Judi Sutherland interviews Cullercoats poet Harry Gallagher
Harry Gallagher is a North East poet. He has just published a new pamphlet ‘Subterranean’ with Wild Pressed Books. I interviewed him about his life and work,
JS: You are a Teesside lad – tell us about your background and your early life.
HG: I was born and raised in a village just south of Middlesbrough called Ormesby. It was like living in the countryside back then in the 60s – apart from the fact you could still see ICI and British Steel pouring out their beautiful poisons in the distance! But we were very lucky, I had an idyllic early childhood in many ways.
JS: And when you grew up, you worked at the steelworks for a while, I think?
HG: I spent most of the 80s in a steel treatment plant, yes. It was an old galvanizing works that had been part of Dorman Long – they who built the Tyne Bridge, Sydney Harbour Bridge and much else. I now consider myself fortunate to have worked alongside those men. Physically really tough fellas, who were absolutely ruthless with each other, but really good people, who’d spent their lives ‘fighting iron’ as they used to put it!
JS: This doesn’t seem like a typical background for a poet, though. How did you get into poetry?
HG: It was a dirty little secret I carried around my neck – my personal albatross! I’ve written poetry all my life but in an environment like that, you don’t show a soft side – and poets would certainly have been seen as soft!
One of the reasons I said we were lucky as kids is that we all learned to read before school and all went to the library regularly. Mum and dad both read a lot and it must have rubbed off – one of my sisters is an author now.
JS: You’ve written about the places and the people of Middlesbrough, about the steelworks and the great changes that Teesside has been through in your lifetime. Could you give us examples of the subjects you’ve written about and what you have wanted to get over to your readers?
HG: Hmm… that’s a difficult one. I think if we’re being really honest, all writers/poets must have a need to reach out, to share our thoughts and feelings. Otherwise, we’d just keep it all locked away in a drawer.
I’m certainly interested in what you might called the lived environment and how it affects us. I think people who work(ed) in heavy industry have a different view of the world. I’m equally drawn and repulsed by what industry forces people to do in order to keep bread on the table.
I’m also very much drawn to injustice and latterly, stillness and nature – which of course isn’t really still at all! Sorry, long answer!
JS: Do you feel that sometimes you are telling the stories of people who have no voice, or who have never learned to use that voice?
HG: Yes! Very much so. It’s quite a responsibility, I think. I don’t think being absolutely true to events is quite as important as being true to the person and their response. Good question!
JS: Of course, you could do this in a novel or a play, but I wondered why poetry is your medium of choice? Is there something especially powerful about poetry?
HG: I just think I’m naturally more suited to poetry. I have written and staged a couple of plays in years gone by but there’s something about boiling something down to its bare essentials that seems to come naturally. Plus, if I’m brutally honest, writing plays is much harder and takes a lot longer than writing poetry – for me anyway!
JS: You are a famously prolific poet! I wanted to talk for a moment about your book “English Jack” – can you tell us a bit about that please?
HG: “English Jack” was written in a furious flurry! I just got to the point of despair at seeing lots of white men my age proudly displaying St George flags and behaving like football hoolies in public. They seemed to have become normalised and I found it abhorrent and frankly scary that we’ve come to this. I just thought, “Where does that come from?” and it was clear, in my head at least. So I set about inventing this character, English Jack, and traced him from birth up to date, over about 20 poems. It seemed to me that people who hold racist, hateful views have often been brutalised in some way as children, their horizons are very limited and then when times are hard, they are easily led into blaming ‘The Other’. Once the time passes for those synapses to form in early life, it’s gone. I think England has a big problem.
JS: It’s inevitable, with your subject matter of working class lives and the decline of manufacturing, that your work gets called “political” – is that fair? Does it bother you? Isn’t poetry supposed to be about daffodils and love?
HG: Thank you! I’m split on this question. I spend at least as much time writing ‘nice’ poetry about everyday moments as I do tackling ‘an issue’ but you know what? I just write, and I’m grateful when anything chimes. I got a lovely message last month from someone whose grandad I wrote about a few years ago, and I was absolutely made-up to hear I’d apparently ‘captured’ him. I just love people really – except when I hate ’em!
JS: That’s cool! Of course we know that poetry is a thriving scene of gigs and workshops and book launches. So what has poetry been like for you in lockdown? Do you think the poetry world has changed?
HG: I think everything has changed. The smashed fragments are still in the air, so we’ll have to see what happens when or if things settle. What will the new ‘normal’ look like? Search me. I know I’ve had to get used to reading to my own face on a screen at Zoom events, which is weird!
I do know that there are still events planned so things are still moving along. In terms of how it’s been for me, I’ve been very fortunate in always having a steady pile of new reading – both fiction and poetry – so that keeps me going.
JS: I love Zoom poetry! I’ve been to some great gigs that I never could have attended in person! Can you tell us what poetry projects you are working on right now – or maybe your latest book…
HG: I’ve just had a pamphlet called “Subterranean” released by Wild Pressed Books, which is centred around what we’ve done to the ground beneath and around us by exploiting it for minerals, plus a retrospective collection – “Moulded From Ferrous” – came out a couple of months ago. And next year there’s a joint poetry/art Northumberland book coming out with the artist Jonny Hannah. Gawd, this talking about yourself lark’s a bit of a do, innit? I feel like Old Big ‘Ead Brian Clough – another smoggy incidentally!
JS: LOL you have earned it! Just to wrap up then, if anyone in the North East reading this wants to know more about poetry and where to find it, what events or regular poetry nights should they know about?
HG: For Teesside I’d recommend Black Light Engine Room, Durham has the great Poetry Jam, while Tyneside is well served by The Stanza and Born Lippy. Plus of course I run Cullerpoets, a poetry writing group, allied to The Poetry Society. Just look any of us up, we’re quite a friendly bunch!
JS: Last bonus question – you said earlier that you are writing more nature poems now – is it the move to genteel Cullercoats that has caused that? Or are you mellowing with age?
HG: I think our lived environment has a bigger influence on us than we’d like to believe. I’ve always been happier by the sea – there’s something about looking outwards and seeing the immensity of the world ‘over there’. Plus, I’ve always had that side of me, it’s just you get to a certain age and think “Oh balls to what anyone else thinks, I’m going to be honest about who I am!”
You can find out about Harry’s books and readings, at: https://harrygallagherpoet.wordpress.com/