Anne Macaulay (Vindication, The Other Side of Sleep) interviewed by fellow Poet, Ness Owen (Shortest Day, Longest Night, Dusk, An Outbreak of Peace, Noon, Time and Tide, Mamiaith)
Ness: I very much enjoyed reading all your poems in the Vindication anthology. They have a ‘travelled’ feel to them. Are you an avid traveller? Where is ‘home’ for you?
Anne: That’s very kind of you. I love travelling. It is not just the pleasure and relaxation part of it though of course that is important. It is part of my passion for learning and enjoying difference – food, architecture and other cultural aspects that add to my joy at broadening my experience. My flamenco poems are an example of this. I love the colours, the drama, the music in all its forms – guitar, voice, percussion, particularly the power of the clapping and how these rhythms are manifest in the dance. It is a very different culture from my original home in rural north Scotland, but the power and passion of music and dance have always drawn me in. My current home is in the east of London and has been since the 70s. I love the mixture of peoples and cultures making every day like a travel experience.
Ness: Identification in Vindication is a hauntingly powerful poem. What was the inspiration for it?
Anne: The opening lines refer to my ‘Greek foot’. My long middle toes were often the subject of teasing by my sisters and embarrassment for me as a teenager. It was a revelation to see my feet in some old statues in museums and it became a bit of a joke. I must have been thinking of this subconsciously while I washed myself as the first lines popped into my head one day as I stepped out of the shower. I probably watch and read too many crime stories as somehow it suddenly seemed easy to imagine myself lying on a mortuary slab with a clinical discussion going on about my dead body. As I did this, it didn’t feel maudlin, rather it felt interesting to compare the factual details of a body with the human being who once occupied that space. It gave me a vehicle to self-reflect.
Ness: Are there common themes in your poems that you return to?
Anne: Like a lot of people the themes of childhood and family and who I am often recur. I had a very old-fashioned, strict, but loving, upbringing as the fifth of seven children. My father was a Church of Scotland minister from the Outer Hebrides and my mother was a teacher and also hailed from the Highlands. Fathers and Daughters in Vindication brings in my father and my husband when we reconciled over not having a religious wedding by having a blessing in my parents’ living room. I have written, too, about my children and as a new grandmother I suspect I may soon expand these family poems to include my beautiful new granddaughter. However, as is shown in Vindication, I also go beyond my immediate world. For example, the theme of feminism is close to my heart as well as concerns for treatment of all groups who are oppressed for example, the poems Vindication, Here Lived and A Man Once Said to Me. However I rarely write overtly political poetry and sometimes my poetry stems from a sudden random thought – this has happened several times after stepping out of the shower. The poem, I Went to the Market and I Bought, which appears in the Arachne Press anthology, The Other Side of Sleep, was one such.
Ness: You have had a long career in education. Would you say this has had an impact on your writing?
Anne: I loved my years in education – working to give young people the best of chances to become their best as human beings contributing to society was always my goal. I suppose that made me very aware of human nature dealing with it, shaping it, in all its forms, in the classroom, the corridor and the playground. So perhaps I gained insights that find their way out in poetry. I actually didn’t really do much creative writing, poetry or prose, until the end of my career. Work occupied so much of my time that I didn’t have time for much else. However, I am so grateful that I started poetry classes as a diversion from not working and found that after all these years of considering myself very uncreative, that I get great satisfaction from writing, particularly poetry.
Ness: What’s the most read poetry book on your shelves?
Anne: I came to poetry late and so when I was young and, as a teacher of English for some of my career, I would have read mainly the school canon. Writers such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wilfrid Owen, Robert Burns, Sylvia Plath would have been some of the ones I read most and enjoyed. Sometimes it was just individual poems stuck in my mind like Stevie Smith’s Not Waving but Drowning or Frances Cornford’s Childhood rather than collections. Since going to classes at City Lit and The Poetry School it has been fantastic being introduced to contemporary poetry. I have enjoyed so many new works in the last few years it is hard to choose. I have also had the added enjoyment of reading pamphlets and books written by people I now consider friends as well as poets I admire. All the poets I have had as tutors are great poets whose work I enjoy and have been generous in sharing their appreciation of other peoples’ poetry: Clare Pollard, Roddy Lumsden, Chris McCabe, Matthew Caley, Sophie Herxheimer, Sasha Dugdale and Mark Waldron – but if you’re going to pin me down on this, I would have to say that Roddy Lumsden’s So Glad I’m Me is probably the most read, recently. This is for a number of reasons. I love Roddy’s poetry and it would probably take me too long to define why. Like most of his students, Roddy’s class and his writing had a huge influence on me, and I used to say to him that I could feel him looking over my shoulder – telling me I needed to do a lot of rethinking and redrafting! This particular collection, sadly his last before his death in January, has many poems written to or inspired by different people he knew and one of those (Small Calamities) was written for me after I’d had a bit of a crisis. This of course makes it more personal for me but also, I love all the poems in it.
Ness: What’s the best and worst advice about writing poetry that you’ve been given?
Anne: Writing is so personal that different things apply to different people and their varied writing styles. I think being advised to read work aloud has been very helpful and re-reading with an ear not just to sound and rhythm but to flabbiness! So cutting is often very helpful. However I think it is important to hold onto one’s own belief in work. I remember once I brought a poem back to an early workshop where I had tried to take on board everything my classmates had said. One of the class said to me at the end quietly, ‘You can sometimes over-workshop a poem’. I was really grateful for that, and now only take on board advice that fits totally with my own thinking.
Ness: Following on from that, if you could give your younger self advice what would it be?
Anne: That is quite difficult as I never considered myself a poet until in recent years. I certainly wish I had considered myself as having a creative side when I was younger, and that I had started writing in my youth. Perhaps I would say to myself – there is work and there is family but set aside something for yourself whatever it is to do even if it is only now and then.
Ness: What are your future writing plans?
Anne: I am not great at planning and looking forward. I think my writing plans would be helped if I did more reading of other poets’ work. I have had poetry published in anthologies but would love to have a pamphlet or collection out of my work as an individual poet. I think this interview has made me think I perhaps need to be more organised and disciplined as a poet if I am ever to come close to achieving that goal. Maybe that should also be a bit of advice to my younger self too.
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Proud to be your sister M x
A fascinating interview. Thank you both. I very much look forward to when you have a collection or pamphlet published, Anne. The sooner the better! Clairex