Career Focus - The World of Writing

Poet - Ros Barber

American-born British poet (three times commended in the National Poetry Competition, Writers Inc Poet of the Year 2000) and short-story writer (major prizes in the Asham, Moving Stories and Independent on Sunday short story competitions).

How did you first get into writing? Did you write as a child?

I loved language, and books, from the off, and taught myself to write before I went to school by tracing the words of the story "The Emperor's Nightingale" when I was supposed to be taking my afternoon nap. At the age of six, I wrote a story which so impressed my teacher that the headmistress called me to the office and gave me a whole box of Smarties. Not a tube, a box, like the kind Mum would never buy us at the cinema because they cost too much money (I was also one of four). I thought "wow, I just write stuff and people give me fantastic things". So I wrote more. It was also the only way I had of getting my Mum's attention given she had three other children, a job she loved, and a party-fuelled social life. When I was 9 I read "Watership Down" and was so inspired I sat down to write my own novel, a very derivative thing about a bunch of talking fox-cubs. I probably got into poetry at about the same time and, thanks to the next favourite book, "Harriet the Spy", I used to get into trouble for writing rude things about my family in notebooks. I still do this of course, but now they have to read those things in print and try not to mention it on the telephone, and I don't have to forgo my pocket money.

At the age of 13, I made a commitment to write a poem a day (minimum) and for the next five years I achieved this, keep a running total that was getting close to ten thousand when I got bored of counting. It was a load of rubbish, mostly, but the practice is the important thing. Two consecutive English teachers thought I might have something special and told me so. One of them sent my work off to, and then introduced me to, Ted Hughes. This early faith in my ability from others fed the delusion that I was a talented writer until I had learnt enough about the craft to make the lie reasonably true. Lucky, because when you reach 18 and find being "good for your age" doesn't mean anything anymore, you have to have some self-belief to haul you through the desert until you get properly good

What inspired you to write poetry in particular?

I think it's the playfulness. It's about a passion for language, for words. The people who write poetry (long-term) are the people who read dictionaries for fun. They tend to enjoy crosswords, puns, verbal jokes. Poetry's about getting to the nitty-gritty of communication, the nuts and bolts of language, how it works. Building a poem is like stripping down an engine and finding only what is necessary for it to work perfectly. How little does it need? Will it still turn over if I take out this adjective? Oh yes,look, it actually runs smoother. What if I strengthen the verb? Can you tune it a little finer by tweaking this syllable? It's a place for obsessives and language-nerds. Form (rhyme and meter) is the high end of this kind of playfulness, and has the bonus of suiting my mathematical side (I have a science background, and both my parents were physicists by training.) Also, though not all poetry is necessarily emotional, the kind of poetry I write is a great way of getting to the heart of what's great, and what hurts. I am an emotional personal, and I like poetry that clearly and simply communicates emotion, not saying too much or too little. Sometimes it helps to nail some overwhelming emotion to a tree, stop it moving, look at it in detail for a while, take it apart, and transform it into something as pleasing as a good poem. And on top of all that, poetry's perfect for someone with a short attention span. In a classic ADD pattern, I get intensely focussed, but I get easily bored. Poetry's great for pouring that kind of obsessive energy into for a day, say, and then moving on to something new.

Do you write at home? If so where?

Yes, I'm lucky enough to have regained my own home-office space when we moved into this house four years ago. It's a basement room with a brick floor and no window. A little cold at times, but there are no distractions. I'd like somewhere more poetic, of course, but then I'd probably gaze out the window all day rather than write.

How many hours do you spend writing a day? Do you have to be quite disciplined?

I used to have three hours every weekday morning, but that's fallen apart recently owing to my husband's longterm illness, combined with my having to do a lot of work towards future writing projects that will bring an income in - writing funding applications etc. So at the moment I try to have two writing days a week. During a writing day, though, I tend to get pulled away into other office tasks (my discipline isn't what it should be) and start much later than I intend. So I'll generally have three to four hours, twice a week. However, I find that when my time is curtailed like this I am more productive (and somehow "inspired") when I do write. It comes very easily, perhaps because it has been pent up behind a dam.

What or who has been your biggest inspiration?

That's hard. In no particular order Ted Hughes, Douglas Adams, Sylvia Plath, Tom Robbins, Michael Donaghy, Virginia Woolf, Stephen Baines (my English teacher) and my Mum. Mum was mostly my chief cheerleader, but there was also something about her spirit which was inspiring. Many, many writers have inspired me. Too many to name. Every time I read or hear a fantastic piece of writing I am inspired.

How does writing fit round spending time with your family?

It couldn't be more flexible. I can't imagine another job where I could work around the needs of my family to this degree. Luckily I have absolute support, as regards my writing, from my husband, so the writing doesn't get pushed completely to the back. Writing is prioritised...though my husband sometimes has to remind me that it is healthy to keep a reasonable balance between writing and family! It's lovely that my daughter is always on hand, and I can take days or half days when either of us require it.The hard thing, with my daughter so young, is that I can't really spend time away. Some jobs (such as teaching on writer's retreats, or distant readings) require the kind of time away that I just can't take at the moment, which is a pity. But these things will all be possible in the near future. I know from watching my boys get into their teens that children grow up faster than you'd imagine.

Was it hard getting your first poems published?

No, I didn't overstretch myself. My first piece of published creative writing (at 18) was on the back cover of Colchester's St. Mary's Arts Centre magazine. My first adult poems were in Smoke, which was photocopied and stapled together in someone's back bedroom, and cost 20p. But having said that the quality of poetry in Smoke was surprisingly good - and my first poem was published in the same issue as (a then unknown) Carol Ann Duffy. After that, and ever since, there have always been long stretches when it seems impossible to get poems published, and other times when everything you write is snapped up like dogs eat dogfood. At the moment I'm lucky enough to be in the second mode, but I only recently had a few years of nothing but returns.

How did you go about it?

I can't remember how my first submission came about. I must have seen Smoke somewhere, or that they were looking for work, liked the sound of it, and sent some poems off. After that I started to get serious about submitting. I got a list of all the poetry magazines from the Poetry Library in London and sent poems off in batches (with SAEs, of course). I kept accurate records. When poems came back untaken, I sent them somewhere else.

Did you have an agent? Do you think they are essential?

You only have an agent in poetry if you are one of the more successful performers - the Liverpool poets, John Hegley, John Cooper Clarke, Ian McMillan, Patience Agbabi. I believe they're fairly essential in prose, but in poetry it's up to you to do the legwork. There's not enough money in published poetry for their fifteen percent to be worth anything.

What is the best bit of business advice you have been given?

"Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm." I had this Winston Churchill quote pinned on my notice-board for years and years. I re-read it every time I wrote something rubbish or received a publisher's rejection letter.

Do you have any words of wisdom for Mums (or Dads!) who would like to become published poets?

Write obsessively. Don't allow anything to stop you writing (I did, for eight years - what a waste!). Read as much contemporary poetry as you can. Buy lots of it (if you want the poetry market to be buoyant enough to accommodate you, too, it makes sense). Go to events. Meet people. Tell them who you are. Don't be at all worried when, the next time you meet them, that they have forgotten. Remind them. Remember who *they* are (or bring someone with you who will). Be friendly. All the time keep writing, keep entering competitions, keep submitting. Dogged persistence is the only true path!

Books by Ros Barber

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