Local Interest: An Interview with Emily Hasler

Each year our Pavilion Poetry students assist with the publishing of our new collections, dedicating their time to an individual poet. In this interview, Melissa Thomas talks with author Emily Hasler about her new collection, Local Interest (Pavilion Poetry, 2023).

What inspired your new collection Local Interest?

The title comes from those sections of libraries, which I’ve always loved, and the collection started out as an excuse to revel in them. This portage point, for want of a better term, gave me free and easy to access to research and played into my resistance to concept or theme—allowing me to range between subjects and perspectives. It allowed me to roam across time, into pre-history, wander between fact and fiction, consider the animate and inanimate, human and nonhuman.

So I set myself some geographical parameters: roughly the south of Suffolk and north of Essex. I live on a river that separates the two counties, at the point where salt and freshwater meet. So instantly there is a breaching of borders, a question of boundaries. Local Interest became a lens through which to interrogate and muddle ideas of what counts as local, as opposed to general, or national, or international, or universal; to ask where, and why, we draw those lines. And ‘Interest’ is a delightfully polyvalent term. I wanted to work within and against the arbitrary constraints I had set myself, to question and confuse, to mix individual hyper-local events with the wider phenomena which shape places and challenge our ideas of what belongs where.

From there, researching the poems became part of a wider practice: to dwell. To live where I write and write where I live. To look more closely and intently and not seek to escape or ignore. To inhabit rather than capture.

Of course, we start writing and the world doesn’t hold still while we’re in the process. I began in 2018 and all was moving along, slowly mind you, when I found myself (like everyone) confined to the ‘local’. The ongoing pandemic isn’t an inspiration—being inside it still I don’t think I can reflect it—but I was rather lucky in being able to continue with research, and I did find disasters becoming increasingly prevalent.

Within this collection you describe the human and natural as not distinct or separate. Was your intention to highlight how humans have changed the environment around us?

I’m certainly obsessed with the negotiation between the ‘manmade’ and ‘natural’ environment. In the UK generally, and especially where I live, it’s very much a managed landscape of sea walls and sluices, groynes and grazing marsh. Then there is the way these interventions are then intervened upon by natural forces—for instance the breached sea wall in ‘The Flooded Field’. We get so used to this landscape we forget it is only one configuration. (Though when noticed the sea defences and sluices stand as a constant reminder of the threat of inundation.) Part of where I live is what is termed ‘Constable Country’ and those famous paintings aren’t untouched rural idylls, they’re working and worked landscapes—Constable’s family wealth, which allowed him to paint, was a mill dependent on a canalised the river, changing its course from a shifting tangle of branches to one deep channel.

I hope these poems highlight that not only do we change the landscape, it changes us—and that it’s an ongoing relationship. That idea of a relationship to place, as something reciprocal, is key for me.  

Would you argue being published previously has influenced how you approach your work?

There’s certainly a huge difference between a first collection which is often (as it was for me) the work of your writing life up to that point. I had to start afresh, from scratch, and although that might seem daunting I found it liberating. There’s a lot of pressure on debuts these days to make a huge splash, to shortlist or sink. I feel my first book slipped more quietly into the water and with that comes a measure of freedom: I don’t feel constrained by expectations, I just follow my own interests and inclinations. I was also very fortunate in having a brilliant press who assured me my next collection would be wanted, and a fantastic editor who gave me enough free rein to figure out my direction but not such a long leash I wandered off never to be seen again!

How do you want your readers to view the natural world after reading your work?

As something they are part of, privy to, responsible for. A belonging that is both ways. Of course I have huge fears about the environment. Anyone who doesn’t is in denial, or, worse, has given up. Climate change is big a presence in these poems; they’re not about climate change, it’s just there, a part of what is happening. I don’t think poetry can fix the problems we face. And I’m not seeking to raise consciousness about what a crisis we’re in—some poetry certainly does that but I suspect I’d be preaching to the converted. What I believe poetry can do, and I hope mine does, is foster a sense of our relationship to the environment. I say ‘my river’ or ‘my marsh’ and I mean that in the same way as I’d say ‘my friend’ – it’s about a relationship not ownership, and it is not static or fixed.

Poetry also allows for complexity and nuance. There’s an urge for simple answers, an escape button (‘plant more trees!’) but that is just the other side of the capitalist, colonialist coin that landed us in this mess. Everything needs to be rethought; what is right in one place will not be right in another. We can’t find a ‘solution’ and then all move on; we must change how we see ourselves in relation to the planet and continually negotiate from that perspective.

You describe your poetry as exposing the constantly shifting courses of rivers and lives, how did these two subjects become intermingled within your work?

Partly because my own life is so entangled with ‘my river’ (the Stour). I live by it, swim in it, canoe on it, try to take care of it—just feel I belong to it, with all the joy and pain that brings. I must acknowledge the influence of indigenous ideas about the rivers and other natural features, in particular the idea of their personhood, which I was alerted to by the work of Robin Wall-Kimmerer and Natalie Diaz, among others. Those ideas totally chimed with and expanded what I felt. A river as a being. And though a river is such a powerful and multivalent metaphor, especially for change, it is also a very real, and powerful, force. The river here does shape lives. My house only exists because of a channel cut in 1705 to ‘improve’ the river, and it only remains here because of the sea defences erected after 1953. The river still brings trade to the town, employs people, occupies their free time. It’s in the way. And it connects us. It’s there, a constant presence. But it’s changing. And it hasn’t actually always been there…

Emily Hasler lives beside the River Stour on the border of Suffolk and Essex. The Built Environment, her critically-acclaimed first collection, was published by Pavilion in 2018. She has been an Early Career Resident at Cove Park, a Hawthornden Fellow and in 2014 received an Eric Gregory Award.

Follow @PavilionPoetry on Twitter and visit our website to pre-order Local Interest.

Pavilion Poetry Launch 2023

Join us in Liverpool on Tuesday 25th April to launch our new collections from Jodie Hollander, Katie Farris and Emily Hasler with the Centre for New and International Writing. Register for the free event here.

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