Hi Andy. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the publication of A Beginner’s Guide to Cheating last year. For the uninitiated, how would you describe the collection and in what ways to do you think it is a continuation of or departure from The Assassination Museum?
My poetry has a relatively limited range and style, so to get over these shortcomings I use different voices and characters to populate the poems, much as I did in The Assassination Museum.
The new collection is hopefully quite varied in terms of the topics and themes, however – fingerprint experts, code-breakers, movie characters, royalty, dentists all appear.
The poems are short, rhythmic, accessible, occasionally formal, occasionally using rhyme and half-rhyme. I reflect on my dubious art by observing that while other poets are blessed with inspiration by the great themes – love, loss, hope, beauty – I’m more interested in the sweepings-up on the floor of poetry.
You’ve edited a couple of anthologies for Red Squirrel Press in the past – Split Screen and its sequel Double Bill – on the themes of TV and film. I’m curious what it is about televisual culture that you think makes it ripe territory for poetry?
That is maybe an extension of my previous answer; both anthologies took figures from popular culture as their lead, and often went to places to which poetry doesn’t often go. Heston Blumenthal. Captain Scarlet. Strictly Come Dancing. The Italian Job.
The initial idea came from a conversation on Facebook between Chris Emery of Salt and Tim Turnbull – I politely commandeered the premise and mined that particular motherlode for two full collections. Despite the apparent superficiality of the subject matter, both books threw up some wonderful work, and I was very lucky to be at the helm of the two projects.
It has opened up some doors for me, and maybe shown that there are great human truths to be observed and described from even that most artificial of environments – the entertainment business.
The biggest thrill was when Clive James made Double Bill one of his three picks in the end-of-year favourite selection in the Times Literary Supplement. I felt it was a vindication of Sheila Wakefield’s faith in the project on behalf of Red Squirrel Press.
I enjoy your Otwituaries project which offers tweet-length poems about public figures and celebrities who have recently passed away. They seem almost to have an affinity with haikus or epitaphs in their condensed form. How challenging do you find the turnaround of having to write something so quickly?
In a way, this project has become my regular challenge – to elegise a public figure in 140 characters or less, and to publish it within an hour or so of the news breaking. I worry that it seems a bit ghoulish and that I have become the ambulance chaser of the poetry scene, but I do get some nice feedback from time to time which makes me carry on.
I often check the EJ Thribb column in Private Eye as that has a similar mission, but theirs tend to be more satirical (and more damning!). I could stop, of course – no-one asks me to do them – but as with haiku or other short forms it does encourage me towards concision and economy of language. And if you don’t like that sort of thing I guess you don’t have to read them.
Another project you curated last year alongside Bill Herbert was the New Boots and Pantisocracies blog which featured over a hundred poems about the current political climate in the UK. Your phase 2 plans were to collect some of the poems into an anthology and arrange poetry performances. Can you tell us a bit more about how those plans are coming along?
We have a selection of 100 of the best poems from the project coming out later in the year via Smokestack (with a great front cover by Tim Turnbull). We plan to revive the online aspect of the project as a lead-up to the publication, with a month of new poems published daily to refresh memories among the reasonable number of followers we generated.
We’re working on a wishlist of poets who we didn’t manage to involve in the first run to write something for this relaunch. There are still hopes for live events around the country, and they may take shape once the book is out, so if anyone wants to get involved in helping to organise local readings they can get in touch with me or Bill.
We’ll have a Scottish event and I know Rachael Boast is very keen on doing something in Bristol, and if we could get a London event organised that would be something special. We’ll probably get arrested – I think Special Branch have a file on us.
What does the rest of the year hold for you in the world of poetry?
I’m involved in a web-based project called Scotia Extremis which I’m co-editing with Fife poet Brian Johnstone. It’s based on the idea of Split Screen but featuring icons of Scottish culture. That will run on into early 2017, and may be followed up with a book if we can get some interest.
I’m also hawking around a big batch of clerihews along with George Szirtes – we ran a Facebook-based clerihew project for several months and generated several thousand 4-line poems about great figures in history across many disciplines. Clerihews are light verse, yes, but they are often hilarious and very cleverly written, so maybe we’ll find a home for them before the year is out.
As for public appearances, I think my focus on collaborative projects like these means that my own poetry tends to get a bit forgotten (not least by myself), and I therefore don’t have a very full diary of invitations to read. I’m not really known ‘on the circuit’ and I’m not good at pushing my own poetry career so I am therefore going on record to state that I’m available for weddings, christenings and bar mitzvahs at the drop of a hat, and I should add that I come very cheap.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
Yes. I’ve picked out one called ‘The Mockers’ which appears in A Beginner’s Guide To Cheating. The title is as in ‘to put the mockers’ on something or someone and it’s about the strange ways we build superstitions into our daily existence, and our willingness to accept irrationality.
It could be that you didn’t cross your fingers,
or perhaps you missed that hopeful puff
into your palm before you cast the dice,
or maybe you neglected to salute the lonely
magpie sentries on the bypass. Maybe
something in your prayer wasn’t right,
a presumption your petition would be heard.
Perhaps you should have worn the lucky
shirt again. It worked last time, your team
three up in half an hour. Remember when
you failed to take the normal route to work,
took the rat-run past the Cats Protection League,
Sandy Denny turned up loud? The soot-black tom
that ran across the road outside, that jelly-thud
below your smoking tyres. The time you missed
the space above your shoulder, scattered salt
all down your suit? You laughed so hard
it turned the milk. That time the brolly opened
by itself, your windmill flailing, trying to contain
the blossoming eclipse before it fell across
you, eating up your shadow. That bloody
owl in the early afternoon, his whit-to-whoos,
eleven, twelve, thirteen. The surgeon with
your file who does not frown but does not smile,
who takes his shoes off, puts them on the table.
The sweating horse that shelters in the field –
what does it suspect, indeed, what does it know?