Jo Brandon Interview
Jo Brandon was born in Essex in 1986 and raised in rural Lincolnshire. Between 2008 and 2011 Jo was an editor of the literary e-zine Cadaverine, and her work has featured in various publications includingAesthetica, Squid Quarterly, Mslexia, Dream Catcher, Like Starlings and Cake. She graduated with a degree in Creative Writing from Bretton Hall, part of the University of Leeds, a city which makes many appearances in her writing.
In 2010 she was writer-in-residence for the I Love West Leeds Festival, and participated in a BBC-funded young writers’ attachment at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, where her debut play Like a Heartbeat was showcased. She has also worked with Leeds Lieder+ Festival and Opera North. Jo’s first solo poetry publication, Phobia, was published by Valley Press on the 20th January 2012 – read the full details here.
How do you write?
I have two main approaches to my writing. One is that something organically manifests itself in my imagination and I feel compelled to write it down, and then develop it. I’ve found this happens a little bit less as I get older (she says at the grand old age of 25!) or the second approach that gets me excited about writing new material is immersing myself in research. It might be sparked by an exhibition I’ve visited or a crumb of discussion I hear on the train or a book I happen to be reading and then I end up in a frenzy of interest. Most recently I’ve been working on a mini opera with a really talented young composer called Ella Jarman-Pinto and we’re both really interested in Pope Joan as the subject of our song cycle. Also after having recently visited the British Library and viewing the illuminated manuscripts I’ve developed an interest in Boccaccio’s ‘Concerning Famous Women’ which contains biographies of over 100 historical and mythical women. Reading other poets is also really inspiring – both contemporary and classical. I find reading work that is completely unfamiliar and new is a great way to get out of a writing rut. So if writer’s block starts inching in I generally stick my nose in a book and pretend that it doesn’t matter whether what I write is good or not – at least just for the moment I’m getting it on paper (screen).
And do you find that you get better writing one way 0r another? From imagination or research?
I think I become more fond of the one’s that pop up unexpectedly – probably because they arrive at drier writing times and sort of herald a new bout of writing which is usually then supported by research. So no I don’t believe I do get better writing one way over the other but I do perhaps develop an unreasonable favouritism for the writing that spills out from the imagination freely.
How did Phobia come about? How spontaneous a process was that? And what can you tell us about the thinking behind the different sections?
Phobia actually began as my dissertation piece in my final year at university and was born out of a research phase into phobias. The list of recognised phobias is endless and a really interesting read in it’s own right. In a literal sense a lot of them intrigued me, like gamophobia, which is a fear of marriage but the potential symbolism of some of them was also really interesting, like that of mottephobia (fear of moths), which I’ve explored through a persona that experiences strong feelings of inferiority and jealously.
Originally all the poems in the collection had phobia titles but as I developed and expanded the collection I found that quite limiting and realised that much of my work explores the impacts of fear anyway and from there I broadened the content of the collection. The main themes of the collection are really fear, identity and transition.
I divided Phobia into two sections: ‘Fears’ and ‘Caution’ because for me these are the two main elements that make up a phobia. Initially there is that knee jerk response to something and then there is our developed habitual response which may be screaming at the top of our lungs when we are confronted with the thing we fear or trying to avoid/escape it. Phobias and fears are made up of such complex sets of emotions that sometimes we’re not even sure why we’ve developed them and Phobia attempts to explore some of the causes and results of living with irrational and rational fears.
Can a rational fear be a phobia? It’s a beautiful idea about the moth. Are their any precedents you were looking at with using imagines, or animals, to depict complex moods and psychologies? I’m thinking of arachnophobia too.
What I’ve tried to say in Phobia is that fear is very entangled with perspective and so I think a fear that seems completely rational to the person experiencing it can easily be labelled as a phobia to those external to it. And that’s where the symbolism of certain phobias became important to me because everything we encounter in our day-to-day lives is also layered with personal connotations, but there are a lot of things that we share and inherit culturally too: spiders are scary, butterflies are beautiful; ‘the other’/outcast and the socially accepted. These are the frameworks we live within and it can be an equally scary thing to find yourself both outside or trapped within those frameworks.
I was very much inspired by the Arachne myth and particularly by visual depictions of it such as Doré’s Arachne – for me it feels really bound up with the transition from childhood to womanhood. We have a rich culture of bestiaries and fables that use animals allegorically and I think many of us are influenced by this quite early on, as it has remained a much-loved motif in children’s literature. We have a few common reactions to being constantly faced with the thing we fear, we might try and desensitise ourselves to it, we may try and sexualise it or we may try and mimic it and I think a number of the personas in Phobia are either in the process or have attempted one of these in response to their fear.
Are we to expect a similar level of psychological engagement with your next poems? Are you working on anything new at the moment?
I’ve just started working on a new series of poems that I hope will form the basis of my next collection, which is currently under the working title ‘Cures’. This is a departure looking at phobias but I think there is also some continuation in the idea of trying to heal damage done to ourselves and others. I’ll also be looking at the things we do to distract ourselves from our ‘wounds’ in various spiritual, technological and social aspects. So yes, I think psychology both personal and cultural will continue to inform and inspire my writing, and I hope these new poems will be able to speak to people in the way that some have described the poems in Phobia speaking to them.
Do you have any writing rituals? Or phobias, a sense of the irrational yourself?
Definitely. I find myself in phases on both counts. In terms of writing rituals I do often find myself quite fearful of starting something new, fear that the writing won’t live up to the concept I’ve wrapped my mind around. So I’ll buy a new notebook or set up a new folder on my laptop, search for a ‘good’ pen. That sort semi-obsessive procrastination that tricks you into thinking you’re doing timesaving or useful things. I’ve just finished reading The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing and have found the aspects of the novel that deal with writing process both a comfort and a worry. Lessing explores the arrogance, fear and loneliness that creep together to form writer’s block and, no matter what her character Anna’s final resolutions are, the process she goes through in writing in the notebooks, in writing just for herself and trying to discard the notion of whether something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ means that she at least gets words down on paper and that’s been a really timely reminder. I’ve gone down to the library and picked up a copy of Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled and I’m going to just play with words this week.
In terms of phobias I have a few cliché inherited ones including arachnophobia, which annoys me because I consciously know how irrational it is. I think creatively though it’s important to let the irrational in, to a degree, because it’s often the things that appear out of order with the world that get our imaginations going.