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Review | Letters To A First Love From The Future by Andy Armitage


Andy Armitage’s pamphlet is among a number of new releases from the poetry press Half-Moon Books, which is based in Otley, West Yorkshire, where a local group of poets have developed, and where there are a number of regular events and meetings. Half-Moon Books came into existence to support this diverse and motivated group of writers, and judging on Armitage’s pamphlet, more attention needs to be paid to the Otley writing community.

Armitage’s intriguing debut opens with a nostalgic image of first love: a hazy picture of a teenage couple in school uniform, heads tilted towards each other, and their eyes, although obscured by a blurry filter, locked in youthful infatuation. The photo encapsulates all that this accomplished pamphlet tries to illustrate: the atmosphere of adolescence, the inconstancies of time and the emotional pain brought about by loss of control in a relationship. Armitage’s poetry, for a debut writer, shows an admirable and well-developed understanding of poetic verse, but above all a finely-tuned radar to the trials and tribulations of young love. As someone recently out of university, I personally found his lines veracious and resonant.

The poems in Armitage’s debut publication form a sequence, directed towards his first love. They share a unified strand of loss, constantly supported by the retrospective narration throughout, which has undertones of regret, despair and pain. Yet, before these elements come to the forefront of the reader’s attention, Armitage depicts the familiar routines of life at school with nostalgic detail. In the poem ‘Sally’, we are told that ‘the universe was the size of a village’, which draws to mind teenage naivete, in which there is a general ambivalence and ignorance of other communities. The aesthetic qualities evoked by this poem are captured in that opening photograph. The imagery is so vivid; the ‘candyfloss air’, the ‘confusion of coloured lightbulbs’ and the introduction of Sally (?) herself, ‘dark haired with a gypsy tan, in ripped 501s and Docs’, collectively paint a colourful image. Even as he describes the ‘dread and excitement’ of hearing her, his reaction is typically boyish and juvenile: ‘as though I’d left the shop without paying’. Likewise is his attitude in the poem over the page, ‘Among school children’, when the narrator admits: ‘I made myself famous among classrooms with stunts of disobedience.’ The poet is finely aware of school-boy strategy: playing the class clown, hiding under ‘a practised nonchalance’, and ensnaring the object of his love with laughter and ‘public displays’. Skilfully switching between the narrative voice of youth and, due to retrospective narration, the background voice of present adulthood, Armitage creates a layered impression. In the atmosphere he constructs, we almost forget that he is writing retrospectively, so vividly we are immersed in his world, although we are of course reminded of Armitage’s perspective by the title of the book.

As the collection progresses, the adult voice gets louder, and increasingly pervades the narrative. The poem ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’ — which was highly commended in the York Literature Festival Poetry Competition 2018 — marks a significant shift in the collection. With the uneasy final lines: ‘Do not let go my hand just yet’, Armitage begins to explore the darker aspects of his relationship, and the growing anxiety surrounding his loss of control. One of the things I find so effective in Armitage’s pamphlet is the depiction of his protagonist’s inner conflicts. We are first shown both his ideal, and, for a while, his reality: the euphoria of his early relationship, the sentimental head-tilts and the success of winning his love’s laughter. Yet this is in conflict with his older retrospection, which is still desperately seeking a return to his unattainable fantasy. While this can at times bring an unsettling air to the writer’s depiction of past romance, it does bring a depth of emotion and mood that goes beyond the nostalgia that characterises the early poems in the collection.

Although the poems retain their unified strand, this conflict precipitates the protagonist’s lack of control over his relationship, as well as the collection’s loss of control over its poems, which seems to amble in various directions, as their titles demonstrate: ‘Midas’, ‘Eurydice’ and ‘Eucharist’. These clearly contrast with the collection’s earlier, simpler titles: ‘Snapshot’, ‘Among school children’ and ‘The snare’. As infatuation and obsession seizes the collection’s protagonist, causing irreparable damage to the relationship, the language of feeling used in the book reaches a peak of poignancy and originality. This is the collection when it is at its most effective: when its emotions are truly let loose.

Above all, in Letters To A First Love From The Future, the theme of time is Armitage’s principal investment. Throughout, we have a merging of past, present and future, but not in a conventionally linear structure. Time is loose. Although the collection acknowledges the immense power of time, the protagonist largely ignores this sad truth. He maintains that ‘even your own face is only half-remembered’, and yet just a page later he claims that ‘your eyes look back at me from the faces of other women’. This is not to say that Armitage is showing inconsistencies however, rather that the speaker of these poems has been fully transported to the time of young love, and the internal confusion of the emotions that surround this are reflected in the narrator’s voice. A strange but captivating journey.

Letters To A First Love From The Future, Andy Armitage, Half-Moon Books, 2018, £6.00 (paperback).

For more information, visit Half Moon Books.

Words by Ronan Gerrard

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Faber New Poets: in conversation


Faber New Poets [left to right Sam Buchan-Watts, Rachel Curzon, Crispin Best and Elaine Beckett]. Photograph © Thea Hawlin

The Faber New Poets scheme, now in its fourth incarnation, provides a platform for new voices and has launched the careers of poets such as Jack Underwood, Rachael Allen, Sam Riviere and Will Burns. This year’s poets are Rachel Curzon, Elaine Beckett, Sam Buchan-Watts and Crispin Best, all of whom will have pamphlets published this spring. We visited the Faber offices to speak to the Faber New Poets before their official debut at the Faber Social. Here’s what they had to say . . . 

So since you’ve found out what has the experience been like? Has it been very structured or is it only just starting?

Crispin Best [CB]: Well they did just tell us and I don’t think any of us knew what to expect. We’ve just found out loads of information about what to expect, and what the mentorship actually means. I had no idea what that meant – I just thought it was them going ‘we’ll help you out’ sometimes’. But there’s literally going to be a person who is your mentor.

And how do they choose the mentors? Do you get a say in it?  

Elaine Beckett [EB]: Yes, it’s a conversation with them about ideas you might have yourself and what they might think of them. Suggestions they might have . . .

Do they have to be existing Faber poets?

Rachel Curzon [RC]: No apparently not, I thought they might but no. It could be anyone, anywhere.

Do you have any ideas of who you’d like to pick?

CB: I really don’t at all. [to other poets] Would you have a dream team? Would you have like a list do you think? [heads around the table nod] You guys are way ahead of me.

RC: Yeah I have got a little wish list but they shall remain [taps nose].

EB: I suppose it’s a bit unusual in the way that you might not know the person who you think you might be able to work with and you’ve never met them before.

CB: Apparently no one has ever said no. They claim every mentor who has been asked has said yes, which is unbelievable.

EB: Yeah we’re powerful you see.

So in terms of putting together the pamphlets, which are out fairly soon [April 2016], are they composed of things you’ve already written or do you write new material for them? What’s the experience of actually putting them together like?

RC: So we’ve checked our proofs now and they’re in production I think, aren’t they? So they’ll be ready in February, so part of it’s all done.

CB: Did you guys swap any poems out or add any in from the original thing? You did [looks at Sam who nods] How much did you change?

Sam Buchan-Watts: Yeah a couple.

CB: So it’s still pretty much the same length.

SB-W: Yeah.

CB: So for us, we submitted them over a year ago, December 2014, and then we were able to change a bit of it – but they weren’t encouraging us to – but that was the thing that was accepted.

So your submission was essentially the finished pamphlet?

EB: Yeah, we were allowed to swap in one or two if we wanted to.

Why did you make the changes?

SB-W: Just slightly newer work, and Martha [Sprackland – Faber’s assistant poetry editor] was receptive and said yes.

How many poems are in the pamphlet?

SB-W: Sixteen poems, seventeen pages

CB: They added in one for me so I have eighteen pages. I have the longest one.

EB: I think I have seventeen pages.

CB: Okay good so it’s a mix then. I wasn’t trying to have the longest pamphlet honest.

EB: I was missing poems in the end so I had to find three more poems.

CB: What happened to the other ones? Or was it just a shorter submission in the first place?

EB: Maybe I used the wrong size font?

We were talking earlier about how finding the time to write can be an issue and we were wondering about what jobs you may have had in the past, or you have now, and how you’ve managed to keep the poetry going?

R: Well I’m an English teacher, so you’d think that was probably a good dove-tailing, but often you’re spending more time on other people’s work rather than your own. So it has to be a conscious decision to make some space I think. Finding that balance is something I find it quite difficult.

Do you find time in the evenings when you have to tell yourself to stop work and start writing?

RC: For me it’s Wednesday afternoons.

In terms of your backgrounds as poets, has it been a very quiet thing that you’ve been cultivating on your own which you then decided to send out to Faber or is this a very conscious move?

CB: I did my original masters in creative writing at Manchester in prose and I pretty much despised poetry at that point which was very strange . . . I was like ‘there’s nothing poetry can do that prose can’t do as well’.

So you’ve come full circle?  

CB: Exactly. I was in denial, I was a closet poet, and I came out I guess when I realised that fiction was not good at some things either. So I started writing poems probably about four, five years ago and then not really knowing. There’s no obvious thing to do when you start.

EB: No it’s not like a career path is it? It’s just something happens to you, or you notice something that you feel is very important I suppose. Well that’s how it is for me anyway.

Have you written poetry for a long time, Elaine?

EB: No. I wrote poetry when I was young, as one does – a sort of documentary. It wasn’t really until later, quite a lot later that I started to write poetry, quite by chance in a way.

And how did you come to Annie’s group? [Elaine belongs to a Dorset writing group led by Annie Freud.]

EB: I saw a postcard she’d written in the local health-food shop saying ‘Poetry Group’. I’d only been living there about six months and I was eager to meet people so I thought ‘I’ll try that’.

CB: So that was what got you back writing? A health-food shop? That’s amazing!

If you’re a budding poet and then you suddenly find in the place you’ve moved to that Annie Freud has a writing group . . .

EB: I had no idea. I had no desire to write poetry, I mean I wasn’t going there to write poetry. I was just moving there.

That’s a really good story in itself.

EB: I remember driving up and over the hill thinking; ‘wow I’m really excited about this . . . why?’ For the last three years I’ve also been studying with Greta Stoddart via her Poetry School monthly seminars. To have such excellent teachers nearby has been brilliant.

SB-W: I started writing poetry at Goldsmiths. That’s when I started co-editing clinic (a poetry journal), and after graduating in 2010 I worked for five years in an independent bookshop, John Sandoes, so was lucky to still be in an environment conducive to poem reading and writing.

[To Rachel Curzon] Do you find yourself inspired by what you were teaching?

RC: Yes. I think I’ve been beavering away quite quietly but I was lucky enough to get a Gregory Award back in 2007, which gave me confidence, and I was really grateful for that.

So you’re all going to be performing tonight [at the Faber New Voices Social]. Are you feeling good about it?

CB: I’ve just found out I’m going first, which has actually made me feel better about it. I was feeling anxious. I do some readings occasionally, but I realised I was starting to feel a quite nervous about this. But now I’ve realised it’s given me a ‘if it goes wrong it’s because I was on first’ excuse. It’s off my shoulders completely; they’ve basically given me a get out of jail free card.

EB: I’m feeling bad now about going last.

CB: Sorry.

How much experience do you all have of performing?

EB: I’ve done a bit, and I’ve done other sorts of performing.

When you write a poem do you ever find yourself very eager to try it out with an audience? Do you find it changes when you read, or that you go back and redraft because of the way you’ve read it? Does that feed a lot into the process of your writing?

EB: That’s a good question.

SB-W: Well it gets harder to edit a poem the more you read it out in a public sphere maybe. But reading poems as you’re writing them is quite an important thing as well.

RC: I haven’t really done any performances, so this is very new to me, but I do draft by reading it out.

Performance is really important, and it’s a great way to experience new work so we’re excited to see you guys tonight.

EB: I’ve got a very quiet voice.

Quiet can be good though, it’s intense, it forces people to listen.

EB: Yes, if they can hear it at all!

Sometimes it’s incredibly commanding to be quiet.

CB: One of the best readings I ever heard was basically in a whisper so yes, it really doesn’t really need to be loud.

EB: Well, you’ve just got to be yourself really I guess.

Do you have any particular hopes about how your poetry will be received? You’ve got a voice now that people want to listen to. What do you want to say?

EB: Well I think it is the question. If you write a poem or something comes to you and you think ‘that’s a poem’ and you write it and you think ‘hang on a minute, what’s the point of that? Who on earth would be interested?’ Or should you be writing about things that are going on in the world and making a political statement or is it just a confession of some kind? What exactly is it? I still don’t know what a poem really is. Just a rather miraculous little thing that happens.

Poetry which questions what poetry is for also has immense value in itself.

CB: My answer would be that I want to challenge what has a place. It seems funny to me that I would be published by such an established name. I have poems where people are having a wee, and animals are wearing sunglasses, which I think are sort of provocations to this slightly stuffy poetry world that sometimes you come into which – when it’s done well – is phenomenal, but is so often not to my taste. But yes my answer would be questioning, sneaking things into poems that shouldn’t be there.

Covert poems. [To Crispin Best] The poems of yours that I’ve seen are quite structured on the page. Do you find that alters how you’re reading them or is something lost in reading?

CB: It comes back to the idea of if you’re writing something to be read out or something to be read off the page. A page versus stage sort of thing. But I started writing poems with no care for what they looked like on the page at all, it’s only recently I’ve started playing around and having more fun with what it looks like. But I’d say it’s more to do with what you can get away with, to an extent, and also in terms of how it looks on the page, what you can bend, adding in margins where they shouldn’t be and stuff more recently . . .

SB-W: There are a couple of poems in my pamphlet that form a sequence. It was at a time I’d sort of hit a wall and I just started writing in prose and reading a lot more prose, and then playing around with margins and the ideas of a prose poem. I found it really liberating in a way, to not be thinking about convention in terms of ‘the line’ and ‘the line end’.

It’s nice how the poetry market seems to have really opened up to the prose poem. There definitely used to be very clear demarcations with regard to genre, but it’s given poets who were finding quite a rigid generic boundary in the publishing world space for a lot of interesting work to come through. Do you force yourself to experiment? Or do you find there are forms you gravitate towards?

EB: I’ve tried certain forms because I don’t usually write in them, experimenting with what it will bring up so that’s sometimes been quite interesting.

RC: If I set out to write a sonnet it often does anything but, I think I have to do it the other way round sometimes.

What are your expectations for the tour? [The Faber New Poets will go on a tour of readings around the UK later in the year] Where are you most excited to go?

CB: Upstairs [at Faber & Faber] on the 13th of April.

EB: That’s the one for the stiff drink beforehand.

Is there going to be a tour bus?

EB: There’s going to be a pink bus with flowers.

RC: I really hope so.

Do any of you have an overarching theme in your collections?

CB: [to other poets] Were you guys seeing it as a collection or as a Greatest Hits? I mean I fartly –- I fartly? I also partly… [the table laughs]

That’s going in the interview.

CB: I partly had been writing lots of long things, so for me it was choosing shorter things because I couldn’t use a lot of the longer pieces, as it would have taken up a quarter of the pamphlet. But I definitely wasn’t aiming for a particular, singular sort of thing apart from the totality.

SB-W: Yeah I had a similar thing. Especially thinking about placement. I’m really interested in the pamphlet form, so I dwelled a lot on the order. I was probably quite annoying I think.

EB: [to Sam] Have you changed your order?

SB-W: Yes.

EB: I found that challenging.

What do you look for in the order? Do you look for themes that follow on from one another?

EB: I used it as a useful exercise to gather a group of poems that I thought would sit together, that I liked.

RC: I didn’t think there was an overarching theme until I re-read the submission when I got the email saying that it was going to go forward and I realised that actually, despite my best efforts, there probably is an overarching theme, which I hadn’t really twigged before. I mean, like Sam, I sort of thought quite hard about the order of things and sought to follow an emotional narrative, or tried to. But it’s weird looking back at them, it changes your perception of them, knowing that they’re going to be out in the world.

Interview by Rachel Chanter and Thea Hawlin

Faber New Poets April 2016 TOURFaber New Poets pamphlets #13, #14, #15 and #16 will be published 7 April 2016.

Elaine Beckett grew up in Kent, and studied music, film, and architecture in London. She has mainly worked as a university lecturer. In 2008 she moved to Dorset where by chance she joined a poetry group led by Annie Freud. Her poems have been longlisted for The Bridport Prize, and in 2012 she won the Bridport’s Dorset Award. Her poems have been published in Templar’s Skein anthology, South Bank Poetry, and the Bloodaxe Raving Beauties anthology, Hallelujah For Fifty-Foot Women. She currently studies with Greta Stoddart via The Poetry School.

Crispin Best lives in London and at www.crispinbest.com. He edits For Every Year, an online project aiming to collect a piece of art or writing in honour of every year since 1400. His writing has appeared in The Best British Poetry 2015 (Salt), the Quietus, Dazed & Confused, Poems in Which, and clinic, among other places. He has performed his poetry to audiences in New York, Chicago, Berlin, Melbourne, Edinburgh, and at the
Serpentine Gallery in London.

Sam Buchan-Watts was born in London in 1989. He studied English Literature at Goldsmiths and Creative Writing at UEA. He is a co-editor of the poetry anthology series, clinic. His poems have appeared in Poetry London and Salt’s Best British Poetry series, and his articles in PN Review, i-D and elsewhere.

Rachel Curzon was born in Leeds in 1978. She studied English at Oxford, and now teaches in a Hampshire school. In 2007, she received an Eric Gregory award. Her poems have appeared in The Rialto, Poetry London and The Bridport Anthology.

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