Elspeth is a writer and poet who is interested in exploring the limitations and possibilities of the body through writing, as well as writing about joy and happiness from a marginalised perspective. Her debut poetry pamphlet is published by Bent Key Publishing. She can usually be found in or near the sea.
Rachel: Tell us about your pamphlet, 'Too hot to sleep'.
Elspeth: My pamphlet is about the process of growing up and the trauma that can entail, particularly for people who are queer, neurodivergent or marginalised in any way. I'm looking at this through the vector of pop culture as a way to get into topics that can be hard to explore. A lot of the poems are quite confessional.
It's also really important to me to write about these topics through lenses of joy and finding hope in the gaps. The main themes are finding a way not only to survive but to live, and finding pleasure in a traumatic world. Rachel: And how did you decide you want to put a pamphlet together?
Elspeth: Over a few months, I found myself writing a lot of poems that had threads tying them together. It was clear to me at the time that I was working on a body of poems which fitted together.
I wrote a lot more poems in this period than are in the pamphlet. Some poems came out really quickly and some needed a lot more editing but they all felt like they were a family. To create the pamphlet, it was a case of finding which bits of the family fit together most for readers, not just myself.
When you're writing a pamphlet, it can feel like a puzzle that can fit together in a lot of different ways. I am sure there are other possible pamphlets in the poems than the one I chose. Rachel: And how did you get into poetry overall?
Elspeth: I got into it like many people (though I hope not everyone!) at a difficult time in my life. I was living abroad and feeling lonely and poetry greeted me as a friend. Once I started, there were things that had been difficult in my past which I wanted to write about. It felt cathartic, which was important at the time. As I got more into writing, however, I took a step back from solely exploring my own traumatic experiences. I started to think about writing joy, persona poetry, and exploring a bit more. I do touch on topics that are traumatic in this pamphlet but I treat them differently compared to when I first started writing. There's more of a lightness of touch now. When I first got into poetry, I needed that space to be really personal and intimate. Now I hope my poetry can be more externally-facing too. I hope it can start and create conversations with other people. Rachel: Had you written much before you got into poetry?
Elspeth: I wrote so much during my university degree! And I read so much too, but always in service to what I was studying. So I hadn't written creatively since I was a child or early teenager. It was almost like re-learning or re-exercising those creative muscles again. That was something that was really joyful to come back to. Rachel: So you had a body of work you felt you wanted to share, and you'd brought together the threads. How did you go about getting it into the world and getting it published?
Elspeth: Editing was key. I think of it as part of the writing process. For me, that meant leaving the poems to have time to exist on their own and then coming back to them, and then editing them.
After that, the next step was to share them with other people whose opinions and thoughts I value. There's no point asking someone whose feedback you won't value. I'd also worked on some of the poems in workshops. After having that input from other people, I felt I'd given the pamphlet its best shot in terms of taking it into the world.
Then I researched publishers and thought about what I was looking for. For me, it was important to work with a UK publisher so I could see my books in bookshops here. But I know British poets who've had pamphlets published abroad and that seems to have gone really well for them. Then I had to be methodical about looking at the dates publishers were open for submissions, following publishers on twitter and submitting from there. Rachel: So your pamphlet was accepted by your publisher, Bent Key, through an open submission?
Elspeth: Yes! It's important to be honest though and say there was rejection along the way. I'm really happy that I ended up with Bent Key and I only submitted to places I actually wanted to be published by. That might sound silly but I think it is easy to get caught up in thinking, "Oh, they've got an open submission!" But just because an opportunity is open, doesn't mean you have to submit to it. It's your work and it's precious to you so you want to give it the best possible entrance to the world.
I was extremely excited to work with Bent Key because they have an ethos I really like in terms of how they communicate with authors, transparency around the model they use to pay authors, and transparency in their support for marginalised artists. They've made their stance on supporting trans rights and artists from different backgrounds really clear. Wanting to work with a queer, neurodivergent-led press was also important to me.
We all want our work to be out there in the world but, for me, it would always be better to keep my work close to me rather than have it out in the world in a way that I didn't want. It's really important to make sure editors are aligned to your values. Rachel: And what has the work been since having that first conversation with Bent Key?
Elspeth: It will be just over a year between my acceptance and the launch in April 2023. Firstly I had to prepare the manuscript. I looked at it again and thought, on my own, is there anything else I want to change or add? I did add a couple of poems in and then I sent it back to Rebecca Kenny, the editor and founder at Bent Key. She went through and made some editorial suggestions and also proof-read. Rebecca was already happy with the manuscript so it was just a few small changes to make the poems shine or make the message clearer. Bent Key has an ethos of trying to not alter the original voice of their poets.
Once we were both happy with the manuscript, there were things I hadn't even thought about like the dedication for the book so I sent that through. Then everything gets typeset and the cover art is created. The next steps are planning the launch and thinking about the best way to introduce it to the world and to readers who will connect with it. Rachel: Can you tell us about the launch?
Elspeth: The launch will be a really chilled and inclusive event. It will have poetry readings from myself and a bit of chat about the book, and then poetry readings from poets I admire and whose work has inspired me. There will be a pop culture thread running through. Then there will be an opportunity to ask questions about the pamphlet process or the process of writing the pamphlet. Hopefully it will be a really nice night! It'll be on Zoom, it'll be BSL-interpreted and there will be breaks. I'm really conscious of that, knowing that people have been shut out of the poetry world as online events have become less frequent. Rachel: What are you most excited about about having your pamphlet in the world?
Elspeth: I'm excited to hear readers' reactions! If anyone does read it and wants to share with me or on instagram, I would love to see it. For me, the most important thing is having those authentic and genuine connections. So even if my book were only to touch a few readers, if there's a poem I wrote that really connects with someone I would love to hear about that.
I'm also excited about being able to do readings in a similar vein. The kind of reading I like to do is quite intimate and I often have very light elements of audience participation. In the past, I've asked people to write their thoughts on post-it notes or hold something in their head as a prompt to think about whilst I'm reading a poem. I'm excited to connect with other people who love poetry and other poets. Rachel: Is there anything you wish you'd known before you started the process of putting a pamphlet together that you know now?
Elspeth: It takes a long time! For me it was a year from acceptance to publication, which is probably quite a quick timescale. And at some stage the work on the pamphlet will move from a creative space to a more logistical one as you'll be thinking about planning, getting your work in bookshops and so on.
Having something else to work on has really helped me with that. I've been working on a different collection throughout the process and I started that collection even before the pamphlet was accepted. It's really nice to have something new in the works, or even just going to lots of workshops, to continue nourishing the creative part of your poetry practice.
The other thing to say is that rejection is something all writers face and it can be really disheartening but if you get positive rejections do listen to them and keep going! Editors are very busy people and it's generous of them to give you a personalised, positive rejection. With this pamphlet, I got a few positive rejections and then an acceptance from a publisher I'm delighted to be working with. Rachel: What's next for you with poetry?
Elspeth: It's probably developing myself and working towards a collection, but also not being too precious about that. If it turns out I've written 200 poems but only 30 of them fit well together, that's fine. I'm trying to develop my craft without too much ego, so I'm not saying that now I've got a pamphlet, I have to have a collection. Poetry is more organic and flexible than that.
The areas I'm feeling drawn to at the moment are nature and how we connect to it, and folklore as well. And just keeping going I guess! Keeping going to as many workshops as possible, being curious, doing courses, reading as many poets as I can. I'd love to have a collection published, absolutely, but it doesn't need to happen on any particular timeframe. I'm trying to give myself all the opportunity to be as relaxed about poetry as I can be. Rachel: And finally, what's one way that someone reading this newsletter can support your work?
Elspeth: Buy the pamphlet, if you can! It's available for pre-order here: https://www.waterstones.com/book/too-hot-to-sleep/...
I also recently made a Tiktok about ways to support writers you like when you have no money, which is something I've faced. One key thing you can do is borrow their book from the library or request that your library buys the book. If you borrow the book from the library, the writer still gets paid through public lending rights. If the library buys the book, they get paid too! And if you read it and you like it, tell someone. That's what I try and do with books I've loved reading, whether that's goodreads or word of mouth or my instagram stories.