Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: M. J. Oliver

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

Images from Mary’s forthcoming debut to be published by Seren next year called


M. J. Oliver

was awarded 2nd prize by New Welsh Writing in 2017. Her poems have appeared in periodicals and anthologies in UK and US. Prizes won include those judged by Paul Muldoon and Ruth Padel. She edits a Poetry Newsletter promoting live poetry events in Cornwall, UK, and is chair of The Poetry Society’s Penzance Stanza Group. In January 2018 she was awarded a place on a year-long Mentoring Scheme run by the Cinnamon Press. Her debut book is to be published by Seren in September 2019.

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The Interview

1. What inspired you to write poetry?

A dark family event occurred that triggered a desire to find out who my Dad really was. He’d been dead for 25 years, but he’d always been a mystery to me. So I started to research his early life. Discovering that he’d been a Hobo in Canada during the 1930s, I took a trip across the country in his footsteps. Twelve years later, a long narrative poem emerged from my copious notes, which, rather astonishingly, Seren is going to publish, as a memoir, in September 2019. That’s how it all started.

2. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?

I was aware of the giants, but they didn’t influence me; I did what I was told at school but it didn’t penetrate – Paradise Lost at 13? I preferred taking my dog for a walk.

3. What is your daily writing routine?

While I was writing my book I worked almost all day every day. As a result, I’m told my bum muscles atrophied rather. So I’ve changed my routine now; I work all morning and in the afternoon I go for a boxing workout or swim in the sea. Luckily I live 3 minutes from the sea and 4 minutes from a friendly gym. I usually work in the evenings again. But Friday nights are sacrosanct.

4. What motivates you to write?

It was an existential force that took over my life! I was driven to tell this amazing story. I couldn’t not. And in the process, I became doubly driven; not just to tell the story, but to tell it well. That meant learning the craft to the absolute best of my ability; and reading as I’ve never read before – not just literature, but books about literature as well. Obsessed I was.

5. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

I was always most interested in stories that dealt with conflict and loss. How people survived. And maybe thrived. It’s still those issues that fascinate me most.

6. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

Contemporary women poets do it for me. Plath and Akhmatova of course (they’re still alive for me). Penelope Shuttle. Katrina Naomi. Pascale Petit. Pam Zinnemann-Hope.  Nancy Mattson. Sharon Olds, Jenny Lewis. Eliza Kentbridge.  I’ve learned from them how to write fiercely about being alive. Twentieth century prose writers influence me too: where to start? Margaret Attwood, Sinclair Ross, Lydia Davies, David Stouck, John Steinbeck, John Williams, Richard Ford, William Maxwell, Nabokov , Steinbeck, Alice Munroe.  Where to stop?

9. Why do you write?

I find it thrilling, and essential for my sanity actually, to make something creative out of my experiences; to give carefully constructed form to some of the trickier aspects of life. My training was in the visual arts. I found it stimulating teaching Fine Art at degree level, but what I loved most was going into prisons; we’d start by scribbling to music, with charcoal onto large sheets of paper; then we’d look at the scribbles, turn them round and round and slowly develop them, using a rubber and more charcoal, into something amazing – always amazing.  See these examples, by people with no art training: they’d never drawn before.

Wow. When I retired from art teaching I switched to writing, and discovered how similar the two processes are. Fundamentally, you have to make the thing work. And that struggle, I really enjoy, I love getting my teeth into it.

10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

I believe everyone’s life experience is interesting, but not everyone has the time or opportunity to reflect on it. First you have to feel driven, then you study the craft. You need to be prepared to spend a lot of time alone. You have learn to self-edit, ruthlessly. You need to listen to feedback. Groups like Penzance Stanza have been valuable sources of feedback for me. And I’d say, ‘look at all the fabulous examples there are; they’re even free from libraries’.

11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

For fresh ideas and new work, I attend as many workshops and poetry festivals as I can. Cornwall is alive with them – and I promote them via an online newsletter of Poetry Events in Cornwall. As a visual artist, I did a lot of collaborative work. This example was made by my mother, my daughters and myself, a light box combining text and image. It’s called Consequences. Soon I’m hoping to start a collaborative writing project.


Meanwhile, I run a small reading group for people keen to get to grips with the likes of Anne Carson’s Float. And, on the advice of my editor, I’ve signed up to Twitter. I find it frustratingly difficult to comprehend, but in my darkest moments I tell myself, if Trump can do it, surely I can.


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