Americana and Anne-Marie Fyfe

Listen to two poems from Fyfe's new collection, Understudies, and discover how America has shaped her work

Anne-Marie Fyfe is an award-winning poet, runs The Troubadour poetry venue in London and was chair of The Poetry Society for three years. Yet, growing up in Northern Ireland, she never wanted to become a writer.

‘There was poetry in the air,’ she says, name-checking Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon and Mebdh McGuckian. ‘I just never thought about writing poetry. If anything, I wanted to be a painter.’

Luckily for the art world, Fyfe changed her mind and her latest collection of new and selected poems, Understudies, has just been published by Seren Books. Fyfe cocks her head thoughtfully and describes the process of winnowing through her previous collections as ‘liberating'. 'You get all these poems off-side,' she says.

In fact, since the collection went to print, Fyfe has been writing much new material. She does concede, however, that it was strange to go back and see some of her older poems with fresh eyes. ‘There is a distance from the poem,’ she admits. ‘You forget how you felt about the poem when you wrote it, the inspiration for it.’

Off-handedly Fyfe adds that Carol Rumens recently wrote about her poem ‘Interstate', when it was chosen as The Guardian’s poem of the week.

She isn’t boasting – although she has the right to – just segueing into a discussion about what writers put into poems and what readers take out of them.

‘It was interesting to see her observations and what she said about the “voice” in the poem,’ Fyfe muses. ‘Sometimes people think you are the person in the poem, that you do that or think that. A lot of people say to me, “Oh, but you seem so cheerful”. I suppose some of my poems aren’t a lot of laughs, but that’s what you do with poems.’

Fyfe agrees that her work does have a ‘great deal of me’ in it, but explains that the ‘voice’ is a character she assumes. An inveterate people-watcher, many of her poems are inspired by stories attributed to innocent passers-by and informed by her own philosophy.

‘One poem in Understudies – it’s called ‘The Mass of Men' after that line by Thoreau – was written at the Yeats Summer School,’ Fyfe says. ‘I saw this man sitting alone in the café with the staff putting the chairs up on tables. He reminded me of Edward Hopper's painting 'Nighthawks', just that lonely figure in a café. I relocated the setting and wrote about this character, making the poem a complete story about him.’

Complete enough that one reviewer said Fyfe should have written a novel about that poem. She isn’t so sure about that. The scale of the novel daunts her, and the commitment to writing about one character for so long. She prefers the brevity of poetry, where she can write two chapters of information in two lines.

For better or worse, Fyfe is a poet. Although, with the recent arts cuts in England, the ‘worst’ must seem a worrying reality. ‘It is going to be harder for poets not with the four or five big houses, but it has always been like that. Poets have always had a harder time finding publishers, finding regular work and readings.’ Fyfe smiles and shrugs. ‘You’ve always had to have a day job.’

Fyfe argues that is easier in America, where lots of poets are teachers and can get sabbaticals to write poetry. She has a soft spot for America and American poetry, citing Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Sexton and Mark Halliday as some of her current favorites.

Many of her poems are set there too, something she attributes to the influence of American culture in her childhood. ‘We had American movies and American TV and family in America who would send you American dollars,’ she comments poetically. It is the Mid-West that incites her poetic sensibilities though. ‘That great expanse between New York and LA, the strangeness of it.’

In the end, Fyfe is glad that she ended up a poet rather than a painter. She likes the form of the poem better, ‘it’s less messy, all you need is a pen’.

 Listen to 'Central Time' by Anne-Marie Fyfe