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.

Another Country by James Baldwin (1962)

I’m sure many people will be familiar with James Baldwin’s Another Country – a big, thundering, full-pelt melodrama set in New York in the late 1950s, following a large cast of characters (among them: a singer, a writer, a saxophonist, and an actor) and their shifting, difficult relationships. I first read Baldwin’s non-fiction a few years ago, followed by his short fiction and Giovanni’s Room, but am only now getting to his big novels.

Another Country is compulsive and manic: its characters follow you around for weeks afterwards. I found its depictions of fluid sexual and romantic relationships incredibly refreshing and interesting: they seem to me so authentic, considered and unforced that they would feel ‘radical’ in mainstream fiction today – and yet this was written in 1962! The novel’s send-up of the spats and clashing egos of aspiring city writers – and its depiction of the slimy talent agent Ellis – feels painfully contemporary, too.

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!

Returning to Reims by Didier Eribon (2009)

I read Didier Eribon’s memoir Returning to Reims a few months ago, and looking back at my copy now, almost every other page has a corner folded and a passage underlined. For me, Eribon’s writing articulated things that I only knew intuitively – things about class, about self-identity, about the contortions and contradictions and loss inherent in realising social, creative, and professional aspirations.

Eribon writes about his working class upbringing in Reims, how he left for Paris and subsequently “changed” class, and his ultimate return to his hometown. Though the switching and shifting of class in Eribon’s life was very extreme, his memoir will speak to anyone who has followed that same trajectory: growing up in a smaller socially and perhaps politically conservative town, moving away to the city to ‘escape’ and ‘move up’ – and the confusions and sadness that such a dislocation can result in.

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.

Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers (1941)

Carson McCullers is a writer whose books I will always carry with me. I first read her novels and short stories in my early twenties, during a period of turbulence and loneliness. Her fiction is pre-occupied with communication, miscommunication and communion; with what is unspoken but wants to come out; with the universal human need to connect with others, and the dangers and doubts therein. About Reflections in a Golden Eye, McCullers quoted the Roman playwright, Terence, saying that “nothing human is alien to me”. Set in a peacetime army post in Georgia, the novel depicts a loose and completely unconventional love triangle. Private Williams – a voyeur – becomes obsessed with the Captain’s wife; the Captain becomes obsessed with Private Williams. The writing drifts and flows wonderfully – and then, when you least expect it, crystalises into vivid, diamond-sharp images that will haunt you forever.


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

  • Rotten Days in Late Summer



    'Impressive . . . tender, unflinching'
    'This is poetry in the grand tradition of annihiliation by desire. It's what the young are always learning, and the old, if they are wise, never forget' Anne Boyer, author of The Undying
    'Brilliant . . . heralds the arrival of a frank and vital poetic voice' Sharlene Teo, author of Ponti
    'Frank and alert . . . an important voice in British poetry' Eley Williams, author of The Liar's Dictionary
    'Direct and heart-breaking' Alex Dimitrov, author of Love and Other Poems
    'A rare thing . . . razor-sharp' Julia Copus, author of This Rare Spirit: A Life of Charlotte Mew

    In Rotten Days in Late Summer, Ralf Webb turns poetry to an examination of the textures of class, youth, adulthood and death in the working communities of the West Country, from mobile home parks, boyish factory workers and saleswomen kept on the road for days at a time, to the yearnings of young love and the complexities of masculinity.

    Alongside individual poems, three sequences predominate: a series of 'Love Stories', charting a course through the dreams, lies and salt-baked limbs of multiple relationships; 'Diagnostics', which tells the story of the death from cancer of the poet's father; and 'Treetops', a virtuosic long poem weaving together grief and mental health struggles in an attempt to come to terms with the overwhelming data of a life.

    The world of these poems is close, dangerous, lustrous and difficult: a world in which whole existences are lived in the spin of almost-inescapable fates. In searching for the light within it, this prodigious debut collection announces the arrival of a major new voice in British poetry.

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