Interviewed by Jeff Taylor
The poet Nicola Warwick was born in Kent but has lived in Suffolk for most of her life. Her work has been published in a number of poetry magazines including Acumen, Agenda, The Rialto, Poetry Review, Artemis, South Poetry Magazine and Envoi. Her debut collection, Groundings, was published in 2014 and her second collection, The Knifethrower’s Wishlist (2017) was a winner of the 2016 Geoff Stevens Memorial Prize. In addition she has won prizes or been commended in several competitions, and has been long listed in the National Poetry Competition. Her poetry has also appeared in several completion anthologies. The poems in her third and most recent collection, Naming the Land (2021), were written as the final submission for an MA in Creative Writing with the Open University, which she passed with Distinction in December 2018. The poems describe the various facets of the county of Suffolk and encompass history, landscape and folklore. [These bibliographical notes were taken, almost verbatim, from the ‘About the Author’ section in Naming the Land]
Nicola kindly agreed to provide the following answers to questions about her writing.
Did you write as a child?
Yes, but not poetry. I wanted to write stories – novels, I suppose, although I wouldn’t have called them that when I was a child. I really enjoyed writing stories in English lessons but we didn’t do enough of that, in my opinion! I carried on writing through my childhood and didn’t really start thinking about writing poetry until I was in my twenties and at university, studying ‘modern’ poetry (by that I mean poetry written in the 20th century, although not necessarily by poets who were still alive).
What writers did you enjoy reading as a child?
I loved the Narnia Chronicles by C. S. Lewis, the Little Grey Men books by ‘B. B’ (Denys Watkins-Pitchford) and the Little Grey Rabbit books by Alison Uttley. I really enjoyed the books of Ruth M. Arthur, all of which, I think, are sadly out of print. I remember reading L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between at school when I was about the age of the protagonist and it has stayed with me ever since. During one school summer holiday I read all the Sherlock Holmes stories, which was a real feat!
Are there other writers in your family, past and present?
One of my cousins took early retirement some years ago, bought a camper van and moved to Spain where he spent his time travelling and reviewing camping sites for camper van magazines. His son was one of the team responsible for the creation of the stage version of Julia Donaldson’s Gruffalo. I’ve never been in regular contact with them, so can’t claim to have been influenced by either, or vice versa.
How long have you been writing poetry?
It really started seriously in the late 1990s when I did a Diploma in Creative Writing with the University of East Anglia. I had intended to write only short stories, but somehow this poetic voice came out and I had to listen to it.
Do you write prose as well as poetry?
Yes, I have written short stories and had a few published in magazines after being commended in competitions. I was lucky enough to win the Felixstowe Book Festival Short Story Competition one year and came third another year. I do have an ambition to write a novel, which I am sure I will do one day – I have a couple of ideas in mind which I would like to pursue.
What do you think is the difference between poetry and prose?
The most obvious is the layout, the way it looks on the page, although these days you can find several poetic forms which blur the difference – there is a very fine line, I think, between prose poems and some flash fiction. However, it really is about the language. Poetry operates best with some economy of language, whereas with prose the writer can explore something with much longer descriptions. Poetry is also more like a snapshot of a scene or experience, while prose can be more expansive and tell you the whole story.
Do you find writing poetry easy?
Sometimes – it depends on what triggers it. Some poems come really easily because I’ve seen or experienced something that has struck a chord, others don’t progress very well at all. Some poems can take years to write, some just fall out of the pen. One of the hardest parts about writing a poem is deciding what to leave out – it can be easy to get carried away and put too much detail in, when in most cases, just hinting at something is enough.
Are there specific stages which your poems go through?
Yes, the first spark of the poem might be a few words or a line, but it might be a while before I know what to do with them. Sometimes I might need to do some research (it might be as simple as checking details of a bird or tree for authenticity), but not always. Then it’s just about working with the words or lines I have, slowly building them up into a poem and deciding what sort of shape the poem will have.
Do you share your poetry with any one during the writing process?
Not in the process of writing the poem, but afterwards, yes, definitely. I attend a seminar group run by the Poetry School (an organisation based in London who run courses, workshops and feedback groups for poets all over the country), led by Heidi Williamson who is published by Bloodaxe Books. I also go to a monthly poetry café in Ipswich which is a good space to try out poems with a small but appreciative audience – it tends to be more of a discussion group than an open mic session, so there’s lots of opportunity for conversation.
I believe you work in Local Government so how do you fit writing around the demands of your job?
My day job is very analytical so I tend to regard my writing as an antidote to it. I have to fit my writing around my job, so mainly at weekends, although I will admit to having occasionally felt the need to scribble something down when I’m meant to be working.
If you had to decide on the work of five poets to take to a desert island which would you chose and if you could only take one set of works from that five which would that be?
That’s quite difficult to answer as there are so many good poets writing at the moment, so I would have to go with the poets that have had the greatest impact on me: W. B. Yeats, Seamus Heaney, Vicki Feaver, Philip Gross and Alice Oswald. In terms of what I would take with me to a Desert Island, it would have to be Seamus Heaney’s Collected Poems.
How did you first get published?
A long time ago, I entered a ‘competition’ advertised in a newspaper and was told that, although I hadn’t won, I would have my work published in a book that I had to pay for. I don’t think that sort of thing exists as much these days and there are many more legitimate competitions now than there were then. After I did my Diploma in Creative Writing, I started submitting to poetry magazines and entering competitions; my first proper experience of being published was in the Suffolk Poetry Society’s Crabbe Memorial Poetry Competition Anthology about 20 years ago, when one of my poems was commended.
Do you enjoy reading from your works in public?
Yes, I do! I get quite nervous beforehand, but that’s not a bad thing. Poetry was originally an oral tradition so I feel it’s important for it to be read out and heard, particularly by the poet.
Do you enjoy meeting other poets?
Yes, it’s really interesting to hear other poets read and to talk to them about their experiences. It’s also a great way to find out about publishing opportunities, reading events and courses.
You have had three collections of your poems published. How do you choose which poems go into a collection?
It’s not necessarily about putting your best poems together because they might not make for a coherent read. It’s really about sitting down with your poems and seeing where the connections are between them, how they speak to each other. Before my first collection was published I gathered together some poems that had been previously published, along with ones that hadn’t, and realised that they fell into three distinct themes, which went on to form the three sections of the book. This first book came into being as part of a mentoring scheme run by Cinnamon Press, the publisher, so together with my mentor I was able to hone the poems into a polished manuscript, which they then accepted for publication. The second collection came about through winning a competition where the judges would select the winners from a sample of 10 poems. I hadn’t thought far enough ahead when I won the competition to decide what would go in the book, so when I did win, I had to quickly pull together a collection from poems I had available. My last pamphlet was the result of doing an MA in Creative Writing with the Open University – the final submission was 300 lines of poetry on any subject, demonstrating the learning from the course – so this was very much written with an end product in mind.
Suffolk is central to your most recent collection, Naming the Land, did this require much research?
When I chose to write about Suffolk, I knew I’d have to do some research because there was a lot I didn’t know about the history of the county and I wanted to be factually precise wherever I could. In addition, I wanted to learn more about folklore and go beyond the characters of Black Shuck and the Wildman of Orford, who most people will have heard of, to introduce readers to some of the more unusual stories like the ferishers and freshwater mermaids. I also wanted to write about the fabulous artistic legacy of the county, so went on a residential writing course at Flatford Mill (staying in Willy Lott’s cottage), which was very productive. There are poems which didn’t make it into the book and notes for some that I intended to write, so I don’t think I’ve finished with Suffolk entirely.
Do you write every day?
I’m not disciplined enough to do that, but I do spend a lot of time thinking about it and what I need to do. I’m not very good at planning, so sometimes miss deadlines for competitions I want to enter or magazines I want to submit to.
What are you reading at the moment? Poetry and/or prose?
Both. I’m reading Ian McEwan’s latest novel Lessons – I saw him discussing it at the Cambridge Literary Festival in November – plus trying to catch up with reading some of the (too many) poetry magazines I subscribe to.
The covers of your three published collections are all striking. Were you involved in the designs?