Thursday, April 29, 2021

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Julia Webb

Julia Webb is a Norwich based poet, editor and collage artist. She has a BA (Hons) from Norwich University of the Arts and an MA in Poetry from the University of East Anglia. In 2011 she won The Poetry Society's Stanza competition and in 2018 she won the Battered Moons poetry competition. She runs online and real world poetry courses, mentors poets, is on the committee of Cafe Writers and is a poetry editor for Lighthouse (a journal for new writing). She has two poetry collections with Nine Arches: Bird Sisters (2016) and Threat (2019).

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book Bird Sisters took about ten years to write. I had written poetry all my life - but that was ten years of taking it seriously, learning and honing my craft. A great poet once said in a talk that it takes ten years to become a mediocre writer and I think that's probably true. When the collection was accepted by Nine Arches Press it finally allowed me to start taking myself seriously as a writer. It was exciting and also a little scary. I am really proud of that collection but to me it feels a little safe now. I think my second collection 'Threat' was more risky, more exciting and more playful. I think what I am writing now is more playful still - it tackles serious issues but with an undercurrent of playfulness and sometimes humour. I think I am more confident in myself as a writer so I allow myself to take more risks.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I have always written both poetry and short stories - in fact in my twenties I wrote a short story collection that never got published. Poetry back then was my private passion, I had always written it and I had several poetry books that I read and re read as a child. At some point I decided that I was never going to live up to my dad's expectations career wise and I quit my job and enrolled on a creative writing degree. I thought I was going to be a fiction writer, but I came out a poet.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I write quite a lot (long hand initially) and a collection emerges very slowly. Writing poems can be a lot like making a sculpture. I tend to splurge onto the page and the editing process is generally about shaping the poem and paring it back. Occasionally a poem arrives almost complete but that is rare. Usually a poem needs a lot of extraneous stuff chipped away.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
After my last collection was published I just wrote when I was driven to for quite a while. When I set myself themes I often find myself writing about something completely different. I start with individual poems and when I have a lot I print them all out and look at what themes are emerging and how or if poems work together - then I go away and write some more.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I enjoy public readings - although I have got more nervous about them as time has gone on. Positive feedback from an audience is lovely - especially if a poem particularly touches someone personally. Readings are also pretty essential for poets to sell books. I have particularly warned to Zoom readings (especially now I have finally worked out how to look presentable on them). There is an intimacy between the poet and the reader on Zoom that you don't get in real life. Zoom readings also mean you don't have the anxiety of whether your train will arrive on time or if you can find the venue.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I think I am mostly trying to work out something about the human condition - what it is, what makes us tick. I am interested in the dynamics of human relationships and also in how place effects us, especially in our formative years. I am also interested in our (human) relationships with our bodies and the outside environment. I think I am always looking for some truth about being human and what it means - our complexity and our contrariness. How often we know what the right thing to do is but don't do it, how we sabotage ourselves.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

The role of the writer is various I think. To make us see the world anew or to feel understood on some level. There can be a truth in writing that can make a reader feel like they are not alone. Writing can help us to make sense of the world and our relationship to it - that sounds a bit grandiose but it's not really. As a writer I like writing that inspires me, writing that makes me think differently about the world, but I also like to read as a form of escapism from the real world. There are examples (especially in fiction) of books that do all three - T.C. Boyle's When the Killing's Done for example or a novel I read recently called Barn 8 by Deb Olin Unferth about a group of activists who set out to liberate millions of factory farmed chickens.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I find it a really useful and rewarding process. With both my books I had editorial input both from a mentor and Jane Commane my editor at Nine Arches Press. The mentor helped me to be braver about my own work and how I ordered and presented it. My editor suggested tweaks to individual poems and also took poems out of the collection - which made me write better ones to fill the gaps.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Jump straight into the action of the poem and step off lightly at the end. (George Szirtes)

“Those who do not want to imitate anything produce nothing.” Salvador Dali

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I try and do morning pages most days - three A4 pages of free writing about anything that pops into my head. The idea comes from Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way. I am not sure why it works but it does - if I find I am not writing, it is usually either because I am not doing morning pages or that I am not reading enough poetry. Other than that I tend to write when I am inspired to. Sometimes I will set myself goals - for example most years I try and do NaPoWriMo (a poem a day for a month during April). I tend not to use the prompts though. If I have five half decent poems out of the thirty at the end of the month I feel very pleased.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Morning pages generally help and also reading poetry. If I feel really stuck I read some poets that I find inspiring - C.D. Wright, Matthew Dickman, Kim Hyesoon. I teach a weekly poetry class too and that helps. I set them tasks and I do them too. Teaching also makes me read really widely. I try to go to workshops with other poets when I can afford it. I liked to be pushed out of my comfort zone as it is easy to get in a rut with your own writing. I find the exercises I am most resistant to are often the ones that bear the best fruit.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Baking bread - my mum used to make bread for a wholefood shop.  

13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Julia Cameron says that it is important for an artist or writer to fill their creative well and I agree with this. I find I write much less if I am not reading poetry. I tend to read very widely. I particularly love American poets as I find their work less constrained and more expansive than British poets, but there are lots of British poets I love too. I also read fiction and love short stories. Looking at visual art is important too and listening to music. I am a collage artist  and am really inspired by abstract art and collage art. Visual art can also inspire writing - I particularly love the work of Dutch artist Juul Kraijer. Some of her surreal paintings and drawings have inspired me to write poems.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I can trace my style of writing right back to things I read as a child. I grew up reading Dr. Seuss and Enid Blyton and was infatuated with Blyton's book The Enchanted Wood. I also really loved my mother's rather battered copy of Perrault's Fairy Tales and had a macabre fascination with the Bluebeard story. I was a voracious reader as a child (and still am) and I read pretty much everything in the house as well as in our local library. I had several poetry books as a child, of which my favourite was The Golden Treasury of Poetry edited by Louis Untermayer. I still get a thrill when I read 'The Highwayman' by Alfred Noyes.

I am a huge fan of the short story and some of my favourite short story writers are Raymond Carver, George Saunders (like a futuristic Raymond Carver) and Shawn Vestal.

In fiction I love a book that combines intellectual writing and a gripping plot. I am also a sucker for a bit of gritty realism in a novel. Authors I admire are Siri Hustvedt, Paul Auster, Louise Erdrich, J.M. Coetzee and Ellen Gilchrist.

There are too many poets I love to list them all - current favourites are Caroline Bird and Wayne Holloway-Smith.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Vist Ireland and Venice.

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
If I could go back and start over I would come to studying and art and writing sooner - although life experience does set one in good stead as a writer I think. If I could try anything perhaps I would train as an astronaut.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I have already had several incarnations in my work life. When I first left home I lived in a commune and did a lot of menial jobs - barmaid, cleaning, farm work etc. Then I qualified as a nursery teacher and did that for ten years as well as training to be a reflexologist. I wrote on and off during that time but I came to writing seriously around the age of forty. Writing is a compulsion, like a scratch that needs to be itched.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I have read a few good books this year -recent ones that spring to mind are Love Minus Love by Wayne Holloway-Smith and Instructions for My Imposter by Kathleen McGookey.

The last great film I watched was The Disaster Artist - about a couple of would be actors who make a (really terrible) film. I initially resisted watching it as I always think I don't like comedy - but it was REALLY good.

19 - What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on my third collection - its working title is 'Panic'. I have written a few poems this year exploring the idea of parents and exploring the relationships between parents and their (grown up) children. Some of these poems are slightly surreal - a teenager becomes a pigeon for example or a father is a budget supermarket.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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