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20 Questions with... Elizabeth Barton

Elizabeth Barton is an artist and poet from New Zealand, featured in numerous online and printed journals, including Fevers of the Mind, Pink Plastic House, Black Bough Poetry’s Rapture and Christmas/Winter Edition 2021, The Hyacinth Review and Vita Brevis Literature, Nothing Divine Dies, as well as the new anthology, Hidden in Childhood, from Literary Revelations. Long-listed for the 2022 Dai Fry Mystical Poetry Prize, she is also a winner of the 2020 White Label Cinq competition. Her poetry collection 'Mirrored Time' was published by Hedgehog Poetry Press in July 2023. Her art is in private and public collections worldwide, including the V & A Prints Collection in London.

Social media: @DestinyAngel25 (Twitter) @Destiny_Angel444 (Instagram)

1. Please introduce yourself. Where are you from? What was your life like growing up?

I grew up on a New Zealand dairy farm, where I spent a happy childhood. Our farm was close to a scene of a great land war between Maori tribes and European settlers in the 1800s – for that reason, the farm next door was called Pah Farm – and there are other indications of earlier civilisations in the terraced hills overlooking our land, which my husband pointed out when I took him to see the old farm. He said it reminded him of the ancient terracing in the Andes. In contrast to the turbulent history surrounding my world, my childhood was idyllic, even magical. Not far beyond is the place which became a film set for the Tolkien-inspired movie, The Hobbit. As a child, I often walked there barefoot to an adjacent natural reserve, Te Tapui. I immediately recognised the opening scene when I watched the film with a friend in a cinema in Ashford back in 2004! I piped up, “Hey! That’s where I grew up!” which drew banter from the audience. Someone replied, “I don’t believe you!” Someone else chimed in, “Just listen to her accent”.

I’m the original Hobbit. Wild peacocks roam the mountain slopes of Te Tapui. It really is a mystical place. The setting for The Hobbit lies in the Hinuera Valley, which is close to our old farm.

2. Did you always want to be a writer? If you also work, what do you do / did you do?

Writing was a dream, a what-if possibility. How wonderful it would be to become a poet, I often mused. I loved the poetry of W B Yeats and imagined writing inspired poetic works. However, I was committed to my art and pursued it for most of my life. I did receive a Certificate of Excellence for English while at high school and even won a poetry competition, but it was when my mother died in 2018 that I woke up one morning and realised I was a poet. Apparently, this is a common occurrence, particularly for women – as if it’s some ancient and mythic rite de passage, a coming of age in the unfolding of the Archetype or Goddess.

Some seed might have been planted when I worked as a pilot and flight instructor at an airfield in the southeast of England back in the day. Our boss was a brilliant writer, as we found out when he had his first novel published at 60! He loved words and chortled over various emails or missives he had come across, delighting in the absurdities or quirks of language. I secretly admired his achievement and imagined myself in his shoes. And here I am!

3. Tell us about your most recently published work in a sentence.

All Revolutions Begin This Way is a mythic journey through historic and imagined past and future landscapes, culminating in an epiphany of defiant self-realisation.

4. What are you working on right now?

Song of Abraxas, a collection of poems which came to me in the beating of invisible wings, a heated cauldron of inspiration. The poems are complete, apart from minor editing. But I’m still working on the art which will accompany the collection. The art is proving to be a challenge!

I’m also working on new poems, which I can pick up at any time, and have two complete chapbooks awaiting an outcome from publishers.

5. Do you have a writing routine, and if so what is it?

The flame of inspiration can strike at any time, but I begin my day with writing in a journal, which has proven to be a rich source for poetry over the years.

6. Where do you write – always in the same space, or different places? Can you write ‘on the move’?

Anywhere, anywhere at all – there is always some magical place which can bring Musewaves. For that reason, I always keep a notebook or sketchbook in my bag. The corner of a café with a window overlooking some scene is often ideal. I have my favourite haunts or restaurants where I know in advance Muses will gather. One instance was when my husband and I took a boating trip on the Waikato River with a group of others. We started on a jetty at Hamilton Gardens, and along the way, we spotted an eyot which instantly reminded me of Eel Pie Island in London. After that, I was engrossed in my notebook, in which I was jotting poems while my husband was trying to point out places of interest. Two of those poems landed in a collection which bagged a winning entry in one of Hedgehog Poetry’s competitions. When it’s published, you’ll recognise one of them.

7. What advice do you have for other authors who are starting out? What is the best advice you’ve heard?

Be true to yourself; ignore the external world, specifically the chatter in the void. Go within. Go into the silence and acquaint yourself with the Muse. Trust the voice of the god within; nurture your talent and intuition. Make a habit of writing down any idea – the first idea which comes into your head. Keep a journal; that way, you learn to swim in the currents of the universal or collective consciousness as it flows through your mind and pen.

Learn discernment, especially after your writing becomes more known or you have attracted an audience, however small. Build an army of supporters; trust your chosen path.

The best advice I had ever received was from my father: to believe in yourself, keep going and follow your dream.

8. Do you enjoy doing live readings or are they a necessary evil – or somewhere in between?

On the Briggs-Myers scale I am phenomenally introverted, to the point of excluding many other traits. You could place me in a darkened room and I would not be bored; my brain would download a truckload of ideas. But there is an aspect of my personality which is downright showy. At poetry readings I become a strutting rooster. Once, at an open mic session in a local pub, I silenced the entire place by the fourth line of the first stanza of a poem I read. The silence was electric with undivided attention. And bear in mind this is a rowdy place full of Waikato farmers who had probably never listened to a poetry reading before. At the end, everyone erupted in applause. I kid you not. Someone approached me afterwards and told me, “You could hear a pin drop!” If they had thought it was a joke that someone dared to come up on a stage to read a poem while everyone else played band music, they certainly weren’t laughing afterwards. I love to entertain.

9. Are there recurring themes in your work? Where do you feel these emanate from if so?

The mirroring of time is possibly a recurring theme, the encapsulation of the future in the present, the prescience of future events from the remembered past. Within that framework lies a lonely journey, a pilgrimage to an ideal, an understanding of the world and one’s place in it – a hero’s journey. These ideas may have emanated from an awareness that I’ve always been ‘different’, an outsider, and so, had to find my own way in life.

10. Should writers have a moral purpose? What is the purpose of a writer in today’s society?

Writers should have a sense of purpose, yes – a feeling of Destiny guiding them or of being fortified by some divine or spiritual calling. Otherwise, life’s vicissitudes and misfortune or discouraging voices could prove too much, and the writer could lose their way.

The question of morality may arise once the author enters the fray of the published world. The only morality which should matter is the continuation of civilisation and freedom of speech. One cannot exist without the other. I was working at Penguin Books in 1989 as an illustrator and designer at the height of the Salman Rushdie affair. You may remember there was a fatwah on his head. Every day when I rocked up to Penguin’s headquarters in Kensington Lane, we all were searched, and all our bags and kit had to pass through an X-ray scanner. Every day. Even though I was freelance, everyone who entered that building underwent the same process. Some of the permanent staff had to get security protection, as I recall. At the time, it was all rather a laugh and added a little frisson to our day’s work. We enjoyed animated discussions about it all, likening the situation to the Inquisition. At least the threat of burning at the stake was not on the cards. But that time remained with me, and I nod to the idea of a seed of significance planted for my future.

11. Do you write between genres or not?

I have stories hidden away – anecdotes from life detailing some excessively weird experiences, but they have never seen the light of day. All my published work is poetry.

12. Which living writers do you most admire?

There are many living writers which I admire, but two stand out. One is the poet Gabriela Milton, who writes with an incredible lush storehouse of imagery and transcendent juxtaposition of ideas. I discovered her when, a New York e-zine, published my poetry. The other is Peter Moon, a speculative author who writes about journeys into fields of consciousness. I have most of his books. I discovered him through his early work, The Montauk Project, in the early ‘90s. Both authors have established their own publishing houses.

13. Which dead writers do you most admire?

William Blake is especially near to my heart because he was an artist and a poet and printed his own works. He wove an entire Mythos out of his creativity and is universally considered the most seminal creative mind in the English creative pantheon. And I love W B Yeats, but also Dylan Thomas and Charles Baudelaire. There’s something nurturing and protective about Dylan’s poetry which helped bring sleep during a turbulent period some years back. Emily Dickinson is another favourite. It is amazing that among her 1800 poems, only 10 appeared in print in her lifetime.

14. What’s the book you wish you’d written?

There is no book that I wish I had written, but Dante’s Divine Comedy would be closest to it. He is a poet of the ages, innovative because he chose to write in the vernacular, and his influence has never waned since the Middle Ages. Imagine writing a work of such power.

15. What other external influences do you have: nature/place, music etc?

I have already mentioned cafes. Nature is the greatest influence and inspiration for poetry. Walks in nature fill the creative well; many of my poems concern nature, its beauty, its importance to the human spirit, and the effect of natural phenomena, especially storms, which nourish the writing impulse.

16. Do you suffer from ‘writer’s block’ and how do you overcome it if so?

Writer’s block is not so much a problem as my tendency to faff. I’m the faffmeister. The challenge is not a lack of ideas but the abundance of ideas which vie for attention and require organising. The risk of frittering my time on too many things at once is always a factor, so I’ve had to learn to focus on a specific project until its completion. However, I’m not rigid about it. Everything flows in cycles; writing always returns at the right time. Keep filling the well.

17. What’s been your favourite reaction to your writing?

Immediate and vibrant emotional responses to my work or performance are gratifying. Recently, I attended an online writer’s workshop. It was the first time I had contributed a poem. Previously, I attentively listened to others’ work. I had no idea what to expect. The host blew my mind by responding to one of the stanzas in the poem I read. “How good is that!” she enthused. It made my day.

18. How do your family and friends feel about your writing?

My husband is a great fan of my poetry. Since he is well-educated and very well-read, I value his feedback immensely.

19. Do you have a favourite bookshop?

I wish! We need a bookshop in our town. A homely little place with classics and second-hand books on one floor and current titles on another, and a café where poets could come to their read their work – and where we could meet in the evenings for that purpose. Naturally, there would have to be alcohol.

20. How do you see the future of writing? Will we become more or less dependent on Amazon?

The future of writing might be surprising. I see people turning away from Globalism and returning to small businesses and Mom and Pop enterprises. Like William Blake’s creations, you may see the rise of Incunabula editions and handmade books. I know an artist in the UK who produced a limited edition of woodcuts detailing St Brendan’s voyage. The books were bound in leather, decorated with stitched shells, and contained 40 original prints. Each book sold for £2000! These kinds of works will become more popular – but the future is self-publishing and independent publishers. With modern printing and binding machines, the possibilities are enormous.

All Revolutions Begin This Way

I was slavering like a beast, slain by wet air.

The jet stream of callous thought blew out my eyes

when I cavorted in a mad heaven of consequence.

Blame it on the weather; blame it on mischief

hosting a weak heart. I came like thunder

and cowardly souls cursed the rest. I planned an assault

framed with a pen; mapped an empire of ideas

on a cigarette wrapper.

All revolutions begin this way.

The tinsel that wraps a fume becomes the fight

that smokes the gun. All contestants drop down dead.

The aim is high; the shout is loud, the retort of the barrel

worth more than what it means to lose a dare,

a bet more reckless than a gambler's whim

caught in a furious fancy of stars -

because I held the future in a fist

and I defied the world on its spindle.

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