One of the best things about being a creative, is getting in touch with other creatives and learning from them. Today, I have the pleasure to share some of Rhiannon Hooson's thoughts and wisdom in an interview with me, and I hope that it resonates with you and inspires you as much as it did me.
Rhiannon is an award winning Welsh poet, and her first book, The Other City, as well as her most recent collection of poems, Full Moon on Fish Street, have earned a lot of praise and recognition. I can only recommend that you read them, whether you are an avid poetry reader or not. She definitely converted me!
Hi Rhiannon, thank you, first of all, for agreeing to this interview. Had you always wanted to be a poet? What is it about poetry that attracts you more than other writing forms?
Although I do write prose of various types these days, I've always been drawn to poetry and consider myself a poet before anything else. To me the appeal of poetry is its capacity to explore language, to play with words, to push at the boundaries of how we express ourselves. I have always been a great lover of words above all else, and poetry allows me to indulge in it.
Where do you get your inspiration from when writing?
The beauty of poetry is that inspiration can come from just about anywhere, because it doesn't need to sustain you through a whole book, but rather just a page or two. Of course, I do have seams of inspiration that I return to again and again. I am fascinated by the idea of the uncanny and how we encounter it in literature. My first book, The Other City, is in part an exploration of just that. The world around me and its changing seasons is always something I can go back to, take refuge in, and the stories we have been telling ourselves for thousands of years via myths and legends are also rich pickings for a poet.
But inspiration can be found in so many places. The pamphlet I brought out last autumn, Full Moon on Fish Street, originally came from a trip to St Ives and some timely Virginia Woolf. I think we sometimes assume that a poem should come with a lofty sort of genesis, but the opposite is true for me. Random articles online have sparked more than one poem - and why not? Today it was pictures of “ghost apples” in the frozen US: ice had formed around apples, which had then rotted and fallen away, leaving the empty ice casing behind. A few weeks ago it was an article about what a camera might see if it was dropped into a black hole. And, increasingly, climate change is motivating my poetry. We write about what we think is important.
What challenges do you face when writing? And how do you tackle them?
Here's a strange thing to admit: I don't find writing poetry challenging. I don't mean “poetry is easy, it comes out perfect first time.” I mean that for me, the practice of poetry is always a pleasure. I have refined my creative practice over almost two decades, and by now it works for me. It's not instant - indeed sometimes it's incredibly slow – but a large part of what I enjoy so much about poetry is the editing process: whittling away superfluous words, refining the whole down to its purest form. Finding the poem in the midst of all the noise. So it isn't so much the case that I encounter challenges and find ways to overcome them; more that, for me, the entire process of writing is challenging by its very nature, and I love that challenge.
When you aren't writing, what are you doing?
Thinking about writing. No, I really am! At least half of the work I do on a poem is done in my head while I'm out doing other things – everyday things like walking the dog or driving. But to answer your question properly, a lot of my time as a writer is spent on peripheral tasks like research, or travelling to give readings and talks, or teaching workshops. I'm also working on a series of online courses, which can take up a lot of time, but which I'm finding really fulfilling.
I think it's worth mentioning that I spend a lot of time reading too. I don't think you can be a writer without reading, and reading extensively. I'm also the poetry editor for Creative Countryside magazine, which means I get to read a lot of poetry submissions throughout the year. It's always such a pleasure to select work for the magazine.
Having taught Creative Writing at universities, what are some of the most common mistakes beginner writers/poets make and what really stuck with you?
When we start to write, we are always told to “write what you know.” I think a lot of writers at the beginning of their careers take that a little bit too literally, and end up writing very autobiographical work when actually they'd be better off stretching themselves and using their imagination more. Don't feel tethered to your own experiences, but rather use them as a jumping off point.
It's also important not to limit your reading material to what you're told is important. Go digging! When I taught Creative Writing, I could always tell what unit the Lit students were studying, because they'd all suddenly start using Shakespearean language and trying to write sonnets. That was poetry week in Lit101. Contemporary poetry is vastly varied, and there are plenty of new voices to be heard, too, from marginalised communities whose voices have been stifled in the past. One thing that I've heard more than once from writers starting out is that they try not to read poetry so that they can't be influenced, as though their voice might somehow be diluted by reading the poetry of others. I absolutely disagree with that: reading good writing can only be beneficial, never detrimental. It doesn't matter if you're a poet reading poetry, a novelist reading novels, or a short story writer reading stories, the more you read the better you will get. There will never be a point where you're good enough not to read; other people's writing isn't there for you to be influenced by, it's there to expand your experience of what a poem – or a story, or an essay – can be.
The last mistake I would caution against, for poets especially, is not editing your work. Poetry doesn't ever come out finished. It always needs polishing, editing, realising. There is a misconception that poetry must come “from the heart,” and that tampering with it somehow negates its authenticity. But poetry is a complex and exacting craft, that's the joy of it!
How do you manage your time between writing and other responsibilities?
To be honest, it's more the case that I don't really draw a line (or at least not a solid one) between writing time and non-writing time. I find that with poetry, you don't have a lot of control over when a poem will want to be written. It's usually the case for me that if a poem is going to make an appearance, it will do so very late at night, and I'll stay up late getting a first draft done before I go to bed. So I need to be flexible. Having said that, this year I've done something a little different which has really helped with delineating my time. I've leased a workspace a five minute drive away from where I live. It's just a simple space, small but not cramped, quiet but not isolated, and going out to write in it each day has made such a difference to my productivity. I think it's the psychology of leaving the house and travelling “to work” that helps most of all, plus having a writing space free of mental clutter. If you don't have the budget to do that, I know plenty of writers who do something similar in a shed in the garden!
What are some of your favourite authors/poets and books?
I have so many favourite writers and books that I love that I'm not sure I could narrow it down. Writers from all genres, not just poetry, but it's always worth mentioning Gillian Clarke, a welsh poet of immense talent who has had a great influence on me. Poetry books that I'm currently reading or re-reading and enjoying immensely are Basic Nest Architecture by Polly Atkin, The Wild Iris by Louise Gluck, War Music by Christopher Logue, and The Weather in Normal by Carrie Etter.
Are you working on your next book?
I've been extremely fortunate this year in being awarded a writer's bursary by Literature Wales, which has given me the opportunity to branch out and write a novel. It will require quite a lot of research, which I'm already getting my teeth into, as well as writing time, but I'm so excited about the project. It's a story about an artist and her muse, but also about how we reconcile ourselves with living in periods of great change and upheaval. As well as the novel, I'm working on my next collection of poems. I'm finding that my voice has shifted since I wrote The Other City, become less lyrical and more direct. It's an interesting process.
Can you share a few details about your upcoming projects in the next year(s)?
As well as working on my next couple of books, this year I'm finally doing something that I've wanted to do for a long time. I will be launching my own business, Ink & Oak Tree, which aims to help put creativity at the heart of living via online courses and residential retreats centred on writing as a part of creative, mindful living. I believe so passionately that in order to feel fulfilled in our lives we need to make time for creativity and connecting with the world around us, and that writing is the key to doing that in a mindful, sustainable way. I'm hoping to launch it in Autumn, which is nerve wracking and exciting at once!
Lastly, what is your favourite quote?
My favourite quote is by Ursula LeGuin, from her Earthsea books. When LeGuin talks about magic she is talking, always, about language, about what it can do, and in this case about the inherent duality of language and of human experience. I think it's just a perfect image: “The dance is always danced above the hollow place.” I think it's such a lovely way of expressing how things are precious because of their precariousness, rather than despite it.
Thank you so much, Rhiannon, for this wonderful interview!