Author Q & A with Ellen June Wright
by Christine Nessler
May 18, 2023
This week’s Author Q&A is with Ellen June Wright. Wright was born in Bedford, England but currently lives in New Jersey. Her poems have appeared in the Naugatuck River Review, New York Quarterly, Plume, Atlanta Review, Solstice, Tar River Poetry, Paterson Literary Review, Gordon Square Review, The South Carolina Review, Obsidian, Caribbean Writer and Tulsa Review. She’s also a repeat contributor here at TGLR and her poem, What They Carried With Them, is available in Issue #6.
Ellen June is a Cave Canem and Hurston/Wright alumna. She received six Pushcart Prize nominations between 2021 and 2022. When she is not writing, she enjoys crocheting, swimming and watching British crime dramas. You may follow her on https://twitter.com/EllenJuneWrites and https://www.instagram.com/ellenjunewrites/
Wright’s poem, I Remember Good Days, is featured in Issue #11 of The Good Life Review.
Tell us about yourself.
My Jamaican mother and I came to the States from England in the spring of 1968. She had every intention of creating a new life for herself in her new country. I was five going on six and had a front row seat to her tenacious effort to eventually bring all her children together and give them an opportunity to make lives for themselves in America.
What inspired you to write I Remember Good Days?
The challenge for Black writers to write poems of joy because we are more than our trauma.
What message do you hope reaches your audience through I Remember Good Days?
It’s not a message poem. It’s just a memory of a beautiful day by the river and a single mom trying to give her kids a picnic afternoon out. We choose what we hold onto. You can spend all your time remembering things that wounded you, or you can spend your time remembering joy and things that made you happy, even if they were few and far between. Your focus is your choice. For my mental health, I’m choosing to remember the good days.
What impacted you most when writing it?
It’s easy to remember the pain of growing up, but I wanted to make myself remember the good times. The trip, on a weekend afternoon, to the Hudson River picnic area is a delightful memory, and that’s what I tried to capture.
Tell us about the work you have done or do that makes you most proud.
Years ago, I challenged myself to write one-thousand poems before deciding if I was a poet. I don’t think I’ve reached that number yet, but I’ve written a lot during the pandemic and have had the fortune to publish close to one-hundred-fifty pieces. I also completed two manuscripts: one in response to the NY Times 1619 Project and a woman called Angela who was among the first Africans enslaved in Jamestown, Virginia. I spent a year and a half thinking about this woman and what her life might have been, and I’ve completed seventy poems in memory of her. I hope to find a publisher this year.
What is your writing process? How do you make it a part of your daily life?
I often begin my day reading my favorite online poetry journals. I read until a particular poem speaks to me or sparks in me the impetus to create a new poem. It could be a word, phrase or line that sparks the beginning of a poem. I honor that impetus and try to capture whatever it is I’m feeling in response to what I’ve read. It’s also a way of never having writer’s block. If I can’t think of something on my own, I have a universe of poems that inspires me on any given day. I also have a trove of unpublished poems written over the last thirty years that I revise periodically.
How has your previous experience as a teacher impacted the way you write?
Many of the books that I taught over my thirty-three year career as a language arts instructor influence my poetry; particularly Romeo and Juliet, The Odyssey and Greek mythology in general permeate my poems. As a language arts instructor, I wanted to teach students how to write clearly and effectively; that also is a big influence on how I write poetry. I tend to say what I mean.
What is your favorite type of poetry to write?
I write about nature, eco-poems, history, African-American life, my mother’s life, coming of age, ekphrasis and ars poetica to name a few.
How has writing poetry impacted your life?
I began writing poetry in junior high school in my creative writing class, and I think it was the first time I felt I had a talent. I don’t think before that I had found anything unique about myself as a student or person, but my creative writing teacher seemed to enjoy my poems, and that made me want to write more. I found it was something that came naturally to me, and her response was affirming where there wasn’t much else that affirmed my humanity.
What part of the artistic process do you consider to be the most difficult, as well as most satisfying, and why?
My poems tend to be short, a page or less. My challenges as a writer are writing longer pieces, pieces that extend the metaphor or carry the narrative for a longer duration. Another challenge is creating new or unique metaphors. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of repeating something that you’ve read, heard or seen before. The most satisfying part of the writing process is surprising myself with poems I never knew I had in me. I also like trying forms that are new to me and exploring topics that aren’t always associated with Black writers. And like Jericho Brown’s duplex, I would like to create an original poetic form one day.
What advice can you give to beginning writers?
Write because you have to. Write because it feeds some starving part of you. Write because you want to be the best writer you can be. Write because if you didn’t, you wouldn’t be your truest self. Then try to write on a regular basis and study with the best writers you can. Major poets often lead workshops and classes. If you can’t afford to take workshops or classes then make each poem that speaks to you a class unto itself; study its structure, its tone, its syntax, its word choice. Then write your own version and do that as often as possible. I’m not in an MFA program, but every poem I read has the potential to become a prompt and teach me something about writing that I need to learn.
What do you think of when you hear the phrase, “The Good Life?”
Every day I wake up I have a chance to create the life I want.
Thank you, Ellen, for participating in this Q&A and for your continued support of our journal. We wish you the best!!