Julia Copus Interview
Posted on 25 July 2008. © Copyright 2004-2024 WriteWords
WriteWords talks to poet and radio dramatist Julia Copus
Tell us all about your writing background- what you’ve written, what you’re currently writing
I’m a poet, but I occasionally write for radio too – for the afternoon play slot on Radio 4. I’m working on my third poetry collection at the moment – or third and a half if you include a pamphlet I published back in 1994. The provisional title of my new book is ‘Twenty Three Skidoo’, an American idiom meaning ‘Let’s get out of here’. I’ve also just finished a pocket writing guide for undergraduates, which is due out from Macmillan in September 2009.
Other work besides writing; ie. Editing, dramaturgy, tutoring, and how it works for/against your own writing
It varies from year to year, but I’m currently an Advisory Fellow for The Royal Literary Fund, and a ‘registered writing expert’ (!) for the Oxford Literary Consultancy, which offers anonymous advice on unpublished manuscripts. I also tutor for the Poetry School and the Arvon Foundation. I’ve just co-tutored with Roger McGough, and I’ll be running a course with Daljit Nagra next autumn. Until recently, I worked as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Exeter University, helping students on a one-to-one basis with their essay writing. I loved being with the students and other members of staff, especially as writing is such a solitary occupation, and I did find some of the advice I offered feeding into my own writing! But I also found it difficult for a while to switch between my academic-writing-adviser’s head and my creative head. These things get easier over time, of course. The more familiar and at ease you become with a job, the less it interferes. That’s inevitable. But I think as writers we have to learn what suits us best; what best works for our individual personalities and modes of writing – what suits one person may be a living nightmare for the next. A lot of poets teach creative writing in universities, often part-time, but some people hate the idea of all that. Remember that T.S. Eliot worked in a bank, and Kafka was in insurance! It’s horses for courses, I suppose.
How, when and why did you first start writing?
I wrote a lot at school – stories, mainly, but some poems too. I was the one who stayed in during my lunch hour at primary school to write twelve pages instead of the usual two. There was nothing terribly inspiring about my childhood: quite the opposite. The house where I grew up was on a dead-end road with a chemical factory at one end and a smaller electroplating factory at the other. On summer nights, when it was necessary to keep the windows open, there was a constant hissing sound above the hum of the traffic. In the daytime, the house was filled with other, more boisterous sounds. Behind each door, at pretty much any time of the day, you could be fairly certain that one of my brothers would be practising an instrument – French horn, ’cello, piano… All three brothers eventually won music scholarships to various prestigious schools or music colleges. The horn player went on to play for some of the top orchestras – the Philharmonia, the Berlin Philharmonic, the L.S.O. … There was a lot of fighting in the house too, a lot of tension: my parents had recently divorced, and my mum was struggling to knit things back together again. What I longed for above all else was quiet, and, I suppose for a room – a space – of my own. My solution was to move out, during the summer of my O’ levels, to the caravan parked in the driveway! It was here (under the quieter hiss of a gas mantle-lantern, and by candlelight) that I began to experience the sense of release and of order that writing can provide. As I say, I had always written poems and stories at school but it was here in the caravan, for the first time, that I truly began to feel that with a notepad and pen I could make my own world; could be whoever – and wherever – I wanted to be. I suppose it was a case of “Have pen, will travel”.
Who are your favourite writers/influences and why?
This is a hard one. I have quite wide tastes and I’ll give you the names of two poets from opposite ends of the spectrum: I really love Anne Carson (especially her ‘Glass and God’ collection) because she distils what it is to be human into so few words, memorably and beautifully, but I also love Billy Collins, for his quick-wittedness and because he makes me laugh. I also love W.S. Graham, Dorothy Molloy, Alice Oswald… This is rather a random list, though. There are so many.
My favourite short story writer, without a doubt, is Alice Munro. And one of my favourite contemporary playwrights is the fantastic David Eldridge (‘Festen’, ‘Market Boy’, ‘Under The Blue Sky’) – though I may be slightly biased as one of his plays is dedicated to my fiancé! As for novelists, a great favourite is Carol Shields (‘The Stone Diaries’ and ‘Larry’s Party’). I love the way Shields marries the personal with the universal, the parochial with the global, the outside world with a character’s inner life – in almost every sentence, it seems. For instance, I remember a passage from ‘Larry’s Party’ in which the protagonist carefully sprinkles cinnamon onto his cappuccino in order to get an even coverage. This little cloud of cinnamon forms in the air before it drifts down onto the coffee cup, and in the next breath it’s compared with a dust storm which had coated every ledge and leaf in Winnipeg the previous summer. I love that kind of combination. And quite apart from that, the extraordinary care that Larry takes over this tiny action tells us so much about his temperament, of course.
But in general, I find this a difficult question to answer, as I tend to have favourite poems or stories or books rather than favourite writers.
How did you get your first agent/ commission/publication?
This isn’t very interesting. I won an Eric Gregory Award – a big award for poets under 30. The prize is administrated by the Society of Authors (www.societyofauthors.org), and they give four or five awards each year. I’d strongly urge any promising young poets out there – whether published or unpublished (I was unpublished) – to enter. Not only does it offer a big financial boost, but many publishers keep an eye out for each year’s ‘class of Gregory winners’. And it’s astonishing how many well-known (as well as less well-known) poets have won one of these awards – Alice Oswald, Lavinia Greenlaw, Don Paterson, Jackie Kay, Kathleen Jamie, Medbh McGuckian, Sean O’Brien, Andrew Motion, Paul Muldoon, Brian Patten, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, Seamus Heaney, Douglas Dunn... You get the idea!
What’s the worst thing about writing?
Having to be self-disciplined. It’s easy enough to sit down at your desk when you’ve already got your teeth into something – and it’s much easier if you’re working on a longer project, or something with a narrative thread which you can pick up each morning. After I’d written my first radio play (which took me only a few weeks), I realised to my horror that it contained roughly the same number of words as a whole poetry collection. A poetry collection often takes years to finish. I think that’s because each new poem is like a new project, and each new project takes a little time to feel your way into. The trick might be to have several things on the go at once. I’m experimenting with this at the moment!
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