“Poems, for me, are like scars you don’t have to wear around.”
Rhian Elizabeth is a young writer from the Welsh valleys with a unique and gripping voice. Poignant as as it is witty, her debut novel Six Pounds Eight Ounces was released to much critical appraise by Seren in 2014. I was fortunate enough to meet Rhian when we both placed in the Terry Hetherington Young Writer’s Award earlier this year. Rhian took the time out to chat with me about her creative projects moving forward.
You’ve had a few short stories published in anthologies recently, and came second in last year’s Terry Hetherington Award. What are you working on now?
I’m working on a collection of poems called the last polar bear on earth. It’s all about being sick and being in love, which I think are two things that aren’t that different. They’re both really complex happenings that can change your life for the better and for the worse. I know it sounds weird to say that being sick can change your life for the better, but it does give you a different perspective, and that kick up the arse to get your life in order, because you have to. Hopefully people won’t find it too depressing (I’ve tried my best not to be) and if someone will read it and take something positive or helpful from it also, then that’s great.
That sounds really interesting. How does your current poetic work differ from Six Pounds Eight Ounces?
Six Pounds Eight Ounces was a novel I started writing when I was nineteen and studying at the University of Glamorgan. It began as a tiny non-fiction piece in the writer Maria Donovan’s workshop and from there I started writing more, and then it became this massive novel. I love writing. In any form. I always have and always will. But now I’m writing poetry. It’s especially great for me because I’m an extremely impatient person. When you set out with a burning idea for a novel, or even a short story, it sometimes takes weeks, months, years, for that idea to become the finished product. With a poem it’s (and I know it’s different depending on the writer) instant realisation of that initial idea. I can knock them out in moments but I will keep myself awake for nights on end fretting over story ideas, plot shapes, characters, and that’s not good for my already awful health. My novel took me six years to write and those six years weren’t fun – they were absolute anxious hell. Poems for me are quick, to the point, and aesthetically pleasing. I love them. I’m in love with poems.
Who are your poetic inspirations?
I’ll give you a list of the poets I love and wish I could be – Linda Pastan, Nikki Giovanni, Rita Dove, Elizabeth Alexander, Frank O’Hara, Louise Gluck, Gwendolyn Brooks. Lots more.
Wow, I’ll definitely have to check some of those out! Tell us a bit about your writing process.
With fiction I need complete silence to write. No music, no one around me. I’m really irritable and any little thing will put me off my stride. Once I have an idea I pretty much run with it and don’t stop until it’s finished. Then I go back, polish. Poetry needs a good notebook, a pen, a nice view, a train journey… busyness. There’s a park in Cardiff I like to sit in and write in – I’m not sure what the park is called, but it’s got a statue of John the Marquess of Bute in the middle of it, flower beds and a view of the museum, people getting on the Megabus. Then I leave the poems for a while before looking at them again and tidying them up.
It sounds like you’re talking about Friary or Gorsedd Gardens – known as the ’emo fields’ in my day!! You mentioned ill health earlier and you’ve recently been diagnosed with MS – how does that affect your work?
Practically, it’s a bit of a pain. Because I’m always tired. And sometimes my hands and fingers don’t work properly. MS mostly leaves me with problems with my legs and I write about how I’m cool with that, as long as I never lose the use of my hands because if I couldn’t write, I’d be completely lost and screwed- like the last polar bear on earth just wandering around with absolutely no clue what to do, who would also be screwed without its mate which ties in with the love stuff. But you just get on with it. Like anything that happens in your life as a writer, an artist, you draw something from it and it ultimately influences your work. MS is what I’m dealing with right now and it’s become a topic and it’s cathartic and you write about what you are going through and all that other stuff. It’s fun. I’ve done this with pretty much every experience in my life – I’ve written about it. Made something positive out of it. And being diagnosed with MS is exactly the same- I’m writing about it at the moment in the form of poetry. The funny side, the shitty side, and the positive side. Poems, for me, are like scars you don’t have to wear around.
And finally, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
I would say just don’t rush. It’s every writer’s ambition to be published, to see their work on the page, and I know from experience that you just want that to happen, and fast. But take your time. Work on your stuff. Show your stuff to people whose opinions you value. Leave it for a bit. Then go back to it. I guarantee that you’ll find something you missed the first time around. Don’t let it go out there until it’s ready – naturally, you’ll always look back on your work and be critical of it, but at least put it out there in the best shape possible and knowing you gave it all the time it deserved. (I wish someone had told me this).