WOMANHOOD, ageing, bigamy, loss and exotic fruit are just a few of the topics which will feature in a upcoming poetry evening with two popular North-East poets in Hexham.

Ellen Phethean and Joan Johnston are the latest writers to perform at the Queen’s Hall’s seasonal spoken word poetry evenings called Free Flowing Words.

Ellen and Joan first met in the 80s, through a women’s poetry group in Newcastle, which was designed to be accessible for creative mothers, by setting up a creche offering childcare. Both Ellen and Joan brought their young children along.

Throughout the history of poetry, women have been compared to many things, but Ellen Phethean just might be the first to compare the gentler sex to a quince in her collection Portrait of the Quince as an Older Woman.

Ellen was first introduced to the quince whilst she was ‘woofing’, or fruit picking, on an organic farm in Dordogne in the South of France, which she had escaped too after being made redundant from her job.

“The quince was this bizarre, old-fashioned and hardy, fruit which no one has heard of, and it isn’t until you soften it down in a pan, and give it that time to simmer, that you see its worth because its delicious – if you are willing to see past your first impression of it.

“As an older woman myself, it struck me as being symbolic of my own experiences of ageing. You suddenly feel as though society has forgotten about you.

“That’s why I wanted to praise the extraordinary quince, and therefore the extraordinary older women.”

Ellen has been involved with the North-East literary circle since she and her close friend and fellow poet Julia Darling formed the women’s performance group the Poetry Virgins in the 80s with Kay Hepplewhite, Fiona MacPherson and Charlie Hardwick.

“We were all new to performing spoken word poetry so Julia coined us poetry virgins, and the name just stuck,” said Ellen.

“Back in the early days, Julia had a stutter which made her incredibly nervous to go on stage alone.

“So it was decided that she would be joined by myself – I was an actress at the time – and some of our other acting buddies, and we would make it a collective performance.”

In 1992, Ellen and Julia launched the small press house Diamond Twig together, which aimed to publish the writing of women in the North, which the two felt was vastly unrepresented in the literary market.

“Our ethos was always women supporting other women,” said Ellen.

“Lots of strong female writers are breaking through into the industry now, but back in the early 90s, male writers still dominated the market, the school and university syllabuses, and award ceremonies.

“Me and Julia wanted to provide a leg up the ladder for women writers.”

In 2005, Ellen’s life changed forever.

Julia lost her long battle with breast cancer, and only two months after her death, Ellen’s husband Keith Morris was killed in a hit-and-run accident in Newcastle.

“It obviously had a long lasting effect on me and my family,” said Ellen.

“And it was during that dark time that I fond solace in writing. It became a coping mechanism and a way for me to structure my thoughts.”

These therapeutic poems later built up to become her first anthology Breath, published in 2009.

“They focus around grief naturally, but also the how we must pick ourselves up and carry on eventually, because life doesn’t simply just stop.”

Ellen threw herself into writing, got herself published and enrolled into the MA course to study creative writing in the years following the tragedies.

Since Julia’s death, Ellen has also dedicated a page on Diamond Twig website, which publishes poems inspired or dedicated to Julia.

Over a decade later, she still receives submissions from poets across the world who either knew Julia personally, or who were touched in some way by her work.

Along with her two published poetry anthologies, Ellen also has two young adult novels Hom and Wall, both of which focus on the lives of troubled teenagers growing up in the West End of Newcastle.

Joan Johnston for the last 25 years has devoted her life to running writing workshops in hospitals, schools, women’s groups, psychiatric hospitals, care homes, prisons.

“Everyone has a story, and everyone has something to say,” she said. “And poetry provides them with that platform.

“It provides an emotional outlet, where suddenly things they’ve bottled up come to light through their writing, like a tap which has been turned on.

“Only then are those feelings finally acknowledged, and then action can be taken.”

Many of the students who Joan works with in these projects have previously had little interest or knowledge in poetry, and therefore Joan hopes to introduce them to the medium by finding a connection between themselves and a particular collection or poet.

“Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Byron are all great poets, but they are complex and speak in different tongues, making their work inaccessible to many young people in schools,” said Joan.

“I always try to bring poetry along to workshops which I feel the students might be able to appreciate, such as poems which address issues which they might be able to relate to.

“It can really help to demystify the concept of poetry for them.”

Joan published her first collection What You Want in 1998 under Diamond Twig, with the support and encouragement of Julia and Ellen.

Along with being awarded the Hawthornden Writing Fellowship, Joan has since released the collections About the Time, Orange for the Sun and The Daredevil: Scenes from a Bigamist Marriage, which is inspired by her life growing up with a father who was a bigamist, and her mother’s marriage to him.

“Since I was 13 I’ve been writing about absolutely anything,” she said.

“I find that it helps to me process how I feel about the things around me, and sometimes I surprise myself with what emotions come out onto the page.”

Free Flowing Words will take place on Thursday, February 7 at 7pm at Hexham Library.

Tickets can be purchased online at https://www.queenshall.co.uk/events/free-flowing-words or from the theatre box office.