Photo Credit: Martin Figura
Julia Webb is a poet, editor, and creative writing tutor living in Norwich. Her poems have appeared previously in magazines such as Magma, The Rialto, Poetry Salzburg Review, and The Interpreter’s House.
In 2011 she won the The National Poetry Society Stanza Competition and in 2014 she was shortlisted for The Poetry School/Pighog pamphlet Prize. Her first full-length poetry collection Bird Sisters is due to be published by Nine Arches Press in May.
Hi Julia. Thanks for taking the time to chat. 2016 looks set to be an exciting year for you with the publication of your debut full-length collection Bird Sisters later this Spring. Can you tell us a bit about how it came together and what readers can expect from the poems?
Hi – thanks for inviting me. It is a very exciting year for me. My collection has been quite a long time in the making. I did the Poetry MA at The University of East Anglia in 2010. When I completed the MA I thought I might be ready to put together a collection and applied for some funding from the Arts Council – in part to pay for a mentor and also to buy me a little writing time.
It took me a whole year to put that funding bid together, but I am glad I did because that mentorship (from Pascale Petit) was absolutely invaluable. We threw out quite a few poems and I wrote new (better) ones. We re-ordered the collection and edited the poems over and over – until finally I had a collection I was proud to send out. I sent it to Bloodaxe first and Neil Astley suggested that it might be a good fit for Jane Commane at Nine Arches – and luckily for me she liked it!
Quite a few of the poems in the collection explore the theme of family and sisterhood in some way, but with other poems threaded in amongst them. Poems about nature, loss, love etc. I suppose that I am interested in the everyday stuff, but with a bit of magical realism thrown in.
There are several sequences in the book that feature different kinds of dysfunctional family. I am really interested in the way that families (and especially children) interact with each other – how they can be casually cruel, the stories and myths that families generate about themselves and the mental games that people play.
Quite a few of the poems have a surreal twist too – I am interested in transformation – so people sometimes become animals or birds. That all sounds very heavy but there are a few celebratory poems and there is quite a bit of humour in the book too – especially in the sequence of prose poems about a religious family with a slightly unhinged dictatorial father.
I think it is good to be on the other side of the table. Sometimes people get a little grumpy when a journal editor takes a while to reply – the reality is that most editors of smaller journals are doing the job for love not money, and are fitting it around work and family commitments. It has been great being part of the Lighthouse team and I can’t believe how it has taken off. I never imagined when we had those initial meetings where we thrashed out design ideas and our creative ethos that a few years down the line we would be winning a Saboteur Award.
It is great being part of Gatehouse too – I really believe in the power of literature to change lives so being part of a small press is a great way to contribute something to the writing community – and it is really exciting discovering new writers. I won’t pretend that it’s not hard work sometimes though. Helen Ivory and I spent a whole day in December putting Tarot cards into boxes.
I think seeing that there is so much good work out there makes you take yourself less seriously as a “writer” – and of course I can’t help but be inspired by some of the outstanding submissions that we receive. It is sometimes hard to keep a balance though – busy submission reading times can leave your head brimming so there is no room for your own work.
I understand you also have a passion for teaching creative writing and offering tuition and feedback to mentees. As somebody who has been mentored in the past yourself, what do you think are the most important qualities a teacher or tutor can bring to help improve and develop the work of poetry writers?
I think a good teacher needs patience and a gentle touch. Budding creatives are often a little fragile to begin with – especially those who have had a bad experience with a tutor in the past. I think though that probably the most important quality a teacher can have is a love of their subject. I love literature and especially poetry – finding poems to share with my class is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job.
I think a mentor needs to be a little harder – it is all a question of gauging what level a student is at. My mentor was quite hard with me – she told me she would be at our first meeting – but it made all the difference to my collection. It would have been a weaker collection with quite a few filler poems otherwise. I needed that nudge to make me work harder and chuck the weaker poems out.
What does the rest of the year hold for you? Are there any poetry dates in the diary you are looking forward to or are there any specific goals you have set yourself?
I am also going to be writer in residence at Norwich Market during May. As for the rest of the year who knows – hopefully a few more readings!
I am writing a lot of new material at the moment, some of it quite different from that in my book, which is very exciting, but I need to make myself type up and edit more.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
I found it really hard to choose a poem. I have chosen a prose poem that is part of the sequence I mentioned earlier. It is called ‘The Piano Lesson’. There are several poems in this sequence all written in the same voice. As the sequence goes on it becomes increasingly clear that the family is dysfunctional and that the tyrannical father is a little unhinged.
The Piano Lesson
When I asked Daddy if I could learn the piano, he said NO because MUSIC IS THE DEVIL’S WORK. When Daddy was away doing GOD’S WORK Mama took us to visit the end-of-the-row neighbours. They are secret friends because they are BAPTISTS. They have our house back-to-front and a real live piano which sometimes I am allowed to play. Steve taught me COCKLES AND MUSSELS ALIVE ALIVE-O and in bed that night I sang the song to Alice. I was just getting to the good bit about the GHOST when Daddy banged in shouting STOP THAT NOISE, DON’T YOU KNOW THAT DUBLIN IS FULL OF HEATHENS AND PAPISTS? I didn’t know what a papist was, but I asked Daddy is Molly Malone a Papist? which made Alice snort with laughter. Daddy didn’t answer; he just slammed out again muttering about Papists and the devil. I hummed Cockles and Mussels under my breath until I fell asleep, and that night I dreamt that I was Molly Malone and my barrow looked a lot like a piano but with limpets stuck all over it like the rocks on the beach at the Sunday School outing.