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Poetry in Aldeburgh: Ben Rogers interviews… Rebecca Watts

A poem should always involve an imaginative act, and pretending to be something other is a good way of triggering one.

Your collection features a number of poems about encountering animals, dead or alive. What attracts you to the animal kingdom as a poetry topic?


I love watching non-human creatures (except reptiles, which should surely be banned) going about their business; their unselfconsciousness and their (in the main) indifference to me is liberating. To the extent that poetry is concerned with the big questions – what we’re all doing here, etc. – animals give access to a way of thinking about life without the mess and distraction that ensues when we try to analyse ourselves. They just get on with it, and in doing so they expose more clearly what it is. Having said this, most of my animal poems are about the boundaries between them and us, and how we negotiate these boundaries. In the cases of the bats, the hare and the moles, the usual boundaries seemed to have dissolved, and I was forced to deal with some unsettling encounters. In this sense it sometimes seems as though animals are attracted to me, rather than me to them!

Your first published poem was ‘Hawk-Eye’, different from other animal poems in the collection in the sense that the poetic voice takes on the persona of the hawk itself. How did that poem come about, and how important do you consider it to be hawk-eyed as a poet?


I wrote that poem in a class, back in 2008 or 2009, where the task was to write in the voice of an animal we’d picked (nominally) out of a hat. I’d only just started writing then, and I wasn’t aware of Ted Hughes’s hawk, or Robinson Jeffers’s or George Mackay Brown’s, so I just imagined I was a hawk and wrote the poem like that. I’ve worked over it since, but the tone and the form were there from the beginning. I really like this kind of approach; I think a poem should always involve an imaginative act, and pretending to be something other is a good way of triggering one. While I don’t think it’s necessary to be as self-satisfied as the hawk in my poem, I do think that for the kind of poems I enjoy reading and writing – poems about things in the world, as opposed to abstract conceits or language games – it’s important to look at things properly. Otherwise you’re doing your reader a disservice; it’s a bit rude to say ‘hey, come and look at this!’ if you haven’t found something interesting to show them or thought about where best to point their attention.

If you were to select an animal to be your familiar or power animal which would you pick and why?


Probably some combination of a hare, a springer spaniel, a horse and a mouse – with wings, obviously. Though I recently learned that the elephant shrew (not actually a shrew) is very good at running fast and tidying away unnecessary items, so if I can only select one then maybe that? I think there’s scope here for a new Top Trumps range: Poets’ Power Animals. I’ll start work on some pictures

You are a regular reader of non-fiction. Can you recommend a book that you are reading or have read recently and say why you like it?


The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. It’s a history of humanity seen through the lens of declining violence – which goes against our intuitions about living in a dangerous time (thanks to the media), but which is very hard to dispute in the face of the evidence the book amasses. It’s a real eye-opener to anyone inclined to complain about modern life in the West. Pinker is a brilliant writer; the intelligence and grace with which he communicates the complexities and insights of history, philosophy, biology and evolutionary psychology are inspiring. The Blank Slate is another great work of his. If ever I’m preparing for an event at which I want to be articulate I re-read chapters of Pinker’s books. He makes me think in sentences.

Several of your poems are about or feature bicycles. HG Wells, who used to visit his friend Edward Clodd in Aldeburgh, is reputed to have said: “Whenever I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the human race.” What are your thoughts on this remark?


What a great remark! I’m inclined to agree. There’s something humbling about the bicycle, its simplicity and scale. Cycling forces you to engage with your environment, to look around and pay attention, but it also enables you to travel a long way without losing touch with human rhythms (similar to walking and running, because they are fundamentally connected to breathing). I also think there’s something revolutionary about the freedom and independence cycling offers – and not just historically, as in my poem ‘Emmeline’s Ascent’. I often see cyclists wearing an expression similar to Einstein’s on that lovely photo of him riding a bike – an almost childlike elation – and think: “power to the people!” A couple of my cycling poems were written for a magazine I used to work on, Cycle Lifestyle, but other bikes turn up in my poems simply because I live in Cambridge and there’s usually at least one in my visual field!

Originally from Suffolk, Rebecca first moved to Cambridge in 2001 to study English at Trinity College (BA Hons, 2004) , and then to Oxford where she completed a Master’s in 20th-century English literature (MSt, 2007). Via London and Cumbria, and jobs in publishing, administration, education and heritage, she moved back to Cambridge in 2011 and now works part-time in a library. The rest of the time she works on her own writing projects. Rebecca’s poems have appeared in a range of publications, including PN Review, The North, Magma, Die Gazette, Mslexia, the Journal of Modern Wisdom and New Poetries VI (Carcanet, 2015). In 2014 she was selected as one of the Poetry Trust’s Aldeburgh Eight. Her first collection, The Met Office Advises Caution, is published by Carcanet.

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Forest: Mika Hiironniemi