Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Antony Mair

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

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Antony Mair

After a degree in English from Magdalen College, Oxford in the 1960s, Antony spent a year in Germany teaching in Heidelberg before entering a Benedictine monastery for three years. This was followed by a job as manager of a shop in New Bond Street in London’s West End, and then training as a solicitor, which led to a career in the City as a commercial lawyer, specialising in international transactions and European Community law. He left the City in 2005 and moved to the Dordogne, where he ran an estate agency with his partner Paul McQuillan for seven years, returning to England in 2012 to live in Hastings. Having completed five unpublished novels over several decades, Antony turned to poetry, his other love, and completed an MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University. After being published in a number of poetry magazines, he had two collections published in 2018 – the first, Bestiary and Other Animals, by Live Canon, after it had been shortlisted in the Live Canon First Collection Competition 2017, and the second, Let the Wounded Speak, by Oversteps Books.

The Interview

  1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

It’s only recently that I have regarded poetry as something to specialise in, rather than as something that I wrote in addition to anything else. My first writing was as a child, when my father gave me a model theatre: I wrote small plays which I acted out on the tiny stage with characters on rods, in front of my family, who must have been bored stiff. Our house was full of books – my grandmother was an avid Dickens reader, and introduced me to him at a young age. I was reading War and Peace at the age of eleven, I recall – probably without understanding much of it.

I came to poetry in my teens. I still have books given to me or bought in my schooldays – the Penguin Modern Poets series, Charles Causley, Ezra Pound – a miscellaneous grouping. I remember wallowing in Tennyson’s In Memoriam as a teenager. That was the time I first started writing my own poetry. I used to have it published in the local paper, the Reading Mercury. I suspect that, for reasons too complex to go into here, poetry was a way of discovering my identity as an outsider. At the 2018 Torbay Poetry Festival I won the Festival Challenge with a poem that gives a bit of a clue to my thinking at the time:

MATERIALS FOR A POETRY QUIZ

A traveller knocked at my childhood’s door
and a mirror cracked from side to side.
Hiawatha wooed an Indian squaw
and a knight-at-arms loitered before he died.

Then Prufrock, Prytherch and Ezra Pound
appeared in my dreams, arm in arm with John Donne,
later joined by some wilder friends I found,
like Swinburne and Ginsberg, and then Thom Gunn.

“Come join us,” their voices seemed to say,
“in Tara’s halls and in caves of ice,
in a Wicklow shed or in old Cathay,
and you’ll taste the nectar of Paradise.”

“For we’re the skylarks whose blithe spirits sing,
the nightingales perched in enchanted trees.
Come and drink from the well of Mount Helicon’s spring
and we’ll teach you to warble with full-throated ease.”

So under my old friends’ watchful eyes
I took my pen, like Seamus, and dug –
not yet, perhaps, for a Nobel prize
but some kindly words and a Festival mug.

2. Who bought or gifted you the books?

I bought them out of pocket money – I was given a fixed sum each week that included bus fares to school, but I used to walk to school, so saving money for books. Some I got as school prizes, some as Christmas or birthday presents from family.

3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

The quick answer to that question is: very much. A number of the poems in my two books are intertextual – for example, “N” in Bestiary, which stands for Nightingale, refers to Keats and adopts the stanza and rhyme structure of his “Ode to a Nightingale”, as well as incorporating some of Keats’ wording. My hesitation, though, in answering your question, arises from your word “dominating”. I don’t feel dominated by the great poets – it goes without saying that I shall never rise to their stature, but at the same time we have a lot in common in the creative process. They are faced with the same challenges as the rest of us – it’s just that they meet them better! We swim in the same pond, even if I’m a minnow and they’re a magnificent trout.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I wish I could say I have a daily writing routine. But I don’t find it works like that. Poems depend on an idea rising, and then gestating. I am currently working on a book-length sequence of poems that will cover the life of Mary Queen of Scots. This requires a series of preparatory steps: doing the basic historical research; deciding on the event to cover in a poem; deciding on the “voice” to be used in the poem – e.g. some are done in Mary’s voice, others in the voices of courtiers or attendants – all before pen is put to paper. Quite a lot of this development happens in the background of the mind, I find.
I try to do something involving poetry each day – it may be simply reading other poets, or it may be writing, or submitting to magazines etc. Probably at least an hour or so, sometimes more – often in the evening.

5. What motivates you to write?

It seems such a simple one, doesn’t it? But the quick answer is: I don’t know. What happens is that an idea comes into my head – it could be because of something I’ve experienced, something in the news, something in a book I’m reading – and it starts nagging at me until I have to put pen to paper. I don’t write to achieve recognition or status, nice though these are when they come. It’s just a reflex that is part of my nature. Not a very satisfactory answer, I know, but that’s the way it is.

6. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

I’m not sure that they do. To take Keats as an example: I recall wallowing in his lushness as an adolescent, without really analysing the craft. When I did a poem called “Nightingale” in my Bestiary I followed the stanza and rhyme structure of his Ode for all of two stanzas, which was an interesting exercise, and made me appreciate how skilled he is. Equally, if I now try to translate something by Baudelaire, for example, I appreciate his talent in quite a different way from the comparatively superficial enjoyment I had as young. Exercises like this don’t so much give rise to them influencing me, but are very illuminating in showing the shared challenge of strict forms. There is much in the creative process that is common to all poets, and binds us all together even if we are on very different levels. When it comes to influence, I was probably quite strongly influenced at the outset by Thom Gunn, whom, again, I first read when I was quite young. However, I only discovered Seamus Heaney about ten years ago, and the poets I most admire and am arguably most influenced by are people I have read in the past decade.

7. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

Where do I start. By “today’s writers” I assume you mean people alive – otherwise I’d have put Seamus Heaney at the top of the list. But, staying with Ireland, I have to put Derek Mahon just behind Seamus. A very different poet, but a master of form. I like his culture and his cosmopolitanism. I like the early Muldoon very much – less so with his clever-clever later stuff.
John Burnside for his extraordinary atmospherics. Robin Robertson – his Man Booker shortlisted verse volume The Long Take is extraordinarily powerful. I admire Liz Berry for the power of her writing, and its mix of folklore and modern. Alice Oswald for her ability to create a magical atmosphere. I didn’t care for Simon Armitage a lot, but his last collection – The Unaccompanied – has made me revise my view completely, and I am a convert.
I like poets who create an emotional resonance – I’m not particularly interested in those who are obsessed with language or who write poems that, on closer examination, have little emotional content.
8. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

The quick answer is: because I have to. That, however, only takes the matter one step on. Let me say, rather, that it’s an inner compulsion. When I look back over my life, it has always been there. An idea will come into my mind, like a shape pressing against a curtain: indistinct, but insistent. It has to find a shape, literally a definition. That shape may be prose or poetry.

I have a vivid recollection of doing an essay for my English teacher at the age of eleven or twelve. I can’t remember the subject, precisely, but I invented some fictional scenario with invented characters. What I remember most clearly is the teacher saying “Where do these people come from?” The answer is now as it was then: I don’t know. They are part of me, and I carry them like children waiting to be brought into the world. Nor is it just characters of this kind – it may also be an experience, a moment caught like a photograph, needing to be developed and shared.

9. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

I’m not sure I can answer this. I would start by taking refuge in definitions – what do you mean by “a writer”? is it someone who earns their living from writing? Or is it someone who simply has writing as the predominant activity in their day to day life? Or is it something else altogether?
The answer to the original question will depend on the answer to these subordinate ones. I suppose the quick answer is:
– Take your pen or your laptop and write something (if this is too hard, there are prompts and techniques that can be found on the net)
– Learn techniques – read some of the increasing number of books written for students of creative writing, attend classes, courses and workshops
– Get feedback – from your peers, teachers and editors
– Be very patient and don’t be discouraged
– Start again at the beginning of the list – I.e. take your pen or your laptop etc.

10. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

I have been working for a year, now, on a sequence of poems that cover the life of Mary, Queen of Scots. They are written in a variety of forms and in different voices – sometimes Mary herself, sometimes a servant or bystander, sometimes an omniscient narrator. The intention is to do between fifty and sixty poems in all. I think it will take me another year to complete. The process is quite laborious: I do the research as I go, then decide on which moment to cover, then the voice and the form, trying to preserve the reader’s interest by maintaining variety. I have reached the stage where I am going to have to submit what I have done so far to one or two people to make sure that I’m on the right track. Having said that, it may all turn out to be unpublishable.
I have also been intending to have another look at some of my unpublished novels, to see whether they could possibly be revamped or revived.

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