Monday, 7 March 2011

Author Visit: Anna Woodford

Anna Woodford has received an Eric Gregory Award, a major Leverhulme Award, a Hawthornden Fellowship and an Arvon Jerwood Apprenticeship. Her pamphlet Party Piece was a winner in the International Poetry Business Competition, selected by Michael Longley. Her pamphlet Trailer was a Poetry Book Society Choice. She is widely published in many literary magazines including the TLS, the Rialto and Horizon Review. Based in Newcastle upon Tyne, Birdhouse is her first full length collection.


Hi Anna, thanks for taking the time out to come and have a chat with us – pull up a seat! So, I’ve just finished reading Birdhouse and I loved it. I think that my favourite two poems from the collection [I couldn’t pick one, and even on two I’m hovering over others] are ‘The Goldilocks Variable’ and ‘Gran’s Pantry.’ Which ones are particularly special to you? Could you pick out a couple of lines for us?

Delighted to be here! And thank-you, I’ll stick with your choice. The Goldilocks Variable was nearly the title poem. It’s about the things that might have happened to Goldilocks after she ran away from the bears’ house: from going into pornography to living as a freegan. In the poem I say: ‘maybe she’s not out of the woods yet/and her hair went white,/slim-picking through the neighbourhood bins.’ I’m a big fan of Goldilocks because she’s not a conventional fairytale heroine- it’s a ‘girl meets bear’, rather than ‘girl meets boy’ story. There is no prince or happy-ever-after ending so she has to rely on her wits. The poem was published in the TLS which was thrilling.

Gran’s Pantry is the story of diamonds that were hidden under my grandmother’s floorboards. Gran married twice and both her husbands were called Ludwick, both were Polish and Jewish and survivors of the holocaust. The diamonds belonged to the second Ludwick: they were what remained of his family’s jewels after his mother had bartered with them to survive. After Gran and her second husband died, my father found the diamonds under the floorboards. They were sewn, with two gold teeth, inside the hem of a coarse skirt. The poem ends: ‘The real jewels/had brought his mother back/from the camp a lifetime before,/they had changed/in the guards’ greased hands/to leftovers-a little bread,/a precious little, some fruit.’

Looking at all of the poems as a collection, how much time do they cover writing wise – from the first poem to the end? In fact, which one in this collection was the first one you wrote, and which was the last?

The first and the last poems are both the result of momentous journeys. I started drafting Gran’s Death on the train to Gran’s funeral: she died in 1999 so over a decade ago now. The poem went on to be part of the book’s central sequence of elegies. The last poem I wrote, Homecoming, was prompted by bringing my newborn son Archie home from hospital, on New Year’s Eve 2009. It was a magical night: fireworks were going off outside the house, my son was sleeping (magical in itself!) and the poem was beginning in my head. I hadn’t thought of the book springing up between those two experiences of life and death, but it makes sense to me that it does.

What would you say are the central themes of the collection?

Sex. Death. Running away from school. Nuns. Lots of bodies in a variety of positions. Cuddly toy (joking!) I think the book is the story of the ‘I’ speaker: a sort of coming-of-age tale.

I grew up in the North East myself [in a village near Whitburn] so really felt at home reading a lot of these poems. How does the North East inspire you? Do you have favourite haunts/memories of the place in particular that have really inspired your work? [I have a major soft spot for Cleadon Hills and for some bizarre reason have found The Angel of the North creeping up in my work, even though I really didn’t used to be a fan of it – I think it has something to do with moving away and it being one of the first things I see on the train home]

I love the idea of you feeling at home in the poems: you’re welcome any time! I love the North-East but hadn’t thought of myself as particularly inspired by place so was surprised - reading back - how geographically specific some of the poems are: there’s Darlington, Whittle in Northumberland, the Blackie Boy Roundabout in County Durham. There are other places too such as Madrid and Paris but the North-East is probably most prominent. There’s even a pigeon, albeit a dead one.

When did you get your first poem published, and how did it make you feel?

I had two poems published when I was eighteen in Iron magazine. I was ecstatic, especially as they came with their own illustration (of a screaming woman!) I had a poem in the local paper a couple of years before that but it was beyond embarrassing in tone and came with a passport photo of my sixteen-year-old self so I’ll draw a swift veil over that.

What would you say is your biggest achievement to date?

Just keeping on writing. The satisfaction of a day’s work done.

I see that you’re currently a writer in residence at Durham University – how’s that going?

It’s great. I’m working at the Law School in Durham University through a Leverhulme grant. The project is to explore, through poetry, cases where people have turned to the law, having suffered such grievous loss that it threatens to damage their sense of self. Examples include holocaust survivors who have tried to reclaim their possessions (such as suitcases or portraits) from museum collections: the possessions might be ostensibly worthless but are priceless to both the individuals and the museums because of their symbolic value. I’m working with Professor Tom Allen who is writing academically on the same subject-matter. Our starting-point is that both poetry and law share the elevated use of language. We are presenting some of our work later this month at a conference at the New School, New York.

Do you find that your poetry at any given time centres around a certain theme in your life, or not?

I’ve written a lot about law recently as a result of the Durham residency, and about birth and the experience of having a young child which is the other big current theme in my life. Whatever I’m writing though, I’m trying to capture something that has gone, so the underlying theme is always loss and hopefully some sort of poetic regain.

This month we’re dedicating our book forum to Salt Publishing – do you have anything you’d like to share about Salt? What do you think they bring to the book industry?

Well, unsurprisingly I’m a fan of Salt but I was before they published me! They stand for passion and innovation and are a broad church. They take risks and spend enormous amounts of time and energy developing their writers. Great covers too! I love the look of the books and, conversely, the fact that they don’t have a set look.

On our book forum we have a Book Tree where members pick their favourite book and we all get to read it, posting it round in a circle, so that when the book comes back to the owner it’s filled with comments from everyone else. If you were to pick a book for the Book Tree, what would you pick and why?

I’ll stick with my first love: The Sign of Saturn by Sharon Olds. It’s a selected poems and the first book she had published in the UK. It came out when I was sixteen and, as Emily Dickinson would say, it took the top of my head off. I did once buy an edition of Olds’s poems on the net from an American schoolgirl that was filled with comments (probably not quite of the Book Tree variety) such as ‘Jesus, you read to the end of the section?’ At the front of the book she’d written: ‘Hey Anna, pretty nasty at times but have fun analyzing’. She obviously didn’t realize she was sending to a huge fan of Olds but I love her annotations.

What are your plans for the future? Are you working on a new collection?

Yes. I’m writing new poems and hopefully they will turn into a book, pamphlet or something down the line.

Fantastic - I look forward to that. Thanks, Anna!


Anna Woodford is not afraid to move around the page. Most poets cling to the left-hand margin as a starting point for each poem but Woodford know the value of space. It’s possible to make an impact with just a few words if you know what you are doing and these poems do just that. – Ambit

I never thought I would use the word ‘cool’ as a compliment to characterise a young poet’s work, least of all when it deals with family material of such deep personal resonance. And yet that is my reaction to Anna Woodford’s workings in what has lately become a popular literary territory involving grandparents and immigration. The emotions are strong, and for this very reason, in relation to her material, she stands, whether consciously or intuitively, ‘at a slight angle to the universe’, as Forster famously wrote of Cavafy. She is tough-minded and tender-hearted. - Anthony Rudolf

You can buy Birdhouse from Salt over here!


[This was the second of four interviews to celebrate Salt Publishing Month]

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