“What is poetry without its readers?”: An Interview with Elizabeth M. Castillo

Reading Elizabeth M. Castillo’s debut collection, Cajoncito: Poems on Love, Loss, y Otras Locuras, I was influenced to look deeper into my own experience with Spanish and the intimacy of the details within my own writing. It has also inspired me to attempt to write poetry in Spanish, rather than English as I usually do. 

A cajoncito is a small box, often with the ability to store something inside of it. Castillo’s book Cajoncito perfectly depicts this translation as an illustrated, multilingual poetry collection with big, intimate themes stored within the confines of a book. The British-Mauritian Castillo teaches languages in Paris, and has a number of pen names under which she writes, as she puts it in her bio, “all sorts of things, from poetry to picture books; with period retellings and romance in between.” In this interview, Castillo and I talk about the duality in the language in her book, the troubles with translating phrases that won’t go into other languages, as well as the importance of accessibility to a variety of readers who speak different languages. 

The title of your book, Cajoncito, translates directly as “a small drawer or a small box.” It makes me think that this title perhaps refers to a location where you stored these poems, hidden away, meant to serve a purpose strung together in a collection. What is Cajoncito to you?

You’re exactly right! These were a group of poems written about feelings and experiences, both my own and some I observed in other people, that were written and then put away…life goes on you see, and one can’t keep wallowing in the same waters of grief and loss, especially when life has a fresh new batch of hurt waiting for you just around the corner! 

I actually didn’t have much hope for these poems—they are so incredibly personal that I didn’t think they would resonate with many people, or had much literary merit. But I did feel that they deserved a “home” of their own, so I built them this cajoncito, this collection, which has been far more successful than I ever imagined! 

Where were you while writing the poems in this collection? Did you write and formulate this book throughout the pandemic?

In Paris mostly, where I live. Most were written during the pandemic, although about a dozen of the poems were written in Mauritius or Chile years ago (the oldest is 12 years old!). And they were all reworked during the pandemic. I also finalized the artwork and translations in Mexico in the summer of ’21. 

And more specifically, many of these were written during walks in the forest by my house, in my bathtub, in between two homeschool activities, at work on my coffee break, in the kitchen while cooking dinner, and in bed between 2 and 3 a.m., when my muse woke me up because he had something to say.

I admire many aspects of this book, including the format. Each poem is mirrored in Spanish or English, and the form of the poem is even mirrored in a call-and-response kind of way. Can you talk about your choice of doing this and the process?

Originally Cajoncito was about 80 percent English with the odd Spanish poem. I sent this version out to beta readers without any translations, and they all came back saying how they wished they could understand the Spanish poems. In the meantime, my Spanish writing went into overdrive and I produced enough poems to match the English ones, so a sort of balance naturally occurred. 

As I began to be published in Latin America, I realized that a bilingual collection was the only way to “satisfy”  both my English- and Spanish-speaking readers. I already had a network of Mexican and Spanish poets and writers who were excited about the project, and I traveled to Mexico to finish up the translation process with Andrés Piña, my good friend and accomplished poet himself. 

I’m fluent in Spanish, but translating one’s own poetry is a perilous task, so I was happy to have another poet to work with. It was such a lovely experience, and it brought me to really reflect on my work, and be more conscientious in my writing and editing—not just throw all my feelings onto paper and see what happens. 

And then formatting-wise, I had a clear idea that I wanted each poem mirrored. All of my poems are on the shorter side (with the exception of “Pedacitos,” my bunny-boiler poem), so they fit nicely on one page. It was a bit of a headache to format, and it meant the font had to be fairly small, but I’m quite happy with how it turned out. Symmetrical. 

I read on your Twitter that you learned Spanish and chose to implement it in this bilingual collection. What was it like learning Spanish? 

I love languages, so it was absolute bliss! I grew up bilingual, and have always traveled, so learning new languages always feels like the most natural thing in the world. 

But my relationship to Spanish is a very special one. It is my fourth language, but I write in it far more than I write in French or Kreol. I feel like English and French are the pillars I grew up with—I didn’t choose them, but I do love them dearly. But Spanish I chose… for its simplicity, its history, its earnestness, and its rough edges. I wrote in an essay once—“English and French are my brothers, but Spanish is the love of my life!”

As I read the translator’s note by Andrés Piña, talking about his experience translating the poems in this book, it came to my attention that some of these poems were originally written in English and others in Spanish. Can you talk about writing in these two languages? Did you come across words that couldn’t be translated into English or lost meaning in another language? What helps get this same meaning across in translation?

In my poem “Paris, mi octobre,” there’s the line: “The French have no word for ‘kindness’ / which is very telling, I find.”

Language is an ambassador of culture—it’s only natural that language has evolved to serve the needs of the people who speak it. English is reserved and understated, and so lends itself well to poems with irony or subdued feelings. It doesn’t “gush” half as well as Spanish, in the same way, that Spanish doesn’t rein itself in very well. 

In terms of process, it’s very simple, really. Some poems come to me in Spanish, some in English. Occasionally there will be a line in French or Mauritian Kreol. The poem decides for itself really— I know that sounds very arty-farty, but it’s true! 

There are some instances when a turn of phrase or a play on words couldn’t quite be translated, such as “Exito, Liz” where the crux of the poem is on the word “Exito,” which means something different in Spanish and English. But I find these differences and challenges very interesting— they add layers to the poem. 

I’m actually running a few workshops this year for writers who want to explore using different languages in their work. You don’t have to be fluent in a language to experiment with it in your work, and I’ve always found multilingual poetry to be incredibly poignant and rich. 

One of my favorite poems in this collection is “Possession.” The lines “Amor mío./ Culpa tuya/ Locura mía” (“My love/ Your guilt/ My madness”) reads like a confession of sorts set to music. Is this meant to be read this way? I also notice that the punctuation differs between the Spanish version and the English version. Is this intentional?

Thank you! “Possession” was written fairly early as well. It’s basically the transcription of a conversation I had with someone on the subject of Spanish and its flexible syntax. And yes, there is an element of confession to it. I am incredibly rash as a person, and that sometimes gets me into trouble. So this poem is an apology for one of these instances. The change in punctuation wasn’t necessarily intentional, more a choice based on what sounded better in each language.

There are so many ways that this book is accessible to many readers. Even if someone is unable to read one language in this book, you offer readers a roadmap to learn and feel the writing and words in one’s preferred or native language. Is this something that you planned when you wrote the book? Is accessibility important to you as a writer, especially being a multilingual writer?

Thank you! I really hope readers do find it accessible. One of the biggest problems in literature these days is that the vast majority of people find poetry inaccessible. I believe this is the result of years of teaching only the classics in school—poetry that has its place but is hard to relate to for most school students. This is such a tragedy because there is so much poetry out there that speaks to so many people’s stories, but until we can get it into schools and institutions it will continue to be considered “niche.” 

I don’t think I planned for accessibility in particular when putting Cajoncito together, but I am a teacher by trade, and I do find that I tend to take a nurturing, inclusive approach in everything I do—in and outside of the classroom. So I suppose on a subconscious level I didn’t want anyone to miss out on anything. 

I think the accessibility you mention also comes from how precious each of these poems are to me. More than worrying about whether the reader would be able to understand everything, I was worried that each poem needed to be understood, if that makes sense. I wanted to make sure each poem got the attention it deserved. 

So, yes, as a poet especially, accessibility is extremely important. What is poetry without its readers? 

I read that you were recently involved in The MumWrite Anthology launch. Can you talk about this? Did you read some of your own poetry? What is the most memorable thing from this experience?

Mumwrite is a fantastic writing program and group led by Nikki Dudley to support busy mothers in their writing careers. It’s so hard juggling childcare, household chores, work outside the home and writing. Mum guilt is a real issue for most mothers, including me, so I was delighted when I found Nikki and attended some of her workshops on resilience in writing among other things. She really gave me the confidence to take my writing seriously and put my work out there.

So when she asked if I wanted to contribute to the Mumwrite annual anthology, I was over the moon! Last year I bought the 2021 edition and fell in love with some of the writers there, so it was an honor to be featured alongside such amazing women writers. 

I love being asked to read at book launches—there’s nothing more exciting than turning up to show your support for a writer at the birth of their book baby! An upside to the pandemic is that many of these events have been moved online, so I’ve been lucky enough to attend launches from around the world.

This launch was very relaxed and intimate—the great thing about Mumwrite is that it’s designed for mothers with kids, so distractions and disturbances are commonplace—mums dipping in and out for bedtime, or little ones popping up on the screen to say hi. I read my featured poem and a few more from a collection I’m working on about daughterhood, motherhood, marriage, miscarriage, and depression—such a cheery subject I know! But it was great fun! And I’m excited to see what Nikki has in store for Mumwrite this year. 

Such things as location, family, and familial loss carry through this collection. In your poem “Context,” you write about loss in your family, including the most powerful line, “And I lost my baby on the bathroom floor.” You also talk about giving yourself to someone so much that you even give yourself to someone in your sleep. These moments are so poignantly intimate. With such intimacy throughout your poetry, did you find yourself looking at this collection in a way that made you hesitant to publish it, or was it this intimacy that led you to publish?

These poems are very intimate, and each one was written from a very vulnerable place. I was hesitant to publish them, not because I’m afraid of being vulnerable, but because I really didn’t think they would resonate with anyone else. When I began writing them I truly felt like they wouldn’t appeal to poetry lovers as they weren’t as “literary” or polished as some of the work I was seeing getting published. Then I began reading more and more work from the indie writing community, from small, independent presses, and from other countries and I realized that there was a place in this world for my words, and people somewhere out there that might even need them. 

I want to sincerely mention my respect for you, having self-published this book. Since this book is self-published, what was the publishing process like? What were some of the hardest things that you faced as someone who published this on your own? 

Thank you—it was no mean feat I must say! What was it like? Exhausting, to be honest! But that’s my own fault—I could have just stuck to one language, put the poems out there without such niggling formatting, or left out the illustrations. But I wanted to do all these things, along with all the promotional work I did such as live poetry readings on Instagram and Twitter and organizing my own “blog tour” of interviews and podcast appearances. I also wanted to make sure every signed pre-order shipped wrapped, scented, and packed with goodies from Mauritius, France, and Chile. It was great fun, but exhausting! 

The hardest part is definitely the fact that I am only one person doing the work of a writer, translator, editor, proofreader, graphic designer, publisher, and publicist, on top of everything else I have to get done in a day. I’m not sure I would self-publish a poetry collection again, but I have no regrets, as I learned a lot and managed to sell more copies than I expected, which was a wonderful surprise!

One question that has lingered in my mind as I read this book, watching the shifts in language, the duality in English and Spanish, as well as many of the intimate details that have been revealed throughout this collection is, what do you want people to come away with after reading this book? 

That is such a hard question! I suppose the artist in me would want the reader to be left with a hunger to read more of my work! But the most rewarding feedback I have gotten, and that I would always want to get more of, is when readers have found something of themselves in this book. A poet I greatly admired messaged me to say my poem “(Probably not) the last poem I ever write about you” helped her grieve through her own personal loss. Another reader reached out by email to tell me she read “Can I send you my poems?” several times a week because it gave her strength to face her own mountains. Most recently someone contacted me on Instagram to thank me for the book, as it had reconciled them to poetry, which they had given up reading for several years. As long as my poems can keep meeting the reader where they need to be met, I’m satisfied.

I guess I see my poetry in the same way I see my children. I rear them and care of them until it’s time for them to fly the nest, and I can only hope they go out into the world and make it a better place, doing good to everyone that crosses their path. So it’s always gratifying to hear what they have done.

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