I’ve recently read Andrew Oldham’s debut poetry collection, Ghosts of a Low Moon, published by Lapwing. It’s an impressive collection, moving with ease from what might appear at first glance to be unmediated social realism to moments of great lyricism, and incorporating humour, pathos and crystal-sharp observation with considerable skill. He has a lovely way with long lines, something I’ve a great fondness for, exploiting the welcome they offer towards narrative and the exercise of memory within the poem: a wonderful example of this is The Calling of Young Tony, a massively accomplished poem that you’ll have to buy the book in order to enjoy. These Walls is another example of how long lines can create a fluid sense of immediacy across time, as in:
A place of childhood, of flying brooms and fleeing cats, of washhouses
and privies with grave stones for walls and bubbling cheese on enamel
I had the chance to ask Andrew some questions about his work. Here they are, and this is what he said.
At what point in the writing of a poem do you realise what you’re doing? How much rewriting is involved in getting it to a state that satisfies you?
This is the thing with ideas, sometimes they come to you complete, as in Costa Coffee Girl – I wrote what I saw but in other cases they start with merest glimmer and then your off like a spaniel in the long grass, ears up, tail wagging, dribbling all the way and occasionally reappearing barking your appreciation. Poems can be like that, in Ways of Autumn I sat down consciously to respond to Wallace Stevens Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird but it became quickly apparent that the poem didn’t want to do that. It became multi-textual, biographical, Coleridge’s Mariner crept in, nature and alcoholism rode side by side. It only began to crystallise when I took the decision of giving the poem a narrative voice but still adhering, loosely, to the original Wallace Stevens structure. That poem took a lot of rewriting, many poems do. I get worried when a poem comes fully formed, I always suspect there is something wrong and there often is but that is the game of hindsight and we all play that. I don’t think I am ever satisfied with a poem, if I was then I wouldn’t carry on writing, I would have achieved perfection and that is a dangerous thing to achieve.
In many poems, you move with great skill from what I’d call a documentary take on the world to something much more lyrical. Is this a necessary procedure for you, or just something that tends to happen?
It tends to happen, in American Vignettes I needed to get a balance between viewpoints. I couldn’t just write a poem where I bumbled along in a documentary style, there had to be a lyrical or a magical element to it. I think this is why some of my more lyrical poetry has been compared to Dylan Thomas, not a bad thing though I don’t drink nearly as much as he did! I think due to health problems, due to a skewed view on the world, due to my love of nature, my involvement in the landscape and the underbelly of the city, that I am constantly tuned into these lyrical undertones. I see the world a little differently, we all do but I choose to explore it rather than fit in. I have always placed myself on the outside, looking in, this sometimes makes me hard to interact with but it affords me the ability to listen to rhythms. I celebrate rhythm, cadence and I contrast them with something that can be fantastic in the mundane. I think as a culture we forget that the most mundane actions have a rhythm and a distinct lyrical beauty.
I love the American sequence. Were these written in situ or recollected in tranquillity?
American Vignettes were largely written in situ and the notes taken on a road trip from Las Vegas to San Francisco underpin the sequence. As I travelled, writing about America, I realised that they were part of poem (I think this is due to the immense distances I travelled whilst there and how the landscape changed). The poem though has distinct separate sections and rhythms, each of these reflect the landscape I was travelling through. The conversations in the poem are one hundred percent truthful, I did not edit them, this is a conscious decision because often we overhear or are party to the most wonderful conversations. I wanted to celebrate a real love of language, of cadence. of connecting with the landscape and still being outside that landscape. After all, I was effectively demoted to the role of tourist, even though the trip took most of the late summer. When I edited the work, it was written outside those parameters though, I was back home and all I had where photos as memories and the notebooks, drawings, menus, tourist crap, I had to draw them together and to do that I was conscious of Jack Kerouac’s novel, On The Road. I aspired to the idea that a poem could be a road journey. That in turn, my wife became a character, I became a character and those around us became part of the fabric of the poem, from cowboys to Ginsberg.
One of my favourite poems in the collection is Ways of Autumn? I don’t suppose you could talk me through where it came from?
Ways of Autumn as I initially discussed came from the Wallace Stevens poem, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. I am big fan of Stevens, Whitman and Carlos Williams. The initial desire was to learn by doing. I often did this when I was younger, rewriting a poem by another poet. It would lead me into their voice, make me consider the choices that they made. Language in poetry and fiction is vital. People must think I am mad when I go on about finding the right word, the economy of language or the lyrical nature of an event. Recently I wrote The Anchor, a long poem on a day in the life of a pub, though some of the events happen, as they do in Ways of Autumn I expanded others, adding new images, new ideas that would take the poem into something lyrical, something fantastic. That is how Ways of Autumn came about, a simple idea, a simple desire to emulate Stevens but then something else crashed in, and kept smashing into the words and images. It’s almost like a character appeared before me waving their arms and asking to be written about. Never ignore them. If you do so then all the characters that may come to you will just skip over you. It’s not a muse idea, it’s just the idea that all ideas need to be written, and the good ones after a lot editing make it to the page.
Thank you, Andrew. I’d like to conclude this post by giving you the chance to read one of my favourite poems from American Vignettes.
The place where planes fly by.
In the west, butterfly clouds haze the moon,
and songs are sung about men who drunk at forty bars and
drank at forty more.
Hank Williams and Johnny Cash by a campfire
beneath shooting stars and here, here in Arizona,
a man can stretch his arms for two hundred miles in either direction.
Beneath the big dipper and the night sky, in the shadow of Spirit Mountain,
I met them all, the ghosts of the west, Butch and Sundance, Tombstone men
with ground teeth and skin of copper stained stone and a diabetic
cowboy (who moved from Vegas after witnessing a murder) who
declined the pudding and sugar in his coffee.
And a cowboy singer, son of Sally, drawer of horses and
commemorated in a hall.