A rambling interview/conversation over the last couple of weeks with Andrew Forster about the path from first to third collection – hope you all enjoy.
Andrew Forster’s first collection ‘Fear of Thunder’, published by Flambard Press in 2007 was shortlisted for a Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2008 and a second collection ‘Territory’ was published by Flambard in 2010 and later in 2010 a pamphlet ‘Digging’ came out with Roncodora Press which consisted of ten new poems accompanied by drawings by Hugh Bryden. He is currently working on his third collection.
Kim: Hi Andrew. Thanks for agreeing to be my first ‘writing my third collection’ poet. I have this idea in my head that the third collection would be the most difficult to write – I am thinking this for reasons based entirely on speculation as I’ve not finished my first yet – how has the process changed for you from first to second to third?
Andrew: Hi Kim. Many thanks for asking me to do this. I’d be interested to hear why you think the third collection would be more difficult. The process has certainly changed for me. Like most first collections I suspect, ‘Fear of Thunder’ was a selection from poems written over a long time period (in my case, around 15 years from the earliest poem in the book to the most recent) and any coherence that it had came out through the structure of it rather than the writing. I divided the book into sections according to things the poems had in common and it was interesting to see the way narratives emerged.
I was much more conscious of my second collection as a book from early on. While I was working on ‘Fear of Thunder’ I moved to a small village in the hills in South West Scotland, 1500 feet up. It was a former lead mining village, an interesting place to live as it felt very much like being on the edge of wilderness, with the many and varied implications of that. I
wrote a few poems out of the experience and originally intended them to go into ‘Fear of Thunder’ but I held onto them, feeling that they were a little different and that there was potential to mine the seam further. After I had finalised the contents of ‘Fear of Thunder’ I realised there was a book in the experience of making a home in Leadhills. It did widen
out a little in the process of writing but as I wrote poems I was conscious of their place in the larger scheme.
I’m still working on the third book so what I say here may change. The process has surprised me in some ways. It has been more like the second book than the first and I didn’t ecessarily envisage it would be. After working on a themed collection I felt like I wanted to just write poems for a while, and not worry about where they were going, or about an overall shape. But then my friend the artist Hugh Bryden, who collaborates with poets through his Roncadora Press, and who did the cover of ‘Territory’, said he’d like to illustrate some of my poems with a view to collecting them in a pamphlet. I was very keen on this but hadn’t written anything since ‘Territory’ was finished. We basically agreed we would see what
happened and I would send Hugh poems as I wrote them.
While finishing ‘Territory’ I had actually moved to Cumbria, and taken up the job I still have as Literature Officer with the Wordsworth Trust. I was trying to make a home in another new area and very aware of the rich literary heritage that I was spending my days engaging with. Perhaps not surprisingly, what emerged were poems that engaged with the landscape,
history and natural history of Cumbria, but there were also poems that were specifically about living and working in the shadow of Wordsworth. A number of these appeared in the pamphlet ‘Digging’.
As with the Leadhills poems, I felt there was more to be explored. The pamphlet really kicked off the next collection. Once I had 25 -30 poems I tried ordering them into the skeleton of a manuscript to see what it looked like. I think this is an important part of the process – it helps me see whether it holds together but also whether there are any gaps.
What has emerged is largely a Cumbrian book, with Wordsworth encountered fairly randomly in the landscape in the way you do encounter him when you are working in the Lake District. There are a few other themes within this and I guess the third collection is a little more flexible than ‘Territory.’ Moving to Cumbria marked my return to the North of England, and sparked of memories of growing up in industrial South Yorkshire, and these play off against my life in Cumbria. I’m also getting older, and some of the poems have an awareness of this: of the body not quite able to do what I might like it to, but also of feeling content with the way life is going. These elements have their echoes in Wordsworth’s life too so it all ties together. I think it’s what I’ve heard described as a ‘mid-life book’!
Kim: I love the idea of encountering Wordsworth randomly in your collection! I guess I think the third would be more difficult because there seems to be a lot of support geared around writing your first collection and it is easy to ask for help when you are writing your first collection as you’re not meant to know what you’re doing! I would be interested to hear about the types of support you got with the different collections. I get a lot of advice from more experienced poets all the time – I’m constantly picking their brains. Have you found yourself relying on other poets for feedback/support with all/any of the collections? What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given about putting a collection together and who gave it to you?
Andrew: I think that everyone, no matter what stage they are at, needs someone who will both support their work and give an honest opinion. I have a reciprocal relationship for sharing work with the poet Vicki Feaver, who I’ve known for about 12 years, and Vicki was really instrumental in helping me shape ‘Fear of Thunder’ from a fairly haphazard group of poems to a coherently structured collection. We literally took them out of the file and put them into separate heaps according to things they might have had in common. This included themes such as landscape and childhood, but it was also according to things like modes of address. For instance there were a number of poems addressed to a second person. These weren’t in fact even addressed to the same person but when we put them together they read like a narrative.
I think the key piece of advice came from Vicki, which was to think of a collection as a book. This actually meant leaving out poems that had been published in significant places becuase they didn’t seem to fit with the others.
Vicki has contnued to comment on all the collections, though the order of poems in Territory’ seemed to come more naturally because it had themes. As I wrote the poems I slotted them into place.
Much of ‘Territory’ was written while I was doing the MA in Creative Writing at MMU and an earlier version of it was submitted as my portfolio. I did the MA as an online student so I had a more distanced relationship to it than many others seem to have, and I always saw ‘Territory’ as the next book rather than just as the portfolio. I had a fairly close relationship with Michael Symmons Roberts but it was more at the level of commenting on poems than on the manuscript as a whole.
The collection I’m currently working on has been a little different. Flambard, the publisher of my first two books, ceased publishing when they lost their Arts Council funding a couple of years ago, so I’ve been in the position of not really knowing if the new one would find a home. Because of this I started corresponding with a publisher when the book was still at an early stage – I think my logic was that I would find it easier to complete if I knew someone was interested in it! Nothing is signed and sealed yet so I won’t say who but it has led to a much closer editorial relationship than I’ve had in the past, which is exhilarating if a little nerve-wracking! I think from this experience I’ve being reminded of something that may appear to contradict what I said earlier- every poem needs to be able to hold its place as a poem. Sometimes with collections there’s a tendency to include things because they fulfil a narrative function or add to the theme in some way. It has to work as a book but every poem has to stand on its own merit.
Kim: I’ve just read a blog post from Antony Wilson in his ‘Life Saving Poems’ series. Talking about Gerard Manley Hopkins he says
“It seems inconceivable to me that any poet starting out now in contemporary Britain would opt for the conditions Hopkins lived under, namely: solitude verging on loneliness; periods of intense depression; and, worst of all, complete lack of recognition for his art. Think of all the things we take for granted in the connection economy, the prizes, the mentoring schemes, the festivals, the networking on Facebook and Twitter, the blogs (!), and now think of a life without any of that save one man you occasionally dare to send your poems to, your champion and curator of your reputation, which in any case you will not live to see. It is insane, isn’t it?”
You can find the full blog here http://anthonywilsonpoetry.com/2013/05/11/lifesaving-poems-gerard-manley-hopkinss-no-worst-there-is-none-pitched-past-pitch-of-grief/
I think the poetry ‘community’ that I feel part of is so important for me – the people I send poems to for their opinion, the writing groups, the readings. And it is crazy to think even about not being able to email poems across to people – having to print them out and post them seems like madness!
Your mystery publisher also sounds very intriguing – and as we are conducting this interview via an email conversation over a couple of weeks – it might be that you can reveal all before we get to the end!
What is the title of the third book? I know that you did a lot of work on it when you went on retreat to Hawthornden – I’m interested to know how the rules at Hawthornden of silence and no internet may have affected your writing – do you think the very different atmosphere that this book was written in compared to writing the other books around the demands of a full time job will be felt by readers?
Andrew: Yes I think we all take the poetry community we are part of for granted. One of the few things I felt as hardship at Hawthornden was not being able to e-mail poems to people for an opinion. Everyone else who was there was writing prose, and I think writing so intensely it’s hard to see it objectively. One day I did actually go out to Bonnyrigg Library and e-mail some stuff to a couple of friends from there, but the positives of that uninterrupted time were so many that I quickly accepted its limitations.
The obvious difference between the poems written at Hawthornden and the rest is that they were written in a much more concentrated period. My poems usually take 6 or 7 drafts before I feel they are ready for a second opinion (and then any number of drafts after that!) but usually these drafts take place over a period of a month or so. At Hawthornden I was
doing 4 or 5 drafts in a day, and I realised how important it is to get the distance over the poems that my usual routine gives me. Something that seems important one week can look redundant a week later, so I used the Hawthornden time to get a lot of poems into a basic shape, knowing I would have to do some fairly intense editing later. It’s hard to say if this has resulted in a different kind of book, as I think each book moves on anyway.
I did go to Hawthornden with lots of impulses for poems in my head, and I think that’s important with this kind of retreat, otherwise you risk a lot of time staring at the blank page. Still there were some poems in the new collection that surprised me, that came from territories that I felt I’d long since finished with, and I think this might have been because I did have the luxury of playing around a little, which I don’t always have when I’m writing around a full-time job.
The collection doesn’t have a title yet. With ‘Fear of Thunder’ the title was one of the last things to come, and with ‘Territory’ it came very early on. I suspect this might be another late one but I’m trusting one to emerge!
Kim: Hawthornden sounds idyllic but I’m so addicted to my phone and email – I don’t know if I could stand it! Could you talk about the themes in this book – your previous book ‘Territory’ was firmly rooted in the landscape – what are the main themes that have emerged in this collection? Have the themes helped you to structure it, or is it structured in a different way entirely?
Andrew: A lot of the themes pick up where ‘Territory’ left off: how to make a home in a place that’s your own and the relationship with the environment that implies, but the new collection feels more personal to me, deeper. I think with the poems in ‘Territory’ the voice of the narrator seems to be almost a peripheral presence, reflecting the marginal, temporary nature of life in Leadhills. The new poems feel to me to be more ‘committed’, delving further into the history of the landscape, as well as the myth associated with it. They also continue my interest in how we can bring in environmental concerns while still keeping the integrity of the poem, and not sounding preachy.
The structure isn’t necessarily final at the moment but so far it’s been dictated by my own chronology. At the moment it begins with a poem called ‘At Carstairs Junction’ which is about a moment that, looking back, seemed to be a turning point when I began to think about leaving Scotland. It then follows my own explorations of Cumbria before settling, and then reflecting on where I am now and thinking back over my youth in Yorkshire. That’s so
Kim: It is interesting that you say that the first poem in the new book is an important one because it signifies a ‘turning point’. Could you give any tips for picking the first poem in a collection? Should it be the title poem, or is that putting too much weight on one poem? What about the last poem? Is this as important? I know you’ve said every poem has to hold it’s own – so assuming they do, how do you choose which ones should go first? Has your technique for this changed over the course of the three books and the pamphlet?
Andrew: This is an interesting one and I’m curious to see other answers to this question. I know some people advocate putting your strongest poem at the beginning of the book but I wonder if that just encourages disappointment with subsequent poems! I guess what I’ve been trying to say about structuring books is that I’ve put them together according to narrative principles. I don’t think of myself as a narrative poet particularly, and each poem needs to have a life beyond its role in the narrative, but all the books have had some kind of
thread running through them. Even with ‘Fear of Thunder’ where there are a number of very different sections, each section is put together into a narrative, and the individual sections are ordered into another narrative, although this isn’t of course a conventional story. Because of this though it’s been relatively easy to pick an opening poem – I’ve started at what I think is the beginning!
‘Fear of Thunder’ began with a poem that went back to my early childhood and it marked out the landscape of much of the book. ‘Territory’ begins with a poem called ‘The Leadhills Road’ which literally takes the reader to the village where much of the book is set. Similarly with the final poem I tend to go for one that seems to summarise the book’s preoccupations in some way, or find some kind of ending.
The last poem in ‘Territory’ was prompted by returning to the landscape of the book and finding the road re-routed so I couldn’t find my way back to the village, which seemed apt. The poem which is currently last in the new book is similar. Hawthornden Castle is quite near where I used to live and work, and while I was there I went to an Inn where my partner and I first went about 25 years ago. Not long before we left Scotland it was demolished when a truck driver ploughed into it. It’s now been rebuilt and I went there with a friend when I was at Hawthornden. Such revisitings interest me, and the poem it prompted seems a suitable closing point, though this might change.
The poem that closes ‘Fear of Thunder’ is a poem called ‘New Years Day’ that belongs in some way to ‘Territory’ since it’s set in that landscape and I occasionally wish I’d kept it back , but in ‘Fear of Thunder’ it represents a turning point, a new start, and I think that’s probably okay.
Kim: That’s really interesting – It makes me want to re-read the collections now, concentrating on narrative between the poems! I’m feeling very smug today because I’ve just managed to finish a small sequence. I have a love-hate relationship with sequences – my heart sinks at a reading when a poet says ‘I’m going to read from a sequence about…..’ I don’t know why! Even if it’s a good sequence my heart sinks. However, I’ve always wanted to write a sequence. I’ve had some failed sequences too but this one is just three poems about the body and memory and they are linked by a narrative that is ambiguous. The poems worked fine on their own, but when I finally realised they were three parts of a whole, it felt like something slotted in place inside me -which sounds a bit precious I know. I also know that this little sequence needs to be in the middle of my collection – and the other poems need to lead away from them.. I was wondering if your new book has any sequences, seeing as narrative seems to be the thing you are saying is holding it together. It has occurred to me writing this that I think that it will be themes that hold my book together as opposed to narrative – although the poems in themselves are often small narratives. I’m wondering whether every book has to have some sort of glue like this – narrative, themes – are there any others?
Andrew: I have a couple of sequences in the new book. My sequences have fallen into two types I think. The first is where you have a poem that seems to fall into separate sections. The poem ‘Wanlockhead’ in ‘Territory’ is one of these, and there are a couple in the new book. I’m never sure if they are sequences of short poems or one poem in a number of short parts! The other is where, as you say, you are writing poems that seem to belong thematically together. I’ve got a few poems that all have their starting point in music, and relate mainly to growing up in Yorkshire, and they seem to make more sense within the collection as a sequence. There may be more of them too. Recently I haven’t set out to write sequences, they’ve just developed from the act of writing a poem.
In terms of what holds a collection together, I think there are all kinds of things. My second book, and this new one, certainly have themes but within these there’s a narrative, although it’s not necessarily a conventional story that will be obvious to a reader. For some poets a book is simply the poems they have written since the last one, and that’s okay too. Some poets set themselves formal structures. Michael Symmons Roberts gave himself a formal challenge with ‘Drysalter’, to write 150 15 line poems, and it’s this that binds the collection though there are themes within it.
Sometimes the structure is conceptual. I’ve been reading Bill Herbert’s ‘Omnesia’. It’s a wildly varied collection, which is divided into themed sections, but the sections talk to each other within the two volumes, and it’s all held together through this idea of ‘Omnesia’, the tension between our need to know everything and our inability to retain very much, which colours the way the poems are read.
Kim: Finally, Andrew, could you give one piece of advice for a poet putting a first collection together. What is the one thing that it is really important to remember?
Andrew: I’ve already talked about seeing it as a book, and thinking about the poems in terms of their role within it, but apart from that I think probably the most useful piece of advice is not to rush into a full-length collection. That probably goes for any book at any stage, but the first book particularly. It’s the rite of passage that we are all so keen to achieve but it’s also our best chance of making an impact, so it needs to be as good as we can make it.
Let it take the time it needs, and if it takes a while to place it then don’t get too frustrated. Let it get better in the meantime