Logging on to Zoom tends to always feel tiring these days, but when Erik Elsie’s face popped up for our virtual interview, my energy immediately returned. Bright-eyed and excited, Erik enthusiastically greeted me through the screen, betraying just a hint of nervousness. Her short-cropped hair and no less than three nose rings clearly situated her in her age group: Generation Z has learned to express themselves fearlessly. The light orange walls of her bedroom in her parent’s house are covered with artwork, some of her own creation, others depicting album covers or photos of Erik and her friends. Fairy lights are strung up along the crowning of her walls, and I can just see a half-painted portrait with a purple background standing on an easel in the corner. Her creativity is so plainly written on the space around her that I can’t help but smile. Erik had emailed Writer’s Block Magazine a few days before to submit some poetry, and I was struck by her story. She’s only sixteen but wrote proudly about her upcoming book of poetry i swear to saturn to be self-published on April 20th of this year. In this interview we talked all about that endeavor, and what it means to her to be a young African-Australian female poet. Her passion and drive are unmistakably present in her answers, and I believe her story can inspire most any creative person: young or old, published or unpublished.
Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview! Of course, we’re here to talk about your upcoming self-published book of poetry i swear to saturn. Before we get into that, however, I’d love it if you’d introduce yourself in your own words: who are you, where do you live, how’d you get to this point, what’s your story!
I’m Erik Elsie, I’m sixteen years old and I’m African-Australian. I’m also a poet-artist, and I’m passionate about sharing the voice of people who are seen as not normal, whether that’s people of color, disabled people, or people with gender identities, sexualities or religions not seen as “normal”. I want to be able to have a wider point of view on things, especially being so young, to show that we need a voice for those that aren’t given one.
Does that also encompass the reason you started writing?
For me, art was always there. Whether that’s painting, drawing, or sculpting, and then later came singing, dancing and writing. I found writing is a good way to help me speak my mind when I have no more words and can’t communicate even though I want to so badly. I found different ways to convey that, and it has helped people around me to understand how my brain works: because not only can someone’s mental health be exhausting for the person, but it can also be exhausting for the people around them, like my family. Writing is a way to tell my family how I’m feeling and do it in a healthy way where it actually relieves my mind and I feel better. So that’s why I’ve leaned toward writing, cause it’s something anyone can do.
So about i swear to saturn, how did the process of writing that start? Did you always know it was going to be a book or did you start with a few poems and it blossomed into a book on its own?
I just had so many journals full of poems, and there’s this one that I carry everywhere I go, and it’s falling apart at the seams *laughs*, and the majority of the poems from i swear to saturn come from here. All these poems kind of had the same themes, and I showed my therapist, who told me that these are actually really good. And I responded very nonchalantly, like yea I know I’m a pretty okay writer, and she said ‘no… no I mean a book.’ And then my dad also said, “Erik you’re writing so many poems, why don’t you just create a book?” I didn’t really believe in it, I always said well you need to get a publishing company, how do you even get noticed, you have to do all kinds of things… And he said ‘well you can’t give up that easily! You’ve been saving money: publish a book! You’re in a pandemic, you’re in quarantine, what better time?’ Then I gathered all the poems that had similar themes and created this massive thick manuscript with all these different types of poems. Then I realized the overarching theme was love, so I thought to myself; what are the different stages of love that could be the chapters? And that’s how I came to dreaming it, having it and losing it. Then I went about changing poems to fit each part and just put it all together! I gave it to my older brother who is also a writer, but for TV shows, and he said, ‘yes this is going to be a book, and I can try to help you get there.’ I just never thought that all my thousands of poems just lying under my bed, even around the house, (my mom always says ‘urgh here’s another poem! Take it! Not on the couch!’) would become this.
Do you feel like because people tend to doubt young creatives, you criticize yourself more?
Most definitely. I mean, it’s a book about love, and I just know people are going to say, ‘how does she know, she’s only sixteen!’ But actually, my experiences are just as valid as others’, just different. I mean, a whole section of the book is dreaming it. I even say at the start of the book: “for the love I do not have, may we be one eternally”. That’s just a message to the reader, to show that I might not have any idea about anything, but these are thoughts I’ve had, dreams I’ve had, and I hope that that is enough to touch the reader. I don’t want to be dismissed just because of my age. I am worried that however much of my heart I put into this, people’s reactions will still be ‘oh but she’s just sixteen’. I just want it to be the best it can be. But then simultaneously, I always have to remind myself that I am only sixteen, and that the writing I do now will probably only get better with time, and that this may not be the best work I ever do. So, it’s just hard to balance that. I want to believe in myself.
Those conflicting feelings are definitely relatable. I’ve noticed that kind of thinking in Gen Z as a whole, a kind of ‘fuck you’ attitude toward older generations who may not believe that young people are capable of serious thought or serious projects: do you recognize this in yourself?
Yes, definitely. I feel like sometimes older people don’t understand that things are changing, with acceptance and equality and things like that. Older people tend to be stuck in their ways and believe that it’s only the older white people and straight people who can do anything. Gen Z is starting to realize that no, we can be more accepting and more loving and more open. But then also, there’s things that someone who’s older can help younger people with our problems, and of course, we need that too. But still, it’s new art is what’s going to be around longer! We can’t only rely on older people. With new art, there comes new ways for people to express themselves, and we need that.
You’ve already said you carry a notebook around with you, but do you feel like you have a specific writing process, or is it just whatever comes to you in the moment?
I guess it’s mostly in the moment. And if there’s something on my mind, I might go over different outcomes of a scenario, or what I wish was said or what I wish hadn’t been said, and then I write about that. Or I’ll think about the things I wish I had like, at this age, me being sixteen… a boyfriend. *laughs* Just manifest and dream about all the kinds of things that I wish I had, and the extremes of it all. I guess it is just whatever I’m focusing on at the time. Half the time I just scribble it in, and I can’t read it later on! *laughs* I’ll ask my mom like ‘hey mom can you read this?’, and she just helps me decipher my own handwriting! But yeah, I just scribble everything down, write whenever, wherever.
And do you have an editor for those scribbles?
Yes, I have an editor, Victoria. After my original manuscript that I cut down with the help of my brother I looked for an editor on a freelancing website and found her. She has a writing degree in Canada, and she really loves the idea of my book. She goes off and reads it, makes notes, scans it and sends it to me, and then we go over it together on Zoom. We both have similar ideas, and it’s really just become a relationship, she even charges me less now, because she’s just so happy to work on it with me. We Zoom call about every three days, just editing, marketing, talking about layout, all of it. Every single day I’m sending her poems and she’s bouncing back with if it was good, bad, in the middle, how we can work on it, etc. It’s just a very relaxed relationship.
What about the road to self-publishing? Did you always know you wanted to self-publish to preserve agency and control or did you at all try to get it published traditionally first?
I didn’t even know how to reach out to any publishing company. But then my dad said that if you have a company they would take most of the money anyways, and that I should just self-publish because it’s quicker! When I realized that it was actually possible, I started setting up a business registration, having a website, working on it, setting all that up. As soon as I got that done, that’s when I started to make sure I did something every single day that worked toward finishing this book. I think it’s kind of cool I’m doing it myself. It was my money I had saved, maybe about two grand, and it has almost all gone toward my book and my art business. I chose self-publishing because I wanted to have something I did myself.
What are your hopes for i swear to saturn? What would success look like to you?
Friends and family buying the book, some people that organically stumbled across my page and found the book. If anyone is touched by one of the poems, or a poem helped them out… that would be huge. That would be so cool. I love that.
There is a little bit of a stigma around self-publishing, no matter the age of the author. What would you say to those who dismiss self-published works?
Why would you do that? *laughs* I don’t understand! You know that’s the most true and real voice, because it didn’t have to go through some company with guidelines and such. Like maybe some publishing companies don’t want a book that talks about mental health, or they think it would be too controversial. But with self-publishing, it’s their work, their voice. Just do it yourself, then you don’t have to listen to anyone else!
With all your projects and dreams, how do you balance just being a teenager besides all of that?
I guess I just… do it, basically. It’s something that I love doing so much. It’s something that I really want to have a career in, because, well, the thought of having to sit behind a desk like my mom does… I don’t want that. I want to have a voice to help people out.
Your ambition and passion for this is so prevalent in how you speak on your dreams, and so amazing to hear. Do you feel like being not only young but also a young Black woman affects your ambition?
I think when it comes to writing about more serious topics, I have more of an understanding. I can speak from the angle of a teenager, a teenage girl, and a person of color. There are different types of issues that come from that, and I understand them all. Some of the bullying that I have experienced was racial, and I can speak out on that. My parents did speak to me about wanting to write and be an artist and be well known in Australia, and they said: be prepared for people to not like you because you’re Black. Be prepared for people to dismiss you because you look different. And I looked at them and said… yeah true, I forgot about that. And I shouldn’t even have to think about that.
Did these kinds of conversations ever make you doubt your path? What helped you push past it all and continue anyways?
My take on it was always: I’m going to beat them. I’m going to be the Black girl that does it anyway. I should do it, so that the person who wins is not only female, but also a Black female.
Who do you see the reader of i swear to saturn being?
I hope it can be any type of person. I feel like it would be more the ‘alternative’ people, the people who have been made to feel different.
And who are your biggest inspirations?
I read lots of poetry books, and the first one that really inspired me was by Edgar Holmes, Her Favorite Color Was Yellow. I lent it to everyone; it’s been in so many homes now. Other than that, I’m also inspired by a lot of singer-songwriters: Lewis Capaldi, Quinn XCII, Olivia O’Brien. Another one, a small Australian artist named GRAACE. She writes all her songs herself and she’s amazing.
As you know our magazine is called Writer’s Block Magazine, so I have to ask the question: do you ever struggle with writer’s block? How do you get over it?
Writer’s block is the worst point for me. I always think what’s wrong with me? This is something that I love, why don’t I just write? When I don’t write, I don’t feel productive, and when I don’t feel productive, I feel even worse. I want to contribute, do something with my day. The way I overcome it is by handing my journal to my mom and dad. If my journal is in front of me, I feel forced to write because I notice I haven’t done it in a while, and then I stress myself out. Sometimes I just have normal days and no experiences to write about. I have to remind myself to also just let the days go by, you don’t have to write every single day, it’s okay. Let it come to you naturally. The best thing is to just tell myself I deserve a break.
Do you struggle with that feeling of needing to be productive? Has the act of writing changed for you since it went from a hobby to more of a professional activity?
It has, yeah. For example, there was a period of time where I was writing my poems about an intense experience I was having. And when that experience started to die down, I was like… what do I write about now? I found myself trying to make situations more intense, good or bad, so that it would be easier to write about, but that would just mess with me. I have to just let life happen. I try to do some other things in between too, to destress, like painting or singing and dancing and sculpting. Since writing became more serious, I try to use other things to relieve the stress of that.
To wrap up: how would you describe i swear to saturn in your own words?
i swear to saturn speaks on all kinds of love for all kinds of people. I tried to keep it a neutral point of view, so it’s relatable to all kinds of people. For example, I use gender-neutral pronouns so everyone can place themselves in the experience. To me, there’s nothing worse than watching or reading something that you can’t relate to. If I can immerse myself in something it helps me feel better. Then it’s also about loving yourself, rather than just loving someone else. Learning that you need to love yourself even though it’s hard sometimes. You can be in love, but you also have to understand that you can stand on your own and be your own person. There are about twenty poems per part, dreaming it, having it, and losing it, and it’s just about everything love.
Erik Elsie’s debut book i swear to saturn comes out April 20th. Where can readers find it?
My Instagram @erik.elsie, or my website www.erikelsie.com.au both have information on me, my business and what I sell and will be selling in the future. My Instagram has pictures of all the artwork I have done, and anything about my book can also be found there!
Lastly, what would your advice be to other young creatives such as yourself?
Please just do it! *laughs* I guarantee it will be the best thing. Art is different for everyone, and your point of view is needed. Just go for it, you don’t know what it could turn into or who it can help or inspire. Do art for the right reasons. Don’t do it because you want to be famous, do it because you want to express your feelings and express the world. I just think the world would suck without art, and we need more, so go do it!