Monday, May 31, 2010

Sean Haldane: 'I now think poetry has more capacity to change people than psychotherapy'
Sean Haldane, a nominee for the post of professor of poetry at Oxford, talks about his dual life as a poet and neuroscientist
 Tim Adams in The Observer, Sunday 30 May 2010
Sean Haldane, poet and clinical neuropsychologist, photographed in east London. Photograph: Karen Robinson for the Observer

Sean Haldane is a poet and consultant clinical neuropsychologist working with the NHS in east London. His collected poems Always Two, were published last year. He is a nominee for the post of professor of poetry at Oxford University.

Would it be fair to say you lead a double life, as a poet and neuroscientist?
Well, I've been working in psychology and neuropsychology for 30 or 40 years. I decided ages ago that if I were a poet, I didn't want to make a career of it. So I had to make a living another way. I tried farming, I tried living off the land in Canada. I tried publishing, and then I gravitated toward psychology and neuropsychology.

Your poetry has seemed to come quite sporadically: in the introduction to Always Two, you talk about waiting for poetry to overtake you. That makes it sound like an involuntary act?
I think that's right. It is as if you have a voice in your head speaking poems. If that sounds mystical, then I know enough of neuroscience to make it less so. The brain's right hemisphere, for example, "talks" under certain circumstances to the left hemisphere. That can feel like an alien voice, or that something new is happening in the mind that is coming from somewhere else. I wouldn't want to make a mystery of poetry, but I have never felt it has been in my control.

What does your professional life involve?
As I am getting older and somewhat senior in the NHS, I do about half clinical work, mostly assessing diseases of memory, dementia, some acquired brain conditions in younger people. Then the rest of the time I am involved in the provision of memory clinics across east London.

You were born in Sussex but grew up in Belfast?

Yes my father had been a major in the army during the war and when that finished he took us back to live in Northern Ireland, where he was from. Belfast then was like living all the time on top of a bomb that was about to go off. I had an English accent, but an Irish name, so both sides tended to give me a rough time to begin with.

You lived a long time in the States and Canada, what brought you back?
I got sort of stuck in Canada, my wife is French Canadian, we had two daughters there, and I had a daughter from a previous relationship, so we stayed. We lived there for 25 years, but after about 15 I was ready to come back, I was homesick, but for England rather than Ireland.

The full interview at The Observer.

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