Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Phoebe Wagner

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 Body You're In Phoebe Wagner

Phoebe Wagner

is a poet and theatre-maker from London. She studied at Rose Bruford College on the European Theatre Arts course. She is part of Barbican Young Poets and Living House Theatre. Her debut pamphlet ‘The Body You’re In’ is out now with Bad Betty Press. Her work explores the fierceness of vulnerability and the politics in the personal.




The Interview

1. What inspired you to write poetry?

The first thing was that being a poet allowed me to notice things and explore them in this world where it didn’t have to all be linear or make sense. There was a power and ownership of my own voice that by writing it down I felt I was taking. I think that feeling of power also came from the process of performing – that these words were for the audience to take what they need from. I was going to poetry nights like BoxedIn and Chill Pill in London and came away emotional and feeling like I was finding community.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

I was lucky enough to be in a workshop run by Deanna Rodger at college on performance poetry. I remember putting my name down thinking ‘What is that?’. She got us to explore the space and then from that put words on outlines of our bodies and then choose one of those words to write about. Before I read the GSCE AQA English anthology and felt like I didn’t understand it and therefore the whole of poetry. Deanna proved me wrong: in poetry I could feel what was around me and pull it apart and work it out in my writing.

I wrote my first poem about my Abuela (Spanish for Grandma) who was forgetting everything. I just remember the feeling of coming home to my Mum and having written that poem – it was like a focus and a cleansing and an excitement all at once. More than anything I think it was I knew I would write poems from then on. I would spend hours on Youtube watching Youtube videos of spoken word poets in the US and UK like Alyssia Harris from The Strivers Row, Kate Tempest, Raymond Antrobus, Dean Atta, Sean Mahoney and so many more. It allowed me to open a new part of my brain and my emotional capacity sat in front of those poets online and at gigs. I still well up hearing people perform and saying their own words on stage. There’s a power in that act of trying to articulate something that feels invisible. But then I always feel like I’m being re-introduced to poetry with every poet I encounter.

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

‘Thinking about it, starting out, I didn’t think many people in the world had decided to be poets.The GSCE AQA Anthology almost didn’t inspire me at all. It was when I started going to gigs that I saw the older poets that were gigging and realised they were paving the way. Poets like Selena Godden and Mr G who were part of the canon that I feel now has been hidden. The poets that were bringing poetry out of the elitist spaces into bars and clubs. The poets that were in the AQA Anthology were the old dead white people that had set the rules that the current poetry community were breaking. ‘

4. What is your daily writing routine?

As I work part time as a teaching assistant at a Special Educational Needs school I don’t get to write everyday because the work can be very emotionally and physically exhausting. You are still a writer even when you’re not writing because you need time to find more ink. I think it is important to have a practice or things to help you get started writing and to edit but to herald the time frame of ‘daily’ as a target to hit hasn’t always worked for me. It’s made me feel anxious where I don’t need to be. It plays into that capitalist idea that more things is better. Even when we discuss our favourite poets we won’t necessarily agree, so to even pinpoint what ‘better’ is not solid, but fluid.

I have done things like NaPoWriMo which has worked for me and may write multiple days in a row but this is not the marker of my artistry. I think what I focus on in my practice is to find ways to access what I am surrounded by and what is inside of me. I like to utilise the city spaces, I will write on the bus or tube to and from work and free write rather than try and craft something perfect on the first write. I will use forms of texts I write or talk to myself into my voice notes and use that to create a poem. Or call that thing you’re not

sure of its poetryness a poem. I think that is powerful, when you can say that is a poem. That is poetic and I don’t have to explain. I think writing doesn’t always happen when pen is hitting the paper and I work to redefine what writing is.

I like to use my body to find poems too – I find moving unlocks something in my brain that stops me from being an editor. Having come from a physical theatre training and loving practices like contact improvisation and yoga and done lots of dance as a kid, there’s a language of the body that works together with words that is part of poetics. Just watch a poet read or perform and there body is there making you feel something before they even open their mouth.

5. What motivates you to write?

People. Images. Memories. Feelings. Mainly people. All the same things as the others who write. It’s never from the same space and I think the search for the reason you wrote something is what motivates me to keep writing. That I will never fully figure it out but it will feel less messy even in its chaos.

6. What is your work ethic?

Still trying to work that out.

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

I’m not sure, but I know they leave feelings and they are my roots. They’ve nourished me but I’m not sure which branch it has helped grow.

I read the Harry Potter books when I was 4 up until I was 10, every night. I think those books had a huge impact on how I see the world but I can’t pinpoint how.

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

There are so many that make art and have inspired me I will be here for years but I can go by what I just finished reading. ‘Motherhood’ by Sheila Heti is structured by the flipping of coins to answer as yes and no to her questions and this becomes a structure and a conversation she has that leads her through the book. It explores how women grapple with the notion of having children, what it meant for our mothers, what it can mean for us and it questions why we live. Really philosophical but some passages had me crying and laughing and folding down pages and underlining.

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

Because it can happen anywhere at anytime and it is magical to turn the invisible or subjective into an object or an experience.

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

Write. Have you written words before? Have you said things before? Then you are one!  You do you. Do it how you want. Don’t do what people tell you to, just listen to them and see what sticks. Get frustrated at not knowing what to do or what you’re doing or how to do it. That is productive. Talk to people, tell them what you don’t understand and they might know something or say something that you’ll remember when you’re frustrated. Go for a walk. Look at the ceiling or the sky or the people or smell your kitchen. What do you see? HOW DO YOU FEEL?  Stop making sense. Ask questions about what you’re reading to other people.

Ask someone to read what you’ve written and tell you what questions they want to ask it. Find other writers and learn how they start writing.

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

In the process of trying to do a show somewhere, something devised and about fast fashion. It’s really early days.

I’m a Barbican Young Poet so am working on something for the anthology and showcase that will come our next year. Just generally applying for things but I am so proud of my pamphlet and am in wonder and how it’s living out there in the world.

12. What inspired you to write “The Body You’re In”?

I applied to Bad Betty Press’ anthology ’The Dizziness of Freedom’ in 2018 (an incredible anthology you must read. now.) and they approached me to say that I didn’t get into the anthology but asked if I wanted to publish a pamphlet. I then began looking over the work I was writing at the time and chose the work that was moving me. When I’m putting together a body of work I think that’s the inspiration I start with, looking at what I wanted to deepen. A lot of those poems looked at womanhood and identity. I was inspired throughout the process by people from working in an SEN school, to going on holiday with my Mum, getting therapy, a show I saw at the Edinburgh fringe, the problematic things people said about being bi, things people I barely knew said on Facebook, panic, feeling emotionally prodded and crammed into my own body sometimes. The poets that helped my edit ’The Body You’re In’ inspired me: Jake and Amy that run Bad Betty had a way of looking at my work where they pointed at what they believed in and that pushed me to follow my gut which I think guides more connected writing. Gabriel Akamo, a poet I really admire, helped me look at the poems I had from a distance, we thought about what I thought each poem was in a word. He inspired me by encouraging me to step back and look at my poems as broad strokes. Also reading inspired me. Some of my favourite writing at the time was ‘Odes’ by Sharon Olds, ‘Playtime’ by Andrew McMillan, ‘If They Come For Us’ by Fatimah Asghar, ‘Don’t Call Us Dead’ by Danez Smith, ’The Argonauts’ by Maggie Nelson, ’The Perseverance’ by Raymond Antrobus and ‘In These Days of Prohibition’ by Caroline Bird. Also the other authors being published through Bad Betty Press: Gboyega Odubanjo’s ‘While I Yet Live’ and Antonia Jade King’s ’She Too Is A Sailor’.

13. Why were “ ‘Odes’ by Sharon Olds, ‘Playtime’ by Andrew McMillan, ‘If They Come For Us’ by Fatimah Asghar, ‘Don’t Call Us Dead’ by Danez Smith, ’The Argonauts’ by Maggie Nelson, ’The Perseverance’ by Raymond Antrobus and ‘In These Days of Prohibition’ by Caroline Bird. Also the other authors being published through Bad Betty Press: Gboyega Odubanjo’s ‘While I Yet Live’ and Antonia Jade King’s ’She Too Is A Sailor’ “ some of your favourite writing at the time?

I think all of these books mainly because I was looking at form and all these books were really playful and radiated from their forms. Their writing felt harrowing and relevant and honest which kept me remembering and going back to poems. I think because I was also exploring gender and sexuality a lot in my writing these books became a fuel for my writing and helped me delve deeper. I think Gboyega and Antonia’s books were also an inspiration for showing me what publishing through Bad Betty can do. They were so brave and honest and their writing felt so razor sharp I couldn’t stop going back to their writing and thinking they have done this so now what can I do?

14. Why is it important to be playful with form?

When you play with form you push where it is and allow it to develop into something else. Also, taking form seriously can bog down what your intention is with a poem. Sometimes when I’ve been really set in where a poem is at at that moment it has stopped me from finding the play in it. There is always things to poke at. Being playful with something allows you to remove your ego. When you’re being precious with the rules you’ve set out when writing a poem – the words you’ve chosen, the lineation, the rhythm, it can sometimes lose its life. I think trying to really carefully listen to what the poem wants to do allows the playfulness to come. This might be a be a bit vague and I’m kind of sure and unsure about what I’ve said here.

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