Ellen McAteer, Poet, Interview

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.

The  Magi       

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,  
by Luing  
Seil a faint fond shadow  
embracing them both  

each made of the same stone  
and not quite fitting  
like broken jigsaw pieces  
like family  

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  



Jamie Dedes, the poet…

Died the Friday before last. I have been upset, although I did not know her in person, we communicated enough for me to know that she was a generous, kind and beautiful person. A wonderful poet.

Here is just one of her poems. She was waiting for a heart and lung transplant, and she continued to be all the great qualities.

One Lifetime After Another

one day, you’ll see, i’ll come back to hobnob
with ravens, to fly with the crows at the moment
of apple blossoms and the scent of magnolia ~
look for me winging among the white geese
in their practical formation, migrating to be here,
to keep house for you by the river …

i’ll be home in time for the bees in their slow heavy
search for nectar, when the grass unfurls, nib tipped ~
you’ll sense me as soft and fresh as a rose,
as gentle as a breeze of butterfly wings . . .

i’ll return to honor daisies in the depths of innocence,
i’ll be the raindrops rising dew-like on your brow ~
you’ll see me sliding happy down a comely jacaranda,
as feral as the wind circling the crape myrtle, you’ll
find me waiting, a small gray dove in the dovecot,
loving you, one lifetime after another.


More Neruda…

Image may contain: sky, outdoor, water and nature

·  Tonight I Can Write by Pablo Neruda

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

Write, for example, ‘The night is starry…
and the stars are blue and shiver in the distance.’

The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.

Through nights like this one I held her in my arms.
I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.

She loved me, sometimes I loved her too.
How could one not have loved her great still eyes.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.

To hear the immense night, still more immense without her.
And the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.

What does it matter that my love could not keep her.
The night is starry and she is not with me.

This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance.
My soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

My sight tries to find her as though to bring her closer.
My heart looks for her, and she is not with me.

The same night whitening the same trees.
We, of that time, are no longer the same.

I no longer love her, that’s certain, but how I loved her.
My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing.

Another’s. She will be another’s. As she was before my kisses.
Her voice, her bright body. Her infinite eyes.

I no longer love her, that’s certain, but maybe I love her.
Love is so short, forgetting is so long.

Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms
my soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer
and these the last verses that I write for her.See more


More poetry published…

A Black Boy

by Chrissie Morris Brady / July 28th, 2019

He was a black boy
His only hindrance was the colour of his skin
He dreamed dreams which were neither black nor white
Dreamed of a future that was bright

He was a black boy
Gunned by coward in the darkness of the night
He was you and I when we were young and carefree
His blood was red, not black or white

On Dissident Voice


One Voice…

by Wild Sounds Poetry