Henry Virgin, London

Your life in more than our usual ‘few’ words – your biography deserves a longer portray.

Having studied the Philosophy of Religion at London University, I taught in Rostov-on-Don, South Russia in the late 90s and in Guangdong Province, South China. I worked for 3 years in the London office for Medecins Sans Frontieres and for the last fifteen years, I’ve been working, in different sectors, with digital imagery and graphics. I am currently working with a leading architecture and design studio.

My writing has been published in the Independent, The Moth Magazine, The Highland Park News, the Pasadena Star and The Wells Street Journal. My Poetry books Anthelion 1996 and The Glass Aubergine are available online along with my Chinese travel journal Teaching in Tangxia. Other works are in the production pipeline, including a collection of my earlier unpublished poems, ‘RAW’.

What about your approach to literature: are you influenced by your work in architecture and your teaching practice as well?

As my job title is ‘Image Librarian and Videographer’, in an architecture and design practice, working in the ‘Archive and Exhibitions Team’, I have been working with catalogue texts, diagrams, drawings, models, renders, photographs, animations and film on a daily basis. I work alongside Architects and Designers, who bring their ideas to life in a collaborative process. They are working in all scales, creating buildings, masterplans of cities, territories, product designs, fashion, jewelry, exhibitions, installations etc. The environment is very good for creative thinkers, and I am fortunate to work with highly talented people. This has had a positive impact on my work as a writer, especially with being able to materialise abstract psychological concepts. 
At work, when I am not archiving digital imagery, I make films for exhibitions and installations. I present the work of the Studio in large projections of up to 28 metres, or for ipads, or monitors, even for screens within cyberspace. Clarity and beauty are guiding principles to introduce viewers to the architectural projects. Making these films, and editing them has helped with my novel conceptually. Not least editing; eg cutting out 30,000 words. Certain parts of the book are inspired by digital editing techniques, with layering, creating sequences or chapters, transitioning between clips. Working with a large volume of material and presenting it as a coherent edited whole has also been highly beneficial to creating a novel, divided into 60 Chapters, with a very clear linear storyline, ambushed by poetry, art, recollection, invocation etc.

Can you foresee something on your last novel and about your art-literature project 34 Poems about Love?

34 Poems about Love has a strong connection to Exit Rostov. Exit Rostov is about a young 23 year old Englishman, named Frederick, who is looking for his oldest friend, who is lost in the post-Soviet, South of Russia, and beyond. His name is Cazimir. The novel focuses on the interior motives and dialogues of the main characters. As such, love, life, death, desire and poetry are paramount. At the end of the novel, like in Dr Zhivago, a collection of poetry in English and Russian, written by Cazimir is presented.

The novel is a book about love, and with so many paintings, sketches, drawings, poems, photographs and maps, it could also be called a ‘Literature-Art’ Project.

Your book is replete with complex philosophical, spiritual and religious ideas: do you consider the novel to be the best medium for delivering questions of existential importance?

Jean Paul Sartre thought the novel and the play were the best vehicles for delivering complex concepts. The plot offers opportunities to frame abstract ideas in a meaningful context while the dialogue offers the writer the ability to hone the ideas and present their nuance in sharper relief.

Which is your relation with the establishment of literature market (i.e. agents, editors) in your town and which is the state of art of the sector for authors usually crossing genres?

I am just beginning my relationship with the literature market. I have found it difficult to break into, and it is still a ‘work in progress’ so we shall have to see how it develops.  Regarding the crossing of genres, I am sure there is interest in cross genre work. Anyone who reads is investigating existence. 

This novel is a hybrid of my writing and art work, with prose, poetry, sketches, paintings, drawings, photographs, maps. With over 100 illustrations, 20 poems in English and Russian, the book works on many different levels, in different mediums.  Furthermore, there are a number of different conceptual genres including romance, travelogue, rite of passage, and historical fiction. 

Do you have a good relation with performance in poetry and, if present, who can be defined your master?

I love hearing Auden, Plath, Mayakovsky, Brodsky, Csezlaw Milosz, the poems in Tarkovsky films by his father, in the films of Bi Gan (Kaili Blues). I love listening to recordings of Basil Bunting, the list is endless. I like recordings, but poetry spoken at events, has to be very special, because it can be nerve wracking reading to so many, and poetry is often generated in solitude. On occasion, I used to read my poems at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park London, which is an open event every weekend. Recently, I read from Anthelion 1996 at a magazine launch. Many years ago, I made recordings of my poetry which are on soundcloud, but they were done very quickly and in mono and need updating. I prefer to read my poems aloud internally. It’s incredible that there is a recording of Tennyson reading the Charge of The Light Brigade. I like Eliot’s readings, though many don’t. There is this fantastic trend in Russia, on Instagram, where poets post their readings. Poetry is so alive in Russia. 

Where is the story set and what’s it about?

Traveling through Central Asia in 1996, Frederick Lyre learns of his best friend’s disappearance and changes plans to go and find him. Picking up the trail in Moscow, he ventures south to the post-Soviet depths of Rostov-on-Don and further into the hinterlands of the fragmented Soviet Union, where he is led deeper into the tangled fate of his oldest friend.

Uncovering hidden characteristics and unexpected motives, Frederick fears that his friend, presumed dead, has been caught up in a tragic sequence of events leading to his destruction. As a rite of passage, a journey of discovery, a travelogue and a psychological portrait of friendship, the novel draws the reader into the hidden world of being which beats beneath the semblance of reality.

The story is intricate and evokes another world of post-Soviet suburban Rostov tenements, the Steppe, Tashkent, Samarkand, Khiva, Moscow, the Nyeskuchny Gardens, the river Don, and far flung places in the Caucasus.

It is a story of friendship and the ends to which one will go to hold it together, of love and its different manifestations, of the unrequited, of how people seek to control others, to bend them to their will at any cost, of how setting out with the best intentions can get you into serious trouble, of how art is more important than politics, of coming to terms and dealing with powerful subconscious drives, of lust, desire, obsession, of how people can be so divided within themselves, so secret, so hidden, of learning how to find where people are hiding, and learning how to discover who people are at their very essence.

What do you give to your city (actually is London if I don’t mistake) and what do you feel – as a citizen – to get back? I know that this question is embodying something we’d already treated before (Brexit) and is full of ‘thorns’ in a way….

I can only offer London my books. Many of my poems are London based. I was at school and university in London. I grew up beside the River Thames. 

Which are the places (secret or not) you like to visit in order to escape from the burst of everyday life in your town? 

I work in the city, but live in the country, in rural Kent. I prefer living in the country and walking over the fields to the train station. I love to see the country stretching out in valleys and forests, I love to walk along the hedgerows, over fields, and listen to the larks, to see the bats and owls at flight, discovering May Bugs, funghi . Arriving back from work in the evening and walking through the twilight is a wonderful experience, not least to be drenched in the darkening blues of twilight and its silhouettes. If I want peace in London, I take a riverboat at night along The Thames. They are very evocative. Isolated in transit, passing under bridges, spilling out lamp light, into the ruminating Thames, it’s almost Dantean. Furthermore, in one or two of the boats which resemble The African Queen, it’s possible to have a drink in the galley bar below decks, it’s reminiscent of the Chinese poets Li Bai or Du Fu.

And, if I can allow myself given you work in an architecture practice, which is the library or the architecture you like more to go to read a book?

I am grateful for the Finsbury Library. I have been visiting it for the last 6-7 years, to complete Exit Rostov in my lunch hour. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, unless you have an eye for modernism. It’s quite utilitarian. Built in 1967, it has a low vaulted ceiling, with 4 arching skylights and a massive window spanning the width of the north wall. It overlooks City University, and part of The Finsbury Estate. It’s full of light and when it rains, the raindrops are amplified throughout the interior. There is usually a seat, and despite the occasional outburst from denizens with behavioural issues, it is a good place to read, write and think. 

What did you learn from life so far?

That which I have learnt, I hope I have transcribed into my books and art. If you are interested, please delve into Exit Rostov.


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