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Poet, Musician & DJ
Gaia Holmes has been a busker, a cleaner, a lecturer, a lollypop lady, an Oral historian, a vegan caterer and a gallery attendant.
She lives in Halifax, West Yorkshire and has worked as a writer for several years doing poetry readings, appearing at festivals and facilitating writing workshops throughout Britain and beyond.
Her poems have appeared on local buses, in Doctor's surgeries and in hospitals in the Calder Valley.
She has collaborated with artists, musicians and film makers. 8 of her poems have been adapted to short films as part of a project launched by Comma Press. Her poem 'Desires' was adapted by the director Kate Jessop and was shortlisted for the 'Virgin media Short film ' prize in 2008.
Her first full length collection, Dr James Graham's Celestial Bed was published by Comma Press in 2006.
Gaia is currently teaching creative writing at Huddersfield university, writing poems for her 2nd collection and working as a DJ for Phoenix fm, a local community radio station.
Her book is available directly from the 'Comma Press' website: www.commapress.co.uk
An Interview with Gaia Holmes
by Dee Sunshine (December 2008)
Dee - I used to publish a poetry magazine, Acid Angel, and if I remember rightly, it was in the last issue (published in 2000) that I published your work. I don't have a copy to hand at the moment - in fact, I may not own a copy at all - so I can't check if my facts are entirely right. However, I do seem to remember you were published in the same issue as Michaela Owsley and Chloe Meakin. What was remarkable about the three of you was the precocious talents you all displayed at such a young age. You were all round about 20 years old (give or take) and each one of you had a maturity, a vision and your own specific voice: something I rarely see in a poet under 25.
At the time, I imagined that Michaela and Chloe would go on to conquer the poetry world, big time. I imagined one - or both of them - being hailed as the new Sylvia Plath. Why didn't I imagine that for you? Well, I thought you were probably too free-spirited, too much of a hippie, too much of a traveller, to ever concentratedly pursue the life of a poet. And this supposition was backed up by the fact that I could not contact you, except through an intermediary, because you didn't actually have a home. So, you can perhaps see why I was so presumptuous.
However, I've been proved totally wrong. Out of all three of you, you are the only one to have, as yet, published a collection of poetry. So, I obviously got you totally wrong. Tell me this then, for starters, were you a hippie back then? Do you feel you have changed intrinsically? I guess what I am asking is for you to tell me who you were back in 2000 and who you are now in 2008; and if you feel you have changed, what changed you, or what changes did you make?
Gaia - Hmmm, yes. I suppose I was a 'hippie' back then...a free spirit and I like think that, 10 years on, I still am. Though I'm grounded in the fact that I have a house and a regular job I don't feel that my ideals have changed drastically. I do want recognition as a poet and a little more 'fruit for my poetic labours' would be nice but I don't regard myself as an acquisitive type. People say there's little money to be made in poetry and I have accepted this. I generally have a 'skinny purse' but I'm OK with this. Being a relatively 'impoverished' poet is my own choice. My lifestyle allows me a great deal of freedom. I work as a part-time lecturer for one day a week which means that I'm able to do other writerly things to supplement my income (such as poetry readings, freelance workshops, etc) when the opportunity arises. In moments of financial crisis I've thought Oh, sod this. I'm going to make things easier and get a 9-5 job! but I haven't ever actually done it. The idea of working 9-5 petrifies me! I know the experience would probably breed tons of poems but, at the moment, I am lucky enough not to have to or to need to take the conventional path: big-money job, buying a house, buying a car, etc. Yes. I do feel VERY lucky! Being a poet is a privilege. Though I'm poor and my house is dog-eared and I could do with a new carpet and the walls could do with a fresh lick of paint and I could do with a new pair of boots and it would be nice to afford to dine out in expensive restaurants every week I feel that my life is rich. I like to think that this feeling of spiritual wealth is what gives my poetry both its sense of reality and glitter.
You ask me whether I feel I have changed intrinsically. At heart I'm still the same Gaia of 2000. I still like lighting fires in the woods, still like to be outside, I still relish the intricacies of small town life, I still take great pleasure in the world 'beyond the edges' and I'm still a bit of an introvert, a little bit of a timid mouse but I have grown in confidence. The publication of Dr James Graham's Celestial Bed gave me a feeling of acceptance. It made me realize ' I am a writer. That's what I do.' It's a shame I felt I needed this kind of acknowledgement in order to value myself as a poet but I did and it has helped. Also, all the public poetry readings I've done since 2000 have helped to increase my confidence. There's no better tonic for a poet than a responsive, satisfied audience. I love it when someone comes up to me after a reading and says I've never really been into poetry. It's always scared me but I loved the poems you just read! That gives me a great feeling of accomplishment. I feel my 'poetic voice' has developed over the years. The fact that I've read the works of so many other poets has helped. I'm very easily influenced. I think that reading is as important as actually writing in terms of learning about 'the craft'. If I read a book by Gillian Allnutt and then write, a little bit of Allnutt's voice will make its presence in my text. This doesn't frighten me. I embrace the idea of influence. I read widely and therefore open myself to influence. I know that all these various 'threads' of influence will fuse with my own style and create a new, hopefully original, voice. As a writer, I feel that aspiring (and also established) writers should read the work of poets in order to develop. I do know of some writers who refuse to read the work of other authors as they feel it will corrupt their style. This always reminds me of an essay called 'The Blindfolded Architect'
'Can you imagine...a blindfolded architect, desperately trying not to catch a glimpse of any buildings? A carpenter making a table without ever looking to see how it's done? A brain surgeon operating without having stood in the theatre and watched other operations? Writing is a craft and skill, and a period of apprenticeship must be done. A major part of any apprenticeship is observing others' work.' by Nell Leyshon ( in The Reader, #9):
And, to end this first answer with an appropriate quote, I'll cite the American writer, Natalie Goldberg: ' If you don't read you'll be running on empty.'
Dee - You are not alone. Only deluded poets could convince themselves that they are not influenced by what went on before them. I would go further and say that all poets (and all creators in general) are influenced by everything around them, not just poetry, but by all art forms; and also by pop music, the television, newspapers etc. My guess is, that the trick to finding an authentic, original voice is to have an eclectic range of influences.
So, firstly, I'd like to know if - despite ongoing influences - you feel that you are beginning to develop your own distinct poetic voice. Was there a specific poet who first turned you onto poetry? Which poets would you say have been most influential or inspirational? And what about art and music? Would you say that you've been influenced by other art forms? (I'd be grateful if when answering this question you elaborate as much as possible, especially if you feel you've been influenced say by music).
Gaia - Yes, I definitely feel that I'm developing my own distinctive poetic voice. As I say, influence is only a strand or a small component of my poetry. And yes, other artistic forms are a big influence on me and my poetry. Music has always been very much a part of my life. Most of my family are musical. We were brought up in a very musical environment. My dad constantly played records: Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Chopin, Beethoven, The Spinners, etc. My brother Jago played the fiddle. My brother Rudolf played the guitar. My dad played clonky honky-tonk piano and taught himself to play slightly discordant renditions of Elgar on a huge Cello. My mum had rhythm and was always tapping her toes or drumming her fingers on the table. I played the piano and have since learned how to play the accordion and the guitar. In fact, I first started making a living through busking. That's how I survived when travelling. I immerse myself in music...I usually have the radio on or a CD playing and feel that if I wasn't so immersed in music my poetry might be quite different. Films influence me, art influences me. The things that move me influence me. I have phases where I surround myself with the work of a particular artist. When I was 'into' Chagall my poems absorbed some of the surreal, sensual dream-like colours and qualities of his work. When I was 'into' Frida Kahlo my poems became very vivid and intense, loud and a little disturbing. As for literary influences, I was very lucky to have parents who had a great interest in literature so, in my childhood, there were always books around. My dad used to have this scratchy old LP of Dylan Thomas reading his poetry that he'd play regularly. I loved the lilt and musicality of his voice and the way he put words together to create such rich images and textures. My mother also loved poetry. One of her favourite books was 'The Hutchinson anthology of modern poetry'. It had this dusky pink dust jacket and browned pages that smelt the way books are supposed to smell ( I still have it and it's retained its bookish perfume). She showed me the poem 'This is just to say', by William Carlos Williams and I loved it. I really felt, tasted and saw the cold plums Carlos Williams wrote about in the bright fridge light and realized that poetry didn't have to be cryptic or obscure, simple, well chosen words could convey the author's message. I realized that, when done well, poetry can evoke an idea, an emotion, an atmosphere or an image as effectively as oil or gouache on a canvas. I think I actually got in to writing when I left home at 18. I moved into a tower block and felt incredibly lonely . I was, and still am, quite a shy person and had great difficulty expressing myself vocally. I discovered that I could be much more eloquent in poetry, or on the page, than in speech. Poetry was the only place I felt I could say what I wanted to say and so I began to write and didn't stop! And as well as writing poetry, I began to read poetry. I read Plath, Keats, Byron, Rossetti. I also read many of the novels that my mother recommended , novels by Angela Carter, Virginia Woolf, Plath, Margaret Atwood as well as some decadent Gothic novels full of velvet and 'shards' and goblets and crystals and tragedy and passion. Those were my early literary influences. Later on in life I've been influenced by the poets John Burnside, Billy Collins, Selima Hill, Gillian Allnutt, Michael Longley, and the work my contemporaries such as Jacob Polley, Julia Copus, Helen Clare, Jean Sprackland and Catherine Smith. And novelists who have influenced me are Jean Rhys, Annie Proux, Emily Bronte, Alice Hoffman, Edna o'Brien, Ali Smith, Dodie Smith, Ian McEwan...oh, there are so many more! I think the cadence of those Dylan Thomas records still thrums through my veins so Mr Thomas has to be listed as one of my main literary influences.
Dee - Very often it seems to be the case that folk turn to writing when they feel shy, socially awkward or that they don't quite fit in. It's probably the reason that so many teenagers write poetry. Certainly most of them abandon it when they find their place in the adult world. Perhaps you too would have, had things been different. Under the circumstances, do you regard the shyness that drove you to write poetry a blessing or a curse (or both)? Also, just supposing your Fairy Godmother came along with her magic wand. She offers you the prospect of winding the clock back ten years. She's going to give you boundless self-confidence and no fear of vocal communication. You'll be outgoing, happy-go-lucky, the Belle of the Ball. But, on the downside, you'll have no inclination to write poetry ever again. So, do you accept or refuse? And why?
Gaia - I wouldn't say that shyness was the only thing that drove me to write poetry. It was the desire to express myself, to process my thoughts, to try to understand more about the world . I think I'd have chosen writing as my mode of expression whether I was shy or not. I was brought up to believe that creativity was an important part of life. If my fairy godmother gave me the gift of boundless self-confidence but took away the inclination to write poetry I'd probably be a potter or an artist or a musician. Without a creative output I'd be very dull and dismal . Creativity is part of my bone structure...without it I'd be a different shape. I'd probably be unbalanced, lop sided and difficult company to keep. But, ah, the bargain...I think I'd refuse the offer. I'm happy as a poet and, though not all entirely positive, my experiences of life ( without the fairy's blessing) be they extrovert, introvert, loud, quiet, ugly or beautiful are essential fuel for my poems and are what keeps them moving and breathing.
Dee - For the life of me, I can no longer remember who said this, or exactly what the quote was, but in essence, this poet said that the trick to poetry was to labour and labour to make a poem read as though it was spontaneously written. Of course, this isn't true for all poets. Some gifted individuals do indeed have the ability to spontaneously write their poetry, with little or no editing afterwards. Reading through the poetry you have sent me - and what I remember of your contributions to Acid Angel - your poetry certainly reads as spontaneous. However, considering that I know you have been writing for ten years, and you have, as yet, only published one collection, I'd have to conclude that you actually spend a lot of time on the editing process (either that, or you've got thousands of poems hidden away in dusty folders). So, which is it? Do you labour slowly over your poems? Or do you write many spontaneous poems, but allow only a small percentage of them to see the light of day? Also, I'd like to ask you something about your writing "regime". You quoted Natalie Goldberg earlier in the interview, and she is a great advocate of write, write, write and keep on writing. So, are you a disciple? Do you sit down at your desk religiously every day and keep pushing at the pen till something evolves, or do you wait until you are inspired? Could you tell us something about your writing regime (or non-regime), and also, for the many novice writers who visit this website, can you offer up any advice that would enlighten them about how to tackle that infamous hurdle, Writer's Block?
Gaia - I don't spend a lot of time editing my work but know that editing is a very important part of the writing process. My editing tends to consist of only a little trimming and chopping. Editing scares me. I've had the experience of editing a poem so much that the poem loses its original meaning, the spine is broken and it takes on a new form, becomes something else. This can often be an effective transformation but sometimes I have lost a poems' heart by excessive editing. It's an amazing feeling when a poem 'comes out' spontaneously. This used to happen a lot for me but not so much now. I suppose this is because my poems are much more 'out there' and exposed to the critical gaze. Publication has changed my approach to writing in that respect. I think I write in a more self-conscious manner knowing that I've got a wider, more varied audience and that my poems have publication as a potential destination.
Yes, I do have dusty, dog-eared folders full of poems that will probably never see the light of day. I generally write something every day in order to maintain a sort of 'mental balance'. This daily writing may take the form of letters, journal entries, stream-of-consciousness style prose, poetry. There are things that I write in order to get something off my chest or to try and 'work something out'. There are things I write simply to exercise my writer's voice but I'd never want to inflict these things on the general public. I may take threads from these pieces and 'weave' them into other poems but I suppose I could say I write in two different modes: 'private' and 'public'. Often the stream-of-consciousness/free writing prose I write is what provides me with the 'bones' or the controlling idea of a poem. I use the 'free writing' method to get over writers block. If I've no particular theme or idea for a poem I just sit and write whatever is in my head. These pieces may begin with a dull and uninspired phrase (Such as 'I can't write' or 'I want to write about') but then as I continue to write in an un self conscious way strong images and intense phrases usually emerge and a theme announces itself.
When I'm out and about I write in my notebook which I take everywhere. I write in pubs and cafes. Writing on the computer is quite a different experience. I'm faster at typing than at handwriting so the stuff I write on the computer seems less censored, less self-conscious. When I write in my notebook I tend to do more mental editing before committing words and phrases to the page. When I've filled a notebook I go through it and type things up. Actually, transferring things in my notebook to the computer involves a lot of editing. It's easier to see the features of a poem that work or don't work when it's typed up in a regular and even font. So, this transference part of the writing process is where I do the most editing. As I say, my method for overcoming writer's block is to write my way through it, to allow myself to write utter rubbish in the hope that beneath all that rubbish I'll find something worthwhile.
Dee - I understand you've been involved in some collaborative projects. Can you tell me a bit about them?
Gaia - Recently I started collaborating with Dave Gill (singer/songwriter) and Sophie Bancroft (singer). We've been turning poems from Dr James Graham's Celestial Bed into song lyrics. It's an interesting and exciting project. My poems are often lyrical but don't have the tightness a song lyric requires in order to be sung comfortably so we're altering them slightly, maybe dropping or adding words where necessary but still keeping the heart of the poem intact. It's nice to know but my poems can be transformed into another art form. I've also worked with film makers. This year I worked with the director Dinu Li. He commissioned me to write a poetic monologue to accompany his short film, 'Dare we dream of perpetual change'. Prior to that my publisher, Comma Press, set up a challenge to aspiring film makers and asked them to chose a poem from a selection of poems by Comma authors and adapt it to film format. 8 of my poems were chosen (my poem 'Desires', adapted by directed by Kate Jessop, was shortlisted for a Virgin media award this year and shown at independent cinemas throughout Britain). It was really interesting to see how the directors interpreted my poems, what aspects they focused on and how they presented the images and ideas in film format.
Dee - Would you be interested in getting more involved in film, say as a writer or director? Are there any other art forms you are interested in? Or do you consider yourself to be exclusively a poet?
Gaia - No, I don't consider myself to be exclusively a poet...poetry is what I feel 'best at' or most confident in but I dabble in all-sorts of different artistic/creative pursuits. For the past year I've been a DJ for Phoenix FM, a local community radio. I present a fortnightly show called 'Themes for Dreamers' in which I select a theme and play tunes, read poems and literary excerpts related to that theme. I wouldn't say I was a brilliant DJ, I tend to press the wrong buttons from time to time, but I love it and get great pleasure from it. I'm still very much into music, as a songwriter and also as a musician. I recently acquired a gutsy red accordion who I christened Madeline. I'm teaching myself to play her. Again, I'd say I'm rather amateur but I love playing. I play Madeline for stress relief...it really works.
As well as writing poetry I write a lot of prose. I'd love to write a sustained piece of fiction, perhaps a slim novella. I have an idea for a story but find it difficult to launch myself into such a big project and feel I need to do a lot of fiction writing practise to sharpen up my skills. I've also considered writing the text for a children's book. Me and my friend , the artist, Vicky O'Shea (she did the cover for 'Dr James Graham's Celestial Bed' ) have discussed collaborating. Our idea is to write a mixed media children's book revolving around the idea of 'the Mexican day of the dead'. It'd be a good way of introducing kids to the concept of death and grief in a gentle way...we've talked about it a lot but haven't really committed any of our ideas to paper. I think the best thing to do when you get an idea is to just get down to it. You can talk an idea to death...I've done that several times! For the moment though I'm working on poems for my next collection which I intend to call 'Occasional China'. I've still got to write a poem about 'Dr James Graham's Celestial Bed'. I meant to write it to go in my collection of the same name but ran out of time! So, in my debut collection there's no title poem. No one's complained yet!
Dee - I'm fascinated by your role as a DJ. It's one of my secret fantasies to be a DJ, ever since I first heard the John Peel show, way back in 1976. Of course, I never quite got round to pursuing this dream, largely because I couldn't see a way into it. There certainly weren't any community radio stations back then, or at least, none I was aware of. So tell me, how did you find out about Phoenix FM? Was it one of your dreams to be a DJ? And how did you manage to get a slot? Also, what sort of music do you play on your show?
Gaia - Phoenix FMhas been going, on and off, for years. I'd never even considered becoming a DJ but I know some of the people who are involved in the station and they asked me if I'd host a radio show. I agreed and realized how much I enjoyed doing it. Because my show's at the weekend and is classed as a 'specialist' show there are no restrictions (apart from 'colourful language!) on what I play. I don't have to play mainstream chart hits. I play a diverse range of musical styles...Jazz, Blues,, world, contemporary, folk music. Becoming a DJ has broadened my musical horizons though I still tend to favour music with a 'foreign' feel. PJ Harvey, Gotan Project, Oi Va Voi, Amon Tobin, Bat For Lashes, Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, Beirut, Iron and Wine, Calexico, Regina Spektor, Billie Holiday, Sophie Solomon, Zoe Keating, Eric Sate, Arctic Monkeys, Feist, Azure ray, Rammstein, Bach, Kate Rusby, Kirsty Mcgee, Gogol Bordello, Manu Chao, The White Stripes, Tom Waits, The Be Good Tanyas, Lou Rhodes, Lamb, Goldfrapp, are some of the artists/composers that I feature. It all depends on the theme of the show.
Dee - With all the various projects that you are involved in or planning to be involved in it sounds like a pretty hectic sort of life. Is it? Do you have time left over for relaxation and recreation? And if so, what sort of things do you do to chill out?
Gaia - Yes, well I have little slivers of time left over but these days they don't really seem substantial enough to get stuck in to doing a bit of intense and focused writing. At the moment I have about 20 poems on the go but can't seem to get the space to finish them. I'm finding this frustrating as I really want to write! Writing is often a way I relax...writing in bed at night with a mug of tea (or a glass of wine). Other ways I unwind are reading cookery books (also in bed!My bed often doubles as my 'office') or unchallenging, entertaining novels that demand little concentration. I also find a brisk walk helps me to unwind. I don't have a TV so I listen to the radio alot. Sometimes, when I get the chance, I relax by sitting too close to my fire and listening to Radio 4 for hours. Oh, and baths...I never have half-hearted baths. My baths are little pockets of calm throughout the week. I do the whole indulgent bath thing:candle light, foamy stuff and Bach playing on the stereo. And quiet pubs...I like going to quiet pubs with a friend, quiet pubs up on the moors with open fires and a dog or three pottering around.
Dee - Your bath thing makes me think you must be a Libra. Not that I am that au fait with astrology, but every Libra I know treats his or her bathroom like a boudoir. So, are you a Libra? And if not, what?
Gaia - No, I'm not a Libra. I'm a cancerian. I used to be very 'into' astrology when I was younger. Now I'm not that involved with it though I do feel I possess many of the typical cancerian traits: I like my home (my shell) and have a habit of skirting sideways around the things that frighten me.
Dee - What about New Age stuff in general?
Gaia - As for New Age ideas...well, I suppose I incorporate many New Age ideas into my life. I'm not religious, or rather I don't adhere to a specific religion. We were brought up without religion. I always found the abstract notion of a particular omniscient God a difficult idea to grasp. I suppose if I had to, I'd define myself as a pagan. My family and I usually celebrate the solstices by lighting fires on our allotment down by the canal and making music and generally appreciating nature, but I'd rather not define myself! Despite all this, religious imagery (especially Catholisism) often appears in my poetry. I make many allusions to the bible, to the Muezzin. This is because many of my friends have strong religious beliefs and my poetry is always influenced by the people I spend time with. Also, the area in which I live is a multi cultured, multi faith area which means that I'm constantly surrounded by a variety of religious festivals. By living here I have learnt a lot. I don't feel that by not committing myself to a particular religion there's a lack in my life Though, all that said, in troubled times I often pray but to whom (or what) I pray I'm not sure.
Dee - You're on a desert island. You haven't read a book in a year. A crate washes ashore, full of books. Ideally, which books?
Gaia - Obviously I'd want some practical books so perhaps 'The Desert Island Cookbook', Pablo Neruda's collected works, some big fat novels concerning serious issues and some slender novels containing some not-so-serious issues. I'd like to read more Charles Dicken's...I've hardly read any of his stuff...also all the other classics that I've been meaning to read for years. I'll have plenty of time to read them on my island.
Dee - Finally, words of advice for young, would-be poets?
Gaia - My advice to would-be poets is to read the works of other poets. Read bad poetry and consider what makes it bad. Read good poetry and consider what makes it good. Get involved in the local poetry scene. Join a poetry group, go to poetry readings, meet other poets. It's such a luxury for me to have so many friends that are interested in poetry and attending poetry groups/readings opens up the possibility of making contacts in the poetry world. And write as much as you can. Allow yourself to write rubbish. Don't feel that everything you write has to be a polished masterpiece just write and keep writing. Practise, practise, practise. Oh, and don't take yourself too seriously!
© Dee Sunshine & Gaia Holmes, 2008
Read: Gaia Holmes poetry
Go to: Comma Press
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