Anna Woodford completed her PhD in Creative Writing at Newcastle University in 2009. Her debut poetry collection, Birdhouse has won the 2009 Crashaw Prize. She tells NCLA about writing thank-you cards, becoming poet-in-residence in Durham University’s Law School and peahens.
The downright filthy cry of a peahen was the inspiration behind the title poem in Birdhouse. Other than that there are poems in the book about a nun teaching a sex education lesson, an endless pair of legs, running away from school and my grandmother burying diamonds under her floorboards.
A sequence in the book is inspired by my grandfather who was Jewish and Polish and managed to escape to Nottingham just before the outbreak of the second world war. He had to leave his parents behind and, later, when he discovered what had happened to them in the concentration camps he had a breakdown. After he recovered, he became a naturalised British citizen and changed his name from Ludwick Magenheim to Richard Woodford (my grandmother picked out Woodford from a London map). The sequence was published as Trailer (Five Leaves, 2007) and was a Poetry Book Society Choice.
I’m interested in the ‘me, me, me’ voice of the ‘I’ speaker in poems by Sharon Olds, and chose to concentrate on that for the research element of my PhD. The voicing of the intimate narrative of her poems often positions the reader as a confidante. It is something I explore in my own work in Birdhouse.
I gave up a job in PR after a writing residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland; during the residency I realised that I wanted to concentrate on writing full-time. I opted to take the Creative Writing MA at Newcastle University as part of that decision. There were brilliant poets teaching on the course and it was wonderful to have the opportunity to give up the 9-5 and immerse myself in the whole experience.
The PhD followed on naturally from the MA; I wanted to study my chosen subject – Sharon Olds – in detail. Producing a portfolio of creative work was an element of the doctorate: I would have been writing poetry anyway but appreciated the opportunity to get regular feedback.
Writing thank-you cards is my chosen genre at the minute, having just had a baby. I am managing to get quite a bit of poetry written as well though and even managed to write a poem (in my head) on the night we came home from the hospital.
I’ll be working for a year as poet-in-residence at Durham University’s Law School from October 2010. The project is funded through a Leverhulme Award which I received jointly with Professor Tom Allen. We’re interested in memory and identity – how law and poetry seek to compensate people for loss. In the case of law, this can be loss of land, people, places of worship or even human remains. I will work on a sequence of poems and Tom will disseminate the experience though journal articles.
I’ve always written poetry – apart from reviewing poetry, the only other form of writing I do is the occasional piece of copy-writing. In 2007 I wrote a book with Wendy Scott at Inspire to commemorate the launch of Sean Henry’s Couple statue in Newbiggin. Last year I wrote a series of responses to pieces of artwork around Durham for Commissions North – it was a great project involving lots of strange daytrips out looking at pieces of art from Dun Cows to illuminated miners’ hats, from poems on street signs in Chester-le-Street to curly-wurly cycle paths in Consett.
The Saturday Guardian Review did a special issue a few weeks ago where they asked lots of writers for tips – and the things that kept coming up were what you’d expect - write, and read. There was also some advice about not having children or indeed personal relationships and avoiding London – but (I think, I hope) they were joking!
Anna’s debut collection and winner of the Crashaw Prize, Birdhouse, will be published by Salt later this year.
Interview by Viccy Adams.