Much of the life and work of author and poet, Audrey Dunne (English, 1980) is indivisible from the landscape that surrounds her. From the mystical plains of Holderness to the silty expanse of the Humber Estuary and the low hills and flat-bottomed valleys of the Yorkshire Wolds, Audrey’s work and, in particular, her collection “Humberlands” reveals the ‘secret beauty’ of the river and the lands that form its banks.
Audrey studied at the University of Hull in the late 1970’s, graduating in 1980 with a degree in English Literature. Since then she has became an inspirational figure in the poetic and literary scenes of Hull and East Yorkshire. Earlier this year, as part of the City of Culture and Women of the World week, Audrey performed ’15 Poems set in the Yorkshire Wolds’ at the Kingston Group Art Gallery with musical accompaniment from Claire Holdich.
We caught up with Audrey to talk about her poetry, the city, the university, student life and City of Culture.
- Why did you choose to study at the University of Hull, and how did you feel when you first started as a student here?
I was born and have lived in Hull for most of my life. My education was at a good secondary modern school in the city, but I left with no formal qualifications – there were none to be had. By the time I came to reconsider my education I was still living in Hull, and married with three teenage children. I decided, English always having been my best and favourite subject, to try for an O level (GCSE) in English Language, just to improve my punctuation. I found it was possible to do two courses for the price of one, so I signed up for English Literature as well. It proved to be an unprecedented turning point in my life. The following year I was encouraged to study for three A levels, which I passed in that year with successful results. I was surprised to find I was more intelligent than I’d given myself credit for. The offer of a place in the English Department at the University of Hull was one I couldn’t possibly refuse.
It was the late 1970s. Higher Education was free, and also grants were available towards books and other things necessary to the student life. I was doubly fortunate inasmuch as there was at the time a special government initiative encouraging women who had missed out on educational opportunities back into colleges and universities. Hull University was of course my natural choice. I was elated and immensely proud to win my place there. What followed was to be an exciting journey of new discoveries.
- Were there any members of staff or students who inspired you or had a particular influence on you during your time at the University and beyond?
Having three growing children to care for meant that I was restricted in joining student societies and social activities – so much a part of the university experience. I soon made friends among the younger undergraduates, however, and was glad to share in the intellectual debates over cups of coffee in the student union between lectures. I chose drama as my first year ancillary subject, which was a mind-blowing bonus. In studying Samuel Beckett, I remember thinking his plays were too strange and modern. I couldn’t understand them and didn’t want to. How wrong I was. The reading and studying brought great rewards: authors, poets, playwrights and philosophies opened new worlds to me. In their company I felt I was truly where I belonged. It was like a homecoming.
In retrospect, I think I was too shy and lacking in confidence to take full advantage of my supervisor’s time and knowledge on an individual level. The self-deprecating suburban housewife was still strong in me, and to claim a tutor’s time in selfish one-to-one enquiries seemed like an imposition. Who, after all, was I? It’s strange to me now that I should have thought that way. I enjoyed the lectures and tutorials immensely, however, and gradually became more and more outspoken in my opinions, often leading debates with increasing assurance. Later on I joined with members of the newly emerging Gender Studies team for meetings and talks, which helped me become even more aware of the gender related injustices towards women in a patriarchal society.
After graduation my intention was to further develop my skills as a writer and poet. I found part-time employment at the university thanks to Rosa Brown, Head of the Department of Adult Education. She was a great encourager in those post-university days, and was keen to support me in tutoring a series of courses in Creative Writing. This meant that I often came across my previous English lecturers on campus. One especially was Professor James Booth, who always gave me a cheery wave when we crossed each other’s paths. He showed a kindly interest in my writing, later on taking the time in his busy life to give me some much appreciated appraisal of my work.
- From your collections ‘Humberlands’ and ‘Londesborough’ it is clear that landscape and place is integral to your poetry. What role does Hull and the environs of the Humber play in your life and in your writing?
My writing is frequently linked with Hull and its surrounding landscapes. I find myself defensive of my native city, which I feel is more beautiful than outsiders give it credit for, possessing a unique and very individual character. A tree-lined city, consciously aware of the necessity to protect the environment, it is also very clean. The Humber contains much wildlife – seals and salmon basking in its brown (though sometimes amazingly pink, blue or purple) depths. Hull has a strong maritime history, and one of great courage and fortitude, especially through the severe bombing it took in the Second World War. Its people are uncommonly kind. They are also somewhat vulnerable and sensitive to their history of poverty, even though their maritime past contains untold treasure. Sadly, we have often been given a bad press by rude and indifferent people in the media. My slim volume of poems Humberlands: Fifteen Poems about the Humber and its Landscape seeks to redress this misnomer. I believe it is the duty of the artist in society to do that.
The immensity of the Humber made a huge impression on me even as a child. Returning to Hull from Lincolnshire (where I lived for a time during my formative years) by the ‘long way’ never ceased to amaze me. Trains run very close to the shore on the north bank. I still find the sight breath-taking. The estuary is strangely poetic, with a lonely, isolated beauty – as Philip Larkin knew so well.
- Peter Porter once described Hull as ‘the most poetic city in England.’ What do you think about Hull’s relationship to poetry and its poets?
It’s true that Hull is rich in culture, often found in unimposing, hidden pockets. Poetry, music and the visual arts flourish here, nurtured as it were in the shiny, rich clay of the Humber, similar in texture I’ve been told to the great Mississippi – was it T S Eliot pointed this out? There’s a fertile, fostering quality that quietly gets on with it, almost secretly. A sense of mystery and distance pervades the villages and wide spaces bordering the Humber. As a city we have known riches and poverty; learned how to survive.
On my early readings of Larkin I was offended by his descriptions of the people of Hull as a ‘cut-price crowd’ and other seemingly derogatory terms in his poem ‘Here’. I wonder if other people felt the same. I am now able to view the lines with a more generous understanding, and there is some truth in them – we do like a bargain. There’s a seam of carefulness runs in our character. It’s a mistrust of big talk and boasting. Our native inhabitants have a quirky, individual character, independent to the point of defiance, but essentially friendly. We smile at you in the street, and talk to you like old friends at the bus stop. Born of the isolation of place we have to ‘stick together’. We also have something about us that is unusually vulnerable. We keep quiet about our achievements. Whether this is due to historical, psychological or geographical causes I don’t know, but it’s clear these things also affect the poet’s attitude to the city.
As to the relationship to poetry, I believe we are much like any other place. There are more people who love it, listen to and read it than you might expect. In Hull there is a particular liking for the ballad-type rhyming poems about the sea and the fishing community. These poems have a warm and lively following. They are popular and flow along easily, each with its own story. You have to dig a bit deeper for the more complex stuff. People are a little afraid of it – that they won’t understand it. Some say a poem should stand on its own without explanation. I don’t agree. I like to engage with my audience, elucidate a little. Poetry with musical interludes works wonderfully well – helps the emotional response somehow; the two go well together. I find these accompaniments work towards clarity, and the audience response would seem to agree.
- We love the lines from Rebuilding the City:
‘Stretched to a seafarer’s nod, bowed to an infant face,
it offers a safe harbour, a nearly new Nineveh,
a bargain Byzantium in the shrouds of November’.
What does ‘Rebuilding the City’ mean to you?
I am blessed with a good imagination, and from childhood was fascinated by fairy tales and dreams. After university I read extensively on these subjects, and was drawn and inspired especially by the works of Carl Jung. I began to make extensive notes on his writings and on my own dreams. In 1987 I had a dream of Hull as a Byzantine city, its bejewelled public gardens and byways rich in colour and beauty. The dream had a compelling atmosphere, gradually feeding into my work. The first poem to come out of it was Anonymous City, which is in the Humberlands collection. I set the images in this poem against a backdrop of war, since Hull people have always felt distressed that the destruction suffered by the city went unrecognised. As a result they (and I) were left with a dreadful nostalgia for our forgotten heritage. Some of Hull’s greatest buildings were lost. Rebuilding the City followed later on a similar theme. (https://www.amazon.co.uk/d/Books/HUMBERLANDS-Fifteen-Poems-Humber-Landscape/0951531131)
My father was a seafarer who landed in Hull and stayed, as lots of people do. Our jaunts across the Humber on the ferry, the salty smell of the sea, his nostalgia and stories of his sea-going days are also much a part of my poetic inheritance. A good many of the people of Hull have connections with the sea. The sea in turn, in Jungian terms at least, is a symbol of the creative unconscious, which interests me very much indeed. There is a depth to the people here, which is somehow connected to this I feel sure. Hull stands on this unique serpentine, and somewhat lonely promontory between the Humber and the North Sea – the perfect conditions for the poetic impulse.
- You recently performed as part of the Women of the World Festival with Claire Holdich who accompanied your poetry with music on the flute. Is there a difference between a poem when it is read aloud, and a poem that is read on the page?
A poem is a kind of mystery, a riddle, even a spell. It has more than one kind of life, and might mean one thing at one time and something else at another. A poem that is read on the page in silence has the nature of a meditation; the close concentration provides a certain focus, a depth, so that some lines will strike you as notable. Their significance sinks in, and can even help you to see things in a different way, so-much-so that the words linger in the memory. You savour them again and again. With further quiet readings you find other meanings you didn’t see at first, and other lines to treasure. A good poem is a thing full of surprises. It can change your life, your whole perspective; explain to you the mystery of the universe.
Hearing a poem, listening to it read aloud allows a different experience. The dramatic voice helps clarify meaning. The whole thing comes alive as if from another dimension altogether. I recall hearing a recording of James Joyce’s Ulysses, a highly poetic and difficult literary work, read by the author. Delivered with the weight of his rich Irish intonation made so much more sense. It was a joy to listen to; music to the ear. A poem read aloud is also a more immediate experience, a sudden impression. You hear the rhythm, accentuation and movement in a totally altered and refreshing way.
Claire Holdich (also a graduate of Hull University) plays the flute to exquisite effect alongside my Londesborough poems. I am thrilled to work with her, and at the result we achieve. She knows intuitively the music that best blends with each piece, poem and flute enhancing each other in turn and as a whole (https://www.hull2017.co.uk/whatson/events/fifteen-poems-set-yorkshire-wolds-audrey-dunne/).
- As someone who has been immersed in the culture of Hull for so long, and committed to its people, what do you hope the legacy of 2017 City of Culture will be?
What has happened in Hull with the encouragement of the City of Culture celebrations is that a new cohesion of the arts has come about. Poetry has become especially vibrant in Hull, with some excellent work emerging: all different, all individual (as you would expect from this very singular city) and wide-ranging. There’s a new dynamic. Many groups have sprung up – like the Women of Words for example, which meets at Kardomah 94, an inspiring and welcoming new venue for the arts in its own right.
Poets are gaining strength and confidence from this. And what’s more, there is a surprising unity in the groups. They are generous-minded, each-to-each, open and encouraging, as if we are eager to see one another succeed. We are, as usual, modest and surprised by our achievements.
The café life, too, has become reassuringly arty. There’s always somewhere to go where you’ll meet like-minded people and have the good conversations and interplay so complimentary to the work. My personal hope is that this is just the beginning, and that Kingston upon Hull, with its truly poetic ethos, will go from strength-to-strength, way beyond this year of special attention to our cultural heritage. We are an amazing city with, who knows, Byzantine potential – art and life combined? This, I believe and trust, is our true and rightful legacy.
Audrey Dunne. July 2017
BBC Radio 4 Listening Project with Audrey Dunne and Alec Gill