#Interview: Poet Ellie Rees Discusses Modest Raptures


Could you share the inspiration behind the title and its significance to the themes explored in your poems?

The title came about by accident. I discovered a competition on Twitter where the ‘prompt’ for writing was ‘Rapture’. Later I discovered the competition was actually to do with the Doors, a sixties group and Jim Morrison, but I had only read as far as ‘Rapture’. The word had religious overtones for me and all I could think of was a statue of Saint Teresa, by the sculptor, Bernini, where she is experiencing ‘Ecstasy’. Synonyms such as euphoria, exaltation and rhapsody seemed too extreme but others, such as bliss or joy were more within my experience. I wanted to write about joy, among other things so I modified my raptures with modesty!

Your collection delves into a wide range of themes and experiences. Can you tell us more about the central themes and why they resonate with you as a poet?

Poets crave an audience; need to be told what they have really written. Consciously the poet is wondering, why choose one word and not the other? What is the difference in colour or flavour between them? The poet might think that one word makes the half-rhyme in a previous line stand out or fits the rhythm of the line better. Only a reader notices how the word the poet finally chooses fits into an image cluster that permeates the whole collection.

‘Rees herself becomes a kind of collector, gathering moments and fragments of life to present to the reader. Her poems are an offering, a sharing of the beauty she has found in the world. In this sense, the poet becomes a guide, encouraging us to see the world with fresh eyes.’

Thank you Alan, that is exactly it! Even though I can see now that there are a majority of poems concerned with the passing of time and ageing.

How does the natural world influence your work and what draws you to these landscapes and particular elements?

The ‘natural world’ is where I live! It’s not exactly a wilderness but it is definitely rural. I can see the sea from my kitchen window; from there a quick walk across a field and some woods take a walker directly to the cliff path and the Bristol Chanel. Unlike my first collection, Ticking where I deep-mapped the history, archaeology and wild life of this area, Modest Raptures is not exactly about the natural world. Bare Ruined Choirs, A Walk in Winter and A Long March do have ecological concerns but in many or most, the natural world is a natural backdrop.

The poems often blend vivid imagery with deeply felt emotions. How do you approach the process of crafting such emotionally resonant poems and do you have any specific techniques or sources of inspiration?

Many of my poems arise from quite banal situations but then the ‘deeply felt’ emotions emerge and surprise me. I started Senseless as an attempt to come to terms with my anosmia, my loss of the sense of smell but quickly felt embarrassed and disguised this fact. By doing so the poem turned into a much deeper more general account of loss. A Place Where Echoes Abound was prompted by the radio playing a track from Crowded House.  We are all familiar with the way music can bring back memories and I was enveloped in the sounds and feelings of a golden time twenty years ago just before a family tragedy occurred.

‘That Spring long ago’ is the only direct reference needed.

Have you collaborated with other artists in the creation of your poetry and if so how have they influenced your work?

Not in the sense I think you mean. I write my poems on my own though since joining a local writers’ group I have loved sharing my current work with other writers and listening to their feedback.

Can you share some of your literary influences and how have they shaped your writing style?

From Gerard Manley Hopkins I learned the thrill of breaking the rules.

‘How to keep – is there any any, is there none such, nowhere
known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace, lace, latch or catch or key to keep
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty… from vanishing away’ (The Leaden Echo)

Thinking about it now this poem probably influenced my Razzle Dazzle.

From Tony Harrison I learned how to use the vernacular while writing a formal sonnet.  (Them and uz)

‘aiai, ay, ay!…stutterer Demosthenes
gob full of pebbles outshouting seas –
4 words only of mi ‘art aches and ‘Mine’s broken,
you barbarian, T.W.! He was nicely spoken.
‘Can’t have our glorious heritage done to death!’

I played the drunken porter in Macbeth.

From Emily Dickinson I learned the suggestive power of a simple – and a refusal to come to conclusions.

The Soul has Bandaged moments –

‘When too appalled to stir –
She feels some ghastly Fright come up
And stop to look at her –’When too appalled to stir –
She feels some ghastly Fright come up
And stop to look at her –’

Robert Frost taught me not to jump to conclusions! I thought he was clichéd, folksy even trite. Lines like ‘I took the road less travelled by / and that has made all the difference’ can become the poetic equivalent of a mind worm! However, in time I became jealous, curious as to how his blank verse produced such memorable lines.

How do you navigate the balance between personal experiences and creating universally relatable poems that can resonate with a broad audience?

My instinct is to use understatement.

Could you share a few personal favourite poems or ones that hold a special meaning to you and why they stand out?

Findings stands out because it has a different setting from the others. My sister and I are indoors and the discussion between us about what constitutes art is abstract. Also it has proved very popular. It seems to be people’s favourite and took me no more than ten minutes to write as we sat around the table.

Twyelyghte appeals to me as it ends quite naturally in that kitchen where many of these poems were written. I like the way the heightened language of the first two stanzas dissolves in the last one.

Razzle-Dazzle was fun to write, to up the tempo and to hunt for zzz

Dad’s Plot was called Last Pickings when it was first published. I remember every golden moment of that October day and was so pleased with the last line, ‘A single feather cruises past / as ponderous as a whale.’ I think it is one of the most sensuous of my poems.

How did you decide on the selection and arrangement of poems for this collection and what message or experience do you hope readers will take away from it as a whole?

Once Ticking had been published I just kept writing, writing about nothing in particular. It was more of a diary. So, for example when the woodpecker flew into the window after trying to come inside, I felt it needed its own story. Somehow the Ash tree got in on it too. Walking along the road on a windy day last summer, I wondered whether a blind person would be able to tell the identity of different trees from the noise they made in the wind. That became Tree Song, but only after I had spent some time standing underneath various trees with my eyes shut and trying to make notes at the same time.

I used @TopTweetTuesday as a discipline so that at least one half-decent poem was written each week and I suppose at the back of my mind the idea of writing a chap-book was stirring.

When The Broken Spine announced its inaugural chapbook competition I printed off all the previous year’s poems and spread them out on the floor. I looked for any sort of link between them, any pattern or theme and soon realised that they were seasonal. Every month of a year, with the possible exception of November gets a mention. At first this was disappointing but once I tightened it up I was pleased that it gave the collection a coherence, a structure. As for the collection exploring central themes I was only dimly aware that quite a lot of the poems were about the passing of time and ageing. Nearly all of the poems are about real events so it was the narrative I was concerned with while writing and not the more abstract themes.

There’s reference to a symbiotic relationship with the countryside. Could you elaborate on this connection and how it informs your poetry?

The short poem Throwing Shade suggests a ‘communion’ between the speaker and the yew trees though it is silent and perhaps harmful. ‘Throwing shade’ is quite sinister and is more than just an alternative to the phrase, casting a shadow. The dancing pigeons are involved with their own bloody rituals quite separate from the human observer and the negative results of human interference is noted in Bare Ruined Choirs and A Long March. At the same time the beauty of the natural world and the regularity of the seasons is still here and recorded in most of the poems.

What do you believe poetry brings to readers and the world that other forms of expression may not achieve as effectively?

Because of devices such as rhyme, alliteration, assonance etc. lines of verse are memorable. A poem is shorter than other forms of written art and therefore condensed, pithy. Certain lines tell of the human condition and tell the reader that they are not alone.

O the mind, mind has mountains, cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed…

Golden lads and girls all must / as chimneysweepers come to dust.To see a world in a grain of sand

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day

What’s left to glean on this shining day?

What advice would you give to aspiring poets who are looking to find their own voice and make an impact with their poetry?

Looking to find their own voice is one thing and for this they need to write, write and write. Looking to make an impact with their poetry is something else and needs a great deal of luck. Good luck!

Order your copy of Modest Raptures here.

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