Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Jemma Borg

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

The Illuminated World by Jemma Borg

Jemma Borg

Jemma Borg’s first collection, The illuminated world (Eyewear, 2014), won the inaugural Fledgling Award and included a poem highly commended in the Forward Prize. Recent publications include The Poetry Review, Oxford Poetry and Magma. She won the Ginkgo Prize for Ecopoetry in 2018, and the RSPB/Rialto Nature and Place Competition in 2017.

The Interview 
1. What inspired you  to write poetry?

My first encounter with Shakespeare at school. I’d not had much exposure to poetry as I was growing up, but I loved the language of Shakespeare immediately – the sound of it (even if I didn’t know about iambic pentameter then) and the complexity but also the ability to present that complex thought in surprisingly lucid and spare ways. We also had a very progressive teacher that year at school who used to bring in song lyrics to our lessons – stuff we were listening to, like the Eurythmics – so I was also being presented with a very permissive atmosphere in terms of what poetry could be.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

Well, that teacher has some responsibility. But really it took off from that point at school for me – I sought out poetry myself in the local library. I’d always been writing stories as a child, but it became very much poetry that I focussed on from then on – I have a couple of collections from my teenage years (unpublished of course). I like the idea that poetry is a natural rhythm in our bodies – iambic pentameter fits with the breath, for example – so I also think there’s something instinctive about it, which suggests you don’t need to be introduced to it so much as encouraged to find it in yourself.

3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?

Initially, I’d say I was more aware of the tradition – the long history of poetry and although that seemed largely male, it didn’t bother me. As I became a more experienced writer, I realised that it mattered I was a woman – in terms of ‘the tradition’, but also just as an issue I had to think about. But I didn’t feel that older poets – I assume you mean contemporary poets – were dominating as such. I ‘ve been determined to learn what I could from them. Most poets I’ve worked with have been generous, encouraging and inspiring. And, ultimately, your mentors become the poets you read and return to again and again – and they can be from any time, any place.

 4. What is your daily writing routine?

In school term time (i.e. when I don’t need childcare), I write every day of the working week. Before I had my son, I wrote every day – which I felt was an important part of my apprenticeship to poetry. Now, it’s less crucial if I don’t work at my desk every day – that’s also a necessity with a child, you never know if you’re going to need to drop everything and attend to their needs. I’ve found I can work in my head, editing poems, and I appreciate the role of things like walking and exercise in freeing up my work. I’m very interested in the writing process – and it isn’t all about what you do at your desk. Fortunately. A sense of continuity matters though and I do try to get away on a retreat once a year – and then I often write into the evening – by nature, I’m a night owl, but parenthood usually forces me to be the opposite of that.

5. What motivates you to write?

Reading is a huge motivator – coming across something you admire or are excited by or reading a poem which you can feel doing its thing, strengthening that ‘obstinate centre’ in you that Elaine Feinstein wrote of. Ted Hughes said that a ‘heightened awareness draws language to itself’ so some of working has to be getting into that state of heightened awareness – music helps for me. So there are also these ‘peripheral things’ that help – coffee, a lack of distractions… Often the job is about getting yourself to engage with difficult topics and to challenge procrastination – which is usually about learning to be gentle with yourself.

6. What is your work ethic?

No pain, no gain? Poetry is a vocation and a journey – and poets should aim to become a channel rather than just express their own opinions or experience. Writing is as much about the work you do on yourself and your life. Writers have responsibility – but you have to find out what that responsibility is for the way your write. Also, writing does not depend on ‘being in the mood’ – you can sit down to it and just do it like anything else. But see above – sometimes procrastination means you’re finding something tricky, perhaps psychologically, and then you might want to go and do something else, like take a walk.

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

When I was young, I read a lot of science fiction (Asimov, JG Ballard…). I think that’s a good basis for writing what we have come to call ‘ecopoetry’ – an eye on the apocalypse while at the same time imagining alternative futures. Also, I trained as a scientist at university and as such science often influences my syntactic choices – scientific literature is written in a particular kind of way, with lots of parentheses and with a strong rhetorical basis. Of course, everything you read influences you in some way – and that’s all good. We just have to read as widely as possible in order to ‘educate the intuition’.

8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

Having just returned from the Aldeburgh poetry festival, and seeing her perform, I have to say that the Penned in the Margins poet Elizabeth-Jane Burnett was amazing. The poetry works wonderfully – musically – on the page but then, live, the poet spontaneously breaks out into song, as though the poetry has to lift off the page, the words taking flight. It really was a very memorable moment – it was not because the poet wished to be ‘performative’, but she was following the musicality of her words to their full conclusion. Fascinating. I like language that is alive – and to me that’s what poetry should be doing. One of the books I’ve enjoyed most over the past few years for that very reason is Christopher Logue’s translations of the Iliad – War Music. I love poetry in translation generally for the stretching it forces English to perform. I also admire the musicality of poets like Alice Oswald, and I like poets who are engaged in a ‘project’ – hers she states as being about giving voice to natural things, hearing them as they are in themselves not from the biases we humans have (this is a tricky task). A lot of poets who impress are from America – and while Jorie Graham’s project has become more specialised, her work along with that of Louise Gluck, has an attractive ‘meatiness’. American poets do not apologise for having a poetics of ideas.

9. Why do you write?

Because I have to. It’s always been a part of my life and I go slightly crazy if I don’t. It’s probably to do with keeping my inner sense of the world in some kind of order. The joy of it is the sense of discovery you can get as you work through a poem and that’s a kind of addictive joy. I also just enjoy language, the music of it, the almost physical properties of it (I like working with collage in the early drafting process). Also, I believe that writing – all art – matters. It matters that we struggle to express, represent and transform.

10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

Ah, that’s an interesting question. I think you both choose it and it also kind of happens to you too. But you have to give yourself a lot of time, and you have to write a LOT to begin with. Read a lot too, obviously. If you’re not massively interested in reading, you’re probably not a writer. You have to think about, and discover, what kind of writer you are – there are many different ways to be a writer and sometimes people get caught up thinking they want to be a poet or a novelist, for example, when their skills may lie elsewhere. And don’t do it unless you absolutely can’t bear not to – it’s going to demand so much from you and rewards are thin on the ground.

11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.At the moment,

I’m working on my second collection, so a lot of what I’m doing is editing, with the occasional new poem being written to fit the trajectory of what will ultimately be the book. I’m also researching ecopoetics and how women have combined motherhood with writing. I’m interested in challenging myself with different ways to write from this point onwards – and want to think about innovative approaches.

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