In the first of the author interview series, poet and PhD candidate Rachel Carney tells all about her writing journey, a virtual writing residency and her well-known book blog Created to Read.
Tell me a little bit about your work – when did you get started and what are you working on currently?
I’ve been writing ever since I can remember. From age 17 or 18 I began submitting poems and stories to magazines and competitions. I studied creative writing at university, and enjoyed every minute of it. I didn’t get much published, though. I moved around quite a lot during the years after university, and always made an effort to join local creative writing groups, but eventually I gave up, a few years after moving to Cardiff, telling myself to focus on real life instead.
Then I was made redundant from a job I loved, at the age of 30, and found myself having to work in less creative, less interesting roles. My confidence plummeted to zero, and I returned to my local writing group – a place where I felt valued and supported. Whilst working part time, I wanted to do something useful to put on my CV, so I created a book blog, and started reviewing books. This helped build up my confidence, to the point where I started to think that maybe I could submit my own work again.
So now I write poems, and submit them (thought it still takes a lot of courage), and I’ve also written articles and reviews for my blog and for other magazines. I even self-published a step by step guide to setting up a book blog! Eventually my confidence returned to the point where I felt ready to apply for a PhD (I’m just coming to the end of my first year). I also started delivering workshops (after years of thinking ‘I’d love to do that’) and found that it is even more enjoyable to facilitate others’ writing.
My PhD involves writing a poetry collection examining the complexities of ekphrasis (writing in response to visual artwork) and I’ve just finished a fabulous virtual poetry residency with the Cynon Valley Museum.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received about writing?
I’ve learned, from many people, that it’s important not to put too much pressure on yourself. Some poems come from nowhere and just work, straight away, but most poems take a lot of crafting, and some can take months, even years, before they’re ready.
What do you find most challenging or frustrating about the writing process?
I go through phases where I am in ‘the zone’ and poems seem to fly into my mind from all directions, but most of the time it takes a lot of effort and motivation to sit down and write, or edit, and re-edit. And it takes even more effort to accept the constant flow of rejections, update my spreadsheet, re-edit, and send the poems out again and again and again.
You made an excellent point about the problematic term ‘emerging’ when it comes to describing writers and it’s certainly something we can all learn from. What would you like to see changed in the writing community in order to better support those who have been writers for a long time but don’t fit into a certain limiting category?
Labels like ‘emerging’ can be helpful, but I think it’s important for people to realise that they can also be harmful and exclusive for those who don’t feel that they fit into any of the categories, especially as age is often connected to the idea of the ‘emerging’ writer.
I’m in the in-between position of having had lots of poems published in reputable magazines, but no pamphlet or full collection, at least not yet. But I’ve been writing seriously, seeking out and responding to feedback, editing and submitting my work, for a good 17 or 18 years now. When I see people in their early 20s labelled as ‘emerging’ writers, it makes me wonder where I fit in. I have already ‘emerged’ into the world of writing, but I’ve not yet got to that stage of being publicly recognised. There’s no special celebration, or category, for ‘poet in her mid-30s who has been writing for years but hasn’t quite got there yet’.
You’re both a respected and popular blog writer as well as a great poet. What gives you most joy: blog writing or poetry? Do both complement each other in a way or are they completely separate processes for you?
Now that I’m doing the PhD, I’ve started viewing poetry as work, while blogging is still more like a hobby, so I find writing book reviews more relaxing. Perhaps that’s also because I’m writing them for myself, to my own standards, and (unless I’m sending them to a magazine) there’s no editor standing in the way of publication.
It was actually when I began seriously reviewing poetry collections that I started to see that not all the poems in every published collection are necessarily that brilliant, and I began to think that, perhaps the poems I was writing were as good as those I was reviewing. This helped me to become more confident of my own judgement as a poet, and gave me the push to actually start submitting my own work again.
What did you learn from being Poet in Residence at the Cynon Valley Museum? Did you find having artwork to respond to more or less challenging?
I really enjoyed my virtual residency with the Cynon Valley Museum, but I gave myself a strict time limit, and that was both helpful and a little bit stressful. Deadlines do help with poetry, but they’re not often as short as just a few weeks. I planned the residency based around the museum’s online art exhibitions, because this relates to my research. I’ve always been inspired by images, and it was particularly interesting to make contact with one of the artists (Karin Mear) and to see that she appreciated my interpretations of her work. The project has also given me a few ideas, and I’m hoping to run an Instagram poetry project with another museum at some point.
What do you enjoy doing when not writing?
As a full time PhD student, I’m lucky that I get to spend a lot of time writing, researching and reading. I’m also an active member of my church, and I normally enjoy swimming, going for walks in quiet, beautiful places, and attending lots of literary events, but all of these things have been more difficult, if not impossible, during lockdown.
What do your best writing days look like?
My best ideas often come in the middle of the night, when I’m half-asleep. I’ll get up the next day and type up the scribbles from my notebook, but these scraps of first drafts tend to take a while to germinate into something that resembles a poem.
What’s next for you in writing? Any big projects for the future or something new you’d like to try?
I’m thoroughly enjoying the fact that, being a funded PhD student, writing counts as work now. But I’ve also been experimenting with visual art, and finding ways to combine it with poetry. I currently have ideas simmering for a few different potential image/poetry projects.
Rachel Carney is a poet and PhD student based in Cardiff. Her poems, reviews and articles have been published in several magazines including the New Welsh Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, Ink Sweat and Tears, Acumen and Wales Arts Review. One of her poems was shortlisted for the 2019 Bridport Prize. She has worked in a number of different museums, most recently in community engagement and learning roles, and her PhD research examines the use of creative writing in art museums. Visit her blog www.createdtoread.com to find out more.