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Henry Normal on His New Poetry Collection and Preparing for Live Shows

27 September 18 interview: Christopher P. Davis

The ever delightful poet, producer and screen-writer, Henry Normal, sat down for a quick chat about his latest poetry collection, This Phantom Breath, and what to expect from his upcoming live show, Nature V Human Nature.... 

“I’m sat here now in my Marks and Spencer’s clothes having had a curry and some Haagen Dazs,” Henry tells me, just before putting the phone down at the end of our interview. “If I was working at the insurance brokers – as I was when I was eighteen – that would still be my day. I’ve not changed; I’ve just got a bigger house now.”

It seems an apt way to end a conversation with Henry. For the best part of an hour he ruminates carefully, philosophically, over every thought I put before him – “the humanity and vulnerability we all share is something very valuable and is worth showing,” he says at one point – yet the enduring image I have as the line goes dead is of him, presumably sat on his sofa, talking to me with the dinner plates just cleared from the kitchen table and the taste of ice cream still on his lips.

Speaking to Henry, or reading his written work, I am struck by the delicate line he treads between the profound and the ordinary. In This Phantom Breath, his latest collection of poetry, the content shifts almost line by line between the two:

We sit like Morecambe and Wise

Weetabix and tea in bed

Fresh water and a tablet

The curtains frame

the sea and sky

And even you

who are so full of life

welcome in the day

wondering who will be left

to watch you die.

His work comments on the vulnerability and the anxiety of human life, sometimes abstractly and sometimes extremely personally. Henry has written candidly about the difficulties of bringing up an autistic son, about the ageing process, about the likelihood that his poetry will not be remembered. “I know even as I write this line too will be forgotten,” he remarks in one poem. Here is honesty that moves beyond the autobiographical.

I ask him whether it is a discomforting experience, exposing himself the way he does. “It’s about losing yourself and not thinking of yourself too much as an individual,” he tells me. “If what you’re writing is either painful or embarrassing, it’s probably because it means a lot, and that’s the sort of stuff we should be communicating.”

Talking like this, it’s easy to forget how much humour features in Henry’s work; humour that feels like it could have been lifted straight from a Royle Family episode. For weeks after reading his last book, A Normal Family, I kept finding myself laughing at an anecdote in which his step-mum turns to his dad while watching the climax of Titanic, when there are bodies spiralling down into the Atlantic and women and children clambering into lifeboats, and she says to him, “we’re going on a cruise soon, aren’t we.”

This story was recited again in A Normal Imagination, Henry’s third offering for BBC Radio 4 (following A Normal Life and A Normal Family). As with his writing, Henry’s live show is at turns funny, at others almost heart breaking. After a number of comedic interludes and two-line ditties, for example, Henry performs ‘Quintessence’, a poem about his son Johnny:

We were eating dinner

quietly

like an ordinary family

I can't even remember what food

 

and there it was

a glimpse

unexpected

This was the man Johnny could have been

 

'Isn't Johnny handsome?' I said to Angela

wanting to include her in the moment

It was all I could do

to stop myself weeping like a fool

 

After

when I stacked the dishwasher alone

I broke like death

 

Unexpected

I hadn't glimpsed

the man Johnny could have been

The mourning was for a different loss

 

one known

but not understood until now

for there in this moment

was the beauty of the man he was

In print, the poem is moving; performed, it is impossible not to be reduced nearly to tears. And even over the radio, one can sense the audience collectively drawing breath after the last line dies away, the stuffing having been knocked out of them.

I ask Henry how easy it is to manage this balancing act between the comic and the grave on stage. “In life, I don’t think people are sad all the time or happy all the time. Too often we compartmentalise things as if to suggest that the two emotions can’t meet. But the serious and the frivolous sit side by side – we should enjoy that.”

Henry returns to Nottingham this weekend with his latest show, Nature V Human Nature, which is about his upbringing in the centre of the city and him being gradually “weened onto nature”. His first experience of the natural world was seeing a line of ants on Seymour Street in St Anne’s, Henry tells me. “Then we got a dog and a cat. And if I went to the park, I could see a tree. It’s only when I went to Skeggy that I got my first glimpse of wild nature.” I fight the urge to chuckle when he says this, momentarily taking the comment out of context and remembering some of the “wild” Skegness scenes I’ve witnessed in my time. In light of everything we have been discussing before it, though, I could be forgiven for finding humour in places where it was not even intended. With Henry, humour – just like sadness – is never far from the surface.

Henry Normal will be performing Nature V Human Nature at Djanogly Theatre on Saturday 29 September.

Henry Normal website

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