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She worked in a Sudbury diesel engine factory. Now Rebecca Watts is a pukka poet

PUBLISHED: 18:00 24 October 2016

A Suffolk writer in Cambridge. 'It’s good to be able to show there’s a whole community doing this – it is a real thing; not just this dreamy, ethereal pastime,' says Rebecca Watts

A Suffolk writer in Cambridge. 'It’s good to be able to show there’s a whole community doing this – it is a real thing; not just this dreamy, ethereal pastime,' says Rebecca Watts

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Rebecca Watts isn’t a great fan of surprises, but one the other day will be remembered fondly for all the right reasons. Boyfriend James was behind the wheeze at a pub – commissioning a huge cake designed to look like her debut poetry book.

Trinity College, Cambridge, where Rebecca Watts studiedTrinity College, Cambridge, where Rebecca Watts studied

“I had no idea about the party at all,” she says. “I thought we were just going to have Sunday lunch with one of my friends and arrived to find the whole gang there, and the cake, and balloons.

“I found out afterwards that (publisher) Carcanet were also in on the surprise, as they had to supply him with the cover image and text proofs to give to the baker. If you look closely, you’ll see that the ‘pages’ round the bottom of the cake actually feature poems from my book. Hence I had the chance to eat my words, literally.”

She’s worked the late shift in a diesel engine factory, guided visitors through William Wordsworth’s house and had a stint with the Ministry of Justice. But it’s writing poetry that floats Rebecca’s boat.

With degrees from Cambridge and Oxford, a career in academia was surely there for the taking. But creating magic with words is what really excites the ex-Suffolk schoolgirl: choosing them, paring them, polishing and honing until they shine and sing.

Being a poet isn’t your run-of-the-mill career choice, so how easy is it to be one in the 21st Century, keeping the wolf from the door while engineering the freedom to fulfil your creative urges?

The cover of Rebecca Watts's first poetry collectionThe cover of Rebecca Watts's first poetry collection

“You make sacrifices,” admits Rebecca, who balances a part-time job (afternoons) with her own reading and writing (mornings), and supplements it with freelance editing work.

Sacrifices such as…? “I never drink. Actually, that’s not really a sacrifice. Because my mornings are so valuable, I want to wake up with a clear head, alert.

“Even if I did like drinking, it is really expensive. To spend an evening in the pub can cost £30 or something. I don’t have £30,” she laughs. “Things like eating out I keep to a minimum. I try to save little bits in case it’s a friend’s birthday and I have to go to a restaurant. But, generally, I’m lucky that the things I like doing aren’t very expensive.”

Just as well, really, as she rents part of a cottage in Cambridge – not a cheap city.

“I do keep up my National Trust membership so I’ve always got somewhere nice to go at the weekend, too. I could spend a whole day browsing in a bookshop, and that doesn’t cost anything. I certainly haven’t made myself miserable!”

The decision to forego full-time employment, so she can give her poetry-writing a good crack, undoubtedly helped bring The Met Office Advises Caution to fruition.

The surprise cake made for Rebecca Watts to celebrate her first published poetry collection. 'Hence I had the chance to eat my words, literally'The surprise cake made for Rebecca Watts to celebrate her first published poetry collection. 'Hence I had the chance to eat my words, literally'

Her first collection is described by the publisher as “a witty, warm-hearted guide to the English landscape, and a fresh take on nature poetry… she retunes the genre for modern ears”.

Clarity is key. Rebecca’s conscious that many of us were turned off poetry in childhood after being presented with work written by often-ancient and often-pompous men. Elegies… Odes… Told to compare two old poems whose language went over our heads…

“I am always conscious of the reader. I don’t want to be obscure and confuse anybody. I hope I’ve made a book that will encourage people to see something in a new way.”

Rebecca was born in 1983, grew up in the Sudbury area, went to Great Cornard Upper School, and was a pretty shy and anxious girl until sixth-form, “when something clicked”.

She always liked books – “everything we were told to read at school, and then I picked up weird things. My dad was into John le Carre and Frederick Forsyth, so probably at a strange age I started reading these manly espionage books.

“Roald Dahl, always loved those. Then I started reading things like Jane Eyre, and suddenly you get access to this kind of literature that fills your imagination.”

Rebecca was the first in her family to go to university, nudged there by English teacher Jon Dolton.

She remembers her dad taking her to Cambridge for the interview and her first sight of Trinity College, “one of the biggest and grandest-looking ones. ‘What have I let myself in for?!’”

The teaching was “so good”, intense and incisive, but Rebecca admits: “I suppose it took me until the third year to feel that I had caught up with the people who had had a more involved education at school.” Involved? “People from private schools who had had loads of extra tuition and coaching. They’d read much more widely. Because they get more contact time at school, the breadth of their knowledge was much bigger when they arrived.”

That said, she graduated with a first-class degree, and thought about continuing in academia – but not quite yet. So, a move back to Suffolk and some work at Delphi Diesel Systems in Sudbury.

“I think that may still be the best-paid job I’ve ever had, actually! I was on a weekend night-shift, making filters for diesel engines.”

And then a job with King’s College, Cambridge, as a schools liaison officer; a masters degree in Oxford; a brief return to Trinity to begin a PhD before deciding that spending one’s mid-20s in a library wasn’t that appealing; a move to London and various jobs, including working as a PA in the Ministry of Justice.

A few terms were spent as a teaching assistant at a primary school in Hackney, too.

So how did poetry appear on the scene?

Well, Jacob Polley, “who’s one of the leading poets of the generation”, had been “in residence” at Trinity and was the friend of a friend. In about 2005/6, Rebecca read his first collection, The Brink, “and it just blew me away”. She’d studied a lot of poetry, but probably nothing much beyond the 1960s and the heyday of Ted Hughes.

Reading the kind of contemporary poetry written by Polley “was a sort of epiphany moment”. She read, avidly, more contemporary work and thought “maybe I could have a go at this”.

After moving to London in 2008, she enrolled on a poetry-writing evening class at City University and enjoyed it.

Polley mentioned being a poet in residence at the Wordsworth Trust in the Lake District. The trust looks after Dove Cottage, former home to the man famous for “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”.

Rebecca found out they ran an intern scheme, applied, and spent 2010 in Grasmere. She gained experience of working with a museum collection and much more.

“I was surrounded by poetry – I was a tour guide in Wordsworth’s house, telling people about the lives of poets every day, and meeting other poets.” There was a real poetry community there.

“I started writing more regularly. And the landscape really appealed, although it’s very different to Suffolk. It was a formative year.”

When it ended, back to Cambridge – and a job in the library of St John’s College. The first two years were spent on a lottery-funded cataloguing task; the past three, deliberately, as a part-time library projects assistant.

“I thought I’d see if spending a bit more time on my writing made a difference. And it really has. Now the book’s out, I feel really justified.”

So: why?

“I suppose poetry has appealed because it’s quite close to music. It’s much more based on sound-patterning than other kinds of writing; and I like the visual aspect as well. And the fact it’s small!

“I’m a natural organiser and tidier, and I like the fact that, with a poem, you can see it all at once and the whole of it can be hanging there, ready for you to grasp.

“It seems to boil down the whole mass of experience or thought and condense it into something we can comprehend in one go.”

Themes in the work of this outdoors enthusiast include landscape and weather. “I tend to say my writing’s about nature, including human nature, because, really, it’s about how people are interacting with the environment and how we go about our lives.”

Many ideas come from things she reads.

“I read loads of poetry and a lot of non-fiction. I like reading Popular Science, I like reading Evolutionary Psychology, I like reading history. Anything that interests you could make it into a poem. Suddenly something you’ve read can coalesce with a bit of personal experience and you’ve got some energy with these two things contrasting and coming together in a surprising way.

“Normally I get something as a ‘unit of sound’ – a phrase or maybe just a couple of words that might turn out to be a title or the first line,” says Rebecca, who in 2014 was chosen as one of the “Aldeburgh Eight” – a posse of rising stars treated to an intensive five-day writing retreat in Suffolk by The Poetry Trust.

“It seems to have appeared spontaneously, but I’ll be running along and this little unit seems to be repeating itself to me. Usually I know what it’s connected to – something I’ve read or something I’ve seen. It just comes from immersing yourself in language. If you read a lot and words are important to you, it happens more and more.”

And then her poems come together... and are redrafted, sometimes over years. Is each word working hard enough? Is the poem pared down? Is there still excess baggage to ditch?

She tends not to use end-of-line rhyme but does create internal rhythm “that pulls you through the poem in a certain way and paces the poem. The sound is what really establishes the setting and mood, I think”.

Are strangers intrigued when they find out what she does?

“I always feel slightly embarrassed telling people I write poems, because they have this image of emotional teenagers in their bedrooms, writing in their diary. It’s good to be able to show there’s a whole community doing this – it is a real thing; not just this dreamy, ethereal pastime.”

• The Met Office Advises Caution is published by Carcanet Press at £9.99.

Rebecca is reading at the Poetry in Aldeburgh festival on Sunday November 6 and at Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury on Wednesday, March 8 next year.

The Met Office Advises Caution

While the river turns up its collar and hurries along,

gulls line up to submit to the weather. One jump

and air possesses them, bodies and wings

helpless as handkerchiefs snatched

from windows of trains intent on the coast.

Each bird is flaunted against the sky,

a warning to any cyclist still clinging on.

Branches lash out; old trees lie down and don’t get up.

A wheelie bin crosses the road without looking,

lands flat on its face on the other side, spilling its knowledge.

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