Interview with Wendy Orr, winner of the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize (poetry category)

As we approach the publication of the summer issue of the inspiring natural parenting magazine, JUNO in which the pieces of the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize winners will appear, I’m delighted to be able to share this interview on the blog. A big thank you to Wendy for taking the time to share her thoughts on motherhood, writing, and what it means to win this prize.

Wendy Orr and daughter (photo courtesy Wendy Orr)

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I live with my husband and our 8 year old daughter Mathilda, in the beautiful East Neuk coast of Fife. I have a background as an English teacher and consultant in secondary education. Over the years, I have studied: Literature and Language, Deaf Studies, Secondary Teaching, Educational Leadership. The latter, was a Masters that I was doing whilst pregnant and completed when Mathilda was very little. Motherhood made me much more practical about “getting things done” in the spaces. Since moving back to Scotland recently, I spend most of my time taxiing Mathilda about between school, friends’ houses and activity clubs and settling us into a new home.

2. How, when and why did you first start writing?

I have always been drawn to poetry. When I was a child and half-asleep one evening, I saw my dad leave a beautiful, illustrated edition of R. L. Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses at the end of my bed (my sister got fairytales). I felt it was a magical moment and I used to copy out the poems and draw from them. My mum would sing nursery rhymes or The Beatles’ lyrics and we used to say little bedtime prayers as a child too. All of this was a kind of early poetry, for speaking aloud. I just loved the beauty of words behaving in extraordinary ways and my mother’s voice beautified words. Later, I used poetry as a type of self-consolation or working through life, a type of journal although much less systemised. I wrote with a personal purpose but without technical discipline but it became increasingly part of me and I found I wanted it to be clearer, better.

3. How often do you write?

I now write every day but this is a very recent development. I love to do it and I may only find 10 minutes here and there but I find it more and more necessary to my wellbeing and sense of fulfilment. Eavan Boland has commented on the efficiency of writing for 10 minutes – it’s amazing what you can achieve. I also try to write for an hour before everyone is awake – it’s the first thing I do if I can get away with it but I’m not a clockwork type so it’s all quite random and chancy. I like late night writing too but have to rein this in otherwise I’m useless to the world the next day!

4. What made you decide to enter the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize?

I love blogs, small presses, anything that centres on women’s writing and the experiences many women have of fitting in work and creativity with caring roles and other commitments. I found Mothers Milk Books through the Mslexia website and ordered Angela Topping’s collection, Letting Go, which explored daughterhood and grief, which chimed with a personal experience. MMB seem to highlight the experiences of bonding through breastfeeding and by coincidence, I had been working on a poem which considers this and also draws on the experience of just holding my daughter in everyday life. I saw that the competition deadline was tantalisingly close enough for me not to over-think it – so I closed my eyes and pressed send!

5. How did it feel when you’d heard that you’d won?

I was writing very early in the morning and it was still dark. I just checked my email and saw the word “winner” and “Mother’s Milk” and had this very unusual moment of dreamlike calm. I wasn’t fully awake so I had to check the message several times to make sure I hadn’t invented it. I was delighted.

It has actually become an important milestone for me because it has brought such unexpected encouragement and validation from other writers and a heightened awareness that writing which centres on motherhood and other female experiences, is very much valued. Some recent friends who are very fine, publishing poets let me know that they were already watching out for the competition results and highlighted to me the significance of such a win, for working poets. It has been a remarkably positive experience and feels all the more meaningful because the poem was about my daughter.

6. Can you tell us a little about your winning piece of writing?

The poem started off as a much shorter lullaby-like lyric for Mathilda, which she loved, about the physical experience of holding her and feeling held by her. It developed into memories of breastfeeding (which had its complications for me following neck surgery). It made me feel that we needed each other to make it work – that she was also physically supporting me with her own strength and that I was being gifted a kind of reawakening and realignment through her; a reciprocal nourishment. It made me more acutely aware of Mathilda’s emerging personhood (even as a new baby) and her power seemed to free me, in those close moments. But I couldn’t have articulated any of that until I wrote the poem.

7. Any future writing plans?

I am enjoying writing whatever comes naturally from everyday experiences and observations. I do instinctively seem to write using the imagery of the coastline and there is a kind of darkness to the way I encounter the natural world, which I want to further explore. I also write about family and want to delve a little deeper into the histories of long-gone family members who have become almost mythical in the left-behind detail and lack of detail. Collaborating with another poet or artist would really interest me too in the future. I love the idea.

8. Any tips for writers?

Read. Read as much contemporary poetry as you can get your hands on. It’s very readily accessible online and keeps the eye and ear fresh. I believe you begin to absorb and filter and appreciate what’s meaningful to you by reading a wide range. Libraries such as the Scottish Poetry Library are amazing (you can order online from there). You can also get an immeasurable amount of sustenance from poetry events and readings such as at the STAnza Poetry Festival in St Andrews, to which people travel from all over the world. I found poets there to be open, collaborative and welcoming people – it’s great fun too. Find the nearest one and immerse yourself!

Wendy’s winning poem ‘We Are Sleeping’ will first be published in the summer issue of JUNO (out June 2015) and then in the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize Anthology 2014: The Story of Us which is to be published this September.