We caught up with poet and novelist Ros Barber ahead of her next term of Saturday Sessions: a monthly workshop course of feedback, discussion and writing for poets…
Hi Ros! Your new book, Devotion, has just been published – could you tell us more about that?
It’s a novel, following up on the success of my debut novel The Marlowe Papers – although this one couldn’t be more different. It’s not in verse and it’s set in the near future instead of the Elizabethan past. Here’s the premise: at a time when there are moves to have religious fundamentalism classified as a form of mental illness, criminal psychologist Dr Finlay Logan must assess the sanity of a young woman who has committed a religiously motivated atrocity. Unfortunately he is the midst of a breakdown over the death of his daughter. He is eventually faced with a critical decision and the narrative takes him down both pasts: what happens in both cases, after the fork in the road.
How did Devotion come about, and how long has it been in the making?
I’ve been interested in the themes underlying Devotion for a very long time: some of them in my late teens and twenties, when I was doing a biology degree and we started looking at the ‘problem’ of consciousness. In recent years consciousness research has really taken off and I’ve been following it with great interest, to the point of wanting to explore some of it in a fictional setting. The story took about a year of mulling, and another two years to write.
Could you talk a bit about your debut novel The Marlowe Papers, and the inspiration behind it, particularly in choosing to write the novel in verse?
I’ve taught creative writing at university level since the late 1990s, but it had become apparent that to get a proper post I’d need a PhD. I was casting around for a project ambitious enough to get funding when I saw a documentary about the theory that Christopher Marlowe wrote the Shakespeare canon. An academic interviewed on that programme said it was a ludicrous theory but it would make a good novel, and that was my lightbulb moment! I pitched it, got funding, and then spend four years researching and writing it. There was never any question that it would be written in verse: that was in my original funding pitch. A good steady rhythm of iambic pentameter felt like the only way to get an authentic Marlowe/Shakespeare voice without resorting to cod Elizabethan.
Do you consider yourself to be foremost a poet, a novelist, both, neither? What were the challenges of combining both forms in The Marlowe Papers?
Just a writer, I guess. I’ve written poetry, short fiction, two novels now; I’ve edited and co-written one non-fiction book (on Shakespeare) and I’ve just completed the manuscript of another. I haven’t written any poetry since I finished The Marlowe Papers so I don’t feel much like a poet at the moment. On the second question, it wasn’t as difficult writing a novel in verse as people imagine. I had written three novels in prose (unpublished, but two of them had representation and got pretty close) so I’d had some practice making a narrative work over the long haul. Writing iambic pentameter was already second nature because I had such an obsession with sonnets. The plot was already there for me, with plenty of historical happenings to include: I wove the timelines together with the help of a spreadsheet. Getting Marlowe’s voice right was the tough thing. Once I had that, it was only the slowness of the project that was challenging; keeping the faith as I wrote it, chapter (poem) by chapter (poem).
What is the structure of a Saturday Session?
People usually bring in two poems. We start with a round of detailed workshopping, where everyone has a poem of theirs discussed in great detail. We all learn a great deal in that process; it’s a fantastically knowledgeable group. There’s usually quite a lot of laughter, too, as we work out different readings and possibilities (with the poet whose poem is under the microscope keeping quiet until we’re done). After lunch we all look at a poem I’ve brought in, and I set some kind of ‘homework’ from that. Sometimes a group member might also bring in a poem that has caught their eye. Then we do a second, quicker round of feedback on everyone’s second poem: much more of a ‘first impressions’ kind of thing, but no less useful for that. And that a good few of us usually continues our poetry-related discussions in the pub.
Did you set Saturday Sessions up with a main aim for students?
The main aim is to help poets get quality feedback on their poetry in a friendly and supportive environment. For many it is about taking themselves as their poetry seriously, perhaps for the first time. For others, it’s about improving their work in order to get it published. And for still others it’s taking one day a month to focus on poetry, with a ‘homework’ deadline that gets them writing when they might otherwise procrastinate.
What do you like most about the sessions?
The people who come. Every term we get new people but we also get regulars who have been in the group for a couple of years. I love the kindness and good humour in these sessions, and also the quality of poetic discussion. The group makes a very knowledgeable and well-read whole, where we make up for each other’s individual gaps: I think everyone learns something, even with the poem under the microscope is not their own. The group has a wide range of experience, practice and reading, and I think that’s to everyone’s benefit. It’s always invigorating, and I come away marvelling at the fact that I get paid to do something so enjoyable with such a great bunch of people!
What do you think are the most important things that can encourage writers to keep writing? How can we protect ourselves from ‘dropping off’?
Firstly, if you love doing something, you’ll automatically be motivated. So it’s helpful to remember that the very act of writing, for its own sake, can be deeply pleasurable. Secondly, we enjoy things more when we are good at them and we get better at something if we do it often, so find ways to make writing a daily habit. Do ‘morning pages’, or do a daily 5 minute freewrite, or decide never let yourself go to bed unless you’ve written for 15 minutes/200 words/whatever works for you. Once you’ve instilled writing as a daily habit you will feel more and more like a writer. Lastly, develop resilience and self-belief. Don’t listen to the naysayers. Have a dream of writing something you’re really proud of, and keep working towards it with the belief that you’ll get there eventually. And don’t talk about your dreams because other people will tend to stamp on them.
How did you come to writing?
I’ve been convinced I was a writer for as long as I can remember. I taught myself to (physically) write, aged 4, when I was supposed to be napping, by tracing the words in a copy of The Emperor’s Nightingale. A box of Smarties for a short story when I was 6 encouraged me that I was on to something. Poems and stories banged out on my mother’s typewriter at 9 and 10 were sent off to Puffin Books without response. Secondary school teachers entered me in poetry competitions, and I won a couple. A commitment to write at least a poem a day from 13-18 generated a few thousand poems and was a good apprenticeship. A ‘year off to write’ after my degree earned me £40 and a lesson in the realities of being a writer. I didn’t write from 23-31 because I got distracted by the wrong job and the wrong marriage, and had children. When the relationship hit the rocks and my writerly dreams were mocked, I picked it up again. In short, I always had this almost delusional conviction that I was a writer and by degrees I have managed to convince others that it’s true.
What do you hope students gain from joining Saturday Sessions?
Useful feedback, a sense of what they do well and what they can work on, a focus for their poetry-writing, and perhaps some new friends!
If you’d like to join Ros for her monthly Saturday Sessions and receive feedback, exercises and support with your writing, see more info and booking here or contact the Poetry School on 0207 582 1679 or [email protected]