When did you begin to write creatively?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t. I remember wining a school poetry prize when I was six, but it tended mostly to be private journal writing, more for myself than anyone else. I didn’t begin to send stuff out to magazines till I finished university, and then it was mostly short stories, and not very often!
When did you first feel able to call yourself ‘poet’?
I didn’t start developing properly as a poet, to my mind, till after I had my kids. Before that I was more of a troubadour – performed poetry, and wrote songs and short stories, some of which were published, or played on the radio. I performed at festivals, joined a band – I always preferred performing with others, and was part of various poetry collectives, among them Hammer & Tongue in Oxford. Despite some publication success, I didn’t feel I could call myself a poet properly till I had a book out with a publisher, that I could hold in my hand. Although I won a pamphlet competition in 2013, I had previously only sent it out to one publisher, who rejected it. I didn’t send it out to another till five years later! That was Red Squirrel, who accepted it immediately, though Covid delayed publication for a while as it did for so many of us.
Where do you write, do you have a process?
While I like to work and perform collaboratively, the creative process begins for me alone, and on the move. I like to walk and cycle, and travel by train and bus – I don’t drive. Travelling frees something up in me. I can’t begin good work at a desk. Took me years to discover that! While on the move I write down lines, images, thoughts, ideas, and sometimes whole poems, but it is only through working with a group that I feel out where it wants to go. So having got my first draft, I run it past a poetry group (The King’s Poets in London, named for King’s Cross, at the moment), or a teacher or mentor, (past mentors have included Rachel Long and Alexander Hutchison) for feedback and suggestions. I then edit and rewrite, again alone, taking some suggestions, rejecting others – it is not a question of accepting everything, sometimes everyone can hate a line but you still know it has to be there! You might think why it didn’t fit for others though, so the edit may end up removing some of the context. Other poets also spot errors in grammar and spelling, problems with rhythm or sound, and when a line belongs in a different poem. I might start with a working title or first line that they rightly point out then needs to be dropped or changed – often poems often only really start several lines in, and once you have got where you’re going, those first lines need cutting even if you loved them. That is where the desk comes in, though it can just as easily be a kitchen table, and frequently is in my case. The important thing is to be alone again for the edit – tough for a working mother! The work still has to be true for you alone, poems can’t be written by committee. Then I try and keep sending stuff out, and once it is published it belongs to the world again – you will be amazed at some interpretations, and delighted by others, but it is not yours any more, and you have to let it go. So a real balance of public and private, introvert and extrovert, works best for me. The myth of the genius in the attic is just that – a myth. We do like to subscribe to it though. In fact, I soon found that all the writers I admire had some kind of group, fellow-poet, or editor that they tried stuff out with before they went public with it. Lots of reshaping, hammering and polishing is necessary to make a good poem. It also needs the heat of other people. Like a forge, it is part of the process
Here are three of Ellen’s favourite poems by her hand.
A hard time we had of it -
mothers, makers, wanderers -
trying to mend broken homes
by digging into the streets
and binding the walls with ivy
while the lead was ripped from the roofs
and the floors sold from under us.
Graft not wert a lite: tidying, painting,
planting till home was grown; albayt; guriga.
We’re all from elsewhere, the water that brought us
thickening the walls of tinned-up houses.
Our children play in a junkyard wilderness
make clay of the past, dance in terracotta,
carve gypsum roses, fashion a chair by the hearth.
Found in Translation
“Oh! Look at the spider, knitting his net,” you cried
getting the alliteration, but shaking the cobwebs
out of a language you feared you would never learn.
Oh, never learn! It was as if your eyes were rinsed to childish clarity
by tears you had wept while reading me poems of Palestine;
as if your mouth made pictures, bright in primary colours
of things I had only seen in shades of Glasgow grey.
I can hear music in your voice though I struggle to understand the words
as you read me “Bitaqat huwiyya”, and the music of your language
leaks into mine, an Afro-Celt dance mix heard on the radio:
weaving webs of words linked not by sense but sound; a mother-tongue
that sounds like a mother, heard by a baby who cannot comprehend,
but feels the voice as blood in its ears, the fury, laughter, rhythm, rhyme
and my heart strings sing to the call of migration
and try to fly to a homeland which I have never seen.
Mourning in Arduaine
A cool mercury light
water pulling sky to sea
that soft grey sympathy
of rain and stone
Shuna, small and jagged
echoed, with variations,
Seil a faint fond shadow
embracing them both
each made of the same stone
and not quite fitting
like broken jigsaw pieces
each an island
holding to itself
but part of an archipelago
even when the rain
tears you from the horizon
I know you are there
I can feel the shape of your shores
through the currents that reach mine