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.
Her debut pamphlet Naming Bones was published by ignitionpress in 2019. Her poetry has been widely published in magazines including Ambit, Magma, The North, Under the Radar and BBC Wildlife. It has appeared in The Sunday Times and the anthology The Best British Poetry 2012. She has recently been awarded a Developing Your Creative Practice grant by Arts Council England. Joanna also writes fiction and is represented by Thérèse Coen at Hardman & Swainson.
1. What inspired you to write poetry?
The first poem I remember writing was about a kestrel I’d seen hovering by the side of a road. I wrote it at school and my teacher was very encouraging. The poem ended up framed in the headteacher’s office. I was about ten. A few years later I won a local poetry competition with a poem about a lion. So I’d say the natural world was what first inspired me, and it still does.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
Mainly my school teachers. My parents took me to the theatre a lot and we had a CD of ‘the nation’s best-loved poems’, but they weren’t especially into poetry. When I was fifteen and I won the local poetry competition, an amazing woman called Mrs Bence-Jones contacted my grandfather and asked if I would like to join her poetry group. She was a landowner and minor aristocrat, lived in a manor house, and wrote poetry. She even had a cook. I started going to meetings, which began with a meal. The dining chairs had deer’s legs, complete with hooves, and the chair-backs were made of antlers. All the other participants were adults; an earnest older couple, a few bohemian middle-aged women, an ex-monk who took a shine to me, a man called Ivor who played the piano. Mrs Bence-Jones used to listen to our work lying on the floor. It sounds a little mad, but it was a very important experience for me. I realised that poetry wasn’t something just for school. Adults could care about it too. Poems took work, and discussion, and craft.
3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?
Through school I was certainly aware of older poets, mainly the classical canon. We studied the Metaphysicals and Romantics. I remember sitting in my room crying at Christina Rossetti and my favourite poem was probably ‘Ozymandias’. On holiday in Somerset I made my family read ‘The Ancient Mariner’ out loud with me after a visit to Coleridge’s house. I didn’t feel that the presence of these writers was dominating, though. I think my main concern was that my own life was far too unromantic and mundane to make me into a writer.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
I usually write during school hours, unless I’m working on a freelance project. When I’m writing fiction I sometimes feel compelled to go on writing into the evenings and weekends, and poems can grab me at any time too, but I try to be quite professional in my approach. If I write in the evenings I often can’t sleep. With fiction, when I’m into it, I just sit down and write until my alarm goes off reminding me to collect my daughter from school. Poetry is less predictable. Some days I’ll mainly edit existing work. Others, I’ll begin by reading poetry as a way into finding poems I want to write.
5. What motivates you to write?
I think I write mainly because it makes me happy. There’s nothing quite like the pleasure of finding just the right word, of expressing something with the perfect balance of simplicity and complexity. When my writing is going well and I’m lost in it, it actually makes my heart beat harder. Also, I’ve never coped very well with the passing of time, with change and loss. I think a lot of my writing comes from a desire to preserve people and places and moments. I take a lot of photographs for the same reason. Reading a poem that speaks to me makes me want to write.
6. What is your work ethic?
I come from a family of builders, shopkeepers and accountants, so one of my challenges as a writer is how to justify – to myself especially – that a different kind of work ethic is okay. That just making stuff up all day is a valid use of time and still counts as work. That money isn’t the only measure of success. I can sometimes get paralysed by self-doubt and anxiety, but generally I’m very focused. Sometimes I have to remind myself that reading and thinking are necessary and acceptable parts of my working day.
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
I think that beauty is an important element in my writing and I suppose that lots of the classical writers I read when I was young were very conscious of beauty too. I think I’m still inspired by Plath’s intensity and Larkin’s melancholy. The passion of Edna St Vincent Millay. I mostly read contemporary poetry now, though. I guess it’s good to be most influenced by what’s going on in writing now.
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
There are so many, it’s hard to choose! I very much admire the way poets like Liz Berry, Rebecca Goss and Fiona Benson write about motherhood. I admire the wit and playfulness of poets like Suzannah Evans and Paul Stephenson. The wildness and sensitivity to nature of poets like Jacob Polley and Sean Hewitt. At the moment I’m reading and admiring Julia Webb, Mary Jean Chan and Jacqueline Saphra.
9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?
I’m generally a very creative person. I love sewing, photography, printmaking, gardening, interior design – anything crafty, really. Writing would always be my first choice, though. I suppose it’s because I love words and so they are my favourite medium. I feel most myself when I’m writing. Periodically, I decide that I should have done something sensible with my life like becoming a lawyer or an accountant. But those feelings never last for long! I’ve done lots of teaching creative writing, and I do enjoy that, but my desk and my own head are always the safest and most comfortable places to be.
10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
I would tell them to write as much as possible and to read as much as possible, probably the other way around. I think it’s important to find a way to cope with rejection, to be patient and to resist regret. Part of me wishes that I could have had my first pamphlet published and written my first novel in my twenties instead of my forties – and maybe I could have done if I’d been from a different background, or been more confident – but sometimes things take their own time.
11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I have recently received a Developing Your Creative Practice grant from Arts Council England to enable me to work towards a first poetry collection, mentored by Rebecca Goss. I am also embarking on my second novel for young people, about the friendship between girls. My pamphlet Naming Bones is available from ignitionpress.