Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Conversation with Andrew Forster

Yep, it's time again for another Parky rip-off. This time with Andrew Forster, poet and Literature officer of The Wordsworth Trust.

He has just published his second collection of poetry, Territory, with Flambard. His first was Fear of Thunder.

SH Territory has a wonderfully wide notion of territory, opening with a social historical perspective, looking at the mining history of Leadhills. How much do you see the role of poet as historian? What obligation do you feel to make social observations?

AF I don't really think of the poet as a historian as such. For me, in this book, it was about engaging with particular places. History is always going to be a part of that, but in a place like Leadhills the history is still very visible. The name of the village alone parades its history, the cottages are still much the same on the outside as they would have been when the miners' lived there, and the landscape still contains the legacy of leadmining in both the remains of the mine workings and the fenced enclosures I refer to in 'Shafts'. The history is very much a part of the place.

The same is true of the poems set in Galloway and Cumbria, where the landscape was very much shaped by its history.

In a poem like 'The Cinema Organ' I play with the idea of the past still being there even though it's no longer visibile, but if you 've had a relationship with somewhere that changes you can't help having a sense of how it used to be. I don't see this as nostalgia, it's just about catching the whole spirit of the place.

The question of obligation to make social observations is a tricky one. I wouldn't say I felt it as an obligation but I do engage in the world and my work wouldn't feel really complete if it didn't have that social dimension. It's just the way I see it. There some wonderful poets whose work is very insular but still has the power to touch people - John Berryman springs to mind - but my work, at the moment, tends towards the outward-looking.

SH You say, "at the moment". How much do you have a clear sense of where you'd like your writing to develop?

AF I'm open to possibility really, but I think it's important not to close off potentail avenues. The Territory project has been going on now for some time. While not being totally rigid it did dictate the broad type of poem that was going to be a part of it. There's something both restrictive and comforting about that at the same time. Finishing the project gives both a sense of freedom and a sense of loss. I do have a couple of ideas for longer projects that may or may not materialise, but for now I'm just writing poems with no greater agenda, and seeing what happens.

SH Many of the poems use striking, bold language. What do you think this says about your approach to your subject matter?

AF I think that the language in my poems is very much at the service of the subjects. I'm trying to capture something that I can see and feel around me, which isn't to say that I'm not tuned in to the sound and rhythm and other qualities of the language, because I am very aware of all those things, but it's the subject matter that's leading the poems. When I say, in 'Shafts' that 'the fences are rings of strange celebrants/ linking hands, refusing to disappear', for example, I'm making use of imagery but I'm using it to capture the atmosphere and qualities of what I'm writing about, rather than letting imagery lead the poem.The Canadian poet Don McKay talks about 'the moment of poetic attention that is pre-language' and it's that I'm trying to capture.

SH I was reminded of many other poems as I read the book, including ones by Frost, Hughes, and Duffy. How much of a dialogue are you having with previous poets (consciously or unconsciously)?

AF I think every poet is constantly in dialogue with other poets. Sometimes this is simply a single poem which has triggered something in us and sets the process going, sometimes it's something about a poet's approach that resonates with us. I'm aware of the influence of Elizabeth Bishop in my poems. The way she looks so closely at something that it begins to resonate in all kinds of ways is something that has always struck a chord with me.

In Territory, there are two particular books that I'm conscious of having a dialogue with. James Lasdun's Landscape with Chainsaws and Kathleen Jamie's The Tree House. Territory was in progress before I came across either of them, but they both, in different ways, helped me sharpen my ideas and better articulate what I was trying to do. The Lasdun is about picking out a life in harsh conditions, and though his life in the wilderness of upstate New York is infinitely more marginal than mine was in Leadhills, there are things in common. Despite the fact I drove to work every day it is a very remote place, 1500 feet up in the hills of South West Scotland, and daily life felt like it was very much on the edge of things.

My dialogue with the Kathleen Jamie collection was of a different kind. Although it is a themed collection addressing nature in the same way as mine is, there is very little of the personal in her book, and the poems seem to be deliberately removed from specific locations in order to make them universal. My poems deliberately set out to capture the spirit of particular places, and to explore my relationship with them. I don't think there's a right or wrong here, it's just a difference in approach.

SH: How much do you think poetry is in danger of being trapped in a dialogue with itself rather than speaking to a wider world? I know some of youd work is on the school curriculum. How has this affected you writing?

AF I don't think the two things are mutually exclusive. For me that dialogue is about helping find ways of both approaching and framing the subject, and crafting poems that have resonance for readers.

The GCSE inclusion hasn't affected my writing at all. It remains to be seen whether it will in the longer term but I don't think so. Interestingly, when the exam board first contacted me they said that they thought my work would really resonate with teenagers because the subjects were universal and the poems were really accessible.

I've done very little schools work and I've nenver really thought of myself as a writer for teenagers, but clarity and accessibility are very inmportant to me. I want the poems to have enough substance that they bear repeated reading, but I also want them to yield that meaning to their readership.

SH Terrority feels like a clear progression from the childhood themes in The Fear of Thunder. How aware of this were you? How deliberate do you think it was?

AF The main difference is in the way the books arose. Like many first collections, Fear of Thunder was a selection of poems written over a considerable period of time. It was structured into themed sections, giving the impression of narrative, but it wasn't written like that. Territory, in contrast, took on the shape of a book fairly early on.

I've always written about nature and landscape, and the final section of Fear of Thunder contains poems about places, but when I moved to Leadhills in late 2001 I started engaging with the landscape in a much more systematic way. I had initially thought about including some of the Leadhills poems as a seperate section in Fear of Thunder but I held them back, feeling that they were different in a way I couldn't really articulate at the time. A few years later, when Fear of Thunder was due to be published, I started thinking of a new project and began to revisit the Leadhills work in a more deliberate fashion.

In terms of stylistic developments, I think Territory is much tighter. I think of the poems as both containing more of me and less of me at the same time. There's much less scene-setting, less context, but I think the level of engagement is deeper.

SH There are many poems about animals throughout the book. These are wonderfully documentry, avoiding mythologising the creatures. The creatures seem to occupy the borderlines that mark territories. How much were you looking for this in your encournters? Did the animal poems become a project?

AF I think that the animals create the borderlines to some extent in that they make us question the whole notion of our territory. You can see this with the poems about animals that very obviously 'intrude', the mouse, the damselflies, the rabbits and others, but I think it's there in the other encounters too. I did become influenced to some extent by current thinking about ecology, and started to question the way we meet these creatures.

It's not just about geographical borderlines, though, and I do touch on mythology in a few cases. 'The Hare' for example, is a real hare but the poem explores its symbolic qualities as well as its physical ones. 'Encounter' itself, where the speaker doesn't recognise a muntjack deer, laments the lack of mythology to some extent.

These poems did become a project wihin a project, and it relates back to yuor ealrier question about dialogue with other poets. I began to explore the possibilties of differet kinds of 'animal encounter poem', from the stricly documentary to the ones that start to take us into more imaginative realms. I wanted to explore the nature of animal encounters, to try and get close to what it is that happens to us when we have an encounter with an animal.

SH Thank you, Andy.

A couple of Andrew's poems feature on the Poetry Channel, Radnoti's Notebook and Woman Sewing. He also has a Facebook fan club. And both his books are available from Impress

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