INTERVIEW WITH ELLEN JUNE WRIGHT
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: We were drawn in by how “The Desert Where I am Lost” features themes of motherhood and nature versus nurture. What inspired you to tackle these themes?
Ellen June Wright: I’ve been writing about a woman who lived four-hundred years ago, an Angolan woman brought to America as part of the first Africans enslaved in Jamestown, Virginia 1619. After writing many poems about her, more than seventy, I was still thinking about what it means to be torn away from all the people you know and love and have to be self-possessed enough to survive in a strange place, with strange people, who have strange ways and will not let you go. I think any individual in that situation would have to find a great deal of inner strength in order to survive for any length of time. The speaker of my poem, though contemporary and free, realizes she must nurture herself because no one is coming to do that for her.
RR: Our staff loved the inclusion of iconic figures, lending to the overall theme of the piece while also acting as a way of connecting to the readers. Can you speak on how you developed this section of the piece and what it means to you?
EJW: Diahann Carroll, Maya Angelou, Nina Simone and Audre Lorde are each women who made their mark on our society as creatives, artists and thinkers. Among Black women they are iconic. Though they have passed on, they left a rich legacy of music, film, non-fiction, poetry and intellectual discourse upon which we can build. Imagine if they were family, close enough to actually shape your life, your thinking. The speaker holds them that dear to her. They’re her spiritual mothers.
RR: The language you use in the poem is incredibly visceral, and we’re struck by the contrast between the motherly and nurturing versus the dark and violent. How did you balance the images and emotions as you wrote the poem?
EJW: The poem begins with a common idea: maybe you would’ve been a different person had you had a different mother, but all the women this speaker admires are deceased. She feels as though she’s dragging around corpses—attached to them as though to a ball and chain.
She knows she has to detach herself from this desire, and names women she admires who have all passed on. The reality is, though she can learn from them, they are gone, and the emotional sustenance she needs as a creative person is not going to come from someone else. No one’s coming to save her—no one’s coming to nurture her; she’s going to have to be the woman she hoped someone else would be, whether her mother or a great literary figure. She’s going to have to love herself in a way she never thought she could. She’s going to have to find an inner strength she never knew she had because all the strong women she admires are dead. They’ve pointed the way; they’ve left her a roadmap. Now, she has to walk it.
RR: You’ve spent thirty years as a high school English teacher. How has that role influenced your life as a writer?
EJW: As an English teacher I had the opportunity to teach some of Western literature’s great works such as: The Odyssey, Antigone, Romeo and Juliet, Cyrano de Bergerac and many more. Of all those works I think The Odyssey and Greek mythology show up most in my poems in addition to African-American literature and history.
The thing about Greek mythology is since so many of us studied it in high school, it becomes a shorthand between the writer and the reader. Of course, I also adore African-American literature, history and art. They permeate the work I do. When I went to school back in the late 60s and 70s, we didn’t learn much about Black history. Now that I’m retired, I have time to explore all the interests I didn’t have time for during my previous life and those topics show up in my poems.
My first collection, Angela, is my response to learning something about Black history I didn’t know: the names of some of the Angolans who arrived in August 1619 in Jamestown, Virginia and were among the first to be enslaved in that colony. I wrote over seventy poems in response to this historical character but about whom there was not a lot of information. I really needed to explore her humanity. I imagined a life for her and kept writing until I had more poems than I ever thought I would.
RR: We’ve read that you refer to crocheting as your passion second only to writing. If you had the ability, time, and yarn, what would you crochet and why?
EJW: If I had the ability, time and yarn, I would do more of what I’m doing now. It’s very addictive. I can start a project in the morning, and eight hours later wonder where the time went. However, crocheting is a repetitive task and doing too much of it can cause problems in my hands, wrists and shoulders.
I learned to crochet, knit and sew when I was young, but crocheting was the craft I loved best. I’ve been crocheting off and on throughout my adult life as a form of creative expression. Currently, I crochet for patients in our local hospitals because I know what it’s like to be ill, and I’m grateful for the kindness shown by my medical team and by the wonderful people in my life.
Read “The Desert Where I Am Lost” by Ellen June Wright.