An Interview with Julia Copus ahead of The Exeter Poetry Festival 2015
Ahead of her performance at Exeter Poetry Festival 2015, with Greta Stoddart, as part of Two Compelling Female Voices, I asked Julia Copus a few questions about where her poetry starts, where it takes her, and advice she has for aspiring poets.
I started at the very beginning- I’ve heard it’s a very good place to start. When asked what the first poem she wrote was, Julia charmingly recounted the humorous tale of the first time she was published:
“I can’t remember the very first poem I wrote; I must have been quite small. Maybe four? But I remember the first poem I had published. I was seven then. I’d sent the poem to a girls’ comic called Tammy, and because I’d forgotten to add my name, the acceptance letter was addressed to ‘Tammy Reader’ and very nearly got thrown away. Luckily, rather than putting the letter straight back in the post unopened and marked ‘return to sender’, my mother thought to ask me if I knew anyone of that name. With the £2 postal order they’d enclosed by way of payment, I bought a miniature Pippa doll in a sparkling green evening dress. I say it was lucky because I think encouragements of this kind are tremendously important and though I’d have to wait a long time to see my next poem in print, that early success planted in me the notion that such things were possible.”
“I was 20 or 21 when I first thought seriously about poetry. I was self-employed, working on a travelling book-stall – an initiative I’d set up with my boyfriend, Charlie, under the Prince’s Trust scheme. He had given me a copy of Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar to read in the long hours while customers browsed the stall. It was one of those books that left me wanting to know more about the author so I got hold of a biography and read that too. Finally, I came to the poems. Here was much of the same material (The Bell Jar is largely autobiographical) but framed in such a way that the words – visceral and super-charged – left me changed; after looking up from Plath’s Collected Poems, the world seemed like a very different place. Mixed with inevitable admiration were feelings of envy and, beyond that, excitement. How had the poet pulled off this conjuring act? I wasn’t sure but somewhere inside me I felt it was something I might be able to emulate.”
And that she certainly does. Julia won an Eric Gregory Award aged just 24, and her first full collection The Shuttered Eye was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. In 2002, her poem ‘Breaking The Rule’ won the National Poetry Competition.
So, how does she go about writing her poetry?
“In a very haphazard way, I’m afraid. When I write partly depends on what other work I have on – by which I mean writing work and other freelance projects. At the moment, I’m working on a biography of the poet Charlotte Mew, and I write texts for picture books too. Writing time – and especially poetry writing time (because writing poems is so difficult) – can often get squeezed. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: the lone and level sands of too much spare time are not always conducive to writing. Because of that, the other thing that helps is that I belong to a closed writing group, called The Helyar group. Greta’s a member too. We meet once a month or so and I find the meetings provide a useful deadline for me. It’s also enormously helpful to air new poems and hear people’s reactions. The hardest thing is the knowledge that, while there are very many good poems out there, there are many more mediocre or plain bad poems. There doesn’t seem much point in adding to those, but at the same time you have to allow yourself to make mistakes. It’s fine to sit down in front of your blank piece of paper each time and think, “This poem is going to be up there with the best” but when it falls short, you have to accept it for what it is; there may still be many good things about it. If you felt that it wasn’t ever okay to come in below standard, the muse would run off in terror.
Hold on tight to that muse, folks! For those of us who suffer from that age old monster, ‘Writers Block’, where would you suggest we search for inspiration?
“As the wonderful Michael Longley said, “If I knew where poems came from, I’d go there.””
Maybe it’s not that easy to find where poems are born, but once you find them, they’re yours forever.
“I prefer reading poetry over listening to it. It means you can go back to the words as often as you want, let the poem fill you, carry it around in your head. The only time I like listening to poetry is if I already know the poem. Then it can be interesting to hear it spoken in the poet’s voice. T. S. Eliot wasn’t great at reading his own work, but I can’t think of his The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock without hearing his voice from the recording he made in 1947. He was a young man when he wrote the poem (many years before the recording), but the world-weary tones of his almost-60-year-old reading voice feel just right for this poem. Sylvia Plath’s reading of Daddy is electrifying too. Both are incredible poems, of course.”
Assuring me that she doesn’t have a favourite of all the lines she has ever written, I inquire about a favourite poet;
“I tend to have favourite poems rather than favourite poets. For diplomacy’s sake, I’ll give you a selection from poets who are no longer with us: John Donne’s The Good Morrow and Batter my heart, three-person’d God; Thomas Hardy’s The Going, The Oxen, The Fallow Deer at the Lonely House; Emily Dickinson’s I felt a funeral, in my brain and After great pain, a formal feeling comes; Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Grief; Charlotte Mew’s The Farmer’s Bride, Sea Love, I Have Been Through the Gates; Elizabeth Bishop’s Crusoe in England and The Moose, Robert Lowell’s Home After Three Months Away, W.H. Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts, Philip Larkin’s Afternoons… As you can see, the list would quickly become unwieldy. I love many many contemporary poets too.”
Finally, any advice for students who want to pursue poetry?
“Read. Find out what you like and then ask yourself why. Get a big, thick anthology so that you don’t waste money on lots of slim volumes, and then you need only pursue those poets who really speak to you. A normal reader (one who is reading for the sake of reading) can be content with letting the poem move or entertain them. A writer must go beyond that; must ask, “How did that happen? How did it move me? Do I have it in me to do the same sort of thing?” If the answer’s “Yes” then keep at it. Don’t give up.
So, what are three things I learnt from interviewing the delightful Julia Copus?
- “People are wrong if they think poets are no longer producing work that speaks as deeply as older poems do, and that will endure.”
- “Poems are the ideal things to carry around with you. If you take the trouble of learning a few favourites (or you find you’ve learned them just by reading or listening), then they are – touch wood – with you for life.”
- I will most definitely be heading to Two Compelling Female Voices to hear more. Tickets are available here: http://www.exeterphoenix.org.uk/events/exeter-poetry-festival-2015-4/
Interview by Madeleine Sharma with Julia Copus, October 2015