Into the Carnival: Andrew Oldham Interview by Ian Parks

1. GHOSTS OF A LOW MOON is your first full collection. Could you give me some idea of the sort of time span it covers and how long it took you to write it and put it together?

First collections are always tricky things. I have prior to Ghosts of a Low Moon had a few chapbooks and pamphlets published but they always seemed disjointed, thematically. This I think is down to age. It is often hard to bring together a first collection when you are young. I put this down to lack of confidence, lack of material and lack of time. When you start out as a young poet, in my case, in my 20s, you are constantly working hand to mouth to pay your bills. I had an epiphany six years back after a spinal accident, that as a poet I could not continue to work like this. I had found myself in an ever decreasing circle of writing residencies that paid the bills but in which I mainly helped others to write. This left me with no energy to write my own poetry. It made me like a fraud, calling myself a poet, doing these residencies and not having the energy left to write poetry. It had to stop and I had to get back into a pattern of writing. So, six years ago I started to give myself space and time to write again, everyday. Each day now is spent reading and writing. The collection was largely produced over the last six years, and individual poems were published during that time to magazines like, Ambit, Poetry Salzburg and The London Magazine. When I came to compile the ms for the collection I decided if it hadn’t been published it wasn’t getting in. The collection covers this period, the travels I undertook, the rehabilitation I undertook after my accident and the ghost in the everyday. I wanted to write about this.

2. One of the main themes that runs through the book is persisting memory and the trace it leaves on personal and public history. Why do you feel that poetry is the right medium for exploring this?

You can explore images in poetry and memory is largely built up of such images. As a poet, I am interested in how memory can trick you, place personal events and personal history in places it did not happen. It is strange that when this happens how other people who were there will agree with these ‘altered’ facts; I put this down to emotional memory rather than factual. I think memory is emotional and that when it is stored in our minds, something happens over a period of time, in which that memory becomes a form of shared nostalgia, shared emotion. For me, as a poet, my poetry works best when it engages with the personal through public history. I don’t have to get bogged down in facts, I can trust my own mind to trick me, as it has tricked the reader. Unlike the reader though I am fortunate to be a poet and to put down their memories into a poem and capture a fragment of their shared history.
3. The collection has an intriguing title. What would you say its significance is and how does it relate to the collection as a whole?

The title of Ghosts of a Low Moon comes from the title poem of the collection. The poem deals with the idea that there are lives outside our own. Lives that constantly move forward.  Lives that constantly go somewhere. This desire to move forward means as individuals we never stop; kids, school, work, mortgage, kids. We do not stare. Do not record the voices that are quickly lost in the backdrop of the world we inhabit. They become ghosts. They are the forgotten voices; from the man who complains about barbeque noise coming from next door to the lost tourist in the USA. The collection deals with these ghosts and the memories they want to tell us.

4. I’d like to ask you a question about process. How do you set about writing a poem? And what goes into putting a collection like this together in terms of balance and continuity?
I try not to question where the poems come from. My fear is if I start to analyse it then the work will just stop. In the case of Costa Coffee Girl I wrote what I saw but I made her movements an integral part of the poem. When writing a poem it is not just about capturing the moment but about capturing the movement of that moment. Right up to the end of the editing process I was taking poems out of the final draft, moving others around, for some time I placed Invasion I & II  in separate parts of the collection but I began to realise that though the poems where separated by seventy years of history, that history was still in the soil, still in the faces of the people who lived there. They where part of the same story and needed to be together. Whereas Little Red House which deals with similar themes could not sit alongside these two. The reason for this choice was simple; creating a collection is like composing or listening to a good song. You want the music to rise and fall, you want to be able to tap your foot and sing along. As a poet I want you to sing along and to do this I have to create moments of euphoria and humour, then when I turn to the tragic, to the sad, you’ll want to rise up again, sing along, tap your foot and be happy. to counterpoint those moments of t, to push them down, to rise them up. If I placed all of those three poems together, I would have three pages of tragedy, and that foot would stop tapping and that voice would be struck dumb. That’s how I view the process of putting a collection together, I think of the reader, I think of getting a balance between what I want to say and what they can hear in one sitting.
5. It certainly is an impressive debut. What about the future? Where do you see your work going from here?

I am still interested in these ‘ghost’ voices but I have realised through putting this collection together that my own history has had a real impact on it. I am fascinated with my family history, those two of three generations back left behind by larger historical events. This echoes the world we live in today. It will echo in the world we live in tomorrow. I start to wonder about all these people who are left behind, their voices unheard, their stories untold. I don’t want to write about big historical figures, I want to write about those who may be seen by history to be at the bottom of such events. People who are marginalised or who are nothing more than a passing footnote; I think this is incredibly cruel, and short sighted. It is social history, real people, real lives, whose efforts, whose stories impacted on an event in more ways then we can ever quantify.

6. And finally, could you say something of how it felt to be broadcast on POETRY PLEASE along with the likes of Eliot and Auden?

When I got the email from the BBC asking to broadcast Why Guns Will Never Be Legal in England, I thought it was a hoax. These things happen. I have worked for the BBC before but never as a poet. I am also a great fan of Poetry Please, so it was like a dream. Of course, I agreed! I was nervous about my work being aired (because the BBC told me that these things can change a poet’s career) and someone else would be reading the poem (Alun Raglan did a great job). You have to place a lot of trust in that person to get it right because reputation is everything in this business. I was also nervous because I have read at poetry events for years and have probably got used to the sound of my own voice in relation to my poetry. Listening to someone else read your poetry is unearthly after two minutes my poem ended. I went into shock. Eliot and Auden followed. The shock deepened. By the end of the broadcast I was dumbfounded, happy but dumbfounded at being on the same programme as some my favourite poets, poets that had influenced me. It felt like everything I had ever worked for as a poet had been endorsed by Poetry Please and the ghosts of Eliot and Auden. I was big headed for two minutes. It happens. Poets have a right to feel like this once in awhile. All I could think about was I was the only living poet on the National Poetry Day 2010 Poetry Please. I was side by side with my influences and it shouted at me that I had done something right. I felt accepted as a poet.

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