Julia Bird is a Literary Promoter and poet published by Salt. She took time out on Facebook to interview me over five days and this interview ran from the 10-15 May 2011. The interview is reproduced here with the kind permission of Julia:
JULIA: I’ve been reading and enjoying Andrew Oldham’s book this weekend – we’re going to have a facebook conversation about it, see if we can put the word around. Andrew, that icecream man in the first poem ‘Sand Man’ is pretty sinister – tell me what’s going on here?
ANDREW: I once lived in a city in the Midlands in one of the suburb areas, pretty streets, trees and a red light district on my door step, something I did not know until I came home late one evening and was propositioned all the way up the road. Initially flattering but rather disconcerting after the twentieth woman and guy. These seedy echoes come through this poem, SAND MAN. Each night in this district an ice cream van would show up. The roof of the cab was festooned with photos of children all eating ice cream. I thought at first that this was rather strange, rather creepy, we all jump to conclusions. The truth was far worse, this van, and these kids, peddled drugs around the city, the children were used to transport drugs from one area to another during the day and the photos were identifiers for the guys who owned the vans. Ice cream and drug transportation by day, drug dealing by night. This leaked into SAND MAN.
JULIA: Wow, that is grim. You’re not living in the Midlands now, are you? Your book ranges around geographically – I’m thinking of the American trip sequence (which I like very much), the Fabled Lands poemlets. How itchy are your feet? How do you process that in your poetry?
ANDREW: No, I no longer live in the Midlands, I moved north again and live high up on the Yorkshire Moors. I have ranged around in my day to day life. This is part of being a writer, you take jobs when and where they come and that means you meet many people, live in many areas and hear many stories. My feet aren’t that itchy, I just have a healthy interest in people and their lives, their stories. With FABLED LANDS that came from a rather bad trip to North Africa, I loved some of the culture but not what tourism had done to it. There is a huge drive in our society not to just have every high street the same but to have every foreign resort the same. That is sad. Where do all those stories go? What happens to all those people? With AMERICAN VIGNETTES, as with FABLED LANDS, I wrote what I saw, what I head, what I felt and I owe a lot to my wife, it was our honeymoon (and a great road trip across the west coast of the USA) and she was very patient as I sat down with people who lived in the areas we passed through and just listened to their stories. I write what I see, it is a snapshot, a moment in time, that is the beauty of poetry, you can capture the essence of that moment and the taste. If it had been a road trip across Lancashire it would have been a different poem.
JULIA: … I think you ought to try that next, see what happens. I went to San Francisco too recently, but the only poem I wrote there was about Full English Breakfasts. That’s interesting what you say about snapshots, that’s one of the words I’d doodled on your ms when I was reading it. It was next to ‘The Grotto’ – the lovers in the run-down grotto who ‘laugh for a minute and we shine’. Is that an actual memory, or has it had the poetic equivalent of Photoshopping? I’m hardly ever faithful to events when I write … how about you?
ANDREW: No, THE GROTTO line happened. The Grotto can be found in The Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall. I am faithful to actual events but embellish the lyrical quality of the imagery. I edit, condense and sometimes rearrange the timeline, just bringing some events nearer and pushing the irrelevant material out. I deal best with actual memories or creating a narrator in a poem. I don’t want to dictate to people, I want them to go on a journey with me and I hope that they smell, taste and to some extent remember similar things.
JULIA: Haha – I lie like a dog! Did the grotto have a hermit in it? There was a fashion once for stately home owners to employ hermits as a sort of human garden feature, to add interest to their vistas. Is that how we treat our poets these days, I wonder? I’ll get back to the book with the next question…
ANDREW: No, no hermit by the time I passed through it though I did get some looks as I was quite unshaven, trying to grow a beard, and I think most of the tourists thought I was the hermit.
JULIA: One thing that struck me about the book was the amount of floral imagerey … roses all over the place. Is that deliberate or unconscious? The lightbulb is my familiar animal when it comes to imagery … is the rose yours?
ANDREW: No, nature is part of my everyday life, I now write several columns on gardening. When I had an accident a few years back I had to learn to walk all over again and part of my physiotherapy was to either go to a swimming baths or take up gardening. I did the latter, but gardening has always been part of my family, I just came to it late. After ten years of gardening it has become part of me. I suspect that this link to the soil is what comes through my work time after time.
JULIA: … and is there a link to the sea in your life, too? Who is Captain Webb – really ‘distant Uncle … half man, half whale’? He appears to be the Melville of the English Channel in your poem ‘Captain Webb’s Relations’ …
ANDREW: Captain Webb was the first man to swim the English Channel, he tried to repeat the stunt at Niagara Falls and died. He was a victim of fame, in Victorian times he was the David Beckham of his generation, there was pressure for him to do things bigger, better and it killed him. He is a Ahab character, destroyed by his own desires and the desires of the general public. Strangely enough in that poem, on that night in Leeds, I discovered my wife and one of my close friends, who acted as best man at our wedding, were related to each other through Webb, making them distant cousins.
JULIA: Thanks for taking time to answer some questions.
ANDREW: Thanks, it was a pleasure.
Ghosts of a Low Moon is available from https://sites.google.com/a/lapwingpublications.com/lapwing-store/andrew-oldham