Cover of 100 Houses, written and illustrated by Colin Hambrook.
I’m deep in rehearsals with The Llanarth Group on The Echo Chamber, still writing and sorting the dramaturgy, so have little time to write – but I wanted to share an email exchange I had with Colin Hambrook, writer and illustrator of 100 Houses:
Colin Hambrook’s 100 Houses is an illustrated collection of visual poetry and an exhibition of ink drawings exploring mental health and the impact of the mental health system on the lives of those who become immersed in it.
He explores identity through the crystalline lens of psychosis. The concept of ‘home’ is a central theme – as a metaphor for a sense of belonging and a connection between mind and body.
KOR: Can you tell me a little about your your poetry – when you started, what the the poetry means for you, what your intentions may be, and so on….
CH: Writing poetry in one form or another is something I’ve always done. Originally my preoccupation was with songwriting and letter writing – playing with words as a form of expression. I grew up during the late seventies and was smitten by the intelligence of much of the lyric-writing by punk artists like Poly Styrene, TV Smith and Siouxsie Sioux to name a few. In amongst the intensity and rawness of the sound, they wrote about alienation and otherness with a wit and an insight that was life-saving. I knew a lot of the songs by heart and singing (as well as writing and drawing) has always been an important diversion during times of psychosis when I can’t trust what is going on in my head. Not that I believe in the creativity/ madness correlation by any stretch. The writing that happens during episodes of psychosis is largely rubbish, although there are sometimes kernels of rich imagery that can be drawn upon as a basis for something else.
Since schooldays I have always had periods of absorbing ‘serious’ poetry, as well as music, but the words have to connect at an emotional level; there has to be something that strikes as truth, for it to mean anything. In the way that I write, as in much of my drawing, I have often had a tendency towards being too ‘flowery’; albeit with a gothic sensibility. In the drawing I like to create images that change and shift according to the mood of the viewer and their physical distance from the artwork. It took me a long time to realise that the same approach doesn’t work with poetry.
I like words; the way they sound in your head and roll off your tongue. I love the way that words can often imitate how actions and things ‘feel’. But it was the decision to learn to write in a way that communicated beyond myself that was the spur for going beyond the defensiveness that it is so easy to fall into as a poet. When people – in general – think of learning to paint they turn to watercolour. Similarly when they think of learning to write they turn to poetry. Both carry with them the peculiar misunderstanding that, respectively, they are the easiest forms of expression, when in fact they are both the most demanding.
It took me a long time to realise that I had to learn to keep the imagery in service to reality. At the same time I began to see the significance in showing rather than telling. I think it was a workshop with Pascale Petit when I first came across the notion of “learning to kill your darlings” ie deleting imagery and metaphor when it serves no real purpose other than to “sound good.” I still write as a way of explaining myself to myself, but I have to experience a certain intake of breathe or sense of satisfaction, before I can think of a poem as achieving anything approaching an intention.
I was fortunate to get a place at Dartington College of Arts in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They had an approach to teaching fine art that focussed on the wider social context of the artwork; its imagery and its purpose. The usual art historical approach taught in art schools concentrates on the idea of the artist and their hierarchical position within a narrow definition of what constitutes ‘art’, rather than creativity as a raw and essential ingredient of life.
What about the relationship between words and image?
CH: There is something about the combination of image and text that is indelibly imprinted on my imagination. I have a strong capacity for thinking in images. But the stories behind the pictures have to be expressed in words if they are to make any sense. At college I began a series of paintings and writing that were made in response to each other. I kept dream diaries which I story-boarded and pared down to specific images, which were then turned into paintings and prints. I produced an exhibition called ‘Dreams of the Absurd’ which was shown as a whole and in part at a dozen or more art galleries during the 1990s. During the same period I was very involved with Survivors’ Poetry. Being co-editor of their second anthology ‘Under the Asylum Tree’, was a brilliant experience. I learnt a lot about giving a sense of order to a collection and planning book production.
I went on to become more fully absorbed in editing at the same time as I became immersed in the disability arts movement. I had that sense of finding the community that I’d been looking for a long time and became inspired and passionate about disability art because it is about tangible experience, and substance rather than form for the sake of itself.
Can you contextualise how this project came about?
CH: My poetry got largely left behind until I applied for an opportunity that came up as a Dada-South commission – as part of Accentuate. Titled Up-Stream, they were looking for creatives who were going to be able to use the opportunity as a stepping stone towards upping their game as a professional practitioner. It has been the spur to get me back into my stride as a poet. 100 Houses came out of a desire to learn to etch and craft previous material. In the last six months the writing has got stronger and I’ve developed more confidence in putting the work in a public arena.
What advice would you give to other writers/artists/creatives?
CH: I think the most important thing in learning to write is finding people you can trust to give you a balanced critique of the merits and demerits of your work. It’s a bit of a knife edge, when you are putting your soul on display. If you are not naturally thick-skinned and have a tendency to take things personally, it can take an enormous leap to learn to differentiate between good and bad judgement. But you can only learn and develop your craft as a writer, by making mistakes. So finding someone skilled enough to tell you why they think something could be better is extremely important. You then have to weigh up whether their reasons match your intention. Even if they they have misunderstood or are on a different wavelength, but can clearly describe why they don’t like a thing in a way you can appreciate, then it is important to realise that as an act of generosity.
Further information on 100 Houses can be found at:
listen to mp3 of ON HEALING: