INTERVIEW WITH ANNIE FISHER, AUTHOR OF THE DEAL
(Happenstance Press 2020) by Graeme Ryan of Fire River Poets
Graeme: Thanks for doing this interview for Fire River Poets Annie. THE DEAL is such a vivid and memorable collection with your trademark flair for both observation and thought-provoking humour. These poems connect and stay in the mind.
Cold War Supper is an excellent case in point, with your witty yoking of an era and your boarding-school childhood:
In the days when reds slept under the dormitory beds
and infiltrated all our games, when we had code names
like Violette and Odette, and would gladly have died
singing Faith of our Fathers, I tasted pigeon
for the first and only time.
Did this poem come easily to you? As a poet, what process did it go through to make it fully-fledged on the page? Would love some insight into your practice as a poet.
Annie: Thanks Graeme. That poem came fairly easily. It’s basically straight autobiography, apart from the bit about the nun-with-a-gun at the end! I made that up. That spinning-off-into-fantasy at the end of a poem is something I like to do quite often. The poem began one Sunday morning when I was looking out at the garden from my bedroom window and noticing that the pigeons seemed to be proliferating. As I listened to their coo-coo calls, I thought, ‘They’re plotting a coup! They’re taking over’. Then I had a memory of eating pigeon when I was as a child at a convent boarding school. I’m guessing someone must have shot some pigeons and given them to the nuns, who made sure we didn’t swallow any lead pellets by telling us to chew very slowly! That memory led on to memories of the sort of games we used to play in those cold-war days, pretending to be spies or French resistance heroines. The poem arrived over several days. I need plenty of dream time to make a poem, but when I come to write it down, it’s pretty much formed itself. But there can be endless ‘tweakings’ afterwards of course!
G: What a great reply Annie, fascinating. I’m struck by your phrase ‘I need plenty of dream time to make a poem’. Very interesting too that you quite often like to weave fantasy into your poetry – the idea of a nun with a gun is somehow hovering there so you’ve run with it, to great poetic effect. It immediately makes me want to learn about the genesis of other poems in the collection. Would you mind choosing another one and letting us know a little about how it came to materialise on the page?
A: OK, so let me talk about The Massacre! It’s a poem based on a mondegreen, which means a mishearing. The term mondegreen was coined about seventy years ago when someone misheard the phrase ‘laid him on the green’, in a folk ballad, as ‘Lady Mondegreen’. This sort of mishearing happens a lot when listening to songs. As a child, I remember thinking the pop song, ‘Poetry in Motion,’ was entitled ‘Oh, a tree in motion’. I created strange mental images of a beautiful walking tree!
In the case of The Massacre, the mishearing concerns a bus stop in London, on a route I used to take regularly. The bus stop is Neathouse Place, but for ages I heard the automated voice on the bus say Meathouse Place, which summoned up dark images of butchery—hence the references to knives, blood and screams. When I realised it was, in fact, Neathouse Place, I tried to put cosy images in my head to replace the horror scene, but I couldn’t overwrite the ghastliness I’d invented. The poem is mostly fantasy of course, but I think it might also be saying something serious about how we can’t ‘un-see’ traumatic scenes. When we observe violence in real life or on screen, or dwell on negative images, it does violence to our minds.
G: What an interesting reply, and thank you for introducing us to the brilliant word Mondegreen – you learn something new every day! I love the way your poetic mind works and how you manage to combine memory, fantasy and danger in such a strong symbiosis, reinforcing in the process the power of the imagination for good or ill: it’s a potent combination:
I pictured dim-lit rooms
When I realised the voice
was saying Neathouse, not Meathouse,
I tried to swap the crimson nightmare
for a plain vanilla dream.
But ‘scenes some viewers may find’
defile the mind indelibly.
In Neathouse Place there still remains
a faint stain on the polished floorboards
and the cat has gouged the table
with her unretractable claws.
I mentioned before your gift for observation. Hotel Restaurant is an excellent case in point. It begins:
The males will squat for hours
on these padded leather chairs;
round-bellied corporate frogs
dispatching coffee and Full English
with their long elastic tongues
My next questions is: what tips would you give aspiring poets to help them capture scenes like this with such economy and precision? Do lines like this come to you easily, or do you invariably re- draft and edit? And how important to the process is hearing your own lines read aloud?
A: The question of how poets make poems fascinates me too, but when it comes to my own, it’s hard to say what I do because it varies. I have no writing routines. However, for the last three or four years I have been part of a Poem-a-Day Face Book group, run by Simon Williams. Every April and September, members try to post a poem every day. Prompts are offered if you want them. Members post their poems on the page and give brief responses to each other’s work. I find it makes me produce a couple of dozen drafts of varying quality across a month. I usually find a handful of them are worth working on afterwards. After a couple of weeks, the discipline of daily writing seems to energise the brain, and some surprising ideas pop up. I often don’t sleep well in those months because the mind is buzzing with lines from the poems. Sometimes I have to get up in the middle of the night to write stuff down. And I’ll often have strange dreams in those months. One poem in THE DEAL is a dream poem. It’s called Cannibal, and is about a bunch of green grapes in my fridge eating a bunch of blue grapes! Weird, I know, but I liked its oddness.
I need lots of time in my own head to come up with poems. It can feel very selfish at times, but I often just want to be left alone to think. Reading other poets is helpful too of course, and I’ve recently started writing reviews of poetry pamphlets for the Sphynx Poetry website. That close reading of others’ work is all grist to the mill. I belong to a poetry reading group too, so that’s another opportunity for close reading. And being a member of Fire River Poets has been a huge help. Getting honest feedback from poets you trust and respect is invaluable.
You asked about re-drafting and editing. I usually do lots. It’s mostly a question of getting rid of as much dead wood as possible. There’s a tip from the poet Billy Collins I sometimes find useful, which is to remove every single modifier in the poem and see which, if any, are necessary. Poets need a good, strong hatchet. I once spent a whole day looking at an art installation in a gallery. I filled a whole notebook with words but the final poem was just eight lines long.
And reading aloud? Yes, definitely. When I’ve finished a poem I usually know it off by heart. I’ll sometimes say it out loud when I’m driving or walking alone. If it’s fairly easy to memorise, that usually means that the rhythm and flow is working for me.
So what am I saying? Read lots, write lots, take time, waste time, sleep, get feedback… all of that. But there’s an aspect of all art, I think, that’s to do with being open and relaxed and not trying too hard – the ‘negative capability’ Keats wrote about. And Eliot says something similar in The Four Quartets when he describes his attempts to ‘get the better of words’ as a sort of failure. It doesn’t work to try and dominate words, or bully a poem into existence. Just keep on writing stuff without any special expectations, and then very occasionally you’ll surprise yourself.
G: What a fantastic reply Annie, so wonderfully informative and inspirational, fascinating to read! The final paragraph should be required reading for all writers! Do you have any tips for someone wanting to get their poetry published?
A: The best advice I can give is to buy a copy of Helena Nelson’s ‘How (not) to get your Poetry Published’. Do check out this LINK for details. Honestly, it’s all there, plus it’s a really entertaining read!
G: That’s useful. Thanks, Annie. What first got you into poetry and poetry writing yourself? When did you know you were a poet?
A: I started writing regularly when I became semi-retired, in my late fifties. Before that I’d always enjoyed poetry and would often write light verse for people’s birthdays, leaving do’s etc. But it wasn’t until I stopped full-time work that I had enough time and mental space. I started reading contemporary poetry pretty obsessively and writing more. I entered a couple of local poetry competitions—the East Coker and The Fire River. I was awarded first prize in the East Coker, and second prize in the Fire River. That was hugely encouraging. I started sending my poems to a few online and print magazines and had several published. All that was very encouraging and I started to think. ‘I can do this.’ It’s worth saying that I researched the competitions and magazines very thoroughly before submitting. It’s so important to find places you will feel proud to be associated with, and editors who will ‘get’ what you write.
Early on in the process, I was lucky enough to come across Helena (Nell) Nelson and Happenstance Press. It was a bit of serendipitous Googling led me there. Nell publishes highly respected poetry pamphlets, and she used to offer a twice-yearly ‘feedback’ service where, for a minimal subscription, you could send a dozen or so poems and receive her excellent feedback. I sent work to her for several years, and this led ultimately to her publishing my two pamphlet collections
G: Thank you for this account of your poetic journey so far, Annie. It’s exciting to think where it might take you next! Your humanity comes across in a wealth of poems in THE DEAL. Childhood features in the opener In Hiding and in the second poem Small:
How I envied the tall girls
sleek as swans
while I scuttled
in their wake
while The Gate evokes a brilliantly sinister atmosphere of childhood disquiet:
‘…Uncle Paul came
with red roses for our mother,
the darkest red,
the sweetest-ever scent.
He’d crook his yellow finger,
croaking foreign words
like some ancient
from down the well.’
Ghost tackles anorexia in just that way you describe Annie, not trying to bully a poem into existence but letting its meaning unfold:
as her shadow on the ground
grows more obese
with every passing hour.’
Picasso’s Owl (which is also the striking illustration on the front cover) invokes the artist’s subject – a pet owl – whose eyes exert more power than the painter’s:
‘They are his eyes
I love the way you find poetry in the most unlikely places; in the case of Cannibal, which you mentioned just now, a domestic fridge inspires a flight of dark fantasy:
‘When I opened the door of the fridge
the bunch of green grapes I’d placed on the top shelf
was eating the blue grapes on the shelf beneath,
a fear of relocation I presumed it had achieved
by animating its pale stems, then lurching
triffid-style, towards the edge.’
For me, one of the stand-out poems in THE DEAL comes near the end with The Orange Lobster and the Hens, a brilliant performance piece which juxtaposes a certain notorious American President with a raucous hen party travelling down to Bridgwater on the train. All your skills, musicality and poetic sensibility combine superbly in this poem – it’s a must-read:
‘I was reading The Loneliness of Donald Trump by Rebecca Solnit
on the last train out of Temple Meads. I was up to
the bit where it says ‘He was a pair of ragged
orange claws, forever scuttling, pinching, reaching
for more …’
A: I’m glad you like The Lobster and the Hens. It’s fun to perform because it includes snatches of pop songs and so I get to inflict my singing on unsuspecting poetry audiences! The poem was a gift because the hen party in the train were singing songs (I wrote down the titles at the time) which fitted perfectly into my surreal narrative. That’s the most obviously ‘funny’ poem in the collection.
G: I can certainly testify first-hand to what a strong and engaging performer of your work you are, happy to sing, act and even use a prop or two. Where did you learn the skills to capture an audience? Do these skills come naturally to you?
A: It’s odd that I now enjoy performing so much, because I was a desperately shy and timid child. But I became a primary school teacher, and you have to perform as a teacher. I came to love telling stories and singing with young children. I also worked with a children’s choir for years—I’m sure that helped. Later, I became an English adviser so I had to get to grips with presenting training courses, and after I retired I joined forces with a colleague to become a story-teller in schools. I called myself Arabella, Storyteller! We would part-tell, part-act stories I had written. It was the best fun I ever had in schools. Now that I’m old, I love performing more than ever. I can draw on everything life has taught me, and I don’t worry about looking daft sometimes
G: Well, it certainly seems to work when it comes to communicating your poems to an audience. But going back to the words as they appear on the page, is there anything that has surprised or intrigued you about your poetry when you’ve come to see it in print?
A: Well, I suppose I tend to think of myself as a ‘lightly serious’ poet, and so what I’ve found interesting with this collection as a whole, is the theme of ‘fear’ which runs through as a sort of undercurrent. I hadn’t realised this theme in my writing until a couple of years ago when a brilliant poet we both know, Chrissy Banks, pointed it out, and said she thought it might make for a good themed collection, given the current zeitgeist. The fear theme is clear in the title poem, The Deal, which concerns a deal done with God whilst in the grips of a health scare. It’s also clear in a poem called The Fear, which is about giving ones anxious mind ‘a good talking-to’. There’s fear lurking somewhere in each poem, but it’s lightly held, I hope.
G: Definitely Annie – and that’s one of the pleasures of this collection. You guide us so skilfully and attentively, your poems are very accessible yet repay any amount of re-reading. You stay right in the moment with each poem, letting it say what it wants without ever forcing the issue or trying to yoke the lines into any kind of agenda. The main theme is an underground river, all the more striking when it bubbles up to take many forms, all of them completely authentic.
I hope you don’t mind if I quote in full the final poem. Its poised, serene simplicity brings THE DEAL to a moving, beautiful yet ‘lightly-held’ conclusion:
Naming This Place
‘This garden’s called The Sweet Relief of Silence
and the sky is called A Sleepiness of Weather.
Those tumbling, purple blooms are called Probably Roses
and the small yellow flower on the trellis is called
Momentary Chink of Bright Sunlight.
This poppy’s called Old Woman in Red Petticoats.
That shady corner’s called Refuge of Rabbits.
This unmown patch of grass is called The Universe.’
Thank you Annie, for letting us so generously into your work and your practice as a poet, and for your insights. Anyone who hasn’t heard you before is in for a real treat on January 7th – it will be an evening to savour!
Look out for the Zoom link and check out the Fire River Poets website for more details of our 2021 programme of Guest Poets – including the two Forward Prize winners of 2020!
Wishing all our guest poets, our many open-mic readers and our loyal audience a peaceful, safe Christmas, and a rejuvenating New Year.