Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Isabel del Rio

Wombwell Rainbow Interview

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.

Isabel del Rio

is a bilingual writer and linguist.  She was born in Madrid but has spent most of her life in London.  She has published fiction and poetry in both English and Spanish. Her books include La duda, shortlisted for two literary awards, and the bilingual Zero Negative–Cero negativo.  Her latest collections of short stories are Paradise & Hell and Una muerte incidental.  Among her poetry books are The Moon at the End of my Street and Ataraxy.  Her novels include Dissent, part of the trilogy Planet in Peril and El tiempo que falta.  She has worked as a full-time journalist and broadcaster for the BBC World Service, and as a full-time linguist for a UN agency in London.  Her poems have appeared in printed and online magazines, and her short stories have been translated.  She regularly takes part in poetry/prose readings and is an established performance and visual poet.  She is the co-founder of a new independent publishing venture, Friends of Alice Publishing.  Her website is:  http://www.isabeldelrio.com (it includes a selection of stories and poems in English and Spanish under the dropdowns ‘Stories’ and ‘Poetry’)

The Interview

1. What inspired you to write poetry?

I started reading and writing at an early age.  I was especially encouraged when I realised what the purpose of writing was:  to be read.  My parents would read us all these wonderful tales when we were children −my father sometimes made stories up on the spot, something which I would later do with my own children.   I was also good at drawing, so I would write little stories and illustrate them.

My first serious poem was dedicated to my mother after her death.  I was barely an adolescent, and what I wrote was unbearably long and terribly sad.  Love lost, nostalgia, remembrance, darkness, tragedy were my subjects back then… and I suppose they still are now.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

I was exposed to poetry in two languages, English and Spanish, and I could not help but continuously compare the two.  I was always trying to establish the difference between what was poetic in English and what was poetic in Spanish, and would think about the different  rhythms, the distinctive subjects in each language, and so on.  As children, our mother would make us recite poetry and plays (mostly from the Golden Age of Spanish literature, i.e. 17th century).  Also, my grandmother knew many popular poems and songs and she would recite or sing them to us.  And then there were nursery rhymes at school, as well as reciting and singing with friends.

But I also loved to listen to people’s stories, which I found to be even more impactful because they were for real.  Most don’t realise that they sometimes say rather poetic things, and I was always on the look-out for an exciting line or a good story.  I remember when I was a young child and we went to visit a beautiful lake.  It was a group of parents and children.  We were standing in front of the lake, contemplating its beauty, and it suddenly became very quiet.  There was absolutely no sound coming from anywhere, the water was perfectly still, and no birds or insects could be heard.  And one of parents said: “Can you hear the silence?”  In my child’s mind I found that question to be both perplexing and beautiful, and I was entranced.  That sense of wonderment is most probably the source of all poetry, and we must never lose that sense.

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

I do not consider older poets dominating literature so much as dominating language itself.  If you are to write, start at the beginning −find out how language was used by those who had no other medium but the written page to give expression to their thoughts and ideas.  In the case of contemporary poets, we have to be very familiar with the language of today:  social media, online publications, blogs and wikis, as well as all the visual incentives to express our views.  Technology has changed how we do it, yet we are not that different from poets and writers from long ago in what we do.  The sentiments are the same as those from centuries back.  Indeed, we have more words, more concepts, more innovations.  But back then, the richness of language, the complexity of expressions, the long and detailed descriptions were all unique, and young writers should resort to the classics to find out how it was done.  Recently I re-read two “classics” to refresh my memory (reading the classics truly puts you in your place!):  Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, with descriptions that stir universes as nothing today can;  and Frankenstein, in which despite its narrative flaws (let’s not forget that Mary Shelley was but 20 when she wrote it, though possibly aided by Shelley himself) the intricacies of the language are matchless.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

As a full-time writer, I normally work 3-4 hours in the morning and 4-5 hours in the afternoon.  I have been known to write late into the night, but I avoid that sort of thing because I need regularity for my sleep.  I wake up very early, at around 5 a.m., and read online papers (I am a news junkie!) and begin to get my ideas in order, or come up a few ideas for further development.  If I am in the middle of a story (which is usually the case), I think of speech or descriptions that I will type into Notes on my iPhone, or simply write on a post-it.

When I was working full-time as a linguist (for decades and until only a few years ago), I only had evenings and weekends and holidays to write, and yet I managed to do it regularly and produce a considerable amount of work.  Throughout the day I would send emails to my private email address if I had any ideas worth saving.  Even with a full-time job I was able to write.  You must want to write above all else!

But writing is not only about putting pen to paper.  Writers are involved in so many activities nowadays: readings, performances, presentations, launches, keeping up with their social media presence, and so on.  As a writer in two languages, I am also involved in Spanish-speaking literary groups, so I am extremely busy.  I translate literature as well, mostly poetry.  And I also run a small publishing company.  And let’s not forget that certain hours of the day have to be dedicated to living!

5. What motivates you to write?

I am motivated by a love of words, and the feats you can achieve solely with words.  But I am also pushed by the need to say what has to be said, especially at such volatile and uncertain times.  In a way, my life has been dedicated to words, and  I consider myself a language practitioner as I have worked in most language-related fields: broadcasting and journalism; writing, scriptwriting and screenwriting; literary and technical translation; lexicography and terminology; tutoring in writing and translation.

I certainly consider words to be sacred and they must not be taken lightly.  I use them sparingly and carefully, both in my writing and in everyday life.  There is also an element of plasticity in words: not only must words say exactly what you mean, but they must look good on the page.  Words are ultimately an art form.

6. What is your work ethic?

Persistence, dedication, commitment, sacrifice, keeping at it and never looking back despite setbacks, defying adversity, dealing with rejection (it took me a year to recover from my first rejection!), coping with the lack of interest by others.

As a writer you are always an outsider, and even fellow poets and writers do not always provide the support you need.  As to non-writers, many are not remotely interested in what poets have to go through nor in the sensitivity poets require in order to feel what is happening around them and not only see it.

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

As both a poet and a fiction writer, my first serious fiction readings were of Guy de Maupassant’s stories, and in poetry I very much admired (and still do) Antonio Machado.  The list of writers that influenced me when young would be too long to mention.   When I write, I always have in my heart the first writers I ever read, and I must not forget that they were also my first teachers.

Also, I think one ultimately never changes.  Or let’s rephrase that, your sensitivity, largely responsible for your poetry, never changes.  As an example, I still consider my best poems to be those I wrote when very young.

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

Again, it would be an endless list, and it would depend on the subject, genre, historical period and so on.  Let me just mention one poet: Don Paterson.   I find his aphorisms, for example, quite magnificent, the formal effortlessness concealing reflective complexity.   And one fiction writer:  Jorge Luis Borges, the master of short stories, as well as an exceptional poet.  In both cases, the philosophical content of the writing is as fundamental as the stories or the poems themselves.

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

It has chosen me, I suppose.  Would I have chosen writing?  I probably would, but that’s because I can somehow and stubbornly deal with the struggles that come with the job −at least most of the time!

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

You need a good toolkit.  Words are your bricks, grammar is your mortar, you require a decent floor plan to know where you are going, and any embellishments will come from reading anything you can get your hands on.  And of course, you need an idea to write about.  And where do ideas come from?  Well, that remains a mystery, for they can crop up any time from places unknown.

And remember that  there is no such thing as inspiration, only hard work (and the sweat and tears that come with it!).

Writing is a simple enough recipe:  sit and write; then get up and walk around; then sit again and read what you have written;  do this twice, three times, or as many times as necessary until you get the required taste, look and feel;  stir and serve especially cold.

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

I am working on an autobiographical book of poems.  A bilingual memoir.  A spy novella.  And as always, lots and lots of short stories.

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