As she releases her third collection, Blood Child, poet Eleanor Rees discusses her political incentive, celebrates the imagination and defends the role of the local poet
The streets of Liverpool are a terrain in transformation, bursting with ghost-like, aimless wanderers. A mermaid is trawling through a darkened alleyway; a barren suburban house is bleeding. The city is breathing and animate; it disguises shape-shifters and changes of an emotional, energetic and erotic kind. At least, this is how it is in the mind of Eleanor Rees.
Rees’s poetry has already attracted the attention of the literary glitterati, receiving early praise from the likes of poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and Whitbread Prize-winning poet Michael Symmons Roberts. (Rees herself has received the Eric Gregory Award and was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2007.) Her work is deeply entrenched in myth and folktale and is notable for its ability to sustain an energetic and visceral impulse; she continually teases and twists the written word to evoke new meanings and realities. Stones are reimagined as a ‘love bite’ from a ‘mountain’s mouth’ and skylights become ‘precious stones in a crown.’
When The Skinny meets up with Rees to talk about her new collection, Blood Child, there is a sense of collective melancholy in the air. Liverpool, a Labour stronghold, is just learning that the Conservative Party have won the election and, as if by providence, the skies are overcast and foreboding. Rees is surprised by the result: “The election is hugely depressing. I’m still quite in shock about it. I grew up under the last lot of Tories in Birkenhead and, in some ways, that has probably informed all of my writing ever since. That’s probably even why I became a poet, which is a slightly odd reaction, but it’s about trying to protect your own values and there aren’t a lot of spaces in our society where you can protect your own values. A personal coping mechanism, when I was younger, was to write. I wrote poetry to try and express what I felt I needed to say. That’s developed over time into something perhaps a bit more literary and complex, but essentially it’s the same motivation.”
Blood Child tracks the process of change, in all of its trifling and colossal guises, and draws on both gothic horror and fairytale tropes, though the two genres are in no way mutually exclusive. For a form often associated with younger readers and children’s literature, and some kind of Disneyesque, ‘happy-ever-after’ reverie, fairytale narratives are often rooted in extreme violence, domination and suppression.
"Writing poetry is about trying to protect your own values. There aren’t a lot of spaces in our society where you can protect your own values" – Eleanor Rees
Rees’s reliance on impersonal nouns – individuals are never named, but referred to as ‘man’, ‘child’ and ‘woman’ – is straight out of a Grimms' fairytale (and also nods to Angela Carter, whose influence on Rees’s work is palpable). Such motifs represent an attempt to “write a different version of the self,” a self that is “collective” and “communal” rather than “concerned with its own self-interest.” A later poem in the collection, The Cruel Mother, uses connotations of the ‘wicked stepmother’ role – a female caregiver without maternal feeling – to explore some deep-seated fears and anxieties of the modern world. You don’t have to look very far to see that the poem seeks to question the consequences of maltreatment and misogyny, as well as nature’s harsh transitions.
Rees doesn’t see the escape into the imagined as a retreat, but rather as a necessary path to illuminate the real. “I like descriptive language in poetry particularly,” she says. “I think that’s what poets should be doing, describing the world. Of course, there are lots of different ways to do that and you can make things up as a way to describe the world. So you make up a story, a fiction, to describe something that’s real, but there’s always a real world outside of myself that I am negotiating and enacting with and it’s that dynamic that produces the creative response.”
Indeed, across Rees’s work, this “real world” is always strongly associated with place. She has an academic interest in the role of the local poet and perceives the writer in the context of the community, rather than as an abstract, solitary figure confined to observation. The Liverpool Poets are a huge inspiration for Rees – she mentions them countless times throughout the interview and Adrian Henri is referred to in the collection’s first poem. She describes herself as “interested in the idea of the local poet and the role of the poet working in a particular context. The context defines, to some extent, what the poem is and how the poem emerges.
“I’ve been very interested in locality and environments and those interests came out of the fact that I was writing in Liverpool,” she continues. “A poet always needs an audience and they always need a place to write from. In some ways, it’s quite straightforward, but we are so used to thinking about books being somehow separate from people and from places that I thought it was worth restating that.”
The city in literature has always been a place for the aberrant other, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s monstrous double of Jekyll and Hyde to F Scott Fitzgerald’s unknowable enigma and magnum opus of excess, Jay Gatsby. Rees uses the historical depiction of the city – a place where imaginary forces are allowed to roam undisturbed and skin can be shed among the anonymity of the urban crowd – but her focus is different. In Rees’ city, nature is always intruding, a force that cannot be contained – and, unusually, the parks and grasslands of the landscape take precedence over metropolitan concrete.
What motivates Rees’s persistent return to issues of ecology and environment? Her choice is deliberate, and, ultimately, political. “It comes from the politics of the work in that environmental politics is very important to me, and one of the key issues that we need to think about,” she says. “The environment isn’t separate from human beings; human beings are natural creatures that exist within habitats. We’re not always the dominant creature. There are other forces that are as strong as we are. If there is a radical or political element to what I’m doing, that’s how it manifests.”
Rees describes poetry as a “virtual reality”; it is created in a particular place and time, but it can also produce new spaces and possibilities, ones in which past and present collide in unexpected ways and ideas do battle. “Blood Child is about changing the frame and changing the way we look at something, [which] then moves on the argument and the energy. It’s an energetic, emotional movement as much as a rational movement,” she says. Rees may be hesitant about the “bleak times” ahead, but she can be assured that there is always that alternative space, facilitated by the imagination, waiting in the balance; other realities waiting to be grabbed.