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An Interview with Poet and Flowers for Bodysnatchers Collaborator Nathan Hassall

by Michael Barnett

Nathan Hassall is a poet from the United Kingdom. He has recently attracted some extra attention with the release of Flowers for Bodysnatchers’s Fall the Night—an EP inspired by three of Nathan Hassall’s poems from his latest book, a chapbook entitled The Flesh and Mortar Prophecy. Choosing three poems from Hassall’s book, “Where the Carcass Lies,” “They Dwell in Factories,” and “Blood Trumpets and Nihilism,” Flowers for Bodysnatchers has crafted a magnificent, albeit short, album which rivals some of his best work yet. To date, Nathan Hassall has published four poetry collections: Nascent Illusion (2009), A Conscious Void (2011), Of Gods and Gallows (2015), and most recently, his illustrated poetry chapbook, The Flesh and Mortar Prophecy (2016). On top of all this, Hassall is currently studying an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Kent.

I was privileged with the opportunity to conduct this interview with Hassall. He took some time to talk about his influences, his experience working with Flowers for Bodysnatchers, and some other interesting tidbits about his life and plans for the future.

Heathen Harvest: What first got you excited about poetry? Was there a specific poet?

Nathan Hassall: I don’t remember reading a poet specifically and thinking, ‘Oh, wow. I’d love to do that.’ However, when I was in secondary school, I remember we were looking at an anthology, and I enjoyed Carol Ann-Duffy’s work. I was a trouble-making pupil who was focused on his bad-boy / class clown reputation. I wasn’t exactly willing to admit I liked poetry to anyone but myself. If I told my old self I was going to be writing poetry, I probably would have laughed and punched myself in the face. I didn’t start creative writing until I was seventeen and began writing poetry around eighteen. I tend to meet a lot of writers who say that they won writing competitions when they were eleven and they’ve always loved it. I guess I was a late bloomer.

HH: When and how did you realize that writing poetry was the right path for you?

NH: [laughs] ‘Path’. Well, not too long after I started writing, I used to have an account on a site called Redbubble. I met some lovely people on there, but it was all a bit too nice. It was good because I could release my work under a pseudonym, and it attracted some attention. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I realised the value of criticism. I never feel a poem is really finished without some form of outside opinion. I write for myself, sure, but for a message to get across it needs to be grasped by an outside audience as well. After all, the work does get released to the public. It’s a balancing act between creative surges and editing. I edit compulsively.

Heaven from Skull Gates | Illustration from The Flesh and Mortar Prophecy by Rachael Tester, 2016

HH: You have already released three poetry collections and a poetry chapbook. I honestly wasn’t even familiar with the term chapbook. Would you like to tell readers a bit about this format and how it differs from the rest of your works?

NH: Chapbooks are basically a smaller, concentrated body of work often consisting of either poetry or fiction. Whereas my full-length collections each have around fifty poems or short stories in them, The Flesh and Mortar Prophecy has twenty-three poems, and each follows an overall theme or narrative. Chapbooks are nothing new. A famous example of a chapbook would be Modernist poet T. S. Elliot’s The Wasteland. I believe chapbooks suit modern culture. You can read them in an hour and always re-read and re-visit them. Each poem should exist in its own right whilst simultaneously holding specific purpose in the confines of the chapbook.

HH: What led you to the idea of creating a chapbook?

NH: The idea was a weird one, and was certainly a unique process I have not had the (dis)pleasure of experiencing before or since. I explore the process somewhat in the preface of The Flesh and Mortar Prophecy. However, the collection idea hit me rather quickly whilst I was on a bus in my hometown during the English winter. It came to me in titles (with the help of black metal and dark ambient music I was playing through headphones at the time), and I just started jotting them down. It was interesting—almost a reverse of what I’d usually do, which would be to title the poem after I write it—but this whole collection (with some moderations) started off this way. Originally, I was picturing a dystopian city, but after a bit of thinking, time, and revisiting old university notes on the history of asylums and psychosurgical procedures, I settled on the horror themes of asylums and mental illness.

HH: There are illustrations paired with each poem in The Flesh and Mortar Prophecy. Did you give the artist free reign to come up with the artwork, or was it a collaborative process?

NH: The illustrator—Rachael Tester—is an extremely talented and budding artist. I gave her eight poems I wanted illustrations for and just gave a few summarisations of images I thought she could work with. However, I told her to do what she wanted with them. I trusted her vision as an artist and if I was to constrict her to what I wanted, it wouldn’t have helped anyone. What she’s done is fantastic, and I love her sketched interpretation of the poems. She also drew the front cover.

HH: The dark ambient musician Flowers for Bodysnatchers, best known for his two recent albums on Cryo Chamber, Aokigahara and Love Like Blood, recently released a new EP entitled Fall the Night. On Fall the Night, Flowers for Bodysnatchers takes inspiration from three of your poems and writes tracks to coincide with the poetry. Were you previously a fan of Flowers for Bodysnatchers? How long have you two been discussing a collaboration? Thirdly, will we see more in the future from this pairing?

NH: I’ve been a fan of Flowers for Bodysnatchers for some time. He’s always been one of my “go-to” artists when I want to listen to atmospheric music. I probably started listening to him in 2012/2013, and I met him through Facebook. We spoke a few times sporadically then really started chatting and sharing our artistic visions and goals with each other. We’ve certainly had a fair amount of in-depth conversations spanning over the last year or so. Since then, he’s re-imagined some of my poems as music in his excellent three-track EP, Fall the Night. Each of his track titles are the same as three of the titles in The Flesh and Mortar Prophecy. Will there be more collaborative work in the future? Well, there have been conversations. I won’t say too much as we are both busy people and I’m not one to get ahead of myself. I will say this, however:  There’s certainly an artistic chemistry between Flowers for Bodysnatchers and myself, so we’ll have to see.

Black Bile | Illustration from The Flesh and Mortar Prophecy by Rachael Tester, 2016

HH: On the subject of music, what types of music do you enjoy the most? Do you have a favorite musician or two?

NH: Ah, it’s too hard to pick a favourite. My tastes are quite fluid. My favourite genres are black metal, neoclassical piano, technical death metal, dark ambient, drone, psybient, and post-rock. To be honest, I like music from most genres. I like experimental and ambitious music and hybrid genres. Blackgaze, for example, which merged black metal with shoegaze, is fascinating. It doesn’t always work, but I respect that experimental music doesn’t always get it right, as long as it’s pushing boundaries. That paves the way for new or exciting forms of expression.

HH: Any favorite films or directors that have helped shape your interests?

NH: I’m not too much into films. My early writing was definitely shaped by Chris Morris programmes and David Firth—the animator behind ‘Salad Fingers’. I respect films and enjoy them when I give my time to them, but they don’t dominate my interests.

HH: When you sit down to write, do you have any sort of rituals you follow? Meditation, burning incense, listening to music, or something like this?

NH: I wish it were as romantic as that. Occasionally, I’ll put black metal on and light a candle and pretend I’m not just sitting in my room sweating and stressed at a blank Word Document or an empty piece of paper. I find a lot of writing happens when I’m not thinking about it. Ideas can come at any time of the day (though usually at night), and when they do, I type them on my phone. I’m sure this annoys a few of the more traditional writers. I apologise—there’s no quill or typewriter, but maybe ritualistic behaviour would improve my output.

HH: So, you don’t necessarily have a specific workspace for writing, it happens spontaneously and you must jot it down immediately when it happens?

NH: A bit of both. Wherever my laptop is or wherever I pull out the memo section of my phone or wherever a piece of paper is. The other day, I had to vandalise a Damien Hurst flyer on a train as it was the only bit of paper I had on me. I’ve a terrible habit of sitting in my room like a hermit until nighttime and questioning why nothing fresh springs to mind. To stir ideas, we creatives must get out of our tomb-like rooms every now and then—easier said than done. The same environment becomes less and less stimulating. New art, books, subjects, films, ideas, people, places, experiences, nature, etc. are the source of fresh inspiration.

HH: Do you think the apocalypse is coming, and if so, how do you think it will happen?

NH: So many of us romanticise the apocalypse. It’s everywhere in film and television. I don’t see it coming or, at least, I don’t really think about it too much. In a world that is increasingly secular, I think we realise the apocalypse isn’t a biblical phenomena, but the power we as humans have over our future. We are aware and fearful of our destructive capabilities.

Nathan Hassall | Credit: Rebel Yüth, 2013 (Also Credited for Header Image)

HH: Much of your poetry deals with an inner darkness, I would say. Is this reflective of your own fears, vices, and personality traits, or do you look reflectively upon the outside world to find these qualities?

NH: Again, a bit of all. As humans, we are automatically drawn to negative ideas and subjects. This was beneficial during evolution—why would we admire a pretty flower and the sunset when there’s a tiger approaching to eat us? I believe we all have this ‘inner darkness’ you speak of and are naturally compelled to obscurity. Victorian asylums used to charge the public to come and watch the mad. Hangings used to take place in the street to raucous crowds. I take inspiration from the darker side of thought when it comes to art, and I write from both internal and external influences.

HH: If you could meet anyone in the world alive or dead, who would it be? What would you say to them?

NH: Too much pressure. I’m not sure. I think in terms of the living, I would like to meet Brian Cox (and that feels entirely possible). I’ve just finished reading his book Human Universe. I love his dedication to science and his enthusiasm for translating difficult concepts to the layman to engage a larger audience with the esoteric world of physics.

HH: Do you already have plans for your next project, or are you taking a break as you promote The Flesh and Mortar Prophecy?

NH: Well, there isn’t much rest if you want to remain relevant in a saturated world. I released The Flesh and Mortar Prophecy in September 2016 and have done a few recordings of the book on my YouTube channel. I would like to record more of them at some point. Also, I went to study an MA in Creative Writing two weeks after I released it. So, now I’m tasked with meeting external deadlines. It’s a new challenge, especially as I took History at undergraduate level I feel I’m playing a bit of catch-up to the literary people I’m surrounded by. I want to finish my Masters and then perhaps travel, then look into studying a PhD. The dream is to live full-time off writing, but the chances of that are challenging.

HH: I noticed that you studied in Massachusetts for a year. Have you traveled to many countries? Have any of these travels helped to shape your poetry style or life views?

NH: I’ve been around a bit, sure. All travels help shape work, whether directly or indirectly. Our brains are always reacting and adapting to new stimuli. Living in Massachusetts was certainly different, but I would love to live somewhere which is completely different to my experiences from home. I have a relatively recent love of Japanese forms of poetry such as Haiku, Tanka and Senryu. Maybe I’ll find myself in Japan one day.

HH: Do you intend to continue writing solely in poetry or do you have any plans for future writings in other formats?

NH: Poetry is my first love, but I do wish to practice other forms of writing. I’ve always wanted to write comedy, mainly sketch shows. I write some shorter fiction, poetry reviews, and interviews. I’ve always liked the idea of writing a novel, but that’s a long way away, if ever.

HH: Do you have a favorite poem from your chapbook, The Flesh and Mortar Prophecy?

NH: I like to recite ‘A Taste of Scrolls’. I’m not sure though; I leave judgement to the readers.

HH: Thank you very much for taking this time to speak with me. I’ll leave the last words to you, to speak about anything I may have missed.

NH: We’ve covered some ground with these questions, and I just want to thank you for the time and effort you’ve put into this interview.

The Flesh and Mortar Prophecy on Amazon