Food and poetry? It makes sense if you think about it. When I first heard that Elizabeth Stelling was a “food poet,” I wasn’t sure what to think. But in her interview she said “I hope that I can feed you with my words as well as my good cooking,” and when I heard (read) that, I got it. Poetry fills us up just as much as food, so why not combine the tool together? I think you’ll find after reading Elizabeth’s interview that a little more poetry in our lives is just what we need!
Enjoy this interview.
Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how long have you been writing?
I was born and raised in Texas. Grew up in and around Dallas. I grew up with farm and homegrown value parents. Like many families during those times, and a father growing up in the depression era we lived simply. So I grew up in the kitchen of my father’s parents and my own home. Both my mother, father, and his parents were good with their hands, so creativity was a given. My grandfather and mother both wrote poetry. I would stay at my grandparents and he had stacks of books next to his chair, so I would pick them up and read.
I was artistic and a reader from an early age. Not necessarily encouraged to do so, but allowed the freedom. I am sure like many children I had a great imagination, because we had to find something to do with our selves. We did not have the distractions our own children have now days. I wrote my first song with my best friend in grade school. Not that I am a brilliant songwriter today, but I believe I already had begun to piece words together in my head. My first tangible poem was written at fifteen, ‘Corn Bread & Beans’. I have changed it three or four times, but I seem to go back to the first draft. It was just published in a local Princeton Publication, The Wild River Review. I was excited to be accepted as an artist for this publication, and plan on submitting more work.
I have always written over the years, but raising two children, running two businesses has hindered my ability to take the quality time to concentrate on serious writing. Losing my daughter to congenital heart disease ten years ago forced me to slow down, and re-think my life. Also my experience with pain, loss, and hardship has opened up my creative flow in ways I never imagined. Writing now without all my past distractions has opened up flood gates, so I am writing almost on a daily basis. I run an open mic for poets and acoustic musicians in New Jersey. This also has helped inspire me. I wanted a place to share my work. Bounce off and surround myself with other artists that have the same desires.
You list yourself as the “regular food poet”at www.croptocuisine.org. Sounds intriguing. Tell us more about that.
I was contacted by Dov Hirsch of Crop To Cuisine back in October, 2009. He asked me if I had any food poetry I might want to submit. What was funny is I had not written to much food poetry until the past few years. I guess the frustrations of working in high stress kitchen environments and with people who have no clue about running a kitchen had begun to come out in a few pieces. I went back to those works, which had gotten great response read aloud at the open mic, and re-worked a few to fit his show’s theme. The show set me up at the local Mercer County College recording studio make MP3 CD. I sent it over to Crop To Cuisine. I got a call from the producer saying he listened to one, then he found he could not stop and listened to the whole thing and felt I was the right fit for the show. Currently they are regrouping and redesigning their website, so you will be able to go listen soon. The show plays out of Boulder Colorado, on www.kgnu.org – 3 PM MT every other Monday. The show is a really good food consumer program, or I would not have done it. It was exciting to hear myself, and realize that I had a radio voice.
Tell us about CookAppeal.
I have been involved with institutional, restaurant, and catering work since I was old enough to work. My dream one day was to own my own food related business. CookAppeal is a boutique catering business. We offer customized party and event planning, menu design and prep, as well as a staffing service for parties 1-100. I focused on catering in culinary school when I worked for the director. In Dallas I started a small company similar to CookAppeal, but was more wine and food pairing, The Cork Screws Wine & Food Experience. I have worked as a personal chef, and currently teach private and basic culinary classes to inner city high school and college age kids in Trenton, NJ. I am working on breaking back into the food and wine pairing end of the business with a new business, ‘Partners In Wine’ Club with a wine colleague of mine. I am the Chef and Owner. I also owned a small café in a health food store in Ewing, NJ that unfortunately was hit by the bad economy. Mom and Pop stores like Simply Natural Living suffer in these times, and it is too bad.
How did you first discover that you loved poetry?
I cannot remember exactly what drew me into poetry, but my aunt took me to plays in local theaters when I would stay over at my grandparents in Fort Worth, where I was born. I eventually realized my grandfather wrote poetry when he would read his elegies written for relatives funerals. I can say that the more romantic poetry of the renaissance period was my favorite to hear. I loved Shakespearean plays. Also authors like Jane Austin were my favorites, and I can remember writing romantic prose for my romantic girlhood crushes. Hormones out of control, lol.
Which poets were you first drawn to?
I loved Lord Byron, and most recently have began reading his works again. I did not understand what I read early in life, but I knew I liked it. Of course Shakespeare, both Browning’s, especially Elizabeth, and so many more. But honestly I have to say that when I went to my first open mic in the 80’s I really felt like I had found my place as a poet. I heard these spoken word artist spouting emotion, feelings, rants that I had never heard or felt before. Poetry like no other; it spoke to me. So that is the direction my poetry has taken.
Do you remember writing your first poem? How old were you? What was it about?
My first real poem was ‘Corn Bread & Beans’; it had nothing to do with food other than I remember we ate it all the time. I associated it with my family being poor, but it’s rhythm is more about the aroma of our house, the feelings of a parents struggle to keep it together. How a child views and associates his or her surroundings with the taste of what we could afford.
The date on the original hand written copy was 1974. I had forgotten about it, and found it in an old box of school keepsakes I carried around. Once going through it to lighten my load after my own children were born I kept the green folder. Still have it today, but its badly damaged.
I keep every piece of paper I write on if I can; otherwise I have computer files, and backed up files of each piece I write. I read that Guy Clark, one of my favorite songwriters still hand writes his work, and so do I. That is an art I plan to instill into my own son’s writing. I used to write letters, and still enjoy handwriting letters to family and friends. One day I am afraid it will be a lost art.
How often do you find yourself writing poetry? Are there moments or moods that draw you to poetry more than others?
Now, I write as much as I can in a week. I began a novel two years ago and I pull it out and spend four or five hours a month on it. Laughingly I call my short pieces ADD writing. I believe that I am ADHD in some ways, so poetry is a good way for me to ‘get it out’. That feeling or thought, and then I work it later on into a longer piece. Much of my work is often never finished. I find it hard, and guess many poets or writers feel their work is alive. So it can live on, and even be reborn into another piece. I love to put on instrumental music, like flamenco or jazz, and then relax. Pull out my work, see what might need some touches. If something strikes my fancy, like recently I drove to see my son In St. Louis and I was listening, or as I like to say studying Bruce Springsteen older CD’s and enjoy the scenery. I often find myself inspired by saying sentences out loud and carry a recorder with me, so I can capture that moment. Once I get back home I go back and listen and remember what it was I saw or heard and go from there. I keep a file of sentences I have written, and eventually place them into a group that might work.
So many songwriters I have learned wrote or still write poetry, so I feel poetry has a musical purpose in my life. My song in and too life.
Share some of your writing goals. What’s next for you?
I want to finish my novel, and have decided to begin working on it each week as opposed to once a month. When I began writing it I spent all my free time, but hit a road block on a character I was developing. My organizing the open mic was taking more time than I had planned, so I had to get that on a regular schedule. I am just going to keep writing as much poetry as I can. I wanted to self publish my first chapbook, but under the advisement of a fellow published poet Jessie Carty, whom I admire her achievements, I have begun to send my work into publications. From their I am told I will be taken more seriously, and hopefully be picked up by a publisher. My first poem to be published was in a local journal two years ago, so I know if I just keep trying things will happen.
What’s the most interesting book you’ve ever read?
That is really hard to say, since I love to read, and cannot get enough. I will read anything I can get my hands on. For years, during my professional career it was cooking magazines and cook books filled with foodway history. I do have two books that stand out in my mind. The Lovely Bones was given to me by a friend, and it struck a chord in me being a mother who lost a child. I found it the most unusual story, because many times we do not want to be reminded of our pain. I find that loss is one of the strongest proof’s that we have a soul. The other book was recommended by a book club I was in a few years ago, One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd. Forgive me for not remembering the authors, but I passed it on to a fellow reader. That book intrigued me because the author was a male. Matter of fact it inspired me to write my own novel from a man’s point of view. My book ‘Taking Cover’ is about what might have happened if my own son went astray after his sister died. It is also full of Texas Indian and Spanish history. A fictional story based loosely on my own life years ago. I have hopefully stepped into my ‘mature’ son’s shoes and spoken well.
Book you’re currently reading?
Ha! Well in front of me on my coffee table is ‘Joy of Dreamweaver’, ‘Perfect Pairings’, and Recipe of Memory: Five Generations of Mexican Cuisine by Victor M. Valle. I discovered this writer in California had written a cook book laced with his own poetry, so I had to have it. I was not disappointed. His recipes and the history are poetry in themselves.
Where can we learn more about you?
I post my poetry along with photo muse at www.tmi-chef.blogspot.com/, and I also write about my cooking exploration and wine at www.cookappeal.blogspot.com/. If you live in the Princeton New Jersey area you can find me at local open mics at www.poetry.meetup.com/506/ . From there you will find links to my various business ventures, but I hope that I can feed you with my words as well as my good cooking.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I personally believe whether you have attended creative writing courses, or just self taught as I am, that you should visit local open mics, or poetry readings and share your work. We have various ages of creative participants. Exposing and encouraging others to various types of poetry or even music is a good way to expose the public to why poetry is more than just boring words they do not understand. The young will learn from the old, and vise versa. Poetry is also meant to be read aloud. Many poets works were read aloud centuries ago, and thus appreciated by more than just sitting in books on shelves. I am told often by traditional or literary type poets than once they hear my work read aloud they have come to realize spoken word poetry is serious writing, and they crave more.
PS In high school I won first and second place in Speech Writing in national contests, as well as writing about school events that were published in our hometown paper, Carrollton Chronicle. I have written healthy eating pieces for a New Jersey website Biz4NJ.com.