I talked to Rebecca Watts about her first full collection ‘The Met Office Advises Caution‘ (Carcanet).
PART 1: THE POET
Paul: You were born in Suffolk. Could you tell me a little about the place you grew up, and its people and language?
Rebecca: Suffolk’s a rural county. I grew up on the edge of a market town, not in a picturesque village but a large housing-estate kind of village, where I also went to school. From age thirteen I had several close friends who lived in proper villages or on farms a few miles away, and we often spent weekends camping out or roaming about in the dark on borrowed bicycles. Homebrew was involved. I was always the one who stayed over at other people’s houses – the townie of the group. I loved the freedom of being in the countryside; people there are much more laid back and open than small-town people. I think I benefit from a typically Suffolk sense of humour – delighting in the eccentricities and fundamental ridiculousness of life.
Paul: To what extent do you think the countryside has informed your writing?
Rebecca: I think I have an East Anglian aesthetic. There’s a quietness and tidiness about the places I know best, and these qualities are reflected in my writing and to some extent in my temperament. But I also love the more obvious drama of the Lake District, where I’ve also lived. Essentially, any environment can offer a counterpoint to a mood – and there you have the start of something.
Paul: Did you grow up reading or writing poetry?
Rebecca: Not writing. Apart from a handful of enforced exercises I didn’t write creatively until I was in my twenties. I always enjoyed the sounds of poetry. When I was young I loved Please Mrs Butler – partly because of the rhymes, but also because the narratives surprised me. The grownups in the poems were often lazy or irresponsible and made no attempt to hide this from the children, and I found that really funny – I think because I’m naturally obedient and had always assumed that adults were morally perfect and fully in control. The first “serious” poems that struck me were the Heaney poems in the GCSE anthology (‘Digging’ and ‘Mid-Term Break’ especially). Then for A-level we wrote on Louis MacNeice and I discovered I had an aptitude for reading poetry.
Paul: Was there a teacher or a mentor that particularly inspired you?
Rebecca: Mr Dolton and Ms Kilpatrick (formerly of Great Cornard Upper School) were my literary parents. Between them they equipped me with the skills to interrogate language and form and the ability to recognise how and when literature has implications for life. I still recall the feeling of specific moments of enlightenment I experienced in their lessons: as when Mr Dolton pointed out that in MacNeice’s ‘Snow’ the word ‘between’ means one thing and its opposite simultaneously. With Ms Kilpatrick we discussed The Yellow Wallpaper and Toni Morrison’s Beloved as though our lives depended on them – because in some senses they do.
Paul: What did you go on to study?
Rebecca: I studied English at Trinity College, Cambridge. The Cambridge suggestion was Mr Dolton’s; I would never have thought of it. I was the first of my immediate family to go to university, so it sounded like rather a leap of imagination! It was brilliant. And weird. I loved the intensity of the teaching style, and gradually got used to the responsibility of having to produce something new, and nuanced, every week.
Paul: Who were your early poetry influences? Which remain with you today?
Rebecca: I’ve mentioned MacNeice as the first poet whose work I studied closely; Keats and George Herbert were other early loves. A bit later, Plath, Larkin, Hughes and Hopkins appeared. Then Jacob Polley. Then Yeats and Frost. I always want there to be more women in that list.
Paul: I understand you have also spent time working at Dove Cottage?
Rebecca: I went there for work experience, as a museum intern, in 2010. That proved a formative year for me. Personally it was a brave move; I had wanted to get away from certain things in my life, and going up north was a refreshing way to do that. Though I went from a situation of paid work and living with friends to essentially voluntary work and communal living with strangers, it was completely liberating.
I worked as a tour guide in the cottage (Wordsworth’s former home), and behind the scenes in the museum, as well as in the gift shop selling tickets, and assisting with the education programme. This gave me the professional experience that has since enabled me to be paid for working with historic collections – and perhaps more importantly I made a superb friend there in Penny Boxall. We both loved the Lakes, and loved to hate Wordsworth, and would go on walks together then sit in Penny’s room drinking tea and critiquing each other’s poems. Being there, surrounded by people who had opted to make poetry part of their lives, encouraged me to take my writing more seriously.
Paul: You took part in the Aldeburgh Eight in 2014. How was this and what did it bring?
Rebecca: Like living in Grasmere, being on the Aldeburgh Eight was very significant for me. It makes such a difference to be part of something – whether a group or an institution – that presupposes value in what you’re doing. We were expected to attend pretty much every event at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, and to reflect on and discuss our responses as a group. We then spent five days in a massive and beautiful house in the Suffolk countryside, enforcedly writing and walking and talking under the inspirational and kind guardianship of Peter Sansom and Michael Laskey. I wrote at least ten poems there that made it into my first collection. It really shows what you can do when you put all the usual self-censoring and excuse-making aside and just write.
Paul: You were published in the Carcanet New Poetries VI anthology. Could you tell me a little bit more about how this came about? What effect did this have?
Rebecca: It was a right place, right time situation. In 2013 Michael Schmidt arrived as Writer in Residence at the College where I work. Adam Crothers (friend and fellow library skivvy) introduced us, and Michael invited me to send him some poems. I think I sent a batch of twenty that I’d recently assembled for an Eric Gregory submission (this was in 2013, when I was still young enough!). Michael gave me some helpful edits on those, and published eight in PN Review 212. My inclusion in the 2015 anthology followed from that. Getting to know Michael and some of the other NPVI poets has been great fun. It’s a stellar bunch by all accounts.
PART 2: THE BOOK
Paul: Your book ‘The Met Office Advises Caution’ might imply that you pay close attention to the weather. To what extent is this true?
Rebecca: I’m not someone who looks up weather forecasts. In fact, I hate it when people tell me what the weather’s going to be in advance. (The sort of people who do this tend to have depressing auras.) Nor do I possess any specialist knowledge of climatic conditions. I’m afraid I subscribe to the daddish view that there’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing. But then I live in Cambridge, where waterproof trousers are de rigueur (wear with cycle clips for added kudos).
Paul: What is your favourite weather?
Rebecca: It’s weather activity I like – the sense that something is happening and I’m in it – so I enjoy most weather. I can recall vividly one particular run where I got caught in a sudden hailstorm (not in winter, just a freak occurrence), and aside from the eye-stinging that was very fun.
Paul: Did you have other titles in mind? What determined this choice?
Rebecca: The phrase popped into my head as a poem title a few years ago and I always liked it. When it came to thinking of a collection title I was stumped at first. When you’ve worked on poems individually, over several years, it’s weird to think about them collectively, as a product to be marketed. I spent quite a lot of time designing hypothetical book covers to ascertain how various phrases might look and sound as a title, but they all seemed either lame or too earnest. So I kept coming back to The Met Office Advises Caution because it’s memorable and doesn’t take itself too seriously. And there’s a lot of weather (environmental and psychological) in the book, so it seemed appropriate enough. I’m still 2% worried that the Met Office might sue me.
Paul: The back cover of your book suggests that you position yourself ‘where Wordsworth, Frost and Hughes have stood’. What do you think about such associations?
Rebecca: I realised when thinking about how to pitch the collection that the most helpful tradition within which to locate my poems was probably nature poetry. Then I realised that the poets in this category to whom I return most, and against whom I’m sometimes writing, are all men. Some of my poems engage explicitly with Wordsworthian locations and concerns, so he seemed worth name-checking. With the other two I dare to suggest a reader might find points of overlap, or at least departure. The combination of plain language and philosophy I associate strongly with Frost. And Hughes is surely the poet of animals. In any case, I’m aware of these three as significant presences in the territory.
Paul: The blurb also suggests a connection with the ‘clarity and matter-of-factness of Simon Armitage and with humour that recalls Stevie Smith’. How significant have these poets been in your reading and writing? Do you have favourite poems?
Rebecca: My current favourite Simon Armitage poem is the one about the sea (‘From Where I Stand’) in his prose account Walking Away. I don’t always enjoy his poems, but I love his tone and his knack of finding poetry in commonplace incidents and scenes. Stevie Smith is actually a much more recent discovery for me, and probably my newer work nods more obviously to her macabre brand of humour than do the poems in The Met Office… I find her poems en masse incredibly morbid, but inspiring in the way they take risks with both form and taste.
Paul: You adopt some very original vantage points in the book, observing the day-to-day lives of animals and people but with a playful and sometimes humorous glance. Could you talk about one or two favourite poems?
Rebecca: ‘Confession’ is one of my favourites to perform. It’s easy to deliver and strange at the same time, and it deliberately plays with the idea of poems as autobiographical revelations. I also like reading ‘On Marriage’, for similar reasons. My poems aren’t funny in the sense of comic, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of laughs I’ve managed to generate through the occasional deployment of a deranged image or uncharitable verdict.
Paul: When you are looking, observing, taking a bird’s eye view, what is it that captures your imagination, and makes for a poem? What are you looking for?
Rebecca: Stuff going on that other people might not notice; incongruities and juxtapositions. I’m never actively looking, but I seem to be alert to minor weirdnesses. Anything that makes me wonder ‘why is this the case?’ can be the start of a poem.
Paul: You write poems about historical women in ‘Emmeline’s Ascent’ and ‘Brontë’. In what way do you feel a connection with these figures?
Rebecca: The story in ‘Emmeline’s Ascent’ is a fiction (as far as I’m aware), though the advent of cycling genuinely did help the women’s liberation cause, by increasing mobility and ushering in new social freedoms in various ways. The joy of riding a bike is universal, but for some it comes with added triumph, which I wanted to imagine and celebrate in the poem – hence the name. With ‘Brontë’ I just wanted to indulge a melodramatic, girlish fantasy because I thought of it and because I love Jane Eyre and because in real life I’m a terrible pragmatist.
Paul: Have you ever ridden a penny-farthing? Would you like to?
Rebecca: No, and no thank you. This year on my birthday I was given a horse-riding lesson as a special treat (I’d never been on one before) and it took me about three hours afterwards to relax my grip. It didn’t help that I’d been envisaging a little Lakeland pony on a nice lawn and in the event was assigned a wilful steed and a series of steep gradients – but still, it was much too far from the ground for my liking.
Paul: You write apparently biographically in poems such as ‘Insomniac’, ‘Visitor’ and ‘Confession’. What keeps you awake?
Rebecca: Mania. It generally comes on around 9.30pm.
Paul: Is it easy to use ‘I’?
Rebecca: Very easy. Especially when imagining I’m somebody/thing else.
Paul: In ‘Party’ and ‘When you have a baby’ you suggest a concern with, or conflict over, the notion of motherhood. Would you like children?
Rebecca: What interests and frustrates me is that this is a question all women must answer – must have answered – at some point, whether they’re interested or not.
Paul: I sensed a quiet, but certain, politics underlying some of the poems, particularly with a view to the place of the poet in the world – the expectations, the conformity, the herd, both in terms of social history but also today. Do you consider your poems political?
Rebecca: In the narrow definition of political – as having to do with the media charade of parties and policies and playground squabbling – definitely not. I don’t think there are any poems in the book that comment on “current events”, as it were. But I am very interested in broader (historical, social, philosophical, literary) trends and assumptions that impact – often without us realising – on the way we think and go about our lives today. The fact is (as I’ve written about elsewhere), womanhood is still interpreted in some quarters as a political position. Preposterous and depressing, but surely worth some consideration.
Paul: Hawks, pigeons, magpies, owls, ravens, gulls, goldfinches. Do you consider yourself an ornithologist? Which is your favourite bird and why?
Rebecca: I like the little ones – a coal tit, for example, I think I could watch with delight all day. I once (while swimming in Hampstead Pond) saw a kingfisher up close, and it looked like a magical being – that was nice.
Paul: And the animal world: gorillas, bats, hares, moles, spiders, penguins. Which intrigues you most?
Rebecca: I’ve been told in the past to “beware the anthropomorphising tendency”, but for me it’s the other way round: I can’t help seeing people as animals, and I think it’s useful to admit the similarities. We’re all seeking the same things, ultimately (food, shelter, sex, sleep, life). Humans are very clever at masking their behavioural motives, whereas other animals just get on with it. So I like observing all of them. (Except reptiles! Eek!)
Paul: You embrace biology, physics and scientific language in poems such as ‘Cynosure’, ‘Focal Periosteal Reaction Seen in Distal Fibula’ and ‘Current (I) = charge (Q) ÷ time (t)’. Is this because you see nature as a series of forces, charges, reactions?
Rebecca: I suppose so… I like to put the dispassionate/cosmic view up against the partisan/emotion-driven, and see how they interrupt and challenge each other. I think that’s one of the important things art can do for us: illuminate the natural/physical/amoral forces we work with and against every day. The modern distinction between art and science is stupid. We’re all trying to understand the universe – it’s just the mode of expression that’s different. Both involve interpretation of matter and translation into language.
Paul: While embracing science and realism, readers might consider you a Romantic. How do you feel about such a label?
Rebecca: Very happy. Romanticism is about narrowing the gap between thought and feeling by moving closer to those aforementioned forces, isn’t it? Why else do we roam about the mountains in all weathers, or swim in the sea, or write about love?
Paul: You experiment with form throughout your book, and this constantly changing appearance of the poem on the page really works to sustain the book. How important are form and shape to you?
Rebecca: Form is what distinguishes poetry from other kinds of writing. Apart from the odd un- or loosely-rhymed sonnet I don’t tend to use received forms, but I allow the poems to establish their own patterns of sound, line or shape as they go along, and I think carefully about these when redrafting. Sometimes the “content” – the idea and/or language – can exist for months before the right form emerges, and until then I know it’s just not working as a poem. Also, as a reader, I enjoy variety: I want the pace and energy to keep changing.
Paul: ‘Illuminations’ is beautiful in its symmetry and makes a wink to George Herbert‘s ‘Easter Wings‘. How did this poem come about?
Rebecca: Very kind of you to say so. I wrote the first section first, based on an image in a medieval manuscript in the library where I work. I’ve never seen the original, but the image is depicted on a postcard we sell at the front desk, and every time I see it I wonder why the letter ‘B’ is illustrated with a cat. No doubt there’s a logical explanation to be found in the surrounding (Latin) text, but without access to that I felt at liberty to speculate about the nameless monk behind the illumination.
Around the same time someone happened to tell me about how their favourite teacher at primary school encouraged them to create illuminated letters on the first page of their exercise books, and a vision instantly came to me of a mother watching their child doing this as homework. As I said earlier, I like counterpoints and juxtapositions, and narrating the medieval and modern versions of the scribe appealed. The poems are symmetrical in size but not in alignment, because they come from different places and have different implications.
Paul: You manage to write beautifully about the environs of Cambridge, taking us to meadows, greens, open spaces. Is it a challenge to write about a place so weighted in history, association and cliché? Do you consciously look for overlooked corners or what’s around the edges?
Rebecca: Strangely, I think the more clichéd something is, the easier it is to find a new perspective; because the cliché is so familiar you stop seeing that and naturally focus on other things. Such as a smartly-dressed man systematically going through every bin along the path that bisects Jesus Green. Having said this, I live on the eastern edge of the city, where it opens out into meadows, so when I’m walking and running I’m literally observing from the sidelines.
Paul: What has been the response to the book in the last year? Has anything surprised you? Have readers identified themes or connections you were not conscious of?
Rebecca: I’ve had a few positive reviews and some end-of-year listings, which has been a boost; I think the worst thing would be to put in all the effort and not receive any response at all. A couple of reviewers have moaned about the naturey bias and a perceived lack of “political” engagement, which interests me. I don’t mind if people don’t like what I’m doing, but I do mind if people think I haven’t done it well. The Poetry Book Society Recommendation, which came in advance of publication, was the best for me, because it (temporarily at least) allayed my fear that publishing a book of poems is a silly and frivolous endeavour. It was great to be able to read the selectors’ comments and know that they’d recommended my book essentially because they thought it was good.
PART 3: POETRY LIFE
Paul: You’ve mentioned you work in a library. What aspect of the job do you find most rewarding?
Rebecca: Working with interesting material (it’s the people I have trouble with). I like cataloguing special collections, where you have to start from the basics and drill down: what is this? who created it? what is important/interesting/unique about it? You have to practise foresight too – anticipating what some unknown future researcher might type into a search box, hoping to turn up this item without yet knowing it exists.
Paul: How is a library like a poem?
Rebecca: Both are vessels for words/information/communication. Both can be quiet or noisy, inspiring or boring, comforting or annoying. Both can preserve traces of the past and be used to predict what the future might hold.
Paul: You work part-time. How important is this for your writing life?
Rebecca: Essential. I went part time four years ago, to see whether it would make a difference for my creative life, and the book demonstrates that it has. The main thing I need time for is reading: that’s often how I get ideas. I think as a writer you also need time to let your mind wander (or indeed to go outside and actually wander) – time where you don’t have to be looking at the clock, don’t have to be thinking about rushing off somewhere. You also need time for the hard work of editing, which can be done in short bursts but which must be done over and over again.
Until recently I worked every afternoon at the library, leaving my mornings mostly free for working at home, but I found I was becoming increasingly stressed every lunchtime, realising I had to hurry to work and wrench my thoughts out of one zone into a completely different one. So now I work two and a half days at the library, and have two completely free days to focus on creative stuff, which so far seems much better. Though there’s a danger of not getting dressed at all on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Paul: What is the poetry scene like in Cambridge?
Rebecca: Mixed. There’s quite a lot going on, but (even though I work within the University) it can be hard to find out about it in advance. For example, lots of the Colleges and Departments host poets and events, but unless you’re on hundreds of unrelated mailing lists you may not hear about them until they’ve happened. There’s a monthly event series called CB1 (not linked to the University), which I generally go to. That attracts a reliable crowd, and some very good readers, and also offers open-mic slots. It’s where I first practised reading my work aloud, and where I launched the book last September. Home turf, you could say.
Paul: How, when and where do you write?
Rebecca: I don’t spend very much time writing – first drafts come quite quickly – but I spend a lot of time editing. Writing I do in pencil, on scrap paper or the backs of envelopes, wherever I am when an idea comes (in bed, leaning on a windowsill, standing over the table). When I get to the redrafting/editing stage I tend to type poems into the computer, which I used to do at the table in my study, but I’ve currently got a cranky shoulder and can’t sit at the table at all, so I keep computer work to a minimum and either stand at the desk or sit in a variety of configurations with my laptop on my lap. I used to have poem ideas at night, but I’ve got a bit better recently at going to sleep (hallelujah) so I’m trying to develop new associations between creativity and daylight.
Paul: What are you working on now? Are you taking a particular approach to generating new poems?
Rebecca: I carried on reading and writing poems after the book came out, then had a bit of a break this summer while working on other things (prose). I think you need a break every now and then. I’d started to hate poetry a bit. As of last month, though, I’m back on it, as I had a commission to write (for a project at Addenbrooke’s Hospital). In general I’m being more relaxed in my approach than I have been previously – trying to allow myself to go with whatever pops into my head, without thinking too much about an aim for the finished piece. My subjects have perhaps become weirder, and my tones more varied. I think it’s good to experiment.
Paul: Do you also teach creative writing?
Rebecca: Next term I’m teaching for the Poetry School, which will be my first foray into designing a course from scratch and teaching online. Otherwise I lead the occasional workshop, when invited, but I don’t have a formal connection to an institution or anything like that.
Paul: When you are not writing poetry, what are you doing?
Rebecca: Walking, running, daydreaming… oh, and browsing in shops. I spend a lot of time in shops and hardly ever buy anything. They send me into a sort of trance. Sometimes I realise I’ve been in John Lewis for an hour and can’t recall anything I’ve seen. No doubt one day I’ll be arrested for general suspicious behaviour.
Paul: What are your poetry-go-tos? Which magazines, websites, podcasts?
Rebecca: I subscribe to PN Review and always read it from cover to cover; I like it because it’s intellectually ambitious and invites a wide variety of approaches, especially to critical prose. It’s judgemental and open-minded at the same time, and not afraid to stick its head above the parapet. When I get hold of it I also usually enjoy The North, which strikes me as a generous and inclusive publication. Online I subscribe to the Carcanet newsletter (weekly), the Magma and The Rialto newsletters (occasional), the Poetry Foundation ‘Poem of the Day’ email (daily), and the Southbank Poetry Library roundup (useful for seeing what’s going on in the poetry world generally). I don’t use social media. Quite honestly my best feeders for poetry information are my good friends Adam Crothers and Claudine Toutoungi, both of whom have their proverbial fingers on the poetry pulse.
Paul: What are you currently reading and what would you recommend?
Rebecca: Ray Bradbury! (Stories, not poems.) I read Something Wicked This Way Comes last year and found it mind-alteringly poetic and creepy and brilliant, and now I’m working my way through his collected stories. I love the short story as a form, but there are too many bad ones around that get away with being bad because they’re apparently literary. Ray Bradbury doesn’t care about literary – he cares about taking the reader somewhere they wouldn’t have thought to go, and I admire that greatly. I never thought I’d enjoy stories about martians, but I do. The next poetry book on my list is Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris, because I’ve never read her work and someone recently told me this book changed things. And I’ve just finished David Quammen’s biography of Darwin, The Kiwi’s Egg, which was great.
Paul: Who are your favourite nature and eco poets, if any? Are there poets who write about science you admire?
Rebecca: I like Kathleen Jamie’s work, and I really like some of Alice Oswald’s work, though I had a mixed reaction to her latest collection. I don’t think I know of any poets who I’d describe as ‘writing about science’ exactly – though I recently heard Mark Waldron read and he can certainly do physics in a poem, with panache.
Paul: If you advised caution, what would you say? Who would you address and about what?
Rebecca: Oh god, I live in a permanent state of anxiety and see impending disaster everywhere. Your shoelace is untied! Watch out for that bicycle! Mind your elbow in the gravy! Actually, I might address myself last winter, in the moment before I thought ‘I’ll just nip across that patch of ice before that group of people tries to get past’. And I might say: stop being such a loser.
Paul: Where does the poem begin?
Rebecca: In confusion or the unknown. Very occasionally in a nanosecond of clarity – in which case the process is of tracing a path back from confusion to that brief flash of insight, then translating what was probably a vision or sensation into words.
Paul: Is there a question I forgot to ask?
Rebecca: How much can I pay you for your time? Just kidding. Always a pleasure to chat with you Paul. Come back to Cambridge soon!