International Poetry Prize: An Interview with Rebecca Bird
Rebecca is an accomplished Poet and Performer currently based in both London and Exeter. She’s the former Steering editor of the Hinterland Journal of Contemporary Poetry, and last year, published her debut chapbook, Shrinking Ultraviolet, with Eyewear Publishing. She’s graciously agreed to crown the winner of our International Poetry Prize this year, and is on the lookout for something really bold.
We really wanted Rebecca to join the Grindstone family because we think her poetry is that perfect balance between technically complex and accessible, bringing together the sentiments of classical poetry with the nuances and freedom of modern free verse. With Poetry being an ever changing art, we wanted to stand at the precipice of that evolution and transform with it. It’s a new age for poetry, and we look forward to tackling it alongside Rebecca - and hopefully learning a thing or two from her, as well!
Thanks so much for being our Special Guest Judge. I think getting some feedback from such a great poet is going to be wonderful for our entrants. But, for those who don’t know much about your work, can you tell us a little about your poetry? How would you describe it?
Hullo! I’m delighted and honoured to be a part of this year’s prize and thank you for being so kind about my work! I would say my poetry is weird modern free verse with a kick of – I don’t know – fizz? Poetry through a Sodastream – I love an image that makes the reader blush and think about it for days after. I love being expressive in that way, so my poems tend to be full of bizarre and vivid metaphor.
Poetry. What a strange beast. It’s so varied, that it can be a minefield for new poets to start off and find their stride. Did you always have your own ‘voice’, or was it something that developed over a long period of time?
I’m still finding different voices in myself, I think. All my poems are joined solely by the fact that I wrote them. In the way that I am not the same person I was when I was 18, I just have the same name. I have my own wee way of writing poems, and most of them have a similar me-esque flavour, but I think poets can get too clammed up with staying strict to a ‘voice’. I don’t want to hunker myself down with ‘I can’t write that, because it doesn’t sound like me.’ As long as it comes from my perspective (poetry is bad when you pretend to be someone else you could never understand) then it will be authentic. New poets shouldn’t feel restrained to try and find a voice – such things come with time and effort. Keep working at writing poetry, and you will develop: the styles and voices you develop may change over time.
One thing we see a lot of here is ‘first draft poetry’ - being that someone has a great idea for a poem that’s full of emotion and power - but it’s just too raw to place well. They often don’t have any sense of refinement, or awareness of the craft and art. How important do you think it is to work on a piece of poetry before you present it, and furthermore, how long do you spend working on your poems?
Poetry, like everything else that is made, is a form of engineering. You can’t put up a bridge in one day – but you could design one. Stick to that first thought, that first impulse but let is grow and change with every edit. As long as there are edits; a poem will improve. Emotion and power regenerate, as well, you might find your nineteenth draft has as much fire as the first.
Editing poetry is really difficult, and requires perspective, clarity, and of course knowledge about the craft. In that sense, how would you advise aspiring poets to go about achieving that ability to look at one’s own work in that way?
I often think about Stephen King’s advice – to stick the drafts in a drawer and not to look at them for a few weeks before going back to them. The idea of ‘fresh eyes’. But mostly I think the key is to constantly read. If you’re not getting somewhere with a poem, go and read a volume of your favourite – listen to music – ingest some art. Not only is this so important in terms of knowledge of the craft – but it provides context, fresh inspiration and an idea of what everyone else is doing. Also it’s good to ask yourself the question – what are my contemporaries not doing? The only way to look outside the box is to understand what is inside the box.
Modern poetry, generally, has come away from the stagnated rules of form and construction, though of course things like rhyme and metre persist through all work, even if they have lost their former rigidity. Are those conventions something you’re aware of during the writing stage, and how do you work with those traditional elements?
I love traditional poetry. When I hear the metre of EAP’s ‘The Raven’, I hear the music as much as the words. It is easy to forget that poetry is a form of music. Coleridge got it wrong, poetry is not the best words in the best order – poetry is the best words in the best rhythm. The one thing poetry always should be is euphonious – it needs to make the reader’s eyes tingle with its form. I have sometimes worked traditional forms in to my poems – I wrote a sestina in my last book and I’ve always wanted to try more, and of course I am always aware of rhyme and stress in the words I choose: you don’t need to write in form to write a poem – free verse has produced some of the best poems – you just need to be aware that what you create has some form.
In terms of prosody, stresses, assonance, consonance, rhyme, and all that sort of stuff - how important is it for poets to be aware of what they are so they can bend them to their whim for effect?
So, following on from the last question, EVERYTHING IS MALLEABLE. Poetry is ultimate literary god mode. There are no cheat codes to poetry apart from understanding that what you have can be absolutely changed to fit what you want it to fit – poets make new words, change rhythms, half-rhyme words you’d never thought could be half-rhymed, come up with metaphors the world has never seen and never again will. The key is just to experiment to see what fits and what pleases the eye. The only real requirements for any poem are that they need to connect to ‘an’ audience and they need to sound fantastic. Change the rules – be something daring – maybe write poems about varicose veins or pears or shower grout in trochaic tetrameter – or completely in the first half of the alphabet – or backwards. Poetic devices are – yes – the tools of the craft – but they can and should be messed with from time to time.
You’re a musician and spoken word artist as well as poet. Do you think that anyone looking to become a poet these days needs to be outside of that strict definition of poetry, and be prepared to embrace the other dimensions of the art? It is after all a symbiotic relationship - writer and listener/reader.
I wish I had it in me to write a response poem to every Iron Maiden song that has ever been released, but sadly there are not enough days in the year. I’ve had long debates with other poets because in my opinion – a lot of things that are not poetry; are poetry. There is no real strict definition of poetry – I find. To say it glibly, it would be ‘words that someone has put together with other words to make a rhythmic and beautiful text’ – so not different from lyrics in the slightest. Not different from stories. Some of the most beautiful metaphors and ideas are in novels, songs and even TV shows.
You’re really widely published, in lots of chapbooks, anthologies, and magazines, as well as having been nominated for numerous things. Do you think that the amateur competition and publishing circuit is important for aspiring poets?
Ovid once said ‘let your net always be cast and in the pool in which you least expect, there will be a fish.’ I’m not the most prolific poet of my generation, but it is always important to open yourself up to different audiences and different opportunities – it can only extend your reputation, not worsen it. Also book publishers look at other publications and records – poetry doesn’t sell that well these days in small circuits, but there is always that chance that someone will have loved a poem of yours in a journal or a magazine and is willing to see what else you can do.
What advice would you give to poets entering this year’s Poetry Prize?
My advice would be to read modern poetry constantly. Like every art-form, it goes through its own trends and fashions. For example, a few years ago, a few poems about ‘starlings’ get popping up, a few poems containing the word ‘cicada’ and it just started to get quite repetitive. Show me something different, something interesting and unique or something strange. But most importantly, is there a poem you keep going back to that makes you smile every time you see it – that brings a special medicine of some kind in its gorgeous metaphor – I’d like to see that.
Who are your favourite poets, and who would you recommend that all poets go out and read and learn from if they’re hell-bent on becoming a poet?
I love Anne Sexton and Joshua Clover – they taught me more about deconstructing poetry than any book on poetry analysis ever has – their eccentric use of language was like nothing I’d ever seen before. If you want to get in to poetry and you’ve never really got in to it previously because school bored you with Shakespeare instead of proving how awesome Shakespeare is, my advice is to find a poet who has a life similar to yours. A poet who has had the same agonies as you. When you find them and understand the words they are using are actually your words, that their feelings are your feelings – that will be your gateway.
Thanks so much for all the advice, and the insights too! We’re really looking forward to the prize, and we hope there’ll be some great entries for you to choose from. We’ll see you in October for the shortlisting!
If you’d like to read more about Rebecca or her poetry, check out her website: rebeccabird.co.uk or by following her: