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The Ambulance Box by Andrew Philip

Questions and Answers for The Ambulance Box Tour:
Ivy from Dumbfoundry: Biblical imagery, myth, prediction and portent thread through The Ambulance Box, most notable in the poems 'Pedestrian', the 'Triptych' sequence, 'Child of Calmer Waters' and 'Wilderness with Two Figures' with its parable-like quality, to name a few. How did these elements come together to help form your book?

Andrew Philip: I’m the son of a minister, so Biblical imagery is a natural part of my vocabulary and an early part of my literary makeup. Prediction, portent and parable are all part of that. I see myth as separate from that — some people wouldn’t, of course — but the fascination with those ancient stories and the language that they’re couched in is a strong connection between the two. I suppose it’s about re-examining and mining the stories we tell ourselves and have told ourselves throughout history. It’s also about finding connections with people who have gone through the same griefs and joys before us, reminding ourselves that we’re not alone.

The poem 'Hairst Day' is written in the powerfully evocative Scots language.
Lord : it is time. The simmer gied braw yield.
Lay yer shaddae doun upon the sundials
an lowse the winds ontil the fields.
As is 'The Meisure o a Nation':
the lang leet o synonyms for fu
      dividit by the kenspeckle names naebody kens

the fowk that aw hinks this is written in slang
     agin ilkane o the leids a body can hear in the kintrae

the hunnerwecht o fish landit at a north-east herbour ony day
But I wonder if this and other poems in the book seek to create a conscious distancing effect for non-Scots readers? Or is it to draw them in?

There’s no conscious policy of distancing readers. I realise that some might find the use of Scots distancing, but others will be drawn in by it. For instance, I’ve heard from one non-Scots speaker whose favourite piece in the book was the Scots translation of Rilke’s “Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes.” The drive to translate — “Hairst Day” is another Rilke translation, as is “Spanish Dancer” — is an important part of proclaiming the status of the language as equal in my mind to English.

I don’t want the Scots to be inaccessible. There is a full Scots glossary for the collection here. We decided not to put it in the book for space reasons and because my editor Chris Hamilton-Emery and I agreed that it was best to keep the page as clean as possible.

Do you think this use of the Scots language is related to the need to
... wear the torn, patched
language of our childhood

     clean and bright beneath it all.

     (from 'The Image of Gold and the Fiery Furnace')

Yes, definitely. I guess that anyone who relates to that is more likely to be drawn in than put off. There is a political element to it, as there is to those lines in context — it’s partly a way of resisting the global dominance of English —but it’s also firstly about using the rich range of sounds, connotations and associations that are available to me as a Scots speaker. If I didn’t do that, I’d be like a composer deciding not to write for an entire section of the orchestra. A valid aesthetic approach, I guess, but not one that makes sense to me!

I am unwilling to trespass into the loss that forms the heart of your book. Still, it is unmistakeable that when you write in 'The Invention of Zero':
     where everything

filled without this
     empty nest of a number
... the poem addresses much more than simple mathematics. There is an obliqueness in your poem's approach to this loss, something riddle-like that can also be found in the title poem, 'The Ambulance Box'. Would you mind speaking more about this?

My firstborn son, to whom the book is dedicated, died about 45 minutes after he was born. For a while after we lost him, I couldn’t write a thing. When I began to write again, I found that my grief crept into every poem, even when I was trying to write something unconnected.

There are, of course, other more direct poems of loss in the book. It took some time before I could tackle the grief in that more direct fashion and longer again before I could write anything that didn’t have any reference to the loss. However, it’s such a transformative experience that I suspect I’ll be coming back to it in different ways for the rest of my life.

The artistic advantage of the oblique approach is that the possibilities are much broader. It also seems to me to reflect how grief and life begin to fit around one another in odd and unexpected ways.

In 'To the Naked Eye', a section from the 'Pilgrim Variations', the poem asks, 'Who can restrain the urge to look?' As the sections in The Ambulance Box shift focus from spiritual and personal concerns to more scientific and material ones, do you think this urge to look is voyeuristic avidity or merely scientific?

In the context of that poem, it’s a matter of scientific questioning and spiritual hunger. Human beings are simply inquisitive creatures, and that curiosity takes many forms. It got us unpacking the genome, but it’s also brought us Big Brother and I’m a Celebrity.

I find poets' answers to this question fascinating, so I hope you don't mind me also asking you this: 'What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?'

Nobody had been in when the books were initially delivered the previous day and they hadn’t been left in our designated place, so I got up early to scoot down to the postal depot for opening time and pick up the package. When I cut it open, a mile-wide grin spread across my face and I started bouncing several centimetres off the floor. I took a photo of the books sitting in their mauled packaging on my kitchen table and posted it on Facebook.

What surprised me was just how much holding the book felt like holding a new baby. It was such a similar feeling, which was also quite poignant for me, as you can imagine. I was walking on air for the rest of the day, and the day after, and the day after that. For a week or so, I went around at home exclaiming at random moments, “Book!

Next stop: Boxologies
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