Our fantastic supporter, the award-winning writer, TV and film producer and poet Henry Normal, releases his new poetry collection, Raining Upwards, on 20 September. 

We caught up with the wordsmith, ahead of the release of his new poetry collection, to chat about life, working in television, and having a son on the autism spectrum.

Henry Normal

1. You started out as a stand-up poet but this is your first all new collection of poetry for 20 years. What brought you back to poetry?

Being awarded a Special BAFTA for services to Television this June was a reminder of how far I’d come from performing poetic ditties in front of punk and new wave bands like Pulp.

My business partner Steve Coogan was there, of course, together with Craig Cash, Ruth Jones, Julia Davis, Nick Helm, Sean Walsh and many of the on screen and behind the scenes talents I’d worked with over 30 years in TV.

So why was I giving all this up to go back to writing poetry? It certainly wasn’t for money. Very few poets can make enough money to survive on their poetry alone. Most have second jobs or expand their work to commissions, teaching and workshops.

It wasn’t for fame or glamour. Very little in poetry these days can compete with the multi-Oscar nomination we had with Philomena, which I executive produced.

It was far more basic than that. Poetry, like all is art forms, is about communication whether it be something you communicate with others or just yourself. Over the past 30 years there has been a lot I’d have like to communicate but was unable to find either the time or the outlet.

Poetry is particularly good at communicating individual perception. It’s not a collaborative act. It’s very personal and can get to the undiluted truth quickly and efficiently. TV and film are very much collaborative and can involve scores of people and many compromises to get an idea and vision to the screen.

I always contend 'Ozymandias' by Percy Bysshe Shelley is the best piece ever written about TV executives!

The experience I wanted to communicate felt too personal to bend out of shape and too important to compromise. The deaths of my father and brother both from cancer had an important effect on me. I know over the past year more than 56 million people have died worldwide. It doesn’t really hit home though until it affects someone close to you. 

My mother had died when I was 11 and that resulted in me becoming less gregarious and more withdrawn and led to a passion for writing and poetry.

It was my son Johnny turning 16 though that brought matters to a head. Having struggled as a family to cope with our only son being diagnosed  ‘Severely Autistic’ we had a visit from the local council just after his 16th birthday. The council worker informed us that as Johnny is officially ‘Mentally Incapacitated’ now he’d become an adult he was a Ward of the State. 

I’d never seen this person before and we’ve not seen her since, nor any other official from the council. The worry that Johnny might be in the hands of people who don’t know him hit me hard in the stomach. As a parent of an autistic child your worst fear is what will happen to your child when you and your partner die. 
You can try to prepare for that day as best you can but ultimately you are in the hands of others. 

The first poems I wrote after over 20 years silence were to try and explain who Johnny is, how we live and to communicate something of our lives. Poetry is a much better medium to do this that TV and Film.


2. The front cover of Raining Upwards is designed by your autistic son, Johnny. Why did you choose this particular painting?

It was difficult, Johnny has many great paintings. He's even got a Facebook page for his art these days, with over 660 likes. This particular painting has a mood and the colours seem to match the spirit I was looking to achieve in the poems.

Johnny

3. Johnny seems to like working on big canvases and his paintings burst with colour and energy. What does he love about painting?

Johnny paints or draws almost every day. He's very firm with his requests and very motivated which I love. His big paintings are usually landscapes or single figures. Angela, his mum, will occasionally coax him to try something different which he does enjoy. He's very definite in his choice of colours and his execution of each painting. I can see he enjoys the process and I believe he enjoys the attention and praise he gets from admirers of his work. It's a passion that has enriched all our lives.

4. Your previous anthology, Staring Directly at the Eclipse, contained some beautiful poems about and addressed to your son. Do you explore aspects of autism and parenthood in your new collection?

About a third of the poems are about autism and family. It's such a big part of my life and thoughts it would be odd not to find its way into my creativity. I do try to find new ways to express the experiences of our lives. Here are two very different poems from the book to give you an illustration.

Johnny at work.

The walking wounded at Lidl

My psoriasis does not qualify 
for priority parking
 
My wife eases her dodgy back
out of the vehicle
 
As eyes view us with suspicion
a blue badge authorises the windscreen
 
My father-in-law reveals nothing
of his need for Statins
 
Only my mother-in-law looks the part 
leaning heavily on her stick
 
A stroke and heart attack at the same time
qualifies her for a shorter walk to the supermarket
 
Earlier I saw her lift the weight from the world 
Immersed in water 
 
her limbs as free as summer
no time limitation in sight
 
Once inside the shop we are in public
A world of plenty is laid out before us
 
Fridges hum, tills bleep 
Musak underscores decisions made
 
A little girl with no physical ailments 
squeals constantly for attention
 
She too has her story
 
My son wears his ear defenders
as the two of us sit back in the car
out of the way
and wait
 
in the disability space

First prize 

As you climb the podium 
we applaud
there is no grand speech
 
We are the only witnesses
if you discount
the shrubs and the sky of course
 
This is for fun
but motivation is there
balance and co-ordination
 
You are the hero
you have overcome
you are ready to play
 
There are no medals big enough
no metals shiny enough
to do you justice
 
Two wooden boxes 
on a piece of grass
make you taller
 
But 
you are already taller
you are already taller  
 
5. You also explore ‘other important matters we are usually too busy to consider’. Can you give us a sneak preview of what these might be? 
 
Our relationship with science and nature are two of the main themes.
 
Here's a poem on each:

Exploring rockpools 

The surface
of an alien brain

Tie-dyed green
and glassy grey 

Little pools of imagination
cloudy and mysterious

Step carefully 
with feet bare

Miniature Loch Ness monsters 
crowd the crevices

loose stones lurk
in murky salt water

We bend to connect
and there is treasure

for certain
there is treasure

The sea encouraging
at a distance

like a parent 
ready to rush in

Tunnelling into space

Why do we look for order and uniformity when

it is only though the unevenness 
in the spread of hydrogen atoms
at the birth of the universe 
that anything more exists

Through the patience of gravity on warps in space-time
through ultra violet corrupting opaque clouds

through instability in generations of stars
through destruction and metamorphosis
on every scale

throuGh the random
and the chAos
the muTation and compliCation
the different
and the new

we arrive at that first connection within the womb
sparking
your 
unique 
brain 
to life

Henry's new collection, Raining Upwards, will be published by Flapjack Press on 20 September 2017.

You can also visit Henry's book tour on the following dates:

Wednesday 27 September 2017 – Waterstones, Nottingham 7pm (Free)

Friday 29 September 2017 – Central Library, Manchester 6pm (Free)

Tuesday 3 October 2017 – Komedia Brighton 8pm tickets (£8)

Thursday 5 October – Poetry Society Cafe, London 7pm tickets (£8)