JO BRANDON INTERVIEW
London-based Jo Brandon is the acclaimed author of “Phobia”, a thoroughly captivating collection of thought-provoking poetry published by “Valley Press”. Here she chats exclusively to Steve Rudd about “Phobia”, “Cures”, and beyond…
Hi Jo, how are things, and how’s 2013 treated you in general?
It’s been a really busy year. I moved house, started a new job freelancing with the Poetry Society, and I’ve been busy writing new material for my upcoming collection entitled “Cures”. I recently had a great time at the Free Verse London Poetry Book Fair along with Jamie McGarry and fellow poet (and fellow Bretton Hall attendee) Matthew Hedley-Stoppard. Free Verse is always a great opportunity to see how diverse and energetic the poetry publishing scene currently is, so being there again this time has left me feeling very positive, and I’ve resolved to be more productive this coming year!
It’s been over a year now since your first pamphlet of poetry “Phobia” was released. How did it feel to be on the receiving end of so much critical acclaim for the book?
Thank you for the compliment! I was very fortunate to have a publisher like Jamie at Valley Press who was willing to put as much time and energy behind a debut pamphlet as he would behind a full-length collection or an anthology. He organised a great launch for “Phobia” in Leeds at the Carriageworks Theatre and has since arranged a number of great performance opportunities. So, in terms of being able to present “Phobia” to a new audience, that has been terrific. I was also very lucky that so many excellent poets and writers spent time writing very considered reviews about “Phobia”… poets such as James Nash, Rommi Smith, and Kate Fox, along with author Ciara Hegarty. I was very nervous when “Phobia” came out, partly at the idea of hearing negative comments (although they can also be very useful), but also at the prospect of no-one being interested in reading it, so the fact that the first print run has now sold out makes me very grateful to everyone who’s taken the time to read it and to buy it.
Were you surprised that the poetry-world took to your work with such enthusiasm, or did you secretly sense that “Phobia” would be the success it came to be?
What has surprised me the most is the detail in which “Phobia” has been reviewed. I’m still starting out, and “Phobia” is my first publication, so I wouldn’t have been surprised if it hadn’t attracted any comment at all, but the fact that the writers I mentioned above have read “Phobia” and have written such wonderfully insightful reviews has really taken me aback.
Something else that has really delighted me is the very personal response people have had to some of the poems. At a number of events, audience members have said that poems like “Arachnephobia” and “These Bones” struck a chord with them and made them think of their own experiences of growing-up and forming their identity.
When it comes to performing your poetry, which poems do you enjoy performing the most, and why?
This is a lovely question! I do have a number of favourites, and they all tend to be quite persona-based poems… poems that lend themselves to a particular state of mind, like “These Bones”, “Miser Miser”, and “Our Lady”. Those three poems have a little drama and a little humour which I enjoy and can’t always achieve in a poem. I like the degree of separation from my personal self, an opportunity to wander off in to this new place and personality that I’ve created. When you read your poem on the page, or let someone else read it on the page, there can still be a great satisfaction, but it’s a very introverted process, and I really enjoy the interactivity of reading out loud to an audience. It’s one of the best ways to gage whether a poems works, whether the images connect and make sense, and whether I’m reading it as I’ve punctuated it. Performing is definitely one of the best ways to edit a poem.
How many years was “Phobia” in-the-making, and have you always felt a strong affinity with the twin acts of writing and performing poetry?
“Phobia” started off as my dissertation piece at university, but the collection I submitted for that was quite different to the “Phobia” that was published by Valley Press. Only half the original poems found their way in, and the uni piece had more sections and had been more strictly thematic. I would say it took about five years to produce in total. That sounds like a long time, but I wouldn’t have been ready to publish it any sooner. I was learning about the kind of poetry I wanted to write, about how to put a collection together, how to submit to magazines, how to use constructive feedback from others and maintain my own style of writing, to feel confident enough about my poetry to share it with a wider audience.
Performance and poetry have always been linked for me. When I was fifteen, I joined a wonderful writers’ group and had to learn quickly about how best to deliver my work to a group of people who I knew were then going to give me a very frank critique. I realised that how I read the poem would have a bearing on their interpretation of it. While I was a part of that group, they organised a visit from Mario Petrucci who did great one-to-one sessions on how to project your voice and read to an audience. That’s when I realised that there was a craft to delivering poetry. While I was at university, we also received tutoring on how to perform, and part of our grade was an assessment of a live poetry reading. Thus, throughout my process of developing as a writer, I’ve also been instilled with the idea of developing as a performer. I think it’s important to adapt to your venue and audience so that your work can take on a slightly different nuance each time. When I write, the first instinct is to get it onto the page; the second is to find out how it sounds aloud.
Who are your favourite poets, and why?
I have so many poets that I love. Some of the first poets to really get me excited about writing poetry are those I was introduced to at GCSE such as Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy, Gillian Clarke, and Moniza Alvi, and then, at college, Philip Larkin and Sylvia Plath, and later, at university, Linda France, Geraldine Monk, Frances Presley, and Denise Levertov. At the moment, I’m really enjoying Kay Ryan’s collected poems. Each of these is very different from the other, but what I love about each is their unique way of savouring words, their talent for writing poems that make you, as the reader, want to approach them as you would a huge, juicy apple. I also like to enjoy the poetry – even a very pessimistic kind of poetry – in life’s mundanities, which is something I love about Philip Larkin’s “Whitsun Weddings” and the poem “About His Person” by Simon Armitage. The simple perfection of the last two lines in the latter is a mantra that buzzes in my mind with great freshness even after the fifteen years and traumatic GCSE analysis that have passed since I first heard them. With Kay Ryan, I’m fascinated by her short lines and witty, deconstructed truisms.
What is it about writing poetry that appeals to you more than writing prose?
I think there is a different kind of creative stamina required for writing poetry, and although I actually do also really enjoy writing prose, I find I need to approach it with a different mindset. When I write a poem, it is usually quite self-contained and answers its own questions, whereas when I write prose, I get caught up on detail and go off and research obscure things, only to come back and find I lost the flow of what I was writing. For me, poetry often comes as a spark. Just when you think you’ve got nothing to write, a poem will come, Athena-style, and crack your mind open all over again. That’s quite an addictive feeling, but it’s also a process that can leave you a little under-productive. I really admire writers such as Margaret Atwood and Jackie Kay who are skillful and successful in writing poetry and prose.
You are in the process of piecing together a new collection of poetry entitled “Cures”. What’s with the title, and when’s it likely to see the light of day?
Good question. I’m not sure when it’ll be finished, but my self-imposed deadline is by the end of 2014. Valley Press has been very patient! The working title is “Cures” because the main themes I’ve been exploring are our approach to cures, whether they’re clinical, religious, psychological, superstitious, cultural, or hedonistic… and then, of course, considering whether or not all of our problems really need to be healed. I asked myself, “Are some deficits of wellbeing in the eye of the beholder?” So, I’ve been doing quite a bit of historical research and inspiration-seeking. I will be handling these themes quite broadly, so I’m not sure if it will be as thematic as the working title suggests.
As a poet, do you find that you really labour over your work, or do poems come to you quite naturally without being forced?
I think the poems I’m most fond of always seem to come most naturally, but perhaps there is a certain amount of laziness aiding that affection! I find, as I get older, I need to work more at stimulating ideas and editing more and more to end up with a poem that I’m happy with. I think, perhaps, that I expect more from myself than I did a few years ago. I can be very self-critical, so I’m lucky that I have writers around me whose opinions I trust and who will give me honest feedback. I do miss having the formal, structured feedback I got at university, and I think I should make more effort to attend writing workshops. Whenever I do, I always come away with new ideas.
Living in London as you do, where are the best venues in the city to perform and to meet like-minded poetry-lovers?
Well, you’re very spoilt for choice in London. The Poetry Café in Betterton Street is great. They have regular open mic events during the day and in the evening, along with frequent book and magazine launches that often have open mic slots, too. The atmosphere is very welcoming.
Aside from being a stupendously talented poet, are you creative in any other dimensions?
Steve, you are very kind! Annoyingly, I’m not musical or visually artistic – something that is highlighted by the fact that my partner Marcos (who is also a writer, an excellent photographer, and an able artist) can play the guitar and is an altogether very practical individual, but I like to think that I can claim the muse in some of these respects!
Something I have learnt is that I’m actually a pretty good collaborator. So, although I’m not musical, my work with the composer Ella Jarman-Pinto is something I’m really proud of. Collaboration is usually something that challenges and expands my creativity. As a workshop leader, through working with a diverse range of groups, I’ve also learnt to be creative in my approach to introducing others to writing. As well as poetry, I am also, very slowly, working on a novel, and I do enjoy writing reviews and experimenting with different genres of writing. To be honest, there is still so much more I want to learn about poetry… so much that I want to read and take in that I might just have enough on my plate with the one form of creativity!
Finally, what’s the best way for people to learn more about you and your work?
(Questions by Steve Rudd; Answers by Jo Brandon)
This interview was conducted on 30th September, 2013.