Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Mari Ellis Dunning

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.

Dunning

Mari Ellis Dunning

is an award winning Welsh writer of poetry, short stories and children’s books. Her debut children’s book was launched at the Abergavenny Writing Festival in 2016 and her debut poetry collection, Salacia, launched in October 2018 with Parthian Books. It was shortlisted for the Wales Book of the Year award in 2019. Mari lives in Llan-non with her husband and their dog. The coast is hugely important to her writing and wellbeing. She tweets at @mariiellis.

https://mariellisdunning.cymru

The Interview

1. What inspired you to write poetry?

I’ve always had a love of language and have been writing poetry since childhood. When I reached adolescence, I began to use poetry as a means of navigating the spaces around me. I’ve always suffered with my mental health, particularly during my teenage years, and I found poetry was a way to communicate. It still helps me now.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

I’m really not sure. I’ve always been a big reader, and I remember I had a book of children’s poetry when I was younger. I wrote a ‘collection’ for my grandmother when she was ill, and used that book to find ideas and rhymes – I was six at the time. Then in school, I studied John Donne and enjoyed that. My teacher at AS Level gave me a copy of Sylvia Plath’s collected poems – that was really the beginning of something for me.

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

When I was a child, I wasn’t really aware of any poets in the way I was of authors like JK Rowling, Lemony Snicket and Jill Murphy. We studied the older poets like Seamus Heaney, John Donne and Wordsworth in secondary school, but it was coming across Plath that really got to me. The presence of Dylan Thomas is certainly dominating in Wales, which was made particularly evident when I lived for a few years in Swansea. Thomas’ work has obviously been massively influential for many contemporary writers, lyricists and musicians, (Bob Dylan famously took his name from the Welsh poet,) but I think we need to facilitate more space for new, unheard voices in literature, particularly in Wales.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

We’ve recently bought a house on the coast in Llan-non, which is breathtakingly beautiful and brilliant inspiration for writing. I tend to walk the dog along the coastal paths each morning, then come back to settle down with a coffee and put pen to paper. I’m working on a collaborative collection of poetry at the moment, as well as a collection of surreal short stories, and I’m finding the landscape so stimulating.

5. What motivates you to write?

People and their stories motivate me. I tend to write when I come across a story that won’t let me go. For example, I’m working on a poem at the moment about a pregnant woman who was charged in the death of her unborn baby having been attacked. That kind of event is so bizarre, and so heartbreaking, working through it in poetry is the only way I feel I can process it and share it.

6. What is your work ethic?

It varies from day to day! Sometimes I’m fully motivated and rearing to go, and on other days I just want to stay in my pyjamas and cwtsh the dog. I work freelance running creative writing workshops, writing blog posts and book reviews, and editing content for magazines, amongst other things, so I have to be careful with my time-keeping. It suits me really well, as it means I’m doing work I enjoy, mostly from home, while also having plenty of time to focus on my creative writing, but I do have to schedule my workload well to ensure I protect space to work on my poems and stories.

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

I loved the Harry Potter books growing up, and I suppose JK Rowling’s use of mythology and magic has stayed with me, (my debut poetry collection, Salacia, is named for the Roman goddess of the sea.) My favourite series was The Worst Witch, by Jill Murphy – I had all the books and audio tapes. I’m still fascinated by magic and witchcraft today, and still hope I’ll learn to fly eventually! In fact, my PhD centres on witchcraft. I believe reading through childhood has a huge impact on us later in life – stories are vital to help children understand the world, and escape from it. From fairy tales to books like A Series of Unfortunate Events, we learn about morals, ethics and what it means to be a ‘good person.’

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

There are so many contemporary writers that I admire, across fiction, poetry and non-fiction. Carolyn Smart’s Careen has been an inspirational source for one of my future projects, (writing about Christine Keeler as part of the ‘Dear Christine’ exhibit); Daisy Johnson’s short stories and novel astound me with each re-read; Rebecca Goss is one of my favourite poets, writing with honesty and grace about such difficult and personal topics. Poets across Wales, like Rhiannon Hooson, Natalie Holborrow and Christina Thatcher, are definitely worth reading. Zoe Brigley’s poetry is breathtaking and timely, as is her non-fiction – she has an essay collection coming soon with Parthian.

9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

Honestly, I think it comes down to not being able to not-write. There are other things I’m interested in, and could potentially have pursued a career in, but if I wasn’t writing professionally, I’d still be writing in my own time. There are poems and stories that come to me and won’t leave me alone until I put them on paper.

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

Primarily, you need to write. Nothing happens if you don’t show up, pull out a notebook, and write. Personally, I’ve found more and more over time that this comes down to allowing yourself permission to do that, to consider yourself a writer and to afford yourself the time and space to write. My time at Hay Festival this year really made that clear to me. It’s always worth submitting your work to competitions, anthologies and magazines – agents and publishers will sometimes become aware of you that way. Once you’ve got a body of work ready, have an honest group of beta readers feedback to you, then send it out, to as many publishers and agents as you can. (Just do your research first, to make sure your work is the sort of thing they’re looking for. Mslexia’s Indie Press Guide is a brilliant resource for this.)

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

I’m working on a pamphlet of poetry with Natalie Ann Holborrow, (And Suddenly You Find Yourself, Parthian.) We both enjoy writing about marginalised characters, particularly female, so we’re putting together a pamphlet of poetry filled with conversations between two characters. We started with Gothel and Rapunzel, and are planning on including pairings from Greek and Roman mythology, fiction and more fairy tales. I’m also working on a collection of short stories, as part of a Literature Wales mentorship scheme. The stories are all surreal – a woman falls in love with the moon; a man attends a party where the other guests are hyenas; a young girl dates a crocodile; mermaids emerge from the sea once a year to steal the eyesight of sailors. I’m really having fun with it and enjoying writing the stories, which I think is important.

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