Judy Brown is a poet and freelance tutor. Her poems have appeared in places such as The Guardian, the New Statesman, and The Spectator. She has published two pamphlets – Pillars of Salt (Templar 2006) and One of the Summer People (Wordsworth Trust 2013).
Judy’s first collection Loudness (Seren 2011) was shortlisted for both the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the Fenton Aldeburgh Prize. A second collection Crowd Sensations was published by Seren earlier this year.
Hi Judy. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the recent publication of your second collection Crowd Sensations. For the uninitiated can you tell us about the collection and how you feel it compares to your debut Loudness?
Many of the poems were written during two residencies – at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere and at Gladstone’s Library in Wales – as well as during my first return to Hong Kong since living there in the early 1990s. These places were both exciting and familiar (I had gone to school not many miles from Dove Cottage too).
At the time I was reading Coleridge’s Notebooks, and the question of whether the speaker belongs in or outside the frame (or the crowd, or the garden) comes up quite a lot. Tourism is like this too – so there are poems written in hotels on a trip down the West Cumbrian coast, and others about more elemental building blocks of place – wood, water, sand, coal.
Crowd Sensations was written after I had committed to writing full-time, and was written mostly in the country, engaging with the links and symbols which anchor different times to a single place. In Loudness, the city (its work, public transport and dailiness) randomizes the patterns, and some of the book’s more playful energy derives from, and records, a mix of urban intrusions.
I understand you had a launch event for the new book alongside David Foster-Morgan in London. Can you tell us a bit more about how it went and are you a poet who enjoys performing poetry in public as much as the more private act of writing poems?
It was great to share the launch with David and I particularly loved the way there were so many people from different parts of my life. It felt like the pulling together of disparate strands – quite fitting for a book of returns and reprises, where a number of apparent strangers turn out to have connections with each other.
Reading means getting psyched up, but I also enjoy it a lot. I feel safe inside the familiar architecture of my poems and I love their sound in my mouth, so I want to give them the best embodiment that I can. Plus it feels like a real compliment to be asked to perform and I spend ages choosing which poems feel right for that day, that occasion.
In recent years you collaborated with fellow poet Katrina Naomi in an exercise where you wrote poems back and forth to each other in a call and response fashion. I’m curious what you feel this exercise taught you and if it is something you still both actively do or plan to do again in the future?
Yes, Katrina and I wrote an article for New Welsh Review about this.
Eleven of the poems in Crowd Sensations came from the collaboration. It worked for me partly because the poem ‘conversation’ introduces a grain of something unexpected into a flux of elements which are often already drawing together to form a poem – the other person’s poem can donate anything from a word or image, a tone, a syntactic pattern or structure, even an ostensible subject.
Although Katrina and I write very differently, we probably road-tested a few of each other’s tricks and kicked each other into some discomfort zones!
I took a rest from the collaboration while Crowd Sensations was going to print and being launched. Finishing a collection can be an opportunity to break habits, and that can be good. Now I’m looking forward to starting again.
I understand you work as a mentor offering poetry surgeries through The Poetry Society. I’m curious if, in your experience, you’ve noticed any common weaknesses or mistakes that beginner poets tend to demonstrate in their poetry writing and what quick tips would you offer to anyone looking to improve?
The people who come to the Poetry Surgeries often read quite a lot of poetry and I’m always impressed by their commitment and the importance of their writing in their lives. Some have few links with other writers and if that’s the case, it’s good to suggest some connections.
Sometimes it feels important to give people the confidence to say what they mean directly – or, on other occasions, that they only need to say it once. But one of the great things about the Surgeries is that everyone is so different and so, of course, are their poems.
What does the rest of the year hold for you in the world of poetry? Are there any dates in the diary you are especially looking forward to or goals you have set yourself?
The first half of this year was excitingly busy with book launches and readings. There will be more of these in the second half but more than anything I am looking forward to having space to work on some new projects and to exploit the energy that comes from a book going off into the world.
I have noticed that my writing is turning back to the city, and architecture and its materials, and I’m planning to spend a bit of time in Prague (where my brother lives) to think and write about some of those ideas.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
Before I wrote full-time, I worked in a law firm in the City of London. I’m interested in what happens to people who survive within, or take comfort from, highly-structured systems – and how money organizes people’s ideas and lives.
During my residency at Gladstone’s Library, I wrote using images from finance, debt and law.
This poem is a later one, but feels connected to that continuing project, to an interest in ideas of escape and flight, and to people I’ve seen (or perhaps been) on public transport.
White half-moons of condensation rise
on the windows: water as fine as sand
until the day warms and wipes them.
Under his habits – the shower, grainy coffee,
a silk tie left coiled in the drawer at work –
beats the payload of yesterday’s whisky
pressing on the day the way a bad dream
boils out of sleep. It’s not the sour tongue,
the shiver in the bruised hand, but
some bigger dog. A call’s coming
both from his fatty, mismanaged liver
and from over the border, a place his buffed
colleagues tell him can’t be. Fox stink lies
on top of the frost like something magnificent.
He remembers what his cashmere coat cost
and that what he saw of himself in the wink
of the smashed bottle was not temporary.
His forehead streams as he long-hauls the stairs
up to the platform. Played-out muscle swells
under his shirt’s pure cotton. The concrete
under his shoe soles gives him the answer:
Jesus was called the fish. Christ, he was dry.
In Brockwell Park the Lido is open; he dives
deep as he can, down to where he can swallow.