Taking a Bite Out of Poetry with Elizabeth Akin Stelling

Elizabeth Akin Stelling | Z-Composition

Elizabeth Akin Stelling, Texas-born poet, artist, cook, and mother, gives Lamplighter some insight into her poetic roots (which include making and eat a lot of food) and what she’s up to now — which includes zombies and cowgirls.

You and your writing: tell us how it all began.
I have been writing, drawing, cooking, and listening for a very long time, since my earliest memories on the hardwood floor of a one-bedroom duplex at age three. I was gifted with the most vivid memory, which carries over and affects all of what I do. (If I could only get rich in pocket rather than heart).

What is the connection between cooking and writing for you?
When people eat my food, they hear me speak. Writing and cooking go hand in hand for me. A way of communicating. Binding a beat between both.
Again, it goes back to my vivid memories of family gatherings in and around my grandparents’ kitchen and garden. Believe it or not, I was a shy and quiet girl until I moved out on my own. I was an observer. My father always said “Don’t speak until you have something to say,” and I did most of my talking in my stories and poetry and drawings. I have no trouble speaking today, but I still try to sit back and only speak when I read my work. In the kitchen, it’s the same way. I relax when I cook, and when people eat my food, they hear me speak. Writing and cooking go hand in hand for me. A way of communicating. Binding a beat between both.

Talk to me about one of your poems, “A Summer’s Kiss.”
A Summer’s Kiss” was inspired by my love for tomatoes. I have loved and longed for tomatoes since my introduction to them in my grandmother’s garden in Fort Worth, Texas. Food often finds its way into my poetry. Many family memories revolve around food in the home, so it is very relatable, and it refers to New Jersey being a garden state.

Tell us a little bit about your forthcoming book, 131 Years of Love.
Four years ago, I went to a reading in the bowels of a local library. Pasquale Varallo was there to read from his first published book, and just as he was about to read, the toilet flushed above us and the sewage pipe made this loud swoosh. He laughed, made a joke, and became my friend for life. Pasquale is 81, and we often write poetry together. He lost his wife the same year my daughter passed (ten days apart). We had an immediate connection. It was meant to be, he and I, writing about our combined ages, 131 years, of love. And loss. We share a similar sense of humor and an admiration for the blue-collar working class we grew up in.

Do you have a favorite topic to write about?

I guess you could say memory whispering is my calling. With a dash of salt and pepper, of course. I call myself a Memory Whisperer. After 131 Years Of Love and my poetry CD, Cast Iron Tempo, are released this year, I plan to seek a publisher for Avocado Green Kitchen And Gold Accented Childhood, a collection of relatable poetry and prose set in the sixties and seventies about growing up in poverty amid alcoholism and mental illness from the point of view of a learning-disabled child. I guess you could say memory whispering is my calling. With a dash of salt and pepper, of course.

What is Z-composition?
Z-comp is my imagination and dreams come true. I’ve always been drawn to the horror genre — a bit skittish about blood and gore, but that’s what fast-forward or napkins over my glasses is for when watching movies. I started writing zombie poems and flash fiction and hadn’t noticed many e-zines that accepted work like mine, so I decided to start my own. I had other poet friends who wrote such work as well, and ZombiePoetry.com was the brain-child of my search. The site is not just about the undead; we’re looking for dark, edgy, nightmarish creations. Horrors are waiting to be invented. It’s a great outlet from the stress of our day-to-day lives.

How did Z-composition lead to cowgirl literature?
I am a cowgirl riding a zombie horse to battle every day—poetic enough for you? Western literature is in me as well. I began embracing my Texas roots once I moved to New Jersey. I always wanted to escape my heritage, but I found I missed it once I left. I never felt there were any seriously good Western e-zines. Some of the better ones had died out before the Internet really got going. So, once again, I figured I should start my own. I would love to see this in print one day. I get emails from people thanking me for the site. And wonderful work is coming in. June 1st is when we launch.

How would a writer go about getting work published in your journals?
Westerns are a subculture, like riding a horse — anyone can do it. Just place yourself in the saddle, read True Grit (a great read, I might add), walk along a desert, and imagine what the Trail Of Tears was like. Reading is the key to opening up our minds. Don’t shy away from something new. I have had people say “I’m not into zombies,” without knowing anything about the horror genre. I didn’t know as much as I do now until I tried it.

What should a first-time reader know before taking the stage at an open-mic?
We all make mistakes, and no one is going to know you messed a word or a line up. Never say “I’m sorry.” There is no need. Not everyone has their work memorized. Keep it light. Don’t read an epic or too serious piece unless the group is there for that purpose. You don’t want to bum people out or turn a music venue into a memorial.

Only ten percent of the people remember and hear ten percent of what you read. It takes ten times for someone to remember what you said, so don’t feel like no one wants to hear the piece more than once. And don’t read long pieces. Keep them brief and light. It also depends on the audience and venue you are reading to. Often, poetry-only groups are more open to longer and more serious pieces. People love body language when you are reading. Add dramatic effect and you will be remembered.