Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Rebecca Varley-Winter

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.


Becky Varley-Winter

grew up on the Isle of Wight, lives in London, and teaches English Literature and Creative Writing for various universities. Her debut poetry pamphlet, Heroines: On the Blue Peninsula, (http://vpresspoetry.blogspot.com/p/heroines.html?m=1)is published by V. Press (May 2019); her poems have also appeared in Sidekick Books’ No, Robot, No anthology, FINISHED CREATURES, Lighthouse Literary Journal and Poems in Which, among others, and won the T. R. Henn and Brewer Hall prizes. Her academic book, Reading Fragments and Fragmentation in Modernist Literature, was published by Sussex Academic Press in 2018.

The Interview

1. What inspired you to write poetry?

I always wrote, but poetry took hold when I was a teenager, for several reasons:

I was in a band, so was originally trying to write song lyrics. I’m still influenced by lyricists, especially PJ Harvey and Joanna Newsom, and see poetry and song as closely connected.

One of my brothers was stillborn when I was thirteen, and poetry was a way of handling grief, as well as translating/transforming all of those immeasurable teenage moods. I grew up on the Isle of Wight, surrounded by a lot of natural beauty, and remember feeling almost drunk on the landscape, floored by beauty, love and longing – and sadness and death, too – writing constantly.

The first poets I connected with were Linda Pastan, T. S. Eliot, and Sylvia Plath. In Plath’s work, I loved the frostbitten horror of ‘Poppies in October’ and the thrill of dread reading ‘The panther’s tread is on the stairs, coming up and up the stairs.’ I also remember reading Eliot’s poems aloud to myself, loving his sense of music, rhythm, and mystery. On many things we’d disagree, but he had a strong influence. Linda Pastan was accessible without being simplistic, with a knack for capturing tangible sensations. I loved her poems ‘Carnival Evening’, ‘The Happiest Day’, and ‘Letter’. I also came across Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s work in the library; I found his island poems beguiling. At school I read Wilfred Owen’s war poetry (‘Futility’ and ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’), Shakespeare and Webster (Much Ado About Nothing, King Lear, The Duchess of Malfi), among others.

However, what allowed me to start writing was probably the discovery that other people my own age were writing poems. I was commended in the Foyle Young Poets of the Year competition and was aware of Helen Mort’s work from very early on.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

My parents introduced me to Dr Seuss and Roald Dahl, and we had an anthology called The Island of the Children which I remember well. I also found my mum’s copy of Stevie Smith on the shelves and read ‘Not Waving but Drowning’. I studied Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’ at school when I was seven; I felt confused by its sadness, but it must have made a strong impression on me, as I remember it so clearly. We collectively memorised Keats’ ‘To Autumn’ at my primary school – another poem heady with mortality, which I didn’t fully understand. However, I had no sustained sense of wanting to write poetry until my teenage years, and nobody particularly pushed me towards it.

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

If by this you mean THE DEAD / THE CANON, I was a keen reader and picked up poetry alongside everything else. However, I was almost totally unaware of female poets before the nineteenth century (though I’d heard of Sappho, if only through Nick Cave lyrics), and later felt some frustration at the fact that, for example, Emilia Bassano and Anne Finch had been there all along. We just didn’t read them. I knew that female poets existed, but didn’t have any sense of a long history of women’s voices.

If you mean older poetic mentors, they could be really encouraging – Roddy Lumsden invited me to participate in poetry events after I met him at a reading and sent him some of my work. He was really helpful in making me feel part of the poetry world. However, I was only able to write more fearlessly when I stopped seeking external validation. At some point, I stopped entering huge competitions (imagining that a win would ‘give me permission’ to write somehow) and started submitting work for publication instead. At the same time, my writing loosened up, as if that desire for approval was in itself destructive. I still take feedback from trusted readers and am not immune to criticism (it hurts!), but basically accepted my own authority.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

During term-time, I’m fully absorbed in teaching (and research towards teaching), so if I do write, it often involves scrawling something down on a train. Outside of term, I have more time to refine and edit, but still have other work to do. I try to spend one day on my writing each week, usually on Sundays.

5. What motivates you to write?

Restlessness, energy, reading something great and wanting to respond to it, the natural world, and other people, always. Poetry can feel solitary, but it’s really communal.

6. What is your work ethic?

I need to feel useful and have a sense of guilt if I’m not working. However, writing is a compulsion, not a duty. It eventually allowed me to teach creative writing, which does help me to earn a living, but I do it because some insane instinct drives me to. That said, writing of course takes focus and work, isn’t always fun, and I do want readers to get something from it, so I suppose my work ethic factors into it at some stage. However, sitting down to draft a poem always feels more like an act of disobedience or troubled pleasure.

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

There might still be visible influence from Eliot, Plath, Pastan, etc, but I’ve gathered lots of other interests since then, so I’m not sure. Emily Dickinson is a big influence, and I studied Mallarmé and Mina Loy for my PhD, so they must have sunk in on some level; I love Apollinaire too, Audre Lorde, Whitman. Sometimes you find an odd affinity with a writer you’ve never read at all; I was told I was influenced by Elizabeth Bishop before I’d ever read her, and when I finally read Lola Ridge, she felt similarly familiar.

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

If we’re including writers of fiction, I’d add Elena Ferrante, but most of the writers I admire are poets. Recently: Fiona Benson, Liz Berry, Tishani Doshi, Scherezade Siobhan, Rebecca Tamás, Seán Hewitt, Arthur Allen, Rakhshan Rizwan, Sumita Chakraborty, Denise Riley, Emma Hammond, Ollie Evans, Marianne Morris, Nisha Ramayya, Fran Lock, Sarah Howe, Helen Mort, Rebecca Perry, Amy Key, Emily Berry, Will Harris, Mona Arshi, Ruby Robinson, Shivanee Ramlochan, Mark Waldron, John McCullough, Rachael Allen, Sophie Collins, Hera Lindsay Bird, Patricia Lockwood, this could go on… Some have been personally kind as well as being great writers, such as Sarah Leavesley at V. Press, Alex MacDonald, Abigail Parry, Tim Wells, Kirsten Irving, Jon Stone, Claire Trévien.

I’m drawn to poets who sound unabashedly like themselves, by which I mean that they might have influences, but they’re not just trying to emulate or write to an accepted trend. I tend to like work that has a kind of daring, though it might be a subtle daring. I’m not a big fan of poems that feel either completely sensible or calculatedly cool… something instinctive needs to happen.

To narrow this down – I most admire Fiona Benson, because Vertigo & Ghost speaks so fiercely and powerfully; Sumita Chakraborty, because ‘Dear, Beloved’ is one of the most extraordinary and ambitious poems that I’ve read in recent years; Denise Riley, because she’s got a flawless poetic instinct – no-one sounds like her; and Liz Berry, because every one of her poems I’ve encountered lately has been so good. I’d also say Ollie Evans (admittedly this one’s personal), whose work is as alive and inventive as he is. Finally, I really admire funny female poets like Hera Lindsay Bird and Patricia Lockwood, because they’re fearless and irreverent, and that makes me less afraid.

9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

Because I’m ruled by my heart more than my head.

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

Write (and rewrite). READ as widely as possible. If you want to be published, learn to tolerate rejection; keep sending your writing out to publishers whose work you enjoy. Be interested in people. Be interested in everything. Set limits around your time online. Remember that other writers are your community, not your competition. Work at it, stay open, enjoy it.

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

My debut pamphlet Heroines: On the Blue Peninsula came out with V. Press in May (2019), and is a collection of female-centred, fantastical and tender poems. You can read a sample poem and buy it here http://vpresspoetry.blogspot.com/p/heroines.html?m=1

I’m also working hopefully towards a full collection, trying to narrow down about 100 poems to 40-50. I know it will centre around themes of danger and anxiety, and some thrills too.

I also have a few short stories in progress, but if I try to publish them it might be under a pseudonym – so don’t look out for those, I guess!

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