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No. 12 - Collecting Emotions with Poet Elizabeth M. Castillo
Because I Love To Interview My Friends
This week’s guest is the amazing Elizabeth M. Castillo, a Pushcart Prize-nominated poet, essayist and fiction writer of British-Mauritian descent, currently residing in Paris with her family and a pair of cats, and celebrating the impending release of her new chapbook, Not Quite an Ocean.
This is a formal introduction pulled straight from her website. But here are a few tidbits you won’t find there: EMC, as I’m fond of calling her, is one of my earliest and dearest writing friends, and she’s the first stranger who ever read my writing. She’s been promoting indie writers and publications for years, and she’s been a champion of my writing since the very early days, believing in me even when I didn’t. EMC is such a positive influence on everything she touches. I’m very pleased we got to catch up and SO excited for y’all to meet her.
Hey, EMC. It’s been a while since we last talked. What have you been up to, writing-wise, this year?
Hi Andrei/Andrew, thanks for having me! It’s a pleasure to be talking to you, after a bit of an extended social media break that I’m only sort of worming my way out of now.
Writing-wise things have been fairly calm, as compared to other times. As an indie writer there’s a lot of hustling to be done to get work out there—submissions, networking, building an online presence etc. I decided to take a step back from all that and really focus on creating pieces of writing that I was proud of, even if that meant having fewer publications and less of a media presence. I went through my notes app for all the fragments of poetry I had noted down and worked my way through them methodically. Some became new pieces, others were absorbed into poems I wasn’t quite happy with. I actually managed to glean some good stuff, and shape it into some work I’m quite proud of!
I also completed two of my indie author interview series, which were great fun, but took a lot of creative bandwidth. So now I’m working my way through reading some recent indie releases of both poetry and short fiction. The end goal is to write up some reviews, which are always a boost for authors and booksellers, but it also allows me to consume more poetry regularly, and outside of the writers I usually read, which will hopefully help me improve my own craft.
I’ve also been invited to run a few in-person workshops, so I’ve been preparing for those. I’m a self-taught artist, which some people look down on, but it is very useful when it comes to being able to guide other writers through the creative process. I’m a teacher by trade, and at heart, so I’m thrilled about adding more of a teaching element to my creative practice.
But mostly I’ve been working on my chapbook Not Quite An Ocean, that’s coming out with Nine Pens Press, a fantastic UK publisher. It’s out in the next few months. It’s an exciting experience—putting the poems together, working out common themes or complementary elements in each piece, reaching out to other creative platforms for partnership and promotion. I can’t wait for this book to be out in the world!
You’re a homeschooling mom, with two young daughters and two cats, and no doubt many other responsibilities besides. Yet you still find time to champion new writers on Twitter and on your blog, and you’ve previously stated you work on multiple writing projects at once. How do you make time for all that?
It sounds like a lot when you list it all out like that! I also own a small language services business that I’m expanding, I teach part-time, and do a bit of charity work, but I’m pretty sure the answer to your question is (as of yet undiagnosed) ADHD.
The truth is, I’m only fairly good at a few things, but I am SO very interested in many, many things, and so I guess I try not to let my middling ability stop me from pursuing something that sparks my interest. I love to garden, embroider, coach amateur theatre, make stationery and jewelry that I sell at craft fairs and for the charities I support, but I can’t do all these things at once, so I rotate them. The same applies to writing— when the poetry isn’t flowing, I dip into short fiction. When I hit a wall, I start to map out a part of my Victorian novel retelling, or write a paragraph or two. If I don’t have the headspace for that, I’ll do some research for one of the children’s series I’m working on.
The concept isn’t new. In fact, I learned there was a name for what I do during a workshop with other writers who are also mothers (run by Nikki Dudley at MumWrite). Another fab poet, Ruth Callaghan do Valle, brought up Joni Mitchell and her practice of artistic “crop rotation,” which is what I do, just with more chaos and child-related sleep deprivation.
That being said, there are choices to be made. Indie creatives don’t usually have the luxury of having agents, publicists, or huge marketing budgets to promote their work, so we have to hustle. I’ve come to the point where I do need to be mindful and intentional about where I spend my energy. Is an hour of scheduling social media posts promoting my latest publication better spent than an hour drafting an essay, or educating myself on a new poetry form? Probably not. But the social media has to get done too, so it’s all a bit of a juggling act really.
Primal feelings like love, loss, grief, anger, and fear are at the core of your writing. When it comes to capturing a powerful emotion faithfully on the page, is it better to write when in the throes of it, or from a calmer place, after the emotion has passed?
My first book, Cajoncito, is full of these themes, though I’ve moved away from them somewhat in the poems that followed. The word cajoncito means drawer or little box, and in my fanciful mind the book really is a container in which I tidied away all the pain and hurt I didn’t really need to feel or address anymore, with some exceptions.
Many of the poems in the collection were written through tears and clenched teeth, but a considerable amount of time and editing went into them before they were anywhere close to being ready for publication. The poems that received the most positive feedback were definitely those that underwent the least editing—that framed the rawest version of the emotion, which was interesting. But my personal favourites were poems that, although written, as you put it, in the throes (or recent aftermath) of the event, weathered the emotion passing and retained their merit as good poetry.
But ultimately, individual poems are like fraternal siblings. Though they might share the same DNA, no two are ever exactly the same. No two are ever conceived in the same way.
What would you say to someone who wants to write about a painful past experience, but is too afraid of reopening old wounds?
One of my most popular workshops so far is on “Writing What Hurts: Packaging Pain into Poetry and Prose.” In fact, I’m running a day-long session in Geneva later this month, so my head is buzzing with ways to address this sort of question.
By nature I’m more of a write-’til-your-fingers-outbleed-your-broken-heart type of writer, but for those to whom the exercise seems daunting, I believe the key really is in the “packaging” of the pain. In some instances it’s helpful to reposition yourself in regards to the pain—zoom in on a tiny part of it; write it from someone else’s perspective; stretch it out as far as it goes and write your way back from that furthermost point. In other cases, approaching pain from a playful, even humorous angle can help—find the ridiculous; exaggerate the ironic. Adding a visual element to a piece of writing can also help—playing with size, shape, font and white space can give the writer an added layer of control over the experience they’re writing about.
Ultimately I would encourage any writer who felt inspired to write about a painful experience to persevere, however long the process might take. It can be very cathartic, and one of my greatest satisfactions is when I come across a poem of mine that was written in great anguish, but now appeals to me on its literary merit alone.
Reading your poems and prose isn’t always comfortable. You write about heartbreak, betrayal, discrimination, miscarriage, and death, often inspired by your own experiences. When exploring such intimate topics, do you ever feel the need to balance being honest with your reader and not disclosing too much information?
I think I’ve garnered a bit of a reputation for pulling no punches when I write… I have a manuscript on motherhood and mental health that is out on submission at the moment, with poems about depression, sex after birth, my changing body, marital conflict, and how naturally birthing my 4,3 kg baby girl quite literally ripped me in two— so I guess you could say I’m pretty comfortable making my readers uncomfortable!
The thing is, I have never written with the reader in mind, so the thought of somehow shielding them from too much information, or protecting myself and my privacy never really occurs to me. If I ever wrote something I truly did not feel comfortable with somebody else reading, I simply wouldn’t publish it. That’s only ever happened to me twice, as far as I can remember.
But I suppose I’m very candid as a person, so I guess that is reflected in my poetry to some extent. But I also believe that all experience is shared experience—that whatever I go through can be of use to somebody else going through the same thing as me. As a reader, I have found encouragement in that, and I hope anyone who picks up my work might feel the same. That is the power of poetry— to be able to reach the reader through the page and tell them “I, too, have faced this terrible thing, and I can promise that it will not be the end of you.”
In this blog post, you talk about how you discovered the perfect poem to end your first poetry collection with. That made me realize the care you must have taken not just in composing each poem, but in picking a place for them in the larger whole. From idea to completion, can you take us through the process of putting together Cajoncito?
It was a true labour of love… labour being the operative word in that sentence! The chapters of Love, Loss and Madness (Otras Locuras) fell into place easily enough, but choosing where each poem sat in relation to the others in the same chapter was very delicate work. I had to separate myself from the work, to try and forget the inspiration or intention behind the poems, and take them each at face value in order to see where they would be shown to their best advantage both thematically, stylistically and even visually. A book needs variety, like a music album or a concert set. You want sad poems, then hopeful poems; narrative poems and lyrical poems; pieces varying in length and form. I was also careful to balance poems originally in English with those written originally in Spanish, as well as not group too many multilingual poems together in a clot.
My beta readers were a big help, and I’m so grateful for the work they put in, as well as their steadfast support. Cajoncito was accepted for publication by two indie presses, but both wanted me to use less Spanish and that was a no-go. I wanted full creative control, and the chance to make the book and the promotion surrounding it as personable as possible.
Marketing and promotion was very fun— I love connecting with poetry readers, doing live readings and performing my poems. Putting together the “merchandise” was a blast as well. I had postcards and bookmarks made with the artwork from the book, and every signed copy was sent with Mauritian tea, French chocolate, Chilean caramel and an assortment of other little goodies. The book itself was wrapped in silk paper, and I think I even scented the envelopes to smell like honey because I mention honey quite a bit in the book!
It was such a fun experience, and it sold really well, but boy was I burnt out by the end of it! I think it was from then on that I realised that I couldn’t keep up the momentum I had— writing and publishing work, boosting other indie authors on 2 platforms, hosting 3 interview series, promoting my book, marketing my writing workshops, and keeping up with everything else in life. But it was a wonderful experience and I am very grateful for it, and proud of my little, achy book of multilingual heartache.
You’ve been in this writing business for a while. Looking back, what are some of your proudest moments?
I’ve been writing for years, but only began publishing a few years ago. It’s been tough, but overall there have been many more highs than lows. Publishing Cajoncito was a dream, as was being nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net awards. And the friendships I’ve made within the writing community are far better than any prize.
But honestly, the moments that marked me the most, that I recall to my memory when I am feeling discouraged, are the times my readers have reached out to me to tell me how my work resonated with them. One lady emailed that Cajoncito got her through a nasty divorce, another said one of my longer stories (published under a different pen name) was a comfort to her during the months she was struggling to conceive. Someone reached out to me on Instagram saying they read the opening poem of Cajoncito “Can I send you my poems?” every Monday morning to give them courage to face the week (as I understand it, they were struggling with their mental health). I try to bottle up moments like that and carry them with me, to sip strength and solace from, when creating and publishing get hard.
One last question, EMC. Your first chapbook, Not Quite an Ocean, is coming out soon from Nine Pens Press. Tell us a little about it. What makes it different from Cajoncito?
Yes it is, and I’m super excited for y’all to read it! Nine Pens were on my list as dream publishers, they’ve worked with some really great talent like Julie Irigaray and Naoise Gale. And their EIC, Colin Bancroft, is such a force for good in the indie poetry landscape.
As compared to Cajoncito, I would say these poems are more mature, simply because I feel I have grown as a writer. This doesn’t mean that my writing is suddenly more complex or less accessible, it just means I have learned to better wield the tools necessary to express what I want to say. I spent a lot more time crafting these poems than I did with Cajoncito, where the initial creation of each piece is what took up the most time. But there are some similarities: passion, earnestness, and a touch of magical realism here and there.
Not Quite An Ocean came together completely organically. I would say the main themes of the chapbook are bodies, womanhood, pain, and the environment, with a dash of self-love and feminine rage in equal measure. I had poems about women’s identity and place in the world, and other pieces that were more metaphorical, even a little magical, where a woman was used to personify the earth or a part of the environment. Over the past few years I’ve also been dealing with some serious health problems, so I found myself also exploring the theme of pain and other changes in the body in much of my poetry.
Once I laid all these poems out, a pattern began to form, and soon the collection became a sort of archive of what it is to be a woman in the world, in a very small sense of course—just a slice of the much larger picture of global womanhood. But this shouldn’t be off-putting to any non-women out there, as many poems in the book directly address society in general, and, in some instances, men in particular.
I would ask any potential reader the following: Are you a woman? Do you know one? Have you ever felt physical pain in your body? Has your body undergone changes beyond your control? Do you care about the environment? Do you care about people? Do you care about yourself? Do you wish the world was different? If you answer any of these questions in the affirmative, then there’s something in this chapbook for you.
And that’s it! Thank you kindly for your time, guys. If you enjoyed this interview, let EMC and I know by SMASHING the 🫀 button below.
P.S. EMC’s first poetry collection, Cajoncito, is available for purchase here, in Kindle ebook and paperback. Signed copies are also available, and her handwriting is gorgeous:
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