Words with Poet Tricia Elliott
by Lis Mesa
When Martha Beck (Finding Your Own North Star) and Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) share the work of a poet living and writing from a yurt in the Alaskan Wilderness, I knew I had to reach out, listen, and learn.
Lis Mesa (LM): BEARBONES is ‘poetry for curious souls.’ What makes a soul curious?
Tricia Elliott (TE): I think a curious soul is willing to risk uncertainty, to empathize with the unknown. I believe we all have this capacity, it’s just a matter of accepting the challenge. It’s also about being authentic, a daring thing in our culture. Questioning the accepted means you don’t get it, don’t fit in, or are trying to threaten the status quo. You come off as strange and unusual … sometimes, even dangerous. I think this is why many of us stop asking questions. We hide our wonder. But when you can be vulnerable and question what is by giving voice to your curiosity, you become powerful. You can change things.
LM: You live ‘in a yurt on a wooded ridge in Alaska, where [your] neighbors include bears, moose, and owls. During [your] days [you] feed the wood stove, haul water, plow the road, dry wet things, pack lunches, and write.’ Did you build this life or did it come find you?
TE: Both. A lifelong dream of mine – living a life more tied to the wilderness – coincided with an opportunity. I had all but given up on the idea, so when it became clear that our entire family was up for this adventure, I felt as if I’d won the lottery. Every day, I pinch myself.
LM: When did creativity hit and how hard? When did you know you had to write and when did you decide to share your work?
TE: I began writing stories in first grade. I love playing with words. It’s a private sort of therapy, I suppose. But a couple of years ago, after a close friend committed suicide, this shifted. My writing changed, and it wasn’t just for me anymore. I don’t fully understand it yet, myself. I just know that it’s time to use my voice, to step up and stop hiding. Maybe that’s because my friend didn’t. He told no one of his inner struggle. I wonder sometimes if it was the act of denying his pain that killed him. What I do know is that I’m not willing to ignore our shadows anymore. I think we are meant to share our stories, even the tough and scary ones … maybe especially those, because those are the ones that will show us how similar and connected we all are, and in that, there is hope.
LM: You say you hope your work ‘stirs something real inside of [people]…the Velveteen Rabbit kind of real.’ That’s probably as real as it gets. Why invoke this image, what is it about the Velveteen Rabbit that gets right in, deep inside us?
TE: By real, I mean true. The Velveteen Rabbit real that reaches us, I think, is the longing we all harbor to love and be loved as our true selves, and the magic of that. The MAGIC of going naked authentic, with all the worn spots and split seams and stains out there in the open and still finding that you are love, loved, and loving. I mean, really – is there anything more magical and real than this? Is there anything as healing? So yeah, I aim ridiculously high with this hope. But why not? It is my sincerest wish that by stumbling upon the universal truths revealed by my own experiences, someone else is inspired. Not just by the words, or images or emotions, but into action on behalf of their own inspiration. I hope that they are stirred to seek their own truths, to be their own REAL authentic selves, and to change the world in their own way.
LM: What are some recurring themes and symbols in your work? How do they manifest throughout your day-to-day life? How do they appear at night, in your dreams?
TE: One theme seems to be questioning my own ideas. I start with some troubling thought, or belief, and then test it against what is offered by the natural world, say a glacial firn line, or a shrew’s tracks. Ultimately, it flips, and becomes freedom. I don’t fully understand my pull to the landscape, creatures and plants that live around me. They inspire me, and inhabit my dreams. Sometimes, an image or phrase from a dream lingers into the next day. Other times, a photograph will keep nudging at me, as if there’s a message in it. So when I sit down to write, I start there.
LM: ‘Suturing’, ‘Migration’, ‘Ally’, ‘Signature’, ‘Ground’, ‘Handler’, ‘Termination Dust’, ‘Affirmation’, and ‘Pingo’ – the titles of some of your poems which are inspired by your natural surroundings. Where else do you find sources of inspiration?
TE: Relationships. Healing. Parenting. Teaching. Big spiritual questions. Any experience I have had is fair game. I love paradoxes, and the challenge of approaching the magical and unexplainable with my weird mix of science and mysticism.
LM: You’re removed from most things that kill our modern soul. But I assume you keep up with the news from time-to-time. How do you keep that world from seeping into yours?
TE: It’s actually helpful for me to remember that there aren’t two separate worlds, ‘mine’ and ‘theirs’, but that we are all in this together. Don’t get me wrong, I too feel panic and grief and frustration when I listen to the news. When I do, I turn it off, feel all the feels, and breathe through it. Sometimes it takes a while. Sometimes I act on it, like calling my Senator, or talking about the issues with my daughters (ages seven and nine) as a way of breaking the cultural patterns we inherit. And, the next chance I get, I write into it. I can’t say that I empathize easily with politicians or terrorists, but I can find the humans within those worldviews if I remain curious, grounded in our one shared home planet, and peel back the layers to whatever truth lies at the core of even my own bad choices (like fear of the unknown, or lack of control). That doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it helps me to remember that we all have more in common with each other than anyone in power would like us to believe.
LM: And when you can’t ignore it. The impact of climate change – how real is this for you and how deeply does it affect your creativity, your sources of inspiration, your soul?
TE: It is real, truly, every day. It may be the only politically charged issue that the majority of Alaskans agree on (>70%). We just can’t ignore it here. Entire villages have slid into the ocean. Beloved species (and not just polar bears) are in decline. How can we ignore this? I believe climate change is the single most important issue facing us as a species, as a global community, today. I go a little out of my mind when I dwell on how the evidence and impacts have been handled, politically … because it is at once so global and so deeply personal. I don’t know why, but my soul has always felt most at home in the circumpolar North … which is one of the ecosystems being most rapidly affected by climate change. I think we all live with a (largely unconscious) communal grief for the impacts of our lifestyles, and mine is tied most directly to the changes happening in the North. I suspect this shapes my creativity by giving a sense of urgency to it.
LM: How do you recharge, refuel, reconnect to everything good and holy around you again – how do you cleanse your spirit and get back to work?
TE: Well, I can give you all of the expected answers, like reading, meditating, yoga, snuggling with my girls … and sure, that’s true. I try to get in all that stuff whenever I can. But the single most centering thing I do is to spend time walking in the woods with my dogs. I try to go every day, even if just for a few minutes.
LM: I’m an immigrant. I left Communist Cuba at six–years-old and was raised in the States. Now I live and study in Scotland. Your poem Migration – I keep reading it over and over, why does it break me completely?
TE: I love knowing that it reaches you. I can’t explain why it does that for you, but I can tell you what inspired that poem. I wanted to write about loss, and grief, and how it can feel like we get knocked off our path and out of our belonging when we experience a tragedy. The paradox is that when we feel most alone in that place, we are actually stumbling around in a field of possibility. It is a beginning, and every step we take away from what was and toward what is, is our becoming. It is a magical, excruciating time. It feels like nothing is changing, when in fact everything has. One day we look up and realize that not only have we been moving, but the journey has picked up speed; not only were we not alone, we were never separate, not for a moment, ever.
LM: I found your work because the Great Martha Beck posted ‘Suturing’ on her Facebook page, which led to the Great Elizabeth Gilbert sharing your poem on her Facebook page, and within 24 hours it had over 3,000 likes. Were you aware they had stumbled upon your words before you saw the posts?
TE: I was. I knew they were aware of my poems, because I had participated in a (phenomenal) writing course this past summer (Write into Light) that is offered by Martha Beck, but this particular move felt like it happened really fast. I had a few days to prepare. They advised me to “get ready for traffic” (meaning on my blog). This led me to set up a public Facebook writer’s page, while breathing into a paper bag.
LM: I’ve always considered them personal ‘spirit guides’. I was so moved and immediately had to reach out to you. Why do you think ‘Suturing’ resonates with so many people? I keep seeing it pop up all over the web.
TE: It’s brief – that helps. But I think it resonates because it is both current and universal. The idea of being powerful, no matter who you are, is on so many of our minds right now. It is a political, cultural, newsworthy topic in our society on so many levels. But I think it reaches us at our core because it is also the truth. We all know, deep down, and long to allow ourselves to believe, that each one of us can reshape this world. It doesn’t matter how small or how brief our lives are. We know this, despite everything we see and hear from the hustle and noise around us. We know this at such a depth that, when we read it, presented in this surprising, undeniably evident way, we recognize it as truth.
LM: And lastly, something simple: for those of us who are lost, how do we find our way?
TE: Well, the good news is that I don’t have the answer to that – each one of us does, for our own selves. The map of yourself is written on your soul. If that doesn’t help you at all, here are some milestones from my own journey of repeatedly losing and finding my own way: Breathe. You are so much more than your fears, your outsides, your thoughts. Be your own witness. Get to know your truth, your inner landscape. Dare to be seen, and to be heard. Dare to love, and to receive it. Be magical. Be alive. Be curious. Be you.