Interview – Elizabeth Barrette, Poet and Wordsmith

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAToday is the first installment in a fascinating interview (if I do say so myself) with full-time wordsmith Elizabeth Barrette. Elizabeth is a poet, first and foremost, having published 2 collections, many individual poems online and in print as well as a plethora of poems sold to poetry lovers directly (i.e. her fans) and she is a member of the Science Fiction Poetry Association. She wears many hats as a writer, as you’ll read in the interview below. But it is her role as poet, which seems the most profitable (if you can believe it!) and as a practitioner of crowdfunding, as a means of getting her work out to those who want to buy it, she has been extremely successful. You can find Elizabeth online at PenUltimate Productions, which is her professional website as a writer, and the associated FaceBook Page; Her LiveJournal blog The Wordsmith’s Forge; and as Elizabeth Barrette on Facebook.

In this first part of the interview Elizabeth Barrette tells us all about her myriad writing activities, her inspiration and process as a poet, some advice for new poets on attitude, publishing and submitting and you’ll be able to hear 2 full poems.

Diane Severson Mori for Amazing Stories (henceforth AS): Do you write exclusively SF poetry or do you also write so-called “literary” poetry or other genre poetry as well? If yes, which ones?

Elizabeth Barrette (henceforth EB): I write poetry. Much of what I write falls into some speculative genre.

Prismatica E BarretteMy Poetry Fishbowl fans prompt and buy a lot of Fantasy, but also some Science Fiction and the odd bit of horror or something else. Among my most popular speculative series are the sociological science fiction An Army of One, the suburban fantasy Monster House, and the heroic fantasy Path of the Paladins. Another large swath of my work is nature poetry. Those are usually stand-alone works. I have published two collections, Prismatica: Science Fiction Poetry Spanning the Spectrum and From Nature’s Patient Hands: A Collection of Poetry. I do some romance. One of my surprise hits is the series Walking the Beat, which is contemporary lesbian romance and the only one of my major series that is not speculative.

Literary poetry isn’t a favorite for me. I like linguistic poems — those written for the sheer fun of wordplay — but I’m just not impressed with the quality of ivory-tower poetry these days. I lean toward narrative poetry, and I like for it to be accessible. My From Nature's Patient Hands EBnature poetry in particular usually makes sense to anyone who knows nature; my science poetry can get more esoteric; most of it’s in the middle. I have at least attempted pretty much every form, genre, style, or technique of poetry that I have encountered.

AS: And with that let’s listen to Elizabeth’s “Scent of a Friendship”, which I podcast in Poetry Planet No. 2 on the theme of First Contact.

The Scent of Friendship


AS: We’ll return to the Poetry Fishbowls and Crowdfunding poetry later. But it seems like writing poetry forms a major portion of your output. Do you also write prose or non-fiction?

EB: Yes, I also write fiction, nonfiction, and more recently started dabbling with scripts. I’ll try anything that seems interesting or profitable, or preferably both. I enjoy writing stories, but haven’t sold as much fiction as poetry or nonfiction. Right now my leading project is in poetry. The next biggest, which was the lead for years, is writing articles for the Llewellyn annuals on things like herb gardening and Paganism.

AS: Are you a full time writer? If not, what else do you do?

EB: I’m a full-time wordsmith. That’s primarily writing at present, with some editing, and whatever other oddments come up. I make a good sounding board, for instance; I’ve had people pay me just because I gave them great advice on a project they were developing. I’ve done teaching; I helped run an online school for several years. If it involves words, it counts for me.

AS: That’s a lot of bowls to keep spinning! Is one type of writing your main focus? Which is most profitable or fulfilling for you? And what does a typical writing day look like for you? How do you stay on task?

EB: I spend most of my day at the computer. I usually check email and blog activity in the morning, then write later on. I do much of my best work at night.

Torn WorldSeveral times a month, I do different prompt calls — my Poetry Fishbowl, the Torn World Muse Fusion, the Crowdfunding Creative Jam, etc. Then I’ll start writing midday and keep going until the wee hours, or even the wide ones, with a couple of food breaks. My longest fishbowl ran 15 hours of active writing time, and the most poems written in a day was 25. More typically I’ll go 12-13 hours and 15-20 poems.

AS: What do you do to keep the Muse primed?

EB: “Run and find out!” About half of my nature poetry comes from local inspiration: gardening, walking through a nearby nature center, etc. The rest comes from exploring things at a distance, either in person or through research. My science reading feeds into the science and science fiction poetry, along with other speculative fiction.

I grab other opportunities wherever I can get them. I rode a camel once at a Renaissance Faire. It’s quite different from riding a horse; the motion goes more side-to-side than up-and-down. We went to Highland Games and tried haggis. (Delicious.) Then we watched a performance of sheepdogs herding sheep. Everything is research for me. That’s all stuff I can use for writing poems later.

AS: So you look outside yourself for inspiration. Do you find ideas popping into your head; are you yourself a natural font of ideas?

EB: I am definitely that too. I give off ideas like body heat.

It’s more a matter of deciding which ones to use. My audience does a great job of that. They consistently pick out my better work — not always all of my personal favorites, but they rarely buy something I think is only so-so. What people like, I write more of, developing the most popular ideas the farthest.

Composing Magic E BarretteAS: You mean your audience serves as a natural filter? Where else do you get your ideas?

EB: My audience takes the role that magazine editors used to take.  They get right of first refusal on all the fishbowl poems, and pick whatever they like best.

I get my ideas from everywhere. Articles, books, music, pictures. The world outside, street fairs, museums. Panels at science fiction conventions, theatrical performances — I’ve written in the dark at a ballet. People. I love prompt calls where readers give me ideas, because that broadens the reach of what I write about. Other folks are interested in different things than I am, which is exciting. I can get an idea and wander across universes looking for a catchy version of it, or I can just wander and see what’s happening out there. If there’s a gap I’ll try to fill it — “Why don’t people write more X?” or “All the portrayals of Y are stupid.” Here, have some X, Y, and Z.

AS: You have a rather pragmatic attitude toward your art. Filling a gap or niche seems to work well for you! Do you prefer formal poetry or free-verse or prose poetry? Please elaborate!

EB: I like free verse and forms about equally, for different reasons. Free verse is flexible; it flows quickly and it fits any topic. I use subtle poetic techniques such as alliteration and metaphor to distinguish it from prose. Currently a majority of my poetry is free verse.

However, I love the structure of form poetry. I like the mouthfeel of rhymed, metered verse. I like the rules of the forms. I love repeating/interlocking forms, like Sestinas and Villanelles. I enjoy classics such as sonnets, and variations such as the Indriso which is like an 8-line condensed sonnet. Several of my series rely on local color, so for example I use some Italian poetic forms in Fiorenza the Wisewoman. For a contest I once wrote a couple dozen poems spread across Welsh poetic forms, which barely suit English. I’ve even done bilingual poetry.

I am less a fan of prose poetry. For me, it’s difficult to distinguish between prose poetry and lavish prose. I’ve done a few, though. It’s a great form for stream-of-consciousness, primal, or psychedelic content. So I keep it along with other exotic techniques for cases when I really need it.

AS: Listen to this award-winning poem in traditional form of “delightful rhythmic effect of traditional verse using a series of rhymed quatrains. (It) captures the elusive nature of sound. Wonderful imagination is exercised in word choices, as well as an impressive vocabulary range – a delightful poem to read aloud. This noisy grouping of quatrains uses alliteration and metaphor to make its poetic points. … Effective use of several literary devices, including personification, alliteration, simile, and metaphor. Consistent rhythms strongly evoke the sound of raindrops against solid surfaces.” (Sol Magazine)



AS: You’re very keen to try new forms or do something unusual to interesting effect. Do you revise your poetry once the basic poem is written?

EB: Yes and no. Almost all the revision work happens in my head before I write it down. I’ve been writing poetry for decades, so it’s very streamlined by now. If I slow down to capture the revision process — which I’ve done for writing exercises if I need to show people how revision works — then it roughly triples my time.

After I’ve written a poem, I usually go back later and reread it. Then I might tweak the word choice a bit, rearrange line breaks, or see where I left out a word. Occasionally I move verses. It’s very rare for me to need major revisions where I have to add or delete a whole verse or more.

One thing I love about working online with an audience is that they help me spot typos, point out things that need elaboration, or do other awesome stuff. You can see the original and revised versions of “The Picket Fence Committee” for example, with discussion about what parts needed expansion. After I posted “The Love of Brothers,” one reader translated the modern Greek I used into the Classical Attic Greek that would have been period-appropriate.

AS: How do you decide when a poem is “finished”?

EB: When I get to the end of it. A form poem often has a specific size. With free verse, it’s like telling a story; I put the beginning, middle, and end together then stop. Serial poetry ( is kind of like writing episodes or scenes in a television series. I look for a section with logical boundaries.

AS: I guess I was referring more to the revision or tweaking of a poem. Does there come a point when you just say, “You’re done, you!” Do you ever look at older poetry and want to change something? Do you change it?

EB: If it has to go to press, it’s done when I can’t find anything to improve and I turn it in. I’m reluctant to make changes to a printed poem except to correct typos.  Otherwise it remains potentially malleable.  I’m generally not inclined to go back and fiddle with things.  If I’m putting a collection together, then yes, I’ll look at poems and see if they need to be tweaked.  If I want to change it, I do.  But I’m not the kind of poet who’s endlessly messing with things.  A majority of the time, once I’m done typing, the poem is finished and will stay the way it is.

AS: How much time and effort do you spend on submitting your work?

EB: A lot less now than I used to. When I started, I had to print everything out on paper, go to the post office, and mail it. Switching to electronic submission streamlined that a great deal, but I was still sending things out to dozens of editors, keeping records, shuffling around.

Fishbowl E BarretteNow the majority of my poetry sells direct to my audience. I write it, I list what’s available, they buy it, and then I post it. A week after one of my Poetry Fishbowls, I’m done with most of the work and I’ve sold anywhere from a third to all of the poems written. This is much more efficient, profitable, and timely.

Another sizable portion of my work goes to the science fantasy shared world of Torn World. There I submit it to the Canon Board, they approve it or ask for edits, and someone else actually posts it to the website. Poems already sponsored, or free samples, go up for everyone to read. Those that haven’t been sponsored yet get a price on them and are locked for subscribers only. Less efficient, less profitable, but splendid for teamwork and feedback; poets looking for editorial input or collaboration practice would do well to investigate this market.

AS: Do you have any advice in this regard? Something that might help those just starting out to streamline the process?

EB: First, know yourself. Understand what works for you, such as whether you prefer hard copy or electronic record-keeping or both. What makes sense to one person might be confusing for you, and vice versa.

Second, know your data. Figure out what you need to track and how. At minimum you need the title of each work, date you send it out and receive a reply, where you submitted it, and what the answer was. Organize that by however you usually search for it — maybe you go by date, or by market, etc.

AS: Let me interrupt you for a moment; so, you would recommend using some sort of spreadsheet or chart?

EB: If you’re good at using spreadsheets or charts, use them.  I’m not, so I use charts very little and spreadsheets not at all.  I have a handwritten notebook and I also make notes at the end of individual poems in the electronic files.

AS: OK, thanks! Please continue!

EB: Third, use the data you gather. If you’re not selling to markets of a particular type, consider reducing or eliminating your activity there. If you’re getting a lot of sales in a certain area, pour more energy into that. If you’re angling for something other than money — such as a prestigious market, or a place that often yields awards — know what your goals are and whether it’s helping you reach them.

Finally, adapt. Some parts of your record-keeping will stay consistent. Other things will come and go as you wonder “Why is that happening?” or “How is this affecting my work?” So then you need to decide how to track those things. Drop records you don’t need or use; it’s just extra work.

* * *

That concludes the first part of the interview with Elizabeth Barrette. Come back next week (yes! Not in two weeks this time) for Part 2 in which Elizabeth goes into more detail about Crowdfunding poetry, her favorite poets dead and alive, where she likes to find the poetry she reads, as well as some thoughts on her role as an editor. You will be treated to 2 more audio poems as well! See you then!

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