4 March 2020
Andy Brown is a published poet, songwriter, and an Associate Professor of English & Creative Writing at Exeter University.
Q: Your work ranges from academia to poetry, songwriting to novels. What are the benefits and (if any) pitfalls of having such a broad creative palette?
A: I’m a musician as well as a writer, and I can play four or five different instruments. Each one lets me do different things musically, either solo, or within the context of a band/ensemble. They each have a different voice, tone and feel. They also have a different ‘place’ in the band. I mention this because I think the same is true of writing – each form of writing is a bit like a different instrument. Prose writing allows me to tell stories and explore characters and their motives and desires; writing a novel is also a long, involved, solo endeavour. Poetry writing lets me play with image and idea, sound and pattern language in its ‘purer’ sense, and it can often be collaborative, like music. Songwriting lets me do both – character and poetry together – but in a more immediate, communicative and entertaining kind of way. It is also truly collaborative. Academic writing is the most different of the lot, and I find it hard to do that at the same time as writing poems, say, so I tend to keep that separate. Academic writing is discursive and analytic and involves a much more rational mind-set… that can rather put the dampers on the more irrational creative instinct.
Q: The theme of the Festival is ‘Fact & Fiction’. Most nonfiction literature is, of course, in prose form – what do you think are the special advantages of poetry in examining topics such as anatomy or sanitation, as you do so successfully in Bloodlines?
A: I’m glad you think that Bloodlines works successfully! Poetry allows you to explore images and ‘moments’, without having to tell all the back-story, or to show all the historical research to set the context. You can just dive straight in, in media res, and let the images create the effect for the reader. Prose tends to fill in the gaps, whereas poetry tends to leave the space for the reader to inhabit and work out/realise what it is all about. In other words, prose is more expository, whereas poetry works as much by what you don’t say as what you do.
Q: Bloodlines makes extensive use of a kind of intertextuality in its explicit references to other poets, poems and works of art. Why did you choose to adopt this device in this collection in particular?
A: I’m very interested in writing from paintings and other art forms (ekphrasis), and have explored this technique before in my previous books. I like speaking French and Spanish so have started translating poems in those languages, and I’m very much into the idea that our own work stands in relation to traditions and heritages – so it makes sense to ‘talk back’ to those writers and artists who have inspired us. I’m also very interested in trying to let poetry stand alongside other art forms and other forms of discourse – science, medicine, history, politics, art etc. I find it very interesting when an event/reading, for example, has a poet, a musician, a scientist, a medic on the panel, for example. It helps to show that poetry can make very valuable and engaging interventions in our public debates about, say, healthcare.
Q: Do you think poetry has a meaningful role to play in current debates around the nature of truth? Can poetry help us find our way to a deeper, inalienable truth that we risk losing in a sea of social media fakery?
A: I’m very interested in truth and wrote my PhD on the relationship between poetry and truth. “Poetry tells the truth but tells it slant”… I paraphrase Seamus Heaney here. I also just read an interesting quote from the American poet Rosemarie Waldrop: “When your government consistently lies through its teeth, it just may be very important to pay attention to words in the way poetry does.” That seems to make a lot of sense to me. Poetry allows us to pay great attention to individual words, where they come from, and the relationships between them. Without being too pious about it, there aren’t many times/places in our lives when we can do that…. if you want to cut through the ‘fakery’ of social media and politics, then paying attention to the way it ab/uses language, in the same way that poets pay great attention to language, might be a very good thing to do.
Q: Which current writers, poetry or prose, would you recommend to anyone looking to explore the borderlands between fact and fiction?
A: I’m really looking forward to reading Sebastian Barry’s new novel this year. I love his fictions. They explore Irish history across the 20th and, in these last novels, the history of the American civil war. His novels therefore include ‘real’ events, but fictionalise most beautifully around them. My wife, Natasha Charles, also has a fictionalised memoir published this year that masquerades as the dating diaries of another (invented) woman… great fun and curiously blending fiction with real-life experience.
Q: Can you give any advice to new writers looking to find their own creative style in a media world that offers seemingly endless possibilities?
A: Write, re-write and re-write. Read, read, read, and then read some more. Surround yourself with enthusiasts. Participate fully: workshops, readings/festivals, events, reading groups. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Do exactly what you want to do – don’t try and second guess what it is that ‘the media world’ wants; don’t be distracted from pursuing your own interests. Do that with integrity, with honesty, with energy and enthusiasm. Be prepared to fail. Accept failure. Remember that you are writing for a reader – bear them in mind at all times. And remember that, in the end, it’s only writing.
Interview conducted by Trevor Datson.