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Poet Ellen Phethean talks about her new collection Portrait of the Quince as an Older Woman

Portrait of the Quince as an Older Woman is the title poem of Ellen Phethean's new volume of poems

TOPHER MCGRILLIS Ellen Phethean whose new poetry collection is called Portrait of the Quince as an Older Woman
Ellen Phethean whose new poetry collection is called Portrait of the Quince as an Older Woman

If you have been involved in literary circles in the North East during the past 25 years, you almost certainly know of Ellen Phethean.

A prolific collaborator, facilitator, workshop leader, writer-in-residence and publisher, she has strong connections all over the place

Ellen’s work has been broadcast, produced and is in several anthologies, yet Portrait of the Quince as an Older Woman is only her second collection. Currently working on her first novel for young adults, she seems to have hit her stride.

“I feel I have given a lot of time to other people,” she says. “I am trying to concentrate on me.”

Born in London, Ellen studied drama at Lancaster University and returned briefly to the capital before addressing her “hankering to return North”.

Newcastle was chosen almost on a whim: while at Lancaster she had once accompanied a university friend home to Crook for a weekend and been taken with the North East landscape. She arrived in the city in 1978 and never left.

Following an early career working in theatre, Ellen’s activism led her to a role as an advice worker for women and young people with Gateshead Law Centre, where she was employed for nine years, setting up women’s health projects, working with refuges and running youth projects.

When friend Julia Darling asked Ellen to perform some of her (Julia’s) poetry on stage (Julia suffered from a stammer), the Poetry Virgins was born.

“It was only really when I started working with Julia that I started to think of myself as a poet,” says Ellen. “She took me seriously and I started to take myself more seriously.”

In 1992 Ellen left the law centre, but her interest in working with women and young people continued. With Julia she founded Diamond Twig, a press which was set up to encourage and promote women writers.

“We said we would publish a woman’s first poetry collection to give them a leg up the ladder,” she explains.

North East poets who started out with Diamond Twig include Angela Redman, Joan Johnson, Fiona Ritchie Walker and Kathleen Kenny. She wrote play scripts for Northumbria University’s drama department and was then appointed writer-in-residence at Seven Stories for a year, which led to her writing a young adult novel in verse, called Wall.

Then in 2005 the unthinkable happened. Two months after Julia’s death from breast cancer, Ellen’s husband, composer Keith Morris, was killed in a hit-and-run accident.

Portrait of the Quince as an Older Woman by Ellen Phethean
Portrait of the Quince as an Older Woman by Ellen Phethean

Breath, Ellen’s first poetry collection, published in 2009, records her journey through grief in the years that followed.

This spring, Ellen is involved in memorial events commemorating 10 years since the two deaths, including Rendezvous, for Julia Darling at Live Theatre (see pages 8 and 9), and a concert for Keith on June 7.

“After Breath, I felt: I’ve done all that and I have to move on; but I keep coming back to it. What I realise is that that can never be the case – we carry our life events along with us on the road. They shape us into who and what we are.”

Poems in Quince draw on the ongoing experience of life as a widow, as well as how it feels to be an older woman.

“I wouldn’t presume to say all older women feel like I do, but past a certain age you do feel a bit like wallpaper as an older woman, in a way that men don’t seem to.”

The collection reflects on a sense of loss as the last child leaves home and, with amusement, at the way young women consider their older counterparts (if they notice them at all).

Yet there is also a lightness about the collection, to be found in Ellen’s wry sense of humour and the pleasures to be found in growing older.

“For many women my age, we didn’t start getting published until we were in our forties. When we were younger, if we had partners and families, we had to put them first.

“Actually, there is something quite freeing about no longer being in the hurly-burly of the relationship world,” she says. “Now it is our time to do what we like.”

Ellen is at South Shields Central Library on May 8, Crown Street Library, Darlington, on June 3 and Gateshead Central Library on June 15 as part of Read Regional – www.readregional.com

She is also publishing poems inspired by Julia Darling on www.diamondtwig.co.uk . If you would like to submit a poem, along with a short memory of Julia, please email diamond.twig@virgin.net

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