FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
ANN GRAY: I have written poetry for as long as I have written anything. I kept journals and wrote scraps of things for years, but started writing in earnest in the 1990s. I was drawn to poetry for its music, even if I didn’t always understand what it was saying. At school, at 12, I fell in love with Milton, later Tennyson and later still, Thom Gunn and Ted Hughes, Elizabeth Bishop.
FAF: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
AG: I always knew I wanted to write poetry. I felt I was able to say more. There was a space inside the poem which I rarely found in prose. There was so much to learn. I found Arvon courses invaluable, workshops given by established poets. For me, the word POET is huge. I am always happy to say I write, but the title, poet, feels like an honour that others can bestow, not something you can call yourself. I only feel anything close to being a poet when I am in the the ecstasy of writing something that feels good. It used to happen more! Now, I find myself so self critical, always trying to make it better, gnawing away at that last line.
FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
AG: What does being shortlisted for the Forward prizes mean? Everything! It’s an honour. It means, as a poet, that you count. Massive, overwhelming, exciting doesn’t come close to covering it. It also comes at a time when I was questioning my ability to ever write anything worthwhile again!
FAF: Please tell us about the genesis of this poem. Is it part of a collection or sequence? Where can a reader find more by you?
AG: Two years after losing my partner in a road accident, I began to write a sequence of poems that would become a collection called At the Gate, (Headland Books 2008), 40 poems of which I used for my MA dissertation at Plymouth University. When the book was done, I thought I was finished with those poems, but I found there were still more. ‘My Blue Hen’ is one of those. Partly, it was made of journal notes kept over a number of years – passing a field of dandelion heads – thinking of the passage of time – a newspaper article detailing research findings into the dreams of birds – weather words from workshops. A fox had broken into my hen run in the afternoon. I knew that I had to move the birds to a safer place. The dark was falling, I was exhausted and felt very alone. I took them in twos and threes, under my arms, from the orchard we had planted together. The blue hen hid in the corner, so I took her last. The moon was up. Although I was weeping with fatigue from walking up and down the hill, I found myself singing to console her, to console myself. I came indoors, sat down and wrote – I sing to my blue hen.
I put all the words I had kept and loved into it. It was a love song and a spell.
When it won the Ballymaloe, Marie Howe wrote: This poem is unlike any poem I’ve ever read, and once I’d read it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It has a voice. It is written from necessity. It is unimaginable apart from its musicality. It holds the unsayable in a cage of clear, accessible and beautiful language. The love in it is palpable. The hen is real. And the man. The poem’s energy nearly breaks the cage of words- but does not. It pulses. It breathes. I read it again and again.
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
AG: I love and admire poets who use ordinary language in a different way; poets who are honest, who are unafraid to tell it how it is, to walk that edge. Poets who make me feel – I wish I’d written that. I love the delicacy of W S Merwin, the elegance of Don Paterson, Michael Donaghy, the magic of Medbh McGuckian, the total wonder of Paul Durcan – Frank O Hara, the grief and madness of Matthew Dickman, the beauty of Alice Oswald, Fiona Benson, the deceptive simplicity of David Woolley, the truthfulness of Barbara Ras, Ruth Stone, Marie Howe, the poetic skill of Carol Ann Duffy.
FAF: What’s next for you as a poet?
AG: Next for me is another collection. Gladys Mary Coles has been/still is/ a wonderful and supportive editor. However, she has given me her blessing to go forth from Headland, to find a bigger publishing house, to find a wider readership for my work. This is where I am now, out there in the wild, sending it out!
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
AG: My advice to anyone starting out in poetry would be to read, read, read. Be attentive, be mindful, be truthful, and take your time. Go to readings, festivals, seek out the poets whose work you love and listen to them. Talk to other poets. Live your life.