Author, artist and critic Elisabeth Stevens comfortably wears a number of hats, sometimes simultaneously. The former art and architecture critic for several regional and national periodicals boasts an impressive publishing résumé that includes poetry, fiction, drama and monographs.
Also a widely exhibited artist, she has melded her writing and art in two livres d’artistes released under her own imprint Goss Press. A facsimile edition of one of these, Sirens’ Songs, a collection of evocative poetry, by turns contemplative and sensual, recently received a Kirkus Star.
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Even within a single collection, your poetry covers so much ground in terms of voice, mood, form and topic. Where do your poems originate?
Where do my poems come from? Like my etchings, my poems and my stories “arrive.” There is a knock at the door. A stranger is waiting—an “uninvited guest” demands my attention.
You describe yourself as an “author-artist,” and Sirens’ Songs is a beautiful integration of poetry and original illustrations. How do the textual and visual intersect when you are writing?
I “see” my poems as pictures—settings and situations that demand to be described, and, when feasible, illustrated. Just because I “see” what I write does not mean that I understand it, however. Sometimes works contain messages hidden even from myself.
So, in your experience, poetry can be revelatory for the poet as well as the reader? Is there a particular example of a poem that took you through a journey of discovery?
In Sirens’ Songs, I thought the poem “Nobody’s Baby” was about the end of a love affair. I wrote and rewrote it—I work on poems for years—and finally created the etching of a battered baby doll washed up on a beach. Only then did I realize that the poem echoed long-forgotten childhood terrors.
Is the writing process, then, about seizing control of those memories? Or about learning to accept and move on? This seems to be a question, by the way, that many of your female narrators—strong, perceptive women who are beset by obstacles and their own mistakes—face in your poetry.
In the last poem in Sirens’ Songs, “Envoy: At the Tideline,” I simply “cast my works on the water” and “let the tide take everything.” This may seem to be passive surrender, but false loves, failed marriage, tragic misunderstandings and the inevitable passage of time are not necessarily fatal. My previous book of not-so-light verse titled Ragbag featured Mother, a mythic female with fortitude and a sense of humor in dealing with the disasters of everyday life. As the poem ends, Mother offers helpfully: “If you can’t cope, / call me. / Just ask for Mother, / I clean up.”
Your publishing history is quite varied and lengthy. How much experience do you have with small presses and indie publishing?
All of my 14 books—15 when Impossible Interludes: Three Short Plays is published by BrickHouse Books—are from small press or independent publishers.
After some experience with indie presses, your particular vision for combining the visual and textual led you to dive even deeper into independent publishing. How did Goss Press come about?
My first book, Fire & Water: Six Stories, was published by Perivale Press after a chance meeting with
The traditional publishing opportunities for book-length poetry—never mind illustrated books of poetry—are few and far between, making indie publishing particularly attractive to poets. As an author who has published extensively through both traditional small presses and independent publishers, do you see any drawbacks to indie publishing that other poets and writers should be aware of?
Today, indie publishing meets the needs of an ever-growing number of writers, and that’s good. However, there are disadvantages. The first problem is distribution. In my case, Eranos and Sirens’ Songs are essentially artworks that belong in museums, academic libraries and specialized private collections. As I can’t afford to advertise, I have relied upon personal contacts to place these books in collections at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Harvard, Brown and
A second and even more daunting problem for indie publishers is reviews. The fact that the Sirens’ Songs Facsimile was published in 2011 in paperback by
There are no easy answers, and, in my case, the only answer I see is to keep writing poems and creating etchings.