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Poet Alan Hill shines light on mental illness
Alan Hill introduces his book with a quote from Nietzsche, one about having chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.
The Broken Word, he notes, is his constellation.
The book is a collection of poems crafted around Hill’s experiences of growing up with an older brother diagnosed with schizophrenia. The writing is vivid and raw, boldly lifting mental illness out of the shadows by sharing deeply personal, yet approachable stories whose details haven’t faded from Hill’s memory.
“A big part of who I am was formed during the experience of growing up with a brother with a mental illness, but it’s something that people don’t talk about,” said Hill, who is also the cultural diversity co-ordinator for the City of Richmond. “I was aware there were all sorts of issues that I needed to explore… I thought, I have this medium of poetry now, which I didn’t have as a kid, and I’ll use that to try and explore some of this stuff.”
Hill, a 48-year-old New Westminster resident, dedicates the book and its many autobiographical poems to his brother, now 58, whom Hill doesn’t expect will read it. As a teenager in England, his brother showed clear signs of a mental illness. After diagnosis, he landed in an institution in his teens, and was later moved to a group home—a setting where he remains today.
Hill remembers his brother’s early days of care, which he said weren’t always the best, and recalls how mental illness within the family magnified his own teenage fears. Hill was made as a person, good and bad, by those early experiences, and reliving those times through words gave him closure.
“It left me, as a young man, feeling very insecure about myself. Always wondering why, is it going to happen to me, how am I going to have a normal life…” he said. “It’s a long time ago now, and this book, finally after all these years, it’s a way of putting all that to rest really.”
The Broken Word, launched in August, is Hill’s second full collection of poetry. His first is titled The Upstairs Country.
Like other teens, he wrote poems but gave it up. He didn’t start writing again until his 30s during a two-year work placement in Botswana. He wanted to keep a journal, and decided to catalogue his experiences through poetry.
“It took me a good five years of writing to get anything published,” he said. “I had mountains of rejection slips in the early years. Although some of those rejection slips hurt a bit, I thought well I’m learning something here. I just have to keep going, I just have to get better.
“That’s always been my philosophy. I still have that philosophy now. I never feel I’ve made it, I always try to get better,” said Hill, who is already writing his next book.
Poetry, he said, is a good medium to explore the abstract, and to arrive at abstract conclusions. It allowed him to explore difficult themes in The Broken Word that may have otherwise took untold pages through traditional storytelling.
The Broken Word is available at smashwords.com/profile/view/AlanHill. Hill is also featured at various literary events in Metro Vancouver, including Holy Wow Poets Nov. 5 at the ACT Maple Ridge and Jan. 24, 2014 at Richmond Public Library.