FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
RACHEL LONG: I didn’t start writing poems till after my degree. I’d studied literature but was mostly writing prose. Once I graduated, I missed having a writing class/community/people I could sit in the pub with and talk endlessly about books and writing. No one really wanted to talk about books and writing in the pub back home. I searched online for a writing group I could join but none felt right when I turned up, or they were always on the other side of the city. Then, finally, I saw a poetry workshop advertised by Apples and Snakes. The workshop was with dub-poet Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze. I knew little about poetry and nothing about dub-poetry. But the workshop was local and free and specifically for young poets. I went the next week. Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze made poems feel like conversations. Radically intimate, and yet simultaneously expansive. I’ve been writing poems since I left that room.
FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection mean for you?
RL: I feel honoured, seen.
FAF: 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?
RL: The collection has gone through many iterations and ‘pixelations’ – at first hazy and unfocused, then gradually coming into view of what it wanted to be, do, say.
I work pretty slowly anyway, but I promised myself early on that I would not rush to put a book out that didn’t feel ready. I didn’t want to have a collection that might make me cringe in six months, a year down the line. But, it can be hard to take your time, to ignore people asking, where’s the book, why haven’t you got a book already, oh, you’re a writer, anything I might’ve read?. But I tried to turn down the noise and just focus on the work. I kept reading, writing, going to workshops, exploring, editing, questioning, re-writing, testing, reading, reading, editing until finally last summer something clicked. It felt ready.
The poems in the book most important to me are:
– ‘Hotel Art, Barcelona’ because (with much expert advice from the incredible Caroline Bird) I finally managed to wrestle and contain a relationship that was so intense it could’ve made my life go in a different direction. But here it is, on a page, all its teeth filed to a point.
– ‘8’, because it was hard.
– ‘Communion’, because it was fun to write. I forget sometimes that writing poems is a lot of fun.
– ‘Apples’, ditto. Also because it came out of nowhere after such a long, dry spell.
FAF: At this moment, the world has been turned upside down by Covid-19. How do you think these extraordinary times will affect your readers’ response to your work?
RL: I write a lot about love. And about hope, and so I hope that love will remain after this, that people will want to explore that still.
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
RL: Take all the time you need. Listen to the poems more than the noise around you. Find good teachers, honour them, make good friends, create a space for yourself and for them. Read, read, read, read, read.
Oh, and go out! Remember to laugh a lot with people you love, don’t tie yourself to your desk, go out and do and be some things so that you can come back and write the poems.