One of the first things poets are told – perhaps even before they realise they are poets – is to ‘write what you know’. Often stated by well-meaning teachers right before a classroom task begins, this is advice that encourages students to avoid the pitfalls of the elaborate and the fantastical, and instead favour the safety of their everyday, their known. Despite now sounding a little clichéd, ‘write what you know’ isn’t a bad maxim. As the poet Nigel Jenkins so adroitly said: “It may sometimes be there, but here is rarely too small a place.” There is poetry in the ordinary, and many great poems have been produced by those who are able to convey that well. However, there is also poetry to be found in the extraordinary, and especially in experiences far removed from our own.
Salacia, the debut collection of our Issue 10 guest Mari Ellis Dunning, is a book brimming with voices. Some of these belong to the poet, others are heard through her. The collection begins with a haunting persona poem told from the point of view of Gwen Ellis: the first woman hanged for witchcraft in Wales. The word ‘persona’ comes from the Latin for ‘mask’, and this is the first of many masks worn by Mari throughout the collection. We later hear from (amongst others) the 19th century ‘fasting girl’ Sarah Jacob, Curley’s unnamed wife from Of Mice and Men and the Roman goddess Salacia herself. On this issue’s podcast, Mari reveals that it wasn’t her intention to write a collection containing so many different female voices, but rather it just happened naturally: “I’m often fascinated by these different women and their stories...I just feel totally compelled to write about them.”
To suggest that Mari simply wears these masks is perhaps misleading. These are deftly-crafted personae – built upon close readings of history, literature and ancient myth – that give voice to women who have been maligned, marginalised and mistreated. However, as a teenager, the first voice Mari found through poetry was her own. Writing what only she knew allowed other people in: “Whenever anything was going on with me emotionally, [poetry] was how I would express myself. Sometimes I would show it to people, and I guess that was my way of telling them what was going on with me, what I was feeling internally.” Mari reveals that none of her teenage poems have made it into the collection, but there’s no doubt that this practice of using poetry to express the internal has continued in Salacia to great effect. This collection of poems may feel like a collaborative effort, but in reality this is due to the talent of one individual, and we’re pleased to be able to bring you three poems and a podcast conversation that reflect that.
MARI ELLIS DUNNING is a writer of poetry and fiction. She has been placed as a runner-up in the Robin Reeves Prize and twice in The Welsh Poetry Competition, and won the Terry Hetherington Award in 2016 for her short story 'Cartref'. Her first children’s book, Percy the Pompom Bear, was launched at the Abergavenny Writing Festival in 2016.
Mari's poetry has been published in several journals and anthologies, and her poem 'The Grey Mare' won the Seren Christmas Poetry Competition in 2017. Her debut poetry collection, Salacia, was published by Parthian in 2018. She currently lives in Aberystwyth.