by Adam Crothers
Following her appearance in the New Poetries VI anthology, Rebecca Watts’s first poetry collection, The Met Office Advises Caution, was published by Carcanet in September 2016, to great acclaim; The London Magazine described it as ‘one of the significant debuts of the year’. The Literateur recently published some newer work. She spoke with Literateur editor Adam Crothers about her book’s reception, what drives her writing, and where she’s going next.
We chatted at a London Review Bookshop poetry salon last year about the appropriateness, or otherwise, of your book having a ‘Women’ tag on Carcanet’s website (along with ‘British’, ‘First Collections’, and surprisingly not ‘Humour’), and I want to start this interview by exploring that a bit further. To what extent, while putting the collection together, did you have in mind the possibility of its being received, for better or worse, as a women’s book, or indeed a woman’s book? Has it actually been received as such?
First there is a question: how is ‘Women’ a characteristic of a literary product? The appellation is ungrammatical. John Clegg (poet and bookseller at the LRB) told me these marketing tags originate with Nielsen Book Data – so they must have some bearing on sales. Does ‘Women’ elicit greater sales than ‘Men’ (I told you it was ungrammatical)? Now there is a conundrum: ‘Men’ is not a tag. I’ll begin again.
When I first started thinking about writing, ten years ago, I thought I would be R.E. Watts, so nobody would know I was a girl. Then I realised pretentious would be a much worse accusation than woman (Women?), and certainly I did not pretend to any parallels with Mr Eliot. But this is becoming academic. In fact, the early versions of the manuscript did not include the two poems in the collection most obviously related to the ‘topic’ of ‘Women’: ‘Party’ and ‘When you have a baby’. I think these poems are fun, but I worried about including them (a) because they carry a risk of offence to several friends and (b) because they are likely to be received as womanly (i.e. dealing with the Women’s Issue of motherhood). At some point I thought sod it, and I put them in, and these are the two poems that most people who’ve commented on the book have given a positive mention.
Contributing to my rush of blood was this thought: if you can’t say things in poems, when can you? In life we are mostly kind, and accommodating, because there is a bigger picture to consider; in a poem nothing is at stake except the poem, so anything conceivable – though it might not be what you (as you consciously define yourself and choose to behave) think and believe – has a right to be aired, voiced, twisted, challenged, whatever. The success of ‘Party’, a small poem written in a workshop, is that (although it includes the word ‘mother’) it is universal. It’s about people. As are all my poems. Particularly the animal ones. The book should be tagged ‘Nature’ – but then there would be the problem of everyone forgetting that this term includes us. The only sensible conclusion is that tags are stupid and we should look at books in bookshops and buy them if we like the sound of the words arranged therein.
In answer to your second question, I don’t think the book’s been received as a women’s/woman’s book, though I am relieved that reviewers have noted its wit and the instances of social satire alongside the naturey stuff. And I hope it wins a massive cash prize for which only 21st-century womanly women are eligible.
Which prompts me to ask about prize culture, and about reviewery and year-end lists. It’s early days yet for reception of your book, but you’ve already had some enthusiastic reviews and have appeared on some lists; indeed, according to this one, The Met Office Advises Caution was the 211th best poetry book of 2016. On which 211 congratulations. How much do prizes and lists and reviews matter to you, from the perspective both of writing poems and of reading them?
That I straightaway clicked on the link demonstrates my interest in such lists – though of course they reveal more about their compilers than about the relative merits of poetry books. This one is a particularly mad list, generated by a combination of arbitrary human selections and computer trickery, weighted towards US reviews, and including at least two novels (so I can bump myself up to 209th position – hooray!). Also, what they cited as the Guardian’s ‘best’ list is in fact Kate Kellaway’s list.
I think prizes have one foot in the same ballpark; the shortlists for the big ones often reflect judges’ tastes and trends, and if your work addresses an Issue – or, more cringingly, you as perceived by the middle-class reviewing sector represent an Issue (the ‘ragged sleeve’ of ‘ordinary working people’, for example) – it’s more likely to be noticed. However, the 2016 T. S. Eliot Prize was an encouraging case, with at least 40% of the shortlist consisting of the genuine article (evidenced by the performances as well as the books), and 20% representing books that move the goalposts (Vahni Capildeo and Jacob Polley). Competitions are a slightly different case: I enter them sometimes, though I believe (*not probabilistically verified*) if you want to win money you would be better off investing the entry fee in scratchcards. Money is technically the thing that distinguishes professionals from amateurs (and that covers the rent), so getting paid for your efforts is the ideal, but I would much rather receive a commission, which inspires new work you wouldn’t otherwise think to attempt, than win money for a poem I’d already written that was liked by one person on one day.
Reviews are distinct from all this. When I read poetry journals I read all the reviews, whether or not I’ve heard of the authors/titles/reviewers. They are always instructive: poorly written or muddle-headed reviews clarify my ideas about what a good review should do, as well as about poetry and writing more generally; good reviews are as inspiring as the best eighteenth-century essays – models of non-fiction writing (which I would like to do more of). Reviews of my work I process as carefully as critical feedback on individual poems, because I want to make brilliant poems and it’s hard to improve unless you know what your strengths and weaknesses are.
At risk of giving the impression that this interview will be passed on to HR: what are your particular strengths and weaknesses?
Weaknesses (as in proclivities): -ing words; anthropomorphising (told you). Weaknesses (as in bad traits that have to be ironed out through meticulous editing): tangling up metaphors inside similes inside poetic euphemisms in an attempt to make an image. (This seems to be my way of trying to say something without actually saying it. I am getting used to the idea that it’s better to say it as directly as possible, and if I can’t then there’s something wrong with the image/conceit and I need to scrap it and find a new one.) Also worrying about what people will think (a.k.a. falling prey to the inner censor, a.k.a. being a scaredy cat). Strengths: mapping philosophical insights onto everyday experience; clarity; attention to detail.
I love this bit in your review of a Wendy Cope collection: ‘Though neither original nor exciting, Family Values is consistent, and bothers to consider why someone might bother with poetry at all.’ This flags up how limp ‘original’ and ‘exciting’ have become through overuse, while also saying that the absence of excitement or originality in a collection of poems needn’t condemn that collection. Do you find it instructive to make that sort of observation as well as to read it? And do such prose explorations and revelations work differently from those in verse?
I find it immensely instructive to have to write (non-fiction) prose. I think I’m good at getting the gist of something quickly, but the gist is impressionistic and only becomes thought when you try to pin it down linearly. In this sense poem-writing is easier because you have the option (partly afforded by form) of translating the impression into language. In prose it’s sense or nothing, and wrestling non-linear material into sentences and paragraphs and (heaven forfend!) arguments is hard. Also in a review you have to nail your colours to the mast (otherwise what’s the point?) – which forces you to recognise and articulate certain key principles that underpin your value judgements.
Although when attempting reviews/essays/articles I plot out a structure before I begin writing, I usually hit a sentence some way in that forces me to think more precisely about what I’m getting at, and only then do I realise the significance of the nuances/complexities of the thing I’m writing about as a whole. Then I have to go back and revise. With poems – though occasionally I start with some research – I rarely have a plan for the shape or argument; I just get a phrase in my head, or a sense of an atmosphere, and then I start writing. The process of the first draft is the exploration, and sometimes I don’t know what a poem’s doing until someone else gives me feedback on it. Then I might experience a revelation, and redraft accordingly.
I should add that in both kinds of writing my work as a copy-editor really helps: I’m so used to writing in comment boxes ‘Do you mean X or do you mean Y?’ that I’m asking myself this as the words are forming.
Given the value you find in prose, and indeed the approximate narrative arc into which The Met Office Advises Caution is organised (a January–December journey of, as I read it, reconciling poetic lift-off with psychological groundedness), is it odd that you’ve not much interest in writing fiction?
I don’t think so… An old friend of mine (who I should note is very encouraging of my creativity) usually goads me with the phrase ‘Becca’s funny stories’ when I attempt to relay an anecdote conversationally – which is to say that, crammed with hilarious quips and invaluable insights though they may be, my stories tend not go anywhere. And I’m rubbish at making things up! My attempts to read fiction, which I don’t do very much, are often marred by a futile struggle to ignore the thought ‘why are you telling me this?’ (compelling exceptions have been Hilary Mantel’s novels, the short stories of Daphne du Maurier and George Saunders, and all good science fiction). In a way it’s a shame because I’m good at project management and routine – if I had reason to, I reckon I could grind out a few hours’ writing every day for a sustained period – and poem-writing doesn’t really require these skills. But I’m also a sucker for a purpose, so I suppose if I hit upon an idea that I thought really needed to be articulated and fiction was the only suitable medium then I might give it a go. This seems unlikely!
Does ‘why are you telling me this?’ occur to you less when reading poems? And how do you avoid prompting that response in your readers?
It definitely occurs less with poems. This is partly because I have more invested in poetry so my responses tend to be more extreme (‘wowsers! amazing and spectacular!’, ‘mega boring alert!’ and ‘terrible and rubbish!’ being a few standards). But it’s also because poems are more likely to possess an energy or urgency that precludes the question. I don’t mean a frenetic or desperate voice, necessarily (though it could come from that); only that poems consist of (1) the bringing together of disparate images whose alignment or juxtaposition yields tension, or (2) systems of compelling sound patterns, or (3) the concentration of attention on an unusually small region of enquiry or visual space, or (4) the sense that an act of communication is occurring.
The best poems involve all of the above, and writing that doesn’t do any of this is probably not a poem. I suppose I bear these factors in mind as I edit my work, and I believe any of them can be worked into a piece after the first draft/instance – but redrafting is essential. As is the question: who am I talking to? If you haven’t thought about this then what you write will probably seem vague or cryptic to someone reading it. And if the answer’s ‘myself’ then you can’t reasonably expect anyone else to be interested! Having said this, I do aspire to write the sort of poem I would most want to read, and I read a lot to help me refine my ideas about what that is.
Although it’s tempting to stir things up by asking you to call out some terrible and rubbish poets, I’d like instead to push at the ‘systems of compelling sound patterns’ a little. While there are a few gestures at received or foregrounded form in your collection, such as concrete poems or a wonderful set of haiku, your poems for the most part make forms on their own terms out of sentence and line; their formal restrictions seem enforced and justified from within, making their successes a little different from those of, say, a Petrarchan sonnet. (This is something of a simplification, though, of course!) Could you say a little about how acoustic or visual patterning has compelled specific poems in the book?
I’m glad you think my poems operate within formal restrictions. I don’t agree with Frost’s suggestion that writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down. Whether or not a poem makes a recognisable shape on the page or sounds regular chimes, there are implacable barriers, dictated by considerations such as how long the eye/ear can follow a line, how long a reader/listener can sustain their attention, how far you can move away from natural-sounding language and rhythms without getting people’s backs up, etc. These are movable barriers, to be pushed against, but they cannot be removed – even if sometimes they’re invisible.
Flicking through my book I see that I’m drawn to pairs and trios of lines. Sometimes this comes from a visual consideration – as in ‘Emperor Penguin’, where I deliberately paired long and short lines to match the statures of the two museum specimens the poem refers to. But generally it’s not so contrived and a poem just forms like that; perhaps the stanza is as long as it takes to posit one image or idea, and because a poem tends to have a consistent mood the time required for each image is roughly the same, hence regular stanza lengths? I’m thinking of poems such as ‘The Molecatcher’s Warning’, ‘Insomniac’, ‘Turning’ and ‘Brontë’ (in three-line stanzas), and sparer poems such as ‘After rain’, ‘Deep Six’ and ‘Footnote’ (in couplets), all of which are image-driven. But there are also several poems that narrate movement or physical experiences, and these are driven foremost by rhythm: ‘Swing Song’, ‘Christmas Day’, ‘Aldeburgh Beach’, ‘Hawk-Eye’ and ‘Antarctica’ are obvious examples.
I like it when you can see energy in a poem – when the words’ arrangement on the page gives you something. As a reader, varied line lengths and empty space draw me in; an unbroken block of text is less appealing. Likewise I have trouble keeping focused on poems that are dominated by very regular metre and end rhymes; the sounds, and my expectation of the sounds to come, drown out the sense, which frustrates me because I like sense. There are end-rhymed poems that I love and have memorised, by Keats, Hopkins, Larkin and MacNeice, but in these the rhymes are charging stations rather than landing spots; they sound magical – dreamlike or incantatory – as opposed to pleased with themselves for their own sakes.
I think the only successful end-rhymed poem I’ve ever written is ‘Party’, which deliberately exploits the rhymes’ short-circuiting effect. Internal rhymes, half-rhymes and assonance are completely different, because they are spontaneous; each word vaguely recalls or suggests another, and the similar sounds act like links in a chain, knitting the poem together. I think these hold their spontaneity for the reader as well; they help create the impression that the words are the right words, and so encourage you to trust the poetic voice as you move through the poem.
I want to ask about some of the writers you like. We’re speaking shortly after the death of Thomas Lux, whose work I know you admired.
Ah yes, very much. I first encountered his work at the 2014 Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, where he was headlining, and I loved his declamatory mode of delivery. He read with his arms wide open – an exhortation to listen but also a physical gesture of welcome. His poems are like that on the page too: they command your attention, through their directness, and they exude warmth. I think he had a generous and humane spirit. He’s also one of the few poets who can do comedy, tragedy and surprise, often in the same poem.
Which other poets have you been finding compelling of late?
There are a lot of collections out at the moment that compel through their subject matter, and when the offer of insight into someone else’s suffering (alienation, grief, depression, psychosis, etc.) is on the table I’m probably as compellable as the next person. But what is compelling on a human level is not necessarily inspiring poetically. Poets whose work has been compelling me to write poems over the past few months – through reminding me what poems can be and do – are Stevie Smith, Ian MacMillan, Jacob Polley, Alice Oswald and William Carlos Williams. Stevie Smith’s tone is the most compelling of all; I immersed myself in her Collected Poems and Drawings at the end of 2015 and I still feel haunted – and motivated – by her.
In terms of poems offering insight into somebody else’s suffering, or their personality more broadly: how much of Rebecca Watts do people get from this book? You have some fun with assumptions about such things, writing in ‘Confession’: ‘Reader, do not believe this is a character | poem; this is your poet speaking’… but introducing the poem at readings by saying that it’s not autobiographical.
That poem is one of my favourites to perform aloud – it’s full of ordinary things, so it’s easy for listeners to follow, but it’s also quite weird. As I mentioned in my first answer, one of the things I value about poems is that in them you can twist or push your source material (objects, events, thoughts, voices, etc.) as much as you like; the poem doesn’t have to be ‘true’ to reality or to you. Of course, if the voice of the poem is a human voice and the poem draws on aspects of personal experience, people will be inclined to assume it’s you. Knowing this, the challenge is not to let that prospect censor you as you write. In ‘Confession’ I succeeded, because I created a voice – a mischievous and vulnerable voice – that revels in sharing its private experience without understanding the implications of doing so. This isn’t the voice of the lonely person who sings folk ballads in the shower and makes friends with spiders, who understands the sadness in the poem’s denouement. In this sense the poem acknowledges that there’s always a degree of performance going on; I think that in the context of a poem ‘the poet’ is always a character.
Having said this, of course (if you feel so inclined) you can glean a lot about my daily life from the book: the places I walk and run around in, aspects of my relationships and things that’ve happened to me, the stuff I like to read about, and my various employments all provide a backdrop for the action of individual poems. And my four classic moods are in there: sad, silly, serious and elated. For the reader’s sake I usually limit poems to two of these, though in real life I have been known to experience all four in a ten-second period. As the great Irish poet Ronan Keating intoned, life is a rollercoaster.
Earlier on you mentioned the value of commissions as catalysts to writing that wouldn’t otherwise have been produced. Could you say a bit more about your specific experiences of being commissioned?
My first commission was for The Polar Museum in Cambridge as part of their Polar Muse project, and it was great! I’ve worked with museum collections in other capacities and it was exciting to be engaging with them from the other side, as a respondent to exhibits rather than a cataloguer of objects or organiser of exhibitions. It’s a bit anxiety-inducing to realise ‘I have to write something about this by a specific deadline (and it can’t be rubbish because they’re paying me!)’, but it’s inspiring to be suddenly exposed to a vast area of activity/knowledge you haven’t thought about before. Once I started reading I became quite obsessed with the heroic age of Antarctic exploration (the Shackleton and Scott era). By coincidence I’d just read Glyn Maxwell’s book On Poetry, and his brilliant points about sound, silence, breath, time and space coalesced with the language of the explorers’ accounts I’d been reading. ‘Antarctica’ was the outcome, and the process transformed my thinking about the white space of the page.
More recently I’ve been working alongside an artist, Helen Napper, who commissioned a poem to accompany her exhibition The Art of Sea Swimming in Aldeburgh last summer. That was very much a case of ‘here are the paintings and here’s a poem’, but since then we’ve been talking about how we can work together in a way that fuses images and words, to create something more immersive. Again, this is a new way of working for me, and it’s invigorating to have some outside influence.
Do you have book two in mind yet?
Not beyond joking around with phrases that would make hilarious and awful book titles. Partly I’m focusing on the medium-term project of collaborating with Helen (i.e. writing poems relating to immersion and the sea), but I don’t think what we produce will be formatted like a book – an exhibition seems more likely – and it probably won’t make use of whole poems. Alongside this I’m just trying to keep up my normal routine of reading and writing, with no prescribed aim or subject, as that’s how I most enjoy working. The fifty-two poems in The Met Office Advises Caution were written as individual pieces over several years, and it was only when I started trying to put a collection together that I perceived the tones and themes loosely linking those poems. In terms of what I included, I drew a line in early 2015 because my work after that felt to me slightly different. So I’ve got a couple of years’ worth of poems in the bank – but whether they’ll be brought together at some point I don’t know.
The Literateur is publishing some of your newer poems in connection with this interview, of course, and I’m very much taken with their confident pithiness and concision: I notice some Emily Dickinson and indeed some Ian McMillan, whom you mentioned earlier, in their efficiency at capturing a subject and spinning it through their joyful mechanisms. This mode isn’t unrepresented in The Met Office Advises Caution, but is, I think, secondary to the book’s more discursive, narrative, rambling (in a good way, like a country rambler) pieces. Does this chime at all with the slight differences you’ve been noticing in your more recent writing, or have we, brilliantly, chosen entirely unrepresentative poems?
I have been experimenting with concision of late, in different ways, and I’ve become more interested in adopting voices not wholly mine, and seeing what I can get away with saying. ‘Matrimony’ is deflationary in its concision, but it also contains a narrative and comes from the same place as several of the poems in my book. Likewise ‘On Deck’, which I edited down from a longer piece in which an overarching argument had been confusing the narrative and spoiling the images. ‘Saving the Planet’ offers a deliberately playful (and therefore provocative/flippant) take on the usual doom-laden pronouncements on climate change, and is Ian McMillan-ish in the sense that it riffs off a real snatch of conversation. As does ‘Building’, though that one moves off into more abstract territory, to offer a manifesto of sorts.
I’m still writing the sort of peopled-nature poems that provide the dominant mode in The Met Office Advises Caution – I think most of the swimming/sea poems I’ve been working on are in this vein – but, whereas my earlier poems handle their narratives primarily through sentences, the newer ones are making more use of the gaps. The experience of giving readings has definitely influenced my approach; I’ve noticed that the poems I most enjoying reading out, and that come over best aloud, are the ones in which the line and stanza breaks are working hard as punctuation. Though it seems counterintuitive, these ones sound most natural – most like I’m talking to someone, rather than writing for the page.
Images courtesy of Rebecca Watts, Carcanet and Helen Napper.