Poet and novelist Nick Browne speaks to Tracy Gaughan

Poet and novelist Nick Browne talks to Tracy Gaughan about gender bias, cultural identity, the benefits of constructive criticism and how poetry sustains us in times of crisis.

Nick Browne is an established novelist and aspiring poet and poetry critic. Her work has appeared in Acumen and  Ink, Sweat, and Tears and has been anthologised by Eyewear and Indigo Dreams.  Nick is also the author of nine YA (Young Adult) titles published by Bloomsbury. Here, she speaks to Abhaile Editor, Tracy Gaughan about gender bias, cultural identity, the benefits of constructive criticism and how poetry sustains us in times of crisis.

Nick, you are an established novelist (many people will be familiar with your YA titles) transitioning to poetry.  Has the move to verse given rise to a new voice?  What do you put into your poems that you leave out of your books?  Do you think poets have more permissions than novelists do?

I’ve published nine YA novels with Bloomsbury as N M Browne and I was hoping a tenth book would be coming out this year with a small publisher but that was before Covid-19 so all bets are off. Poetry has been an exploration for me – a form of play too. I love messing around with form and when you are used to writing 80,000 words, saying something in a few hundred is both a challenge and also a liberation.  

YA fiction tends to be very tight – I try and write in short sentences, I rarely describe anything for more than a couple of lines and, because I am focused on plot, I minimise character introspection. Writing a YA novel is like boarding an express train, you want to get to your destination as efficiently as possible and any detours must enhance the journey. So pretty well everything I explore in poetry I would leave out of my books. 

Poetry is such a different form and I am not under any illusions about having mastered it. I am very much still learning about what I can do but, because of that I don’t have any of the constraints I impose on myself in fiction. They may come, but at the moment I give myself permission to try anything. In fiction I have a clear sense of how I want the story to work and my writing is subordinate to storytelling. I edit out anything irrelevant. In my poetry it is all about the writing and what is irrelevant in a story may be the heart of a poem, so in a way poetry is the alter ego of my fiction. 

In your capacity as a fiction writer, you have previously said that although all of your stories have something in common, each book requires new skills and new ways of making a story work.  What, in your opinion, makes a poem work?  What do you think most well-written poems have in common?

That is a very hard question. I think I know when my own poems work. My heart genuinely beats faster and I get gut butterflies. It is both very visceral and very rare.  Beyond that I think it has something to do with the integrity of a piece. In fiction, words should serve the story not the story-teller, ego disappears, and in a good poem the words serve the poem not the poet. Everything in the poem, even its silences and omissions, work together so that something transformative happens; the reader sees the world a little differently, has thoughts and perceptions they didn’t have before, hears the sounds of the words as new music. A good poem is a tiny grenade of someone-else-ness that for a moment blows up your usual way of seeing the world. It leaves an afterburn in your mind and a strange taste on your tongue. I’m sorry that’s not a very intellectual answer, but maybe all good art does that same thing? 

You hold a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and have taught at various universities and at the Arvon Foundation.  Can you tell us a little about your work as a writing teacher?  How do you make students good writers?   Do you regard teaching as a craft as Heaney did?

I love teaching and I think that too is about allowing people to see their own work from a new angle. You try to understand what another writer is trying to do and then engage imaginatively with that to suggest an approach that might help them achieve it better. Reading is the greatest teacher, but you have to notice what you are reading. I currently work for Oxford Continuing Education but have taught kids, undergraduates, post-graduates and leisure courses. They are all much more similar than you would think because everyone makes the same mistakes. All my teaching is about pinpointing what is and isn’t working in a piece of work, and somehow sharing that insight. If you can find a way of illuminating the problem so that students see if for themselves, then they can also work out ways to fix it. A good teacher can suggest possible solutions, but the best teachers sharpen students’ perceptions and sensitivities so they can resolve things for themselves.

Perhaps teaching is a craft insofar as, with reflection and experience, you can get better at it, but it is a wholly different craft from that of writing. Having said that, if I’m doing a lot of teaching, I don’t write much because it uses a lot of creative energy. 

I have taught quite a few students who have subsequently published work. They have tended to be avid readers, open to criticism, prepared to take an axe to their words if that would make them better. They make themselves into good writers, but I am quite useful at pointing out where they could be better. 

How do you think you’ve evolved as a writer over the years?

Nowadays I am much more unsentimental and precious about my writing than I used to be. If you want to improve you have to learn to accept criticism and separate your ego from the work. I can still be a bit ungracious about it, but I have learned to value it and act on it. I am in the Barnes and Chiswick Stanza group which has a number of excellent published poets and their insights are definitely accelerating my poetic development. 

I learn by doing and so I write a lot, often very fast. There is a lot to be said for ignorance and raw energy, but a lot of these raw poems are terrible. These days I am better at distinguishing between those I should rework and those I should probably bin. 

I am an optimist though, so I still believe my best work is yet to come.

We know from psychology that human beings are rational in principle but they err in practice.  In your poem Lockdown, you examine human behaviour in the grip of a global pandemic.  What do you think happens to our reason and rationale in times of crisis? And of poetry, why do we turn to it?  Is it important that poets document difficult times?

I think a lot of what we are doing is to do with distracting ourselves, self-soothing, and normalising the bizarre by migrating our usual activities online. I think that is quite rational, but some of the ways we distract ourselves perhaps aren’t. Frightened people do stupid things and I think all of us are frightened at some level about money, jobs, family, health the decline of western civilisation – all the usual stuff.  We are all operating at that strange place between animal fear response and civilised rationality. In this odd state all kinds of bizarre behaviours are normal.  

Poetry can be both distraction and reassurance. So much literature is about facing death and embracing the minutiae of life. The music of poetry delivers such an emotional impact: the sound of it soothes and almost bypasses the intellect. It inspires and reminds us that we are not alone: our feelings are universal feelings, it is alright to be sad, joyous, melancholy and frightened perhaps all at the same time.   

I am writing a new poem every day at the moment. That is my, possibly irrational, response to the crisis. It is important to me to document this, though I can’t speak for other poets. Once this is over it will be hard to recreate what it felt like to be here now.  Most of what I am writing is as ephemeral as the news, but it will help me to remember this time and give me something to work with once it is over. 

In your poem Migration Period, you subvert the heroic sea-voyage tales of Welsh myth and juxtapose them with modern-day desperate journeys made by refugees and migrants.  How important is your Welsh heritage to your imagination/work?  How important is culture in general in shaping who we are?  And, what impact do you think such widespread cultural bereavement has on asylum seekers?

I have written about the past in my fiction so I always feel as if I am walking in the footsteps of the long dead. 

I was introduced to poetry through Under Milk Wood and my parents always claimed Welshness as a kind of genetic lottery win, involving an inherent gift for teaching, oratory and poetry. I grew up believing that an affection and affinity for alliteration was no bad thing.

I didn’t live in Wales as a child, but every holiday my teacher parents would pack up our house in Lancashire to go back ‘home’. This gave me an oddly split identity and meant that I never socialised with my friends in the holidays. This was a gift to a writer as almost everyone I know defines themselves as an outsider.  I did not belong in Wales where I was a visitor or in Lancashire where I felt like the child of exiles. I can really identify with that element of the immigrant experience.

It is good to belong, but many people have quite complex and shifting cultural identities and always have. If history tells us anything, it is that identity is not fixed and that migration and immigration is a well established pattern which has disseminated innovation and culture for as long as there have been people.  I think interesting things happen from cultural fusion. That’s not to say there is not huge loss too and disorientation but culture is dynamic. There will be poets among those asylum seekers and I really hope we get to hear their voices.

One is struck by the vivid imagery used to portray the speaker’s father in The Black Path (Bridgend). What is the nature and function of place as a theme in your work?

I am no Dickens, but like him, I find walking a way to connect with my own thoughts and with the landscape.  I am not particularly adventurous in my walking so I see the same places day after day through different weather so they become part of my internal landscape, freighted with the memory of other walks at other times. I suppose as I think most when I walk through the landscape, my thoughts and therefore my poetry tends to reflect that external environment. 

There has been a long history of gender bias in the literary canon: a male writer is a writer, a female writer is a woman.  What challenges have you faced as a professional in the industry?  Would you back platforms such as Women’s Writing Festivals for example or is that merely perpetuating the era of ‘separate spheres’?

Most of my writing career has been in children’s books which are female dominated, but I publish under the gender neutral name of N M Browne because there is a view that boys don’t read books by women. I think J K Rowling, (also published by Bloomsbury) may have changed that! I wish we could all use gender-neutral honorifics to avoid unnecessary stereotyping, hence I call myself ‘Nick’ or ‘Dr’ Browne in the hope that my gender won’t affect the way my work is perceived. 

I think perhaps the greater impact has been my own psychology. In general, and it is a massive generalisation, male writers seem more inclined to take themselves seriously. That’s not to say there isn’t external bias too, but that isn’t restricted to just gender. 

I’m in favour of opening up existing prestigious festivals to more diverse voices, rather than perpetuating ghettos, but accept that sometimes writers need support and encouragement earlier in their careers. Platforms that do that can only be a good thing.  

Tell us about some of the books you’ve enjoyed in the past year.

A former student of mine has just written a wonderful novel I can’t praise too highly: Lay Baby by VA Sola Smith published by Eyewear and I also have to recommend some new poetry books from my friends in the Barnes and Chiswick Stanza group -Konstandinos Mahoney’s Tutti Frutti, Colin Pink’s Ventriloquist’s Dummy’s Lament and Isabella Bermudez Serenade. 

This interview was conducted via email in April, 2020.

Nick Browne’s poetry will be available to read in The Blue Nib print Issue 42, forthcoming in July, 2020.

Read more about Nick Browne here

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