Inspired by his son Johnny who has autism, Henry Normal’s new poetry collection is a beautifully honest, funny and personal communication about family life.I had the pleasure of reading Raining Upwards, if you get the chance to buy it do. Be ready to laugh and cry as Henry takes you on a poetic journey of love, life, laughter, pain and all in between. Especially for those who know someone on the autistic spectrum, this collection gives a refreshing and eclectic perspective.
Raining Upwards Interview with Author Henry Normal By Kate Hedges
K – Your book is called Raining upwards, what gave you the inspiration for the title?
H – I look at family photos to get inspiration. After not writing for over twenty years I started again by writing poems about my son, Johnny, who’s autistic. I wanted to tell people about him because when I’m dead I won’t be able to. Sometimes I get a feeling from a picture and I write about it, and sometimes I’m disturbed by something and must communicate with myself about how I’m feeling. I have written about Johnny in my previous collection ‘Staring Directly at the Eclipse’. I have a series of BBC Radio 4 shows which consist of around ten themed poems in each. They are called, A Normal Family, A Normal Life, A Normal Imagination and A Normal Love (which is out on Valentine’s day next year). There was an image of Johnny at I recently wrote a poem about. My son was standing on the box pretending to win a medal, there was something about that image – he’ll never win the Olympics. But he’s having fun in an old farm and he’s playing along and that moment is worth communicating. This was a photo that affected me, because it’s taken us years to get to him to play.
As you climb the podium
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
you are already taller
you are already taller
K – Why is poetry important to you?
H – It’s communication. I’ve been involved in TV and film for many years which is a different kind of communication. I don’t have to write poems but I enjoy communication. A poem is personal, one person talking directly to the world in a very controlled way. I wish poetry was called communication because that’s what it is to me. You don’t have to compromise with a poem unlike film and TV, there is no padding out. You communicate as powerfully as you can within a poem, in very few words. Poetry is particularly good at expressing important, deep emotions. I find it very therapeutic to both write and read. Poetry is a much-maligned art form; nobody would say they don’t like to communicate but some people say they don’t like poetry. Poetry is just communication but it condenses emotion and says what it needs to say in so few lines. Music is communication and just like with poetry there are lots of different styles, but often all poetry is lumped together as though there’s only one type. For example my style is very different from say Byron or W.H.Auden.
K- What do you see as the role of humour in poetry?
H- If I just did shows without humour we’d all end up slitting our wrists on the pages. There is an old Russian saying, ‘Pain is the grooves in which we pour happiness.’ To understand pain, you need a sense of joy and vice versa. (To see Henry’s funny and moving poetry, click link below)
K – Is Johnny interested in poetry as well as art? Do you have a poem from your new collection you are particularly proud of?
H – Painting is Johnny’s interest; he paints every day and prefers large canvases. He has a Facebook page called Art by Johnny where you can see his paintings that his mum, Angela puts up. He did the painting for Raining Upwards’ front cover and the drawing of the little man on the inside flap of the book. This is a self-portrait of Johnny. I like the fact he drew himself black, as he has no form of prejudice. I personally don’t have one favourite poem, I like them all. There were over three hundred poems that didn’t make the collection. The ones in the book are all my favourites.
K – Travelling In 4D is one of my favourite poems from your book. I felt like clapping as I read the last lines. I can relate as a parent of a child on the autistic spectrum.
‘With Johnny’s hand around my shoulders, the spin of the earth slows’.
Would you say the last lines of a poem are as important as the first lines?
H – The first lines hook you in, I try to entice the reader in like a newspaper article would. The last lines often convey he meaning of the poem, or the end of the thought process so in that sense they are more important.
TRAVELLING IN 4D
When my dad died
I was given his watch
Strange, as we never
spent that much time together
absent within the same room
Our days were marked by
coins stacked on the mantlepiece
electric, gas, bread and milk
I won’t leave the watch to my son
he has no need to measure hours
days are marked with meals and sleep
outside time or in perfect sync
a zone uncharted in any atlas
We are in the world as wide as it is
side by side
He chooses to walk with me
I choose to walk with him
With Johnny’s arm around my shoulder
the spin of the Earth slows
K – Your poem ‘Deafness and Social Cohesion’, has the lines…
‘So people tell me jokes and are disappointed by my lack of humour’.
Do you feel pressure as a poet/comedian to be ‘funny’ in real life?
H – I like the ambiguity of poetry and its ability to work on all levels. The use of metaphor, wordplay or puns, can make people laugh or look at life in different ways. I think all people who work in comedy do feel under pressure to be ‘funny’, but it’s far more important to be truthful and kind than it is to be funny.
DEAFNESS AND SOCIAL COHESION
I can’t hear very well in restaurants
Let me clarify that
I can hear the background noise
just not the conversation
I’m supposed to be concentrating on
So people tell me jokes
and are disappointed by my lack of humour
Or proffer tough criticism
which I seem to take in my stride
Share secrets I never divulge
Ask me for things I never deliver
Questions I never answer
Make arrangements I never keep
Offer opinions I accept without argument
K- What book are you reading right now and which authors do you admire?
H – I’m currently reading, Poems That Make Grown Men Cry. It’s an anthology of poems that have been chosen by people like Nick Cave and Melvin Bragg. They each share their favourite moving poem. The book is produced by Amnesty International to raise money. It’s a very good read.
K – Did you struggle to write about the mixed emotions which come with having a child on the autistic spectrum?
H – If it’s going to be an effective communication, it must be clear and understood. I would want myself as a younger dad to be able to read this book and be more prepared for the challenges ahead. I want most of all for people who have just had a child diagnosed with autism to read this and get a sense of what’s to come. The book that most impressed me recently is called, The Reason I Jump. It’s written by a Japanese teenager with autism and translated by David Mitchell (the novelist). It’s a worthwhile book, it helped me gain an insight into my own son’s world.
K-You were recently honoured with a BAFTA. How did it compare with the Oscar nomination you received for the film Philomena? Do you feel as a creative person it’s important to be rewarded/recognised for your own work?
H -The great thing was that I was able to get one hundred people I worked with over the last twenty years, in a room, and say ‘thank you’. All the people in that room changed my life and made it better. So, that was a special night. I’ve never been one for awards or ever entered my work into a competition. The actual BAFTA is sat on a cupboard somewhere. I had a lovely time making programmes like the Mighty Boosh and Nighty Night and, of course, I got paid for it. But it was lovely for BAFTA to think of me.
K- Do you still come up from Brighton to attend events in Manchester?
H- Yes, I’ve got the launch of this book on Friday 29th September at Central Library at six o clock and it’s free. I’ll be reading my poetry, along with two other brilliant poets I know; Su Andi and Theresa Sowerby. I was also invited up to Manchester last year, to attend the Manchester Literary festival, which I founded back in the 80’s. It was brilliant. I feel that Manchester has a great sense of self-worth which is contagious.
K- What would you like your legacy to be?
H – I don’t think in terms of legacy, I would like my son to continue to have a nice life after I’ve died.
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
in the disability space
You can find Johnny’s paintings here: Art by Johnny
‘What Manchester gave Me’ H. Normal
Henry first started his writing career in Manchester as a student in the 80’s. This is where he began Baby Cow productions along with Steve Coogan. They produced shows such as The Royle Family, Mrs Merton, Gavin and Stacey and the Mighty Boosh, to name but a few, and was recently awarded a special BAFTA. Henry Normal talks about his uni days and expresses his fondness for Manchester.
“Manchester was a thriving hotbed of creativity at this time. Manchester had something I hadn’t seen before in Nottingham, Hull, Liverpool or Sheffield. It had a sense of itself, and confidence in its future. It was a heady vibe. Back in the eighties I used to dye my hair black and dressed to match. My head looked like a goth pineapple. In the first few years everyone in Manchester seemed to look like Smith’s fans so I certainly stuck out.”
Henry, along with pal Ric Micheal (who used to host comedy nights at the Buzz Club) put on the very first Manchester Poetry Festival which has now become The Manchester Literature Festival. Henry recounts the time he met poet Seamus Heaney.
“Seamus Heaney’ two days after he’d been given the Nobel Prize, he arrived at Manchester Airport with a cheque in his pocket for nearly a million pounds which is what you got in those days along with the prize itself. We explained to him we’d got him a cheque for £600. ‘I couldn’t have it in cash could I ?’ he asked. He’d got no cash on him, only this huge cheque. So we went to a cash point and got the money out. When he arrived at the Whitworth Art Gallery, all 300 in the audience gave him a standing ovation”
As well as working on a range of multiple-hit comedy TV shows and Oscar nominated film Philomena, he helped make the classic film 24 Hour Party People.
“I sat next to Tony [Wilson] as he watched an early edit of ’24 hour Party People’ for the first time. His comment on the film was consistent – ‘When forced to pick between the truth and the legend, print the legend’. Not only did I get to meet some brilliant people in Manchester, the city gave me confidence to be myself. I’d always been a little intimidated by London but Manchester wasn’t intimidating and it wasn’t imitated by London. When I was writing the first series of the Royle Family with Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash, Caroline would stop occasionally and say as an in-joke, ‘It’s raining in London’ and we’d laugh and cheer.”
It has been a privilege and an honour talking with legend and lovely man, Henry Normal. I wish future happiness and success to him and his family.