August 8, 2012 § Leave a comment
Interview with Andy Jackson by Arina Mitsujeva
1. Do you remember how and when you first realized you were a poet? What did it feel like?
It’s difficult to say. I think there is a difference between writing poetry and being a poet. The latter sounds like a profession, as in being a doctor or a police officer. I think I am not a poet, but I do write poetry. There is a line to be crossed from just writing poetry to writing poetry which might be worth publishing.
I guess you need a respectable publication to describe you as a poet. The first poem like that for me was one I sent to New Writing Scotland about six years ago. It was something I felt I could send off and believe in. Something I would want to buy myself.
At school and in my twenties, I did write poetry, but it was not high-intention poetry. What changed how I look at poetry was me joining a writing group ten years ago at University of Dundee (for students and staff). The group was lead by Colette Bryce. In the group I learned to not just write from the heart, but apply technique, to understand form in poetry and try to develop a critical eye, although none of that came straight away.
It’s also important to see other poets, read their work. Sometimes new poets are very close to their own poetry and their critical sensibilities for their own work are slower to develop. I feel you can’t be a modern poet without reading a lot of modern poetry.
2. What was the first poem you ever read & how did it affect you?
I guess the first thing that I felt was a poem and not a nursery rhyme was The Owl and The Pussycat by Edward Lear. I was a fan of nonsense and wordplay, as children usually are. That sense of the ridiculous and sense of humour still appeal to me.
In my own poetry today, I try to implement the sense of humour and the ridiculous, by means of witticisms, asides, and so on. I do not write comic poetry but I try to write poetry with some comic sensibility, without intention to make people laugh. It is sometimes confused with being populist.
I believe poetry should convey its message reasonably simply without turning people off by what you write. If it’s not communicated effectively, it’s not communicated at all.
3. What was it like to have your work published and how did you go about it?
Early on I didn’t send very much away, waiting for a long time before I felt I had something worth sending away. It took me 3-4 years but when I did send it, it worked on either my 2nd or my 3rd attempt. I haven’t much self-belief in what I write and sometimes need someone to tell me if it’s a good poem.
4. This brings me to my next question. How important do you think feedback is for a poet? Do you often show your work to friends or family before sending it away?
Feedback is crucial. I think every poet would benefit from having one person to work with, to share each other’s work and criticize each other honestly and fairly. Of course, there are people who are self-sufficient and work independently. What works for me is my writing group, although I guess I have become less reliant on feedback now than I was a few years back.
5. As we all know, poetry doesn’t make one rich. How do you balance your day job and writing poetry? Do you feel like your creativity suffers because of the stresses of your day job, or vice versa?
I have a professional job. Technically, I have a career, which I know some poets would frown on. I don’t spend my entire life thinking about writing poetry, but I know other people who do, and they make a living out of things that are related to poetry if not actually the poems themselves, but I’m not going to go down that route. I would do an awful lot more poetry if it wasn’t for work getting in the way. I often feel like I don’t have time to do the writing that I want to, and making time for it is not always easy. I should spend more time writing poetry, but I don’t.
6. Who or what are the biggest inspirations for your poetry?
I consider myself what you might call an urban poet. I’m a city boy; I tried living in the country and didn’t enjoy it. I like living in the city more and I tend to be very interested in people and the observation of people. I write very little about flowers, trees, landscape; I’m not a reflective poet, I’m a doing poet, I would say. I write about people and what happens to them. My wife is a better observer of people than me. She can sum people up quickly in a few words. If I had her observational skills, I’d be a much better poet, I think.
As to inspiration…music, movies, popular culture in general enthuses me. I don’t write specifically about popular culture just to be flash, but I do occasionally include cultural references to help connect the poem with the now. I realize this will date the poem very quickly, but my poetry is of its time. I don’t think it will be read in 20, 30, 50 years; I’m not in that rank of poet, but I hope that people will read it for now and be able to take something out of it.
7. Do you think that strong emotion is needed to make a good poem?
I feel that if you don’t have an emotion to convey, you don’t have much of a poem to write. If you are writing something in a cold and analytical way and not trying to convey something of yourself, then you’re not writing poetry.
8. We actually had a debate in class whether one should write poetry “in the heat of the moment”, or afterwards, when the emotions are not as strong and one can look back upon it. For example, if you’re breaking up with someone; or if something else terrible happens.
I’m a conventional sort of person. If I were breaking up with someone, or experiencing some sort of bereavement, I wouldn’t want to reach for a pen and paper straight away. That would come later for me. I would try to operate as a normal human being with normal priorities of someone who is bereaved or has fallen out of love. There would be material in there later on that you might want to use, if it’s not too cynical to do so. I worry about someone whose immediate thought is to write a poem when something terrible happens. That seems a bit cynical, almost mercenary.
9. Well, aren’t we all just a bunch of cynical, selfish old…
Yeah, I suppose so! I’m not, though, but… Just kidding! Poets are a pretty inquisitive bunch, they don’t lose very much. They hang on to every image, every emotion, and they store it and use it. Maybe not every single image will come out as a poem, but they’re all in there. There are poems I know I will write, based on things I observed or things that have happened to me. It doesn’t mean that the emotion is locked away in me. It will come out at some point.
There was an occasion a couple of years ago. A woman I worked with was killed in a horrific cycling accident. I did have images in my head at the time, but I knew it wasn’t the time to write the poem about how I felt. But it did get written eventually, four of five years afterwards, when I felt I was able to express something without seeming like a hawk circling a coffin. I think reacting to what’s going on in the world is important, but reacting at the right time. If you write poems about terrible things that have happened immediately, then it does seem a bit mawkish.
Terrible things like tsunamis or earthquakes do happen, but I don’t think I would be able to write a poem about that straight away. There is a bit of a satellite delay with me between things that happen and the writing of the poem. I’m not one of the people who write in the heat of the moment.
10. Sometimes when a poet puts their work out there, other people interpret it differently and read entirely different meanings into it than what the poet intended. Do you think the poet has the right to put his foot down and say “You are wrong and this is not what it says”, or not?
The poet certainly has the right to say it wasn’t something he intended, but in every art form, it’s the reaction of the person exposed to it that counts. Take classical music, something pastoral and easy-going – someone might listen to it and hear something violent or difficult in it. That’s down to them; it’s their interpretation of the music. Or art, for example Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’, a well-known painting. On the surface it shows a night scene with stars. But you don’t necessarily see the simplicity of a night with stars in Van Gogh’s image; you hopefully see something more complex than that. I don’t think Van Gogh would then come up to you and say “But all I wanted to do was paint some stars.”
If I write a poem and someone takes it into a different direction or takes something from it that I didn’t intend, I’d just be delighted that people have read it and wouldn’t worry about what they took from it. I’d only be worried if people didn’t read my poems.
I would like to think I wrote clearly enough in order to not be ambiguous, but then all poetry is ambiguous to a certain extent. I don’t think you can convey exactly what you mean by writing it. Subtlety and metaphor are all inexact to a point. I’m not a control freak with my poetry, I’m just glad that people are reading it.
11. Would you be able to tell me more about your poem “Listening Post”? Could you recall your train of thought when you were writing it?
Yes, I can tell you exactly what it was influenced by. I met somebody I was at university with a few years ago. In making conversation about what they’ve done since we left university, they said that they spent some time working for GCHQ.
12. Was it not a secret, should they maybe not have disclosed this information to you?
Well, this is the thing, I asked them what exactly they were doing there, and they said “I can’t tell you”. I thought they were joking and I said “Come on, tell me about it”, but they insisted they couldn’t.
So I actually have no idea if they worked in an eavesdropping capacity or not. I just imagined what they might have done, knowing about them from university days, and trying to picture their life as an observer.
There is a wonderful Francis Ford Coppola film from the 1970s called ‘The Conversation’ which is about a person who spends their life undertaking surveillance of others, and the poem is a little bit derived from that idea. I imagined this person was spending their days listening to who they were spying on, fascinated by their life and wanting to be part of it. Maybe they would even want to be in a relationship with that person. In the end, the poem turns back on itself, and the person who is the observer turns out to be the person who is being observed. They pick the phone up and the line goes dead and they hear a click. That’s them being listened to.
This poem has a beginning, middle and end, and characters to whom things happen. This is the kind of narrative poetry that I do. I am very much a realist in poetry, though I do use surrealistic and unusual elements in my poems from time to time.
13. I think I understand what you mean, it’s almost like when you dream about normal things, but then something unusual and surreal happens in the dream, like flying.
And yet I wouldn’t call it exactly surreal. There is a poem at the end of my book, about my parents on holiday, back from when I was a child. My mother took her rings off on the beach and forgot that she’d done so, and left them behind. The tide then came in and washed the rings away.
I wrote a poem about that, introducing surreal qualities. The ring gets cast into the sea and is swallowed by a fish. The fish gets caught and opened and is about to be eaten. All this time the ring is in the belly of the fish. This sort of mythological story is common to a lot of cultures.
My mum and dad sit down to a plate of fish and chips and then there it is, the ring, inside a cod fish they’d just bought. This is the element of the surreal in the poem. It really is about my mum and dad’s relationship and how sometimes you lose things which never do get found. But it’s a slightly strange look at that, a more unusual and surreal way I would say.
14. How paranoid are you normally about editing your poems?
One thing I learned from Colette Bryce is, edit edit edit. Editing is almost as important as writing. The poem is only finished when there is nothing to take out. I edit a lot. For me, very few poems are finished at one sitting, none at all I would say. Some poems go through 8-9 versions, sometimes over the course of several years. I do have some poems that were written quickly, but I’m rarely satisfied with them. Some poets revise even their published poetry. I don’t think I would do that.
Most young poets should definitely spend more time editing.
15. Free verse vs verse forms?
I would say I a semi-formalist. I use rhythm, rhyme, half-rhyme and enjambed lines to achieve that consistency of form. Occasionally, I go mad and write a villanelle or other more fixed forms; I wrote a sestina once, but it was terrible. Having said that, I do write free verse as well. The main thing is that the poem should read well when read aloud. A good poem can be read aloud and retain its meaning. I prefer to read my own poetry aloud. I am not a performance poet, but rather find myself ‘halfway between the page and the stage’. Good poetry definitely has to work in public.
16. Any advice for young poets out there?
Get involved in a poetry group. I was lucky to be invited to a poetry group and it has significantly changed the way I write. If I can use a rather saucy image, poetry on your own is a form of masturbation – but group sex is far more interesting! The contribution of others to your own writing can improve it immeasurably if you can learn to trust your colleagues and be honest with each other.
Write as often as you can, as much as you can, but don’t be too precious about what you write.