OU Creative Writing MA student Ellora Sutton, winner of the 2020 Mslexia Poetry competition, talks to Sally O’Reilly, Senior Lecturer, Creative Writing.
Can you tell me about yourself and your writing? When did you first start? Do you focus on writing poetry, or do you write in other genres?
I live in the small village of Kingsley, in Hampshire, with my grandparents and aunt. I graduated with a First Class BA (Hons) in Journalism and Creative Writing from the University for the Creative Arts back in 2018, and I work in the heritage sector although I like to call myself a poet. My debut chapbook, All the Shades of Grief, was published last September by Nightingale & Sparrow, I’ve been published by Poetry News, Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal, and fourteen poems, amongst others. I’ve won the Mslexia Poetry Competition, the Poetry Society and Artlyst’s Art to Poetry Award, and I’m the first person to have won the Pre-Raphaelite Society Poetry Competition two years in a row. My main themes include art, feminism, mental health, and mythology.
I’ve always written. Some of my earliest memories are of dictating little stories to my mother for her to write down for me, before I knew how to properly hold a pen. I really got into poetry when I studied Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife at A-level, it was an absolute awakening for me. It was the first time I really experienced poetry rather than just reading it. My mother died when I was fifteen, and poetry was a vital outlet for me in terms of processing that grief – it still is. I focus my writing on poetry, I don’t have the patience for anything else! I love poetry because it really is an ‘anything goes’ kind of genre. There is total freedom in terms of form, subject, theme. I love the possibilities, the chances for surrealism. Poetry is the oldest kind of writing, but it in many ways feels (to me at least) like the most modern.
What stage are you at with the Creative Writing MA? Assuming poetry is your first genre, what is your secondary genre? Do the two genres inform each other, and in what way?
I am in my second year, and I’ve just started planning my big end-of-module project, I’m hoping to do something with trauma and Medusa. Yes, poetry is my first genre. My secondary genre, for both years, has been creative nonfiction, which has been utterly illuminating. I’d never tried creative nonfiction before, but it strikes me as quite a natural bedfellow to poetry. I’ve come to view poetry as a type of creative nonfiction, in that it often deals with the personal lived experience of the writer in creative ways. It’s been incredibly helpful as well in terms of research, a skill that I’ve carried over into my poetry.
How has the MA helped with your writing?
I live in quite a rural area, and I don’t drive, so it’s been wonderful to have such a thriving community of fellow writers and students to share my work with. It’s been very helpful, getting honest, constructive feedback on early drafts – it’s also been helpful to do the same for others, it’s sharpened my understanding of craft greatly. The MA has really pushed me to explore forms and themes I wouldn’t have otherwise thought myself capable of. For example, prose poetry had always felt beyond me. But we studied it in the second year, and it was set as an activity – the poem I first drafted for that activity, ‘A postcard on the restorative effects of sea air after a nervous breakdown’, recently won the Mslexia Poetry Competition. Prose poems have since become a bit of an obsession. Perhaps most importantly though, the MA has massively boosted my confidence in my writing.
What do you like to read? Has the MA made a difference to this? Who are your favourite poets/authors? Is there a writer you have discovered recently who you would recommend?
I have quite an eclectic taste. My big obsession is and forever will be Jane Austen – I am just coming to the end of my tenure as poet-in-residence at Jane Austen’s House. I do mostly read contemporary poetry, though, in the form of collections, pamphlets, magazines and journals. The MA has definitely widened my reading – studying creative nonfiction has ignited a love in me of biography, memoir, history, art history. It’s also made critical and craft writing feel much more accessible. Writing Poems by Peter Sansom has become my absolute bible, and I first met it through the MA.
My favourite poets include: Liz Berry, Carol Ann Duffy, Sylvia Plath, John Keats, Andrew McMillan, Ella Frears, Ella Duffy, Nina Mingya Powles, Phoebe Stuckes, Caroline Bird, Chen Chen, Ocean Vuong, Pascale Petit, Hannah Hodgson, Rachel Long, Natalie Diaz, Danez Smith, Natalie Linh Bolderston, Malika Booker – this is a very abridged list! I recently read Life Without Air by Daisy Lafarge, which absolutely blew my mind. And I’ve got to mention specifically Malika Booker’s Pepper Seed, another recent read of mine, the kind of book that stuns you as a reader and inspires you as a writer. My most prized possession is my signed copy of Carol Ann Duffy’s Collected Poems.
Where do you go from here? What would you like to achieve with your writing?
I’m currently working on a manuscript of poems looking at women’s mental health through the lens of my personal family history, which has been a very exploratory and freeing experience. I would love to find a publisher for that – that’s really my next big goal, a first collection. And completing my MA, of course! After that, I’d love to have a go at a PhD in poetry.
Congratulations, Ellora, on winning the 2020 Myslexia Poetry Competition! I was fascinated by what you said in your blog about the potential links between poetry and creative non-fiction and of your current interest in prose poetry. Given this linkage, might I recommend Anne-Marie Fyfe’s No Far Shore: Charting Unknown Waters (Seren, 2019)? I think you might enjoy it.