Mending the Roof

Lisa Roberts talks to Julia Copus, winner of the National Poetry Competition 2002  

There's something so wonderfully like being the maker of dreams when you telephone the winner of the National Poetry Competition to tell them that they have won. In the five years that I have been the competition organiser, I have witnessed stunned silences, (Ian Duhig actually caused me to worry that I had killed him in 2000 when his silence went way beyond the norm), expletives, and in the case of this year's winner, Julia Copus, the most enthusiastic whoop of joy ever.  

Julia is no stranger to winning awards and has been the recipient of an Eric Gregory Award and first prize in the Tabla and Ilkley Literature Festival poetry competitions. In 2001, she received writing awards from the Arts Council of England and the Authors Foundation, and the following year was one of six writers in the North awarded a BBC/Gulbenkian Foundation writer's bursary. Last month she received an Alfred Bradley Bursary for her first radio play Eenie Meenie Macka Racka. She has published two collections: The Shuttered Eye and In Defence of Adultery. The Shuttered Eye was short-listed for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, and both her books have been a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. She was born in London and studied Latin at Durham University. She now lives in Blackburn, from where she talked to me about her poetry.

I wondered what you felt the benefits of winning the competition would have on a career which already seems to have generated its own momentum?

It certainly makes a difference psychologically: it's a bit like getting a pat on the back from the boss – not to mention a healthy bonus in your pay-packet. I'm also hoping it will win me some new readers – which would be great. That is, after all, the whole point of being published in the first place.

Being published is the goal of any new writer, but how difficult is it to achieve this and what tips, as someone who has published two books, would you offer a new writer?

 The normal route to book publication is to get a dozen or so poems in literary journals (The Poetry Library has a good list) and then to send a sample batch (15-20, say) to the first publisher on your list, along with a short covering letter. But that's not how it worked for me. I won a prize in a small competition that was being judged by my (then) future publisher, and at the prize-giving I pulled a sheaf of poems from my bag and asked if he wouldn't mind reading them on the train-ride home. It makes me cringe to think of it now: as a rule, publishers hate being approached in this way. I do think it helped that I'd just won a Gregory award, though. Winning a Gregory is a bit like graduate entry into the civil service: it can cut out a lot of the donkey work while you're trying to make a name for yourself. The prize money isn't at all bad either. It's also weird how many "established" poets have won a Gregory. Either the organisers have Mystic Meg on their advisory panel, or the system really does work.

 Do you write full-time?

If by that you mean do I rely on sales from my poetry books alone to make a living, then no, of course not. I don't know of a single poet who does. For every book that's sold I get 10% – that's 79½ pence. Poets don't write for money: that would be crazy. But most of the work I do is poetry-related – workshops, tutoring, residencies, commissions. I think it's good for any writer if they can establish some sort of routine – find out which part of the day they work best in, and try to get as much writing done during that time as possible. Unfortunately, the need to earn a living often gets in the way of this ideal… In Ireland there is an association of creative artists called Aosdána, which exists solely to enable members to devote their energies to their art. Once elected, members receive an annual stipend for life. Without that sort of security, I think a lot of poets are forced to diversify these days, simply because other forms of writing are better paid. To put things into perspective, I finished a radio play recently; it took me twelve days to write and I got paid almost five times the advance I get for writing a whole book of poems.

In your winning poem, 'Breaking the Rule', the protagonist is resigned to his punishment for "having wronged a woman once", and resignation to circumstances and situations, whether by our own doing or not, is evident in many of your poems. Do you think we are all victims of our own fate?

Well fate, by definition, is something over which we have no control, of course; but if you mean do I believe we can shape our own futures, then absolutely – yes, I do. I'm not sure I'd agree with you that many of my poems are concerned with resignation. My new book, at any rate, is all about flux and the urgent need to keep moving, whatever the direction.

Your poetry often refers to basic human emotions but your imagery and references are far from the ordinary: myths, science, art and history are just some of paths you go down. Do you think that in order to write good poetry it is important to have a wide range of references? Can too wide a range exclude some people?

Actually, in my new book there are very few references to art or myth – only one that I can think of. But you're absolutely right: references can be alienating if they're wilfully obscure. I really hope my references are not obscure. My intention is to assist the reader or to rouse his curiosity; not to annoy him/her. On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with asking the reader to do a bit of work. Reading poetry is a bit like listening to a radio play: the reader's (listener's) imaginative participation is part of the process. Without it the whole thing falls apart. Cultural references are really a kind of shorthand; a way of saying, "You know: it's just like that film star / television character / famous building." I do find that the more I write the more I value clarity and accuracy. After all, what's the point in saying something earth-shatteringly profound if no-one understands what it is that you've said?

In your collection The Shuttered Eye there is an extraordinarily poignant poem, 'The Back Seat of My Mother's Car', which describes the moment of separation in a marital breakdown. The poem takes the form of a verbal mirror in that the lines of the second verse repeat those in the first but in reverse order. Form is obviously something you enjoy playing with. Do you think that the form a poem takes can add to the reader's pleasure and is there sometimes a danger that the form can actually take the focus away from what is being said?

That particular form is apparently one which I invented; there's a poem in my new book that uses the same device. But all poems have form: without it they wouldn't be poems. The form of a poem is the bones on which the skin of the poem is hung. If we've built the skeleton right, the form should worry us no more than we might worry whether we can see bits of bones poking through flesh. On the other hand, if it isn't done well, then yes, we could well end up with a bit of a Frankenstein's monster – running through the streets without us and drawing attention to itself for all the wrong reasons.

The Poetry Society advocates very strongly the importance of reading poetry. Do you agree that this is essential for anyone wanting to develop their own writing? Over the last twelve months, how many poetry books have you read?

How many poetry books? I don't know exactly. A fair few... The important thing is quality rather than quantity, though. By which I mean, there's very little point in ploughing your way through piles of single-author collections which simply don't engage you. It's far better to invest in a couple of good anthologies, then focus in on the poets who have managed to "wake you up with a blow to the head", as Kafka put it. These are the poets whose collections you should buy – and then read and re-read until they become a part of you. People do this with music all the time – listening to their favourite songs or albums or symphonies over and over. And yes, of course it's essential you do that if you want to be a writer. Can you imagine someone trying to become a painter without ever having looked at a painting? Or a songwriter trying to compose without having first been immersed in music? It amazes me that anyone should think it might be possible with writing. It isn't.

Who would you say were your main influences?

I really find that impossible to answer. There are so many poets I love – past and present. One of my favourite poets at the moment is an American poet called Kay Ryan, whose poems are very compact and deceptively simple-looking but breathtakingly perceptive – like crumpled bits of paper that go on unfolding in the mind long after you've finished reading them. I guess she's a bit like Emily Dickinson in that respect. On the whole, though, individual poems are far more important to me than a poet's entire work.

 First prize in the 'National' may not be enough for villas in Monte Carlo or yachts off the coast of St Tropez but did you have any plans for the £5000?

Er… mend the roof.




Julia Copus's collections, The Shuttered Eye and In Defence of Adultery, are available from Bloodaxe Books.