FORWARD PRIZES: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
RALF WEBB: Like a lot of people who write poetry I started trying to write it when I was really young – at fourteen or so. I think at that age, for the first time, you’re looking for some kind of way to, perhaps privately, express yourself, or to attempt to account for what you’re feeling, to account for yourself in the world – and poetry is quite an immediate, accessible, and somehow intuitive way of doing this. I think at that age we all know what poetry is really about: language, metaphor, the imagination, sound and music.
FP: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
RW: I’m still not sure that I do feel like a poet: I think it is a term that some people – writers who I greatly admire – also struggle to adopt for themselves! I don’t know why this is: perhaps because I’m wary of the expectations that I worry might come attached to that term, or perhaps because it implies an occupation, or something, that doesn’t describe my actual occupation. I think of myself more as someone who writes, someone who is a writer of poetry – but this may change over time.
I first felt as though writing poetry was something I could pursue in a serious way when I had a poem published in a tiny magazine, when I was eighteen or so. I had had correspondence by post (which already seems antiquated) with the editor — who would comment on work, reject and return it with suggestions, and they finally, after many months, accepted one poem for print. That the poem somehow managed to navigate that inconceivable, incomprehensible process – the edits, the envelopes, the length of time – and finally became externalized, printed… it felt improbable to me that this could have happened. I still feel this, seeing work in print, like you can’t really believe it’s there.
Throughout my twenties, my understanding of what it means to pursue the writing of poetry – in relation to publication, in relation to work, in relation to collaboration – has evolved and transformed, and I’m still learning what that means – and if it means anything concrete at all. But there is a feeling that I can identify, and I think it is probably similar across all creative practices, not just to the writing of poetry: and that is when you feel completely, whole-heartedly immersed in and subsumed by the act of writing, or creating something, in a totally unsustainable and overwhelming way; being able to lose yourself to that process without feeling self-conscious about it; I think this is something real, and rare, and I experienced this at times writing this collection.
FP: What does being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection mean for you?
RW: It means a lot, and I am sincerely blown away by it and very grateful. So many poets who I admire have been shortlisted for the Prize in previous years: and the shortlists have introduced me to the work of poets that I hadn’t known about before, whose work has since become important to me.
FP: Please tell us about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Which poems in the collection are most important to you?
RW: Some of the poems in the collection – or versions of them – have been in the works for many years, and different lines and refrains have been rattling around from .doc to .doc for just as long, before finding a proper shape. Poetry is sometimes an excruciatingly slow process! Others however – a lot of ‘Treetops’, and many of the poems later in the book – are more recent.
Both ‘Diagnostics’ and ‘Treetops’, are, in some ways, the most personal sequences in the collection – the former is about my dad, who passed away from a rare form of cancer when I was nineteen, and the fallout of that for those who were close to him. The latter explores my own struggles with mental health: to write about these things openly is very important to me.
FP: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
RW: In terms of more contemporary poets, I admire the work of (among many others) Claudia Rankine, Karen Solie, Terrance Hayes, Maged Zaher, David Berman, Fred Moten, Anne Boyer, Kaleem Hawa, Rachel Long, Emily Berry, Imogen Cassells, Caleb Femi, Eve Esfandiari-Denney, Selima Hill… too many to list! For a long time, Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson was like, my bible: lines from it are still lodged in my memory and recur at random intervals.
But when I was younger, the poet I read again and again – and whose ‘illuminated’ books I will always return to – was William Blake.
FP: What is next for you as a poet?
RW: I would like to keep writing, and to keep learning from others’ work.
FP: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
RW: There is a cliché, or actually, maybe a (in my opinion!) false ideal that writing, particularly poetry, is or should be a solitary pursuit. But even if the act of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) might be done alone, there is so much more that can be done with others to contextualise or inform that act. So I would say to seek out and create opportunities for collaboration where you can – reading groups, DIY projects, zines, newsletters, microsites; try co-writing something, try working with different artists across different media, keep an open and generous mind. Also, it’s not talked about loads, but the UK actually has like, a thriving open mic/poetry reading culture outside of the bigger cities, in local pubs/function rooms – in pre-COVID times, at least. Obviously opportunities for collaboration like this aren’t immediately available to everyone, but where they’re not, they can be created – and there’s a lot that can be done online, too.