Rebecca Goss lives in Suffolk and works as a poet, tutor and mentor. She has published three full-length collections, The Anatomy of Structures, Her Birth and Girl, as well as Carousel, a collaboration with photographer Chris Routledge. Her Birth was shortlisted to the Forward Prize for Best Collection 2013, the Warwick Prize for Writing 2015 and the Portico Prize for Literature 2015, and won the poetry category in the East Anglian Book Awards in 2014.
In 2014, Rebecca was selected for the Poetry Book Society’s Next Generation Poets. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Cardiff University, and a PhD by Publication from the University of East Anglia.
1. Who were your literary influences and heroes as you were growing up?
I was weaned on short stories growing up. My father introduced me to American writers including Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Ford. My mother shared with me the work of Roald Dahl, Joan Aiken, Daphne du Maurier. I loved reading about lives behind closed doors, the extraordinary in the ordinary. Those texts certainly made an impact on my early published work. I’m a narrative poet, I like to tell stories.
2. When did you first realise that you wanted to write?
I was about twelve. English lessons were where I felt most comfortable at school. My school encouraged creative writing, so I was given the opportunity to write and experiment. Even though I loved reading short stories I have always been drawn to the brevity of poetry. I relish its economy; how beautiful, thrilling and unsettling it can be.
My first poem was published when I was aged 16, after my teacher entered it for a prize. I knew then I wanted to write poems.
3. Your latest collection is Girl. How did the artist Alison Watt inspire you for this collection?
I first came across Watt’s paintings at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. I was mesmerised by their scale and sensuality. I left the gallery feeling emotionally stirred!
I spent a further year looking closely at Watt’s work, reading about her creative process and thinking about the paintings. From the moment I wrote the first poem responding to her work, I knew a sequence would follow.
I don’t attempt to describe the paintings. The poems are about how the paintings make me feel. Alison and I are in touch now, and she kindly let me use her painting ‘Iris’ for the cover of Girl.
I launched Girl at Parafin Gallery in London in May where Alison Watt’s latest work is currently being exhibited. To read my poems in the presence of her paintings meant a great deal.
4. What is your writing routine?
I’m not big on routine generally. My domestic chaos is proof of that. However, in the last few years, I have managed to create more space to write. I don’t have set hours, and I don’t write every day.
The past year has seen me return to studying to complete a PhD by Publication at the University of East Anglia. I was very dedicated to the writing of my thesis. Poems come more sporadically. I think about them for long periods of time, before I start writing. Then I have quite intense bursts at my desk. I also draft a lot more as I get older, but however it happens, I love the process. I love being immersed in the creation of a poem.
5. As well as being a writer, you are a mentor to up-and-coming poets. How did you get started with that?
It started about five years ago. I was approached by a poet who wanted me to critique a short collection she was working on. It was such a positive experience I decided to do more of it.
I have worked with many poets now, on manuscripts and works-in-progress. As I say on my blog, the relationship between mentor and mentee is such an interesting one. I don’t set about telling my mentees what to write, or how to write it. Instead, we enter a conversation about the work. From that conversation comes many things: insight into the writing process, themes in the work that are starting to make themselves clear, how to free a poem that’s stuck.
There is nothing more rewarding than seeing writers gain confidence and develop creatively as a result of my input. I find it really stimulating and it benefits me as a writer too.
6. Has a book or poem ever changed your life or made you see things differently?
I’ve always loved reading about the complex and emotive dynamics of relationships and family life. In my teens, I remember devouring the books of D. H. Lawrence, copying sections out from Sons and Lovers into a notebook. Sweethearts by US novelist and short story writer Jayne Anne Philips will always be a very important book to me. So too, will the early poems of Sharon Olds.
Last year I read Eavan Boland’s collection of prose essays A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming A Woman Poet and it had a huge impact on me; made me really consider what it means to be a writer.
Whatever I’m currently reading is altering my life in some way. The variety of voices in contemporary poetry and fiction and memoir is really exciting. There is so much to read and learn from.
7. What was the best advice you were ever given?
My second collection, Her Birth, is about the death of my first child in 2008. The book took me a long time to write and was written during a very difficult time.
I am lucky to have retained positive working relationships with all editors of my work. Will Mackie, editor of my first book, knew I was struggling at times to write the Her Birth poems, especially once I knew the collection was going to be published. He sent me an email saying, ‘Keep going, but at your own pace.’ I printed it out and stuck it above my desk. It helped me to realise that the poems would come when they were ready. I’ve learnt not to rush. The work will always be better for it.
8. You are appearing at the Lavenham Literary Festival this year. Can you give us a small taster of what you will be talking about?
Having spent several years reading from a very personal collection, I am enjoying reading from my new book, Girl. I still write about motherhood and my family, but the collection contains new work, which strays from being explicitly autobiographical.
Last year I published a collaboration with the photographer Chris Routledge, published with Guillemot Press: fifteen photographs, fifteen poems, it is called Carousel. That’s always fun to read from.
I am currently working on my next full-length collection, nicknamed ‘The Suffolk Poems’, and I’d like to road test some of those. I’m researching the working lives of farmers, blacksmiths, lime-renderers, thatchers and so on, by spending time with them and observing them at work. The resulting poems explore the connections people make to the East Anglian landscape, specifically people who work with their hands, in rural trades.
The collection contains a personal thread too, about watching my young daughter grow up here. She was born in Liverpool, where I spent twenty years after leaving university. I grew up in Suffolk and moved back here when she was two. I love watching her everyday interactions with this environment, retreading my footsteps.