Monday 4 August 2008

It's time to applaud Selima Hill

As far as I'm concerned, Selima Hill has not been allotted the full measure of public acclaim that she deserves. Perhaps she has been taken for granted -- the hard-working poet who can always be relied upon to produce engaging work, she needn't be distracted with too much praise! Or perhaps because her poetry is so inwardly potent, so complex in its evocative power and yet so crystalline, so seemingly simple in its execution, that some critics and academics have neglected to tout the excellence of her work because it doesn't flatter their own.

Readers in Canada have another reason for not knowing much about Hill's poetry. Her books are published by the marvellous Bloodaxe Books, one of the English-speaking world's best poetry publishers, but Bloodaxe books do not have a Canadian distributor (though they can be found on, so they are seldom found by Canadian poetry readers who enjoy browsing in their local independent bookseller's shop.

This year, in a bold publishing move, Bloodaxe has brought out two books by Hill at the same time. One is her piercing new collection The Hat, and the other is the generous career retrospective Gloria: Selected Poems. Taken together, it is clear that a unique poetic talent has been producing a unified and dizzingly animated body of work for decades. Her early work is not eclipsed by her later work, and her later work does not suffer from creative exhaustion. Here is a sample from Gloria, a poem reprinted from her second collection My Darling Camel (1988):

Visiting the Zoo
The tall giraffes can never sit.
Their names are Valerie and Gwendoline.
I am their tall reticulated son.
This is our sand and hay.
Follow our gold strip to holy Tassili,
blonde swallow-tails, hares, a little milk.
You are a good girl. He will never know
you are in love with someone else, not him.

Perhaps, now that readers have the opportunity to not only read her latest work, but also to catch up on the best of her output to date, she may finally come into the attention she very richly deserves. To help her along, I've gathered together a few resources from the internet for those who are interested in knowing more about this remarkable poet and her work.

Here is a review of both Gloria and The Hat from The Guardian by Fiona Sampson:

If Gloria's generous 330-odd pages demonstrate how substantial Hill's body of work is, The Hat shows this brilliant lyricist of human darkness writing more acutely than ever. So original that it has sometimes scared off critical scrutineers, her work must now, surely, be acknowledged as being of central importance in British poetry - not only for the courage of its subject matter but also for the lucid compression of its poetics.
Read the full review here.

Here is an interview with Selima Hill, conducted by Bucharest University professor Lidia Vianu:
SELIMA HILL: I was born in 1945. When I was a baby I was burnt in a fire. I was rescued from my burning cot by a farmer who saw the flames. I spent six months (maybe a year, I’m not sure) in hospital. Of course, I nearly died. An of course my mother felt guilty... I was born into a family of painters. My grandparents and my parents were painters. (My ex-husband and my son are also painters. My daughter is a photographer. My youngest son is a writer.) My father was sixty when I was born. I was sent to boarding school, and then University, where I read philosophy. I then had a breakdown and spent another year in hospital (Psychiatric hospital). There is no connection between John Fowles and myself (except that I used to live in his flat – one big room overlooking the sea). I now live with my various animals in a house with a small orchard near the beach – and also near my seven grandchildren and my ex-husband and his new wife and my children and their husbands and horses...
Read the entire interview here.

The British Council offers sound recordings of five Selima Hill poems here.
The poems included are "Being a Wife", "My Sister's Poodle is Accused of Eating the Housekeeping Monkey", "The World's Entire Wasp Population", "Why I Left You", and "Your Girlfriend's Thigh."

And here is a video of Selima Hill reading her poem "Cow." Enjoy:

Order Gloria in Canada, the USA, and the UK.

Order The Hat in Canada, the USA, and the UK.

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