The Ambulance Box is the debut collection from Scottish poet Andrew Philip. Andrew was born in Aberdeen in 1975, studied linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, and spent a short while living and writing in Berlin in the 1990s. Happenstance Press published his first pamphlet, Tonguefire, in 2005, and in 2008 also released Andrew Philip: A Sampler. The Ambulance Box was published earlier this year by Salt, — now, it’s on the road, stopping at various literary sites all over the blogosphere. This week it’s One Night Stanzas‘ turn, and I took the opportunity to ask Andrew a few questions about how he became a writer, how he got from his first poem to his first collection, and why he thinks literary blogs are a good thing…
Hi Andrew, welcome to One Night Stanzas. As you know, this blog is all about ‘getting started’ in the poetry world, so that seems like a good place to begin. A lot of poets claim there was a “trigger” that started them off writing poems — an enthusiastic English teacher, a particular poem or book of poems they read and were inspired by — what was the trigger that got you writing poetry? Or did you just fall into the habit, as it were?
Many thanks for having me, Claire. Poetry was there from very early on. I distinctly remember standing up in play group making up a cowboy song on the spot. It was undoubtedly awful. Thankfully, it vanished in the performance! I also wrote little rhyming poems in my later primary school years. Somewhere, there might still be a video of an 11-year-old Andrew Philip reciting an anti-nuclear weapons poem at a Boys Brigade camp. Got a lot of stick for that, but it didn’t kill the urge.
My teens were the crucial time. I started writing songs, which gradually and naturally turned back into writing poems, which were more interesting and better than my song lyrics. The poetry we read at secondary school probably exerted some influence on that shift. I have vivid memories of reading Wilfred Owen, Jon Stallworthy’s “The Almond Tree” and, for Higher English, Norman MacCaig.
MacCaig opened me up to the idea of free verse. In sixth year, I decided I wanted to take this a bit more seriously and had to read more poetry for myself. I’ll never forget lifting my dad’s Faber Book of Modern Verse off the shelf and reading Hopkins’ “The Wreck of the Deutschland” for the first time. I felt like I was swimming in colour. It’s the closest I’ve come to synaesthesia. And my dad hasn’t got the book back.
The most influential teacher was actually my history teacher, whose class was a general education in the life of the mind. He always said he was out to create a generation of poets, heretics and philosophers.
Before publishing The Ambulance Box, you released a pamphlet, Tonguefire. It seems that nowadays, releasing a pamphlet prior to a first collection is an attractive choice for a lot of emerging poets. Do you think this is a good idea, based on your experience?
It’s a very good idea. It means your name and poetry can reach a wider audience than would otherwise be the case. People take you more seriously when you have a publication to your name and invite you to do more things. (Not that it’s a deluge, by any means.) Some great opportunities came my way as a result, such as appearing at StAnza in 2006 and being chosen as a New Voice by the Scottish Poetry Library later the same year. I’m sure people have gone on to buy the book who bought at least one of the pamphlets.
Don’t rush into it, though; you need to be ready. That is, you need sufficient good poems to make it worthwhile. How you judge that is another discussion. People I respected had started suggesting to me that I should publish a pamphlet, which was perhaps a good indicator I was ready. Tonguefire came out in 2005, when I was 30. Part of me wishes it had been earlier, but I honestly wouldn’t have been ready much earlier than that.
The second pamphlet came about because I was appearing in a HappenStance showcase reading at the Troubadour in London; Tonguefire had sold out and we wanted something of mine to sell there. Helena Nelson, the editor of HappenStance, came up with the idea of the sampler and made me guinea pig, which I was very happy to be.
I’ve also made some good friends in other HappenStance poets, particularly Rob A Mackenzie, whose comments on my manuscript for The Ambulance Box were invaluable.
How do you think Tonguefire informed and influenced The Ambulance Box — was it a natural progression or a great leap from chapbook to collection?
A pamphlet gives you something to build on. In that sense, it’s a natural progression. Several poems from Tonguefire made it into the book, some of them revised and some untouched. I took the order of the pamphlet as my starting point for The Ambulance Box, but I also wanted to ring the changes a bit with the poems that made it from the pamphlet into the book. Working out what should go in a book and how to order the poems can be a daunting task, as well as exciting, but if it started to feel overwhelming, I could always remind myself I’d already done it successfully on a smaller scale.
Again, it’s a matter of judging when you’re ready to move on from a chapbook to a full volume, which is perhaps an even trickier call than knowing when you’re ready for a pamphlet. I went on an Arvon course aimed at those considering putting together a first collection, which was helpful. It was the encouragement of others I respected, including the tutors on that course, that really gave me the confidence to push ahead with it.
The Ambulance Box has been described as being about faith, hope, death, loss, discovery and what it means to be Scottish — among other things! I think these are all fair evaluations, but did you have an overall ‘theme’ or concept in mind when putting the poems together? Did you have a specific intention for the book while you were building it, or did it come together of its own accord?
Although I wrote with the aim of a full collection in the back of my mind for a while, the poems weren’t created to fit a pre-conceived notion of what that book would be like. The thematic threads are simply a natural upshot of what drove the poems. However, when I was putting them in order, I had a rough, overall emotional trajectory in mind. I knew that the death of my son Aidan would be one strong theme in the book, but I didn’t set out to create a clear narrative. Rather, I wanted a looser sense of journey. That also fitted with the “Pilgrim Variations” sequence, which I knew I wanted to be in the middle of the book.
Range is one thing that attracts me to a collection as a reader, so that’s what I hoped to achieve too. I’m pleased that people have remarked on the book’s range and coherence. I like themed books too — such as Michael Symmons Roberts’ marvellous, rich collection Corpus, Ciaran Carson’s For All We Know or Chris Agee’s remarkable Salt collection, Next to Nothing — but you don’t need a theme to make a strong collection. All you need is strong poems. Therein lies the challenge.
Whenever a discussion strikes up on the topic of young Scottish poets (and this seems to be happening fairly regularly at the moment), your name is pretty much always mentioned. It seems you’re a bit of an ambassador for the ‘new generation’ of Scottish poets. Does this feel like a big responsibility?
Yikes! I hadn’t thought of it in quite those terms. This isn’t something I’ve set out to become, but there aren’t many other Scots in my age group published by the leading poetry presses. Cheryl Follon and Jen Hadfield are about it, and some people wouldn’t count Jen as Scottish. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t others worth reading. Some are coming through the magazines and anthologies and are publishing pamphlets. Others are publishing with smaller presses.
Also, I think this “generation” is more diffuse in age. There are several poets in their mid to late 40s who seem part of it to me — Rob A Mackenzie, Gerry McGrath and AB Jackson, for instance.
If focusing too much on youth can miss some of the best new writing, we can’t ignore the fact that there’s also a strong group of developing poets in their late teens and their 20s. I’m really excited to see what comes out of that demographic in the future. People like Charlotte Runcie and Julia Rampen show immense promise, I think. Scotland seems to me to have been doing well in the Foyle Young Poets competition, which didn’t exist when I were a lad. Neither did blogs or social networking sites, which are very much part of the scene too.
I was wondering if we could talk a little bit about your two publishers — Happenstance, who published Tonguefire, and Salt, who published The Ambulance Box. What attracted you to these publishers, and what did they bring to the publishing process — and indeed to the books?
My involvement with HappenStance was serendipity to a great extent. I was chatting with Helena Nelson — Nell, as we know her — at StAnza 2005 and told her I’d got nowhere in the Smith/Doorstop competition the previous year. She expressed an interest in seeing some of my work, so I sent her the manuscript I’d submitted to the Smith/Doorstop. There wasn’t even a whiff of HappenStance at this stage. Much to my surprise, Nell wrote back to say she was setting up a pamphlet imprint and wanted to publish my MS. After quizzing her on the details of the deal and her marketing plans, I decided to go for it. And I am mightily glad I did. Tonguefire, which was largely the MS I’d sent Nell with only three or four changes, was the first HappenStance pamphlet after her Unsuitable Poems.
As to what attracted me, I liked the idea of being in at the beginning of something and it seemed the right time. Above all, I liked Nell and respected her as a writer. She turned out to be a fine editor too.
With Salt, Chris and Jen’s openness and creativity are great attractions. Those qualities are demonstrated in their “Just One Book” campaign to save Salt from its recent recession-induced cash crisis. The breadth of Salt’s list impresses and excites me too. And the books as objects. You know how so many poetry books have that foustie poetry look, even from the big presses? Not Salt books. The cover designs are stunning and even the covers for their small number of classic titles look fresh and contemporary. Salt’s website is still the best of any publisher’s I know and they keep expanding it, refining it, innovating. There’s a sense of dynamism about the company, and the fact that it’s small — run by a husband and wife team — means you have a personal relationship with the people at the helm.
Personality plays a strong part in a writer’s relationship with their publisher. You’ve got to be able to work together. Nell, Chris and Jen are all passionate about what they do and the writers they publish. That means a lot.
Finally, I’m an avid follower of your blog, also called Tonguefire, and I know you’re very enthusiastic about blogging and the blogosphere! Why do you think it’s a good idea for writers to keep blogs?
Visibility, for one thing. I don’t post my poems on Tonguefire. Some people post all their work on their blogs, but I wouldn’t recommend an emerging writer to take that approach. Why would an editor want to publish a poem if it’s already available online? I’ve only ever posted one or two drafts and removed them after a day or two. However, I know that some people have come across my blog and gone on to buy a pamphlet or a book. They’ve told me so. Therefore, it’s part of building a readership, just as placing poems in magazines and doing readings is. The blog also provides a good way of publicising those readings and publications and it allows you to interact with the audience regardless of geography.
That leads me on to another important strand to blogging: community. I’ve got to know other poets through blogging and reading their blogs. It’s exciting to see those connections grow across the globe. For instance, this tour will be dropping by Robert Peake’s blog and Poetry Hut Blog in the States, as well as Andrew Shields’s blog in Switzerland. Before the blogosphere, it probably took far longer to build such a wide network. That sense of community is important to me; I find it nourishing and stimulating artistically and personally. In addition, it can open up opportunities for publication and readings and so help to build the audience out in the real world.
I also value blogging for the space it gives me to bat around ideas, and not always literary ones, such as my series of posts on rhyme. It helps me to clarify my thinking, though I don’t get as much time for that as I’d sometimes like. Reviewing, either on the blog or for other outlets, could be part of the same process, but I wouldn’t really have time at the moment to do much review writing to speak of. I admire those bloggers who do, especially the ones who also manage to keep writing steadily and carry on a family life!
Thanks Andrew! You can buy a copy of The Ambulance Box directly from Salt’s website, and also from Amazon. As far as I know, Tonguefire is sold out, but you can still get your hands on Andrew Philip: A Sampler at the Happenstance shop — an absolute bargain at only £2.50, and well worth it. Be sure to add Andrew’s blog to your RRS feed for more information and updates on his writing.
(Photo by Gelchy)
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