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4th March 2021

The Poet at Work III: Christopher Hamilton-Emery

Continuing our regular series, we spoke to former Salt director Christopher Hamilton-Emery about juggling life as a publisher, with his work as a poet.

Christopher Hamilton-Emery was born in Manchester in 1963. He studied sculpture, painting and printmaking at Manchester College of Art and Design before taking a degree in graphics at Leeds Polytechnic, graduating in 1986. Emery has published three collections of poetry, as well as a writer’s guide, an anthology of art and poems, and pocket editions of Emily Brontë, Keats and Rossetti. His work has been widely published in magazines and anthologised. He lives in Cromer, North Norfolk, with his wife and children.

Until recently, Hamilton-Emery was the director of Salt Publishing, and there is a sense in which he has given so much of his time to other authors – Luke Kennard, Xan Brooks and Sian Hughes are among those who much to thank him for – that his own work may be somewhat underestimated. Recently he left his role at Salt to start a new role as Director of Operations at Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk.

For Finito World, Hamilton-Emery has written a remarkable poem ‘And Then We’. By telling details we are transported to another time and place – a world of ‘bound flax sail cloth’, ‘would dyed with kermis’ and a ‘tangled feast of eels’. This poem asks us to wonder what deeper meaning our work has and it demands that we imagine our way back into the shared past. It could only have been written by a poet with a profound sense of meaning, and moral duty. It shows a poet at the top of his form, whose strength is to have found a new lease of life in his work.

As ever, we print an interview with the poet after the poem itself.

And Then We

And then we embraced, sprawling on the green deck like scattered gulls.

And then we knelt under bound flax sail cloth, stinking and making the day.

And then we carried whom could not stand to the red chapel blithely.

And then we walked through your pristine marsh without hours or love or trees.

And then we drew about us buckram cloth and wool dyed with kermes and slept.

And then we pierced cockleshells and yearned for a tangled feast of eels.

And then we walked by sordid wolves and boars in corporal torment.

And then we met with hirsute leather brigands and were lost.

And then we starved, Lord, and knew concupiscence, gnawing your works.

And then we heralded salt wind, seal routes and spectres and walked dully on.

And then we saw your slipper chapel and spread our toes on a mile of stones.

And then we wept. At the ruin of our bodies we wept. At our just ruin.

And then we dressed and swayed, all the same, through the unifying street in a love queue.

And then we bent and entered Nazareth to see her and to know her choice.

And then we knew a high permanent land, our eyes fixed on accommodating angels.

And then we fell in stone-sealed Walsingham, with our fiat ringing, unanchored, teeming.

And then we left to see ice oak burials, flame drift farms, our backwards night talk blazing.

And then we sailed on, working new bones, each a prayer to the star of the sea.

Interview

You’re rare in that you’ve managed to be both a high-functioning poet and businessman – two skills that don’t always go together in the same person! What is the relationship between poetry and work like for you? Is it antagonistic or fruitful?

At one level work simply pays for my writing life, or at least the space to have a writing life, though this wasn’t always the case. I was an editor at Salt for over twenty years, and that was complex and at times bad for my writing. It left no room; though I didn’t realise this when I started out in 1999. Of course, I came to choose to give up a large part of my life to my authors – thousands of them over the years – but the sacrifice, if we can call it that, came to swallow up almost all of my life. There was a lot of collision between my sense of myself as a writer and my publishing activities, yet I came to be wholly subsumed into the publishing role. The switch back to being employed elsewhere has been liberating, and I’ve been able to separate out my business life from my writing life and, more broadly, my private life. I mean, I actually have a private life now! I’m only eighteen months into this new operational role but going back to being a general manager has been very rewarding. I’m fortunate to have a great boss and wonderful colleagues and the move into the Church has been personally enriching for me. So certainly very fruitful, and not antagonistic at all. In fact, I’ve never written so much. I’ve always believed that I needed to be in the world of business, I didn’t want to teach, I didn’t want to live through grants or patronage, I wanted to do something commercial and, don’t get me wrong, for years I enjoyed my private sector life. But everything comes to an end. All endings are beginnings.

You decided to step back a bit from Salt in order to work for The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. Can you talk us through your decision to move careers?

I’ve touched on this earlier. However, the decision to leave Salt and move to work for a Shrine wasn’t prompted by some calculated sense of balancing my writing life. I was going through a profound personal realignment. I’d lived a successful and content secular life for forty years, I had a rather dim view of religion, when suddenly I was dislodged from my own convictions. This was in part a process of disbelief, disbelief in secular satisfactions. I came to doubt the limitations of my own world view. I also realised, and had in my own writings, the limits of science in dealing with human experience, I used to consider how we cannot live in a world without mystery, but I didn’t know quite what this phrase meant. As I was travelling through this accommodation of my past – I’m a cradle Catholic – within a matter of weeks, I was interviewed and employed by the Shrine. I shan’t bore you with the personal narrative and experiences that fed into this, but it was the right decision for me and, after two decades of publishing and running my own business, I decided to serve Christ.

The government has recently said that poetry should be optional at the GCSE level – a significant demotion in its importance on the curriculum. What is your view on that and what do you feel the impact will be?

Whether poetry is inherently part of a curriculum or not, it will survive as an art form, so I don’t worry about its relationship to fiction or drama in the framework of syllabus development. I don’t worry about poetry in terms of its share of the education establishment. But there’s a wider context to this and that’s the way kids come into contact with poetry, or orchestral music, or ballet, or opera, or theatre. In this sense, education is the gateway, the space that gives permission to children, and in this context there’s a political and egalitarian component to this debate around poetry. The children of middleclass parents, those enjoying private education, the rich, are afforded more opportunities for this kind of assimilation into culture, and without the rebalancing of access within state education, we end up with a form of cultural apartheid. I hope this makes some kind of sense – it’s not the qualifications or curriculum, it’s the introduction, the initiation to this cultural capital that I find disturbing. I also recognise that poetry is a pain in the arse, yet it’s meant to be awkward, tricksy, resistant to authority, dissonant – things that are hard to teach and accommodate, things that can’t easily be measured or controlled. Poetry provides a critical citizenship and, I think, helps form the unity of the person and offers a living communion today and indeed through history.

Was there a particular teacher when you were younger who turned you onto poetry?

If memory serves, Mr Deacon, a supply teacher or trainee English teacher at my grammar school in Manchester, who was so exasperated with the boys not paying attention to some prticular text he threw his book through a window, smashing it. The headmaster promptly turned up and invited him to step out of the classroom for a private word. This singular act made me realise that something could have so much meaning to someone that they would physically act upon it. It was the perfect illustration of genuine literary passion and it set me off on the lifelong task of trying to create beauty and rapture. Or, not getting ahead of myself, at the very least, poignancy. Anyway, I do hope Mr Deacon survived his spell at St Peter’s and went on to do great things in teaching.

What’s your favourite poem(s) about the workplace?

Naturally, Larkin springs to mind, though his signal contribution is rather around the comedy of drudgery – and the progress of working life to its eschatological conclusion. Working life needn’t be quite so dreary! Most of us meet our spouses in this space. Most of find friends through work. A few of us find meaning in it. Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Filling Station’ recovers the tiny spiritual attendances of working life. Plath’s ‘The Applicant’ is a terrific feminist retort to Hughes’ ‘Secretary’. Gary Snyder, Philip Levine great on work.

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