Sentinel Poetry (Online) #60 ISSN 1479-425X

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December 2007  - 5th anniversary issue l Interview

STEEL TOUGH, EVEN NOW.

Andy Willoughby in conversation with Nnorom Azuonye

 

Nnorom Azuonye (NA): Your work first appeared in Sentinel Poetry (online) in May 2003. In the biographical information you sent in, you claimed to have ďlearnt the true nature of post-industrial suffering by supporting Middlesbrough from childhood.Ē What exactly does that mean, and how does this relate to your body of work?

 

Andy Willoughby (AW): It was a flippant comment regarding my relationship with Middlesbrough football club, but under the joke is the fact that I grew up in a town built on traditional industries Ė Steel, Shipbuilding, Chemicals that radically and rapidly changed with decline of those industries in the late 70ís and early 8Oís. I grew up on an estate built for workers that were in full employment in 1974 more or less that had 1 in 3 out of work by the early 80ís. All of this history and the earlier rush for iron in the nineteenth century after it was discovered in the nearby Eston Hills is in my work. I have written quite a bit about supporting the Boro team too, itís important to the identity of the people here and my identity, it links generations and supporting a team like ours is a kind of resistance to domination by the metropolis.

 

NA: Why have you described your time at University of Kent as a time of exile?

 

AW: Although I learnt a great deal at Kent and broadened my horizons considerably, it was very far culturally from the North East and at that time there were very few students there from a working class northern background so I had kind of a double culture shock there. I think it was good for me in that it made me reassess my identity. I donít think we live in a common culture anymore in North and South, especially since that period in the 1980ís under Thatcher when it was boom down there and bust up here. Thereís lots to love about Kent but I often felt like a foreigner there with comments made whenever I opened my mouth, about my accent, mostly in good humour, but it made you think about the cultural difference in coming from a place that actually produced the stuff that made the countryís wealth in the first place with lots of displaced Celt in my ancestors, as in most shipbuilding or steel-working towns. Most people from Middlesbrough have some Irish in their ancestry and I grew up in a Catholic family with all that entails. Whilst at Kent I connected with Irish poetry in a very vital way Ė it spoke to me in a deeper way than the English tradition and Seamus Heaney in particular inspired me to write about the places I had known. Eventually I was lucky enough to attend a writing workshop with him at the W.B. Yeats Summer School in 1988. I also connected for the same reason with Afro-Caribbean writers like James Berry who visited the university and held workshops, greatly encouraging me to try to find my own voice. Derek Walcott was the other writer who really lit a fire with me at that time.

 

NA:  What does being Poet Laureate of Middlesbrough entail?

 

AW: Itís in the past now. It was a post created by a competition Ė I was the fourth and last one because the funding for it has now run out Ė it was a good idea though, Iíd like to see it revived. I was given a small bursary and was expected to research various aspects of local culture and history and write about them. However I was free to write in any way I wanted, it didnít have to be all eulogy and local pride - probably because the council hadnít funded it. There are lots of regional laureateships actually. I went to a Poetry Society meeting about them while I was in post Ė some are funded by presses and local business sponsorship like Middlesbrough, others by councils like Birmingham, and work very well finding lots of work for the laureate on various school and community projects. All the laureates at that meeting were adamant about their independence as artists though, which was a relief. I think overall itís a good way of lifting both an artist and town or cityís profile and encouraging exploration of local identity through writing at the same time. Every town should have one as long as theyíre not forced to write anodyne celebratory crap.

 

NA: Is your work as Writer-in-Residence at University of Teesside all about poetry, or does it involve other genres?

 

AW: As co-writer in residence with Bob Beagrie we work with local writers both within and without the student body on most forms, I am a playwright and director as well as a poet, my Masters is in Theatre and Film and a lot of the community and school commissions I do are to create plays from a process of improvisation and scripting. We both teach an all round creative writing skills and techniques module on the Masters course there and I also teach playwriting. You have to be versatile to make a living in this game. Itís good to work on fiction or script for a while then return to poetry but verse is the form that runs deepest with me, the one I have to write, sometimes despite myself.

 

NA: And you are a director of Ek Zuban Ė which I have read on the Internet is Urdu for Ďone voiceí. Kindly expound on this viz your corporate vision at Ek Zuban and the global development and dissemination of poetry.

 

AW: We donít have a corporate vision. Weíre a non profit making community-based press that seek to bring peoples together though creativity and poetry in particular. We took the name from a translation project Bob had been involved in with a mixture of Urdu and English writers and thought the concept of one voice or one language was a good idea as we feel that though people may have different cultures or worldviews we speak in one voice when we feel the deepest need to communicate which poetry is born of. We have two strands at Ek Zuban we seek to provide a first platform for new writers living in the wider Tees valley region through mentoring programmes and our free writing and radical digital arts magazine Kenaz and we aim to raise the profile of better known North East writers through our books published out of international exchanges whilst at the same time creating new vital cross cultural juxtapositions.

        We have published an anthology and number of bi-lingual collaborative pamphlets by North East and Finnish writers over the last three years and are setting up a similar project with Dutch writers at the moment. This creates a good deal of interest beyond the local in both of the countries involved so in itself is a good marketing strategy. You donít always have to build recognition in the capital or recognised literary hubs you can combine with other peripheral places in new and exciting ways to cause a splash.

 

NA:  And what is the Hydrogen Jukebox Cabaret all about then?

 

AW: Itís finished for the time being. It was a project run by myself and fellow poet Jo Colley designed to bring poetry to young people in an exciting cross arts form cabaret format with poetry and spoken word standing up next to other popular forms and proving it could do so and win new audiences.  It was highly successful in a cult way at Darlington Arts Centre but it was a lot of hard work with an in-house young cabaret team needing to be recruited every two years Ė we focused on young people who were disaffected, maybe in danger of dropping out of education and were mostly successful in reengaging them and getting them off to Uni. Our success meant them leaving and of course starting all over again Ė it was a lot of work and as often with the Arts Council they were very supportive at first but then cut down their support Ė theyíre too concerned with hitting new targets instead of sustaining and vital cultural projects like that if you ask me but then theyíve been very hampered by cuts in their budget due to the 2012 Olympics over recent years. In the end they thought we were being ďtoo ambitious for the scale of the projectĒ but I think thatís ridiculous when we had poets like Esiaba Irobi, Patience Agbabi, Francesca Beard, Matt Caley and Michelle Scally Clarke coming into the region and performing to an audience of 80 Ė 100 mostly 16 Ė 25 year olds every month for six years. Most poets told us it was the scariest and best audience theyíd had. Poets from Finland and Holland have set up projects based on it. It is strange, everyone recognised its worth nationally and internationally but we never really received the recognition and support we were due from the venue or the local cultural organisations Ė jealousy perhaps or the threat of something that was truly grass roots and not centrally controlled. Itís not dead I donít think - just sleeping Ė it may be reborn in a metamorphic way at some point. You canít do everything at once though. Iím co-running a more occasional cabaret aimed at a slightly older audience with Beagrie in Middlesbrough called Writing Visions at the moment.

 

NA:  You are a bit busy arenít you? How do all these tie in with the Northern Cultural Skills Partnerships?

 

AW: You bet. I think weíre probably the hardest working men in the poetry business Ė I havenít even mentioned the Teesside school slam we runwhich ends in an exchange with the winners of the Haagís school slam.

 

Northern Cultural Skills Partnerships provide training bursaries for those wishing to enter cultural industries Ė individuals can apply to them to receive mentoring, at the moment Iím working with Julie Egdell whom Iíd previously worked with on an Ek Zuban mentor/mentee anthology The Wilds who I think has great promise and strong uniquely modern voice. I encouraged her to apply to NCSP so I could work with her developing poems towards a new pamphlet and she got it, the poems Iíve sent you came from that mentoring process but we are really at the point where Iím just making the odd final suggestion, sheíll soon have enough for a full collection never mind the pamphlet. A few poets I know are working one to one with NCSP money in this way I think itís invaluable for development of literature in the region Ė wish Iíd had that kind of support as a young man.

 

NA: You mentor young writers. Does the relationship with your mentees and their growths under your wings teach you anything about yourself and your work?

 

AW: It certainly does, I think teaching of any kind always teaches you more than studying alone would. You go back to your own work with a closer eye for technique, a better ear for your own voice, different takes on your recurring themes. Also when you meet a young talented writer from a similar background but with a different angle on life you reassess your own younger self, your search for identity and voice and it inspires you. Sixteen established poets worked on The Wilds Anthology with a promising younger writer including major North East names like Paul Summers, Cynthia Fuller, S.J. Litherland and Andy Croft and almost all of them commented how the mentoring process had re-invigorated them and drawn them to reassess aspects of their own work. Itís definitely a fruitful two-way process as long as the mentor doesnít just try to impose their way of doing things on the mentee.

 

NA: Between all that you are involved in and trying to have any kind of life. How do you still manage to write at all?

 

AW: With great difficulty! I try to put aside a little time each week but most of my work is done in intense bursts or in transit. I like creating deadlines. Iím the sort of writer who that helps Ė it helps me become the catalyst for all the discourses flowing through me at the time like Eliot wrote about in Tradition and the Individual Talent.

 

NA: How did it all begin? How were you drawn to poetry and why have you kept faith with it?

 

AW: I always liked the sound of words. My nana and great uncles used to do a jokey recitation of Tennyson at new years parties in a Yorkshire accent ďbreak, break break, on thy cold grey stones oh seaĒ. I loved the way John Lennon and Joe Strummer played with words and my first poems were really lyrics for my imaginary world shaking rock band. At school I liked the poets who sounded great but I couldnít fully understand, like W.H.Auden and Dylan Thomas then at sixth form my teacher Oonagh Walker played us some recordings of the Liverpool poets McGough, Henry and Patten, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Mikey Smith and John Cooper Clarke. I realised I could write about the life in front of me, my own attitudes and questions. At the same time I discovered the beats and it was like I had never been fully awake before. The possibilities were endless! I had to keep putting On the Road away It got me so excited I thought my head was going to explode. For me poetry is not either the oral performance tradition or the literary traditions itís always a negotiation between the two. The mixture of adrenaline rush when you get it right and perform it and the constant losing struggle to get the balance perfect between what you feel you want to say and the form you need to say it in. I donít come from a traditionally literate family its hard won and the truth isnít that Iíve kept faith with poetry its kept faith with me Ė itís taken me to places I never dreamt of when young and made me friends who have made life worth living. It hasnít made me rich in material terms but it has enriched my existence and empowered me.

 

NA:  How has working with poets and other writers in Tokyo and Finland affected your overall experience of poetry?

 

AW: I worked with a viual artist Zswerin Tokyo actually called Naaoyo Yamamoto Ė she walked into my English lesson and took out a copy of Sam Shepardís Fool for Love and a picture of Middlesbrough Railway station when I told her I was a poet. It was one of those synchronicitous moments that happen when you take a chance. A couple of months later I had a poem in one of her exhibitions in Ginza, which is like the Soho of Tokyo. These moments open you up to the world, give you new sets of touchstones to measure your work by. The same things happened with the Finnish exchange but more extensively. Iíve travelled with Finnish poets deep into Siberia and feel we have a kind of international school going on with a really deep feeling of community Ė I donít feel lonely as a poet anymore except for that necessary loneliness that precedes composition. We have a kind of Teesside school going on with Jo Colley, Bob Beagrie, Angela Readman and I in particular exploring similar thematic, pop culture or mythic concerns in very different voices Ė and we all have this link with the Turku school of poets in Finland. Itís both a driving competitive force and a mutual support network. Poetry is a great force for bringing people together and creating joint quests and adventures as well as a grim necessity at times. I donít go in for all this ďdark artĒ bullshit by the likes of Don Paterson, though I do like a lot of his work, sure itís a craft that can always be worked at and a large part of what makes a great poem is a mystery but it can also be a much more joyous, anarchic instigating force opening doors to the dark not building puzzle boxes.

 

NA: Tell me about the 'Necklace of Tongues'  and how it relates to or veers off thematically and structurally from The Wrong California and Tough.

 

AW: The Necklace of Tongues  is my Spoon River or Station Island Ė itís a loosely narratively-linked set of character poems Ė all the characters being the dead with a relationship to the Eston Hills and the odd song Ė arrived at via contact with the shamanic figure of the Crow King of Eston Hills whom I may have invented or may have called to me from whatever dark realm he lives in, itís hard to tell now whether Iím writing through him or heís writing through me, its spooked me a few times to the point where I had to stop writing it. I explore and reinvestigate myth in my earlier work but in this Iím creating a sustained myth of my own and speaking through masks a lot more Ė which is a fascinating process inspired by my reading of Yeats, Heaney and recent work by Bob Beagrie but also by African writers like Walcott and Wole Soyinka. Itís hard to talk reflectively about it because Iím still working on it, its not a fully conscious process for me yet.

 

NA:  Thank you Andy, it has been nice talking to you.

 

AW:  You're more than welcome. I hope I can come down and read at one of your events in 2008! Best wishes for the holidays

 

 

Andy Willoughby


 


 

 


 

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