Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Natalie Whittaker

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.

Natalie_front_cover

Natalie Whittaker

is from South East London, where she works as a secondary school teacher. She studied English at New College, Oxford.

Her poems have been published in Poetry News, Brittle Star, Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual, #MeToo: A Women’s Poetry Anthology and South Bank Poetry.

Natalie was awarded second place in the Poetry on the Lake short poem competition 2018 and the Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition 2017.

Her pamphlet is ‘Shadow Dogs’, available from ignition: https://www.brookes.ac.uk/poetry-centre/ignition-press/pamphlets/

and her twitter account is @natalie_poetry

The Interview

1. What inspired you  to write poetry?

I’ve always been the sort of person to write things down and try to narrativise my life – I used to keep a diary even in primary school. I can’t really explain why, it just seemed like the natural thing to do, like something hadn’t really happened until I’d written about it. In terms of ‘creative writing’, I started off with stories – I wrote a lot of bad short stories in sixth form – and the stories got shorter and shorter until I realised that I actually wrote poems. At the same time (around the age of 17) I was getting really into the poetry that we were reading for A-level English at school, and this continued the ‘inspiration’, I suppose.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

English teachers at school. I was lucky enough to have some great English teachers, particularly in sixth form. I suppose that’s the reason why I’m now a secondary school English teacher myself, more than being the reason why I am a poet.  We studied pretty standard stuff – an anthology of Victorian poetry, some ‘unseen’ poems for the exam – but it always seemed to mean a bit more to me than just something to write about in an exam. Then in year 13 we studied Philip Larkin’s ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, and something just switched on in my brain – I was like yeah, this is the good shit! I know Larkin’s not a particularly fashionable person to like now for various reasons, but at the time I just got the sense that this was someone writing about ‘normal’ stuff – bleak towns, shopping centres, sitting on a train – and it struck a chord. I realised that poetry could be about quite everyday things, and still contain great emotion. And I loved how miserable he was. I found that really funny.

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

Most of the poets I read in school were dead. I didn’t really have much awareness of living poets, or a sense that it was something that people actually did as a job. So I suppose a ‘dominating presence’ wasn’t something that I worried about, I was too naïve to even be aware of it. The first poet I really got into independently of school was Sylvia Plath. She definitely became a ‘dominating presence’ for me when I was about 17.  I remember that I asked for her collected poems and journals for Christmas, and that it seemed a bit perverse at the time – to buy a poetry book that you weren’t obliged to read for school! It wasn’t the sort of thing that people around me did.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I don’t really have one. I work as a secondary school teacher so I don’t write every day. I used to get my writing done in the school holidays. Or on the weekends, or if I attend a writing workshop or Arvon course, where you have no choice but to write! Or just on the bus or train. I don’t have set hours where I sit down to write. I can’t imagine that.
Having said that, everything’s going to change next year – I’ve got a baby due in February, and I’m having to change jobs. I’ve had a turbulent couple of months for various personal reasons, after about a decade of total stability, so goodness knows what my life will look like this time next year, let alone my writing routine.

5. What motivates you to write?

A line or a sound or an image that I can’t get out of my head. The need to transform emotion (usually negative emotion) into something approaching comprehension.

6. What is your work ethic?

For years I was an incredibly slow and sporadic writer. Literally one or two poems a year. I just didn’t have the confidence in my writing to ‘allow’ myself to dedicate that much time to it. And in the first few years, at least, teaching is  a pretty full-on job. But in my late 20s I realised that I didn’t have all the time in the world, and that I had better start taking my writing seriously, because it was clearly sticking around as a a part of my life whether I wanted it to or not! So I signed up for a few weekend classes at The Poetry School, an Arvon course, and an evening class at City Lit… and it just went from there. When I was offered a pamphlet publication in 2018 that was a massive boost to my confidence – I think my work ethic quadrupled that year – I wrote more in one year than I had in the previous five years put together! I’m now doing an MA part time so that has kept the momentum going for now.

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

Everything sticks in my head. I’ve got a bit of an obsessive mindset. So I’m sure everything I’ve read influences me hugely. Larkin and Plath are still there, probably. Elizabeth Bishop definitely is – she was my ‘special author’ choice when I did my undergraduate degree. Simon Armitage, Tomas Transtromer – they’re both in there from years ago too. I suppose the main ‘influence’ is just an awareness of what has come before, so that you can move into or against a tradition.

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

I admire / envy so many writers of my own age! Fran Lock, Liz Berry, Jack Underwood, Kayo Chingonyi, Wayne Holloway-Smith, Niall Campbell, Helen Mort, Jay Bernard… I could go on for a long time. Actually, a few of those guys are year or two younger than me. They got their poetry act together a lot sooner!

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

If you mean instead of another art form, I was rubbish at art at school! Bottom of the year in year 8, I remember that clearly! And I never had music lessons or anything like that. I just went to the library! It was something that I could do by myself, that didn’t involve being taken to some form of class or organised activity.

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

Read. Spend years just reading other poets. Try to imitate what you’re reading. The writing won’t be great at first, but you’ll learn a lot. Then read some more, and spend another ten years trying to get good at writing. It’s probably not the best advice, but it’s all I’ve got because it’s what worked for me.
Also – join a writing group! I left that way too long, due to crippling shyness and social anxiety about my writing, which probably didn’t do me any favours.

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

Since ‘Shadow Dogs’ I’ve started going in a different direction formally. I’m working on a series of unpunctuated poems that use extended spaces instead of punctuation. The spaces are always six space bars, and the poems have to make rectangle shapes on the page. I can’t explain why – that’s just how things are coming out at the moment. They are mostly about the mind’s tendency to dwell on negative experiences – something that I do a lot.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.