Reading lists

What I’m reading: Ralf Webb

The British poet and author of Rotten Days in Late Summer on the books that have moved him recently, from Ursula Le Guin and James Baldwin to the recently discovered poet he keeps returning to.

Ralf Webb
A photo of author and poet Ralf Webb in a sunny white room, his face half-darkened by a shadow.

Raised in the West Country and now based in London, it’s hardly a surprise that Ralf Webb’s poetry so deftly and tenderly evokes the transitional, liminal spaces in life. His debut collection, Rotten Days in Late Summer, is a vivid and sincere exploration of what we leave behind as life progresses, engaging with grief, youth, masculinity and the nuances of mental health along the way.

Already being hailed as one to watch in British poetry, the collection highlights the talent of an author who was starting to make his mark on the literary world: Webb is the managing editor of The White Review, and he writing has been published in London Review of Books, Poetry Review, Oxford Poetry.

To celebrate the release of Rotten Days in Late Summer, we asked the young poet about the books that have shifted his own worldview lately; in reply, he waxed beautifully about science fiction, memoir, and the “painfully contemporary” James Baldwin novel whose characters are following him around.

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin (1971)

I just finished Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, a science fiction novel set in a Portland of the near future. The protagonist, Orr, is found using illicit drugs, and sent to a psychiatrist, Dr Haber, for treatment. There, he explains that he takes the drugs in order to supress dreaming. Orr wants to supress dreaming because his dreams, he claims, are “effective”: they change reality.

The novel’s gritty, neo-noirish beginnings soon transform into something fantastical, as Haber, via hypnosis, uses Orr’s dreams to drastically alter reality according to his own faux-Utopian ideals. Replete with peaceable turtle-shaped aliens, stoners, and Beatles LPs, The Lathe of Heaven has a charming and mellow undercurrent – but at its heart it has a lot to say about (male) power, ego, and idealism: not to mention a lot to say about the nature of reality!

Thank You for the Window Office by Maged Zaher (2012)

I ran a reading group series last year called PoetryxClass, and each session was led by a different poet, who would set the reading lists. In Momtaza Mehri’s group, ‘Contested Nationalism(s)’, we looked at Maged Zaher, a poet who I have returned to again and again since. Maged Zaher’s poems are simultaneously deadpan and shot-through with feeling; they feel discursive and incidental; perfectly composed yet casual. The poems in Thank You for the Window Office constantly mine what it means to write – or ‘produce’ – poetry under capitalism. They are about consumerism, work, violence, sex – and they are at once laugh-out-loud funny and deeply chilling.


Rotten Days in Late Summer by Ralf Webb is out now.

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