Jamie Cameron

Amy Key on Music and Memoir

Arrangements in Blue, Amy Key, Vintage Publishing, pp. 240, £18.99.

Hello Amy, thank you so much for speaking to us. It’s been four months since the release of
Arrangements in Blue… It is now onto its fourth printing. It’s been such a success, I am conscious of the sheer amount of readings, literary events and interviews you must have done. What’s your experience been like since the release of the book? How does it compare to your expectations beforehand?

Oh, gosh, it’s been quite… strange. I’m not sure what my expectations were. I mean, I’ve previously published two books of poetry, and I think as a poet, you get used to having very small expectations of what might happen. And I think the thing that was exciting about publishing this book was I knew that I would have the opportunity to reach more readers just because it was going to be in more shops and there was somebody working on the PR and all of those sorts of things. And so I guess the thing for me that’s been so interesting about it is I’ve had the opportunity to meet loads of people who’ve read my book who I did not previously know. And I think as a poet, quite often you encounter people who might have read your book, but they’re people who you have a relationship with already.

Have there been readings of Arrangements in Blue that have surprised you then?

I guess one of the things I was slightly, not worried about, but that I thought might happen was that the only readers I would get or the people who would most appreciate the book would be women who kind of looked a bit like me i.e. they were white, around my age, and shared the experiences that I’m talking about in the book. And I don’t want to say that I didn’t want those people as readers, I absolutely did, but I really hoped that the book could speak to people beyond those who have the same experience as me or the same kind of life, or the same demographic. What I found, actually, is people like gay men, for example, have found a lot in the book that has spoken to them, and perhaps that’s about not conforming to the expectations that they might have had or that their family members had for them when they were young. Also people who have had children or are married or in long term partnerships, who have welcomed the chance to think about romantic love in a different way, but also might have related to different experiences described in the book.

I think, perhaps, people haven’t needed to share my experience to relate to the subject and the content of the book and have been able to apply lots of different life experiences or emotions to the idea of not living the life that you might have expected to live. Also, the idea that it can be so easy to build a life around the things that you haven’t got. That could mean lots of different things, it could mean not having the career that you want. It could be not having the relationship that you want with your parents. It could be not becoming a parent when you want to, or not feeling fulfilled in the romantic relationships that you find yourself in. And that’s been surprising and really lovely. I think that it’s opened up a conversation that definitely goes beyond my own experience. A kind of broader conversation about how do we find and make for ourselves satisfying lives, even if we don’t fit the template that our culture has created for what a good life looks like?

I can definitely relate to that, because I don’t think I fit into the category of people who’ve had the exact same types of experience, but it still spoke to me so strongly. 

I think one of the reasons for that is because you manage to integrate so many different topics into the book. It’s not just about the idea of romantic love. It’s also a book about living in London, about being working class, about the housing crisis. I really enjoyed the parts where you discuss how endless flat sharing can affect your expression of the domestic. Do you think that we have a generation of people now who just have a different understanding of intimacy?

Yes, I don’t know what has generated this particular moment, but there seems to be a more public conversation right now about what intimacy looks like and feels like, and the different modes that it might take. Part of me wonders whether that was a response to the pandemic because people were finding themselves either dislocated from, or trapped in, or renewing their understanding of their most intimate relationships, which possibly enabled people to have more clarity and a better sense of what would satisfy them, or wasn’t satisfying, than they might have previously done. I think there’s definitely a bit of that. But I think there’s definitely something that is hitting, if you like, heteronormative culture now, influenced by models of love and romance and intimacy that queer people are being able to talk about openly for the first time. Because I think obviously there’s always been really different ways of living and relating to other people. It’s just that it’s probably been really hidden and suppressed or legislated against or policed or whatever previously, and heteronormative love hasn’t had the same kind of hard look at itself.

I think it’s interesting for me because I’ve got lots of friends who are younger than me. So I’m 45, right? So I grew up in the 80s and 90s where it was an incredibly sexist, heteropatriarchal culture and that definitely formed my ideas of how I thought I should relate and present myself for men, for example. But people growing up now hopefully have got a broader range of role models and a broader range of more accessible cultures. I think that’s pretty exciting and interesting and should challenge people to just be a bit more curious about the ways in which you can make a good life.

I wanted to talk to you about the practical process of writing this book. Occasionally you mention old photos and diaries, did they serve as aids to help you? How did you go through the process of remembering what I imagine were sometimes quite painful moments?

I think part of it is: the more you write, the more you remember. But then memory, especially memory from being a younger person, can be so… It’s very easy to mistrust what you remember.

We form our own myths about how we grew up, don’t we?

We do. And apparently, the way memory works is that each time you remember, you attach more narrative to it, and it just grows and grows and grows. So you can end up quite far away from what the real experience was. I had that in mind as I was writing, so I didn’t use them as aids. I more went in search of things after I’d written just to check that what I was remembering was reflected, or not, in the things that I was thinking and writing about at that time. So I talk about my teenage diaries, for example, and I had to look at those just to see… was there anything in there that went beyond just my listing of the boys I fancied or whatever? And what happened at the club last night? Because basically, I’ve just got reams and reams of stuff about that that might show I had a self awareness of this idea of the faulty ways in which I was thinking about love and my life and sex and romanticism. But it was just very typical teenage girl stuff, unfortunately, and not a lot of revelation.

But then I found other things like photographs and diaries from when I was much younger that were surprising to me in some ways in how early I was observing things like the fault lines in my parents’ relationship and actually committing something to paper about that. That was a bit of a surprise to me. But yeah, if I’m honest, the source materials, if you like, were less those things and more going back… because I’ve been writing notes about all of this stuff for a long time, but they’ve ended up in poems, or they’ve ended up becoming long emails to friends, or when Roddy was dying, for example, I had this running Word doc where I was trying to process stuff in there. And those things definitely informed what I ended up writing about. But the diaries themselves, for example, didn’t give me a lot of material other than confirmation that I wasn’t a teenage genius.

Speaking of poems, at one point in the book you talk about conjuring a romantic ‘you’ to write about in your poems – your ‘weddingy’ poems you call them, I think. Do you think poetry needs to be based on a confessional truth like you might have found in those teenage diaries? Or do you think it’s going after something different? Does writing poems differ to how you approach writing something like this, which obviously, as non-fiction, has more obligation towards a literal truth?

Yeah. So I think poetry allows for a lot more uncertainty and ambivalence and doesn’t need to be tethered to truth, in my opinion, at least not literal truth. I think it needs to be, for me, the way I write, and I wouldn’t say this for other people, it needs to be tethered to an emotional truth. But when I’m writing poems, it’s not autobiography in the same way that it is when I’m writing prose. Having said that, I think they both allow, both the memoir form and poetry, for exploring ambivalence and the difficulty of being in an unfixable state. So for me, that unfixable state has sometimes been about literally my status as a person who doesn’t have a relation to somebody else, a romantic partner or a child or whatever, but also unfixable in continuing to feel ambivalence and confusion and contrariness about those things. I think that can work really well in poetry and in memoir. But for me, in memoir, I’m trying to be as truthful in relation to the facts as it can be. Whereas in poetry, it’s not a concern in the same way. Prose feels more vulnerable than poetry in that way, definitely.

That’s interesting, because I feel like one of the things this book does so well is that towards the end of each chapter it almost feels like you’re discovering a conclusion as you go. And I found that really had parallels in writing poetry, because you often discover where a poem is heading as you write it. Did you have insights that you knew you wanted to get down beforehand, or was it a case of as you wrote, you ended up realising that, oh, this part of the book could really be tied together nicely here?

I feel like the influence of an editor is really important here. Obviously, prose is edited in a way that is very different to the way in which my poetry has previously been edited. I found their interventions so powerful because it was less about reaching a neat conclusion for each chapter and more about trying to end each chapter with a power, if you see what I mean, rather than a fizzling out of energy towards the end. And to be honest, I don’t know how successfully I’ve done this, but it was definitely something we tried to try to do. Sometimes that was about pulling together the narrative threads of each chapter to leave myself with either a new question or a new sense, like a bit of sense making about what I was saying or recognising the conflict that I still had in relation to the particular subjects, because obviously each chapter is trying to deal with a different facet of life. That might be home or parenthood or sex or whatever.

But I didn’t feel a pressure to do something that summed up, synthesised everything that I learned, as it were, in the journey of the chapter. Although I did want to know when it was right to leave the page. I was thinking about how you end a poem and the importance of really landing the ending. So as in a poem, quite often the ending for one of the chapters would come sooner than it was first written. Almost like, ‘I think the poem ends here.’ It’s that sort of thing, when you realise that you’re going round the circle again and perhaps you’re just stating, like I am right now, the same thing in three different ways.

I also want to talk a bit about music, which is a big part of this book. There’s lots of artists that get a mention. I enjoyed Life Without Buildings getting a shout out, Jeff Buckley too… Obviously Joni Mitchell, as well. Do you listen to music when you write? What were you listening to when you were writing this book? Or is that not really a part of your creative process?

I find this really frustrating, actually. I used to be able to listen to music when I wrote, but I can’t now. I need quiet. The answer is no, I didn’t listen to any music, but I listen to music all the time when I’m not writing. Obviously, I listened to a lot of Joni, mainly because I was trying to really build the relationship between what I was writing and her lyrics and think about where her lyrics were most important. But I feel like if I looked at my Spotify, what was I listening to all of last year…?

Your Spotify Wrapped…?

Yeah, I’m very basic, but I was just listening to a lot of Cocteau Twins, Lana Del Rey, Frank Ocean and Jenny Lewis, probably, and my little mixtapes that I make for myself every season. It was really hard because I kept wanting to quote completely different songs that I was listening to at the time. But as you’ll probably know, quoting lyrics is horrifically expensive. So, for instance, I went on this massive diversion where I was going to quote ‘Silver Springs’ by Fleetwood Mac. And Nick Drake and oh, God… Anyway, I had to cut all that out.

That’s a shame. Also, it’s a shame that Joni’s been taken off Spotify, she’s taken herself off even. So I guess none of her music is going to be appearing in the Spotify playlist for the time being.

Yeah, no, Joni, sadly not. But she has made me go back to my iTunes, because I used to have everything on iTunes. But, yeah, I use Spotify too. It’s a bit evil, but convenient.

I was going to say, I am a firm believer that Hejira is the best Joni Mitchell album and as I was reading this book I was thinking, please mention ‘Blue Motel Room’ or ‘Coyote’ because they have some of the greatest Joni lyrics ever…

I’m a massive fan of that album, too, but I won’t tell you how much I had to pay to quote Blue…

I can only imagine. Hopefully Arrangements in Blue has plenty more printings in that case…  Early on in the book you talk about accepting as fact that Joni is an important musician and part of popular music’s canon. For me, growing up, she always felt that way as well and then later, Roddy Lumsden’s poetry also felt like a part of my own personal canon, seeing them discussed alongside each other in this book was really moving. So I’d love to know, if it isn’t too indulgent, what did Roddy think of Joni? Obviously, he’d listened to a lot of versions of ‘Both Sides Now’. Where did Joni fit into Roddy’s canon?

Not at all, really. I don’t think he liked her. I’m trying to remember if we ever had a conversation about Joni, and we must have done, because we talked about music so much. But, yeah, he wasn’t interested in her. I think he’s got this playlist on Spotify, which is one he did for his 50th birthday, and it’s public, so you could probably find it. Hold on a minute, I’m just going to have a look at it. If he’d have liked Joni, she definitely would have been on there… but now she’s no longer on Spotify, of course. But I have looked at it a few times in the past and I’m pretty sure, yeah, she’s not on it.

I’ll try to pretend that hasn’t hurt me deeply. Just to finish, what do you think you’re going to write next? Is it going to be more prose? Is it a novel? Are you going to return to poetry? Are you swearing off writing completely for at least five years after this?

Yeah, it’s been really interesting for me because I didn’t think I could write anything other than poetry at all. And then, obviously, I proved myself wrong because I’ve written a book of prose. Like, however people may judge it, I did it, so it’s done. And that’s made me think about the things that I ruled out for myself before, like writing fiction. So I am really interested in writing fiction, but I know the kind of poet to novelist pipeline is a real cliche. I’m trying not to let that put me off.

I think the poet to novelist pipeline is a lot more successful than the novelist to poet pipeline for what it’s worth.

I did enjoy that meme that was going around. The Drake meme where it’s like: poets writing novels, smiley face… novelist writing poetry, no thanks…

But yes, I found it incredibly hard to even read poetry the last few years. Part of that was Roddy dying, but part of it was the pandemic. And then I’ve just been so busy trying to write the book. But this year I’ve written my first poem that wasn’t a bespoke commission for a project, and that felt good. So I hope to write more poetry. I hope to write more nonfiction and try writing fiction too. We’ll see.

If and when you do, I’ll be very excited to read it.

Thanks so much, Jamie.


Amy Key is a poet and writer based in London. She is the author of two collections of poetry, Luxe and Isn’t Forever, which was a Poetry Book Society Wild Card Choice and a Book of the Year in the Guardian, New Statesman and The Times. Her poems have been widely published and anthologised, and her essays have appeared in At the Pond, Granta, the Poetry Review and elsewhere.

To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry. 

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on info@thelondonmagazine.org. Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.