Here on the blog today is the awesome Andy Murray. You probably know him from his blog, City Jackdaw. We started blogging in the same year, each reading the other’s fledgling efforts. So I’m thrilled that we’re here today to not only say happy birthday to him but also to celebrate the launch of his poetry collection, Heading North, which was published recently by Nordland Publishing. Woot!
El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Andy: 1. I haven’t moved very far from my roots—I live next door to my childhood home [in Manchester, England].
2. I have a thing about sharks, courtesy of watching Jaws as a kid.
3. My dreams begin while I am still awake.
4. I almost died from loss of blood after an accident with a vinegar bottle when I was eighteen months old. Imagine a world without City Jackdaw!
El Space: I can’t! 🙂 Please tell us how this poetry collection came about. How did you come up with the theme? What was the time frame for putting the collection together?
Andy: I saw a call by Nordland Publishing, a great new Norway-based publisher, for submissions of fiction and poetry inspired by Scandinavian folklore for an anthology that they were putting together. My story, about a Myling, was accepted and came out this year in The Northlore Series Volume One: Folklore. I was particularly pleased as this was my first published fiction. I also have a poem in it.
The editor contacted me, enquiring about other work, and we got talking about the possibility of doing a poetry chapbook. Nordland were planning to publish books by different poets in a series under the umbrella of “Songs of the North.” The first book, recently released, is by a great poet named Katie Metcalfe, and I have been given the daunting task of following her.
I came up with the idea of a collection of poetry arranged in a deliberate order, reflecting a journey of both geography and time: from the childhood and youth of summer in the south, to the mortality-facing winter of the north. Hence the title Heading North. I already had some poems that fit this theme, and I wrote some new ones to compliment them. The collection took shape over a period of about six months. The oldest work included in the collection are two poems that were written around twenty years ago, and the newest being a last-minute addition from when I recently went to Sweden, when, it being the furthest north that I have ever been, I thought it too good an opportunity not to write something for the book.
El Space: What’s the genesis of a poem like for you? Do you get an idea and start jotting down words? How much revision is involved?
Andy: Most of the time I “get” a few words or sentences when I am out and about, normally thinking of other things. My antennae must be up. I try to make a note of them, otherwise they become lost. When I was a postman, I used to scribble lines on “while you were out” cards. No wonder the post was always late! Then, when I have a little quiet time, I rewrite those words and take it from there. Normally I write them pretty fast, maybe an hour at the maximum, once I have that initial inspiration. There might be the odd word or line that doesn’t feel right and I will return to it later. I find that, for me, labouring over them doesn’t work. It becomes heavy, while inspiration is light. If I’m struggling, I leave it for another day.
Sometimes I mess around with words, a bit like how musicians jam on their instruments to come up with a song. While sitting in front of the TV, or listening to music, I write down any old thing that immediately comes into my head, adding lines together, substituting one word for another, until occasionally, something starts to take shape. There are times when the poem takes on a life of its own and runs, becoming by the end something totally different to what it was at the beginning, subject wise.
El Space: What first brought you to poetry? What causes you to stick with poetry?
Andy: In my schooldays I used to write humorous poetry, daft things really. I still have some off these lying around. Being a big Beatles fan, I discovered that John Lennon used to write similar, nonsensical things that were compared to the English poet Edward Lear. I have never read Lear, but knowing that one of my musical idols wrote things in a similar vein to me kind of validated it for me. But I never had any pretensions about it—it was just something that I did for a laugh. In my early twenties I discovered The Doors. Jim Morrison is one of the few rock stars to be taken seriously as a poet, and through him I discovered the likes of Blake and Rimbaud. Everybody points to somebody else! Poetry, fiction, music—they are all part of a family tree.
I have stuck with poetry because it is how I think, and so it is how I express myself. And of course I love words, and the endlessly possible combination of words.
El Space: What do you consider to be the qualities of a first-rate poem?
Andy: I think this is different for everybody. One man’s meat is another man’s poison: I think that this is especially true of poetry. Music too. Different styles and subjects speak to different people. Sometimes a poem can touch you but you cannot say exactly why. In a similar way, I am not one for explaining the meaning of my own poems. I like people to take from reading a poem what they will, as long as the poem itself is not too obscure.
El Space: On your blog, you also post a lot of old photographs. How have you united both passions—old photographs and poetry?
Andy: You remember that great, old photograph that has featured on my blog a couple of times: “Mary and her grandfather, Jasper, around 1900”?
El Space: I do.
Andy: Well in a poem called “Old Town,” there is a woman reading a book by Truman Capote (I had The Grass Harp in mind), and she is using that old photograph as a bookmark. I love old photographs such as this one, although most of the time we never know the names of the people that feature in them, and never know what happened to them after the photo was taken. Did they go on to have good lives? Tragic lives? Were they part of a great love story, or now lie miles away in foreign soil? Are their descendents walking around among us now, unaware of these people and their own beginnings? This absence of resolution both haunts and gets the imagination going.
El Space: What books or authors inspire you?
Andy: All of them! I am never without a book, or a backlog to work my way through. My wife bought me a Kindle in a last-ditch attempt to consolidate what space is left in our home. My favourite book, like so many other people, has always been To Kill A Mockingbird, since I discovered it in my English Literature class, and these days I am working through many titles from the Penguin Modern Classics range. But I read anything, all genres. Recommend me a book, Linda—I will read it!
El Space: Let me think about that. 🙂 In the meantime, what advice do you have for people who would like to start writing poetry?
Andy: Do it! Don’t worry about style and subject and comparing yourself to others. Just keep writing and find your own voice. It develops over time. Some of my very early stuff from when I was younger makes me cringe now. You will never see it—I’m burning the evidence.
El Space: Ha ha! What are you working on now?
Andy: Currently I am writing the second draft of a story for the next anthology in the Northlore series. It involves the Scandinavian God Loki being in the trenches in First World War Belgium. After that I am gearing up to attempt a novel-length book of short stories containing recurring characters, based in a fictionalised version of the town that I have grown up in. But that is a big step up for me, in terms of length. Let’s get Christmas out of the way first! And, of course, some poetry.
El Space: Thanks, Andy, for being my guest.
Andy: As a long time reader of your author interviews, I’d like to thank you for this opportunity.
El Space: My pleasure!
I’m giving away a copy of Heading North to a commenter. The winner will be revealed on December 14.
Book covers and author photo courtesy of Andy Murray. Other covers from Goodreads. Manchester map from manchester.university-guides.com. Winter image from natural-hd-wallpapers.blogspot.com. Jim Morrison from pedrocolombo.blogspot.com. John Lennon from veteranstoday.com. Birthday image from sodahead.com. Poetry images from fanpop and msfindlater.blogspot.com. North compass image from en.wikipedia.org.