An interview with Michelle Elrick

In 2009 CV2 collaborated with The Muses’ Company to hold a new contest called “Show Me the Book.” Michelle Elrick’s manuscript To Speak won First Prize in that contest. Part of the prize was a feature interview in CV2, excerpted below.

Clarise Foster: In 2009, CV2 decided to hold a new kind of contest. We partnered up with The Muses’ Company — where I am the poetry editor — and “Show Me the Book” was born. The gist of the rules was that contestants submitted an unpublished poetry manuscript for consideration. First prize was a book contract, $400 and a one-of-a-kind silver pendant. You won. Had you sent your manuscript out to publishers before entering “Show Me the Book”?

Michelle Elrick: I was in the process of researching publishers, looking for the right place to send my manuscript. The Muses’ Company was on my list as a publisher that might be a good fit for my collection, yet I hadn’t sent it to them or anyone else. When I found out about the contest and its connection to a publisher I was already considering, the decision was easy. I sent it in and waited.

CF: Why did you enter the contest? The contest required a fee, while sending it out to book publishers does not. At the time, what advantage did you think entering a contest offered you that the regular submission process to poetry publishers did not?

ME: Since The Muses’ Company already seemed to be a good fit for my poetry, the contest appealed to me immediately. I was attracted by the shortened publishing process — I knew that finding the right publisher could take forever and even after acceptance, books often don’t launch for another two years. I was eager to have my manuscript out of my hands and into the world, and eager to enter the next stage of professional writing. I wasn’t too caught up with the prize money; rather, I saw the book contract as supremely valuable in that it could take me where I wanted to be. Yet perhaps what appealed to me most about the contest was that it guaranteed that my manuscript was going to be read by someone. I was confident that I had a strong collection and just wanted someone to take the time to read it. Paying the small entry fee ensured the judge would read my collection cover to cover.

CF: Your winning manuscript, To Speak, is your first book of poetry. It was a fairly cohesive collection by the time I saw it. What had been your publishing experience before the contest?

ME: I had only published a handful of poems in literary journals prior to entering. I had published a few non-fiction articles in various papers and magazines, and in my early days as a writer I had self-published five zines (photocopied, hand-bound publications) which I gave away or traded with friends.

One of the things that contributed to the cohesiveness of my manuscript was careful reading and vigorous critique from my writing group in Vancouver, as well as from three Winnipeg poets. These writers helped me see the strengths and weaknesses of the collection, and helped me identify the thematic trends, which eventually shaped the poems into a book.

CF: When did you first become interested in writing? You said that you self-published some of your work and gave it away to friends. It sounds like you were pretty motivated fairly early on. Where did the instinct to pursue writing come from?

ME: Writing — communication through written language — is a mystery to me. It is a slowed-down version of speech, only the speaker is deaf and blind to any audience. It is a broken conversation. It is the evasion of rebuttal. It is, essentially, a monologue spoken into a tin can.

When I wrote the early zines, it was in order to participate in the arts community in my hometown of Abbotsford, British Columbia. I was just out of high school and meeting artists for the first time. During this time I began to read my poems in public, often between music acts at small venues downtown. People responded well to my writing and I realized that I had an audience — a conversation partner.

The longer I write, the more aware I become of its mysterious power to focus my mind on an idea, following that idea along branches of metaphor, image, description, characterization, etc., to the eventual discovery of something I did not know before. It is a synergy of imagination, musing and knowledge. I find it very exciting.

CF: At what point did you feel you were ready to seek out others to work more seriously on your writing, and how did you go about finding a group of people to work with?

ME: In 2005 I enrolled in The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University, a creative writing certificate program with a workshop component. For the duration for the program, I worked with a small group of writers in critiquing each other’s work. After the program ended we continued to meet on a regular basis until 2007, when I moved to Winnipeg (they still meet regularly and I join in when I can). The Writer’s Studio was an excellent resource that offered me skills and understanding of the industry, which I needed in order to pursue writing seriously. As far as how I found it? It was an ad in The Georgia Strait.

Michelle Elrick is a poet and fiction writer from British Columbia and Manitoba. Her first book, a collection of poems titled To Speak, was published by The Muses’ Company in 2010. In addition, her work has appeared in a handful of literary journals and been performed at festivals and events in Vancouver, Winnipeg, London, Kingston and Belfast. She is currently deep in a draft of her novel, Dust House, surfacing on occasion to play the banjo and walk the dog.