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Lydia Hounat Interview - Cyber Smut

Lydia's poems 'closure, decoded’ and ‘Today is a good day to be alive' are in our Cyber Smut anthology. Join us at our virtual launch on 15 September. For pre-orders visit: gutspublishing.com/books

About ‘closure, decoded’ – I think we can safely say the form of this poem is experimental. Is this something new in your work, or have you always been experimenting with form?

On and off, not very much really. I’ve noted things down in broken HTML before, never published any of it though—I was just thinking about a relationship I had with someone, I used to re-read our messages. I guess I was just thinking how, if this relationship had been encoded like these messages are, hell the coding would never have made sense really, it was so unrequited (on their side, didn’t want me back). If you tried to implement that poem as HTML code anywhere, well it wouldn’t work, the HTML doesn’t make sense. And as much as I wanted that relationship to make sense, it just didn’t.


When we compare ‘closure, decoded’ with ‘Today is a good day to be alive’ the obvious difference is form. Why did you decide to present ‘Today is a good day to be alive’ as more of a traditional poem? Are your choices conscious, or intuitive?

Depends on what you mean by traditional—I suppose it’s the antithesis of ‘closure, decoded’, sure. It doesn’t play with technology, it just references it as a secondary reality which my partner at the time was more invested in, physically and mentally away from me, as opposed to being with me, real-time, in this world, facing this horrible predicament. ‘Today is a good day to be alive’ wasn’t easy to write and I guess it’s because what was happening there was actually happening in real-time (it wasn’t written as an afterword like ‘closure, decoded’ is, I wrote it as I was experiencing what was happening) and therefore it’s much more terrible in a way. I couldn’t play with that experience, and I still don’t. Even when I write about it now, or try to, the work comes out as a block most of the time. And that’s intuitive I suppose. Perhaps because whenever I remember what happened, I hit a wall.


You're also a photographer. Does your photography influence your writing, or maybe the other way around? Do you ever take a photo and think—this would make a great poem.

They happen concurrently. It’s going to sound pretentious but I feel like people are poems, and whenever I’m photographing people, it’s like I’m photographing living poems in their own right. The perspective, the light, the situation we’re in. I have this 35mm picture I took of a friend stoned off his face in a greenhouse about 4 years ago and it’s just such a mesmerising image, and you can feel his state. The picture looks smoky and the greenery growing around him, it’s just tangible, poetically so. And vice versa, you know when I write a poem, I’m creating a picture, I’m taking a photograph of something that happened and exposing it to language and then when I’m editing it, I’m developing that poem, that picture. Photography and writing are analogies for each other, really.


Which came first in your life—photography or poetry?

Hard to say. My mother was married to a graphic designer (before she had me) and he converted the attic in our house into a darkroom. It’s still got the safelight in there. And Mum is a radiographer, so as a kid going to work with her (when it was all still analogue), I’d watch her go into a dark room, I’d see bottles of film developer and bleach and fix, I’d stare at x-rays. To me, developer is a wonderful smell, except when it gets on your skin, when it gets on your skin it smells like piss...


I’ve been writing since I was a baba. So again, I’d say concurrently, both practices have always been there. I wrote before I photographed, but the practice of photography was in my writing well before I was aware that it was possible to photograph as writing and to write as photography.


Have you always lived in Cornwall, and do you feel it's a good place for a poet to live?

Nope, I’m from Manchester originally, grew up there. Cornwall is a beautiful county cut off from the rest of the country by the river Tamar, right at the bottom of south-west England. I used to dream about the place as a child, into my teens, like I had some sort of instinct about the place prior to ever living there (don’t know if that sounds pretentious or odd, but it’s true, I kept a dream diary for a while and Cornwall was a reoccurring place). Only city is Truro, Cornwall’s capital. It’s mass of beautiful beaches and hills and it’s filled with all sorts of weird and upsetting extremes. Come summer there’s the rich second-home owners parking up for the idyllic summers donning Hermès scarves drinking Doom Bar, eating oysters, but there’s a terrible rate of homelessness and unemployment, large families struggling to pay bills. Cornwall is the third poorest county in Europe. It’s arcadia crippled by both poverty and excess.


Whether it’s a good place for a poet to live, I think entirely depends on you as a person. For me Cornwall helps me to feel more connected to myself, how I intersect all the rich nature around me. That’s useful for the art I’m making, finding intersections between the internal and the external, the symbiosis. Sometimes Cornwall overwhelms me though. It’s definitely a chamber of reflection and it can be scary, it’s a powerful place. I mean sometimes the place can become so claustrophobic (because it’s so cut off, and I don’t drive, and everything is so few and far in between, so sometimes I feel stuck). Soon as I go though, I just want to be back there again. Myself and Cornwall are always on and off.


Tell us about your work at LITBITCH? It’s a very catchy title, tell us about that too.

I came up with LITBITCH over the lockdown period because I wanted to start reviewing writing, and thinking of new ways to approach the “review” form, not that anything I do in my reviews is new (I do go into a lot of depth however which is uncommon I guess). People had their launches and things cancelled because of the pandemic, and it just seemed so shit, so I thought, “Well maybe I can help give writers/photographers a leg up by reviewing their work”. Plus I was just reading so much over lockdown, it was a good time for absorbing new work. I named it LITBITCH to be facetious (it’s by no means a particularly original name) but I guess I thought it was a play on bitching about literature (which I seldom do to be honest) and sort of a self-denigrative term for myself, a woman who reads contemporary literature, a “lit-bitch”. It was a bit bubblegum and unserious and corny, which I wanted (because criticism can be depressingly pretentious and serious a lot of time), sometimes I wonder if I should change the title but never know what I’d call myself otherwise.


Tell us about your editing work with SOBER. What are you currently working on?

SOBER. is an interdisciplinary art zine I set up with my friend Rupert Phillips who studied Photography at Falmouth University (I was on English with Creative Writing but spent a lot of time doing analogue photography too). We met through mutual friends. I think we both felt a bit jaded at university sometimes—we were fed up of being told we couldn’t marry other practices into our work because it wasn’t “pertinent”, or that our lecturers wouldn’t mark certain aspects of our work because it didn’t pertain to our main practice (for me, my photography wouldn’t be marked with my writing, so I’d layer writing onto the photography so it would have to be marked, as the visual and written elements were inextricably bound). I guess we wondered in the end, ‘What’s the difference between multimedia and interdisciplinary? What even is interdisciplinary practice?’, and all the work we publish is a contribution to that discussion, to that question, and the artworks converse with each other. We’ve just finished putting together Issue Four, which will be out this August, and our fellow friend and editor James Kaffenberger is putting together some exciting interviews and things for our blog, Hair of the Dog.


Tell us about being Poet-in-Residence with the Manchester Metropolitan University. What were your responsibilities in this role?

So I was one of three Poets-in-Residence last year at MMU Special Collections, I worked alongside Merrie Williams and Roma Havers (both incredible, moving writers). We used the Special Collections archives to inform our creative practices, with a view to either developing a piece of work for Special Collections or generating a workshop. I chose the latter and developed a workshop on exploring trauma through interdisciplinary art and practice. The bulk of influences I took from the archives were rooted in my relationship with my Algerian ancestry, looking at intergenerational trauma, looking at the female disposition, thinking and feeling my way through words, understanding that when language fails to communicate, that’s when language is at its most powerful. When language can’t contain something truly devastating, or ecstatic, or whatever, when it doesn’t do the job it is supposed to do, that’s when it achieves its purpose, I feel. In which case, what do you do with words then? Well you can try to sculpt them, or photograph an aspect of language, enlarge it, strip it, dismantle it, and rebuild it again. I guess I developed that workshop (which I then took to Falmouth University) with the purpose of using language to build and break, not speak.


Tell us about where your poems come from.

I really don’t know where my poems come from, honestly, the impetus for writing them always changes. Sometimes it might be to avenge what happened in some way (normally that’s when it’s about a bad relationship—I can be unabashedly childish). And in turn writing those sorts of poems can give me clarity, or closure about why things turned out the way they did.


Sometimes it’s a bit more convoluted (and I daresay more interesting than avenging a person or a situation). When I write about navigating a dual identity and being half-Algerian and my relationship with my family, when I go to talk about colonialism, I’m translating a story which isn’t totally mine to tell, but I have to tell it, or else no one else will, and I have to reach into heritage, into my ancestry and sit with those bones. And that’s not me trying to avenge anything. When I talk about colonialism, or I talk about bloodshed in Algeria, I’m shedding light as blood, on history. I’m attempting to say, well how can history be a study of the past when it’s so inherently present?


If you had to describe yourself in 3 words, what would they be?

Curious, witty… intense, haha.


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Lydia Hounat is a British-Algerian writer and photographer. Her work has appeared in HOBART, Peach Magazine, Spontaneous Poetics, and has work forthcoming in Copy: A Magazine of Recycled Materials from Wasted Books. She critiques contemporary literature at LITBITCH, edits interdisciplinary art zine SOBER and was recently a Poet-in-Residence with Manchester Metropolitan University’s Special Collections Archives and First Draft Cabaret. She lives in Cornwall.

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