Poets in the Pandemic Blog Series
An interview with Elizabeth M. Castillo
About: Elizabeth M. Castillo is a British-Mauritian poet, writer and language teacher living in Paris with her husband and two children. Elizabeth grew up in the Congo/London/Mauritius, speaks a few languages, and studied Latin American History & Politics, & Modern Languages in the UK, and spent a year teaching and researching in Santiago, Chile.
1. Do you come from a literary background?
My parents are missionaries, so we traveled around a lot growing up before settling in Mauritius. Both are avid readers: mum loves romance, non-fiction, memoirs, and my dad has eclectic taste and likes the classics. As a family, we always give each other books as presents, and my sister has gone on to become a best-selling author. I’m so proud of her!
2. What did you enjoy reading as a child?
I was always given books and told to read - it was never a choice really. I mostly read classics like, ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’, Jane Eyre, Beatrix Potter, and A Book of Nonsense’ by Edward Lear. My parents encouraged me to read poets such as Kipling, TS Elliot and Emily Dickinson.
3. How did you get started as a writer?
After going through a series of difficult personal situations and losses over the last two years I decided to start taking my writing seriously (although I have always written in some form or another.) It was odd how I got into it. I caught Covid and was very ill, stuck in bed for ages, so I spent time rereading and watching old period dramas and all the classics (Richard Armitage is such a snack!). I discovered fan fiction and got in touch with a writer on Twitter who encouraged me to write my own retelling of Gaskell’s “North and South”, and a year later she’s one of my best friends and biggest supporters!
Ever since then words have been falling out of me and I discovered that the well was deeper than I ever thought- that there was so much I could write about, even outside of fiction: PPD, anxiety, travel, language, motherhood, ethnicity and race - that I had a voice. It was then that I decided to take it seriously and I've received a lot of encouragement and support from my husband, family, friends, and the online writing community.
4. Who are your favourite poets/writers and what are you reading now?
I still enjoy classical poets and writers such as William Blake, CS Lewis’The Great Divorce is my absolute favourite!, the Brontës, Austene and Edward Lear. More modern writers and poets, or 20th century at least - Gabriel García Marquez is a favourite of mine, Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral, Roque Dalton, Warsan Shire, Angela Carter (I’m reading the ‘The Bloody Chamber’ at the moment) and Ijeoma Umebinyuo - there are too many to name. I recently bought ‘The Mum Poet Club Guide to Self-care’ which was also really very good.
5. Where does your inspiration come from and do you find writing easy?
Someone on Twitter recently asked ‘what is a theme that reoccurs in your poetry’ and I jokingly said "me"! I guess that's because I feel more comfortable writing about what I know personally and the world around me: motherhood, languages and language, those I've loved and lost, depression, and living as someone who is mixed raced which has its challenges. I hardly ever lack inspiration- what I lack is organisation! And time! I do procrastinate and tend to leave things unfinished which I'm working on. Now I try to schedule time to focus on my writing.
6. Do you encounter any specific challenges as a writer?
I can find endless sources of inspiration but it's time, energy, and my busy lifestyle that make it challenging. I teach, and home-school my children (by choice), and run a small, language services business. Any time I am able to carve out for creating is rejuvenating and refreshing.
7. What are you working on right now and do you have any projects in the pipeline you'd like to share with us?
I'm working on a number of projects - a children's poetry podcast, picture books, baby board books, a webcomic about PPD, poetry and short fiction collections, and a handful of plays and novels.. I also have several poems coming out between now and April with Tuna Fish Journal, Pollux Journal, Fevers of the Mind Press, and three trilingual poems with Authylem. The first poem I ever had accepted was "Crocodiles" by TunaFish Journal (which was recently published with a video reading) it’s about the pain of miscarriage and grief.
Previously I self-published a fan fiction retelling under a different pen name and would like to put together a bilingual collection as I love experimenting with language and languages. I would also like to write and produce a film back home in Mauritius.
8. Any advice for aspiring poets/writers out there?
I'd say do the work, write the words, and most of all: be nice.
9. What are your favourite literary magazines at the moment?
Selcouth Station Press is fresh, inclusive and fun, Pollux, Authylem, Harana poetry, Feral. I recently discovered Dreams Walking and Hellebore which is an American lit mag that creates space for underrepresented creatives.
"Is it wrong to fancy Daddy Pig? What a baritone!
I sink my teeth into their stodgy sweetness.
Perhaps I will find my voice in amongst the serotonin rush."
Two poems that resonate:
You have chosen “Like You" by Roque Dalton and “Mum Poem” which was written by you and first published by Selcouth Station Press. Can you tell me a little bit more about why you chose them?
“Like You” is a translation of the original Spanish “Como tú” and doesn't do it justice in my opinion. It was given to me by someone very special to me, and since deciding to take my poetry seriously I find myself coming back to it time and time again. I just love the simplicity of the Spanish language and the poem is about how poetry is for everyone- it’s part of life, "I believe the world is beautiful and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone."
"Mum poem" is the first poem I wrote about motherhood. I'd never really thought about it before. I was in the garden with my girls planting anemones and came in and started writing it. It’s about losing yourself as a person when you become a mother, and getting lost in the business of homemaking and childrearing, and thinking, where has the time gone? where the heck have I gone?
by Elizabeth M. Castillo
I dig my hands deep into the soil-
soft and cold, and crumbling.
There are anemones to plant, and lavender,
and the moss you scratched up from the forest.
Then, suddenly: the cat’s tail! The bumblebee!
A sword fight with the trowel! And then, again, you’re hungry.
I dig my hands into the dirt,
to see if I can find a piece of me.
Clamped to my leg.
The deadly, peanut butter chokehold.
I eat chocolate pressed up against the bathroom door.
How many of you are there? It feels like 7, but I’m told I’ve only had 2.
My mouth holds more Lindor than it ever has before.
And now, I hear crocs pounding on the stone tile floor.
Like the last words spoken in the Mines of Moria,
I whisper to myself, “they are coming.”
Moments later I count out 10 marshmallows.
Is it wrong to fancy Daddy Pig? What a baritone!
I sink my teeth into their stodgy sweetness.
Perhaps I will find my voice in amongst the serotonin rush.
Evening comes, la hora ingrata,
thankless hour, literal crunchy crunch time.
I marvel at your productivity:
twenty questions in half as many minutes,
the upside-down turning of every space you occupy,
and your ability to forgive my bad days with such aplomb.
And the mustard? Where’s the spotty mustard?
In the fridge door, where we last put it,
where it always is! Where it belongs!
My soup is cold, and too thick to show me a reflection.
I study it all the same, wondering where my face has gone.
Alone, and gloriously so, I ache
in places and parts I have never heard of.
I feel I have done nothing, but all day I have not stopped.
You are alive, clothed, schooled and fed.
I should go to bed, but perhaps I’ll stare at my screens a little too long.
Things wobble now, that did not used to.
Like Bono, I haven’t found what I feel I’ve lost.
But it is there, right there, for this chapter, for this season:
smeared on the wall; in my panda eyes;
in the soup; the sweeties. There, in the soil;
in your sticky faces; the dinner left untouched...
I love you so much! I love you so much!
But, oh, how much more do I love when you’re asleep!