then, while it is still dripping, toss it back into the pan with a drizzle of olive oil. Stir. Empty this into a bowl and chill in the fridge for at least 60 minutes. If time is of the essence you can re-fill the pan with ice and water to cool it quickly. Meanwhile zest and juice the lemon. Wash the rocket and parsley. Peel the garlic. Add the lemon juice and zest, the rocket and parsley, the garlic and that 250ml (or just a glass of wine) to a food processor and blitz. Taste to check. Because the pasta is slightly sweet, you need good acidity, good salt and a little spiciness to the sauce. Add as much chilli as feels comfortable and a generous amount of salt and plenty of black pepper. Give it another blitz. Once the pasta is perfectly chilled, toss it together with the sauce and add in the prawns. The prawns like to holiday at the bottom of the pan, so keep an eye out so everyone gets their fair share. Serve immediately. Watch out for your time-travelling self coming back for seconds… or is it firsts?


It’s a good travelling dish, and meeting poets, I have made this with variations using butter instead of olive oil, local giant sourdough loaves, sliced tomatoes and I have made my own fresh pasta with local eggs too. A real crowdpleaser.












DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.