http://mybabytrees.com/pinyon-pine-tree/ Her first full collection Beauty/Beauty (Bloodaxe 2015) was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and shortlisted for the Fenton Aldeburgh Prize for Best First Collection and the T S Eliot Prize.
Hi Rebecca. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the publication of Beauty/Beauty last year. Can you tell us a bit more about your journey from starting to write poems to having your first book published and your experience of being included in such prestigious award shortlists?
Thank you so much! I’m afraid there’s nothing exciting about my narrative at all – I’d written a lot as a child, focused on poetry at university, took an MA and badgered magazines for a number of years to publish my poems, which some did.
I was then fortunate enough to win a Poetry Wales prize, which led to me having a pamphlet published, with no real concept of how big a deal it was or what it might mean for me. Then more writing, more badgering, and a book. I truly couldn’t report a duller sequence of events if I tried! Just work, patience, resilience, good fortune.
In terms of the book being shortlisted for a couple of things I feel… kind of respectfully irreverent but also grateful? I’ve always maintained, and still do, that prizes are nonsense. Switch around a couple of judges on any given panel and you’ll have a different shortlist, never mind a different winner. Terrible books win huge awards and brilliant books get zero attention from them.
Having said that, I was really happy, particularly with the Eliots, to be shortlisted by judges I genuinely admired and to be part of a shortlist that seemed to be moving in directions I felt comfortable with.
We have an inherent problem (both generally and) in terms of diversity of shortlists and awards in this country, so I think it’s prudent to be suspicious of them, not to take them very seriously, and certainly not to take them as indication of quality or what the writing landscape looks like.
All that being said, the vast majority of readings and sales and reviews will have come off the back of being associated with prizes – it’s no coincidence that a popular broadsheet suddenly commissions a review of your book a year after it came out! And I’m hugely grateful for those things – it’s made this business of existing busily as a writer much easier.
They’re financially valuable for writers and have huge power to throw books open to a wider audience and, when it’s important for that to be done (in the case of Citizen and Loop of Jade, for example) I’m very relieved that they exist.
Some of the poems in Beauty/Beauty gravitate towards subjects constructed from the imagination due to their non-presence in real life, such as absent friends (‘Soup Sisters’), extinct dinosaurs (‘Dear Stegosaurus‘), imaginary childhood friends (‘Pepo’), and mythical creatures (‘Poor Sasquatch‘). I’m curious if you view the poems as celebrating the consolatory power of the imagination or fulfilling some other sort of purpose?
The idea of purpose feels quite huge and unwieldy as a topic, but it’s certainly true that my drive to write (as with most people I think) comes from a desire to make a sort of connection. I’ve no interest in my writing being a display of linguistic dexterity or an invitation to marvel at my intelligence. No one is meant to be impressed. I’m not that intelligent.
I strive for something (said with great caution) a bit more generous than that. I’m a big daydreamer and fantasiser and I spend a good portion of my waking time in another place, mentally speaking, leaping from place to place or living out various fictions.
I once spent an entire hour-long swim imagining how me and a friend would survive a plane crash in the mountains, where we’d put the bodies, what word we’d spell out in the snow to get attention.
I see the imagination in the broadest sense as a great unifier, a place we can all lean into and exist within. I suppose it’s an attempt to push against solipsism – thinking What are our shared places? How can we live in them together? How can we make them brighter? and so on.
I was lucky enough to work with Mark, who I’ve admired for a long time, on a collaboration that we were able to perform on two different occasions. I had slight trepidations about the whole thing – if I’m forced into group work for whatever reason I’m usually the person who makes an effort for about sixty seconds, feels suddenly that it’s overwhelmingly pointless, and then sits quietly – but I know Mark and his writing well enough to know it would at least be fun, whether it resulted in anything of great quality.
We ended up writing postcard poems back and forth to each other, creating these absurd narratives for each other’s lives. It was very freeing to be absolutely unbound by reality or what we knew of each other. The Camarade events run by Steven Fowler are really vital for bringing together different kinds of writers from different places and providing a catalyst for the creation of new work – and work, for that matter, with no boundaries.
You will also be judging The London Magazine competition this year alongside Andrew McMillan. I’m curious what criteria you’ll use when judging the entries and if they will differ in any way from the criteria you normally use when selecting poems in your role as co-editor for Poems in Which?
It’s going to be really fascinating as a process, I think, and Andrew is a good pal so I’m sure that even if we argue we’ll be able to do it in quite an open way. My sense (though I may prove myself wrong) is that I’ll have the same priorities as when I select for Poems in Which – I’m drawn to work that has energy, that feels strange but absolutely in control of itself, that is spiky and unafraid. Though I’ll only have one person to argue with as opposed to three! I instinctively tend to recoil from ‘ta-da!’ poems or poems that seem more concerned with their formal flourishes than actual content – writing that feels very neat or straight or sensible or pleased with itself. I want to be moved and taken by surprise.
What does the rest of the year hold for you? Are there any dates in the diary you are looking forward to or are there any specific poetry goals you have set yourself?
The year so far has felt very full of wonderful things like readings and festivals and being a teacher and writer fellow at my old university, so I’m hoping it will be a bit calmer from now on. I’m slowly slowly working on a new book of sorts, Amy Key and I have a project in mind for later in the year, and it’s the 10th issue of Poems in Which, so we’ll be doing something a bit special for that.
I think goal setting is a lesson in making yourself feel like a failure (ever the optimist) so I tend to avoid planning and just work as things present themselves. If I can read loads of great books and take regular, long baths and generally be happy and alive then that’s okay with me.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
This poem is from a sequence called ‘beaches’, which I’ve been working on for a year or so. It’s slightly odd to put one out there on its own but I think this one just about survives! The sequence moves back and forth between themes – mostly sand, history and the body, broadly speaking – and this one rests on an incident I saw on my way to work one morning.
there are things
you can say absolutely
a man should not be able to bear the weight
of a refuse truck on his chest
a clear wobble of heat hovers at the front grill
snow falls in the suburbs
there are matters of less certainty
will the crab come back out of the same hole
when the sea retreats
what similarity between crabs and lightning
when waiting for help
is it better to reverse a refuse truck
off the chest of a man
a sand crab should not be able
to burrow its eggshell body
backwards through wet compacted sand
is it a man or a body
has there been a switch
is he pushing through a dark
and very narrow corridor
in what direction
a sand crab fishes for food
with a feathery antennae
this is known as blind faith
that the air is full of white speckles
that the man’s white trainers
are facing in unnatural directions
that the truck is a dragon
that a scooter’s spinning wheel is romantic in a way
these are absolute things
eat half of a large meal
feel as if albumen floats around you
try to wash it off
settle down to an artichoke of a dream
peel back its browning scales
is it very soft