Antony Dunn

  • London


Antony Dunn was born in London in 1973 and lives in Leeds.

He won the Newdigate Prize in 1995 and received an Eric Gregory Award in 2000. He has published three collections of poems; Pilots and Navigators (1998); Flying Fish (2002); and Bugs (2009). He has worked on a number of translation projects with poets from Holland, Hungary, China and Israel, and was Poet in Residence at the University of York for 2006.

He also writes for the theatre and his plays include Dog Blue, Goose Chase and Shepherds’ Delight.

He is Associate Director of Bridlington Poetry Festival and in 2010, was Poet in Residence for Ilkley Literature Festival.

Critical perspective

Antony Dunn’s poems often capture fleeting perceptions during outdoor pursuits in locations at home and abroad.

The title poem of his second collection, Flying Fish (2002), for example, takes off from observing ‘the ugliest souvenir’ in an airport gift shop to flashback to an episode during the holiday, ‘the blur of the dazzled moment’ when his companion ‘missed the single flying fish / I thought I might have seen’. This note of emotional uncertainty is, perhaps, characteristic of his work. But he is stylistically a polished writer across a number of art forms, with a playful imagination that makes him something of ‘a writer on holiday’ in more senses than one. He is one of a recently emergent generation of poets, born during the 1970s, which includes Matthew Hollis, Clare Pollard and Polly Clark, with whom he went on the ‘First Lines’ Poetry Tour during 2001, and more recently toured Croatia with the British Council for a week during March 2004.

His activities are variously divided between writing and performing: poetry, teaching, the theatre, and filmmaking. He is a creative writing tutor for The Poetry School, holding courses at the Friargate Theatre in York where he works as marketing manager. He has written a screenplay adaptation of Albert Camus’s stage play Cross Purpose, and a series of short films for young people. (He also plays in a rock band, ‘Boomerang’.) These involvements all feed into his poetry, most obviously in a number of poems about actors and touring within his first collection, Pilots and Navigators (1998). And his line 'the comic shock of sheep' (in ‘Elgol’) brings to mind Dunn’s highly entertaining Christmas Play for children, Shepherds’ Delight, which has been toured for several years by the Riding Lights Theatre Company. There are plenty of comic shocks throughout its re-working of the Nativity Story as ‘a tickling version of a sheep-stealing epic’. The characters mix the traditional and the outlandish: Mary, Joseph, and the Angel Gabriel interplay with cross-dressing shepherds (called Nokes and Purvis), a hilariously inept Roman policeman on the trail of Bob the Lamb-Rustler, as well as a talking black sheep and her newly-born (‘Lambeth’). In ten quick-fire scenes, propelled by a nice sense of farce, the action moves around Bethlehem to be resolved just in time by the birth of Jesus. There are some good old jokes throughout. Mary tells Purvis she can’t afford a hotel, so she ends up at the stable of The Flock Inn. Mary: ‘But you said it was five-star’. Purvis: ‘It is – you can see five stars through the hole in the roof’.

As a poet, Dunn also has a definite sense of audience. His poems are accessible and engaging, often beckoning towards readers in their opening phrases, saying in effect ‘Let me tell you something’ (‘All at Sea’). ‘End of the Pier Show’ also has the poet talking to us (‘let’s call it Cleethorpes Pier’), but is far more fantastical. Its ‘birthday thought’ is a vision of being old: ‘rolling towards the pier’s end, / bones and bronchi rattling / like the frame of a winged bike’, and taking off , ‘where the drum of night / might spin up a lemon sun’ into a flight of fancy. His poetic territory, therefore, is part mental play and partly outdoors. The sea and shorelines are typical settings, delighting in its experiences and creatures. ‘Dolphins’, for instance, depicts a honeymoon hire-car drive to a wintry Scottish beach. Once there, ‘we are forced out, / waterproofs cracking and flapping like sails, / onto the muscular whim of pebbles’. They are rewarded with the sight of dolphins, ‘leaping as if / they were the very joy of something born’. ‘Swim’ is a more serious encounter with the sea, an incident while sailing. ‘The swim-wake is heavy as panic, / heel-dragging a guessed course through mist’, and the boat’s edge is ‘slippy as nightmares’. The best of these kind of poems is perhaps ‘Breakfast on the Beach’, investing a simple occasion with elegiac significance as ‘mourning friends’ remember the absence of one amongst them, ‘as the waves make their nervous approaches, / hushing and stammering’.

Pilots and Navigators had the distinction of being the last contemporary poetry volume to be published by Oxford University Press, and it contained some already striking inventions. ‘Lisdoonvarna’ (subtitled ‘1931’) concerns a blue whale that is stranded on an Irish beach, the efforts of the locals to save it, and finally its strange return, ‘fixing with one eye the lonely boy / standing up to his waist in the water’. Dunn also enters the world of stage or screen, at least indirectly, observing a theatrical ‘Dummy’, describing it as ‘your stunt double, patiently / wearing a voodoo of pins and / the chill of unfinished work’. There is a consistent erotic thread in his work. The alluring ‘Judith with the Head of Holophernes’, for instance, sees her as a femme fatale who ‘cannot wait for the invention / of the camera’, while ‘the whole paparazzi of artists / drools shamelessly over flesh’. A reviewer in Bloomsbury Magazine found ‘the real territory’ of the book to be that of youth and uncertainty, citing the poem ‘Halloween’, in which a group of friends attempt to terrify each other; this concludes, ‘we are most afraid of the future’s ghosts’.

In Flying Fish, Dunn is by turns playful and elegiac. Some poems, however, reflect on family scenes, or observe what is around him everyday in York, an ancient city in which ‘Ducks jam the waterway, honking / like armoured cars along a wall’, and, walking to work, ‘we are at home, visa-distant’ (‘No Bridge’). Others are more mysterious, as when a stained glass window cleaner is miraculously unharmed after a fall from his ladder: ‘Transfigured, arms ablaze with coloured plumes, / he wrestled a night-long angel / down the up-rushing rungs of light’. Many of the poems abound in images; some are filmic (‘the Super 8’ of driving through flickering January trees) and some erotic: ‘the dappling blue from the bedroom tank / lay along the body of his young wife’ (‘Goldfish’). But it always returns to the sea, whether musing on a prehistoric fish being brought into the television age (in ‘Coelacanth’), or exploring ‘the ocean’s uncertain border’.  

Dunn’s recent poem ‘Antimony’ was commissioned by the Poetry Book Society for display and performance at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It is an exuberant and somewhat theatrical piece, taking off into the past from a museum exhibit, an 18th-century medicinal drinking cup, to launch into a toast to health and friendship. The ironic twist is that with this is also a ‘poisoned chalice’ designed to cause vomiting. The drinker calls on the landlord for ‘one final shot’ of wine and bile, who replies, ‘Sorry, gents, it’s time. / Better out than in’. We look forward to Antony Dunn’s next collection for more of such bittersweet entertainment.

Dr Jules Smith, 2005


Flying Fish
Pilots and Navigators


Eric Gregory Award
Newdigate Prize

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