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Poet Anthony Anaxagorou on Surrealism and Nottingham Poetry Festival 2020

12 November 20 interview: Cleo Asabre-Holt

As part of this year’s stellar online Nottingham Poetry Festival line-up, we chat to Anthony Anaxagorou: publisher, writer, poetry educator, Eliot Prize nominee and all-round prolific wordsmith. We talk lockdown, surrealism and his new book How To Write It...

Tell us what we can expect from your set at the Poetry Festival... 
I’m going to read from my collection After the Formalities, then read some new stuff. What I actually do will probably change by the time this goes to print. I’m excited for it though!

So, lockdown. How has the situation impacted you and your writing? 
I wrote How To Write It over seven weeks during lockdown. So, in a way, lockdown was good because all other work was cancelled. I wasn’t going into schools, there were no meetings and no one knew what the hell Zoom was in April. So I just had time to write. 

When I get anxious and stressed, writing is a way to control those feelings so that was good too. For the first two months I found it great, but once How To Write It was done come July, that’s when I felt it. The novelty had worn off. I missed being around people and being part of the world. My life was just going from the container to home on repeat. That wasn’t great and then I started to get anxious because there was nothing I had to write. So I started writing poems again just for my own peace of mind.

Do you still find anything daunting or challenging about performing on stage? 
I don’t – I feel quite comfortable on stage. I didn’t used to, but I’ve been doing it for nearly twelve years, so now I enjoy it. I do so much talking that speaking to people about ideas, about the world, about art just feels like second nature.

Obviously when you’re doing a set each piece will have its own message, but what do you hope an audience will take from your work?
I hope they’ve participated in some way and feel involved in the poem. Any piece of literature is a two-way conversation between writer and reader. As long as they’re able to find something: a curiosity, a thought, even if it’s uncomfortable or a malaise, I’m happy. 

Who is your audience?
If I try and think too much about who’s on the other end, I get overwhelmed. I get confused, because I genuinely don’t know. 

Tell me about the surrealism aspect of your work...
Surrealism came out of trauma from World War II. Psychotherapists and artists found that if you describe a disturbing scene – like a killing or a murder – it’s very affecting to someone who’s experienced that. But if you make a suggestion of that happening through a surrealist image, it won’t impact them in the same way: they’re able to engage and move forward without feeling traumatised. 

Surrealism for me is strangeness, and strangeness is very much about giving the reader agency to navigate an image how they want. I enjoy it. I think it’s fun. I’m excited by a weird image. Rather than the writer telling me exactly what they want, it gets me thinking, ‘What does that mean?’ Then I have to do some work and stick some things together.

How do you go about coming up with strange images in your own work?
There are whole loads of things I’ll write down – objects or verbs – and muddle them up to get interesting combinations. Sometimes you get stuff that’s too unusual, so when I don’t know what something means or there’s no associative logic, I let the image go. But other images do usually work along an associative line. 

Can you tell me who your greatest influences are?
In this room alone there’s around a thousand books. Everyone in here has inspired me in some way. There’s Tony Harrison, Nicole Sealey, Lisa Epstein… There’s too many people that have affected the way I think that I literally can’t answer that! 

I know you do a lot of workshops. Which setting do you prefer – workshops or performance?
One is the theory and one is the practice: workshops are where you develop theory, critical knowledge and intellectual understanding of an art form. The live space is where you try it out and say, ‘Here we go! What do you guys think?’ 

They’re both present at this juncture, but I like workshopping and thinking about why poems work, how they affect us, the different things they can do and their possibilities and impossibilities. With gigging, different gigs bring different audiences who you’ll respond to differently. But a gig is a gig. Now, the exciting thing for me is taking a blank piece of paper and seeing what I can make that didn’t exist before. 

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to be a professional poet or wanting to get published? 
I would say: you must keep going. It’s a long and arduous process to read, to workshop, to think, to discuss poetry. Maintain a critical angle on what you do. Keep pushing ideas, forms and ways of writing. Probably the most important thing is to ask yourself: ‘Why am I doing this?’

Don’t get too fixed up thinking you have to write poems – there are other forms you can work in. Keep an open mind and don’t get too obsessed with thinking, ‘If this piece isn’t a poem I need to scrap it’. It could be a short story. 

Thankfully, the current poetry landscape is a lot more representative, holistic and inclusive. Ten years ago, there was a perceived way of writing and publishing, whereas now, loads of indie presses (Penned in the Margins, Out-Spoken, Nine Arches, Carcanet, Blood Axe) are bringing in interesting voices. 

Is there anything you want to say about your book that you haven’t already?
It’s a resource for people who might just be coming into writing or thinking about publishing but aren’t sure what to do. It’s practical, aimed at helping to dispel some myths and assuage the anxieties people might have about publishing work. 

You can see Anthony’s set as part of Nottingham Poetry Festival 2020. Make sure to keep an eye on the Nottingham Poetry Festival website for a rebellious act in the name of poetry. From what we’ve heard, they might just have a few tricks up their sleeve...

Nottingham Poetry Festival website

Anthony Anaxagorou website

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