A poet with the sea in her veins: An interview with Lynne Hjelmgaard

A native of New York City, Lynne Hjelmgaard later moved to Denmark where she studied at the Aarhus Art Academy and graduated from Frøbel Seminarium in Copenhagen. She taught Creative Art for children in various schools and institutions before becoming a full time sailor. At one point, she crossed the Atlantic in a sailboat with her husband. She now lives in London.
Lynne, as you know, readers of Quill & Parchment are very keen on ekphrastic poetry, so I have to ask you this question…given your background as a teacher of creative art, do you consider art and literature to be closely related to one another and do you enjoy reading and / or writing ekphrastic poetry?

The answer is a big Yes! Before I started writing poetry seriously, I was very involved in weaving- off-the-loom weaving, as it’s called. Being able to create art /sculpture with materials where there are no rules or boundaries except the warp and the weft is liberating. I think this has, for me, spilled over into my writing process, which of course does have its rules. But it’s always fun to break them and discover new directions. I haven’t stopped using the method of ‘weaving/collaging’ in my writing process and use my workbooks which are filled with thoughts, dreams, photos, events, songs, lines from my favourite poems, descriptions of places etc. The list goes on.

As you know I lived on a boat for many years. Before I started writing I was trying to capture movement, colours and/or the feeling of water on my loom, not realising that this process was part of my preparation for writing, as my mentor at the time, the American Poet Alice Notley, pointed out to me. This made perfect sense to me when she said it.

I believe the writing process is mysterious and we draw on all kinds of sources and experiences – a painting or an image from a painting or work of art can often find its way into a poem. The sculptor Louise Bourgeois has been one of my inspirations, as she draws on experiences and emotions that come from a place deep within her.

I have collaborated for many years with the Danish artist Jan Petersen who designed my book covers, the latest being his painting for A Second Whisper. When I first started writing the ‘boat poems’, as I call them, Jan illustrated many of them. A painting of his was also used for the cover of A Boat Called Annalise. The cover for Manhattan Sonnets is also his work.

Of course reading other poets who have written poems inspired directly by a painting can also be a source of pleasure. I do enjoy reading and also, at times writing ekphrastic poetry. [One of Lynne’s new poems, A Sailor’s Lament, which is an ekphrastic poem, is printed in full at the end of this interview].

To what extent do you feel that your writing has evolved both in style and subject matter since the publication of ‘Manhattan Sonnets’ (Redbeck Press, 2003)?

I wrote Manhattan Sonnets because at some point I became interested in the sonnet. The American Poet Alice Notley had introduced me to the sonnets of the New York Poet Edwin Denby, who was also a dancer and a choreographer and a fellow New Yorker. His style and subject matter inspired my poems.

When I lost my husband in 2006 and then Dannie in 2014, (Dannie Abse had been my partner for six years up until his death) writing became a way of helping me through the grief. As the artist and poet Peter Sacks wrote: ‘an elegy is a symbolic action, a ritual with two aims: remembering the dead and helping the living return to the stream of life.’ In some ways I think I kept them both alive a little longer through writing about them.

I believe what you are reading and what you are writing sometimes goes hand in hand. I was no longer interested in writing sonnets about my childhood in New York City. I needed to write and read about love and loss, there was a lot more ground, deeper ground to cover.

I also think that since writing Manhattan Sonnets I’ve discovered my own particular style and now follow my own path and curiosity as much as possible.

Of course my style and subject matter also changed as I grew older, kept up my daily reading and writing practice and life experiences changed. Learning to sail and all that went with that lifestyle was also an important chapter I wanted to write about, but I go into that later on.

You have lived your life in many different places. Would you say that this has had a positive effect in terms of your writing? Has it made you more cosmopolitan in your outlook?

I think my outlook on life and on writing is probably affected by the fact I have lived in several different countries, learned a new language and culture, and in general become more aware of the nuances and music in language. Perhaps it’s also given me a different perspective and I’ve become more adaptable. But it has also made me feel rootless at times, disconnected, or feel like an outsider. I still have pangs of homesickness for New York city. A New York that for me doesn’t exist anymore. In a way I’ve learned to carry my home with me. Writing does help to fill in the gaps.

Dannie Abse would always tell me that the main requirement for writing is that you have a strong need to do it. I remember Elaine Feinstein saying: write everyday. It will protect you.

Here are a few words written about the poet Denise Levertov I found in one of my workbooks:
‘She was able to understand every place because she had long ago lost the ability to belong to only one’.

You seem to have the sea in your veins. ‘A Boat Called Annalise’ (Seren, 2016) records the years you and your late husband spent sailing to the Caribbean and back. To what degree do you consider that your experience of the sea has shaped you as a poet?

I’ve always had an urge to write, since I was a young woman, but I don’t think I had the experience, maturity or the ability at that time of my life to pursue it seriously, (though I had made several attempts).

When I sailed across the Atlantic it became clear to me that writing was something I wanted to pursue full time. I felt an urgency. It wasn’t just to write about the voyage or the sea itself, it was all that came before and after. The preparations, learning to sail and to be at sea, letting go of friends, family and places I had lived and was familiar with. There were countless adjustments and sacrifices to be made but there was also the beauty of being at sea, overcoming the physical and mental challenges, the many rewards. Rewards that continue to this day. Being at sea helped my world expand naturally, as I want my poetry to do. I grew closer to the natural world. It changed my perspective to living on land, to society as a whole, to life itself.

Several of your poems revolve around the theme of coping with personal loss, in particular, the book-length sequence of poems in ‘The Ring’ (Shearsman, 2011). Do you find it hard to write about personal matters or do you try to objectify them by reaching out to your readers in the hope that they will identify with your emotions and find solace for themselves?

I’ve discovered that if I’m compelled to write from personal experience there may be a good chance it will be of interest to someone else and they will identify with it and find it helpful.

I think it’s important to not let the mind dictate too much in the writing process. I’m an intuitive writer and try to follow an initial spark, thought or idea. I try to keep the spark going as long as I can and find the appropriate images and words, the right balance between thought, feeling and content. It’s a slow, lengthy process.

In ‘A Second Whisper’ (Seren, 2019) you write very movingly about your deep friendship with the late Dannie Abse. Would you say that you both shared the same values with regard to the craft of writing poetry? Did you bounce ideas off each other or comment on each other’s work or did you grant each other the freedom to go your own separate ways?

When I first met Dannie we were both still in grief for our lost spouses and were actually writing about the same subject matter. I think we had similar tastes with regards to the craft of writing poetry, though at the time I was more influenced by American poetry, Alice Notley and the experimental. Dannie was more of a traditionalist and very British (Welsh). But we did listen to and help each other with advice, feedback and suggestions. Our differences in taste were never a hindrance, on the contrary, and as the years went by I think our ideas and thoughts about poetry seemed to merge more and more, or maybe we just reached a better understanding of each other. We exchanged our poems and ideas but went our separate ways, in terms of poetry, but also shared and continued to learn from each other.

Who are the writers who have influenced you the most? Can you see their influence reflected in your work or in the manner in which you approach your work?

When I first started writing poetry I was living in Paris and attended the workshops of Alice Notley and Douglas Oliver. They would often bring in poets for discussion such as Frank O’Hara, Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, Robert Creeley, even the short story writer Alice Munro.

I think Alice Notley and the New York school has influenced me the most. Their openness, free thinking and style, untraditional approach and methods appealed to me. I think Alice instilled in me a belief in the writing process, to follow my own curiosity and way of doing things. She opened the door of poetry for me. The poets here in London such as Dannie, Jane Duran and Mimi Khalvati have kept that door open.

There’s also Elaine Feinstein, the American poets Louise Glück, Robert Creeley, Elizabeth Bishop, Jane Hirschfield and Hilda Morley. W.S. Merwin, Czeslaw Milosz and the Danish poet Inger Christiansen. These are the poets I return to again and again.

What are you working on now?

For the last few years I’ve been working on a new manuscript of poems which is now titled The Turpentine Tree. It returns to many of my former themes about the sea, love, loss, family and friends but it addresses them with fresh eyes and has moved beyond the grieving process into new territory.

A Sailor’s Lament

Our affection for it was instant
and sure – a painting
that suggests more than speaks,

with enough room to think
and wander in – a horseshoe bay,
a secluded stretch of sand, beaches

we had walked together and
left behind, beaches that visited us
during our most solitary nights.

The taste of salt
still fresh in our mouths,
clothes and hair,

we chose the picture
together at the old market
in Dartmouth.

Deep marine tones hint
at depths further out, sky-blue
dominates the shallows.

A lone figure walks
close to a few skiffs.
Is he lost or close to home?

I think the truth is both.
Low grey shadows hover
beside a rain cloud

about to burst.
It must be England,
but it could be anywhere.


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