Stealing the Moment: Talking with Andy White (part i)

Andy White’s return to QLD Poetry Festival this year is extra special for me as Jules and I are now holding sparkling new copies of his second poetry collection, Stolen Moments (Another Lost Shark Publications), which will be launched at the festival on Saturday August 27 at 4:00pm in the Theatre Space of The Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts as part of the session, All Is Roar And Crash.

So with the festival only 9 days away, Andy and I have been talking poetry…

Many of the poems in your new book, Stolen Moments, were born in Brisbane. As a touring artist you get the opportunity to visit many cities each year, so what is it about Brisbane that gets the poetic synapses firing?

When I was at school I knew I should like poetry. It was one of those things which was in my blood – distilled emotion, the perfect phrase. I didn’t love it, but I knew its worth, as we battled with Heaney and Longley and the Old Victorians. None of them saying much to me. Spike Milligan was better – reminded me of Lewis Carroll and the Beatles lyrics I’d grown up listening to. When we reached third form – maybe your Year 9 – we had an English teacher who thought she was Miss Jean Brodie (without the fascist baggage). Told us to throw the anthologies in a heap in the corner, loosen our ties (yes, all schools in Belfast had uniforms then – evened everything out a little) and tell the class a little bit about each other. Likes, dislikes. Loves, hobby horses. She believed that we only needed to know one poem – ‘Ode To A Nightingale’. Said it was all we needed for now – and we all believed her, hung on her every word. I still love that poem.

But something else happened that year which awoke me to the power of poetry. Brian Patten came to visit the school – a real live Liverpool poet. Someone who knew the Scaffold and probably, by extension, the Beatles. We gathered at his feet and listened. I bought the ‘Liverpool Poets’ Penguin book. Listened to old records of Roger McGough. Then our Miss Jean Brodie teacher was supplanted by a Leonard Cohen-loving teacher, just in time for sixth form and for falling in love. She wore scarves and eyeliner and burned incense in the classroom. And – let me remind you – this was 1980s Northern Ireland with a full-on terrorist war raging outside. The girls in the class talked make-up with her and she told the boys how to talk to the girls. During this time my fascination with the Liverpool Poets’ style didn’t disappear, but listen enough times to ‘So Long Marianne’ in  a darkened aroma-filled room when you’re supposed to be hurrying to chemistry class and you’ll understand my new-found devotion to the singer-songwriter’s version of the spoken word.

Things changed, I went to college.I studied English in England and got familiar with all types of poems – not even the Nightingale could save me from the rest of the 19th century. I saw Ian McEwan read ‘The Cement Garden’ to twelve people in an all-nighter. Sat in lectures listening to structuralists and post-structuralists. Barthes worshippers and Leavisites. Back home the troubles got worse, then better. I had been writing scraps of poems since I can’t remember when. It was always the natural thing to do. Then I saw John Cooper Clarke at a reading in a college disco. Amazing. I’d heard ‘Snap Crackle And Bop’ – but seeing him was something else. I was back in that school room again – charged up about poetry like when I saw Brian Patten for the first time. I went back  to my room, found a litttle black book and started copying poems into it. A friend organised a poetry reading gig and I was away. Reading fast and furious. Slamming before I knew the word. For me it was all about a mix of JCC, Dylan, Beats and the Liverpool Poets, all leaning a little bit towards Leonard.

After I started putting my poems to music, bashing them out with an acoustic guitar, it all changed. Poetry became something either to be considered on the page, not heard, or scribbled real fast – a thought which wouldn’t necessarily turn into a song. My first volume ‘The Music Of What Happens’ collected all my poems together. Written from 1971-1999, twenty-eight years collected in a suitcase and edited into some sort of shape by a novelist friend of mine. I launched the book in Dublin, Belfast and Galway. At the heart of the Irish literary establishment – who all thought of me as a singer. They never looked beyond my album covers, which amused me – I knew I started off with the word on the page, when music was something you listened to on Radio Luxembourg or which granny taught as I tried to keep up with her on the piano or violin. Before I discovered the acoustic guitar.

The next time I was excited by poetry was arriving in Brisbane and experiencing QPF. In 2006, I think it was. It’s as simple as that. I was booked to play but I was encouraged to read too. I got to my feet and didn’t stop for four days. The weekend inspired me to write – I filled books sitting around in Graham & Julie’s house (great I didn’t stay in a hotel that time) in the company of the Beats, Cohen and a fantastic collection of CDs and first editions, happily co-existing and drawing from them.

It’s the company I keep in Brisbane which gets me going, and the collective aspect of poetry I’ve found there. Above all the excitement generated at readings – and not just during the festival. Speedpoets is amazing – the highest standard poetry readings I’ve ever seen. Woodford too – something so right that it anagrams into Wordfood – I found the same electric atmosphere in a huge circus tent one New Year as 2007 slipped into 2008. Not the darkened upstairs of a pub with three or four people huddled round a candle mumbling – this was poetry on a grand stage (even if the work was small scale) with costumes and applause and performance.

It’s this dressing-up too – the way poets act out their poems and know how to speak into microphones and don’t mumble solo into their navels but get up collectively in pairs makes it exciting. Everyone knows it’s hip and relevant and funny and moving they don’t need to be told – just like in San Francisco and Liverpool, poets need a scene – they need a city and it’s not always going to be London or Paris or Sydney. Better if it’s not. That’s where poetry is hip and happening and live and emotional.

Just like poetry is in my head. That’s why Brisbane means poetry to me.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Stealing the Moment: Talking with Andy White (part i)

  1. Ah! I wish I never had to leave Brisbane! Perhaps my employer can completely re-work next year’s academic calendar so that I can be around to witness the 2012 QLD Poetry Festival–not likely, but a girl can dream.
    In the meantime, I will buy the book and be grateful for small things.

  2. QPF and Speedpoets has that effect on me too, but I’m far less talented than Andy White. I’m really looking forward to seeing him perform again.

  3. andy

    man I love those hammerheads graham
    see you friday!
    x a

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