Alliterati meets Lydia Hounat to talk taboo poetry, inspirations and Dutch courage
Lydia Hounat is a British-Algerian poet from Manchester, England. She has been published with Cuckoo Quarterly, The Missing Slate, The Cadaverine, the poetry journal Brain of Forgetting, as well as other publications. An avid performance poet, she has worked with the Manchester Literature Festival with her Writing Squad showcasing slam pieces with authors and poets, and regularly performs in bars and cafés. Jenny Danes spoke to her about a few of her upcoming gigs, as well as, very excitingly, the debut poetry pamphlet she’s working on.
So Lydia, for those who aren’t familiar with your work – can you tell us a bit about the kind of thing you write?
I tend to write two different types of poetry, there’s my page poetry work, and then there’s my performance poetry. I suppose I write about things I find interesting which nobody else wants to ever admit they take a curiosity in, for example, I write about incest, I write about domestic abuse, oral sex, serial killers, or even just a simple love poem, because whilst these subjects can be seen as macabre, unpleasant or private, the very taboo nature of them really fascinates me. This isn’t to say I advocate incest – far from it, and I suppose I don’t advocate much of the other topics I write about either, but I think I’ve always wanted to shock people in what I write, I’ve always wanted to make people rethink their views, or prove them wrong, so that my poetry stays with them.
With performance poetry, it stays more relatable. I write about childhood, where I come from or where other people come from, I write about places I’ve been or want to go to, I write a hell of a lot about politics and all the things that I see or hear daily that frustrate me. My performance poetry is somewhat of a rant, and I like to perform these poems to people who will relate in a similar way and say “That really gets on my nerves too” or “I know the feeling”. It’s a way of bonding, for me.
When did you first start writing poetry?
Gosh, er, well I suppose I first starting writing poetry when I around 11 or 12. It was a form of therapy to me; it just helped me suppress all the things I wanted to say when I was upset or mad about something. Paper was a friend to me, it still is. It’s a good listener. But I’ve been writing stories and little verses and diary notes since I was a very small girl. I did write some poetry when I was small, but I began writing seriously at around 15, when I thought I could do more with poetry for a livelihood, and not just as a means of speaking my mind.
Are there any poets who particularly influence you?
I love this question. One of my main influences has to be Anne Sexton. Just the balls she had to come out and openly write about abortion and her sexual affairs as a 1940s wife and mother, it just spoke volumes and really annoyed women who wanted to pretend that these things just didn’t happen. I like the ‘unheard of’, it’s the best kind of subject matter in my opinion. She was so psychologically comprised that it just oozed into everything she wrote, it couldn’t be relatable to every member of the audience, but some of the things she’s written I know will stay with me for the rest of my life. I want to do that, I try to do that in my work. She’s my go-to.
As well as Anne Sexton, I’m hugely influenced by Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, and even the cliché that is Shakespeare, I love John Keats, Lord Byron, Grace Nichols, Benjamin Zephaniah, Tupac, Tyler Okonma, EARL, Lana Del Rey, I cite Eminem as a huge influence, Maya Angelou, Charlotte Mew, Fleur Adcock, Rumi…
They’re all poets or singers or rappers that continue to influence me massively in my work.
Have you always been more involved with performance poetry, or did you start out as a ‘page poet’, as they say?
I started off writing page poetry but when I read it aloud I used to just naturally put rhythm into it and rhymes would come out of nowhere that I didn’t realise I’d written. A lot of people used to say that I should try out performance poetry so I began writing for performance, particularly when I met performance poets like Mike Garry and Luke Wright. At the moment I write both types at the same time.
What do you think about the blurred lines between reading work aloud from a page, as opposed to treating a poem as a ‘performance’ in itself?
I don’t believe that page poetry can’t be performed, because it can, it’s just that page poetry will warrant a page to be appreciated more than perhaps being read out aloud and vice versa. It’s hard to imagine reading Eminem from a poetry collection. I personally believe that you can do it either way. I think if you start making rules for poetry the fun’s taken out of it, besides, the rules that are there are made to be broken. All poetry can be performed or read.
Have you ever dabbled in other genres, like prose or scriptwriting?
Yeah. And failed with it. When I was around 8 years old I tried to write a novel called the ‘Lady in Black’, honestly it was so cheesy. It was almost like Twilight meets the Woman in Black and Macbeth a little bit, it was awful. Got to around 400 pages and just gave up in the end. I’ve done scriptwriting and enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t consider it my forte. I’d like to be better at it, I’ve thought about attending more scriptwriting classes, just because plays have always appealed to me, but I’m no Tom Stoppard that’s for sure.
Tell us about the pamphlet you’re working on. How’s it going? What stage are you at with it?
The process of my pamphlet is currently in its fourth redraft, I’m cutting certain poems out and putting new ones in, redrafting other poems I thought were okay but aren’t. I change my mind all the time about what really fits and what doesn’t. It still doesn’t have a title, sadly; all the poems are trying to say a lot of different things in different ways, and to strip the entire pamphlet down to one title is really hard. Lots of people are helping me edit it and are equipping me with the advice I need to get it out to publishers and ready for reading, which I’m so thankful for. It’s a work-in-progress and it’s cooking nicely, if I could put it one way.
Do you have any upcoming gigs or performances we could catch you at?
April’s a busy month coming up, so far I have an open mic gig at Ziferblat café in Manchester on April the 13th, my sixth form college has asked to me perform alongside the Manchester performance poet Mike Garry on April 15th and then the lovely First Draft Cabaret Night guys are welcoming me back for a second time on April 20th at the Castle Hotel in Manchester.
I might try for a fourth gig with Bad Language again but it completely depends on how many people sign up.
What would be your top tips for performing poetry? How do you deal with nerves?
I still get huge jitters before a performance, and I’ve done lots of gigs… So to help those nerves I just stand on stage and before I even start, I say a little hello, say a couple things about what I’m going to perform, crack a joke about myself or something, as though I’m chatting to some new friends, because an audience is just a bunch of people who are here to listen to you and have a good time, it’s no biggie. When I start performing a poem, I separate my feet apart a few inches and try to feel gravity pulling me down to the floor, and I try to feel grounded and the security of the floor’s support. My body feels looser at that point and more relaxed, and I just breathe deeply. People think you’d be stood on stage for 5 minutes trying to get to that point, but if you practise the feeling of having the floor ground you, that feeling of relaxation washes over you more quickly. Have a drink as well, like a beer or something – that can help too. I don’t know what it is about alcohol.
And if you mess up, it’s chilled, there’s no need to sweat about it because people aren’t going to have a go at you, and will always say well done in the end. It takes courage to perform your stuff, and people who attend open mics always know this, and will respect you for it.
Tell us about your upcoming publication with Ofi Press.
The Ofi Press Magazine was the first publication I ever submitted to, and I sent many poems in but my determination was very strong. I loved the mag and I wanted to appear in it so after I received a few rejections in previous instances I was accepted in late January this year. The poem that they’ve decided to take is called ‘Pill’ which will be in their 41st edition in April.
Is there anything else we should look out for?
You can look out for me in Haverthorn Poetry’s first issue, I’m not sure when the magazine will be published but it will probably sometime in summer or autumn this year.
I’m also in HOAX’s Issue 5 which came out in late March this year.
You can see more of Lydia’s work online at her WordPress blog: https://lymhpoetry.wordpress.com/ Look out for her at those Manchester dates this April!