Judy Brown

An Interview

Maria Isakova Bennett

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My interview with poet Judy Brown began before we had any idea of Coronavirus here in the UK or Ireland. For various reasons connected to the pandemic we broke off and returned to our interview between January and April 2020. In January we had started to discuss diaries and notebooks, and decided that despite all that was happening in the world, we would continue with our discussion and keep our talk to the issues that mattered to us when we began and on which we can hopefully focus again one day.

Judy Brown’s collections are Crowd Sensations (Seren, 2016, shortlisted for the Ledbury Second Collection Prize) and Loudness (Seren, 2011, shortlisted for the Forward and Aldeburgh first collection prizes). She has been Poet-in-Residence at the Wordsworth Trust and Gladstone’s Library. In Summer 2019 Judy held an Arts & Culture Creative Fellowship at Exeter University, collaborating with mathematicians working on uncertainty quantification. Judy won the Manchester Poetry Prize in 2010 and the Poetry London Prize in 2009.  She does poetry mentoring (including for the Poetry Society), and teaches occasionally at the Poetry School. Judy previously worked as a finance lawyer in London and Hong Kong and has taught workplace writing for the Royal Literary Fund. [http://www.judy-brown.co.uk/poems-and-interviews ]

Maria Isakova Bennett: It’s lovely to have this opportunity to talk to you about your work. We first met, I think, at a Pavilion launch in Liverpool, and later I travelled to hear you read in Sheffield. Your work has interested me so much since then — your wonderful use of language, the aural effects and powerful imagery, what has been referred to by Carol Rumens as your skills at defamiliarisation, and, although a little daunting when I first read it, the observation on Seren’s website that Crowd Sensations will be a joyful discovery for the intelligent reader. Your writing deserves and repays rereading. 

I wanted to pick up on a few points you mentioned in your interview with Julia Copus: could you talk a little about Crowd Sensations, about where the idea of the title came from and about the idea of the past being transmuted. 

Judy Brown: My pleasure and I hope I’ll be equal to your astute questions. Thanks for your close attention to my poems, I appreciate it.   

The title for Crowd Sensations is part of a quote from Elias Canetti’s book Crowds and Power, which I find strange, useful, sometimes horrible, and full of things which feel like poetry. It’s from a longer phrase ‘crowd sensations on the skin’. I think Canetti used it to describe a crawling sensation people had from DTs but it also made me think of phenomena where people acquire knowledge by feeling a second set of sensations overlaid on their skin, whether those of other people or animals drawing near, or of different parts of their own bodies. 

Ages ago I’d thought of using the book to inspire a pamphlet, but I never did. Then when my collection was fairly complete I realised the patterns in it had a connection to the book, circling between ideas of isolation and crowding, sometimes both at the same time. The full phrase was at one point the title of one of the poems, but was later changed. I loved that way of expressing how so much can read and felt on the body. My collection also has a sort of sub-pattern about elements and substances, which I discovered might also link into Canetti’s idea of crowd symbols.

MIB: I’m fascinated by the use of diaries having kept them since a teenager, and wonder about your perceptions of their use, or the use of notebooks as source material. I’m thinking here about your feelings of alarm when you read a diary from your time in Hong Kong, unread since you wrote it. 

JB: Gosh, good memory! I was never quite happy with that poem so I didn’t publish it. The shamelessness of diaries is powerful, you can’t deny them. If revisited memories, like documents, gain a new date each time you open them, an old diary unread since it was written might be an unedited sort of truth. It felt uneasily close to being physically transported into the room where I wrote it. I rarely use diaries for anything but a compulsive need to write things (like the rubbish chute). I don’t reread them much. Maybe the act of keeping them strengthens the physical link to your body and mind in the past. My diaries don’t seem useful for writing since they can never shake their insistent self-centredness. I use writing notebooks all the time too, which seem more impersonal, more concerned with what words want to do with material I’ve handed over to them. 

MIB: I find the idea that, ‘the act of keeping them [diaries] strengthens the physical link to your body and mind in the past’ a fascinating and an important one. It certainly resonates with me. The periods in which I intensely kept diaries are a part of my present in a way that more barren years aren’t, and maybe that’s due to what you’re talking about. Would you say that a diary for you is more akin to a space for freewriting/more freedom? I’m interested in how we might (personally) define the use of the places in which we write, be it, diaries, notebooks, laptop, phone, and I think that what you say gives some definition.

JB: Yes, I think I’ve found that too.  I don’t know whether that’s because the times when you need to write a lot are times of intensity, or whether the writing makes them so. 

For me a diary is something to do with playing out a sort of self where you aren’t prepared to take any account of shame. My notebooks are less concerned with who is speaking than with the texture of what’s said. Though it’s probably more blurred than that.  I’d hate to have to choose which to throw away. The writing notebooks help me write poems – my first drafts go in there, along with a anything that feels resonant, facts/words/lines that might lead to poems, notes about books I read, things I see. Diaries are just evidence; the contemporaneous note is something, whether or not it’s a lie.

MIB: You’ve had several residencies over the past few years. It would be lovely to hear about the differences between those at the Wordsworth Trust, Gladstone’s Library, and Hawthornden Castle and the different ways in which they benefitted your writing. 

JB: Those residencies feel like very distinct time periods, each so different. All of them were time fenced off from my ordinary life. I love the intensity of a residency and the chance to learn new things. Even if at times that separation and concentration leads to fear or self-questioning, the benefit reverberates through your writing long afterwards. The time to write is amazing, but the subtraction from the frame of your usual life is just as significant. The presence of those obsessive periods of learning, as well as writing, feed you for years. You lose yourself in them a little, and that uneasy distance from yourself maybe brings you closer to your poems

MIB: Thank you. I like the idea that losing yourself brings you closer to your poems. I wonder if you can talk now a little about your interest in, and use of drawing as part of your writing practice. This fascinates me as someone who loves the idea of mark-making (usually with stitch now) as both a process linked to and apart from writing. 

JB: I’m not very skilled but I really love drawing and painting. I did it a lot in the years I wasn’t writing. I thought it might just be a means of finding my way back to poems but realised it’s a continuous part of that. I would never want to give it up; I can’t keep my presence of mind without it.  Sometimes when writing very intensely I stop doing visual things, but generally it’s an activity that feels as if it keeps me writing. Because it’s not my vocation it feels like pure play; I don’t have the responsibility towards it that I do to writing. It’s good to be in a realm which is gesture and colour and allows you silence, or maybe a different kind of speech.

You totally nailed it by saying it’s linked to and apart from writing.  I experience it in precisely that way – a place you go to for escape but also for help, which breathes newness into your work. Sometimes it seems as if it allows me to stay in a place which might be painful (as writing can be) or, alternatively, which just isn’t giving you any words. Without the visual (and physical) play, you might be inclined to mentally or physically leave too soon. Also, it’s comforting somehow. I don’t think of writing as reassurance, however much I love it.

MIB: As a poet who came to publishing work ‘quite late in life’, I’m referring to a comment in your Julia Copus interview, I wonder if you can talk a little about how this has affected your writing and attitudes toward your life as a writer (I’m thinking about how youth has passion and energy, and not that these things leave us, but age brings experience too). 

JB: What I mainly felt about being allowed to have a writing career later was massive surprise. And gratitude and an excitement that never goes away.  It’s a reprieve I didn’t believe I deserved, having stopped writing for 13 years. I’m not sure I bring any resolved experience, but I do have a memory of another life that was more arid than I wanted. It makes me feel I don’t really mind what I have to give up, because I know what it’s like to not have this.

The downside might be knowing that I haven’t got a whole lifetime to explore and develop. Starting late leaves you misaligned to your generation, so it’s harder to surf at first on the current mode and then find out where you want to veer off. But I trust it, I guess, that it stayed alive all that time and knows where it wants to go.

MIB: I’m especially interested in your latest project as part of Exeter 

University Arts & Culture Fellowship with Professor Peter Challenor. Can you tell us about the kind of work you did and what came out of that residency? 

JB: I had a great time, which I’ve written about for Poetry New (a short film about the fellowship is linked below). I spent five weeks in the Institute of Data Science and Artificial Intelligence having the most invigorating conversations with Peter Challenor and his team. They were generous with their time and managed to find the vocabulary (and patience) to answer my daft-sounding questions and to throw metaphors back and forth with me so I could get as close as possible not just to the amazing applications of their work (which include climate prediction and heart surgery) but how it felt to them.   

The brief for the fellowship was concerned with process as well as with product so I was able to spend time visually documenting my response to all the newness rather than my first thought having to be: What can I make of this?  Of course it did lead to poems, and is still doing so, but the free approach allowed them to evolve naturally.  I wrote the first poem on the train home after the first week, and most of the others away from Exeter. When there I was torn between wanting to write and worrying I’d miss the once-in-a-million chance to learn something I might not get that close to again.

MIB: I’d love to know more about the Process Notebooks you mention in relation to the residency at Exeter? Just the words, Process Notebooks excite me having kept journals and sketchbooks of process when I studied and made art. 

JB: The fellowship’s emphasis on process made me see how important the absorption of the amazing stuff coming my way would be. Responding visually as well as in words helped me spend time with material I didn’t fully understand, and maybe got me a bit closer to the real maths. I used a big A3 Seawhite sketchbook where I created a visible panorama for each day, demonstrating how I write (collect language, feel for metaphors, ask questions, encounter new things, people and ideas – then unstructured playing and making connections). It felt like a safe place to be in when my ignorance might otherwise have scared me too much. It also allowed me to communicate something about my creative process, and to show my hosts how what I was being told entered my poems. 

I don’t really want to give this up, and I’m still using these to process what I learned. I also got interested in how visual artists use their notebooks and sketchbooks - I felt I could really learn from that. As a result, artist Wanda Brookes (http://www.wandabrookes-art.co.uk/) and I started a small sketchbook exchange round a topic we both want to explore. To see how she moves with an idea and how different that is to my process, is a fascinating doorway into fresh thinking.

MIB: Thank you so much for all you’ve shared, Judy. I love the idea of different art forms working in parallel and learning from each other, something again close to my heart in work for Coast to Coast to Coast. Our discussion has really pushed forward my own ideas and I feel sure your thoughts and experience will be of immense value to writers and artists from many disciplines.