Ellen Hagan is a writer, performer, and educator. She is the author of two poetry collections: Crowned and Hemisphere, and Watch Us Rise, a YA collaboration with Renée Watson. She has a poetry collection forthcoming from Northwestern University Press in 2020 and a middle grade novel in verse from Bloomsbury in 2021. Ellen's poems and essays can be found on ESPNW, in the pages of Creative Nonfiction, Underwired Magazine, She Walks in Beauty (edited by Caroline Kennedy), Huizache, Small Batch, and Southern Sin. Ellen is the Director of the Poetry & Theatre Departments at the DreamYard Project and directs their International Poetry Exchange Program with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. She co-leads the Alice Hoffman Young Writer's Retreat at Adelphi University. A proud Kentucky writer, Ellen is a member of the Affrilachian Poets, Conjure Women, and is co-founder of the girlstory collective. She lives with her husband and daughters in New York City.
1. Who is your favorite villain, and who is your favorite protagonist in literature?
My favorite villain is Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty, because I played her in our 7th grade musical production at Bardstown Middle School in Kentucky. I really went for it too – extreme cackle, high pitched evil witch voice – it was amazing. And let’s be clear. I was not especially cool in the 7th grade, but playing that role truly helped me to stay afloat. I will forever be grateful for Maleficent.
My favorite protagonists in literature are always young women who are complicated, truth telling, nuanced, whole, brilliant, seeking and alive with the kind of energy that moves a story – the kind that makes things happen. My current favorites are: Jade Butler from Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson, Xiomara Batista from The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, & Ana Canción from Dominicana by Angie Cruz. I also love Sula and Nel from Sula by Toni Morrison. They capture a kind of intense and wild friendship – and a sense of searching for womanhood and all the ways to find it.
2. When did you know you were a writer?
I was 14 when I started to seriously keep a journal. I wrote about my emotions, my heart, my crushes, the food I ate that day, lists, bad poetry and on and on. It was my buoy through middle and high school. I returned to it to manage my feelings and figure out who I was in the world. When I was 17, I went to a program called Governor’s School for the Arts and got the chance to work with Kelly Norman Ellis and Crystal Wilkinson and it shifted my whole life. I saw that I could actually become a writer, and I was in awe of the kind of artists they were. They were also part of a community called the Affrilachian Poets (artists of color from the Appalachian mountain region), and I saw how their art informed their community and I wanted to be surrounded by people who were taking risks and trying new forms and genres – who were using art to speak back and dialogue. It set me on a path of figuring out how I could do that work as long as possible.
3. What are you currently working on?
I am currently finalizing a poetry manuscript for Northwestern University Press that will come out in the fall of 2020, and working on edits for a middle grade novel in verse that is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in winter 2021 (titles coming soon). I have a young adult book that I am hoping to find a home for soon. I am also part of an incredible writing group that sends poems to each other every April, but we have started to share more frequently, so I am carried by this beautiful group of women who give such powerful and vulnerable work to each other, so I think of that as a continuum in my writing life.
4. How has your writing process changed over the years?
It has gone through many stages. While I was getting my MFA at the New School and working with Darcey Steinke and Dani Shapiro, I was so thrilled to get the time to just write. I had a teaching job, but I was new in the city and felt a kind of energy that was fresh and unending. The group I was in class with was so awesome and we would write, share, go out, talk, scheme, plan, pitch ideas, help shape and craft. It was such a powerfully creative time for me. And then as I started my work as a teaching artist and moving through the non-profit world, my writing morphed as well. I wrote poems, plays with a group called girlstory, one woman shows, short stories, drafted a novel. I was really exploring all the ways to be an artist. I got married in my late 20’s and had two children in my 30’s, so as a new mother, my writing got focused and intense, especially because of the time that gets crunched when you have new little ones. Things have evened out since, and now in my 40’s, I feel a kind of creative drive that is new and exciting. I can’t wait to see what’s next and I am hungry for new books and creative partnerships and visions.
5. Describe your writing style in one sentence.
My writing style is funky, fast, full of energy, alive, alert, non-stop.
Five Questions, by Nicole L. Drayton. Nicole is a writer, screenwriter and independent filmmaker based in Brooklyn, NY. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Liberal Arts from The New School, and currently works for the university in the MFA in Creative Writing Program office.