As she prepares to release her debut poetry collection the last polar bear on earth, Rhian Elizabeth will be writing a daily blog for us across September about her work and her life, so here's an interview to get you all introduced...
There is clearly a lot going on in your poetry, what influenced you to write?
I know. It’s because there’s a lot going on in my head! What first influenced me to write in general is what still influences me to write now – it’s not any sort of influence as such, just the need to write. I’ve always written about things that I’m going through that are difficult. I’m not good at talking about my feelings so I write them down instead. In my first book I fictionalised growing up, being a teenager, the death of my father, friendships, music. This poetry collection is all about me having Multiple Sclerosis, being a mother, being gay, being in and getting over a violent relationship, making mistakes.
Where does this book fit into your career path?
I don’t have my path mapped out. If you take the answer to my first question, I guess I will just write about whatever comes next. I’m not always going to write about having MS, being a mother etc though, because that’s just boring… I’m also conscious that I don't want to be a voice representing anything. I just write about things I have been through or am going through and how I see them. So I'm not saying that what I think about these things are right or that they speak for everyone. Because they don't. I just speak for myself and half of the time I don't even know what I'm on about. Especially the MS stuff. But if people going through the same things as me find some comfort in what I write or whatever, then that's amazing.
When did you realise you wanted to be a writer? And then when did you realise you were one?
The standard response from most writers – when I was a kid. I don’t think I will think of myself as a proper writer until I actually start making some kind of living from it. Which may never happen, so I will probably always just feel like that kid with a notepad, writing about stuff she’s going through.
What's the most interesting fact about yourself?
That I am a mother. It’s not very interesting at all, I know, but I guess it surprises some people because I’m 30 and my daughter is 13, and because I never spoke about it much when I was younger because I was always kind of ashamed that I had a baby when I was a teenager and that the situation was messy, albeit the mess was created by myself. But I’m not ashamed anymore.
What is your favourite type of literature?
It changes. I like to dip in and out of fiction, poetry, short stories, non fiction. All of it.
The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett. It’s beautiful.
Which poem did you find the hardest to write, and why?
There isn’t one particular poem, but the poems I found the hardest to write were the poems about a relationship I was in that was pretty horrible. I found those hard, because I still found myself in that state of guilt and silence you’re in when someone has abused you. Afraid to say things for fear of not being believed, for fear of repercussions, feeling like you are being disloyal, the state of constantly checking yourself and your own truth, questioning whether the things that happened to you were your fault and maybe that you shouldn’t be writing about them, did I deserve it etc etc. But, as always, writing helps.
Are you currently reading anything?
No Good Brother, the new novel from Tyler Keevil. He is one of my favourite writers. That book needs to be made into a film. That Lone Ship, the debut poetry collection by Rhys Owain Williams, is a book I’ve found myself revisiting also. It’s superb.
What prompted you to begin writing poetry?
I am lucky enough to be a Hay Festival Writer at Work, part of a professional development opportunity for Welsh writers. We had a workshop with Gillian Clarke one morning. I’d never seriously considered writing poems before, but she got us writing them and I absolutely loved it, it was a good outlet and I haven’t stopped writing them since. Writing prose now feels completely alien to me.
What's your next big project?
I recently spent a month in Sweden, representing Wales at the Coracle Europe Residency. It was an amazing, life changing experience in loads of ways, so I’m going to write about that.
Can you tell me anything about your writing process?
I’m on the bus writing poems in my head, or I’m on the train or walking or swimming. I write the ideas down on paper and then I try to shape them into something that makes sense.
Where did the name of the collection come from?
'the last polar bear on earth' was the first poem I wrote in the Gillian Clarke workshop in Hay. It’s now in the collection and I think it sums up the ideas of loneliness and isolation and silence quite well. Also, I thought it would be really cool to have a polar bear on the front cover of a book.
About the book:
'Rhian Elizabeth's the last polar bear on earth is the literary equivilent of eating £500 gourmet-Tacos in a restaurant that you very much enjoy but which always feels too good for you, no matter how many times you visit. In this collection, the brutal everyday reality of so many British people (living at the bone-edge of poverty, parenting alone, struggling to date while battling a severe disability) is transformed, through humour, glitter, and wit, into exotic magnificence. Tacos originated as the food of the poor. So did paté. They've always been delicious. Rhian Elizabeth's experiences are (unfortunately) shared by many (brutally) forgotten people. Her composition and arrangement of this life are scintillating. Her palate is tuned to the flavours of rose petals, raw flesh, and lingering salt.' – Bethany W. Pope
'From motherhood to Joan Baez, internet dating to the inside of an MRI machine, Rhian Elizabeth’s moving and often witty poems cover a range of subjects. One is reminded of the work of writers like Andrew McMillan and Sharon Olds in this author’s understanding of the power of poetry to question traditional divisions between the private and the public. While this is a collection about nights out and trips to Madame Tussauds, of tenderness and joy, of being young, at its heart is a group of poems about Multiple Sclerosis – the interactions with doctors, the symptoms, the rubbish benefits system. Brave and unflinchingly honest, these are poems of the greatest importance and achievement.' – Jonathan Edwards
Some poems about being sick and being in love. two things that are one and the same.
the last polar bear on earth charts the fallout after the writer’s diagnosis with Multiple Sclerosis. The collection also covers relationships, online dating, sex, polar bears and motherhood with an honest frankness and a dry and self-depreciating humour.
Rhian Elizabeth was born in the Rhondda Valley and now lives in Cardiff. Her novel, Six Pounds Eight Ounces was shortlisted for The International Rubery Book Award and she has been a winner of The Terry Hetherington Young Writers' Award, shortlisted for The Bangor Poetry Prize and highly commended in the Disability Arts Wales poetry competition. Word Ward is a creative writing group she set up for people with long term health conditions. In 2017 she was named by the welsh agenda as one of Wales’ Rising Stars. She is a Hay Festival Writer at Work and a Coracle Europe International Literary Resident.
Author photo by Jo Mazelis