FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
ELLA FREARS: I went to Goldsmiths and studied English with Creative Writing which was where I started writing properly. I was first drawn to poetry because I liked that you could absorb (short) poems in one go – on one page – I loved the feeling of grappling with a poem – underlining, circling, connecting rhymes. I loved that they had a shape and a weight. I felt poetry encapsulated much of so many different art forms – music, art, performance, narrative… and did miraculous things in very little space. I wanted to make things like that.
FAF: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
EF: While waitressing the summer after I finished my degree I applied for a scheme called Young Poet Laureate for London which was run by Spread the Word. I’d never read my poems to an audience, I’d never published a poem. I found myself on the shortlist. They took us to a house in Ipswich for a sort of poetry bootcamp – I was suddenly surrounded by brilliant poets who were serious about poetry. It was thrilling. This is where I tentatively started thinking of myself as one.
FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection mean for you?
EF: I’m giddy. I feel sick (in a good way). I’ve followed the prize excitedly for years – read the books, been in the audience for the ceremonies, crashed the after parties… to be on the list this year – wow!
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
There are so many! To name a few: Anne Carson, Gertrude Stein, Michael Donaghy, Kim Hyesoon, Selima Hill, Claudia Rankine, Sharon Olds, Wisława Szymborska, Mary Ruefle, Louise Glück…
I think a lot about that thing James Tate said: ‘I love my funny poems, but I’d rather break your heart. And if I can do both in the same poem, that’s the best.’ I’m into books and poems that are direct and take risks. Poems that deliver an emotional thump, while also flashing a smile – even if it’s from a place of intense vulnerability and almost imperceptible. I think there’s great power in levity/humour/irony.
FAF: Please tell us about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book.
EF: At the heart of Shine, Darling is a lyric essay – interwoven narratives circling around a very real near-abduction experience. Small moments of intimacy interlocking with stories about spies, death, a stalker. I wanted to write a long-form lyric poem the length and weight of a short story, with the suspense of a novel.
I’ve also spent the last five-ish years hopping from residency to residency, so every six months or so there’s been a shift in subject/focus. It wouldn’t work for everyone, but I love the process of pushing my thoughts/writing in different directions. I love a tight deadline that makes me tear up my drafts in despair.
I was in residence at a physics department writing about a spacecraft; on the number 17 bus in Southampton; with a conservation organisation writing about moss; at Tate St Ives writing about the St Ives Modernists; and spent last year researching and writing about motorway service stations between London and Cornwall.
The interesting thing for me when putting the book together was finding connections between these disparate projects and cutting/editing the poems to make the book a coherent whole.
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
EF: Read lots and widely. Always carry a notebook (or whatever you make notes on). Find a trusted reader(s) to workshop with. Go to readings or watch recordings. Take risks. Apply for things even if you don’t think you have a chance. Enjoy it.