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Antony Dunn
Interview Date: Sat 9 Apr 2011
Antony Dunn was Born in London in 1973, he currently lives in Leeds. He has published three collections of poetry, Pilots and Navigators (Oxford University Press), Flying Fish (Carcanet OxfordPoets) and most recently Bugs (Carcanet OxfordPoets). In 1995 Antony won the Newdigate Prize and he received the Eric Gregory Award in 2000. He works as a tutor for The Poetry School and Arvon Foundation and is currently the Head of Communications at Yorkshire Dance. In 2010 Antony was Poet in Residence at Ilkley Literature Festival and he is now Assistant Director of Bridlington Poetry Festival.

Your Questions Answered:

Edmund Prestwich has praised your 'fluency, delicacy and inventive assurance of... versification' these skills can often be lost in contemporary poetry, what do you consider the constraints of poetry to be?
Question By: Cara Brennan

Well, they can often be lost in contemporary poetry, I suppose, but the best of contemporary poetry has all of those things as much as poetry from any period in our past.

The constraints? I’m not sure quite how to answer that. In my own writing, I tend to inflict technical constraints on myself and my poems – line-length, stanza-length, syllable-counts, rhyme schemes and so on – partly as a way to make myself consider every word’s weight ruthlessly. I find that helps, some people don’t. I’m not sure it’s fair to say that poetry has any constraints, inherently. The possibilities are infinite.

You work as a tutor for the poetry school and the Arvon foundation, could you briefly explain how different the process of writing poetry is to teaching it - did you have any inspiring poetry tutors when you were young? If so what was the most imporant thing they taught you...
Question By: Cara Brennan

As different as different can be. Though the Arvon experience is an interesting one. They’re week-long residential courses in beautiful country houses, with no access to television, radio or the internet. I’m not the most prolific of writers, but when I’m away at an Arvon course, I tend to write a burst of three or four poems in that week. And that’s partly because I find the teaching aspect of it so stimulating. It’s inspiration in every way to be among a group of 15 students who are discovering, exploring and stretching their creativity. That rubs off.

I was very lucky as a teenager that I met David Hughes, a teacher at my school – not that he taught me, formally, ever – who recognised my potential. I was in a pop group, and wrote hundreds of lyrics which somehow fell into his hands. He took the trouble to write some helpful notes about them, suggesting that I might like to think about formalising their structures a bit, and taking out the bits that went, “Oooh, baby” and so forth, and thinking about them more as poems. And I did. And it was more exciting than writing pop lyrics had ever been.

I was also inspired by a poet called Nigel Forde, who was the father of a girl from our rival school next door who I went out with for several years. He had an amazing library of poetry books which I plundered throughout those years. He also lives in a beautiful house in the middle of nowhere a few miles outside York, which is the perfect environment for writing. And he was very happy to sit up very late into the night reading my poems and giving me good advice about where I was going wrong.

Then, at university, I was taught Middle English by Bernard O’Donoghue, who was at that stage publishing his first or second full-length book of poems. He was very, very generous with his time, reading my poems and making suggestions. And generally being a great influence in all sorts of ways – his modesty about his work, his knowledge and his quiet, intensely moving poems seemed to add up to a model of the kind of poet I wanted to be.

So they were all informal ‘tutors’ of poetry. I’ve not had any formal tutoring in writing at all. But the most important thing that they taught me, all of them, was to read. Read everything. Go back to Anglo-Saxon verse and read everything up to today. Read from around the world. You can’t contribute much new to an art-form if you don’t know all there is to know about it.

As poet-in-residence at last year's Ilkley Literature Festival you had the opportunity to represent a community based literature project. How important are these sorts of events for promoting literature, and were there events similar to this when you were a young writer that inspired you to continue?
Question By: Cara Brennan

Ilkley’s got a very special place in my heart, actually. It, and all the festivals like it, are crucial, not only because they being big names to a particular place for an identifiable stretch of time, but because they put so much effort into engaging young people, and people whose normal engagement with literature may not be that great.

There may have been events like that around when I was starting out, but I don’t remember them. Maybe that’s just a feature of where I lived, though. I do remember being very excited to be asked to read at the first York Literature Festival with Ian Duhig, back in 1998 or 1999.

Since then, I’ve really come to love festivals and readings. The writing is the main thing, but I do love standing in front of real people and reading to them.

Winning the Newdigate prize when you were 26 must have been a total confidence boost, have you always wanted to be a writer - and did winning this prize re-affirm the importance of writing poetry for you, in a climate where it's so difficult to establish a career?
Question By: Cara Brennan

Yes – an amazing boost. I’d had my first book published by that stage, and been dropped by my publisher, Oxford University Press, along with the whole of their contemporary poets list. So it felt like a vulnerable time. It didn’t so much re-affirm the importance of writing for me as reassure me that there were people who believed my writing was worth reading. And that’s a useful spur to keep your writing going.

One of the great things about it was the prize ceremony in a very flash roof-top bar in London. Living in York, as I did then, I felt a very long way from the poetry community, so spending an evening in the company of my heroes like Dannie Abse and Hugo Williams made me feel a little more linked-in – a little more as if I belonged.

For what it’s worth, I don’t like thinking of poetry as a ‘career’. I have a career, in arts marketing. Poetry’s much more important to me than a career.

Your most recent collection 'Bugs' flows wonderfully when considering the theme in it's varying forms, did the theme come before of after the poems were written, and does it even matter which order?
Question By: Cara Brennan

Yes, Bugs. I gave myself a real headache with that. When I’d published Flying Fish in 2002, I didn’t write anything for a long time, then the first four or five poems I wrote, by sheer coincidence, happened to have insects in them. So I decided, with only four or five poems written, that the new book was to be called ‘Bugs’. And then everything I wrote had, somehow, to fit the title. I think that meant I abandoned lots of poems which I might otherwise have finished, and the book took forever to write. And I was thinking of it, throughout, as a Book with a capital ‘B’, rather than as one poem, then another poem, then another poem.

I’ve mixed feelings about it now – I’m very proud of the book, and of the way it all feels as if it belongs together, but it was torture at times. At the moment, I’m just writing poems. No plan, no title, no deadline – just poems. And I’m writing rather more quickly, and rather more happily, now than I did in the process towards Bugs.

Your poetry translations are wonderful, I especially enjoyed 'The Scythe' - how did these projects come about, has it been something you've always been interested in?
Question By: Cara Brennan

Thanks. It’s been fascinating to work with poets from Holland (including Marieke Barnas, who wrote ‘The Scythe’), China, Hungary and Israel on my translation projects. It started with a trip to Budapest to read for a poetry society there. I hatched a plan with that society to bring a group of five young British poets out the following year, and we received amazing financial and practical support from the British Council. We travelled with six Hungarian poets to a beautiful place called The Translators’ House on the shore of Lake Balaton and spent several days swapping poems with them, talking about them in minute details, translating them (or making ‘versions’, perhaps) and discussing the results.

The different projects have all worked in different ways, but at the heart of them all has been spending time in a quiet place with a poet from a different country and culture, talking a lot. I didn’t realise I would be so interested in it, but the trips to Israel and China in particular have been among the most challenging and rewarding things I’ve done in my life. Russia next, please, if anyone out there can pull any strings...

What are your top tips for young writers wanting to get published?
Question By: Cara Brennan

Read a lot, write a lot and grow a thick skin to deal with the inevitable rejections (which don’t stop, just because you’ve been published). And remember that editors are people, too.