Andrew Jamison is a Northern Irish poet and teacher. His poems have appeared widely in various magazines and anthologies.
Hi Andrew. Thanks for taking the time to chat. You rose to prominence quickly at the start of the decade, from appearing in The Salt Book of Younger Poets, through to winning a Templar pamphlet competition, through to publishing your first full-length collection in the space of a couple years. Can you tell us a bit more about your memories of this period and if any particular highlights stick in the mind?
Thanks for the invitation. It’s interesting you say that I ‘rose to prominence’ as I don’t really feel like I’ve ever done that. I am of course very grateful for the publications and prizes I’ve garnered, but maybe it’s a case of ‘the more a man has the more a man wants.’
There will always be an uncertainty and self-doubt inherent in the writing process, and in many ways this is what keeps me going, wanting to write more, strike a richer note and reach a bigger audience. In many ways, I still don’t really feel like I’ve got started as a poet, and written nearly half the things I want. I’m always more concerned about where the next poem is coming from, and when, than the last.
That time is all a bit of a blur. I’m not one to dwell on my own ‘career’. I’d say what I hold more important or remember most vividly is the period before I had my first poem published. The forging of friendships is what remains from those times.
I remember going to poetry readings in London, as an undergraduate, with Ahren Warner. There used to be an event at the Poetry Café on Betterton Street called ‘New Blood’, once a month, and this exposed me for the first time to contemporary poetry in all its diversity, excitement and varying degrees of quality.
Meeting Niall Campbell, Rachael Boast, Andrew Eaton and André Naffis-Sahely among others at St Andrews, not to mention the excellent tutors there, was also really important in starting a conversation with myself about the poetry I wanted to write.
In saying all that, I do remember the acceptance notes for my first three published poems from Gerry Cambridge at The Dark Horse, Fiona Sampson at Poetry Review and Ciaran Carson at The Yellow Nib. Those early moments of fire-lighting affirmation are what you live on as a young poet starting out – all very exciting, but you have to keep it up.
For the uninitiated how would you describe the poems contained in your debut full-length collection Happy Hour and, now that you have some distance from them, in what ways do you think they are similar to or differ from more recent poems you have written?
I love lyric poetry, and what fascinates me is the challenge of breathing life into these old forms, patterns, structures and meters. I’m always looking for that surprise as a reader. Happy Hour, I guess, is my attempt to do that and add to the contemporary debate of how to modernise the lyric poem.
Being born and bred in Northern Ireland, the country will always feature in my work, however obliquely, for better or worse. The poems in Happy Hour are flavoured by that place and my growing up there; so, they’re fairly autobiographical.
One of the great thrills of writing poetry is you never quite know what you’re going to come out with as you put pen to paper, so my new poems, I would hope, are similar to my old poems, in that they will have come from that lyric moment of surprise.
I understand you work full-time as an English teacher. I’m curious how well represented you think poetry is in the school syllabus and if your pupils’ interest in the subject has been piqued at all by the knowledge that they are being taught by a published poet?
I would of course say there should always be more poetry in the school syllabus. I can’t speak for other schools, but where I teach, at Bristol Grammar School, we pride ourselves on making room for poetry in the syllabus, getting students to write it, read it and learn it off by heart, as well as entering the students into competitions such as the Tower Poetry Prize, John Betjeman Poetry Prize or the Foyle Young Poets Prize.
I do, however, think there should be more attention paid by exam boards to have more contemporary poetry included in the GCSE, IGCSE, A Level and Pre-U syllabuses.
I’m also a great believer in the power of creative writing in education. We’ve been running the Creative Writing A Level where I work, and it’s been a great success. It’s such a shame (and highly reactionary) that the government is scrapping it as an official A Level qualification; I’m not alone in thinking this.
As for students being piqued by my status as a published writer – firstly, you’d have to ask them. I teach many excellent students and often I’m in awe of what they know and how well read they are. John Berryman once wrote “I masquerade as a writer. Actually I am a scholar.” I’ve often felt that for me it’s the opposite.
Secondly, when I’m in a classroom of twenty-five fifteen year olds and I’ve got to finish studying a novel with them by the end of term, and I’m giving them essays and homework, I’m sure the last thing on their minds is ‘wow – he’s published a book of poems.’
I would hope, however, that it helps them see that writing is something they can do, and that writing a book isn’t reserved for certain types of people – it’s for anyone who wants to work at it.
I was lucky enough to have the novelist David Park as my English teacher, and we still keep in touch from time to time, so I suppose I’m definintely from the Alan Bennett school of ‘take it, feel it, pass it on.’
It’s interesting to learn the different approaches poets use in their writing. Do you have any set routines or methods you employ in putting together your own poems from initial draft to finished product?
I haven’t been writing as much as I should have been in the last few years. When I do write it tends to take me by surprise, and be at a time when I hadn’t planned to sit down and write, or when I sit down at the desk to do something else.
As for the writing process itself, it’s always a bit of a blur. I always write to paper first (quickly and usually fairly illegibly), and then transfer onto the computer later. I don’t really know why but I do find it more organic that way.
As for drafting, I have always found this tiresome, and something of a ‘Penrose Stairs’ (ask anyone who’s helped me edit my work) but the more I write the more I think I’m coming to enjoy the drafting process and watching the poem change shape. Sharing my work with a handful of people is also crucial; I have always enjoyed the resistance that comes with people critiquing my poetry – it’s refreshing for me and keeps the poems alive.
What does the rest of the year hold for you? Are there any dates in the diary you are looking forward to or are there any specific poetry goals you have set yourself?
I recently did a reading at the London Book Fair on behalf of Poetry Ireland, as part of the launch of the current issue of Poetry Ireland Review ‘The Rising Generation.’ It was a real privilege to be selected for this issue, showcasing a new generation of young Irish poets. The event was chaired by Vona Groarke, and I shared a stage with Martin Dyar and Victoria Kennefick who are powerful readers of their work.
I’m going to try and write as much as I can this year, and try and read some more poetry books too with a view to completing a second collection. I’ve just bought a pamphlet by a young poet from Belfast named Padraig Regan, called Delicious, and I’m enjoying that. There is so much poetry published that keeping on top of it is a job in itself, but I’ve always found it so important to be aware of what’s being written, and letting that feed into my own work in whatever way it will.
As for the publication of others, I’m looking forward to new collections by Ahren Warner, Rachael Boast and Helen Mort, respectively, and a new pamphlet by David Briggs called Helmet Vision published by Andy Brown at Maquette Press. I’ll also be keeping an eye out for Niall Campbell’s next collection.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
I’m terrible at snooker, so this poem is as much a fantasy as it is sleep therapy.
Snooker Hall Sleep Therapy
When I can’t sleep I think of a snooker hall,
pottering down the long cold concrete corridor
of its subterranean entrance, cue
in hand, I pause to read the classifieds
and posters on the door, the CCTV sign.
The handle doesn’t squeak as I turn it
and as I turn it I turn myself in
but it’s empty, not a soul,
only the friendly matriarchal barmaid
who proffers the tray of reds and colours
without a word, smiling benignly.
I am, you see, a regular here. She
doesn’t even ask me for my member’s card,
whether I want a drink, which table I’d prefer.
She knows, you see.
Then, in the far corner
of a black back room there is a green glow.
The room is utterly black and the green
is utterly green, you see. I want you
to imagine the blackest black, the greenest green.
There. Walls and carpets are steeped in the smell
of smoke from before the ban, and spirits
from much more recently. The balls are racked,
the baize is clean, ironed but slightly worn.
My break-off is perfect and so, too, its sound.
I pot and pot, red colour red colour,
spin screw cannon not once needing the rest,
the right amount of side to finish on the black,
the timing of each stroke is metronomic,
until the snooker hall sinks soundlessly.
I never get the chance to say goodnight
to the dream lady at the counter,
or pay my dues for the hours I’ve shot in there,
thank her for keeping the light on in my corner,
hampering the shadows from hampering.
You can find out more about Andrew’s debut collection HERE.