For LGBTQ History Month, Parthian caught up with Julia Bell, whose superb, intriguing 'memoir in verse', Hymnal, will be published in April. A writer and academic, Julia is the author of four novels, the bestselling Creative Writing Coursebook (Macmillan) and the book-length essay Radical Attention (Peninsula Press). Her essays and short stories have been published nationally and internationally including in the TLS, the White Review and the Paris Review and broadcast on the BBC. Her poetry has been longlisted for the National Poetry Competition and the Bridport Prize. She is a Reader in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London.
What inspired you to write Hymnal?
I started writing Hymnal about 10 years ago at Ty Newydd on a writing course with Gillian Clarke and Carol Ann Duffy. Gillian Clarke actually came to Aberaeron school when I was a teenager and did a writing class with us. It was in that class that I knew I wanted to be a writer and writing poetry was always part of what I did privately as I grew up and developed my career. So after focusing on fiction it was good to return to Wales and to write poetry again and perhaps inevitably the book started to take shape in those workshops in Llanystumddwy. Going back to the past seemed like a good place to begin with my poetic voice.
Tell us a little about the themes.
It’s a memoir in verse so many of the poems are exploded memories - small snapshots in time, which is how I think my memory works. I arranged it in as linear order as I could. A publisher once suggested I write a version of it in narrative prose but I think this version is more true to my experience of life. It was quite an intense childhood – living above the shop as it were – always concerned with the big existential questions about life and death which I realised as I grew older wasn’t the experience of other families. Add sexuality to that mix and I think I’m trying to explore and describe what it was like surrounded by the Bible and Hymns and the poetry of the Welsh language whilst also realising that I was gay. I’m trying to think through these things in the collection – religion and sexuality and the reality of queer desire in the 80s in an age of Clause 28 etc.
What inspires you to write?
Everything – I mean, isn’t everything poetry? But to be more serious I am inspired to write poetry in a different way than prose. I’m writing more non fiction now which is inspired by wanting to describe and explain things to myself. With poetry I’m trying to unpack an image or an idea – or sometimes even a phrase. At the moment I’m working on a new sequence of pieces about objects from the natural world that I collected as a child. Also, reading great work by other writers is always inspiring.
Who are some writers you admire?
In poetry I really love the work of Philip Larkin for its straightforwardness. But I also love RS Thomas for all the gnarly wrestling with god. And Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop just because. In terms of contemporary poets I admire the work of Dorriane Laux, Denise Riley, and Sharon Olds very much. And Richard Scott, Ocean Vuong and Joelle Taylor also seem to me to be at the vanguard of a new queer poetic which is beautiful and moving and inspiring to read.
What would be some advice you would give to your younger self?
Write more poetry!
What is your writing process?
I try to write every day but have had a bit of a hiatus last year because I moved house which was hugely disruptive to my routine. I’m getting back in the saddle now drafting some new pieces and a new essay, but last year was a bit of a writing write-off. Life gets in the way, it happens. I was also really burned out from teaching and running an MA in Creative Writing through the pandemic from my garden shed…
What books are currently on your bedside table?
I’ve just read Michael Bracewell’s amazing new novel Unfinished Business – the density and intensity of his minimal prose style is really impressive. I had to keep stopping to re-read it. I’m currently re-reading through Denise Riley’s new collection Lurex and enjoying very much Kevin Brazil’s essays in Whatever Happened to Queer Happiness? On the tbr pile & coming next is Brigitte Reimann’s Siblings – published by Penguin Classics in a new translation from the German and some of Margaret Atwood’s poetry in Dearly.
I like to have a mix of things on the go at once, usually some poetry, prose and non fiction.
Many thanks to Julia for taking the time to answer these questions!
Hymnal, described by Hannah Lowe as "’moving, tender writing with a haunting evocation of place and time", is a unique memoir in verse that offers a series of snapshots about religion and sexuality. In verse because it’s how Bell remembers: snapshots in words strung along a line, which somehow constitute a life. Snapshots of another time from now, but from a time which tells us about how Bell got here. Not the whole story, but her story. Of an English family on a mission from God, of signs and wonders in the Welsh countryside, of difference, and of faith and its loss.
It will be published in April, and is available to preorder here.