I had the extra treat of meeting Elizabeth in real life this year! She came to Geneva to run a workshop for the Geneva Writers’ Group (in which I wrote actual poems) and we hung out and talked about all things writerly. So wonderful. This meant I was even more excited to read and review her new poetry collection, Not Quite an Ocean. I loved her first collection, Cajoncito, and was intrigued by the ideas behind this one – the sea, women, shifting identities, nature, it all sounded wonderful.
And I was right. There’s something effortlessly lyrical about Castillo’s poetry. It floats off the page and into the head, or onto the tongue, in the loveliest of ways. There are stark and honest pieces in here about the difficulties of womanhood, as well as glorious odes to joy about femininity. I found myself transported and utterly charmed by each one, and I think it’s a collection I’ll be returning to often as I think there will be more to discover each time.
Sometimes it felt as though I could hear the sea when I was reading…get your copy here.
I wanted to find out where the idea for a woman as an ocean came into her writing, how she wrote such stark and powerful pieces and her route to publication. Read on to find out more.
1. I love the overall premise of using the ocean as a metaphor for woman. How did this theme come to you and why did you choose the oceans you did (Pacific, Atlantic, Arctic and Indian) to organise the collection?
The theme came about very organically, in the sense that I had various poems out in the “wild” that didn’t fit in with the themed collections I was working on at the time. I had been given this wonderful opportunity to publish a poetry book with Nine Pens Press, a wonderful indie publisher, but I didn’t have any idea what poems to put in it! So I gathered some of the poems I had already written, and worked on a few more from lines or snippets I had written here and there, until I had enough for a chapbook, or pamphlet, (which is a shorter collection, about 20-35 poems usually.) It was only when I put the together for this pamphlet that I realised that the ocean, salt, waves, tides, the moon were a common thread running through them.
The book is divided into the four oceans, which was more for my benefit than the reader if I’m honest. Perhaps it’s my dyslexic brain, but I need things categorised. I wanted to make sure that there was a nice balance to the book, sort of like a meal where different textures and flavours make up the final experience. You don’t want ten long poems in a row, nor do you want to read magical poem after magical poem after magical poem. The ocean chapters helped me achieve this.
2. Your writing draws on a lot of natural imagery which is at once gentle and fierce. How are you inspired by the natural world and how particularly when it comes to exploring the feminine?
I love that frame! Gentle and fierce… yes exactly that!
I live in the world, as do we all, and like anyone with a conscience, our abuse of the planet is a concern to me, as is our abuse of its inhabitants. There is an obvious parallel here, between the experience of womanhood and all its perils, and the experience of nature and all her suffering.
But I must admit my approach was not so mindful. Poems tend to come to me in a way that fiction or nonfiction do not. In fiction I have to work at making a story make sense, but I don’t have those confines in poetry. A poem will often unfurl of its own accord, and it’s only during the editing phase or ever afterwards that I will notice a metaphor or parallel with something else.
There is also something therapeutic in writing, especially a genre that lends itself to exploring the abstract. For example, like far too many women, I too am a sexual and domestic abuse survivor, although it is not a subject I have ever felt inspired to write about explicitly. But I found that in this collection in particular a subconscious part of me has written those experiences and my recovery into several of the poems.
Nature cannot tell her own story, so we must. This is why ecopoetry and ecofeminist art is so important. Not just to shed light on the earth’s suffering, but also as a celebration of her strength and resilience. In french they say “La nature a horreur du vide” and it is true (and also a line from one of my poems in my first book, Cajoncito!). Nature just presses onwards, upwards, always towards renewal, always towards the light. We women are not so different, in most aspects of life.
Nature, and women, must heal themselves.
3. I was particularly moved by the last two poems Body, I love you and What I Like. It felt so powerful to have such simple, positive statements about yourself, about the female body. How did you come to write these poems and why did you put them at the end?
I’m so glad you liked them! They’re very special to me too, in their honesty and simplicity.
It is a political statement, as a woman, to like yourself. It is an act of righteous rebellion against a system is designed to profit from your insecurities and self-loathing. Women, especially here in the west, are taught to hate themselves, fear one another, make themselves smaller, quieter, more palatable whatever they do.
Our bodies are such faithful servants to us, and yet we treat them with such disdain. We starve them, hide them, loathe them, speak badly about them, when they do such marvellous things. We are designed to change and adapt to puberty, sex, pregnancy, childbirth, menopause, but we give ourselves no space for any of it. We live in a world that truly hates women, and as a woman, and mother of girls, I am sick to death of it.
I suppose poems are a war-cry, a manifesto of sorts. It’s me saying to the world, (and encouraging other women to say the same): I will love my body, with all it’s bumps and lumps, even when it does not cooperate, even when it fails me. I will love myself, and be proud of who I am, what I have survived, the art I have created, the choices I have made. I may be just one person, without the power to enshrine laws or overthrow governments, but I will use my life and my art to lead this quiet revolution for myself, my sisters, my friends, and my girls.
4. What was your route to publication?
It was an unusual one, as the editor of Nine Pens Press reached out to me following a poetry perfomance I gave for the launch of another one of their books. I mentioned I was writing other collections, and he said he wanted to publish whatever I was working on. It was such a thrill, and I’m so grateful to him and the Nine Pens team for this wonderful opportunity!
5. What writing advice would you give to others?
Hmm… depends on who the “others” were, I suppose? Generally I would say: just write the thing, worry about it later. Take your art seriously, and others will follow. Call yourself a writer (or poet), because that is what you are. And be kind! You’d be surprised how far a little kindness can get you…
Elizabeth M Castillo is a British-Mauritian poet, writer, and a two-time Pushcart Prize and BotN nominee. She lives in Paris with her family and two cats, where she writes different things, in different languages, under different pen names. Her writing has been published internationally, and in 2021 she published her bilingual, debut collection “Cajoncito.”. Her ecofeminist chapbook “Not Quite an Ocean” is out now with Nine Pens Press. You can connect with her on social media @emcwritespoetry.