Poet Anne-Marie Fyfe, organiser of Coffee-House Poetry at the Troubadour in London for over a decade, former Chair of the Poetry Society, and sought-after workshop leader, has just published her fourth collection, Understudies. She talks here about finding time to write, her busy life in poetry, influences in visual art and film and what not to put in your first collection
PJ: It's interesting to read back over all your work and to see how your concern with narrative and memory has become ever more concentrated, ever more surreal. In several of the new poems, such as 'The Mass of Men,' you pack in a novel's worth. Can you say something about the writing of that particular poem?
A-M F: The way I write connects with the way a series of photographs can represent a whole era: think of the great photo journalists - Bill Brandt in 30s England, Cartier-Bresson in post-war France - who don't create a coherent narrative as a novelist or historian does, yet evoke a complete world, way of life, human experience. So 'The Mass of Men' is like a series of snapshots that spark off recognition in the reader's mind - whether they've read many novels of 50s or 70s America or not - whether they've seen the films or not. And I guess if you don't have that mid-century US vision you might superimpose images from somewhere else but catch, nonetheless, the sense of isolation and futility. Something less, perhaps, than Thoreau's howl about "the mass of men leading lives of quiet desperation." It's less like a novel, more like a series of open-ended short stories: closer to the openings of Raymond Carver's Short Cuts but saying, no there isn't a pay-off line to each one.
PJ: The consciousness in many of the poems shifts between the material world and the immaterial states of memory and dream - the 'I' in the poem is not easy to pin down. Do you deliberately avoid directly putting yourself in the poem?
A-M F: I don't always avoid putting myself in the poem: I'm often there either as observer or participant but I allow many of the people who populate the poems to share and to convey some of my feelings, some of my various distresses about the world, about the lives we lead. The decision to use "she," sometimes "he," as opposed to "I," as a way of conveying experience, of tapping into others' worlds, is, I believe, a continuing negotiation in almost every poem, but I can't think of many of my poems in which I'm not very directly involved.
PJ: Light is important in your poems - I counted a few low-wattage bulbs - does light ever start a poem for you?
A-M F: Because my work is intensely visual and my cultural contexts are painters and filmmakers, light is vital, and just as painters would travel anywhere to find the perfect sunset and convey whole volumes of meaning by the balance of light and shadow, I feel that every image has to have the right lighting... The "Overcast again" in 'Grey Bowl of Heaven,' the subterranean dark in 'Backlit Days,' the elevator's darkness in another poem, are all conveying something of life's uncertainties, overshadowedness: whereas the "sheer light" in 'Auguries,' the "bright Cold-War afternoons" in 'First Houses' would suggest I invest childhood with an exuberance, an innocence, an unshadowed clarity... Sonya Vine's cover painting seems to share that same interest in what light and shade mean for our lives, for the worlds we inhabit.
PJ: As you say, your work is very visual - the 'American' narratives recall the paintings of Edward Hopper - 'The Absolute Stillness of Pictures,' seems to acknowledge this. To me, the effect is often that of watching a short film. Can you say something about how you gather and work with visual references?
A-M F: We were all, a generation of us, brought up on American detective fiction and American movies, a little of the Wild West, but mostly "everyday" American small-town life which Hollywood was celebrating for its authenticity, while Hopper was pointing to its stasis, exhaustion, etiolation. Why I've remained so attracted to that American period, I can't explain. But I find that contrast between commercialised optimism and the artist's deeper perceptions continues to fuel my thinking and writing about everyday life decades later.
PJ: About the American narratives - this is a thread of your work that's been there from the start. It suggests there's a fiction writer in you - are you ever tempted to try a novel or a collection of short stories?
A-M F: I was attracted to the short-story first but found my increasing terseness, brevity, refusal to follow a narrative of consequences, led me to poetry and I've not looked back: because what I have to say remains, for me at least, oblique, partly obscured. I still feel it liberating not to have to explain everything.
PJ: Family history - going back generations - is there in the more recent work. A documentary impulse? Did you do much research?
A-M F: Not a great deal of research: most of it was in the ether when I was growing up and I've been able to make increasing sense of my parents and grandparents stories, lives, as I've understood more of the world. I have gone as far as looking up my maternal grandparents in registers of birth and death but the latter merely reinforced the sadness of their both having died young. I've also tried not to overcomplicate my sense of them as people - whose lives will find an echo with readers everywhere - by focusing too much on the political and religious divides that affect families in the North of Ireland, where I grew up, and certainly affected their lives as a Catholic-Protestant couple in Belfast's shipyard quarter.
PJ: Death, communing with the dead has always been there. You're not a gloomy person, and the poems often aren't gloomy so much as tinged with longing - a sense of inviting the company of the dead - does that feel right?
A-M F: I'm certainly not pessimistic about life and I believe the easy negotiation with the dead in my poems is not a sign of gloominess but a realistic acceptance of the whole human experience. It's pointless to ignore death or have any kind of taboo about invoking the voices, the lives, of those we've known and loved. It would equally be pointless to censor any mention of physical death and burial.
PJ: With all your work as an activist for poetry, how and when do find time to write? Do you work on poems over a long period of time?
A-M F: As an organiser I certainly get to hear more poems read, and probably read more contemporary poetry than anyone else I know, and am frequently asked whether that doesn't create a jaded palate. In fact exposure to so many other poets' voices, themes, styles, has quite the opposite effect of making one much more sure of what one is doing, and has to do, in one's own voice, one's own territory. So the vocation fuels rather than suppresses the writing urge. But yes, finding time is a discipline issue that every poet must face. And yes, poems can take many months to achieve their final public form, as with, I believe, any worthwhile art-form.
PJ: Can you say something about finding a poem's form? Obviously images are important but - rhythm, line endings - do you work at those or is it more intuitive than that?
A-M F: As well as content, image, very precise choice of words for both sound effect and compacted meaning, I work long and hard on what's in each line, which lines are grouped together, whether a mid-line break or dropped line or single-line stanza are justifiable, warranted, effective... I rarely use more constraining forms: particularly rhyming and repetitive structures. Michael Longley, a master of form and someone who has always pointed out in readings, the structure of each poem, commented as judge of this year's Poetry London Competition that he couldn't understand why anyone would want to write sestinas and villanelles as he couldn't stand reading them!
PJ: It must have been satisfying to put this collection together. How easy was it to select from the early books? What was the process?
A-M F: Making choices is always a no-win situation as a number of poet-correspondents - since the book's been published - have highlighted those, in the first three books, which really ought (in their opinion) to have been included. In a way the selection from each proved to be a further refinement on the original selection that shaped each collection. The attempt was to recreate the essence of each book in about a third of its length so the process wasn't so much one of thinking a particular poem mightn't fit, but that some poems were essential, iconic, representative of others, or of a particular group or interest. How the three books came together with the new poems was a revelation of its own.
PJ: Who are the poets you return to in order to feed your own writing?
A-M F: Flaubert once said that we should read, not as children do, to amuse ourselves, and not as the ambitious do, to improve ourselves, but that we should simply read to live! I go back to many favourite poets and continually discover new poets I'll read and read again in order to live through those poems, those lives, frustrations, joys, concerns with the writer. But I've not thought of going back to any of them to fuel my own writing either in style or subject matter, and I don't see how that might work other than through the extent to which they re-inspire one to write poetry. The real source of my writing, in terms of content at least, is less likely to be other poets and more likely to be other art forms and cultural contexts on the one hand and, on the other, real life, memory, experience, the everyday. But I guess if I were pushed on significant influences I'd have to cite Emily Dickinson: I do love her spare tight words of wisdom, her clarity of thought, her imaginative, often absurd and surreal flights... I've just finished a piece for the next issue of The North magazine (they do a regular feature on poets that poets go back to): it's my attempt to account for an unlikely sense of identification with a poet seemingly remote from us in time and circumstance.
PJ: What are you reading at the moment?
A-M F: I'm reading Reborn, Susan Sontag's early diaries and have just finished re-reading Madame Bovary, for the specific reason that the Troubadour writing week I've just taught in Languedoc-Rouissillon was based in large 16th-century house which had been, in its time, an auberge and, in the 19th century, a pharmacie. Rediscovering Emma Bovary's frustration in the midst of all that small-town provincial life was a deeply empathetic experience.
PJ: What are you writing at the moment?
A-M F: I'd expected a lull, a drought, after the book came out but that hasn't happened this time: the clean slate is liberating and seeing the collection put together is actually a reminder, a prompt, to new work that needs doing. I'm in previously uncharted territories thinking about states of mind between clarity and confusion, between the familiar and the surreal, between conscious and subconscious, much of it coming from the struggle to write about my mother's period of mental illness which I'd begun to deal with in Understudies.
PJ: What would you say to a poet putting together a first collection?
A-M F: Many first collections have the unacknowledged subtitle All The Poems I've Ever Written So Far. I understand how that happens, the tremendous drive to be accounted a published poet, to begin to be taken seriously. My advice to some would be to wait just a little longer until you can allow yourself choices, allow the luxury of losing the ones you know aren't your very best. "The art of losing" (to misappropriate Elizabeth Bishop) "isn't hard to master."
Understudies is published by Seren, it's available here. The article on Emily Dickinson is in the latest edition of The North. For more on Anne-Marie Fyfe's activities, visit her website. Information about the Coffee-House poetry and it's annual competition, here.