Photo Credit: Rosie Bennett
here Her second collection Her Birth (Carcanet 2013) was shortlisted for The 2013 Forward Prize for Best Collection, The Warwick Prize for Writing 2015, The Portico Prize for Literature 2015, and was winner of the Poetry Category in the 2013 East Anglian Book Awards.
Hi Rebecca. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on being announced as a Next Generation Poet in 2014. How did you find the experience and, given your first pamphlet was published back in 1997, how important do you feel the intervening thirteen years were between then and the publication of your debut full-length collection in your development as a writer to reach this stage?
Many thanks for inviting me to be part of Poetry Spotlight. I’ve been enjoying the site very much.
Thank you for the congratulations. Being selected for Next Generation Poets (and all the other lists Her Birth got itself on to), was thrilling yes, but also unexpected, and at times overwhelming. I do wonder sometimes how different the experience would have been if the collection in focus had not been so personal.
Regarding the stretch of time between pamphlet and first collection, I’m grateful I had that time to grow up and mature as a writer. But really, that’s just how long it took me. I’m not terribly prolific in my output. I ploughed on submitting work to magazines, getting accepted and rejected in equal measure. I just kept going, gradually getting my name out there.
I met my husband just before the pamphlet came out, and went on to raise my young stepchildren. Then I had a baby who was very ill and died. Then I got pregnant again, and my second child was born the week my first collection was published. A lot happened in those thirteen years.
I understand you are busy working on a new collection. Can you tell us a bit more about these poems and in what ways the new book is thematically and stylistically a departure from or continuation of the autobiographical and personal poems of Her Birth?
I’ve finished the new collection now. The book is certainly a departure from the autobiographical. There are poems about my experiences in there – for example I was ill with pleurisy last year, and wrote several poems about it. They will be in the book. But they are more about exploring the language for pain, rather than taking a ‘this happened to me’ approach.
I have loved making things up again, or being inspired by stories I read about or hear on the radio. The themes are similar to those in my first collection – sex, the body, things that seem familiar but are strange – but I have matured another decade, so the writing is different. I hope it is sharper and more refined – reflecting what I’ve read, learned and absorbed in that time.
When asked to describe the new collection, I tell people it’s unashamedly female. Some may say you possibly can’t get more female than Her Birth, but my new collection focuses on wider female experiences. I wanted to look closely at the female body, at sex, at the emotional and physical connections women make to the world around them. After reading an early draft, my editor said ‘in your poems, it all becomes vital and unknown, possible but weird.’ I can live with that.
I’ve also been very influenced by artists. There are six poems in the book responding to the work of the painter Alison Watt. I first saw her vast canvases of twisted, white fabric at The Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool last year and was mesmerised. I explored her work more, and it triggered something very sensual in my poems. Watt’s suggestion of a physical presence in her work made me want to explicitly include one in my poems.
You’ve mentioned in the past that due to time constraints as a busy parent you often compose poems in your head while doing other things. I wonder if you could go into a bit more detail about this process and has the bulk of the drafting process already been done in working out the poem in your head beforehand?
There was a time when I had to write in my head as all my time was soaked up caring for a young child. But now with my daughter at school, there is slightly more time. I’ve noticed however, I still adopt that gestation period of keeping the poem in my head. I’ve come to write that way.
The Alison Watt inspired poems appeared on the page very quickly. There were surprisingly few drafts, but then I had been thinking about those paintings for a year, before I stated to write about them. I find now that a lot of the poem has been ‘sorted out’ in my head by the time I switch on my computer.
But I do love drafting, and can surprise myself with changes I never saw coming, once I’m actually typing. Once the poem starts forming itself from notes into stanzas, I see it becoming real. Then I start working at those line breaks and the structure. That part makes me feel really happy. I get utterly lost in it. The house could fall down and I wouldn’t notice.
I understand you will be tutoring an Arvon course at The Hurst in October alongside Nii Ayikwei Parkes called ‘Starting to Write’ which will examine building narrative in poetry writing. Can you tell us a bit more about the course and what students can expect?
I love tutoring for Arvon. They are rewarding weeks for everyone involved. I’m really looking forward to this course. I see myself as (and have been described as) a narrative poet. My early writing particularly, was very inspired by short fiction. The writer Jayne Anne Phillips is still a favourite, and an influence.
During the course at The Hurst, we will be seeking stories. Stories that come from us, or stories we glean from others. I will be focusing on how to translate those tales into poems. We will look at how to condense information down. We will be discussing just how much is enough to ‘leave in’. Expressing a lot in just a few lines is the most exhilarating challenge for me. I hope it is too, for the writers I shall be meeting.
What does the rest of the year hold for you? Are there any dates in the poetry diary you are looking forward to?
Pretty quiet on the readings front. I had to pull out of several things earlier this year due to illness and family commitments. Reading pretty much exclusively from Her Birth since 2013 took its toll. Now I have the new collection to read from, I’m feeling much more positive about doing readings again, should there be any!
Saying that, I have recently read my pleurisy poems at UCL’s Encountering Pain conference. As a poet, I think it’s important to take your work outside the immediate poetry arena when you can. I like taking poetry to places where it may not be typically heard.
I’m also writing a few articles for magazines, which I’m enjoying. I mentored the poet Liz Hall last year as well, and it was such a successful union. I’d love to do more of that.
I will be returning to The Jupiter Project this year too. My friend, the writer and photographer Christopher Routledge, set it up a few years ago. He takes photos, I write poems. We post them on a blog. I know this has been done before, but we’ve really enjoyed the collaboration. It lay dormant for a bit, so we’re gearing it back into life and thinking about a possible exhibition.
With the third book written I’ve made a start on the fourth, influenced this time by my move to Suffolk. My husband began a new life as a furniture maker when we moved here three years ago. Through his work, we’ve come to know a variety of people who work with their hands – blacksmiths, thatchers, farmers. I want to write a small collection about these rural trades and their connections to the East Anglian landscape.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
It’s the title poem from my next book and was published originally in Ambit 224. I guess it addresses that ‘unashamedly female’ thing…
After Alison Watt ‘Hollow’ (2009)
An opening: marquise cut,
determining how my mother
would dress me,
how she would tip my head
towards the world,
tell me I was a beautiful thing.
Its evolution was slow.
The pale plum of myself, visible
on lawns of a childhood
until I grew to recognise
its very private reek,
found it capable of quiver, stretch.
A finger’s hook at cotton seams,
how that push inside
could change me. It’s where
I would disclose the colour red,
and feel the water
first time I chilled myself in sea.
But for heat,
that would take you
to lie down at its haw, cause
a tipping to begin –
a somersaulting into love
that made a daughter.
And I’ll tell her,
it’s where they looked first –
eyeing through my squall and kick
to identify me as girl.