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Ali Harwood Interview


Ali Harwood is an artist, poet, writer and teacher.


He was born in Wiltshire in 1972, raised around Bristol and studied Geography at the University of Liverpool. He has lived in Liverpool for over two decades. 


As an artist, the images he makes appear in galleries, homes and streets within and beyond Merseyside— from London to New York, The Philippines to Australia.


As a poet, he hosts the monthly Liver Bards open mic poetry event and shares his poems in books, on stage and through working with others. He has recently worked with Wolverhampton dancer Jaivant Patel on YAATRA, creating a fresh perspective on UK-based South Asian LGBTQ+ narratives.


As a writer, he has recently published Liverpool Liver Birds a poetic picture book for curious folk of all ages. It is published by Beatles, Liverpool and More.


As a teacher and personal tutor, he encourages and supports learners in and out of school. He currently works with 20+ learners on a weekly basis, aged 5-16. 



Jeffrey Side has had poetry published in various magazines such as Poetry Salzburg Review, and on poetry web sites such as Underground Window, A Little Poetry, Poethia, Nthposition, Eratio, Pirene’s Fountain, Fieralingue, Moria, Ancient Heart, Blazevox, Lily, Big Bridge, Jacket, Textimagepoem, Apochryphaltext, 9th St. Laboratories, P. F. S. Post, Great Works, Hutt, The Dande Review, Poetry Bay and Dusie.


He has reviewed poetry for Jacket, Eyewear, The Colorado Review, New Hope International, Stride, Acumen and Shearsman. From 1996 to 2000 he was the deputy editor of The Argotist magazine.


His publications include, Carrier of the Seed, Distorted Reflections, Slimvol, Collected Poetry Reviews 2004-2013, Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes (with Jake Berry) and Outside Voices: An Email Correspondence (with Jake Berry), available as a free ebook here.




JS: What are your current poetry activities?


AH: Poetry weaves in and out of my life like breathing. As an artist, poet, writer and teacher, each of these four aspects of my life feed each other. Recently, I’ve been promoting and sharing my Liverpool Liver Birds book. I performed my Herman Melville poem from the Liverpool Arts Lab zine Beneath the Manhole Cover at Write Blend in Crosby two days ago. Last month, I hosted the Liverpool event for beat poet George Wallace as part of the Live From Worktown Festival and performed a few poems, too. I’ve also shared my book at Liverpool Waterstones as part of the Writing on the Wall festival. A couple of other recent highlights include being asked to perform under artist Luke Gerram’s awe-inspiring ‘Gaia’ installation in Liverpool Cathedral— for which I wrote ‘Let’s Play Ball’ and by the Pier Head for the Mersey River Festival, where I shared my poem ‘The Dun Gush’—published in The Quality of Mersey, edited by Barry Woods.


As the host and compere of Liver Bards, I have been organising opportunities for other poets to have their voices heard. This year, we’ve introduced a featured poet each month, which has been met positively. Thus far, we’ve had Ste the Poet, Ian McGrath, Maz Hedgehog, Lucy Pickavance and Janine Booth. I enjoy our Liverpool open mic institution, held every first Tuesday of the month in the bowels of Ma Boyle’s Alehouse and Eatery.


I also attend other poetry events. At A Lovely Word recently, I performed a poem of mine titled ‘The A to the G of Us’, responding to Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man and within the mathematical framework of a mystic rose. I also shared the lyrics of a young wordsmith who was unable to attend and whose educational development I have been employed to guide. Lastly, I shared a blackout poem whose source was artist and dancer Bisakha Sarker’s piece Unseen Designs, a multimedia art project responding to particle physics and to which I have contributed as visual artist.  


Recently, in the graveyard of the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth, I performed my poem ‘Ancient and Alive’ as part of Toxteth Day of the Dead, organised by Liverpool Arts Lab. This poem celebrates the life of Toxteth-born astronomer Jeremiah Horrocks.


As a teacher and personal tutor, I recently shared my Chinese New Year narrative poem with a primary-aged learner. With another lad in key stage three who is currently educated at home, I am delivering a poetry topic on conflict, and we’ve already found much to get to grips with in and around ‘Who's For The Game?’ by Jessie Pope and ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ by Wilfred Owen.


I am also noting down ideas and writing new poems on a regular basis whenever the ether insists. I am currently shaping the text to my next book. The weaving continues.


JS: How did you get involved in the Liverpool poetry scene to begin with?


AH: In retrospect, perhaps it was through a series of inevitable chance events. Perhaps it went something like this:


When I was a boy growing up around Bristol, Beatles’ songs and their words drew me in.


I began writing songs prolifically from the age of twelve or thirteen, the first of which was ‘The Leccy’, about an innocent American teenager—accused of murder—contemplating his situation on death row. Lyrics were always important to me. In time, sometimes the music would drop out and songs became poems.


When I was a mid-teen, I met a girl named Kath from Merseyside on a family holiday on an island off Cornwall and became smitten with all of her, including her accent. I would soon venture north to visit her, and she took me to clubs like Planet X and Birkenhead Stairways and the River Mersey. I immediately became smitten with Liverpool and its energy. 


Years later, I’d study at university in Liverpool—it had to be here—and attend poetry nights created by John Bleasdale at The Egg cafe. Later still, after leaving the city as an artist in my late twenties and returning as a teacher in my mid-thirties I happened upon the Dead Good Poets open mic poetry nights in Blackburne House where I felt a certain sense of belonging. From there, my adventures continued through numerous nights until I drew back the curtains in Ma Egerton’s pub to see the Liver Bards fluttering.


JS: Does your approach to poetry have any impact on your art and vice versa? Or are the two separate in your approach to them?


AH: My poems and my art are like a couple in a relationship. Sometimes they will work together and hopefully combine to make something that is more than the sum of its parts. My Liverpool Liver Birds poetic picture book illustrates this best thus far. The aim is that the words and pictures live in symbiosis.


Sometimes the poetry needs space on its own and the art takes a back seat. For example, when creating my poem ‘The Dun Gush’ for The Quality of Mersey collection, the words on the page took priority and creating visual artwork did not figure in my thoughts. However, it was still necessary for me to be present at the site from where the poem was written to feel it: hence my visits to the gardens of Liverpool Parish Church—“The Sailors’ Church”—to experience the scene with my senses firsthand.


Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words and I just need to draw or paint, and the best way I can express myself is with line, colour, shape, texture and the dance between them. When I created a portrait of Arthur Dooley during Dooley Day 2019 at The Florrie on January 17th, instinct trumped words.


Often, the poems and art weave in and out of each other, questioning and informing, learning and growing. In my ‘#kidsthatfly’ exhibition for the 2018 Liverpool Independents Biennial, each of the 23 images of young people launching themselves into the unknown spoke to me, requiring one word for every photograph to be displayed alongside the image. The words included “adrenalize”, “stretch” and “free”. The artist in me shaped the visuals. The poet in me went panning for golden words. As they shared their journeys, there was reciprocity.         


JS: As an artist your activities are fairly eclectic, encompassing the visual arts, interactive workshops and “art happening” sorts of projects. Can you tell us a bit about your art background?


AH: As far back as I can remember, I have always drawn and made art. Similarly, writing and making songs have been necessary activities in my life and not really felt like choices. However, sometimes, one will take prominence over the others for a period of time. Over the last few days, I’ve picked up my guitar and written a bit of a song, made some interesting squiggle drawings with my tutees (I see these as kind of dreams) and have been promoting my rather intricate and specific colourful line drawings which form an important component of my recently published Liverpool Liver Birds poetic picture book.


Referring to art specifically, I am grateful for the places it has taken me thus far—physically, mentally and emotionally—and where it may take me in the future, hopefully. I try to allow my art to tell stories and to reveal the truth. Usually, I won’t entirely know what that is until my art suggests it’s time to stop. Much of my work is figurative and representational, however removed the final image may be from its source. As I write, what is interesting me most is telling stories through my art, whether these be myths and legends begun in previous times or more current adventures. By nature, I am not a natural joiner of groups though I like to be exposed to a wide range of ideas and influences. Today, the Liverpool Arts Lab are a group of individuals who inspire me and invigorate me through their activities and approach to art and life. Check them out if you want to see what artists can do. [There website can be found here—Editor]


I drew comics and caricatures and adventure stories before I hit twelve. In my teenage years, I painted vivid primordial dreams. Through GCSE and A-level art, it all got a bit stifled. When it came to Foundation Art, I found myself an outsider. I thought I was a fine artist until I fell out with the tutor, so I turned to illustration where I felt like William Blake’s Newton; I ended up hanging out with the fashion students and knowing that I would make my future art outside of an institution. At university, studying Geography in Liverpool, I illustrated for the Sphinx magazine and designed posters for shows. After this, I pursued being a jobbing artist with some success, making flyers, portraits, large murals, banners and logos to name a few. This was all done by hand. I worked with young people in Toxteth to create portraits of influential black people that were toured around schools and libraries.


What followed were years of teaching during which I was drawn to creating art around Chinese myths and culture due to my then wife’s background and line of work. And considerable work around Indian myths, too, including projections for a touring dance show of The Ramayana and using an overhead projector to reveal Surya’s dance across the sky in the Joddrell Bank planetarium, above some real dancers and musicians. 


Bit by bit, with each of these and other experiences shaping me like crow’s feet, I have returned to my source. I often aim to approach an art project as a beginner, asking questions and being open to what the art requires of me.


In one fundamental way, perhaps my art has changed little. Right now, all I want to do is pick up my paints and allow something true, undiscovered and awesome to emerge from these tubes.


JS: Can you tell us a bit about the current performance poetry scene in Liverpool from your perspective? It has grown a lot since my experience of it in the 1990s, and seems more vibrant now. Is that the case, and if so do you have any thoughts on why this is?


AH: There is a lot going on in Liverpool in terms of performance poetry. There are several regular nights that have been running for many years such as Liver Bards, The Dead Good Poets Society and A Lovely Word. There are also many other events and nights around the city, too. Sometimes it’s pure poetry but sometimes poetry is mixed with music and comedy, which leads to eclectic combinations. Many people in Liverpool are performers and the poetry scene reflects that. Perhaps the growth of social media has also impacted on the number of people who consider themselves poets and therefore the opportunities have increased accordingly as society responds in kind. This city is full of people who like words and what they can do, feel the urge to express themselves and connect. Perhaps poetry is also increasingly given a platform in mainstream events and festivals, such as The River Festival I mentioned earlier. These kinds of experiences get the message out there that poetry can be for everyone. Just get out there and speak your truth. And listen, too!




 copyright Ali Harwood & Jeffrey Side