Everyone has a story to tell; each one of us a writer of poetry – some, without even realising. That stream of consciousness that runs in our veins? It’s poetry waiting to be written. We believe in the power of words, and that power is what urged us set up PoetsIN.
It’s because of those inner streams, that we bring you this regular interview feature, Writer Profiles. An interview with a writer. Some you’ll know, some you won’t.
This week it’s someone else who is a friend of PoetsIN, after donating her time to perform at our July fundraiser in London. She’s a smasher. Her name is Elise Wouters.
Relax with a platter of oysters and some bubbles, and you read this week’s writer profile.
Who are you and what do you do?
I’m Elise Wouters. I’m a writer, and I perform spoken word poetry.
How would you label your spoken word poetry if forced to label it?
Provocative yet tender. I want my words to feel like the thrill of a first flirtation – exciting, heartfelt, but also on the knife edge of something a little dangerous. My nan actually called me ‘saucy’ after she saw me perform. She’s 95 now, but she was a kind of bra-burning Joan of Arc back in the day, so I’ll happily take that description as well.
What is your relationship with words and how has that evolved over time?
Words have always been my most important ally, whether to express myself, to persuade, or to seduce. I’ve always spent a lot of time reading and living inside my own head. Only when I moved to London to study English Lit at uni, I gained a sense of belonging.
I still can’t walk past a bookshop without popping in. My local one is Walden Books in Camden. Whenever I feel a bit lost, I browse the stacks of art books and bound Keats volumes, and instantly feel better. There’s a section at the back with rare books and first editions. The other day I found this slim pamphlet by a guy called Giles Gordon, who used to live just up the road in Kentish Town. He had handwritten this long note inside, addressed to the woman who features in most of his poems. It was so intimate and moving to read; it completely brightened my day.
So yes, words can save. If one line of mine can make the difference in someone’s life, it’s worth it.
How long have you been writing and performing?
When I was ten, I won a national poetry competition with a poem I’d written about girl empowerment, which was a concept I had only just about grasped through half-understood Spice Girls lyrics that same month. My dad helped me to construct this huge sign that I could barely carry on stage with some type of Girl Power! slogan on it. I remember stomping across the stage in my little ballerina flats when I recited the poem, but it must have somehow resonated with the audience and judges.
Ever since that little Kathleen Hanna moment, I’ve continued writing and performing in various capacities, though I know that I only recently really found my own voice… I think I needed to gain certain life experiences in order to get to this stage. Like most late bloomers – always a season behind, but a dream ahead.
You kindly donated your time to our Fundraiser in July. Is mental health something you feel strongly about?
Absolutely. When I look at my group of friends and peers, I see a lot of them grappling with similar issues. I know that I am riddled with perfectionism and OCD, which doesn’t do me any favours when it comes to finishing and releasing my work, but I’m… working on it.
It’s a promising sign that we’re having more conversations around mental health, though there’s a long way to go. Especially when you look at government cuts to services, vulnerable groups being left behind, endless waiting lists… Times are tough, and I feel quite helpless about it. The least I can do is try to actively be there for my mates, I guess. I often hesitate to reach out to people when I’m going through a rough patch myself (and I normally wear my heart on my sleeve), so I can see how people can become isolated in their struggle, or turn to self-medication in order to cope.
Please describe your writing process.
I try to write every day, even if it’s just a little note on my phone in the supermarket or a half formed scribble at 3AM. I walk around London a lot, and that’s when I often come up with my best ideas – it’s my own form of creative therapy.
Killing my darlings is tough, but a lot of my stories will get discarded, or dismembered, or they morph into something else entirely in the long term.
But one true sentence every day. That’s how I begin. The rest always follows.
Some of us write our best stuff when in a rage, heartbroken or fighting depression. Are you affected in similar ways and do you use writing as a venting mechanism?
Not necessarily. When I’m really struggling, I become almost paralysed. Heartbreak and depression really hinder my ability to think clearly, let alone be productive.
That being said, I do need a certain level of unhappiness in life, which sounds mad. I noticed that contentment kills my creativity, so I’ve grown into the queen of self sabotage. In order to spark that fire, my mind needs something to battle for, or with, or against. Something to long for, something just out of reach.
Often, it’s a delicate and fraught balance between not allowing myself to be comfortably happy, yet not tipping over into the brain fog of complete darkness. Most artists that I admire seem to be the same. Maybe the curse in choosing to create something meaningful is having to destroy, and that often means sacrificing parts of yourself.
You have to choose one poem or song to be remembered by. What is it and why?
I’m working on this volume called A Heart at High Tide, which I hope to release in the near future. It’s my ode to desire, and consists of a series of letters & short stories – some of which I have been editing for what seems like forever, others I only started writing this year. It’s a 21st century version of a love letter. Anais Nin for the generation who grew up with ‘you up?’ texts at 2AM.
One of these stories I wrote in a couple of hours in Margate last autumn, after a night of revelry with new friends. Dawn was trickling in across the horizon; the first morning sun was licking the side of the TS Eliot shelter. I had left behind my bag in the mayhem, but then I walked past this guy scrubbing the floor of his chip shop, and I asked for a biro and some paper to write it down. This makes me sounds like a swooning poet in the garret, but needs must and all…
The story explores infatuation and obsession. If you’ve ever stepped into the pitch black sea at midnight, you recognise that feeling… as if you’re being swallowed whole: equal parts thrilling and terrifying.
Overall, I’m so proud of this volume; it grew from a dark place and turned into something beautiful, enticing and exciting. My heart and soul distilled into a novella of fiery dreams.
If you could collaborate with anyone out there (alive or dead), who would it be and why?
Simone de Beauvoir & Frida Kahlo. I’d like to think we’d start a grand creative love triangle and correspondence across time and continents.
That being said, I’d also loved to have been Columbo’s sidekick; I would totally nail the timing of our coordinated eyebrow raise.
Who are your writing influences, heroes and villains poetically, musically and/or lyrically?
It changes with the seasons. Right now, I really love Nizar Qabbani, Anne Carson, Marina Tsvetaeva, Eugénio de Andrade. I only just discovered Jeanette Winterson, and I’m blown away by her novels. E.E.Cummings’ erotic poems are fantastic as well (he truly lived up to the potential of his name.)
In general, I’m influenced by creative people across the spectrum of the arts – Billie Holiday, Egon Schiele, Alexander McQueen. Yves Saint Laurent is one of my greatest influences. I never feel more inspired than sitting in the garden by his majorelle blue house in Marrakech. His influence went far beyond his craft.
But I also often turn to my mum – she has the most wicked way with words. She helps my dad run our apple and pear farm in Belgium, so she’s never been a writer, per se. But she has this ability to turn any moment into a story – with joie de vivre and an incredibly dry sense of humour at the same time.
What quote/song/poem inspires you the most and why?
I’m often inspired by clever rhymes, little turns of phrases. Catullus 5 was the first poem that really taught me about the intricacies and layers of writing. Maybe because I had to translate it from Latin into Dutch, so I found out about all the clever little ins and outs. The poet encourages two lovers to be together despite the odds. To me, it’s beautiful in its simplicity and juxtapositions.
There’s a piece called ‘How to Speak Poetry’ by Leonard Cohen, which strikes that balance of serious, funny and sexy which only Cohen could get away with:
Writer’s block, is it real or a myth?
It’s a myth. Fuck the muse. Be your own.
Finish this sentence… Words are the epitome of…
What’s next for Elise Wouters?
I’m releasing my first poetry video this month, which I am thrilled about. I’ve also got some gigs in London and the rest of the UK lined up – the next one is in Peterborough at the end of September. I’m working on a release with a musician, a project abroad & finishing A Heart at High Tide.
At the moment, I feel like I’m in a pretty sweet place – confident in my own skin and work, and surrounded by just the right balance of love & friction. And hungry. Always hungry for the next adventure.
Thanks again to Elise for donating her time to our Fundraiser, and for answering our questions here, too. We’re sure you’ll agree she’s a wonderful human being. She is all over social media and we would recommend you follow her. On Instagram she is @eliserebelfox on Twitter her handle is @elisewouters and check out her website elisewouters.com