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Poetry Competitions UK
15 Jun 2011

Andrew Barber

After twenty years of writing poetry and doing almost nothing with it, Andrew was persuaded by his daughter Esina to enter the first Poetry Rivals competition, which he won in April 2010, beating 7,000 other poets en route to the final. His prize was a publishing contract, and his first collection of poems, titled 'Reflections from a Broken Mirror', was launched in October 2010. He has since done more with his writing, receiving a Highly Commended award in the Margaret Reid Prize for Traditional Verse, getting published on various on-line journals and becoming poet-in-residence for Walford Web, an EastEnders website, where his poems about the show get hundreds of hits a week and bring poetry to a new audience.

How old were you when you started writing poetry?

I was probably about 19 or 20. I had vague ideas of wanting to be a songwriter, but I wasn't very good at music back then, so they remained as poems. To be honest, I'm still not sure of the difference between poems and songs. My songs are poems set to music, and my poems are unaccompanied songs. It probably just depends on the context they're presented in. A chicken is either a meal or an egg factory depending on where you find it.

When and where was your first poem published?

I had a poem published in a new age journal called 'Witch Way Now' in the early nineties, but it was little more than a photocopied newsletter. The first time I saw my work in a real book was in 'Enlightened Cognitions' last year. It was very exciting. It arrived in late December and my wife assumed it was a Christmas present, so I didn't actually see it until Christmas Day. It was probably my favourite present of all.

Which of your poems is your favourite and why?

I think 'Food Chain Reactions' is my favourite. It is so deep in metaphor. I'm very pleased with some of them because they work on so many levels. The poem is about the class system in this country, and how the benefits system establishes and maintains an underclass. There is a line that goes 'does an angel on horseback build a cathedral in the sky?'. You could look at it literally and conclude that it is about angels being further up the food chain than us (the narrator), because they are closer to God. Being on horseback is also a literal sign of an elevated position (and traditionally, the preserve of the aristocracy, especially in wartime, while the underclass trudged as foot soldiers beside them). Angels on horseback is also an aperitif served at fancy banquets, another way of stressing the class distinction. And what are angels on horseback? Oysters wrapped in bacon on toast, or to put it another way, a pig with bread (money) that smells fishy, which is itself a metaphor for the corrupt politicians and bankers at the top of the food chain that build 'cathedrals in the sky' like Canary Wharf and the Gherkin. All the layers resolve.

Do you have a special place you write?

I do most of my writing on the sofa with the laptop burning into my thighs. But I get ideas all the time. I never have a pen (I never seem able to know where they are) so if I'm out, ideas for poems get saved as draft text messages on my phone. If the ideas are coming too fast for me to use the tiny keys, I just phone myself and leave a voicemail where I dictate any lines I've got. It seems to work. My writing is dreadful so I'd be lost without some form of technology.

How often do you write?

As often as I get ideas what to write. I'm not very disciplined. I'm not someone who gets up and writes five haikus before breakfast. I have creative patches where I feel like a lightning conductor for ideas, and I can't type fast enough to get it all down. Sometimes I will go six months without writing anything, and then I'll write twelve poems in a week. Jim Morrison said 'the role of the artist is not to invent, but to receive' and I think there's some truth in this. My poem 'Flowertimes' is actually on the subject of inspiration and where it might come from.

How would you describe your writing style?

Hopefully I don't just have the one. Some of my poems are accusatory, some joyous, some cynical, some celebrate life and some mourn it. There are haikus, ballads, lyrics, sestinas, free verse, blank verse and many other types of form. I write in the first person and the third. There are poems on love, death, science, identity, Facebook, family, global politics and my cat, to name a few. I'm interested in many things and if I'm interested in something for long enough, it will usually end up in my writing.

Who influences your work more, poets or lyricists?

I would have to say lyricists who are themselves poets. People like Roger Waters, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed were extraordinary wordsmiths. In one line ('Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free') Dylan says more about the spirit of the sixties than the whole of Sergeant Pepper. I love the way he can condense something huge into just a few words. He also did it with 'he not busy being born is busy dying', to pick just one example. But I first got into Roger Waters and his lyrics for Pink Floyd. They made me see there was a point to music. He remains my favourite lyricist. But of course I also love poetry. John Keats is one of my favourites, also John Donne. I love his self-mocking humour ('I am two fools, well I know / for loving and for saying so / in whining poetry'). Lewis Carroll was also a huge inspiration to me. He had accomplished far more than the Alice books he was famous for, and some of his poetry is heartbreaking. Ted Hughes also produced some marvellous work ('Crow' was outstanding).

Does your Bipolar disorder affect your writing?

Absolutely. I don't think I'd write in the same way without it. Most of my creative patches tend to be my manic patches. When I'm manic (in a 'high' state), my thoughts move much quicker than usual, and take unexpected pathways through my nervous system. I make connections between words that I wouldn't normally and I'm a factory for ideas. If I'm not thinking too fast for my fingers (which has happened), I've typed up some good poems at these times. The brain is running in overdrive and it is possible to think deeply about things very quickly. This has been good for my poetry. Less good for the other parts of my life, of course. When I'm depressed, it's the opposite. I've got no energy for anything, let alone something creative. But I have remembered the experience of being depressed and used it in my writing. For example, 'Downer Miner' and 'Three Twelves and a Maybe'.

How does it feel to be the first ever Poetry Rivals Adult Slam Champion?

Wonderful! It's a record that can never be broken. I couldn't believe it when I won. I really didn't think I'd performed my poem very well. But it's given me a whole new lease of life. I was going through a difficult time prior to the final and it provided the pick-me-up I needed. I'm back on my feet now and I've got a new direction that I much prefer. I feel like a real poet now. I'm probably three hundred years too late to make a living at it, but I'll give it my best shot!

Do you have any advice for anyone thinking of performing their poetry for the first time?

Do it! It's a great experience. Just listening to the other poets is a joy. Knowing that you belong among them is something to be proud of. And remember that the audience are on your side, because they're all lovers of poetry and you're a poet. It's their job to like you!

What did those few minutes on the Poetry Rivals stage at the finals feel like?

Absolutely terrifying! I thought I'd be alright because I'd been on stage hundreds of times in bands, plays, corporate presentations, etc. But because it was just me, naked except for my words, and I was in a room with a great many people who knew a great deal about poetry (they were all either judges or finalists), I went to pieces a bit. I couldn't stop my hands from shaking. But somehow, it didn't affect my voice enough to get me disqualified(!), and I won!

Would you perform your poem at a spoken word event in the future?

Yes, I would. I've joined a local writing group where we regularly read and critique each other's poems. I've been able to read there without any nerves so I think I'm alright now.

Who are your literary idols?

John Donne, John Keats, Lewis Carroll, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Blake and Ted Hughes. But like I said above, lyricists like Roger Waters, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Peter Sinfield, John Lennon and Fish from Marillion have been a big influence too, as well as novelists like Iain Banks, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. I've always been a fan of clever wordplay, as well as the ability to communicate deep and complicated ideas in a pithy, decorative and understandable way, and everyone on this list is very good at that.

How would you describe your book, 'Reflections from a Broken Mirror'?

It is a series of postcards I have sent to myself over the years, reminding me what I was thinking. It is a guidebook of where thoughts can go. It is the reflections of a broken world, refracted by the mind of a madman. It is a collection of poems that cover many different aspects of life, and I hope people will enjoy it.

Can you sum up 'Reflections from a Broken Mirror' in 3 words …

No, I can't! It is impossible. But if you were to press me, I'd have to say 'diverse worldly observations' or maybe 'poems about everything'. Maybe just 'this is me'.

Andrew is also a musician and has set several of the poems from his book to music. They can be found here: http://www.reverbnation.com/reflectionsfromabrokenmirror.

Andrew's debut poetry collection 'Reflections from a Broken Mirror' can be ordered now using the PayPal button below. You do NOT need a PayPal account to buy!

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