Monday, April 18, 2011

Unknown Muse in a Coffeehouse: An Interview with Andrew Oldham

It's my honor and pleasure today to interview Andrew Oldham, one of the brightest and most memorable British poetic voices of today. Lapwing Publications, a renowned poetry press in Belfast, Ireland, published his collection Ghosts of a Low Moon in 2010. I was delighted to publish Andrew's poem "Costa Coffee Girl" in the North American Review two years ago, in 2009; that poem appears in the book and I am even more delighted now to have the opportunity to discuss it with him.

I'm also glad today to draw your attention to the important blog How a Poem Happens. In each "episode" of this blog award-winning poet Brian Brodeur selects a poem by a contemporary writer and interviews that writer about her or his process in writing that poem. Brian has borrowed his method from the late Alberta Turner, who pioneered this interview procedure in two books she edited: 50 Contemporary Poets: The Creative Process (1977), and 45 Contemporary Poems: The Creative Process (1985).

Brian’s interview questions differ from Alberta's but he has kept the spirit of her project: to entice poets to reveal their particular modes and processes in writing poetry. One of Brian's questions is particularly provocative: "What is American about this poem?" Since Andrew is British, I was very interested to see how he would field this question, especially given that Ghosts of a Low Moon contains a long poetic sequence titled "American Vignettes."

For the most part in my interview with Andrew I kept Brian's questions verbatim and in order, except that I inserted a new final question, "What is British about this poem?" in place of Brian's usual ending question, "Was this poem finished or abandoned?" Many thanks to Brian for allowing me to borrow his format. Below you'll know which questions come from How a Poem Happens — they'll be underlined.

All right, as the Tenth Doctor was fond of saying, allons-y! Here’s the poem Andrew and I will be discussing:

Costa Coffee Girl
(Deansgate, Manchester)
by Andrew Oldham
She wipes down the tables, stifles yawns and tears,
a damp cloth skims away the coffee cup rings,
the tense fingerprints, the ghost whorls of
business meetings, lovers tentative touches and
breakups, ladies who lunch, lone men
who pretend to read books but watch her
move, licking their lips, the bitter
acrid taste of mocha latte, cappuccino and frescato,
over the gums and down the gullet, the grain
of their teeth beneath their tongue, they flash
a stained smile and without a pause she wipes it away.

From Ghosts of a Low Moon (Belfast: Lapwing, 2010)

VG:   Andrew, as I mentioned earlier to you, I'm borrowing from the blog How a Poem Happens by drawing my questions from Brian Brodeur's interview format. Here we go. When was this poem composed? How did it start?

AO:   This is actually one of the earliest poems in Ghosts of a Low Moon, it was originally composed in 2006 and I started writing it in Costa Coffee in Manchester, England. I remember it had just opened in a popular bookshop chain that I won't mention as I do not approve of large chains of anything. I put that down to old age or the realisation that every high street looks the same no matter what country you're in now. I am a grouch or maybe I miss the smell of really good second hand bookshops that you can just dip into.

I stopped off to grab a seat not a coffee, rebellious in a way that only the English seem to do well. A passive aggression bookmarked with, 'Oh, I didn’t realise you had to buy something to sit here, I am so sorry', and cemented with a feeling of smugness and superiority as you depart in grandeur your shopping bags smacking every chair as you leave. It is a trait I deplore in myself but I was tired and there were seats. The seat I selected was by the window, tucked in an alcove, so I wouldn't need to have that uncomfortable conversation about buying something to sit there. There I sat, there I wrote in my notebook and there I saw her; she wasn't even serving, she cleared the tables, scrubbed the floors, re-arranged the chairs, the girl.

VG:   How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

AO:   This is the only poem that came fully formed. I watched these events happen, wrote them down, the girl wiping down the tables, the middle aged men that flirted with her, the wives that just barely tolerated her. The girl herself bored of it all.

The coffee listed in the poem was on offer that week and the signs were everywhere. The only lie in the poem is that I don’t drink coffee, don’t know what it tastes like.

There is a distinct rhythm to places that people are served in. I discovered that when I was bartender in a hotel. There is ritual, movement and musicality.

I had never had a poem come fully formed before and it quite scared me. I sat on it for months. I even tinkered with it but when I did it lost that lyrical movement, that raw and bitter edge; it lost the movement of the girl in the poem and became more about me.

This is her poem, whoever she was, whatever she became. I never saw her again. I don’t want to. I don’t need to know the rest of her story. I just want this moment. Just this tiny act of rebellion.

This is a poem for anyone who has ever served anyone and heard the same joke, the same flirtations, the same complaints, day after day, month after month.

VG:   That's quite a striking thing you said just now. I'll have to share it with my daughter Amelia, who's a cocktail waitress. I'll report back to you what she says. Indeed, "the same joke, the same flirtations." I've never been a waitperson and never thought of it quite this way, though I probably should have. I'm afraid I'm probably that guy who makes waitpeople roll their eyes up, but only their mind's eyes because of the tip.

AO:   You are not alone.

VG:   Okay, back to the How a Poem Happens structure: Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was "received" and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

AO:   Well, with 'Costa Coffee Girl' it was inspired by just watching. I received the poem because of the events that unfolded before me and the location I was in. It may not have worked at a market or even in another bookshop or coffee franchise. That was just dumb luck.

Many of my poems come through redrafting early ideas, taking them in new directions. In Ghosts of a Low Moon there is a sequence of poems called 'American Vignettes,' though the initial idea for that came easily, write what you see, write what you hear, it would have been a jumbled mess if I hadn't taken time out to re-edit, pull out poems, ditch others, look for a common thread to explore. It is still a poem that I could tinker with.

I could keep on tinkering with all my poems but that's the nature of being a writer, looking for perfection. I don't think this exists, I think readers sometimes say it does but writers never do. If writers achieve perfection it is a lot to live up to.

So I sweat, so I cry, and when I am sick of the poem, when I can no longer look it in the face, it goes in a drawer, it sits there for a week, a month or a year depending on how much I have come to loathe it. If I look at it again and think I can see what I once liked in it, I can see that it works as a poem, it goes out into the world and then it belongs to readers and not me.

VG:   How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

AO:   As I said earlier, this poem came fully formed. I did consider the act of rhythm in this poem rather than thinking of it as a sonnet or a pantoum.

VG:   I'm remembering now that I asked you in the proof stage of publishing this poem if you could be persuaded to add a possessive apostrophe to the word "lovers" . . . and I recall that you were quite adamant about not doing that. Could you remind me of your reasons again? I can see now, as a reader of the poem rather than an editor, that without that apostrophe, a reading is made possible that the girl is "skim[ming] away" not only the "tentative touches and / breakups" but also the "lovers" themselves, metaphorically.

AO:   That's absolutely right. I wanted to make it clear that the girl was at the centre of this world and everything could be wiped away by her boredom.

VG:   How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

AO:   It sat in a drawer for quite a while and first got published in the North American Review in the Spring of 2009.

VG:   I'd like to go on record here how proud I am to have unveiled this poem to the world, if you will. I recall still how vividly this poem spoke to me when I first read it, probably because I am a coffee drinker and spend a fair amount of time in coffeehouses (clichéd as that may be for poets). I was also struck quite strongly by how much dignity and poise you afford to the girl. As you know, so often these days, writers "beat up" on their characters. So, bravo!

AO:   Thank you, those are kind words. I try to avoid beating my characters up, I think we have enough of that in real life. It is up to the reader to do the beating not the writer. I'm not a preacher or a politician. I am not going to tell a reader what they should think of me or my writing. Once the poem is written, once the text is out there, it is unbound and belongs to the reader not the writer.

VG:   How long do you let a poem "sit" before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

AO:   On average my poems spend around six months in a drawer. I edit them from one week to one month, and in one case, two years (I gave up on that one and it never made it into any drawer but made a more successful shopping list). The practice varies from poem to poem, each poem has its needs, each poem is different and that means I can spend different times on each.

Unlike my fiction writing, I can only edit one poem at a time, hence the need to edit, put in a drawer and move to the next one. This means I can often find a glut of them after six months hanging around my office. I send them out to clear out the drawers for some more.

VG:   Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

AO:   This poem is a factual event. As the writer I step in to condense the time I sat there. I sat in the coffee shop for around one hour. My wife was shopping, preparing big plans for our wedding that took place later that year. I needed to step in when writing the piece to bring all these images, and those moments played out over that one hour into an easy-to-read, fit-in-your-pocket type of poem. It needed to be that because that's how we see people who serve us, those faces behind the counters, those voices in the drive thrus, those name badges we never read, they are all fit-in-your-pocket people, we use them, we move on. I know that sounds harsh but I have been on that side of the fence and no one ever remembered my name or my face. They took their change and put it in their pocket and moved on. I wanted to twist it around, so that the girl is the centre of this universe rather than the customer.

VG:   Is this a narrative poem?

AO:   Yes. I suspect it is.

VG:   Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you'd care to disclose?

AO:   I was reading Ruthven Todd and Basil Bunting.

VG:   Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

AO:   No. My readers come in all shapes and sizes. I just want to tell them a good story.

VG:   Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

AO:   Yes, my wife used to read all my poems when I first started writing. Not so much anymore. Not because I don't trust her opinion but because I like the surprise on her face when she reads the published piece. That is worth more than just giving her a crumpled piece of paper with a few scribblings on. I still talk to her about ideas and she always tells me whether they're interesting. The other day she was clearing out some of her things and came across some letters I wrote to her when I lived in Wales, she started asking me whether I'd written that story and those poems I mentioned in those letters. They were eight years old! The wonderful thing was that I'd never noted those ideas in any of my notebooks and that those ideas must have been in that moment, as I wrote those letters, and they were good ideas. Just shows that you never know.

The only other person who sees my work is the poet Ian Parks, he has to some extent influenced my lyrical style and pushed me to select images that are more universal, that address the reader directly.

VG:   How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

AO:   I suppose in style it is extremely concise. It is an anti-love poem or a leave-me-alone-and-let-me-do-my-job-without-hitting-on-me kind of poem.

VG:   What is American about this poem?

AO:   The 'ladies who lunch' is a direct reference to Stephen Sondheim's musical Company. I think that this influences the poem, the same level of bitterness stalks through the lines. There is a tinge of Elaine Stritch’s voice to it.

VG:   Fascinating to me how factually you answer here, Andrew. I thought you would say something about Walt Whitman, if not in this poem, in the rest of Ghosts of a Low Moon, where quite a few of your poems use a sort of loping, devil-may-care long sentence as well as long line like Whitman. In fact, in "American Vignettes," you include an imitation of Allen Ginsberg, unarguably the inheritor of the Whitmanesque style and sensibility. I wonder if the Whitman connection I can envision so clearly is one of those things that other people see in our poems but are invisible to us while we’re writing.

AO:   I've never thought of that before. Certainly, Whitman has influenced my work along with the likes of Wallace Stevens. I appreciate American poetry as it tries to set its own rules and break away from an European literary canon or adapt that canon. I like the long line as I think it lends itself to a narrative poem, builds images and voice. It also appeals to me to break some poetry rules and push the line as long as I can without it becoming short fiction.

I appreciate it when readers see something I don't see. Writers read and those influences sink into our subconscious and often we are not aware of them. I am often not aware of the influences that rise to the surface in my poetry but I am glad in this case that it was Whitman!

VG:   What is British about this poem?

AO:   Everything, even though the coffee franchise is probably American, the coffee is probably South American, the furniture is from Sweden, the people in the poem are purely English and I mean that by defining a certain stereotype within the British community. It sums up the awkward nature of that first flirt and only the English would think a good flirt technique is just to smile whilst hiding behind a book.

VG:   Thanks for the lovely interview, Andrew. I hope you sell truckloads of books . . . lorryfuls of books.

AO:   Thanks, Vince. I appreciate you taking out time to talk with me.

VG:   And thanks again to Brian Brodeur for his useful set of questions. Do check out his cool blog.

You can purchase Andrew Oldham's
Ghosts of a Low Moon as a hardcopy collection (£10 / $16.27) or as an e-book (£5 / $8.14) at Lapwing Publications' online store or via the shop at Andrew's website at, where signed copies are available.

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