We take pleasure in hosting a distinguished wordsmith, Annie Freud, a British poet and one of the members of the Freud lineage to gain fame for their intellectual achievements. She is the daughter of painter Lucian Freud, the maternal granddaughter of sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein, and the great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud.
Freud was educated at the Lycée Français in London and then studied English and European Literature at Warwick University. Since 1975, she has worked intermittently as a tapestry artist and embroiderer, in addition to publishing works of poetry : The Mirabelles, 2010 and The Remains, 2015.
"Freud's poems are chaotic, hectic and witty; are a romp through London, its melancholy and beauty; are a sumptuous tumble through love, appetites and desire." (The Poetry Archive.)
Our interviewer, Jean-Paul Deshayes, was a certified English teacher and teacher-trainer at the IUFM (Institut Universitaire de Formation des Maîtres), having also taught French in London for 10 years at high-school and university levels. Jean-Paul now pursues a career as translator for the magazine media. Although retired, he engages in diverse activities: exchanges with other translators, assorted reading, DIY and martial arts, as well as trips to London with his English wife to visit their daughter and granddaughter. He regards translation (from and into English) as a particularly stimulating intellectual exercise and devotes himself to it both professionally and for his personal pleasure. Dedicated to poetry in all its forms, he likes Robert Browning, Robert Frost and the English romantic poets in equal measure. By coincidence, South Bourgogne, where he resides is the birthplace of Lamartine, whose magnificent poem, “The Lake” he likes to read regularly.
Mr. Deshayes conducted this interview in English and then translated the questions and answers into French. The French translation previously appeared on our sister-blog, Le-mot-juste-en-anglais.com.
J-P D. : Your very first collection, "The Best Man That Ever Was", won an award and you were described as "a new voice" in poetry. Do you find that it is a fitting description?
A.F. : Although it is not exactly comfortable for me to comment on my own work, when I return to The Best Man That Ever Was, my first collection, I find that it has a sprightliness and irrepressibility that makes me smile.
J-P D. : Poetry has come rather late in your life. Would you say then that it was a hidden or dormant calling? Did you ever suspect that it was in you, just waiting to be awakened by the right opportunity?
A.F. : The desire to write poetry was repressed rather than hidden. In some sense it still is. Often I can't seem to write anything at all … I don't seem able to allow myself the pleasure of writing. And then suddenly I have a lucky streak and write a lot very fast.
There are many more poems I'm longing to write but I have to wait like a cat for a mouse to come out of his hole in the wall . . . Then BANG! I try not to think too much about these things because I don't want to get into the habit of having fixed ideas about how I work.
Being a late-comer to writing poetry has some advantages. Sometimes it seems that I have a lifetime of stored material and poems that are 'ready to go' like fast food.
I have made different kinds of art all my life – acting, painting, embroidery, tapestry, film scripts – but I often drew back, censored myself and was not as productive as I could have been. By the time I was writing and reading my poems to live audiences something in me changed and could not be put back into the can. I am grateful to the many people who have encouraged me and helped me to change my life.
J-P D. : What did you do before you became a "full-time poet" if I may use that phrase?
A.F. : I do not describe myself as a full-time poet because that's not how it works for me. I don't write every day or try to. But as a writer and artist, I am a hunter/gatherer/beachcomber, always on the look-out for an intriguing word or expression, something dropped or half-buried, a piece of porcelain, an expression that someone has used, something broken, a bird or an animal, some words on a piece of paper, a place name, an unexpected colour or story. If it connects with something in my life then I will keep it until I am ready - or better still - not ready in a way that stimulates me.
I have worked as a teacher in many different settings, and have held positions of influence in public sector institutions. I have also made embroideries on clothes for celebrities.
J-P D. : Do you consider that writing poetry is a radical break with your original activities, which were basically practical ones, or is that connection still there?
A.F. : Writing poetry and having it published was a radical break for me because it changed how I felt about myself. I stopped hiding from my talent. I stopped comparing myself to other people quite so much. I found I was inhabiting a wonderful new world.
It was a radical break for me in other ways. For so long I had lacked purpose. When I discovered that people found my poems entertaining it was like finding a new drug. Performing was a total thrill and it still is.
When my first collection was published I was still making embroideries professionally but I found I had to put that aside for a few years and make myself become more single-minded. Now, with the publication of my third collection I feel free to do what I like – and more ambitious and willing to work as hard as I can. It's wonderful.
I have discovered that I can, and need to work in diverse ways with different materials - writing, drawing and painting – but with the same degree of application and commitment. These different activities are always feeding each other, giving me the freedom I need to pursue my desire. Now that I have passed my mid-sixties, I have to look after my health quite carefully.
J-P D. : What does it mean to you to be a poet? Do you think of yourself primarily as a poet? Is the writing of poetry something that is a great satisfaction to you, something that is truly fulfilling?
A.F. : The idea that someone is sitting reading my poems is tremendously exciting to me. It is a kind of relationship. Knowing that the actions, sights, thoughts, visions and feelings I have put into my poems are occupying someone else's mind, and are being changed and reinterpreted by that person, simply amazes me. This is what being a poet means for me but I never think of that when I'm composing a poem. I love to talk about these things with other poets. Billy Collins (pictured left), the celebrated American poet, writes brilliantly about the relationship between himself, the poet and the reader.
The joy of composition is not easy to explain. It is like being in a landscape in which all the elements and objects are clamouring for you to observe them and to make sure that everyone sees them in their true light. Some you discard, some you keep.
I find writing poems tremendously enjoyable. When I've written something I'm pleased with, I'm like a hunter coming down the mountain carrying my prey on my shoulder.
J-P D. : Do you see poetry as a creative art and if so what makes it so distinct from other creative arts? Do you find that – at the moment anyway – it is the most adequate medium in which to express yourself?
A.F. : What makes poetry so distinctive from the other creative arts is that its raw materials are the same as those you would use to buy a bar of chocolate from a shop. As such, it is the most democratic of all the arts. And yet, in spite of this commonplace aspect, the influence of the great poems which compose the literary canon, is so powerful and universal that it is without bounds.
J-P D. : You have produced beautiful illustrations for your new collection, The Remains. Did you feel that they were a necessary complement and, if so, in what way?
A.F. : The images in The Remains are integral to the poems, not as a key to their meaning but more to do with showing who I am and what interests and excites me. It was a way of being more serious about my work and paradoxically freer and more light-hearted.
J-P D. : Do you feel that poetry has a purpose? Does it just aim at making us look at the world and at people in a different way?
I think that the purpose of poetry is to enlarge and enrich our experience of life and the possibilities it offers. I also believe that metaphor is necessary to the understanding of all things. Without it we are doomed.
J-P D. : I have noticed that many of your poems are inspired by flowers or plants, or fruit (mirabelles) or vegetables (aubergines) or amusing anecdotes (like "A Memorable Omelette") and nor devoid of humour. What are your sources of inspiration, your favourite subjects? Are there any themes you feel strongly attracted to as a poet?
A.F. : I like to write about things that I handle and that are familiar to me. An important part of any relationship are the words that someone you love has spoken to you because they offer the unique gift of enlightenment. These things find their way into my poems. If they are funny that makes them more valuable. Regarding "A Memorable Omelette" : the egg as a subject and image is present in a number of my poems. Another recurring image is that of the lake.
J-P D. : How do the "right" words come to you? Do they come easily or do you have to do a lot of painstaking rewriting? Are there any poems that you would like to rewrite or alter in places?
A.F. : I find I usually start with two or three words that resonate. Sometimes they produce a sort of instant culture, sometimes it is just me trying too hard. Then I look elsewhere.
Often I'll find something I've abandoned that has some new unexpected appeal and find that it has possibilities. Then I'm happy to do the work. I have found that feeling hatred for your 'subject matter' can be very useful and perhaps even necessary to the making of a poem.
J-P D. : You went to the Lycée Français in London. Could you tell us about those school years? Were they formative in your life as a teenager?
A.F. : The Lycée Français in London offered a rigorous but not an intellectually stimulating education as nothing was open to discussion and everything was learnt by heart. But learning texts by heart was itself extremely useful and I'm grateful for it.
J-P D. : On page 45 of THE REMAINS, under "My chosen subject is:" you start with Baudelaire and end with a quote from that great poet. Did his poetry influence you? Yet, whereas his form is very classical, yours seems to be ever changing and sometimes even unconventional.
A.F. : Baudelaire's poems are some of those I love most above all others. I experience Les Fleurs du Mal as a kind of lesson for every aspect of life as well as admiring them for their formal perfection and extraordinary beauty and boldness. My favourite is Les Correspondances.
J-P D. : When listening to Dylan Thomas or Robert Frost (or others) reading their poems aloud, what is striking is how differently we perceive those poems. Do you think that poetry is meant to be read out loud first and foremost?
A.F. : I think that hearing poetry read aloud is very necessary to its survival as an art form and an essential and entertaining way of becoming aware of new talent. But I also advocate the discipline of close reading where the reader becomes closely acquainted with a poem and begins to assess its importance and its relationship to the past.
J-P D. : If you could only give one piece of advice to an aspiring poet, what would it be?
A.F. : I would advise an aspiring poet to see lots of films, read widely across all genres, paint and draw, learn a foreign language, play a musical instrument and make strong friendships with other poets.