Hello Elisabeth, it’s lovely to meet you. Can I start by asking about the foundations of your early writing inspirations? Who inspired you during your youth and adolescent years, and also can you see any aspects of your literary heroes within your own writing?
Hello, Kev, lovely to meet you too. Thank you for taking the time to interview me.
The foundations of my early writing inspirations have to be fairy tales! At a young age, I read many traditional British fairy tales, such as the two volumes collated by Amabel Williams-Ellis. Like many myths and legends, these offered an alternative explanation for events, happenings, geography, etc. and inspired my imagination. I was particularly drawn to the opposite forces at play: how the darker side was a constant threat, undermining any sentimentality in the tale.
Also, from the age of nine or ten, I read many of my mother’s paperbacks – typical pulp horror stories from the 1960s and ’70s, such as the Pan Books. I think the cover art – feral cats and zombies – drew me to these books. Ever the rebel, I probably felt as though I was reading something I shouldn’t.
My mother was (is) also a huge fan of Daphne Du Maurier. Novels such as Jamaica Inn and Rebecca have definitely influenced my poetry, and the synopses of these two novels have parallels with my own life. My father died when I was a baby and shortly thereafter my mother moved in with a man who was very domineering – I grew up believing he was my biological father.
As such, the fairy tales, the Pan Books and the Du Maurier novels showed me early on that writers let their imaginations take them into very dark places sometimes and that it is okay to allow that to happen – although for me it feels uncomfortable at times. In a way, this echoes what Don Paterson says when he remarks, ‘Write about whatever you’re avoiding writing about. There are dragons guarding all the good stuff.’
From reading a selection of your poems, I am immediately struck by the breadth of the topics covered – ranging from conversations based on historical characters (‘Grazini’s Hourglass’), to personal memories (‘My Father’s Coat’ & ‘1979’), fantasy fairy-tales and much more. Is there one particular poetical genre that ‘calls’ to you most, or are you more focused on producing creative writing with a wide scope of feelings, topics and emotions?
I like to experiment with poetry. Several of my poems in my pamphlet and debut collection correspond to the three-part lyric poem principle and are narrative. I’ve heard that there is a movement against the lyric poem by some feminists; I consider myself a feminist, but don’t have an issue with writing lyric poems (in a non-ironical way). I grew up in a violent household with a domineering stepfather – just because I’ve written about him, this does not mean I’m celebrating what he did.
I’m also writing a sequence, possibly a second pamphlet, of poems inspired by the Bauhaus and titled, ‘Form Without Ornament’. You might define these as more experimental, minimalist and loosely ekphrastic pieces.
I read a lot of contemporary US poetry and am in complete awe of poets such as Robin Coste Lewis, Rickey Laurentis and Aracelis Girmay – the way they take the page and are not afraid to own the words they put on it. Thinking of contemporary UK poets – Andrew McMillan’s poetry has a similar effect on me.
Thank you, I’m now immediately researching ‘ekphrastic’ poetry; a term I’ve not heard of but which appears fascinating. Speaking of inspiration, do you utilise a specific pattern of planning before writing, Elisabeth, or is it a much freer and flowing process that creates your poetry?
I’ve become a bit of a workshop junkie of late, and the seeds of many of my poems were planted in workshop sessions. On occasion, I do sit down and plan a poem or its premise, but this is after the inspirational idea – what my mentor, Mona Arshi, explains is le vers donne (from Baudelaire) – has already come to me. Similarly, even with ‘gift poems,’ those that unfold themselves easily and quickly, there is a process of editing and sharpening – le vers calcule.
You’ve travelled across the globe and lived in several continents. How much affect do you think this has had upon your writing style? In your view, has experiencing different countries and cultures enhanced your own creative abilities?
Certainly, living in different countries changed my outlook. For instance, when I first went to Indonesia (in 1995), there were of course very few people there who looked like me, and I was pointed at and/or photographed in the street. This was a new experience for me, and I began to question my knowledge and beliefs. I visited the colonial section of Jakarta and began to think about the way in which Western history has continually asserted itself as superior to all others, through cartography (the Mercator projection, for example) and other processes. When I returned to the UK, I became interested in post-colonialism and spent the next decade studying and writing academically about various aspects of postcolonial theory.
Similarly, when I lived and studied in Iceland, I learned that the Icelanders who emigrated to Canada were subject to being called ‘white Inuit’ by British and French settlers and that there was a hierarchy of settler races in Canada, with white British and French considered superior to all others.
More recently, I was fortunate enough to live in Fresno, California, the city where former U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine taught and spent the latter years of his life. Due to the fact that Levine ran the MFA programme at Fresno State University, even after he had retired, there was a thriving poetry scene in Fresno. Poetry had found its way from the university and independent cafes to the everyday – I lived a block away from my public library, and there were rows dedicated to poetry in there, as well as several readings. I discovered the works of several wonderful poets in my local library – poets such as Ada Limon – whom I might never have come across.
In terms of how you write, could you share with our readers how you usually put words down? Does this involve notebooks and pens/pencils, or are you someone who feels the need to write on a word processor, or perhaps using some other form of modern technology?
I love notebooks. I fill them quickly and so am always in places like Papercase. I also only write in pencil with an eraser on the end. Typing up is the final stage of the process for me. I like the rhythm of writing, the cursive flow on the page – it helps with the music of the poem somehow: the breaths, the line-breaks, the momentum, etc.
When I visited Sri Lanka, I learned that Sanskrit poets would write on palm leaves. There’s something very organic and beautiful about that idea – writing on actual leaves.
To follow on from about how you write, could you share with our readers something about where your writing process takes place, Elisabeth? Is there one specific location that you visit daily/nightly in order to get the words down? Or is the process more random in nature?
I find that motion helps with the writing process – Ian Duhig told me that he writes on buses! For me, it’s trains. Some of my strongest poems have been written on the Great Northern line!
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with our readers, Elisabeth! It’s always a pleasure to read poetry that moves the soul and excites the senses. I’d like to end by asking you how you think your poetry has changed over the last few years (especially since the influences of university), also what creative plans you have for the rest of this year and 2017.
I feel it’s very important for me as a writer to keep reading contemporary poetry and understand what is happening with poetry around the world, as well as how it fits with, or works against, what went before. I’ve just read a poem in a sequence by Robin Coste Lewis, for instance, that lists thirteen statuettes of black women, such as ‘Venus of Willendorf’, and ends with the parenthetical statement ‘thirteen ways of looking at a black girl.’ This poem gains added meaning when considering the racially-charged titles of Wallace Stevens’s poetry.
I am proof-reading my pamphlet Glass at present (with my editor Ellie Danak), ready for publication in August, as well as polishing my debut collection manuscript, which is fifty or so pages long. I am also working on ‘Form without Ornament’, which might possibly be a second pamphlet.
For further information, please visit: Elisabeth’s website