Interviewing poet, academic and writer Shelley Tracey – Part 2

Part one of this interview is here

How do you go about producing your first collection, “Elements of Distance”?

When I first came to Northern Ireland from South Africa in the early 1990s, my writing output began to increase. This was partly to do with the fact that moving to another country as an adult is a lonely experience, and writing helped me to reflect on this experience. Writing was also a means of communication and connection. I have really appreciated the many opportunities I have had in Northern Ireland to meet and learn and work with other writers.

 In my early years here, I joined the Creative Writers Network and had several pieces in various New Belfast Community Arts Initiative publications. I also had many other poems and short stories published in national and international journals and anthologies over the years, and thought it might be an idea to produce a collection.  My collection actually took a fair while to pull together. It all came together with an award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in 2016 to support the development of a final draft. The award also included mentoring by Moyra Donaldson, whose work I really admired. That allowed me to choose which poems I wanted to include and to sharpen my writing. When it was finished, it was accepted pretty quickly by Lapwing Publications, and published in 2017.

“Elements of Distance” by Shelley Tracey

What are the key themes in the collection?

My collection explores many dimensions of the theme of ‘distances’. The most obvious one, I suppose, is about migration, the physical distance between your homeland and where you live. I also look at that through the lens of my family history.  My family is Jewish, and emigrated to South African in the 1920s and 1930s from Latvia and Lithuania. The familial link is represented through poems about my grandparents in the collection.

Elements of Distance poses questions about the impact of prejudice and discrimination. I have a poem about The Holocaust and I investigate the theme of intergenerational trauma. On the other side of the spectrum of distance, I look at elements of closeness and connection.  This is expressed in my nature poems in the collection.  I find the landscape in Northern Ireland very inspiring.

There are also ideas about language; of needing new tools of communication if you come from somewhere else?

Yes, language and how it connects and divides us is a strong theme in my book.  There is a poem about trying to explain what a guava is to someone from Northern Ireland, and that is really looking at the difficulties in communication when people come from very different cultural backgrounds and have different experience.

You also use Ekphrasis; you respond to visual art with poetry?

Yes,  I have a lifelong interest in art. I studied Art History as a minor subject in my first degree. I am also very interested in Art Therapy, and have attended many events run by NIGAT (the Northern Ireland Group for Art as Therapy). I think that visual imagery, or experiencing a piece of art, often helps unlock ideas, and brings feelings to the surface or maybe even offers a spark to the thought process which helps people write. I use a lot of images in my creative writing facilitation.  In Elements of Distance, there is a series of poems which are ‘ Self Portraits by the artist Pablo Picasso.’ I really enjoyed playing with ideas and exploring the creative process in these poems. 

I am really proud to have been involved in an ekphrastic project with the artist George Sfougaras, who wrote the book Tales from an Old Fort Town: A Personal Response to the Jewish History of Crete ( Etz Hayyim, Chania, Crete, 2018). There are ten of my poems in this book which respond to George’s paintings.

Where to now?

I have many ideas and plans, but what I have to take into account is the limitations which still face women writers. I think there is an issue for women generally and women writers particularly in that it is very hard to get your work heard, to get it published, to get women’s voices heard. I think that continues to be something that many of us are working towards – I mean, altering that balance. I recently had a poem published in a ground-breaking anthology, Bloody Amazing, which is about experiences of menstruation and  the menopause. It was really exciting  to be involved in this; the book recently won the Saboteur Award 2021 for the best anthology.

At the moment I am working on two collections; one  involves other poems I have written since Elements of  Distance. I am also including poems about Covid and experiences through the Pandemic, focusing on how we see the world and how language has shifted in response to all the changes.

I am also working on a collection called “Waiting Rooms” which stems from my experience of sexual violence in South Africa. It investigates  the relationship between trauma, recovery and creativity. This is a multi-genre collection which includes memoir, short stories, poems and some experimentation with form. I have found that writing about trauma is quite a complex process, so it  has taken quite some time to bring this all together. But at the same time I am really pleased that some of the pieces in the collection have been published or performed, and that sharing these pieces seems to be making an impact on people who have had similar experiences.

I’ve been writing a lot of haibun recently – I enjoy the combination of poetic prose and the haiku form. I was delighted to have three of my haibun accepted for The Haibun Journal.

I have my work with Community Arts Partnership and the Poetry in Motion Project which keeps me busy – as well as all of my creative writing facilitation work and other writing projects which I have been involved in.

See more information about Shelley Tracey here: shelleytracey.co.uk

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