THE WINNERS PT 2: 3rd Prize - Population: 0 by Oz Hardwick
Third prize was awarded to Oz Hardwick for his poem, 'Population: 0':
Normal is the town at the bottom of the hill, backing onto the sea. It’s the
whitewashed pub and the post office closed for lunch, and it’s the row of
chapels converted to holiday lets. It’s the railway embankment that ends in
empty space, and the archive of proposed developments subject to funding
bids. I remember Normal when it was nothing but sandcastles and donkeys
in straw hats, when there was nothing to eat but lurid ices, and we worked
ten-hour shifts building barques from wooden lolly sticks. I saw it shrink
as politicians packed their navies into glass bottles, leaving them to gather
dust behind the bar in the old boys’ clubs; and I remember visiting for the
funeral of the last living inhabitant, her coffin lost beneath swathes of
wreaths, while home movies stuttered along dockyard walls, filling in for
family and friends. As far as I know, Normal may have been ironed flat in
the last war, or stolen away by the sea, but when I stop late at that lay-by
before the last hill, all the stars are where they used to be, and the red call
box glows on the darkened verge. Everything looks normal, but I know
better than to answer when the phone rings.
Oz, tell us a little about yourself and your life as a writer...
I’ve always loved the sound of words and started writing poetry around the age of 12. Nearly 50 years later, I still play with words every day, and I’m fortunate in that I have a job – I lead the postgraduate Creative Writing programme at Leeds Trinity University – in which I actually get paid for sharing this enthusiasm. I always have a lot of projects on the go, which currently include writing lyrics for the Russian space rock band Space Druids, playing in my own experimental words/sounds/music trio The Forgotten Works, and shaping my collection A Census of Preconceptions, which will be published by SurVision in 2022.
What appealed to you about this particular competition and theme?
Well, first off, the welcome page on your website looked right up my street: I’m drawn to borderlands and in-betweens, both physical and figurative, so it piqued my curiosity straight off. And the theme, too, which itself invites an investigation of borderlands. I’m no stranger to mental ill-health, diagnoses, and the assumptions which attend categorisation, so “sanity” in all its guises is a topic I have thought about a lot – my chapbook The Lithium Codex (Hedgehog, 2019) is something like a sketch map of that uncertain terrain.
Who or what inspired your winning poem?
As with “sanity,” so with “normal.” There are lots of people who affect to be crazy, wacky, or whatever, but I rather relish the times in which I’m acknowledged as normal. Grayson Perry’s recent tour was very much centred upon this idea of normality – I hope it becomes a book. I was recently referred to as normal by someone whose job it is to know about such things and it almost reduced me to tears. As for this particular poem, it’s a memoir – possibly unreliable, although as reliable as I can manage – of where I grew up and where a part of me still lives.
Whose poetry do you admire, past or present?
There are so many. Brian Patten was the first poet to really excite me with his working-class lyric romanticism and his flirtation with the surreal which later came to be so important for me. In the UK, Matthew Haigh and Luke Kennard have been doing exciting work of late – Haigh’s Death Magazine (Salt, 2019) remains a favourite of recent years. Less well-known here are three excellent poets based in Australia: Cassandra Atherton, Dominique Hecq and Jen Webb, all of whom I have had the good fortune to work with in different ways. Quite remarkable poets, who I thoroughly recommend.