The Monthly interviews Poet, Writer and Journalist, Rebecca Cooney – Part 2 – Journalism and Poetry

Part one of this interview is here

How did you gravitate towards journalism?

When I was at University, I was thinking I wanted to be a writer but I realised, at some point, I had stopped writing creatively. I had to ask myself, “how do you make a living out of writing?” and Journalism seemed the obvious answer.

I had grown up in a house where Radio 4 was always playing, there were plenty of books available to me, plenty of access to information whether through journalism on the radio or through the written word. Part of that was connected to the ideas I mentioned before about storytelling; how do you tell a story effectively.

I was studying Post Colonial Literature, mainly English literature, from places which had been part of the British Empire. Through that I came across writers like Arundhati Roy, who in my view was writing about the state of the world but in a beautiful, poetic way and that brought me to the idea that I wanted to be writing about the world as much as anything else. I decided to do a Journalism Diploma after I finished University.

And where has that lead you?

I write for a third sector magazine which covers the charity sector. The magazine covers the business of running charities. I enjoy writing long form articles, whether that is interviews with people who work in the sector or issues arising out of developments in the sector and I aim to do that in interesting ways. You can be in a situation where you have to write about tax arrangements which could easily be very dry and boring and you have to find a way to make the information accessible and readable.

I might also work on something like the question of making British Sign Language (BSL) recognised as a legal, official, language and what charity campaigning has occurred to make that happen. A lot of what I do is very fact based and from there finding an interesting way to deliver those facts.

How does this impact your poetic writing?

Again I find that it all comes back to storytelling. When I move from my journalistic writing to poetry I really enjoy the freedom that poetry gives you. I find though, my poetry aims, increasingly, to tell stories, not just my story, but other people’s stories.

If you move towards a more narrative style I find you have to strike a balance between the art of the poetic side of the writing and making sure the narrative is communicated well. When I am writing articles at work I come across material which would make the basis of a great poem, so there is some crossover between my journalistic work and the poetry I write.

How do you find that balance you are talking about?

When I am working on other people’s stories I find I need to know their story thoroughly in order to allow me the flexibility to play around with the narrative so that it can work poetically. At other times, rather then relaying someone’s experience, I might write about my reaction to their situation.

Regardless of what approach I take I think it is important not to allow the journalistic side to smother the poetic side and vice versa and so there is a process whereby, as I said, you need to find the right balance, otherwise, I think, the poems won’t work.

There is one more element that needs to thought through carefully, especially if you are writing about people experiencing poor mental health or living in difficult situations, that you are not appropriating their circumstances or appropriating their unhappiness. There must be some sense of integrity about how you go about telling the story without falling into the area of using the traumatic to win over the audience’s sympathy, if that makes sense.

Part three of this interview is here

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